Lightning Page 37


Laura was silent.


Stefan said, “Do you understand?”


“Yes.”


“Do you accept it?”


“I'll never accept his death.”


“But.. . do you believe me?”


“I think I do, yes.”


“Laura, I know how much you loved Danny Packard. If I could have saved him, even at the cost of my own life, I would have done so, I would not have hesitated.”


“I believe you,” she said. “Because without you ... I'd never have had Danny at all.” she said.


“The Eel,” she said.


“Destiny struggles to reassert the pattern that was meant to be,” Stefan said in the darkness. “When you were eight years old, I shot that junkie, prevented him from raping and killing you, but inevitably fate brought you to another pedophile who had the potential to be a murderer. Willy Sheener. The Eel. But fate also determined that you would be a writer and a successful one, that you would bring the same message to the world in your books regardless of what I did to change your life. That's a good pattern, There's something frightening yet reassuring in the way some power tries to reestablish destiny's broken designs . . . almost as if there's meaning in the universe, something that in spite of its insistence on our suffering, we might even call God.”


For a while they listened to the rain and wind sweep clean the world outside.


She said, “But why didn't you take care of the Eel for me?”


“I waited for him one night in his apartment-”


“You gave him a bad beating. Yes, I knew that was you.”


“Beat him and warned him to stay away from you. I told him I'd kill him the next time.”


“But the beating only made him more determined to have me. Why didn't you kill him right off?”


“I should have. But ... I don't know. Perhaps I'd seen so much killing and participated in enough of it that ... I just hoped for once that killing wouldn't be necessary.”


She thought of his world of war, concentration camps, genocide, and she could understand why he might have hoped to avoid murder even though Sheener had hardly deserved to live.


“But when Sheener came after me at the Dockweilers' house, why weren't you there to stop him?”


“The next time I monitored your life was when you were thirteen, after you'd already killed Sheener yourself and survived, so I decided not to go back and deal with him for you.”


“I survived,” she said. “But Nina Dockweiler didn't. Maybe if she hadn't come home and seen the blood, the body ...”


“Maybe,” he said. “And maybe not. Destiny struggles to restore the ordained pattern as best it can. Maybe she'd have died anyway. Besides, I couldn't protect you from every trauma, Laura. I would have needed ten thousand trips through time to have done that. And perhaps that degree of tampering wouldn't have been good for you. Without any adversity in your life, perhaps you wouldn't have become the woman with whom I fell in love.”


Silence settled between them.


She listened to the wind, the rain.


She listened to her heartbeat.


At last she said, “I don't love you.”


“I understand.”


“Seems like I should-a little.”


“You don't even really know me yet.”


“Maybe I can never love you.”


“I know.”


“In spite of all you've done for me.”


“But if we live through this . . . well, there's always time.”


“Yes,” she said, “I suppose there's always time.”


Six


NIGHT'S COMPANION


On Saturday, March 18,1944, in the main, ground-floor lab of the institute, SS Obersturmfuhrer Erich Klietmann and his Squad of three highly trained men were prepared to jump into the future and eliminate Krieger, the woman, and the boy. They were dressed to pass as young California executives in 1989: pinstripe suits by Yves St. Laurent, white shirts, dark ties, black Bally loafers, black socks, and Ray-Ban sunglasses if the weather required them; they had been told that in the future this was called the “power look,” and though Klietmann didn't know what that meant exactly, he liked the sound of it. Their clothes had been purchased in the future by institute researchers on previous jaunts; nothing about them, down to their underwear, was anachronistic.


Each of the four was carrying a Mark Cross attache case, as well, a smart-looking model made of calfskin with gold-plated fixtures. The cases had also been brought back from the future, as had the modified Uzi carbine and spare magazines that were packed in each attached


A team of institute researchers had been on a mission to the U. S. in the year and month when John Hincktey had attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. While watching the film of the attack on television, they had been immensely impressed by the compact automatic weapons that the Secret Service agents had been carrying in attach^ cases. The agents had been able to withdraw those submachine guns and bring them into firing position in but a second or two. Now the Uzi was not only the automatic carbine of choice hi many of the police agencies and armies of 1989, but was the preferred weapon of the time-traveling Schutzstaffel commandos.


