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“Well . . .”

He waited a long time. Then he said, “You're like sisters, you two. And if you can't turn for help to a sister at a time like this, who can you turn to, Laura?”

“If we can get Thelma's help without putting her at risk ... I guess we have to try.”

“First thing in the morning,” he said.

That was a night of rain, and rain also filled her dreams, and in those dreams were explosive thunderclaps and lightning, as well. She woke in terror, but the rainy night in Santa Ana was unmarred by those bright, noisy omens of death. It was a comparatively peaceful storm, without thunder, lightning, and wind, though she knew that it would not always be so.

The machinery clicked and hummed.

Erich Klietmann looked at the clock. In just three minutes the research team would return to the institute.

Two scientists, heirs of Penlovski and Januskaya and Volkaw, stood at the programming board, studying the myriad dials and gauges.

All the light in the room was unnatural, for the windows were not merely blacked out to avoid providing beacons for night-flying enemy bombers, but were bricked in for security reasons. The air was stuffy.

Standing in one corner of the main lab, near the gate, Lieutenant Klietmann anticipated his trip to 1989 with excitement, not because that future was filled with wonders but because the mission gave him an opportunity to serve der Furhrer in a way that few men ever could. If he succeeded in killing Krieger, the woman, and the boy, he would have earned a personal meeting with Hitler, a chance to see the great man face to face, to know the touch of his hand and through that touch to feel the power, the tremendous power of the German state and people and history and destiny. The lieutenant would have risked death ten times, a thousand times, for the chance to be brought to the personal attention of der Furhrer, to make Hitler aware of him, not aware of him as just another SS officer, but aware of him as an individual, as Erich Klietmann, the man who saved the Reich from the dire fate that it had almost been forced to endure.

Klietmann was not the Aryan ideal, and he was acutely aware of his physical shortcomings. His maternal grandfather had been Polish, a disgusting slavic mongrel, which made Klietmann only three-quarters German. Furthermore, though his other three grandparents and both of his parents had been blond, blue-eyed, with Nordic features, Erich had hazel eyes, dark hair, and the heavier, more sensuous features of his barbarian grandfather. He loathed the way he looked, and he tried to compensate for his physical shortcomings by being the most vigilant Nazi, most courageous soldier, and most ardent supporter of Hitler in the entire Schutzstaffel, which was tough because he had so much competition for that honor. Sometimes he had despaired of ever being singled out for glory. But he never gave up, and now here he was, on the brink of heroism that would earn him Valhalla.

He wanted to kill Stefan Krieger personally, not only because that would win der Furhrer's favor but because Krieger was the Aryan ideal, blond and blue-eyed, every feature truly Nordic, and from fine breeding stock. With every advantage, the hateful Krieger had chosen to betray his Furhrer, and that enraged Klietmann, who had to labor toward greatness under the burden of mongrel genes.

Now, with little more than two minutes left before the research team would return through the gate from 1989, Klietmann looked at his three subordinates, all dressed as young executives of another age, and he felt both a fierce and a sentimental pride in them so strong it almost brought tears to his eyes.

They had all come from humble beginnings. Unterscharfuhrer Felix Hubatsch, Klietmann's sergeant and second in command of the unit, was the son of an alcoholic lathe operator and a slattern mother, both of whom he despised. RottenFurhrer Rudolph von Manstein was the son of a poor farmer whose lifetime of failure shamed him, and RottenFurhrer Martin Bracher was an orphan. In spite of coming from four different corners of Germany, the two corporals, the sergeant, and lieutenant Klietmann shared one thing that made them as close as brothers: They understood that a man's truest, deepest, and dearest relationship was not to his family but to the state, to the fatherland, and to their leader in whom the fatherland was embodied; the state was the only family that mattered; this single bit of wisdom elevated them and made them worthy fathers of the superrace to come.

Klietmann discreetly dabbed at the corners of his eyes with his thumb, blotting the nascent tears that he was not able to suppress.

In one minute the research team would return.

The machinery clicked and hummed.

At three o'clock, Friday afternoon, January 13, a white pickup entered the rainswept motel lot, came straight to the rear wing, and parked next to the Buick that bore a Nissan's license plates. The truck was about five or six years old. The passenger-side door was dented, and that rocker panel was spotted with rust. The owner was evidently refinishing the pickup in a patchwork fashion, because some spots had been sanded and primed but not yet repainted.

