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Although she was plunging into deception again, Holly did not feel as bad about lying to Eddie as she had felt when lying to Viola Moreno.


For one thing, her cover story this time was somewhat less fanciful: that she was doing a multipart, in-depth piece about James Ironheart (the truth), focusing on the effect that winning a lottery had upon his life (a lie), all with his approval (a lie). A veracity percentage as high as thirty-three percent was enough to salve her guilt, which she supposed didn't say much for the quality of her conscience.


"Just so you spell Dojo right," Eddie said. Looking back and down at his right leg, he added happily, "Look at that calf, hard as rock.”


As if she hadn't been looking at it all along.


"The fat layer between my skin and the muscle underneath, it's hardly there, burned it all away.”


Another reason she didn't mind lying to Eddie was because he was a vain, self involved jerk.


"Three more flights to the top of the monument," he said. The rhythm of his speech was tied to the pattern of his breathing, the words rising and falling with each inhalation and exhalation.


"Just three? Then I'll wait.”


"No, no. Ask your questions. I won't stop at the top. I'm gonna see how much of the Empire State Building I can climb next.”


"Ironheart was a student of yours.”


"Yeah. Taught him myself" "He came to you long before he won the lottery.”


"Yeah. More than a year ago.”


"May of last year, I think.”


"Mighta been.”


"Did he tell you why he wanted to learn Tae Kwon Do?" "Nope. But he had a passion." He almost shouted his next words, as if he'd triumphantly completed a real climb: "Top of the monument!" He increased his pace instead of slacking off "Did you think it was odd?" "Why?" "Him being a schoolteacher, I mean.”


"We get schoolteachers. We get all kinds. Everyone wants to kick ass.”


He sucked in a very deep breath, blew it out, and said, "In the Empire State now, going up.”


"Was Ironheart good?" "Excellent! Coulda been a competitor.”


"Could've been? You mean he dropped out?" Breathing a little harder than before, the words coming in a quicker though similar rhythm, he said: "Hung in there seven or eight months.


Every day. He was a real glutton for punishment. Pumping iron and doing aerobics plus martial arts. Ate his way through the pain. Man was getting tough enough to f*ck a rock. Sorry.


But he was. Then he quit. Two weeks after he won the bucks.”


"Ah, I see.”


"Don't get me wrong. Wasn't the money that made him quit.”


"Then what?" "He said I'd given him what he needed, he didn't want any more.”


"What he needed?" she asked.


"Enough Tae Kwon Do for what he wanted to do.”


"Did he say what he wanted to do?" "Nope. Kick someone's ass, I guess.”


Eddie was really pushing himself now, ramming his feet down on the StairMaster, pumping and pumping, so much sweat on his body that it appeared to be coated in oil, droplets spraying off his hair when he shoot his head, the muscles in his arms and across his broad back bulging almost as fiercely as those in his thighs and calves.


Sitting in the chair about eight feet from the man, Holly felt as if she were ringside at some sleazy strip club where the gender roles had reversed. She got up.


Eddie was staring straight ahead at the wall. His face was creased lines of strain, but he had a dreamy, faraway look in his eyes. Maybe instead of the wall, he saw the endless stairwell in the Empire State building.


"Anything else he ever told you that seemed. . . interesting, unusual?"" she asked.


Eddie didn't answer. He was concentrating on the climb. The arteries in his neck had swelled and were throbbing as if evenly spaced, small, fish were schooling through his bloodstream.


As Holly reached the door, Eddie said, "Three things." , She turned to him again. "Yeah?" Without looking at her, his eyes still out of focus, not for an instant slackening his pace, speaking to her from the stairwell of that skyscraper in distant Manhattan, he said, "Ironheart's the only guy I ever met who can obsess better than I can.”


Frowning, Holly thought about that. "What else?" "The only lessons he missed were two weeks in September. Went north, Marin County somewhere, to take a course in aggressive driving "What's that?" "Mostly they teach chauffeurs for politicians, diplomats, rich businessmen how to handle a car like James Bond, escape terrorist traps, kidnappers, shit like that.”


"He talk about why he needed that kind of training?" "Just said it sounded like fun. " "That's two things.”


He shook his head. Sweat flew, spattered the surrounding carpet and furniture. Holly was just out of range. He still didn't look at her.


