Cold FireDean Koontz
To Nick and Vicky Page,
who know how to be
good neighbors and friends
—if they would only try.
Dick and Pat Karlan,
who are among the few
who own their souls
—and always will.
My life is better for
having known you all.
Weirder, but better!
THE HERO, THE FRIEND
In the real world as in dreams, nothing is quite what it seems.
—THE BOOK OF COUNTED SORROWS
Life without meaning
cannot be borne.
We find a mission
to which we’re sworn
—or answer the call
of Death’s dark horn.
Without a gleaning
of purpose in life,
we have no vision,
we live in strife,
—or let blood fall
on a suicide knife.
—THE BOOK OF COUNTED SORROWS
Even before the events in the supermarket, Jim Ironheart should have known trouble was coming. During the night he dreamed of being pursued across a field by a flock of large blackbirds that shrieked around him in a turbulent flapping of wings and tore at him with hooked beaks as precision-honed as surgical scalpels. When he woke and was unable to breathe, he shuffled onto the balcony in his pajama bottoms to get some fresh air. But at nine-thirty in the morning, the temperature, already ninety degrees, only contributed to the sense of suffocation with which he had awakened.
A long shower and a shave refreshed him.
The refrigerator contained only part of a moldering Sara Lee cake. It resembled a laboratory culture of some new, exquisitely virulent strain of botulinus. He could either starve or go out into the furnace heat.
The August day was so torrid that birds, beyond the boundaries of bad dreams, preferred the bowers of the trees to the sun-scorched open spaces of the southern California sky; they sat silently in their leafy shelters, chirruping rarely and without enthusiasm. Dogs padded cat-quick along sidewalks as hot as griddles. No man, woman or child paused to see if an egg would fry on the concrete, taking it as a matter of faith.
After eating a light breakfast at an umbrella-shaded table on the patio of a seaside cafe in Laguna Beach, he was enervated again and sheathed in a dew of perspiration. It was one of those rare occasions when the Pacific could not produce even a dependable mild breeze.
From there he went to the supermarket, which at first seemed to be a sanctuary. He was wearing only white cotton slacks and a blue T-shirt, so the air-conditioning and the chill currents rising off the refrigerated display cases were refreshing.
He was in the cookie department, comparing the ingredients in fudge macaroons to those in pineapple-coconut-almond bars, trying to decide which was the lesser dietary sin, when the fit hit him. On the scale of such things, it was not much of a fit—no convulsions, no violent muscle contractions, no sudden rivers of sweat, no speaking in strange tongues. He just abruptly turned to a woman shopper next to him and said, “Life line.”
She was about thirty, wearing shorts and a halter top, good-looking enough to have experienced a wearying array of come-ons from men, so perhaps she thought he was making a pass at her. She gave him a guarded look. “Excuse me?”
Flow with it, he told himself. Don’t be afraid.
He began to shudder, not because of the air-conditioning but because a series of inner chills swam through him, like a wriggling school of eels. All the strength went out of his hands, and he dropped the packages of cookies.
Embarrassed but unable to control himself, he repeated: “Life line.”
“I don’t understand,” the woman said.
Although this had happened to him nine times before, he said, “Neither do I.”
She clutched a box of vanilla wafers as though she might throw it in his face and run if she decided he was a walking headline (BERSERK MAN SHOOTS SIX IN SUPERMARKET). Nevertheless, she was enough of a good Samaritan to hang in for another exchange: “Are you all right?”
No doubt, he was pale. He felt as if all the blood had drained out of his face. He tried to put on a reassuring smile, knew it was a ghastly grimace, and said, “Gotta go.”
Turning away from his shopping cart, Jim walked out of the market, into the searing August heat. The forty-degree temperature change momentarily locked the breath in his lungs. The blacktop in the parking lot was tacky in places. Sun silvered the windshields of the cars and seemed to shatter into dazzling splinters against chrome bumpers and grilles.
He went to his Ford. It had air-conditioning, but even after he had driven across the lot and turned onto Crown Valley Parkway, the draft from the dashboard vents was refreshing only by comparison with the baking-oven atmosphere in the car. He put down his window.
