Page 19

On Friday, January 8, 1988, buoyed by the knowledge that Wind and Stars would hold the number one spot on the Times list that Sunday for the fifth week in a row, they drove up to Big Bear in the afternoon, as soon as Chris came home from school. The following Tuesday was Laura's thirty-third birthday, and they intended to -_.e an early celebration, just the three of them, high in the mountains, with the snow like icing on a cake and the wind to sing ": - her.

Accustomed to them, the deer ventured within twenty feet of their house on Saturday morning. But Chris was seven now, and in school he heard the rumor that Santa Claus was not real, and he was no longer so sure that these were more than ordinary deer.

The weekend was perfect, perhaps the best they had spent in the mountains, but they had to cut it short. They had intended to leave at six o'clock Monday morning, returning to Orange County in time to deliver Chris to school. However a major storm moved into the area ahead of schedule late Sunday afternoon, and though they were little more than ninety minutes from the balmy temperatures nearer the coast, the weather report called for two feet of new snow by morning. Not wanting to risk being snowbound and causing Chris to miss a day of school-a possibility even with their four-wheel-drive Blazer-they closed up the big stone and redwood house and headed south on state route 330 at a few minutes past four o'clock.

Southern California was one of the few places in the world where you could drive from a winterscape to subtropical heat in less than two hours, and Laura always enjoyed-and marveled at-the journey. The three of them were dressed for snow-wool socks, boots, thermal underwear, heavy slacks, warm sweaters, ski jackets-but in an hour and a quarter they would be in milder climes where no one was bundled up, and in two hours they would be in shirtsleeve weather.

Laura drove while Danny, sitting in front, and Chris, sitting behind him, played a word-association game that they had devised on previous trips to amuse themselves. Rapidly falling snow found even those sections of the highway that were largely protected by trees on both sides, and in unsheltered areas the hard-driven flakes sheeted and whirled by the millions in the capricious currents of the high-mountain winds, sometimes half obscuring the way ahead. She drove with caution, not caring if the two-hour drive home required three hours or four; since they had left early, they had I plenty of time to spare, all the time in the world.

When she came out of the big curve a few miles south of their house and entered the half-mile incline, she saw a red Jeep station wagon parked on the right shoulder and a man in a navy peacoat in the middle of the road. He was coming down the hill, waving both arms to halt them.

Leaning forward and squinting between the thumping windshield wipers, Danny said, “Looks like he broke down, needs help.”

“Packard's Patrol to the rescue!” Chris said from the back seat.

As Laura slowed, the guy on the road began frantically gesturing for them to pull to the right shoulder.

Danny said uneasily, “Something odd about him. . . .”

Yes, odd indeed. He was her special guardian. The sight of him after all these years shocked and frightened Laura.

He had just gotten out of the stolen Jeep when the Blazer turned the bend at the bottom of the hill. As he rushed toward it, he saw Laura slow the Blazer to a crawl a third of the way up the slope, but she was still in the middle of the roadway, so he signaled her more frantically to get off onto the shoulder, as close to the embankment as possible. At first she continued to creep forward, as if unsure whether he was only a motorist in trouble or dangerous, but when they drew close enough to each other for her to see his face and perhaps recognize him, she immediately obeyed.

As she accelerated past him and whipped the Blazer onto the wider portion of the shoulder, only twenty feet downhill from Stefan's Jeep, he reversed direction and ran to her, yanked open her door. “I don't know if being off the road's good enough. Get out, up the embankment, quickly, now!”

Danny said, “Hey, wait just-”

“Do what he says!” Laura shouted. “Chris, come on, get out!”

Stefan gripped Laura's hand and helped her out of the driver's seat. As Danny and Chris also scrambled from the Blazer, Stefan heard a laboring engine above the skirling wind. He looked up the long hill and saw that a big pickup truck had topped the crest and was starting down toward them. Pulling Laura after him, he ran around the front of the Blazer.

Her guardian said, “Up the embankment, come on,” and began to climb the hard-packed, ice-crusted snow that had been shoved there by plows and that sloped steeply toward the nearby trees.

Laura looked up the highway and saw the truck, a quarter-mile from them and only a hundred feet below the crest, beginning a long, sickening slide on the treacherous pavement until it was coming sideways down the road. If they had not stopped, if her guardian had not delayed them, they would have been just below the crest when the truck went out of control; already they would have been hit.

