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“They're coming,” Laura told him, “but we'll outrun them.”

“Are they the ones that got Daddy?”

“Yes, I think so. But we didn't know about them then, and we weren't prepared.”

The Mercedes was on the state route now, out of sight most of the time because the roadway rose and fell and twisted, putting hills and turns between the two vehicles. The car seemed to be about two hundred yards behind, but it was probably closing because it had a bigger engine and a lot more power than the Jeep.

“Who are they?” Chris asked.

“I'm not sure, honey. And I don't know why they want to hurt us, either. But I know what they are. They're thugs, they're scum, I learned all about their type a long time ago at Caswell Hall, and I know the only thing you can do with people like them is stand up to them, fight back, because they only respect toughness.”

“You were terrific back there, Mom.”

“You were darned good yourself, kiddo. That was very smart of you to start the Jeep when you heard the gunfire, and to have the garage door on the way up by the time I got behind the wheel. That probably saved us.”

Behind them the Mercedes had closed the distance to about one hundred yards. It was a road-hugger, a 420 SEL, which handled as well as anything on the highway, much better than the Jeep.

“They're coming fast, Mom.”

“I know.”

“Real fast.”

Approaching the eastern point of the lake, Laura pulled up behind a rattletrap Dodge pickup with one broken taillight and a rusted bumper that appeared to be held together by stickers with supposedly funny sayings-I BRAKE FOR BLONDES, MAFIA STAFF CAR. It chugged along at thirty miles an hour, below the speed limit. If Laura hesitated, the Mercedes would close the gap; when they were near enough the killers might use their guns again. They were in a no-passing zone, but she could see enough clear road ahead to risk the maneuver; she swung around the pickup, tramped the accelerator hard, got in front of the truck, and returned to the right lane. Immediately ahead was a Buick doing about forty, and she passed that, too, just before the road got too twisty to allow the Mercedes to get around the old truck.

“They're hung up back there!” Chris said.

Laura put the Jeep up to fifty-five, which was too fast for some of the turns, though she held it on the road and began to think they were going to escape. But the highway split at the lake, and neither the Buick nor the old Ford pickup followed her along the south shore toward Big Bear City; they both turned toward Fawnskin and the north shore, leaving the road empty between her and the Mercedes, which at once began to close the distance between them.

Houses were everywhere now, both on the high ground to the right and on the lower ground down toward the lake on her left. Some of them were dark, probably vacation homes used only on winter weekends and in the summers, but the lights of other places were visible among the trees.

She knew she could follow any of those lanes and driveways to a hundred different houses where she and Chris would have been taken in. People would open their doors without hesitation. This was not the city; in the small-town atmosphere of the mountains, people were not instantly suspicious of unannounced night visitors.

The Mercedes closed to within a hundred yards, and the driver flicked the headlights from low beam to high beam again and again, as if gleefully saying, Hey, here we come, Laura, we're gonna get you, we're the boogeymen, the real thing, and nobody can run from us forever, here we come, here we come.

If she tried to take refuge in one of the nearby houses, the killers probably would follow, murdering not only her and Chris but the people who sheltered them. The bastards might be reluctant to chase her to ground in the heart of San Bernardino or Riverside or even Redlands, where they were likely to encounter police response, but they would not be intimidated by a mere handful of bystanders because no matter how many people they slaughtered, they could no doubt elude capture by pushing the yellow buttons on their belts and vanishing as her guardian had vanished one year ago. She had no idea where they would be vanishing to, but she suspected that it was a place where the police could never touch them. She would not risk innocent lives, so she passed house after house without slowing.

The Mercedes was about fifty yards back, closing fast.


“I see them, honey.”

She was headed toward Big Bear City, but unfortunately the place was inaptly named. It was not only less than a city but not even much of a village, hardly a hamlet. There were not enough streets for her to hope to lose their pursuers, and the police presence was inadequate to deal with a couple of fanatics armed with submachine guns.

Light traffic passed them going the other way, and she got behind another car in their lane, a gray Volvo, around which she whipped on an almost blind stretch of road, but she had no choice because the Mercedes was within forty yards. The killers passed the Volvo with equal recklessness.

