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As Laura put the Uzi under the bed again, Thelma said, “How on earth do you find an illegal gun dealer?”

“I'm rich, remember?”

“And money can buy anything? Okay, maybe that's true. But, come on, how does a gal like you find an arms dealer? They don't advertise on Laundromat bulletin boards, I presume.”

“I've researched the backgrounds to several complicated novels, Thelma. I've learned how to find anyone or anything I need.”

Thelma was silent as they returned to the kitchen. From the family room came the heroic music that accompanied Indiana Jones on all of his exploits. While Laura sat at the table and continued cleaning the revolver, Thelma poured fresh coffee for both of them.

“Straight talk now, kiddo. If there's really some threat out there that justifies all this armament, then it's bigger than you can handle yourself. Why not bodyguards?”

“I don't trust anyone. Anyone but you and Chris, that is. And Danny's father, except he's in Florida.”

“But you can't go on like this, alone, afraid ...”

Working a spiral brush into the barrel of the revolver, Laura said, “I'm afraid, yeah, but I feel good about being prepared. All my life I've stood by while people I love have been taken from me. I've done nothing about it but endure. Well, to hell with that. From now on, I fight. If anyone wants to take Chris from me, they're going to have to go through me to get him, they'll have to fight a war.”

“Laura, I know what you're going through. But listen, let me play psychoanalyst here and tell you that you're reacting less to any real threat than you are overreacting to a sense of helplessness in the face of fate. You can't thwart Providence, kid. You can't play poker with God and expect to win because you've got a .38 in your purse. I mean, you lost Danny to violence, yeah, and maybe you could say that Nina Dockweiler would have lived if someone had put a bullet in the Eel when he first deserved it, but those are the only cases where lives of people you loved might've been saved with guns. Your mother died in childbirth. Your father died of a heart attack. We lost Ruthie to fire. Learning to defend yourself with guns is fine, but you've got to keep perspective, you've got to have a sense of humor about our vulnerability as a species, or you'll wind up in an institution with people who talk to tree stumps and eat their belly-button lint. God forbid, but what if Chris got cancer? You're all prepared to blow away anyone who touches him, but you can't kill cancer with a revolver, and I'm afraid you're so crazy determined to protect him that you'll fall to pieces if something like that happens, something you can't deal with, that no one can deal with. I worry about you, kid.”

Laura nodded and felt a rush of warmth for her friend. “I know you do, Thelma. And you can put your mind at ease. For thirty-three years I just endured; now I'm fighting back as best I can. If cancer were to strike me or Chris, I'd hire all the best specialists, seek the finest possible treatment. But if all failed, if for example Chris died of cancer, then I'd accept defeat. Fighting doesn't preclude enduring. I can fight, and if fighting fails, I can still endure.”

For a long time Thelma stared at her across the table. At last she nodded. “That's what I hoped to hear. Okay. End of discussion. On to other things. When do you plan to buy a tank, Shane?”

“They're delivering it Monday.”

“Howitzers, grenades, bazookas?”

“Tuesday. What about the Eddie Murphy movie?”

“We closed the deal two days ago,” Thelma said.

“Really. My Thelma is going to star in a movie with Eddie Murphy?”

“Your Thelma is going to appear in a movie with Eddie Murphy. I don't think I qualify as a star yet.”

“You had fourth lead in that picture with Steve Martin, third lead in the picture with Chevy Chase. And this is second lead, right? And how many times have you hosted the Tonight show? Eight times, isn't it? Face it, you're a star.”

“Low magnitude, maybe. Isn't it weird, Shane? Two of us come from nothing, McIlroy Home, and we make it to the top. Strange?”

“Not so strange,” Laura said. “Adversity breeds toughness, and the tough succeed. And survive.”

Stefan left the snow-filled night in the San Bernardino Mountains and an instant later was inside the gate at the other end of Lightning Road. The gate resembled a large barrel, not unlike one of those that were popular in carnival funhouses, except that its inner surface was of highly polished copper rather than wood, and it did not turn under his feet. The barrel was eight feet in diameter and twelve feet long, and in a few steps he walked out of it, into the main, ground-floor lab of the institute, where he was certain that he'd be met by armed men.

