Cover Of Night (Chapter 17)

It was like hitting a wall. His body collided with Cate's with enough force to knock the knife from her hand and send it clattering down the hall. The blinding beam from his flashlight waved wildly back and forth in a strobe effect before spinning to the side. She staggered back, grabbing wildly for something, anything, to break her fall and found herself clutching a hard, lean waist. She couldn't have fallen anyway, because a steel band clamped around her back, steadying her against him.

A sharp sense of unreality made her head swim again as time collapsed and the world shrank to a tiny point of focus, poised on the edge of a cliff. None of this was real; it couldn't be. She was just Cate, an ordinary woman living an ordinary life; people didn't shoot at her.

"It's okay," Cal murmured against her hair. "I've got. you." She heard the words, but they didn't make sense because he was part of the whole unreality. This man was not the man she'd known for three years. Mr. Harris wouldn't hold her this way, wouldn't have broken in her door and come charging across the floor like some avenging warrior badass dude, holding a shotgun in one hand –

Except he had.

The body she was clinging to so tightly was hard and muscled almost steaming with heat. He was breathing fast, as if he'd been running, and his head was bent down to press against hers. And the way he was holding her was – She hadn't been held this way in so long that she was stunned, disbelieving. Mr. Harris? Cal?

Her body whispered, yes. That was even more disconcerting, tipping her further and further off balance. What kind of pervert was she, to have some sort of weird sexual response to the handyman when the entire community was evidently tinder some sort of attack? It still sounded like a war out there, but she felt as if the two of them were contained in a small private cone of existence where reality didn't intrude. For a moment his arm tightened, arching her even closer, so that she felt the bulge of his genitals pushing, seeking… then he released her and eased away, bending to pick up the flashlight.

Cate stood unmoving, desperately trying to put herself back in time to the way things had been just half an hour before, before explosions and shooting and the upheaval of all she knew or had thought she knew.

Hooking the strap of the shotgun over his shoulder, Cal also picked up the chef's knife she'd dropped, studying the wide blade with a sort of grim approval. He held the flashlight pointed at the floor, the powerful beam reflecting enough for her to see him, and her senses reeled again.

She had never seen him wearing anything other than baggy coveralls, stained with grease, paint, dirt, or whatever else he'd been working with that particular day. She'd had him firmly fixed in her mind as a skinny shy handyman, backward but useful. That view had taken a hit when she'd seen the expression in his eyes as he looked down his shotgun barrel at Mellor, and now it was shattered forever.

He was wearing his usual work boots, but nothing else was the same. The khaki cargo pants were belted at his waist, and despite the chilly weather, he was wearing only a dark T-shirt that clung to wide shoulders and a lean, rock-hard body. Even with just the light from the flashlight she saw the gleam of sweat on his bare arms, arms that were sinewy and powerful. His shaggy hair was still shaggy, but there was no hint of shyness in his grim, set expression.

Cate could barely breathe. She was standing on the edge of some internal cliff and she was afraid to move, afraid she would… would what? She didn't know, but the sense of instability frightened her almost as much as all those guns shooting outside.

Someone appeared in the broken doorway, and to Cate's amazement he. too. was carrying either a shotgun or a rifle. "Is Cate all right?" he asked, and Cate recognized Walter Earl's voice.

"I'm fine, Walter," she said, moving toward the door. "Is Milly okay? Is anyone hurt?"

"Milly's sitting on your back lawn. Staying low seemed smart to me, so that's where she is. People are pulling back. Someone said that's what you said to do, so that's what they're doing. Are we out of range here?"

"No," Cal said. "Not of the rifles, anyway."

"The window in the boys' bedroom was shot out," Cate said softly, and the horror of it hit her all over again. What if they'd been here? They'd have been terrified, possibly hurt… possibly dead. Her heart squeezed in anguish at just the thought.

"Then what are we doing here?" Walter asked.

"Putting as many walls as possible between us and them, thus I'm pretty sure they have either night-vision or infrared spotters. Infrared is limited to about four hundred yards, so we need to get beyond that. Won't stop the bullets, but at least they'll be shooting blind – and they may not want to waste the ammunition."

