The guard closed the metal door. The lock bolt clanked shut automatically.
Alone in the hallway Stefan thought, not for the first time, that he was fortunate in his appearance: blond, strong-featured, blue-eyed. His looks partly explained why he could brazenly carry explosives into the institute without expecting to be searched. Nothing about him was dark, sly, or suspect; he was the ideal, angelic when he smiled, and his devotion to country would never be questioned by men like Viktor, men whose blind obedience to the state and whose beery, sentimental patriotism prevented them from thinking clearly about a lot of things. A lot of things.
He rode the elevator to the third floor and went directly to his office where he turned on a brass, gooseneck lamp. After removing his rubber boots and trenchcoat, he selected a manila folder from the file cabinet and arranged its contents across the desk to create a convincing impression that work was underway. In the unlikely event that another staff member decided to put in an appearance in the heart of the night, as much as possible must be done to allay suspicion.
Carrying the suitcase and a flashlight that he had taken from an inner pocket of his trenchcoat, he climbed the stairs past the fourth floor and ascended all the way to the attic. The flashlight revealed huge timbers from which a few misdriven nails bristled here and there. Though the attic had a rough wood floor, it was not used for storage and was empty of all but a film of gray dust and spiderwebs. The space under the highly pitched slate roof was sufficient to allow him to stand erect along the center of the building, though he would have to drop to his hands and knees when he worked closer to the eaves.
With the roof only inches away, the steady roar of the rain was as thunderous as the flight of an endless fleet of bombers crossing low overhead. That image came to mind perhaps because he believed that exactly such ruination would be the inevitable fate of his city.
He opened the suitcase. Working with the speed and confidence of a demolitions expert, he placed the bricks of plastic explosives and shaped each charge to direct the power of the explosion downward and inward. The blast must not merely blow the roof off but pulverize the middle floors and bring the heavy roof slates and timbers crashing down through the debris to cause further destruction. He secreted the plastique among the rafters and in the corners of the long room, even pried up a couple of floorboards and left explosives under them.
Outside, the storm briefly abated. But soon more ominous peals of thunder rolled across the night, and the rain returned, falling harder than before. The long-delayed wind arrived, too, keening along the gutters and moaning under the eaves; its strange, hollow voice seemed simultaneously to threaten and mourn the city.
Chilled by the unheated attic air, he conducted his delicate work with increasingly tremulous hands. Though shivering, he broke out in a sweat.
He inserted a detonator in every charge and strung wire from all the charges to the northwest corner of the attic. He braided them to a single copper line and dropped it down a ventilation chase that went all the way to the basement.
The charges and wire were as well concealed as possible and would not be spotted by someone who merely opened the attic door for a quick look. But on closer inspection or if the space was needed for storage, the wires and molded plastique surely would be noticed.
He needed twenty-four hours during which no one would go into the attic. That wasn't much to ask, considering that he was the only one who had visited the institute's garret in months.
Tomorrow night he would return with a second suitcase and plant charges in the basement. Crushing the building between simultaneous explosions above and below was the only way to be certain of reducing it-and its contents-to splinters, gravel, and twisted scraps. After the blast and accompanying fire, no files must remain to rekindle the dangerous research now conducted there.
The great quantity of explosives, although carefully placed and shaped, would damage structures on all sides of the institute, and he was afraid that other people, some of them no doubt innocent, would be killed in the blast. Those deaths could not be avoided. He dared not use less plastique, for if every file and every duplicate of every file throughout the institute were not utterly destroyed, the project might be quickly relaunched. And this was a project that must be brought to an end swiftly, for the hope of all mankind hinged on its destruction. If innocent people perished, he would just have to live with the guilt.
In two hours, at a few minutes past three o'clock, he finished his work in the attic.
He returned to his office on the third floor and sat for a while behind his desk. He did not want to leave until his sweat-soaked hair had dried and he had stopped trembling, for Viktor might notice.
He closed his eyes. In his mind he summoned Laura's face. He could always calm himself with thoughts of her. The mere fact of her existence brought him peace and greater courage.
Bob Shane's friends did not want Laura to attend her father's funeral. They believed that a twelve-year-old girl ought to be spared such a grim ordeal. She insisted, however, and when she wanted anything as badly as she wanted to say one last goodbye to her father, no one could thwart her.
