Page 41

Because there was no logical target at which her emotions could be vented, Laura felt her anger slowly metamorphosing to fear. They seemed to be safe at the Gaines's Palm Springs house. After passing one uneventful night in the place, they almost could be assured that their presence would never be public knowledge, for otherwise killers from the past no doubt already would have appeared. Yet Laura was afraid.

Something bad was going to happen. Something very bad.

Trouble was coming, but she did not know from what direction.

Lightning. Soon.

Too bad the old saw wasn't true: In fact lightning did strike twice in the same place, three times, a hundred, and she was the reliable rod that drew it.

Dr. Juttner entered the last of the numbers in the programming board that controlled the gate. To Erich Klietmann, he said, “You and your men will be traveling to the vicinity of Palm Springs, California, in January 1989.”

“Palm Springs?” Klietmann was surprised.

“Yes. Of course, we had expected you'd have to go somewhere in the Los Angeles or Orange County area, where you would have found your young-executive dress more appropriate than in a resort town, but you'll still pass without notice. For one thing, it's winter there, and even in the desert dark suits will be appropriate for the season.” Juttner handed Klietmann a sheet of paper on which he had written directions. “Here's where you'll find the woman and the boy.”

Folding the paper and putting it in an inside coat pocket, the lieutenant said, “What about Krieger?”

“The researchers didn't find mention of him,” Juttner said, “but he must be with the woman and the boy. If you don't see him, then do your best to take the woman and boy captive. If you have to torture them to learn Krieger's whereabouts, so be it. And if worse comes to worst and they won't give you Krieger-kill them. That might draw him into the open somewhere down the time line.”

“We'll find him, Doctor.”

Klietmann, Hubatsch, von Manstein, and Bracher were all wearing their homing belts beneath their Yves St. Laurent suits. Carrying their Mark Cross attache cases, they walked to the gate, stepped up into that giant barrel, and moved toward the two-thirds point where they would pass in a wink from 1944 to 1989.

The lieutenant was afraid but also exhilarated. He was the iron fist of Hitler, from which Krieger could not hide even forty-five years in the future.

On their first full day in the Palm Springs house, Sunday the fifteenth of January, they set up the computer, and Laura instructed Stefan in its use. IBM's operating program and the software for the tasks they needed to perform were extremely user-friendly, and though by nightfall Stefan was far from expert at operating the computer, he was able to understand how it functioned, how it thought. He would not be doing most of the work with the machine, anyway; that would be left to Laura, who was already experienced with the system. His job would be to explain to her the calculations that would have to be done, so she would be able to apply the computer to the solution of the many problems ahead of them.

Stefan's intention was to go back to 1944, using the gate-homing belt he had taken off Kokoschka. The belts were not time machines. The gate itself was the machine, the vehicle of transport, and it remained always in 1944. The belts were in tune with the temporal vibrations of the gate, and they simply brought the traveler home when he pushed the button to activate that link.

“How?” Laura asked when he explained the use of the belt. “How does it take you back?”

“I don't know. Would you know how a microchip functions inside a computer? No. But that doesn't prevent you from using the computer any more than my ignorance prevents me from using the gate.”

Having returned to the institute in 1944, having seized control of the main lab, Stefan would make two crucial jaunts, each only days into the future from March of '44, to arrange the destruction of the institute. Those two trips had to be meticulously planned, so he would arrive at each destination in exactly the geographical location and precisely at the time that he desired. Such refined calculations were impossible to make in 1944, not only because computer assistance was unavailable but because in those days marginally- but vitally-less was known then about the angle and rate of rotation of the earth and about other planetary factors that affected a jaunt, which was why time travelers from the institute frequently arrived off schedule by minutes and out of place by miles. With the ultimate numbers provided by the IBM, he could program the gate to deliver him within one yard and within a split second of his desired point of arrival.

They used all of the books that Thelma had bought. These were not merely science and mathematics texts, but histories of the Second World War, in which they could pinpoint the whereabouts of certain major figures on certain dates.

In addition to performing complex calculations for the jaunts, they had to allow time for Stefan to heal. When he returned to 1944, he would be reentering the wolf's lair, and even equipped with nerve gas and a first-rate firearm, he would have to be quick and agile to avoid being killed. “Two weeks,” he said. “I think I'll have enough flexibility in the shoulder and arm to go back in two more weeks.”

