Page 27

Holly said, "No good. You'll be gone when I get here in the morning, I won't know where you went, maybe you'll never come back.”

He had no energy for resistance. "Then stay the night.”

"You have a spare bedroom?" "Yeah. But there's no spare bed. You can sleep on the family-room couch, I guess, but it's damned old and not too comfortable." , She carried her halfempty beer into the adjacent family room, and tested the sagging, brown sofa. "It'll be good enough.”

"Whatever you want." He seemed indifferent, but she sensed that his indifference was a pretense. "You have any spare pajamas?" "Jesus.”

"Well, I'm sorry, but I didn't bring any.”

"Mine'll be too big for you.”

"Just makes them more comfortable. I'd like to shower, too. I'm sticky from tanning lotion and being in the sun all afternoon.”

With the put-upon air of a man who had found his least favorite relative standing on his doorstep unannounced, he took her upstairs, showed her the guest bath, and got a pair of pajamas and a set of towels for her.

"Try to be quiet," he said. "I plan to be sound asleep in five minutes.”

Luxuriating in the fall of hot water and clouds of steam, Holly was pleased that the shower did not take the edge off her beer buzz.

Though she had slept better last night than Ironheart claimed to have, she had not gotten a solid eight hours in the past few days, and she was looking for ward to a Corona-induced sleep even on the worn and lumpy sofa.

At the same time, she was uneasy about the continued fuzziness of her mind. She needed to keep her wits about her. After all, she was in the house of an undeniably strange man who was largely a cipher to her, a walking mystery. She understood little of what was in his heart, was pumped secrets and shadows in greater quantity than blood. For all his coolness toward her, he seemed basically a good man with benign intentions, and it was difficult to believe that he was a threat to her.

On the other hand, it was not unusual to see a news story about a berserk mass murderer who after brutally slaying his friends, family, and coworkers was described by his astonished neighbors as "a really nice guy." For all she knew, in spite of his claim to be the avatar of God, by day Jim Ironheart heroically risked his own life to save the lives of strangers-and, by night, tortured kittens with maniacal glee.

Nevertheless, after she dried off on the clean-smelling, fluffy bath towel, she took another long swallow of her Corona. She decided that a full night of deep and dreamless sleep was worth the risk of being butchered in her She put on his pajamas, rolled up the cuffs of the pants and the sleeves.

Carrying her bottle of Corona, which still contained a swallow or two, she quietly opened the bathroom door and stepped into the second-floor hallway. The house was eerily silent.

Heading toward the stairs, she passed the open door of the master bedroom and glanced inside. Extension-arm brass reading lamps were mounted on the wall on both sides of the bed, and one of them cast a narrow wedge of amber light on the rumpled sheets. Jim was lying on his back in bed, his arms folded on the two pillows under his head, and he seemed to be awake.

She hesitated, then stepped into the open doorway. "Thanks," she said, speaking softly in case he was asleep, "I feel a lot better.”

"Good for you.”

Holly entered the room and moved close enough to the bed to see his blue eyes shining in the backsplash of the lamp. The covers were pulled up past his navel, but he was not wearing pajama tops. His chest and arms were lean but well-muscled.

She said, "Thought you'd be asleep by now.”

"Want to be, need to be, but I can't shut my mind off" Looking down at him, she said, "Viola Moreno says there's a deep sadness in you.”

"Been busy, haven't you?" She took a small swallow of Corona. One left. She sat down on the edge of the bed. "Do your grandparents still have the farm with the windmill?" "They're dead.”

"I'm sorry.”

"Grandma died five years ago, Grandpa eight months later-as if he really didn't want to go on without her. They had good, full lives. But I miss them.”

"You have anybody?" "Two cousins in Akron," he said.

"You stay in touch?" "Haven't seen them in twenty years.”

She drank the last of the Corona. She put the empty bottle on the nightstand.

For a few minutes neither of them spoke. The silence was not awkward.

Indeed, it was comfortable.

She got up and went around to the other side of the bed. She pulled back the covers, stretched out beside him, and put her head on the other two pillows.

Apparently, he was not surprised. Neither was she.

After a while, they held hands, lying side by side, staring at the ceiling.

She said, "Must've been hard, losing your parents when you were just ten.”

"Real bad.”

"What happened to them?" He hesitated. "A traffic accident.”

