Page 36


The first man was using his bank card to get three hundred dollars from the machine. He was in his late fifties with white hair, a white mustache, and a kind face now lined with 'fear. The packet of crisp bills had begun to slide out of the dispenser and into his hand when everything had stopped.


The perp was in his late teens or early twenties, blond, good looking.


In Nikes, jeans, and a sweatshirt now, he was one of those beachboy types who could be found all summer long, on every street of downtown Laguna, wearing sandals and cutoffs, Bat bellied, with a mahogany tan, whitehaired from the sun. To look at him as he was at that moment or as he would be when summer came, you might suspect that he lacked ambition and had a talent for leisure, but you would not imagine that anyone so wholesome in appearance could harbor criminal intentions.


Even in the act of robbery he appeared to be cherubic, and had a pleasant smile. He was holding a .32-caliber pistol in his right hand, the muzzle jammed against the older man's spine.


Connie moved around the pair, studying them thoughtfully.


“What're you doing?” Harry asked.


“We've got to deal with this.”


“We don't have time.”


“We're cops, aren't we?”


Harry said, “We're being hunted, for God's sake!”


“Who else is going to keep the world from going to hell in a hand basket, if we don't?”


“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said. “I thought you were in this line of work for the thrill, and to prove something to yourself Isn't that what you said earlier?”


“And aren't you in it to preserve order, protect the innocent?”


Harry took a deep breath, as if to argue, then let it out in an explosive sigh of exasperation. It wasn't the first time during the past six months that she had elicited that reaction from him.


She thought he was sort of rvte when he was exasperated; it was such a pleasing change from his usual equanimity, which got boring because it was so constant. In fact, Connie even liked the way he looked tonight, rumpled and in need of a shave. She had never seen him this way, had never eyed to see him this way, and thought he seemed more rough than seedy, more dangerous than she would have believed he could look.


“Okay, okay,” he said, stepping into the robbery tableau to inspect the perp and victim more closely. “What do you want to do?”


“Make a few adjustments.”


“Might be dangerous.”


"That velocity business? Well, the moth didn't disintegrate.


Cautiously she touched one finger to the perp's face. His skin felt leary, and his flesh was somewhat firmer than it should have been.


When she took her finger away, she left a shallow dimple in his cheek, which evidently would not disappear until the Pause ended.


Staring into his eyes, she said, “Creep.”


In no way whatsoever did he acknowledge her presence. She was invisible to him. When time resumed its usual flow, he would not be aware that she had ever been there.


She pulled back on the perp's gun arm. It moved but with stiff resistance.


Connie was patient because she worried that time might begin to move forward again when she least expected it, that her presence might startle the reanimated gunman, and that he might accidentally pull the trigger. Conceivably she could cause him to blow the older man away, although his original intention might have been only to commit a robbery.


When the muzzle of the .32 was no longer pressed against the victim's spine, Connie slowly pushed it to the left until it was not pointed at him at all but aimed harmlessly into the night.


Harry carefully pried the gunman's fingers off the pistol. “It's like we're kids playing with lifesize action figures.” The .32 stayed precisely where it had been when the perp's hand had encircled it, suspended in midair.


Connie found that the gun could be moved more easily than the gunman, although it still offered some resistance. She took it to the man at the automatic teller, pressed it into his right hand, and closed his fingers tightly around it. When the Pause ended, he would find a pistol in his hand where none had been a fraction of a second previously and would have no idea how it had gotten there. From the payout tray of the machine, she removed the banded packet of twenties and put it in the customer's left hand.


“I see how the tendollar bill ended up magically back in my hand after I gave it to that hobo,” she said.


Surveying the night uneasily, Harry said, “And how the four bullets I pumped into him ended up in my shirt pocket.”


“The head of that religious statue in my hand, from Ricky Estefan's shrine.” She frowned. “Gives you the creepy crawlies to think we were like these people, frozen in time, and the bastard played with us that way.”


“You done here?”


“Not quite. Come on, help me turn the guy away from the machine.”


