Killing Time by Linda Howard

  Glancing up, she caught an expression of patience and skepticism on his face, and she sighed. “You don’t believe me. Not even the DNA scanner has convinced you, or the Reskin.”

  “Reskin comes close,” he admitted, rising to a standing position and holding his hand down for her. “But get real; how can I swallow this, hook, line, and sinker?”

  “I haven’t asked you to swallow any hooks,” she muttered resentfully, but she put her hand in his and let him pull her to her feet.

  The light under the canopy of trees seemed suddenly brighter, and a low, almost inaudible buzzing filled the air. Frowning, Knox released her hand and pressed a finger to his ear. “What’s that sound? Can you hear it?”

  Nikita held up a hand to silence him, turning in a circle as she tried to locate the direction the buzzing was coming from. “Get down,” she said urgently as she grabbed her laser pen. She dropped to the ground, flat on her stomach. “Get down!” she yelled at him, when he was slow to obey. She grabbed the boot nearest her and jerked it backward, toppling him; he would have landed on his face if he hadn’t twisted, catlike, to take the fall on his shoulder.

  “Face down!” She put her left hand on the back of his head and ground his face into the dirt, half covering him with her body as she ducked her own head down and put her arm over her eyes.

  She saw the white brilliance of the flash against her closed eyelids, even with her head tucked down, felt every cell in her body prickle as the energy washed over her. Static electricity danced over her skin, played in her hair. She felt what seemed like the briefest moment of immobility; then as the effect began to fade she forced herself to raise her head, which felt as if it weighed three times as much as normal. Everything seemed to be in slow motion, every movement took enormous effort. Beneath her, Knox was stirring, trying to rise, his head coming up.

  Shimmering before them, solidifying, was the figure of a man.

  As luck would have it, he had landed with his back to them. Nikita had a split second to recognize the weaponry in his hand. “FBI!” she rapped out. “Drop your weapon.”

  Slowly he raised both hands, then just as slowly turned his head to look over his shoulder at her. “Agent Stover,” he said. “I’m Agent Luttrell.”

  “Maybe, maybe not. Drop your weapon, turn half a revolution to your left, and use your left hand to remove your ID card.” She didn’t recognize him, which by itself didn’t mean anything, but after everything that had gone wrong with this mission, she wasn’t about to take any chances.

  Knox lifted slightly beneath her, his right arm moving, and she realized he had drawn his own weapon, but with her lying half on his right side, he couldn’t maneuver properly. If he moved much at one time, or too fast, he would throw her off balance, and from the tight control he employed, she knew he’d realized that. He shifted again, and when he dragged his left arm out, she saw he’d switched his weapon to his off hand.

  “Easy,” the man said, slowly stooping to rest his weapon on the ground. He began turning, his balance shifting to his left foot. His powerful thigh muscles tensed . . . there was a second when she couldn’t see his right arm . . . then he was a blur of movement as he whipped around, a thin line of green light shooting out from his right hand.

  She fired an instant before he did. The laser hit him at navel level and ripped upward, the stench of burning flesh filling the air. His shot burned into the ground inches from Knox’s outstretched hand. The man dropped where he stood, his legs jerking spasmodically for a moment before they relaxed forever.

  In the thick silence that fell, Nikita felt the quick lift and fall of Knox’s breathing, felt her own heartbeat pounding, her pulse throbbing in her throat and wrists.

  “Holy shit,” Knox said, moving her aside and getting to his feet in one lithe action. He approached the dead man cautiously, holding his weapon two-handed and keeping it trained on the body, easing forward until he could kick the laser away from the man’s outstretched hand.

  “What other weapons is he likely to have?” he asked Nikita without looking at her.

  “I don’t know,” she said dully. Nausea roiled in her stomach, hot and greasy. She felt herself break into a cold sweat. She’d never killed anyone before, never even discharged any of her weapons except in training or practice. She stared at the man stretched out on his back, his head turned slightly to the side and his eyes open as if he were staring at her.

  He couldn’t see her. She knew that, knew he was dead. He’d have killed her—and Knox—if she hadn’t been faster, if she hadn’t been forewarned. She knew that, too. But knowing and feeling were two different things, and she felt sick at what she’d had to do.

  Knox went down on one knee beside the body and touched two fingers to his neck, feeling for a pulse. He then began swiftly and efficiently searching the man’s pockets.

  “You want to give me a hand?” he called to Nikita.

  Which one? she wondered, shaken by the request.

  “C’mon, don’t just sit there—” He looked over his shoulder at her as he spoke, and he broke off. “You’re as green as a frog,” he observed. “Is this your first body?”

  Slowly she shook her head. “It’s the first one that’s my fault, though.”

  “It was his fault, not yours. I won’t say you’ll get over it, but put it aside for now if you can. I need everything off him that can’t be explained.”

  Shakily she stood. Approaching that body was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, but she made herself put one foot in front of the other until she could drop to her knees beside Knox. “How do you intend to explain the wound?” she asked. She was shaking in every muscle, a very fine tremor from head to foot.

  “I’m not,” he said. “We’re leaving him here. Someone will eventually find him.”

