Lightning Page 3


He looked beyond his reflection again. He had no trouble finding Laura Shane among the swaddled infants, for the surname of each child was printed on a card and affixed to the back of his or her cradle.


Why is there such interest in you, Laura? he wondered. Why is your life so important? Why all this energy expended to see that you are brought safely into the world? Should I kill you now and put an end to the traitor's scheme?


He'd be able to murder her without compunction. He had killed children before, though none quite so young as this. No crime was too terrible if it furthered the cause to which he had devoted his life.


The babe was sleeping. Now and then her mouth worked, and her tiny face briefly wrinkled, as perhaps she dreamed of the womb with regret and longing.


At last he decided not to kill her. Not yet.


“I can always eliminate you later, little one,” he murmured. “When I understand what part you play in the traitor's plans, then I can kill you.”


Kokoschka walked away from the window. He knew he would not see the girl again for more than eight years.


In southern California rain falls rarely in the spring, summer, and autumn. The true rainy season usually begins in December and ends in March. But on Saturday the second of April, 1963, the sky was overcast, and humidity was high. Holding open the front door of his small, neighborhood grocery in Santa Ana, Bob Shane decided that the prospects were good for one last big downpour of the season.


The ficus trees in the yard of the house across the street and the date palm on the corner were motionless in the dead air and seemed to droop as if with the weight of the oncoming storm.


By the cash register, the radio was turned low. The Beach Boys were singing their new hit “Surfin' U.S.A.” Considering the weather, their tune was as appropriate as “White Christmas” sung in July.


Bob looked at his watch: three-fifteen.


There'll be rain by three-thirty, he thought, and a lot of it.


Business had been good during the morning, but the afternoon had been slow. At the moment no shoppers were in the store.


The family-owned grocery faced new, deadly competition from convenience store chains like 7-Eleven. He was planning to shift to a deli-style operation, offering more fresh foods, but was delaying as long as possible because a deli required considerably more work.


If the oncoming storm was bad he would have few customers the rest of the day. He might close early and take Laura to a movie.


Turning from the door, he said, “Better get the boat, doll.”


Laura was kneeling at the head of the first aisle, across from the cash register, absorbed in her work. Bob had carried four cartons of canned soup from the stockroom, then Laura had taken over. She was only eight years old, but she was a reliable kid, and she liked to help out around the store. After stamping the correct price on each of the cans, she stacked them on the shelves, remembering to cycle the merchandise, putting the new soup behind the old.


She looked up reluctantly. “Boat? What boat?”


“Upstairs in the apartment. The boat in the closet. From the look of the sky, we're going to need it to get around later today.”


“Silly,” she said. “We don't have a boat in the closet.”


He walked behind the checkout counter. “Nice little blue boat.”


“Yeah? In a closet? Which closet?”


He began to clip packages of Slim Jims to the metal display rack beside the snack pack crackers. “The library closet, of course.”


“We don't have a library.”


“We don't? Oh. Well, now that you mention it, the boat isn't in the library. It's in the closet in the toad's room.”


She giggled. “What toad?”


“Why, you mean to tell me that you don't know about the toad?”


Grinning, she shook her head.


“As of today we are renting a room to a fine, upstanding toad from England. A gentleman toad who's here on the queen's business.”


Lightning flared and thunder rumbled through the April sky. On the radio, static crackled through The Cascades' “Rhythm of the Rain.”


Laura paid no attention to the storm. She was not frightened of things that scared most kids. She was so self-confident and self-contained that sometimes she seemed to be an old lady masquerading as a child. “Why would the queen let a toad handle her business?”


“Toads are excellent businessmen,” he said, opening one of the Slim Jims and taking a bite. Since Janet's death, since moving to California to start over, he had put on fifty pounds. He had never been a handsome man. Now at thirty-eight he was pleasantly round, with little chance of turning a woman's head. He was not a great success, either; no one got rich operating a corner grocery. But he didn't care. He had Laura, and he was a good father, and she loved him with all her heart, as he loved her, so what the rest of the world might think of him was of no consequence. “Yes, toads are excellent businessmen indeed. And this toad's family has served the crown for hundreds of years. In fact he's been knighted. Sir Thomas Toad.”