Klietmann had practiced with the Uzi. He regarded the weapon with as much affection as he had ever lavished upon a human being. The only thing about it that bothered him was the fact that it was an


Israeli-designed and manufactured gun, the product of a bunch of Jews. On the other hand, within a few days the new directors of At institute were likely to approve the integration of the Uzi into the-world of 1944, and German soldiers equipped with it would be better able to drive back the subhuman hordes who would depose der Fuhrer.


He looked at the clock on the gate's programming board and saw that seven minutes had passed since the research team had left for California on February 15, 1989. They were there to search public records-mostly back issues of newspapers-to discover if Krieger, the woman, and the boy had been found by police and detained for questioning in the month following the shoot-outs at Big Bear and San Bernardino. Then they would return to '44 and tell Klietmann the day, time, and place where Krieger and the woman could be found. Because every time traveler returned from a jaunt exactly eleven minutes after departing, regardless of how long he spent in the future. Klietmann and his squad had only four more minutes to wait.


Thursday, January 12, 1989, was Laura's thirty-fourth birthday, and they spent it in the same room at The Bluebird of Happiness Motel. Stefan needed another day of rest to regain his strength and let the penicillin do its work. He also needed the time to think; he had to devise a plan for destroying the institute, and that problem was sufficiently knotty to require hours of intense concentration.


The rain had stopped, but the sky still looked bruised, swollen. The forecast was for another storm to follow the first by midnight.


They watched the local five o'clock television news and saw a story about her and Chris and the wounded mystery man they had taken to Dr. Brenkshaw. Police were still looking for her and the best guess anyone could make about the situation was that the drug dealers who had killed her husband were after her and her son, either because they were afraid she would eventually identify them in a police lineup or because she was somehow involved in drug traffic herself.


“My mom a drug dealer?” Chris said, offended by that insinuation. “What a bunch of bozos!”


Although no bodies had been found at Big Bear or San Bernardino, there had been a sensational development that guaranteed the media's continued interest. Reporters had learned that considerable blood had been found at both scenes-and that a man's severed head had been discovered in the alleyway behind the Brenkshaw house, between two garbage cans.


Laura remembered stepping through the redwood gate behind Carter Brenkshaw's property, seeing the second surprised gunman, and opening fire on him with the Uzi. The burst had taken him in the throat and head, and at Ac time she had thought that the concentrated automatic fire might well have decapitated him.


' 'The surviving SS men pushed the call-home button on the dead man's beta,“ Stefan said. ”and sent his body back."


“But why not his head?” Lam aid, sickened by the subject but too curious not to ask the question.


“It must've rolled away from die body, between the garbage cans,” Stefan said, “and they couldn't find it in the few seconds they had to look. If they'd located it, they could have laid it on the corpse and folded his arms around it. Anything a time traveler wears or carries is taken with him on a jaunt. But with the sirens approaching and the darkness in the alley . . . they didn't have time to find the head.”


Chris, who might have been expected to revel in these bizarre complications, stumped In his char, legs curled up under him, and was silent. Perhaps the hideous image of a severed head had made Death's presence more real for him than tad all the gunfire directed at him.


Laura made a special point of hugging him and subtly reassuring him that they were going to come out of this together and unscathed. The hugs, however, were as much for her as for him, and the pep talks she gave him must have seemed at least somewhat false, for she had not yet convinced herself that in fact they would triumph.


For lunch and dinner she got take-out from the Chinese restaurant just across the street. The previous night none of the restaurant's employees recognized her as either the famous author or the fugitive, so she felt reasonably safe there. It seemed foolish to go elsewhere and risk being spotted.


