Cold Fire Page 31


She playfully pinched his cheek.


"What?" he said.


"You're cute.”


As they drove out of Svenborg, it occurred to Holly that the distribution pattern of the houses and other buildings was more like a pioneer settlement than like a modern community. In most towns, buildings were concentrated more densely in the center, with larger lots and increasing open space toward the perimeter, until finally the last structures gave way to rural precincts. But when they came to the city limits of Svenborg, the delineation between town and country was almost ruler-straight and unmistakable. Houses stopped and brushland began, with only an intervening firebreak, and Holly could not help but think of pioneers in the Old West constructing their outposts with a wary eye toward the threats that might arise out of the lawless badlands all around them.


Inside its boundaries, the town seemed ominous and full of dark secrets.


Seen from the outside-and Holly turned to stare back at it as the road rose toward the brow of a gentle hill-it looked not threatening but threatened, as if its residents knew, in their bones, that something frightful in the golden land around them was waiting to claim them all.


Perhaps fire was all they feared. Like much of California, the land was parched where human endeavor had not brought water to it. Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains to the west and the San Rafael Mountains to the east, the valley was so broad and deep that it contained more geographical variety than some entire states back East Although at this time of year, untouched by rain since early spring, most of it was brown and crisp. They traveled across rounded golden hills, brown meadows. The better vantage points on their two-mile route revealed vistas of higher hills overgrown with chaparral, valleys within the valley where groves of California live oaks flourished, and small green vineyards encircled by vast seared fields.


"It's beautiful," Holly said, taking in the pale hills, shining-gold meadows, and oily chaparral. Even the oaks, whose clusters indicated areas with a comparatively high water table, were not lush but a half parched silvergreen. "Beautiful, but a tinderbox. How would they cope with a fire out here?" Even as she posed that question, they came around a bend in the road and saw a stretch of blackened land to the right of the two-lane county road. Brush and grass had been reduced to veins of gray-white ash in coalblack soot. The fire had taken place within the past couple of days, for it was still recent enough to lend a burnt odor to the August air.


"That one didn't get far," he said. "Looks like ten acres burned at most.


They're quick around here, they jump at the first sign of smoke.


There's a good volunteer group in town, plus a Department of Forestry station in the valley, lookout posts. If you live here, you don't forget the threat-you just realize after a while that it can be dealt with.”


Jim sounded confident enough, and he had lived there for seven or eight years, so Holly tried to suppress her pyrophobia. Nevertheless, even after they had passed the charred land and could no longer smell the scorched brush, Holly had an image in her mind of the huge valley at night, aflame from end to end, vortexes of red-orange-white fire whirling like tornadoes and consuming everything that lay between the ramparts of the two mountain ranges.


"Ironheart Farm," he said, startling her.


As Jim slowed the Ford, Holly looked to the left of the blacktop county route.


A farmhouse stood a hundred feet back from the road, behind a withered lawn. It was of no particular architectural style, just a plain but cozy-looking two-story farmhouse with white aluminum siding, a red-shingle roof, and a commodious front porch. It might have been lifted off its foundation anywhere in the Midwest and plunked down on new footings here, for there were thousands like it in those cornbelt states.


Maybe a hundred yards to the left of the house, a red barn rose to a tarnished horse-and-carriage weather vane at the pinnacle of its peaked roof It was not huge, only half again as large as the unimposing house.


Behind the house and barn, visible between them, was the pond, and the structure at its far side was the most arresting sight on the farm.


The windmill.


Jim stopped in the driveway turnaround between house and barn, and got out of the Ford. He had to get out because the sight of the old place hit him harder than he had expected, simultaneously bringing a chill to the pit of his stomach and a flush of heat to his face. In spite of the cool draft from the dashboard vents, the air in the car seemed warm and stale, too low in oxygen content to sustain him. He stood in the fresh summer air, drawing deep breaths, and tried not to lose control of himself The blank-windowed house held little power over him. When he looked at it, he felt only a sweet melancholy that might, given time, deepen into a more disturbing sadness or even despair. But he could stare at it, draw his breath normally, and turn away from it without being seized by a powerful urge to look at it again.


The barn exerted no emotional pull on him whatsoever, but the windmill was another story. When he turned his gaze on that cone of limestone beyond the wide pond, he felt as though he were being transformed into stone himself, as had been the luckless victims of the mythological serpenthaired Medusa when they had seen her snake-ringed face.


