Killing Time by Linda Howard


  She fought for common sense and self-control, managing to put a breath of air between their lips, and murmured, “Shouldn’t we be leaving?”

  “Not just yet. It isn’t good dark yet.”

  “Good dark, as opposed to bad dark?”

  “As in, there’s still enough light outside to see.” He pressed a quick kiss to the corner of her mouth, nipping lightly at her bottom lip.

  Resolutely, she wedged her hands against his chest. She didn’t have to push; just the position of her hands had him sighing with regret and easing back.

  She took a few deep breaths, steadying herself, and dropped off of tiptoe. “I’m sorry; that was unprofessional of me.”

  “You keep saying that.”

  “It is unprofessional.”

  “Agreed. But you’re sorry about it, and I’m not. Hell, after everything else we’ve done today, a little unprofessionalism feels like a breath of fresh air.”

  Meaning, at least now he wasn’t being forced into breaking laws and betraying the focus of his life, so why not have a little sex? That thought gave her the strength she needed to put more distance between them; she wanted to have sex with him for a lot of reasons, but to be his consolation prize wasn’t one of them.

  “Just so you know my position,” she said, “I obviously find you very attractive. But I won’t be here long, so any relationship I have here is, by definition, casual. I’ve never had casual sex in my life, and see no reason to start now.”

  He whistled softly between his teeth. “That puts me in my place, doesn’t it?”

  Now she felt faintly guilty. “I don’t mean to be insulting; it’s just . . .”

  “Hush.” He touched one fingertip to her chin. “You don’t have to apologize, or make excuses. If the time was right—no pun intended—I think we could have something solid between us.”

  The really sad thing was, she thought so, too. Her career kept her so busy she didn’t have much time to devote to finding Mr. Right, or even Mr. Maybe. Now she had all but fallen into the lap of a definite Mr. Maybe who might even be Mr. Right, and she couldn’t stay.

  As fascinated as she was with this time, with all its energy and explosion of ideas and technology, she preferred her home time. Some travelers talked about picking an interesting time and staying, but she’d never understood how they could walk away from their families and friends, from everything they knew. Of course, she had to consider that perhaps they had no friends and their families were why they wanted to leave, which was even sadder.

  Knox said, as though he were reading her mind, “But if you stayed . . .”

  “I can’t.”

  “Can’t, or don’t want to?”

  “Never see my family again?” she asked softly. “Could you do that?”

  “It’s just my dad and stepmother, but . . . no. I couldn’t voluntarily walk away and never see them again.” He reached out and fingered a lock of her newly blond hair. “Is there anyone other than family waiting for you?”

  “A lover, you mean? No. I have friends, both male and female, but no one I’m interested in romantically.” Since this seemed to be question-and-answer time, she lifted her brows in query and said, “Do you?”

  “Not now.”

  Meaning there had been, but after seeing the photograph in his bedroom, she had expected that. “I was in your bedroom looking around.” Snooping, yes, but she wasn’t embarrassed. He had to have known she wanted to look at everything. “The woman in the photograph?”

  She could almost feel him withdraw, his gaze turning inward, but into his memories rather than in anger. “Rebecca. She was my fiancée. She died seven years ago.”

  Sympathy had her touching his hand. “I’m so sorry. Yes, I know I say that a lot, but this is different. Has there been anyone since?”

  “Just the occasional casual sex you’re so set against, but no one close.”

  Seven years, she thought, and he was still emotionally faithful. This was a steadfast man. “You must have loved her very much. She would be honored.”

  His gaze refocused on her. “That’s a quaint expression, and a . . . sweet thought. Thank you. Yes, I did love her, and the grief was almost more than I could take. But it fades, after a while, and the cliché about life going on is true.” He looked past her out the window. “On a different subject, by the time you change clothes, it’ll be dark enough for us to leave.”

  And he had discussed his personal life as much as he intended, she thought as she got the shopping bags and took them into her bedroom. She didn’t mind backing off a subject that was sensitive to him. Or perhaps, because he was a man, he thought they had already plumbed the depths and there was nothing else to talk about.

  That thought made her smile, and she turned her attention to changing her appearance even more.

  With only the light coming from the hallway to illuminate the room, she pulled the curtains closed over both windows, then turned on the lights in the room and closed the door. Opening the shopping bags, she pulled out a baseball cap, two pairs of jeans, two T-shirts, a pair of athletic shoes, and some socks. Just to be certain, she looked at the manufacturers’ labels in her new clothing, and shivered with excitement. Prewashed, softened, bleached—yeah, yeah, yeah. As she’d suspected, they were cotton. She’d never been able to afford even a single cotton shirt.

  Hastily, she stripped down to her underwear. The two pairs of jeans were identical, so she grabbed the pair on top, tore off the tags, and pulled them on. The waistband was a little loose, but the length was good, and she loved the way the soft fabric felt on her legs. It felt substantial, without being restricting, and comforting.

  That was a slogan the manufacturer could use, she thought in dizzy delight. The comfort of cotton.

  She chose the pink T-shirt over the green one, and tucked the bottom into the waistband of her jeans. Surveying herself in the bedroom mirror, she squelched a squeal of joy. She looked . . . she looked so twenty-first century!