Beside her, with Chris riding him piggyback and holding on tight, Danny obviously had seen the danger. The truck might come all the way down the hill without the driver in control, might slam into the Jeep and Blazer. Lugging Chris, he scrambled up the snow-packed embankment, yelling for Laura to move.

She climbed, grabbing for handholds, kicking footholds as she went. The snow was not only ice-mantled but ice-marbled and rotten in places, breaking away in chunks, and a couple of times she nearly fell backward to the shoulder of the highway below. By the time she joined her guardian, Danny, and Chris fifteen feet above the highway, on a narrow but snow-free shelf of rock near the trees, it seemed as if she had been climbing for minutes. But in fact her sense of time must have been distorted by fear, for when she looked up the highway, she saw that the truck was still sliding toward them, that it was two hundred feet away, had made one complete revolution, and was turning sideways again.

On it came through the streaming snow, as if in slow motion, fate in the form of a few tons of steel. A snowmobile stood in the big pickup's cargo bed, and it was apparently not secured by chains or in any way restrained; the driver foolishly had relied on inertia to keep it in place. But now the snowmobile was slamming from side to side against the walls of the cargo hold and forward into the back wall of the cab, and through the quarter-mile slide its violent shifts contributed to the destabilization of the vehicle under it, until it seemed as if the truck, leaning radically, would roll instead of spin through another complete turn.

Laura saw the driver fighting the wheel, and she saw a woman beside him, screaming, and she thought: Oh, my god, those poor people!

As if sensing her thoughts, her guardian shouted above the wind, “They're drunk, both of them, and no snow chains.”

If you know that much about them, she thought, you must know who they are, so why didn't you stop them, why didn't you save them too?

With a terrible crash the front end of the truck rammed into the side of the Jeep, and unrestrained by a seat belt, the woman was thrown halfway through the windshield, where she hung partly in and partly out of the cab-

Laura yelled, “Chris!” But she saw that Danny had already taken the boy off his back and was holding him close, turning his head away from the ongoing accident.

-the collision didn't stop the truck; it had too much momentum, and the pavement was too slippery for chainless tread to grip. But the brutal impact did reverse the direction of the truck's slide: it abruptly whipped around to its driver's right, heading backward down the hill, and the snowmobile exploded through the tailgate, flew free, crashing onto the hood of the parked Blazer, smashing the windshield. An instant later the rear of the pickup slammed into the front of the Blazer with enough force to shove that vehicle ten feet backward in spite of its firmly engaged emergency brakes-

Though viewing the destruction from the safety of the embankment, Laura gripped Danny's arm, horrified by the thought that they surely would have been injured and perhaps killed if they had taken refuge either in front of or behind the Blazer.

-now the pickup bounced off the Blazer; the bloodied woman fell back into the cab; and, sliding more slowly but still out of control, the battered truck turned three hundred and sixty degrees in an eerily graceful ballet of death, angling down the slope and across the snowy pavement and over the far shoulder, over the unguarded brink, out into emptiness, down, out of sight, gone.

Though no horror remained to be seen, Laura covered her face with her hands, perhaps trying to block out the mental image of the pickup carrying its occupants down the rocky, nearly treeless wall of that gorge, tumbling hundreds upon hundreds of feet. The driver and his companion would be dead before they hit bottom. Even above the raging wind, she heard the truck strike an outcropping of rock, then another. But in seconds the noise of its violent descent faded, and the only sound was the mad shrieking of the storm.

Stunned, they slid and groped their way down the embankment to the shoulder of the road between the Jeep and the Blazer, where bits of glass and metal littered the snowy surface. Steam rose from under the Blazer as hot radiator fluid drizzled onto the frozen ground, and the ruined vehicle creaked under the weight of the snowmobile embedded in its hood.

Chris was crying. Laura reached for him. He came into her arms, and she lifted him, held him, while he sobbed against her neck.

