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Cover Of Night (Chapter 30)

Once he was safely our of Cate's site. Cal use the walking sticks he'd cut for himself, digging them in and propelling himself forward almost as if he were on skis, looking for every bit of speed he could muster. He wasn't hiking across miles of mountainous terrain, wasting precious time; he was going down in as straight a line as he could manage, as last as he could manage without turning cartwheels and landing headfirst on a boulder. He wanted to be in the valley while there were still hours of daylight left.

He'd used thermal scopes himself. They were heavy, and during the day the images blurred, lost their distinctness. He'd bet his life – he was betting his life – that those guys put the thermals aside during the day and used normal scopes and binoculars for surveillance. That's what he would do in a situation like this, where they were dealing with normal, mostly middle-aged people, men who occasionally went hunting but for the most part farmed or worked in shops. Against people like that, regular surveillance would be good enough.

But they didn't know about him. He wasn't normal, and no way in hell would they spot him with a pair of binoculars, much less a magnification scope with such a narrow field of vision. He wasn't waiting for the cover of night. By the time twilight came and they switched back to the thermals, he'd be in their front yard, practically under their noses, and they wouldn't know a thing until it was too late.

Cate was their target – Cate. He didn't care what their objective was, what they wanted; as far as he was concerned, they had signed their own death warrants.

Cate was in the valley by noon, her muscles shaking with fatigue. The unfamiliar gait forced on her by the snowshoes had left her thigh muscles sore and trembling. At the first rappel she'd been forced to make she was still inside the snow line, so she'd had to leave the damn snowshoes on, which had matte for an interesting experience. She wasn't fond of rappelling anyway and had never done it alone. A rappel looked like easy fun to the casual observer, but it wasn't. It was a demanding physical maneuver, and if she slipped, if she did it wrong, she could maim or kill herself. To make things even more interesting, her arms and shoulders were sore from the unaccustomed climbing.

When she was finally out of the snow, she cut herself out of the improvised snowshoes – and promptly fell, tumbling several feet and banging her right knee hard against a large rock. "Son of" a bitch! Swearing between her clenched teeth, she sat on the wet ground and rocked back and forth for a few minutes, holding her injured knee and wondering if she'd be able to walk on it. If she couldn't, she was screwed.

When the pain lessened from agony to merely severe, she tried to pull up the leg of her sweatpants and long Johns so she could see her knee, but the long johns were too tight. She tried to get to her feet, and the knee gave out in the middle of the first effort. Oh, shit. She had to be able to walk. The joint had to support her, because she had another rappel to make, longer than the first.

She grabbed one of her walking sticks and jammed it into the ground, using it as leverage to swing her body around so she was closer to a skinny tree. Seizing one of the lower branches, she pulled herself to a standing position and swayed there for a minute; holding on to the limb for dear life, she gradually eased her weight onto her knee. It hurt, but not as badly as she'd feared.

The only way to inspect the knee was to pull her pants down, so she did. The skin was broken, and a huge knot was beginning to swell and darken just below her kneecap. At least it wasn't the kneecap itself.

An ice pack that she could strap on would be nice right about now. She turned and looked up at the snow, and shook her head. Not even for the joy of packing snow on her knee could she climb back up that slope.

Holding the tree for balance, she took a tentative step. Again, it hurt, but the joint held and felt stable. The injury was nothing more than a severe bruise, then, no torn ligaments. When she could put all her weight on the leg and walk normally, she continued down the slope, swearing every step of the way because going downhill was hard on the knees anyway.

The last rappel, the longest one, was a nightmare. She had to stay squared off on her legs or she would fall sideways into the rock. Her right knee didn't want anything squaring off on it, didn't want to absorb any impact. It was so swollen now that she could barely flex it. When she was finally on the bottom, she was bathed in sweat.

The air in the valley was cool, but pleasantly so. She looked up at the towering mountains around her, at the white caps they now wore, the dusting reaching halfway down the rugged slopes. That was where she'd been, all the way up there.

