Lightning Page 17


A skin of new snow covered the highway now. The Jeep wagon had four-wheel drive and was equipped with tire chains, so Stefan was able to make reasonably good time in spite of the road conditions.


But not good enough.


He estimated that the tavern, where he had stolen the Jeep, was about eleven miles from the Packard house, which was just off state route 330 a few miles south of Big Bear. The mountain roads were narrow, twisty, full of dramatic rises and falls, and blowing snow ensured poor visibility, so his average speed was about forty miles an hour. He could not risk driving faster or more recklessly, for he would be of no use at all to Laura, Danny, and Chris if he lost control of the Jeep and plunged over an embankment to his death. At his current speed, however, he would arrive at their place at least ten minutes after they had left.


His intention had been to delay them at their house until the danger had passed. That plan was no longer viable.


The January sky seemed to have sunk so low under the weight of the storm that it was no higher than the tops of the serried ranks of massive evergreens that flanked both sides of the roadway. Wind shook the trees and hammered the Jeep. Snow stuck to the windshield wipers and became ice, so he turned up the defroster and hunched over the wheel, squinting through the inadequately cleaned glass.


When he next glanced at his watch, he saw that he had less than fifteen minutes. Laura, Danny, and Chris would be getting into their Chevy Blazer. They might even be pulling out of their driveway already.


He would have to intercept them on the highway, scant seconds ahead of Death.


He tried to squeeze slightly more speed out of the Jeep without shooting wide of a turn and into an abyss.


Five weeks after the day that Danny bought her the Lalique bowl, on August 15, 1979, a few minutes after noon, Laura was in the kitchen, heating a can of chicken soup for lunch, when she got a call from Spencer Keene, her literary agent in New York. Viking loved Shadrach and were offering a hundred thousand.


“Dollars?” she asked.


“Of course, dollars,” Spencer said. “What do you think, Russian rubles? What would that buy you-a hat maybe?”


“Oh, God.” She had to lean against the kitchen counter because suddenly her legs were weak.


Spencer said, “Laura, honey, only you can know what's best for you, but unless they're willing to let the hundred grand stand for a floor bid in an auction, I want you to consider turning this down.”


“Turn down a hundred thousand dollars?” she asked in disbelief.


“I want to send this out to maybe six or eight houses, set an auction date, see what happens. I think I know what will happen, Laura, I think they'll all love this book as much as I do. On the other hand . . . maybe not. It's a hard decision, and you've got to go away and think about it before you answer me.”


The moment Spencer said goodbye and hung up, Laura dialed Danny at work and told him about the offer.


He said, “If they won't make it a floor bid, turn it down.”


“But, Danny, can we afford to? I mean, my car is eleven years old and falling apart. Yours is almost four years old-”


“Listen, what did I tell you about this book? Didn't I tell you that it was you, a reflection of what you are?”


“You're sweet, but-”


“Turn it down. Listen, Laura. You're thinking that scorning a hundred K is like spitting in the faces of all the gods of good fortune; it's like inviting that lightning you've spoken about. But you earned this payoff, and fate isn't going to cheat you out of it.”


She called Spencer Keene and told him her decision.


Excited, nervous, already missing the hundred thousand dollars, she returned to the den and sat at her typewriter and stared at the unfinished short story for a while until she became aware of the odor of chicken soup and remembered she had left it on the stove. She hurried into the kitchen and found that all but half an inch of soup had boiled away; burnt noodles were stuck to the bottom of the pot.


At two-ten, which was five-ten New York time, Spencer called again to say that Viking had agreed to let the hundred thousand stand as a floor bid. “Now, that's the very least you make from Shadrach - a hundred grand. I think I'll set September twenty-sixth as the auction date. It's going to be a big one, Laura. I feel it.”


She spent the remainder of the afternoon trying to be elated but unable to shake off her anxiety. Shadrach was already a big success, no matter what happened in the auction. She had no reason for her anxiety, but it held her in a tight grip.


Danny came home from work that day with a bottle of champagne, a bouquet of roses, and a box of Godiva chocolates. They sat on the sofa, nibbling chocolates, sipping champagne, and talking about the future, which seemed entirely bright; yet her anxiety lingered.


Finally she said, “I don't want chocolates or champagne or roses or a hundred thousand dollars. I want you. Take me to bed.”


