Cover Of Night (Chapter 16)
Blake was using a Weatherby Mark V Magnum .257, a truly sweet piece of work that packed a heavy punch. Billy had a Winchester; Troy, a Springfield M21. The Weatherby and Winchester were good hunting rifles; the Springfield was more suitable for sniping. Teague's chosen weapon was a Parker-Hale M85, with a bipod system for stability. Both the Springfield and the Parker-Hale were long-distance rifles, capable of reaching out and touching someone a mile distant, if the person pulling the trigger had sufficient skill.
Teague had chosen the weapons with their differences in mind. Blake and Billy would take the night shifts, when the infrared scopes would be needed. The scopes had a physical limit; anything beyond four hundred yards just wasn't going to show up. So their rifles were best for the middle ranges. Troy and Teague could use high-powered binoculars during the day, and their long-range rifles would put the fear of God into anyone they saw moving about the community. These, too, had infrared scopes, but Troy and Teague wouldn't have to depend solely on them.
Goss and Toxtel were positioned to move in close to where the bridge had once spanned the rushing mountain stream, once the debris had settled. With their handguns they were responsible for any close-range action, which Teague didn't expect at all.
The roar of the explosion and the subsequent rain of debris hadn't vet settled when people began running out of their houses to see what was happening. Calmly and deliberately, the four men began shooting, driving the good citizens of Trail Stop farther and farther back.
As soon as the lights went out, Cal was moving, reaching for his weatherproof flashlight and heading for his door. If the electricity was out at the feed store, which was one of the first buildings on the way into Trail Stop, then it was almost certainly out for the entire community – and Cate was alone in her house. He was at the door when the explosion knocked him off his feet; he was already rolling when he landed, the flashlight gripped tight in his hand so he wouldn't lose it.
The darkness, the explosion, the blast of the percussion, threw him straight into battle mode. Adrenaline roared through his body, and he didn't stop to think, didn't have to think, because this was not second nature at all but first nature, his nature. Thrusting the flashlight into his front pocket, he opened the door and crawled out onto the landing of the outside stairs. There were no vertical safety railings around the landing, just a frame made of weathered two-by-fours. He gripped the edge of the landing and swung himself over, hanging for a split second before dropping into the darkness. Since he couldn't see the ground, it was difficult to anticipate and control his landing, but familiarity let him judge it within a cat's whisker. He bent his knees to absorb the shock, tucked into a roll, and came up behind his parked pickup.
He was already on the ground when the first shot was fired.
His ears were ringing from the explosion, but he could still pinpoint the direction the shots were coining from… correction: directions… four different firing locations. Rifle fire, from across the stream. The explosion had come from the direction of the bridge; maybe a vehicle had exploded while crossing the bridge, but he didn't think so, the sound was all wrong. Since there was nothing else in that direction, instinct told him the bridge had been blown. Why and by whom were questions that would wait. fie had to get to Cate.
A heavy round punched at an angle through the walls of his living room, blowing splinters of wood over the pickup as it exited. Whoever was on the other side of the stream was systematically shooting into the houses.
From the bridge, the feed store was the third building on the right; Neenah's house was the first, and was one of the most exposed. Creed had gone to her house, which meant Cal had to consider that his former commanding officer might be dead, or at least wounded. He couldn't count on help from that quarter.
He rose to a low crouch, staying behind the pickup's engine block, and jerked open the passenger door. The Mossberg shotgun was behind the seat, along with a couple of boxes of shells. He tore open the cargo pocket on the right leg of his pants, dumped the shells in it, then closed the pocket by pressing the Velcro tight. There was one other item he was certain would be needed, and he grabbed the small green tackle box containing his first-aid gear.
Almost drowned out by the rifle fire, shrill screams of fright and pain reached his ears. Everyone would have come out of their houses, he realized, maybe even been deliberately driven out of them. Now they were out in the open, and sitting ducks.
"Down!" lie roared as he angled back and to the right, trying to keep a building, a tree – anything – between him and where those rifles were situated. "Everybody take cover! Get behind your cars!"
There were fairly large open gaps between the houses; Trail Stop was a loosely constructed community. When he had to cross a gap, he put his head down and ran like hell, zigzagging like a champion tailback. One of the shooters picked him up almost immediately and sent a bullet whining behind his head. He rolled and darted and finally dived headlong behind the next house, scraping his arms on loose gravel and fetching up hard against an outdoor faucet that dug into his shoulder.
Fuck! The shooters had night-vision scopes, or maybe even infrared. What the fucking hell was going on? Who were these guys? Cops? Some kind of military action? Maybe some sort of survivalist group with a hard-on for somebody in Trail Stop? Didn't matter. They weren't just shooting blind. They could see him; they could see everyone.
