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Cover Of Night (Chapter 29)

They were lying on their sides facing each other, talking and kissing, letting the newfound sense of familiarity settle in. There was nothing they could do at the moment about the situation in Trail Stop, nowhere they could go. Snow was still coming down, but here, in this hole in the ground, there was light and warmth and a sense of completion. They couldn't stop touching each other, each led by the desire to absorb as much detail as possible of the other. Cal's questing fingers found the scar low on her abdomen and paused, tracing it. "What's this?"

Some scars might have bothered her, but not that particular one, because it meant she had two living sons. Cate put her hand over his, loving the tough, sinewy strength that could touch her so gently. "C-section. I carried the boys until eighteen days short of their due date, which is good with twins, but then I went into labor. As it progressed, the first twin, Tucker, went into total distress. His umbilical cord was caught. The C-section saved his life."

Cal looked alarmed, even though those events were more than four years in the past. "But he was okay? You were okay?"

"Yes to both questions." She chuckled. "You've known Tucker most of his life. He's been pedal-to-the-metal from the day he was born."

"He is that," Cal agreed, and mimicked Tucker's piping voice: "Mimi shoulda watched me better!'"

Cate had to laugh. "Not one of his finer moments, I admit. I've been so terrified since Derek died, afraid I wouldn't do a good job raising them, afraid I couldn't support them. Since our good neighbors were 'helping' you by sabotaging my house, I was actually considering cutting expenses by offering you free room and board in exchange for repairs."

He laughed, too. shaking his head. "That's the same deal I have with Neenah. Well, not the food, food was part of the offer, right?"

"It was, but now I know the truth." She kissed him, reveling in her freedom to do so. "You'll do my repairs for free anyway, won't you?"

"Depends. I prefer trade." He moved his hand down to her butt, squeezing it to let her know just what sort of trade he preferred.

Something curious occurred to her. "Just how did you learn how to do all those repairs? You'd just got out of the Marines."

He shrugged. "I'm just good with my hands, I guess. I signed up on my seventeenth birthday – "

"Seventeen!" She was horrified. Seventeen was… seventeen was a baby.

"Well, I finished high school when I was sixteen, and nobody wanted to hire a sixteen-year-old full-time. I didn't want to go to college because I was too young to fit in. I didn't fit anywhere, except the Marines. I got a degree in electrical engineering while I was in, plus I'm a master mechanic, and, hell, anyone can hammer some nails and slap on paint. What's so hard about it? I'm reading up now on how to reenamel an old tub. What?"

He didn't get it, she thought. He truly didn't get it. She kissed him again. "Nothing. Just that you're the handiest handyman I've ever met."

"It's not like jobs are thick on the ground in Trail Stop, and I knew I'd never see you if I went off to work somewhere and came home only at night. Besides, I like being my own boss."

She knew what he meant. As stressful as it was being out on her own, at the same time, owning the bed-and-breakfast, and sinking or swimming by her own effort, was particularly satisfying.

He lifted his head, looking a little concerned. "Would it bother you, being married to a handyman?"

Marry. There it was, the big word, the Big M. She had barely gotten her mind around being in love with him, and he was already moving to the next step. To him, though, this was nothing new; he'd spent the last three years getting accustomed to the idea. "You want to marry me?" she squeaked.

"I didn't wait three years for you just for sex," he pointed out with stunning practicality. "I want the whole enchilada. You, the twins, marriage, at least one kid of our own, and sex."

"Can't leave out the sex," she said faintly.

"No, ma'am, you can't." He was firm on that point.

"Well. In that case. In reverse order, though you really didn't ask a second question: yes and no."

"The answer to the question I didn't ask is yes?"

"That's right. Yes, I'll marry you."

A slow smile started in his eyes, crinkling the corners, spreading to his mouth.

"As for the first question, I'd marry you no matter what your job was, so I guess the answer to that one is no."

"I don't make a lot of money – "

"Neither do I."

" – but when you add my military pension, I do okay."

"Plus Neenah will have to start paying you for her repairs, once you move into the B and B."

"I'll have to fix her ceiling for free, though, since I'm the one who chopped the hole in it."

"That would only be right." Their lighthearted mood dimmed then, as they were reminded of the situation they'd left behind, the people who were dead. She snuggled closer to him, feeling suddenly chilled and needing to cling. "It makes no sense, what those men did."

