Cold Fire Page 29

Unlike the other shots, this one was carefully posed, with nothing but a piece of artfully draped cloth as a backdrop, obviously set up by a professional photographer.

"They were wonderful," Jim said from the doorway. She had not heard him approaching. "No kid ever had better folks than them.”

"You traveled a lot.”

"Yeah. They were always going somewhere. They loved to show me new places, teach me things firsthand. They would've made wonderful schoolteachers, let me tell you.”

"What work did they do?" "My dad was an accountant at Warner Brothers.”

"The movie studio?" "Yeah." Jim smiled. "We lived in L.A. Mom-she wanted to be an actress, but she never got a lot of jobs. So mostly she was a hostess at a restaurant on Melrose Avenue, not far from the Paramount lot.”

"You were happy, weren't you?" "Always.”

She pointed to the photo in which the three of them were dressed with glittery formality. "Special occasion?" "Times just the two of them should have celebrated, like wedding anniversaries, they insisted on including me.

They always made me feel special, wanted, loved. I was seven years old when that photo was taken, and I remember them making big plans that night. They were going to be married a hundred years, they said, and be happier each year than the one before, have lots more children, own a big house, see every corner of the world before they died together in their sleep. But just three years later they were. . . gone.”

"I'm sorry, Jim.”

He shrugged. "It's a long time ago. Twenty-five years." He looked at his wristwatch. "Come on, let's go. It'll take us four hours to reach the farm, and it's already nine o'clock.”

At the Laguna Hills Motor Inn, Holly quickly changed into jeans and a blue-checkered blouse, then packed the rest of her belongings.

Jim put her suitcase in the trunk of his car.

While she returned her room key and paid her bill at the front desk in the motel office, she was aware of him watching her from behind the wheel of his Ford. She would have been disappointed, of course, if he had not liked to watch her. But every time she looked through the plate-glass window at him, he was so motionless, so cool and expressionless behind his heavily tinted sunglasses, that his undivided attention was disconcert.

She wondered if she was doing the right thing by going with him to the Santa Ynez Valley. When she walked out of the office and got in the car with him, he would be the only person in the world who knew where she was. All of her notes about him were in her suitcase; they could disappear with her. Then she would be just a woman, alone, who had vanished while on vacation.

As the clerk finished filling out the credit-card form, Holly considered phoning her parents in Philadelphia to let them know where she was going and with whom. But she would only alarm them and be on the phone half an hour trying to reassure them that she was going to be just fine.

Besides, she had already decided that the darkness in Jim was less important than the light, and she had made a commitment to him. If he occasionally made her uneasy. . . well, that was part of what had drawn her to him in the first place. A sense of danger sharpened the edge of his appeal. At heart, he was a good man.

It was foolish to worry about her safety after she had already made love to him. For a woman, in a way that could never be true for a man, the first night of sexual surrender involved one of the moments of greatest vulnerability in a relationship. Assuming, of course, that she had surrendered not solely because of physical need but because she loved him. And Holly loved him.

"I'm in love with him," she said aloud, surprised because she had convinced herself that his appeal was largely the result of his exceptional male grace, animal magnetism, and mystery.

The clerk, ten years younger than Holly and therefore more inclined to think that love was everywhere and inevitable, grinned at her. "It's great, isn't it?" Signing the charge slip, Holly said, "Do you believe in love at first sight?" "Why not?" "Well, it's not first sight, really. I've known the guy since August twelfth, which is. . . sixteen days.”

"And you're not married yet?" the clerk joked.

When Holly went out to the Ford and got in beside Jim, she said, "When we get where we're going, you won't carve me up with a chainsaw and bury me under the windmill, will you?" Apparently he understood her sense of vulnerability and took no offense , for he said with mock solemnity, "Oh, no. It's full-up under the mill.

I'll have to bury pieces of you all over the farm.”

She laughed. She was an idiot for fearing him.

He leaned over and kissed her. It was a lovely, lingering kiss.

When they parted, he said, "I'm taking as big a risk as you are.”

"Let me assure you, I've never hacked anyone to bits with an axe.”

"I mean it. I haven't been lucky in love.”

