Notes: Sorry to anyone I prematurely told otherwise, but once again the idea of a small timeskip has laughed in my face. The story continues to proceed in real-time!

Chapter Twenty-One

Lucrece was standing on the porch late that evening when Pinto came out to her. She glanced his way, a pleased smile gracing her lips. "Is everything taken care of?"

Everyone had engaged in a late dinner, having sent for it from a place that delivered. Cartons had ended up strewn all over the table, much to Lucrece's displeasure. She liked order and organization. That was one reason why she detested in-fighting among the board members.

Pinto chuckled. "Yep. They're cleaning up and Sergei is munching on leftovers."

Lucrece smirked, but was concerned. "And we don't have any idea where Snakes or Florence has vanished to." She walked to the railing and stood with crossed arms, looking over the other houses on the street. Several already had Christmas lights brightly shining in the night, despite the fact that it was not yet Thanksgiving. It was a new sight to her and she watched for a while, lost in thought.

"They'll probably show up when we need them the least," Pinto said. He went to the railing too and leaned on it with both arms.

"Which would be any time," Lucrece muttered.

She stepped closer to Pinto, hesitant, and ran her hand over his back. She was still unused to these feelings of wanting to show affection for reasons other than superficially wanting satisfaction and pleasure. They had come in the past but she had not recognized them for what they were. Or, perhaps, she had simply refused to recognize them as such.

Pinto turned, looking to her with a smile. "That feels nice."

Encouraged, Lucrece stayed beside him, looking out at the street while continuing to rub at his back. For a few moments at least, the problems of their lives and the world in general faded, leaving them with only this scene, this current point in time. It was both surreal and nice, but the sensation ended all too soon. The real world was calling.

"Pinto . . . what's going to happen to us?" she said at last.

"Hmm?" He straightened, looking to her in genuine confusion. "What do you mean?"

Lucrece shrugged. "Whether we stay or go back, what will happen? Will this continue? Will we decide it isn't working out? Will we . . . possibly marry?"

Pinto searched her eyes, surprised and moved by her current vulnerability—and moreso, the fact that she was letting him see any part of it.

"For me, I think it's working out fine," he said. He took her in his arms. "Better than fine. I always wanted to believe you loved me. I thought it was impossible, that you'd never love any man."

"I thought so too." Lucrece rested against his shoulder. "I'm not sure I really understand what it means to love. Perhaps that's at least part of why I'm still not sure I can say that I . . ." She trailed off.

Pinto kissed her. "I'd sure like to help you figure it out."

Lucrece smiled a bit. "I'm sure you would." She sobered. "I can't stand any hint of a thought that you might die. I don't want you to leave me again. But do I feel that way because of love? You think so, but I don't know."

"I guess, really . . . you have to figure that part out for yourself," Pinto said. "I know what I think, but I can't sort out your feelings for you. Even if I'd like to." He paused. "And if you're up to marrying sometime, I know I am."

"I'll think about it." Lucrece looked up at him in the darkness. "What about starting a family?"

"Can't say I'd mind another generation," Pinto said. "And then there'd be someone to carry on the family business once we're gone."

"If there ever is a family business," Lucrece said dryly.

"There will be," Pinto said with confidence. "You'll make sure of it."

Lucrece smirked. It was nice, to have someone believe in her that much.

"We should get inside," she said. "The alarm system is on; it's safer in there."

Pinto nodded. "That's true, I guess. Snakes could always pop up out of the darkness and think he's got us. Worse, maybe he would."

He kept an arm around Lucrece as they turned, heading for the front door. At his side, she relaxed as they went.

Perhaps that dream had revealed her worst fears to her. The thought of never being able to tell Pinto what he longed to hear, while he was alive, was haunting. But that still did not mean she wanted to rush into anything. If or when she managed to tell Pinto she loved him, she wanted her words to be absolutely sincere and true.

Yet, on the other hand, she wondered, could they be any more sincere and true than she felt they would be if she spoke now? Maybe she did not know what it really meant to love, but was she using that as her excuse for holding back? Was it just a mask for her wall, a last defense against giving in to the unknown?