It did not matter if he took two weeks or ten, for when he used Kokoschka's homing belt, he would return to the institute only eleven minutes after Kokoschka had left it. His date of departure from current time would not affect his date of return in 1944.

The only worry was that the Gestapo would find them first and send a hit squad to 1989 to eliminate them before Stefan could return to his era to implement his plan. Though it was their only worry-it was worry enough.

With considerable caution, more than half expecting a sudden flash of lightning and a roll of thunder, they took a break and went grocery shopping Sunday afternoon. Laura, still the object of media attention, remained in the car while Chris and Stefan went into the market. No lightning struck, and they returned to the house with a trunkful of groceries.

Unpacking the market bags in the kitchen, Laura discovered that a third of the sacks contained nothing but snack food: three different kinds of ice-cream bars, plus one quart each of chocolate, rocky road, butter almond, and almond fudge; family-size bags of M&Ms, Kit Kats, Reese's Cups, and Almond Joys; potato chips, pretzels, tortilla chips, cheese popcorn, peanuts; four kinds of cookies; one chocolate cake, one cherry pie, one box of doughnuts, four packages of Ding Dongs.

Stefan was helping her put things away, and she said, “You must have the world's biggest sweet tooth.”

“See, this is another thing I find so amazing and wonderful about this future of yours,” he said. “Just imagine-there's no longer any nutritional difference between a chocolate cake and a steak. Just as many vitamins and minerals in these potato chips as in a green salad. You can eat nothing but desserts and remain as healthy as a man who eats balanced meals. Incredible! How was this advance achieved?”

Laura turned in time to see Chris slinking out of the kitchen. “Whoa, you little con artist.”

Looking sheepish, he said, "Doesn't Mr. Krieger get some funny ideas about our culture?' '

“I know where he got this one,” she said. “What a sneaky thing to have done.”

Chris sighed and tried to sound mournful. “Yeah. But I figure ... if we're being hunted down by Gestapo agents, we ought to be able to eat as many Ding Dongs as we want, at least. 'cause every meal could be our last.” He looked at her sideways to see if she was buying his condemned-man routine.

In fact what the boy said contained enough truth to make his trickery understandable if not excusable, and she could not find the will to punish him.

That night after dinner, Laura changed the dressing on Stefan's wound. The impact of the slug had left an enormous bruise on his chest with the bullet hole at its approximate center, a smaller bruise around the exit point. The suture threads and the inside of the old bandage were crusted with fluid that had seeped from him and dried. After she carefully bathed the wounds, cleaning that material away as much as possible without disturbing the scab, she gently palpated the flesh, producing a trace of clear seepage, but there was no sign of pus formation that would indicate a serious infection. Of course, he might have an abscess within the wound, draining internally, but that was not likely because he had no fever.

“Keep taking the penicillin,” she said, “and I think you'll be fine. Doc Brenkshaw did a good job.”

While Laura and Stefan spent long hours at the computer Monday and Tuesday, Chris watched television, looked through the bookshelves for something to read, puzzled over, a hardcover collection of old Barbarella cartoons -

“Mom, what does orgasm mean?”

“What're you reading? Give me that.”

- and generally entertained himself without a fuss. He came to the den once in a while and stood for a minute or two at a time. watching them use the computer. After about a dozen visits he said, “In Back to the Future they just had this time-traveling car, and they pushed a few buttons on the dashboard, and they were off-Pow!- like that. How come nothing in real life's ever as easy as it is in the movies?”

On Tuesday, January 19, they kept a low profile while the gardener mowed the lawn and trimmed some shrubbery. In four days he was the only person they had seen; no door-to-door salesmen had called, not even a Jehovah's Witness pushing Watchtower magazine.

“We're safe here,” Stefan said. “Obviously, our presence in the house never becomes public knowledge. If it did, the Gestapo would have visited us already.”

Nevertheless Laura kept the perimeter alarm system switched on nearly twenty-four hours a day. And at night she dreamed of destiny reasserting itself, of Chris erased from existence, of waking up to find herself in a wheelchair.

