“Yes, sir, of course I saw it.”
“I didn't think you'd fib,” the cop said as if he knew Klietmann and trusted his reputation for honesty, which baffled the lieutenant. “So if you saw the red curb, sir, why'd you park here?”
“Oh, I see,” Klietmann said, “parking is restricted to curbs that aren't red. Yes, of course.”
The patrolman blinked at the lieutenant. He shifted his attention to Von Manstein in the passenger's seat, then to Bracher and Hubatsch in the rear, smiled and nodded at them.
Klietmann did not have to look at his men to know they were on edge. The air in the car was heavy with tension.
When he shifted his gaze to Klietmann, the police officer smiled tentatively and said, “Am I right-you fellas are four preachers?”
“Preachers?” Klietmann said, disconcerted by the question.
“I've got a bit of a deductive mind,” the cop said, his tentative smile still holding. “I'm no Sherlock Holmes. But the bumper stickers on your car say 'I Love Jesus' and 'Christ Has Risen.' And there's a Baptist convention in town, and you're all dressed in dark suits.”
That was why he had thought he could trust Klietmann not to fib: He believed they were Baptist ministers.
“That's right,” Klietmann said at once. “We're with the Baptist convention, officer. Sorry about the illegal parking. We don't have red curbs where I come from. Now if--”
“Where do you hail from?” the cop asked, not with suspicion but in an attempt to be friendly.
Klietmann knew a lot about the United States but not enough to carry on a conversation of this sort when he did not control its direction to any degree whatsoever. He believed that Baptists were from the southern part of the country; he wasn't sure if there were any of them in the north or west or east, so he tried to think of a southern state. He said, “I'm from Georgia,” before he realized how unlikely that claim seemed when spoken in his German accent.
The smile on the cop's face faltered. Looking past Klietmann to von Manstein, he said, “And where you from, sir?”
Following his lieutenant's lead, but speaking with an even stronger accent, von Manstein said, “Georgia.”
From the back seat, before they could be asked, Hubatsch and Bracher said, “Georgia, we're from Georgia,” as if that word was magic and would cast a spell over the patrolman.
The cop's smile had vanished altogether. He frowned at Erich Klietmann and said, “Sir, would you mind stepping out of the car for a moment?”
“Certainly, officer,” Klietmann said, as he opened his door, noticing how the cop backed up a couple of steps and rested his f right hand on the butt of his holstered revolver. “But we're late for * a prayer meeting-”
In the back seat Hubatsch snapped open his attache case and snatched the Uzi from it as quickly as a presidential bodyguard might have done. He did not roll down the window but put the muzzle against the glass and opened fire on the cop, giving him no time to draw his revolver. The car window blew out as bullets pounded through it. Struck by at least twenty rounds at close range, the cop pitched backward into traffic. Brakes squealed as a car made a hard stop to avoid the body, and across the street display windows shattered as bullets hit a men's clothing shop.
With the cool detachment and quick thinking that made Klietmann proud to be in the Schutzstaffel, Martin Bracher got out of the Toyota on his side and loosed a wide arc of fire from the Uzi to add to the chaos and give them a better chance of escaping. Windows imploded in the exclusive shops not only on the side street at the end of which they were parked but all the way across the intersection on the east flank of Palm Canyon Drive as well. People screamed, dropped to the pavement, scuttled for the cover of doorways. Klietmann saw passing cars hit by bullets out on Palm Canyon, and maybe a few drivers were hit or maybe they only panicked, but the vehicles swung wildly from lane to lane; a tan Mercedes sideswiped a delivery truck, and a sleek, red sportscar jumped the curb, crossed the sidewalk, grazed the bole of a palm tree, and plowed into the front of a gift shop.
Klietmann got behind the wheel again and released the emergency brake. He heard Bracher and Hubatsch leap into the car, so he threw the white Toyota in gear and shot forward onto Palm Canyon, hanging a hard left, heading north. He discovered at once that he was on a one-way street, going in the wrong direction. Cursing, he dodged oncoming cars. The Toyota rocked wildly on bad springs, and the glove compartment popped open, emptying its contents in von Manstein's lap. Klietmann turned right at the next intersection. A block later he ran a red light, narrowly avoiding pedestrians in the crosswalk, and turned left onto another avenue that allowed northbound traffic.
“We only have twenty-one minutes,” von Manstein said, pointing at the dashboard clock.