"Number three-after he figured he had enough Tae Kwon Do, the next thing he wanted was to learn guns.”


"Learn guns?" "Asked me if I knew anyone could teach him marksmanship, all about weapons. Revolver, pistols, rifles, shotguns. " "Who'd you send him to?" g He was panting now but still able to speak clearly between each gasping breath. Nobody. Guns aren't my thing. But you know what I think? I think he was one of these guys reads Soldier of Fortune Gets caught up in the fantasy. Wants to be a mercenary. He sure was preparing for a war.”


"Didn't it worry you to be helping someone like that? " "Not as long as he paid for his lessons." She opened the door, hesitated, watching him. "You have a counter on that contraption?" "Yeah.”


"What floor are you on?" A "Tenth," Eddie said, the word distorted as he spoke it on a deep exhalation. The next time he breathed out, he also issued a whoop of pleasure along with his wind. Jesus, I have legs of stone, fuckin' granite, I think I could get a man in a scissor hold, crack him in half with my legs. You put that in your article, okay? I could crack a guy clean in half?" Holly left, closing the door softly behind her.


In the main room, the martial-arts class was even more active than when she had entered. The current exercise involved a group attempt to gang up on their Korean instructor, but he was blocking and throwing and whirling and leaping like a dervish, dealing with them as fast as they came at him.


The brunette had removed her silvery jewelry. She had changed into Reeboks, looser shorts, a different T-shirt, and a bra. Now she was doing stretching exercises in front of the reception counter.


"One o'clock," she explained to Holly. "My lunch hour. I always run four or five miles instead of eating. Bye." She jogged to the door, pushed through it into the warm August day, and sprinted out of sight along the front of the shopping center.


Holly went outside, too, and stood for a moment in the lovely sunshine newly aware of how many of the shoppers, coming to and going from their cars, were in good physical shape. Having moved to the northwest almost a year and a half ago, she had forgotten how health conscious many Southern Californians were-and how aware of their appearance. Per capita Orange County had a lot fewer jowls, love handles, spare tires, pot gut and pear-shaped bottoms than Portland.


Looking good and feeling good were imperatives of the southern-California lifestyle. It was one of the things she loved about the place. It was also one of the things she hated about it.


She went next door to the bakery for lunch. From the display cases, she selected a chocolate eclair, a creme brulee tart with kiwi on top, a piece of white-chocolate macadamia-nut cheesecake with Oreo-crumb crust, a cinnamon wheel, and a slice of orange roulade. "And a diet Coke," she told the clerk.


She carried her tray to a table near a window, where she could watch the passing parade of taut, tanned bodies in summer gear. The pastries were wonderful. She ate a little of this, now a little of that, savoring each bite, intending to polish off every crumb.


After a while she realized someone was watching her. Two tables away, a heavyset woman, about thirty-five, was staring with a mixture of disbelief and envy; she only had one miserable fruit tart, a bakery junkie's equivalent of a Nutri/System multi-grain cracker.


Feeling both a need to explain herself and a certain sympathy, Holly said, "I wish I wasn't doing this, but I can't help it. If I can't do anything else, then I always hinge when I'm horny.”


The heavyset woman nodded. "Me, too.”


She drove to Ironheart's place on Bougainvillea Way. She knew enough about him now to risk approaching him, and that was what she intended to do. But instead of pulling into his driveway, she cruised slowly past the house again.


Instinct told her that the time was not right. The portrait of him that she had constructed only seemed to be complete. There was a hole in it somewhere. She sensed that it would be dangerous to proceed before the hole had been painted in.


She returned to the motel and spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening sitting by the window in her room, drinking Alka-Seltzer, then diet 7-Up, staring out at the jewel-blue pool in the middle of the lushly landscaped courtyard, and thinking. Thinking.


Okay, she told herself, the story to date. Ironheart is a man with t sadness at his core, probably because of being orphaned when he was only ten. Let's say he's spent a lot of his life brooding about death, especially about the injustice of premature death. He dedicates his life to teaching and helping kids, maybe because no one was there for him when he was a boy and had to cope with the deaths of his mother and father. Then Larry Kakonis commits suicide. Ironheart is shattered, feels he should have been able to prevent it. The boy's death brings to the surface all of Ironheart's buried rage: rage at fate, destiny, the biological fragility of the human species-rage at God. In a state of severe mental distress bordering on outright imbalance, he decides to make himself over into Rambo and do something to fight back at fate, which is a weird response at best, absolutely nuts at worst. With weight lifting, aerobic endurance training, and Tae Kwon Do, he turns himself into a fighting machine. He learns to drive like a stuntman. He becomes knowledgeable in the use of all manner of guns. He's ready.


