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“I remember the Teagels as if I lived with them yesterday.” “ Thelma said, ”I've been thinking a lot about what's to you-this guardian, the way he never ages, the way he appeared into thin air-and I thought of the Teagels, and it all seems sort of ironic to me. All those nights at McIlroy, we laughed at nutty old MikeTeagel . . . and now what you find yourself in the middle of is a prime bit of exotic news."


Laura laughed softly. “Maybe I'd better reconsider all those tales of aliens living secretly in Cleveland, huh?” “I guess what I'm trying to say is ... life is full of wonders and surprises. Some of them are nasty surprises, yeah, and some days me as dark as the inside of the average politician's head. But just the same, there are moments that make me realize we're all here for some reason, enigmatic as it might be. It's not meaningless. If it was meaningless, there'd be no mystery. It'd be as dull and clear and lacking in mystery as the mechanism of a Mr. Coffee machine.”


Laura nodded.


“God, listen to me! I'm torturing the English language to come up with a half-baked philosophical statement that ultimately means nothing more than 'keep your chin up, kid.”


“You're not half-baked.”


“Mystery,” Thelma said. “Wonder. You're in the middle of it, Shane, and that's what life's all about. If it's dark right now . . .well, this too shall pass.”


They stood by the car, hugging, not needing to say more, until Chris ran out from the house with a crayon drawing he had done for Thelma and that he wanted her to take back to LA with her. It was a crude but charming scene of Tommy Toad standing outside a movie cheater, gazing up at a marquee on which Thelma's name was huge. He had tears in his eyes. “But do you really have to go, Aunt Thelma? Can't you stay one more day?” Thelma hugged him, then carefully rolled up the drawing as if in of a priceless masterwork. “I'd love to stay, Christopher but I can't. My adoring fans are crying for me to make this Besides, I've got a big mortgage.”


“What's a mortgage?”


“The greatest motivator in the world,” Thelma said, giving him a last kiss. She got into the car, started the engine, put down the side window, and winked at Laura. “Exotic news, Shane.”


“Mystery.”


“Wonder.”


Laura gave her the split-finger greeting from Star Trek.


Thelma laughed. “You'll make it, Shane. In spite of the guns and all I've learned since I came here on Friday, I'm less worried about you now than I was then.”


Chris stood at Laura's side, and they watched Thelma's car until it went down the long driveway and disappeared onto the state route.


Dr. Vladimir Penlovski's large office suite was on the fourth floor of the institute. When Stefan entered the reception lounge, it was deserted, but he heard voices coming from the next room. He went to the inner door, which was ajar, pushed it all the way open, and saw Penlovski giving dictation to Anna Kaspar, his secretary.


Penlovski looked up, mildly surprised to see Stefan. He must have perceived the tension in Stefan's face, for he frowned and said, “Is something wrong?”


“Something's been wrong for a long time,” Stefan said, “but it'll all be fine now, I think.” Then, as Penlovski's frown deepened, Stefan pulled the silencer-equipped Colt Commander from the pocket of his lab coat and shot the scientist twice in the chest.


Anna Kaspar sprang up from her chair, dropping her pencil and dictation pad, a scream caught in her throat.


He did not like killing women-he did not like killing anyone- but there was no choice now, so he shot her three times, knocking her backward onto the desk, before the scream could tear free of her.


Dead, she slid off the desk and crumpled to the floor. The shots had been no louder than the hissing of an angry cat, and the sound of the body dropping had been insufficient to draw attention.


Penlovski was slumped in his chair, eyes and mouth open, staring sightlessly. One of the shots must have pierced his heart, for mere was only a small spot of blood on his shirt; his circulation had seen cut off in an instant.


Stefan backed out of the room, closed the door. He crossed the reception lounge and, stepping into the hall, shut the outer door too.


His heart was racing. With those two murders he had cut himself from his own time, his own people. From here on, the only life for him was in Laura's time. Now there was no turning back.


With his hands-and the gun-jammed in his lab-coat pockets, wn the hall toward Januskaya's office. As he neared the of his other colleagues came out of it. They said hello as they passed him, and he stopped to see if they were heading for Penlovski 's office. If they were, he'd have to kill them too.