  “This is against the law,” she felt obliged to point out. She swallowed twice, hard, to keep from throwing up.

  “Damn it, do you think I don’t know that?” he snapped. “I’m risking a prison sentence, but you tell me what you think will happen if I call this in? How do we explain being up here in the woods and just stumbling over a body that, oh, yeah, happened to have become a body at exactly the same time we found it? Even without a pinpointed time of death, it’s close enough that a lot of people will be suspicious, starting with the sheriff.”

  She fell silent, trying to think through all the possibilities. They couldn’t call it in later, because the same question would still arise: what were they doing in the woods? “Maybe an anonymous call, later,” she said.

  “It’s damn hard to make an anonymous call without all sorts of rerouting, or a secured phone. I don’t have the last one and don’t have a clue how to do the first one.”

  He was angry, and not without cause. She had put him in an untenable position, and though she couldn’t have known someone would transit through almost on top of them, she was still the reason Luttrell was dead, and now they had to conceal their part in it. They were both law officers, and now they were breaking the very laws they had sworn to uphold. At least this was her doing, while Knox must feel as if he’d been caught in a trap.

  “I’m sorry,” she said as evenly as possible. “The only way to make this right is to arrest me. I’m the one who killed him, not you. You shouldn’t be in this position.”

  “No, damn it, I shouldn’t be, but I am.” His tone was savage, his blue gaze hard. “I can arrest you, yeah, but how did you kill him? Neither of our weapons has been discharged. Maybe you blurt out that you zapped him with a pen when he materialized in front of you, that he’s a bad guy from the future, and all this other real believable stuff you’ve been telling me? You’ll be in a psych ward before you know it. Or maybe you could demonstrate that little laser, which would bring up a lot of questions I sure as hell don’t want to answer. What about you?—No, I didn’t think so. This is my time and my county, so just do what I tell you. Now, what can’t be explained and needs to come off?”

  “His li
nks,” she said softly. Forcing herself to touch the dead man, she rolled back the cuffs of his sleeves and removed the thin metal bands clamped around his wrists, then pulled up his pants legs and did the same to the ones around his ankles.

  “You have a set of links now,” Knox pointed out.

  She had already realized that and began inspecting them for damage. A laser hit could damage the connections and circuitry. She turned each link around and around, looking for scorch marks. She was beginning to feel optimistic until she picked up the one that had been on his left wrist. The outer edge at the hinge was darkened, which meant it had absorbed some of the laser’s power. Time and light were interwoven like a braid, and they’d found that while bright white light didn’t damage the links, other spectrums could, if strong enough. A laser was definitely strong enough.

  “One of them is damaged.” She tried to keep the disappointment out of her voice. She was an utter failure at it, but at least she tried.

  “Three of them work, don’t they? What could happen?”

  “I’d fail to materialize in my own time. I’d still exist, I guess, but I’d just be a mitochondrial cloud somewhere.”

  “Bummer. Don’t go that route, then.” He was swiftly patting down the body; he found the shield card and slipped it into his front pocket, along with the laser, then picked up the other weapon and began examining it. “Was he really FBI? He has a card just like yours.”

  “Then he probably was,” she said softly. “The cards are impossible to forge.” Standing, she retrieved her DNA scanner and pressed it to the dead man’s hand.

  “Luttrell, Jon Carl,” she read, skipping over the physical description. “Subject has been employed by the United States Department of Justice, investigative branch—yes, he really was FBI.”

  “Then it isn’t safe for you to go back, even if all four of the links were in good working order. Someone in your office sent him gunning for you. How about the wristwatch?”

  “Leave it. They still work and look basically the same.”

  “Obviously someone doesn’t want you coming back,” he pointed out. “Is the clothing made out of ordinary stuff, or is it some indestructible cloth?”

  “It’s synthetic. Unless it’s given to a chemist to break down the molecular structure, no one will know the difference.” She didn’t need him to tell her she didn’t dare go back now. She was all too sharply aware that she’d been virtually abandoned here.

  “How did he just happen to materialize right on top of us? What are the odds against that happening?”

  “It’s fairly reasonable. Why would anyone expect me to be here? The physical coordinates would still be set in the computer, unless someone went through to a different location since I came through. Change the time by twenty-four hours and there shouldn’t be any problem.”

  “Except we happened to be here.”

  “Because someone shot at me. Someone from your time. That’s something they couldn’t know, so therefore they wouldn’t be expecting me to return so soon.”

  “My time? Here? I mean, now?” He sat back on his heels, staring at her with narrowed eyes as he mentally went over the evidence. “Yeah, I see what you mean. If it had been anyone from your time, the weapon of choice would have been laser, not rifle.”

  And she would be dead, she thought. Lasers were silent, the way a sunbeam was silent. Without the sound of the rifle shot, probably neither of them would have noticed the thin stream of light until it bored into her. They had been totally focused on jockeying for position with each other.

  “Speaking of weapons, what about that one?” He pointed to the one Luttrell had dropped at Nikita’s instruction.

  “That’s laser, too, for use at much greater distances than this one,” she said, indicating the pen laser.