At the end of dinner, while Laura was cleaning up the cardboard containers, Chris produced two chocolate cupcakes with a yellow candle on each. He had bought the packet of Hostess pastries and a box of birthday candles at the Ralph's supermarket yesterday morning and had hidden them until now. With great ceremony he carried the cupcakes from the bathroom, where he had secretly inserted and lit the candles, and golden reflections of the two flames shimmered brightly in his eyes. He grinned when he saw that he had surprised and delighted her. In fact she had to strive to hold back tears. She was moved that even -in the thrall of fear, in the midst of danger, he'd still had the presence of mind to think of her birthday, and the desire to please her; it seemed, to her, to be the essence of what mothers and children were all about.


The three of them ate wedges of the cupcakes. In addition five fortune cookies had come with the take-out food.


From his pillowed perch upon the bed, Stefan opened his cookie. “If only this were true: 'You'll live in times of peace and plenty.' ”


“It might turn out to be true,” Laura said. She cracked her cookie and withdrew the slip of paper. “Oh well, I think I've had enough of this, thank you: 'Adventure will be your companion.'”


When Chris opened his cookie, there was no slip of paper inside, no fortune.


A flicker of fear passed through Laura, as if the empty cookie actually meant that he had no future. Superstitious nonsense. But she could not suppress her sudden anxiety.


“Here,” she said, quickly handing him both of the remaining cookies. “Getting none in that one just means you get two fortunes.”


Chris opened the first, read it to himself, laughed, then read it to n: “ 'You will achieve fame and fortune.'”


“When you're stinking rich, will you support me in my old age?” Laura asked.


“Sure, Mom. Well ... as long as you'll still cook for me, and especially your vegetable soup.”


“Going to make your old mom earn her way, huh?”


Smiling at the interplay between Laura and Chris, Stefan Krieger said, “He's a tough customer, isn't he?”


“He'll probably have me scrubbing his floors when I'm eighty,” Laura said.


Chris opened the second cookie. “ 'You'll have a good life of : pleasures-books, music, art.' ”


Neither Chris nor Stefan seemed to notice that the two fortunes made opposed predictions, effectively canceling each other, which in a way confirmed the ominous meaning of the empty cookie.


Hey, you're losing your mind, Shane, you really are, she thought. They're just fortune cookies. They don't really predict anything.


Hours later, after the lights were out and Chris was asleep, Stefan spoke to Laura from the darkness. “I've devised a plan.”


“A way to destroy the institute?”


“Yes. But it's very complicated, and there are many things we'll need. I don't know for sure . . . but I suspect some of these items can't be purchased by private citizens.”


“I can get anything you need,” she said confidently. “I have the contacts. Anything.”


“We'll have to have quite a lot of money.”


“That's thorny. I've only got forty bucks left, and I can't go to the bank and withdraw funds because that would leave a record-”


“Yes. That would draw them straight to us. Is there someone you can trust and who trusts you, someone who would give you a lot of their own money and tell no one they'd seen you?”


“You know all about me,” Laura said, “so you know about Thelma Ackerson. But, God, I don't want to drag her into this. If anything happened to Thelma-”


“It can be arranged without risk to her,” he insisted.


Outside, the promised rain arrived in a sudden downpour.


Laura said, “No.”


“But she's our only hope.”


“No.”


“Where else can you raise the money?”


“We'll find another way that doesn't require a lot of financing.”


“Whether we come up with another plan or not, we'll need money. Your forty dollars won't last another day. And I have nothing.”


“I won't risk Thelma,” she said adamantly.


“As I said, we can do it without risk, without-”


“No.”


“Then we're defeated,” he said dismally.


She listened to the rain, which in her mind became the heavy roar of World War II bombers-and then the sound of a chanting, maddened crowd.


At last she said, “But even if we could arrange it without any risk to Thelma, what if the SS has a tail on her? They must know she's my best friend-my only real friend. So why wouldn't they have sent one of their teams forward in time to just keep a watch on Thelma with the hope she'd lead them to me?”


“Because that's an unnecessarily tedious way to find us,” he said. “They can just send research teams into the future, to February of this year and then March and April, month after month, to check the newspapers until they find out where we first showed up. Each of those jaunts only takes eleven minutes in their time, remember, so it's quick; and that method is almost certain to work sooner or later because it's doubtful we could stay in hiding the rest of our lives.”

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