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In the car on the way back to the motel, Chris said, “When this is all over . . . what're you going to do about Fat Jack?”

“Turn his butt into the cops,” Laura said. “Anonymously.”

“Good. He's a nut.”

“He's worse than a nut, honey. He's a fanatic.”

“What's a fanatic exactly?”

She thought for a moment, then said, “A fanatic is a nut who has something to believe in.”

Lieutenant Erich Klietmann, SS, watched the second hand on the programming-board clock, and when it neared the twelve, he turned and looked at the gate. Inside that twelve-foot-long, gloom-filled tube, something shimmered, a fuzzy gray-black patch that resolved into the silhouette of a man-then three more men, one behind the other. The research team came out of the gate, into the room, and were met by the three scientists who had been monitoring the programming board.

They had returned from February 1989, and were smiling, which made Klietmann's heart pound because they would not be smiling if they had not located Stefan Krieger, the woman, and the boy. The first two assassination squads that had been sent into the future-the one that had attacked the house near Big Bear and the one in San Bernardino-had been composed of Gestapo officers. Their failures had led der Furhrer to insist the third team be Schutzstaffel, and now Erich judged the researchers' smiles to mean that his squad was going to have a chance to prove the SS was filled with better men than the Gestapo.

The failures of the two previous squads were not the only black marks on the Gestapo's record in this affair. Heinrich Kokoschka, the head of the institute's security, had been a Gestapo officer, as well, and he had apparently turned traitor. Available evidence seemed to support the theory that two days ago, on March 16, he had defected to the future with five other members of the institute's staff.

On the evening of March 16, Kokoschka had jaunted alone to the San Bernardino Mountains with the claimed intention of killing Stefan Krieger there in the future before Krieger returned to 1944 and killed Penlovski, thereby undoing the deaths of the project's best men. But Kokoschka never came back. Some argued that Kokoschka had been killed up there in 1988, that Krieger had won the confrontation-but that did not explain what had happened to the five other men in the institute that evening: the two Gestapo agents waiting for Kokoschka's return and the three scientists monitoring the gate's programming board. All vanished, and five homing belts were missing; so the evidence pointed to a group of traitors within the institute who had become convinced that Hitler would lose the war even with the advantage of exotic weapons brought back from the future, and who had defected to another age rather than stay in a doomed Berlin.

But Berlin was not doomed. Klietmann would not entertain that possibility. Berlin was the new Rome; the Third Reich would last a thousand years. Now that the SS was being given the chance to find and kill Krieger, der Furhrer's dream would be protected and fulfilled. Once they had eliminated Krieger, who was the main threat to the gate and whose execution was the most urgent task before them, they would then focus on finding Kokoschka and the other traitors. Wherever those swine had gone, in whatever distant year and place they had taken refuge, Klietmann and his SS brethren would exterminate them with extreme prejudice and great pleasure.

Now Dr. Theodore Juttner-director of the institute since the murders of Penlovski, Januskaya, and Volkaw, and the disappearances on March 16-turned to Erich and said, “We've perhaps found Krieger, ObersturmFurhrer Klietmann. Get your men ready to go.”

“We're ready, Doctor,” Erich said. Ready for the future, he thought, ready for Krieger, ready for glory.

At three-forty on Saturday afternoon, January 14, little more than one day after her first visit, Thelma returned to The Bluebird of Happiness Motel in her gardener's battered white pickup. She had two changes of clothes for each of them, suitcases in which to pack all the stuff, and a couple of thousand rounds of ammunition for the revolvers and the Uzis. She also had the IBM PC in the truck, plus a printer, a variety of software, a box of diskettes, and everything else they would need to make the system work for them.

With the wound in his shoulder only four days old, Stefan was recuperating surprisingly fast, although he was not ready to do any lifting, heavy or otherwise. He stayed in the motel room with Chris and packed the suitcases while Laura and Thelma moved the computer boxes to the trunk and back seat of the Buick.

The storm had passed during the night. Shredded gray clouds hung beardlike from the sky. The day had warmed to sixty-five degrees, and the air smelled clean.

Closing the Buick's trunk on the last of the boxes, Laura said, “You went shopping in that wig and those glasses, those teeth?”

