Cold Fire Page 2

Holly said, "Then the less intelligence a creature exhibits. . .”


". . . the more natural it is," Louise finished for her.


Holly nodded thoughtfully, as if seriously considering the bizarre proposition that a dumber world was a better world, but she was really thinking that she could not write this story after all. She found Louise Tarvohl so preposterous that she could not compose a favorable article and still hang on to her integrity. At the same time, she had no heart for making a fool of the woman in print. Holly's problem was not her deep and abiding cynicism but her soft heart; no creature on earth was more certain to suffer frustration and dissatisfaction with life than a bitter cynic with a damp wad of compassion at her core.


She put down her pen, for she would be making no notes. All she wanted to do was get away from Louise, off the playground, back into the real world---even though the real world had always struck her as just slightly less screwy than this encounter. But the least she owed Tom Corvey was sixty to ninety minutes of taped interview, which would provide another reporter with enough material to write the piece.


"Louise," she said, "in light of what you've told me, I think you're the most natural person I've ever met.”


Louise didn't get it. Perceiving a compliment instead of a slight, she beamed at Holly.


"Trees are sisters to us," Louise said, eager to reveal another facet of her philosophy, evidently having forgotten that human beings were lice, not trees. "Would you cut off the limbs of your sister, cruelly section her flesh, and build your house with pieces of her corpse?" "No, I wouldn't," Holly said sincerely. "Besides, the city probably wouldn't approve a building permit for such an unconventional structure.”


Holly was safe: Louise had no sense of humor-therefore, no capacity to be offended by the wisecrack.


While the woman prattled on, Holly leaned into the picnic table, feigning interest, and did a fast-backward scan of her entire adult life. She decided that she had spent all of that precious time in the company of idiots, fools, and crooks, listening to their harebrained or sociopathic plans and dreams, searching fruitlessly for nuggets of wisdom and interest in their boobish or psychotic stories.


Increasingly miserable, she began to brood about her personal life. She had made no effort to develop close women friends in Portland, perhaps because in her heart she felt that Portland was only one more stop on her peripatetic journalistic journey. Her experiences with men were, if anything, even more disheartening than her professional experiences with interviewees of both sexes. Though she still hoped to meet the right man, get married, have children, and enjoy a fulfilling domestic life, she wondered if anyone nice, sane, intelligent, and genuinely interesting would ever enter her life.


Probably not.


And if someone like that miraculously crossed her path one day, his pleasant demeanor would no doubt prove to be a mask, and under the mask would be a leering serial killer with a chainsaw fetish.


Outside the terminal at Portland International Airport, Jim Ironheart got into a taxi operated by something called the New Rose City Cab Company, which sounded like a corporate stepchild of the long-forgotten hippie era, born in the age of love beads and flower power. But the cabbie Frazier Tooley, according to his displayed license-explained that Portland was called the City of Roses, which bloomed there in multitudes and were meant to be symbols of renewal and growth. "The same way," he raid, "that street beggars are symbols of decay and collapse in New York," displaying a curiously charming smugness that Jim sensed was shared by many Portlanders.


Tooley, who looked like an Italian operatic tenor cast from the same mold as Luciano Pavarotti, was not sure he had understood Jim's instructions. "You just want me to drive around for a while?" "Yeah. I'd like to see some of the city before I check into the hotel.


I've never been here before.”


The truth was, he didn't know at which hotel he should stay or whether he would be required to do the job soon, tonight, or maybe tomorrow. He hoped that he would learn what was expected of him if he just tried to relax and waited for enlightenment.


Tooley was happy to oblige-not with enlightenment but with a tour of Portland-because a large fare would tick up on the meter, but also because he clearly enjoyed showing off his city. In fact, it was exceptionally attractive. Historic brick structures and nineteenth-century cast-iron-front buildings were carefully preserved among modern glass high rises. Parks full of fountains and trees were so numerous that it sometimes seemed the city was in a forest, and roses were everywhere, not as many blooms as in the summer but radiantly colorful.


After less than half an hour, Jim suddenly was overcome by the feeling that time was running out. He sat forward on the rear seat and heard himself say: "Do you know the McAlbery School?" "Sure," Tooley said.


"What is it?" "The way you asked, I thought you knew. Private elementary school over on the west side.”


