She looked up at him, then went right back to work on the handle of the extinguisher.
Klietmann edged along the narrow arroyo, which was now not even wide enough for two men to walk abreast. He would not have gone any closer to her except that he could not see the boy. If she had tucked the boy in some crevice along the way, he would have to force her to reveal the child's whereabouts, for his orders were to kill them all-Krieger and the woman and the boy. He did not think the boy could be a danger to the Reich, but he was not one to question orders.
Stefan found a discarded pair of shoes and a tangled pair of black socks caked with sand. Earlier he had found a pair of sunglasses.
He had never before pursued a man who had undressed during a chase, and at first there seemed to be something funny about it. But then he thought of the world portrayed in the novels of Laura Shane, a world in which comedy and terror were intermingled, a world in which tragedy frequently struck in the middle of a laugh, and suddenly the discarded shoes and socks scared him because they were funny; he had the crazy idea that if he laughed, that would be the catalyst of Laura and Chris's deaths.
And if they died this time, he would not be able to save them by going back in time and sending them another message sooner than the one he had sent in the bottle, for the remaining window for such a feat was only five seconds. Even with an IBM PC, he could not split a hair that fine.
In the silt, the prints of the barefoot man led away to the mouth of a tributary. Although the pain in Stefan's half-healed shoulder had wrung sweat from him and left him dizzy, he followed that trail as Robinson Crusoe had followed Friday but with more dread.
With growing despair Laura watched the Nazi assassin approach through the shadows along the earthen corridor. His Uzi was trained on her, but for some reason he did not immediately blow her away. She used that inexplicable period of grace to saw relentlessly at the safety wires on the trigger of the Vexxon canister,
Even in those circumstances she held on to hope, largely because of a line from one of her own novels that had come back to her just a moment ago: In tragedy and despair, when an endless night seems to have fallen, hope can be found in the realization that the companion of night is not another night, that the companion of night is day, that darkness always gives way to light, and that death rules only half of creation, life the other half.
Only twenty feet away now, the killer said, “Where is the boy? The boy. Where is the boy?”
She felt Chris against her back, curled in the shadows between her and the wall of the cul-de-sac. She wondered if her body would protect him from the bullets and that if, after killing her, this man would leave without realizing that Chris lived in the dark niche at her back.
The timer on the cylinder clicked. Nerve gas erupted from the nozzle with the rich odor of apricots and the disgusting taste of lemon juice mixed with sour milk.
Klietmann could see nothing escaping the canister, but he could hear it: like a hissing score of serpents.
An instant later he felt as if someone had shoved a hand through his midsection, had seized his stomach in a viselike grip, and had torn that organ loose of him. He doubled over, vomiting explosively on the ground and on his bare feet. With a painful flash that seared the backs of his eyes, something seemed to burst in his sinuses, and blood gushed from his nose. As he fell to the floor of the arroyo, he reflexively triggered the Uzi; aware that he was dying and losing all control of himself in the process, he tried as a last effort of will to fall on his side, facing the woman, so the final burst from the submachine gun would take her with him.
Soon after Stefan entered the narrowest of all the tributaries, where the walls seemed to tilt in above him instead of sloping away toward the sky, as they had in the other channels, he heard a long rattle of submachine-gun fire, very near, and he hurried forward. He stumbled a lot and bounced off the earthen walls, but he followed the crooked corridor into the cul-de-sac, where he saw the SS officer dead of Vexxon poisoning.
Beyond the corpse, Laura sat splay-legged, with the canister of nerve gas between her thighs, her bloodied hands hooked around it. Her head hung down, her chin on her breast; she looked as limp and lifeless as a doll made of rags.
“Laura, no,” he said in a voice that he hardly recognized as his own. “No, no.”
She raised her head and blinked at him, shuddered, and finally smiled weakly. Alive.
“Chris,” he said, stepping over the dead man. “Where's Chris?”
She pushed the still hissing canister of nerve gas away from her and moved to one side.
Chris looked out from the dark niche behind her and said, “Mr. Krieger, are you all right? You look like shit. Sorry, Mom, but he really does.”
