Page 30

In thirty-three years she had never had a headache that had gone from a mild throb to a pounding skull-splitter as quickly as this one. The more she tried to puzzle out the difficulties of avoiding a pack of time-traveling hitmen, the deeper rooted the pain became. Finally she said, ''] give up. J guess 1 should've been watching Star Trek and reading Robert Heinlein all these years instead of being a serious adult, because I'm just not able to cope with this. So I'll tell you what: I'm going to rely on you to outsmart them. You'll have to try to keep one step ahead of them. They want us dead. So how can they try to kill us without creating one of these paradoxes? Where will they show up next . . . and next? Right now, we're going to go back the way we came, past the Mercedes, and if you're right, no one will be waiting there for us. So where will they show up after that? Will we see them again tonight? Think about those things, and when you have any ideas, let me know what they are."

“I will, Mom.” He slumped down in his seat, grinning broadly for a moment, then chewing on his lip as he settled deeper into the game.

Except it was not a game, of course. Their lives were really at stake. They had to elude killers with nearly superhuman abilities, and they were pinning their hopes of survival on nothing more than the richness of an eight-year-old boy's imagination.

Laura started the Jeep, put it in reverse, and backed up a couple of hundred yards until she found a place in the road wide enough to turn around. Then they headed back the way they had come, toward the Mercedes in the ditch, toward Big Bear.

She was beyond terror. Their situation contained such a large element of the unknown-and unknowable-that terror could not be sustained. Terror was not like happiness or depression; it was an acute condition that by its very nature had to be of a short term. Terror wilted fast. Or it escalated until you passed out or until you died of it, frightened to death; you screamed until a blood vessel burst in your brain. She wasn't screaming, and in spite of her headache she didn't think any vessels were going to burst. She settled into a low-key, chronic fear, hardly more than anxiety.

What a day this had been. What a year. What a life.

Exotic news.

They passed the stranded Mercedes and drove all the way to the north end of the ridge road without encountering men with submachine guns. At the intersection with the lakeside highway, Laura stopped and looked at Chris. “Well?”

“As long as we're driving around,” he said, “and as long as we go to a place where we've never been and don't usually go, we're pretty safe. They can't find us if they don't have any idea where we might be. Just like your regular-type scumbags.”

Scumbags? she thought. What is this-H. G. Wells meets Hill Street Blues'?

He said, “See, now that we've given them the slip, these guys are going to go back to the future and look over the records they've got about you, Mom, your history, and they're going to see where you show up next-like when you want to go five in the house again. Or if you hid out for a year and wrote another book and then went on a tour for it, they'd show up at a store where you're signing books because, see, there'd be a record of that in the future; they'd know you could be found in that store at a certain time on a certain day.”

She frowned. “You mean the only way to avoid them for the rest of my life is to change my name, go on the run forever, and leave no trace of myself on any public records, just vanish from recorded history from here on out?”

“Yeah, I think maybe that's what you'll have to do,” he said excitedly.

He was smart enough to have figured out how to defeat a pack of time-traveling hitmen but not adult enough to perceive how hard it would be for them to forsake everything they owned and start with only the cash in their pockets. In a way he was like an idiot savant, tremendously insightful and gifted in one narrow area, but naive and severely limited in all other ways. In matters of time-travel theory, he was a thousand years old, but otherwise he was going on nine.

She said, “I can never write another book because I'd have to have contact with editors, agents, even if by phone. So there'd be phone records that could be traced. And I can't collect royalties because no matter how many blinds I use, no matter how many different bank accounts I shift the money through, sooner or later I have to collect the funds personally, which would leave a public record. So then they'd have that record in the future, and they'd travel back to the bank to wipe me out when I showed up. How am I supposed to get my hands on the money we already have? How can I cash a check anywhere without leaving a record that they would have in the future?” She blinked at him. “Good God, Chris, we're in a box!”

Now it was the boy's turn to be baffled. He looked at her with little understanding of where money came from, how it was put aside for future use, or how difficult it was to obtain. “Well, for a couple of days, we can just drive around, sleep in motels-”

“We can only sleep in motels if I pay cash. A credit card record might be all they need to find us. Then they'd come back in time to the night I used the credit card, and they'd kill us at the motel.”

