Killing Time by Linda Howard

Nikita tilted her head. What was so funny about the pope going to the moon?

  When he returned, his eyes were wet and his lips kept turning up in a smile. “Sorry,” he said in a strained tone. “It was just . . . I imagined him sitting in a rocket, wearing all his vestments . . .” His voice trailed off and he shook his head.

  “Don’t be silly,” she said. “He wore a space suit just like everyone else.”

  Knox choked, and went back to the bathroom.

  He was the most easily sidetracked person she’d ever seen, she thought. They could be having a serious discussion about the investigation and the next thing she knew she was explaining about how time travelers would arrive naked if they wore polyester.

  While he was gone, she looked back at the notes she’d scribbled on her EN, and did some more thinking. What was the benefit? The why and the who were always tightly connected; find one, and you could find the other.

  The killer—or killers, since there were certainly at least two, perhaps more—obviously hadn’t found what he was searching for, and he was working his way down the list of people who’d had anything to do with that time capsule.

  Knox finally returned, and Nikita forestalled any more possible outbursts of hilarity by tapping the list of names. “Someone on this list is the killer’s next target. What can we do to keep them alive?”

  That question wiped the last remnant of amusement from his expression. He stood looking down at the list, and he finally said, “Not a lot. There are too many of them. The sheriff’s department and the city police combined don’t have the manpower that would be needed. Several of them have already died”—he took his pen, leaned down, and drew lines through their names—“but that leaves twelve people. The best Sheriff Cutler could do would be to warn them. That’s if any one of them would believe someone was out to kill him because of a time capsule that was buried twenty years ago.”

  “We have to interview them ourselves,” she said.

  “Nope. I have to interview them. You have to stay out of sight. Agent Stover left town, remember? You’re Tina, my new live-in lover.”

  “I don’t think so,” she said coolly.

  “I know so.” He planted one hand on the table and the other on the back of her chair, leaning over her. “That’s exactly what Ruth was thinking at Wal-Mart this morning, and exactly the way we’ll act when we’re out in public. It’s the only way I can think of to keep you safe and keep you involved. The other option is for you to hide out somewhere.”

  She stood so fast he had to straighten or have his head cracked. “Very well. But if you take advantage of the situation, the next time I have to hit you, I’ll break your jaw. That’s a promise.”

  “I never doubted you for a minute,” he said, and grinned.


  Knox had taken the time to acquire a new cell phone and charger for Nikita on his account, and paid extra for a battery that already had a full charge. Figuring he’d keep it when she left—after all, it wasn’t organic, so it wouldn’t make it back to her time—he splurged and got one that would take pictures, just because he liked gadgets. That meant he needed to upgrade his computer so he could download the pictures and print them, but what the hell, it needed upgrading anyway.

  After he picked her up at the library, he took her to a drive-through hamburger joint, figuring that would be the most anonymous, and while they sat parked in the shade of a large oak, munching on greasy burgers and hot salty fries, he showed her all the features of the phone and how to use them. He was in the middle of an enthusiastic explanation about the digital-photo feature when he glanced up and saw the expression of profound patience on her face.

  He stopped in mid-sentence. “I’m guessing you’re either totally bored with all this, or you can operate gadgets like this with your eyes closed. Which is it?” he asked, beginning to smile.

  “The latter,” she said in a kind tone.

  “Well, if you don’t mind, let me finish telling you all about it, because some of this stuff is so cool I have to show someone.”

  What could she do but smile? “I’ll listen.”

  When he was finished playing with her phone—setting the ring tones to a tune she liked, “Toréador,” then setting it on Vibrate instead of Ring, which made the whole exercise useless; placing his cell number in her phone book, then putting her number in his—she had finished eating and his food had grown cold while he played.

  While he was occupied with his food and his mouth was full, Nikita broached a subject she knew he wouldn’t like. “I’ve been thinking; there’s no need for me to be so dependent on you. It constrains both of us. You can rent a car for me, put it in your name, and who’ll be the wiser? I’ll repay you with my supply of cash.”

  Not to her surprise, he frowned, and swallowed a little too hastily. “I guess I like knowing where you are,” he admitted. “After the screwup I made yesterday, I’m afraid you’ll leave before I can make it right.”

  Nikita sighed and stared out through the windshield. She didn’t want to talk about the devastating question he’d asked, because the reason it had been so devastating was none of his business. She glanced at him, saw the seriousness in his blue eyes, and felt her insides clench. Another reason that his comment had hurt was that she liked him too much. Given the time and opportunity, neither of which she had, she thought she would likely even grow to love him. He had that inner warmth she had always so admired in people, a bedrock sense of himself, and a relaxed sexuality that drew her like a beacon.

  If she was successful at her mission, however, she would be leaving at the end of it, going to a place where he couldn’t follow. If she wasn’t successful, she would either be dead or “wink out,” as he’d phrased it. She would be at home with her family and none of this would ever have happened, because there would be no time travel to bring her to this place and time.

