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“Now I just need a bit more time to heal,” he said, as he stood up from the computer and testingly moved his left arm in circles.

She said, “It's been eleven days since you were shot. Do you still have pain?”

“Some. A deeper, duller pain. And not all the time. But the strength isn't back. I think I'd better wait a few days yet. If it feels alright by next Wednesday, the twenty-fifth, I'll return to the institute then. Sooner, if I improve faster, but certainly no later than next Wednesday.”

That night, Laura woke from a nightmare in which she was confined yet again to a wheelchair and in which destiny, in the form of a faceless man in a black robe, was busily erasing Chris from reality, as if the boy was only a crayon drawing on a pane of glass. She was soaked in sweat, and for a while she sat up in bed, listening for noises in the house but hearing nothing other than her son's steady, low breathing on the bed beside her.

Later, unable to get back to sleep, she lay thinking about Stefan Krieger. He was an interesting man, extremely self-contained and at times hard to figure.

Since Wednesday of the previous week, when he explained that he had become her guardian because he had fallen in love with her and wanted to improve the life she had been meant to live, he'd said nothing more of love. He had not restated his feelings for her, had not subjected her to meaningful looks, had not played the part of a pining suitor. He made his case and was willing to give her time to think about him and get to know him before she decided what she thought of him. She suspected he would wait years, if necessary, and without complaint. He had the patience born of extreme adversity, which was something she understood.

He was quiet, pensive a lot of the time, occasionally downright melancholy, which she supposed was a result of the horrors he had seen in his long-ago Germany. Perhaps that core of sadness had its roots in things he had done himself and had come to regret, things for which he felt he could never atone. After all, he had said that a place in hell was reserved for him. He had revealed no more about his past than what he had told her and Chris in the motel room more than ten days ago. She sensed, however, that he was willing to tell her all the details, those that were a discredit to him as well as those that reflected well on him; he would not conceal anything from hen he was merely waiting for her to decide what she thought of him and whether, in any case, she wanted to know more.

In spite of the sorrow in him, deep as marrow and dark as blood. he had a quiet sense of humor. He was good with Chris and could make the boy laugh, which Laura counted in his favor. His smile was warm and gentle.

She still did not love him, and she did not think that she ever would. She wondered how she could be so sure of that. In fact she lay in the dark bedroom for a couple of hours, wondering, until at last she began to suspect that the reason she could not love him was because he was not Danny. Her Danny had been a unique man, and with him she had known a love as close to perfection as the world allowed. Now, in seeking her affections, Stefan Krieger would be forever in competition with a ghost.

She recognized the pathos in their situation, and she was glumly aware of the loneliness that her attitude assured. In her heart she wanted to be loved and to love in return, but in her relationship with Stefan, she saw only his passion unrequited, her hope unfulfilled.

Beside her, Chris murmured in his sleep, then sighed.

I love you, honey, she thought. I love you so much.

Her son, the only child she could ever have, was the center of her existence now and for the foreseeable future, her primary reason for going on. If anything happened to Chris, Laura knew she would no longer be able to find relief in the dark humor of life; this world in which tragedy and comedy were married in all things would become, for her, exclusively a place of tragedy, too black and bleak to be endured.

Three blocks from the church Erich Klietmann pulled the white Toyota to the curb and parked on a side street off Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs's main shopping district. Scores of people strolled along the sidewalks, window-shopping. Some of the younger women were wearing shorts and brief tops that Klietmann found not only scandalous but embarrassing, casually displaying their bodies in a way unknown in his own age. Under the iron rule of der Furhrer's National Socialist Workers' Party, such shameless behavior wouldn't be permitted; Hitler's triumph would result in a different world, where morality would be strictly enforced, where these bare-limbed, brassiereless women would parade themselves only at the risk of imprisonment and reeducation, where decadent creatures wouldn't be tolerated. As he watched their buttocks clench and flex beneath their tight shorts, as he watched unrestrained br**sts swaying under the thin fabric of T-shirts, what most disturbed Klietmann was that he desperately wanted to lay with every one of these women even if they were representatives of the deviant strains of humanity that Hitler would abolish.

