After she hung up she stood for a while, staring at the phone. Finally she said aloud, “Shane, are you nuts?” Then she said, “But he told me my writing* was 'so beautiful and so real.' ”
She went into her bedroom and looked at the collection of toads on the nightstand. She said, “He's inarticulate and silent one time, a babbler the next. He could be a psycho killer, Shane.” Then she said, “Yeah, he could be, but he's also a great literary critic.”
Because he had suggested dinner and a movie, Laura dressed in a gray skirt, white blouse, and maroon sweater, but he showed up in a dark blue suit, white shirt with French cuffs, blue silk tie with tie chain, silk display handkerchief, and highly polished black wingtips, as if he were going to the season opener at the opera. He carried an umbrella and escorted her from her apartment to his car with one hand under her right arm, with such solemn concern that he seemed convinced that she would dissolve if touched by one drop of rain or shatter into a million pieces if she slipped and fell. Considering the difference in their dress and the considerable difference in their size-at five-five, she was one foot shorter than he was; at a hundred fifteen pounds, she was less than half his weight-she felt almost as if she were going on a date with her father or an older brother. She was not a petite woman, but on his arm and under his umbrella she felt positively tiny.
He was uncommunicative again in the car, but he blamed it on the need to drive with special care in such rotten weather. They went to a small Italian restaurant in Costa Mesa, a place in which Laura had eaten a few good meals in the past. They sat down at their table and were given menus, but even before the waitress could ask if they would like a drink, Daniel said, “This is no good, this is all wrong, let's find another place.”
Surprised, she said, “But why? This is fine. Their food's very good here.”
“No, really, this is all wrong. No atmosphere, no style, I don't want you to think, ummmm,” and now he was babbling as he'd done on the phone, blushing, “ummmm, well, anyway, this is no good, not right for our first date, I want this to be special,” and he got up, “ummmm, I think I know just the place, I'm sorry, Miss”-this to the startled young waitress-“I hope we haven't inconvenienced you,” and he was pulling back Laura's chair, helping her up, “I know just the place, you'll like it, I've never eaten there but I've heard it's really good, excellent.” Other customers were staring, so Laura stopped protesting. “It's close, too, just a couple of blocks from here.”
They returned to his car, drove two blocks, and parked in front of an unpretentious-looking restaurant in a strip shopping center.
By now Laura knew him well enough to realize that his sense of courtliness required her to wait for him to come around and open her car door, but when he opened it she saw he was standing in a ten-inch-deep puddle. “Oh, your shoes!” she said.
“They'll dry out. Here, you hold the umbrella over yourself, and I'll lift you across the puddle.”
Nonplussed, she allowed herself to be plucked from the car and carried over the puddle as if she weighed no more than a feather pillow. He put her down on higher pavement and, without the umbrella, he sloshed back to the car to close the door.
The French restaurant had less atmosphere than the Italian place. They were shown to a corner table too near the kitchen, and Daniel's saturated shoes squished and squeaked all the way across the room.
“You'll catch pneumonia,” she worried when they were seated and had ordered two Dry Sacks on the rocks.
“Not me. I've got a good immune system. Never get sick. One time in Nam, during an action, I was cut off from my unit, spent a week on my own in the jungle, rained every minute, I was shriveled by the time I found my way back to friendly territory, but I never even got the sniffles.”
As they sipped their drinks and studied the menu and ordered, he was more relaxed than Laura had yet seen him, and he actually proved to be a coherent, pleasant, even amusing conversationalist. But when the appetizers were served-salmon in dill sauce for her, scallops in pastry for him-it swiftly became clear that the food was terrible, even though the prices were twice those at the Italian place that they had left, and course by course, as his embarrassment grew, his ability to sustain his end of the conversation declined drastically. Laura proclaimed everything delicious and choked down every bite, but it was no use; he was not fooled.
The kitchen staff and the waiter were also slow. By the time Daniel had paid the check and escorted her back to the car-lifting her across the puddle again as if she were a little girl-they were half an hour late for the movie they had intended to see.
“That's all right,” she said, “we can go in late and stay to see the first half hour of the next showing.”
“No, no,” he said. “That's a terrible way to see a movie. It'll ruin it for you. I wanted this night to be perfect.”
