She pushed away from the car against which she had been leaning, dashed toward the tan Ford. The stranger accelerated and sped out of the graveyard, leaving her alone in the sun until a moment later she heard a man speak behind her, “Laura?”
When she turned she could not see him at first. He called her name again, softly, and she spotted him fifteen feet away at the edge of the trees, standing in the purple shadows under an Indian laurel. He wore black slacks, a black shirt, and seemed out of place in this summer day.
Curious, perplexed, wondering if somehow this man was connected with her guardian angel, Laura started forward. She closed to within two steps of the new stranger before she realized that the disharmony between him and the bright, warm summer day was not solely a result of his black clothing; wintry darkness was an integral part of the man himself; a coldness seemed to come from within him, as if he had been born to dwell in polar regions or in the high caves of ice-bound mountains.
She stopped less than five feet from him.
He said no more but stared at her intently, with a look that seemed as much puzzlement as anything.
She saw a scar on his left cheek.
“Why you?” the wintry man asked, and he took a step forward, reaching for her.
Laura stumbled backward, suddenly too scared to cry out.
From the middle of the copse of trees, Cora Lance called, “Laura? Are you all right, Laura?”
The stranger reacted to the nearness of Cora's voice, turned, and moved away through the laurels, his black-clad body disappearing quickly in the shadows, as if he had not been a real man at all but a bit of darkness briefly come to life.
Five days after the funeral, on Tuesday the twenty-ninth of July, Laura was back in her own room above the grocery store for the first time in a week. She was packing and saying goodbye to the place that had been home to her for as long as she could recall.
Pausing to rest, she sat on the edge of the rumpled bed, trying to remember how secure and happy she had been in that room only days ago. A hundred paperback books, mostly dog and horse stories, were shelved in one corner. Fifty miniature dogs and cats-glass, brass, porcelain, pewter-filled the shelves above the headboard of her bed.
She had no pets, for the health code prohibited animals in an apartment above a grocery. Some day she hoped to have a dog, perhaps even a horse. But more importantly she might be a veterinarian when she grew up, a healer of sick and injured animals.
Her father had said she could be anything: a vet, a lawyer, a movie star, anything. “You can be a moose herder if you want, or a ballerina on a pogo stick. Nothing can stop you.”
Laura smiled, remembering how her father had imitated a ballerina on a pogo stick. But she also remembered he was gone, and a dreadful emptiness opened in her.
She cleaned out the closet, carefully folded her clothes, and filled two large suitcases. She had a steamer trunk as well, into which she packed her favorite books, a few games, a teddy bear.
Cora and Tom Lance were taking an inventory of the contents of the rest of the small apartment and of the grocery store downstairs. Laura was going to stay with them, though she was not yet clear as to whether the arrangement was permanent or temporary.
Made nervous and fretful by thoughts of her uncertain future, Laura returned to her packing. She pulled open the drawer in the nearest of the two nightstands and froze at the sight of the elfin boots, tiny umbrella, and four-inch-long neck scarf that her father had acquired as proof that Sir Tommy Toad indeed rented quarters from them.
He had persuaded one of his friends, a skilled leatherworker, to make the boots, which were wide and shaped to accommodate webbed feet. He had obtained the umbrella from a shop that sold miniatures, and he had made the green-plaid scarf himself, laboriously fashioning fringe for the ends of it. On her ninth birthday, when she came home from school, the boots and umbrella were standing against the wall just inside the apartment door, and the scrap of scarf was hung carefully on the coatrack. “Sssshh,” her father whispered dramatically. “Sir Tommy has just returned from an arduous trip to Ecuador on the queen's business -she owns a diamond farm there, you know-and he's exhausted. I'm sure he'll sleep for days. However, he told me to wish you a very happy birthday, and he left a gift in the yard out back.” The gift had been a new Schwinn bicycle.
Now, staring at the three items in the nightstand drawer, Laura realized that her father had not died alone. With him had gone Sir Tommy Toad, the many other characters he had created, and the silly but wonderful fantasies with which he'd entertained her. The webbed-foot boots, the tiny umbrella, and the little scarf looked so sweet and pathetic; she could almost believe that Sir Tommy, in fact, had been real and that he was now gone to a better world of his own. A low, miserable groan escaped her. She fell onto the bed and buried her face in the pillows, muffling her agonized sobs, and for the first time since her father's death she finally let her grief overwhelm her.