  Even people who had met her that day would find it difficult to recognize her, with the different clothes and change of hair color. The color she’d chosen was a warm golden shade that went well with her skin tone. She also had colored contacts in her purse that would change her eye color to blue, but since they would be out after dark, she didn’t think the contacts would be needed. For the daytime, the sunglasses Knox had bought would hide her eyes anyway.

  She pulled the baseball cap onto her head and stared at herself. Her own mother would know her, of course, and her sister, but her father and brother would probably pass by without another look.

  After putting on her new socks and shoes, she returned to the living room and for the second time presented herself for his inspection. “Well?”

  He nodded with satisfaction. “No one will know you. Take off the cap and pull your hair back in a ponytail.”

  Nikita obediently started gathering her hair back. It wasn’t very long, not quite shoulder length, so her ponytail was short. He went into the kitchen and came back with a piece of plastic-wrapped wire that he gave her to wrap around her hair. She put on the cap again and pulled the little ponytail through the hole in back, feeling to make certain it was secure. “What’s this wire thing?”

  “It’s the tie from a trash bag. I’m short on ponytail holders today, so we have to make do.”

  She ignored the dry tone and said, “I need another shirt, or a jacket, to hide my weapon.” She paused, an awful suspicion blooming in her mind. She narrowed her eyes at him. “You are giving it back to me, aren’t you?”

  He shrugged, something really close to a smirk on his face. “Why do you want it? You have that little laser pen, and it can do as much or more damage as a nine millimeter.”

  “Yes, it can, and I’ll use it if I have to. But if I can avoid attracting attention to it, don’t you think that would be the intelligent thing to do?”

  “Avoiding attention is the best thing to do, regardless. If you’re seen carrying a weapon, you
’ll automatically be marked as law enforcement, which we want to avoid.” He paused. “Your weapon is in the car. Carry it in your purse, not on your belt. On the other hand, it gets cool here in the mountains at night, so you do need something more than a T-shirt. I’ll be right back.”

  He went into his bedroom and came out an instant later carrying a faded denim shirt. “Put this on.”

  The shirt was his, of course, and deliciously dwarfed her even though she was above average in height. She rolled up the cuffs to her elbows, and left the shirt hanging open and loose. “I’m ready, unless you can think of something else.”

  “Just one,” he said, and kissed her again.

  14

  Knox glanced down at Nikita as she lay in the seat so no one could see her leaving his house. She would be seen eventually, of course, but he didn’t want her appearance to be right on the heels of her disappearance as an FBI agent. He’d tell whoever asked that she hadn’t found any connection between Taylor Allen’s murder and the ones she was investigating, and left. She was a federal agent; local cops wouldn’t expect her to do things the way they would. Put a day or two between one leaving and the other arriving, and people would be less likely to make a connection between the two.

  Something about her bothered him, and not just the fact that she was from two hundred years in the future. She was either very calm about almost everything, or she was virtually emotionless. The only time that he’d seen a real reaction from her was when she’d killed the other agent from the future, Luttrell. For a minute he’d thought she was about to puke her guts up. Then she’d pulled it together, and functioned with almost robotic calmness.

  Robotic.

  His head suddenly tingled, as if his hair were standing on end. No way. What he was thinking was impossible. She felt like a real woman; she smelled like a real woman. Her skin was warm, she breathed—or she appeared to breathe, at least. He was abruptly tempted to stick his hand under her nose to see if he could feel the rush of warm air.

  She had eaten two hamburgers, french fries, soup. Could robots eat? Why would anyone invent a robot that could eat, anyway? Wasn’t that a waste of technology—not to mention food?

  Depends on what the robot was used for, he thought. If, for some reason, a robot needed to infiltrate a group or army and had to appear human, then it would have to go through the motions of eating.

  But she kissed like a woman, all soft lips and warm, moist mouth. No sooner had that thought brought some “What was I thinking?” relief than he remembered the movie Blade Runner and its replicants. The replicants had been human to all appearances, but they had been machines, programmed to “die” at a certain age. Could that technology exist in her time? Could it have progressed that far, that fast?

  His common sense said, Why not? The space mission, after all, had gone from nothing to landing on the moon inside thirty years. The last fifty years of the twentieth century had seen such an explosion of technology that new change happened before the previous change had been completely absorbed. Another burst of creativity and inventiveness could have happened in her time, bringing God-only-knows-what.

  In two hundred years, man had developed the means to travel through time. That had to be tougher than building a human-looking, human-functioning robot.

  He tried to think of one reason why she couldn’t be a robot. She had blushed; he remembered her cheeks turning pink. To blush, a person had to feel embarrassment. Could emotions be programmed? Or was it more a matter of programming to show certain physical reactions to certain events?

  Other than when she’d killed Luttrell, she hadn’t shown any strong emotion. She had been mildly exasperated, mildly amused, mildly annoyed. Considering how eventful the day had been, her evenness of temperament was either soothing or downright scary, and he didn’t know which.

  He couldn’t believe he was actually wondering if he’d been trying to make love to a machine.