Beside Klietmann, Corporal Rudy von Manstein had unfolded :he map of Palm Springs provided by the team of researchers that had located the woman and the boy. He said, “Where do we make the hit?”

From an inside pocket of his suit jacket, Klietmann withdrew the folded paper that Dr. Juttner had given him in the lab. He opened it and read aloud: “On state route 111, approximately six miles north of the Palm Springs city limits, the woman will be arrested by an officer of the California Highway Patrol at eleven-twenty. Wednesday morning, January 25. She will be driving a black Buick Riviera. The boy will be with her and will be taken into protective custody. Apparently Krieger is there, but we're not sure; apparently he escapes from the police officer, but we don't know how.”

Von Manstein had already traced a route on the map that would take them out of Palm Springs and onto highway 111.

“We've got thirty-one minutes,” Klietmann said, glancing at the dashboard clock.

“We'll make it easily,” von Manstein said. “Fifteen minutes at the most.”

“If we get there early,” Klietmann said, “we can kill Krieger before he slips away from the highway-patrol officer. In any event we have to get there before the woman and boy are taken into custody because it'll be far more difficult to get at them once they're in jail.” He turned around to look at Bracher and Hubatsch in the back seat. “Understood?”

They both nodded, but then Sergeant Hubatsch patted the breast rocket of his suit and said, “Sir, what about these sunglasses?”

“What about them?” Klietmann asked impatiently.

“Should we put them on now? Will that help us blend with the local citizenry? I've been studying the people on the street, and though a lot of them are wearing dark glasses, many of them aren't.”

Klietmann looked at the pedestrians, trying not to be distracted by scantily clad women, and he saw that Hubatsch was correct. More to the point, he realized that not even one of the men in sight was dressed in the power look preferred by young executives. Maybe all young executives were in their offices at this hour. Whatever the reason for the lack of dark suits and black Bally loafers, Klietmann felt conspicuous even though he and his men were in a car. Because many pedestrians were wearing sunglasses, he decided that wearing his own would give him one thing in common with some of the locals.

When the lieutenant put on his Ray-Bans, so did von Manstein, Bracher, and Hubatsch.

“All right, let's go,” Klietmann said.

But before he could pop the emergency brake and put the car in gear, someone knocked on the driver's window beside him. It was a Palm Springs police officer.

Laura sensed that, one way or the other, their ordeal was soon coming to an end. They would succeed in destroying the institute or die trying, and she had almost reached the point at which an end to fear was desirable regardless of how it was achieved.

Wednesday morning, January 25, Stefan still suffered deep-muscle soreness in his shoulder but no sharp pain. No numbness remained in his hand or arm, which meant the bullet had not damaged any nerves. Because he cautiously had exercised every day, he had more than half of his usual strength in his left arm and shoulder, just enough to make him confident that he would be able to implement his plan. But Laura could see that he was afraid of the trip ahead of him.

He put on Kokoschka's gate-homing belt, which Laura had taken from her safe the night that Stefan had arrived wounded on her doorstep. His fear remained apparent, but the moment that he put on the belt, his anxiety was overlaid with a steely determination.

In the kitchen at ten o'clock, each of them, including Chris, took two of the capsules that would render them impervious to the effects of the nerve gas, Vexxon. They washed down the preventive with glasses of Hi-C orange drink.

The three Uzis, one of the .38 revolvers, the silencer-equipped Colt Commander Mark IV, and a small nylon backpack full of books had been loaded into the car.

The two pressurized, stainless-steel bottles of Vexxon were still in the Buick's trunk. After studying the informational pamphlets in the blue plastic bags attached to the containers, Stefan had decided he would need only one cylinder for the job. Vexxon was a designer gas tailored primarily for use indoors-to kill the enemy in barracks, shelters, and bunkers deep underground-rather than against troops in the field. In the open air the stuff dispersed too fast-and broke down too quickly in sunlight-to be effective beyond a radius of two hundred yards from point of release. However, when opened full-cock, a single cylinder could contaminate a fifty-thousand-square-foot structure in a few minutes, which was good enough for his purposes.

At 10:35 they got in the car and left the Gaines's house, heading for the desert off route 111, north of Palm Springs. Laura made sure Chris's safety harness was buckled, and the boy said, “See, if you had a car that was a time machine, we'd drive back to 1944 in comfort.”

