. you couldn't have asked for a better brother, dear.
He's one of the nicest people I've ever known, a dedicated teacher, so gentle and kind and patient.”
Holly thought of Norman Rink, the psychopath who had killed a clerk and two customers in that Atlanta convenience store last May, and who had been killed in turn by gentle, kind Jim Ironheart. Eight rounds from a shotgun at point-blank range. Four rounds fired into the corpse after Rink was obviously dead. Viola Moreno might know the man well, but she clearly had no concept of the rage that he could tap when he needed it.
"I've known good teachers in my time, but none as concerned about his students as Jim Ironheart was. He sincerely cared about them, as if they were his own kids." She leaned back in her chair and shook her head remembering. "He gave so much to them, wanted so much to make their lives better, and all but the worst-case misfits responded to him.
He had a rapport with his students that other teachers would sell their souls for, yet he didn't have to surrender a proper student-teacher relationship to get it.
So many of them try to be pals with their students, you see, and that never really works.”
"Why did he quit teaching?" Viola hesitated, smile fading. "Partly, it was the lottery.”
"What lottery?" "You don't know about that?" Holly frowned and shook her head.
Viola said, "He won six million dollars in January.”
"Holy smoke!" "The first time he ever bought a ticket.”
Allowing her initial surprise to metamorphose into a look of worry, Holly said, "Oh, God, now he's going to think I only came around because he's suddenly rich.”
"No, no," Viola hastened to assure her. "Jim would never think the worst of anyone.”
"I've done well myself," Holly lied. "I don't need his money, I wouldn't take it if he tried to give it to me. My adoptive parents are doctors, not wealthy but well-to-do, and I'm an attorney with a nice practice.”
Okay, okay, you really don't want his money, Holly thought with self disgust as caustic as acid, but you're still a mean little lying bitch with a frightening talent for invented detail, and you'll spend eternity standing hip-deep in dung, polishing Satan's boots.
Her mood changing, Viola pushed her chair back from the table, got up, and stepped to the edge of the patio. She plucked a weed from a large terra-cotta pot full of begonias, baby's breath, and copper-yellow marigolds. Absentmindedly rolling the slender weed into a ball between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand, she stared thoughtfully out at the park-like grounds.
The woman was silent for a long time.
Holly worried that she had said something wrong, unwittingly revealing her duplicity. Second by second, she became more nervous, and she found herself wanting to blurt out an apology for all the lies she'd told.
Squirrels capered on the grass. A butterfly swooped under the patio cover, perched on the edge of the lemonade pitcher for a moment, then flew away.
Finally, with a tremor in her voice that was real this time, Holly said, "Mrs. Moreno? Is something wrong?" Viola flicked the balled-up weed out onto the grass. "I'm just having trouble deciding how to put this.”
"Put what?" Holly asked nervously.
Turning to her again, approaching the table, Viola said, "You asked me why Jim. . . why your brother quit teaching. I said it was because he won the lottery, but that really isn't true. If he'd still loved teaching as much as he did a few years ago or even one year ago, he would've kept working even if he'd won a hundred million.”
Holly almost breathed a sigh of relief that her cover had not been penetrated. "What soured him on it?" "He lost a student.”
"Lost?" "An eighth-grader named Larry Kakonis. A very bright boy with a good heart-but disturbed. From a troubled family. His father beat his mother, had been beating her as long as Larry could remember, and Larry felt as if he should be able to stop it, but he couldn't. He felt responsible, though he shouldn't have. That was the kind of kid he was, a real strong sense of responsibility.”
Viola picked up her glass of lemonade, returned to the edge of the patio, and stared out at the greensward again. She was silent once more.
Eventually the woman said, "The mother was a co-dependent type, a victim of the father but a collaborator in her own victimization. As troubled in her own way as the father. Larry couldn't reconcile his love for his mother and his respect for her with his growing understanding that, on some level, she liked and needed to be beaten.”
Suddenly Holly knew where this was going, and she did not want to hear the rest of it. However, she had no choice but to listen.
"Jim had worked so hard with the boy. I don't mean just on his English lessons, not just academically. Lary had opened up to him in a way he'd never been able to open to anyone else, and Jim had been counseling him with the help of Dr. Lansing, a psychologist who works part-time for the school district. Larry seemed to be coming around, struggling to understand his mother and himself and to some extent succeeding. Then one night, May fifteenth of last year--over fifteen months ago, though it's hard to believe it's been that long-Larry Kakonis took a gun from his father's collection, loaded it, put the barrel in his mouth. . . and fired one bullet up into his brain.”
