At eight-thirty Thelma prepared to leave with the shopping list that Laura had composed and the information about the computer. “I'll be back tomorrow afternoon, as soon as I can,” she said, giving Laura and then Chris one last hug. “You'll really be safe here, Shane?”
“I think we will. If they'd discovered we were staying here, they would've shown up sooner.”
Stefan said, “Remember, Thelma, they're time travelers; once they discover where we've been hiding, they could just jaunt forward to the moment when we first arrived here. In fact they could've been waiting for us when we pulled into the motel on Wednesday. The fact that we've stayed here so long unmolested is almost proof there'll never be public knowledge that this was our hideout.”
“My head spins,” Thelma said. “And I thought reading a major studio's contract was complicated!”
She went out into the night and rain, still wearing the wig and the horn-rimmed glasses but carrying her stage teeth in her pocket, and she drove away in her gardener's truck.
Laura, Chris, and Stefan watched her from the big window, and Stefan said, “She's a special person.”
“Very,” Laura said. “I hope to God I haven't endangered her.”
“Don't worry, Mom,” Chris said. “Aunt Thelma's a tough broad. She always says so.”
That night at nine o'clock, shortly after Thelma left, Laura drove to Fat Jack's place in Anaheim. The rain was not as heavy as it had been but fell in a steady drizzle. The macadamized pavement glistened silver-black, and gutters still overflowed with water that looked like oil in the queer light of the sodium-vapor streetlamps. Fog had crept in, too, not on little cat feet but slithering like a snake on its belly.
She had been loath to leave Stefan at the motel. But it was not wise for him to spend much time in the chilly, rainy January night in his debilitated condition. Besides, he could do nothing to help her.
Though Stefan remained behind, Chris accompanied Laura, for she would not be separated from him for the time it would take to cut a deal for the weapons. The boy had gone with her when she had first visited Fat Jack a year ago, when she'd bought the illegally modified Uzis, so the fat man would not be surprised to see him. Displeased, yes, since Fat Jack was no lover of children, but not surprised.
As she drove, Laura looked frequently in the rearview mirror, in the side mirrors, and took the measure of the other drivers around her with a diligence that gave new meaning to the term defensive driving. She could not afford to be broadsided by a dunderhead who was driving too fast for the road conditions. Police would put in an appearance at the scene of the crash, would routinely check out her license plates, and before they even arrested her, men carrying submachine guns would materialize and kill her and Chris.
She had left her own Uzi with Stefan, although he had protested. However, she was unable to abandon him with no means of self-defense. She still carried the .38 Chief's Special. And fifty spare rounds were distributed in the zippered pockets of her ski jacket.
Near Disneyland, when the neon-drenched phantasmagoria of Fat Jack's Pizza Party Palace appeared in the fog like the starship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind descending from clouds of its own making, Laura was relieved. She pulled into the crowded parking lot and switched off the engine. The windshield wipers stopped thumping, and rain washed down the glass in rippling sheets. Orange, red, blue, yellow, green, white, purple, and pink reflections of neon glimmered in that flowing film of water, so Laura felt curiously as if she were inside one of those old-fashioned, gaudy jukeboxes from the 1950s.
Chris said, “Fat Jack's put up more neon since we were here.”
“I think you're right,” Laura said.
They got out of the car and looked up at the blinking, flashing, rippling, winking, grotesquely flamboyant facade of Fat Jack's Pizza Party Palace. Neon was not reserved solely for the name <;-the place. It was also used to outline the building, the roofline every window, and the front doors. In addition there were a pair of giant neon sunglasses on one end of the roof, and a huge neon rocketship poised for takeoff on the other end, with neon vapors perpetually curling and sparkling beneath its exhaust jets. The ten-foot-diameter neon pizza was an old feature, but the grinning neon clown's face was new.
The quantity of neon was so great that every falling raindrop was brightly tinted, as if it was part of a rainbow that had broken apart at nightfall. Every puddle shimmered with rainbow fragments.
The effect was disorienting, but it prepared the visitor for the inside of Fat Jack's, which seemed to be a glimpse of the chaos out of which the universe had formed trillions of years ago. The waiters and waitresses were dressed as clowns, ghosts, pirates, spacemen, witches, gypsies, and vampires, and a singing trio in bear costumes moved from table to table, delighting young children with pizza-smeared faces. In alcoves off the main room, older kids were at banks of videogames, so the beep-zing-zap-bong of that electronic play served as background music to singing bears and shouting children.
