TIME JUMPER

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CHAPTER 81

The humming in Ethan’s ears blared so loud he could barely think. As he opened his eyes, he saw Hulse striding across the clearing, a straight razor in one hand, Billy’s head in the other. He blinked and thought himself insane. He’d jumped so fast, he completely disoriented himself. Then he heard Beth scream.

“We’ll be takin’ along this little souvenir of your boyfriend, okay?”

“You monster!”

“Don’t want it? Okay.” Hulse laughed like a hyena as he tossed Billy’s head into the dirt.

“No!” exploded from Beth’s lips. Sobs flooded from her as she tried to crawl on her hands and knees toward Billy’s head. But before she could go three feet, Hulse strode up next to her and crushed her to the ground with his left boot in the center of her back. “Where ya think yer goin’? Save some of that spunk fer me.” He wiped his razor on her dress, closed the blade, and pushed it into his boot.

Ethan heard Beth’s panting sobs, a blow, then silence. A minute went by as he tried to focus his thoughts. The pain in Ethridge’s chest felt like molten lava. Pink eyes suddenly stared into his face.

“Ethridge, you let that old geezer get the drop on you?”

Ethan didn’t try to speak.

“You’re a mess. Nothin’ I can do for ya. Want me to put a bullet through your head? ‘Cause you ain’t gettin’ better.”

Ethan stared into the bunny eyes.

And he saw something that shook him to his core. Just seconds before, as Billy, he had sensed something familiar about Hulse, but Hulse had backed away, as if wanting to hide himself from further scrutiny. Ethan’s witchery could not be fooled. Now Ethan saw Hulse in his mind, not just his eyes.

“Churchill?” Ethan croaked.

The pink eyes opened like saucers. Hulse sat back on his haunches and shook his head. “Well, I’ll be damned. Is that you, Ethan? I’m certainly glad you jumped into Ethridge’s corpse. Billy died too damn fast for me to give you the send-off I wanted. Thought I’d have to track you halfway across the universe again.”

The affected accent of Hulse disappeared. Ethan had no doubt he faced Churchill.

“How?”

“Do you think I just arrived here, Ethan? Don’t be an idiot. I’ve lived a dozen lives since you dragged me out of that helicopter. I’ve developed skills.”

“You should have died.”

“I’d been taking Memnon for weeks. Nothing happened ’til I was scared shitless falling through the sky. Remember how fear of Ted caused your first time jump? Fear was the key.”

“Hulse?”

“Stupid bastard fell off his horse crossing a stream, got knocked unconscious and drowned. I followed your wife to this time and knew you’d eventually show up, so I jumped into Hulse and got a job at Hawley’s ranch. Fat bastard had a lot of grudges. He liked my, shall we say, problem management.”

“You’re insane.”

“Who’s to say? But sane or not, I’m here to take away the one thing you want.”

“How would you know?”

“I listened to your tapes. All those hours in your quarters when you slept after a Memnon jump. You talked. It all sounded like nonsense until I watched you voluntarily haul me out of that chopper. I never thought you were a suicide. The things you told your little friend Angie about dying and leaving your body and looking for your wife had to be true. I held onto that belief until I hit the ground and saw that you were right. Now I may be better at it than you. More practice.”

The body of Hulse, animated by the spirit of Churchill, raised his revolver toward Beth. “She doesn’t know how to do it, does she, Ethan? You wouldn’t have fought so hard to save her if she knew. You’d have just jumped with her and gone somewhere else.”

“She got here didn’t she?” Ethan bluffed.

“Nice try. You have an innate talent and I think you helped her get here. And anyway, even if she knows how to jump, all I have to do is panic her in her last moments and she won’t be able to hold together. Her spirit will scatter across the great beyond and even if it’s possible to find her, she won’t be the same person.” His thumb pulled back the hammer. “Watch how it’s done.”

“What good can this do you, Churchill?”

“I don’t like to lose, West. You made me lose everything. So, I thought I’d return the favor.”

“If you can jump through time, why do this? You can make all the money and have all the power you want. You don’t need to have anything to do with me.”

Churchill said, “I have all the time in the world to do that. But first I want to watch you suffer. Nobody does what you did and gets away with it.” He pointed his revolver at Beth’s unconscious form. “She’s never had Memnon. She doesn’t know how to jump. Without your help, she’s gone.”

“I’ll find her.”

“You think you’re skilled enough to do that? Even if you could, you’d still have to deal with me, because I’ll keep track of you. Then someday, somewhen, I’d meet you both again and get to kill you all over. I could hound you through eternity, West.”

“Don’t bet on it.”

“You’re right. I’d rather have the sure thing. It ends here.”

Churchill strode over to where Beth had fallen after he punched her. With his free hand he slapped her face back and forth. Beth moaned. Churchill turned toward Ethan. “See, she’s not dead yet. Just out cold.” He slapped her again. Bright welts rose on her skin and her eyes fluttered open.

“You’re basically a good person, West. Good people are soft. They think things always turn out for the best. But people like me know there’s no such thing as happy endings. I’ve learned to take my pleasure where I can and I must admit that thinking about destroying you and your little honey has given me an enormous amount of pleasure the past two years. You know how many times I’ve watched her little rump walk by at Hawley’s ranch and savored what I would do to her?”

Churchill squatted over Beth and pointed his revolver between her eyes. Beth panicked and squirmed. Churchill’s head turned toward Ethan. “See the panic. Say goodbye.”

Churchill slapped her again and again until she screamed. Churchill pulled the trigger and Katherine Hawley’s body lurched. He fired two more shots into her.

Ethan’s mind caught fire.

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