As the day died, the storm seemed to come more fiercely alive. On the mountainside above the highway, the wind rumbled and keened through the enormous pines, and the boughs made an ominous rustling sound, as if some many-legged, giant creature were scuttling down the slope. The snowflakes had become fine and dry, almost like bits of ice, and they seemed to be abrading the world, smoothing it the way that sandpaper smoothed wood, until eventually there would be no peaks and valleys, nothing but a featureless, highly polished plain as far as anyone could see.
With his hand still inside his coat and shirt, Stefan pressed the yellow button three times in quick succession, triggering the beacon. With regret and fear he returned to his own time.
Holding Chris, whose sobbing had subsided, Laura sat on the ground at the back of the Jeep and watched her guardian walk into the slanting snow, past the rear of Kokoschka's Pontiac.
He stopped in the middle of the highway, stood for a long moment with his back to her, and then an incredible thing happened. First the air became heavy; she was aware of a strange pressure, something she had never felt before, as if the atmosphere of the earth were being condensed in some cosmic cataclysm, and abruptly she found it hard to draw breath. The air acquired a curious odor, too, exotic but familiar, and after a few seconds she realized it smelled like hot electrical wires and scorched insulation, much like what she had smelled in her own kitchen when a toaster plug had shorted out a few weeks ago; that stink was overlaid with the crisp but not unpleasant scent of ozone, which was the same odor that filled the air during any violent thunderstorm. The pressure grew greater, until she almost felt pinned to the ground, and the air shimmered and rippled as if it were water. With a sound like an enormous cork popping out of a bottle, her guardian vanished from the purple-gray, winter twilight, and simultaneously with that pop came a great whoosh of wind, as if massive quantities of air were rushing in to fill some void. Indeed for an instant she felt trapped in a vacuum, unable to breathe. Then the crushing pressure was gone, the air smelled only of snow and pine, and everything was normal again.
Except, of course, after what she had seen, nothing could ever be normal for her again.
The night grew very dark. Without Danny it was the blackest night of her life. Only one light remained to illuminate her struggle toward some distant hope of happiness: Chris. He was the last light in her darkness.
Later, at the top of the hill, a car appeared. Headlights bored through the gloom and the heavily falling snow.
She struggled to her feet and took Chris into the middle of the roadway. She waved for help.
As the descending car slowed, she suddenly wondered if when it stopped another man with another submachine gun would get out and open fire. She would never again feel safe.
THE INNER FIRE
On Saturday, August 13, 1988, seven months after Danny was shot down, Thelma Ackerson came to the mountain house to stay for four days.
Laura was in the backyard, conducting target practice with her Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special. She had just reloaded, snapped the cylinder in place, and was about to put on her Hearing Guard headset when she heard a car approaching on the long gravel driveway from the state route. She picked up a pair of binoculars from the ground at her feet and took a closer look at the vehicle to be sure it was not an unwanted visitor. When she saw Thelma behind the wheel, she put the glasses down and continued firing at the target-an outline of a man's head and torso-that was lashed to a hay-bale backstop.
Sitting on the grass nearby, Chris plucked six more cartridges from the box and prepared to hand them to her when she had fired the last round currently in the cylinder.
The day was hot, clear, and dry. Wildflowers by the hundreds blazed along the edge of the yard where the mown area gave way to wild grass and weeds near the forest line. Squirrels had been at play on the grass a while ago, and birds had been singing, but the shooting had temporarily frightened them away.
Laura might have been expected to associate her husband's death with the high retreat and to sell it. Instead she had sold the house in Orange County four months ago and moved Chris to the San Bernardinos.
She believed that what had happened to them the previous January on route 330 could have happened anywhere. The place was not to blame; the fault lay in her destiny, in the mysterious forces at work in her strangely troubled life. Intuitively she knew that if her guardian had not stepped in to save her on that stretch of snowy highway, he would have entered her life elsewhere, at another moment of crisis. At that place Kokoschka would have shown up with a submachine gun, and the same set of violent, tragic events would have transpired.
Their other home had held more memories of Danny than did the stone and redwood place south of Big Bear. She was better able to deal with her grief in the mountains than in Orange Park Acres.
