Cold Fire Page 41


He closed his eyes and leaned back, as if it was exhausting to consider what she was telling him. But his inner tension remained at a peak, revealed by his hands, which were fisted in his lap.


"Where are we going, Holly?" "For a little ride." As they passed through the golden fields and hills, she kept up a gentle attack: "That's why the manifestation of The Enemy is like a combination of every movie monster that ever frightened a ten-year-old boy. The thing I caught a glimpse of in my motel-room doorway wasn't a real creature, I see that now. It didn't have a biological structure that made sense, it wasn't even alien. It was too familiar, a ten-year-old boy's hodgepodge of boogeymen.”


He did not respond.


She glanced at him. "Jim?" His eyes were still closed.


Her heart began to pound. "Jim!" At the note of alarm in her voice, he sat up straighter and opened his eyes. "What?" "For God's sake, don't close your eyes that long. You might've been asleep, and I wouldn't have realized it until" "You think I can sleep with this on my mind?" "I don't know. I don't want to take the chance. Keep your eyes open, okay? You obviously suppress The Enemy when you're awake, it only comes through all the way when you're asleep.”


In the windshield glass, like a computer readout in a fighter-plane cockpit, words began to appear from left to right, in letters about one inch high: DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD.


Scared but unwilling to show it, she said, "To hell with that," and switched on the windshield wipers, as if the threat was dirt that could be scrubbed away. But the words remained, and Jim stared at them with evident dread.


As they passed a small ranch, the scent of new-mown hay entered with the wind through the windows.


"Where are we going?" he asked again.


"Exploring.”


"Exploring what?" "The past.”


Distressed, he said, "I haven't bought this scenario yet. I can't.


How the hell can I? And how can we ever prove it's true or isn't?" "We go to town," she said. "We take that tour again, the one you took me on yesterday. Svenborg-port of mystery and romance. What a dump.


But it's got something. You wanted me to see those places, your subconscious was telling me answers can be found in Svenborg. So let's go find them together.”


New words appeared under the first six: DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD.


Holly knew that time was running out. The Enemy wanted through, wanted to gut her, dismember her, leave her in a steaming heap of her own entrails before she had a chance to convince Jim of her theory-and it did not want to wait until Jim was asleep. She was not certain that he could repress that dark aspect of himself as she pushed him closer to a confrontation with the truth. His self control might crack, and his benign personalities might sink under the rising dark force.


"Holly, if I had this bizarre multiple personality, wouldn't I be cured as soon as you explained it to me, wouldn't the scales immediately fall off my eyes?" "No. You have to believe it before you can hope to deal with it.


Believing that you suffer an abnormal mental condition is the first step toward an understanding of it, and understanding is only the first painful step toward a cure.”


"Don't talk at me like a psychiatrist, you're no psychiatrist.”


He was taking refuge in anger, in that arctic glare, trying to intimidate her as he had tried on previous occasions when he'd not wanted her to get any closer. Hadn't worked then, wouldn't work now.


Sometimes men could be so dense.


She said, "I interviewed a psychiatrist once.”


"Oh, terrific, that makes you a qualified therapist.”


"Maybe it does. The psychiatrist I interviewed was crazy as a loon himself, so what does a university degree matter?" He took a deep breath and let it out with a shudder. "Okay, suppose you're right and somehow we do turn up undeniable proof that I'm crazy as a loon" "You aren't crazy, you're-" "Yeah, yeah, I'm disturbed, troubled, in a psychological box. Call it whatever you want.


If we find proof somehow-and I can't imagine how then what happens to me? Maybe I just smile and say, Oh, yes, of course, I made it all up, I was living in a delusion, I'm ever so much better now, let's have lunch." But I don't think so. I think what happens is. . .


I blow apart, into a million pieces.”


"I can't promise you that the truth, if we find it, will be any sort of salvation, because so far I think you've found your salvation in fantasy not in truth. But we can't go on like this because The Enemy resents me, and sooner or later it'll kill me. You warned me yourself.”


He looked at the words on the windshield, and said nothing. He was running out of arguments, if not resistance.


The words quickly faded, then vanished.