"Me neither.”

"This time will be different for both of us.”

He gave her another kiss, shorter and sweeter than the first one, then started the car and backed out of the parking space.

In a determined attempt to keep the dying cynic in her alive, Holly reminded herself that he had not actually said he loved her. His commitment had been carefully and indirectly phrased. He might be no more reliable than other men she had trusted over the years.

On the other hand, she had not actually said that she loved him, either.

Her commitment had been no more effusively stated than his.

Perhaps because she still felt the need to protect herself to some extent, she had found it easier to reveal her heart to the motel clerk than to Jim.

Washing down blueberry muffins with black coffee, for which they had stopped at a convenience store, they traveled north on the San Diego Freeway. The Tuesday-morning rush hour had passed, but at some places traffic still clogged all lanes and moved like a snail herd being driven ', toward a gourmet restaurant.

I Comfortably ensconced in the passenger seat, Holly told Jim about her four nightmares, as promised. She started with the initial dream of blindness on Friday night, concluding with last night's spookshow, which had been the most bizarre and fearful of all.

He was clearly fascinated that she had dreamed about the mill without even knowing of its existence. And on Sunday night, after surviving the crash of Flight 246, she had dreamed of him at the mill as a ten year-old boy, when she could not yet have known either that the mill was a familiar place to him or that he had spent a lot of time there when he was ten.

But the majority of his questions related to her most recent nightmare.

Keeping his eyes on the traffic ahead, he said, "Who was the woman in the dream if she wasn't you?" "I don't know," Holly said, finishing the final bite of the last muffin.

"I had no sense of her identity.”

"Can you describe her?" "I only saw her reflection in that window, so I can't tell you much, I'm afraid." She drank the last of the coffee from her big Styrofoam cup, and thought a moment. It was easier to visualize the scenes of that dream than it should have been, for dreams were usually quick to fade from memory.

Images from that one returned to her quite vividly, however, as if she had not dreamed them but experienced them in real life. "She had a broad clear face, more handsome in a womanly way than pretty.

Wide-set eyes, full mouth. A beauty mark high on her right cheek, I don't think it could've been a spot on the glass, just a little round dot. Curly hair. Do you recognize her?" "No," he replied. "Can't say that I do. Tell me what you saw at the bottom of the pond when the lightning flashed.”

"I'm not sure what it was.”

"Describe it as best you can.”

She pondered for a moment, then shook her head. "I can't. The woman's face was fairly easy to recall because when I saw it in the dream I knew what it was, a face, a human face. But whatever was lying at the bottom of the pond. . . that was strange, like nothing I'd ever seen beù fore.

I didn't know what I was looking at, and I had such a brief glimpse of it and. . . well, now it's just gone. Is there really something peculiar under that pond?" "Not that I know of," he said. "Could it've been a sunken boat, a rowboat, anything like that?" "No," she said. "Nothing at all like that. Much bigger. Did a boat sink in the pond once?" "I never heard of it, if one did. It's a deceptive-looking bit of water, though. You expect a millpond to be shallow, but this one is deep, forty or fifty feet toward the center. It never dries out, and it doesn't shrink during dry years, either, because it's formed over an artesian well, not just an aquifer.”

"What's the difference?" "An aquifer is what you drill into when you're sinking a well, it's sort of a reservoir or stream of underground water. Artesian wells are rarer. You don't drill into one to find water, 'cause the water is already coming to the surface under pressure. You'd have the devil's own time trying to stop the stuff from percolating up.”

The snarl of traffic began to loosen, but Jim did not take full advantage of opportunities to change lanes and swing around slower-moving vehicles.

He was more interested in her answers than in making better time.

He said, "And in the dream, when you got to the top of the stairs-or when this woman got to the top of the stairs-you saw a ten-year-old boy standing there, and somehow you knew he was me.”


"I don't look much like I looked when I was ten, so how'd you recognize me?" "Mostly it was your eyes," Holly said. "They haven't changed much in all these years. They're unmistakable.”

"Lots of people have blue eyes.”

"Are you serious? Honey, your blue eyes are to other blue eyes what Sinatra's voice is to Donald Duck's.”

