Cold Fire Page 26


"Have you ever wondered what's so special about the people you save? I mean-why them and not others?" "Yeah. I've wondered about it. I see stories on the news every week about innocent people being murdered or dying in accidents right here in southern California, and I wonder why He didn't choose to save them instead of some boy in Boston. I just figure the boy in Boston-the devil was conspiring to take him before his time, and God used me to prevent that.”


"So many of them are young.”


"I've noticed that.”


"But you don't know why?" "Not a clue.”


The kitchen was redolent of cooking eggs, onions, mushrooms, and green peppers. Jim made one big omelette in a single pan, planning to cut it in half when it was done.


While Holly monitored the progress of the whole-wheat bread in the toaster, she said, "Why would God want you to save Susie and her mother out there in the desert-but not the girl's father?" "I don't know.”


"The father wasn't a bad man, was he?" "No. Didn't seem to be.”


"So why not save them all?" "If He wants me to know, He'll tell me.”


Jim's certainty about being in God's good grace and under His guidance, and his easy acceptance that God wanted some people to die and not others, made Holly uneasy.


On the other hand, how could he react to his extraordinary experience in any other way? No point in arguing with God.


She recalled an old saying, a real chestnut that had become a cliche in the hands of the pop psych crowd: God grant me the courage to change those things I can't accept, to accept those things I can't change, and the wisdom to know the difference. Cliche or not, that was an eminently sane attitude.


When the two pieces of bread popped up, she plucked them from the toaster. As she toasted two more, she said, "If God wanted to save Nicholas O'Conner from being fried when that power-company vault went up, why didn't He just prevent it from exploding in the first place?" "I don't know.”


"Doesn't it seem odd to you that God has to use you, run you clear across the country, throw you at the O'Conner boy an instant before that 17,000-volt line blows up? Why couldn't He just. . . oh, I don't know.


. . just spit on the cable or something, fix it up with a little divine saliva before it went blooey? Or instead of sending you all the way to Atlanta to kill Norman Rink in that convenience store, why didn't God just tweak Norman's brain a little, give him a timely stroke?" Jim artfully tilted the pan to turn over the omelette. "Why did He make mice to torment people and cats to kill the mice? Why did He create aphids that kill plants, then ladybugs to eat the aphids? And why didn't He give us eyes in the back of our head-when He gave us so many reasons to need them there?" She finished lightly buttering the first two slices of toast. "I see what you're saying. God works in mysterious ways.”


"Very.”


They ate at the breakfast table. In addition to toast, they had sliced tomatoes and cold bottles of Corona with the omelettes.


The purple cloth of twilight slid across the world outside, and the undraped form of night began to reveal itself Holly said, "You aren't entirely a puppet in these situations.”


"Yes, I am.”


"You have some power to determine the outcome.”


"None.”


"Well, God sent you on Flight Two forty-six to save just the Dubroveks.”


"That's right.”


"But then you took matters into your own hands and saved more than just Christine and Casey. How many were supposed to die?" "A hundred and fifty-one.”


"And how many actually died?" "Forty-seven.”


"Okay, so you saved a hundred and two more lives than He sent you to save.”


"A hundred and three, counting yours-but only because He allowed me to do it, helped me to do it.”


"What-you're saying God wanted you to save just the Dubroveks, but then He changed His mind?" "I guess so.”


"God isn't sure what He wants?" "I don't know.”


"God is sometimes confused?" "I don't know.”


"God is a waffler?" "Holly, I just don't know.”


"Good omelette.”


"Thank you.”


"I have trouble understanding why God would ever change His mind about anything. After all, He's infallible, right? So He can't have made the wrong decision the first time.”


"I don't concern myself with questions like that. I just don't think about it.”


"Obviously," she said.


He glared at her, and she felt the full effect of his eyes in their arctic mode. Then focusing on his food and beer, he refused to respond to Holly's next few conversational gambits.