Maybe that was a good sign, an indication of his subconscious accommodation to her theory. Or maybe The Enemy had decided that she could not be intimidated with threats-and was struggling to burst through and savage her.


She said, "When it's killed me, you'll realize it is part of you.


And if you love me, like you told me you did through The Friend last night, then what's that going to do to you? Isn't that going to destroy the Jim I love? Isn't that going to leave you with just one personality-the dark one, The Enemy? I think it's a damned good bet. So we're talking your survival here as well as mine. If you want to have a future, then let's dig to the bottom of this.”


"Maybe we dig and dig-but there is no bottom. Then what?" "Then we dig a little deeper.”


As they were entering town, making the abrupt transition from deadbrown land to tightly grouped pioneer settlement, Holly suddenly said aloud: "Robert Vaughn.”


Jim twitched with surprise, not because she had said something mystifying but because that name made an immediate connection for him.


"My God," he said, "that was the voice.”


"The voice of The Friend," she said, glancing at him. "So you realized it was familiar, too.”


Robert Vaughn, the wonderful actor, had been the hero of television's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and exquisitely oily villain of countless films.


He possessed one of those voices with such a rich timbre and range that it could be as threatening, or as fatherly and reassuring, as he chose to make it.


"Robert Vaughn," Holly said. "But why? Why not Orson Welles or Paul Newman or Sean Connery or Fred Flintstone? It's too quirky a choice not to be meaningful.”


"I don't know," Jim said thoughtfully, but he had the unnerving feeling he should know. The explanation was within his grasp.


Holly said, "Do you still think it's an alien? Wouldn't an alien just manufacture a nondescript voice? Why would it imitate any one particular actor?" "I saw Robert Vaughn once," Jim said, surprised by a dim memory stirring within him. "I mean, not on TV or in the movies, but for real, up close. A long time ago.”


"Where, when?" "I can't. . . it won't. . . won't come to me.”


Jim felt as if he were standing on a narrow spine of land between two precipices, with safety to neither side. On the one hand was the life he had been living, filled with torment and despair that he had tried to deny but that had overwhelmed him at times, as when he had taken his spiritual journey on the Harley into the Mojave Desert, looking for a way out even if the way was death. On the other hand lay an uncertain future that Holly was trying to paint in for him, a future that she insisted was one of hope but which looked to him like chaos and madness.


And the narrow spine on which he stood was crumbling by the minute.


He remembered an exchange they'd had as they lay side by side in his bed two nights ago, before they had made love for the first time.


He'd said, People are always more. . . complex than you figure.


Is that just an observation. . . or a warning? Warning? Maybe you 're warning me that you 're not what you seem to be.


After a long pause, he had said, Maybe.


And after her own long pause, she had said, I guess I don 't care.


He was sure, now, that he had been warning her. A small voice within told him that she was right in her analysis, that the entities at the mill had only been different aspects of him. But if he was a victim of multiple personality syndrome, he did not believe that his condition could be casually described as a mere mental disturbance or a troubled state of mind, as she had tried to portray it. Madness was the only word that did it justice.


They entered Main Street. The town looked strangely dark and threatening-perhaps because it held the truth that would force him to step off his narrow mental perch into one world of chaos or another.


He remembered reading somewhere that only mad people were dead certain of their sanity. He was dead-certain of nothing, but he took no comfort from that. Madness was, he suspected, the very essence of uncertainty , a frantic but fruitless search for answers, for solid ground.


Sanity was that place of certainty above the whirling chaos.


Holly pulled to the curb in front of Handahl's Pharmacy at the east end of Main Street. "Let's start here.”


first "Why?" "Because it's the first stop we made when you were pointing out places that had meant something to you as a kid.”


He stepped out of the Ford under the canopy of a Wilson magnolia, one of several interspersed with other trees along both sides of the street.


That landscaping softened the hard edges but contributed to the unnatural look and discordant feeling of the town.


When Holly pushed open the front door of the Danish-style building, its two glass panes glimmered like jewels along their beveled edges, and a bell had tinkled overhead. They went inside together.


but Jim's heart was hammering. Not because the pharmacy seemed likely to actually be a place where anything significant had happened to him in his children hood, but because he sensed it was the first step on a path to the truth.