“Asylum,” Chris said.
They were met inside the front door by the host, Dominick, who was Fat Jack's minority partner. Dominick was tall, cadaverous, with mournful eyes, and he seemed out of place midst the forced hilarity.
Raising her voice to be heard over the din, Laura asked for Fat Jack and said, “I called earlier. I'm an old friend of his mother's,” which was what you were to say to indicate you wanted guns not pizza.
Dominick had learned to project his voice clearly through the cacophony without shouting. “You've been here before, I believe.”
“Good memory,” she said. “A year ago.”
“Please follow me,” Dominick said in a funereal voice.
They did not have to go through the cyclonic commotion of the dining room, which was good because that meant Laura was less likely to be seen and recognized by one of the customers. A door off the other side of the host's foyer opened onto a corridor that led past the kitchen and the storeroom to Fat Jack's private office. Dominick knocked on the door, ushered them inside, and said to Fat Jack, “Old friends of your mother,” then left Laura and Chris with the big man.
Fat Jack took his nickname seriously and tried to live up to it. He was five feet ten and weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds. Wearing immense gray sweatpants and sweatshirt that fit him almost as tightly as Spandex, he looked like the fat man in that magnetized photograph that dieters could buy to put on refrigerators to scare them off food; in fact he looked like the refrigerator.
He sat in a baronial swivel chair behind a desk sized for him, and he did not get up. “Listen to the little beasts.” He spoke to Laura, ignored Chris. “I put my office at the back of the building, had it specially soundproofed, and I can still hear them out there, shrieking, squealing; it's as if I'm just down the hall from hell.”
“They're only children having fun,” Laura said, standing with Chris in front of the desk.
“And Mrs. O'Leary was just an old lady with a clumsy cow, but she burned down Chicago,” Fat Jack said sourly. He was eating a Mars bar. In the distance children's voices, insulated by soundproofing, rose in a dull roar, and as if talking to that unseen multitude, the fat man said, “Ah, choke on it, you little trolls.”
“It's a nuthouse out there,” Chris said.
“Who asked you?”
Jack had a grainy complexion with gray eyes nearly buried in a puff-adder face. He focused on Laura and said, “You see my new neon?”
“The clown is new, isn't it?”
“Yeah. Isn't it a beauty? I designed it, had it made, and then had it erected in the dead of night, so the next morning it was too late for anybody to get a restraining order to stop me. The damn city council just about croaked, all of them at once.”
Fat Jack had been embroiled in a decade-long legal battle with the Anaheim Zoning Commission and the city council. The authorities disapproved of his garish neon displays, especially now that the area around Disneyland was slated for urban renewal. Fat Jack had spent tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting them in the courts, paying fines, being sued, countersuing, and he had even spent time in jail for contempt of court. He was a former libertarian who now claimed to be an anarchist, and he would not tolerate infringement on his rights-real and imagined-as a free-thinking individual.
He dealt in illegal weapons for the same reason he erected neon signs that violated city codes: as a statement against authority, to champion individual rights. He could talk for hours about the evils of government, any kind of government, in any degree whatsoever, and on Laura's last visit with Chris, in order to get the modified Uzis she wanted, she had listened to a lengthy explanation of why the government did not even have the right to pass laws forbidding murder.
Laura had no great love of big government, whether the left or right, but she had little sympathy with Fat Jack, either. He did not acknowledge the legitimacy of any authority whatsoever, not that of proven institutions, not even that of family.
Now, after she gave Fat Jack her new shopping list, after he quoted a price and counted her money, he led her and Chris through the hidden door in the back of his office closet, down a narrow stairwell-he seemed in danger of becoming wedged tight-to the basement where he kept his illegal stock. Though his restaurant was a madhouse, his arsenal was stored with fetishistic neatness: cartons upon cartons of handguns and automatic weapons were stacked on metal shelves, arranged according to caliber and also according to price; he kept at least a thousand guns in the basement of the Pizza Party Palace.