They stepped into the entryway and she looked up at him in the light. "Pinto . . ."

He looked back. "Hmm?"

She kissed him, hoping it would give her the strength to say it.

It didn't.

"I'm glad you're with me," she whispered instead.

He held her close. "I'm glad too."

If he suspected, or was disappointed, he gave no indication of it. Actually, he seemed quite pleased and happy by her words.

She moved her hand along his shirt, open at the first two buttons. "The wound in your chest. It's still healing, isn't it?" She had not seen it since that first day, that bizarre day when Pinto had come to her and showed it to her to try to prove that he was the real Pinto, the one James West had killed.

The real Pinto, come back to life again.

"Yeah. It'll be all healed up sooner or later. Then there'll be nothing but a fading scar."

She smiled. "Good." With it completely mended, to her it would be a grand symbol of his life, of Dr. Faustina's successful experiments over death, of the proof that he was there and would continue to be there.

He took her hand in his, gently rubbing his thumb over her fingers. She let him, feeling perfectly at ease and enjoying the soothing sensation.

Yes, she decided. She could see herself marrying him in the future, no matter where and when their future might happen to be.

xxxx

Ray sat in his room, shuffling papers from the nightstand and gathering his thoughts. He was going to call his chief of security into his office for an important meeting later that morning, after he finally managed to get some decent sleep. He wanted to know why the guards had been so inefficient lately. And he wanted to inform the chief that he was most likely being replaced, if the man Ray had in mind for the job could do it better.

He had decided while sitting in the kitchen that even though he was angry and unhappy with the inefficiency, it would only be fair to give the man some warning, instead of firing him on the spot. And in case Coley found he did not like the job after all, he should not end up having to take the position because there was no one else to do it. There could be a trial period, to see if Coley liked it and could do better than the previous man.

He would talk with Coley about the idea too, come morning. He hoped that by now, Coley was peacefully sleeping in bed, which was what Ray wanted to do as well, now that he had scratched out his ideas.

Not even trying to hold back the immense yawn, Ray dimmed the light and swung his legs onto the mattress. The sheets felt cool and pleasant and Ray smiled.

He still hated the heat. Not that he liked to be cold, but it was difficult for him to get to the point where he was cold. Anything cool felt comforting and good, whereas anything too hot made him begin to tense up. It was impossible for him not to associate heat with Dr. Portman and Hell and her inhumane experiments on him.

It made him worry over how he was going to handle the sweltering Southern California summer next year. This past year he had been in the sanitarium all summer, where it had not been a problem. Now that he was out, he had to stay in Los Angeles until his probation was over, and the building he had owned and had been able to reclaim had been there. Otherwise, he would have preferred to move someplace that was perpetually cool.

He gazed across the room without really seeing it. He was grateful to be in Los Angeles right now, which was something he had never thought he would feel. But if it were not for living in Los Angeles, he would not have met Coley, if the portal had still opened over Los Angeles. And right now, he felt he could even endure the horrible heat, now that he had made that dear friend.

Coley often said the unexpected, but he was everything Ray had needed and wanted—someone to talk with and listen with understanding and experience, someone truthful but not unkind, someone who helped Ray be a better person just by being there and being himself. In turn, Ray had also seen Coley begin to change, to soften and open up more as the days went by.

It made him relieved and happy that Coley had decided to stay. He just prayed that the choice would indeed be left to Coley, and not decided by forces of space and time out of their control.

He had nightmares about that sometimes, of waking up and finding that Coley was just gone, forcibly sent back against his will. It made him angry and bitter on top of his worries.

So what if someone was here out of their time, he argued with himself late in the night. Why couldn't it be that it was meant to happen, as he had once mused to Coley? And why couldn't it be that they were meant to stay?

Or maybe Coley was right and there was no such thing as fate or destiny. But in that case, it seemed it could be true all the more that Coley would have control over where he lived and what he did with his life.

At least, that was what Ray would continue to hope.

xxxx

Despite the long day, and longer night, Arte was awake by morning. A thought had come to him in the night and he wanted to hurry and get it written down before it slipped away from him again.