"No. There's nothing reasonable about it. You gave them Layton's things, they had what they wanted, there was no reason to – "

He stopped, frowning, and she saw his gaze turn inward. After a minute it was her turn to say, "What?"

"You gave him a suitcase," he said slowly, "but I carried two pieces upstairs."

"A suitcase was all Layton brought in – " Now she stopped and stared at him with dawning horror. "The shaving kit! I couldn't get it in the suitcase because of the shoes. I forgot about it."

"I would have noticed if there weren't any shaving things in the suitcase. So whatever it is they want, they must think you still have it."

All the pieces snapped into place, and suddenly everything made sense. Tears stung her eyes, dripped down her cheeks. Seven people had died because she forgot to give Mellor a damn shaving kit. She was both furious and devastated, because if he'd bothered to pick up the phone and call, she'd have mailed the damn thing to him. Hell, she'd have sent it express!

A cool, decisive look entered Cal's eyes. They lay awake talking for another hour while he formulated his plan. Cate didn't like it; she argued and begged that they go back together, but this time he was impervious. He held her and kissed her, but he didn't change his mind.

"I have a better angle on them now," he said. "You were worried about me going into the water; now I won't have to. Well, except for crossing the stream. I won't have to stay in it." That slightly distant look remained in his eyes, and she knew he was mentally working out the details, weighing the odds, developing a strategy.

Finally, worn out. she slept, and woke at dawn to Cal making love to her. He loved her long and carefully, holding back as if he couldn't bear to let the moment end. She was sore, but if the pleasure was mixed with discomfort, she didn't care. Terrified that she might lose him so soon after finding him, she held on tight and prayed.

Over fifteen hundred miles away, Jeffrey Layton stood at the sink in a ratty motel room in Chicago and shaved with a disposable razor. He was in a shitty mood. This should have worked. He'd been certain it would work. But this was the eleventh clay, and Mill the money he'd demanded from Bandini wasn't in his numbered account.

He'd told Bandini he had fourteen days to transfer the money, but Layton had never intended to wait that long. He knew Bandini would be doing everything possible to hunt him down, and he had no intention of helping the odds in Bandini's favor. Before he'd ever started down this road, he had decided that ten days was it. If he didn't have the money in ten days, he wasn't going to get it.

Okay. He wasn't going to get it.

He had deliberately left a trail to Podunk, Idaho, calculating how long it would take for someone to trace his credit card charges there. His intention had always been to drive back to Chicago and hide in plain sight, in the one city in which Bandini would never think to look for him, effectively hiding right under his nose. He still had no idea whether the nonlocal he'd heard in the dining room at the B and B was someone Bandini had hired, but that wasn't a risk he'd been prepared to take. The accent had been totally different, that was certain, with a sort of fake heartiness that he'd been able to tell the locals despised. Rather than risk being seen, or alerting the guy with the opening and closing of the front door, Layton had elected to leave the cheap stuff he'd bought behind in the B and B, climb out the window with the flash drive in his pocket, and get out while he could.

He'd ditched the Idaho plates and replaced them with Wyoming plates; then, when he'd gotten back to Illinois, he drove around until he found a vehicle identical to the rental he was driving and replaced the Wyoming plates with ones from Illinois.

He'd paid for this sorry room in cash, giving a fake name, used only drive-through burger joints for his food or had Chinese delivered, and every day he'd checked his account with his BlackBerry.

It wasn't going to happen. The tenth day had been yesterday. He should have gone to the FBI then, but he'd decided to wait the full day. Today he'd teach Salazar Bandini he should have paid more attention when Jeffrey Layton told him something.

It never pays to dis the man who does the books.

He had his story all worked out, what he'd tell the FBI. When he'd found the hidden files he'd been alarmed, especially when he saw the names there. He'd downloaded the files to a flash drive, but Bandini had found out, and since then lavton had been running for his life. He'd finally shaken Bandini's men off his tail, and he was certain the FBI would be very interested in what was on the flash drive. They might wonder why he hadn't simply picked up a telephone and asked to be taken in, but he had an answer for that: he'd heard Bandini had a source in the FBI, and he couldn't be certain that whoever arrived to pick him up wasn't the source. He had actually heard that, so he wasn't lying. He'd figured that if he turned over the flash drive in front of several agents, that would prevent the evidence – and him – from disappearing.