Initially he did not know where he was going. Then he had a vague feeling that he should return home. Rapidly the feeling became a strong hunch, the hunch became a conviction, and the conviction became a compulsion. He absolutely had to get home.
He drove too fast, weaving in and out of traffic, taking chances, which was uncharacteristic of him. If a cop had stopped him, he would not have been able to explain his desperate urgency, for he did not understand it himself.
It was as if his every move was orchestrated by someone unseen, controlling him much the way that he controlled the car.
Again he told himself to flow with it, which was easy since he had no choice. He also told himself not to be afraid, but fear was his unshakable companion.
When he pulled into his driveway in Laguna Niguel, the spiky black shadows of palm fronds looked like cracks in the blazing-white stucco walls of his small house, as if the structure had dried out and split open in the heat. The red-tile roof appeared to ripple like overlapping waves of flame.
In his bedroom, sunlight acquired a coppery hue as it poured through the tinted windows. It laid a penny-colored glow in stripes across the bed and off-white carpet, alternating with bands of shade from the half-open plantation shutters.
Jim switched on a bedside lamp.
He didn’t know he was going to pack for travel until he found himself taking a suitcase from his closet. He gathered up his shaving gear and toiletries first. He didn’t know his destination or how long he would be gone, but he included two changes of clothes. These jobs—adventures, missions, whatever in God’s name they were—usually didn’t require him to be away more than two or three days.
He hesitated, worried that he had not packed enough. But these trips were dangerous; each could be his last, in which case it didn’t matter whether he packed too much or too little.
He closed the suitcase and stared at it, not sure what to do next. Then he said, “Gotta fly,” and he knew.
The drive to John Wayne Airport, on the southeastern edge of Santa Ana, took less than half an hour. Along the way he saw subtle reminders that southern California had been a desert before the importation of water through aqueducts. A billboard urged water conservation. Gardeners were installing low-maintenance cactus and ice plant in front of a new Southwestern-style apartment building. Between the greenbelts and the neighborhoods of lushly landscaped properties, the vegetation on undeveloped fields and hills was parched and brown, waiting for the kiss of a match in the trembling hand of one of the pyromaniacs contributing to the annual, devastating wildfire season.
In the main terminal at the airport, travelers streamed to and from the boarding gates. The multi-racial crowd belied the lingering myth that Orange County was culturally bland and populated solely by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. On his way to the
bank of TV monitors that displayed a list of arriving and departing PSA flights, Jim heard four languages besides English.
He read the destinations from top to bottom on the monitor. The next to last city—Portland, Oregon—struck a spark of inspiration in him, and he went straight to the ticket counter.
The clerk who served him was a clean-cut young man, as straight-arrow as a Disneyland employee—at first glance.
“The flight to Portland leaving in twenty minutes,” Jim said. “Is it full up?”
The clerk checked the computer. “You’re in luck, sir. We have three open seats.”
While the clerk processed the credit card and issued the ticket, Jim noticed the guy had pierced ears. He wasn’t wearing earrings on the job, but the holes in his lobes were visible enough to indicate that he wore them regularly when he was off duty and that he preferred heavy jewelry. When he returned Jim’s credit card, his shirtsleeve pulled up far enough on his right wrist to reveal the snarling muzzle of what appeared to be a lavishly detailed, colorful dragon tattoo that extended up his entire arm. The knuckles of that hand were crusted with scabs, as if they had been skinned in a fight.
All the way to the boarding gate, Jim wondered what subculture the clerk swam in after he shed his uniform at the end of the work day and put on street clothes. He had a hunch the guy was nothing as mundane as a biker punk.
The plane took off to the south, with the merciless glare of the sun at the windows on Jim’s side. Then it swung to the west and turned north over the ocean, and he could see the sun only as a reflection in the sea below, where its blazing image seemed to transform the water into a vast churning mass of magma erupting from beneath the planet’s crust.