Together, they rocked him around a hundred and eighty degrees, as if he were a garden statue carved from marble. When they were finished, the victim not only had the pistol but was covering the perp with it.


Like set dressers in a wax museum handling extremely realistic mannequins, they had redesigned the scene and given it a new kind of drama.


“Okay, now let's get out of here,” Harry said, and started to move away from the bank, across the parking lot.


Connie hesitated, examining their handiwork.


He looked back, saw she wasn't following him, and turned to her.


“Now what?”


Shaking her head, she said, “This is too dangerous.”


“The good guy has the gun now.”


“Yes, but he'll be surprised when he finds it in his hand. He might drop it. The creep here might get hold of it again, probably will, and then they're right back where we found them.”


Harry returned, an apoplectic look on his face. “Have you forgotten a certain dirty, demented, scarfaced gentleman in a black raincoat?”


“I don't hear him yet.”


“Connie, for God's sake, he could stop time for us, too, then take however damn long he wants to walk up to us, wait until he was right in front of us before letting us back into the game. So you wouldn't hear him until he tore your nose off and asked you if you'd like a handkerchief.”


“If he's going to cheat like that-” “Cheat? Why wouldn't he cheat?”


Harry demanded exasperatedly though two minutes ago he had been arguing that there was a chance Ticktock would keep his promise and play fair.


“We aren't talking about Mother Teresa here!”


"-then it doesn't matter whether we finish our work or run.


Either way, he'll get us."


The keys to the whitehaired bank patron's car were in the ignition.


Connie took them out and unlocked the trunk. The lid did not pop up.


She had to lift it as if she was raising the lid on a coffin.


“This is analretentive,” Harry told her.


“Oh? Like you might ordinarily be expected to handle it, huh?”


He blinked at her.


Harry took the perp under the arms, and Connie grabbed him by the feet.


They carried him to the back of the car and gently lowered him into the trunk. The body seemed somewhat heavier than it would have been in real time. Connie tried to slam the lid, but in this altered reality, her push didn't give it the momentum to go all the way down, she had to lean on it to make the latch click into place.


When the Pause ended and time started up again, the perpetrator would find himself in the trunk of the car with no memory whatsoever of how he had wound up in that unhappy position. In the blink of an eye he would have gone from being assailant to prisoner.


Harry said, “I think I understand how I wound up three times in the same chair in Ordegard's kitchen, with the barrel of my own gun in my mouth.”


“He kept taking you out of real time and putting you there.”


“Yeah. A child playing pranks.”


Connie wondered if that was also how the snakes and tarantulas had gotten into Ricky Estefan's kitchen. During a previous Pause, had Ticktock gathered them from pet shops, laboratories, or even from their nests in the wild, and then put them in the bungalow?


Had he started time up againat least for Kickytartling the poor man with the sudden infestation?


Connie walked away from the car, into the parking lot, where she stopped and listened to the unnatural night.


It was as if everything in the world had suddenly died, from the wind to all of humanity, leaving a planetwide cemetery where grass and flowers and trees and mourners were made from the same granite as the tombstones.


At times in recent years, she had considered chucking police work and moving to some cheap shack on the edge of the Mojave, as far away from people as she could get. She lived so Spartanly that she had substantial savings; living as a desert rat, she could make the money last a long time. The barren, peopleless expanses of sand and scrub and rock were immensely appealing when compared to modern civilization.


But the Pause was far different from the peace of a sunbaked desert landscape, where life was still a part of the natural order and where civilization, sick as it was, still existed somewhere over the horizon.


After only about ten nonminutes of silence and stillness as deep as death, Connie longed for the flamboyant folly of the human circus. The species was too fond of lying, cheating, envy, ignorance, self pity, selfrighteousness, and utopian visions that always led to mass murderbut until and if it destroyed itself, it harbored the potential to become nobler, to take responsibility for its actions, to live and let live, and to earn the stewardship of the earth.


Hope. For the first time in her life, Connie Gulliver had begun to believe that hope, in itself, was a reason to live and to tolerate civilization as it was.


But Ticktock, as long as he lived, was the end of hope.


