Cold Fire Page 3

Holly started after the man who had collided with her, angry and intending to tell him off But before she reached the intersection, a gray-an red pickup erupted over the brow of the hill, as if fired out of a giant slingshot. She halted at the curb.

The scream of the truck engine was a magic incantation that slowed the flow of time, stretching each second into what seemed to be a minute From the curb, she saw the stranger sweep the boy out of the path of the pickup, executing the rescue with such singular agility and grace that almost appeared to be performing a mad, slow-motion ballet in the street She saw the bumper of the truck strike his left foot, and watched in horror as his shoe was torn off and tossed high into the air, tumbling end over end. Peripherally, she was aware of the man and boy rolling toward the gutter, the truck swerving sharply to the right, the startled crossing guard dropping the paddlelike "stop" sign, the truck ricocheting off a car parked across the street, the man and boy coming to rest against the curb, truck tipping onto its side and sliding downhill in cascades of yellow and blue sparks-but all the while her attention was focused primarily on the shoe tumbling up, up, into the air, silhouetted against the blue sky, hanging at the apex of its flight for what seemed like an hour, then tumbling slowly, slowly down again.

She couldn't look away from it, was mesmerized by it, because she had the macabre feeling that the foot was still in the shoe, torn off at the ankle, bristling with splinters of bone, trailing shards of arteries and veins. Down it came, down, down, straight toward her, and she felt a scream swelling in the back of her throat.

Down. . . down. . .

The battered shoe-a Reebok-plopped into the gutter in front of her, she lowered her eyes to it the way she always looked into the face of the monster in a nightmare, not wanting to see but unable to turn away, dually repelled by and attracted to the unthinkable. The shoe was empty.

No severed foot. Not even any blood.

She swallowed the unreleased scream. She tasted vomit in the back of her throat, and swallowed that too.

As the pickup came to rest on its side more than half a block down the hill, Holly turned the other way and ran to the man and boy. She was the first to reach them as they started to sit up on the blacktop.

Except for a scraped palm and a small abrasion on his chin, the child appeared to be unhurt. He was not even crying.

She dropped to her knees in front of him. "Are you okay, honey?" Though dazed, the boy understood and nodded. "Yeah. My hand hurts little, that's all.”

The man in the white slacks and blue T-shirt was sitting up. He had pulled his sock halfway off his foot and was gingerly kneading his left ankle. Though the ankle was swollen and already inflamed, Holly was still surprised by the absence of blood.

The crossing guard, a couple of teachers, and other kids gathered around, and a babble of excited voices rose on all sides. The boy was helped up and drawn into a teacher's arms.

Wincing in pain as he continued to massage his ankle, the injured man raised his head and met Holly's gaze. His eyes were searingly blue and, for an instant, appeared as cold as if they were not human eyes at all but the visual receptors of a machine.

Then he smiled. In a blink, the initial impression of coldness was replaced by one of warmth. In fact Holly was overwhelmed by the clarity, morning-sky color, and beauty of his eyes; she felt as if she were peering through them into a gentle soul. She was a cynic who would equally distrust a nun and Mafia boss on first encounter, so her instant attraction to this man was jolting. Though words were her first love and her trade, she was at a loss for them.

"Close call," he said, and his smile elicited one from her.

Holly waited for Jim Ironheart in the school hallway, outside the boys' restroom. All of the children and teachers had at last gone home. The building was silent, except for the periodic muted hum of the maintenance man's electric buffer as he polished the vinyl tile up on the second floor. The air was laced with a faint perfume of chalk dust, craft paste, and pine-scented disinfectant wax.

Outside in the street, the police probably were still overseeing a couple of towing-company employees who were righting the overturned truck in order to haul it away. The driver had been drunk. At the moment he was in the hospital, where physicians were attending to his broken leg, lacerations, abrasions, and contusions.

Holly had gotten nearly everything she required to write the story: background on the boy-Billy Jenkins-who had nearly been killed, the feel of the event, the reactions of the eye-witnesses, a response from the police and slurred expressions of regret mixed with self pity from the inebriated driver of the truck. She lacked only one element, but it was the most important-information about Jim Ironheart, the hero of the whole affair Newspaper readers would want to know everything about him.

