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Anna Denise Ironheart-Boca Raton, Florida. Found a live alligator in her family room.


Lori Ironheart-Los Angeles, California. Songwriter. Nominated for the Academy Award for best song of the year.


Valerie Ironheart-Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Gave birth to healthy quadruplets.


The last of the five was James Ironheart.


She looked at the heading. The story came from the Orange County Register April 10, and was one of scores of pieces on the same story that had been published statewide. Because of her instructions, the computer had printed out only this single instance, sparing her sheafs of similar articles on the same event.


She checked the dateline. Laguna Niguel. California. Southern California. The Southland.


The piece was not accompanied by a photograph, but the reporter's description of the man included a reference to blue eyes and thick brown hair. She was sure he was her James Ironheart.


She was not surprised to have found him. She had known that with determined effort she would locate him sooner or later. What surprised her was the subject of the piece in which his full name appeared at last. She expected it to be yet one more story about snatching someone out of death's grasp, and she was not prepared for the headline: LAGUNA NIGUEL AlAN WINS SIX MILLION LOTTO JACKPOT.


Having followed the rescue of Nicholas O'Conner with his first untroubled night of sleep in the last four, Jim departed Boston on Friday afternoon, August 24. Gaining three hours on the cross-country trip, he arrived at John Wayne Airport by 3:10 P.M. and was home half an hour later.


He went straight into his den and lifted the flap of carpet that revealed the safe built into the floor of the closet. He dialed the combination; opened the lid, and removed five thousand dollars, ten percent of the cash he kept there.


At his desk, he packed the hundred-dollar bills into a padded Jiffy envelope and stapled it shut. He typed a label to Father Leo Geary at Our Lady of the Desert, and affixed sufficient postage. He would mail it first thing in the morning.


He went into the family room and switched on the TV. He tried several movies on cable, but none held his interest. He watched the news for a while, but his mind wandered. After he heated a microwave pizza popped open a beer, he settled down with a good book-which bored him He paged through a stack of unread magazines, but none of the articles was intriguing.


Near twilight he went outside with another beer and sat on the patio The palm fronds rustled in a light breeze. A sweet fragrance rose from star jasmine along the property wall. Red, purple, and pink impatiently shone with almost Day-Glo radiance in the dwindling light; and as the sun finished setting, they faded as if they were hundreds of small lightbulbs on a rheostat. Night floated down like a great tossed cape of almost weightless black silk.


Although the scene was peaceful, he was restless. Day by day, week by week, since he had saved the lives of Sam Newsome and his daughter Emily on May 15, Jim had found it increasingly difficult to involve himself in the ordinary routines and pleasures of life. He was unable to relax.


kept thinking of all the good he could do, all the lives he could save, the destinies he could alter, if only the call would come again: "Life line.”


Other endeavors seemed frivolous by comparison.


Having been the instrument of a higher power, he now found it difficult to settle for being anything less.


After spending the day collecting what information she could find on James Madison Ironheart, with only a two-hour nap to compensate for the night of sleep she had lost, Holly launched her long-anticipated vacation with a flight to Orange County. On arrival, she drove her rental car south from the airport to the Laguna Hills Motor Inn, where she had reserved a motel room.


Laguna Hills was inland, and not a resort area. But in Laguna Niguel, Laguna Niguel, and other coastal towns during the summer, rooms had been booked far in advance. She didn't intend to swim or sunbathe anyway.


Ordinarily, she was as enthusiastic a pursuer of skin cancer as anyone, but this had become a working vacation.


By the time she arrived at the motel, she felt as if her eyes were full of sand. When she carried her suitcase into her room, gravity played a cruel trick, pulling her down with five times the usual force.


The room was simple and clean, with enough air-conditioning to recreate the environment of Alaska, in case it was ever occupied by an Eskimoe who got homesick.


From vending machines in the breezeway, she purchased a packet of peanut-butter-and-cheese crackers and a can of diet Dr Pepper, and satisfied her hunger while sitting in bed. She was so tired that she felt numb.


All of her senses were dulled by exhaustion, including her sense of taste.


She might as well have been eating Styrofoam and washing it down with mule sweat.


As if the contact of head and pillow tripped a switch, she fell instantly asleep.


