Firefly Lane Page 23


The only person Kate hadn't connected with was Johnny.

She was a nervous wreck around him. All he had to do was look her way and smile, and she'd drop whatever was in her hand. She consistently stuttered when giving him his messages and tripped over the ripped carpet edge in his office.

It was pathetic.

At first, Kate figured it was his looks. He was Irish-Catholic-boy perfect, with his black hair and blue eyes, and when he smiled his whole face crinkled in a way that made her breath catch in her throat.

She'd assumed her infatuation wouldn't last, that in time, as she got to know him, his looks would be less arresting for her. At the very least, she thought she'd develop an immunity to his smile.

No such luck. Everything he said and did tightened the noose around her heart. Beneath his cynical veneer, she'd glimpsed an idealist, and even more: a wounded one. Something had broken Johnny, left him here, on the fringes of the big story, and the mystery of it tantalized her.

She went over to the corner, where a stack of tapes lay in a heap, waiting to be put away. She'd just picked up an armful when Johnny appeared in the doorway of his office. "Hey," he said. "Are you busy?"

She dropped the stack of tapes. Idiot. "No," she said. "Not really."

"Let's grab a real lunch. It's a slow news day and I'm sick of deli sandwiches."

"Uh . . . sure." She concentrated on the tasks in front of her: switching on the answering machine, putting on her sweater, picking up her purse.

He came up beside her. "Ready?"

"Let's go."

She walked alongside him down the block and across the street. Now and then his body brushed against hers, and she was acutely aware of every contact.

When they finally got to the restaurant, he led her over to a table in the corner that overlooked Elliott Bay and the shops at Pier 70. A waitress showed up almost instantly to take their orders.

"Are you old enough to drink, Mularkey?" he asked with a smile.

"Very funny. But I don't drink on the job." At the words, which couldn't have sounded more prim, she winced and thought, Idiot, again.

"You're a very responsible girl," he said when the waitress left; he was obviously trying not to smile.

"Woman," she said firmly, hoping she didn't blush.

He smiled at that. "I was trying to compliment you."

"And you chose responsible?"

"What would you prefer?"

"Sexy. Brilliant. Beautiful." She laughed nervously, sounding more like a girl than she would have wished. "You know: the words every woman wants to hear." She smiled. This was her chance to make an impression on him, get his attention as he'd gotten hers. She didn't want to blow it.

He leaned back in his chair, hopefully not because he suddenly wanted distance between them. She wished now, fervently, in fact, that she'd slept with one of her college boyfriends. She was certain he could see the stamp of virginity on her. "You've been at the station, what—two months now?"

"Almost three."

"How do you like it?"

"Fine."

"Fine? That's an odd answer. This is a love-it-or-hate-it business." He leaned forward, put his elbows on the table. "Do you have a passion for it?"

That word again: the one that separated her and Tully as cleanly as wheat from chaff.

"Y-yes."

He studied her, then smiled knowingly. She wondered how deeply into her soul that blue gaze had seen. "Tully certainly does."

"Yes."

He tried to sound casual as he asked, "Is she seeing anyone?"

Kate considered it a personal triumph that she didn't flinch or frown. Now, at least, she knew why he'd asked her out for lunch. She should have known. She wanted to say, Yes; she's been with the same man for years, but she didn't dare. Tully might not hide Chad anymore, but she didn't flaunt him, either. "What do you think?"

"I think she sees a lot of men."

Thankfully, the waitress returned with their orders and she pretended to be fascinated by her plate. "What about you? I get the feeling you're not exactly passionate about your job."

He looked up sharply. "What makes you say that?"

She shrugged and kept eating, but she was watching him now.

"Maybe not," he said quietly.

She felt herself go still; her fork stayed in midair. For the first time they weren't making idle chitchat. He'd just revealed something important; she was somehow certain of that. "Tell me about El Salvador."

"You know what went on down there? The massacre? It was a bloodbath. Things have been getting worse lately, too. The death squads are killing civilians, priests, nuns."

Kate hadn't known all of that, or any of it, really, but she nodded anyway, watching the play of emotions cross his face. She'd never seen him so animated, so passionate. Again there was an unreadable emotion in his eyes, too. "You sound as if you loved it. Why did you leave?"

"I don't talk about this." He finished his beer and stood up. "We better get back to work."

She looked down at their barely eaten lunches. Obviously she'd gone too far, probed too much. "I got too personal, I'm sorry—"

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"Don't be. It's ancient history. Let's go."

All the way back to the office, he said nothing. They walked briskly upstairs and into the quiet office.

There, she couldn't help herself, she touched his arm. "I really am sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."

"Like I said, it's old news."

"It isn't, though, is it?" she said quietly, knowing instantly that she'd overstepped again.

"Get back to work," he said brusquely, and went into his office, slamming the door shut behind him.