Jim realized he was clenching his teeth. He looked down at the armrests of his seat, where his hands were tightly hooked like the talons of an eagle to the rock of a precarious roost.
He tried to relax.
He was not afraid of flying. What he feared was Portland ... and whatever form of death might be waiting there for him.
Holly Thorne was at a private elementary school on the west side of Portland to interview a teacher, Louise Tarvohl, who had sold a book of poetry to a major New York publisher, not an easy feat in an age when most people’s knowledge of poetry was limited to the lyrics of pop songs and occasional rhyming television ads for dog food, underarm deodorant, or steel-belted radial tires. Only a few summer classes were under way. Another instructor assumed responsibility for Louise’s kids, so she and Holly could talk.
They sat at a redwood picnic table on the playground, after Holly checked the bench to be sure there was no dirt on it that might stain her white cotton dress. A jungle gym was to their left, a swing set to their right. The day was pleasantly warm, and a breeze stirred an agreeable fragrance from some nearby Douglas firs.
“Smell the air!” Louise took a deep button-popping breath. “You can sure tell we’re on the edge of five thousand acres of parkland, huh? So little stain of humanity in the air.”
Holly had been given an advance copy of the book, Soughing Cypress and Other Poems, when Tom Corvey, the editor of the Press’s entertainment section, assigned her to the story. She had wanted to like it. She enjoyed seeing people succeed—perhaps because she had not achieved much in her own career as a journalist and needed to be reminded now and then that success was attainable. Unfortunately the poems were jejune, dismally sentimental celebrations of the natural world that read like something written by a Robert Frost manqué, then filtered through the sensibilities of a Hallmark editor in charge of developing saccharine cards for grandma’s birthday.
Nevertheless Holly intended to write an uncritical piece. Over the years she had known far too many reporters who, because of envy or bitterness or a misguided sense of moral superiority, got a kick out of slanting and coloring a story to make their subjects look foolish. Except when dealing with exceptionally vile criminals and politicians, she had never been able to work up enough hatred to write that way—which was one reason her career spiral had spun her down through three major newspapers in three large cities to her current position in the more humble offices of the Portland Press. Biased journalism was often more colorful than balanced reporting, sold more papers, and was more widely commented upon and admired. But though she rapidly came to dislike Louise Tarvohl even more than the woman’s bad poetry, she could work up no enthusiasm for a hatchet job.
“Only in the wilderness am I alive, far from the sights and sounds of civilization, where I can hear the voices of nature in the trees, in the brush, in the lonely ponds, in the dirt.”
Voices in the dirt? Holly thought, and almost laughed.
She liked the way Louise looked: hardy, robust, vital, alive. The woman was thirty-five, Holly’s senior by two years, although she appeared ten years older. The crow’s-feet around her eyes and mouth, her deep laugh lines, and her leathery sun-browned skin pegged her as an outdoors woman. Her sun-bleached hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore jeans and a checkered blue shirt.
“There is a purity in forest mud,” Louise insisted, “that can’t be matched in the most thoroughly scrubbed and sterilized hospital surgery.” She tilted her face back for a moment to bask in the warm sunfall. “The purity of the natural world cleanses your soul. From that renewed purity of soul comes the sublime vapor of great poetry.”
“Sublime vapor?” Holly said, as if she wanted to be sure that her tape recorder would correctly register every golden phrase.
“Sublime vapor,” Louise repeated, and smiled.
The inner Louise was the Louise that offended Holly. She had cultivated an otherworldly quality, like a spectral projection, more surface than substance. Her opinions and attitudes were insubstantial, based less on facts and insights than on whims—iron whims, but whims nonetheless—and she expressed them in language that was flamboyant but imprecise, overblown but empty.
Holly was something of an environmentalist herself, and she was dismayed to discover that she and Louise fetched up on the same side of some issues. It was unnerving to have allies who struck you as goofy; it made your own opinions seem suspect.
Louise leaned forward on the picnic bench, folding her arms on the redwood table. “The earth is a living thing. It could talk to us if we were worth talking to, could just open a mouth in any rock or plant or pond and talk as easily as I’m talking to you.”
