Cover Of Night (Chapter 10)

The house was full of locals, all wanting to know what had happened. Almost automatically Cate put on coffee and began serving it. but Sheila looked at her daughter's tense expression and firmly said, "Sit. People can serve themselves."

Cate sat. Tucker and Tanner were in the dining room, too; she normally didn't allow them in when customers were there, but this was different. This was neighbors gathering in a time of trouble, not customers. She watched the boys' expressions, trying to see if they were picking up on any of the undercurrents. They were excited, but that was all. When they'd asked Calvin why he had the gun, he said there'd been a snake in the attic and he'd had to get rid of it. Naturally they were fascinated by both the shotgun and the snake, demanding to see both, and they'd been disappointed that the snake was gone. As far as they were concerned, all this talk and excitement was over the snake – and Cate supposed the) weren't wrong. The) just didn't know the snake had been human. Now they were right in the middle of things, their gazes ping-ponging from person to person as the situation was discussed.

"You should have held them until the rest of us could get here," Roy Edward Starkey groused to Cal. He was eighty-seven, and his opinions often reflected a time when interlopers who dared harm one of the town's own would have been strung from the nearest tree.

"Seemed smarter to give them what they wanted and get them out of here before someone got hurt," Cal said calmly.

"We need to call the sheriff," said Milly Earl.

"Yeah, but I'm the one most likely to be arrested," Cal pointed out. "I hit one of them on the head."

"I agree with Milly," put in Neenah. "We have to call the police right away. I'm not hurt, but I was scared half to death."

"Did the snake almost bite you?" Tucker asked, going to her and leaning against her legs. His big blue eyes were round with excitement.

"It came close," she said gravely, brushing a hand over his dark hair. Tanner leaned close, too, never taking his gaze from her face, and he also received one of those gentle caresses.

"Wow," Tucker breathed. "And Mr. Hawwis saved you?"

"He did."

"With the shotgun," Tanner prompted, sotto voce, when she didn't continue.

"Yes, he saved me with the shotgun."

Roy Edward looked down at the boys, distracted by their alikeness, and asked of no one in particular, "Which one's which?"

"That's easy," Walter Earl said with a laugh. "If one of them has his mouth open talking, that's Tucker."

Everyone in the room chuckled, and the atmosphere relaxed a little.

Cate's heart ached with love, and a fierce sense of protectiveness welled inside her. They were so little, their heads craned upward as they tried to catch every word in a room full of chattering adults. They were just four, and the big accomplishment in their lives right now was learning how to dress themselves. They were completely dependent on her for their safety and well-being. She turned to Sheila and said, "I want you to leave tomorrow, and take them with you. Keep them until this all dies down."

Sheila reached for her hand, squeezing. "Do you think they'll come back?" she asked, her eyes narrowing. She'd been quiet since returning from the walk with her grandchildren to find her daughter had been held at gunpoint, and belatedly Cate realized Sheila was feeling her own sense of protectiveness.

"I'm terrified," she admitted. "But why would they come back? They don't have am reason to, since I gave them the suitcase, and I know this is probably nothing more than reaction to the shock, but I'll feel better if you have the boys safe. The most awful thing about the whole situation was thinking that the three of yon could have walked into the middle of things." She fell sick to her stomach all over again, the remembered terror almost as debilitating as it had been while the situation was happening. "I don't know what I'd have done – " Her voice broke and she clenched her jaw to control the tears that hovered just on the edge of breaking free.

"You know how much I want to take them for a visit, but sleep on this tonight and see if you still feel the same way tomorrow." Sheila paused, then added, "You don't know how much it irks me to play fair."

The comment was so Sheila that it pulled Cate back from tearfulness, and the look she gave her mother was full of both love and appreciation. "I do, actually."

Sherry Bishop came over to pat Cate's shoulder. "You need to call the sheriff."

"It isn't that I'm against the idea," Cate said, managing a smile that was only slightly wobbly. "I just don't think there's anything they can do. Those men probably gave me false names, and are long gone anyway. This proves Mr. Layton was up to no good, but even though threatening someone with a pistol is against the law, the bottom line is, no one was hurt. So I could file a report, but that would likely be the end of it. Why bother?"

"They had guns! They robbed you! That's a felony! You have to call the police! It has to be on record, in case they come back."

"I guess you're right." She swiftly glanced over at Calvin.