Jim awoke to the scratching of a pencil on paper. He rolled over, squinting at Arte on the other bed. "Arte, what are you doing?" he mumbled.

"I was thinking, Jim," Arte said urgently without looking up. "Isn't it strange how everyone landed in a different part of the city? I mean, you'd think that we'd all come out of the portal at the same place, wouldn't you?"

"I guess so," Jim said. "What's your point, Arte?"

"My point is that maybe the portal is somehow over the entire city, and everyone was dropped out at various locations." Arte held up the piece of paper, on which he had sketched the skyline of Los Angeles with a large, circular hole above it.

Jim stared at it in disbelief. "The portal might be in the sky?"

Arte sighed, shaking his head. "Oh, I hope not. But I realized it really might be possible."

"What about all the airplanes that take off from the city every day?" Jim countered. "How would they miss falling into it? I'm sure we would have heard by now if airplanes were disappearing by the dozens."

"You're right," Arte acknowledged. "The portal could be up so high that they'd miss it, but then I'd have to wonder how any of us survived coming out of it. But even if it's somewhere close to the ground, as we thought to begin with, why did we all land in such vastly different parts of the city? Something really is odd somewhere."

"That goes without saying. It was odd that Dr. Faustina's machines malfunctioned and caused this to happen in the first place."

Arte nodded. "And I still wonder what the connection is with Los Angeles. It's still bothering me that the portal doesn't just come out in modern-day Justice."

"That is strange," Jim admitted. "But do you really think it's that important?"

Arte threw up his hands. "In a situation like this, who can say?"

"You've got a point there." Jim got up, shuffling to the window. It seemed too soon to be up, but he doubted he was going to go back to sleep. Arte certainly seemed wide-awake as well.

"Jim!"

Jim jumped a mile. "What is it, Arte?!" he demanded, spinning back around.

"I've got it!" Arte exclaimed in delight. "The portal isn't in the sky, but it's still where it's overlooking all of Los Angeles. It's on the highest mountain!"

Jim looked out the window in shock. The mountains loomed ahead of them, shielding the city like a fortress wall.

"Arte, you just might have it," he declared.

"Maybe Mr. Norman will drive us up there today to look," Arte said. "This is too important to wait for my license!"

Jim concurred. "If it is up there, though, Arte, do you still plan to get your license?"

"Why not?" Arte smiled. "We can't go through the portal until we round up Miss Posey and her board members, anyway."

Jim gave a thoughtful nod. "True."

"And I've already paid out the money for the classes," Arte went on. "I wouldn't want to waste it."

"Oh, of course not."

Arte checked the clock. "Do you think Mr. Norman would be awake yet?"

Jim looked at it too. "Considering the time he may have gone to bed, I doubt it. He seems to be used to sleeping in late if he goes to bed late."

Arte sighed in agreement, but cheered and quickly reached for a booklet on the nightstand. "Well, then I'll just spend some quality time with my study manual for the learner's permit test," he decided.

Jim smiled. "Have fun."

Already involved, Arte mumbled, "What?"

Amused, Jim leaned over. "I said, Have fun."

"Oh! I will." Arte looked through the possible questions and answers on the first page. "I most certainly will."

xxxx

The electricity had been coming now and then in bursts, each lingering slightly longer than the one before it. Coley was always left gasping, agonized and suffering by what was being done to him. He was still stubborn; he would not break, but Pinto was certainly trying.

"You know about how I was killed once." Pinto grinned down at Coley, chained and wired helplessly to a metal slab Pinto had found. "It was a right unpleasant experience, too."

"I don't imagine there's very many people who enjoy dying," Coley said flatly.

"I doubt it." Pinto placed a foot on a chair and leaned on it, resting his forearm on his knee. "Coming back, though . . . that's really interesting.

"You've never died, have you?"

The cold chill was back. Coley stared at him. "No," he said. "I've never died."

"Well." Pinto straightened. "I might just have to change that."

"Why?!" Coley shot back. "Why do you want to kill me?! I never did anything to you or got in your way. I always left you alone."