“What an exciting concept,” Holly said.
“Human beings are nothing more than lice.”
“Lice crawling over the living earth,” Louise said dreamily.
Holly said, “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“God is not only in each butterfly—God is each butterfly, each bird, each rabbit, every wild thing. I would sacrifice a million human lives—ten million and more!—if it meant saving one innocent family of weasels, because God is each of those weasels.”
As if moved by the woman’s rhetoric, as if she didn’t think it was eco-fascism, Holly said, “I give as much as I can every year to the Nature Conservancy, and I think of myself as an environmentalist, but I see that my consciousness hasn’t been raised as far as yours.”
The poet did not hear the sarcasm and reached across the table to squeeze Holly’s hand. “Don’t worry, dear. You’ll get there. I sense an aura of great spiritual potentiality around you.”
“Help me to understand.... God is butterflies and rabbits and every living thing, and God is rocks and dirt and water—but God isn’t us?”
“No. Because of our one unnatural quality.”
Holly blinked in surprise. “Intelligence is unnatural?”
“A high degree of intelligence, yes. It exists in no other creatures in the natural world. That’s why nature shuns us, and why we subconsciously hate her and seek to obliterate her. High intelligence leads to the concept of progress. Progress leads to nuclear weapons, bio
-engineering, chaos, and ultimately to annihilation.”
“God ... or natural evolution didn’t give us our intelligence?”
“It was an unanticipated mutation. We’re mutants, that’s all. Monsters.”
Holly said, “Then the less intelligence a creature exhibits...”
“... the more natural it is,” Louise finished for her.
Holly nodded thoughtfully, as if seriously considering the bizarre proposition that a dumber world was a better world, but she was really thinking that she could not write this story after all. She found Louise Tarvohl so preposterous that she could not compose a favorable article and still hang on to her integrity. At the same time, she had no heart for making a fool of the woman in print. Holly’s problem was not her deep and abiding cynicism but her soft heart; no creature on earth was more certain to suffer frustration and dissatisfaction with life than a bitter cynic with a damp wad of compassion at her core.
She put down her pen, for she would be making no notes. All she wanted to do was get away from Louise, off the playground, back into the real world—even though the real world had always struck her as just slightly less screwy than this encounter. But the least she owed Tom Corvey was sixty to ninety minutes of taped interview, which would provide another reporter with enough material to write the piece.
“Louise,” she said, “in light of what you’ve told me, I think you’re the most natural person I’ve ever met.”
Louise didn’t get it. Perceiving a compliment instead of a slight, she beamed at Holly.
“Trees are sisters to us,” Louise said, eager to reveal another facet of her philosophy, evidently having forgotten that human beings were lice, not trees. “Would you cut off the limbs of your sister, cruelly section her flesh, and build your house with pieces of her corpse?”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Holly said sincerely. “Besides, the city probably wouldn’t approve a building permit for such an unconventional structure.”
Holly was safe: Louise had no sense of humor—therefore, no capacity to be offended by the wisecrack.
While the woman prattled on, Holly leaned into the picnic table, feigning interest, and did a fast-backward scan of her entire adult life. She decided that she had spent all of that precious time in the company of idiots, fools, and crooks, listening to their harebrained or sociopathic plans and dreams, searching fruitlessly for nuggets of wisdom and interest in their boobish or psychotic stories.
Increasingly miserable, she began to brood about her personal life. She had made no effort to develop close women friends in Portland, perhaps because in her heart she felt that Portland was only one more stop on her peripatetic journalistic journey. Her experiences with men were, if anything, even more disheartening than her professional experiences with interviewees of both sexes. Though she still hoped to meet the right man, get married, have children, and enjoy a fulfilling domestic life, she wondered if anyone nice, sane, intelligent, and genuinely interesting would ever enter her life.
And if someone like that miraculously crossed her path one day, his pleasant demeanor would no doubt prove to be a mask, and under the mask would be a leering serial killer with a chainsaw fetish.