They made love for a long time. The late summer sun ebbed from the windows and the tide of night rolled in before they parted with a sweet, aching reluctance. Lying at her side in the darkness, Danny tenderly kissed her breasts, her throat, her eyes, and finally her lips. She realized that her anxiety had at last faded. It was not sexual release that expelled her fear. Intimacy, total surrender of self, and the sense of snared hopes and dreams and destinies had been the true medicines; the great, good feeling of family that she had with was a talisman that effectively warded off cold fate.


On Wednesday, September 26, Danny took the day off from •or! to be at Laura's side as the news came in from


At seven-thirty in the morning, ten-thirty New York time, 1 Spencer Keene called to report that Random House had made the first offer above the auction floor. “One hundred and twenty-five thousand, and we're on our way.”


Two hours later Spencer called again. “Everyone's off to lunch, * so there'll be a lull. Right now, we're up to three hundred and fifty | thousand and six houses are still in the bidding.”


“Three hundred and fifty thousand?” Laura repeated.


At the kitchen sink where he was rinsing the breakfast dishes, Danny dropped a plate.


When she hung up and looked at Danny, he grinned and said, “Am I mistaken, or is this the book you were afraid might be mule puke?”


Four and a half hours later, as they were sitting at the dinette ! table pretending to be concentrating on a game of five-hundred rummy, their inattention betrayed by their mutual inability to keep score with any degree of mathematical accuracy whatsoever, Spencer Keene called again. Danny followed her into the kitchen to listen to her side of the conversation.


Spencer said, “You sitting down, honey?”


“I'm ready, Spencer. I don't need a chair. Tell me.”


“It's over. Simon & Schuster. One million, two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars.”


Weak with shock, shaky, she spoke with Spencer for another ten minutes, and when she hung up, she wasn't sure of a thing that had been said after he had told her the price. Danny was staring at her expectantly, and she realized that he didn't know what had happened. She told him the name of the buyer and the figure.


For a moment they stared at each other in silence.


Then she said, “I think maybe now we can afford to have a baby.”


Stefan topped a hill and peered ahead at the half-mile stretch of snowswept road on which it would happen. On his left, beyond the southbound lane, the tree-covered mountainside sloped steeply down to the highway. On his right the northbound lane was edged by a soft shoulder only about four feet wide, beyond which the mountainside fell away again into a deep gorge. No guardrails protected travelers from that deadly drop-off.


At the bottom of the slope, the road turned left, out of sight. Between that turn below and the crest of the hill, which he had just topped, the two-lane blacktop was deserted.


According to his watch, Laura would be dead in a minute. Two minutes at most.


He suddenly realized that he should never have tried to drive toward the Packards, not after he had arrived so late. Instead he should have given up the idea of stopping the Packards and should have tried instead to identify and stop the Robertsons' vehicle farther back on the road to Arrowhead. That would have worked just as well.


Too late now.


Stefan had no time to go back, nor could he risk driving farther north toward the Packards. He did not know the exact moment of their deaths, not to the second, but that catastrophe was now approaching swiftly. If he tried to go even another half mile and stop them before they arrived at this fateful incline, he might reach the bottom of the slope and, in taking the turn, pass them going the other way, at which point he would not be able to swing around and catch up with them and stop them before the Robertsons' truck hit them head-on.


He braked gently and angled across the ascending southbound lane, stopping the Jeep on a wide portion of that shoulder of the road about halfway down the slope, so close to the embankment that he could not get out of the driver's door. His heart was thudding almost painfully as he shifted the Jeep into park, put on the emergency brake, cut the engine, slid across the seat, and got out the passenger-side door.


The blowing snow and icy air stung his face, and all along the mountainside the wind shrieked and howled like many voices, perhaps the voices of the three sisters of Greek myth, the Fates, mocking him for his desperate attempt to prevent what they had ordained.


After receiving editorial suggestions, Laura undertook an easy revision of Shadrach, delivering the final version of the script in mid-December 1979, and Simon & Schuster scheduled the book for publication in September 1980.


