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“Got to get out. Quick. They'll be coming . . . soon coming . . .”

She glanced at the Uzi. “Who will be coming?”

“Assassins,” he said urgently. “Kill me for revenge. Kill you, kill Chris. Coming. Now.”

At that moment there was no delirium in his eyes or voice. His pale, sweat-slick face was no longer slack but taut with terror.

All her training with guns and in the martial arts no longer seemed like hysterical precautions. “Okay,” she said, “we'll get out as soon as I've had a look at that wound, see if it needs to be dressed.”

“No! Now. Out now.”


“Now,” he insisted. In his eyes was such a haunted look, she could almost believe that the assassins of whom he spoke were not ordinary men but creatures of some supernatural origin, demons with the ruthlessness and relentlessness of the soulless.

“Okay,” she said. “We'll get out now.”

His hand fell away from her arm. His eyes shifted out of focus, and he began to mumble thickly, senselessly.

As she hurried across the kitchen, intending to go upstairs and wake Chris, she heard her guardian speak dreamily yet anxiously of a “great, black, rolling machine of death,” which meant nothing to her but frightened her nonetheless.



The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying.




Laura switched on a lamp and shook Chris awake. “Get dressed, honey. Quickly.”

“What's happening?” he asked sleepily, rubbing his eyes with his small fists.

“Some bad men are coming, and we've got to get out of here before they arrive. Now hurry.”

Chris had spent a year not only mourning his father but preparing for the moment when the deceptively placid events of daily life would be disrupted by another unexpected explosion of the chaos that lay at the heart of human existence, the chaos that from time to time erupted like an active volcano, as it had done the night his father had been murdered. Chris had watched his mother become a first-rate shot with a handgun, had seen her collect an arsenal, had taken self-defense classes with her, and through it all he had retained the point of view and attitudes of a child, had seemed pretty much like any other child, if understandably melancholy since the death of his father. But now in a moment of crisis he did not react like an eight-year-old; he did not whine or ask unnecessary questions; he was not quarrelsome or stubborn or slow to obey. He threw back the covers, got out of bed at once, and hurried to the closet.

“Meet me in the kitchen,” Laura said.

“Okay, Mom.”

She was proud of his responsible reaction and relieved that he would not delay them, but she was also saddened that at eight years of age he understood enough about the brevity and harshness of life to respond to a crisis with the swiftness and equanimity of an adult.

She was wearing jeans and a blue-plaid, flannel shirt. When she went to her bedroom, she only had to slip into a wool sweater, pull off her Rockport walking shoes, and put on a pair of rubberized hiking boots with lace-up tops.

She had gotten rid of Danny's clothes, so she had no coat for the wounded man in the kitchen. She had plenty of blankets, however, and she grabbed two of those from the linen closet in the hall.

As an afterthought, she went to her office, opened the safe, and removed the strange black belt with copper fittings that her guardian had given her a year ago. She jammed it in her satchel-like purse.

Downstairs she stopped at the front foyer closet for a blue ski jacket and the Uzi carbine that hung on the back of the door. As she moved she was alert for unusual noises-voices in the night beyond the house or the sound of a car engine-but all remained silent.

In the kitchen she put the submachine gun on the table with the other one, then knelt beside her guardian, who was unconscious again. She unbuttoned his snow-wet lab coat, then his shirt, and looked at the gunshot wound in his chest. It was high in his left shoulder, well above the heart, which was good, but he had lost a lot of blood; his clothes were soaked with it.

“Mom?” Chris was in the doorway, dressed for a winter night.

“Take one of those Uzis from the table, get the third one from the back of the pantry/floor, and put them in the Jeep.”

“It's him,” Chris said, wide-eyed with surprise.

“Yes, it is. He showed up like this, hurt bad. Besides the Uzis, get two of the revolvers-the one in the drawer over there and the one in the dining room. And be careful not to accidentally-”

“Don't worry, Mom,” he said, setting off on the errands.

As gently as possible she rolled her guardian onto his right side-he groaned but did not awaken-to see if there was an exit wound in his back. Yes. The bullet had gone through him, exiting under the scapula. His back was soaked with blood, too, but neither the entry nor exit point was bleeding heavily any longer; if there was serious bleeding, it was internal, and she could not detect or treat it.