Not that he didn't plan to disappear anyway. They'd probably figure Bandini had gotten to him. He didn't care, didn't care if they needed him to give a deposition or anything like that. What they did with the information on the flash drive was up to them; Layton figured they could get a conviction on several counts even without his testimony.

Not his problem.

He would love to be a fly on the wall and watch Bandini go down, but he had to protect himself. He had his spot all picked out. He had his new identity set up. Life would be good – not as good as it could have been if Bandini had come through with the money, but good enough.

Alter shaving, he dressed in one of his suits, very precisely chosen for the middle-of-the-road, nonentity persona they projected.

They were good suits, but not expensive. Tasteful, but not stylish. Those suits allowed him to blend in, to become almost invisible. He hated them.

At precisely' ten o'clock he checked out of the motel and drove to the local FBI office on Dearborn. He should have known better; he should have taken a taxi, so he didn't have to look for parking. He hated looking for parking: it was such a waste of time. He drove around for several minutes, looking, passing by several parking lots with "open" signs because they were farther away than he liked. He didn't want to park so far away that the walk would make him sweaty, because that wasn't the impression he wanted to give. Wait, maybe it was. Maybe sweating was a good idea. Maybe that would make him look nervous.

Yes. That was a good idea. With that in mind, he look the next parking opportunity that presented itself.

He had a two-block walk to the Dirksen Building, where the FBI was located. The warm, humid September air brought out an immediate sweat. Then he had to go through security, then reception proved a roadblock. By the time he got what he wanted, which was at least two special agents from the racketeering division or whatever they called it, he had almost stopped sweating, and he was annoyed. All that effort, and the effect was lost.

He took the flash drive out of his pocket, held it up to show them what it was, then tossed it to the nearest agent. "Salazar Bandini's private books," he said brusquely. "Enjoy."

There were about seven inches of snow on the ground, but the weather had cleared and the air was like crystal. To the right they could see the far mountains and part of Trail Stop's paramecium shape. The snow line was about a thousand feet down; the valley was still snow-free.

Cate had given up trying to convince Cal to return with her. His reasoning was sound. The snow and ice had changed everything. The trip they had estimated would take them four days would now take at least six, and that was if they had no trouble along the way. They couldn't take any route that would go over rock because of the ice. The ice might or might not melt; they didn't know the weather forecast. And if the weather warmed and the ice and snow did melt, it would cause another problem.

They had brought enough food and water for only four days, for two people, and a day and a half of those provisions were already gone. If they continued, they would run out of food about two days before they reached Creed's cabin.

Their lack of sufficient clothing was also a problem. They had gambled and brought only the minimum because of the load they were already having to manage while climbing, and they'd lost. There was no way they could continue.

Cate agreed with all that. It was Cal's solution that worried her.

He was sending her back alone. Going back would be much taster than climbing up, because she could rappel down the rock. She could easily be back in Trail Stop in a few hours.

He was going after the men with the rifles.

She'd pointed out that he would be traveling alone through some very rough country, that he would be in snow, that he didn't have the right clothing, and that the dangerous conditions still existed. At some point he would have to cross the stream and he would get wet and cold; all her original objections still applied.

He didn't agree. He said that knowing Mellor was after something specific, something he thought Cate had, made all the difference in the world. If Mellor was willing to go to these extreme lengths, then they had to assume he would stop at nothing and neither would he be willing to wait very long. He couldn't afford to wait very long, because keeping an entire community isolated and under attack was an iffy thing; he couldn't control chance or outside interference. Marbury could return with more questions. A repair crew from the power company could show up. Anything could happen.

By now Mellor had probably made his demand. If what he wanted wasn't forthcoming, he would have no reason to be patient. He could start shooting incendiary rounds into the houses and burn them out. Mellor could do this. Mellor could do that. Cate was astonished that Cal had such an encyclopedia of violence and destruction in his head. The bottom line was that he thought there was little time left before the situation exploded and even more of their friends were killed.

She couldn't reach him. He had pulled inside some fortified mental position; his focus was on what he needed to do. Finally she sat in despairing silence, watching as he fashioned some rough snowshoes, which would allow them to move faster over the snow and keep their shoes dry.

