Stefan slipped between the Jeep and the dirty, mounded snow along the embankment. There was little space, not enough for him to have gotten out of the driver's door on that side when he had parked there, but barely enough to squeeze along toward the rear bumper where Kokoschka might not expect him to show up, where he might get off one good shot before Kokoschka swung around and sprayed him with the submachine gun.
Kokoschka. He had never been so surprised in his life as when Kokoschka had gotten out of that Pontiac. It meant they were aware of his traitorous activities at the institute. And they were also aware that he had interposed himself between Laura and her true destiny. Kokoschka had taken the Lightning Road with the intention of eliminating the traitor and evidently Laura as well.
Now, keeping his head down, Stefan urgently forced his way between the Jeep and the embankment. The submachine gun chattered and windows blew out above him. At his back the snowbank was ice-crusted in many places, jabbing painfully into him; when he endured the pain and pressed hard with his body, the ice cracked, and the snow beneath it compacted just enough to give him passage. Wind streamed through the narrow space he occupied, shrieking between sheet metal and snow, so it seemed that he was not alone there but was in the company of some invisible creature that hooted and gibbered in his face.
He had seen Laura and Chris wriggling under the Jeep, but he knew that cover would provide only an additional minute of safety, perhaps even less. When Kokoschka got to the front of the Jeep and didn't find them there, he would look under the vehicle, get down at road level, and open fire, chopping them to pieces in their confinement.
And what of Danny? He was such a big man, barrel-chested, surely too big to slide swiftly under the Jeep. And already he'd been shot; he must be stiff with pain. Besides, Danny wasn't the kind of man who hid from trouble, not even trouble like this.
At last Stefan reached the rear bumper. Cautiously he looked out and saw the Pontiac parked eight feet away in the southbound lane with its driver's door standing open, engine running. No Kokoschka. So with his Walther PPK/S .380 in hand he eased away from the snowbank, moved behind the Jeep. He crouched against the tailgate and peered around the other rear bumper.
Kokoschka was in the middle of the roadway, moving toward the front of the Jeep where he believed everyone had taken cover. His weapon was an Uzi with an extended magazine, chosen for the mission because it would not be anachronistic. As Kokoschka reached the gap between the Jeep and the Blazer, he opened fire again, sweeping the submachine gun from left to right. Bullets screamed off metal, blew out tires, and thudded into the embankment.
Stefan fired at Kokoschka, missed.
Suddenly, with berserk courage, Danny Packard launched himself at Kokoschka, coming out from his hiding place tight up against the Jeep's grill, so low that he must have been lying flat, low enough to have been under the spray of bullets the submachine gun had just laid down. He was wounded from the initial burst of fire but still quick and powerful, and for a moment it seemed that he might even reach the gunman and disable him. Kokoschka was sweeping the Uzi from left to right, already moving away from his target when he saw Danny coming at him, so he had to reverse himself, bring the muzzle around. If he had been a few feet closer to the Jeep instead of in the middle of the highway, he would not have nailed Danny in time.
“Danny, no!” Stefan shouted, squeezing off three shots at Kokoschka even as Packard was going for him.
But Kokoschka had kept a cautious distance, and he brought the spitting muzzle around, straight at Danny, when they were still three or four feet apart. Danny was kicked backward by the impact of several slugs.
Stefan took no consolation from the fact that even as Danny was hit, Kokoschka was hit, too, taking two rounds from the Walther, one in his left thigh and one in his left shoulder. He was knocked down. He dropped the submachine gun as he fell; it spun along the pavement.
Under the Jeep, Laura was screaming,
Stefan rose from the cover of the rear bumper and ran toward Kokoschka, who was on the ground only thirty feet downslope, near the Blazer now. He slipped on the snowy pavement, struggled to keep his balance.
Badly wounded, no doubt in shock, Kokoschka nevertheless saw him coming. He rolled toward the Uzi carbine, which had come to rest by the rear tire of the Blazer.
Stefan fired three times as he ran, but he did not have the steadiness required for a good aim, and Kokoschka was rolling away from him, so he missed the son of a bitch. Then Stefan slipped again and fell to one knee in the middle of the road, landing so hard that pain shot up his thigh and into his hip.
Rolling, Kokoschka reached the submachine gun.
Realizing he'd never get to the man in time, Stefan dropped onto both knees and raised the Walther, holding it with both hands. He was twenty feet from Kokoschka, not far. But even a good marksman could miss at twenty feet if the circumstances were bad enough, and these were bad: a state of panic, a weird firing angle, gale-force wind to deflect the shot.