That Thursday, July 24, 1967, was the worst day of her life, even more distressing than the preceding Tuesday when her father had died. Some of the anesthetizing shock had worn off, and Laura no longer felt numb; her emotions were closer to the surface and less easily controlled. She was beginning to realize fully how much she had lost.
She chose a dark blue dress because she did not own a black one. She wore black shoes and dark blue socks, and she worried about the socks because they made her feel childish, frivolous. Having never worn nylons, however, she didn't think it a good idea to don them for the first time at the funeral. She expected her father to look down from heaven during the service, and she intended to be just the way he remembered her. If he saw her in nylons, a changeling striving awkwardly to be grown up, he might be embarrassed for her.
At the funeral home she sat in the front row between Cora Lance, who owned a beauty shop half a block from Shane's Grocery, and Anita Passadopolis, who had done charity work with Bob at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. Both were in their late fifties, grandmotherly types who touched Laura reassuringly and watched her with concern.
They did not need to worry about her. She would not cry, become hysterical, or tear out her hair. She understood death. Everyone had to die. People died, dogs died, cats died, birds died, flowers died. Even the ancient redwood trees died sooner or later, though they lived twenty or thirty times longer than a person, which didn't seem right. On the other hand, living a thousand years as a tree would be a lot duller than living just forty-two years as a happy human being. Her father had been forty-two when his heart failed-bang, a sudden attack-which was too young. But that was the way of the world, and crying about it was pointless. Laura prided herself on her sensibleness.
Besides, death was not the end of a person. Death was actually only the beginning. Another and better life followed. She knew that must be true because her father had told her so, and her father never lied. Her father was the most truthful man, and kind, and sweet.
As the minister approached the lectern to the left of the casket, Cora Lance leaned close to Laura. “Are you okay, dear?”
“Yes. I'm fine,” she said, but she did not look at Cora. She dared not meet anyone's eyes, so she studied inanimate things with great interest.
This was the first funeral home she had ever entered, and she did not like it. The burgundy carpet was ridiculously thick. The drapes and upholstered chairs were burgundy, too, with only minimal gold trim, and the lamps had burgundy shades, so all the rooms appeared to have been decorated by an obsessed interior designer with a burgundy fetish.
Fetish was a new word for her. She used it too much, just as she always overused a new word, but in this case it was appropriate.
Last month, when she'd first heard the lovely word “sequestered,” meaning “secluded or isolated,” she had used it at every opportunity, until her father had begun to tease her with silly variations: “Hey, how's my little sequestrian this morning?” he would say, or “Potato chips are a high turnover item, so we'll shift them into the first aisle, closer to the register, 'cause the corner they're in now is sort of sequesteriacious.” He enjoyed making her giggle. as with his tales of Sir Tommy Toad, a British amphibian he had invented when she was eight years old and whose comic biography he embellished nearly every day. In some ways her father had been more of a child than she was, and she had loved him for that.
Her lower lip trembled. She bit it. Hard. If she cried, she'd be doubting what her father had always told her about the next life, the better life. By crying she would be pronouncing him dead, dead for once and all, forever, finito.
She longed to be sequestered in her room above the grocery, in bed, the covers pulled over her head. That idea was so appealing, she figured she could easily develop a fetish for sequestering herself.
From the funeral home they went to the cemetery.
The graveyard had no headstones. The plots were marked by bronze plaques on marble bases set flush with the ground. The rolling green lawns, shaded by huge Indian laurels and smaller magnolias, might have been mistaken for a park, a place to play games and run and laugh-if not for the open grave over which Bob Shane's casket was suspended.
Last night she'd awakened twice to the sound of distant thunder, and though half asleep she had thought she'd seen lightning flickering at the windows, but if unseasonal storms had passed through during the darkness, there was no sign of them now. The day was blue, cloudless.
Laura stood between Cora and Anita, who touched her and murmured reassurances, but she was not comforted by anything they did or said. The bleak chill in her deepened with each word of the minister's final prayer, until she felt as if she were standing unclothed in an arctic winter instead of in the shade of a tree on a hot, windless July morning.