The lab was deserted.

Astonished, he stood for a moment in his snow-flecked peacoat and looked around in disbelief. Three walls of the thirty-by-forty-foot room were lined floor to ceiling with machinery that hummed and clicked unattended. Most of the overhead lamps were off, so the room was softly, eerily lit. The machinery supported the gate, and it featured scores of dials and gauges that glowed pale green or orange, for the gate-which was a breach in time, a tunnel to any when-was never shut down; once closed, it could be reopened only with great difficulty and a tremendous expenditure of energy, but once open it could be maintained with comparatively little effort. These days, because the primary research work was no longer focused on developing the gate itself, the main lab was attended by institute personnel only for routine maintenance of the machinery and, of course, when a jaunt was in progress. If different circumstance had pertained, Stefan would never have been able to make the scores of secret, unauthorized trips that he had taken to monitor-and sometimes correct-the events of Laura's life.

But though it was not unusual to find the lab deserted most times of the day, it was singularly strange now, for they had sent Kokoschka to stop him, and surely they would be waiting anxiously to learn how Kokoschka had fared in those wintry California mountains. They had to have entertained the possibility that Kokoschka would fail, that the wrong man would return from 1988, and that the gate would have to be guarded until the situation was resolved. Where were the secret police in their black trenchcoats with padded shoulders? Where were the guns with which he had expected to be greeted?

He looked at the large clock on the wall and saw that it was six minutes past eleven o'clock, local time. That was as it should have been. He'd begun the jaunt at five minutes till eleven that morning, and every jaunt ended exactly eleven minutes after it began. No one knew why, but no matter how long a time traveler spent at the other end of his journey, only eleven minutes passed at home base. He had been in the San Bernardinos for nearly an hour and a half, but only eleven minutes had transpired in his own life, in his own time. If he had stayed with Laura for months before pressing the yellow button on his belt, activating the beacon, he would still have returned to the institute only-and precisely-eleven minutes after he had left it.

But where were the authorities, the guns, his angry colleagues expressing their outrage? After discovering his meddling in the events of Laura's life, after sending Kokoschka to get him and Laura, why would they walk away from the gate when they had to wait only eleven minutes to learn the outcome of the confrontation?

Stefan took off his boots, peacoat, and shoulder holster, and tucked them out of sight in a corner behind some equipment. He had left his white lab coat in the same place when he had departed on the jaunt, and now he slipped into it again. Baffled, still worried in spite of the lack of a hostile greeting committee, he stepped out of the lab into the ground-floor corridor and went looking for trouble.

At two-thirty Sunday morning Laura was at her word processor in the office adjacent to the master bedroom, dressed in pajamas and a robe, sipping apple juice, and working on a new book. The only light in the room came from the electronic-green letters on the computer screen and from a small desk lamp tightly focused on a printout of yesterday's pages. A revolver lay on the desk beside the script.

The door to the dark hallway was open. She never closed any but the bathroom door these days because sooner or later a closed door might prevent her from hearing the stealthy progress of an intruder in another part of the house. The house had a sophisticated alarm system, but she kept interior doors open just in case.

She heard Thelma coming down the hallway, and she turned just as her friend looked through the door. “Sorry if I've made any noise that's kept you awake.”

“Nah. We nightclub types work late. But I sleep till noon. What about you? You usually up at this hour?”

“I don't sleep well any more. Four or five hours a night is good for me. Instead of lying in bed, fidgeting, I get up and write.”

Thelma pulled up a chair, sat, and propped her feet on Laura's desk. Her taste in sleepwear was even more flamboyant than it had been in her youth: baggy silk pajamas in a red, green, blue, and yellow abstract pattern of squares and circles.

“I'm glad to see you're still wearing bunny slippers,” Laura said. “It shows a certain constancy of personality.”

“That's me. Rock-solid. Can't buy bunny slippers in my size any more, so I have to buy a pair of furry adult slippers and a pair of kids' slippers, snip the eyes and ears off the little ones and sew them on the big ones. What're you writing?”

“A bile-black book.”

“Sounds like just the thing for a fun weekend at the beach.”