She did not want to live without him, yet she must not only live but prosper because every day of her life would be a testament to him. Even as young as she was, she understood that by living well and being a good person, she would make it possible for her father to go on living in some small way through her.
But facing the future with optimism and finding happiness was going to be hard. She now knew that life was frighteningly subject to tragedy and change, blue and warm one moment, cold and stormy the next, so you never knew when a bolt of lightning might strike someone you cared about. Nothing lasts forever. Life is a candle in the wind. That was a hard lesson for a girl her age, and it made her feel old, very old, ancient.
When the flood of warm tears abated, she did not take long to collect herself, for she did not want the Lances to discover that she had been crying. If the world was hard and cruel and unpredictable, then it did not seem wise to show the slightest weakness.
She carefully wrapped the webbed-foot boots, umbrella, and little scarf in tissue paper. She tucked them away in the steamer trunk.
When she had disposed of the contents of both nightstands, she went to her desk to clean that out as well, and on the felt blotter she found a folded sheet of tablet paper with a message for her in clear, elegant, almost machine-neat handwriting.
Some things are meant to be, and no one can prevent them. Not even your special guardian. Be content with the knowledge that your father loved you with all his heart in a way that few people are ever lucky enough to be loved. Though you think now that you will never be happy again, you are wrong. In time happiness will come to you. This is not an empty promise. This is a fact.
The note was unsigned, but she knew who must have written it: the man who had been at the cemetery, who had studied her from the passing car, who years ago saved her and her father from being shot. No one else could call himself her special guardian. A tremor swept through her not because she was afraid but because the strangeness and the mystery of her guardian filled her with curiosity and wonder.
She hurried to the bedroom window and pushed aside the sheer curtain that hung between the drapes, certain that she would see him standing in the street, watching the store, but he was not there.
The man in dark clothing was not there, either, but she had not expected to see him. She had half convinced herself that the other stranger was unrelated to her guardian, that he had been in the cemetery for some other reason. He had known her name . . . but perhaps he had heard Cora calling her earlier, from the top of the graveyard hill. She was able to put him out of her mind because she did not want him to be part of her life, not as she so desperately wanted to have a special guardian.
She read the message again.
Although she did not understand who the blond man was or why he had taken an interest in her, Laura was reassured by the note he had left. Understanding wasn't always necessary, as long as you believed.
The following night, after he had planted explosives in the attic of the institute, Stefan returned with the same suitcase, claiming he had insomnia again. Anticipating the post-midnight visit, Viktor had brought half of one of his wife's cakes as a gift.
Stefan nibbled at the cake while he shaped and placed the plastic explosives. The enormous basement was divided into two rooms, and unlike the attic it was used daily by employees. He would have to conceal the charges and wires with considerable care.
The first chamber contained research files and a pair of long, oak worktables. The file cabinets were six feet tall and stood in banks along two of the walls. He was able to place the explosives atop the cabinets, tucking them toward the back, against the walls, where not even the tallest man on the staff could see them.
He strung the wires behind the cabinets, though he was forced to drill a small hole in the partition between halves of the cellar in order to continue that detonation line into the next chamber. He managed to put the hole in an inconspicuous place, and the wires were visible only for a couple of inches on either side of the partition.
The second room was used for storage of office and lab supplies and to cage the score of animals-several hamsters, a few white rats, two dogs, one energetic monkey in a big cage with three bars to swing on-that had participated in (and survived) the institute's early experiments. Though the animals were of no more use, they were kept in order to learn if over the long term they developed unforeseen medical problems that could be related to their singular adventures.
Stefan molded powerful charges of plastique into hollow spaces toward the back of the stacked supplies and brought all of the wires to the screened ventilation chase down which he had dropped the attic wires the previous night, and as he worked, he felt the animals watching with unusual intensity, as if they knew they had less than twenty-four hours to live. His cheeks flushed with guilt, which strangely he had failed to feel when contemplating the deaths of the men who worked in the institute, perhaps because the animals were innocent and the men were not.
By four o'clock in the morning, Stefan had finished both the job in the basement and the work he had to do in his office on the third floor. Before leaving the institute, he went to the main lab on the ground floor and for a minute stared at the gate.
