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Cover Of Night (Chapter 23)

Cal worked his way under the Contrerases' house, crawling on his belly through mud, debris, and spiderwebs. All sorts of bugs love the dark, damp protected spaces under a house, and this one was no different from most, in that it offered lots of darkness and dampness. Good thing he wasn't bothered by bugs and spiders.

He paused at every ventilation grate, cautiously peering through with quick movements of his head, in case one of the shooters was scanning with a thermal scope and just happened to notice that one of the grates in the foundation was glowing brighter than the others. Catching him looking would be nothing more than luck – bad on his part, good on theirs. Scopes didn't have a wide field of vision, so they couldn't get a good overall view; the shooters would be scanning, constantly moving, which upped the odds in Cal's favor. A fixed thermal-image camera would have been much more difficult to evade.

The shooters were still firing off the occasional shot to make the inhabitants keep their heads down, keep them from moving around. Head games. At some point, though, they would have to stop shooting and try to make contact, establish what it was they wanted, otherwise there was no point that he could see to this whole damn disaster.

Coming in from behind the house, he'd caught a glimpse of Mario Contreras lying half on, half off the front porch, on the left side. What he hadn't been able to see was any sign of Gena and little Angelina, nor had they answered when he called their names. Now he was trying to see if they, too, were King on the porch, out of his previous field of vision.

He felt sick – sick and furious. Mario's brought the number of bodies he'd visually identified up to seven. Norman Box was dead, and so was Lanora Corbett. Mouse Williams would never again rattle on and on in the squeaky voice that had given him his nickname. Jim Beasley had died with a rifle in his hand, trying to fight back. Same with Andy Chapman. Maery Last, a sweet little woman in her seventies, was lying in the road in front of her house. Slowed by arthritis, she hadn't been able to move as fast as the others. Friends, all of them, and he was afraid he'd find more. Where were Gena and Angelina? God, if that cute little girl was dead –

He pushed the thought away, not wanting to anticipate the worst. Thank God the twins had gone home with Cate's mom. If they'd been here, if anything had happened to those two little imps, he'd have gone nuts.

He continued crawling from grate to grate, but he couldn't see anyone else in the yard. No Gena, no Angelina. That didn't mean they were okay; they could be in the house, dead, or King on the porch where he couldn't see them.

He'd found several people alive; terrified, bewildered, but alive. Two people here, four there, a few who were alone – he hadn't bothered to keep count of how many, because that would come later. He'd sent them all toward the Richardsons' house, telling them the safest way, and how to get across the clear areas. Everyone needed to be in one place, so they could get organized. Several plans were formulating in the back of his mind, and he knew Creed was working on a course of action; when they knew exactly where they stood, then they'd decide what to do.

He worked his way out from under the house and tried to brush the worst of the mud off his clothes. He was wet and cold again, though the sun was now working its magic and the day promised to be considerably warmer than the day before. His boots were still wet from his soaking in the stream, and his feet were freezing. He could make do with whatever clothing the Richardsons could find for him, but he needed to get to his place if possible for another pair of boots. First, though, he had to finish locating everyone.

He picked up his shotgun, which he'd left propped against the house next to the crawlspace opening, and eased up the back steps, taking care to stay low in case one of those random shots came his way. Testing the back door, he wasn't surprised when the handle turned easily; most people in Trail Stop didn't bother locking their doors, Cate was one of the few who did, but she had adventurous voting children and she was careful they didn't get it into their heads to wander at night.

He was in the eat-in kitchen, a room he knew well because he'd helped Mario install Gena's new cabinets and countertop. She'd been as excited as a child at having more storage room, at having the kitchen looking nice. "Gena," he called softly. "It's Cal." Again, there was no answer.

A belly crawl was safest, so he dropped to the floor and cradled the shotgun in his arms as he moved into the living room. He'd half expected to find their bodies there, but the room was empty. The windows had been shot out, and he had to be careful not to slice himself to ribbons on the shards as he looked for blood on the floor. None. He checked the front porch. It was empty.

Next he checked the bedrooms. Mario and Gena had slept in the front one, Angelina in the smaller back bedroom. Both were empty. Again, in the front room, the windows were out. Between the two bedrooms was the bathroom, and he found himself hoping he'd find them huddled in the bathtub or something. No luck there, either.