He was able to provide her with two modified Uzis-“An immensely popular gun since the attempt to kill Reagan,” he said-and another .38 Chief's Special. Stefan had hoped to obtain a Colt Commander 9mm Parabellum with a nine-round magazine and the barrel machined for a silencer. “Don't have it,” Fat Jack said, “but I can let you have a Colt Commander Mark IV in .38 Super, which has a nine-round magazine, and I've got two of those machined for silencers. Got the silencers, too, plenty of 'em.” She already knew that he wasn't able to provide her with ammunition, but as he finished his Mars bar, he explained anyway: “Don't stock ammunition or explosives. Look, I don't believe in authority, but I'm not totally irresponsible. I got a restaurant full of shrieking, snot-faced kids upstairs, and I can't risk blowing them to bits, even if that'd bring more peace to the world. Besides, I'd destroy all my pretty neon too.”
“All right,” Laura said, putting one arm around Chris to keep him at her side, “what about the gas on my list?”
“You sure you don't mean tear gas?”
“No. Vexxon. That's the stuff I want.” Stefan had given her the name of the gas. He said it was one of the chemical weapons that was on the list of items the institute hoped to bring back to 1944 and introduce into the German military arsenal. Now perhaps it could be used against the Nazis. “We need something that will kill fast.”
Fat Jack leaned his backside against the metal worktable in the middle of the room, where he had laid out the Uzis, revolvers, pistol, and silencers. The table creaked ominously. “Well, what we're talking about here is army ordnance, tightly controlled stuff.”
“You can't get it?”
“Oh, sure, I can get you some Vexxon,” Fat Jack said. He moved away from the table, which creaked in relief as his weight was lifted from it, and went to a set of metal shelves where he withdrew a couple of Hershey bars from between boxes of guns, a secret stash. He did not offer one to Chris, but put the second bar in the side pocket of his sweatpants and began to eat the other. “I don't have that sort of crap here; just as dangerous as explosives. But I can have it for you late tomorrow, if that's not inconvenient.”
“That'll be fine.”
“It'll cost you.”
Fat Jack grinned. Bits of chocolate were stuck between his teeth. “Don't get much call for this kind of thing, not from someone like yourself, a small buyer. Tickles me to try to figure what you'd be up to with it. Not that I expect you to tell me. But usually it's big buyers from South America or the Middle East who want these neuroactive and respiractive gases. Iraq and Iran used plenty the last few years.”
“Neuroactive, respiractive? What's the difference?”
“Respiractive-they have to breathe it in; it kills them seconds after it hits the lungs and spreads through the bloodstream. When you release it, you've got to be wearing a gas mask. Your neuroactive, on the other hand, kills even quicker, just on touching the skin, and with certain types of it-like Vexxon-you won't need a gas mask or protective clothing, 'cause you can take a couple of pills before you use it, and they're like an advance antidote.”
“Yes, I was supposed to ask for the pills, too,” Laura said.
“Vexxon. Easiest-to-use gas on the market. You're a real smart shopper,” Fat Jack said.
Already he had finished the candy bar, and he appeared to have grown noticeably since Laura and Chris had entered his office half an hour ago. She realized that Fat Jack's commitment to political anarchy was reflected not only in the atmosphere of his pizza parlor but in the condition of his body, for his flesh swelled unrestrained by social or medical considerations. He seemed to revel in his size, as well, frequently patting his gut or grabbing the rolls of fat on his sides and kneading them almost affectionately, and he walked with belligerent arrogance, pushing the world away from him with his belly. She had a vision of Fat Jack growing ever more huge, soaring past four hundred pounds, past five hundred, even as the wildly pyramiding neon structures on the roof grew ever more elaborate, until one day the roof collapsed and Fat Jack exploded simultaneously.
“I'll have the gas by five o'clock tomorrow,” he said as he put the Uzis, .38 Chiefs Special, Colt Commander, and silencers in a box labeled BIRTHDAY PARTY FAVORS, which had probably contained paper hats or noisemakers for the restaurant. He slipped the lid on the box and indicated that Laura was to carry it upstairs; among other things, Fat Jack did not believe in chivalry.
Back in Fat Jack's office, when Chris opened the door to the hall for his mother, Laura was pleased by the squealing of the children in the pizza parlor. That sound was the first normal, sane thing she had heard in more than half an hour.
“Listen to the little cretins,” Fat Jack said. “They're not children; they're shaved baboons trying to pass for children.” He slammed his soundproofed office door behind Chris and Laura.