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The dateline was Boston, and the story was accompanied by a photograph.

The picture was still blurry and dark, but the scale was now large enough to allow her to read the text, although not comfortably. She instructed the computer to further enlarge one of the already enlarged quadrants, pulling up the first column of the article so she could read it without strain.

The opening line made Holly sit up straighter in her chair: A courageous bystander, who would say only that his name was Jim, saved the life of Nicholas O'Conner, 6, when a New England Power and Light Company vault exploded under a sidewalk in a Boston residential area Thursday evening.

Softly, she said, "What the hell. . . ?" She tapped the keys, instructing the computer to shift the field of display rightward on the page to show her the multiply enhanced photo that accompanied the piece. She went to a bigger scale, then to a still bigger one, until the face filled the screen.

Jim Ironheart.

Briefly she sat in stunned disbelief, immobile. Then she was stricken by a need to know more,not only an intellectual but a genuinely physical need that felt not unlike a sudden and intense pang of hunger.

She returned to the text of the story and read it through, then read it again. The O'Conner boy had been sitting on the sidewalk in front of his home, directly on the two-by-three-foot concrete lid that covered the entrance to the power company's vault, which was spacious enough for four men to work together within its subterranean confines. The kid had been playing with toy trucks. His parents had been within sight of him on the front porch of their house, when a stranger had sprinted along the street "He comes right at Nicky," the boy's father was quoted, "snatches him, I thought sure he was a nutcase child molester going to steal my son." Carrying the screaming child, the stranger leaped over a low picket fence onto the O'Conners' lawn, just as a 17,000-volt line in the vault exploded behind him. The blast flipped the concrete lid high into the air, as if it was a penny, and a bright ball of fire roared up in In its wake.

Embarrassed by the effusive praise heaped on him by Nicky's grateful parents and by the neighbors who had witnessed his heroism, the stranger claimed that he had smelled burning insulation, heard a hissing coming from the vault, and knew what was about to happen because he had "once worked for a power company." Annoyed that a witness had taken his photograph, he insisted on leaving before the media arrived because, as he put it, "I place a high value on my privacy.”

That hair's-breadth rescue had occurred at 7:40 Thursday evening a Boston at 4:40 Portland time yesterday afternoon. Holly looked at the office wall clock. It was now 2:02 Friday morning. Nicky O'Conner had been plucked off that vault cover not quite nine and a half hours ago.

The trail was still fresh.

She had questions to ask the Globe reporter who had written the PIECE But it was only a little after five in the morning in Boston. He wouldn't the at work yet.

She closed out the Press's current-edition data file. On the COMPUTER screen, the standard menu replaced the enlarged newspaper text.

Through a modern she accessed the vast network of data services to which the Press subscribed. She instructed the Newsweb service to scan the stories that had been carried by the wire services and published in major U.S. newspapers during the past three months, looking for INSTANCES in which the name "Jim" had been used within ten words of either "rescue" or the phrase "saved the life." She asked for a printout of every article, if there should be any, but asked to be spared multiples of the same incident.

While Newsweb was fulfilling her request, she snatched up the phone at her desk and called long-distance information for area code 318, then 212 then 714, and 619, seeking a listing for Jim Ironheart in Los angelese Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.

None of the operators was able to help her. If he actually lived in southern California as he had told her he did, his phone was unlisted.

The laser printer that she shared with three other workstations was humming softly. The first of Newsweb's finds was sliding into the receiving tray.

She wanted to hurry to the cabinet on which the printer stood, grab the first printout, and read it at once; but she restrained herself, focusing her attention on the telephone instead, trying to think of another way to locate Jim Ironheart down there in the part of California that locals called "the Southland.”

A few years ago, she simply could have accessed the California Department of Motor Vehicles computer and, for a small fee, received the street address of anyone holding a valid driver's license in the state.

But after the actress Rebecca Schaeffer had been murdered by an obsessed fan who had tracked her down in that fashion, a new law had imposed restrictions on DMV records.

If she had been an accomplished computer hacker, steeped in their arcane knowledge, she no doubt could have finessed entrance to the DMV records in spite of their new safeguards, or perhaps she could have pried into credit-agency databanks to search for a file on Ironheart.