The cafe and soda fountain were to the left, and through the archway Jim saw a few people at breakfast. Immediately inside the door was the small newsstand, where morning papers were stacked high, mostly the Santa Barbara daily; there were also magazines, and to one side a revolving wire rack filled with paperback books.


"I used to buy paperbacks here," he said. "I loved books even back then couldn't get enough of them.”


The pharmacy was through another archway to the right. It resembled any modern American pharmacy in that it stocked more cosmetics, beauty aids, and hair-care products than patent medicines.


Otherwise, it was pleasantly quaint: wood shelves instead of metal or fiberboard; polished granite counters; an appealing aroma composed of Bayberry candles, nickle candy, cigar-tobacco efiluvium filtering from the humidified case in behind the cash register, faint traces of ethyl alcohol, and sundry pharmaceuticals.


Though the hour was early, the pharmacist was on duty, serving as his own checkout clerk. It was Corbett Handahl himself, a heavy wide-shouldered, man with a white mustache and white hair, wearing a crisp blue starched. shirt under his starched white lab jacket.


He looked up and said, "Jim Ironheart, bless my soul. How long's it been-at least three, four years?" They shook hands.


dead- "Four years and four months," Jim said. He almost added, since grandpa died, but checked himself without quite knowing why.


Spritzing the granite prescription-service counter with Windex, Corbett Handahl wiped it with paper towels. He smiled at Holly.


"And whoever you are, I am eternally grateful to you for bringing beauty into this gray morning.”


Corbett was the perfect smalltown pharmacist: just jovial enough to seem like ordinary folks in spite of being placed in the town's upper social class by virtue of his occupation, enough of a tease to be something of a local character, but with an unmistakable air of competence and probity that made you feel the medicines he compounded would always be safe.


Townfolk stopped in just to say hello, not only when they needed something, and his genuine interest in people served his commerce. He had been working at the pharmacy for thirty-three years and had been the owner since his father's death twenty-seven years ago.


Handahl was the least threatening of men, yet Jim suddenly felt threatened by him. He wanted to get out of the pharmacy before. . .


Before what? Before Handahl said the wrong thing, revealed too much.


But what could he reveal? "I'm Jim's fiancee," Holly said, somewhat to Jim's surprise.


"Congratulations, Jim," Handahl said. "You're a lucky man. Young lady, I just hope you know, the family changed its name from Ironhead, which was more descriptive. Stubborn group." He winked and laughed.


Holly said, "Jim's taking me around town, showing me favorite places Sentimental journey, I suppose you'd call it.”


Frowning at Jim, Handahl said, "Didn't think you ever liked this town well enough to feel sentimental about it.”


Jim shrugged. "Attitudes change.”


"Glad to hear it." Handahl turned to Holly again. "He started coming in here soon after he moved in with his grandfolks, every Tuesday and Friday when new books and magazines arrived from the distributor in Santa Barbara." He had put aside the Windex. He was arranging counter displays of chewing gum, breath mints, disposable lighters, and pocket combs. "Jim was a real reader then. You still a real reader?" "Still am," Jim said with growing uneasiness, terrified of what Handahl might say next. Yet for the life of him, he did not know what the man could say that would matter so much.


"Your tastes were kinda narrow, I remember." To Holly: "Used to spend his allowance buying most every science fiction or spook-'em paperback that came in the door. Course, in those days, a two-dollar-a-week allowance went pretty far, if you remember that a book was about forty-five or fifty cents.”


Claustrophobia settled over Jim, thick as a heavy shroud. The pharmacy began to seem frighteningly small, crowded with merchandise, and he wanted to get out of there.


It's coming, he thought, with a sudden quickening of anxiety. It's coming.


Handahl said, "I suppose maybe he got his interest in weird fiction from his mom and dad.”


Frowning, Holly said, "How's that?" "I didn't know Jamie, Jim's dad, all that well, but I was only one year behind him at county high school. No offense, Jim, but your dad had some exotic interests-though the way the world's changed, they probably wouldn't seem as exotic now as back in the early fifties.”


"Exotic interests?" Holly prodded.

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