They couldn't see through walls, though.
To minimize their clear shots, he needed to get as many houses, vehicles, trees, any solid object at all, between him and their positions. That meant angling away from Cate, because the road didn't bisect Trail Stop down the middle; it curled to the left, leaving two-thirds of the land – and most of the houses – on the right. There hadn't been any plan for the layout for Trail Stop; people had built houses wherever the hell they wanted, without rhyme or reason.
He mentally placed all of the residences as he ran. Cate's house was at the tipper left end of the community, the thinly populated side of the road, but it wasn't completely exposed. Her garage was behind it; then there were two more houses stuck back there on the left. If she would just stay inside, on the bottom floor…
But her bedroom was on the top floor, and he didn't know the exact angle of attack the shooters were using. Even now she could be lying on the floor in a pool of blood –
He gritted his teeth and pushed the image away, because he couldn't function in a world that didn't have Cate Nightingale in it.
The ground beneath him was rough, uneven, slowing him down, plus he couldn't see shit. As he ran, he passed people who were coming from the outer rim of houses, going toward the gunshots and commotion. Almost everyone had a flashlight; some of them carried rifles or shotguns. "Turn off your flashlights!" he veiled at them as he passed. Don't go any farther! They have night-vision goggles!"
The little group halted. "Who are you?" someone asked, half-alarmed, half-cautious.
"Cal," he yelled back at them. "Pull back! Pull back!" Then a lucky shot – God, he hoped it was lucky, he hoped none of the shooters had that kind of skill – blasted a tree just a couple of feet from him. Again he hit the ground rolling, blinking at the sudden sting of blood in his eyes, and put a large tree at his back.
A long splinter of wood had speared him just above his left eyebrow. He pulled it out and swiped at the blood with the back of his hand, the one holding the first-aid box, and the box banged him in the face. Good job, Harris, he told himself derisively. Knock your fool self out.
He was now afraid luck wasn't with them. That had been a good shot, a damn good shot. He did a quick estimate of the distance. He was a good four hundred yards from the other side of the stream.
That told him something about the kind of rifles being used, and the skill of the people using them. It also told him he was at the outer limits of an infrared scope's usefulness, and he was beyond the range of night-vision goggles. Any close shots now would be pure luck. That didn't mean he couldn't be hit; it did mean that none of the shooters could track him with their scopes.
He abandoned all of his evasive techniques, and simply ran.
* * *
Cate had gone to bed early – really early. She'd always had the twins to take care of and focus on, and without them there, it was as if her mind had suddenly told her body, "Okay, you can rest."
She had intended to spend the day getting out her winter clothing and washing it. Before packing it up, she'd washed everything, of course, but clothing always had a musty smell to it after being in boxes. She did get out one box and get everything washed and swapped out with a like number of summer garments from her closet, but then she couldn't work up any interest in continuing the chore.
Then she thought about getting started putting rocks around the perimeter of her parking lot, but instead she picked up a book she'd had for a while and read a couple of chapters before dozing off to sleep. After an hour's nap she woke up feeling groggy, and nothing seemed more important than watching television, which she usually never got to do. She discovered that the Saturday programs sucked.
She thought about experimenting with a recipe she'd found for spaghetti-and-meatball soup, because she thought the boys would love it, and to see if it would be easy enough to make for her customers if she expanded into lunch this winter. She went into the kitchen and began pulling out ingredients, then put everything back and instead opened a can of the boys' Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs. She ate the meatballs and dumped the spaghetti.
She was sleepy and tired, and it occurred to her she could go to bed if she wanted. There was no one who needed taking care of, no chores that had to be done, no one she had to talk to. So she'd showered, put on a pair of flannel pajamas because the last two nights had been downright cold, and, feeling downright decadent, was in bed shortly after seven.
Much later a horrendous boom shook her out of a sleep so deep that for a moment her mind was blank and she couldn't think where she was or what she was doing, and she lay in bed blinking at the complete darkness around her. Then she woke up enough to look at the clock, only to discover no red digital numbers were in their accustomed place. The power was off.
"'Damn it," she muttered, because her clock didn't have battery backup, which meant she would have to get up and find the little battery-operated travel clock she'd had for years – otherwise she might oversleep in the morning. It was either that or sit up until the power came on. She lay there wondering if the booming noise had been a transformer exploding, which would explain why there was no electricity. Or maybe there was a really fierce thunderstorm and lightning had struck something.