"And you went to live with your grandparents?" "Yeah. The first year was the hardest. I was. . . in bad shape. I spent a lot of time in the windmill. It was my special place, where I went to play. . . to be alone.”

"I wish we'd been kids together," she said.

"Why?" She thought of Norby, the boy she had pulled from the sarcophagus under the DC-10's overturned seats. "So I could've known you before your parents died, what you were like then, untouched.”

Another stretch of time passed in silence.

When he spoke, his voice was so low that Holly could barely hear it above the thumping of her own heart: "Viola has a sadness in her, too.

She looks like the happiest lady in the world, but she lost her husband in Vietnam, never got over it. Father Geary, the priest I told you about, he looks like every devout parish rector from every old sentimental Catholic movie ever made in the thirties and forties, but when I met him he was weary and unsure of his calling. And you. . .

well, you're pretty and amusing, and you have an air of efficiency about you, but I'd never have guessed that you could be as relentless as you are. You give the impression of a woman who moves easy through life, interested in life and in her work, but never moving against a current, always with it, easy. Yet you're really like a bulldog when you get your teeth in something.”

Staring at the dapple of light and shadow on the ceiling, holding his strong hand, Holly considered his statement for a while. Finally she said, "What's your point?" "People are always more. . . complex than you figure.”

"Is that just an observation. . . or a warning?" He seemed surprised by her question. "Warning?" "Maybe you're warning me that you're not what you seem to be.”

After another long pause, he said, "Maybe.”

She matched his silence. Then she said, "I guess I don't care.”

He turned toward her. She moved against him with a shyness that she had not felt in many years. His first kiss was gentle, and more intoxicating than three bottles or three cases of Corona.

Holly realized she'd been deceiving herself She had needed the beer not to soothe her nerves, not to insure an uninterrupted night of sleep, but to give her the courage to seduce him-or to be seduced. She had sensed that he was abysmally lonely, and she had told him so. Now she understood that her loneliness had exceeded his, and that only the smallest part of her desolation of spirit had resulted from her disenchantment with journalism; most of it was simply the result of being alone, for the most part, all of her adult life.

Two pajama bottoms and one top seemed to dissolve between them like clothes sometimes evaporate in erotic dreams. She moved her hands over him with increasing excitement, marveling that the sense of touch could convey such intricacies of shape and texture, or give rise to such exquisite longings.

She had a ridiculously romantic idea of what it would be like to make love to him, a dreamy-eyed girl's fantasy of unmatched passion, of sweet tenderness and pure hot sex in perfect balance, every muscle in both of them flexing and contracting in sublime harmony or, at times, in breathless counterpoint, each invasive stroke a testament to mutual surrender, two becoming one, the outer world of reason overwhelmed by the inner world of feeling, no wrong word spoken, no sigh mistimed, bodies moving and meshing in precisely the same mysterious rhythms by which the great invisible tidal forces of the universe ebbed and flowed, elevating the act above mere biology and making of it a mystical experience. Her expectations proved, of course, to be ridiculous. In reality, it was more tender, more fierce, and far better than her fantasy.

They fell asleep like spoons in a drawer, her belly against his back, her loins against his warm bottom. Hours later, in those reaches of the night that were usually-but no longer-the loneliest of all, they woke to the same quiet alarm of renewed desire. He turned to her, she welcomed him, and this time they moved together with an even greater urgency, as if the first time had not taken the edge off their need but had sharpened it the way one dose of he**in only increases the addict's desire for the next.

At first, looking up into Jim's beautiful eyes, Holly felt as if she were gazing into the pure fire of his soul. Then he gripped her by the sides, half lifting her off the mattress as he eased deep into her, and she felt the scratches burning in her flanks and remembered the claws of the thing that had stepped magically out of a dream. For an instant, with pain flashing in her shallow wounds, her perception shifted, and she had the queer feeling that it was a cold blue fire into which she gazed, burning without heat. But that was only a reaction to the stinging scratches and the pain-engendered memory of the nightmare. When he slid his hands off her sides and under her, lifting, she rose to meet him, and he was all warmth now, not the faintest chill about him.

Together they generated enough heat to sear away that brief image of a soul on ice.

The frost-pale glow of the unseen moon backlit banks of coaly clouds that churned across the night sky.