Dazed. Danny turned to their savior. “Who . . . who in the name of God are you?” Laura stared at her guardian, finding it difficult to cope with the fact that he really was there. She had not seen him in over twenty years since she was twelve, that day in the cemetery when she had spotted him watching her father's interment from the grove of

Indian laurels. She had not seen him close up for almost twenty-five years, since the day he had killed the junkie in her father's grocery. When he failed to save her from the Eel, when he left her to handle that one on her own, a loss of faith set in, and doubt was encouraged when he did nothing to save Nina Dockweiler, either- or Ruthie. With the passage of so much time, he had become a dream figure, more myth than reality, and in the last couple of .ears she had not thought about him at all, had abandoned belief in him just as Chris was currently abandoning belief in Santa Claus. She still had the note that he'd left on her desk, after her father's funeral. But she had long ago convinced herself that it had not in fact been written by a magical guardian but perhaps by Cora or Tern Lance, her father's friends. Now he had saved her again, miraculously, and Danny wanted to know who in the name of God he was, and that was what Laura wanted to know as well.

The strangest part of it was that he looked the same as when he had shot the junkie. Exactly the same. She had recognized him at once, even after the passage of so much time, because he had not aged. He still appeared to be in his middle to late thirties. Impossibly, the years had left no mark on him, no hint of gray in his blond hair, no wrinkles in his face. Though he had been her father's age that bloody day in the grocery store, he now was of her own generation or nearly so.

Before the man could answer Danny's question or find a way to avoid an answer, a car topped the hill and started down toward them. It was a late-model Pontiac equipped with tire chains that sang on the pavement. The driver apparently saw the damage to the Jeep and the Blazer and noted the pickup's still fresh skid marks that had not yet been obliterated by wind and snow; he slowed- with reduced speed the song of the chains quickly changed to a clatter-and pulled across the pavement into the southbound lane. Instead of going all the way to the shoulder and out of traffic, however, the car continued north in the wrong lane, stopping only fifteen feet from them, near the back of the Jeep. When he threw open the door and got out of the Pontiac, the driver-a tall man in dark clothing-was holding an object that, too late, Laura identified as a submachine gun.

Her guardian said, “Kokoschka!”

Even as his name was spoken, Kokoschka opened fire.

Though he was more than fifteen years from Vietnam, Danny reacted with the instincts of a soldier. As bullets ricocheted off the red Jeep in front of them and off the Blazer behind them, Danny grabbed Laura, pushing her and Chris to the ground between the two vehicles.

As Laura dropped below the line of fire, she saw Danny struck in the back. He was hit at least once, maybe twice, and she jerked as if the slugs had hit her. He fell against the front of the Blazer, dropped to his knees.

Laura cried out and, holding Chris with one arm, reached for her husband.

He was still alive, and in fact he swung toward her on his knees. His face was as white as the snow falling around them, and she had the bizarre and terrible feeling that she was looking into the countenance of a ghost rather than that of a living man. ' 'Get under the Jeep,“ Danny said, pushing her hand away. His voice was thick ] and wet, as if something had broken in his throat. ”Quick!"

One of the bullets had passed completely through him. Bright blood oozed down the front of his blue, quilted ski jacket.

When she hesitated, he moved to her on hands and knees, pushed her toward the Jeep just a few feet away.

Another loud burst of submachine-gun fire crackled through the wintry air.

The gunman would no doubt move cautiously forward toward the front of the Jeep and slaughter them as they cowered there. Yet they had nowhere to run: If they went up the embankment toward the trees, he would cut them down long before they reached the safety of the forest; if they crossed the road, he would blow them away before they reached the other side, and at the other side there was nothing but the steep-walled gorge, anyway; running uphill, they would be heading toward him; running downhill, they would be putting their backs to him, making even easier targets of themselves.

The submachine gun rattled. Windows burst. Bullets punctured sheet metal with a hard pock-twang.

Crawling to the front of the Jeep, dragging Chris with her, Laura saw her guardian slipping into the narrow space between that vehicle and the snow-packed embankment. He was crouched below the fender, out of sight of the man he had called Kokoschka. In his fear he no longer seemed magical, no guardian angel but merely a man and in fact he was no longer a savior, either, but an agent of Death, for his presence here had attracted the killer.

At Danny's urging she frantically squirmed under the Jeep. Chris squirmed, too, not crying now, being brave for his father; but then he had not seen his rather shot, for his face had been pressed to Laura's breast, buried in her ski jacket. It seemed useless to get under the Jeep because Kokoschka would find them anyway. He could not be so dim-witted as to fail to look under the Jeep when they could be found nowhere else, so at most they were just buying a little time, an extra minute of life at most.

When she was completely under the Jeep, pulling Chris against her to give him what little additional protection her body could provide, she heard Danny speak to her from the front of the vehicle. “I love you.” Anguish pierced her as she realized that those three short words also meant goodbye.