She realized that she was no closer to winning his trust than she had been when he had reluctantly invited her in from the patio. He was still judging her, and on points she was probably losing. What she needed was a solid knockout punch, and she thought she knew what it was, but she didn't want to use it until the right moment.


When Jim finished eating, he looked up from his empty plate and said, "Okay, I've listened to your pitch, I've fed you, and now I want you to go.”


"No, you don't.”


He blinked. "Miss Thorne-" "You called me Holly before.”


"Miss Thorne, please don't make me throw you out.”


"You don't want me to go," Holly said, striving to sound more confident than she felt. "At all the scenes of these rescues, you've given only your first name. No one's learned anything more about you.


Except me. You told me you lived in southern California. You told me your last name was Ironheart.”


"I never said you were a bad reporter. You're good at prying information" "I didn't pry. You gave it. And if it wasn't something you wanted to give, a grizzly bear with an engineering degree and crowhar couldn't pry it out of you. I want another beer.”


"I asked you to go.”


"Don't stir yourself I know where you keep the suds.”


She got up, stepped to the refrigerator, and withdrew another bottle of Corona. She was walking on the wild side now, at least for her, but a third beer gave her an excuse-even if a flimsy one to stay and argue with him.


She had downed three bottles last night, at the motel cocktail lounge in Dubuque. But then she had still been saturated with adrenaline, as superalert and edgy as a Siamese cat on Benzedrine, which canceled out the alcohol as fast as it entered her bloodstream.


Even so, she had hit the bed as hard as a lumberjack who'd downed a dozen boilermakers. If she passed out on Ironheart, she'd no doubt wake up in her car, out in the street, and she would never get inside his house again. She opened the beer and returned to the table with it.


"You wanted me to find you," she said as she sat down.


He regarded her with all the warmth of a dead penguin frozen to an ice flow. "I did, huh?" "Absolutely. That's why you told me your last name and where I could find you.”


He said nothing.


"And you remember your last words to me at the airport in Portland?" "No.”


"It was the best come-on line any guy's ever dropped on me.”


He waited.


She made him wait a little longer while she took a sip of beer straight from the bottle. "Just before you closed the car door and went into the terminal, you said, So are you, Miss Thorne.'" "Doesn't sound like much of a come-on line to me.”


"It was romantic as hell.”


" So are you, Miss Thorne." And what had you just said to me.


You're an as**ole, Mr. Ironheart'?" "Ho, ho, ho," she said. "Try to spoil it, go ahead, but you can't.


I'd told you that your modesty was refreshing, and you said, So are you, Miss Thorne." My heart just now went pitty-pat-pitty-pat again, remembering it.


Oh, you knew just what you were doing, you smoothie. Told me your name, told me where you lived, gave me a lot of those eyes, those damned eyes, played coy, then hit me with So are you, Miss Thorne,' and walked away like Bogart.”


"I don't think you should have any more of that beer.”


"Yeah? Well, I think I'll sit here all night, drinking one of 'em after another.”


He sighed. "In that case, I'd better have another one myself" He got another beer and sat down again.


Holly figured she was making progress.


Or maybe he was setting her up. Maybe getting cozy over Corona was a trick of some kind. He was clever, all right. Maybe he was going to try to drink her under the table. Well, he'd lose that one, because she'd be under the table long before him! "You wanted me to find you," she told him.


He said nothing.


"You know why you wanted me to find you?" He said nothing.


"You wanted me to find you because you really did think I was refreshing, and you're the loneliest, sorriest guy between here and Hardrock, Missouri.”


He said nothing. He was good at that. He was the best guy in the world at saying nothing at just the right time.


She said, "You make me want to smack you.”


He said nothing.


Whatever confidence the Corona had given her suddenly began to drain away. She sensed that she was losing again. For a couple of rounds, there, she had definitely been winning on points, but now she was being beaten back by his silence.


"Why are all these boxing metaphors running through my head?" she asked him. "I hate boxing.”