Laura watched the truck from behind the barely parted drapes at the motel-room window. She held the Uzi in one hand at her side.

The truck's headlights blinked off, and its windshield wipers stopped, and a moment later a woman with frizzy blond hair got out and walked to the door of Laura's unit. She rapped three times.

Chris was standing behind the door, looking at his mother.

Laura nodded.

Chris opened the door and said, “Hi, Aunt Thelma. Jeez, that's an ugly wig.”

Stepping inside, hugging Chris fiercely, Thelma said, “Well, thanks a lot. And what would you say if I told you that was a monumentally ugly nose you were born with, but you're stuck with it, while I'm not stuck with the wig? Huh? What would you say then?”

Chris giggled. “Nothing. 'Cause I know I've got a cute nose.”

“Cute nose? God, kid, you've got an actor's ego.” She let go of him, glanced at Stefan Krieger, who was sitting in one of the chairs near the TV set, then turned to Laura. “Shane, did you see the heap I pulled up in? Am I clever? As I was getting in my Mercedes, I said to myself, Thelma-I call myself Thelma-I said, Thelma, isn't it going to draw a hell of a lot of attention at that sleazy motel when you pull up in a sixty-five-thousand-dollar car? So I tried to borrow the butler's car, but you know what he drives? A Jaguar. Is Beverly Hills the Twilight Zone, or what? So I had to borrow the gardener's truck. But here I am, and what do you think of this disguise?”

She was wearing a kinky blond wig glittering with droplets of rain, horn-rimmed glasses, and a pair of false dentures that gave her an overbite.

“You look better this way,” Laura said, grinning.

Thelma popped out the fake teeth. “Listen, once I turned up a set of wheels that wouldn't draw attention, I realized that I'd draw some attention myself, being a major star and everything. And since the media's already dug up the fact that you and I are friends and have tried to ask me some pointed questions about you, the famous machine-gun-packing authoress, I decided to come incognito. '' She dropped her purse and the stage teeth on the bed. ' 'This getup was for a new character I created in my nightclub act, tried it about eight times at Bally's in Vegas. It was a primo flop, that character. The audience spat at me, Shane, they brought in the casino's security guard and tried to have me arrested, they questioned my right to share the same planet with them-oh, they were rude, Shane, they were-”

Suddenly she halted in the middle of her patter and burst into tears. She rushed to Laura, threw her arms around her. “Oh, Jesus, Laura, I was scared, I was so scared. When I heard the news about San Bernardino, machine guns, and then the way they found your house at Big Bear, I thought you ... or maybe Chris ... I was so worried . . .”

Holding Thelma as tightly as Thelma was holding her, Laura said, “I'll tell you all about it, but the main thing is we're all right, and we think maybe we have a way to get out of the hole we're in.”

“Why didn't you call me, you silly bitch?”

“I did call you.”

“Only this morning! Two days after you're splashed all over the newspapers. 1 nearly went crazy.”

“I'm sorry. I should've called sooner. I just didn't want to get you involved if I could avoid it.”

Reluctantly Thelma let go of her. “I'm inevitably, deeply, and hopelessly involved, you idiot, because you're involved.” She pulled a Kleenex from a pocket of her suede jacket and blotted her j eyes.

“You have another one of those?” Laura asked.

Thelma gave her a Kleenex, and they both blew their noses.

“We were on the lam, Aunt Thelma,” Chris said. “It's hard to stay in touch with people when you're on the lam.”

Taking a deep, shuddery breath, Thelma said, “So, Shane, where are you keeping your collection of severed heads? In the bathroom? I heard you left one behind in San Bernardino. Sloppy. Is this a new hobby of yours, or have you always had an appreciation for the beauty of the human head unencumbered by all the messy extremities?”

“I want you to meet someone,” Laura said. “Thelma Ackerson, this is Stefan Krieger.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Thelma said.

“You'll excuse me if I don't get up,” Stefan said. “I'm still recuperating.”

“If you can excuse this wig, I can excuse anything.” To Laura, Thelma said, “Is he who I think he is?”


“Your guardian?”