“Relax,” she said. “I'm having fun.”
He looked at her with disbelief, and she smiled, and he smiled, too, but his smile was sick.
“If you don't want to go to the movie now,” she said, “that's all right, too. Wherever you want to go, I'm game.”
He nodded, started the car, and drove out to the street. They had gone a few miles before she realized that he was taking her home.
All the way from his car to her door, he apologized for what a lousy evening it had been, and she repeatedly assured him that she was not in the least disappointed with a moment of it. At her apartment, the instant she inserted her key in the door, he turned and fled down the stairs from the second-floor veranda, neither asking for a goodnight kiss nor giving her a chance to invite him in.
She stepped to the head of the stairs and watched him descend and he was half way down when a gust of wind turned his umbrella inside out. He fought with it the rest of the way, twice almost losing his balance. When he reached the walk below, he finally got the umbrella corrected-and the wind immediately turned it inside out again. In frustration he threw it into some nearby shrubbery, then looked up at Laura. He was soaked from head to toe by then, and in the pale light from a lamppost she could see that his suit hung on him shapelessly. He was a huge man, strong as two bulls, but he had been done in by little things-puddles, a gust of wind-and there was something quite funny about that. She knew she should not laugh, dared not laugh, but a laugh burst from her anyway.
“You're too damned beautiful, Laura Shane!” he shouted from the walk below. “God help me, you're just too beautiful.” Then he hurried away through the night.
Feeling bad about laughing but unable to stop, she went into the apartment and changed into pajamas. It was only twenty till nine.
He was either a hopeless basket case or the sweetest man she had known since her father died.
At nine-thirty the phone rang. He said, “Will you ever go out with me again?”
“I thought you'd never call.”
“Dinner and a movie?” he asked.
“We won't go back to that horrible French place. I'm sorry about that, I really am.”
“I don't care where we go,” she said, “but once we sit down in the restaurant, promise me we'll stay there.”
“I'm a bonehead about some things. And like I said ... I never have been able to cope around beautiful women.”
“That's right. Rejected me. Rejected my father. Never felt any warmth from that woman. Walked out on us when I was eleven.”
“You're more beautiful than she was, and you scare me to death.”
“Well, sorry, but I meant it to be. The thing is, beautiful as you are, you're not half as beautiful as your writing, and that scares me even more. Because what could a genius like you ever see in a guy like me-except maybe comic relief?”
“Just one question, Daniel.”
“Just one question, Danny. What the hell kind of stockbroker are you? Any good at all?”
“I'm first-rate,” he said with such genuine pride that she knew he was telling the truth. “My clients swear by me, and I've got a nice little portfolio of my own that's outperformed the market three years running. As a stock analyst, broker, and investment adviser, I never give the wind a chance to turn my umbrella inside out.”
The afternoon following the placement of the explosives in the basement of the institute, Stefan took what he expected to be his next to last trip on the Lightning Road. It was an illicit jaunt to January 10, 1988, not on the official schedule and conducted without the knowledge of his colleagues.
Light snow was falling in the San Bernardino Mountains when he arrived, but he was dressed for the weather in rubber boots, leather gloves, and navy peacoat. He took cover under a dense copse of pines, intending to wait until the fierce lightning stopped flaring.
He checked his wristwatch in the flickering celestial light and was startled to see how late he had arrived. He had less than forty minutes to reach Laura before she was killed. If he screwed up and arrived too late, there would be no second chance.
Even while the last white flashes seared the overcast sky, while hard crashes of thunder still echoed back to him from distant peaks and ridges, he hurried away from the trees and down a sloping field where the snow was knee-deep from previous winter storms. There was a crust on the snow, through which he kept breaking with each step, and progress was as difficult as if he had been wading through deep water. He fell twice, and snow got down the tops of his boots, and the savage wind tore at him as if it possessed consciousness and the desire to destroy him. By the time he reached the end of the field and climbed over a snowbank onto the two-lane state highway that led to Arrowhead in one direction and Big Bear in the other, his pants and coat were crusted with frozen snow, his feet were freezing, and he had lost more than five minutes.
The recently plowed highway was clean except for the wispy snow snakes that slithered across the pavement on shifting currents of air. But already the tempo of the storm had increased. The flakes were much smaller than when he had arrived and were falling twice as fast as they had been minutes ago. Soon the road would be treacherous.
