CHAPTER TWO Sam's stunned gaze remained riveted to the spot where Al had been. "Al's gone, hasn't he?" He swung around in his chair again. The librarian was standing right by him, calm and tranquil, as though she had never left. "You can SEE Al?" He gaped. No-one could see Al, or hear him, except himself - not unless they were under five or mentally retarded. Something to do with innocent minds Ziggy had said. This girl didn't look or behave as though she were mentally deficient. On the contrary, he was the one whose mind wasn't functioning. "No-o," she admitted with an oddly mischievous gleam in her eyes. She didn't look particularly innocent either. "But I know when he's around." "But you can't..." Hadn't there been someone once who had been able to see Al? "Oh, maybe your brain-wave pattern is similar to mine." She shrugged. "I don't know if it's to do with 'brainwave patterns' or not, but I have a way of sensing him. I'll tell you later, if you like, but it isn't important at the moment. It's time for us to go, Sam. You need to come with me so I can show you the letter." When he remained sitting, staring blankly at her, she put her hand under his arm and gently helped him to his feet. "I told you you'd sent me a letter - remember? - telling me you were coming. If you see it, you'll know I'm telling the truth - that you're here for a vacation." He couldn't think. What she said didn't sound right, but Al had disappeared, left him alone, without telling him why he was here. He wasn't capable of finding out for himself, his brain was refusing to work. "Look, Sam," said the girl, "I have to close the library so we really do have to leave. Why don't you come with me anyway? Then I can show you the letter." It would be easy to do what she wanted, nice to not make the decision. "Okay, I'll come," he said simply. Helen breathed a sigh of relief and gave him a gentle push towards the door. "You go ahead. I'll just get my purse." Quickly gathering up the remaining books, pens and lecture pad from the table, she took them to the counter, dumped them on it, grabbed her jacket and purse from under it, then stuffed the pens and pad in the purse. She took one last, swift look around the library, snapped off the lights and motioned Sam to precede her through the door before she locked it. He found himself at the top of a small flight of stone steps that led down to the sidewalk of a busy street. The noise of traffic assaulted his ears as cars zoomed by, carrying people home. Old, dignified buildings housing banks and offices jostled for space with brash, new stores with brightly lit windows. The sidewalk was alive with people hurrying home, mainly workers, the men in large-collared suits, wide ties and flared trousers, the women in smart jackets and knee-length flared skirts or trouser suits, and platform shoes pounded the pavers in every direction. There were a few harassed-looking mothers, with toddlers in strollers, laden down with shopping. A couple of guys in air force uniform sauntered amongst the civilians, obviously looking forward to a night on the town. There must be some sort of base nearby, thought Sam. The sun was descending slowly in the west, tingeing with gold the few clouds in the still blue sky. There was a suspicion of a chill in the air; Fall was not far away. Sam watched the homeward bound workers enviously, then felt the girl tug his sleeve. "My car's over there," she said, gesturing towards a small parking lot across the road. They waited for a break in the flow of traffic, then hurried over. She stopped by a well-preserved, Ford station wagon and patted its gleaming white hood affectionately. "Meet Mrs Murray." They got into the car, but when she turned the ignition key, nothing happened. She tried again. This time the engine gave a faint cough. "Come on, old lady," she murmured urgently. "You can't let me down now. We have places to go." She turned the key once more. Still only a cough. He ought to try to help, although he wasn't sure if he knew anything about the mechanics of the internal combustion engine, and opened his door. "I'll have a look and see if I can figure out what's wrong." "No, it's okay, Sam," said the girl, much to his relief. "Let me try something else first." She stroked the car's immaculate dashboard. "Now then, Mrs Murray, I know you're not looking forward to tonight but I promise I'll give you a nice service when we get back." She tried the ignition again. This time the engine came to life and purred smoothly. Patting the dashboard, she murmured, "Thank you, dear." She leaned towards Sam, whispering conspiratorially, "She just likes to remind me that she's an old lady who needs some TLC and appreciation." Sam gave a tentative smile as the car moved off. This girl was definitely slightly weird - but