Downslope, lying on the ground, Kokoschka opened fire the instant he got his hands on the Uzi, even before he brought the weapon around, loosing the first twenty rounds under the Blazer, blowing out the front tires.
As Kokoschka swung the gun toward him, Stefan squeezed off his last three rounds with deliberation. In spite of the wind and the angle, he had to make them count, for if he missed he would have no time to reload.
The first round from the Walther missed.
Kokoschka continued to bring the submachine gun around, and the arc of fire reached the front of the Jeep. Laura was under the Jeep with Chris, and Kokoschka was shooting from ground level, so surely a couple of rounds had passed under the vehicle.
Stefan fired again. The slug hit Kokoschka in the upper body, and the submachine gun stopped firing. Stefan's next and last shot took Kokoschka in the head. It was over.
From beneath the Jeep, Laura saw Danny's incredibly brave charge, saw him go down again, flat on his back, unmoving, and she knew that he was dead, no possibility of a reprieve this time. A flash of grief like the terrible light from an explosion swept through her, and she glimpsed a future without Danny, a vision so starkly illuminated and of such dreadful power that she almost blacked out.
Then she thought of Chris, still alive and sheltering against her. She blocked out the grief, knowing she would return to it later-if she survived. The important thing right now was keeping Chris alive and, if possible, protecting him from the sight of his father's bullet-riddled corpse.
Danny's body blocked part of her view, but she saw Kokoschka hit by gunfire. She saw her guardian approaching the downed gunman, and for a moment it seemed the worst was over. Then her guardian slipped and fell to one knee, and Kokoschka rolled toward the submachine gun that he had dropped. More gunfire. A lot of it in a few seconds. She heard a couple of rounds passing under the Jeep, frighteningly close, lead cutting through the air with a deadly whisper that was louder than any other sound in the world.
The silence after the gunfire was at first perfect. Initially she could not hear the wind or her son's low sobbing. Gradually those sounds impinged upon her.
She saw her guardian was alive, and part of her was relieved, but part of her was irrationally angry that he had survived because he had drawn this Kokoschka with him, and Kokoschka had killed Danny. On the other hand Danny-and she and Chris-would surely have been killed in the collision with the truck, anyway, if her guardian had not come along. Who the hell was he? Where did he come from? Why was he so interested in her? She was frightened, angry, shocked, sick in her soul, and badly confused.
Clearly in pain, her guardian rose from his knees and hobbled to Kokoschka. Laura twisted farther around to look directly down the hill, just past Danny's unmoving head. She could not quite see what her guardian was doing, though he appeared to be tearing open Kokoschka's clothes.
After a while he hobbled back up the hill, carrying something he had taken off the corpse.
When he reached the Jeep, he crouched and looked under at her. “Come out. It's over.” His face was pale, and in the past few minutes he seemed to have aged at least a couple of his twenty-five lost years. He cleared his throat. In a voice filled with what seemed like genuine, deeply felt remorse, he said, “I'm sorry, Laura. I'm so very sorry.”
She squirmed on her belly toward the rear of the Jeep, bumping her head on the undercarriage. She pulled Chris and encouraged him to come with her, for if they wriggled out nearer the front, the boy might see his father. Her guardian pulled them into the open. Laura sat back against the rear bumper and clutched Chris to her.
Tremulously, the boy said, “I want Daddy.”
I want him too, Laura thought. Oh, baby, I want him, too, I want him so bad, all I want in the world is your daddy.
The storm was a full-fledged blizzard now, pumping snow out of the sky under tremendous pressure. The afternoon was dying; light was fading, and all around the grim, gray day was succumbing to the queer, phosphorescent darkness of a snowy night.
In this weather few people would be traveling, but he was sure that someone would come along soon. No more than ten minutes had passed since he had stopped Laura in the Blazer, but even on this rural road in a storm, the gap in traffic would not last much longer. He needed to have a talk with her and leave before he got entangled in the aftermath of this bloody encounter.
Hunkering down in front of her and the weeping boy, behind the Jeep, Stefan said, “Laura, I've got to get out of here, but I'll be back soon, in just a couple of days-”
“Who are you?” she demanded angrily.
“There's no time for that now.”
“I want to know, damn you. I have a right to know.”
“Yes, you do, and I'll tell you in a few days. But right now we have to get your story straight, the way we did that day in the grocery store. Remember?”
“To hell with you.”