He noticed a sign by the side of the pavement-LAKE ARROWHEAD 1 MILE-and was shocked to discover how much farther he was from Laura than he had expected to be.
Squinting into the wind, looking north, he saw a warm glimmer of electric lightning in the dreary, iron-gray afternoon: a single-story building and parked cars about three hundred yards away, on the right. He headed immediately in that direction, keeping his head tucked down to protect his face from the icy teeth of the wind.
He had to find a car. Laura had less than half an hour to live, and she was ten miles away.
Five months after that first date, on Saturday, July 16, 1977, six weeks after graduating from UCI, Laura married Danny Packard in a civil ceremony before a judge in his chambers. The only guests in attendance, both of whom served as witnesses, were Danny's father, Sam Packard, and Thelma Ackerson.
Sam was a handsome, silver-haired man of about five ten, dwarfed by his son. Throughout the brief ceremony, he wept, and Danny kept turning around and saying, “You all right, Dad?” Sam nodded and blew his nose and told them to go on with it, but a moment later he was crying again, and Danny was asking him if he was all right, and Sam blew his nose as if imitating the mating calls of geese. The judge said, “Son, your father's tears are tears of joy, so if we could get on with this-I have three more ceremonies perform.”
Even if the groom's father had not been an emotional wreck, and even if the groom had not been a giant with the heart of a fawn, their wedding party would have been memorable because of Thelma. Her hair was cut in a strange, shaggy, style, with a pompom-like spray in front that was tinted purple. In the middle of summer-and at a wedding, yet-she was wearing red high heels, tight black slacks, and tattered black blouse-carefully, purposefully tattered-gathered at the waist with a length of ordinary steel chain used as a belt. She was wearing exaggerated purple eye makeup, blood-red lipstick, and one earring that looked like a fishhook.
After the ceremony, as Danny was having a private word with his father, Thelma huddled with Laura in a corner of the courthouse lobby and explained her appearance. “It's called the punk look, the latest thing in Britain. No one's wearing it over here yet. In fact hardly anyone's wearing it in Britain, either, but in a few years everyone will dress like this. It's great for my act. I look freaky, so people want to laugh as soon as I step on the stage. It's also good for me. I mean, face it, Shane, I'm not exactly blossoming with age. Hell, if homely was a disease and had an organized charity. I'd be their poster child. But the two great things about punk style is you get to hide behind flamboyant makeup and hair, so no one can tell just how homely you are-and you're supposed to look weird, anyway. Jesus, Shane, Danny's a big guy. You've told me so much about him on the phone, but you never once said he was so huge Put him in a Godzilla suit, turn him loose in New York, film the results, and you could make one of those movies without having to build expensive miniature sets. So you love him, huh?”
“I adore him,” Laura said. “He's as gentle as he is big. maybe because of all the violence he saw and was a part of in Vietnam, or maybe because he's always been gentle at heart. He's sweet. Thelma, and he's thoughtful, and he thinks I'm one of the best writers he's ever read.”
“And when he first started giving you toads, you though! he a psychopath.”
“A minor misjudgment.”
Two uniformed police officers passed through the courthouse lobby, flanking a bearded young man in handcuffs, taking him to one of the courtrooms. The prisoner gave Thelma a looking over as he passed and said, “Hey, mama, let's get it on!”
“Ah, the Ackerson charm,” Thelma said to Laura. “You get a guy who's a combination of a Greek god, a teddy bear, and Bennett Cerf, and I get crude propositions from the dregs of society. But come to think of it, I never even used to get that, so maybe my time is coming yet.”
“You underrate yourself, Thelma. You always have. Some very special guy's going to see what a treasure you are-”
“Charles Manson when he's paroled.”
“No. Someday you're going to be every bit as happy as I am. I know it. Destiny, Thelma.”
“Good heavens, Shane, you've become a raging optimist! What about the lightning? All those deep conversations we had on the floor of our room at Caswell-you remember? We decided that life is just an absurdist comedy, and every once in a while it's suddenly interrupted with thunderbolts of tragedy to give the story balance, to make the slapstick seem funnier by comparison.”