They were supposed to arrive at eight o'clock to give them plenty of time to reach the location at which the researchers had pinpointed the woman and the boy, if not Krieger. But when Lieutenant Klietmann blinked and found himself forty-five years beyond his own era, he knew at once that they were a couple of hours late. The sun was too high above the horizon. The temperature was about seventy-five, too warm for an early, winter morning in the desert.

Like a white crack in a blue-glazed bowl, lightning splintered down the sky. Other cracks opened, and sparks flashed above as if struck from the hooves of a bull loose in some celestial china shop.

As the thunder faded, Klietmann turned to see if von Manstein, Hubatsch, and Bracher had made the journey safely. They were with him, all carrying attache cases, with sunglasses stuck in the breast pockets of their expensive suits.

The problem was that thirty feet beyond the sergeant and the two corporals, a pair of elderly, white-haired women in pastel stretch pants and pastel blouses were standing at a white car near the rear door to a church, staring in astonishment at Klietmann and his squad. They were holding what appeared to be casseroles.

Klietmann glanced around and saw that he and his men had arrived in the parking lot behind the church. There were two other cars in addition to the one that seemed to belong to the women, but there were no other onlookers. The lot was encircled by a wall, so the only way out was past the women and along the side of the church.

Deciding that boldness was the best course, Klietmann walked straight toward the women, as if there was nothing whatsoever unusual about his having materialized out of thin air, and his men followed him. Mesmerized, the women watched them approach.

“Good morning, ladies.” Like Krieger, Klietmann had learned to speak English with an American accent in hopes of serving as a deep-cover agent, but he'd been unable to lose his accent entirely, no matter how hard he studied and practiced. Though his own watch was set to local time, he knew he could no longer trust it, so he said, “Could you please be so kind as to tell me what time it is?”

They stared at him.

“The time?” he repeated.

The woman in yellow pastel twisted her wrist without letting go of the casserole, looked at her watch, and said, “Uh, it's ten-forty.”

They were two hours and forty minutes late. They couldn't waste time searching for a car to hot-wire, especially not when a perfectly good one was available, with keys, right in front of them. Klietmann was prepared to kill both women for the car. He could not leave their bodies in the parking lot; an alarm would go up when they were found, and shortly thereafter the police would be looking for their car-a nasty complication. He'd have to stuff the bodies in the trunk and take them with him.

The woman in blue pastels said, “Why've you come to us, are you angels?”

Klietmann wondered if she was senile. Angels in pinstripe suits? Then he realized that they were in the vicinity of a church and had appeared miraculously, so it might be logical for a religious woman to assume they were angels, regardless of their clothing. Maybe it would not be necessary to waste time killing them, after all. He said, “Yes, ma'am, we are angels, and God needs your car.”

The woman in yellow said, “My Toyota here?”

“Yes, ma'am.” The driver's door was standing open, and Klietmann put his attache on the front seat. “We're on an urgent mission for God, you saw us step through the pearly gate from Heaven right before your eyes, and we must have transportation.”

Von Manstein and Bracher had gone around to the other side of the Toyota, opened those doors, and gotten inside.

The woman in blue said, "Shirley, you've been chosen to give your car.''

“God will return it to you,” Klietmann said, “when our work here is done.” Remembering the gasoline shortages of his own war-torn era and not sure how plentiful fuel was in 1989, he added: “Of course, no matter how much gas is in the tank now, it'll be full when we return it and perpetually full thereafter. The loaves and fishes thing.”

“But there's potato salad in there for the church brunch,” the woman in yellow said.

Felix Hubatsch had already opened the rear door on the driver's side and had found the potato salad. Now he took it' out of the car and put it on the macadam at the woman's feet.

Klietmann got in, closed the door, heard Hubatsch slam the door behind him, found the keys in the ignition, started the car, and drove out of the church lot. When he looked in the rearview mirror just before turning into the street, the old women were still back there, holding their casseroles, staring after him.

Day by day they refined their calculations, and Stefan exercised his left arm and shoulder as much as he dared, trying to prevent it from growing stiff as it healed, hoping to maintain as much muscle tone as possible. On Saturday afternoon, January 21, as their first week in Palm Springs drew to a close, they completed the calculations and arrived at the precise time and space coordinates that Stefan would require for the jaunts he would make once he returned to 1944.