For the first time in more than twenty years-or for the first time in more than sixty-five years if you wanted to count those over which he had jumped when he had come to live with Laura in her time-Stefan Krieger wept. He was surprised by his own tears, for he thought that his life under the Third Reich had left him incapable of weeping for anyone or anything ever again. More surprising still-these first tears in decades were tears of joy.
More than an hour later, when the police moved north from the site of the machine-gun attack on the CHP patrolman along route 111. when they found the bullet-riddled Toyota and saw blood on the sand and shale near the brink of the arroyo, when they saw the discarded Uzi, and when they saw Laura and Chris struggling out of the channel near the Buick with the Nissan plates, they expected to find the immediate area littered with bodies, and they were not disappointed. The first three were at the bottom of the nearby gulch, and the fourth was in a distant tributary to which the exhausted woman directed them.
In the days that followed she appeared to cooperate fully with local, state, and federal authorities-yet none of them was satisfied that she was telling the whole truth. The drug dealers who had killed her husband a year ago had finally sent hired killers after her. she said, for they had evidently been afraid that she would identify them. They had attacked with such force at her house near Big Bear and had been so relentless that she'd had to run, and she'd not gone to the police because she did not believe that the authorities could protect her and her son adequately. She had been on the move for fifteen days, ever since that submachine-gun assault on the night of January 10, the first anniversary of her husband's murder; in spite of every precaution she had taken, hitmen found her in Palm Springs, pursued her on route 111, forced her off the highway into the desert, and chased her on foot into the arroyos where she finally got the best of them.
That story-one woman wiping out four experienced hitmen, plus at least the one additional whose head had been found in the alley behind Brenkshaw's house-would have been unbelievable if she had not proved to be a superb marksman, the beneficiary of considerable martial-arts training, and the owner of an illegal arsenal the envy of some third-world countries. During interrogation to determine how she had obtained illegally modified Uzis and a nerve gas kept under lock and key by the army, she had said, “I write novels. It's part of my job to do a lot of research. I've learned how to find out anything I want to know, how to obtain anything I need.” Then she gave them Fat Jack, and the raid on his Pizza Party Palace turned up everything she had said it would.
“I don't hold it against her,” Fat Jack told the press at his arraignment. “She owes me nothing. None of us owes anybody nothing that we don't want to owe them. I'm an anarchist, I love broads like her. Besides, I won't go to prison. I'm too fat, I'd die, it'd be cruel and unusual punishment.”
She would not tell them the name of the man she had brought to Carter Brenkshaw's house in the early morning hours of January 11, the man whose bullet wounds the physician had treated. She would only say that he was a good friend who had been staying with her at the house near Big Bear when the hitmen had struck. He was, she insisted, an innocent bystander whose life would be wrecked if she involved him in this sordid affair, and she implied that he was a married man with whom she had been having an affair. He was recovering from the bullet wound quite well, and he had suffered enough.
The authorities pressed her hard on the issue of this nameless lover, but she would not budge, and they were limited in the pressures that they could apply to her, especially since she could afford the finest legal counsel in the country. They never believed the claim that the mystery man was her lover. Little investigation was required to learn that her husband, only one year deceased, had been unusually close to her and that she had not recovered from the loss of him sufficiently to convince anyone that she was able to conduct an affair in the shadow of Danny Packard's memory.
No, she could not explain why none of the dead hitmen carried identification or why they were all dressed identically, or why they had been without their own car and had been forced to steal one from two women at a church, or why they had panicked in downtown Palm Springs and killed a policeman there. The abdominal flesh on two of the bodies had borne the marks of what appeared to be tightly fitted trusses of some kind, yet neither had been wearing such a device, and she knew nothing of that, either. Who knew, she asked, what reasons men like that had for their antisocial actions? That was a mystery that the finest criminologists and sociologists could not adequately explain. And if all those experts could not begin to shed light on the deepest and truest reasons for such sociopathic behavior, how could she be expected to provide an answer to the more mundane but also more bizarre mystery of the disappearing trusses? Confronted by the woman whose Toyota had been stolen and who claimed that the hitmen had been angels, Laura Shane listened with evident interest, even fascination, but subsequently inquired of the police if they were going to subject her to the cuckoo fantasies of every nut who took an interest in her case.