Yelm slept in the verdant green valley between Olympia and Tacoma. It had always been the kind of town where people dressed in flannel shirts and faded jeans and waved to one another as they passed.

All that had changed a few years ago, on the day a thirty-fivethousand-year-old warrior from Atlantis supposedly appeared in the kitchen of an otherwise ordinary housewife.

The locals, who believed in the Northwest creed of "live and let live," looked the other way for a long time. They ignored the "weirdos" who came to Yelm (many of them in expensive cars, wearing designer clothes—"Hollywood types") and paid no attention as SOLD signs started appearing on prime pieces of land.

When the whispers began that J. Z. Knight was gearing up to build some kind of compound to house a school for her followers, though, the townsfolk had had enough. According to the South Sound bureau chief at KCPO, people were picketing the Knight property.

The "crowd" protesting the proposed development turned out to be about ten people holding up signs and chatting with one another. It looked more like a coffee klatch than a political gathering—until the news van showed up. Then the crowd started marching and chanting.

"Ah," Mutt said, "the power of the media." He pulled over to the side of the road and turned to Tully.

"Here's what they didn't teach you in college: Get into the middle of it. Wade in. If it looks like there's going to be a fight, I want you there, got it? Just keep asking questions, keep talking. And if I give you the sign, get the hell out of the shot."

Tully's heart was going a mile a minute as she followed his lead.

The protesters surged toward them. Everyone was talking at once, trying to make their point, elbowing each other out of their way.

Mutt shoved Tully, hard. She stumbled forward and came face to chest with a huge, burly guy with a Santa-like beard and a sign that read: JUST SAY NO TO RAMTHA.

"I'm Tallulah Hart from KCPO. What are you out here for today?"

"Get his name," Mutt yelled.

Tully winced. Shit.

The man said, "I'm Ben Nettleman. Me and my family's lived in Yelm for nearly eighty years. We don't want to see it turn into some supermarket for new age weirdos."

"They got California for that!" someone yelled.

"Tell me about the Yelm you know," Tully said.

"It's a quiet place, where people look out for each other. We start our day with prayer and mostly we don't care what our neighbors do . . . until they start building shit that don't belong and bringing crazies by the busloads."

"And you say crazies because—"

"They are! That lady channels some dead guy who says he lived in Atlantis."

"I can do an Indian accent, too. It don't make me Ramtha," someone yelled.

For the next twenty minutes, Tully did what she did best: she talked to people. Six or seven minutes in, she found her groove and remembered what she'd been taught. She listened and asked the follow-up questions she would have asked anyone on an ordinary day. She had no idea if they were the right questions or if she was always standing in the best place, but she did know that by her third interview, Mutt had stopped directing her and started letting her lead. And she knew that she felt good. People really opened up to her, sharing their feelings and concerns and fears.

"Okay, Tully," Mutt said behind her. "That's it. We're done."

The minute the camera was off, the crowd broke up.

"I did it," she whispered. It was all she could do not to actually jump up and down. "What a rush."

"You did good," Mutt said, giving her a smile that she'd never forget.

Mutt packed up his camera gear in record time and climbed into the van.

Tully was on an adrenaline high.

Then she saw the campground sign.

"Turn off here," she said, surprising herself.

"Why?" Mutt asked.

"My mom is . . . on vacation. She's staying at this campground. Give me five minutes to say hi."

"I'll take a smoke break. That'll give you fifteen. But then we gotta boogie."

The van pulled up in front of the campground's reservation desk.

Tully went to the desk and asked about her mother. The man on duty nodded. "Site thirty-six. Tell her she needs to pay when you see her."

Following the path through the trees, Tully almost turned around a dozen times. Honestly, she had no idea why she was here. She hadn't seen or spoken to her mother since Gran's funeral, and although Tully had become the executor of Gran's estate at eighteen, and responsible for the monthly disbursement to Cloud, she'd never once received a thank-you for the money. Just a series of I've-moved-please-send-money-to-this-address postcards. This campground in Yelm was the most recent.

She saw her mother standing by a row of Sani-cans, smoking a cigarette. Wearing a coarse gray Cowichan sweater and pajamalike pants, she looked like an escapee from a women's prison. The years had sanded down some of her beauty and left a network of fine lines across her hollowed cheeks.

"Hey, Cloud," she said when she got close.

Her mother took a drag of her cigarette and exhaled slowly, watching her through heavily lidded eyes.

She could see how bad her mother looked, how the drugs were aging her. Not even forty yet, Cloud looked fifty, easy. As usual her eyes had the glassy, unfocused gaze of an addict.

"I'm here on assignment for KCPO news." Tully tried to keep the pride out of her voice, knowing it was stupid to expect anything from her mother, but it was there anyway, in her eyes and her voice, the shadowy remnant of that pathetic little girl who'd filled twelve memory books so that someday her mother would know her and be proud. "It was my first on-air report. I told you I'd be on TV someday."

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