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Cover Of Night (Chapter 8)

Cate didn't know what was going on, but she suspected that the man who had called late yesterday afternoon to book rooms for Messrs. Huxley and Mellor was the same man who had called earlier, pretending to be someone working at the car rental agency and asking about Jeffrey Layton. She couldn't be certain, and if she hadn't already been suspicious, the possibility would never have occurred to her, but both the accent and the voice had seemed familiar and after she'd hung up the phone the familiarity worried at her subconscious until she made the connection.

The two men were obviously looking for Layton, which was also suspicious. If they'd been worried about him because he'd disappeared, obviously they would have said so at the beginning, told her they were looking for their friend and asked questions about the morning he'd left. That they hadn't done so told her they weren't worried about his well-being at all. Mr. Layton was in trouble, and these two men were part of that trouble.

She shouldn't have let them stay here. She knew that now. If she had recognized the voice on the phone in time, she would have told him she didn't have any rooms available – not that she could have stopped the men from coming to Trail Stop, but at least they wouldn't be staving here in this house with her and the boys. A chill went down her back at the thought of the kids, and her mother, and even the three young men who had arrived yesterday afternoon for a couple of days of rock climbing. Had she inadvertently put them all in danger?

At least Mimi and the boys were out of the house right now. She had taken Tucker and Tanner for a walk, telling them that she was giving them another chance to prove they knew how to behave, and if they let her down this time… Of course, her mother never finished that line, but as a child Cate had imagined that letting her mother down a second time would come dose to causing the end of the world. Tucker and Tanner had looked suitably grave. Cate just hoped the walk was a long one.

There was the possibility that these two men had no connection with Jeffrey Lay ton at all. Cate couldn't completely dismiss the idea that her imagination was running away with her. The voices on the phone had been similar, but that didn't mean the calls had come from the same person – though Caller ID had once again shown no number in the phone window. She felt silly for letting herself think something sinister was going on, but at the same time she was alarmed.

The two men had been perfectly polite. The older one, Mellor, looked out of place in his suit and tie, but that in itself didn't mean anything. Maybe he'd been to a business meeting, flew in, and hadn't had a chance to change into more casual clothing. The other one, Huxley, was tall and handsome, and on the make. He'd checked her out, but she hadn't responded and he'd let it go instead of pushing. Maybe they had a perfectly innocent reason for being here –

That was where her thoughts turned back on themselves. Trail Stop wasn't on the main route; people had to deliberately come here; they didn't stop by on their way to somewhere else. If Huxley and Mellor weren't here to look for Jeffrey Layton, then why were they here? Her usual guests were vacationing families, hikers, couples on romantic getaways, fishermen, hunters, and rock climbers. She'd bet the house that neither of these men fished, hunted, or climbed, because they hadn't brought along any equipment or gear. Neither were they lovers – not after the way Huxley had been looking at her. Hikers, maybe, but she doubted it. She hadn't seen them carry in any hiking boots, walking sticks, backpacks, or any of the other paraphernalia serious hikers carried when they were going into remote areas.

The only logical reason left for their presence was Layton – and she didn't know what to do about it.

She went into the kitchen, where she had started making a batch of peanut butter cookies for the boys. Neenah Dase was sitting at the table, sipping a cup of tea. Business at the feed store was slow, so Neenah had put a sign on the door saving that she was at Cate's; anyone needing feed would come gel her.

Neenah was a native, born and bred in Trail Stop. Neenah's father had started the feed store more than fifty years before. Her older sister hadn't liked rural living at all, and had "gone city" as soon as she got out of high school; she was now living, very happily, in Milwaukee. Cate didn't know Neenah's story, other than the bit about her being a former nun – or novice (Cate didn't know if one could leave an order after becoming a full-fledged nun) – who had come home some fifteen years ago and taken over the day-to-day running of the feed store. When her parents died, Neenah inherited the store. She'd never married and, to Gate's knowledge, never dated.