“I hate this sonøof a bitch like I've never hated anyone,” she said.


“I want to get him. I want to waste him so bad I can hardly stand it.”


“To get him, first we have to stay alive,” Harry reminded her.


“Let's go.”


Initially staying on the move in that motionless world seemed to be the wisest thing they could do. If Ticktock was faithful to his promise, using only his eyes and ears and wits to track them, their safety increased in direct proportion to the amount of distance they put between him and them.


As Harry ran with Connie from one lonely street to another, he suspected there was a better than even chance that the psycho would keep his word, stalking them only by ordinary means and releasing them unharmed from the Pause if he could not catch them in one hour of real time. The bastard was, after all, demonstrably immature in spite of his incredible power, a child playing a game, and sometimes children took games more seriously than real life.


Of course, when he released them, it would still be twentynine minutes past one in the morning when clocks finally started ticking again.


Dawn remained five hours away. And while Ticktock might play this particular gamewithinagame strictly according to the rules he had outlined, he would still intend to kill them by dawn.


Surviving the Pause would only win them the slim chance to find him and destroy him once time started up again.


And even if Ticktock broke his promise, using some sixth sense to track them, it was smart to keep moving. Perhaps he had pinned psychic tags on them, as Harry had speculated earlier; in which case, if he did cheat, he could find them regardless of where they went. By remaining on the move, at least they were safe unless and until he could catch them or get ahead by anticipating their next turn.


From street to alley to street, across yards and between silent houses they ran, clambering over fences, through a school playground, footfalls vaguely metallic, where every shadow seemed as permanent as iron, where' neon lights burned steadier than any Harry had ever seen before and painted eternal rainbows on the pavement, past a man in a tweed coat walking his Scottie dog and both of them as motionless as bronze figures.


They sprinted along a narrow stream bed where runoff from the storm earlier in the day was timefrozen but not at all like ice: clearer than ice, black with reflections of the night and marked by pure silver higtuights instead of frostwhite crystallization. The surface was not flat, either, like a frozen winter creek, but rippled and runneled and spiraled by turbulence. Where the stream splashed over rocks in its course, the air was hung with unmoving sprays of glittering water resembling elaborate sculptures made from glass shards and beads.


Though staying on the move was desirable, continued flight soon became impractical. They were already tired and stiff with pain when they began their run; each additional exertion took a geometrically greater toll from them.


Although they seemed to move as easily in this petrified world as in the one to which they were accustomed, Harry noticed that they did not create a wind of their own when they ran. The air parted around them like butter around a knife, but no turbulence arose from their passage, which indicated that the air was objectively denser than it appeared subjectively Their speed might be consider ably less than it appeared to them, in which case movement required more effort than they perceived.


Furthermore, the coffee, brandy and hamburger that Harry had eaten churned sourly in his stomach. Acidic flares of indigestion burned through his chest.


More important, block by block as they fled through that townsize mausoleum, an inexplicable inversion of biological response increased their misery. Although such strenuous activity should have left them overheated, they grew steadily colder. Harry couldn't work up a sweat, not even an icy one. His toes and fingers felt as if he A had slogged across an Alaskan glacier, not a southern California beach resort.


The night itself felt no colder than before the Pause. Indeed perhaps not quite as cool, since the crisp breeze off the ocean had fallen into stillness with everything else. The cause of the queer internal chill was evidently something other than the air temperature, more mysterious and profoundand frightening.


It was as if the world around them, its abundant energy trapped inø stasis, had become a black hole of sorts, relentlessly absorbing their energy sucking it out of them, until degree by degree they would become as inanimate as everything else. He suspected it was imperative that they begin to conserve what resources they had left.


When it became incontrovertibly clear that they would have to stop and find a promising place to hide, they had left a residential neighborhood and entered the east end of a canyon with scrubcovered slopes. Along the threelane service road, lit by rows of sodiumvapor arc lamps that transformed the night into a twotone black and yellow canvas, the flat ground was occupied by semiindustrial businesses of the type that imageconscious towns like Laguna Beach carefully tucked away from primary tourist routes.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***