“Nah,” Thelma said, removing the stage teeth and putting them in a jacket pocket because they made her lisp when she talked.' 'Up close a salesclerk might've recognized me, and being disguised would arouse more attention than if I shopped as myself. But after I'd bought everything, I drove the truck to the deserted end of another shopping center's parking lot and made myself look like a cross between Harpo Marx and Bucky Beaver before heading here, just in case someone in another car looked over at me in traffic. You know, Shane, I sorta like this kind of intrigue. Maybe I'm the reincarnation of Mata Hari, 'cause when I think about seducing men to learn their secrets and then selling the secrets to a foreign government, I get delicious chills."

“It's the part about seducing men that gives you chills,” Laura said, “not the secret-selling part. You're no spy, just a lech.”

Thelma gave her the keys to the house in Palm Springs. “There's no full-time staff there. We just call a housekeeping service to spruce the place up a couple of days before we go. I didn't call them this time, of course, so you're liable to find some dust, but no real filth, and none of the severed heads you tend to leave behind.”

“You're a love.”

“There's a gardener. Not full-time like the one at our house in Beverly Hills. This guy just comes around once a week, Tuesday, to mow the lawn, trim the hedges, and trample some flowers so he can charge us to replace them. I'd advise staying away from windows and keeping a low profile on Tuesday, until he comes and goes.”

“We'll hide under the beds.”

“You'll notice a lot of whips and chains under the bed, but don't get the idea Jason and I are kinky. The whips and chains belonged to his mother, and we keep them strictly for sentimental reasons.”

They brought the packed suitcases out of the motel room and put those in the back seat with the other packages that would not fit in the Buick's trunk. After a round of hugs, Thelma said, “Shane, I'm between nightclub appearances for the next three weeks, so if you need me for anything more, you can get hold of me at the house in Beverly Hills, night or day. I'll stay by the phone.” Reluctantly she left.

Laura was relieved when the truck disappeared in traffic; Thelma was safe, out of it. She dropped the room keys at the motel office, then drove away in the Buick with Chris in the other front seat and Stefan in the back seat with the luggage. She regretted leaving The Bluebird of Happiness because they had been safe there for four days, and there was no guarantee they'd be safe anywhere else in the world.

They stopped at a gunshop first. Because it was best to keep Laura out of sight as much as possible, Stefan went in to buy a box of ammunition for the pistol. They had not put that item on the shopping list they had given Thelma, for at that time they had not known whether they would get the 9mm Parabellum that Stefan 'wanted. And in fact they had gotten the .38 Colt Commander Mark IV instead.

After the gunshop they drove to Fat Jack's Pizza Party Palace to pick up two canisters of deadly nerve gas. Stefan and Chris waited in the car, under neon signs that were already burning at twilight, though they would not be in their full glory until nightfall.

The canisters were on Jack's desk. They were the size of small household fire extinguishers with a stainless-steel finish instead of fire-red, with a skull-and-crossbones label that said VEXXON/


With a finger as plump as an overstuffed sausage, Jack pointed to a half-dollar-size dial on the top of each cylinder. “These here are timers, calibrated in minutes, one to sixty. If you set the timer and push the button in the center of it, you can release the gas remote, sort of like setting off a time bomb. But if you want to release it manually, then you hold the bottom of the canister in one hand, take this pistol-grip handle in your other hand, and just squeeze this loop the way you would a trigger. This crap, released under pressure, will disperse through a five-thousand-square-foot building in a minute and a half, faster if the heating or air conditioning is running. Exposed to light and air, it breaks down fast into nontoxic components, but it remains deadly for forty to sixty minutes. Just three milligrams on the skin kills in thirty seconds.”

“The antidote?” Laura asked.

Fat Jack smiled and tapped the sealed, four-inch-square, blue-plastic bags that were fixed to the handles of the cylinders. “Ten capsules in each bag. Two will protect one person. Instructions are in the bag, but I was told you have to take the pills at least one hour before dispersing the gas. Then they'll protect you for three to five hours.”

He took her money and put the Vexxon cylinders in a cardboard box labeled MOZZARELLA CHEESE-KEEP REFRIGERATED. As he put the lid on the box, he laughed and shook his head.

“What's wrong?” Laura asked.

“It just tickles me,” Fat Jack said. “A looker like you, clearly well educated, with a little boy ... if someone like you is involved in shit like this, society must be really coming apart at the seams a lot faster than I ever hoped. Maybe I will live to see the day when the establishment falls, when anarchy rules, when the only laws are those that individuals make between themselves and seal with a handshake.”