Holly flinched as if struck. In fact she had been struck, though the blows -two of them-were not physical. She was jolted, first, by the thought of a thirteen-year-old committing suicide when the best of life lay ahead of him. A small problem could seem like a large one at that age, and a genuinely serious problem could seem catastrophic and hopeless. Holly felt a pang of grief for Larry Kakonis, and an undirected anger because the kid had not been given time enough to learn that all horrors can be dealt with and that, on balance, life offered far more joy than despair. But she was equally rattled by the date on which the boy had killed himself: May 15.
One year later, this past May 15, Jim Ironheart had performed his first miraculous rescue. Sam and Emily Newsome. Atlanta, Georgia. Saved from murder at the hands of a sociopathic holdup man named Norman Rink.
Holly could sit still no longer. She got up and joined Viola at the edge of the patio. They watched the squirrels.
"Jim blamed himself," Viola said.
"For Lary Kakonis? But he wasn't responsible.”
"He blamed himself anyway. That's how he is. But his reaction seemed excessive, even for Jim. After Larry's death, he lost interest in teaching. He stopped believing he could make a difference. He'd had so many successes, more than any teacher I've ever known, but that one failure was too much for him.”
Holly remembered the boldness with which Ironheart had scooped Billy Jenkins out of the path of the hurtling pickup truck. That certainly had not been a failure.
"He just sort of spiraled down into gloom," Viola said, "couldn't pull himself out of it.”
The man Holly had met in Portland had not seemed depressive.
Mysterious, yes, and self contained. But he'd had a good sense of humor, and he'd been quick to smile.
Viola took a sip of her lemonade. "Funny, it tastes too sour now.”
She set the glass down on the concrete near her feet and wiped her damp hand on her slacks. She started to speak again, hesitated, but finally said, "Then. . he got a little strange.”
"Strange? In what way?" "Withdrawn. Quiet. He started taking martial-arts training. Tae Kwa Do. Lots of people are interested in that sort of thing, I guess, but it seemed so out of character for Jim.”
It didn't seem out of character for the Jim Ironheart that Holly knew.
Viola said, "It wasn't casual with him, either. Every day after school he went for a lesson at a place in Newport Beach. He became obsessive.
I worried about him. So in January, when he won the lottery, I was happy Six million dollars! That's such a good thing, such big luck, it seemed like it would have to turn his life around, bring him out of his depression.”
"But it didn't?" "No. He didn't seem all that surprised or pleased by it. He quit t , moved out of his apartment into a house. . . and pulled back even further from his friends." She turned to Holly and smiled. It was the first smile she had managed for a while. "That's why I was so excited when ya told me you were his sister, a sister he doesn't even know he has. maybe you can do for him what winning six million dollars couldn't The guilt over her deception suffused Holly again, bringing a hot blush to her face. She hoped Viola would mistake it for a blush of pleasure and excitement. "It would be wonderful if I could.”
"You can, I'm sure. He's alone, or feels that he is. That's part of his problem. With a sister, he won't be alone any more. Go see him today right now.”
Holly shook her head. "Soon. But not yet. I need to. . . build my confidence. You won't tell him about me, will you?" "Of course not, dear. You should have all the fun of telling him, an what a wonderful moment that'll be.”
Holly's smile felt like a pair of rigid plastic lips glued to her face, as fake as part of a Halloween costume.
A few minutes later, at the front door, as Holly was leaving, Viola put her hand on her arm and said, "I don't want to give you the wrong idea.it won't be easy lifting his spirits, getting him back on track. As long as I've known Jim, I've felt there's a sadness deep down in him, like a stain that won't come out, which isn't such a surprise, really, when you consider what happened to his parents-his being orphaned when he was only ten all of that.”
Holly nodded. "Thanks. You've been a real help.”
Viola impulsively hugged her, planted a kiss on her cheek, and said, I want to have both you and Jim to dinner as soon as possible.
