Cold Fire Page 25


"How long do you have?" "One minute," he said.


She hesitated, then shook her head. "Can't do it in a minute. I'll just wait here till you've got more time.”


He stared at her intimidatingly.


She found her place in the novel.


He said, "I could call the police, have you put off my property.”


"Why don't you do that?" she said.


He stood there a few seconds longer, impatient and uncertain, then reentered the house. Slid the door shut. Locked it.


"Don't take forever," Holly muttered. "In about another hour, I'm gonna have to use your bathroom.”


Around her, two hummingbirds drew nectar from the flowers, the shadows lengthened, and exploding bubbles made hollow ticking sounds inside her open can of soda.


Down in Florida, there were also hummingbirds and cool shadows, icy bottles of Dos Equis instead of diet cola, and Travis McGee was getting into deeper trouble by the paragraph.


Her stomach began to grumble. She had eaten breakfast at the airport in Dubuque, surprised that her appetite had not been suppressed forever by the macabre images burned into her mind at the crash scene. She had missed lunch, thanks to the stakeout; now she was famished. Life goes on Fifteen minutes ahead of Holly's bathroom deadline, Ironheart returned. He had showered and shaved. He was dressed in a blue boatnec shirt, white cotton slacks, and white canvas Top-Siders.


She was flattered by his desire to make a better appearance.


"Okay," he said, "what do you want?" "I need to use your facilities first.”


A long-suffering look lengthened his face. "Okay, okay, but then we talk, get it over with, and you go.”


She followed him into the family room, which was adjacent to an open breakfast area, which was adjacent to an open kitchen. The mismatched furniture appeared to have been purchased on the cheap at a warehouse clearance sale immediately after he had graduated from college and taken his first teaching job. It was clean but well worn. Hundreds of paperback books filled free-standing cases. But there was no artwork of any kind on the walls, and no decor pieces such as vases or bowls or sculptures or potted plants lent warmth to the room.


He showed her the powder room off the main entrance foyer. No wall paper, white paint. No designer soaps shaped like rosebuds, just a bar of Ivory. No colorful or embroidered handtowels, just a roll of Bounty standing on the counter.


As she closed the door, she looked back at him and said, "Maybe we could talk over an early supper. I'm starved.”


When she finished in the bathroom, she peeked in his living room.


It was decorated-to use the word as loosely as the language police would allow -in a style best described as Early Garage Sale, though it was even more Spartan than the family room. His house was surprisingly modest for a man who had won six million in the state lottery, but his furniture made the house seem Rockefellerian by comparison.


She went out to the kitchen and found him waiting at the round breakfast table.


"I thought you'd be cooking something," she said, pulling out a chair and sitting opposite him.


He was not amused. "What do you want?" "Let me start by telling you what I don 't want," she said. "I don't wan to write about you, I've given up reporting, I've had it with journalism Now, you believe that or not, but it's true. The good work you're doing can only be hampered if you're being hounded by media types, and lives will be lost that you might otherwise save. I see that now.”


"Good.”


"And I don't want to blackmail you. Anyway, judging by the unconscionably lavish style in which you live, I doubt you've got more than eighteen bucks left.”


He did not smile. He just stared at her with those gas flame-blue eyes.


She said, "I don't want to inhibit your work or compromise it in any way. I don't want to venerate you as the Second Coming, marry you, bear your children, or extract from you the meaning of life. Anyway, only Elvis Presley knows the meaning of life, and he's in a state of suspended animation in an alien vault in a cave on Mars.”


His face remained as immobile as stone. He was tough.


"What I want," Holly said, "is to satisfy my curiosity, learn how you do what you do, and why you do it." She hesitated. She took a deep breath.


Here came the big one: "And I want to be part of it all.”


"What do you mean?" She spoke fast, running sentences together, afraid he would interrupt her before she got it all out, and never give her another chance to explain herself "I want to work with you, help you, contribute to your mission, or whatever you call it, however you think of it, I want to save people, at least help you save them.”


"There's nothing you could do.”


"There must be something," she insisted.


"You'd only be in the way.”