Under his clothing he wore one of the belts. She unbuckled it. The belt wouldn't fit in the center compartment of her purse, so she had to stuff it into a zippered side compartment after dumping out the items she usually kept in there.

She rebuttoned his shirt and debated whether she should take off his damp lab coat. She decided it would be too difficult to wrestle the sleeves down his arms. Rolling him gently from side to side, she worked a gray wool blanket under and around him.

While Laura bundled up the wounded man, Chris made a couple of trips to the Jeep with the guns, using the inner door that connected the laundry room to the garage. Then he came in with a two-foot-wide, four-foot-long, flat dolly-essentially a wooden platform on casters-that had accidentally been left behind by some furniture deliverymen almost a year and a half ago. Riding it like a skateboard toward the pantry, he said, “We gotta take the ammo box, but it's too heavy for me to carry. I'll put it on this.”

Pleased by his initiative and cleverness, she said, “We have twelve rounds in the two revolvers and twelve hundred rounds in the three Uzis, so I don't think we'll need more than that, no matter what happens. Bring the board here. Quick now. I've been trying to figure how we can get him to the Jeep without shaking him up too bad. That looks like the ticket.”

They were moving fast, as if they had drilled for just this particular emergency, yet Laura felt that they were taking too much time. Her hands were shaking, and her belly fluttered continuously. She expected someone to hammer on the door at any moment.

Chris held the dolly still while Laura heaved the wounded man onto it. When she got the board under his head, shoulders, back, and buttocks, she was able to lift his legs and push him as if he were a wheelbarrow. Chris scooted along at a crouch by the front wheels, one hand on the unconscious man's right shoulder to keep him from sliding off and to prevent the board from rolling out from beneath him. They had a little trouble easing across the door sill at the end of the laundry room, but they got him into the three-car garage.

The Mercedes was on the left, the Jeep wagon on the right, with the middle slot empty. They wheeled her guardian to the Jeep.

Chris had opened the tailgate. He had also unrolled a small gym mat in there for a mattress.

“You're a great kid,” she told him.

Together they managed to transfer the wounded man from the dolly into the cargo bed by way of the open tailgate.

“Bring the other blanket and his shoes from the kitchen,” she told Chris.

By the time the boy returned with those items, Laura had gotten her guardian stretched out flat on his back on the gym mat. They covered his bare feet with the second blanket and put his soggy shoes beside him.

As Laura shut the tailgate, she said, “Chris, get in the front seat and buckle up.”

She hurried back into the house. Her purse, which contained all of her credit cards, was on the table; she slipped the straps over her shoulder. She picked up the third Uzi and headed back toward the laundry room, but before she had taken three steps, something hit the rear door with tremendous force. She whirled, bringing up the gun.

Something slammed into the door again, but the steel core and Schlage deadbolts could not be defeated easily. Then the nightmare began in earnest.

A submachine gun chattered, and Laura threw herself against the side of the refrigerator, sheltering there. They were trying to blow open the back door, but the heavy steel core held against that assault too. The door shook, however, and bullets pierced the wall on both sides of the reinforced frame, tearing holes in the dry wall. Family-room and kitchen windows exploded as a second submachine gun opened fire. The metal Levelors danced on their mountings. Metal slats twanged as slugs passed between them, and some slats bent, but most of the shattered window glass was contained behind the blinds, where it rained on sills and from there to the floor. Cabinet doors splintered and cracked as bullets pierced them, and chips of brick flew off one wall, and bullets ricocheted off the copper range hood, leaving it dented, creased. Hanging from ceiling hooks, the copper pots and pans took a lot of hits, producing a variety of clinks and ponks. One overhead light blew out. The Levelor at the window above the writing desk was torn off its mountings at last, and half a dozen slugs plowed into the refrigerator door just inches from her.