Neenah was one of the calmest, most peaceful people Cate had ever met. Her light brown hair had such an ashy undertone that it had a silvery sheen. Her eyes were lake blue, and her skin was porcelain. She wasn't beautiful; her jaw was too square, her features too unsymmetrical. but she was one of those people who made you smile when you thought of her.

Cate liked most of the people in Trail Stop, but Neenah and Sherry were the ones she was closest to. Both of them were comfortable people to be around – Sherry because she was so upbeat, Neenah because she was so placid.

Placid didn't mean lacking in common sense, though. Cate sat down at the table and said, "I'm worried about my two new guests."

"Who are they?"

"Two men."

Neenah paused with her teacup almost at her lips. "You're afraid to be in the house with them?"

"Not in the way you mean." Cate rubbed her forehead. "I don't know if you know – " Since Trail Stop was so small, gossip seemed to be as fast as instant messaging. " – but one of my guests climbed out his bedroom window yesterday, drove away, and didn't come back. He left his things here, maybe because he couldn't carry a suitcase and climb off the roof at the same time. Yesterday, a man supposedly from a rental car agency called here looking for him, but when I called the agency later to give them an update, they had no record of Mr. Layton ever renting a car from them. Then late yesterday afternoon someone called and reserved rooms for the two men who just arrived and I think it was the same man who called pretending to be from the rental agency. Are you following this?"

Neenah nodded, her blue eyes serious. "Guest disappeared, people looking for him and lying about who they are, and now those same people are here."

"Essentially."

"It's obvious he was up to no good."

"And neither are the people looking for him."

"Gall the police," Neenah said decisively.

"And report what? They haven't done anything wrong. No laws have been broken. I've reported Mr. Layton missing, but because he didn't run out on his bill, other than check hospitals and ravines for him, there's nothing they can do. It's the same situation here. Just because I'm suspicious of these two is no reason for the police to even question them." Cate leaned over to retrieve her own cup of tea from where it was sitting, beside the bowl of cookie batter, and took a sip, then cocked her head as a faint sound from the hallway made her pulse jump. "Did you hear that?" she whispered urgently, getting to her feet and moving swiftly toward the hallway door.

"Don't – " Neenah said, looking alarmed, but Cate was already jerking the door open.

No one was there. No one was in the hallway, or on the stairs. She stepped closer to the stairs and looked up; from there she could see the doors to rooms three and five, and both were closed. She stuck her head into the dining room, but it, too, was empty. She turned back to the kitchen, where Neenah was standing anxiously in the doorway. "Nothing."

"Are you sure?"

"Maybe I'm just jumpy." Cate closed the door, rubbing her arms as chills roughened her skin. She picked up her teacup and sipped, but the tea had cooled and she made a face. Taking the cup to the sink, she dumped the remainder of the tea down the drain.

"I didn't hear anything, but you're more familiar with the sounds of the house. Could it have just been a creak?"

Cate replayed the sound in her mind. "It wasn't a creaking sound; it was more like someone brushed against the wall." She was too on edge to sit down again, so she resumed spooning up the cookie batter and dropping dabs onto the prepared cookie sheet, then flattening and shaping the dough with the flat of the spoon. "Like I said, maybe I'm just jumpy. The sound could have come from outside."

Beyond the closed kitchen door, Goss stepped silently out of what looked like a den, complete with toys strewn on the floor. That had been a close call, but he'd learned something important. Going up the stairs, he stayed close to the outside edge of the risers, testing each one before he put his full weight down, and he made it to the top without any betraying squeaks. He didn't knock on Toxtel's door, just opened it and slid inside. When he turned around, he was looking down the barrel of the Taurus.

Toxtel scowled as he lowered his arm. "You trying to get killed?"

''I overheard the Nightingale woman talking to some other woman downstairs," he explained in a low, urgent tone. "She's on to us. She mentioned calling the cops." That wasn't exactly what she'd said, but this was an opportunity he didn't intend to pass up.