Unfazed, he said, “It's for your own good, Laura. You can't tell the authorities the exact truth because it won't seem real, will it? They'll think you're making it all up. Especially when you see me leave . . . well, if you tell them how I went, they'll either be sure that you're somehow an accomplice to murder or a madwoman.” She glared at him and said nothing. He did not blame her for being angry. Perhaps she even wanted him dead, but he understood that too. The only emotions she stirred in him, however, were love and pity and a profound respect.
He said, “You'll tell them that when you and Danny turned the curve at the bottom of the hill and started up, there were three cars in the roadway: the Jeep parked here along the embankment, the Pontiac in the wrong lane just where it is now, and another car was stopped in the northbound lane. There were . . . four men, two of them with guns, and they seemed to have forced the Jeep off the road. You just came along at the wrong time, that's all. They pointed a submachine gun at you, made you pull off the road, made you and Danny and Chris get out of the car. At one point you heard talk about coc**ne . . . somehow it involved drugs, you don't know how, but they were arguing over drugs, and they seemed to have chased down the man in the Jeep-”
“Drug dealers out here in the middle of nowhere?” she said scornfully.
“There could be processing labs out here-a cabin in the woods, processing PCP maybe. Listen, if the story makes at least some sense, they'll want to buy it. The real story makes no sense at all, so you can't rely on it. So you tell them the Robertsons came over the crest of the hill in their pickup-of course you don't know their name-and the road was blocked by all these cars, and when he braked the pickup it started to slide-”
“You've got an accent,” she said angrily. “A slight one but I can hear it. Where are you from?”
“I'll tell you all of that in a few days,” he said impatiently, looking up and down the snow-blasted road. “I really will, but now you've got to promise me you'll work with this false story, embellish it as best you can, and not tell them the truth.”
“I don't have any choice, do I?”
“No,” he said, relieved that she realized her position.
She clung to her son and said nothing.
Stefan had begun to feel the pain in his half-frozen feet again. The heat of action had dissipated, leaving him racked by shivers. He handed her the belt that he had taken off Kokoschka. “Put this inside your ski jacket. Don't let anyone see it. When you get home, put it away somewhere.”
“What is it?”
“Later. I'll try to return in a few hours. Only a few hours. Right now just promise me you'll hide it. Don't get curious, don't put it on, and for God's sake don't push the yellow button on it.”
“Because you don't want to go where it'll take you.”
She blinked at him in confusion. “Take me?”
“I'll explain but not now.”
“Why can't you take it with you, whatever it is?”
“Two belts, one body-it's an anomaly, it'll cause a disruption of some kind in the energy field, and God only knows where I might wind up or in what condition.”
“I don't understand. What're you talking about?”
“Later. But, Laura, if for some reason I'm unable to come back, you better take precautions.”
“What kind of precautions?”
“Arm yourself. Be prepared. There's no reason they should come after you if they get me, but they might. Just to teach me a lesson, to humble me. They thrive on vengeance. And if they come for you . . . there'll be a squad of them, well armed.”
“Who the hell are they?”
Without answering, he got to his feet, wincing at the pain in his right knee. He backed away, taking one last, long look at her. Then he turned, leaving her on the ground, in the cold and snow, against the back of the battered and bullet-pocked Jeep, with her terrified child and her dead husband.
Slowly he walked out into the middle of the highway where more light seemed to come from the shifting snow on the pavement than from the sky overhead. She called to him, but he ignored her.
He bolstered his empty gun beneath his coat. He reached inside his shirt, felt for and located the yellow button on his own travel belt, and hesitated.
They had sent Kokoschka to stop him. Now they would be waiting anxiously at the institute to learn the outcome. He would be arrested on arrival. He probably never again would have an opportunity to take the Lightning Road to return to her as he had promised.
The temptation to stay was great.
If he stayed, however, they would only send someone else to kill him, and he would spend the rest of his life running from one assassin after another-while watching the world around him change in ways that would be too horrible to endure. On the other hand, if he went back, there was a slim chance that he might still be able to destroy the institute. Dr. Penlovski and the others obviously knew everything about his meddling in the natural flow of events in this one woman's life, but perhaps they did not know that he had planted explosives in the attic and basement of the institute. In that case, if they gave him an opportunity to get into his office for just a moment, he could throw the hidden switch and blow the place- and all its files-to hell where it belonged. More likely than not, they had found the explosive charges and removed them. But as long as there was any possibility whatsoever that he could bring an end forever to the project and close the Lightning Road, he was morally obliged to return to the institute, even if it meant that he would never see Laura again.