"It's nothing personal," Pinto shrugged. "It never is. But I can't bring you back if you're not dead first. See, I figure if I can get past dying, and bring people back as easy as waking them up from a swoon, I can torture them a lot longer. They wouldn't have anything to fall back on. No sweet death to come carry them away when it got too terrible."

Absolute terror struck Coley in the heart. Although normally he was perfectly calm even when upset, Pinto had stretched his nerves to the breaking point. "Are you out of your mind?!" He strained against the bonds. "You're not some crazy doc; you wouldn't have any idea what you'd be doing. Let me go!"

"Oh, I studied Dr. Faustina enough to know how she did it," Pinto told him. "The bringing back, that is. She never killed anybody first."

Coley clenched his fists. "And what if you can't bring me back after you kill me?"

"Oh well." Pinto reached for the switch. Pulling it, he held it down. The electricity slammed into Coley's body.

Coley stared at him with wide, furious, and anguished eyes. Pinto would not let up until Coley fell unconscious . . . or worse. And as much as Coley wanted to yell, it would do no good to swear and curse and order him to stop. It would entertain Pinto all the more.

Coley could not get out any tangible words anyway. He fought to stay silent; he hated that he had screamed in pain the last time Pinto had turned on the electricity. He wouldn't give Pinto the pleasure of hearing him scream again.

He wouldn't. . . .

The electricity continued to charge through his body. It was almost impossible to focus on anything other than the pain. And despite his struggle to hold out, he was starting to lose the fight. He could not stay conscious much longer, not with the voltage as high as it was.

He did not want to die. Very few people truly did. And he did not want to serve as Pinto's sadistic experiment, either.

"Help me. I probably don't deserve it, but please. Help me!"

That was the last thing he thought and knew before the electricity swept away every one of his senses.

Pinto let the electricity flow another moment before shutting it off. Sparks sizzled and snapped from Coley's motionless body and the chains holding him in place. One of the chains, old and rusted, came unlocked. His right arm, limp and lifeless, slipped down and hung over the side of the slab.

Pinto smirked as he strolled over. "That gotcha, didn't it? Well, don't worry; I'll have you back in a few minutes." He leaned over the form, not wanting to get too close and be hit with the still-sparking volts, but endeavoring to check for life.

Without warning Coley's eyes flew open and he reached with his free hand, forcefully shoving Pinto back. "Get away from me!" he screamed.

Not having expected a movement at all, let alone such a fierce one, Pinto swayed and tripped, crashing to the floor with several old pieces of metal.

Coley sat up, pulling hard and in desperation at the chain on his left wrist. It held fast, but undaunted, he struggled even as he saw Pinto getting up to come back at him again. Panicked and angry, Coley knocked both himself and the slab to the floor.

"Now, you shouldn't get all worked up like that," Pinto said as he got to his feet. "It's bad for you, especially after what you've just been put through."

"Shut up," Coley snarled. His free hand shaking, he finally located a fallen piece of wire and grabbed it, frantically trying to pick the old chain's lock. When it came open, he tried again with the ones around his legs.

"I've gotta say, I wasn't expecting you'd make it out of that one. You're a stubborn man." Pinto grabbed the edge of the slab and started to haul it upright, Coley and all.

With one leg free, Coley kicked him hard in the chest. Pinto made a strange gurgling, gasping choke as he fell back, clutching the spot. Coley had caught him right where he had been fatally wounded in the past.

Not wasting any more time, Coley fought with the manacle on his other leg and finally pulled free. Letting the wire drop to the floor, he rolled off the tipped slab and tried with all his strength to get to his feet. Dizziness swept over him, nearly sending him to the floor again. He clenched his teeth, forcing himself to stand.

He wasn't sure himself how he had survived that blast, let alone to have enough adrenaline to do what he had just done. But somehow, someway, he was going to get out of here now, tonight.

He glanced in Pinto's direction. Apparently he had struck his head in that last topple; the sadist had slipped to the floor, lying atop some shelves, an old beam, and more of his own equipment. He was clearly breathing, but not moving.