He'd read about Medusa years ago. In one of Mrs. Glynn's books.


That was in the days when he wished with all his heart that he, too, could see the snake-haired woman and be transformed into unfeeling rock.


. . .


"Jim?" Holly said from the other side of the car. "You okay?" With its high-ceilinged rooms-highest on the first floor the two-story mill was actually four stories in height. But to Jim, at that moment, it looked far taller, as imposing as a twenty-story tower. Its once-pale stones had been darkened by a century of grime. Climbing ivy, roots nurtured by the pond that abutted one flank of the mill, twined up the rough stone face, finding easy purchase in deep-mortared joints.


With no one to perform needed maintenance, the plant had covered half the structure, and had grown entirely over a narrow first-floor window near the timbered door.


The wooden sails looked rotten. Each of those four arms was about thirty feet in length, making a sixty-foot spread across adjoining spans, and each was five feet wide with three rows of vanes. Since he had last seen the mill, more vanes had cracked or fallen away altogether. The time-frozen sails were stopped not in a cruciform but toward the open door.


"Come on, let's get this place cleaned up, move in. We want to be ready for whatever's going to happen next.”


She followed him to the head of the steps but stopped there and watched him descend two at a time, with the air of a kid excited by the prospect of adventure. All of his misgivings about the mill and his fear of The Enemy seemed to have evaporated like a few beads of water on a red-hot griddle.


His emotional roller coaster was cresting the highest point on the track thus far.


Sensing something above her head, Holly looked up. A large web had been spun above the door, across the curve where the wall became the ceiling.


A fat spider, its body as big around as her thumbnail and its spindly legs almost as long as her little finger, greasy as a dollop of wax and dark as a drop of blood, was feeding greedily on the pale quivering body of a snared moth.


With a broom, dustpan, bucket of water, mop, and a few rags, they made the small upper chamber livable in short order. Jim even brought some Windex and paper towels from the store of cleaning supplies at the house, so they could scrub the grime off the windows, letting in a lot more light.


Holly chased down and killed not only the spider above the door but seven others, checking darker corners with one of the flashlights until she was sure she had found them all.


Of course the mill below them was surely crawling with countless other spiders. She decided not to think about that.


By six o'clock, the day was waning but the room was bright enough without the Coleman lantern. They were sitting Indian fashion on their inflatable-mattress sleeping bags, with the big cooler between them.


Using the closed lid as a table, they made thick sandwiches, opened the potato chips and cheese twists, and popped the tops off cans of root beer. Though she had missed lunch, Holly had not thought about food until they'd begun to prepare it. Now she was hungrier than she would have expected under the circumstances. Everything was delicious, better than gourmet fare. Olive loaf and cheese on white bread, with mustard, recalled for her the appetites of childhood, the intense flavors and forgotten innocent sensuality of youth.


They did not talk much as they ate. Silences did not make either of them feel awkward, and they were taking such primal pleasure from the me that no conversation, regardless of how witty, could have improved the moment. But that was only part of the reason for their mutual reticence.


Holly, at least, was also unable to think what to say under these bizarre circumstances, sitting in the high room of a crumbling old mill, waiting for an encounter with something supernatural. No small talk of any kind was adequate to the moment, and a serious discussion of just about anything would seem ludicrous.


"I feel sort of foolish," she said eventually.


"Me, too," he admitted. "Just a little.”


At seven o'clock, when she was opening the box of chocolate-covered doughnuts, she suddenly realized the mill had no lavatory. "What about a bathroom?" He picked up his ring of keys from the floor and handed them to her.


"Go on over to the house. The plumbing works. There's a half bath right off the kitchen.”


She realized the room was filling with shadows, and when she glanced at the window, she saw that twilight had arrived. Putting the doughnuts aside, she said, "I want to zip over there and get back before dark.”


"Go ahead." Jim raised one hand as if pledging allegiance to the flag.


"I swear on all that I hold sacred, I'll leave you at least one doughnut.”


"Half the box better be there when I get back," she said, "or I'll kick your butt all the way into Svenborg to buy more.”


"You take your doughnuts seriously.”


"Damn right.”


He smiled. "I like that in a woman.”


