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She didn't necessarily believe that all those people were frauds; the whole subject had bored her too much to bother thinking about it at all.


She supposed that her dogged rationality-and cynicism--could bend far enough to encompass the idea that now and then a psychic actually possessed real power, but she wasn't sure that "psychic" was an adequate description of Jim Ironheart. This guy wasn't just going out on a limb in some cheap tabloid to predict that Steven Spielberg would make another bit picture next year (surprise!), or that Swartzenegger would still speak English with an accent, or that Tom Cruise would dump his current girlfriend, or that Eddie Murphy would still be black for the foreseeable future. This guy knew the precise facts of each of those impending deaths. . . who, when, where, how-far enough in advance to derail fate. He wasn't bending spoons with the power of his mind, wasn't speaking in the gravelly voice of an ancient spirit named Rama-Lama-Dingdong, wasn't reading futures in entrails or wax drippings or Tarot cards. He was saving lives for God's sake, altering destinies, having a profound impact not only on those he saved from death but on the lives of the friends and families who would have been left shattered and bereaved. And the reach of his power extended three thousand miles from Laguna Niguel to Boston! In fact, maybe his heroics were not confined to the borders of the continental United States. She had not researched the international media for the past six months. Perhaps he had saved lives in Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden, or in Pago Pago for all she knew.


The word "psychic" definitely was inadequate. Holly couldn't even think of a suitable one-word description of his powers.


To her surprise, a sense of wonder had possessed her, like nothing she had felt since she was a kid. Now, an element of awe stole over her as well, and she shivered.


Who was this man? What was he? Little more than thirty hours ago, when she had seen the story about young Nicholas O'Conner in Boston, Holly had known she was on to a big story. By the time she examined the material that Newsweb found for her she felt it might be the biggest story of her career, regardless of how long she worked as a reporter.


Now she had begun to suspect that it might grow into the biggest story of this decade.


"Everything okay?" Holly said, "Everything's weird," before she realized that she had not asked the question of herself The waitress-Bernice, according to the name embroidered on her uniform blouse-was standing beside the table, looking concerned. Holly realized that she had been staring intently at her plate while she'd been thinking about Jim Ironheart, and she had not taken a bite in some time.


Bernice had noticed and thought something was wrong.


"Weird?" Bernice said, frowning.


"Uh, yeah-it's weird that I should come into what looks like an ordinary coffeeshop and get the best blueberry pancakes I've ever eaten.”


Bernice hesitated, perhaps trying to decide if Holly was putting her on.


"You. . . you really like 'em?" "Love them," Holly said, forking up a mouthful and chewing the cold sodden pancakes with enthusiasm.


"That's nice! You want anything else?" "Just the check," Holly said.


She continued to eat the pancakes after Bernice left, because she was hungry and they were there.


As she ate, Holly looked around the restaurant at the colorfully decked out vacationers who were absorbed in discussions of amusements experienced and amusements yet to come, and the thrill of being an insider coursed through her for the first time in years. She knew something they did not. She was a reporter with a carefully husbanded secret. When fully researched, when written up in crystalline prose as direct and yet evocative as Hemingway's best journalism (well, she was going to try for that, anyway), the story would earn front-page, top-of the-page exposure in every major newspaper in the country, in the world.


And what made it so good, what made her tingle, was that her secret had nothing to do with a political scandal, toxic dumping, or the other myriad forms of terror and tragedy that fueled the engine of modern news media. Her story would be one of amazement and wonder, courage and hope. a story of tragedy avoided, lives spared, death thwarted.


Life is so good, she thought, unable to stop grinning at her fellow diners.


First thing after breakfast, with the aid of a book of street maps called the Thomas Guide, Holly located Jim Ironheart's house in Laguna Niguel.


She had tracked down the address via computer from Portland, by checking the public records of real-estate transactions in Orange County since the first of the year. She had assumed that anyone winning six million dollars in a lottery might spend some of it on a new house, and she had assumed correctly. He hit the jackpot-presumably thanks to his clairvoyance-in early January. On May 3, he finalized the purchase of a house on Bougainvillea Way. Since the records did not show that he had sold any property, he apparently had been renting before his windfall.


She was somewhat surprised to find him living in such a modest house.