"You're prejudiced. What did you see in the wall?" She described it again.

"Alive in the stone? This just gets stranger and stranger.”

"I haven't been bored in days," she agreed.

Beyond the junction with Interstate 10, traffic on the San Diego Freeway became even lighter, and finally Jim began to put some of his driving skills to use. He handled the car the way a first-rate jockey handled a thoroughbred horse, finessing from it that extra degree of performance that won races. The Ford was only a stock model with no modification, but it responded to him as if it wanted to be a Porsche.

After a while Holly began to ask questions of her own. "How come you're a millionaire but you live relatively cheap?" "Bought a house, moved out of my apartment. Quit my job.”

"Yeah, but a modest house. And your furniture's falling apart.”

"I needed the privacy of my own house to meditate and rest between. . .

assignments. But I didn't need fancy furniture.”

Following a few minutes of mutual silence, she said, "Did I catch your eye the way you caught mine, right off the bat, up in Portland?" He smiled but didn't look away from the highway." So are you, Miss Thorne.'" "So you admit it!" Holly said, pleased. "It was a come-on line.”

They made excellent time from the west side of Los Angeles all the way to Ventura, but then Jim began to slack off again. Mile by mile, he drove with less aggression.

Initially Holly thought he was lulled by the view. Past Ventura, Route 101 hugged beautiful stretches of coastline. They passed Pitas Point, then Rincon Point, and the beaches of Carpinteria. The blue sea rose, the blue sky fell, the golden land wedged itself between them, and the only visible turbulence in the serene summer day was the white-capped surf, which slipped to the shore in low combers and broke with a light, foamy spray.

But there was a turbulence in Jim Ironheart, too, and Holly only became aware of his new edginess when she realized that he was not paying any attention to the scenery. He had slowed down not to enjoy the view but, she suspected, to delay their arrival at the farm By the time they left the superhighway, turned inland at Santa Barbara, crossed the city, and headed into the Santa Ynez Mountains, Jim's mood was undeniably darker.

His responses to her conversational sallies grew shorter, more distracted.

State Route 154 led out of the mountains into an appealing land of low hills and fields painted gold by dry summer grass, clusters of California live oaks, and horse ranches with neat white fencing. This was not the farming-intense, agribusiness atmosphere of the San Joaquin and certain other valleys; there were serious vineyards here and there, but the occasional farms appeared to be, as often as not, gentlemen's operations maintained as getaways for rich men in Los Angeles, more concerned with cultivating a picturesque alternate lifestyle than with real crops.

"We'll need to stop in New Svenborg to get a few things before we head out to the farm," Jim said.

"What things?" "I don't know. But when we stop. . . I'll know what we need.”

Lake Cachuma came and went to the east. They passed the road to Solvang on the west, then skirted Santa Ynez itself Before Los Olivos, they headed east on another state route, and finally into New Svenborg, the closest town to Ironheart Farm.

, In the early nineteen hundreds, groups of Danish-Americans from the Midwest had settled in the Santa Ynez Valley, many of them with the intention of establishing communities that would preserve Danish folk arts and customs and, in general, the ways of Danish life. The most successful of these settlements was Solvang, about which Holly had once written a story; it had become a major tourist attraction because of its quaint Danish architecture, shops, and restaurants.

New Svenborg, with a population of fewer than two thousand, was not as elaborately, thoroughly, authentically, insistently Danish as Solvang.

Depressing desert-style stucco buildings with white-rock roofs, weathered clapboard buildings with unpainted front porches that reminded Holly of parts of rural Texas, Craftsman bungalows, and white Victorian houses with lots of gingerbread and wide front porches stood beside structures that were distinctly Danish with half timbered walls and thatched roofs and leaded-glass windows. Half a dozen windmills dotted the town, their vanes silhouetted against the August sky. All in all, it was one of those singular California mixes that sometimes resulted in delightful and unexpected harmonies; but in New Svenborg, the mix did not work, and the mood was discordancy.

"I spent the end of my childhood and my entire adolescence here," Jim said as he drove slowly down the quiet, shadowy main street.

She figured that his moodiness could be attributed as much to New Svenborg as to his tragic family history.

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