She had known reporters who honed their computer skills for just that purpose, but she had always sought her sources and information in a strictly legitimate fashion, without deception.

Which is why you're writing about such thrilling stuff as the Timber Trophy, she thought sourly.

While she puzzled over a solution to the problem, she hurried to the vending room and got a cup of coffee from the coin-operated brewer. It tasted like yak bile. She drank it anyway, because she was going to need the caffeine before the night was through. She bought another cup and returned with it to the newsroom.

The laser printer was silent. She grabbed the pages from its tray and sat down at her desk.

Newsweb had turned up a thick stack of stories from the national press in which the name "Jim" was used within ten words of "rescue" or "saved the life." She counted them quickly. Twenty-nine.

The first was a human-interest piece from the Chicago Sun-Times, and Holly read the opening sentence aloud: "Jim Foster, of Oak Park, has rescued over one hundred stranded cats from" She dropped that printout in her wastecan and looked at the next one. It was from the Philadelphia Inquirerù "Jim Pilsbury, pitching for the Phillies, rescued his club from a humiliating defeat" Throwing that one aside, as well, she looked at the third. It was a movie review, so she didn't bother searching for the mention of Jim. The fourth was a reference to Jim Harrison, the novelist. The fifth was a story about a New Jersey politician who used the Heimlich maneuver to save the life of a Mafia boss in a barroom, where they were having a couple of beers together, when the patron began to choke to death on a chunk of peppery hot Slim Jim sausage.

She was beginning to worry that she would come up empty-handed by the bottom of the stack, but the sixth article, from the Houston Chronicle, opened her eyes wider than the vile coffee had. WOMAN SAVED FROM, VENGEFUL HUSBAND. On July 14, after winning both financial and child custody issues in a bitter divorce suit, Amanda Cutter had nearly been, shot by her enraged husband, Cosmo, outside her home in the wealth River Oaks district of the city. After Cosmo missed her with the first two shots, she had been saved by a man who "appeared out of nowhere," wrestled her maddened spouse to the ground, and disarmed him.

her savior had identified himself only as "Jim," and had walked off into that humid Houston afternoon before the police arrived. The thirty-year-old divorcee had clearly been smitten, for she described him as "handsome sort of muscular, like a superhero right out of a movie, with the dreamie blue eyes.”

Holly could still picture Jim Ironheart's intensely blue eyes. She was not the kind of woman who would refer to them as "dreamy," although they were certainly the clearest and most arresting eyes she'd ever. .. oh hell, yes, they were dreamy. She was reluctant to admit to the adolescent reaction that he had inspired in her, but she was not any better at deceiving herself than she was at deceiving other people.

She recalled an initial eerie impression of inhuman coldness, upon first meeting his gaze, but that passed and never returned from the moment he smiled.

The seventh article was about another modest Jim who had not hung around to accept thanks and praise-or media attention-after rescuing Carmen Diaz, thirty, from a burning apartment house in Miami on the fifth of July. He had blue eyes.

Poring through the remaining twenty-two articles, Holly found two more about Ironheart, though only his first name was mentioned. On June 1, Thaddeus Johnson, twelve, had almost been pitched off the roof of an eight-story Harlem tenement by four members of a neighborhood youth gang who had not responded well to his disdainful rejection of an invitation to join their drug-peddling fraternity. He was rescued by a blue-eyed man who incapacitated the four thugs with a dazzling series of Tae Kwan Do kicks, chops, thrusts, and throws. "He was like Batman without the funny clothes," Thaddeus had told the Daily News reporter.

Two Wednesdays prior to that, on June 7, another blue-eyed Jim "just seemed to materialize" on the property of Louis Andretti, twenty-eight, of Corona, California, in time to warn the homeowner not to enter a crawlspace under his house to repair a plumbing leak. "He told me a family of rattlers had settled in there," Andretti told the reporter.

Later, when agents from the county's Animal Control inspected the crawlspace from the perimeter, with the aid of a halogen lamp, they saw not just a nest but "something out of a" nightmare," and eventually extracted forty-one snakes from beneath the structure. "What I don't understand," Andretti said, "is how that guy knew the rattlers were there, when I live in the house and never had a clue.”