then, all of this Leap had been weird so far. He hadn't had a Leap as weird as this since... since the one where he'd met Alia. But this couldn't be anything to do with her. He'd set her free. * * * * * He sat on the old couch staring at the piece of plain, white notepaper in his hand. It read simply: Helen, Arriving on September 2, 1977. Looking forward to my vacation and seeing you. Sam. He had written it, he recognized the handwriting, knew with absolute certainty it belonged to him. Unless, of course, somehow the girl had forged it. But that didn't make any sense. What possible reason could she have for that and anyway, it still didn't explain how she knew who he was. His mind whirled. He had to be here to fix something for someone, he always was. If only he could summon up the energy to work out what it could be. The girl seemed so sure of herself it was easier to do what she wanted, at least until he wasn't feeling so beat. Maybe he'd sort it out after he'd had some rest. He leaned back into the soft cushions of the couch, allowing himself to relax a little. The room was warm and homely with solid furniture polished with loving care to a soft sheen. The girl's orange and white cat regarded him unblinkingly from an old easy chair. He locked glances with it but found its challenging stare unnerving and looked away. There was a chess set displayed in the center of floor-to-ceiling, hand-made shelving that covered one wall. Its pieces were beautifully crafted, highly polished wood, the glossy pawns standing rigidly to attention. The other shelves were filled with books, LPs and audio cassettes. The girl had the beginnings of a small library right here - enough to start mystery and science fiction sections anyway. He grimaced ironically at the spine of 'The Time Machine'. There was a beautiful, old, leather-bound 'Complete Works of Shakespeare' and a smattering of other classics, too. And a whole shelf of children's titles; fairy stories, legends, the 'Oz' books, C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. This girl must live for books - and music. The stereo was a free- standing, black unit, consisting of turntable, radio tuner and twin cassette decks, like the music center he'd had as a student. He'd bought it with money earned tutoring freshmen in his first semester as a sophomore at MIT. He couldn't remember who he'd tutored. The faces and names had disappeared. Opposite the shelving stood an old, upright piano, on top of which was a collection of photos, family portraits; a wartime wedding photo in a heavy silver frame, the groom in air force uniform; another photo of the groom, who looked exactly like the girl, sat opposite a photo of the bride, whose black hair framed an extremely attractive face; a snapshot of the girl in her early teens, her arm around an older, though still very attractive, version of the bride. The girl didn't take after her mom at all. Sam's gaze wandered higher. In pride of place above the piano hung a small, dark portrait in oils of an old woman in an old- fashioned white cap and black dress. Compelling grey eyes smiled enigmatically down. He stared, mesmerised, and felt himself falling into the bottomless, dark pools. Momentary panic twisted his stomach and he jerked his gaze away. It didn't seem like a young person's house. It had an older feel, as though set up by an earlier generation, apart from the stereo, that definitely fit the girl. He could see her in the kitchen, taking food from the refrigerator and packing it into a large carton. She didn't rush, yet everything was stowed away with surprising speed, youth and vitality apparent in every swift, confident movement. Sam felt about 104. It didn't occur to him to offer to help. The cat suddenly bounded off the chair and stalked over, tail high, tip twitching. It delicately sniffed his leg then, obviously having decided he was friendly, sprang onto his knee and began kneading his thighs, emitting a loud purr. It butted its head into his hand, demanding to be stroked. Automatically, Sam began rubbing under its chin. Its fur was soft and warm and the lithe body vibrated with appreciative purrs. It settled down onto his lap and closed its eyes in bliss as he stroked it. Sam's eyelids drooped as he cast his mind back to the car journey... The girl made him search his pockets for a key whilst she negotiated her way through the rush hour traffic and he struggled uncomfortably to force clumsy hands into the pockets of the tight jeans. When he found one, she took a quick look at the tag, then chuckled and drove out of town, eventually turning into a long, gravelled drive. They rounded a final corner and a perfectly proportioned, pillared mansion met his gaze. Small admittedly, but built on clean, classic Palladian lines. "I've landed in 'Gone