He slugged down some of his Corona and, with a nod, indicated her bottle, from which she had drunk only a third. "You really insist on finishing that?" "Hell, yes." She was aware that the brewski was beginning to affect her, perhaps dangerously, but she was still plenty sober enough to recognize that the moment had come for her knockout punch. "If you don't tell me about that place, I'm going to sit here and drink myself into a fat, slovenly, alcoholic old crone. I'm going to die here at the age of eighty-two, with a liver the size of Vermont.”


"Place?" He looked baffled. "What place?" Now. She chose a soft but clear whisper in which to deliver the punch: "The windmill.”


He didn't exactly fall to the canvas, and no cartoon stars swarmed around his head, but Holly could see that he had been rocked.


"You've been to the windmill?" he asked.


"No. You mean it's a real place?" "If you don't know that much, then how could you know about it at all?" "Dreams. Windmill dreams. Each of the last three nights.”


He paled. The overhead light was not on. They were sitting in shadows, illuminated only by the secondhand glow of the rangehood and sink lights in the kitchen and by a table lamp in the adjacent family room, but Holly saw him go pale under his tan. His face seemed to hover before her in the gloom like the face-shaped wing configuration of a big snow-white moth.


The extraordinary vividness and unusual nature of the nightmare-and the fact that the effects of the dream had continued after she had awakened in her motel room-had encouraged her to believe that it was somehow connected with Jim Ironheart. Two encounters with the paranormal in such close succession had to be linked. But she was relieved, all the same, when his stunned reaction confirmed her suspicion.


"Limestone walls," she said. "Wooden floor. A heavy wooden door, banded in iron, that opens on some limestone steps. A yellow candle in a blue dish.”


"I've dreamed about it for years," he said softly. "Once or twice a month. Never more often than that. Until the last three nights. But how can we be having the same dream?" "Where's the real windmill?" "On my grandparents' farm. North of Santa Barbara. In the Santa Ynez Valley.”


"Did something terrible happen to you there, or what?" He shook his head. "No. Not at all. I loved that place. It was. .


. a sanctuary.”


"Then why did you go pale when I mentioned it?" "Did I?" "Picture an albino cat chasing a mouse around a corner and running into a Doberman. That pale.”


"Well, when I dream of the mill, it's always frightening-" "Don't I know it. But if it was a good place in your life, a sanctuary like you say, then why does it feature in nightmares?" "I don't know.”


"Here we go again.”


"I really don't," he insisted. "Why did you dream about it, if you've never even been there?" She drank more beer, which did not clarify her thinking. "Maybe because you're projecting your dream at me. As a way to sort of make a connection between us, draw me to you.”


"Why would I want to draw you to me?" "Thanks a lot.”


"Anyway, like I told you before, I'm no psychic, I don't have abilities like that. I'm just an instrument.”


"Then it's this higher power of yours," she said. "It's sending me the same dream because it wants us to connect.”


He wiped one hand down his face. "This is too much for me right now.


I'm so damned tired.”


"Me, too. But it's only nine-thirty, and we've still got a lot to talk about.”


"I only slept about an hour last night," he said.


He really did look exhausted. A shave and a shower had made him presentable, but the bruise-dark rings around his eyes were getting darker; end he had not regained color in his face after turning pale at the mention of her windmill dreams.


He said, "We can pick this up in the morning.”


She frowned. "No away. I'll come back in the morning, and you won't let me in.”


"I'll let you in.”


"That's what you say now.”


"If you're having that dream, then you're part of this whether I like it or not.”


His tone of voice had gone from cool to cold again, and it was clear that what he meant by "whether I like it or not" was really "even though I don't like it.”


He was a loner, evidently always had been. Viola Moreno, who had great affection for him, claimed he was well-liked by his students and colleagues. She'd spoken of a fundamental sadness in him, however, that separated him from other people, and since quitting his teaching position, he had seen little of Viola or his other friends from that life. Though intrigued by the news that he and Holly were sharing a dream, though he had called her "refreshing," though he was to some degree attracted at her, he obviously resented her intrusion into his solitude.

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