During the night, she began to dream. It was an odd dream, for it took place in absolute darkness, with no images, just sounds and smells and tactile sensations, perhaps the way people dreamed when they had been blind since birth. She was in a dank cool place that smelled vaguely of lime. At first she was not afraid, just confused, carefully feeling her way along the walls of the chamber, They were constructed from blocks of stone with tight mortar joints. After a little exploration she realized there was actually just one wall, a single continuous sweep of stone, because the room was circular. The only sounds were those she made-and the background hiss and tick of rain drumming on a slate roof overhead.


In the dream, she moved away from the wall, across a solid wood floor, hands held out in front of her. Although she encountered nothing, her curiosity suddenly began to turn to fear. She stopped moving, stood perfectly still, certain that she had heard something sinister.


A subtle sound. Masked by the soft but insistent rattle of the rain. It came again. A squeak.


For an instant she thought of a rat, fat and sleek, but the sound was too protracted and of too odd a character to have been made by a rat.


More a creak than a squeak, but not the creak of a floorboard underfoot, either.


It faded. . . came again a few seconds later. . . faded. . .


came again. . . rhythmically.


When Holly realized that she was listening to the protest of an unoiled mechanism of some kind, she should have been relieved. Instead, standing in that tenebrous room, straining to imagine what machine it might be, felt her heartbeat accelerate. The creaking grew only slightly louder, but speeded up a lot; instead of one creak every five or six seconds, the sound came every three or four seconds, then every two or three, then once a second.


Suddenly a strange rhythmic whoosh, whoosh, whoosh struck up, as if in syncopation with the creaking. It was the sound of a wide flat object cutting the air.


Whoosh.


It was close. Yet she felt no draft.


Whoosh.


She had the crazy idea that it was a blade.


Whoosh.


A large blade. Sharp. Cutting the air. Enormous.


Whoosh.


She sensed that something terrible was approaching, an entity so strange that even light-and the full sight of the thing-would not provide under standing. Although she was aware that she was dreaming, she knew she had to get out of that dark and stony place quickly-or die. A nightmare couldn't be escaped just by running from it, so she had to wake up, but could not, she was too tired, unable to break the bonds of sleep. the lightless room seemed to be spinning, she had a sense of some great structure turning around and around (creak, whoosh), thrusting up into the rainy night (creak, whoosh) and turning (creak, whoosh), cutting there (creak, whoosh), she was trying to scream (creak, whoosh), but she couldn't force a sound from herself (whoosh, whoosh, whoosh), couldn't awaken couldn't scream for help. WHOOSH! "No!" Jim sat up in bed as he shouted the one-word denial. He was clammy and trembling violently.


He had fallen fast asleep with the lamp on, which he frequently did, usually not by accident but by design. For more than a year, his sleep had been troubled by nightmares with a variety of plots and a panoply of boogeymen, only some of which he could recall when he woke.


The nameless, formless creature that he called "the enemy," and of which he had dreamed while recuperating at Our Lady of the Desert rectory, was the most frightening figure in his dreamscapes, though not the only monster.


This time, however, the focus of the terror had not been a person or nature. It was a place. The windmill.


He looked at the bedside clock. Three-forty-five in the morning.


, In just his pajama bottoms, he got out of bed and padded into the kitchen.


The fluorescent light seared his eyes. Good. He wanted to evaporate what residue of sleep still clung to him.


The damn windmill.


He plugged in the coffeemaker and brewed a strong Colombian blend.


He sipped half the first cup while standing at the counter, then refilled it and sat down at the breakfast table. He intended to empty the pot because he could not risk going back to bed and having that dream again.


Every nightmare detracted from the quality of rest that sleep provided, but the windmill dream actually took a real physical toll.


Whenever he woke from it, his chest always ached, as though his heart had been bruised from hammering too hard against his breastbone.


Sometimes the shakes took hours to fade away completely, and he often had headaches that, like now, arced across the top of his skull and throbbed with such power that it seemed as if an alien presence was trying to burst out of him. He knew that if he looked in a mirror, his face would be unnervingly pale and haggard, with blue-black circles around the eyes, like the face of a terminal cancer patient from whom disease had sucked the juice of life.


The windmill dream was not the most frequent of those that plagued him, and in fact it haunted his sleep only one or two nights a month.


But it was by far the worst.


