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Cover Of Night (Chapter 9)

Goss and Toxtel drove all the way back to the main road before they spoke. Goss had been content to let the silence continue because his head hurt like a son of a bitch and his ego had been squashed like a bug. How in fuck had a damn handyman taken him from behind like that? He couldn't remember hearing anything, seeing anything, just the back of his head exploding with pain and the lights going out. Bastard must have hit him with the shotgun butt.

The best thing about Toxtel was that he wasn't chatty. He didn't waste time asking what the hell had happened, either, when it was obvious what had happened.

Hot nausea boiled in Goss's throat and he said, "Pull over, I gotta puke."

Toxtel whipped the Tahoe to the side of the road and stopped. The two left wheels were still on the pavement, since there wasn't much of a shoulder, and when he got out, Goss almost fell into a gully or ravine or whatever the hell they were called. Balancing himself with a hand on the side of the SUV, he made his way to the rear bumper and bent over with his hands braced on his knees.

The position made his head throb even worse, and all the trees and bushes and other green shit did a slow, sickening whirl.

He heard the driver's door slam, and Toxtel came around the side. "You okay?"

"'Concussion," Goss managed to say. He sucked in deep breaths, righting the nausea. Letting a handyman get the jump on him was bad enough: he didn't want to puke in front of Toxtel, too.

Toxtel wasn't exactly a touchy-feely guy. He didn't so much as grunt in sympathy. Instead he opened the back cargo door and pulled Layton's suitcase to him. "Let's see what we have," he said. "I want to make certain the flash drive is here before I call Faulkner.'"

Goss managed to straighten as Toxtel unzipped the bag and began pulling things out. Every garment was examined, every pocket and seam felt, then dropped to the ground. A plastic shopping bag yielded a TracFone. which looked promising, but when Toxtel popped the back off, it revealed nothing more interesting than batteries. Determinedly, he dismantled the entire phone and still came up empty.

There was a pair of black wingtips in the suitcase, and Toxtel turned his attention to them. Holding each shoe with the heel pointing out, he beat them against the truck frame until the heels came off. No flash drive.

Next was the suitcase itself. Toxtel ripped out the lining, felt every inch of the bag, even cut the stitching on the handles and examined them.

"Fuck!" he swore, sending the suitcase sailing. "It isn't here."

"Maybe Layton took the flash drive with him. All he had to do was slip it into his pocket," Goss said. He was disappointed this opportunity to screw Faulkner hadn't worked out, but right now his head hurt too much for him to think of another plan.

"That's if he wasn't planning to come back. Hell, he could have carried it in his pocket all the time anyway. I'd buy that, if there wasn't something suspicious about this suitcase."

"Like what?" Goss asked tiredly. "You've taken it apart, and didn't find anything."

"Yeah, and it's what I didn't find that makes me think that bitch held out on us."

"Like what?" Goss asked again.

"Do you see a razor, toothbrush, comb, deodorant, anything like that?"

Goss surveyed the scattered contents, and even with a pounding headache came to the obvious conclusion. "She didn't give us everything."

"Most men carry their crap in a shaving kit. There aren't a lot of clothes here, either. I think there's another suitcase."

''Fuck." Goss sat down on the bumper and gingerly felt the knot on the back of his head. The lightest touch sent spikes of pain spinning through his skull, and little twinkling lights danced in front of his eyes. A second chance was presenting itself, but he couldn't think clearly enough to grasp what it was.

"We can't go back in," Toxtel said grimly. "She knows us now, and she probably called the cops."

Through the haze of pain, Goss saw Toxtel's dilemma. He could call Faulkner and tell him what had gone down, tell him to send in someone else – but that would be quitting, and neither of them had ever quit, ever said they couldn't do the job.

