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...11:24 P.M., PST...

Three shots, sounding like atom bombs in this enclosure, stuffed up his ears tight. He got the gun inside, the barrel pointing away, and reset the safety. He couldn't get the Browning out of his belt. He could turn the radio on, but he couldn't bend his arms enough to get it near his head. He had to leave it between his arms and inch forward to it.

Then work the volume control with his lips.

"Are you all right?" the voice asked. "What was that shooting?"

If he kept quiet, they might believe he was dead, a suicide or the victim of a gun accident. All they had to do was find the nerve to climb the metal ladder outside the elevator tower. Faced with that prospect, they might conclude that it was another trick to get them to expose themselves.

On the other hand, he couldn't be sure of how those on the fortieth floor had heard the shots. For all he knew, they had his position and were on their way. He had to get moving.

He was facing the wrong way. Even if he could see anything at all, he wouldn't be able to see where he was going. He wouldn't be able to see past his own body. He could be backing right into them.

He started pushing his way into the shaft, hauling the equipment after him, moving six inches, nine, sometimes twelve. He had to go fast. He was making noise, but not much; he had to take the chance that there was enough insulation between him and them to mask what they could hear.

There was no way to measure the distance he was traveling. His claustrophobia was almost as bad as his fear of falling, he was beginning to see. Again, he had to keep his head clear. He wondered if there was some way at all to get an accurate count of the members of the gang. He had to forget his fear and concentrate on what was going on here. If they still thought he was up in the elevator tower, it was as good as a new lease on life. He would be able to roam the building at will. He could change his tactics, stop killing, and start counting. As long as they thought that he was out of action, he could send a signal as many as he pleased.

He came to the end. He couldn't have traveled twenty feet. Something was wrong.

He tried to look around over his shoulder, but it was impossible. No sign of light. The metal grating was cold against his bare feet, and thicker than he would have thought thicker than such things looked from the other side. He pushed. The thing was really screwed on tightly. The room on the other side would be very close to the north end of the building, which the gang found so important. He pushed again, hard enough for the grating to cut into his skin. He braced himself and pushed harder still, and now he felt one corner part from the wall. He got the soles of his feet in the corner above, and pushed as hard as he could. It was open.

He knew what was wrong as soon as he had his feet down. Tar paper. He had made a mistake. He had figured the distance down the shaft wrong. He was still on the roof.

He drew the equipment out of the shaft quietly. Staying low, he reassembled the kit bag and strap, put on the harness, and put the Browning in the holster. The bleeding from the top of his head had stopped, or slowed, and he was covered with black dust from the inside of the shaft. A few hours ago, he'd been a gentleman in a limousine; now he looked like a circus geek, the guy who bit the heads off live chickens in the sideshow.

He smiled.

He left the submachine gun at the ventilator opening. The roof was covered with pipes and ducts, and he needed his balance getting around to the south side. This time he was going to get a message out, but he couldn't risk it until the roof was cleared. He wanted another one of them, anyway. Going down the shaft had done it, or running for his life earlier, or maybe it was having to control his claustrophobia in that little duct. It had left him feeling humiliated. Degraded.

But he was glad to be alive. And he wanted to do something to make sure he stayed that way.

The weather had changed. The sky was breaking over the hills, a warm breeze was picking up. He could see snowcapped mountains rising above the downtown highrises. The mountains were forty miles away, he knew Stephanie said that the geography of Los Angeles was the most beautiful in the world, and she was probably right.

Admire the scenery later, kiddo.He kept low, moving around the elevator tower to the position he thought someone would take to watch the door above. Up here, in the darkness, dirty as he was, he was hard to see. Wonderful. Terrific.

Now his eyes picked up the guy. He was sitting on some kind of aluminum box. Leland took out the Browning, released the safety, stood up, and started walking toward him. It was a moment before the guy looked up, a skinny little guy with wild, wiry sideburns, and for a split second he had that look on his face that said he didn't know what he was seeing, but by then Leland had the Browning pressed into the lapel of his fatigues, the way Little Tony had done with Rivers. The guy's eyes were wide open. Blue eyes.

"You speak English?"

"Yes."

"What the hell are you sons of bitches up to?"

He hesitated, his eyes brightening. He wanted to be smart. He was going to start arguing, or give a speech.

"No time for that bullshit," Leland said, and pulled the trigger. The little man crashed back on the aluminum box. He let out some air and lay still, staring up. "That's two," Leland said. He got out the radio and sent the message on channel nine, the so-called emergency channel, keeping his eye on the door to the stairs into the building. He put the radio back in the kit bag and picked up the weapon in the kid's lap. He was a kid, too, even younger than the first. The gun was a Czech assault rifle, fully automatic. Leland decided to stay with what he had. Maybe the guy had candy bars, too. He didn't have a bag, and Leland was not going to go through his pockets.

The hell he wasn't.

A Mars bar. Leland had always liked them.