With The Wind'!" he breathed. He half expected Scarlett to float through the doorway demanding her horse so she could ride out to Ashley. "Not quite," said the girl with a grin. "We're not that far south, and the family here have Cornish ancestry not Irish. The house is called 'Logres' after King Arthur's legendary realm in Cornwall. The family converted it to a hotel in the Fifties." She got out of the car and he followed her up a flight of stone steps. Inside, the girl waved cheerily at the receptionist while propelling him towards a wide, sweeping staircase. Hanging on to the banister, he hauled himself up as she ran lightly before him. He found Brian's choice of hotel vaguely surprising. It looked incredibly expensive. The author must be trying to soak up some local historical atmosphere, or maybe he'd had an advance from his publishers. Surely he'd have been more at home in some cheap dive. The girl unlocked the door to Brian's room. Yep, the guy would definitely have been at home in a dive. It looked like the aftermath of a Trash and Treasure sale. Complete disregard had been shown the genuine antiques that furnished the room. Clothes, both clean and dirty, littered the furniture and floor including, much to his embarrassment, dirty underwear. A coffee cup sat on the colonial dresser, leaving a stain on the polished surface, its matching saucer about two centimeters away. There were puddles and a mess of wet towels on the floor of the bathroom. He cringed, Brian must have come back to the room after the maid had been in. The bed was unmade and a half-eaten pizza was hanging out of its box onto the tangled sheets. A couple of books lay open on the bed, one with its spine bent at an impossible angle. Oh God, he thought, I'm a slob as well as a trashy novelist with no fashion sense. The girl strode past him, picked up the books from the bed, closed them carefully and lay them on the dresser. She put the cup back on its saucer, grabbed a Kleenex from the bathroom and blotted the spilt coffee, then shoved the pizza back into its box and snapped shut the lid. Her mouth was a thin line and the red curls bounced angrily as she moved. He stood helplessly amongst the mess. "I - I'm sorry." He picked up a stained shirt from the floor, wondering what to do with it. The girl's mouth softened and she took the shirt from him. "It's okay, Sam. It's not you who did this, it was Brian." There she went again, breaking the rules, distancing him from the man whose life he was living instead of pushing him further into the slobbish and scruffy personality. "Sit down," she continued. "I'll have this lot packed away in two shakes of a lamb's tail, as my Mom would have said." She gathered up all the clothes, dirty and clean together, wrinkling her nose in disgust, and pushed them quickly into an old haversack she found thrown in the bottom of the otherwise empty wardrobe. "I'll wash EVERYTHING later." As he settled his bill at reception, the girl nodded towards a panelled door. "Is he in?" she asked the receptionist. Receiving a smiling nod in reply, she caught his hand and headed for the door. "Come and meet Logres' owner." A grey haired, distinguished-looking man in a silk shirt, open at the neck and rolled up at the sleeves, sat writing at an antique desk. He rose quickly upon seeing the girl, revealing an expensive pair of pants, which matched the jacket and tie thrown negligently around the back of the leather chair, and Italian leather shoes. No platforms for this guy - not that he needed them, he was almost two meters. Beaming, the man enfolded the girl in a welcoming hug and she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek affectionately. Still standing with her arm around the man, she introduced them, calling himself 'Brian' and the man David Pendrick. David greeted him in a formal manner, raising one aristocratic eyebrow. He shoved his hands in the pockets of the denim jacket and tried to shove the platform shoes deeper into the rug under his feet, even more aware of the scruffy clothes and unprepossessing countenance of the man whose body he inhabited. The girl must have seen the disapproving look David gave him. "Don't worry. He's a lot nicer than he looks." Laughter bubbled in her voice and he was not sure to whom she was speaking. She explained to David that 'Brian' was a good friend from college, giving a smile that implied a VERY good friend, and that she was going to take him to the cabin. He listened to her glib explanation, wondering if he ought to insist on staying here. No, if he went along with her he wouldn't have to think, which suited him just fine. He felt a twinge of guilt at not getting on with the job, but not even that was enough to prod him into action. He remained quiet, staring at the rug, listening to the girl