It wasn't just ego. They made their money taking care of things. They both had the reputation of getting the job done no matter how much shit went down, and because of that Faulkner sent more jobs their way. Let their reliability slide, even once, and the doubt would always be there. It wasn't as if they were on salary, for fuck's sake. They got a percentage of whatever the kill fee was, and since they got the tougher jobs, the fee was higher, which meant their take was higher.

"I've got the beginnings of an idea," Toxtel said, turning to look back down the road. "Let me think about it some. First, do you need a doctor?"

"No." The response was automatic. After it came out of his month, Goss mentally took stock of his condition, and said again, "No – unless I go to sleep and you can't wake me up."

"I'm not sitting by your fucking bedside shaking you awake every hour," Toxtel said flatly. "So you better be damn sure you're feeling okay."

That was Toxtel: all heart. "Let's go," Goss snapped. "Let me know when this grand plan takes shape."

The problem was: Go where? They needed at least a temporary place to stay, and he couldn't remember seeing even a fleabag motel since landing at the airstrip. Toxtel got out the map and opened it on the hood of the Tahoe, while Goss dug in his own luggage to see if he'd brought anything for pain. His own shaving kit yielded one of those sealed-plastic individual doses of ibuprofen that you bought in airports, and he popped both pills, swallowing them dry That was another thing; they needed something to eat and drink, too. At least that little town they'd gone through would be able to provide that, and if they were lucky it might have a motel on some side street.

"This map doesn't tell me shit." Toxtel growled, folding it up and tossing it back into the Tahoe.

"What are you looking for?" Goss asked as he carefully made his way back to the passenger door and got in. One slip of the foot and he'd fall a good hundred feet or so. It wasn't a straight drop, and he'd probably bounce into a tree and stop instead of going all the way down, but he wouldn't like the experience. Something was wrong with all those fools who liked the great outdoors. As far as he was concerned, fuck nature.

"I need one of those maps that shows mountains, shit like that."

"Topographical," Goss said.

"Yeah. That kind."

"Why do you need to find a mountain? Look around you," he growled, waving a hand to indicate the world beyond the windshield. There were plenty of mountains out there. Look in any direction, nothing but fucking mountains.

"What I need," Toxtel said slowly, "is to figure out if there's any way we can box that place in. We know there's just the one road, and it ends there. Can we block it so no one can leave?"

Goss's headache was suddenly unimportant as he grasped the basic idea Toxtel was proposing. If he'd ever heard of a situation fraught with possibilities for escalation, this was it. "We'd need aerial shots, too," he mused. "Make sure there's not some pig trail the locals use that isn't on any state map. The terrain is pretty rough; I'm thinking that if we could block a few spots, the rest would be too rugged for them to get out."

Toxtel nodded, his face taking on that narrow-eyed, set expression that said he was committing himself to a course of action. This would take money, Goss thought, and more people. He and Toxtel couldn't handle this on their own. And they'd also need someone who knew the area and the type of people they'd be up against. Goss knew his limitations. He was at home on concrete, not dirt. Put him out here against some yahoo who was used to deer hunting and crap like that, and who probably had an entire wardrobe of camouflage clothing, and he'd be severely disadvantaged. His biggest asset was his brain, so he intended to use it.

"We'd have to make certain all the guests at the B and B were gone," he muttered, thinking aloud. "People would be expecting them back, expecting them to call in, something."

"How would we know that?"

"Someone will have to go in and check, someone local – or at least someone who won't look suspicious."

Toxtel started the engine and put the vehicle in gear. "I know someone I can call."

"You know people here?"

"No, but I know someone who knows someone, if you get my drift."

Goss got it. He leaned his aching head back against the headrest, then winced at the pressure and instead eased sideways until he could lean against the side window. The glass was cool, and gave him a tiny bit of relief. He closed his eyes. They didn't want to rush into anything; they'd take the time to think things over, hammer out the details. He dozed off imagining tick marks placed beside items on a list: power lines cut, check; telephone service out, check; bridge blocked, check; breaking that bastard handyman's neck, check. Just like counting sheep, only better.

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