Besides, oddly enough, the mountains felt much safer to her. In the highly populated suburbs of Orange County, where the streets and freeways teemed with more than two million people, an enemy would not be perceived among the crowd until he chose to act. In the mountains, however, strangers were highly visible, especially since the house sat almost in the center of their thirty-acre property. And she had not forgotten her guardian's warning: Arm yourself. Be prepared. If they come for you . . . there'll be a squad of them. When Laura fired the last round in the .38 and pulled off the ear guards, Chris handed her six more cartridges. He removed his muffs, too, and ran to the target to check her accuracy.
The backstop consisted of hay bales piled seven feet high and four deep; it was fourteen feet wide. Behind it were acres of pine woods, her private land, so the need for an elaborate backstop was questionable, but she did not want to shoot anyone. At least not accidentally.
Chris lashed up a new target and returned to Laura with the old one. “Four hits out of six, Mom. Two deaders, two good wounds, but looks like you're pulling off to the left a little.” “Let's see if I can correct that.” “You're just getting tired, that's all,” Chris said. The grass around her was littered with over a hundred and fifty empty brass shell casings. Her wrists, arms, shoulders, and neck were beginning to ache from the cumulative recoil, but she wanted to get in another full cylinder before quitting for the day. Back near the house, Thelma's car door slammed. Chris put on his ear guards again and picked up the binoculars to watch the target while his mother fired.
Sorrow plucked at Laura as she paused to look at the boy, not merely because he was fatherless but because it seemed so unfair that a child two months short of his eighth birthday should already know how dangerous life was and should have to live in constant expectation of violence. She did her best to make sure there was as much fun in his life as possible: They still played with the Tommy Toad fantasy, though Chris no longer believed that Tommy was real; through a large personal library of children's classics, Laura also was showing him the pleasure and escape to be found in books; she even did her best to make target practice a game and thereby divert the focus from the deadly necessity of being able to protect themselves. Yet for the time being their lives were dominated by loss and danger, by a fear of the unknown. That reality could not be hidden from the boy, and it could not fail to have a profound and lasting effect on him.
Chris lowered the binoculars and looked at her to see why she was not shooting. She smiled at him. He smiled at her. He had such a sweet smile it almost broke her heart.
She turned to the target, raised the .38, gripped it with both hands, and squeezed off the first shot of the new series.
By the time Laura fired four rounds, Thelma stepped up beside her. She stood with her fingers in her ears, wincing.
Laura squeezed off the last two shots and removed her ear guards, and Chris retrieved the target. The roar of gunfire was still echoing through the mountains when she turned to Thelma and hugged her.
“What's all this gun stuff?” Thelma asked. “Are you going to write new movies for Clint Eastwood? No, hey, better yet, write the female equal of Glint's role-Dirty Harriet. And I'm just the broad to play it-tough, cold, with a sneer that would make Bogart cringe.”
“I'll keep you in mind for the part,” Laura said, “but what I'd really like to see is Clint play it in drag.”
“Hey, you've still got a sense of humor, Shane.”
“Did you think I wouldn't?”
Thelma frowned. “I didn't know what to think when I saw you blasting away, looking mean as a snake with fang decay.”
“Self-defense,” Laura said. "Every good girl should learn some.
“You were plinking away like a pro.” Thelma noted the glitter of brass shell casings in the grass. “How often do you do this?” “Three times a week, a couple of hours each time.” Chris returned with the target. "Hi, Aunt Thelma. Mom, you got four deaders out of six that time, one good wound, and a miss.''
“Deaders?” Thelma said.
“Still pulling to-the left, do you think?” Laura asked the boy.
He showed her the target. “Not so much as last time.”
Thelma said, “Hey, Christopher Robin, is that all I get-just a lousy 'Hi, Aunt Thelma'?”
Chris put the target with the pile of others that he had taken down before it, went to Thelma, and gave her a big hug and a kiss. Noticing that she was no longer done up in punk style, he said, “Gee, what happened to you, Aunt Thelma? You look normal.”
“I look normal? What is that-a compliment or an insult? Just you remember, kid, even if your old Aunt Thelma looks normal, she is no such a thing. She is a comic genius, a dazzling wit, a legend in her own scrapbook. Anyway, I decided punk was passe.”
They enlisted Thelma to help them collect empty shell casings.
“Mom's a terrific shot,” Chris said proudly.
“She better be terrific with all this practice. There's enough brass here to make balls for an entire army of Amazon warriors.”