Lightning crackled brighter than before. The thunder was louder as well.


Having finished stocking the soup shelves, Laura rose from her knees and wiped her hands on the white apron that she was wearing over T-shirt and jeans. She was lovely; with her thick, brown hair and large, brown eyes, she bore more than a passing resemblance to her mother. “And how much rent is Sir Thomas Toad paying?”


“Six pence a week.”


“Is he in the room next to mine?”


“Yes, the room with the boat in the closet.”


She giggled again. “Well, he better not snore.”


“He said the same of you.”


A battered, rusted Buick pulled up in front of the store, and as *e driver's door opened, a third thunderbolt blasted a hole in the darkening sky. The day was filled with molten light that appeared flow liquidly along the street outside, sprayed lavalike over the parked Buick and the passing cars. The accompanying thunder shook the building from roof to foundation, as though the stormy heavens were reflected in the land below, precipitating an earth quake.


“Wow!” Laura said, moving fearlessly toward the windows.


Though no rain had fallen yet, wind suddenly swept in from the west, harrying leaves and litter before it.


The man who got out of the decrepit, blue Buick was looking at the sky in astonishment.


Bolt after bolt of lightning pierced the clouds, seared the air, cast their blazing images in windows and automobile chrome, and with each flash came thunder that struck the day with god-size fists.


The lightning spooked Bob. When he called to Laura - “Honey, get away from the windows”-she rushed behind the counter and let him put an arm around her, probably more for his comfort than hers.


The man from the Buick hurried into the store. Looking out at the fulminous sky, he said, “You see that, man? Whew!”


The thunder faded; silence returned.


Rain fell. Fat droplets at first struck the windows without much force then came in blinding torrents that blurred the world beyond the small shop.


The customer turned and smiled. “Some show, huh?”


Bob started to respond but fell silent when he took a closer look at the man, sensing trouble as a deer might sense a stalking wolf. The guy was wearing scuffed engineer boots, dirty jeans, and a stained windbreaker half zipped over a soiled white T-shirt. His windblown hair was oily, and his face was shaded with beard stubble. He had bloodshot, fevered eyes. A junkie. Approaching the counter, he drew a revolver from his windbreaker, and the gun was no surprise.


“Gimme what's in the register, as**ole.”


“Sure.”


“Make it quick.”


“Just take it easy.”


The junkie licked his pale, cracked lips. “Don't hold out on me, as**ole.”


“Okay, okay, sure. You got it,” Bob said, trying to push Laura behind him with one hand.


“Leave the girl so I can see her! I want to see her. Now, right now, get her the f*ck out from behind you!”


“Okay, just cool off.”


The guy was strung out as taut as a dead man's grin, and his entire body vibrated visibly. “Right where I can see her. And don't you reach for nothin' but the cash register, don't you go reachin' for no gun, or I'll blow your fuckin' head off.”


“I don't have a gun,” Bob assured him. He glanced at the rain-washed windows, hoping that no other customers would arrive while the holdup was in progress. The junkie seemed so unstable that he might shoot anyone who walked through the door.


Laura tried to ease behind her father, but the junkie said, “Hey, don't move!”


Bob said, “She's only eight-”


“She's a bitch, they're all fuckin' bitches no matter how big or little.” His shrill voice cracked repeatedly. He sounded even more frightened than Bob was, which scared Bob more than anything else.


Though he was focused intently on the junkie and the revolver, Bob was also crazily aware that the radio was playing Skeeter Davis singing “The End of the World,” which struck him as uncomfortably prophetic. With the excusable superstition of a man being held at gunpoint, he wished fervently that the song would conclude before it magically precipitated the end of his and Laura's world.


“Here's the money, here's all of it, take it.”


Scooping the cash off the counter and stuffing it into a pocket of his dirty windbreaker, the man said, “You got a storeroom in back?”


“Why?”


With one arm the junkie angrily swept the Slim Jims, Life Savers, crackers, and chewing gum off the counter onto the floor. He thrust the gun at Bob. “You got a storeroom, as**ole, I know you do. We're gonna go back there in the storeroom.”