Just one more thing. He teaches himself to be a clairvoyant, so he can win the lottery and be independently wealthy, making it possible to devote himself to his crusade-and so he can know just when a premature death is about to occur.


That was where it all fell apart. You could go to a place like Dojo to learn martial arts, but the Yellow Pages had no listing for schools of clairvoyance. Where the hell had he gotten his psychic power? She considered the question from every imaginable angle. She wasn't trying to brainstorm an answer, only figure out an approach to researching possible explanations. But magic was magic. There was no way to research it.


She began to feel as though she was employed by a sleazy tabloid, not as a reporter but as a concocter of pieces about space aliens living under Cleveland, half gorilla and half human babies born to amoral female zoo keepers, and inexplicable rains of frogs and chickens in Tajikistan.


But, damn it, the hard facts were that Jim Ironheart had saved fourteen people from death, in every corner of the country, always at the penultimate moment, with miraculous foresight.


By eight o'clock, she had the urge to pound her head against the table, the wall, the concrete decking around the pool outside, against anything hard enough to crack her mental block and drive understanding into her.


She decided that it was time to stop thinking, and go to dinner.


She ate in the motel coffeeshop again just broiled chicken and a salad to atone for lunch at the bakery. She tried to be interested in the other customers, do a little people-watching. But she could not stop thinking about Ironheart and his sorcery.


He dominated her thoughts later, as well, when she was lying in bed, trying to sleep. Staring at the shadows on the ceiling, cast by the landscape lighting outside and the half open Levolor blinds on the window, she was honest enough with herself to admit he fascinated her on other than professional levels. He was the most important story of her career, yes, true.


And, yes, he was so mysterious that he would have intrigued anyone reporter or not. But she was also drawn to him because she had been alone a long time, loneliness had carved an emptiness in her, and Jim Ironheart was the most appealing man she had met in ages.


Which was insane.


Because maybe he was insane.


She was not one of those women who chased after men who were wrong for her, subconsciously seeking to be used, hurt, and abandon She was picky when it came to men. That was why she was alone, for God's sake.


Few men measured up to her standards.


Sure. Picky, she thought sarcastically. That's why you've got this thing for a guy who has delusions of being Superman without the tights cape.


Get real, Thorne. Jesus.


Entertaining romantic fantasies about James Ironheart was short sighted, irresponsible, futile, and just plain stupid.


But those eyes Holly fell asleep with an image of his face drifting in her mind, watch over her as if it were a portrait on a giant banner, rippling gently against cerulean sky. His eyes were even bluer than that celestial backdrop.


In time she found herself in the dream of blindness again. The circular room. Wooden floor. Scent of damp limestone. Rain drumming on roof Rhythmic creaking. Whoosh. Something was coming for her, out of the darkness that had somehow come alive, a monstrous presence she could neither hear nor see but could feel. The Enemy. Whoosh. It closing in relentlessly, hostile and savage, radiating cold the way a fu radiated heat. Whoosh. She was grateful that she was blind, because she knew the thing's appearance was so alien, so terrifying, that just the sight of it would kill her. Whoosh. Something touched her. A moist, icy tentacle At the base of her neck. A pencil-thin tentacle. She cried out, and the tip of the probe bored into her neck, pierced the base of her skull Whoosh.


With a soft cry of terror, she woke. No disorientation. She knew immediately where she was: the motel, Laguna Hills.


Whoosh.


The sound of the dream was still with her. A great blade slicing through the air. But it was not a dream sound. It was real. And the room was cold as the pitch-black place in the nightmare. As if weighted down by a heart swollen with terror, she tried to move, could not. She smelled limestone. From below her, as if there were vast rooms under them came a soft rumbling sound of she somehow knew-large stones were grinding against each other.


Whoosh.


Something unspeakable was still squirming along the back of her neck, writhing sinuously within her skull, a hideous parasite that had chosen her for a host, worming its way into her, going to lay its eggs in her brain. But she could not move.

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