To his mother, Chris said, “What's that mean?”
“Ask me again in ten years,” Laura said.
When they went into the house, Laura locked the kitchen door. Two deadbolts. She closed the Levelor blinds over the windows so no one could see them.
Thelma watched these rituals with interest but said nothing.
Chris put Raiders of the Lost Ark on the VCR in the family room and settled in front of the television with a bag of cheese popcorn and a Coke. In the adjacent kitchen Laura and Thelma sat at the table and drank coffee while Laura disassembled and cleaned the .38 Chiefs Special.
The kitchen was big but cozy with lots of dark oak, used brick on two walls, a copper range hood, copper pots hung on hooks, and a dark blue, ceramic-tile floor. It was the kind of kitchen in which TV sitcom families worked out their nonsensical crises and attained transcendental enlightenment (with heart) in thirty minutes each week, minus commercials. Even to Laura it seemed like an odd place to be cleaning a weapon designed primarily to kill other human beings.
“Are you really afraid?” Thelma asked.
“Bet on it.”
“But Danny was killed because you were unlucky enough to wander into the middle of a drug deal of some kind. Those people are long gone, right?”
“Well, if they were afraid that you might be able to identify them, they'd have come to get you long before this.”
“I'm taking no chances.”
“You got to ease up, kid. You can't live the rest of your life expecting someone to jump at you from the bushes. All right, you can keep a gun around the house. That's probably wise. But aren't you ever going to go out into the world again? You can't tote a gun with you everywhere you go.”
“Yes, I can. I've got a permit.”
“A permit to carry that cannon?”
“I take it in my purse wherever we go.”
“Jesus, how'd you get a permit to carry?”
“My husband was killed under strange circumstances by persons unknown. Those killers tried to shoot my son and me-and they are still at large. On top of all that, I'm a rich and relatively famous woman. It'd be a little odd if I couldn't get a permit to carry.”
Thelma was silent for a minute, sipping her coffee, watching Laura clean the revolver. Finally she said, “This is kind of spooky, Shane, seeing you so serious about this, so tense. I mean, it's seven months since . . . Danny died. But you're as skittish as if someone had shot at you yesterday. You can't maintain this level of tension or readiness or whatever you want to call it. That way lies madness. Paranoia. You've got to face the fact that you can't really be on guard the rest of your life, every minute.”
“I can, though, if I have to.”
"Oh, yeah? What about right now? Your gun's disassembled. What if some barbarian thug with tattoos on his tongue started kicking down the kitchen door?''
The kitchen chairs were on rubber casters, so when Laura suddenly shoved away from the table, she rolled swiftly to the counter beside the refrigerator. She pulled open a drawer and brought out another .38 Chiefs Special.
Thelma said, “What-am I sitting in the middle of an arsenal?”
Laura put the second revolver back in the drawer. “Come on. I'll give you a tour.”
Thelma followed her to the pantry. Hung on the back of the pantry door was an Uzi semiautomatic carbine.
“That's a machine gun. Is it legal to have one?”
“With federal approval, you can buy them at gunshops, though you can only get a semiautomatic; it's illegal to have them modified for full automatic fire.”
Thelma studied her, then sighed. “Has this one been modified?”
“Yes. It's fully automatic. But I bought it that way from an illegal dealer, not a gunshop.”
“This is too spooky, Shane. Really.”
She led Thelma into the dining room and showed her the revolver that was clipped to the bottom of the sideboard. In the living room a fourth revolver was clipped under an end table next to one of the sofas. A second modified Uzi was hung on the back of the foyer door at the front of the house. Revolvers were also hidden in the desk drawer in the den, in her office upstairs, in the master bathroom, and in the nightstand in her bedroom. Finally, she kept a third Uzi in the master bedroom.
Staring at the Uzi that Laura pulled from under the bed, Thelma said, “Spookier and spookier. If I didn't know you better, Shane, I'd think you'd gone mad, a raving paranoid gun nut. But knowing you, if you're really this scared, you've got to have some reason. But what about Chris around all these guns?”
“He knows not to touch them, and I know he can be trusted. Most Swiss families have members in the militia-nearly every male citizen there is prepared to defend his country, did you know that?-with guns in almost every house, but they have the lowest rate of accidental shootings in the world. Because guns are a way of life. Children are taught to respect them from an early age. Chris'll be okay.”