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“No, never,” Laura said without hesitation. “When he mentioned the place to which it would take me ... there was a terrible look in his eyes. And I know he returned there himself only with reluctance. I don't know where he comes from, Thelma, but if I didn't misunderstand what I saw in his eyes, the place is just one step this side of hell.”

Sunday afternoon they dressed in shorts and T-shirts, spread a couple of blankets on the rear lawn, and made a long, lazy picnic of potato salad, cold cuts, cheese, fresh fruit, potato chips, and plump cinnamon rolls with lots of crunchy pecan topping. They played games with Chris, and he enjoyed the day enormously, partly because Thelma was able to shift her comic engine into a lower gear, producing one-liners designed for eight-year-olds.

When Chris saw squirrels frolicking farther back in the yard, near the woods, he wanted to feed them. Laura gave him a pecan roll and said, “Tear it into little pieces and toss the pieces to them. They won't let you get too near. And you stay close to me, you hear?”

“Sure, Mom.”

“Don't you go all the way to the woods. Only about halfway.”

He ran thirty feet from the blanket, only a little more than halfway to the trees, then dropped to his knees. He tore pieces from the cinnamon roll and threw them to the squirrels, making those quick and cautious creatures edge a bit closer for each successive scrap.

“He's a good kid,” Thelma said.

“The best.” Laura moved the Uzi to her side.

“He's only ten or twelve yards away,” Thelma said.

“But he's closer to the woods than to me.” Laura studied the shadows under the serried pines. Plucking a few potato chips from the bag, Thelma said, “Never been on a picnic with someone who brought a submachine gun. I sort of like it. Don't have to worry about bears.” “It's hell on ants, too.”

Thelma stretched out on her side on the blanket, her head propped up on one bent arm, but Laura continued to sit with her legs crossed Indian-fashion. Orange butterflies, as bright as condensed sunshine, darted through the warm August air.

“The kid seems to be coping,” Thelma said.

“More or less,” Laura agreed. “There was a very bad time. He cried a lot, wasn't emotionally stable. But that passed. They're flexible at his age, quick to adapt, to accept. But as good as he seems ... I'm afraid there's a darkness in him now that wasn't there before and that isn't going to go away.”

“No,” Thelma said, “it won't go away. It's like a shadow on the 5eart. But he'll live, and he'll find happiness, and there'll be times when he's not aware of the shadow at all.” While Thelma watched Chris luring the squirrels, Laura studied her friend's profile.

“You still miss Ruth, don't you?”

“Every day for twenty years. Don't you still miss your dad?” “Sure,” Laura said. "But when I think of him, I don't believe what I feel is like what you feel. Because we expect our parents to die before us, and even when they die prematurely, we can accept it because we've always known it was going to happen sooner or later.

But it's different when the one who dies is a wife, husband, child... or sister. We don't expect them to die on us, not early in life. So it's harder to cope. Especially, I suppose, if she's a twin sister."

*When I get a piece of good news-career news, I mean-the first thing I always think of is how happy Ruthie would have been for me. What about you, Shane? You coping?"

“I cry at night.”

“That's healthy now. Not so healthy a year from now.”

“I lie awake at night and listen to my heartbeat, and it's a lonely sound. Thank God for Chris. He gives me purpose. And you. I've got you and Chris, and we're sort of family, don't you think?”

“Not just sort of. We are family. You and me-sisters.” Laura smiled, reached out, and rumpled Thelma's tousled hair “But,” Thelma said, “being sisters doesn't mean you get to borrow my clothes.”

In the corridors and through the open doors of the institute's offices and labs, Stefan saw his colleagues at work, and none of them had any special interest in him. He took the elevator to the third floor where just outside his office he encountered Dr. Wladyslaw Januskaya, who was Dr. Vladimir Penlovski's longtime protege and second in charge of the time-travel research which originally had been called Project Scythe but which for several months now had been known by the apt code name Lightning Road.

Januskaya was forty, ten years younger than his mentor, but he looked older than the vital, energetic Penlovski. Short, overweight, balding, with a blotchy complexion, with two bright gold teeth in the front of his mouth, wearing thick glasses that made his eyes look like painted eggs, Januskaya should have been a comic figure. But his unholy faith in the state and his zeal in working for the totalitarian cause were sufficient to counteract his comic potential; indeed he was one of the more disturbing men involved with Lightning Road.

