Cold Fire Page 9

"Do you want to tell me?" Jim thought about it awhile before replying. "Yes, but I can't.”

"I'm a priest. I respect all confidences. Even the police have no power over me.”

"Oh, I trust you, Father. And I'm not particularly worried about the police.”

"Then?" "If I tell you. . . the enemy will come," Jim said, and frowned as he heard himself speaking those words. The statement seemed to have come through him rather than from him.

"What enemy?" He stared out at the vast, lightless expanse of desert. "I don't know.”

"The enemy you spoke of in your sleep last night?" "Maybe.”

"You said it would kill us all.”

"And it will." He went on, perhaps even more interested in what he said than the priest was, for he had no idea what words he would speak until he heard them. "If it finds out about me, if it discovers that I'm saving lives, special lives, then it'll come to stop me.”

The priest glanced at him. "Special lives? Exactly what do you mean by that?" "I don't know.”

if you tell me about yourself, I'll never repeat to another soul a word of what you say. So whatever this enemy is-how could it find out about you just because you confide in me?" "I don't know.”

"You don't know.”

"That's right.”

The priest sighed in frustration.

"Father, I'm really not playing games or being purposefully obscure.”

He shifted in his seat and adjusted the safety harness, trying to get more comfortable; however, his discomfort was less physical than spiritual, and not easily remedied. "Have you heard the term automatic writing'?" Glowering at the road ahead, Geary said, "Psychics and mediums talk about it. Superstitious claptrap. A spirit supposedly seizes control of the medium's hand, while he's in a trance, and writes out messages from Beyond." He made a wordless sound of disgust. "The same people who scoff at the idea of speaking with God-or even at the mere idea of God's existence naively embrace any con-artist's claim to be a channeler for the spirits of the dead.”

"Well, nevertheless, what happens to me sometimes is that someone or something else seems to speak through me, an oral form of automatic writing. I know what I'm saying only because I listen to myself saying it.”

"You're not in a trance.”


"You claim to be a medium, a psychic?" "No. I'm sure I'm not.”

"You think the dead are speaking through you?" "No. Not that.”

"Then who?" "I don't know.”

"God?" "Maybe.”

"But you don't know," Geary said exasperatedly "I don't know.”

"You're not only the strangest man I've ever met, Jim. You're also the most frustrating.”

They arrived at McCarran International in Las Vegas at ten o'clock that night. Only a couple of taxis were on the approach road to the airport.

The rain had stopped. The palm trees stirred in a mild breeze, and everything looked as if it had been scrubbed and polished.

Jim opened the door of the Toyota even as Father Geary braked in front of the terminal. He got out, turned, and leaned back in for a last word with the priest.

"Thank you, Father. You probably saved my life.”

"Nothing that dramatic.”

"I'd like to give Our Lady of the Desert some of the three thousand I'm carrying, but I might need it all. I just don't know what's going to happen in Boston, what I might have to spend it for.”

The priest shook his head. "I don't expect anything.”

"When I get home again, I'll send some money. It'll be cash in an envelope, no return address, but it's honest money in spite of that.

You can accept it in good conscience.”

"It's not necessary, Jim. It was enough just to meet you. Maybe you should know. . . you brought a sense of the mystical back into the life of a weary priest who had sometimes begun to doubt his calling but who never doubt again.”

They regarded each other with a mutual affection that clearly surprised them both. Jim leaned into the car, Geary reached across the seat, and they shook hands. The priest had a firm, dry grip.

"Go with God," Geary said.

"I hope so.”


Sitting at her desk in the Press newsroom in the post-midnight hours of Friday morning, staring at her blank computer screen, Holly had sunk so low psychologically that she just wanted to go home, get into bed, and pull the covers over her head for a few days.

She despised people who were always feeling sorry for themselves. She tried to shame herself out of her funk, but she began to pity herself for having descended to self pity. Of course, it was impossible not to see the humor in that situation, but she was unable to manage a smile at her own expense; instead, she pitied herself for being such a silly and amusing figure.

She was glad that tomorrow morning's edition had been put to bed and that the newsroom was almost deserted, so none of her colleagues could see her in such a debased condition.The only other people in sight were Tommy Weeks-a lanky maintenance man who was emptying waste cans and sweeping up-and George Fintel.