ask the man if the cabin was ready. "Yes," the man reassured her. "Jimmy phoned to say he'd been over and started the generator this morning, so the refrigerator should be well chilled by the time you get up there." The two kissed and hugged each other good-bye. The man seemed reluctant to let the girl go, gazing after her in a proprietary fashion that was somewhat annoying. As she drove through the darkening streets, the girl explained she had arranged for some time off work in preparation for his arrival. Once she had shown him the letter, which was at her house, they were going to stay in a cabin belonging to David near a lake, about an hour's drive away. He merely nodded his acceptance, too tired to speak. At her house, she ushered him inside and gently pushed him down onto the couch, then picked up the cat, which had been rubbing itself against her legs in affectionate greeting. She carried the animal to the kitchen, stroking and murmuring to it while she poured it some milk. Quickly making coffee, she set a mug on a low table by him, together with a plate of home-made brownies. Then she disappeared down a hall that led, he assumed, to the bedrooms. He sipped his coffee and absently picked at a piece of brownie, exhausted. When the girl returned, she had the letter in her hand - and his mind whirled in turmoil and confusion again... * * * * * A hand gently shook Sam's shoulder, rousing him from his doze. The cat jumped down from his lap, rousing him further. He blinked up at the girl leaning over him, trying to bring her face into focus. She was now dressed in a sweater, jeans and sneakers. A jacket hung over her arm and a small suitcase was at her side. "The car's all packed. It's time to go, Sam." When he made no attempt to move, the girl repeated herself, shaking his shoulder again. Finally, reluctantly, he heaved himself off the couch. The floor shifted like the deck of a small yacht in heavy seas. He stood for a moment, swaying, trying to find his sea-legs, then lurched across the room to the front door, his legs stubbornly belonging to a landlubber. Helen pushed open the door and Sam walked unsteadily to the old station-wagon. She wasn't far behind, worried he'd miss his step in the thickening dusk, ready to catch him if he fell. He leaned heavily against the car, shaking with the effort of simply staying upright. Opening the passenger door, the girl helped him in and he sank down gratefully into the the seat. Helen breathed a sigh of relief and returned to the house, running lightly up the steps. A few moments later she was running down them carrying her suitcase, having locked up the house and said good-bye to William the cat, reassuring him that Mrs Kowalski, their neighbor, would be in to feed him for a few days. She chucked her case and jacket into the back seat of Mrs Murray and started the engine. "Okay, we're off at last. I'll make supper as soon as we get there. You must be hungry. I know I'm starving." Sam's only reply was a soft snore. He had surrendered to the mental and physical fatigue he had battled for so long and was fast asleep. Helen looked at the still figure with wistful eyes. She sighed, feeling slightly depressed at the thought of the task ahead. Reaching across Sam, she fastened his seat belt, trying to push his inert body so his head leaned against the side window. Hunting in the back of the car, she found her jacket and rolled it up, then carefully placed the improvised cushion between his head and the window. Satisfied he was as comfortable as she could make him, she let go the brake and backed smoothly out of the drive. The outskirts of Truro were many miles behind and she was zooming along the open road, her depression left behind with the suburbs. In the darkness of the car, she grinned suddenly and began to sing quietly, "We're all going on a summer holiday..." * * * * * Helen turned the car onto the dirt track that led down to the cabin. She drove as slowly as possible, partly because it was now completely dark and the track through the trees was difficult to see, even with the head-lights on full, and partly to try to prevent Sam from being bounced around as they hit potholes. Mrs Murray's suspension absorbed about as much shock as a concrete block, she thought, wincing as the old Ford lurched again. Her jacket had long since fallen to the floor and Sam's head was banging on the side window against which he had slumped. Amazingly, he remained asleep, even when they hit a crater that nearly made her lose control of the steering-wheel. After what seemed an age, she picked out the cabin in the headlights. With a sigh of relief, she pulled up near the low, timber building so Mrs Murray's lights shone on the door. She switched off the engine, saying to the old Ford, "Well done, old lady. I wasn't