Homems green-corn tamales, black beans, and jalapeno rice so hot it'll melt ya dental fillings!" Holly was simultaneously pleased and dismayed: pleased to have met this woman, who so quickly seemed to be a favorite aunt of long acquaintance dismayed because she had met her and been accepted by her under false pretenses.
All the way back to her rental car, Holly fiercely berated herself under her breath. She was at no loss for ugly words and clever damning phrases.
Twelve years in newsrooms, in the company of reporters, had acquainted her with enough obscene language to insure her the trophy in a cursing contest with even the most foul-mouthed victim of Tourette's syndrome.
The Yellow Pages listed only one Tae Kwon Do school in Newport beach. It was in a shopping center off Newport Boulevard, between a custom window-covering store and a bakery.
The place was called Dojo, the Japanese word for a martial-arts practice ball, which was like naming a restaurant "Restaurant" or a dress shop "Dress Shop." Holly was surprised by the generic name, because Asian businessmen often brought a poetic sensibility to the titling of their enterprises. Three people were standing on the sidewalk in front of Dojo's big window, eating eclairs and awash in the delicious aromas wafting from the adjacent bakery, watching a class of six students go through their routines with a squat but exceptionally limber Korean instructor in black pajamas.
When the teacher threw a pupil to the mat inside, the plate-glass window vibrated.
Entering, Holly passed out of the chocolate-, cinnamon-, sugar-, yeast scented air into an acidic environment of stale incense laced with a vague perspiration odor. Because of a story she'd written about a Portland teenager who won a medal in a national competition, she knew Tae Kwon Do was an aggressive Korean form of karate, using fierce punches, lightning-quick jabs, chops, blocks, choke holds, and devastatingly powerful, leaping kicks. The teacher was pulling his blows, but there were still a lot of grunts, wheezes, guttural exclamations, and jarring thuds as students slammed to the mat.
In the far right corner of the room, a brunette sat on a stool behind a counter, doing paperwork. Every aspect and detail of her dress and grooming were advertisements for her sexuality. Her tight red T-shirt emphasized her ample chest and outlined ni**les as large as cherries.
With a touseled mane of chestnut hair given luster by artfully applied blond highlights, eyes subtly but exotically shadowed, mouth too lushly painted with deep-coral lipstick, a just-right tan, disablingly long fingernails painted to match the lipstick, and enough silvery costume jewelry to stock a display case, she would have been the perfect advertisement if women had been a product for sale in every local market.
"Does this thudding and grunting go on all day?" Holly asked.
"Most of the day, yeah.”
"Doesn't it get to you?" "Oh, yeah," the brunette said with a lascivious wink, "I know what ya mean. They're like a bunch of bulls ramming at each other. I'm not had an hour every day till I'm so horny I can't stand it.”
That was not what Holly had meant. She was suggesting that the noise was headache-inducing, not arousing. But she winked back, girl-to-girl and said, "The boss in?" "Eddie? He's doing a couple hundred flights of stairs," the woman said cryptically. "What'd you want?" Holly explained that she was a reporter, working on a story that had connection with Dojo.
The receptionist, if that's what she was, brightened at this news instead of glowering, as was often the case. Eddie, she said, was always looking to get publicity for the business. She rose from her stool and stepped to a door behind the counter, revealing that she was wearing high-heeled sandals and tight white shorts. that clung to her butt as snugly as a coat of paint.
Holly was beginning to feel like a boy.
As the brunette had indicated, Eddie was delighted to hear that Dojo would be mentioned in a newspaper piece, even if tangentially, but wanted her to interview him while he continued to do stairs. He was not Asian, which perhaps explained the unimaginative generic name of the business. Tall, blond, shaggy-haired; blue-eyed, he was dressed only in muscles and a pair of black spandex cyclist's shorts. He was on a StairMaster exercise machine, climbing briskly to nowhere.
"It's great," he said, pumping his exquisitely developed legs.
"Six more flights, and I'll be at the top of the Washington monument.”
He was breathing hard but not as hard as Holly would have been breathing after running up six flights to her third-floor apartment in Portland.
She sat in a chair he had indicated, which put the StairMaster directly in front of her, giving her a full side view of him. His sun-bronzed glistened with sweat, which also darkened the hair at the nape of his neck. The spandex embraced him as intimately as the white shorts clung to the receptionist. It almost seemed as if he had known Holly was coming and had carefully arranged the StairMaster and her chair to play himself to his best advantage.