Where in hell could they be? The only place he hadn't looked was the attic. He hoped to hell they weren't up there, because it was so damn dangerous, but some people, when faced with danger, automatically went as far up as they could get. He studied the ceiling, and there it was, right above his head, in the little hall between the two bedrooms: the pull-down attic stairs. If they were up there, Gena had pulled the stairs back up after them.

The ceilings were just eight feet high, so he easily reached the cord and pulled the folding stairs down. "Gena?" he called up into the darkness. "Angelina? Are you up there? It's Cal."

The silence was broken by a little voice saying tremulously, "Daddy?"

He felt quick relief. Angelina was alive, at least. He cleared his throat. "No, sweetheart, it isn't Daddy. It's Cal. Is your mommy up there?"

"Uh-huh," she said. There were scrambling noises; then her small tearstained face appeared at the top of the stairs. "But Mommy's hurt, and I'm scared."

Ah, shit. Grimly Cal started up the stairs, almost certain he'd find Gena lying in a pool of blood. If she'd been shot, it had happened while she was in the attic, because there was no blood anywhere downstairs that he'd seen.

Angelina scrambled back when he reached the top of the stairs, giving him room. She was wearing her pajamas and was barefoot, which alarmed Cal until he saw the pile of old clothing that had been dragged out of a box; she had been using the clothes as covers.

The attic wasn't finished; plywood had been placed over the floor joists of about half the space, while the other was just bare joists with insulation batting laid between the two-by-sixes. The floored space was crammed with stuff: a neatly taped Christmas tree box, old toys, a dismantled baby bed, boxes of discards. Staying bent over, he picked his way through the clutter to where Gena was sitting propped against an old chest of drawers. Angelina scrambled to her mother's side, and Gena put her arm around her, holding her close.

Gena was ghostly white, but as Cal went down on one knee beside her, he checked for blood and didn't see any. The attic was dim, the only light filtering through the cracks in the ceiling and the vents, too dim for him to tell much. He took her wrist and checked her pulse; it was too fast, but strong, so she wasn't shocky. "Where are you hurt?"

"My ankle." Her voice was restricted, her tone almost soundless. "I sprained it." She took a deep, shuddering breath. "Mario… ?"

Cal gave a little shake of his head, and her face crumpled at having her worst fear confirmed. "He – he told us to hide up here while he found out what was going on. I waited for him all night, expecting him to c-come get us, but – "

"Which ankle?" Cal asked, cutting her off. She had a lifetime to mourn her husband, but he had a lot to do and a short time in which to do it.

She hesitated, her eyes filling with tears, then indicated her right ankle. Cal swiftly pushed up the leg of her jeans to see how bad the ankle was. The answer was: bad. Her ankle was so swollen her sock was tightly stretched, and dark bruising extended above the fabric. She hadn't vet gotten ready for bed when the shooting started, so she was wearing jeans and sneakers, and because of the cold she hadn't removed the shoe. That was good, because if she had, she wouldn't have been able to get it back on. This would slow her down big-time.

"It was cold," Angelina put in, her big dark eyes solemn as she rested her head against her mother. "And dark. Mommy had a flashlight, but it went out."

"It lasted long enough for us to find that box of old clothes we used to keep warm," said Gena, drawing a shuddering breath as she tried not to break down in front of her daughter.

Cal was wordless with dismay. She had turned on the flashlight and left it on? She was damn lucky both she and her daughter were alive, because if sunlight could get in through cracks, light from inside would show through those same cracks at night. The fact that the attic wasn't shot full of holes confirmed for him that the shooters were using thermal instead of night-vision scopes; night vision would have magnified the faint light coming through those cracks, lighting up the attic like a neon sign saying, "Shoot Here!"

They had done everything wrong, but somehow they were still alive. Man. Sometimes it just worked that way.

"All of us are gathering at the Richardsons' place," he said. "Their basement is completely protected. It's too small for everyone to stay there, but it'll do until Creed and I get something figured out."

"F-figured out? Call the cops! That's what you do!"