“How's our passenger?” she asked.

Without unfastening his safety harness, Chris turned to look into the back of the Jeep wagon. “He looks okay, I guess. He's getting bounced around a lot.”

“I can't help that.”

“Who is he, Mom?”

“I don't know much about him,” she said. “But when we get out of this fix, I'm going to tell you what I do know. I haven't told you before because ... I guess because I didn't know what was going on, and I was afraid it might be dangerous somehow for you to know anything about him at all. But it can't get more dangerous than this, huh? So I'll tell you later.”

Assuming there was going to be a later.

When she was two-thirds of the way along the south shore of the take, pushing the Jeep as fast as she dared, with the Mercedes just thirty-five yards behind, she saw the ridge-road turnoff ahead. It led up through the mountains past dark's Summit, a ten-mile county road that that cut off the thirty- or thirty-five-mile eastern loop of state

Route 38 rejoining that two-lane highway south near Barton Flats As she recalled, the ridge road was paved for a couple of miles at but was only a upgraded dirt lane for six or seven miles in the Unlike the Jeep, the Mercedes did not have four-wheel it had winter tires, but they were not currently equipped with chains The men driving the Mercedes were unlikely to know that the ridge road's pavement would give way to a rutted dirt surface patched with ice and in some places drifted over with snow.

“Hold on!” she told Chris.

She didn't use the brakes until the last moment, taking the right turn onto the ridge road so fast that the Jeep slid sideways with a tortured squeal of tires. It shuddered, too, as if it were an old horse that had been forced to make a frightening jump.

The Mercedes cornered better, though the driver had not known what she was going to do. As they headed into higher elevations and greater wilderness, the car closed the gap to about thirty yards.

Twenty-five. Twenty.

Thorny branches of lightning abruptly grew across the sky to the south. It was not as near to them as the lightning at the house but near enough to turn night to day around them. Even above the sound of the engine she could hear the roar of thunder.

Gaping at the stormy display, Chris said, “Mommy, what's going on? What's happening?”

“I don't know,” she said, and she had to shout to be heard above the cacophony of the racing engine and clashing heavens.

She did not hear the gunfire itself but heard bullets smacking into the Jeep, and a slug punched a hole through the tailgate window and thudded into the back of the seat in which she and Chris were riding; she felt as well as heard its solid impact. She began to turn the wheel back and forth, weaving from one side of the road to the other, making as difficult a target as possible, which made her dizzy in the flickering light. Either the gunman stopped firing or missed them with every shot, because she did not hear any more incoming rounds. However, the weaving slowed her, and the Mercedes closed even faster.

She had to use the side mirrors instead of the rearview. Though most of the tailgate window was intact, the safety glass was webbed with thousands of tiny cracks that left it translucent and useless.

Fifteen yards, ten.

In the southern sky the lightning and thunder passed, as before She topped a rise, and the pavement ended halfway down the hill ahead of them. She stopped weaving, accelerated. When the Jeep left the blacktop, it shimmied for a moment, as if surprised by the change in road surface, but then streaked forward on the snow-spotted, ice-crusted, frozen dirt. They jolted across a series of ruts, through a short hollow where trees arched over them, and up the next hill.

In the side mirrors she saw the Mercedes cross the hollow on the dirt lane and start up the slope behind her. But as she reached the crest, the car began to founder in her wake. It slid sideways, its headlights swinging away from her. The driver overcorrected I instead of turning the wheel into the slide, as he should have done. I The car's tires began to spin uselessly. It slid not only off to the side, but backward twenty yards, until the right rear wheel jolted into the drainage ditch that flanked the road; the headlight beams were canted up and angled across the dirt track. “They're stuck!” Chris said.

“They'll need half an hour to get out of that mess.” Laura continued over the crest, down the next slope of the dark ridge road. Although she should have been exultant over their escape, or at least relieved, her fear was undiminished. She had a hunch that they were not yet safe, and she had learned to trust her hunches more than twenty years ago, when she had suspected the White Eel was going to come for her the night that she would have been alone in the end room by the stairs at McIlroy, the night when in fact he had left a Tootsie Roll under her pillow. After all, hunches were just messages from the subconscious, which was thinking furiously all the time and processing information she had not consciously noted. Something was wrong. But what?

