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“Maybe it's struck for the last time in my life,” Laura said.

Thelma stared hard at her. “Wow. I know you, Shane, and I know you realize what emotional risk you're putting yourself at by even just wanting to be this happy. I hope you're right, kid, and I bet you are. I bet there'll be no more lightning for you.”

“Thank you, Thelma.”

“And I think your Danny is a sweetheart, a jewel. But I'll tell you something that ought to mean a lot more than my opinion: Ruthie would have loved him too; Ruthie would have thought he was perfect.”

They held each other tightly, and for a moment they were young girls again, defiant yet vulnerable, filled with both the cockeyed confidence and the terror of blind fate that had shaped their shared adolescence.

Sunday, July 24, when they returned from a week-long honeymoon in Santa Barbara, they went grocery shopping, then cooked dinner together-tossed salad, sourdough bread, microwave meatballs, and spaghetti-at the apartment in Tustin. She'd given up her own place and moved in with him a few days before the wedding. According to the plan that they had worked out, they would stay at the apartment for two years, maybe three. (They had talked about their future so often and in such detail that they now capitalized those two words in their minds-The Plan-as if they were referring to some cosmic owner's manual that had come with their marriage and that could be relied upon for an accurate picture of their destiny as husband and wife.) So after two years, maybe three, they would be able to afford the down payment on the right house without dipping into the tidy stock portfolio that Danny was building, and only then would they move.

They dined at the small table in the alcove off the kitchen, where they had a view of the king palms in the courtyard in the golden late-afternoon sun, and they discussed the key part of The Plan, which was for Danny to support them while Laura stayed home and wrote her first novel. “When you're wildly rich and famous,” he said, twirling spaghetti on his fork, “then I'll leave the brokerage and spend my time managing our money.”

“What if I'm never rich and famous?”

“You will be.”

“What if I can't even get published?”

“Then I'll divorce you.”

She threw a crust of bread at him. “Beast.”


“You want another meatball?”

“Not if you're going to throw it.”

“My rage has passed. I make good meatballs, don't I?”

“Excellent,” he agreed.

“That's worth celebrating, don't you think-that you have a wife who makes good meatballs?”

“Definitely worth celebrating.”

“So let's make love.”

Danny said, “In the middle of dinner?”

“No, in bed.” She pushed back her chair and got up. “Come on. Dinner can always be reheated.”

During that first year they made love frequently, and in their intimacies Laura found more than sexual release, something far more than she had expected. Being with Danny, holding him within her, she felt so close to him that at times it almost seemed as if they were one person-one body and one mind, one spirit, one dream. She loved him wholeheartedly, yes, but that feeling of oneness was more than love, or at least different from love. By their first Christmas together, she understood that what she felt was a sense of belonging not experienced in a long time, a sense of family; for this was her husband and she was his wife, and one day from their union would come children-after two or three years, according to The Plan-and within the shelter of the family was a peace not to be found elsewhere.

She would have thought that working and living in continuous happiness, harmony, and security day after day would lead to mental lethargy, that her writing would suffer from too much happiness, that she needed a balanced life with down days and miseries to keep the sharp edge on her work. But the idea that an artist needed to suffer to do her best work was a conceit of the young and inexperienced. The happier she grew, the better she wrote.

Six weeks before their first wedding anniversary, Laura finished a novel, Jericho Nights, and sent a copy to a New York literary agent, Spencer Keene, who had responded favorably to a query letter a month earlier. Two weeks later Keene called to say he would represent the book, expected a quick sale, and thought she had a splendid future as a novelist. With a swiftness that startled even the agent, he sold it to the first house to which it was submitted, Viking, for a modest but perfectly respectable advance of fifteen thousand dollars, and the deal was concluded on Friday, July 14, 1978, two days before Laura and Danny's anniversary.

The place he had seen from farther up the road was a restaurant and tavern in the shadows of enormous Ponderosa pines. The trees stood over two hundred feet tall, bedecked with clusters of six-inch cones, with beautifully fissured bark, some boughs bent low under the weight of snow from previous storms. The single-story building was made of logs; it was so sheltered by trees on three sides that its slate roof was covered with more pine needles than snow. The windows were either steamed over or frosted, and the light from within was pleasingly diffused by that translucent film on the glass. In the parking lot in front of the building were two Jeep wagons, two pickup trucks, and a Thunderbird. Relieved that no one would be able to see him through the tavern windows, Stefan went directly to one of the Jeeps, tried the door, found it unlocked, and got in behind the steering wheel, closing the door after him.