"The phones are out. No electricity, either. We're stranded. As he spoke he looked around, trying to see if there was anything useful up here that she could use as a crutch. Nada. He'd have to think of something, but first things first. "Okay, we need to get out of this attic; there's no protection up here. Angelina needs to put on some warm clothes and some shoes – "

"I can't walk," Gena said. "I've tried."

"Do you have an Ace bandage I can wrap around the ankle for support? I'll find something you can use as a crutch, but you have to walk. You don't have a choice. It'll hurt like hell, but you have to do it." He kept his gaze steady on hers, telling her without words how dire the situation was.

"Ace bandage? Ah… I think so. In the bathroom."

"I'll get it." He was down the ladder in a matter of seconds, jerking open the drawers in the bathroom vanity until he found the rolled Ace bandage. While he was in the bathroom, he looked in the medicine cabinet and found a bottle of aspirin, which he pocketed; then he returned to the attic.

"Take a couple of aspirin," he said, handing the bottle to Ciena. "There's no water, so chew them up if you can't swallow them whole."

Obediently she chewed, making a horrible face, while he swiftly and efficiently wrapped her ankle. "Here's the plan: I take Angelina down first, and put her in the kitchen to change clothes – "

"Why the kitchen?"

"More protection. Just listen, and do what I say, because I may not have time to explain every detail. I'll come back and get you and once you're safer, I'll look tor something you can use as a crutch."

"Mario has his father's walking stick." Her lips trembled as she mentioned her husband, but she sucked it up and went on. "In the living room closet."

"'Okay, good." Not as good as a crutch, but better than nothing, and he wouldn't have to use up valuable time fashioning something. Rising to a crouch, he took Angelina's hand. "Come on, cricket, let's go down the ladder."

"Cricket?" She giggled, diverted. "Mommy, he called me a cricket."

"I know, honey." She stroked her daughter's hair. "Go with Cal and do what he says, change clothes in the kitchen while he helps me down the ladder. Okay?"

"Okay."

Cal positioned Angelina between him and the ladder, so she wouldn't be afraid of falling, and guided her down the wobbly steps. When she noticed the living room windows had been broken, she said, "Look!" indignantly and started into the room, but he intercepted her. The last thing he wanted was for her to look out the window and see her father's body, nor did he want her to cut her bare feet on the broken glass.

"You can't go in there," he explained, herding her toward her bedroom. "That glass on the floor would cut your feet even if you were wearing shoes."

"It would cut through the shoes?"

"Right through them. That was special glass."

"Wow," she said, wide-eyed, as she peered back at the glass in question.

Little-girl clothing, he found, was basically the same as little-boy clothing, just pink. He found jeans and a pullover shirt, little sneakers with pink shoestrings, socks with flowers on them, and a pink fleece hooded jacket. "Can you put these on by yourself?" he asked, guiding her into the kitchen.

She nodded, looking confused. "I put my clothes on in my bedroom, not the kitchen."

"This one time Mommy wants you to change clothes here in the kitchen," he replied. "She told you about it, remember?'"

She nodded, then said, "Why?"'

Oh, hell, now what did he tell her? Recalling experiences with his own mother, he pulled out an old standby: "Because she said so."

Evidently Angelina had run into that edict from on high before. She sighed and sat down on the floor. "Okay, but you can't watch."

"I won't. I'm going to get your mommy from the attic. Don't leave the kitchen. Stay right where you are."

Taking another long-suffering sigh as agreement, lie went back to the ladder and looked up to find Gena sitting in the opening. "I scooted," she explained, experimentally setting her left foot on the second rung down and bracing her arms on each side of the opening so she could turn around. He'd been thinking of lowering her with a rope, but what the hell, she was already on the ladder.

There was no way she could come down without using her sprained ankle. The first time she put weight on it, she couldn't hold back a sharp cry of pain that she quickly muffled. The next time she tried, she bit her lip and simply forced herself to bear the pain for the brief time it took her to step down with her good foot. She rested there, waiting for the pain to recede, then did it again. Cal steadied the ladder as much as possible, but he couldn't go up it to help her because the flimsy ladder wasn't built to hold that much weight. When she was far enough down that he could reach her waist, he simply plucked her off the rungs and carried her to the kitchen, where he sat her in one of the chairs at the table.