Cal was still up there, but he would be farther to the west, toward the cut. She sent a brief but fervent prayer for safekeeping winging his way, then turned and began the long trudge around the land spit to where she and Cal had climbed down the bluff. She remembered that the base of the cliff was nothing but rocks.

and she almost burst into tears. She couldn't depend on the knee on that kind of footing, and she certainly couldn't crawl over the rocks because she couldn't bear to put her weight down on the swollen part of her knee. The only way she could negotiate those rocks was sitting down and sliding from rock to rock. Oh, joy.

She didn't have to, at least not the entire trip. In the two and a half days she'd been gone, the townspeople had organized watches so they wouldn't be caught by surprise. Roland Gettys spotted her and came down the chiff to help. Getting over the rocks and to the top of the cliff still took time and considerable effort, longer than she had expected – almost as long as it had taken her to get off the mountain.

Roland took her to the Richardsons, since their house was closest. He left her at the door and hurriedly returned to his watch. To Cate's surprise, the basement was nearly empty, at least in comparison to the crowd that had been there when she and Cal left. Gena and Angelina were still there, because Gena still couldn't walk on her sprained ankle; she could barely hobble. Greed and Neenah were there – same reason for him – and Perry and Maureen. Someone had strung ropes across the basement and draped sheets across them to create a little privacy.

Greed gave her a sharp look when she staggered in alone. "Where's Cal?"

"He's gone after them," she gasped, sinking down on a chair Maureen hurriedly shoved at her. "He's going to try – He said they wouldn't be looking for him from that direction."

"Do you want some water?" Maureen asked in concern. "Or something to eat?"

"Water," Cate said. "Please."

"What happened?" asked Greed, iron in his tone. "What changed?"

"Joshua," said Neenah, softly chiding.

"It's okay," Cate said. "Cal remembered… He put the things in the attic for me – Layton's things. There was a shaving kit. When those men – Mellor – when Mellor said he wanted the suitcase, I grabbed the suitcase and gave it to him, and I never thought about the shaving kit. It's still in the attic. What they want must be in the kit. That's why they came back."

"I'll get it," said Perry, at a glance from Creed. "What does it look like?"

"It's just a brown Dopp Kit. It's sitting on the floor." Cate closed her eyes, visualizing the attic. "When you get to the top of the stairs, turn to your right. You'll see two rock-climbing helmets hanging on the wall. The kit is on the floor somewhere in that vicinity, unless Cal shoved it aside when he was getting the climbing gear."

Perry left, and Cate took the cup of water from Maureen, gulping thirstily. "What happened to your leg?" Maureen asked, looking worried.

"I fell on a rock, landed on my knee. I don't think there's any structural damage, but it's swollen and sore." That was an understatement. What she wouldn't give for an ice pack and two aspirin.

"You came to the right place," said Gena, trying to sound chipper and failing miserably. Her face was pale, her eyes sunken. "This is the orthopedic section."

"She's right," said Neenah, leaving Creed's side to come to her. "Let's get you cleaned up and see how that knee looks."

"I don't have any clothes to change into," said Cate, too tired to really care.

"I'll take care of that," Maureen said as she helped Cate to a chair in another section of the basement where she could pull a sheet across for privacy. "Tell me what you want, and I'll send Perry back for it."

"The poor man. He'll be exhausted from running back and forth." Cate closed her eyes and let them undress her down to her underwear, standing on one leg when they helped her up so they could remove both pairs of pants. It was soothing to feel a cool washcloth being stroked over her face, arms, and hands.

"The swelling is really bad," Neenah murmured. "You probably shouldn't be using this knee at all."

"I didn't have a choice."

"I know, but you do now. We'll arrange some cushions to prop up that leg and support it, so you'll be more comfortable." The cloth was dipped in cold water again and laid across her knee. It wasn't an ice pack, but the cold water was soothing. Maureen appeared with two tablets in her palm; Cate took them without asking what they were, without caring.

Together Neenah and Maureen moved some cushions, boxes, and piles of folded clothing, making a sort of recliner on the floor, then they helped her to it. She sat on the cushions, leaned against the boxes, and the piles of folded clothes were placed under her knee. The support was wonderful. They covered her with a blanket and left her alone.

She went to sleep immediately, not hearing Perry when he returned.

