Cold Fire Page 32


The sense of being watched had not entirely left Holly even after she had entered the house. Now, as she stared at Lena Ironheart's face in the photograph, the feeling of being under observation grew so acute that she abruptly wheeled around and looked back across the living room.


She was alone.


She stepped quickly to the archway and through it into the front hall.


Deserted.


A dark mahogany staircase led up to the second floor. The dust on the newel post and bannister was undisturbed: no palm marks, no fingerprints.


Looking up the first flight, she said, "Hello?" Her voice sounded queerly flat in the empty house.


No one responded to her.


Hesitantly, she started to climb the stairs.


"Who's there?" she called.


Only silence answered her.


Frowning, she stopped on the third step. She glanced down into the front hall, then up toward the landing again.


The silence was too deep, unnatural. Even a deserted house had some noise in it, occasional creaks and ticks and pops from old wood swelling or contracting, a rattle from a loose windowpane tapped by a finger of wind.


But the Ironheart house was so hushed, Holly might have thought that she'd gone deaf, except that she could hear the sounds she made herself She climbed two more steps. Stopped again.


She still felt she was under observation. It was as if the old house itself watched her with malevolent interest, alive and sentient, possessed of a thousand eyes hidden in the wood moldings and in the pattern of the wallpaper.


Dust motes drifted in the rays of the landing light above.


Twilight pressed its purple face to the windows.


Standing just four steps below the landing, partly under the second flight that led into the unseen upstairs hallway, she became convinced that something was waiting for her on the second floor. It was not necessarily The Enemy up there, not even anything alive and hostile-but something horrible, the discovery of which would shatter her.


Her heart was hammering. When she swallowed, she found a lump in her throat. She drew breath with a startling, ragged sound.


The feeling of being watched and of trembling on the brink of a monstrous revelation became so overpowering that she turned and hurried down the steps. She did not flee pell-mell out of the house; she retraced her path and turned off all the lights as she went; but she did not dally, either.


Outside, the sky was purple-black where it met the mountains in the east, purplish-red where it touched the mountains in the west, and saphire-blue between. The golden fields and hills had changed to pale gray, fading to charcoal, as if a fire had swept them while she was in the house.


As she crossed the yard and moved past the barn, the conviction that she was under observation only grew more intense. She glanced apprehensively at the open black square of the hay loft, the windows on either side of the big red double doors. It was a gut-clenching sensation of such primitive power that it transcended mere instinct.


She felt as if she were a guinea pig in a laboratory experiment, with wires hooked into her brain, while scientists sent pulses of current directly into the raw cerebral tissues that controlled the fear reflex and generated paranoid delusions. She had never experienced anything like it, knew that she was teetering on the thin edge of panic, and struggled to get a grip on herself By the time she reached the graveled drive that curved around the pond, she was running. She held the extinguished flashlight like a club, prepared to swing it hard at anything that darted toward her.


The bells rang. Even above her frantic breathing, she heard the pure, silvery trilling of clappers rapidly striking the inner curves of perfectly tuned bells.


For an instant she was amazed that the phenomenon was audible out side the windmill and at a distance, as the building was halfway around the pond from her. Then something flickered in her peripheral vision even before the first spell of ringing ended, and she looked away from the mill, toward the water.


Pulses of blood-red light, originating at the center of the pond, spread outward toward the banks in tight concentric circles, like the measured ripples that radiated from the point at which a dropped stone struck deep water. That sight brought Holly to a stumbling halt; she almost went to her knees as gravel rolled under her feet.


When the bells fell silent, the crimson light in the pond was immediately snuffed out. The water was much darker now than when she had first seen it in mid-afternoon. It no longer had all the somber hues of slate, but was as black as a polished slab of obsidian.


The bells rang again, and the crimson light pulsed from the heart of the pond, radiating outward. She could see that each new bright blossom was not born on the surface of the water but in its depths, dim at first but swiftly rising, almost bursting like an overheated incandescent bulb when it neared the surface, casting waves of light toward the shore.


The ringing ceased.


The water darkened.


The toads along the shoreline were not croaking any more. The evermurmuring world of nature had fallen as silent as the interior of the Ironheart farmhouse. No coyote howl, no insect cry, no owl hoot, no bat shriek or flap of wing, no rustling in the grass.