Thelma went to Stefan and kissed him wetly on both cheeks. “I've no idea where you come from or who the hell you are, Stefan Krieger, but I love you for all the times you've helped my Laura.” She stepped back and sat on the foot of the bed beside Chris “Shane, this man you have here is gorgeous. Look at him. he's 4 hunk. I'll bet you shot him just so he couldn't get away. He took* just like a guardian angel ought to look.” Stefan was embarrassed, but Thelma would not be stopped. “You're a real dish, Krieger. I want to hear all about you. But first, here's the money you asked for, Shane.” She opened her voluminous purse and withdrew a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills.

Examining the money, Laura said, “Thelma, I asked you for four thousand. There's at least twice that here.”

“Ten or twelve thousand, I think.” Thelma winked at Chris and said, “When my friends are on the lam, I insist they go first class.”

Thelma listened to the story, never expressing disbelief. Stefan was surprised by her open-mindedness, but she said, “Hey, once you've lived at Mcllroy Home and Caswell Hall, the universe holds no more surprises. Time travelers from 1944? Pah! At Mcllroy I could've shown you a woman as big as a sofa, who wore clothes made of bad upholstery fabric, and who was paid a handsome civil-service wage to treat orphaned children like vermin. Now there is an amazement.” She was clearly affected by Stefan's origins, chilled and amazed by the trap they were in, but even under these circumstances she was Thelma Ackerson, always looking for the laugh in everything.

At six o'clock she put in the stage teeth again and went up the street to get take-out from a Mexican restaurant. “When you're on the run from the law, you need beans in your belly, tough-guy food.” She came back with rain-dampened bags of tacos, containers of enchiladas, two orders of nachos, burritos, and chimichangas. They spread the food out on the bottom half of the bed, and Thelma and Chris sat on the top half. Laura and Stefan sat in chairs at the foot of the bed.

“Thelma,” Laura said, “there's enough food here for ten.”

“Well, I figured that would feed us and the cockroaches. If we didn't have food for the cockroaches, they might get mean, might go outside and overturn my gardener's pickup. You do have cockroaches here, don't you? I mean, after all, a swell place like this without cockroaches would be like the Beverly Hills Hotel without tree rats.”

As they ate, Stefan outlined the plan he had devised for closing the gate and destroying the institute. Thelma interrupted with wisecracks, but when he was finished, she was solemn. “This is damned dangerous, Stefan. Brave enough to be foolish, maybe.”

“There's no other way.”

“I can see that,” she said. “So what can I do to help?”

Pausing with a wad of corn chips halfway to his mouth, Chris said, “We need you to buy the computer, Aunt Thelma.”

Laura said, “An IBM PC, their best model, the same one I have at home, so I'll know how to use all the software. We don't have time to learn the operating procedures of a new machine. I've written it all down for you. I could go buy it myself, I guess, with money you gave me, but I'm afraid of showing my face too many places.”

“And we'll need a place to stay,” Stefan said.

“We can't stay here,” Chris said, enjoying being a part of the discussion, “not if we're going to be doing stuff with a computer. The maid would see it no matter how hard we tried to hide it, and she'd talk about it because that would be weird, people holing up in a place like this with a computer.”

Stefan said, “Laura tells me that you and your husband have a second house in Palm Springs.”

“We have a house in Palm Springs, a condo in Monterey, another condo in Vegas, and it wouldn't surprise me if we owned-or at least had time shares in-our very own Hawaiian volcano. My husband is too rich. So take your pick. My houses are your houses. Just don't use the towels to polish the hubcaps on your car, and if you must chew tobacco and spit on the floors, try to keep it in the corners.”

“I thought the house in Palm Springs would be ideal,” Laura said. “You've told me it's fairly secluded.”

“It's on a large property with lots of trees, and there're other show-biz people on that block, all of 'em busy, so they don't tend to drop over for a cup of coffee. No one'll disturb you there.”

“All right,” Laura said, “there's just a few other things. We need changes of clothes, comfortable shoes, some basic necessities. I've made a list, sizes and everything. And, of course, when this is all over, I'll pay you back the cash you gave me and whatever you spend on the computer and these other things.”

“Damn right you will, Shane. And forty percent interest. Per week. Compounded hourly. Plus your child. Your child will be mine.”

Chris laughed. “My Aunt Rumpelstiltskin.”

“You won't make smart remarks when you're my child, Christopher Robin. Or at least you'll call me Mother Rumpelstiltskin, Sir.”

“Mother Rumpelstiltskin, Sir!” Chris said, and saluted her.