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Cover Of Night (Chapter 21)

When Teague was near the road, he pulled the radio off his belt and keyed it. "Falcon, this is Hawk." Falcon was Billy. He'd assigned bird-of-prey designators for no reason other than that was what had first come to mind. He was Hawk, Billy was Falcon, Troy was Eagle, and Blake was Owl. Come to think of it, he hoped Blake wasn't insulted by being Owl, because owls had the best eyesight – shit, he was worse off than he'd thought if he was worrying about this stuff.

"Go ahead, Hawk."

"Shotgun blasted the rock right in front of me, and I'm cut to hell and back. I could use some help here. Meet me at the bridge." Billy was the closest, and the one it was safest to pull in. The two farthest positions were now the most critical, because they overlooked the most likely escape route. Teague had no doubt someone, maybe several someones, would get around to trying to outflank them. Maybe not tonight, but soon.

"Ten-four." Billy replied, and Teague replaced the radio. God, he was about out on his feet, but he had to keep it going for a few more minutes, at least. He had to walk out there where Toxtel and Goss could see him, so that meant he needed to suck it up. He hadn't given them radios because he didn't trust them as far as he could throw their asses, plus he didn't want them to hear everything he and the guys said. He'd be walking in on them without warning.

The bad thing was, even after he was away from them, he wouldn't have a chance to lie down until he felt better; about the best he could do was swallow some aspirin and hope the headache eased.

Right before he emerged from the trees and underbrush, he called softly, "Incoming." Made them feel like they were on some military op, or something. Pitiful. He'd been on some fucked-up ops in his time, but nothing as harebrained as this.

Toxtel and Goss had taken up positions within five yards of each other, which was another dumb-ass thing to do, but since Teague hadn't figured there would be any action at the bridge, he'd let them do what they wanted, let them think they were still in charge.

Neither of them turned to look at him as he approached; they were still wired on adrenaline, muscles tight, as they waited for someone to try to sneak across the stream. He couldn't fault them on that, though someone more experienced would have learned to relax somewhat.

"Did you get anybody?" Goss asked. "I heard a shot."

That confirmed Teague's impression that the shotgun blast had followed his own shot so closely they were almost simultaneous.

"I maybe got someone, but someone else got a lucky shot off at me."

Goss glanced over his shoulder and, even in the dark, could tell that Teague's face was mostly obscured by blood. "Fuck!" He jumped to his feet, whirling around and causing Toxtel to start in alarm. "You got shot in the fucking head?"

"No, it's cuts, not a bullet wound. Someone with a shotgun blasted the rock in front of me, blew shards everywhere." He managed to sound nonchalant.

"Shotgun?" Toxtel asked grimly, also getting up and coming over to stand with them. "I wonder if it was our boy," he said to Goss, confirming Teague's suspicion that one of those tough old boys over there had gotten the jump on them.

"I know who it was,'" 'Teague told them. "A guy named Creed. Tough son of a bitch, ex-military, does some guiding around here."

"What does he look like? Not too big, maybe five-ten, six feet, on the skinny side? Longish hair? Spooky eyes, like they're made of glass or something.'"

Huh. Teague didn't remember anyone answering that description. One thing was for certain, though, their boy wasn't Creed. "No. Creed's a big, muscled guy. Short dark hair going gray. Looks like he should still be in uniform."

"That's not him. You sure this Creed is the one who shot at you?" Toxtel asked.

"Almost certain." He said "almost" because he hadn't actually seen Creed, but his gut told him it couldn't have been anyone else.

"But you said it was a shotgun." Toxtel persisted.

Teague barely held on to his temper. Here he was standing in front of them covered with blood, and all Toxtel could think about was the guy who'd got the jump on him. "There's more than one shotgun in the world," he said shortly. "And I'd guess at least ten of them are on the other side of that stream, plus assorted rifles and pistols."

Toxtel turned back around, evidently pissed that Teague had been shot by someone other than Toxtel's personal nemesis.

Goss looked at Toxtel, then back at Teague, and offered a shrug. "You look like shit. Need any help?"

"Nah. I'm going to the camp to clean up." At least Goss had offered to help, which was more than that asshole Toxtel had done, Teague turned and carefully headed back up the road and around a curve. Billy stepped out of the foliage on the other side of the road and silently joined him. Once they were out of sight of Toxtel and Goss, Billy helped him the rest of the way, pulling one of Teague's arms around his own shoulders and taking half of

Teague's weight. Since Billy wasn't a big guy, getting to the camp was a struggle.

They had set up a small tent about a hundred yards from the bridge – or where the bridge had been – in a small, protected hollow that couldn't be seen from the road. Common sense had said that they'd need a place to rest, to make coffee, and to eat, especially if this went on for longer than a day, which Teague sort of expected. Billy released him long enough to duck inside and light the lantern, then returned to get Teague inside, which involved bending his head down, which made the world spin even more sickeningly than it already was.

"Shit," Teague said wearily as he sank down on the camp chair, too sick to think of a curse more inventive.

"Maybe you should lie down," Billy suggested, busy opening a plastic sack that contained their first-aid supplies, which either Goss or Toxtel had gathered up, so he had no idea what was in there.

"If I do, I won't be able to get up."