Bob's mouth was suddenly dry. “Listen, take the money and go. You got what you want. Just go. Please.”


Grinning, more confident now that he had the money, emboldened by Bob's fear but still visibly trembling, the gunman said, “Don't worry, I ain't gonna kill no one. I'm a lover not a killer. All I want's a piece of that little bitch, and then I'm out of here.”


Bob cursed himself for not having a gun. Laura was clinging to him, trusting in him, but he could do nothing to save her. On the way to the storeroom, he'd lunge at the junkie, try to grab the revolver. He was overweight, out of shape. Unable to move fast enough, he would be shot in the gut and left to die on the floor, while the filthy bastard took Laura into the back room and raped her.


“Move,” the junkie said impatiently. “Now!”


A gun fired, Laura screamed, and Bob pulled her tight against him, sheltering her, but it was the junkie who had been shot. The bullet struck his left temple, blowing out part of his skull, and he went down hard atop the Slim Jims and crackers and chewing gum that he had knocked off the counter, dead so instantaneously that he did not even reflexively pull the trigger of his own revolver.


Stunned, Bob looked to his right and saw a tall, blond man with a pistol. Evidently he had entered the building through the rear service door and had crept silently through the storage room. Upon entering the grocery he had shot the junkie without warning. As he stared at the dead body, he looked cool, dispassionate, as if he were an experienced executioner.


“Thank God,” Bob said, “police.”


“I'm not the police.” The man wore gray slacks, a white shirt, and a dark gray jacket under which a shoulder holster was visible.


Bob was confused, wondering if their rescuer was another thief about to take over where the junkie had been violently interrupted.


The stranger looked up from the corpse. His eyes were pure blue, intense, and direct.


Bob was sure that he had seen the guy before, but he could not remember where or when.


The stranger looked at Laura. “You all right, sweetheart?”


“Yes,” she said, but she clung to her father.


The pungent odor of urine rose from the dead man, for he had lost control of his bladder at the moment of death.


The stranger crossed the room, stepping around the corpse, and engaged the dead-bolt lock on the front door. He pulled down the shade. He looked worriedly at the big display windows over which flowed a continuous film of rain, distorting the stormy afternoon beyond. “No way to cover those, I guess. We'll just have to hope nobody comes along and looks in.”


“What're you going to do to us?” Bob asked.


“Me? Nothing. I'm not like that creep. I don't want anything from you. I just locked the door so we could work out the story you're going to have to tell the police. We have to get it straight before anyone walks in here and sees the body.”


“Why do I need a story?”


Stooping beside the corpse, the stranger took a set of car keys and the wad of money from the pockets of the bloodstained windbreaker. Rising again, he said, “Okay, what you have to tell them is that there were two gunmen. This one wanted Laura, but the other was sickened by the idea of raping a little girl, and he just wanted to get out. So they argued, it got nasty, the other one shot this bastard and skipped with the money. Can you make that sound right?”


Bob was reluctant to believe that he and Laura had been spared.


With one arm he held his daughter tightly against him. “I ... I don't understand. You weren't really with him. You're not in trouble for killing him-after all, he was going to kill us. So why don't we just tell them the truth?”


Stepping to the end of the checkout counter, returning the money to Bob, the man said, “And what is the truth?”


“Well . . . you happened along and saw the robbery in progress-”


“I didn't just happen along, Bob. I've been watching over you and Laura.” Slipping his pistol into his shoulder holster, the man looked down at Laura. She stared at him wide-eyed. He smiled and whispered, “Guardian angel.”


Not believing in guardian angels, Bob said, “Watching over us? From where, how long, why?”


In a voice colored by urgency and by a vague, unplaceable accent that Bob heard for the first time, the stranger said, “Can't tell you that.” He glanced at the rain-washed windows. "And I can't afford to be questioned by police. So you've got to get this story straight.''


Bob said, “Where do I know you from?”


“You don't know me.”


“But I'm sure I've seen you before.”


“You haven't. You don't need to know. Now for God's sake, hide that money and leave the register empty; it'll seem odd if the second man left without what he came for. I'll take his Buick, abandon it in a few blocks, so you can give the cops a description of it. Give them a description of me, too. It won't matter.”

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