Laura sighed and relaxed in her spring-backed armchair. “It's a novel about death, about the injustice of death. It's a fool's project because I'm trying to explain the unexplainable. I'm trying to explain death to my ideal reader because then maybe I can finally understand it myself. It's a book about why we have to struggle and go on in spite of that knowledge of our mortality, why we have to fight and endure. It's a black, bleak, grim, moody, depressing, bitter, deeply disturbing book.”

“Is there a big market for that?”

Laura laughed. “Probably no market at all. But once an idea for a novel seizes a writer . . . well, it's like an inner fire that at first warms you and makes you feel good but then begins to eat you alive, burn you up from within. You can't just walk away from the fire; it keeps burning. The only way to put it out is to write the damned book. Anyway, when I get stuck on this one, I turn to a nice little children's book I'm writing all about Sir Tommy Toad.”

“You're nuts, Shane.”

“Who's wearing the bunny slippers?”

They talked about this and that, with the easy camaraderie they had shared for twenty years. Perhaps it was Laura's loneliness, more acute than in the days immediately following Danny's murder, or maybe it was fear of the unknown, but for whatever reason she began to speak of her special guardian. In all the world only Thelma might believe the tale. In fact Thelma was spellbound, soon lowering her feet from the desk and sitting forward on her chair, never expressing disbelief, as the story unrolled from the day the junkie was shot until the guardian vanished on the mountain highway.

When Laura had quenched that inner fire, Thelma said, “Why didn't you tell me about this . . . this guardian years ago? Back in McIlroy?”

“I don't know. It seemed like something . . . magical. Something I should keep to myself because if I shared it I'd break the spell and never see him again. Then after he left me to deal with the Eel on my own, after he had done nothing to save Ruthie, I guess I just stopped believing in him. I never told Danny about him because by the time I met Danny my guardian was no more real to me than Santa Claus. Then suddenly . . . there he was again on the highway.”

“That night on the mountain, he said he'd be back to explain everything in a few days . . . ?”

But I haven't seen him since. I've been waiting seven months, and I figure that when someone suddenly materializes it might be my guardian or, just as likely, another Kokoschka with a submarine gun."

The story had electrified Thelma, and she fidgeted on her chair as if a current were crackling through her. Finally she got up and paced. “What about Kokoschka? The cops find out anything about him?”

“Nothing. He was carrying no identification whatsoever. The Pontiac he was driving was stolen, just like the red Jeep. They ran his fingerprints through every file they've got, came up empty-handed. And they can't interrogate a corpse. They don't know who he was or where he came from or why he wanted to kill us.”

“You've had a long time to think about all this. So any ideas? Who is this guardian? Where did he come from?”

“I don't know.” She had one idea in particular that she focused on, but it sounded mad, and she had no evidence to support the theory. She withheld it from Thelma not because it was crazy, however, but because it would sound so egomaniacal. “I just don't know.”

“Where's this belt he left with you?”

“In the safe,” Laura said, nodding toward the corner where a floor-set box was hidden under the carpet.

Together they pulled the wall-to-wall carpet off its tack strip in that corner, revealing the-face of the safe, which was a cylinder twelve inches in diameter and sixteen inches deep. Only one item reposed within, and Laura withdrew it.

They moved back to the desk to look at the mysterious article in better light. Laura adjusted the flexible neck of the lamp.

The belt was four inches wide and was made of a stretchy, black fabric, perhaps nylon, through which were woven copper wires that formed intricate and peculiar patterns. Because of its width, the belt required two small buckles rather than one; those were also made of copper. In addition, sewn on the belt just to the left of the buckles, was a thin box the size of an old-fashioned cigarette case-about four inches by three inches, only three-quarters of an inch thick-and this, too, was made of copper. Even on close examination no way to open the rectangular copper box could be discerned; its only feature was a yellow button toward the lower left corner, less than an inch in diameter.

Thelma fingered the odd material. “Tell me again what he said would happen if you pushed the yellow button.”

“He just told me for God's sake not to push it, and when I asked why not, he said, 'You won't want to go where it'll take you.'”

They stood side by side in the glow of the desk lamp, staring at the belt that Thelma held. It was after four in the morning, and the house was as silent as any dead, airless crater on the moon.

Finally Thelma said, “You ever been tempted to push the button?”