The neighborhood was new, just off Crown Valley Parkway, and in the neat, well-landscaped, precision-planned tradition of south Orange County. The streets were wide, gracefully curved, lined with young palms and melaleucas, and the houses were all of compatible Mediterranean styles with roofs in different shades of red and sand and peach tiles. But even in such a desirable south-county city as Laguna Niguel, where the per-square-foot cost of a tract home could rival that of a Manhattan penthouse, Ironheart could easily have afforded better than he had purchased: It looked like a little more than two thousand square feet, the smallest model in the neighborhood; creamy-white stucco; large-pane French windows but no other apparent custom features; a lush green lawn, but small with azaleas and impatiens and a pair of willowy queen palms that cast lacy shadows on the walls in the temperate morning sun.


She drove by slowly, giving the house a thorough looking over. No car stood in the driveway. The drapes were drawn at the windows. She had no way of knowing if Ironheart was home--short of going up to his front door and ringing the bell. Eventually, she would do just that.


But not yet.


At the end of the block, she turned around and drove past the house again. The place was attractive, pleasant, but so ordinary. It was hard to believe that an exceptional man, with astonishing secrets, lived behind those walls.


Viola Moreno's townhouse in Irvine was in one of those park-like communities the Irvine Company had built in the sixties and seventies, where the plum-thorn hedges had entered woody maturity and the red-gum eucalyptuses and Indian laurels towered high enough to spread a wealth of shade on even the brightest and most cloudless of summer days. It was furnished with an eye to comfort rather than style: an overstuffed sofa commodious armchairs, and plump footstools, everything in earth tones, with traditional landscape paintings meant to soothe rather than challenge the eye and mind. Stacks of magazines and shelves of books were everywhere at hand. Holly felt at home the moment she crossed the threshold.


Viola was as welcoming and easy to like as her home. She was about fifty, Mexican-American, with flawless skin the shade of lightly tarnished copper and eyes that were merry in spite of being as liquid-black as squid ink. Though she was on the short side and had broadened a little with age, it was easy to see that her looks would once have turned men's heads hard enough to crack vertebrae; she was still a lovely woman. She took Holly's hand at the door, then linked arms with her to lead her through the small house and out to the patio, as if they were old friends and had not just spoken for the first time on the phone the previous day.


On the patio, which overlooked a common greensward, a pitcher of icy lemonade and two glasses stood on a glass-topped table. The rattan chairs were padded with thick yellow cushions.


"I spend a lot of my summer out here," Viola said as they settled into chairs. The day was not too hot, the air dry and clean. "It's a beautiful little corner of the world, isn't it?" The broad but shallow green vale separated this row of townhouses from the next, shaded by tall trees and decorated with a couple of circular of red and purple impatiens. Two squirrels scampered down a gentle slop and across a meandering walkway.


"Quite beautiful," Holly agreed as Viola poured lemonade into their glasses.


"My husband and I bought it when the trees were just sticks and the Hydroseeded greenbelt was still patchy. But we could visualize what it would be like one day, and we were patient people, even when we were young." She sighed. "Sometimes I have bad moments, I get bitter about his dying so young and never having a chance to see what this all grew up into. But mostly I just enjoy it, knowing Joe is somewhere better than this world and that somehow he takes pleasure in my enjoyment.”


"I'm sorry," Holly said, "I didn't know you'd been widowed.”


"Of course you didn't, dear. How could you know? Anyway, it was a long time ago, back in 1969, when I was just thirty and he was thirty-two My husband was a career Marine, proud of it, and so was I.


So am I, still, though he died in Vietnam.”


Holly was startled to realize that many of the early victims of that conflict would now have been past middle-age. The wives they left behind had now lived far more years without them than with them. How long until Vietnam seemed as ancient as the crusades of Richard the Lionheart or the Peloponnesian Wars? "Such a waste," Viola said with an edge to her voice. But the edge was gone an instant later when she said, "So long ago. . .”


The life Holly had imagined for this woman-a calm and peaceful journey of small pleasures, warm and cozy, with perhaps more than its share of laughter-was clearly less than half the story.


The firm and loving tone that Viola used when she referred to Joe as "my husband" made it clear that no amount of time elapsed could fade his memory in her mind, and that there had been no other man since him.