“Tell me where to go,” Klietmann said. “I'm lost.”
“No, you're not,” von Manstein said, brushing the contents of the glove compartment-spare keys, paper napkins, a pair of white gloves, individual packets of catsup and mustard, documents of various kinds-off the map that he was still holding open in his lap. “You're not lost. This will connect with Palm Canyon where it becomes a two-way street. From there we head straight north onto route 111.”
Approximately six miles north of Palm Springs, where the barren land looked particularly empty, Laura pulled to the shoulder of the highway. She slowly proceeded a few hundred yards until she found the place where the embankment declined almost to the level of the surrounding desert and sloped sufficiently to allow her to drive out onto the flat plain. Aside from a little bunchgrass that bristled in dry clumps and a few gnarly mesquite bushes, the only vegetation was tumbleweed-some green and rooted, some dry and rolling free. The fixed weeds scraped softly against the Buick, and the loose ones flew away on the wind that the car created.
The hard ground had a shale base over which an alkaline sand was drifted and whorled in places. As she had done when they found the place a few nights ago, Laura stayed away from the sand, kept to the bare gray-pink shale. She did not stop until she was three hundred yards from the highway, putting that well-traveled road beyond the radius of Vexxon's open-air effectiveness. She parked not far from an arroyo, a twenty-foot-wide and thirty-foot-deep natural drainage channel formed by flash floods during hundreds of the desert's brief rainy seasons; previously, at night, proceeding with caution but guided only by headlights, they'd been fortunate not to drive into that enormous ditch.
Though the lightning had not been followed by any sign of armed men, urgency informed the moment; Laura, Chris, and Stefan moved as if they could hear a clock ticking toward an impending detonation. While Laura removed one of the thirty-pound Vexxon cylinders from the trunk of the Buick, Stefan put his arms through the straps on the small, green nylon backpack that was full of books, pulled the chest strap in place, and pressed the Velcro fasteners together. Chris carried one of the Uzis twenty feet from the car to the center of a circle of utterly barren shale where not even a tuft of bunchgrass grew, which looked like a good staging area for Stefan's debarkation from 1989. Laura joined the boy there, and Stefan followed, holding the silencer-fitted Colt Commander in his right hand.
North of Palm Springs on state route 111, Klietmann was pushing the Toyota as hard as it would go, which was not hard enough. The car had forty thousand miles on the odometer, and no doubt the old woman who owned it never drove faster than fifty, so it wasn't responding well to the demands Klietmann made on it. When he tried to go faster than sixty, the Toyota began to shimmy and sputter, forcing him to ease up.
Nevertheless, just two miles north of the Palm Springs city limits, they fell in behind a California Highway Patrol cruiser, and Klietmann knew they must have caught up with the officer who was going to encounter and arrest Laura Shane and her son. The cop was doing just under fifty-five in a fifty-five-mile-per-hour zone.
“Kill him,” Klietmann said over his shoulder to Corporal Martin Bracher, who was in the right rear seat.
Klietmann glanced in the rearview mirror, saw no traffic behind; there was oncoming traffic, but it was in the southbound lanes. He swung into the northbound passing lane and began to move around the patrol car at sixty.
In the back Bracher rolled down his window. The other rear window was already open because Hubatsch had shot it out when he had killed the Palm Springs cop, so wind roared noisily through the back of the Toyota and reached into the front seat to flutter the map that was still in von Manstein's lap. The CHP officer glanced over in surprise, for motorists probably seldom dared pass a policeman who was already driving within a couple of miles of the speed limit. When Klietmann pressed the Toyota past sixty, it shimmied and coughed, still accelerating but grudgingly. The policeman took note of this indication of Klietmann's determined breaking of the law, and he tapped his siren lightly, making it whoop and die, which apparently meant Klietmann was to fall back and pull to the shoulder of the road.
Instead, the lieutenant nursed the protesting Toyota up to sixty-an hour, where it seemed in danger of shaking itself apart, and that was just fast enough to pull slightly ahead of the startled CHP officer, bringing Bracher's rear window in line with the patrol car's front window. The corporal opened fire with his Uzi.
The police cruiser's windows imploded, and the officer was dead in an instant. He had to be dead, for he had not seen the attack coming and surely had taken several rounds in the head and upper body. The patrol car swung toward the Toyota and brushed it before Klietmann could get out of the way, then veered toward the shoulder of the road.