Relieved that he would not be pursued further, Coley limped away and towards the nearest exit.

"Coley? Coley, are you alright?"

Coley leaped a mile as he was pulled out of the dream-memory. For some time he had slept without dreaming at all, but then that had crept up on him. It figured that he would have to dream about that last torment from Pinto as well as some of the earlier ones.

He turned his head towards the voice, tiredly squinting up at a worried Ray. "What is it?" he mumbled.

"You're hanging half-off the bed!" Ray exclaimed.

"Eh?!" Coley woke up more and rose to look. Ray was right; he had one leg over the edge and could very easily slip off the rest of the way. His upper body and his pillow were dangerously close to the edge too.

Muttering, he pushed himself farther back. "Please tell me I didn't scream again," he growled.

"You didn't," Ray assured him. "No, I was just coming to check on you. Mr. Gordon has some important news."

"Yeah? What's that?" Coley sat up.

"He thinks he knows where the portal is." Ray crossed to the window and pointed outside. "On that mountain peak. He and Mr. West want me to drive them up there today. I said I could, but that it wouldn't be as simple as that. There's some problems we need to discuss first. And I wondered if you'd want to be along for the discussion and maybe the ride."

From the inflection in his voice, it was more that he hoped Coley would like to come along. And Coley was agreeable to it. Even though he did not want to go back through the portal, he rather wanted to be along when it was found. It was a momentous occasion.

"Yeah, I'll come," he said. "But what about that job?"

"I guess that depends on what we do. But it could wait for today," Ray added. "If that's alright with you, I mean. I . . . well, I kind of thought I should warn my current chief of security instead of just booting him out. And maybe you won't even like the position. I wondered if we should have a trial period for you to decide whether you like it."

Coley shrugged. "That's fine with me."

Ray smiled in relief. "Good.

"Well, if you want to get up now, Mr. Gordon thought we could all have breakfast while we talked."

Coley nodded, throwing back the covers. "Tell him I'll be there in a few minutes."

"I'll do that." Ray turned and headed for the door, but paused. "Oh . . . Coley?" Coley glanced over. "You are . . . alright, aren't you? I mean, you were distressed before you went to bed. And then I come in and find you almost falling off the bed, not looking very peaceful. . . ."

"I'm fine." Coley stumbled out of bed, still a bit wobbly from the dream and from the sleep. "But sometimes it amazes me how I ever got away from Pinto, let alone how I managed to get all the way over to you. Taking in all the logic, I shouldn't have been able to do that."

Ray shuddered, remembering the details Coley had told him in his delirious state that first night. "It amazes me, too," he said quietly. "But I'll always be grateful for whatever—or Whoever—gave you the strength."

Coley paused. Oddly enough, he did remember praying in sheer, panicked desperation right before the electricity took his consciousness. But it had been an act of reflex, he thought, or perhaps a holdover from his childhood.

He had recently come across a saying in reference to soldiers in war: There are no atheists in foxholes. And he supposed it had equally applied to his own terror over dying right then. Not that he had ever been an atheist, per se, but he had certainly never wanted to believe as much as he had right at that moment.

Entirely aside from that, he had not really thought that God would help someone such as he. That was what Ray had been made to believe about himself, too, now that he thought of it. Neither of them had felt worthy to even ask for such help, after all the wrongs they had done.

He remembered expressing his disbelief over receiving divine help when Arte had mentioned all the prayers for his recovery. Arte had told him that if he, a fellow human seeing Coley's faults, could care about him, God would care much more.

But to give him the protection and strength to stay alive, get away from Pinto, and find Ray? Or even simply to assist him by adding strength to his own will? It boggled his mind.

"Yeah," he said at last to Ray. "Well, like I said, I'll be out in a few minutes."

Ray nodded. "I'll see you at breakfast," he said as he headed into the hall.

xxxx

Breakfast was delicious, as always. And through the window, the sun shone in on the white tablecloth. It was a perfect, albeit chilly late fall day.

"Alright, Mr. Norman," Arte said, as he poured syrup onto his pancakes, "you mentioned that getting up the mountain won't be as easy as we hoped."