George, who was on the city-government beat, was at his desk at the far end of the big room, slumped forward, head on his folded arms, asleep.

Occasionally he snored loud enough for the sound to carry all the way to Holly. When the bars closed, George sometimes returned to the newsroom instead of to his apartment, just as an old dray horse, when left on slack reins, will haul its cart back along a familiar route to the place it thinks of as home. He would wake sometime during the night, realize where he was, and wearily weave off to bed at last.

"Politicians," George often said, "are the lowest form of life, having undergone devolution from that first slimy beast that crawled out of the primordial sea." At fifty-seven, he was too burnt-out to start over, so he continued to spend his days writing about public officials whom he privately reviled, and in the process he had come to hate himself, as well, and to seek solace in a prodigious daily intake of vodka martinis.

If she'd had any tolerance for liquor, Holly would have worried about winding up like George Fintel. But one drink gave her a nice buzz, two made her tipsy, and three put her to sleep.

I hate my life, she thought.

"You self pitying wretch," she said aloud.

Well, I do. I hate it, everything's so hopeless.

"You nauseating despair junkie," she said softly but with genuine disgust.

"You talking to me?" Tommy Weeks said, piloting a push broom along the aisle in front of her desk.

"No, Tommy. Talking to myself" "You? Gee, what've you got to be unhappy about?" "My life.”

He stopped and leaned on his broom, crossing one long leg in front of the other. With his broad freckled face, jug ears, and mop of carroty hair, he looked sweet, innocent, kind. "Things haven't turned out like you planned?" Holly picked up a half empty bag of M & Ms, tossed a few pieces of candy into her mouth, and leaned back in her chair. "When I left the University of Missouri with a journalism degree, I was gonna shake up this world, break big stories, collect Pulitzers for doorstops-and now look at me. You know what I did this evening?" "Whatever it was, I can tell you didn't enjoy it.”

"I was down at the Hilton for the annual banquet of the Greater Port land Lumber Products Association, interviewing manufacturers of prefabricated pullmans, plyboard salesmen, and redwood-decking distributors.

They gave out the Timber Trophy-that's what they call it-for the lumber products man of the year." I got to interview him, too. Rushed back here to get it all written up in time for the morning edition. Hot stuff like that, you don't want to let the bastards at The New York Times scoop you on it" "I thought you were arts and leisure.”

"Got sick of it. Let me tell you, Tommy, the wrong poet can turn you the arts for maybe a decade.”

She tossed more chocolate morsels in her mouth. She usually didn't eat candy because she was determined not to wind up with a weight problem like the one that had always plagued her mother, and she was gobbling M & Ms now just to make herself feel more miserable and worthless. S was in a bad downward spiral.

She said, "TV and movies, they make journalism look so glamorous exciting. It's all lies.”

"Me," Tommy said, "I haven't had the life I planned on, either. Y think I figured to wind up head of maintenance for the Press, just a glorified janitor?" "I guess not," she said, feeling small and self centered for whining at him when his lot in life was not as desirable as her own.

"Hell, no. From the time I was a little kid, I knew I was gonna grow up to drive one of those big damn old sanitation trucks, up there in that high cab, pushin' the buttons to operate the hydraulic-ram compactor.”

His voice became wistful. "Ridin' above the world, all that powerful machinery at my command. It was my dream, and I went for it, but I couldn't pass the city physical. Have this kidney problem, see.

Nothin' serious but enough for the city's health insurers to disqualify me.”

He leaned on his broom, gazing off into the distance, smiling faintly, probably visualizing himself ensconced in the kingly driver's seat of a garbage truck.

Staring at him in disbelief, Holly decided that his broad face did not, after all, look sweet and innocent and kind. She had misread the meaning of its lines and planes. It was a stupid face.

She wanted to say, You idiot! I dreamed of winning Pulitzers, and now I'm a hack writing industry puff pieces about the damn Timber Trophy! That is tragedy. You think having to settle for being a janitor instead of a garbage collector is in any way comparable? But she didn't say anything because she realized that they were comparable. An unfulfilled dream, regardless of whether it was lofty or humble, was still a tragedy to the dreamer who had given up hope.