Jim's heart was beating hard and fast. "Take me there.”


Frowning at him in the rearview mirror, Tooley said, "Something wrong?" "I have to be there.”


Tooley braked at a red traffic light. He looked over his shoulder "What's wrong?" "I just have to be there," Jim said sharply, frustratingly.


"Sure, no sweat.”


Fear had rippled through Jim ever since he had spoken the words "life line" to the woman in the supermarket more than four hours ago. those ripples swelled into dark waves that carried him toward McAlbery School.


With an overwhelming sense of urgency that he could not explain he said, "I have to be there in fifteen minutes!" "Why didn't you mention it earlier?" He wanted to say, I didn't know earlier. Instead he said, "Can you me there in time?" "It'll be tight.”


"I'll pay triple the meter.”


"Triple?" "If you make it in time," he said, withdrawing his wallet from his pocket. He extracted a hundred-dollar bill and thrust it at Tooley. " this in advance.”


"It's that important?" "It's life and death.”


Tooley gave him a look that said: What-are you nuts? "The light just changed," Jim told him. "Let's move!" Although Tooley's skeptical frown deepened, he faced front again, took a left turn at the intersection, and tramped on the accelerator.


Jim kept glancing at his watch all the way, and they arrived at the school with only three minutes to spare. He tossed another bill at Tooley paying even more than three times the meter, pulled open the door, scrambled out with his suitcase.


Tooley leaned through his open window. "You want me to wait?" Slamming the door, Jim said, "No. No, thanks. You can go.”


He turned away and heard the taxi drive off as he anxiously studied the front of McAlbery School. The building was actually a rambling colonial house with a deep front porch, onto which had been added two three-story wings to provide more classrooms. It was shaded by Douglas and huge old sycamores. With its lawn and playground, it occupied the entire length of that short block.


In the house part of the structure directly in front of him, kids were coming out of the double doors, onto the porch, and down the steps.


Laughing and chattering, carrying books and large drawing tablets and bright lunchboxes decorated with cartoon characters, they approached Jim along the school walk, passed through the open gate in the spearpoint iron fence, and turned either uphill or down, moving away from him in both directions.


Two minutes left. He didn't have to look at his watch. His heart was pounding two beats for every second, and he knew the time as surely as if he had been a clock.


Sunshine, filtered through the interstices of the arching trees, fell in delicate patterns across the scene and the people in it, as if everything had been draped over with an enormous piece of gossamer lace work stitched from golden thread. That netlike ornamental fabric of light seemed to shimmer in time to the rising and falling music of the children's shouts and laughter, and the moment should have been peaceful, idyllic.


But Death was coming.


Suddenly he knew that Death was coming for one of the children, not for any of the three teachers standing on the porch, just for one child. Not a big catastrophe, not an explosion or fire or a falling airplane that would wipe out a dozen of them. Just one, a small tragedy. But which one? Jim refocused his attention from the scene to the players in it, studying the children as they approached him, seeking the mark of imminent death on one of their fresh young faces. But they all looked as if they would live forever.


"Which one?" he said aloud, speaking neither to himself nor to the children but to. . . . Well, he supposed he was speaking to God. "Which one?" Some kids went uphill toward the crosswalks at that intersection, and others headed downhill toward the opposite end of the block. In both directions, women crossing guards in bright-orange safety vests, holding big red paddlelike "stop" signs, had begun to shepherd their charges across the streets in small groups. No moving cars or trucks were in sight, so even without the crossing guards there seemed to be little threat from traffic.


One and a half minutes.


Jim scrutinized two yellow vans parked at the curb downhill from him.


For the most part, McAlbery seemed to be a neighborhood school, where kids walked to and from their homes, but a few were boarding the vans The two drivers stood by the doors, smiling and joking with the ebullient, energetic passengers. None of the kids boarding the vans seemed doomed, and the cheery yellow vehicles did not strike him as morgue wagons in bright dress.


But Death was nearer.


It was almost among them.


An ominous change had stolen over the scene, not in reality but in Jim's perception of it. He was now less aware of the golden lace work of light than he was of the shadows within that bright filigree: small shadows the shape of leaves or bristling clusters of evergreen needles; larger shadows in the shape of tree trunks or branches; geometric bars of shade from the iron rails of the spearpoint fence. Each blot of darkness seemed to be a potential doorway through which Death might arrive.