He put the gun out of sight behind the box and grabbed the guy's wrist and pulled him up to a sitting position. He had to grab his collar to keep him from falling over.

"When you see what's coming, Skeezix, you're going to be glad you're dead."

Leland slung him over his shoulder and lugged him around to Wilshire Boulevard. The frame for the lighted Klaxon sign extended outward almost a yard, but it also provided Leland with a place to park the body while he caught his breath. He was not going to do any more lifting. After this, though, he wasn't going to have to do anything to get attention, either. He pushed the body over the side.

"Geronimo, motherfucker."

He had to know where it landed. Jouncing him across the roof had pumped the guy's blood all over Leland's chest and back. He had to be sure people could see the body. Leland got his head beyond the sign just as the body struck the steps and rolled toward the street, distorted and twisted as if all the bones were broken. Leland had thought he was too high to hear anything, but the sound came up, loud, an awful, wet, crackling sound. Leland knew at once he was going to be sick. He was back on the roof when he thought of MacIver and all the others who had done that to themselves. They had heard that sound. Leland was able to bend over before the airline dinner Kathi Logan had served him came flying up again.

He spat and wiped his chin on his sleeve. Now to retrieve the Thompson.

He was going to try it one more time. It was the last thing they were expecting. He was careful working his way down from the roof, then around on the fortieth floor to the corridor beyond the library but he was not slow, either, going purposefully down the thickly carpeted corridor, stepping over Rivers and Number One. He could hear someone working in the board room. He stopped at the left side of the door and set himself, took his deep breaths, and turned into the doorway.

It was a girl! She was wearing fatigues and a cap, but there was nothing else tough or warriorlike about her. Her eyes dropped from Leland to the automatic weapon on the table. She hesitated, then she lunged for it.

"Don't do it!"

She actually stopped but then she looked up at him and went on, flinging herself onto the table and getting her hands on the weapon. Leland squeezed off a burst that hit her in the head and chest and blew her off the table and back against the wall.

He straightened up, his heart pounding. He couldn't delay. What was the attraction up here? He hurried around the table and into the next room. A safe as simple as that. A big, deluxe, copper-colored wall job, now decorated with four small, shiny, perfectly squared holes drilled around the wheel. Four kit bags were arrayed against the wall. He knew what he wanted, and it wasn't candy bars. The first two bags contained plastic explosive. He took three packets. The next bag had the detonating gear, including percussion caps. He threw that over his shoulder.

The elevator was coming. He hurried up the corridor and into the library, trying to keep track of the sound of the approaching car. With the explosive and the detonators, he had picked up another twenty pounds. He had just sworn off lifting. Being sick had taken something out of him. So had killing a girl. She had been twenty-three or four, a baby. How'd you like it, boy? Now you've done it all!He stopped when he reached the corridor on the west side. Voices. He had to hang around. He was near the northwest stairs, having taken the one route he could depend on, and he was near the board room again. He had to gamble. He did not know how the offices were interconnected in this corner of the floor, or if doors were going to lock behind him, if he was not careful with them.

He passed through a luxury suite, working his way down to the typist's tiny quarters. Her door opened onto the broad hall leading down to the board room. With the door ajar, he could hear them plainly, speaking German, but he was too close it was too dangerous.

He let the door close, and pressed his ear against it.

They were trying to get Karl to calm himself. The dead girl's name was Erika. They knew about Skeezix down on Wilshire Boulevard. Karl wanted to kill Leland himself. He didn't think they were going to accomplish their mission. Then Karl said something just beautiful: there were only nine of them left. Only? What was it that Stepin Fetchit used to say?

"Feets, do yo' stuff," Leland whispered.

First, he hid the detonators. If they caught him with them, they would be back on the track again. Even if they caught him without them, if he had been cute about his hiding place, they might figure it out. So the kit bag was in the wastepaper basket under the big desk in the suite's innermost office. The next step was in trying to get an idea of how they were going to search for him. He could have some influence on that: he could change the rules of the game.

He was on the thirty-sixth floor, going down, when he heard gunfire up above, loud and resonating. Somebody had had the bright idea that Leland would return to his redoubt in the elevator tower. No, it wasn't going to be that simple. He didn't have to be told twice that they were trying to guess his every move.

Hell, they had to, now.

And that was why he was not going down to the thirty-second floor to "surprise" them with another sortie. If Leland knew his man, Little Tony, Anton Gruber, word had already gone down on their secondary channel, and they were in the stairwells waiting for him.

Effectively, there were only seven. Two were downstairs, one in the basement, the other in the main lobby, where he had seen something fall out of Santa's sleigh onto Wilshire Boulevard. Leland wondered if anyone else had seen it. They might have been able to get the body out of view, but they weren't going to be able to hose down the steps.