"Shit! We need to find Layton's crap and get out of here."

Goss had hoped Toxtel would have that reaction. Neither he nor Toxtel were wanted, but they had checked in under assumed names and that, coupled with Layton's disappearing act, might strike some local yokel lawman as suspicious. Faulkner would be pissed beyond description if a hayseed cop traced them back to him, and even worse than that, Bandini would be even more unhappy that they'd brought that sort of attention to Layton. In a situation like this, caution went out the window and speed was important.

Toxtel began throwing the things he'd unpacked back into his bag. Goss went next door and did the same. Pulling the pillowcase off one of the fat pillows on the bed, he wiped down every surface he'd touched, including the doorknobs. Things might go down the way he hoped, they might not, but he believed in protecting himself. Now, if Toxtel would just escalate this beyond retrieval –

Less than two minutes after he'd entered Toxtel's room, they met in the hallway.

"Where are they?" Toxtel murmured. The Taurus was in his hand.

Goss leaned over the stair railing and pointed. "That door. The open door is the dining room, so the next one is probably the kitchen." Like Toxtel, he kept his voice down.

"Kitchen. That means knives." And because the availability of weapons was something they now had to factor in, that meant Toxtel would be even more alert. "Is anyone else in the house?"

"1 don't think so. I didn't hear anyone else."

"No kid?"

"Toys in the den downstairs, but no kid. Maybe in school."

Quietly they carried their bags downstairs and set them by the front door so they could grab them on the way out. Goss's veins were burning with adrenaline. A couple of bodies; a credit card charge that might not lead directly back to Faulkner, but a smart cop would eventually dig deep enough to find him; and a botched job for Bandini… the setup couldn't get any sweeter than this. And Toxtel's finger, not his own, was on the trigger. Even if he got caught up in the heat, he could plea-bargain, give up Toxtel, and be a free man in a few years. He'd have to change his name and disappear again, but that was no big deal. He was tired of being Kennon Goss.

Signaling for Goss to take his back, weapon in his hand, Toxtel pushed open the kitchen door. "Sorry to do it this way, ladies," he said calmly, "but you have something we want, Ms. Nightingale."

Cate froze, a spoonful of cookie dough in her hand. The older, suit-clad man stood just inside the door, an ugly black weapon in his hand. The only thought that sprang into her mind was a desperate prayer: God, please don't let Mom and the boys come back right now!

Neenah's face washed while, and she, too, was frozen, with the teacup still in her hand.

"W-what?" Cate stammered.

"The stuff Layton left here. We want it. Give it to us and there won't be any problem."

Cate felt as if her brain were mired in quicksand. Sheer disbelief that this was actually happening made her shake her head.

"I think you will," Mellor said softly. The weapon in his hand hadn't wavered, and it was pointing right at her head. She could see the black hole of the barrel.

"No, I didn't mean" – she swallowed – "of course – "

"Someone's coming" came a soft call, and she thought she would faint. Dear God, dear God, please don't let it be Mom and the boys�C"A guy in an old truck."

"See who it is," Mellor snapped, shifting the weapon so it pointed at Neenah, "and get rid of him."

Cate turned her head as she heard tires crunching on gravel outside the kitchen window. She recognized the truck, and the lanky figure crawling out of it. Relief was just as overwhelming as panic had been. She dropped the spoon into the bowl and grabbed the edge of the table as her knees threatened to buckle. "It – it's the handyman."

"Why's he here?"

For a moment she drew a blank; then she gave herself another little shake. "The mail. He's here for the mail. He's going into town."

Mellor reached out and grabbed Neenah by the collar of her shirt, dragging her out of the chair and out into the hall. "Get rid of him," he warned Cate again as steps sounded on the wooden porch, then the knock on the kitchen door. Mellor pulled the hallway kitchen door almost shut.