They made less than twenty miles an hour on that narrow, winding, potholed, rutted, frozen dirt track. For a while the road followed the rocky spine of a ridge where there were no trees, then traced the course of a declivity in the ridge wall, all the way to the floor of the parallel ravine, where trees were so thick on both sides that the headlights bouncing back from their trunks seemed to reveal phalanxes of pines as solid as board walls.

In the back of the wagon, her guardian murmured wordlessly in his fevered sleep. She was worried about him, and she wished that she could go faster, but she dared not.

For the first two miles after they lost their pursuers, Chris was silent. Finally he said, “At the house ... did you kill any of them?”

She hesitated. “Yes. Two.” “Good.”

Disturbed by the grim pleasure in the single word that he spoke, Laura said, “No, Chris, it isn't good to kill. It made me sick.” “But they deserved to be killed,” he said. “Yes, they did. But that doesn't mean it's pleasant to kill them. It's not. There's no satisfaction in it. Just . . . disgust at the necessity of it. And sadness.”

“I wish I could've killed one of them,” he said with tight, cold anger that was disturbing in a boy his age.

She glanced at him. With his face carved by shadows and the pale yellow light from the dashboard, he looked older than he was, and she had a glimpse of the man he would become.

When the ravine floor became too rocky to provide passage, the road rose again, following a shelf on the ridge wall.

She kept her eyes on the rude track. “Honey, we'll have to talk about this lateral more length. Right now I just want you to listen carefully and try to understand something. There are a lot of bad philosophies in the world. You know what a philosophy is?”

“Sorta. No . . . not really.”

“Then let's just say people believe in a lot of things that are bad far them to believe. But there are two things that different kinds of people believe that are the worst, most dangerous, wrongest of all. Some people believe the best way to solve a problem is with violence: they beat up or kill anyone who disagrees with them.” “Like these guys who're after us.”

“Yes. Evidently that's the kind of people they are. That's a real bad way of thinking because violence leads to more violence. Besides, if you settle differences with a gun, there's no justice, no moment of peace, no hope. You follow me?” j “I guess so. But what's the other worst kind of bad thinking?” I “Pacifism,” she said. “That's just the opposite of the first kind ” of bad thinking. Pacifists believe you should never lift a hand against another human being, no matter what he has done or what you know he's going to do. If a pacifist was standing beside his brother, and if he saw a man coming to kill his brother, he'd urge his brother to run, but he wouldn't pick up a gun and stop the killer."

“He'd let the guy go after his brother?” Chris asked, astonished.

“Yes. If worse came to worst, he'd let his brother be murdered rather than violate his own principles and become a killer himself. ”That's whacko."

They rounded the point of the ridge, and the road descended into another valley. The branches of overhanging pines were so low they scraped the roof; clumps of snow fell onto the hood and windshield. Laura turned on the wipers and hunched over the steering wheel, using the change in terrain as an excuse not to talk until she had time to think how to make her point most clearly. They had endured a lot of violence in the past hour; much more violence no doubt lay ahead of them, and she was concerned that Chris develop a proper attitude toward it. She did not want him to get the idea that guns and muscle were acceptable substitutes for reason. On the other hand she did not want him to be traumatized by violence and learn to fear it at the cost of personal dignity and ultimate survival. At last she said, “Some pacifists are cowards in disguise, but some really believe it's right to permit the murder of an innocent person rather than kill to stop it. They're wrong because by not fighting evil, they've become part of it. They're as bad as the guy who pulls the trigger. Maybe this is above your head right now, and maybe you'll have to do a lot of thinking before you understand, but it's important you realize there's a way to live that's in the middle, between killers and pacifists. You try to avoid violence. You never start it. But if someone else starts it, you defend yourself, friends, family, anyone who's in trouble. When I had to shoot those men at the house, it made me sick. I'm no hero. I'm not proud of having shot them, but I'm not ashamed of it, either. I don't want you to be proud of me for it, or think that killing them was satisfying, that revenge in any way makes me feel better about your dad's murder. It doesn't.” He was silent.