Read Cold Fire Online

Authors: Dean Koontz

Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers

Cold Fire (33 page)

BOOK: Cold Fire
She figured that his moodiness could be attributed as much to New Svenborg as to his tragic family history.
To an extent, that was unfair. The streets were lined with big trees, the charming streetlamps appeared to have been imported from the Old Country, and most of the sidewalks were gracefully curved and time-hoved ribbons of well-worn brick. About twenty percent of the town came straight from the nostalgic Midwest of a Bradbury novel, but the rest of it still belonged in a David Lynch film.
“Let’s take a little tour of the old place,” he said.
“We should be getting to the farm.”
“It’s only two miles north of town, just a few minutes away.”
That was all the more reason to get there, as far as Holly was concerned. She was tired of being on the road.
But she sensed that for some reason he wanted to show her the town—and not merely to delay their arrival at Ironheart Farm. Holly acquiesced. In fact she listened with interest to what he had to tell her. She had learned that he found it difficult to talk about himself and that he sometimes made personal revelations in an indirect or even casual manner.
He drove past Handahl’s Pharmacy on the east end of Main Street, where locals went to get a prescription filled, unless they preferred to drive twenty miles to Solvang. Handahl’s was also one of only two restaurants in town, with (according to Jim) “the best soda fountain this side of 1955.” It was also the post office and only newsstand. With its multiply peaked roof, verdigris-copper cupola, and beveled-glass windows, it was an appealing enterprise.
Without shutting the engine off, Jim parked across the street from the library on Copenhagen Lane, which was quartered in one of the smaller Victorian houses with considerably less gingerbread than most. The building was freshly painted, with well-tended shrubbery, and both the United States and California flags fluttered softly on a tall brass pole along the front walkway. It looked like a small and sorry library nonetheless.
“A town this size, it’s amazing to find a library at all,” Jim said. “And thank God for it. I rode my bike to the library so often... if you added up all the miles, I probably pedaled halfway around the world. After my folks died, books were my friends, counselors, psychiatrists. Books kept me sane. Mrs. Glynn, the librarian, was a great lady, she knew just how to talk to a shy, mixed-up kid without talking down to him. She was my guide to the most exotic regions of the world and distant times—all without leaving her aisles of books.”
Holly had never heard him speak so lovingly or half so lyrically of anything before. The Svenborg library and Mrs. Glynn had clearly been lasting and favorable influences on his life.
“Why don’t we go in and say hello to her?” Holly suggested.
Jim frowned. “Oh, I’m sure she’s not the librarian any more, most likely not even alive. That was twenty-five years ago when I started coming here, eighteen years ago when I left town to go to college. Never saw her after that.”
“How old was she?”
He hesitated. “Quite old,” he said, and put an end to the talk of a nostalgic visit by slipping the Ford into gear and driving away from there.
They cruised by Tivoli Gardens, a small park at the corner of Main and Copenhagen, which fell laughably short of its namesake. No fountains, no musicians, no dancing, no games, no beer gardens. There were just some roses, a few beds of late-summer flowers, patchy grass, two park benches, and a well-maintained windmill in the far comer.
“Why aren’t the sails moving?” she asked. “There’s some wind.”
“None of the mills actually pumps water or grinds grain any more,” he explained. “And since they’re largely decorative, no sense in having to live with the noise they make. Brakes were put on the mechanisms long ago.” As they turned the corner at the end of the park, he added: “They made a movie here once.”
“Who did?”
“One of the studios.”
“Hollywood studio?”
“I forget which.”
“What was it called?”
“Don’t remember.”
“Who starred in it?”
“Nobody famous.”
Holly made a mental note about the movie, suspecting that it was more important to Jim and to the town than he had said. Something in the offhanded way he’d mentioned it, and his terse responses to her subsequent questions, alerted her to an unspoken subtext.
Last of all, at the southeast corner of Svenborg, he drove slowly past Zacca’s Garage, a large corrugated-steel Quonset hut perched on a cement-block foundation, in front of which stood two dusty cars. Though the building had been painted several times during its history, no brush had touched it in many years. Its numerous coats of paint were worn in a random patchwork and marked by liberal encrustations of rust, which created an unintended camouflage finish. The cracked blacktop in front of the place was pitted with potholes that had been filled with loose gravel, and the surrounding lot bristled with dry grass and weeds.