Curiously, nothing much happened in it. He was ten years old again, sitting on the dusty wooden floor of the smaller upper chamber, above the main room that held the ancient millstones, with only the flickering light of a fat yellow candle. Night pressed at the narrow windows, which were almost like castle embrasures in the limestone walls. Rain tapped against the glass. Suddenly, with a creak of unoiled and half rusted machinery, the four great wooden sails of the mill began to turn outside, faster and faster, cutting like giant scythes through the damp air. The upright shaft, which came out of the ceiling and vanished through a bore in the center of the floor, also began to turn, briefly creating the illusion that the round floor itself were rotating in the manner of a carousel. One level below, the ancient millstones started to roll against each other, producing a soft rumble like distant thunder.


Just that. Nothing more. Yet it scared the hell out of him.


He took a long pull of his coffee.


Stranger still: in real life, the windmill had been a good place, never the scene of pain or terror. It had stood between a pond and a cornfield on ù his grandparents' farm. To a young boy born and raised in the city, there mill had been an exotic and mysterious structure, a perfect place to play and fantasize, a refuge in a time of trouble. He could not understand why he was having nightmares about a place that held only good memories for him.


After the frightening dream passed without waking her, Holly Thor slept peacefully for the rest of the night, as still as a stone on the floor the sea.


Saturday morning, Holly ate breakfast in a booth at the motel coffeeshop.


Most of the other customers were obviously vacationers: families dressed almost as if in uniforms of shorts or white slacks and brightly colored shirts. Some of the kids wore caps and T-shirts that advertised Sea World or Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm. Parents huddled over maps and brochures while they ate, planning routes that would take them to one of the tourist attractions that California offered in such plenitude. There were so many colorful Polo shirts or Polo-shirt knockoffs in the restaurant that a visitor from another planet might have assumed that Ralph Lauren was either the deity of a major religion or dictator of the world.


As she ate blueberry pancakes, Holly studied her list of people who had been spared from death by Jim Ironheart's timely intervention: May 15 Sam (25) and Emily (5) Newsome-Atlanta, Georgia (murder) JUNE 5 Louis Andretti (28)-Corona, California (snakebite) JUNE 21 Thaddeus Johnson (New York, New York (murder) JUNE 30 Rachael Steinberg (23j-San Francisco, California (murder) JULY S Carmen Diaz (30)-Miami, Florida (fire) JULY 14 Amanda Cutter (30)-Houston, Texas (murder) JULY 20 Steven Aimes (57)-Birmingham, Alabama (murder) AUGUST 1 Laura Lenaskian (28)-Seattle, Washington (drowning) AUGUST 8 Doogie Burkette (11}-Peoria, Illinois (drowning) AUGUST 12 Billy Jenkins (8)-Portland, Oregon (traffic fatality) AUGUST 20 Lisa (30) and Susan (10) Jawolski-Mojave desert (murder) AUGUST 23 Nicholas O'Conner (6) Boston, Massachusetts (explosion) Certain patterns were obvious. Of the fourteen people saved, six were children. Seven others were between the ages of twenty-three and thirty Only one was older-Steven Aimes, who was fifty-seven. Ironheart favored the young. And there was some evidence that his activities were increasing in frequency: one episode in May; three in June; three in July and now five already in August with a full week of the month remaining. Holly was particularly intrigued by the number of people on the list who would have been murdered without Ironheart's intervention.


Far more people died each year in accidents than at the hands of others.


traffic fatalities alone were more numerous than murders. Yet Jim Ironheart intervened in a considerably greater number of homicides than accidents; eight of the fourteen people on the list had been spared from the malevolent intentions of murderers, over sixty percent.


Perhaps his premonitions more often related to murder than to other forms of death because human violence generated stronger psychic vibrations than accidents. . .


Holly stopped chewing and her hand froze halfway to her mouth with another forkful of blueberry pancake, as she realized just how strange the story was. She had been operating at a breathless pace, driven by reportorial ambition and curiosity. Her excitement, then her exhaustion, had prevented her from fully considering all of the implications and ramifications of Ironheart's activities. She put down her fork and stared at her plate, if she could glean answers and explanations from the crumb patterns and smears in the same way that gypsies read tea leaves and palms.


What the hell was Jim Ironheart? A psychic? She'd never had much interest in extrasensory perception and strange mental powers. She knew there were people who claimed to be able to "see" a murderer just by touching the clothes his victim wore, who sometimes helped police find the bodies of missing persons, who were paid well by the National Enquirer to foresee world events and forthcoming developments in the lives of celebrities, who said they could channel the voices of the dead to the living. But her interest in the supernatural was so minimal that she had never really formed an opinion of the validity of such claims.

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