Cal had placed his hand on Cate's back as he answered Walter's question, urging her outside. As soon as she stepped onto the porch, she stopped. Some twenty or thirty people were in her backyard, most of them sitting on the chilly ground. Almost all the men and some of the women carried some sort of weapon. The darkness enveloped them, making her sharply aware that seeing lights shining in nearby windows at night had made her feel comfortable and secure.

Cal urged her off the porch; then his hand on her shoulder forced her to the ground. "The foundation is sturdier than walls," he said quietly. "Better protection." Raising his voice, he said "Everyone, we need to save the batteries in the flashlights. Turn most of them off. We only need one or two."

Obediently the people around her clicked off their flashlights, and the darkness almost swallowed them. Cal left his powerful light on. She began to shiver as the cold air seeped through her flannel pajamas, and she wished she'd thought to get a coat. From somewhere in the darkness she heard someone mutter "I'm cold," but without any real complaint.

"Right now, we need to determine two things," Cal said. "Who's missing, and is anyone hurt?"

"I'd like to know just who is shooting at us," Milly said angrily.

"First things first. Who isn't here? Look for your neighbors. Creed went down to Neenah's house; has anyone seen either of them?"

There was silence for a moment, then a voice behind Cate said, "Lanora was right behind me when we were running, but I don't see her now."

Lanora Corbett lived in the second house from the bridge, on the left.

"Anyone else?" Cal asked.

There was murmuring as they looked around and took stock, and names began to surface: the elderly Starkeys, Roy Edward and his wife, Judith; the Contreras family, Mario, Gena, and Angelina; Norman Box; and others. A cold hand squeezed Cate's heart as the horrible possibility began to creep in: Would she ever see these people again? And Neenah. Neenah! No. She couldn't lose her friend. She absolutely refused to think it even possible.

"All right," Cal finally said when no more names were forthcoming. "Let me get a head count, and we'll know where we stand." He shone the light around, briefly touching on each face, and in every one Cate saw the same raw mixture of horror, disbelief, and anger that must be on hers. She saw people clinging to each other, huddling together for comfort and warmth, and dimly she began to think of practical matters: blankets, coats, other things she could get from the house. Coffee would be nice, but the electricity was off. On the other hand, she did have a gas stove… The thoughts were laborious, emerging from her brain with effort, but at least the daze was beginning to wear off.

"Is anyone hurt.'' Cal asked one more time, after he had an accurate count of those grouped in Cate's yard. "I'm not talking sprained ankles, or a scraped knee. Has anyone been shot? Is anyone bleeding?"

"You are," Sherry Bishop said with some tartness.

Cate's head whipped around. Cal was hurt? Shocked, she looked hard at him as he held his arms out and looked down to examine himself, as if he didn't know what Sherry was talking about. "Where?" he asked.

Cate spotted the black-red streaks on his arms. "Your arms," Cate said as she began to climb to her feet.

In a flash he was beside her, his hand on her shoulder, pressing her down. "Stay down," he said in a low voice intended just for her. "I'm fine, it's just a couple of glass cuts."

To her way of thinking, cuts should be taken care of no matter what caused them. And if sitting was safer than standing, why wasn't he sitting? "If you don't sit," she said in the same tone of voice she used with the boys, "then I'm standing. Your choice."

"I can't sit, I have a few things to do first – "


He sat.

Cate got to her knees and moved behind him. "Sherry, can you help me here? Hold the light and let's see how bad these cuts are. And I need to get some bandages from – "

"My first-aid kit is on the porch," he said. "I dropped it there."

"Someone get it, please." Cate raised her voice a little, and Walter moved to obey.

"Keep low," Cal added. Walter obediently bent at the waist.

The back of Cal's T-shirt was damp and sticky. Sherry took Cal's flashlight and trained it on him as Cate rolled the shirt up. Blood was welling from what looked like several pinpricks, while there was a larger cut on his right triceps and another one across the top of his left shoulder. She pushed the T-shirt over his head so it was draped over his arms and his entire back was bare.

Walter arrived with a tackle box and flipped the latches, opening it up to reveal compartments full of first-aid supplies. Sherry switched the light beam to the contents of the box, allowing Cate to pick out the individually packaged antiseptic wipes. She tore one envelope open and unfolded the wipe to its full four-by-six inches, and began swabbing. "I don't know what we'll do if these two bigger cuts need stitches," she muttered to Sherry.

"1 have sutures in the box," Cal said, trying to turn his head to judge the damage for himself.