The bells sounded again, and the light returned, but this time it was not as red as gore, more of an orange-red, though it was brighter than before.


At the water's edge, the feathery white panicles of the pampas grass caught the curious radiance and glowed like plumes of iridescent gas.


Something was rising from the bottom of the pond.


As the throbbing luminescence faded with the next cessation of the bells, Holly stood in the grip of awe and fear, knowing she should run but unable to move.


Ringing.


. brighter Light. Muddy-orange this time. No red tint at all more than ever.


Holly broke the chains of fear and sprinted toward the windmill.


On all sides, the palpitant light enlivened the dreary dusk.


Shadows leapt rhythmically like Apaches dancing around a war fire.


Beyond the fence, dead cornstalks bristled as repulsively as the spiny legs and plated torsos of praying mantises. The windmill appeared to be in the process of changing magically from stone to copper or even to gold.


The ringing stopped and the light went out as she reached the open door of the mill.


She raced across the threshold, then skidded to a stop in the darkness, on the brink of the lower chamber. No light at all came through the windows now. The blackness was tarry, cloying. As she fumbled for the switch on the flashlight, she found it hard to draw breath, as if the darkness itself had begun flowing into her lungs, suffocating her.


The flashlight came on just as the bells began to ring again. She slashed the beam across the room and back, to be sure nothing was there in the gloom, reaching for her. Then she found the stairs to her left and rushed toward the high room.


When she reached the window at the halfway point, she put her face to the pane of glass that she had wiped clean with her hand earlier in the day.


In the pond below, the rippling bull's-eye of light was brighter still, now amber instead of orange.


Calling for Jim, Holly ran up the remaining stairs.


As she went, lines of Edgar Allan Poe's poetry, studied an age ago in junior high school and thought forgotten, rang crazily through her mind: Keeping time, time time, In a sort ofRunic rhyme, To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells From the bells bells bells, bells, Bells, bells. bells She burst into the high room, where Jim stood in the soft winter-white glow of the Coleman gas lantern. He was smiling, turning in a circle and looking expectantly at the walls around him.


As the bells died away, she said, "Jim, come look, come quick, something's in the lake.”


She dashed to the nearest window, but it was just far enough around the wall from the pond to prevent her seeing the water. The other two windows were even more out of line with the desired view, so she did not even try them.


"The ringing in the stone," Jim said dreamily.


Holly returned to the head of the stairs as the bells began to ring again.


She paused and looked back just long enough to be sure that Jim was following her, for he seemed in something of a daze.


Hurrying down the stairs, she heard more lines of Poe's poem reverberating in her mind: Hear the loud alarum bells Brazen bells! What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells She had never been the kind of woman to whom sprang lines of Verdee appropriate to the moment. She couldn't recall quoting a line of poetry or even reading any other than Louise Tarvohl's treacle!-since college.


When she reached the window, she scrubbed frantically at another pane with the palm of her hand, to give them a better view of the spectacle below. She saw that the light was blood-red again and dimmer, as if whatever had been rising through the water was now sinking again.


Oh, the bells, bells, bells! What a tale their terror tells It seemed crazy to be mentally reciting poetry in the midst of these wondrous and frightening events, but she had never been under such stress before.


Maybe this was the way the mind worked-giddily dredging up long-forgotten knowledge-when you were about to meet a higher power.


Because that's just what she felt was about to happen, an encounter with a higher power, perhaps God but most likely not. She didn't really think God lived in a pond, although any minister or priest would probably tell her that God lived everywhere, in all things. God was like the eight-hundred-pound gorilla who could live anywhere he wanted.


Just as Jim reached her, the ringing stopped, and the crimson light in the pond quickly faded. He squeezed in beside her and put his face to the glass.


They waited.


Two seconds ticked by. Two more.


"No," she said. "Damn it, I wanted you to see.”


But the ringing did not resume, and the pond remained dark out there in the steadily dimming twilight. Night would be upon them within a few minutes.


"What was it?" Jim asked, leaning back from the window.