But at the moment all she could have told them was the guy's name and that he was from southern California.

His brown suitcase stood against the wall beside her, and she kept eying it. She had the urge to pop the latches and explore the contents of the bag, though at first she didn't know why. Then she realized it was unusual for a man to be carrying luggage through a residential neighborhood; reporter was trained-if not genetically compelled-to be curious about anything out of the ordinary.

When Ironheart came out of the restroom, Holly was still staring at the suitcase. She twitched guiltily, as if caught pawing through the contents of the bag.

"How're you feeling?" she asked.

"Fine." He was limping. "But I told you-I'd rather not be interviewed.”

He had combed his thick brown hair and blotted the worst of the dirt off his white cotton pants. He was wearing both shoes again, although the left was torn in one spot and battered.

She said, "I won't take much of your time.”

"Definitely," he agreed, smiling.

"Oh, come on, be a good guy.”

"Sorry, but I'd make dull copy anyway.”

"You just saved a child's life!" "Other than that, I'm boring.”

Something about him belied his claim to dullness, although at first Holly could not pinpoint the reason for his strong appeal. He was about thirty-five, an inch or two under six feet, lean but well-muscled.

Though he was attractive enough, he didn't have the looks that made her think of movie stars. His eyes were beautiful, yes, but she was never drawn to a man merely because of his looks and certainly not because of one exceptional feature.

He picked up his suitcase and began to limp along the corridor.

"You should see a doctor," she said, falling in at his side.

"At worst, it's sprained.”

"It still should be treated.”

"Well, I'll buy an Ace bandage at the airport, or when I get back home.”

Maybe his manner was what she found so appealing. He spoke softly, smiled easily, rather like a Southern gentleman, though he had no accent.

He also moved with unusual grace even when he was limping. She remembered how she had been reminded of ballet when, with the fluidity of a dancer, he had swept the little boy out of the path of the hurtling truck.

Exceptional physical grace and an unforced gentility were appealing in a man. But neither of those qualities was what fascinated her. Something else. Something more elusive.

As they reached the front door, she said, "If you're really intent on going home again, I can give you a ride to the airport.”

"Thank you. That's very kind, but I don't need a ride.”

She followed him onto the porch. "It's a damned long walk.”

He stopped, and frowned. "Oh. Yeah. Well. . . there's got to be a phone I'll call a cab.”

"Come on, you don't have to be afraid of me. I'm not a serial killer. I don't keep a chainsaw in my car.”

He stared at her a beat, then grinned disarmingly. "Actually, you look more like the type who favors bludgeoning with a blunt instrument.”

"I'm a reporter. We use switchblades. But I haven't killed anyone this week.”

"Last week?" "Two. But they were both door-to-door salesmen.”

"It's still homicide.”

"Justifiable, though.”

"Okay, I accept your offer.”

Her blue Toyota was at the far curb, two back from the parked car in which the drunk driver had slammed. Downhill, the tow truck was just hauling away the totaled pickup, and the last of the policemen was getting into a patrol car. A few overlooked splinters of tempered glass from the truck's broken windows still glimmered on the blacktop in the late-afternoon sunshine.

They rode for a block or so in silence.

Then Holly said, "You have friends in Portland?" "Yeah. From college.”

"That's who you were staying with?" "Yeah.”

"They couldn't take you to the airport?" "They could've if it was a morning flight, but this afternoon they were both at work.”

"Ah," she said. She commented on clusters of brilliant yellow roses that hung from vines entwining a split-rail fence at a house they passed, an asked if he knew that Portland called itself the City of Roses, which he did After another silence, she returned to the real conversation: "Their phone wasn't working, huh?" "Excuse me?" "Your friends." She shrugged. "I just wondered why you didn't call a cab from their place.”

"I intended to walk.”

"To the airport?" "My ankle was fine then.”

"It's still a long walk.”

"Oh, but I'm a fitness nut.”

"Very long walk-especially with a suitcase.”

"It's not that heavy. When I'm exercising, I usually walk with handweights to get an upper-body workout.”