“I went to school with Ned Zacca,” Jim said. “His dad, Vernon, had the garage then. It was never a business to make a man rich, but it looked better than it does now.”
The big airplane hangar-style roll-aside doors were open, and the interior was clotted with shadows. The rear bumper of an old Chevy gleamed dully in the gloom. Although the garage was seedy, nothing about it suggested danger. Yet the queerest chill came over Holly as she peered through the hangar doors into the murky depths of the place.
“Ned was one mean sonofabitch, the school bully,” Jim said. “He could sure make a kid’s life hell when he wanted to. I lived in fear of him.”
“Too bad you didn’t know Tae Kwon Do then, you could’ve kicked his ass.”
He did not smile, just stared past her at the garage. His expression was odd and unsettling. “Yeah. Too bad.”
When she glanced at the building again, she saw a man in jeans and a T-shirt step out of the deepest darkness into gray half-light, moving slowly past the back of the Chevy, wiping his hands on a rag. He was just beyond the infall of sunshine, so she could not see what he looked like. In a few steps he rounded the car, fading into the gloom again, hardly more material than a specter glimpsed in a moonlit graveyard.
Somehow, she knew the ghostly presence in the Quonset was Ned Zacca. Curiously, though he had been a menacing figure to Jim, not to her, Holly felt her stomach twist and her palms turn damp.
Then Jim touched the accelerator, and they were past the garage, heading back into town.
“What did Zacca do to you exactly?”
“Anything he could think of. He was a regular little sadist. He’s been in prison a couple of times since those days. But I figured he was back.”
“Figured? How?”
He shrugged. “I just sensed it. Besides, he’s one of those guys who never gets caught at the big stuff. Devil’s luck. He might do a fall every great once in a while, but always for something small-time. He’s dumb but he’s clever.”
“Why’d you want to go there?”
“Most people, when they want a little nostalgia, they’re only interested in good memories.”
Jim did not reply to that. Even before they arrived in Svenborg, he had settled into himself like a turtle gradually withdrawing into its shell. Now he was almost back into that brooding, distant mood in which she had found him yesterday afternoon.
The brief tour had given her not a comfortable feeling of small-town security and friendliness, but a sense of being cut off at the back end of nowhere. She was still in California, the most populous state in the union, not much farther than sixty miles from the city of Santa Barbara. Svenborg had almost two thousand people of its own, which made it bigger than a lot of gas-and-graze stops along the interstate highways. The sense of isolation was more psychological than real, but it hovered over her.
Jim stopped at The Central, a prospering operation that included a service station selling generic gasoline, a small sporting-goods outlet peddling supplies to fishermen and campers, and a well-stocked convenience store with groceries, beer, and wine. Holly filled the Ford’s tank at the self-service pump, then joined Jim in the sporting-goods shop.
The store was cluttered with merchandise, which overflowed the shelves, hung from the ceiling, and was stacked on the linoleum floor. Wall-eyed fishing lures dangled on a rack near the door. The air smelled of rubber boots.
At the check-out counter, Jim already had piled up a pair of high-quality summerweight sleeping bags with air-mattress liners, a Coleman lantern with a can of fuel, a sizable Thermos ice chest, two big flashlights, packages of batteries for the flashes, and a few other items. At the cash register, farther along the counter from Jim, a bearded man in spectacles as thick as bottle glass was ringing up the sale, and Jim was waiting with an open wallet. “I thought we were going to the mill,” Holly said.
“We are,” Jim said. “But unless you want to sleep on a wooden floor without benefit of
conveniences, we need this stuff.”
“I didn’t realize we were staying overnight.”
“Neither did I. Until I walked in here and heard myself asking for these things.”
“Couldn’t we stay at a motel?”
“Nearest one’s clear over to Santa Ynez.”
“It’s a pretty drive,” she said, much preferring the commute to spending a night in the mill.
