Page 4

Thunder rumbled outside, but it was low and distant, not like the explosions with which the storm had begun.

The humid air thickened as the slower-spreading, coppery scent of blood mixed with the stench of urine.

Queasy, leaning on the counter but still holding Laura at his side, Bob said, “Why can't I just tell them how you interrupted the robbery, shot the guy, and didn't want publicity, so you left?”

Impatient, the stranger raised his voice. “An armed man just happens to stroll by while the robbery's in progress and decides to be a hero? The cops won't believe a cockeyed story like that.”

“That's what happened-”

“But they won't buy it! Listen, they'll start thinking maybe you shot the junkie. Since you don't own a gun, at least not according to public record, they'll wonder if maybe it was an illegal weapon and if you disposed of it after you shot this guy, then cooked up a crazy story about some Lone Ranger type walking in and saving your ass.”

“I'm a respectable businessman with a good reputation.”

In the stranger's eyes a peculiar sadness arose, a haunted look. “Bob, you're a nice man . . . but you're a little naive sometimes.”

“What're you-”

The stranger held up a hand to silence him. ' 'In a crunch a man's reputation never counts for as much as it ought to. Most people are good-hearted and willing to give a man the benefit of the doubt, but the poisonous few are eager to see others brought down, ruined.“ His voice had fallen to a whisper, and although he continued to look at Bob, he seemed to be seeing other places, other people. ”Envy, Bob. Envy eats them alive. If you had money, they'd envy you that. But since you don't, they envy you for having such a good, bright, loving daughter. They envy you for just being a happy man. They envy you for not envying them. One of the greatest sorrows of human existence is that some people aren't happy merely to be alive but find their happiness only in the misery of others."

The charge of naiveté was one that Bob could not refute, and he knew the stranger spoke the truth. He shivered.

After a moment of silence, the man's haunted expression gave way to a look of urgency again. "And when the cops decide you're lying about the Lone Ranger who saved you, then they'll begin to wonder if maybe the junkie wasn't here to rob you at all, if maybe you knew him, had a falling out with him over something, even planned his murder and tried to make it look like a robbery. That's how cops think, Bob. Even if they can't pin this on you, they'll try so hard that they'll make a mess of your life. Do you want to put Laura through that?''


“Then do it my way.”

Bob nodded. “I will. Your way. But who the hell are you?”

“That doesn't matter. We don't have time for it anyway.” He stepped behind the counter and stooped in front of Laura, face to face with her. “Did you understand what I told your father? If the police ask you what happened-”

“You were with that man,” she said, pointing in the general direction of the corpse.

“That's right.”

“You were his friend,” she said, "but then you started arguing about me, though I'm not sure why, 'cause I didn't do anything-''

“It doesn't matter why, honey,” the stranger said.

Laura nodded. “And the next thing you shot him and ran out with all our money and drove away, and I was very scared.”

The man looked up at Bob. “Eight years old, huh?”

“She's a smart girl.”

“But it'd still be best if the cops didn't question her much.”

“I won't let them.”

“If they do,” Laura said, “I'll just cry and cry till they stop.”

The stranger smiled. He stared at Laura so lovingly that he made Bob uneasy. His manner was not that of the pervert who had wanted to take her into the storeroom; his expression was tender, affectionate. He touched her cheek. Astonishingly, tears shimmered in his eyes. He blinked, stood. “Bob, put that money away. Remember, I left with it.”

Bob realized the wad of cash was still in his hand. He jammed it into his pants pocket, and his loose apron concealed the bulge.

The stranger unlocked the door and put up the shade. “Take care of her, Bob. She's special.” Then he dashed into the rain, letting the door stand open behind him, and got into the Buick. The tires squealed as he pulled out of the parking lot.

The radio was on, but Bob heard it for the first time since “The End of the World” had been playing, before the junkie had been shot. Now Shelley Fabares was singing “Johnny Angel.”