"So don't get up for a few hours. There's nothing going on. I haven't seen anyone moving for about an hour. They've pulled back and hunkered down, waiting for daylight. Nothing's gonna happen until then. Diaper wipes," he mused, throwing Teague into confusion until he blearily made out the plastic box Billy was holding. "I guess they got em to clean up with. Reckon this'd be okay to clean cuts? There are a few alcohol wipes but not many. Not enough to clean you up, anyway."

Teague started to shrug, thought better of it. "Don't see why not. Any aspirin in there?"

"Yeah, sure. How many you want?"

"Four, to start." He didn't think two pills would make a dent in this headache.

"Aspirin's a blood thinner."

"I'll take the risk. I need something."

Billy got a bottle of water and opened it, then shook four pills into his palm and gave them to Teague, who cautiously swallowed them one at a time, trying to move his head as little as possible.

Then Billy set to work with the diaper wipes, cleaning the blood away so he could see the damage.

As he carefully wiped around the big cut at the top of Teague's forehead, he murmured, "This is the most dumb-ass stunt I've ever seen. Tell me again why we're doing this."

"Money.'"

"Yeah, but it's not enough to risk getting our asses thrown in the pen for life. Blowing the bridge, holding the whole town hostage – this can go to hell so many different ways it ain't funny. Without even thinking hard, I can come up with four or five better ways of getting what those boys want, less risk all the way around." Billy kept his voice low, so low it wouldn't carry beyond the confines of the tent.

They were getting paid very well. Teague intended to take something off the top, but the others didn't need to know about that. Honor among thieves was a myth, and he wasn't about to start perpetuating it. As far as the other guys knew, they were getting a cool one hundred thousand, to be divided four ways, twenty-five for each of them for a few days' work, with Toxtel picking up all the expenses for this massive charade.

"The risk to us is minimal," he said. "We don't let ourselves be seen, and none of those people over there have any idea we're involved."

"Those two yahoos from Chicago know we're involved."

"You're assuming they'll be alive to tell."

A quick grin crossed Billy's face, then just as quickly faded. "They're not alive, they can't pay us."

"It's choreographed. We'll get paid when the woman over there makes arrangements to give them what they want. Toxtel wanted to wait until he actually had whatever it is to make payment, but I nixed that. He has what he wants, he'd put a bullet in all of us without blinking an eye, to keep from paying. So we get paid first."

"He trusts us to stay around after we get paid?"

"I doubt it, but he doesn't have a choice."

"When you gonna do it?"

When did he intend to kill Toxtel and Goss? Teague thought about it. "After they get what they want. If they're willing to pay so much money to get their hands on whatever it is, we might be interested in it, too. See, a time will be set for the handover, because we'll have to get everything packed up and cover our tracks so we can get the hell out of Dodge as soon as it's done. It'll take a while for those people to work their way across the stream and get help, and in the meantime, we're busy vanishing. Once Toxtel has what he wants, they'll pull back, too, and we'll be waiting for them. Pop them, leave their bodies. They're the only two known to be involved. We're clear."

"So who killed them, then, if" they're the only two?"

"Most logical assumption is they had a third partner who double-crossed them. It'll work. Trust me."

Billy was silent then as he examined Teague's wound. "This needs stitches," he finally said, "but it's stopped bleeding. Come morning, you want to take a trip to the clinic in town? It's not a bullet wound, so it won't be reported."

"I might do that. I'll decide then." Some antibiotics might come in handy, plus the doc could give him some real painkillers. People took falls in these mountains all the time; nothing unusual there.

Billy dabbed some antibiotic ointment on the cut, taped a pad over it. "I hope we haven't bit off more than we can chew. People died over there, Teague; when the lid blows off and the cops get in here, they'll pull in every state investigator on the job, plus some Federal ones if they need to. This will be big news, and there'll be some big dogs on our asses."

"They may figure out more people were involved, but I've been careful not to be seen with those two guys, and nothing is written down, no phone records to worry about. If they're dead, they can't involve us. We're getting paid in cash. Unless we screw up and let ourselves be identified, we're home free."

Billy thought it over, then nodded. "I can see that. But – damn! Who thought of this shit to begin with?"

"Toxtel. He and Goss went in thinking they were the toughest guys around, and found out they weren't. Toxtel has a real hard-on for some guy over there who pulled a shotgun on him. Don't guess he's ever been on the losing end before, because he's got a big ego and he can't see around it."

Billy grunted. They'd both seen it before, and nine times out of ten the situation turned into a clusterfuck. If Teague hadn't seen a way he and his boys could dance their way out, he wouldn't have touched this with a barge pole.

"How long you think this will take?"

"I'm figuring four or five days, at least," Teague said. Toxtel might think the locals would quickly fold and throw Cate Nightingale to the wolves, but Teague knew better. These people were stubborn, and they would close ranks around her. At some point, though, the price of continued resistance would become too high – and then Ms. Nightingale herself would give in and give these boys whatever it was of theirs that she was hiding.

The only possibility of a fast outcome that he saw was that she might cave first thing, but in his experience, people who tried to screw someone else in the first plate weren't real big on civic duty, or whatever you wanted to call it. No, if she was trying to score on something crooked, she wouldn't give up right away. She would lie, she'd deny, she'd stall, until she thought she'd gone as long as possible without her neighbors turning on her – then she'd start making excuses, trying to explain and make herself look as good as possible, and ultimately she'd cave.

Teague hoped she'd hold out for a while, though – just long enough for him to get to feeling better and get that bastard Creed taken care of.

Creed was going to regret pulling that trigger tonight. Payback was a bitch.

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