  She wished she were the type of person who could throw herself into an affair simply because she was attracted to a man, but she wasn’t. She always had to be cautious. Until her legal status was decided, no one in his right mind would consider marrying her, and she refused to keep something like that secret from someone she loved. In a perverse little twist, if some man still wanted to marry her after she’d told him the truth, she knew she wouldn’t be able to trust his judgment ever again, and did she want to legally ally herself to such a burden? Unfair, perhaps, but true.

  “Say something.” Setting his soft drink in the cup holder, he reached across the seat and lightly cupped her chin in his right hand. His fingers were cool and damp from holding the cup, but she could feel the heat just below the surface of his skin. His touch was light, a caress instead of actually holding her, but the sensation went all the way to her bones.

  “You shouldn’t touch me,” she whispered. “It’s a distraction we can’t afford.” She turned her head and looked at him, their gazes meeting there in the shady car, and her insides jolted again, this time stronger. The man looking back at her, blue eyes narrow and intent, wasn’t relaxed. There were other words to describe him, such as low-key, but he wasn’t relaxed. He was focused and determined—focused on her, and determined to get what he wanted. She remembered the hard-eyed stranger standing over her in Taylor Allen’s backyard, and abruptly knew that was the real core of the man.

  He could be patient, he could be understanding, but underneath all the little quirks and dents of his character was pure steel. He’d been holding back; he’d been courting her.

  A primitive excitement whispered along her spine, bringing a particularly apt idiom to mind. “You’re playing me.” He was playing her like a fish on a hook, being given the freedom to run with the line patiently being fed off the reel, but slowly, so slowly, as the fish tired, it was being reeled in. So good was he at the technique that even though she suddenly realized what he was doing, she had no inclination to spit out the bait and run free. Was he good enough to bring her in? The challenge of it kept her here, because she wanted to know the ans

  She could rationalize that the job kept her here, and that was true. She needed his help. She was stranded, for the time being. But she didn’t have to stay in his house, right at hand where he wanted her. There were other options available to her, now that she’d changed her appearance. Not many, but some, such as the bed-and-breakfast he’d mentioned.

  One corner of his mouth quirked as he continued to touch her face, his fingers lightly rubbing along her jaw line. “I’m not playing, Nikita.”

  No, he wasn’t. There were lighthearted, casual affairs, but the attraction that sparked between them was far too intense for that.

  She understood the skin chemistry of it, the lure that made her hands almost ache with the need to touch him. She also understood that the circumstances were terrible, that she wasn’t like other women and he had the right to know if she decided to accept him as a lover, that nothing they could forge together would be permanent even if they both wanted it to be. There were laws governing time travel, put in place for good and solid reasons. As much as she liked this time, she didn’t want to stay here, and he wouldn’t be allowed to go home with her. If by some miracle he wanted to return with her—a moot question at this point, since she couldn’t get back herself—he would promptly be returned, and she would be incarcerated. Even worse, her illegal action would perhaps convince the lawmakers that even the most law-abiding of her kind were inherently unstable, and should be destroyed.

  Trembling, she jerked her gaze away from his and stared blindly through the windshield again. “There are reasons why the answer must be no.”

  He let his hand fall. “Is one of those reasons that you aren’t attracted to me?”

  “No,” she admitted in frustration, knowing that no matter what other reasons she gave, he would hear only this admission and act as if it gave him permission not only to continue his pursuit of her, but to actually intensify it.

  “That’s the most important one. Can you tell me any of the others?”

  He already knew the circumstantial ones, she thought. He was well aware that she could “wink out” at any moment. So she moved on to others that hadn’t been voiced, though the most important one of all she would keep to herself. “I’m not a man. I’m not comfortable with—” She gave a distracted wave, searching for a phrase more powerful than “casual sex,” since she had already used that one and he’d sailed right over it without pause. Most of the slang phrases used in her time, he wouldn’t understand, but one word had remained the same: “—drive-by fucking.”

  “Well, that puts me in my place, doesn’t it?” he muttered. “Is that what it would be to you? Nothing more?”

  “What else could it be, under the circumstances?”

  “I’m not talking about the length of time we may have, but the emotion behind it. Yeah, I’m a man, but let’s talk about emotion anyway. What’s between us isn’t casual, not on my part. But if you’re just not that into me, then say so. Just don’t lie about it, because that’s throwing away something valuable.”

  Carefully Nikita considered what he’d said. Most of it had been perfectly understandable, but one sentence had her stymied. She went over it in her mind, her lips moving a little as she repeated the words.

  He burst out laughing. “I’m trying to be serious, and you throw me for a loop every time. I know what you’re thinking. ‘Just not that into me’ means you like me okay, but you don’t feel anything special toward me.”

  And he’d asked her not to lie, which of course didn’t mean that she couldn’t, but he was being honest with her, so he deserved the same consideration in return. “No,” she finally said. “I can’t say that.”

  “That’s all I need to know.” He gathered the remnants of their meal, stuffing papers and cups back into the paper sack, and got out of the car to take the sack to a bright red trash bin. Helplessly Nikita watched him, the easy way he moved tugging deep inside her. Like her, he was a cop, and there was always that authority about him that came from training, experience, and the fact that he was armed. The rest of it was just pure Knox, a man at home with his body, taking his time. If he made love the way he walked . . . oh, my God.