He drew the Walther PPK/S .380 from the shoulder holster he vas rearing inside his peacoat. He put it on the seat at his side. His feet were painfully cold, and he wanted to pause and empty de snow out of his boots. But he had arrived late, and his original schedule was shot, so he dared not waste a minute. Besides, if his feet hurt, they weren't frozen; he wasn't in danger of frostbite yet. The keys were not in the ignition. He slid the seat back, bent down, groped under the dashboard, located the ignition wires, and had the engine running in a minute.

Stefan sat up just as the owner of the Jeep, breath reeking of beer, pulled open the door. “Hey, what the hell you doing, pal?” The rest of the snowswept parking lot was still deserted. They were alone.

Laura would be dead in twenty-five minutes. The Jeep's owner reached for him, and he allowed himself to be dragged from behind the steering wheel, plucking his pistol off the seat as he went, and in fact he threw himself into the other man's grasp, using the momentum to send his adversary staggering backward on the slippery parking lot. They fell. As they hit the ground, he was on top, and he jammed the muzzle under the guy's chin.

“Jesus, mister! Don't kill me.”

“We're getting up now. Easy, damn you, no sudden moves.” When they were on their feet Stefan moved behind the guy, quickly reversed his grip on the Walther, used it as a club, struck once, hard enough to knock the man unconscious without doing permanent damage. The owner of the Jeep went down again, stayed down, limp.

Stefan glanced at the tavern. No one else had come out. He could hear no traffic approaching on the road, but then again the howling wind might mask the sound of an engine.

As the snow began to fall harder, he put the pistol in the deep pocket of his peacoat and dragged the unconscious man to the nearest other vehicle, the Thunderbird. It was unlocked, and he heaved the guy into the rear seat, closed the door, and hurried back to the Jeep. The engine had died. He hot-wired it again.

As he put the Jeep in gear and swung it around toward the road, the wind shrieked at the window beside him. The falling snow grew denser, blizzard-thick, and clouds of yesterday's snow were whipped up from the ground and spun in sparkling columns. The giant, shadow-swaddled pines swayed and shuddered under winter's assault.

Laura had little more than twenty minutes to live.

They celebrated the publishing contract for Jericho Nights and the otherworldly harmony of their first year of marriage by spending their anniversary at a favorite place-Disneyland. The sky was blue, cloudless; the air was dry and hot. Virtually oblivious of the summer crowds, they rode the Pirates of the Caribbean, had their pictures taken with Mickey Mouse, got dizzy spinning in the Mad Hatter's teacups, had their portraits drawn by a caricaturist, ate hot dogs and ice cream and chocolate-covered frozen bananas on sticks, and danced that evening to a Dixieland band in New Orleans Square.

The park became even more magical after nightfall, and they rode the Mark Twain paddlewheel steamboat around Tom Sawyer's Island for the third time, standing at the railing on the top level, near the bow, with their arms around each other. Danny said, “You know why we like this place so much? 'Cause it's of the world yet untainted by the world. And that's our marriage.”

Later, over strawberry sundaes at the Carnation Pavilion, at a table beneath trees strung with white Christmas lights, Laura said, “Fifteen thousand bucks for a year's work . . . not exactly a fortune.”

“It isn't slave wages either.” He pushed his sundae aside, leaned forward, slid her sundae aside, too, and took her hands across the table. “The money will come eventually because you're brilliant, but money isn't what I care about. What I care about is that you've got something special to share. No. That's not exactly what I mean. You don't just have something special, you are something special. In some way I understand but can't explain, I know that what you are, when shared, will bring as much hope and joy to people in far places as it brings to me here at your side.”

Blinking away sudden tears, she said, “I love you.”

