Cover Of Night (Chapter 18)

Neenah shrieked, terror clamping her arms convulsively around Creed as his heavy body crushed her to the rug. The percussion from the explosion shook the entire house, raining dust down on them in a choking cloud. Creed covered her head with his arms, trying to tuck her completely beneath him to shelter her from any falling debris.

Then it was quiet, a strange, ear-ringing silence.

"E-earthquake?" she gasped.

"No. Explosion." Creed lifted his head, and saw nothing but darkness. The lights were out – big surprise there. The explosion must have taken out the power lines that crossed the stream at the bridge.

Then there was a sharp, deep crack! that made his blood go cold, and simultaneously the front window imploded with a shower of glass slivers. He felt several stings but disregarded them as more booming shots rang out. He was already moving, twenty-three years of training kicking in at the sound of rifle fire even though he'd been out of the Corps for almost eight years, dragging Neenah along beneath him as he scrambled, half-crawling and half-slithering, out of the exposed living room and toward the short, more protected hallway he'd noticed when he came in. He couldn't see shit in the sudden darkness, but he had an excellent sense of direction.

Neenah was utterly silent except for the harshness of her breathing. She clung to him like a monkey and tried to help by pushing with her feet. She'd recognized the sound of rifle fire, too; after all, she'd grown up around people who still hunted for some of their food.

He wasn't certain where the shots were coming from, didn't know if he was the target or if Neenah was. or if" neither of them was the specific target and this was more a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Right now the "why" didn't matter, only the "where" – the location the shots were coming from. He couldn't just blindly run out; he had to keep Neenah safe.

"Where's the kitchen?" he rasped, listening to round after round being fired. It sounded like a fucking war out there. The kitchen would offer the most protection, with its array of metal appliances. A high-caliber bullet from a powerful rifle would punch through multiple walls unless it was stopped by something like a refrigerator. He still intended to stay on the floor, even if" Neenah happened to have a whole row of refrigerators lining her walls.

"I – I don't know," she stuttered, gasping for breath. "I – where are we?"

She was disoriented, which wasn't surprising. Creed tightened his left arm around her. "We're in the hall; your feet are pointing toward the front door."

She was silent for a moment, breathing hard, as she struggled to order the position of her rooms. "Ah – okay. To your right. Ahead, and to the right. But I need to go to the bedroom."

He disregarded that; a bedroom wouldn't offer as much protection. "The kitchen is safer."

"Clothes. I need clothes."

Creed paused. There had been some sort of powerful explosion, someone was shooting at them, and she wanted to change clothes? The same sort of acid comment that had taken strips off some very tough Marines boiled to his tongue, but he held it back. This wasn't one of his men; this was Neenah… and she'd been a nun. Maybe former nuns were extremely modest. God, he hoped not, but –

"What you have on will do," he ventured, cautiously feeling his way lest he run afoul of some nun rule.

"I can't run in this nightgown and robe, much less in bedroom slippers!"

Unfortunately, that made sense, not to mention that the nights were getting cold. He would have preferred to retreat to a safe position where he could assess the situation, but he was acutely aware he couldn't command her as he had his men. Faced with that reality, Creed shifted his priority to helping her do what she wanted as safely as possible.

"Okay, one change of clothes coming up." Another round punched through the living room wall, followed by the deep crack of the rifle shot. Creed flattened her in case the next shot was lower, letting his weight crush her against the floor. She was so soft beneath him, the way he'd spent years imagining, and the thought of one of those powerful rounds tearing into her was horrifying. He'd fought wars, lost men to every kind of violence possible, whether it was a bullet, a bomb, a knife, or a training accident, and every loss had been a scar on his soul; he himself had killed, and that was a different sort of scar – but all of that he'd borne with an inner stoicism that had allowed him to function. If anything happened to Neenah, though, he simply couldn't bear it. Because of that he said, "You stay in the kitchen – lie flat on the floor where it's safest. I'll get your clothes and bring them to you."

"You don't know where they are; you'll be exposed longer – " Before she finished speaking, she was trying to wriggle away from him.

Stunned, he realized she was trying to protect him. Shock made him a little rough with her as he blocked her effort to wriggle free, keeping her firmly beneath him.

She pushed on his shoulders, her breasts straining into his chest. "Mr. Creed…Joshua – I need to breathe!"

He eased his weight off her, but not enough that she could slide out from under him. He could piss her off, he thought, or he could keep her alive. To his way of thinking, the choice was crystal clear. He bent his head to her ear. "Here's the way it is: Someone is shooting at us with a high-powered rifle, which makes this my game, not yours. My job is to get us out of here alive. Your job is to do what I say the second the words are out of my mouth. After we're safe, you can slap my face or kick my shins, but until then I'm boss. Got it?"