  And because he was a cop, by the time he got back to the car, his mind was already back at work. “Do you have the DNA scanner with you?” he asked as he got back into the car.

  Relieved that the subject matter had changed, she patted her purse. “Right here.”

  “I’m having a hard time applying your technology to our investigation, because it isn’t in my norm and I keep forgetting about it,” he admitted. “But the same night the time capsule was stolen, a citizen reported his tractor tires were slashed and his chickens killed. While I don’t think that has anything to do with your UT, he also reported seeing very bright flashes in the woods across from his house. The location isn’t the same as where you came through, but it’s fairly close. Could you still pick up DNA samples after four days?”

  “Has there been any rain?”

  “No, not even a shower.”

  “Then it’s possible.” Excitement flowed through her. “In a secluded location, there wouldn’t be a lot of confusing samples, and anyone who came through would be in the database. We’d know who we’re looking for! I had no idea you knew the arrival location.”

  “Like I said, I’m having a hard time with the practical application of your scanner. I feel like an idiot for not thinking of this before.”

  She smiled at him. “Considering everything that’s happened in the past twenty-four hours, I think it’s understandable.”

  “Twenty-four hours? Is that all it is? Feels like weeks.”

  She knew what he meant. From the time they’d met the day before, they had been together almost all the time. A lot had happened, including the fact that he had stepped over an invisible line when he didn’t report Luttrell’s death. Her perception might be in error, but she felt as if she knew Knox better than she knew her fellow agents whom she’d worked and trained alongside of for years.

  As he drove them out into the country, he explained about Jesse Bingham’s cantankerous disposition. “Don’t let him upset you; he’s nasty to everyone. If he sees us across the road, he may get nosy about what we’re doing, and come to see. In fact, I can guarantee it. So ignore anything he says.”

  She nodded her agreement, and squinted as the bright sunlight arrowed through the windshield. Taking out her sunglasses, she put them on, and almost sighed with relief. This mountainous state wasn’t as hot as Florida, but it was hot enough; even her eyes wanted shade.

  The terrain was really pretty, though. The mountains weren’t towering beasts like the Rockies or the Himalayas; these were older, worn down by the billions of years of rain and erosion since the tectonic plates beneath them had crashed together and wrinkled the earth above. Everything about the Appalachians felt old, and slightly mysterious, as if all the years that had passed and all the people who had walked through these mountains had left some of their essence behind, to whisper in the wind and keep watch beneath the old trees.

  She had never been to Kentucky before, but she promised herself that when she returned to her own time, she would make an effort to visit, to come back to this area and see how it had changed in two hundred years.

  And perhaps to find Knox’s grave?

  She almost gasped at the pain that sliced through her. If she had been in her time, then Knox would be gone forever. She looked over at him, almost unable to bear the thought of him lying cold and unmoving, slowly decaying away to nothing.

  This was why time travel was so fraught with danger, not just because of the physical risk or the temptation to change events that perhaps shouldn’t be changed, but because they were human beings who couldn’t leave their emotions behind when they transited. Humans formed pair bonds; it was a basic fact of life. Given enough contact between people from two different times, bonds would be formed. What would people do to preserve those bonds? No one from the past was allowed to be broug
ht forward. Laws were in place that didn’t allow a traveler to stay in the time he or she was visiting. If someone didn’t return voluntarily, a SAR agent would be sent to retrieve him.

  The laws had, in fact, potentially created a whole new criminal class. No one had broken the laws yet; some travelers had had to be rescued, because their links became damaged or lost or because of some other circumstance, but no one yet had voluntarily stayed behind. It was only a matter of time until someone did want to stay behind, or someone wanted to go forward. Because no one knew what chaos might result because of that, the Council had put in place strict rules and laws prohibiting cross-timers.

  She couldn’t stay, and Knox couldn’t go.

  She was jerked back to the present when Knox pulled over to the side of the road. She looked around, seeing a neat white house down a long driveway to the left, with equally neat outbuildings and a tractor sitting on flat tires. “That’s Jesse’s house,” said Knox, then pointed toward the right. “We’re going up there.” He glanced at her feet. “I need to get you some boots. There are too many snakes around to go tromping through the woods in just sneakers.”

  He was wearing boots, as he had been the day before. She said, just in case he was thinking about telling her to stay behind, “I wasn’t wearing boots yesterday when we walked into the woods. I’ll take the risk.”

  He grumbled a bit under his breath, but he didn’t argue. She was an adult and she was a cop, the same as he was. If necessary, he’d have walked barefoot through the woods, and they both knew it.

  They got out of the car, and Knox locked it before they plunged across the ditch and into the woods. Bushes and thorns pulled at their jeans until they were beneath the canopy, where the undergrowth thinned considerably. The scent of rich earth and the perfume of hundreds of different plants filled her lungs. Birds flew among the tree branches, their liquid calls filtering down. An occasional rustle revealed the presence of a squirrel or perhaps a mouse burrowing for safety or an insect going about its business. The rustle might even be that of a snake slithering away, its daily hunt disturbed by the encroaching humans.

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