Her scalp was prickling with fear and she thought her hair must be standing on end, but she had to keep it together or that man would kill Neenah, she knew he would. He might kill both of them anyway, just for the fun of it, or to eliminate witnesses who could identify them. They needed help, but with Mellor standing there listening to everything she said, she didn't know what she could do, how she could alert Mr. Harris without alerting Mellor.

Trying to school her face to blankness, she opened the door.

"I'm on my way to town," Mr. Harris mumbled, looking down as his cheeks started coloring. "You have your mail ready?"

"I'll need to put postage on," she said, fighting to keep her voice from trembling. "It won't take but a minute." She didn't invite him in as she usually did, but dashed into the hallway where her desk was stationed by the stairway. Mellor jerked Neenah out of the way, keeping the barrel of his gun jammed against her temple. Out of the corner of her eye, Cate saw the other man, Huxley, stationed at the front door.

With shaking hands, Cate grabbed the four bills and hurriedly stuck stamps on them, then dashed back out. "Sorry to keep you waiting," she said as she handed the envelopes out the door to Mr. Harris.

He looked down at the envelopes, his dirty-blond hair falling over his eyes, and he shuffled them in his hands. "No problem," he said. "I'll bring that new lock by when I get back." Then he turned and went down the steps, climbed into his truck, and backed out of the driveway.

Cate closed the door, leaning her head against the frame. He hadn't noticed anything. There went her hope for help.

"That was good," Mellor said, opening the hallway door wider. "Now where is Layton's stuff?"

She turned around, sucking in quick little gasps of air as distress constricted her lungs. He had shifted his grip to Neenah's hair, holding her head pulled back at an unnatural angle and keeping her off-balance, unable to help herself. Neenah was gasping for breath, too, her mouth open, her eyes wide with horror.

Cate tried to think, tried to marshal her turgid brain into action. Which was best, to delay or to give them what they wanted and hope they would just leave? But if she delayed, what would that gain them? Any delay would only increase the chances that her mother and children would walk right into the middle of this, and she would do anything, anything, to prevent that from happening.

"Up – upstairs," she gasped. "In the attic."

Mellor pulled Neenah back, gesturing with his head. "Show us."

Her knees were trembling so violently Cate could barely walk, much less climb the stairs, and the terrified glance she shot behind her at Neenah told her Neenah wasn't in any better shape. Her friend was very quiet, not making a sound other than the panicked rasping of her breath, but she was visibly shaking.

Cate grasped the railing and hauled herself up, willing her legs to carry her. The staircase had never seemed so steep, or so high. The Victorian house had twelve-foot ceilings, so the stairs were higher than usual, and every one was an effort as she concentrated on not falling. "Hurry," the man behind her growled, shoving Neenah forward so that she hit Cate's legs and they both stumbled.

"Stop it!" Cate flared, whirling to face him, an unreasoning anger burning through the panic. "You're just making things more difficult. Do you want the damn suitcase or not?" Her own voice sounded distant to her, the tone oddly familiar. With a faint sense of shock, she realized it was the same tone she used with the boys when they became too unruly.

The man stared back at her, no expression in his eyes. "Keep moving."

"You stop shoving before you make us all break our necks!"

There was no color at all in Neenah's face, even her lips were white, and her eyes were so wide that white showed around the blue irises. She must have wondered what Cate had been thinking, snapping at the man who was grinding a gun barrel into her temple, but still not even a whimper escaped her. Oh, God, Cate thought in despair, what on earth was she doing? Without another word she turned around and began climbing again, but at least the brief surge of anger had steadied her knees.

At the top of the stairs she turned to the right and led the way to the dark end of the hall, and the door to the attic stairs. They might be killed up here, she thought as her blood turned to ice water at the thought. The delay in finding their bodies would give Mellor and his pal plenty of time to get away.