"Listen, I'm intelligent" "So what?" "-well-educated-" "So am I.”


"-gutsy-" "But I don't need you.”


"---competent, efficient" "Sorry.”


"Damn it!" she said, more frustrated than angry. "Let me be your secretary, even if you don't need one. Let me be your girl Friday, your good right hand-at least your friend" He seemed unmoved by her plea.


He stared at her for so long that she became uncomfortable, but she would not look away from him. She sensed that he used his singularly penetrating gaze as an instrument of control and intimidation, but she was not easily manipulated. She was determined not to let him shape this encounter before it had begun.


At last he said, "So you want to be my Lois Lane.”


For a moment she had no idea what he was talking about. Then she remembered: Metropolis, the Daily Planet Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lois Lane, Clark Kent, Superman.


Holly knew he was trying to irritate her.


Making her angry was another way of manipulating her; if she became abrasive, he would have an excuse to turn her away. She was determined to remain calm and reasonably congenial in order to keep the door open between them.


But she could not sit still and control her temper at the same time. She needed to work off some of the energy of anger that was overcharging her batteries. She pushed her chair back, got up, and paced as she responded to him: "No, that's exactly what I don 't want to be. I don't want to be your chronicler, intrepid girl reporter. I'm sick of journalism." Succinctly, she told him why. "I don't want to be your swooning admirer, either, or that well-meaning but bumbling gal who gets herself in trouble all the time and has to rely on you to save her from the evil clutches of Lex Luthor.


Something amazing is happening here, and I want to be part of it.


It's also dangerous, yeah, but I still want to be a part of it, because what you're doing is so. . . so meaningful. I want to contribute any way I can, do something more worthwhile with my life than I've done so far.”


"Do-gooders are usually so full of themselves, so unconsciously arrogant, they do more damage than good," he said.


"I'm not a do-gooder. That's not how I see myself I'm not at all interested in being praised for my generosity and self sacrifice. I don't need to feel morally superior. Just useful. " "The world is full of do-gooders," he said, refusing to relent. "If I needed an assistant, which I don't, why would I choose you over all the other do-gooders out there?" He was an impossible man. She wanted to smack him.


Instead she kept moving back and forth as she said, "Yesterday, when I crawled back into the plane for that little boy, for Norby, I just. . .


well, I amazed myself I didn't know I had anything like that in me. I wasn't brave, I was scared to death the whole time, but I got him out of there, and I never felt better about myself" "You like the way people look at you when they know you're a hero," he said flatly.


She shook her head. "No, that's not it. Aside from one rescue worker no one knew I'd pulled Norby out of there. I liked the way I looked at me after I'd done it, that's all.”


"So you're hooked on risk, heroism, you're a courage junkie.”


Now she wanted to smack him twice. In the face. Crack, crack. Hard enough to set his eyes spinning. It would make her feel so good.


She restrained herself "Okay, fine, if that's the way you want to see it, then I'm a courage junkie.”


He did not apologize. He just stared at her.


She said, "But that's better than inhaling a pound of coc**ne up my nose every day, don't you think?" He did not respond.


Getting desperate but trying not to show it, Holly said, "When it was all over yesterday, after I handed Norby to that rescue worker, you know what I felt? More than anything else? Not elation at saving him-that too, but not mainly that. And not pride or the thrill of defeating death myself Mostly I felt rage It surprised me, even scared me. I was so furious that a little boy almost died, that his uncle had died beside him, that he'd been trapped under those seats with corpses, that all of his innocence had been blown away and that he couldn't ever again just enjoy life the way a kid ought to be able to. I wanted to punch somebody, wanted to make somebody apologize to him for what he'd been through. But fate isn't a sleazeball in a cheap suit, you can't put the arm on fate and make it say it's sorry, all you can do is stew in your anger.”


Her voice was not rising, but it was increasingly intense. She paced faster, more agitatedly. She was getting passionate instead of angry, which was even more certain to reveal the degree of her desperation. But she couldn't stop herself: "Just stew in anger.


Unless you're Jim Ironheart. You can do something about it, make a difference in a way nobody ever made a difference before.