Angelina was in the process of putting on her shoes, and she jumped up to run to her mother. Gena gathered her close, her blond head bent down to Angelina's dark one. "I'll get the walking stick," he said, and went into the living room. The stick was shoved in the very back of the closet, but he found it in short order and took it back to Ciena.

"'We'll go out the back door. I'll carry Angelina. I know your ankle hurts, Gena, but you have to keep up with me."

"I'll try," she said, still so white-faced she looked as if she'd faint at any moment. She hadn't let her gaze so much as flicker toward the living room, as if she was afraid she would see Mario and she knew she couldn't bear that.

"Sometimes we'll have to crawl. Just do what I do." He didn't have time to explain the tortuous angles he'd worked out that would keep them mostly hidden from the thermal scopes. Infrared didn't work as well during a warm day anyway, because the temperature difference between the ambient air and a human wasn't as great. After two unusually chilly days, today was noticeably warmer. That, together with the fact, that the human eye couldn't see everything at the same time in such a wide radius as the shooters would be scanning, would help him get them to the Richardsons' with minimal exposure. There were a couple of places where there was simply no structure available for shielding movement, and then Ciena would have to hurry as best she could. The second person crossing was always in more danger than the first.

He had a lot to do, more people to find, but he put that out of his mind and simply concentrated on the task at hand. It took time – too much time, but Ciena was doing the best she could. Finally he got them to a place where he could send them on without him. "You're leaving us here?" Ciena gasped, when he told her he was going back.

"You can make it; it's just a couple hundred yards. I haven't found the Starkeys yet, or the Youngs." Despite her protests, he sent her on, then doubled back.

Before continuing his search, he worked his way to the feed store. Pressed against the back of the building, he darted his head around for quick looks as he studied the stairs leading up to his place, and the angles that would expose him to rifle fire. The stairs were just too risky, and that was the only entrance; there wasn't one from inside the feed store.

Yet.

Using the butt of his shotgun, he beat the lock oil the door to the back storeroom; the residents of Trail Stop might not lock up their houses, but that didn't mean they left their businesses unprotected. Inside the storeroom was the chain saw he'd been using to cut firewood for the winter – there was already a sizable stack just outside the door – as well as the small ax he used to split the smaller pieces of kindling.

Taking the ax, he went into the main room of the feed store and studied the ceiling, mentally mapping out his apartment overhead.

He wanted to stay away from any plumbing, so that meant the left side. His bathroom was directly above the feed-store bathroom, which was only logical. His tiny efficiency kitchen, if it was big enough to qualify as an efficient), was also on the left. Unfortunately, so was the checkout counter, which would have been the sturdiest, most stable platform for him to climb on.

He eyed the ceiling and did the math. The ceiling here on the first floor was ten feet high. He was just under six feet tall. That meant he needed to get about three feet off the ground in order to have some leverage with the ax. Well, hell, all those sacks of feed might as well do some good instead of just lying there.

He got busy hefting those fifty-pound bags. Each layer was stacked in the opposite direction as the one below it, providing stability. By the time he finished, he was sweating and thirsty, but he didn't pause. Instead, he jumped onto his platform, braced his feet, and started swinging the ax upward.

The stack of feed wasn't completely stable, and his balance was a little precarious because he couldn't move his feet, which meant he couldn't put all his power into his swings. With those constraints, it took him half an hour to chop a man-size hole through the ceiling and the flooring above. When he judged it was large enough, he knelt to carefully place the ax against the stack; then he stood, bent his knees, and jumped.

He caught the rough edge of the hole and hung there for a few seconds, getting the swing of his bod)1 under control, then flexed the muscles in his upper arms and shoulders and pulled himself up. Under the strain, the cuts Cate had so gently tended the night before stung as they began bleeding again.

When he was high enough, he gave a surge of effort that shot him upward, enabling him to wedge one arm on the floor. Planting the other arm, he pushed and lifted himself through the opening, and rolled onto the floor of his own bedroom.

Swiftly he stripped naked, leaving his wet and dirty clothes where they lay.

When he dropped back down into the feed store, he was dressed for hunting.

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