Now Leland was having trouble holding onto the reasons why he had done it. To get attention. To show them they were dealing with someone who simply hadn't been lucky with Karl's brother. If they wanted to take him for a wild man, so much the better. He was having trouble holding on and he knew it. He had never killed a girl before. Lucky Lindy, the last of the lonesome knights. What had made her think she could beat him? Skeezix's blood, that was it, which was now drying Leland's shirt to his skin. She had thought it Leland's blood, that he was terribly hurt. The next one won't be so easily fooled, Leland thought. It was not something he could count on anyway.

He stopped at the thirty-fourth floor, where the desks ranged in the open from one end of the building to the other. Of all the places he knew, this probably offered him the greatest real protection. The partitions on some of the other floors terrified him. With them, you were only out of sight, not out of danger. If he could use them to his own advantage, he would, but he couldn't figure out how.

More gunfire above. They were working their way down. They were conducting a sweep. Did they know how? Leland went to the elevator banks and pressed the call buttons. Nothing no familiar whine. The elevators were closed down. Okay. No doubt about it, he was their top priority.

Probably the safest spot was in one of the corners. He selected the northeast, and began pushing desks together, trying to get as many thicknesses of sheet metal between him and them as he could. How many rounds had he left? Twelve in the Browning, a clip and a half for the Thompson, which could jam at any time. He had the plastic. If the packets were embedded with percussion cups, a burst of machine gun fire set them off, and if he molded the packets over the red emergency lights over the stairwell doors, he would have a good chance of hitting them.

He glanced at his watch. 11:51. Nine minutes to Christmas. They were not interested in the Pope or anybody else outside the Klaxon building. Their business was on the fortieth floor. He thought of Steffie again. There was no reason for them to connect him with her. As long as he kept them busy, in fact, she was safe from them. Maybe.

He climbed over the desks to get into his improvised fortress. If he had it figured properly, there were far less than nine that he had to worry about and another in the lobby. It would take at least two to guard the hostages. Five left. Now that Leland had the detonators, they could do nothing upstairs. So the maximum coming for him was five. If five people were searching for him, he didn't have a chance. Not like this. Not sitting here waiting for them.

But he couldn't see any other choice. They knew that he had gone into the ceiling panels to get over the partition on the fortieth floor. They were looking into anything that could hide a man, and judging by the gunfire, they were shooting at everything that looked questionable.

But with only five, it was impossible for them to watch all the stairwells while they searched the different floors. Still Leland hesitated. He wanted to make sure they met him on his terms. He did not want to get into a shootout in a stairwell with one of them when others could be only thirty or forty feet away.

Now he realized that if they had put five on the search for him, no one was left to even spot-check the stairwells on the thirty-second floor to keep him from escaping to all the floors below. Maybe they figured he wouldn't do that. What kind of connections were they making about him? And why were there so many of them? They wanted to get into the safe. They wanted to keep the hostages calm. They were here for the long haul. They had all the time they needed to find him.

11:56. He had let the girl get to him. The blood on his shirt had made her think he was hurt. Maybe the dirt on his face hadn't let her see his eyes. A nice looking kid. After the burst of .45-caliber bullets had hit her, she had looked as bad as Skeezix down on Wilshire.

He turned on the radio. Channel twenty-six.

"Are you there? Are you listening to me?"

Leland pressed the "Talk" button. He was looking out across Wilshire to the hills in some places, faintly, he could see Christmas lights winking at random. "What have you got on your mind?"

"We are coming for you. We want our equipment. If you try to resist, we will start shooting hostages..."

"Don't crap me! You want to keep those people quiet!"

"No, no, you don't understand! We will bring them to you, wherever we find you, and shoot them there. Since you don't seem to mind killing women, we were thinking of a child..."

"Hang on, my other line is ringing." Leland turned the radio off. He was watching a small crag in Laurel Canyon, trying to keep his eyes on it. There: one, two, three, four flashes of light. Dark again. He started counting. Nine seconds. One, two, three, four. He would have to climb out of here and go to the light switch hear the stairwell if he wanted to return the signal. Four? What did four flashes mean? He climbed out. Now the interval was ten seconds. One, two, three, four. Okay, but what did it mean? He hurried. When he flicked the switch, the lights dazzled his eyes. Swell. He ran back to the window, trying to keep his eyes on the spot on the hill. Four flashes, a pause, four more, fast; then the light came on permanently and seemed to waver. It was three miles away. Somebody was swinging it in a circle. Four. Four flashes meant four, as in ten-four, because he had sent the signal by radio. Message understood.

He wept.

12:02.

"Merry Christmas," he whispered. He turned on the radio. "You still there? Sorry to keep you waiting. You've got more problems than just me. The other guy tells me that the cops are coming."

"I'm not surprised. We are prepared to be here for many days weeks, if necessary."

Leland didn't answer. If it were true, why would he say so? Why, indeed. If they were prepared to last for weeks, the only problem they had, the one condition they couldn't control, was Leland himself. They knew exactly what they were doing, even to the talking on the radio. They had to consolidate their position. They wanted the detonators and him dead before the police began to understand the situation.


...10:40 P.M., PST... | Nothing Lasts Forever | ...12:04 A.M., PST...