“Yeah, so we use cash. Hey, we can eat at McDonald's all the time! That doesn't take much money, and it's good.”

They drove down from the mountains, out of the snow, into San a city of about 300,000, without encountering assassins. She needed to get their guardian to a doctor, not only because she owed him a debt of life, but also because without him she might never learn the truth of what was happening and might never find a may out of the box they were in.

She could not take him to a hospital because hospitals kept records, which might give her enemies from the future a way of finding her. She would have to obtain medical care secretly, from someone who would not have to be told her name or anything about one patient.

Shortly before midnight she stopped at a telephone booth near a Shell service station. The phone was at the corner of the property, away from the station itself, which was ideal because she could not risk an attendant noticing the Jeep's broken windows or the unconscious man.

In spite of the hour-long nap the boy had gotten earlier and in spite of the excitement, Chris had dozed off. In the compartment behind the front seat, their guardian was sleeping, too, but his sleep was neither restful nor natural. He was not mumbling much any more, but for minutes at a stretch he drew breath with a dismaying wheeze and rattle.

She left the Jeep in park, the engine running, and went into the telephone booth to look through the directory. She tore out the Yellow Pages' listings for physicians.

After obtaining a street map of San Bernardino from the attendant in the service station, she began searching for a doctor who did not operate out of a clinic or medical office building but from an office attached to his home, which was how most doctors in small towns and cities had worked in years gone by, though these days few continued to keep home and office together. She was acutely aware that the longer she took to find help, the smaller the chance that their guardian would survive.

At a quarter past one, in a quiet residential neighborhood of older homes, she pulled in front of a two-story, white, Victorian house built in another era, in a lost California, before everything had been constructed of stucco. It stood on a corner lot, with a two-car garage, shaded by alders that were leafless in the middle of winter, a touch that made it seem like a place transported entirely, landscaping and all, from the East. According to the pages she had torn from the telephone directory, this was the address for Dr. Carter Brenkshaw, and beside the driveway a small sign suspended between two wrought-iron posts confirmed the directory's accuracy.

She drove to the end of the block and parked at the curb. She got out of the Jeep, scooped a handful of damp earth from a flowerbed in front of a nearby house, and smeared the dirt over the front and back license plates as best she could.

By the time she wiped her hand in the grass and got back in the Jeep, Chris had awakened but was groggy and confused after being asleep for more than two hours. She patted his face and pushed his hair back from his forehead and rapidly talked him awake. The cold night air, flowing through the broken windows, helped too.

“Okay,” she said when she was sure he was awake, “listen closely, partner. I've found a doctor. Can you act sick?”

“Sure.” He made a face as if he was going to puke, then gagged and moaned.

“Don't overplay it.” She explained what they were going to do.

“Good plan, Mom.”

“No, it's nuts. But it's the only plan I've got.”

She swung the car around and drove back to Brenkshaw's, where she parked in the driveway in front of the closed garage, which was set back from the house. Chris slid out by the driver's door, and she picked him up and held him against her left side, his head against her shoulder. He held on to her, so she only needed her left arm to keep him in place, though he was quite heavy; her baby was not a baby any more. In her free hand she gripped the revolver.

As she carried Chris along the walk, past the stark alders, with no light except a purplish glow from one of the widely spaced mercury-vapor streetlamps out at the curb, she hoped no one was at a window in any of the nearby houses. On the other hand it probably wasn't unusual for someone to visit a doctor's house in the middle of the night, needing treatment.

She went up the front steps, across the porch, and rang the bell three times, quick, as a frantic mother might do. She waited only a few seconds before ringing it three more times.

In a couple of minutes, after she had rung the bell again and was beginning to think that no one was home, the porch lights came on. She saw a man studying her through the three-pane, fan-shaped window in the top third of the door.

“Please,” she said urgently, holding the revolver at her side it could not be seen, “my boy, poison, he's swallowed poison!”

The man opened the door inward, and there was an outward-opening glass storm door, as well, so Laura stepped out of its way.