Unlike in other recent dreams, Holly was standing outside on a graveled path that led between a pond and a cornfield toward the door in the base of the old windmill. The limestone structure rose above her at a severe angle, recognizably a mill but nonetheless an alien place, unearthly.

The huge sails, ragged with scores of broken or missing vanes, were silhouetted against the foreboding sky and angled like a tilted cross.

although a blustery wind sent moon-silvered ripples across the ink-dark pond and rattled the nearby cornstalks, the sails were still.

The mill obviously had been inoperable for many years, and the mechanisms were most likely too rusted to allow the sails to turn.

A spectral muddy-yellow light flickered at the narrow windows of the upper room. Beyond the glass, strange shadows moved across the interior limestone walls of that high chamber.

She didn't want to get any closer to the building, had never been more frightened of a place in her life, but she was unable to halt herself She was drawn forward as if she were the spellbound thrall of some powerful sorcerer.

In the pond to her left, something was wrong with the moon-cast reflection of the windmill, and she turned to look at it. The pattern of light and shade on the water was reversed from what it should have been. The mill shadow was not a dark geometric form imposed on the water over the filigree of moonlight; instead, the image of the mill was brighter than the surface of the pond around it, as if the mill were luminous, the brightest object in the night, when in fact its stones rose in an ebony and forbidding pile. Where the high windows were filled with lambent light in the real mill, black rectangles floated in the impossible reflection, like the empty eyeholes in a fleshless skull.

Creak. . . creak. . . creak. . .

She looked up.

The massive sails were trembling in the wind and beginning to move.

They forced the corroded gears that drove the windshaft and, in turn, the grinding stones in the millroom at its base.

Wanting only to wake up or, failing that, to flee back along the gravel path over which she had come, Holly drifted inexorably forward.

The giant sails began to turn clockwise, gaining speed, producing less creaking as the gears unfroze. It seemed to her that they were like the fingers of a monstrous hand, and the jagged end of every broken vane was a claw.

She reached the door.

She did not want to go inside. She knew that within lay a hell of some kind, as bad as the pits of torture described by any fire-and-brimstone preacher who had ever thundered a sermon in old Salem. If she went in there, she would never come out alive.

The sails swooped down at her, passing just a couple of feet over her head, the splintered wood reaching for her: Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

In the grip of a trance even more commanding than her terror, she opened the door. She stepped across the threshold. With the malevolent animation that objects possessed only in dreams, the door pulled out of her hand, slammed shut behind her.

Ahead lay the lightless lower room of the mill, in which the worn stone wheels ground against each other.

To her left, barely visible in the gloom, stairs led up. Ululant squeals and haunting cries echoed from above, like the night concert performed by the wildlife in a jungle, except none of these voices was quite that of a panther or monkey or bird or hyena. Electronic sounds were part of the mix, and what seemed to be the brittle shrieks of insects passed through a stereo amplifier. Underlying the cacophony was a monotonous, throbbing, three-note bass refrain that reverberated in the stone walls of the stairwell and, before she had climbed halfway to the second floor, in Holly's bones as well.

She passed a narrow window on her left. An extended series of lightning bolts crackled across the vault of the night, and at the foot of the mill, like a trick mirror in a funhouse, the dark pond turned transparent. Its depths were revealed, as though the lightning came from under the water, and Holly saw an infinitely strange shape resting on the bottom. She squinted, trying to get a better look at the object, but the lightning sputtered out.

The merest glimpse of the thing, however, sent a cold wind through the hollows of her bones.

She waited, hoping for more lightning, but the night remained as opaque as tar, and black rain suddenly spattered against the window.

Because she was halfway to the second floor of the mill, more muddy-orange and yellow light flickered around her than had reached her at the foot of the stairs. The window glass, backed by utter darkness now and painted with sufficient luminescence to serve as a dim mirror, presented her reflection.

But the face she possessed in this dream was not her own. It belonged to a woman twenty years older than Holly, to whom she bore no resemblance.

She'd never before had a dream in which she occupied the body of another person. But now she understood why she had been unable to turn back from the mill when she'd been outside, and why she was unable to stop herself from climbing to the high room even though, on one level, she knew she was dreaming. Her lack of control was not the usual helplessness that transformed dreams into nightmares, but the result of sharing the body of a stranger.


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