Her heart was racing, and a flood of adrenaline had made her senses almost painfully sharp. She wanted to run for the Jeep in the garage and try to get out before they realized she was in the process of leaving, but a primal warrior instinct told her to stay put. She pressed flat against the side of the refrigerator, out of the direct line of fire, hoping that she would not be hit by a ricochet. Who the hell are you people? she wondered angrily. The firing stopped, and her instinct proved true: The barrage was followed by the gunmen themselves. They stormed the house. The first one clambered through the imploded window above the kitchen desk. She stepped away from the refrigerator and opened fire, blowing him back out onto the patio. A second man, dressed in black like the first, entered by the shattered sliding door in the family room-she saw him through the archway a second before he saw her-and she swung the Uzi in that direction, spraying bullets, destroying the Mr. Coffee machine, tearing the hell out of the kitchen wall beside the archway, then cutting him down as he brought his weapon around toward her. She had practiced with the Uzi but not recently, and she was surprised at how controllable it was. She was also surprised at how sickened she was by the need to kill them, though they were trying to slaughter her and her child; like a wave of oily sludge, nausea washed through her, but she choked down the gorge that rose in her throat. A third man started into the family room, and she was ready to kill him, too, and a hundred like him, no matter how sick the killing made her, but he threw himself backward, out of the line of fire, when he saw his companion blown away.

Now the Jeep.

She didn't know how many killers were outside, maybe only the three, two dead and one still living, maybe four or ten or a hundred, but regardless of how many there were, they would not have expected to be met with such a bold response and certainly not with so much firepower, no way, not from a woman and a small boy, and they had known that her guardian was wounded and unarmed. So right now they were stunned, and they'd be taking cover, assessing the situation, planning their next move. This might be her first and last chance to get away in the Jeep wagon. She sprinted through the laundry room into the garage.

She saw that Chris had started the Jeep's engine when he'd heard the gunfire; bluish exhaust fumes billowed from the tailpipes. As she ran to the Jeep, the garage door started up; Chris had evidently used the Genie remote-control unit the moment he saw her.

By the time she got behind the wheel, the garage door was a third open. She shifted into gear. “Get down!”

As Chris instantly obeyed, sliding down in his seat below window level, Laura let up on the brakes. She rammed the accelerator against the floorboards, peeled rubber on the concrete, and roared out into the night, clearing the still rising garage door by only an inch or two, ripping off the radio antenna.

The Jeep's big tires, though not swaddled in chains, had heavy winter tread. They dug into the frozen slush and gravel that formed the surface of the driveway, finding traction with no trouble, spewing shrapnel of stone and ice.

From off to her left came a dark figure, a man in black, running across the front lawn, kicking up snow, forty or fifty feet away, and he was such a featureless shape that he might have been just a shadow, except that over the screaming of the engine she heard the rattle of automatic gunfire. Slugs slammed into the side of the Jeep, and the window behind her blew in, but the window beside her remained intact, and then she was speeding away, heading out of range, a few seconds from safety now, with wind shrieking at the broken window. She prayed none of the tires would be hit, and she heard more rounds striking sheet metal, or maybe it was gravel and ice churned up by the Jeep.

When she reached the state route at the end of the driveway, she was certain that she was out of range. As she braked hard for the left turn, she glanced into the rearview mirror and saw, far back, a pair of headlights at the open garage. The killers had arrived at her house without a vehicle-God only knew how they had traveled, perhaps with the use of those strange belts-and they were using her Mercedes to pursue her.

She had intended to turn left on the state route, head down past Running Springs, past the turnoff to Lake Arrowhead, on to the superhighway and into the city of San Bernardino, where there were people and safety in numbers, where men dressed in black and toting automatic weapons would not stalk her so boldly, and where she could get medical treatment for her guardian. But when she saw the headlights behind her, she responded to an innate proclivity for survival, turning right instead, heading east-northeast toward Big Bear Lake.

If she had gone left they would have come to that fateful half mile of inclined highway on which Danny had been murdered a year ago; and Laura felt intuitively-almost superstitiously-that the most dangerous place in the world for them at the moment was that sloping length of two-lane blacktop. She and Chris had been meant to die twice on that hill: first, when the Robertsons' pickup slid out of control; second, when Kokoschka opened fire on them. Sometimes she perceived that there were both benign and ominous patterns in life and that, once thwarted, fate strove to reassert those predestined designs. Though she had no intellectually sound reason for believing that they would die if they headed down toward Running Springs, she knew in her heart that death in fact awaited them there.

As they pulled onto the state route and headed for Big Bear, tall evergreens rising darkly on both sides, Chris sat up and looked back.