And now that I know about you, I can't just get on with my life, can't just shrug my shoulders and walk away, because you've given me a chance to find a strength in myself I didn't know I had, you've given me hope when I didn't even realize I was longing for it, you've shown me a way to satisfy a need that, until yesterday, I didn't even know I had, a need to fight back, to spit in Death's face. Damn it, you can't just close the door now and let me standing out in the cold!" He stared at her.


Congratulations, Thorne, she told herself scornfully. You were a monument to composure and restraint, a towering example of self control.


He just stared at her.


She had met his cool demeanor with heat, had answered his highly effective silences with an ever greater cascade of words. One chance, that was all she'd had, and she'd blown it.


Miserable, suddenly drained of energy instead of overflowing with it, she sat down again. She propped her elbows on the table and put her face in her hands, not sure if she was going to cry or scream. She didn't do either.


She just sighed wearily.


"Want a beer?" he asked.


"God, yes.”


Like a brush of flame, the westering sun slanted through the tilted plantation shutters on the breakfast-nook window, slathering bands of coppergold fire on the ceiling. Holly slumped in her chair, and Jim leaned forward in his. She stared at him while he stared at his half finished bottle of Corona.


"Like I told you on the plane, I'm not a psychic," he insisted. "I can't foresee things just because I want to. I don't have visions. It's a higher power working through me.”


"You want to define that a little?" He shrugged. "God.”


"God's talking to you?" "Not talking. I don't hear voices, His or anybody else's. Now and then I'm compelled to be in a certain place at a certain time. . .”


As best he could, he tried to explain how he had ended up at the McAlbery School in Portland and at the sites of the other miraculous rescues he had performed. He also told her about Father Geary finding him on the floor of the church, by the sanctuary railing, with the stigmata of Christ marking his brow, hands, and side.


It was off the-wall stuff, a weird brand of mysticism that might have been concocted by an heretical Catholic and peyote-inspired Indian medicine man in association with a no-nonsense, Clint Eastwood-style cop.


Holly was fascinated. But she said, "I can't honestly tell you I see God's big hand in this.”


"I do," he said quietly, making it clear that his conviction was solid and in no need of her approval.


Nevertheless she said, "Sometimes you've had to be pretty damned violent, like with those guys who kidnapped Susie and her mother in the desert.”


"They got what they deserved," he said flatly. "There's too much darkness in some people, corruption that could never be cleaned out in five lifetimes of rehabilitation. Evil is real, it walks the earth.


Sometimes the devil works by persuasion. Sometimes he just sets loose these sociopaths who don't have a gene for empathy or one for compassion.”


"I'm not saying you didn't have to be violent in some of these situations.


Far as I can see, you had no choice. I just meant-it's hard to see God encouraging his messenger to pick up a shotgun.”


He drank some beer. "You ever read the Bible?" "Sure.”


"Says in there that God wiped out the evil people in Sodom and Gomora rah with volcanoes, earthquakes, rains of fire.


Flooded the whole world once, didn't He? Made the Red Sea wash over the pharaoh's soldiers, drowned them all. I don't think He's going to be skittish about a little old shotgun.”


"I guess I was thinking about the God of the New Testament. Maybe you heard about Him-understanding, compassionate, merciful.”


He fixed her with those eyes again, which could be so appealing that they made her knees weak or so cold they made her shiver. A moment ago they had been warm; now they were icy. If she'd had any doubt, she knew from his frigid response that he had not yet decided to welcome her into his life. "I've met up with some people who're such walking scum, it'd be an insult to animals to call them animals. If I thought God always dealt mercifully with their kind, I wouldn't want anything to do with God.”


Holly stood at the kitchen sink, cleaning mushrooms and slicing tomatoes, while Jim separated egg whites from yolks to make a pair of comparatively low-calorie omelettes.


"All the time, people are dying conveniently, right in your own backyard. But often you go clear across the country to save them.”


"Once to France," he said, confirming her suspicion that he had ventured out of the country on his missions. "Once to Germany, twice to Japan, once to England.”


"Why doesn't this higher power give you only local work?" "I don't know.”

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