Days ago they had taken a night drive to the open desert to find a spot suitable for Stefan's departure. They needed to know the exact geographical location in advance in order to do the calculations that would make it possible for him to return conveniently to them after his work in 1944 was done.

Stefan intended to open the valve on the Vexxon cylinder before he pushed the button on the gate-homing belt, so the nerve gas would be dispersing even as he returned through the gate to the institute, killing everyone who was in the lab at the 1944 end of the Lightning Road. Therefore he would be releasing a quantity of the toxin at his point of departure, too, and it seemed prudent to do so only in an isolated place. The street in front of the Gaines's house was less than two hundred yards away, within Vexxon's effective range, and they did not want to kill innocent bystanders.

Besides, though the gas was supposed to remain poisonous only for forty to sixty minutes, Laura was concerned that the deactivated residue, although not lethal, might have unknown, long-range toxic effects. She did not intend to leave any such substance in Thelma and Jason's house.

The day was clear, blue, serene.

When they had driven only a couple of blocks and were descending into a hollow where the road was flanked by huge date palms, Laura thought she saw a strange pulse of light in the fragment of sky that was captured by her rearview mirror. What would lightning be like in a bright, cloudless sky? Not as dramatic as on a storm-clouded day, for it would be competing with the brightness of the sun. What it might look like in fact was the very thing she thought she had seen-a strange, brief pulse of brightness.

Though she braked, the Buick was into the bottom of the hollow, and she could no longer see the sky in the rearview mirror, just the hill behind them. She thought she heard a rumble, too, like distant thunder, but she could not be sure because of the roar of the car's air conditioner. She pulled quickly to the side of the road, fumbling with the ventilation controls.

“What's wrong?” Chris asked as she put the car in park, threw open her door, and got out.

Stefan opened the rear door and got out too. “Laura?”

She was looking at the limited expanse of sky that she could see from the bottom of the hollow, using her flattened hand as a visor over her eyes. “You hear that, Stefan?”

In the warm, desert-dry day, a faraway rumble slowly died.

He said, “Could be jet noise.”

“No. The last time I thought it might be a jet, it was them.”

The sky pulsed again, one last time. She did not actually see the lightning itself, not the jagged bolt scored on the heavens, but just the reflection of it in the upper atmosphere, a faint wave of light flushing across the blue vault above.

“They're here,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed.

“Somewhere on our way out to route 111, someone's going to stop us, maybe a traffic cop, or maybe we'll be in an accident, so there'll be a public record, and then they'll show up. Stefan, we've got to turn around, go back to the house.”

“It's no use,” he said.

Chris had gotten out of the other side of the car. “He's right, Mom. It doesn't matter what we do. Those time travelers came here 'cause they've already peeked into the future and know where they're gonna find us maybe half an hour from now, maybe ten minutes from now. It doesn't matter if we go back to the house or go on ahead; they've already seen us someplace-maybe even back at the house. See, no matter how much we change our plans, we'll cross their path.”


“Shit!” she said and kicked the side of the car, which didn't do any good, didn't even make her feel better. “I hale this. How can you hope to win against goddamn time travelers? It's like playing blackjack when the dealer is God.”

No more lightning flared.

She said, “Come to think of it, all of life is a blackjack game with God as the dealer, isn't it? So this is no worse. Get in the car, Chris. Let's get on with it.”

As she drove through the western neighborhoods of the resort city, Laura's nerves were as taut as garroting wire. She was alert for trouble on all sides, though she knew it would come when and where she least expected it.

Without incident they connected with the northern end of Palm Canyon Drive, then state route 111. Ahead lay twelve miles of mostly barren desert before 111 intersected Interstate 10.

Hoping to avoid catastrophe, Lieutenant Klietmann lowered the driver's window and smiled up at the Palm Springs policeman who had rapped on the glass to get his attention and who was now bending down, squinting in at him. “What is it, officer?” “Didn't you see the red curb when you parked here?” “Red curb?” Klietmann said, smiling, wondering what the hell the cop was talking about.

“Now, sir,” the officer said in a curiously playful tone, “are you telling me you didn't see the red curb?”