Cold Fire Page 16

No luggage usually meant that his destination would be within driving distance and that the round-trip, including the time needed to perform whatever work was expected of him, would take no more than twenty-four hours. But as he turned away from the closet, he surprised himself by saying, "Airport." Of course, there were a lot of places to which he could fly round-trip in a single day.

He picked his wallet off the dresser, waited to see if he felt compelled to put it down again, and finally slipped it into his hip pocket.

Evidently he would need not only money but ID-or at least he would not risk exposure by carrying it.

As he walked to the kitchen again and took the car keys off the pegboard, fear played through him, although not as strongly as it had the last time he had left his house on a mission. That day he had been "told" to steal a car so it could not be traced to him, and to drive into the Mojavi Desert. This time he might encounter adversaries even more formidable than the two men in the Road king, but he was not as worried as he'd been before. He knew he could die. Being the instrument of a higher power came with no guarantees of immortality; he was still only a man whose flesh could be torn, whose bones could be broken, and whose heart could be stopped instantly with a well-placed bullet. The amelioration of his fear was attributable solely to his somewhat mystical journey on the Harley, two days with Father Geary, the report of the stigmata that had appeared on him, and the resulting conviction that a divine hand was at work in all of this.

Holly was on Bougainvillea Way, a block from Ironheart's house, when a dark-green Ford backed out of his driveway. She did not know what kind of car he drove, but since he lived alone, she assumed the Ford had to be his.

She speeded up, half intending to swing around him, angle across his bow, force him to stop, and confront him right in the street. Then she slowed down again, figuring discretion was seldom a fatal error.

She might as well see where he was going, what he was up to.

As she passed his house, the automatic garage door was rolling down Just before it closed, she was able to see that no other car was in there.The man in the Ford had to be Ironheart.

Because she had never been assigned to stories about paranoid drug lords or bent politicians or corrupt businessmen, Holly was not expert at tailing a surveillance subject through traffic. The skills and techniques of clandestine operations were not necessary when you wrote exclusives about Timber Trophies, performance artists in radiation suits who juggled live mice on the steps of city hall and called it "art," and pie-eating contests. She was also mindful of the fact that Ironheart had taken a two-week course in aggressive driving at a special school in Marin County; if he knew how to handle a car well enough to shake off pursuing terrorists, he would leave her in the dust about thirty seconds after he realized she was following him.

She hung as far back as she dared. Fortunately, the Sunday-morning traffic was heavy enough to allow her to hide behind other cars. But it was light enough so she didn't have to worry that the lanes would suddenly clog up between her and Ironheart, cutting her off until he disappeared from sight.

He drove east on Crown Valley Parkway to Interstate 5, then north toward Los Angeles on 405.

By the time they had passed the clustered high rises around South Coast Plaza, the primary shopping and office center for the two million people in the Orange County metroplex, Holly's mood was better than it had been.

She was proving to be adept at mobile surveillance, staying from two to six cars in back of Ironheart but always close enough to follow if he abruptly swung onto an exit ramp. Her anger was tempered by the pleasure she took in her skillful pursuit. Now and then she even found herself admiring the clarity of the blue sky and the profusely flowering pink and white oleanders that flanked the freeway at some places.

Passing Long Beach, however, she began to worry that she was going to spend the whole day on the road with him, only to discover that wherever he was going had nothing to do with the enigma that concerned her. Even a self appointed superhero with clairvoyant powers might just spend a day taking in a theater matinee, doing nothing more dangerous than eating Szechuan Chinese with the chef's hottest mustard.

She began to wonder, as well, if he might become aware of her through his psychic powers. Sensing her a few cars back seemed a lot easier than foreseeing the approaching death of a small boy in Boston.

On the other hand, maybe clairvoyance was an inconstant power, something he could not turn on and off at will, and maybe it only worked on the big things, zapping him with either visions of danger and destruction and death--or no visions at all. Which made sense in a way.

It would probably drive you insane to have psychic visions that told you in advance whether you were going to enjoy a particular movie, have a good dinner, or get a bad case of gas and the bloats from that garlicky angel-hair pasta that you were enjoying so much. Nevertheless, she dropped back a little farther, putting one more car between them.