What would happen to her babies if she were killed? They wouldn't lack for love; her parents would take them, or Patrick and Andie, even though they were expecting their own baby now, but their lives would be forever scarred by violence. How much would they remember her? In ten years, would they have any memories of her at all? Would they ever truly realize how much she loved them?

Damn Jeffrey Layton for bringing this to her house! she thought with fierce, sudden violence. If she ever got her hands on him, she would choke him to death.

Laboriously they made their way up the steep, narrow attic stairs. His eyes narrowed, Mellor surveyed the crowded space as he pushed Neenah forward. "Where is it?"

"Here." Cate went to the suitcase and pulled it out. She started to tell him that whatever he was looking for, he was wasting his time, because there was nothing in the suitcase except clothing, but she choked the words back. Maybe it was better to let him think he had what he wanted. Maybe he wouldn't kill them; maybe he'd leave her and Neenah up here and leave.

Gripping the handle of the suitcase, she turned to face him, and froze.

Calvin Harris stood at the top of the stairs, a shotgun raised to his shoulder as he aimed directly at the back of Mellor's head.

Cate jerked back, her head banging against the top of the sloping ceiling as she instinctively tried to get out of the line of lire.

Alerted by her actions, Mellor swung around, taking Neenah with him.

"Let her go," the handyman said calmly. The big weapon in his hands was as steady as a rock, his cheek nestled against the stock, and the eyes she had previously thought of as "washed out" were as pale and cold as ice.

Mellor smiled a little. "That's a shotgun. You kill me, you kill the women, too. Not a good choice of weapon."

Calvin's smile matched Mellor's. "Except it's loaded with a slug, not shot. At this distance, it'll take your head off and not touch Neenah at all."

"Yeah, sure. Put the shotgun down, or she's dead."

"Analyze the situation," Calvin said softly. "Your buddy isn't coming up those stairs to help. You can get off a shot, yeah, but not in time to stop me from pulling the trigger. I use this shotgun for deer hunting, so believe me when I say it's loaded with slugs instead of pellets. You might get me, you might get Neenah, but the bottom line is you'll be dead, too. So we can either have two dead people, or everyone can live and you get your buddy and get out of here."

"You can have the suitcase, too," Cate choked out. Anything to keep them from coming back.

Mellor inhaled deeply as he did the math. The fact was, they were at a stalemate, and the only way he could get out of it alive was to drop his weapon. Cate tried to follow what was going through his mind, but all she could think was he'd have to trust Calvin wouldn't shoot him after he was disarmed. Mellor himself would probably kill them all in cold blood, but Calvin wouldn't.

Very deliberately, Mellor released Neenah and clicked the safety on the automatic. She slumped to the floor, unable to even stand. Cate started toward her, but Calvin threw an icy glance at her, and she halted, belatedly understanding that he didn't want her any closer to Mellor.

"Now drop it," Calvin instructed.

The weapon hit the floor with a heavy thud. Cate flinched, thinking it would go off, but nothing happened.

"Get the suitcase and leave."

Slowly, not making any sudden moves, Mellor retrieved the suitcase from Cate. Cate stared at him, her eyes wide. Their gazes met for a brief moment. His was still calm and expressionless, as if this was all in a day's work.

"Cate," said Calvin. She blinked at him. "Pick up the pistol."

She scrambled for the weapon, gingerly picking it up. She'd never touched a gun before, and she was surprised by the weight.

"See that button on the left side? Push it."

Holding the pistol in her right hand, she used her left forefinger to push the button.

"Okay," Calvin said, "you just took the safety off. Don't pull the trigger unless you mean to shoot. Go down the stairs first, and stay far enough away from him that he can't reach you. We'll be behind you. Go past the head of the stairs, and keep the gun aimed at him until I'm out of the stairwell and behind him again. You got that?"

The logic of it made sense. If he'd let Mellor go first, either he'd have had to be so close behind that Mellor could grab the shotgun, or Mellor would be out of sight for a few seconds after he reached the bottom of the stairs. Cate couldn't imagine what Calvin thought Mellor could do in those few seconds, but if he thought there was danger, she was willing to go along with him.