"Though I don't think I'll mention Mr. Harris hitting one of them on the head." She looked away just as quickly, oddly disturbed. One memory kept popping into her head with shattering clarity, and that was the way he'd looked with that shotgun aimed right at Mellor's head. She'd had no doubt he would pull the trigger, and she realized Mellor had come to the same conclusion. In that single moment she'd seen a part of Calvin she'd never dreamed existed, and she couldn't reconcile the painfully shy, gentle handyman with the man whose eyes had been so cold and his hands so steady on that deadly weapon.

No one else seemed surprised by what he'd done, so maybe she was the only one who'd been blind. The simple fact was. since Derek's death she had focused completely on raising the boys and running the bed-and-breakfast, and nothing else had impinged on her awareness. She hadn't fell curious about, any of her neighbors, hadn't asked any questions that would have given her information about who and what they were beyond the surface of daily living. She had got through the years alone by pulling in and plowing on, dealing with what she had to, and blocking out everything else. Overwhelmed as she'd been, that was the only way she could have survived.

What else lay behind the kindness of her neighbors? Neenah was her closest friend here, but Cate really didn't know anything about her. She didn't even know why she'd left the religious order. Was that because Neenah didn't want to talk about it, or because Cate had never asked? She felt ashamed, and ached inside because of the years of friendship wasted, when she could have reached out and hadn't.

They were all here now, her neighbors, gathering as soon as they'd heard there was trouble. She had no doubt that, had they known in time, they'd have faced down Mellor and Huxley with whatever weapons they had at hand. After knowing these people for three years, she felt as if she was for the first time actually seeing them. Right now Roy Edward had sat down and was taking things out of" his pocket to show Tanner, trying to entice him into talking. Her dealings with Roy Edward before had made her think he was crotchety and impatient, but he seemed to be connecting because Tanner had taken his finger out of his mouth and was leaning close, interest written on his face as he examined a pocketknife and a buckeye.

Milly came over to pat Cate's shoulder. "If you don't mind my taking over your kitchen, I'll brew a little tea for you and Neenah. Tea's more the thing than coffee when you're upset. Don't know why, but there it is."

"I'd love some tea," Cate said, dredging up another smile, though she really didn't want any tea. She and Neenah had been drinking tea when Mellor had come into the kitchen and pointed his gun at them. She suspected Milly felt the need to do something, and cooking was her chosen arena. Neenah had heard Milly's offer; Cate glanced across the room and their gazes met. Neenah made a little grimace, then looked rueful. She felt the same way as Cate about drinking tea again just now.

Rather than put the call off, and also because she wanted to be able to tell everyone gathered there what Seth Marbury said, Cate slipped away to the family den and called the sheriff's department one more time. He didn't answer the phone, so she left a voice mail message, then leaned back on the sofa and closed her eyes, using the relative peace and quiet of the room to steady her frayed nerves. She could hear the rise and fall of voices in the dining room, sometimes sharp with anger on their behalf, but for the most part the discussions had calmed down.

The phone rang before she could gather the strength to return, and it was Marbury returning her call.

"I'm not certain I understood exactly what you said." His tone was crisp and alert, which made her think he'd understood, but wasn't certain he believed.

"Two men checked in today," she explained, "then came downstairs a short while later and held a pistol on Neenah Dase and me, demanding I give them the things Jeffrey Layton left behind. I did, and they left. I think it's safe to say Mr. Layton was up to no good, and neither were these two men."

"What were their names?" Marbury asked.

"Mellor and Huxley."

"First names?"

"Let's see." She got up to go into the hall and get her guest book, and hesitated when she saw Calvin Harris standing just inside the room, listening to her side of the conversation. He had a vested interest, so she waved him farther into the room as she fetched the guest book and brought it into the den.

"They're listed as Harold Mellor and Lionel Huxley.

"How did they pay?"

"The man who called yesterday afternoon and made the reservations for them gave me a credit card number. I think it was the same man who called pretending to be from the rental car agency. I can't be certain, but I think the voice was the same. And the Caller ID said Unknown Name, Unknown Number both times.

"What's the name on the credit card?"

"The name he gave me was Harold Mellor, hi it I know it wasn't the same man who was here today; their voices were completely different."

"Have you run the charge through yet?"

"Yes, and it went through."

"It could still be a fake card. That's something we can check, though. Did you get their license plate number?"

"No." Writing down tag numbers wasn't something she normally did when a guest checked in – though she thought she might start.