Taking a flashlight to negotiate the mill below, she rose and went to the door. "Better start up the Coleman.”


"Sure thing. When you get back, it'll be a right cozy little campsite.”


Descending the narrow stairs, Holly began to worry about being separated from Jim, and step by step her anxiety increased. She was not afraid of being alone. What bothered her was leaving him by himself Which was ridiculous. He was a grown man and far more capable of effective self defense than was the average person.


The lower floor of the mill was much darker than when she had first seen it. Curtained with cobwebs, the dirty windows admitted almost none of the weak light of dusk.


As she crossed toward the arched opening to the antechamber, she was overcome by a creepy sense of being watched. She knew they were alone in the mill, and she chided herself for being such a ninny. But by the time she reached the archway, her apprehension had swelled until she could not resist the urge to turn and shine the flashlight into the chamber behind her.


Shadows were draped across the old machinery as copiously as black crepe in an amusement-park haunted house; they slid aside when the flashlight beam touched them, fell softly back into place as the beam moved on.


Each corner, undraped, revealed no spy. Someone could be sheltering behind one part of the millworks or another, and she considered prowling through the ruins in search of an intruder.


But abruptly she felt foolish, too easily spooked. Wondering what had happened to the intrepid reporter she had once been, Holly left the mill.


The sun was beyond the mountains. The sky was purple and that deep iridescent blue seen in old Maxfield Parrish paintings. A few toads were croaking from their shadowy niches along the banks of the pond.


All the way around the water, past the barn, to the back door of the house, Holly continued to feel watched. However, though it was possible that someone might be lurking in the mill, it was not too likely that a virtual platoon of spies had taken up positions in the barn, the surrounding fields, and the distant hills, intent on observing her every move.


"Idiot," she said self mockingly as she used one of Jim's keys to open the back door.


Though she had the flashlight, she tried the wall switch unthinkingly.


She was surprised to discover that the electrical service was still connected.


She was more surprised, however, by what the light revealed: a fully furnished kitchen. A breakfast table and four chairs stood by the window.


Copper pots and pans dangled from a ceiling fixture, and twin racks of knives and other utensils hung on the wall near the cooktop. A toaster, toaster oven, and blender stood on the counters. A shopping list of about fifteen items was affixed to the refrigerator with a magnet in the shape of a can of Budweiser.


Hadn't Jim gotten rid of his grandparents' belongings when they had died five years ago? Holly ran a finger along one of the counters, drawing a line through the thin coat of dust. But it was, at most, a three-month accumulation, not five years' worth of dirt.


After she used the bathroom adjacent to the kitchen, she wandered along the hallway, through the dining room and living room, where a full complement of furniture also stood under a light shroud of dust.


Some of the paintings hung aslant. Crocheted antimacassars protected the backs and arms of the chairs and sofas. Long unwound, the tall grandfather clock was not ticking. In the living room, the magazine rack beside the LaZ-Boy recliner was crammed full of publications, and inside a mahogany display case, bibelots gleamed dully beneath their own skin of dust.


Her first thought was that Jim had left the house furnished in order to be able to rent it out while searching for a buyer. But on one wall of the living room were framed 8 X 10 photographs that would not have been left to the mercy of a tenant: Jim's father as a young man of about twenty-one; Jim's father and mother in their wedding finery; Jim at the age of five or six, with both parents.


The fourth and final picture was a two-shot, head and shoulders, of a pleasant-looking couple in their early fifties. The man was on the burly side, with bold square features, yet recognizably an Ironheart; the woman was more handsome, in a female way, than pretty, and elements of her face could also be seen in Jim and his father.


Holly had no doubt that they were Jim's paternal grandparents, Lena and Henry Ironheart.


Lena Ironheart was the woman in whose body Holly had ridden like a spirit during last night's dream. Broad, clear face. Wide-set eyes.


Full mouth. Curly hair. A natural beauty spot, just a little round dot of skin discoloration, marked the high curve of her right cheek.


Though Holly had described this woman accurately to Jim, he had not recognized her. Maybe he didn't think of her eyes as being wide-set or her mouth as being full. Maybe her hair had been curly only during part of her life, due to the attentions of a beautician. But the beauty spot had to have clicked a switch in his memory, even five years after his grandmother's death.

Prev Next