The scores of dials and gauges and graphs in the gate's support machinery all glowed softly orange, yellow, or green, for the power to it was never turned off. The thing was cylindrical, twelve feet long and eight feet in diameter, barely visible in the dim light; its stainless-steel outer skin gleamed with faint reflections of the spots of light in the machinery that lined three of the room's walls.
He had used the gate scores of times, but he was still in awe of it-not so much because it was an astonishing scientific breakthrough but because its potential for evil was unlimited. It was not a gate to hell, but in the hands of the wrong men, it might as well have been just that. And it was indeed in the hands of the wrong men.
After thanking Viktor for the cake and claiming to have eaten all that he had been given-though in fact he fed the larger part of it to the animals-Stefan drove back to his apartment.
For the second night in a row, a storm raged. Rain slashed out of the northwest. Water foamed out of downspouts into nearby drains, drizzled off roofs, puddled in the streets, and overflowed gutters, and because the city was almost entirely dark, the pools and streams looked more like oil than water. Only a few military personnel were out, and they all wore dark slickers that made them look as if they were creatures from an old Gothic novel by Bram
Stefan took a direct route home, making no effort to skirt the known police inspection stations. His papers were in order; his exemption from curfew was current; and he was no longer transporting illegally obtained explosives.
In his apartment he set the alarm on the large bedside clock and fell almost immediately to sleep. He desperately needed his rest because, in the afternoon to come, there would be two arduous journeys and much killing. If he was not fully alert, he might find himself on the wrong end of a bullet.
His dreams were of Laura, which he interpreted as a good omen.
THE ENDURING FLAME
Laura Shane was swept from her twelfth through her seventeenth years as if she were a tumbleweed blown across the California deserts, coming to rest briefly here and there in becalmed moments, torn loose and sent rolling again as soon as the wind gusted.
She had no relatives, and she could not stay with her father's best friends, the Lances. Tom was sixty-two, and Cora was fifty-seven, and though married thirty-five years, they had no children. The prospect of raising a young girl daunted them.
Laura understood and bore no grudge against them. On the day in August when she left the Lance house in the company of a woman from the Orange County Child Welfare Agency, Laura kissed both Cora and Tom and assured them that she would be fine. Riding away in the social worker's car, she waved gaily, hoping they felt absolved.
Absolved. That word was a recent acquisition. Absolved: freed from the consequences of one's actions; to set free or release from some duty, obligation, or responsibility. She wished that she could grant herself absolution from the obligation to make her way in the world without the guidance of a loving father, absolution from the responsibility to live and carry on his memory.
From the Lances' house she was conveyed to a child shelter-the McIlroy Home-an old, rambling, twenty-seven-room Victorian mansion built by a produce magnate in the days of Orange County's agricultural glory. Later it had been converted to a dormitory where children in public custody were housed temporarily between foster homes.
That institution was unlike any she had read about in fiction. For one thing, it lacked kindly nuns in flowing black habits.
And there was Willy Sheener.
Laura first noticed him shortly after arriving at the home, while a social worker, Mrs. Bowmaine, was showing her to the room she would share with-she had been told-the Ackerson twins and a girl named Tammy. Sheener was sweeping a tile-floored hallway with a pushbroom.
He was strong, wiry, pale, freckled, about thirty, with hair the color of a new copper penny and green eyes. He smiled and whistled softly while he worked. “How're you this morning, Mrs. Bowmaine?”
“Right as rain, Willy.” She clearly liked Sheener. “This is Laura Shane, a new girl. Laura, this is Mr. Sheener.”
Sheener stared at Laura with a creepy intensity. When he managed to speak, the words were thick, “Uhhh . . . welcome to McIlroy.”
Following the social worker, Laura glanced back at Sheener. With no one but Laura to see, he lowered one hand to his crotch and lazily massaged himself. Laura did not look at him again.
Later, as she was unpacking her meager belongings, trying to make her quarter of the third-floor bedroom more like home, she turned and saw Sheener in the doorway. She was alone, for the other kids were at play in the backyard or the game room. His smile was different from the one with which he'd favored Mrs. Bowmaine: predatory, cold. Light from one of the two small windows fell across the doorway and met his eyes at such an angle as to make them appear silver instead of green, like the cataract-filmed eyes of a dead man.