She was granite.
She was iron.
She was steel.
She could not be broken. The authorities hammered at her as relentlessly and with as much force as the god Thor had wielded his hammer Mjollnir but with no effect. After several days they were angry with her. After several weeks they were furious. After three months they loathed her and wanted to punish her for not shivering in awe of their power. In six months they were weary. In ten months they were bored. In a year they forced themselves to forget her.
In the meantime, of course, they had seen her son, Chris, as the weak link. They had not pounded at him as they had at her, choosing instead to use false affection, guile, trickery, and deceit to lure the boy into making the revelations that his mother refused to make. But when they questioned him about the missing, wounded man, he told them all about Indiana Jones and Luke Sky walker and Han Solo instead. When they tried to pry from him a few details about the events in the arroyos, he told them all about Sir Tommy Toad, servant of the queen, who rented quarters in his house. When they sought to elicit at least a hint of where his mother and he had hidden out-and what they had done-in the sixteen days between January 10 and 25, the boy said, “I slept through it all, I was in a coma, I think I had malaria or maybe even Mars fever, see, and now I got amnesia like Wile E. Coyote got that one time when the Road Runner tricked him into dropping a boulder on his own head.” Eventually, frustrated with their inability to get the point, he said, “This is family stuff, see. Don't you know about family stuff? I can only talk with my mom about this stuff, and it's nobody else's business. If you start talking family stuff with strangers, pretty soon where do you go when you want to go home?”
To complicate matters for the authorities, Laura Shane publicly apologized to everyone whose property she had appropriated or damaged during the course of her attempts to escape from the hired killers who had been sent after her. To the family whose Buick she had stolen, she gave a new Cadillac. To the man whose Nissan plates she had taken, she gave a new Nissan. In every case she made restitution to excess and won friends at every hand.
Her old books went back to press repeatedly, and some of them reappeared on paperback bestseller lists now, years after their original successes. Major film studios bid competitively for the few movie rights to her books that had remained unsold. Rumors, perhaps encouraged by her own agent but very likely true, circulated to the effect that publishers were standing six deep for a chance to pay her a record advance for her next novel.
During that year Stefan Krieger missed Laura and Chris terribly, but life at the Gaines's mansion in Beverly Hills was not a hardship. The accommodations were superb; the food was delicious: Jason enjoyed teaching him how film could be manipulated in his home editing studio; and Thelma was unfailingly amusing.
“Listen, Krieger,” she said one summer day by the pool. “Maybe you would rather be with them, maybe you're getting tired of hiding here, but consider the alternative. You could be stuck back there in your own age, when there weren't plastic garbage bags, Pop Tarts, Day-Glo underwear, Thelma Ackerson movies, or reruns of Gilligan's Island. Count your blessings, that you should find yourself in this enlightened era.”
“It's just that . . .” He stared for a while at the spangles of sunlight on the chlorine-scented water. “Well, I'm afraid that during this year of separation, I'm losing any slim chance I might have had to win her.”
“You can't win her, anyway, Herr Krieger. She's not a set of cereal containers raffled off at a Tupperware party. A woman like Laura can't be won. She decides when she wants to give herself, and that's that.”
“You're not very encouraging.”
“Being encouraging is not my job-”
“-is comedy. Although with my devastating looks, I'd probably be just as successful as a traveling slut--at least in really remote logging camps.”
At Christmas Laura and Chris came to stay at the Gaines's house, and her gift to Stefan was a new identity. Although rather closely monitored by various authorities for the better part of the year, she had managed through surrogates to obtain a driver's license, social security card, credit cards, and a passport in the name of Steven Krieger.
She presented them to him on Christmas morning, wrapped in a box from Neiman-Marcus. “All the documents are valid. In Endless River, two of my characters are on the run, in need of new identities-”
“Yes,” Stefan said, “I read it. Three times.”
“The same book three times?” Jason said. They were all sitting around the Christmas tree, eating junk food and drinking cocoa, and Jason was in his cheeriest mood of the year. “Laura, beware this man. He sounds like an obsessive-compulsive to me.”