"Like something in a Spielberg film," she said excitedly, "rising up out of the water, from deep under the pond, light throbbing in time with the bells. I think that's where the ringing originates, from the thing in the pond, and somehow it's transmitted through the walls of the mill.”


"Spielberg film?" He looked puzzled.


She tried to explain: "Wonderful and terrifying, awesome and strange, scary and damned exciting all at once.”


"You mean like in Close Encounters? Are you talking a starship or something?" "Yes. No. I'm not sure. I don't know. Maybe something weirder than that.”


"Weirder than a starship?" Her wonder, and even her fear, subsided in favor of frustration.


She was not accustomed to finding herself at a complete loss for words to describe things that she had felt or seen. But with this man and the incomparable experiences in which he became entangled, even her sophisticated vocabulary and talent for supple phrase-making failed her miserably.


"Shit, yes!" she said at last. "Weirder than a starship. At least weirder than the way they show them in the movies.”


"Come on," he said, ascending the stairs again, "let's get back up there." When she lingered at the window, he returned to her and took her hand. "It isn't over yet. I think it's just beginning. And the place for us to be is the upper room. I know it's the place. Come on, Holly.”


They sat on the inflatable-mattress sleeping bags again.


The lantern cast a pearly-silver glow, whitewashing the yellow-beige blocks of limestone. In the baglike wicks inside the glass chimney of the lamp, the gas burned with a faint hiss, so it seemed as if whispering voices were rising through the floorboards of that high room.


Jim was poised at the apex of his emotional roller coaster, full of childlike delight and anticipation, and this time Holly was right there with him.


The light in the pond had terrified her, but it had also touched her in other ways, sparking deep psychological responses on a primitive sub-subconscious level, igniting fuses of wonder and hope which were fizzing-burning unquenchably toward some much-desired explosion of faith, emotional catharsis.


She had accepted that Jim was not the only troubled person in the room.


His heart might contain more turmoil than hers, but she was as empty, in her own way, as he was in his. When they'd met in Portland, she had been a burnt-out cynic, going through the motions of a life, not even trying to identify and fill the empty spaces in her heart. She had not experienced the tragedy and grief that he had known, but now she realized that leading a life equally devoid of tragedy and joy could breed despair. Passing days and weeks and years in the pursuit of goals that had not really mattered to her, driven by a purpose she had not truly embraced, with no one to whom she was profoundly committed, she had been eaten by a dry-rot of the soul.


She and Jim were the two pieces of a yin-yang puzzle, each shaped to fill the hollowness in the other, healing each other merely by their contact.


They fit together astonishingly well, and the match seemed inevitable; but the puzzle might never have been solved if the halves of it had not been brought together in the same place at the same time.


Now she waited with nervous excitement for contact with the power that had led Jim to her. She was ready for God or for something quite different but equally benign. She could not believe that what she had seen in the pond was The Enemy. That creature was apart from this, connected somehow but different. Even if Jim had not told her that something fine and good was coming, she eventually would have sensed, on her own, that the light in the water and the ringing in the stone heralded not blood and death but rapture.


They spoke tersely at first, afraid that voluble conversation would inhibit that higher power from initiating the next stage of contact.


"How long has the pond been here?" she asked.


"A long time.”


"Before the Ironhearts?" "Yeah.”


"Before the farm itself?" "I'm sure it was.”


"Possibly forever?" "Possibly.”


"Any local legends about it?" "What do you mean?" "Ghost stories, Loch Ness, that kind of stuff" "No. Not that I've ever heard.”


They were silent. Waiting.


Finally Holly said, "What's your theory?" "Huh?" "Earlier today you said you had a theory, something strange and wonderful, but you didn't want to talk about it till you'd thought it through.”


"Oh, right. Now maybe it's more than a theory. When you said you'd seen something under the pond in your dream. . . well, I don't know why, but I started thinking about an encounter. . . .”


"Encounter?" "Yeah. Like what you said. Something. . . alien.”


"Not of this world," Holly said, remembering the sound of the bells and the light in the pond.


"They're out there in the universe somewhere," he said with quiet enthusiasm. "It's too big for them not to be out there. And someday they'll be coming. Someone will encounter them. So why not me, why not you?" "But it must've been there under the pond when you were ten.”

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