He was about sixty-five, white-haired, with a face that was Irish except for a strong Roman nose and dark brown eyes. He was dressed in a brown robe, white pajamas, and slippers. Peering at her over the rims of tortoiseshell glasses, he said, “What's wrong?”

“I live two blocks down, you're so close, and my boy- poison.” At the height of her hysteria, she let go of Chris, and he got out of her way as she shoved the muzzle of the .38 against the man's belly. “I'll blow your guts out if you call for help.”

She had no intention of shooting him, but she apparently sounded convincing, for he nodded and said nothing.

“Are you Dr. Brenkshaw?” He nodded again, and she said, “Who else is in the house, Doctor?”

“No one. I'm alone here.”

“Your wife?”

“I'm a widower.”


“All grown and gone.”

“Don't lie to me.”

“I've made a lifetime habit of not lying,” he said. “It's gotten me in trouble a few times, but telling the truth generally makes life simpler. Look, it's chilly, and this robe's thin. You can intimidate me as well if you come inside.”

She stepped across the threshold, keeping the gun in his belly and pushing him backward with it. Chris followed her. “Honey,” she whispered, “go check out the house. Quietly. Start upstairs, and don't miss a room. If there's anyone here, tell them the doctor has an emergency patient and needs their help.”

Chris headed for the stairs, and Laura kept Carter Brenkshaw in the foyer at gunpoint. Nearby a grandfather clock was ticking softly.

“You know,” he said, “I've been a lifelong reader of thrillers.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I've often read a scene in which a gorgeous villainess held the hero against his will. As often as not, when he finally turned the tables on her, she surrendered to the inevitability of masculine triumph, and they made wild, passionate love. So when it happens to me, why do I have to be too old to enjoy the prospect of the second half of this little showdown?”

Laura held back a smile because she could not continue to pretend to be dangerous once she allowed herself to smile. “Shut up.”

“Surely you can do better than that.”

“Just shut up, all right? Shut up.”

He did not go pale or begin to tremble. He smiled.

Chris returned from upstairs. “Nobody, Mom.”

Brenkshaw said, “I wonder how many dangerous thugs have pint-size accomplices who call them Mom?”

“Don't misjudge me, Doctor. I'm desperate.”

Chris disappeared into the downstairs rooms, turning on lights as he went.

To Brenkshaw, Laura said, “I've got a wounded man in the car-”

“Of course, a gunshot.”

“- I Want you to treat him and keep your mouth shut about it, 'cause if you don't, we'll come back some night and blow you away.”

“This,” he said almost merrily, “is perfectly delicious.”

As Chris returned, he switched off the lights he had switched on moments ago. “Nobody, Mom.”

“You have a stretcher?” Laura asked the physician. Brenkshaw stared at her. “You really do have a wounded man?” “What the hell else would I be doing here?” “How peculiar. Well, all right, how badly is he bleeding?” “A lot earlier, not so much now. But he's unconscious.” “If he's not bleeding badly now, we can roll him in. I've got a collapsible wheelchair in my office. Can I get an overcoat,” he said, pointing to the foyer closet, “or do tough molls like you get a thrill out of making old men shiver in their peejays?”

“Get your coat, Doctor, but damn it, don't underestimate me.” “Yeah,” Chris said. “She shot two guys already tonight.” He imitated the sound of an Uzi. “She just cut 'em down, and they never had a chance to lay a hand on her.” The boy sounded so sincere that Brenkshaw looked at Laura with new concern. “There's nothing but coats in the closet. Umbrellas. A pair of galoshes. I don't keep a gun in there.”

“Just be careful, Doctor. No fast moves.”

“No fast moves-yes, I knew you'd say that.” Though he still seemed to find the situation to some degree amusing, he was not quite as lighthearted about it as he had been.

When he had pulled on his overcoat, they went with him through a door to the left of the foyer. Without snapping on a light, relying on the glow from the foyer and on his familiarity with the place, Dr. Brenkshaw led them through a patients' waiting room that contained straight-backed chairs and a couple of end tables. Another door led into his office-a desk, three chairs, medical books- where he did turn on a light, and a door from the office led farther back in the house to his examination room.