Pulitzers never won and sanitation trucks never driven were equally capable of inducing despair and insomnia. And that was the most depressing thought she'd had yet.

Tommy's eyes swam into focus again. "You gotta not dwell on it, Miss Thorne. Life. . . it's like getting' a blueberry muffin in a coffeeshop when what you ordered was the apricot-nut. There aren't any apricots or nuts in it, and you can get tied up in knots just thinkin' about what you're missin', when the smarter thing to do is realize that blueberries have a nice taste, too.”

Across the room, George Fintel farted in his sleep. It was a window rattler. If the Press had been a big newspaper, with reporters hanging around who'd just returned from Beirut or some war zone, they'd have all dived for cover.

My God, Holly thought, my life's nothing but a bad imitation of a Damon Runyon story. Sleazy newsrooms after midnight. Half baked philosopher janitors. Hard-drinking reporters who sleep at their desks.

But it was Runyon as revised by an absurdist writer in collaboration with a bleak existentialist.

"I feel better just having talked to you," Holly lied. "Thanks, Tommy.”

"Anytime, Miss Thorne.”

As Tommy set to work with his push broom again and moved on down the aisle, Holly tossed some more candy into her mouth and wondered if she would be able to pass the physical required of potential sanitation truck drivers. On the positive side, the work would be different from journalism as she knew it collecting garbage instead of dispensing it-or she would have the satisfaction of knowing that at least one person Portland would desperately envy her.

She looked at the wall clock. One-thirty in the morning. She wasn't sleepy. She didn't want to go home and lie awake, staring at the ceiling with nothing to do but indulge in more self examination and self pity Well, actually, that was what she wanted, because she was in a wallow in it mood, but she knew it wasn't a healthy thing to do.

Unfortunately, she was without alternatives: weekday, wee-hour nightlife in Portland was twenty-four-hour doughnut shop.

She was less than a day away from the start of her vacation, and She desperately needed it. She had made no plans. She was just going to hang out, never once look at a newspaper. Maybe see some movies.

maybe read a few books. Maybe go to the Betty Ford Center to take the self pity detox program.

She had reached that dangerous state in which she began to brood about her name. Holly Thorne. Cute. Real cute. What in God's name had possessed her parents to hang that one on her? Was it possible to imagine the Pulitzer committee giving that grand prize to a woman with a name more suitable to a cartoon character? Sometimes-always in the still heart of the night, of course-she was tempted to call her folks and demand to know whether this name thing had been just bad taste, a misfired joke, or conscious cruelty.

But her parents were salt-of the-earth working-class people who had denied themselves many pleasures in order to give her a first-rate education , and they wanted nothing but the best for her. They would be devastated to hear that she loathed her name, when they no doubt thought it was clever and even sophisticated. She loved them fiercely, and she had to be in the deepest trenches of depression before she had the gall to blame them for her shortcomings.

Half afraid that she would pick up the phone and call them, she quickly turned to her computer again and accessed the current-edition file. The Press's data-retrieval system made it possible for any reporter on staff to follow any story through editing, typesetting, and production.

Now the tomorrow's edition had been formatted, locked down, and sent to the printer she could actually call up an image of each page on her screen.

Only the headlines were big enough to read, but any portion of the image could be enlarged to fill the screen. Sometimes she could cheer herself a little by reading a big story before the newspaper hit the street; it sparked in her at cast a dim glimmer of the feeling of being an insider, which was one aspect of the job that attracted every dream-besotted young person to a vocation in journalism.

But as she scanned the headlines on the first few pages, looking for an interesting story to enlarge, her gloom deepened. A big fire in St.

Louis, nine people dead. Presentiments of war in the Mid-East. An oil spill off Japan. A huge storm and flood in India, tens of thousands homeless. The federal government was raising taxes again. She had always known that the news industry flourished on gloom, disaster, scandal, mindless violence, and strife. But suddenly it seemed to be a singularly ghoulish business, and Holly realized that she no longer wanted to be an insider, among the first to know this dreadful stuff Then, just as she was about to close the file and switch off the computer, a headline arrested her MYSTERIOUS STRANGER SAVES BOY. The events at McAlbery School were not quite twelve days in the past, and those four words had a special association for her. Curiosity triggered, she instructed the computer to enlarge the quadrant in which the story began.

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