Her reluctance arose only in part from the fact that the old mill promised to be uncomfortable. The place was, after all, the locus of both their nightmares. Besides, since arriving in Svenborg, she had felt vaguely... threatened.
“But something’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t know what. Just... something. At the mill. I feel it. We’re going to ... get some answers. But it might take a little time. We’ve got to be ready to wait, be patient.”
Though Holly was the one who had suggested going to the mill, she suddenly didn’t
answers. In a dim premonition of her own, she perceived an undefined but oncoming tragedy, blood, death, and darkness.
Jim, on the other hand, seemed to shed the lead weight of his previous apprehension and take on a new buoyancy. “It’s good—what we’re doing, where we’re going. I sense that, Holly. You know what I mean? I’m being told we made the right move in coming here, that there’s something frightening ahead of us, yes, something that’s going to shock the hell out of us, maybe very real danger, but there’s also something that’s going to lift us up.” His eyes were shining and he was excited. She had never seen him like this, not even when they had been making love. In whatever obscure way it touched him, this higher power of his was in contact with him now. She could see his quiet rapture. “I feel a ... a strange sort of jubilation coming, a wonderful discovery, revelations ...”
The bespectacled clerk had stepped away from the cash register to show them the total on the tape. Grinning, he said, “Newlyweds?”
At the convenience store next door, they bought ice for the chest, then orange juice, diet soda, bread, mustard, bologna-olive loaf, and pre-packaged cheese slices.
“Olive loaf,” Holly said wonderingly. “I haven’t eaten this stuff since I was maybe fourteen and I learned I had arteries.”
“And how about these,” he said, snatching a box of chocolate-covered doughnuts off a shelf, adding it to the market basket that he was carrying. “Bologna sandwiches, chocolate doughnuts... and potato chips, of course. Wouldn’t be a picnic without chips. The crinkled kind, okay? Some cheese twists, too. Chips and cheese twists, they go together.”
Holly had never seen him like this: almost boyish, with no apparent weight on his shoulders. He might have been setting out on a camping trip with friends, a little adventure.
She wondered if her own apprehension was justified. Jim was, after all, the one whose presentiments had proven to be accurate. Maybe they were going to discover something wonderful at the mill, unravel the mystery behind the last-minute rescues he had performed, maybe even encounter this higher power to which he referred. Perhaps The Enemy, in spite of its ability to reach out of a dream into the real world, was not as formidable as it seemed.
At the cash register, after the clerk finished bagging their purchases and was making change, Jim said, “Wait a minute, one more thing,” and hurried to the rear of the store. When he returned, he was carrying two lined yellow tablets and one black, fine-point felt-tip pen. To Holly, he said, “We’ll be needing these tonight.”
When they had loaded the car and pulled out of the parking lot at The Central, heading for the Ironheart Farm, Holly indicated the pen and tablets, which she was holding in a separate bag. “What’ll we be needing these for?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea. I just suddenly knew we have to have them.”
“That’s just like God,” she said, “always being mysterious and obscure.”
After a silence, he said, “I’m not so sure any more that it’s God talking to me.”
“Oh? What changed your mind?”
“Well, the issues you raised last evening, for one thing. If God didn’t want little Nick O’Conner to die up there in Boston, why didn’t He just stop that vault from exploding? Why chase me clear across the country and ‘throw’ me at the boy, as you put it? And why would He up and change His mind about the people on the airliner, let more of them live, just because I decided they should? They were all questions I’d asked myself, but you weren’t willing to settle for the easy answers that satisfied me.” He looked away from the street for a moment as they reached the edge of town, smiled at her, and repeated one of the questions she had asked him yesterday when she had been needling him: “Is God a waffler?”
“I would’ve expected...”
“Well, you were so sure you could see a divine hand in this, it must be a bit of a letdown to consider less exalted possibilities. I’d expect you to be a little bummed out.”
He shook his head. “I’m not. You know, I always had trouble accepting that it was God working through me, it seemed like such a crazy idea, but I lived with it just because there wasn’t any better explanation. There still isn’t a better explanation, I guess, but another possibility has occurred to me, and it’s something so strange and wonderful in its way that I don’t mind losing God from the team.”
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