"Ahnt!" She made one of those wordless warning sounds that were a mother's specialty, and he froze, then carefully faced forward again.

In silence she cleaned the wounds, and pressed gauze pads over the deepest cuts. Unfortunately, the blood seepage kept them in place, which allowed her to apply antiseptic ointment to the smaller wounds and cover them with adhesive strips. His skin was cold and damp under her hands, reminding her not only that he wore nothing more than a T-shirt and pants on this chilly night, but he'd been sweating – and now she'd cleaned his back with damp wipes. He must be freezing, but somehow he kept still.

"He needs something to wear," she murmured to Sherry.

"It's okay," he said over his shoulder.

Cate felt something rising in her, some great big bubble of tension that almost choked her. "No, Calvin Harris, it is not okay!" she said fiercely. "It is not okay for you to run around half naked and wounded on a cold night. We'll find something for you to wear, and that's that." Many things had happened that night that were far worse, but she couldn't do anything about those. She was damned, however, if Cal would take another step without a coat or at least a shirt.

He fell silent again, and she wondered if she'd lost her mind. Events were swimming out of focus again, so that small things seemed vitally important and large things were fading into the background. She looked at the strong length of his back, the deep furrow of his spine and the layers of muscle, and wanted to weep. Instead she took a deep breath and concentrated on cleaning the two deeper cuts. They were still oozing a little watery blood, but that was all. She put antibiotic on them, then held the edges together with one hand while with the other she painstakingly placed a row of butterfly bandages over each cut. When she was finished, the cuts no longer gaped open. Maybe they wouldn't have needed stitches, because neither of the gashes was truly severe, but she didn't want to take the chance.

"That's the best I can do," she finally said, restoring the first-aid kit to the way he'd had it and gathering the soiled wipes and torn paper she'd thrown on the ground. She hesitated, not knowing what to do with the trash now that she'd gathered it, and finally dropped it back on the ground. She would worry about neatness later.

Cal started to rise and she put her hand on his right shoulder to hold him still. "Cal needs something to wear," she called out to the people gathered on her lawn. "A shirt, a jacket, anything. Do any of you have something you can spare?" Then she added, "I'm going to get blankets from inside, so we can be warmer."

"Why don't we go inside?" Milly asked, her voice trembling with cold.

"Cate's house may be a little too close to the action," Cal replied. "There are other houses farther away, and out of the line of fire. I think it's safe here, but I'm not certain. A high-caliber bullet can go through several houses unless it hits something like a refrigerator to slow it down. I'll check distances after daylight. Until then, we need to pull even farther away, put more structure between us and the shooters. Thanks," he added as a flannel shirt was passed to him. Cate hadn't seen who made the donation. Cal quickly put on the shirt and buttoned it; he was shivering now.

"The coat closet is just inside the front door, on the right," she said to him. "I have several coats hanging in there, and the linen closet with extra blankets is just this side of the laundry. I'll run in, gather everything I can, and be back out here within one minute."

"I'll do it," he said instead, turning toward the porch.

Cate stopped him with her hand on his arm. "You can't do everything. Go find Creed and Neenah, and the others. Ill get the blankets and coats. Where should we go, so you'll know exactly where we are?"

For a moment she thought he would argue, but he said, "Pull back to the Richardsons' place," naming the house that was farthest from the bridge. "The shooting was coming from at least three separate locations, so they have different angles of fire. Stay low, try to keep some sort of structure between you and the mountain, from the bridge to the Notch. Got it?" He'd raised his voice so he was speaking to all of them, not just to Cate.

"Yes." Her breath was frosty as it hung in the air between them.

"If you do have to cross an open space, do it in a hurry. Don't stay in a line or the last ones are just asking to be picked off. Vary your routes, your timing, everything you can. Keep the flashlights off, if possible; you're just pinpointing your position if you have one on when you're in the open."

Heads nodded in the dark.

"How long will you be?" Cate asked, trying to keep her anxiety out of her tone. She didn't want him going out into the night by himself, though she understood they needed to know what was going on. And he was armed; he wasn't helpless.

"I don't know. I don't know what I'll find." He turned his head and looked at her in the darkness, a long, quiet gaze as potent as a touch. "But I will be back. Depend on it." Then he was gone, melting into the darkness with just a few steps.