Her sneakers hadn't completely dried, and the leather was stiff from being so close to the fire, but he'd kept the empty plastic bags their rations of muesli had been in and had her put her feet inside them before putting on her shoes. The bags fit awkwardly, and he'd had to cut out the zipper because they kept rubbing her heels, but the plastic would keep the dampness from soaking through her socks. The snowshoes would keep her from sinking into the snow over the tops of her shoes, which would promptly have gotten her feet wet again.

He sat on the pad with his legs crossed, his expression intent as he worked. He'd cut some saplings about the width of his thumb, trimming them with his big multipurpose utility knife. He'd also cut some smaller lengths and notched each end. as well as a two-foot section from one end of his rope. He had then unbraided the rope fibers, separating them into individual cords.

Next he bent the saplings into a U shape, pulling the ends together and securely tying them with a piece of cord. The notched sticks were fitted inside the U to form bracing crosspieces and tied on each end to the sapling. The resulting snowshoe was crude but durable. He cut more rope, then laced the snowshoe to her right foot. In a matter of minutes he constructed the left snowshoe and had her walking around experimentally.

She had never worn snowshoes before, and she quickly found a normal gait wasn't possible. You didn't walk in snowshoes, you sort of waddled and shuffled, because you had to either kept, your legs straight like cross-country skiers or lift your knees high to keep the front end of the snowshoe from digging in.

Nevertheless, the improvised shoes worked. She staved on top of the snow instead of sinking into it.

Awkwardly, she crawled back into their shelter where Cal sat working on his own set of shoes. Eyes narrowed, he surveyed her shoes to make certain the bindings and laces were holding. "When you get out of the snow," he instructed, "just cut the bindings. You have a knife, don't you?"

"In my pocket."

"Work your way back to the Richardsons' exactly the way we came. You'll have a protected route the entire way. Tell Creed right away what we've figured out; he'll need to know because the situation could change at the drop of a hat.'

"I will." She was chilled, as much from fear as from the weather, and she carefully placed another stick on their little fire. She wasn't afraid for herself, even though she was going back alone, rappelling down a rock face alone. A hundred things could happen to her, but all of those possible calamities were accidents. Cal was deliberately going into a situation where people would actively be trying to kill him. She had never been so terrified in her life, and she couldn't protect him any more than she'd been able to protect Derek from the bacteria that ravaged his body.

If anything happened to Cal, she would be emotionally destroyed. She couldn't go through that again, couldn't lose the man she loved and emerge in any way whole. Part of her would be dead, her capacity for love permanently stunted. No new? people would be taken into her heart. She knew that, but she didn't say it, didn't lay that guilt trip on him. He was a hero, she thought painfully, a true hero, risking his life to save the world. Well, not the entire world, but people he cared about. Wasn't that just her luck? Why couldn't she have fallen for a math teacher or something?

"Hey," he said softly, and when she looked up, startled, she found he was watching her with an expression of such tenderness she almost burst into tears. "I know what I'm doing, and they don't. They're good shots, maybe good hunters, hut I'm better. Ask Creed. I'll be fine. I promise you – I promise�Cthat we're going to have that wedding, that new little kid we talked about, and a lot of years together. Have the same faith in me that I have in you."

She managed to glare at him through the tears that blurred her vision. "I can't believe you're so underhanded when you argue, pulling that line on me."

"I don't argue," he said.

"Right."

Too soon, all too soon, he put out their fire by dumping snow on it, then scattered the ashes. She almost cried again, seeing the coals die. He was leaving most of his climbing gear behind so lie could travel faster. He took his rope and trenching tool, and that was it as far as equipment went. She was slightly comforted by the big automatic weapon and holster that he slid onto his belt, and the knife in its scabbard. He put some food in his pockets and took one bottle of water. Then he used the knife, to cut a hole in the middle of the blanket, which he then dropped over his head.

He cut. strips from the bottom of the blanket and motioned her over. Gently he held her hands and tied the strips around them to form makeshift gloves. Then he cut two sturdy limbs for her to use as walking sticks, to keep her balance on the snowshoes. Until she gripped the sticks, she hadn't realized how much she needed the protection for her hands.

"I love you," he said, leaning to kiss her. His lips were cold and soft, his bristly cheeks were rough. "Now go."

"I love you, too," she replied, and went. She had to force herself away from him, and she'd gone only about fifty yards when she stopped to look back.

He had already vanished.

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