Jericho Nights was published ten months later, in May of 1979. Danny insisted she use her maiden name because he knew that through all the bad years in McIlroy Home and Caswell Hall, she had endured in part because she wanted to grow up and make something of herself as a testament to her father and perhaps, as well, to the mother she had never known. The book sold few copies, was not chosen by any book clubs, and was licensed by Viking to a paperback publisher for a small advance.

“Doesn't matter,” Danny told her. “It'll come in time. It'll all come in time. Because of what you are.”

By then she was deep into her second novel, Shadrach. Working ten hours a day, six days a week, she finished it that July.

On a Friday she sent one copy to Spencer Keene in New York and gave the original script to Danny. He was the first to read it. He left work early and began reading at one o'clock Friday afternoon in his living-room armchair, then shifted to the bedroom, slept only four hours, and by ten o'clock Saturday morning he was back in the armchair and two-thirds of the way through the script. He would not talk about it, not a word. "Not until I'm done. It wouldn't be fair to you to start analyzing and reacting until I've finished, until I've grasped your entire pattern, and it wouldn't be fair to me, either, because in discussing it you're sure to give away some plot turn or other.''

She kept peeking at him to see if he was frowning, smiling, or responding to the story in any way, and even when he was reacting she worried that it was the wrong reaction to whatever scene he might be reading. By ten-thirty Saturday, she couldn't bear to stay around the apartment any longer, so she drove to South Coast Plaza, browsed in bookstores, ate an early lunch though she was not hungry, drove to the Westminster Mall, window-shopped, ate a cone of frozen yogurt, drove to the Orange Mall, looked in a few shops, bought a square of fudge and ate half of it. “Shane,” she told herself, “go home, or you'll be a double for Orson Welles by dinnertime.”

As she parked in the carport at the apartment complex, she saw that Danny's car was gone. When she let herself into the apartment, she called his name but got no answer.

The script of Shadrach was piled on the dinette table.

She looked for a note. There was none.

“Oh, God,” she said.

The book was bad. It stank. It reeked. It was mule puke. Poor Danny had gone out somewhere to have a beer and find the courage to tell her that she should study plumbing while she was still young enough to get launched on a new career.

She was going to throw up. She hurried to the bathroom, but the nausea passed. She washed her face with cold water.

The book was mule puke.

Okay, she would just have to live with that. She'd thought Shadrach was pretty good, better than Jericho Nights by a mile, but evidently she had been wrong. So she would write another book.

She went to the kitchen and opened a Coors. She had taken only two swallows when Danny came home with a gift-wrapped box about the right size to hold a basketball. He put it on the dinette table beside the manuscript, looked at her solemnly. “It's for you.”

Ignoring the box, she said, “Tell me.”

“Open your gift first.”

' 'Oh, God, is it that bad? Is it so bad you have to soften the blow with a gift? Tell me. I can take it. Wait! Let me sit down.“ She pulled out a chair from the table and dropped into it. ”Hit me with your best, big guy. I'm a survivor."

“You've got too strong a sense of drama, Laura.”

“What're you saying? The book's melodramatic?”

“Not the book. You. Right now, anyway. Will you for God's sake stop being the shattered young artiste and open your gift?”

“All right, all right, if I've got to open the gift before you'll talk, then I'll open the bloody gift.”

She put the box in her lap-it was heavy-and tore at the ribbon while Danny pulled up a chair and sat in front of her, watching.

The box was from an expensive shop, but she was not prepared for the contents: a large, gorgeous Lalique bowl; it was clear except for two handles that were partly clear green and partly frosted crystal; each handle was formed by two leaping toads, four toads altogether.

She looked up, wide-eyed. “Danny, I've never seen anything like this. It's the most beautiful piece ever.”

“Like it, then?”

“Good God, how much was it?”

“Three thousand.”

“Danny, we can't afford this!”

“Oh. yes, we can.”

“No, we can't, really we can't. Just because I wrote a lousy book and you want to make me feel better-”

“You didn't write a lousy book. You wrote a toad-worthy book. A. four-load book on a scale of one to four, four being the best. We can afford that bowl precisely because you wrote Shadrach. This book is beautiful, Laura, infinitely better than the last one, and it's beautiful because it's you. This book is what you are, and it shines.”

In her excitement and in her eagerness to hug him, she nearly dropped the three-thousand-dollar bowl.