When Ironheart left the freeway at the exit for Los Angeles International Airport, Holly became excited. Perhaps he was only meeting someone on an incoming flight. But it was more likely that he was catching a plane out, embarking on one of his timely rescue missions, just as he had flown to Portland on August 12, nearly two weeks ago. Holly was not prepared to travel; she didn't even have a change of clothes. However, she had cash and credit cards to handle expenses, and she could buy a fresh blouse anywhere. The prospect of tailing him all the way to the scene of the action tantalized her.

Ultimately, when she wrote about him, she would be able to do so with more authority if she had been an eye-witness at two of his rescues.

She almost lost her nerve when he swung off the airport service loop into a parking garage, because there was no longer a convenient car between them to mask her presence. But the alternative was to drive on, park in another garage, and lose him. She hung back only as far as she dared and took a ticket from the dispenser seconds after he did.

Ironheart found an empty slot halfway along a row on the third level, and Holly pulled in ten spaces past him. She slumped down in her seat a little and remained in her car, giving him a head start so there was less of a chance of him glancing back and seeing her.

She almost waited too long. When she got out of her car, she was barely in time to glimpse him as he turned right and disappeared around a wall at the bottom of the ramp.

She hurried after him. The soft, flat slap-slap of her footsteps echoed hollowly off the low concrete ceiling. At the base of the ramp, when she turned the corner, she saw him enter a stairwell. By the time she passed through that door after him, she heard him descend the final flight and open the door below.

Thanks to his colorful Hawaiian shirt, she was able to stay well behind him, mingling with other travelers, as he crossed the service road and entered the United Airlines terminal. She hoped they weren't going to Hawaii. Researching a story without the financial backing of the newspaper was expensive enough. If Ironheart was going to save someone's life today, she hoped he would do it in San Diego instead of Honolulu.

In the terminal, she hung back behind a group of tall Swedes, using them for cover, while Ironheart stood for a while at a bank of monitors, studying the schedule of upcoming departures. Judging by the frown on his face, he didn't see the flight he wanted. Or maybe he simply didn't yet know which flight he wanted. Perhaps his premonitions did not come to him full-blown; he might have to work at them, nurse them along, and he might not know exactly where he was going or whose life he would be saving until he got there.

After a few minutes, he turned from the monitors and strode along the concourse to the ticket counter. Holly continued to stay well back of him, watching from a distance, until she realized that she would not know his destination unless she was close enough to hear him give it to the clerk Reluctantly she closed the gap.

She could wait until he had bought the ticket, of course, follow him to see which gate he waited at, then book herself on the same flight. But what if the plane took off while she was dashing through the endless hallways of the terminal? She could also try to cajole the clerk into telling her which flight Ironheart had taken by claiming to have picked up a credit card he'd dropped. But the airline might offer to return it to him; or if they found her story suspicious, they might even call security guards.

In the line at the ticket counter, she dared to close within one person of Ironheart. The only traveler between them was a burly, big-bellied man who looked like an NFL linebacker gone to seed; he had mildly offensive body odor, but he provided considerable cover, for which she was grateful.

The short line moved quickly. When Ironheart stepped up to the counter, Holly eased out around the fat man and strained forward to hear whatever destination was mentioned.

The public-address system inconveniently brought forth a woman's soft, sensuous, yet zombielike voice, announcing the discovery of a lost child.

At the same time, a noisy group of New Yorkers went past, complaining about the perceived phoniness of California's have-a-nice-day service ethic, apparently homesick for hostility.

Ironheart's words were drowned out.

Holly inched nearer to him.

The fat man frowned down at her, evidently suspecting her of attempted linejumping. She smiled at him in such a way as to assure him that she had no evil intentions and that she knew he was large enough to squash her like a bug.

If Ironheart glanced back now, he would look directly into her face. She held her breath, heard the clerk say, ". . . O'Hare Airport in Chicago, leaving in twenty minutes. . . ," and slipped back behind the fat man, who looked over his shoulder to frown down at her again.

She wondered why they had come to LAX for a flight to Chicago. She was pretty sure there were plenty of connections to O'Hare from John wayne in Orange County. Well. . . though Chicago was farther than San Diego, it was preferable to-and cheaper than-Hawaii.