Then she heard more loud noises, different from the booming sound, in that the house didn't shake. These noises weren't as loud, and they were sharper, with a sort of flat echo. There were a lot of them, too. She wished they would stop, because she was so sleepy…
Realization hit her like a slap in the face, and tilted her world on its side. Oh, my God, that was gunfire!
From the twins' bedroom came the sound of breaking glass.
She bolted out of bed. feeling blindly for the flashlight she always kept on her bedside table in case one of the boys needed her in the middle of the night. Her hand brushed it and knocked it sideways; it hit the floor with a clatter and thump, rolling.
"Shit!" She had to have a flashlight; the interior of the house was as dark as Tut's tomb; she'd fall on something and break a bone if she tried navigating it in total darkness. She went down on her hands and knees and crawled around the bedroom floor, slowly sweeping her hands out in front of her. After a couple of panicky sweeps in which she touched nothing more interesting than her bedroom slippers, her fingers found cool metal. She thumbed the switch, and a bright beam shot out, the light restoring her surroundings to familiarity and banishing that disturbing sense of disorientation.
She ran out into the hall, instinct turning her to the left, toward the twins' room. The sound of more breaking glass made her skid to a stop. The boys weren't there, they were safely in Seattle with her parents, and… and… was someone shooting at her house?
Her blood ran so cold she thought she might faint, and she swayed against the wall, putting her hand out for support. Without knowing the particulars of what was going on, her mind made a huge, instinctive jump and shouted "Mellor!" at her.
Mellor and Huxley. They had come back.
She had been terrified they would; that was the reason she'd sent the boys away. She didn't know why the two men were back or what they wanted, but beyond any doubt, she knew they were the ones doing this. Were they downstairs, even now. waiting for her? Was she trapped up here?
No. They had to be outside, if they were shooting into the house. This was her house, her home, and she knew every nook, every weird angle, every way out. They1 couldn't trap her in here. She could get out, somehow.
She realized that the flashlight pinpointed her position, and switched it off. The night seemed even darker than before, her vision ruined by the brief time she'd had the flashlight on. She had to risk it, she thought, and switched the light on again.
First things first. She had to put some clothes on and get to the ground floor.
She raced back to her room, grabbed jeans, a sweatshirt, and sneakers, listening hard for a betraying noise that would tell her they were in her house. The gunfire continued and it actually sounded somewhat distant. From outside came shouts and screams, cries of fear or pain. She couldn't hear anything inside.
When she reached the head of the stairs, she shone the flashlight down them. She couldn't see anything unusual, so she went down the first few steps, flashing the light around the hallway and foyer. Empty, as much as she could see. She took the rest of the stairs faster, feeling horribly exposed and vulnerable, almost leaping down the last three steps.
Weapon. She needed some sort of weapon.
Damn it, she had two four-year-olds in the house; she didn't keep weapons around.
Except for her knives. She was a cook. She had a lot of knives. She also had that cliche woman's weapon, a rolling pin. Fine. Anything would do.
Keeping the flashlight aimed at the floor so the beam would he more difficult to see, she eased into the kitchen and went straight to her block of knives, pulling out the biggest one, the chef's knife. The handle fit into her hand like an old friend.
Silently she moved back into the hallway, which was centrally located in the house, i his was where she would be least trapped, where she could go in any direction.
She turned off the flashlight and stood there in the dark, listening, waiting. How long she stood there didn't matter. She could hear her own harsh breathing, feel it rasping in her throat. Her head swam. She could feel her heart racing in panic, feel the almost painful thud of her heartbeat against her ribs. No, she couldn't panic – she wouldn't panic. Drawing in a deep breath, as deep as she could manage, she held it and used her inflated lungs to compress her heart and hold it, force it to slow. It was an old trick she'd used while climbing, whenever she'd caught her body's automatic responses overpowering her discipline and focus.
Slow… slow… already she could think better… slower, slower… she gently released that breath and took another, more controlled one. The dizziness faded. Whatever happened, she was readier to face it now than she had been a moment before.
Thudding on the front porch, fast and heavy, and the doorknob rattled violently.
"Cate! Are you all right?"
She took a step forward, then froze. A man. She didn't recognize the voice. Mellor and Huxley both knew her first name, because she'd introduced herself to them.
The entire front door shuddered as something was slammed hard against it, then slammed again. The door frame seemed to groan.
"Cate, it's Cal! Answer me!"
Relief swept over her in a huge surge and a cry burst out of her. She started forward as the door gave up its resistance and banged back against the doorstop. A flashlight suddenly came on, sweeping across her face and blinding her. She threw up an arm to shield her eyes, skidding to a stop as she tried to see. She could make out only the vague outline of a man behind the glare of the light, and he was moving fast, too fast for her to get out of his way.