“Stefan, dear Stefan,” Januskaya said, “I've been meaning to tell you how grateful we are for your timely suggestion, last October, that the power supply to the gate should be provided by a secure generator. Your foresight has saved the project. If we were still drawing from the municipal power lines . . . why, the gate would have collapsed half a dozen times by now, and we'd be woefully behind schedule.”

Having returned to the institute in expectation of arrest, Stefan was confused to find his treachery undiscovered and startled to hear himself being praised by this evil worm. He had suggested switching the gate to a secure generator not because he wanted to see their vile project achieve success but because he had not wanted his own jaunts into Laura's life to be interrupted by the failure of the public power supply.

“I would not have thought last October that by this time we would have come to such a situation as this, with ordinary public no longer to be trusted,” Januskaya said, shaking his head N, “the social order so thoroughly disturbed. What must the endure to see the socialist state of their dreams triumph, eh?”

“These are dark times,” Stefan said, meaning very different things than Januskaya meant.

“But we will triumph,” Januskaya said forcefully. His magnified eyes filled with the madness that Stefan knew too well. “Through the lightning Road, we will triumph.”

He patted Stefan on the shoulder and continued down the hall.

After Stefan watched the scientist walk nearly to the elevators, he said. “Oh, Dr. Januskaya?”

The fat white worm turned and looked at him. “Yes?”

“Have you seen Kokoschka today?”

“Today? No, not yet today.”

“He's here, isn't he?”

“Oh, I'd imagine so. He's here pretty much as long as there's anyone working, you know. He's a diligent man. If we had more like Kokoschka we'd have no doubt of ultimate triumph. Do you need to talk to him? If I see him, should I send him to you?”

“No, no,” Stefan said. “It's nothing urgent. I wouldn't want to interrupt him in other work. I'm sure I'll see him sooner or later.”

Januskaya continued to the elevators, and Stefan went into his office, closing the door behind him.

He crouched beside the filing cabinet that he had repositioned slightly to cover one-third of the grille in the corner ventilation chase. In the narrow space behind it, a bundle of copper wires was barely visible, coming out of the bottom slot in the grille. The wires were connected to a simple dial-type timer that was in turn plugged into a wall outlet farther behind the cabinet. Nothing had been disconnected. He could reach behind the cabinet, set the timer, and in one to five minutes, depending on how big a twist he gave the dial, the institute would be destroyed.

What the hell is going on? he wondered.

He sat for a while at his desk, staring at the square of sky that he could see from one of his two windows: scattered, dirty gray clouds moving sluggishly across an azure backdrop.

Finally he left his office, went to the north stairs, and climbed quickly past the fourth floor to the attic. The door opened with only a brief squeak. He flipped the light switch and entered the long, half-finished room, stepping as softly as possible on the board floor. He checked three of the charges of plastique that he had hidden in the rafters two nights ago. The explosives had not been disturbed.

He had no need to examine the charges in the basement. He left the attic and returned to his office.

Obviously no one knew about either his intention of destroying the institute or his attempts to turn Laura's life away from a series of ordained tragedies. No one except Kokoschka. Damn it, Kokoschka had to know because he had shown up on the mountain road with an Uzi.

So why hadn't Kokoschka told anyone else?

Kokoschka was an officer of the state's secret police, a true fanatic, obedient and eager servant of the government, and personally responsible for the security of Lightning Road. On discovering a traitor at the institute, Kokoschka would not have hesitated to call in squads of agents to encircle the building, guard the gate, and interrogate everyone.

Surely he would not have allowed Stefan to go to Laura's aid on that mountain highway, then follow with the intent of killing them all. For one thing, he would want to detain Stefan and interrogate him to determine if Stefan had conspirators in the institute.

Kokoschka had learned of Stefan's meddling in the ordained flow of events in one woman's life. And he had either discovered or had not discovered the explosives in the institute-probably not, or he would have at least unwired them. Then for reasons of his own he had not reacted as a policeman but as an individual. This morning he had followed Stefan through the gate, to that wintry afternoon in January of '88, with intentions that Stefan did not now understand at all.

It made no sense. Yet that was what had to have happened.