"I'm a walker myself," she said, braking for a red light. "I used to run every morning, but my knees started hurting.”

"Mine too, so I switched to walking. Gives your heart the same workout if you keep up your pace.”

For a couple of miles, while she drove as slowly as she dared in order to extend the time she had with him, they chatted about physical fitness and fat-free foods. Eventually he said something that allowed her to ask, with ,complete naturalness, the names of his friends there in Portland.

"No," he said.

"No what?" "No, I'm not giving you their names. They're private people, nice people, I don't want them being pestered.”

"I've never been called a pest before," she said.

"No offense, Miss Thorne, but I just wouldn't want them to have to be in the paper and everything, have their lives disrupted.”

"Lots of people like seeing their names in the newspaper.”

"Lots don't.”

"They might enjoy talking about their friend, the big hero.”

"Sorry," he said affably, and smiled.

She was beginning to understand why she found him so appealing: his unshakable poise was irresistible. Having worked for two years in Los Angeles, Holly had known a lot of men who styled themselves as laid-back Californians; each portrayed himself as the epitome of self possession, Mr.

Mellow-rely on me baby, and the world can never touch either of us; we are beyond the reach of fate but none actually possessed the cool nerves and unflappable temperament to which he pretended. A Bruce Willis wardrobe, perfect tan, and studied insouciance did not a Bruce Willis make. Self confidence could be gained through experience, but real aplomb was something you were either born with or learned to imitate-and the imitation was never convincing to the observant eye.

However, Jim Ironheart had been born with enough aplomb, if rationed equally to all the men in Rhode Island, to produce an entire state of cool, unflappable types.

He faced hurtling trucks and a reporter's questions with the same degree of equanimity. Just being in his company was oddly relaxing and reassuring.

She said, "That's an interesting name you have.”

"Jim?" He was having fun with her.

"Ironheart," she said. "Sounds like an American Indian name.”

"Wouldn't mind having a little Chippewa or Apache blood, make me lists dull, a little bit exotic, mysterious. But it's just the Anglicized version of the family's original German name-Eisenherz.”

By the time they were on the East Portland Freeway, rapidly approaching the Killingsworth Street exit, Holly was dismayed at the prospect of dropping him at the airline terminal. As a reporter, she still had a lot of unanswered questions. More important, as a woman, she was more intrigued by him than she had been by any man in ages. She briefly considered taking a far more circuitous route to the airport; his lack of familiarity with the city might disguise her deception. Then she realized that the freeway signs were already announcing the upcoming exit to Portland International; even if he had not been reading them, he could not have failed to notice the steady air traffic in the deep-blue eastern sky ahead them.

She said, "What do you do down there in California?" "Enjoy life.”

"I meant-what do you do for a living?" "What's your guess?" he asked.

"Well. . . one thing for sure: you're not a librarian.”

"Why do you say that?" "You have a sense of mystery about you.”

"Can't a librarian be mysterious?" "I've never known one who was." Reluctantly she turned onto the airport exit ramp. "Maybe you're a cop of some kind.”

"What gives you that idea?" "Really good cops are unflappable, cool.”

"Gee, I think of myself as a warm sort of guy, open and easy. You think I'm cool?" traffic was moderately heavy on the airport approach road. She let it slow her even further.

"I mean," she said, "that you're very self possessed.”

"How long have you been a reporter?" "Twelve years.”

"All of it in Portland?" "No. I've been here a year.”

"Where'd you work before?" "Chicago. . . Los Angeles. . . Seattle.”

"You like journalism?" Realizing that she had lost control of the conversation, Holly said, "This isn't a game of twenty questions, you know.”

"Oh," he said, clearly amused, "that's exactly what I thought it was She was frustrated by the impenetrable wall he had erected about himself, irritated by his stubbornness. She was not used to having her will thwarted. But he had no meanness in him, as far as she could see, and no great talent for deception; he was just determined to preserve his privacy As a reporter who had ever-increasing doubts about a journalist's right intrude in the lives of others, Holly sympathized with his reticence. When she glanced at him, she could only laugh softly. "You're good.”

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