He was relieved when they stopped at the elevators. The more corpses he left strewn around, the more likely someone would be to stumble across one of them and sound an alarm that would prevent him from setting the timer on the explosives and escaping by way of the Lightning Road.


He went into Januskaya's office, which also had a reception area. At the desk, the secretary-provided, as Anna Kaspar had been, by the secret police-looked up and smiled.


“Is Dr. Januskaya here?” Stefan asked.


“No. He's down in the documents room with Dr. Volkaw.”


Volkaw was the third man whose overview of the project was .-:- enough to require that he be eliminated. It seemed a good omen that he and Wladyslaw Januskaya were conveniently in the same place.


In the documents room, they stored and studied the many books, newspapers, magazines, and other materials that had been brought back from time travelers from scheduled jaunts. These days the men who had conceived of Lightning Road were engaged in an urgent analysis of the key points at which alterations in the natural flow of events could provide the changes in the course of history that they desired.


On the way down in the elevator, Stefan replaced the pistol's silencer with the unused spare. The first would muffle another dozen shots before its sound baffles were seriously damaged. But he did not want to overuse it. The second silencer was additional insurance. He also quickly exchanged the half-empty magazine for a full one.


The first-floor corridor was a busy place, with people coming and going from one lab and research room to another. He kept his hands in his pockets and went directly to the documents room.


When Stefan entered, Januskaya and Volkaw were standing at an oak table, bent over a copy of a magazine, arguing heatedly but in low voices. They glanced up, then immediately continued their discussion, assuming that he was there for research purposes of his own.


Stefan put two bullets in Volkaw's back.


Januskaya reacted with confusion and shock as Volkaw flew forward into the table, driven by the impact of the nearly silent gunfire.


Stefan shot Januskaya in the face, then turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. Not trusting himself to speak to one of his colleagues with any degree of self-control or coherence, he tried to appear to be lost in thought, hoping that would dissuade them from approaching him. He went to the elevators as quickly as possible without running, went to his third-floor office, reached behind the file cabinet, and twisted the dial on the timer as far as it would go, giving himself just five minutes to get to the gate and away before the institute was reduced to burning rubble.


By the time the school year began, Laura had won approval for Chris to receive his education at home, from a state-accredited tutor. Her name was Ida Palomar, and she reminded Laura of Marjorie Main, the late actress in the Ma and Pa Kettle movies. Ida was a big woman, a bit gruff, but with a generous heart, and she was a good teacher.


By the Thanksgiving school break, instead of feeling as if they were imprisoned, both she and Chris had accommodated to the relative isolation in which they lived. In fact they had actually come to enjoy the special closeness that developed between them as a result of having so few other people in their lives.


On Thanksgiving Day Thelma called from Beverly Hills to wish them a happy holiday. Laura took the call in the kitchen, which was full of the aroma of roasting turkey. Chris was in the family room, reading Shel Silverstein.


“Besides wishing you a happy holiday,” Thelma said, “I'm calling to invite you down here to spend Christmas week with me and Jason.”


“Jason?” Laura said.


“Jason Gaines, the director,” Thelma said. “He's the guy who's directing this film I'm making. I've moved in with him.”


“Does he know it yet?”


“Listen, Shane, I make the wisecracks.”


“Sorry.”


“He says he loves me. Is that crazy or what? I mean, Jeez, here's this decent-looking guy, only five years older than me, with no visible mutations, who's a hugely successful film director, worth many millions, who could just about have any stacked little starlet he wanted, and the only one he wants is me. Now obviously he's brain-damaged, but you wouldn't know it to talk to him, he could pass for normal. He says what he loves about me is I've got a brain-”


“Does he know how diseased it is?”


“There you go again, Shane. He says he loves my brain and sense of humor, and he's even excited by my body-or if he isn't excited then he's the first guy in history who could fake an erection.”


“You've got a perfectly lovely body.”


“Well, I'm beginning to consider the possibility that it's not as bad as I always thought. That is, if you consider boniness to be the sine qua non of feminine beauty. But even if I am able to look at my bod in a mirror now, it's still got this face perched atop it.”


“You've got a perfectly lovely face-especially now that it's not surrounded by green and purple hair.”