One minute.


Frantic, he hurried downhill several steps, among the children, drawing puzzled looks as he glanced at one then another of them, not sure what sort of sign he was searching for, the small suitcase banging against his leg Fifty seconds.


The shadows seemed to be growing, spreading, melting together all around Jim.


He stopped, turned, and peered uphill toward the end of the block where the crossing guard was standing in the intersection, holding up her red "stop" sign, using her free hand to motion the kids across. Five of them were in the street. Another half dozen were approaching the corner and soon to cross.


One of the drivers at the nearby school vans said, "Mister, is something wrong?" Forty seconds.


Jim dropped the suitcase and ran uphill toward the intersection, still uncertain about what was going to happen and which child was at risk. He was pushed in that direction by the same invisible hand that had made him pack a suitcase and fly to Portland. Startled kids moved out of his way At the periphery of his vision, everything had become ink-black. He was aware only of what lay directly ahead of him. From one curb to the other the intersection appeared to be a scene revealed by a spotlight on an other wise night-dark stage.


Half a minute.


Two women looked up in surprise and failed to get out of his way fast enough. He tried to dodge them, but he brushed against a blonde in summery white dress, almost knocking her down. He kept going because he could feel Death among them now, a cold presence.


He reached the intersection, stepped off the curb, and stopped. Four kids in the street. One was going to be a victim.


But which of the four? And a victim of what? Twenty seconds.


The crossing guard was staring at him.


All but one of the kids were nearing the curb, and Jim sensed that the walks were safe territory. The street would be the killing ground.


He moved toward the dawdler, a little red-haired girl, who turned and looked at him in surprise.


Fifteen seconds.


Not the girl. He looked into her jade-green eyes and knew she was safe.


Jim knew it somehow.


All the other kids had reached the sidewalk.


Fourteen seconds.


Jim spun around and looked back toward the far curb. Four more children had entered the street behind him.


Thirteen seconds.


The four new kids started to arc around him, giving him wary sidelong looks. He knew he appeared to be a little deranged, standing in the street, wide-eyed, gaping at them, his face distorted by fear.


Eleven seconds.


No cars in sight. But the brow of the hill was little more than a hundred yards above the intersection, and maybe some reckless fool was rocketing up the far side with the accelerator jammed to the floorboard.


As soon as the image flashed through his mind, Jim knew it was a prophetic glimpse of the instrument Death would use: a drunk driver.


Eight seconds.


He wanted to shout, tell them to run, but maybe he would only panic them and cause the marked child to bolt straight into danger rather than away from it.


Seven seconds.


He heard the muffled growl of an engine, which instantly changed to a loud roar, then a piston-shattering scream. A pickup truck shot over the brow of the hill. It actually took flight for an instant, afternoon sun flashing off its windshield and coruscating across its chromework, as if it were a flaming chariot descending from the heavens on judgment day. With a shrill bark of rubber against blacktop, the front tires met the pavement again, and the rear of the truck slammed down with a jarring crash.


ù Five seconds.


The kids in the street scattered-except for a sandy-haired boy with violet eyes the shade of faded rose petals. He just stood there, holding a lunchbox covered with brightly colored cartoon figures, one tennis shoe untied, watching the truck bear down on him, unable to move, as if he sensed that it wasn't just a truck rushing to meet him but his destiny was inescapable. He was an eight- or nine-year-old boy with nowhere to go but to the grave.


Two seconds.


Leaping directly into the path of the oncoming pickup, Jim grabbed the kid. In what felt like a dream-slow swan dive off a high cliff, he carried the boy with him in a smooth arc to the pavement, rolling toward the leaf littered gutter, feeling nothing from his impact with the street, his nerves so numbed by terror and adrenaline that he might as well have been tumbling across a field of lush grass and soft loam.


The roar of the truck was the loudest thing he had ever heard, as if were a thunder within him, and he felt something strike his left foot, bad as a hammer blow. In the same instant a terrible wrenching force seem to wring his ankle as if it were a rag. A white-hot current of pain crackled up his leg, sizzling into his hip joint, exploding in that socket of bone like a Fourth of July bottle rocket bursting in a night sky.

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