  “A sniper laser.”

  “Yes.” She went over to the weapon and picked it up, examined it. It was an XT37, the very latest model; only the crack antiterrorist teams had them. Someone in a position of power had to have authorized Luttrell’s transition.

  Luttrell himself could have been a good guy, told only that she’d gone rogue and had to be exterminated. If she’d had time to consider all the angles, she might have been able to wound him instead of killing him, though a laser wound was so disabling it was generally considered almost worse than death. The light beam could sever a hand as fast as a human could push the button and release it, faster, because the speed of light itself outdistanced even the control of a computer.

  An amputation was considered a clean laser hit; contact anywhere on the torso was occasionally survivable, but the damage was horrible, calling for multiple organ replacements, and the energy surge often left the victims with neurological problems as well. A laser tag to the head was instantly fatal.

  The XT37 was a substantial weapon, about three feet long, and weighed fifteen pounds. Disposing of it, or hiding it, wasn’t going to be easy. On the other hand, they were the ones who now had control of it, which gave them an advantage.

  “What else?” he asked, examining Luttrell’s boots.

  She returned to kneel beside him, placing the XT37 by her leg. “He might have a chip.”

  “A computer chip?”

  She nodded. “As a precaution. For tracking him.”

  “Do you have one?”

  “No.” She had been asked to wear one, but she’d refused, and because the legal ramifications of a tracking chip were still being hashed out in court, for the time being agents still could opt out of wearing them. She had never liked the idea of her superiors being able to see every move she or any other agent made.

  “If he had one, where would it be?”

  “Usually it’s attached to a piece of jewelry. Originally they were designed to be embedded in the skin, but everyone was ready to resign en masse, so that was changed.” She shifted to slide her hand inside the dead man’s collar, feeling for a chain. She located one and pulled it out; it was a St. Christopher’s medal, but close examination revealed it was just that, a religious medal. No chip was attached.

  “Try his belt buckle,” she instructed as she lifted Luttrell’s left hand and removed the ring he was wearing. It, too, looked clean.

  Knox had unbuckled Luttrell’s belt and was looking at the buckle, both front and back. “How big is this chip?”


  “Would it feel like a rough speck on the metal?”

  She reached out to run her fingers over the buckle where he indicated, and her sensitive fingertips felt the minute rough spot, as if a speck of debris had been caught on the buckle during manufacturing. The light wasn’t good there under the trees, though, and she wasn’t able to see well enough to make certain that it was a chip.

  “Do you have a magnifier?” she asked.

  “Believe it or not, I do.” He stretched out his right leg and wormed his hand into his jeans pocket, coming out with his knife. He opened one of the attachments and revealed a small, round magnifier.

  Nikita took the knife and examined the speck. The magnifier wasn’t a strong one, but it was good enough that she could make out the even edges of the “speck.”

  “That’s it,” she said, folding the attachment back into the knife and returning it to him.

  “How do we disable it? Smash it?”

  “No.” She reached for the small laser, pulled the buckle end of the belt off to the side, and let it rest on the ground. Positioning the laser, she gave the button a quick hit and the buckle sizzled.

  “That’ll do it,” Knox said wryly.

  She felt more in control now. She wouldn’t fall apart, at least not now. Maybe later, but for now she was thinking, and functioning. Together they finished searching Luttrell’s body, and found some folded present-time currency sewn into the lining of his black jacket. He had come well-supplied, she thought, counting it. She handed the stash to Knox. They also found a credit card, which looked like any other credit card, and they left that. “It’s forged,” she told Kno

  “How do you know?”

  “Do you think there are any authentic credit cards from this time left in my time? It’s forged the same way mine is.”

  “Have you used it?”

  “I had to, to rent a car and a motel room. We come prepared.”

  “So you’re stealing.”

  “Essentially, yes. We knew what we’d be facing here, that we’d need some means of identification.”

  Knox rubbed his eyes, looking as if he didn’t want to hear any more. “It isn’t standard procedure,” she assured him. “This was an emergency measure.”

  “What other laws are you breaking?”

  “You know them all, now.”

  “God, I hope so.” He looked around. “Let’s get all this gathered, then wipe out our footprints and leave this scene as clean as possible.”

  She picked up the waterproof bag that had once contained her links, and slipped it into her purse. There was no point in covering the hole she’d dug; an empty hole told no tales. She retrieved the rest of her equipment, put it away, too, then looked around. She had everything.

  Knox had everything they’d retrieved from Luttrell’s body in his pockets, and he leaned over to get the XT37. “That’s it. Now all we have to do is get to my car without being seen and recognized, and hope no one’s seen the car and called in the tag number. And that the body isn’t found for a couple of years.”

  Luck was with them. The highway had a fair amount of traffic on it, but at this time of day people hadn’t yet gotten off work, and school was out for the summer. One pickup truck went by, and they heard it coming in time to crouch in the tall grass until it had passed.

  Knox put the XT37 in the trunk, slammed it, and they both got into the car.

  “Now what?” she asked, wondering if the day could get any worse.

  He said, “I’m taking you home with me.”

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