The funeral director activated the motorized sling on which the casket was suspended. Bob Shane's body was lowered into the earth.
Unable to watch the slow descent of the casket, having difficulty drawing breath, Laura turned away, slipped out from under the caring hands of her two honorary grandmothers, and took a few steps across the cemetery. She was as cold as marble; she needed to escape the shade. She stopped as soon as she reached sunlight, which felt warm on her skin but which failed to relieve her chills.
She stared down the long, gentle hill for perhaps a minute before she saw the man standing at the far end of the cemetery in shadows at the edge of a large grove of laurels. He was wearing light tan slacks and a white shirt that appeared faintly luminous in that gloom, as if he were a ghost who had forsaken his usual night haunts for daylight. He was watching her and the other mourners around Bob Shane's grave near the top of the slope. At that distance Laura could not see his face clearly, but she could discern that he was tall and strong and blond-and disturbingly familiar.
The observer intrigued her, though she did not know why. As if spellbound, she descended the hill, stepping between and across "he graves. The nearer she drew to the blond, the more familiar he looked. At first he did not react to her approach, but she knew he was studying her intently; she could feel the weight of his gaze.
Cora and Anita called to her, but she ignored them. Seized by an inexplicable excitement, she walked faster, now only a hundred feet from the stranger.
The man retreated into the false twilight among the trees.
Afraid that he would slip away before she had gotten a good look at him-yet not certain why seeing him more clearly was so important-Laura ran. The soles of her new black shoes were slippery and several times she nearly fell. At the place where he had been standing, the grass was tramped flat, so he was no ghost.
Laura saw a flicker of movement among the trees, the spectral of his shirt. She hurried after him. Only sparse, pale grass under the laurels, beyond the reach of the sun. However, surface roots and treacherous shadows sprouted everywhere. She stumbled, grabbed the trunk of a tree to avoid a bad fall, regained her balance, looked up-and discovered that the man had vanished.
The grove was comprised of perhaps a hundred trees. The branches were densely interlaced, allowing sunlight through only in thin golden threads, as if the fabric of the sky had begun unraveling into the woods. She hurried forward, squinting at the darkness. Half a dozen times she thought she saw him, but it was always phantom movement, a trick of light or of her own mind. When a breeze sprang up, she was certain she heard his furtive footsteps in the masking rustle of the leaves, but when she pursued the crisp its source eluded her.
After a couple of minutes she came out of the trees to a road that served another section of the sprawling cemetery. Cars were parked along the verge, sparkling in the brightness, and a hundred yards away was a group of mourners at another graveside service.
Laura stood at the edge of the lane, breathing hard, wondering where the man in the white shirt had gone and why she had been compelled to chase him.
The blazing sun, the cessation of the short-lived breeze, and the return of perfect silence to the cemetery made her uneasy. The sun seemed to pass through her as if she were transparent, and she was strangely light, almost weightless, and mildly dizzy too: She felt as if she were in a dream, floating an inch above an unreal landscape.
I'm going to pass out, she thought.
She put one hand against the front fender of a parked car and gritted her teeth, struggling to hold on to consciousness.
Though she was only twelve she did not often think or act like a child, and she never felt like a child-not until that moment in the cemetery when suddenly she felt very young, weak, and helpless.
A tan Ford came slowly along the road, slowing even further as it drew near her. Behind the wheel was the man in the white shirt.
The moment she saw him, she knew why he'd seemed familiar. Four years ago. The robbery. Her guardian angel. Although she had been just eight years old at the time, she would never forget his face.
He brought the Ford almost to a halt and drifted by her slowly, scrutinizing her as he passed. They were just a few feet apart.
Through the open window of his car, every detail of his handsome face was as clear as on that terrible day when she had first seen him in the store. His eyes were as brilliantly blue and riveting as she had remembered. When their gazes locked, she shuddered.
He said nothing, did not smile, but studied her intently, as if trying to fix every detail of her appearance in his mind. He stared at her the way a man might stare at a tall glass of cool water after crossing a desert. His silence and unwavering gaze frightened Laura but also filled her with an inexplicable sense of security.
The car was rolling past her. She shouted, “Wait!”