Suddenly he heard the rain again, not just as a dull background hiss and patter but really heard it, beating furiously on the windows and on the roof of the apartment above. In spite of the wind rushing through the open door, the stink of blood and urine was abruptly far worse than it had been a moment ago, and just as precipitously, as if coming out of a trance of terror and regaining his full senses, he realized how close his precious Laura had come to dying. He scooped her into" his arms, lifted her off the floor, and held her, repeating her name, smoothing her hair. He buried his face against her neck and smelled the sweet freshness of her skin, felt the pulse of the artery in her throat, and thanked God that she was alive.

“I love you, Laura.”

“I love you, too, Daddy. I love you because of Sir Tommy Toad and a million other reasons. But we've got to call the police now.”

“Yes, of course,” he said, reluctantly putting her down.

His eyes were full of tears. He was so unnerved that he could not recall where the telephone was.

Laura had already taken the handset off the hook. She held it out to him. “Or I can call them, Daddy. The number's right here on the phone. Do you want me to call them?”

“No. I'll do it, baby.” Blinking back tears, he took the phone from her and sat on the old wooden stool behind the cash register.

She put one hand on his arm, as if she knew he needed her touch.

Janet had been emotionally strong. But Laura's strength and self-possession were unusual for her age, and Bob Shane was not sure where they came from. Maybe being motherless made her self-reliant.

“Daddy?” Laura said, tapping the phone with one finger. “The police, remember?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. Trying not to gag on the odor of death that permeated the store, he dialed the police emergency number.

Kokoschka sat in a car across the street from Bob Shane's small grocery, thoughtfully fingering the scar on his cheek.

The rain had stopped. The police had gone. Neon shop signs and lampposts lit at nightfall, but the macadam streets glistened darkly in spite of that illumination, as if the pavement absorbed the light instead of reflecting it.

Kokoschka had arrived in the neighborhood simultaneously with Stefan, the blond and blue-eyed traitor. He had heard the shooting, had seen Stefan flee in the dead man's car, had joined the crowd of onlookers when the police arrived, and had learned most of the details of what had happened in the store.

He had, of course, seen through Bob Shane's preposterous story about Stefan having been merely a second thief. Stefan was not their assailant but their self-appointed guardian, and he had no doubt lied to cover his true identity.

Laura had been saved again.

But why?

Kokoschka tried to imagine what part the girl could possibly play in the traitor's plans, but he was stumped. He knew nothing would be gained by interrogating the girl, for she was too young to have been told anything useful. The reason for her rescue would be as much a mystery to her as it was to Kokoschka.

He was sure that her father knew nothing, either. The girl was obviously the one who interested Stefan, not the father, so Bob Shane would not have been made privy to Stefan's origins or intentions.

Finally Kokoschka drove several blocks to a restaurant, had dinner, then returned to the grocery well after nightfall. He parked on the side street, in the shadows under the expansive fronds of a date palm. The store was dark, but lights shone at the windows of the second-floor apartment.

From a deep pocket of his raincoat, he withdrew a revolver. It was a snub-nosed Colt Agent .38, compact but powerful. Kokoschka admired well-designed and well-made weapons, and he especially liked the feel of this gun in his hand: this was Death himself imprisoned in steel.

Kokoschka could cut the Shanes' phone wires, quietly force entry, kill the girl and her father, and slip away before police responded to the shots. He had a talent and affinity for that kind of work.

But if he killed them without knowing why he was killing them, without understanding what role they played in Stefan's schemes, he might later discover that eliminating them was a mistake. He had to know Stefan's purpose before acting.

Reluctantly he put the revolver in his pocket.

In the windless night, rain fell straight down on the city, as if every droplet was enormously heavy. It drummed noisily on the roof and windshield of the small, black car.

At one o'clock in the morning on that Tuesday in late March, the rainswept streets, flooded at some intersections, were generally deserted but for military vehicles. Stefan chose an indirect route to the institute to avoid known inspection stations, but he was afraid of encountering an impromptu checkpoint. His papers were in order, and his security clearance exempted him from the new curfew. Nevertheless he preferred not to come under the scrutiny of military police. He could not afford to have the car searched, for the suitcase c" the back seat contained copper wire, detonators, and plastic explosives not legally in his possession.