Now Holly had four linked incidents to add to the rescue of Nicky O Conner in Boston and Billy Jenkins in Portland, all since the first of June. She typed in new instructions to Newsweb, asking for the same search to be made for the months of March, April, and May.

She needed more coffee, and when she got up to go to the vending room, she saw that George Fintel had evidently awakened and staggered home.

She hadn't heard him leave. Tommy was gone, as well. She was alone.

She got another cup of coffee, and it didn't taste as bad as it had before.

The brew hadn't improved; her sense of taste had just been temporarily damaged by the first two cups.

Eventually Newsweb located eleven stories in March through May that fit her parameters. After examining the printouts, Holly found only one of them of interest.

On May 15, in Atlanta, Georgia, a blue-eyed Jim had entered a convenience store during an armed robbery. He shot and killed the perpetrator, Norman Rink, who had been about to kill two customers-Sam Newsome twenty-five, and his five-year-old daughter Emily. Flying high on a cocaine, Ice, and methamphetamine cocktail-Rink had already killed the clerk and two other customers merely for the fun of it.

After wasting Rink and assuring himself that the Newsomes were unhurt, Jim had slipped away before the police arrived.

The store security camera had provided a blurry photograph of the heroic intruder. It was only the second photo Holly had found in all the articles. The image was poor. But she immediately recognized Jim Ironheart.

Some details of the incident unnerved her. If Ironheart had an amazing ability-psychic power, whatever to foresee fatal moments in the lives of strangers and arrive in time to thwart fate, why hadn't he gotten to that convenience store a few minutes sooner, early enough to prevent the deaths of the clerk and other customers? Why had he saved the Newsomes and let the rest die? She was further chilled by the description of his attack on Rink.

He had pumped four rounds from a 12-gauge pistol-grip shotgun into the mad man. Then, although Rink was indisputably dead, Jim reloaded and fired another four rounds. "He was in such a rage," Sam Newsome said, "his face red, and he was sweating, you could see the arteries pounding in the temples, across his forehead. He was crying a little, too, but the tears.

they didn't make him seem any less angry." When done, Jim had expressed regret for cutting Rink down so violently in front of little Emily He'd explained that men like Rink, who killed innocent people, brought out "a little madness of my own." Newsome told the reporter, "He saved our lives, yeah, but I gotta say the guy was scary, almost as scary as Rink Realizing that Ironheart might not have revealed even his first name some occasions, Holly instructed Newsweb to search the past six months for stories in which "rescue" and "saved the life" were within ten words of "blue." She had noticed that some witnesses were vague about his physical description, but that most remembered his singularly blue eyes.

She went to the john, got more coffee, then stood by the printer.

As the find was transferred to hard copy, she snatched it up, scanned it, tossed in the wastecan if it was of no interest or read it with excitement if it was about another nick-of time rescue. Newsweb turned up four more that indisputably belonged in the Ironheart file, even though neither first nor last name was used.

At her desk again, she instructed Newsweb to search the past six months for the name "Ironheart" in the national media.

While she waited for a response, she put the pertinent printouts in order then made a chronological list of the people whose lives Jim Ironheart saved, incorporating the four new cases. She included their names, the location of each incident, and the type of death from which the person had been spared.

She studied that compilation, noting some patterns with interest.

But she put it aside when Newsweb completed its latest task.

As she rose from her chair to go to the laser printer, she froze, surprised to discover she was no longer alone in the newsroom. Three reporters an an editor were at their desks, all guys with reputations as early birds including Hank Hawkins, editor of the business pages, who liked to be at work when the financial markets opened on the East Coast.

She hadn't been aware of them coming in. Two of them were sharing a joke, laughing loudly, and Hawkins was talking on the phone, but Holly hadn't heard them until after she'd seen them. She looked at the clock: 6:10. opalesant early-morning light played at the windows, though she had not realized that the tide of night had been receding. She glanced down at her desk saw two more paper coffee cups than she remembered getting from the vending machine.

She realized that she was no longer wallowing in despair. She felt better than she had felt in days. Weeks. Years She was a reporter again, for real She went to the laser printer, emptied the receiving tray, and return with the pages to her desk. Ironhearts evidently were not newsmakers.

There were only five stories involving people with that surname in the past six months.

Kevin Ironheart-Buffalo, New York. State senator. Announced his intention to run for governor.

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