He took the plunge. “Some of you men must recognize me. I’m Jonathan Doors.”
The impact on Colonel Shelby, at least, seemed to be favorable. “Mr. Doors,” the mustached man acknowledged, and then hesitated.
“Colonel.” Doors nodded respectfully in return. “I see your men here are ready for action. Now, I’ve got to get my passenger here to San Simeon, where there’s a certain effort already in progress. I can’t take the chance of spelling out all the details, but a minute ago, someone here spoke of having a hostage—well, let me assure you, hostages are worth a lot more in the hands of people who know just what to do with them.”
“Ah,” said Shelby. His was not the quickest mind Doors had ever encountered when it came to reassessing a situation, but at least he was now moving in the right direction. “We’ll give you an escort.”
“No. No, I’m afraid that won’t do, Colonel.” Jonathan thought rapidly. Tilting his head back, he scanned the stars, trying his best to look keen and competent. “A while back there were some helicopters out scanning the roads. I managed to avoid them. The feds, of course. But anything like a convoy of vehicles going up to the castle is out of the question. That would draw too much attention, from the Taelons and from their friends in our so-called government.”
“I understand,” said the colonel—who, Doors thought, had surely never been anywhere near a colonel in any greater force than this ragtag mob. And the man seemed on the point of adding “sir.”
“Your job is here, Shelby.” Jonathan gave another serious, approving nod, as if confirming the wisdom of his own decisions, his reliance on Shelby the outstanding patriot. “If anything like an organized pursuit comes after me on the ground—I want you to do all you can to delay them.” Again Doors raised his voice a notch, and looked round at his audience. “Knowing the level of force that may be coming down this road in pursuit of me, I won’t ask you men to stop them entirely. The army may be involved. But I know I can count on you to do all you can to slow them down.”
As he spoke, Doors noted with satisfaction that with every word the murmuring enthusiasm of the surrounding mob seemed to be losing steam, falling away toward silence. Some of the hand-held lights were going out, and weapons were less in evidence.
“Yes, sir.” This time Shelby’s response was just a second late. But he actually did salute.
* * *
« ^ »
Doors was thinking that sunrise at San Simeon would probably always be a very special time—it certainly was very beautiful today. But then he supposed that all times were special in this place. Not that he really knew it very well at all. He had visited the high castle twice in his youth, as a mere tourist, and then twice more several months ago, while he was making up his mind to buy it. Four visits over a period of months, most of them lasting for only a few hours, and he hadn’t yet seen half the rooms. The main impression he retained was that of a sultan’s or emperor’s palace. At least all the zoo animals and birds were decades gone, eliminating one set of problems for the new owner.
Once the roadblock was behind them, the remainder of the drive, up the winding coastal Route One from Cambria, had been gloriously uneventful. Fresh, bracing sea air circulated briskly through the shotgun-blasted holes in both rear windows, the left break considerably bigger than that on the right side. The rear seats, which had fortunately been unoccupied, were never going to be quite the same again. Nor would the lock and window mechanism of the right rear door, against which some of the pellets had expended their energy.
Va’lon had come through the incident without a scratch, and his nerves seemed quite solid enough for an interstellar adventurer. He had not moved or spoken until the SUV was a hundred yards from the opening made for it in the roadblock, and gaining more distance at a brisk rate of acceleration. Then he had turned his handsome head slightly toward the driver’s seat and said, “My deepest gratitude, Jonathan Doors. You have managed to return the favor even before it could be fully granted. Thank you.”
Doors grunted, checking out the red flares that were fading fast in his rearview mirror. “Por nada, as they say south of the border. I would’ve done as much for anyone. I don’t take kindly to being practically kidnapped, having firearms stuck in my face.”
“I begin to appreciate, Jonathan, that your reputation for leadership is well deserved.” The Companion turned his head, slowly, gracefully of course, to look behind. Then he added, “I wonder if the unhappy Colonel Shelby and his men will continue to guard their barricade against invading aliens.”
“We can hope they don’t. I thought I’d kind of suggest that a couple of tanks were more than likely on the way. Unless the New Free Coast Militia is totally crazy that ought to bring them to their senses and send them home.”
“I must say it once more. That was an almost incredible performance, Jonathan Doors.”
“Some people will tell you my whole life has been an incredible performance.” Did that sound too much like bragging? Well, it was the truth.
There was only a relatively small crew of caretakers at San Simeon, a mere half-dozen people on the job tonight, but they were all awake and active. The owner’s arrival with an alien being as his guest had not quite taken them entirely by surprise—Doors had radioed ahead when the SUV was only a few miles down the road. He had also managed to get a message to the Highway Patrol regarding the roadblock.
“Looks like you had some trouble, Chief,” the man in the guard booth remarked, wide-eyed, when the SUV pulled up at the entry port, and the high gate of steel bars was rolling open. Then the man’s gaze landed on the passenger, and he fell silent, jaws gaping in astonishment.
“You might say that.” Doors reached for his controls to drive on, but then delayed again. “Oh, and listen, Carson. Keep a sharp eye on this gate. There are some crazy people running around the roads and highways this morning. If anybody shows up calling themselves the new official militia, or the patriots’ army or whatever, you are to be very firm that they don’t get in. You can be confident about this glass in your booth. The State of California tells me it’s really bulletproof.”
“If we do have any callers of an unwelcome type, alert the house right away and we’ll call the cops from there.”
“Yessir.” Then Carson made a visible effort and pulled himself together. “By the way, Mr. Doors, I’m supposed to tell you right away there’s an e-mail for you.”
“An e-mail? What do you mean?” It was not unusual for several hundred such messages a day to be addressed to him, and to catch up with him at all hours of the day and night, wherever he happened to be.
“Yessir, this is a special one, I understand, from your father. They have it up at the house.” And the guard pointed inland.
All that at more or less the crack of dawn. Then, the drive up the winding, narrow, partly unpaved road, from the entrance to the grounds to what some people called the Castle, and old Hearst had christened Casa Grande, six miles to make a climb of some eighteen hundred feet. Va’lon was looking round him now with interest, as well he might.
They had turned east, inland, coming off the coastal highway. Mostly behind them, to the west, the Pacific was coming out of its shroud of darkness, seemingly almost of nonexistence, info morning light; all around the gently curving hills clothed in brown grass whose color at this season always made Doors think of white bread toasted to perfection. Right now his thoughts were easily turned that way. Come to think of it, he hadn’t had much to eat in recent hours, and he felt ready for a ravenous confrontation with some kind of breakfast.
And ahead, more than a hundred feet high and coming a little closer with each reversal of the winding road, the twin towers of the main house, Casa Grande. Arrayed within a few yards of its front door, but not visible until the traveler drew closer, were the three smaller guest houses, Casa del Mar, Casa del Sol, and Casa del Monte, each a minor palace in its own right. The whole place, considered as an extravaganza, went beyond anything the Rockefellers or du Ponts had ever thrown up in the eastern United States. People who had seen both edifices had been known to compare San Simeon to the royal palace at Versailles.