As an afterthought, he lifted the lid on the box, plucked a few green slips of paper from a desk drawer, and dropped them on top of the cylinders of Vexxon.

“What're those?” Laura asked.

“You're a good customer,” Fat Jack said, "so I'm throwing in a few coupons for free pizza.''

Thelma and Jason's house in Palm Springs was indeed secluded. It was a curious but attractive cross between Spanish and Southwest adobe-style architecture on a one-acre property surrounded by a nine-foot-tall, peach-colored stucco wall that was interrupted only by the entrance and exit from the circular driveway. The grounds were heavily planted with olive trees, palms, and ficus, so neighbors were screened out on three sides, with only the front of the house revealed.

Though they arrived at eight o'clock that Saturday night, after driving into the desert from Fat Jack's place in Anaheim, the house and grounds were visible in detail because they were illuminated by cunningly designed, photocell-controlled landscape lighting that provided both security and aesthetic value. Palm and fern shadows made dramatic patterns on stucco walls.

Thelma had given them the remote garage door opener, so they drove the Buick into the three-car garage and entered the house through the connecting door to the laundry room-after deactivating the alarm system with the code Thelma had also given them.

It was far smaller than the Gaines's mansion in Beverly Hills, but still sizable, with ten rooms and four baths. The unique stamp of Steve Chase, the interior designer of choice in Palm Springs, was on every room: dramatic spaces dramatically lit; simple colors-warm apricot, dusty salmon-accented with turquoise here and there; suede walls, cedar ceilings; here, copper tables with a rich patina; there, granite tables contrasting interestingly with comfortably upholstered furniture in a variety of textured fabrics; elegant yet livable.

In the kitchen Laura found most of the pantry bare except for one shelf of canned goods. As they were all too tired to go grocery shopping, they made a dinner of what was at hand. Even if Laura had broken into the house without a key and had not known who owned the place, she would have realized it belonged to Thelma and Jason as soon as she looked in the pantry, for she could not imagine that any other pair of millionaires would still be so childlike at heart as to stock their larder with Chef Boyardee canned ravioli and spaghetti. Chris was delighted. For dessert they finished off two boxes of chocolate-covered Klondike ice-cream nuggets that they found in the otherwise empty freezer.

Laura and Chris shared the king-size bed in the master bedroom, and Stefan bunked across the hall in a guest room. Though she had reengaged the perimeter alarm system that monitored every door and window, though a loaded Uzi was on the floor beside her, though a loaded .38 was on the nightstand, and though no one in the world but Thelma could know where they were, Laura slept only fitfully. Each time she woke, she sat straight up in bed, listening for noises in the night-stealthy footsteps, whispering voices.

Toward morning, when she could not get back to sleep, she stared at the shadowy ceiling for a long time, thinking about something that Stefan had said a couple of days ago when explaining some of the fine points of time travel and the changes that travelers could effect in their futures: Destiny struggles to reassert the pattern that was meant to be. When Stefan had saved her from the junkie in the grocery store in 1963, fate eventually had brought her to another pedophile, Willy Sheener, in 1967. She had been destined to be an orphan, so when she found a new home with the Dockweilers, fate had conspired to shock Nina Dockweiler with a fatal heart attack, sending Laura back to the orphanage again.

Destiny struggles to reassert the pattern that was meant to be.

What next?

In the pattern that was meant to be, Chris had never been born. Therefore would fate arrange his death soon, to bring events back as close as possible to those which had been ordained and with which Stefan Krieger had meddled? She had been destined to spend her life in a wheelchair before Stefan held Dr. Paul Markwell at gunpoint and prevented him from delivering her. So perhaps now fate would put her in the way of Gestapo gunfire that would sever her spine and render her paraplegic in accordance with the original plan.

How long did the forces of destiny strive to reassert the pattern after a change had been made in it? Chris had been alive for more than eight years. Was that long enough for destiny to decide that his existence was acceptable? She had lived thirty-four years out of a wheelchair. Was destiny still troubling itself with that unnatural squiggle in the ordained design?

Destiny struggles to reassert the pattern that was meant to be.

As dawn's light glowed softly at the edges of the drapes, Laura tossed and turned, growing angry but not sure at whom or what her anger could be directed. What was destiny? What was the power that shaped the patterns and attempted to enforce them? God? Should she be raging at God-or begging Him to let her son live and to spare her from the life of a cripple? Or was the power behind destiny merely a natural mechanism, a force no different in origin from gravity or magnetism?