Ironheart paid for his ticket and rushed off in search of his gate without glancing in Holly's direction.

Some psychic, she thought.

She was pleased with herself When she reached the counter, she presented a credit card and asked for a seat on the same flight to Chicago. For a moment she had the terrible feeling that the clerk would say the plane was fully booked. But there were seats left, and she got her ticket.

The departure lounge at the gate was nearly empty. Boarding of the flight had virtually been completed. Ironheart was nowhere in sight.

On the way along the tunnel-like boarding gate to the door of the aircraft, she began to worry that he would see her when she had to walk back the aisle to her seat. She could pretend not to notice him, or pretend not to recognize him if he approached her. But she doubted that he would believe her presence on his flight was sheer coincidence. An hour and a half she'd been in a rush to confront him. Now she wanted nothing more than to avoid confrontation. If he saw her, he would abort his trip; she might never get another chance to be present at one of his last-minute rescues.

The plane was a wide-body DC-10 with two aisles. Each row of right seats was divided into three sections: two by the window on the port side five down the center, two by the window on the starboard side.

Holly assigned to row twenty-three, seat H, which was on the starbord side one seat removed from the window. As she headed back up the aisle, she scanned the faces of her fellow passengers, hoping she wouldn't lock eyes with Jim Ironheart. In fact, she would rather not see him at all during the flight and worry about catching sight of him again at O'Hare.

The DC10 was an immense aircraft. Though a number of seats were empty,more than two hundred and fifty people were on-board. She and Ironheart might very well fly around the world together without bumping into each other getting through the few hours to Chicago should be a cinch.

Then she saw him. He was sitting in the five-wide middle section of sixteen, the port-aisle seat, on the other side of the plane. He was paging through an issue of the airline's magazine, and she prayed that he would not look up until she was past him. Though she had to step aside for flight attendant escorting a small boy who was flying alone, her prayer was answered. Ironheart's head remained bowed over the publication until she was past him. She reached 23-H and sat down, sighing with relief Even he went to the restroom, or just got up to stretch his legs, he would probably never have any reason to come around to the starbord side Perfect.

She glanced at the man in the window seat beside her. He was in his early thirties, tanned, fit, and intense. He was wearing a dark-blue business suit, white shirt, and tie even on a Sunday flight. His brow was as furrowed as his suit was well-pressed, and he was working on a laptop computer.

He was wearing headphones, listening to music or pretending to, in order discourage conversation, and he gave her a cool smile calculated to do the same.

That was fine with her. Like a lot of reporters, she was not garrulous nature. Her job required her to be a good listener, not necessarily a good talker. She was content to pass the trip with the airline's magazine and be own Byzantine thoughts.

Two hours into the flight, Jim still had no idea where he was expected to go when he got off the plane at O'Hare. He was not concerned about whoever, because he had learned to be patient.

The revelation always came, sooner or later.

Nothing in the airline's magazine was of interest to him, and the inflight movie sounded as if it were about as much fun as a vacation in a Soviet prison. The two seats to the right of him were empty, so he was not required to make nice with a stranger. He tilted his seat slightly, folded his hands on his stomach, closed his eyes, and passed the time-between the flight attendants' inquiries about his appetite and comfort-by brooding about the windmill dream, puzzling out what significance it had, if any.

That was what he tried to brood about, anyway. But for some curious reason, his mind wandered to Holly Thorne, the reporter.

Hell, now he was being disingenuous, because he knew perfectly well why she had been drifting in and out of his thoughts ever since he had met her. She was a treat for the eyes. She was intelligent, too; one look at her, and you knew about a million gears were spinning in her head, all meshing perfectly, well-oiled, quiet and productive.

And she had a sense of humor. He would give anything to share his days and his long, dream-troubled nights with a woman like that.

Laughter was usually a function of sharing-an observation, a joke, a moment. You didn't laugh a lot when you were always alone; and if you did, that probably meant you should make arrangements for a long stay in a resort with padded walls.

He had never been smooth with women, so he had often been without them.

And he had to admit, even before this recent strangeness had begun, he was sometimes difficult to live with. Not depressive exactly but too aware that death was life's companion. Too inclined to brood about the coming darkness. Too slow to seize the moment and succumb to pleasure.

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