  For Knox, wondering something immediately led to asking questions, because he couldn’t stand not knowing. “What are you?”

  “What?” she asked from the seat, twisting her head to stare up at him. Her brow was furrowed in puzzlement, but he got the impression she was abruptly wary. “Are we going to go through that again? I’m an FBI agent.”

  “That isn’t what I meant. I mean, are you a human?”

  To his surprise and stomach-clenching alarm, she didn’t burst out laughing or act shocked, or do anything that would have reassured him. Instead she paused briefly, then in a measured tone said, “Why do you ask?”

  “The way you act. No one can be that even-tempered. It’s as if you have a baseline of behavior and never vary from it very much in either direction. You get annoyed, but not angry. You get amused, but you never really laugh. You get sort of turned-on, but not to the point of breathing heavy. Does your heart rate ever speed up, or are you some sort of robot?”

  Again there was that telling pause, the even voice. “Do you mean ‘robot’ figuratively or literally?”

  “You tell me.”

  “I’m human,” she replied, still in that controlled tone. “So that takes care of the literal question.”

  “And figuratively?”

  “You tell me.” Deftly she threw his words back at him.

  A trap yawned at his feet, and he realized that if she was totally and completely human, he had just fucked up big-time by telling her that her sexual responses were robotic. Even the most calm-mannered woman in existence would get upset over being told that. Some women, when they got upset, let the whole world know. Others just got even. It was the getting-even type that he was afraid of.

  When he remained silent, she sat up in the seat and stared straight ahead. “I’m sorry,” she finally said. “I didn’t realize I was acting inappropriately.”

  He had expected anger; what he sensed, instead, was fear. And that was the most alarming thing of all.

  Nikita felt oddly frozen. She had done something wrong, obviously, but what? She tried to think what she should say, what she should do, what would be the normal reaction, but in light of what he’d just said, she obviously had no idea what “normal” was. When there was such a large gap in time, with a great deal of information either corrupted or lost outright, training could accomplish only so much. There were nuances she lacked, subtleties she didn’t understand. In her job, such lapses could get her killed.

  But what hurt was that he found her lacking. She had done something that repelled him, but she didn’t know what. He had enjoyed kissing her; she wasn’t mistaken about his physical response. So what had she done in the fifteen minutes since that had brought this on?

  The frozen sensation ebbed, to be replaced by a burning sense of shame. She had always tried so hard to be as she should, to not let any difference be seen, to fit in; her legal standing at home was tenuous at best, so she had tried to never upset that delicate balance. Some of the others like her had been rebellious, but she had spent her entire life trying to please those in authority. The rebellious ones hadn’t been destroyed, but they had been locked away, and the understanding had always been that when all the legal issues were decided, if opinion came down against them, they would be destroyed.

  And if the bad ones were destroyed, how long would it be before public opinion demanded that all of them must be destroyed?

  She wanted to ask what she’d done wrong, but she had spent her entire life blending in, not telling even her best friends about her situation; the inclination toward secrecy was so strong and reinforced over the years that she found it impossible to broach the subject with Knox. He already thought she might be a robot; it was best not to confirm any of his suspicions.

  She sat rigidly and silently until they reached the courthouse. Knox once again pulled into the protected area where controversial prisoners were brought in, out of the public eye. “Let me have your car keys,” he said, and she handed them over without a word.

  “You won’t have any problem driving this car, w
ill you?” he asked, and she focused her attention on the controls.

  “I don’t think so,” she said after looking them over for a moment. “Everything crucial seems to be in the standard position.”

  “Wait here five minutes. By then I’ll already have left in your rental. Go back out the same entrance we came in, and turn left. Three blocks down there’s a small grocery store on the right corner. I’ll wait there for you.”

  Obviously he would be taking a different route, checking to see if anyone was following the rental car, though if the car was being watched, then whoever it was would see that a man was driving off in it, instead of a woman. If so, then the supposition would be that he was taking the car to her. Either way, the car would be followed. He evidently thought five minutes would be enough time to evade any followers.

  He got out of the car and she slid across the seat to take his place behind the wheel. The first thing she did was slide the seat forward, so she could reach the pedals.

  “If by any chance I’m not there waiting, don’t panic,” he instructed. “Just stay put. I’ll be there sooner or later. And one more thing: When we get to my dad’s place, just stay in the car. It’s dark, he won’t be able to see you; he’ll think you’re one of the deputies.”

  Then he was gone, striding into the courthouse building. He would exit the building nearer the parking lot, walking boldly and openly, as if he had nothing to hide.

  Nikita turned the car around, so she was sitting facing the exit, and watched the digital clock in the dash. The numbers seemed to change so slowly that she began silently counting off the seconds to herself, trying to exactly match her pace to that of the clock. What an odd thing time was, counted in the same sequence of numbers over and over again, never changing, and yet the quality of time was the subject of intense philosophical and scientific discussions and explorations. It wasn’t just an artificial schedule people used to regulate their lives; it was a dimension unto itself, as real as the earth beneath them. But as complicated as time was, thinking about it was easier than thinking about herself.

 
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