"And they left without harming anyone after you gave them Layton's things?"

"That's right. They didn't harm anyone."

Calvin made a motion that said he wanted to speak to Marbury. Cate raised her eyebrows in question, silently asking if he was certain, and he nodded. "Hold on," she said to Marbury. "Mr. Harris wants to speak to you. This is Investigator Seth Marbury," she said to Calvin as she extended the phone to him.

"This is Cal Harris," he said, sounding his usual normal, quiet self, Cate felt an unsettling moment of shifting reality, as if she had lost her balance. She stared at him in disbelief that he could be the same man who had been so calm and cold as he aimed his shotgun at someone's head. It was too much to take in, and almost in self-defense she found herself focusing on the strong hand that held the phone. Luckily for her and Neenah, he'd handled a shotgun as competently as he handled a hammer or a wrench.

Marbury must have asked what he did for a living. He said, "Whatever needs doing. Carpentry, plumbing, mechanic work, roofing."

He listened for a minute. Cate could hear the rumble of Marbury's voice, but couldn't make out the words. Calvin said, "When Mrs. Nightingale gave me her mail to take to town, she'd put the stamps on upside down. You know – the kind that come in a roll of a hundred. It's the American Hag." More rumbling from Marbury. 'Yeah. I thought she looked kind of upset, so I took the chance I was acting like an idiot and came back. Just to be on the safe side. Brought my shotgun with me. That's the reason the two left without hurting anyone." More rumbling and a moment later he said, "No, no shots were tired, by anyone. My Mossberg trumped his Taurus – which, by the way, he left behind.' A faint thread of amusement ran through his tone.

"Tomorrow's okay," he finally said, and handed the phone back to her.

"Mrs. Nightingale," Marbury said, "I'm coming tomorrow to take Mr. Harris's statement. Is it convenient for you to give one, too?"

"Sure. After ten o'clock would be best," she said.

"No problem. I'll be there at eleven."

Cate clicked the "off" button and stood there, knowing she needed to rejoin the group in the dining room, but inertia held her feet rooted to the spot. "How could this happen?" she finally said.

"It's going to be okay."

She realized he hadn't mumbled at all during those awful, tense moments in the attic, nor had he blushed once. He must be one of those people who rose to the occasion when he had to, then settled back into his comfort zone when the crisis was over. She would never again be able to look at him in the same way, she thought. ''Calvin, I – " She stopped, and to her confusion felt her own cheeks turn hot. "I haven't told you how grateful I am – "

He looked shocked, staring at her as if she had two heads. "You don't have to tell me. I know."

Because of the boys, she thought. He knew how petrified she'd been that Sheila would bring the boys back while Mellor and Huxley were still there. Grateful that she didn't have to explain, she turned and hurried back to the dining room. He followed more slowly, and suffered a thigh-level mugging from two four-year-olds demanding once again to know how big the snake was and what he'd done with it.

She told the gathered neighbors what the detective had said, and that he was coming out tomorrow to take statements. By then Milly had the tea brewed to her satisfaction and Cate was obliged to sit and sip, as was Neenah. To her surprise, her nerves did begin to settle and the faint sense of everything being out of place began to fade. It wasn't until her three rock-climbing guests returned, tired and windburned and happy, that the gathering dispersed.

Because there was no restaurant in Trail Stop, the nearest one being over thirty miles away, at extra cost Cate provided an evening meal of sandwiches, chips, and dessert if the guests asked for it. Her climbers had, so she got busy with the cold cuts and cheese. Her mother kept the boys occupied, though they kept asking to go to the attic so they could hunt snakes, too, and got them fed while Cate was serving the climbers. By the time she and Sheila sat down, Cate was so tired she could barely eat. She knew it was her body's reaction to the day's stressful events; she was as exhausted as if she'd climbed all day, then hiked ten miles.

"Mom, I'm so sleepy," she muttered, covering a yawn with her hand.

"Why don't you have an early night for a change," her mother suggested, in a tone that made it sound more like an order. "I tan get the boys to bed."

Cate surprised her, and perhaps even herself, by agreeing. "I'm dead on my feet. While you're putting them to bed, why don't you broach the subject of going home with you? They've never spent the night away from me, so they may be resistant."

"Leave them to me," Sheila said smugly. "By the time I get through with them, they'll think Mimi's home is better than Disneyland.'

"They haven't been there, either, so they may not get the comparison."