"Of course I've got it," she said with remarkable cool, under the circumstances, one of which was not being able to draw a deep breath. "I don't believe I'm an idiot. But it's only logical that I would be able to get my clothes faster than you would, thereby making it safer for both of us, because if you get shot while you're hunting for my shoes, then my own chances for getting out of here alive go down. Am I right?"

She was arguing with him. The experience was both novel and infuriating. Even more frustrating was the fact that she made sense – again. He hung there over her, torn between logic and his overpowering instinct to protect her at any cost.

With a sudden fierce movement he rolled off her and snapped, "Be fast. If you have a flashlight, get it, but don't turn it on. Don't stand up. Belly crawl if you can, get to your knees if you have to, but under no circumstances are you to stand up. Clear?"

"Clear," she said. Her voice shook a little, but she was in control of herself. Creed forced himself to let her move away from him, tracking her by the sounds she made as she pulled herself along on her elbows, and dug into the carpet with her toes to push. Once he heard what sounded like a muttered curse, but he was pretty sure nuns, even ex-nuns, didn't swear, so he was probably wrong about that.

He broke out in a fine sheen of sweat, waiting for her, knowing that at any second another round could rip through the walls as if they were made of paper. So far the shots had been placed about head high, designed to catch people who were standing. The people of Trail Stop were civilians; they hadn't been trained to automatically hit the ground. Instead they would try to run, and not necessarily in the best direction. They might even try to look out the windows, which was about the dumbest thing to do in this situation. Or they might grab their flashlights and turn them on, pinpointing their positions for the shooters. He needed to get out there, get them organized, stop them from doing stupid shit.

At least Cal was there, unless he'd been taken out in the first minute – and that wasn't likely. That damn ghost had a sixth sense about survival. The entire team had learned to pay acute attention to him, because time after time he would do something that looked senseless in that exact second but five seconds later had either saved his life or put him in a much stronger strategic position. If Cal jumped, the entire team jumped with him. And when it came to moving covertly from point A to point B, Creed had never seen anyone better. Cal would get the survivors rounded up, organized, and in the safest position possible; then he would come looking for the stranded and the wounded.

Neenah was taking too long. "What are you doing?" he asked sharply, barely containing his urge to follow and drag her into the kitchen.

"Changing clothes" came her equally sharp reply. His eyebrows lifted a little. The nun had a temper. For some reason, that seemed a tad kinky; he liked it. Creed knew himself well enough to realize he'd never be able to tolerate a doormat.

"Just get the clothes and bring them into the kitchen to change. Don't leave yourself vulnerable any longer than necessary."

"I can't change in front of you!"

"Neenah." He took a deep breath, managed to inject patience into his tone. "It's dark. I can't see anything. And even if I could… so what?"

"So what?"

"Yeah, so what. I plan to get you naked pretty soon, anyway."

Okay, so he had the finesse of a gorilla. If she exploded in his face, he'd know right now that he was wasting his time.

She didn't explode. Instead she went very, very quiet, as if she were even holding her breath. The pause went on so long despair began to rise in his throat. Then came the unmistakable sounds of her crawling toward him.

His heart almost seized, literally almost stopped beating.

He'd lied about not being able to see. At first, before his vision adjusted, he hadn't been able to see shit, but now he could dimly make out the shapes of doorways and windows, the darker bulk of furniture. If he could see, then she could see – so she knew exactly how much he was seeing. No detail, of course, but definitely the pale length of bare leg. She already had her shirt on, but she was dragging her jeans and shoes and coat with her. Maybe she had on underwear, maybe she didn't. He fought the urge to slide his hand over her ass to find out. He fought the even stronger urge to roll her onto her back and make a place for himself between those bare legs. If ever there'd been a bad time, this was it, but for once his libido didn't want to listen to his training.

She crawled past him into the kitchen, and in the darkness he made out the whiteness of panties in front of him, which solved the question of underwear or no underwear. He was following before he realized it, as if drawn by a magnet. Any red-blooded man would follow a woman's panty-clad ass crawling in front of him, he thought, and once again he fought the urge to pounce. Get her to safety first, pounce later.

In the kitchen, she sat on the floor and pulled on socks, then her jeans and shoes. Her shirt was light-colored, but there was no help for that now because he sure as hell wasn't sending her back to change; she'd be wearing her coat anyway.

"Flashlight?" he asked, wondering if she'd forgotten.

"I put it in my coat pocket." She pulled the flashlight out and passed it to him.

He stifled a sigh as his big hand closed around the slender tube; it wasn't much larger than a penlight. He couldn't use it until they were safe, of course, but lights this size were basically made for a single task directly in front of the holder, not for helping them safely make their way across rough ground. Still, any light at all was better than none.

"All right, let's slip out the back door and get away from here."

Teague's two-way crackled to life, a taint voice coming from the radio speaker.