What had Kokoschka been up to?

He would probably never know.

Now Kokoschka was dead on a highway in 1988, and soon someone at the institute would realize that he was missing.

This afternoon at two o'clock, Stefan was scheduled to take an approved jaunt under the direction of Penlovski and Januskaya. He had intended to blow the institute-in two senses-at one o'clock, an hour before the scheduled event. Now, at 11:43, he decided that he would have to move faster than he originally intended, before Kokoschka's disappearance caused alarm.

He went to one of the tall files, opened the bottom drawer, which was empty, and disconnected it from its slides, lifting it all the way out of the cabinet. Wired to the back of the drawer was a pistol, a Colt Commander 9mm Parabellum with a nine-round magazine, acquired on one of his illicit jaunts and brought back secretly to the institute. From behind another drawer he removed two high-tech silencers and four additional, fully loaded magazines. At his desk, working quickly lest someone enter without knocking, he screwed one of the silencers onto the pistol, flicked off the safety, and distributed the other silencer and magazines in the pockets of his lab coat.

When he left the institute by way of the gate for the last time, he could not trust to the explosives to kill Penlovski, Januskaya, and certain other scientists. The blast would bring down the building no doubt destroy all machinery and paper files, but what if just one of the key researchers survived? The necessary knowledge to rebuild the gate was in Penlovski's and Januskaya's minds, so Stefan planned to kill them and one other man, Volkaw, before he set the timer on the explosives and entered the gate to return to Laura.

With the silencer attached, the Commander was too long to fit all the way in the pocket of his lab coat, so he turned the pocket inside out and tore the bottom of it. With his finger on the trigger, he shoved the gun into his now bottomless pocket and held it there as he opened his office door and went into the hallway.

His heart pounded furiously. This was the most dangerous part of his plan, the killing, because there were so many opportunities for something to go wrong before he finished with the gun and returned to his office to set the timer on the explosives.

Laura was a long way off, and he might never see her again.

On Monday afternoon Laura and Chris dressed in gray sweat suits. After Thelma helped them unroll the thick gym mats on the patio at the back of the house, Laura and Chris sat side by side and did deep-breathing exercises.

“When does Bruce Lee arrive?” Thelma asked.

“At two,” Laura said.

“He's not Bruce Lee, Aunt Thelma,” Chris said exasperatedly. “You keep calling him Bruce Lee, but Bruce Lee is dead.”

Mr. Takahami arrived promptly at two o'clock. He was wearing a dark blue sweat suit, on the back of which was the logo for his martial arts school: QUIET STRENGTH. When introduced to Thelma, he said, “You're a very funny lady. I love your record album.”

Glowing from the praise, Thelma said, “And I can honestly tell you that I sincerely wish Japan had won the war.”

Henry laughed. “I think we did.”

Sitting on a sun lounger, sipping iced tea, Thelma watched while Henry instructed Laura and Chris in self-defense.

He was forty years old, with a well-developed upper body and wiry legs. He was a master of judo and karate, as well as an expert kick boxer, and he taught a form of self-defense based on various martial arts, a system which he had devised himself. Twice a week he drove out from Riverside and spent three hours with Laura and Chris.

The kicking, punching, poking, grunting, twisting, throwing, off-the-hip rolling combat was conducted gently enough not to cause injury but with enough force to teach. Chris's lessons were less strenuous and less elaborate than Laura's, and Henry gave the boy plenty of breaks to pause and recoup. But by the end of the session, Laura was, as always, dripping sweat and exhausted.

When Henry left, Laura sent Chris upstairs to shower while she and Thelma rolled up the mats.

“He's cute,” Thelma said.

“Henry? I guess he is.”

“Maybe I'll take up judo or karate.”

“Have your audiences been that dissatisfied lately?”

“That one was below the belt, Shane.”

“Anything's fair when the enemy's formidable and merciless.”

The following afternoon, as Thelma was putting her suitcase in the trunk of her Camaro for the return trip to Beverly Hills, she said, “Hey, Shane, you remember that first foster family you were sent to from McIlroy?”

“The Teagels,” Laura said. “Flora, Hazel, and Mike.”

Thelma leaned against the sun-warmed side of the car next to Laura “You remember what you told us about Mike's fascination with newspapers like the National Enquirer!”