Creed woke her a short time later, hobbling to her "room" with the aid of a cane and dragging a chair with him. Neenah followed, holding the Dopp Kit and giving him an exasperated look "He won't listen to me," she complained to Cate, though beneath the exasperation she looked strangely content.

"I know the feeling," Cate said wryly.

"Is this the right shaving kit?" Creed asked, taking it from Neenah.

Cate nodded. "There isn't another one in the house. Did you find anything?"

"Nothing. I dumped everything out, opened everything that would open – "

"And some that wouldn't," interjected Neenah.

He slanted a quick look up at her, a glance so laden with intimacy that Cate almost sucked in an audible breath. When had this happened?

Well, the answer to that was obvious: the same time it had happened for her and Cal.

"There's nothing here," said Creed. "I've felt the seams, the zipper, practically ripped the damn thing apart. If there was anything valuable, incriminating, or remotely interesting in this kit, I haven't found it."

Cate stared at the kit, forcing her tired brain to work. "They only think it's here," she said slowly.

"Think what's here?" Creed's tone was sharp.

"I don't know. But whatever it is, they think it's here because when they checked Layton's suitcase his shaving kit wasn't in it. Layton has it – the thing, it, whatever. He took it with him. When he climbed out the window and left, he was running, so of course he took whatever it is with him."

"Do they know he climbed out a window and took off?"

Slowly she shook her head, mentally going over what she'd told the mystery man when he'd called that day, pretending he worked for National. "At the time, I thought Mr. Layton must have had an accident somewhere. When some man called looking for him, I told him Mr. Layton had disappeared, that he hadn't checked out or returned for his things, and I thought he must have had an accident in the mountains. I didn't mention that he'd left by way of the window."

"Which puts an entirely different outlook on Mr. Layton's disappearance," said Creed. "If they'd known about the window, they'd have realized he bolted, and logic says he took what they're looking for with him. So now they think you still have it, and even if you tell them differently, they won't believe you, not after all this."

All this. Seven people dead. Creed wounded. An untold amount of damage to houses and vehicles, all for something that wasn't even here. Suddenly overwhelmed, Cate buried her face in her hands and wept.

Yuell Faulkner was more worried than he'd ever been in his life. He hadn't been able to get in touch with either Toxtel or Goss for three days now. He'd sent them on a simple retrieval, but they'd been gone a week. They should have been back days ago.

Bandini would be expecting to hear from him, and Yuell had nothing to tell him. He couldn't say they'd recovered the flash drive or that they'd found Layton – nothing.

He was spooked; he admitted it. He left a light on in his office to make it look as if he were still there, in ease anyone was watching the window, and left, by a basement exit that put him in an alley. Fine with him. He wasn't getting in his car and leading any watchers to his home, anyway.

He walked a couple of blocks and hailed a cab. After thirty minutes of aimlessly driving in circles, he got out, walked another couple of blocks, and got another cab. He watched carefully both times. No one appeared to be following. He took the precaution of exiting that taxi several blocks from his home and waited until it was out of sight before he turned in the correct direction.

At last he let himself into his house. The dark, familiar spaces enfolded him. Usually he could relax here, but until he heard from either Toxtel or Goss he wouldn't be able to relax anywhere. Damn it, did he need to go out to Idaho himself? If they'd screwed up, why hadn't they just called and admitted it? He'd think of something, some way to fix the situation, but he had to know what was going on.

He turned on a lamp and thought longingly of a nice stiff drink, but he needed to be in top form if anything went down. No drinks at all for him until he heard –

"Faulkner."

Yuell didn't turn toward the voice, the way most people would have. He dove to the side, toward the doorway.

It didn't work. The cough of a silenced weapon only slightly preceded an explosion of pain in his back. He forced himself to keep rolling, moving through the pain and shock, and felt another bullet enter. His legs jerked wildly, spasming out of control, and he crashed heavily into the wall. He tried to reach for his weapon, but nothing was where it was supposed to be and his hand sort of floated in the air, grasping at emptiness, which was damn stupid.

A dark, faceless shape loomed over him, but Yuell knew who it was. He knew that voice, had heard it in his nightmares.

The shape pointed at his face, and there was another cough, but Yuell didn't hear that one – or anything else, ever again.

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