"Never mind the details. By morning, they'll be begging you to let them go. That's if you're certain you want them to go. I still think you should sleep on it, make certain you aren't saying this just because of what happened today."

"Of course I am," Cate said. "I want my children safe, and right now I don't feel they are. Maybe I'm overreacting, but I don't care."

Sheila hugged her. "It's your prerogative to overreact. And I won't hold it against you if you change your mind in the morning… much."

"Oh, thank you, that's reassuring," Cate said, and laughed. She hugged the boys and kissed them good night, explaining that Mommy was tired and was going to bed early, but that Mimi would put them to bed tonight, and they were satisfied. All the excitement had worn them out, too; they were already yawning and rubbing their eyes.

Cate brushed her teeth and showered, then fell into bed. She was so tired her body felt boneless, but her thoughts chased around like crazed squirrels, darting hither and you, unable to settle on anything. She kept reliving snippets of the day, flash-card images: Neenah's white face, the look in Calvin's pale eyes as his finger tightened on the trigger of the shotgun – She hadn't really noticed it at the time, but now she saw it over and over, the slight twitch of his finger that meant he intended to shoot.

Mellor must have seen the same thing, she thought, that telltale little motion, and decided to do things Calvin's way. She shivered, feeling cold, and curled up in the bed so she could tuck her feet closer to her body for heat. She was often cold at night, and sometimes it wasn't so much her reaction to the temperature as it was her aloneness, which seemed more acute in the dark. Tonight she huddled under the blanket with fear as a companion, fear for her children, fear of the violence that had come to her home that day, and she was made colder by the company.

Her subconscious replayed the look in Calvin's eyes. She had known him for three years, but she felt as if she had seen him, really seen him, for the first time today. She had discovered a lot of things about her neighbors today, appreciated them in new ways, but this was different. Her perception of Calvin hadn't undergone an adjustment; it had suffered a sea change.

Never again could she look at him and see just a painfully shy, good-hearted handyman.

Even worse, she felt as if more had changed than she realized, as if there had been a major shift in her life, but she hadn't yet found exactly where, or how much the foundations had moved. She didn't know how to react, what to think, because she didn't know if she stood on solid ground or on quicksand.

The memory of Calvin's pale eyes, the expression in them, arrowed into her with piercing clarity, and she went to sleep while trying to puzzle out if she should feel safer now, or more in peril than before.

Cal Harris had long ago discovered that if he stood at the window in his darkened bedroom, he could see the light in the window of Cate Nightingale's bedroom. The B and B was perhaps the equivalent of a block and a half down the road, but the road had a dogleg angle in it that let him see the windows of the two front bedrooms. The first set of windows was the twins' bedroom. The second set was Cate's.

He'd been in her bedroom when he was working on the plumbing in the attached bath. She liked pretty things, like fancy throw pillows on the bed, and in the bathroom were thick cotton rugs that matched the shower curtain and the thing that covered the lid of the John. Her bedroom smelled good, too, like a faint perfume… and like a woman. He'd looked at her bed and his imagination had gone wild.

His reaction to her was so strong he couldn't control it. He blushed and stammered like a fourteen-year-old, to the endless amusement of their neighbors. For three years they'd been urging him to ask her out, but he hadn't. From the way she called him "Mr. Harris" and looked at him as if he were her grandfather, he knew she was nowhere near ready to start dating.

It had been a while since he'd aimed a weapon at another human being with the intention of pulling the trigger, but that bastard, Mellor, had come within a hair of having his head blown up like an exploding pumpkin. Only the realization that Cate was watching, and that she would have been even further traumatized, had stayed Gal's finger on the trigger. He never wanted her to look at him with the sort of terror that had been in her eyes when she'd looked at Mellor.

Tonight her bedroom window was dark. He saw the twins' light come on, then go off about fifteen minutes later, but Cate's light never came on. Intuitively he guessed she was exhausted, and was aheady in bed; her mother must have put the boys to bed.

For three years he'd waited, and common sense had long since told him to give up and move on, but he hadn't. Whether it was bone-deep stubbornness that held him, or the little boys clinging to his legs and his heart, or Cate herself, he hadn't been able to say, "That's enough, I'm through.''

The day's terror had broken down some barricades. He sensed it, knew it. Today, for the first time, she'd called him "Calvin." And she'd been the one blushing.

He went to bed feeling as if the world had shifted, and he would start tomorrow standing in a new place.