Where was the other man, Huxley? What had Calvin done with him?

She went down the stairs much faster than she'd gone up them, not entirely on purpose. Her knees were still wobbly and she half-ran, half-stumbled down them. She kept a death grip on the weapon, all the while sending up a prayer that Mellor wouldn't try anything, because she had no idea what she was doing. She went past the head of the stairs and turned, pointing the barrel at Mellor and using both hands to hold the weapon as steady as she could. It wobbled because she was still shaking, but she thought – she hoped – she was aiming it close enough to him that he wouldn't take any chances.

Calvin followed Mellor at a safe distance, and in contrast to her own trembling, he seemed ice cold and impervious to stress.

"Keep going," he told Mellor in that same soft tone. They headed down the stairs.

After a moment Cate moved forward to follow. Neenah came down the attic stairs then, moving very slowly and clinging to first the bannister and then the door frame. Her gaze met Cate's and she swallowed. "I'm okay," she said in a thready tone. "Go help Cal."

Cate went down the stairs to the bottom floor. She saw the other man lying on the floor in front of the front door, his hands tied behind him. He was groggily trying to sit up.

"I can't manage him and three bags at the same time," Mellor said.

"So untie him. He'll be able to walk." Calvin kept the shotgun at his shoulder.

Mellor untied Huxley and helped him to his feet. The other man swayed, but stayed upright. His blue eyes glared hatred at Calvin, but he might as well have saved the effort for all the reaction Calvin showed.

Between them, the two men picked up the three bags and went out onto the front porch, Huxley stumbling and weaving but managing to walk. Following Calvin onto the porch, Cate watched them stow the bags in the Tahoe, then climb into the front seats.

Just before Mellor cranked the engine, she heard the faint, high-pitched sound of her children's voices, and knew her mother was returning with the boys. She almost burst into tears at the realization of how close they had come to walking into a deadly situation.

Huxley shot both of them a deadly glare as the Tahoe went past. She and Calvin watched until it was out of sight.

"You okay?'" he finally asked, still looking down the road. She wondered if he thought they might come back.

"I'm line." Her voice was thin with shock, almost soundless. She cleared her throat and tried again. "I'm fine. Neenah – "

"I'm okay," Neenah said, appearing in the doorway. She was still white, still shaky, but she was no longer clinging to things to walk. "Just shook up, I think. Are they gone?"

"Yeah," Calvin said. He held the shotgun easily in one hand, the barrel now pointing downward, as he gave Cate a searching look. "That was a good idea, turning the stamps upside down."

It had worked; her pitiful attempt at signaling for help had worked! "I read… I read that an upside-down flag is a distress signal."

He dipped his head in a brief nod. "You were nervous and shaky, too. I drove down the street and circled back on foot, figured I'd check things out and make sure everything was okay."

"I didn't think you'd noticed." He'd glanced at the envelopes, shuffling them in his hands, but hadn't even blinked his eyes to show any reaction.

"I noticed."

His calmness made her feel her own shakiness even more acutely. She looked at Neenah and saw that she, too, was trembling as she tried to hold things together. With a choked sob Cate dropped the gun she was holding and grabbed Neenah in a tight hug and they clung together for comfort and support. She felt Calvin putting his arms around both of them, murmuring something soft and probably comforting, if she'd been able to understand what he was saying, but the actual words didn't matter. A part of her brain noticed that he was still holding the shotgun, and that was definitely comforting. For a long moment they leaned into his surprising strength; then she heard Tucker's piping shout as he raced toward them, Tanner keeping pace beside him.

"Mr. Hawwis! Is that a gun?"

Her children's voices had Cate straightening and wiping her face dry of the tears that had seeped under her lashes, and she went down the steps to grab both of them and pull them tightly to her.

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