Because his breath fogged the windshield, because rain obscured the eerily dark city, because the car's wipers were worn, and because the hooded headlights illuminated a limited field of vision, he almost missed the narrow, cobblestone street that led behind the institute. He braked, turned the wheel sharply. The sedan took the corner with a shudder and a squeal of tires, sliding slightly on the slick cobbles.

He parked in darkness near the rear entrance, got out of the car, and took the suitcase from the back seat. The institute was a drab, four-story brick building with heavily barred windows. An air of menace hung about the place, though it did not look as if it harbored secrets that would radically change the world. The metal door had concealed hinges and was painted black. He pushed the button, heard the buzzer ring inside, and waited nervously for a response.

He was wearing rubber boots and a trenchcoat with the collar turned up, but he had neither a hat nor an umbrella. The cold rain pasted his hair to his skull and drizzled down the nape of his neck.

Shivering, he looked at a slit window that was set in the wall beside the door. It was six inches wide, a foot high, with glass that was mirrored from outside, transparent from inside.

He patiently listened to the rain beating on the car, splashing in puddles, and gurgling in a nearby downspout. With a cold sizzle it struck the leaves of plane trees at the curb.

A light came on above the door. It was in a cone-shaped shade, the yellow glow tightly contained and directed straight down on him.

Stefan smiled at the mirrored observation window, at the guard he could not see.

The light went out, the lock bolts clattered open, and the door swung inward. He knew the guard: Viktor something, a stout, fiftyish man with close-cropped gray hair and steel-rimmed spectacles, who was more pleasant-tempered than he looked and was in fact a mother hen who worried about the health of friends and acquaintances.

“Sir, what are you doing out at this hour, in this downpour?”

“Couldn't sleep.”

“Dreadful weather. Come in, in! You'll catch cold for sure.”

“Kept worrying about work I'd left undone, so I thought I might as well come in and do it.”

“You'll work yourself into an early grave, sir. Truly you will.”

As Stefan stepped into the antechamber and watched the guard close the door, he searched his memory for a scrap of knowledge about Viktor's personal life. “From the look of you, I guess your wife still makes those incredible noodle dishes you've told me about.”

Turning from the door, Viktor laughed softly, patted his belly. “I swear, she's employed by the devil to lead me into sin, primarily gluttony. What's that, sir, a suitcase? Are you moving in?”

Wiping rain from his face with one hand, Stefan said, “Research data. Took it home weeks ago, been working on it evenings.”

“Have you no private life at all?”

“I get twenty minutes for myself every second Thursday.”

Viktor clucked his tongue disapprovingly. He stepped to the desk that occupied a third of the floor space in the small room, picked up the phone, and called the other night guard, who was stationed in a similar antechamber at the front entrance to the institute. When anyone was let in after hours, the admitting guard always alerted his colleague at the other end of the building, in part to avoid false alarms and perhaps the accidental shooting of an innocent visitor.

Dripping rain on the worn carpet runner, fishing a set of keys from his trenchcoat pocket, Stefan went to the inner door. Like the outer portal, it was made of steel with concealed hinges. However, it could be unlocked only with two keys turned in tandem-one belonging to an authorized employee, the other carried by the guard on duty. The work being conducted at the institute was so extraordinary and secret that even the night watchmen could not be trusted to have access to the labs and file rooms.

Viktor put down the phone. “How long are you staying, sir?”

“A couple of hours. Is anyone else working tonight?”

“No. You're the only martyr. And no one truly appreciates martyrs, sir. You'll work yourself to death, I swear, and for what9 Who'll care?”

“Eliot wrote: 'Saints and martyrs rule from the tomb.' ”

“Eliot? He a poet or something?”

“T. S. Eliot, a poet, yes.”

“ 'Saints and martyrs rule from the tomb'? I don't know about fellow. Doesn't sound like an approved poet. Sounds subversive. ” Viktor laughed warmly, apparently amused by the ridiculous notion that his hard-working friend could be a traitor.

Together they opened the inner door.

Stefan lugged the suitcase of explosives into the institute's ground floor hallway, where he switched on the lights.

' 'If you're going to make a habit of working in the middle of the night,“ Viktor said, ”I'll bring you one of my wife's cakes to give you energy."

“Thank you, Viktor, but I hope not to make a habit of this.”