“It's not your face, Shane. Which means I'm mad for inviting you here for Christmas week. Jason will see you, and the next thing I'll be sitting in a Glad trash bag at the curb. But what about it? Will you come? We're shooting the film in and around LA, and we'll finish principal photography December tenth. Then Jason's got a lot of work to do, what with the editing, the whole schmear, but Christmas week we're just stopping. We'd like you to be here. Say you will.”


“I'd sure like to meet the man smart enough to fall for you, Thelma, but I don't know. I feel . . . safe here.”


“What do you think-we're dangerous?”


“You know what I mean.”


“You can bring an Uzi.”


“What will Jason think of that?”


“I'll tell him you're a radical leftist, save-the-sperm-whale, get-toxic-preservatives-out-of-Spam, parakeet liberationist and that you keep an Uzi with you at all times in case the revolution comes without warning. He'll buy it. This is Hollywood, kid. Most of the actors he works with are politically crazier than that.”


Through the family-room archway, Laura could see Chris curled up in the armchair with his book.


She sighed. “Maybe it is time we got out in the world once in a while. And it's going to be a difficult Christmas if it's just Chris and me, this being the first without Danny. But I feel uneasy ...”


“It's been over ten months, Laura,” Thelma said gently.


“But I'm not going to let down my guard.”


“You don't have to. I'm serious about the Uzi. Bring your whole arsenal if that'll make you feel better. Just come.”


“Well ... all right.”


“Fantastic! I can't wait for you to meet Jason.”


“Do I detect that the love this brain-damaged Hollywood maven feels for you is reciprocated?”


“I'm crazy about him,” Thelma admitted.


“I'm happy for you, Thelma. In fact I'm standing here now with a grin that won't stop, and nothing's made me feel so good in months.”


Everything she said was true. But after she hung up, she missed Danny more than ever.


As soon as he set the timer behind the filing cabinet, Stefan left his third-floor office and went to the main lab on the ground floor. It was 12:14, and because the scheduled jaunt was not until two o'clock, the main lab was deserted. The windows were sealed, and most of the overhead lights were still off, as they had been little more than an hour ago, when he had returned from the San Bernardinos. The multitude of dials, gauges, and lighted graphs of the support machinery glowed green and orange. More in shadow than in the light, the gate awaited him. Four minutes till detonation.


He went directly to the primary programming board and carefully adjusted the dials and switches and levers, setting the gate for the desired destination: southern California, near Big Bear, at eight o'clock on the night of January 10, 1988, just a few hours after Danny Packard had been killed. He had done the necessary calculations days ago and had them on a sheet of paper to which he referred, so he was able to program the machinery in only a minute. If he could have traveled to the afternoon of the tenth, prior to the accident and the shoot-out with Kokoschka, he would have done so in the hope of saving Danny. However, they had learned that a time traveler could not revisit a place if he scheduled his second arrival shortly before his previous jaunt; there was a natural mechanism that prevented a traveler from being in a place where he might encounter himself on a previous jaunt. He could return to Big Bear after he had left Laura that January night, for having already departed from the highway, he was no longer at risk of encountering himself there. But if he set the gate for an arrival time that would make it possible for him to meet himself, he would simply bounce back to the institute without going anywhere. That was one of many mysterious aspects of time travel which they had learned, around which they worked, but which they did not understand.


When he finished programming the gate, he glanced at the latitude and longitude indicator to confirm that he would arrive in the general area of Big Bear. Then he looked at the clock that noted his arrival time, and he was startled to see that it showed 8:00 P.M., January 10, 1989, instead of 1988. The gate was now set to deliver him to Big Bear not hours after Danny's death but a full year later.


He was sure that his calculations were correct; he'd had plenty of time to make them and recheck them over the past couple of weeks. Evidently, nervous as he was, he had made a mistake when entering the numbers. He would have to reprogram the gate. Less than three minutes until detonation. He blinked sweat out of his eyes and studied the numbers on the paper, the end product of his extensive calculations. As he reached for a control knob to cancel out the current program and re-enter the first of the figures again, a shout of alarm went up in the ground-floor corridor. The cries sounded as if they were coming from the north end of the building, in the general area of the document room.

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