sure if we were going to make it for a while back there." She got out of the car, stretching to ease her stiff shoulders. Holding her breath, she unlocked the cabin door and felt around inside for the light switch. When the room flooded with light, she breathed again. It was silly to worry, she could hear the hum of the generator. Good old Jimmy, he'd even laid a fire in the open hearth, although it wasn't really cold enough to need one yet. She went across the living area to the kitchen and turned on the faucet, testing the water's temperature with her fingers. Yep, good and hot. She checked the refrigerator, grinning when she saw fresh milk, eggs, butter and bacon neatly stored inside. There was even a tray of ice-cubes in the freezer compartment. She owed Jimmy a big fat tip when she saw him! Once she'd unloaded the car, she peered in the passenger window. Sam was still asleep, slumped in the corner of the seat, the seatbelt cutting into his cheek. Helen carefully eased the door open, grabbing her jacket as it slid out, heaving her shoulder against Sam as he slipped sideways. With some difficulty, she pushed his body upright. His head fell forward onto his chest. For a few horrible seconds she wondered if he'd banged it hard enough to knock himself out. She pushed his head up with one hand and gently shook him with the other. "Wake up, Sam. We're here. You have to get out of the car now." His eyes remained closed. She shook him harder, a desperate note entering her voice. "Wake up. PLEASE wake up. I can't carry you inside, you're too heavy. You've got to walk. Wake UP, Sam!" The urgency of the words finally penetrated Sam's sleep-laden mind. He forced his eyelids open. Pushing his leaden limbs to do what the insistent voice wanted, he struggled out of the car. A hand under his elbow guided him towards a building. He stumbled on the threshold but managed to save himself by grabbing the doorframe. Then he was being carefully guided across a room and into another. A hand on his shoulder pushed him down. "Sit down here," a voice commanded. So he did. Hands tugged at his jacket and he pushed them away. "Let me help. Then you can sleep." He allowed his jacket and shoes to be removed. "Lie down, Sam. You can sleep again now." Sinking gratefully onto soft bedding, he felt something warm being tucked around him. He wondered vaguely who it was who was being so kind. It was his last thought for a long time. Helen gazed down at the already sleeping man. Hollows under his cheekbones and dark smudges around his eyes were clear evidence of his exhaustion. The urge to touch him was irresistible and she smoothed the tumbled hair away from his forehead. A tingle ran up her arm and she caught her breath, remembering the jolt that had hit her like lightning when he'd taken her hand in the library. A simple handshake and she was lost. Utterly and forever. In that single instant as his fingers touched hers, what had begun as a simple task she'd chosen to undertake had become her life. She would give this man her life if needed, without him asking, without him knowing. And that, in a way, was precisely what she was going to do. Reluctantly she pulled her hand away, breaking the contact. The tingle died. It had taken the utmost self-control to make herself release Sam's hand in the library. Disappointment had flooded through her as she'd realised he felt nothing. He hadn't even looked at her properly for more than a second or two but that had been enough for her to see into his eyes, and her heart had stopped. His eyes were haunted, terrified, little boy lost. All she'd wanted to do then was gather him into her arms and rock him like a child, soothe away his confusion and bewilderment. But she'd squashed her emotions behind a barrier of calm friendliness, because that was what he needed. It had been the same in David's office. David was such a great and loving friend most of the time, but sometimes he behaved in a pompous, condescending and OLD way that was completely exasperating. He'd used just that manner with Sam, making her want to wrap his silk tie around his neck and yank both ends until he choked. Sam had cringed away from David's look, bowing his shoulders as though he carried all the cares of the world. David's poor opinion of her 'friend' from college had been written all over his face and she'd wanted to yell at him to leave Sam alone. Instead, she'd laughed it off and hustled Sam out of the office as fast as she could. She gave her shoulders a little shake and pushed her fingers through her hair. Smoothing the bedcovers again, she allowed herself one last look at Sam, tucking the picture away into a corner of her mind. She made herself turn her back on him and go to the kitchen where she set to work unpacking the boxes and bags from the car.