"Yes," Ray frowned. "As I told you, the paved road doesn't go up all the way. You'll have to do some hiking if you think the portal might be at the summit. There are several trails, and all of them are difficult routes for at least some parts. At least one of the trails is known for being especially strenuous. And I'm afraid I'm not much of a hiker. Even if I could make it up there, I'd slow you down."

Coley grunted. He did not feel like hiking yet, which Ray already knew. When he was completely healed it would not be a problem, but right now he was in no condition for a steep journey.

"We've gone up steep mountains before," Jim deadpanned.

"You can use the ski lift to take a lot of time off of the hike," Ray said. "But I'm afraid it isn't free."

Arte sighed. "Not much is free around here," he said. "Except boarding at your club. When we're ready to go back to our time, we insist on paying you for your troubles."

"It's no trouble at all," Ray insisted. "I like having you here. And no one uses the employees' quarters anyway, so it's not like I'm losing money by you being there."

Jim nodded. "We'll discuss the money later. Back to the problem of the hike." He gave Ray an expectant look.

Ray sighed. "Another thing is, all of the trails take quite a few hours to traverse."

"I know that," Arte said. "I went on the Internet looking for information and I found a place where a hiker described some of the trails. For a round trip, one trail took him over eleven hours!"

Ray cringed. "That would be a long time for Coley and I to wait for you."

Arte nodded. "We wanted to see right away if the portal was up there," he said, "but it sounds more like it might be more practical to wait for me to get my driver's license. Then I could drive Jim and I up there. And if you wanted to come along, Rodman, you'd have a few more weeks to heal first."

"Yeah." Coley stabbed a pancake, pondering on the problem. "I wouldn't have to come along," he said at last. "But if you didn't want to wait for your license, you'd have trouble getting up there if Norman didn't drive you. And then he'd be waiting by himself if I didn't come."

"It would be dull, wouldn't it," Arte said.

Ray nodded. "Not to mention I'd have a lot of work I wouldn't be able to get done. I wouldn't mind pushing it aside if I was helping, but if I had to sit and wait, I just don't think I could afford that much time doing nothing.

"I've been trying to find out information on fire roads," he continued in frustration, "but I can't learn if any of them go anywhere near the summit. Even if they did, my car probably wouldn't cut it. We'd likely need something better suited to all types of terrain."

"Here's something to think about," Jim spoke. "When Arte was looking up information on the mountain, it said that it's very popular with hikers. There's almost always someone going up there. Now, if something strange like a portal to the past was really at the summit, don't you think at least one of those hikers would have found it?"

"I would think so, yes." Ray reached for his glass of milk. "And there's been no reports of missing hikers, according to the news."

"Do you possibly know anyone who might be going to hike up the mountain any time soon?" Arte asked hopefully. "If you trusted them enough, perhaps you could ask them to look for anything unusual and snap a picture of it."

Ray shook his head. "I know a few hikers, but no one I would really trust with something like that." He hesitated. "I wonder if we could hire Paul Drake for the job."

"Who's Paul Drake?" Arte blinked.

"Perry Mason's private detective," Ray explained. "He knows the truth about all of you too, since he looked up the information for Mr. Mason."

Arte slowly nodded. "I see. And you would trust this Mr. Drake with the assignment to look for the portal?"

"Yes, I think I would. He's very determined to do right by his clients and knows how to keep a confidence. He's very honest and ethical."

Arte looked to Jim. "What do you say, Jim?"

Jim was already considering the problem. "I'd like to meet him first," he said then. "But if he's as Mr. Norman says, maybe hiring him to have a look is the best possible thing to do right now."

"That's what I'm thinking too," Arte said with a smile.

Coley nodded. "I trust your judgment," he said to Ray, "but it would still be good to meet him first and see how open-minded he might be."

"I'll call him right after breakfast," Ray determined.

Jim leaned back, thoughtful. He was still not sure the portal was at the top of Mount San Antonio, but to even have a specific location in mind to check was getting somewhere.

Hopefully Paul Drake would have some luck.