Klietmann braked, falling back from the out-of-control cruiser.
The four-lane highway was elevated about ten feet above the desert floor, and the patrol car shot past the unguarded brink of the shoulder. It was airborne for a few seconds, then came down so hard that some of its tires no doubt blew out on impact. Two doors popped open, including that on the driver's side.
As Klietmann moved into the right lane and drove slowly by the wreckage, von Manstein said, “I can see him in there, slumped over the wheel. He's no more trouble to us.”
Oncoming drivers had witnessed the patrol car's spectacular flight. They pulled to the verge on their side of route 111. When Klietmann glanced in his rearview mirror, he saw people getting out of those vehicles, good Samaritans hurrying across the highway to the CHP officer's rescue. If some of them realized why the cruiser had crashed, they had decided not to pursue Klietmann and bring him to justice. Which was wise.
He accelerated again, glanced at the odometer, and said, “Three miles from here, that cop would've arrested the woman and boy. So be on the lookout for a black Buick. Three miles.”
Standing in the bright desert sun on the patch of barren shale near the Buick, Laura watched Stefan slip the strap of the Uzi over his right shoulder. The carbine hung freely and did not interfere with the backpack full of books.
“But now I wonder if I should take it,” he said. “If the nerve gas works as well as it ought to, I probably won't even need the pistol, let alone a submachine gun.”
“Take it,” Laura said grimly.
He nodded. “You're right. Who knows.”
“Too bad you don't have a couple of grenades too,” Chris said. “Grenades would be good.”
“Let's hope it doesn't get that nasty back there,” Stefan said.
He switched off the pistol's safeties and held it ready in his right hand. Gripping the canister of Vexxon by its heavy-duty, fire-extinguisher-type handle, he picked it up with his left hand and tested its weight to see how his injured shoulder would react.
“Hurts a little,” he said. “Pulls at the wound. But it's not bad, and I'll be able to control it.”
They had cut the wire on the canister's trigger, which allowed the manual venting of the Vexxon. He curled his finger through that release loop.
When he finished his work in 1944, he would make a final jaunt to their time again, 1989, and the plan was for him to arrive only five minutes after he departed. Now he said, “I'll see you very soon. You'll hardly know I'm gone.”
Suddenly Laura was afraid that he would never return. She put a hand to his face and kissed him on the cheek. “Good luck, Stefan.”
It was not a kiss that a lover might have given, nor was there even a promise of passion; it was just the affectionate kiss of a friend, the kiss of a woman who owed eternal gratitude but who did not owe her heart. She saw an awareness of that in his eyes. At the core, in spite of flashes of humor, he was a melancholy man, and she wished that she could make him happy. She regretted that she could not at least pretend to feel more for him; yet she knew he would see through any such pretense.
“I want you to come back,” she said. “I really do. Very much.”
“That's enough.” He looked at Chris and said, “Take care of your mother while I'm gone.”
“I'll try,” Chris said. "But she's pretty good at taking care of herself.''
Laura pulled her son to her side.
Stefan lifted the thirty-pound Vexxon cylinder higher, squeezed the release loop.
As the gas vented under high pressure with a sound like a dozen snakes hissing at once, Laura was seized by a brief panic, certain that the capsules they had taken would not protect them from the nerve toxin, that they would drop to the ground, twitching in the grip of muscle spasms and convulsions, where they would die in thirty seconds. Vexxon was colorless but not odorless or tasteless: even in the open air, where it dispersed quickly, she detected a sweet odor of apricots and a tart, nauseating taste that seemed half lemon juice and half spoiled milk. But in spite of what she could smell and taste, she felt no adverse effects.
Holding the pistol across his body, Stefan reached beneath his shirt with a free finger of his gun hand and pressed the button on the homing belt three times.
Von Manstein was the first to spot the black car standing in that expanse of white sand and pale rock, a few hundred yards east of the highway. He called it to their attention.
Of course, Lieutenant Klietmann could not see the make of the car from so far away, but he was sure it was the one for which they were searching. Three people stood together near the car; they were hardly more than stick figures at that distance, and they appeared to shimmer like mirages in the desert sun, but Klietmann could see that two of them were adults, the other a child.
Abruptly one of the adults vanished. It was not a trick of the desert air and light. The figure did not shimmer into view again a moment later. It was gone, and Klietmann knew that it had been Stefan Krieger.