Her life had been profoundly changed and constricted by his death.


Although she was obviously an optimistic soul and outgoing by nature, there was a shadow of tragedy on her heart.


One basic lesson that every good journalist learned early in his career was that people were seldom only what they seemed to be-and never less complex than the mystery of life itself Viola sipped her lemonade. "Too sweet. I always add too much sugar.


Sorry." She put her glass down. "Now tell me about this brother you're searching for. You have me quite intrigued.”


"As I told you when I called from Portland, I was an adopted child. The people who took me in were wonderful parents, I have no less love for them than I would for my real parents, but. . . well.


. .”


"Naturally, you have a desire to know your real parents.”


"It's as if. . . there's an emptiness in me, a dark place in my heart," Holly said, trying not to trowel it on too thick.


She was not surprised by the ease with which she lied, but by how well she did it. Deception was a handy tool with which to elicit information from a source who might otherwise be reluctant to talk.


Journalists as highly praised as Joe McGinniss, Joseph Wambaugh, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein had at one time or another argued the necessity of dishonesty in dealing with interviewees, all in the service of getting at the truth.


But Holly had never been this skillful at it. At least she had the good grace to be dismayed and embarrassed by her lies-two feelings that she hid well from Viola Moreno.


"Though the adoption agency's records were barely adequate, I've learned that my real parents, my biological parents, died twenty-five years ago, when I was only eight." Actually, it was Jim Ironheart's parents who had died twenty-five years ago, when he was ten, a fact she had turned up in stories about his lottery win. "So I'll never have a chance to know them.”


"What a terrible thing. Now it's my turn to be sorry for you," Viola said with a note of genuine sympathy in her soft voice.


Holly felt like a heel. By concocting this false personal tragedy, she seemed to be mocking Viola's very real loss. She went on anyway: "But it's not as bleak as it might've been, because I've discovered I have a brother as I told you on the phone.”


Leaning forward with her arms on the table, Viola was eager to hear the details and learn how she could help. "And there's something I can do to help you find your brother?" "Not exactly. You see, I've already found him.”


"How wonderful!" "But. . . I'm afraid to approach him.”


"Afraid? But why?" Holly looked out at the greensward and swallowed hard a couple of times, as if choking on emotion and struggling to maintain control of herself.


She was good. Academy Award stuff. She loathed herself for it.


When she spoke, she managed to get a subtle and convincing tremor in her voice: "As far as I know, he's the only blood relative I have in the world, and my only link to the mother and father I'll never know.


He's my brother, Mrs. Moreno, and I love him. Even though I've never met him, I love him. But what if I approach him, open my heart to him.


. . and he wishes I'd never shown up, doesn't like me or something?" "Good heavens, of course he'll like you! Why wouldn't he like a nice young woman like you? Why wouldn't he be delighted to have someone as sweet as you for a sister?" I'm going to rot in hell for this, Holly thought miserably.


She said, "Well, it may sound silly to you, but I'm worried about it.


I've never made good first impressions with people-" "You've made an excellent one with me, dear.”


Grind my face under your heel, why don't you? Holly thought.


She said, "I want to be careful. I want to know as much as possible about him before I knock on his door. I want to know what he likes, what he doesn't like, how he feels about. . . oh, about all sorts of things. God, Mrs. Moreno, I don't want to blow this.”


Viola nodded. "I assume you've come to me because I know your brother, probably had him years ago in one of my classes?" "You do teach history at a junior high school here in Irvine-" "That's right. I've worked there since before Joe died.”


"Well, my brother wasn't one of your students. He was an English instructor in the same school. I traced him there, and learned you'd taught in the room next to his for ten years, you knew him well.”


Viola's face brightened into a smile. "You mean Jim Ironheart!" "That's right. My brother.”


"This is lovely, wonderful, this is perfect!" Viola enthused.


The woman's reaction was so excessive that Holly blinked in surprise and didn't know quite what to say next.


"He's a good man," Viola said with genuine affection. "I'd have liked nothing better than to've had a son like him. He comes around now and then for dinner, not as often as he used to, and I cook for him, mother him I can't tell you how much pleasure that gives me." A wistful expression had settled on her, and she was silent a moment. "Anyway. .

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