It was such a busy year for Laura and Danny that she was only peripherally aware of the Iranian hostage crisis and presidential campaign, and even more vaguely cognizant of the countless fires, plane crashes, toxic spills, mass murders, floods, earthquakes, and other tragedies that constituted the news. That was the year the rabbit died. That was the year she and Danny bought their first house-a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath, Spanish model in Orange Park Acres-and moved out of the apartment in Tustin. She started her third novel, The Golden Eagle, and one day when Danny asked her how it was going, she said, “Mule puke,” and he said, “That's great!” The first of September, upon receipt of a substantial check for the film rights to Shadrach, which had sold to MGM, Danny quit his job at the brokerage house and became her full-time financial manager. On Sunday, September 21, three weeks after it arrived in the stores, Shadrach appeared on the New York Times bestseller list at number twelve. On October 5, 1980, when Laura gave birth to Christopher Robert Packard, Shadrach was in a third printing, sitting comfortably at number eight on the Times, and received what Spencer Keene called a “thunderously good” review on page five of that same book section.


The boy entered the world at 2:23 P.M. in a greater rush of blood than that which usually carried babies out of their prenatal darkness. Pain-racked and hemorrhaging, Laura required three pints during the afternoon and evening. She spent a better night than expected, however, and by morning she was sore, weary, but well out of danger.


The following day during visiting hours, Thelma Ackerson came to see the baby and the new mother. Still dressed punkish and ahead of her time-hair long on the left side of her head, with a white streak like the bride of Frankenstein, and short on the right side, with no streak-she breezed into Laura's private room, went straight to Danny, threw her arms around him, hugged him hard, and said, “God, you're big. You're a mutant. Admit it, Packard, your mother might have been human, but your father was a grisly bear.” She came to the bed where Laura was propped up against three pillows, kissed her on the forehead and then on the cheek. “I went to the nursery before I came here, had a peek at Christopher Robert through the glass, and he's adorable. But I think you're going to need all the millions you can make from your books, kiddo, because that boy is going to take after his father, and your food bill's going to run thirty thousand a month. Until you get him housebroken, he'll be eating your furniture.” Laura said, “I'm glad you came, Thelma.” “Would I miss it? Maybe if I was playing a Mafia-owned club in Bayonne, New Jersey, and had to cancel out part of a date to fly back, maybe then I'd miss it because if you break a contract with those guys they cut off your thumbs and make you use them as suppositories. But I was west of the Mississippi when I got the news last night, and only nuclear war or a date with Paul McCartney could keep me away.”


Almost two years ago Thelma had finally gotten time on the stage at the Improv, and she'd been a hit. She landed an agent and began to get paid bookings in sleazy, third-rate-and eventually second-rate-clubs across the country. Laura and Danny had driven into Los Angeles twice to see her perform, and she had been hilarious; she wrote her own material and delivered it with the comic timing she had possessed since childhood but had honed in the intervening years. Her act had one unusual aspect that would either make her a national phenomenon or ensure her obscurity: Woven through the jokes was a strong thread of melancholy, a sense of the tragedy of life that existed simultaneously with the wonder and humor of it. In fact it was similar to the tone of Laura's novels, but what appealed to book readers was less likely to appeal to audiences who had paid for belly laughs.


Now Thelma leaned across the bed railing, peered closely at Laura and said, “Hey, you look pale. And those rings around your eyes ...”


“Thelma, dear, I hate to shatter your illusions, but a baby isn't really brought by the stork. The mother has to expel it from her own womb, and it's a tight fit.”


Thelma stared hard at her, then directed an equally hard stare at Danny, who had come around the other side of the bed to hold Laura's hand. “What's wrong here?”


Laura sighed and, wincing with discomfort, shifted her position slightly. To Danny, she said, “See? I told you she's a bloodhound.”


“It wasn't an easy pregnancy, was it?” Thelma demanded. “The pregnancy was easy enough,” Laura said. “It was the delivery that was the problem.”


“You didn't . . . almost die or anything, Shane?” “No, no, no,” Laura said, and Danny's hand tightened on hers. “Nothing that dramatic. We knew from the start there were going to be some difficulties along the way, but we found the best doctor, and he kept a close watch. It's just ... I won't be able to have any more. Christopher will be our last.”


Thelma looked at Danny, at Laura, and said quietly, “I'm sorry.”


“It's all right,” Laura said, forcing a smile. “We have little Chris, and he's beautiful.”

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