"Hawk, this is Owl. Hawk, this is Owl."

Owl was Blake, manning the farthest firing position. Teague moved away from Goss and Toxtel, taking care to remain behind cover. Those people on the other side of the stream had rifles, and he hadn't forgotten it for a minute. He had the volume on the two-way turned down because noise carried at night; he sure as hell didn't want to pinpoint his position for some lucky shot. With a large outcropping of rock securely between him and the community, he thumbed the "talk" button to reply. "This is Hawk. Go ahead."

"Hawk, that guy you had Billy follow? I've sort of kept an eye on him, just in case you needed to know where he was. He went in that two-story building, third on the right – "

That was the feed store, Teague thought, pulling up his mental layout of the place. The place closed at five pm, so what was Creed doing there? Not that it mattered; he was just curious. "Yeah, what about it?"

"He stayed just a few minutes; then he came out and walked down to this first house on the right. Never came out, at least not before you started the dance. I've been pretty busy since then, but I've still tried to keep a lookout for him and I haven't seen anything move. I put a few rounds in the place, maybe I got him."

"Maybe. Thanks for the info. Keep putting rounds into those houses, and anything you see moving." Teague clipped the radio onto his belt again, then worked his way back to his position near

Goss. Going prone on the ground for the most stable firing platform, he lifted his weapon and put the scope on the house in question.

Carefully he panned the infrared scope from left to right, looking for a telltale heat signature. The house itself glowed from its interior heat, making it more difficult to differentiate body heat – more difficult, but not impossible. Blake might be optimistic that he'd gotten a round in Creed, but Teague wasn't of that opinion. Creed would have hit the floor before the shooting ever started, and immediately sought the most cover available.

At least one other person, maybe more, would be in the house, league had no idea who lived there, didn't care. What mattered was that Creed would assess the situation and then pull back to a more secure location. He sure as hell wasn't going to simply walk out the front door – so that meant he'd be going out the back.

Teague's pulse jumped at the idea of being able to pick off Creed like a cherry on a tree. Of course, he might already have pulled an Elvis and left the building, but not that much time had elapsed, maybe ten minutes, and being Creed, he would have first organized the people inside the house. Teague chewed his lip, then made a decision and pulled out the radio, keyed his buddies' radios. "This is Hawk. I'm moving to the right, trying to get into position to see behind this first house." Keeping them apprised of his movement was a good idea, so one of them wouldn't accidentally blow his head off.

He repeated the same information to Goss, who gave one sharp nod of the head before returning his attention to his post. Teague was sort of impressed by Goss, not because he'd done anything spectacular, but because he seemed to immediately grasp the why of anything Teague did.

Teague couldn't move all that far to the right, maybe seventy yards or less, before the ground sharply dropped away to the river. This side of the road was nothing but treacherous boulders on a steep incline; if he put a foot wrong, he was risking a sprained ankle or knee at the least, and maybe a broken bone. Moss made the boulders slippery, and the going slow, plus he had to carry the rifle and take damned good care of the heavy scope mounted on it. He couldn't use a flashlight without pinpointing his own position, which made the going even slower. With every passing minute, he was aware that Creed could be slipping away, but there was nothing he could do to hurry. Damn it, if Blake had just told him where Creed was before the bridge blew –

At last, when he put the rifle to his shoulder to check the angle, he could see the back of the house, or at least part of it. The angle wasn't the best, but he'd gone about as far as he could go. He settled behind a boulder and rested the rifle barrel on the rock to steady it, put the scope on the house, and waited.

No shots had come from this location. Creed would have automatically noted where the rounds were being tired from, so if he wanted to eyeball the situation, the most logical position would be from the near back corner of the house. He might allow for the possibility that they'd have starlight scopes, but he wouldn't expect infrared because it was so damned expensive, and not exactly convenient. He would be moving cautiously as he approached the corner…

An enormous heat signature burst out of the house, moving fast, then diving behind something and vanishing. Swearing under his breath, Teague tracked with the scope, trying to get the crosshairs settled, but he'd been caught off guard and if he fired now, he would essentially be firing blind – and alerting Creed to his position. He'd have to wait for a better shot.

Jesus, that heat signature had looked weird, like some huge spider. Still unsettled, Teague's brain took another moment before it interpreted the signal his eyes had sent and translated it to two people, moving practically in lockstep, with the big one in back right against the smaller one in front. Four legs, four arms, extra-thick body: two people.

Right now he could have used a starlight instead of the infrared, so he could tell exactly what they'd dived behind. A car, maybe; made sense to park one there, close to the back floor. No heat signature emanated from the black bulk that was all he could see, though, so if it was a car, it. had been sitting there long enough for the engine to get cold. Too bad; the engine block of a car was damn good armor, certainly enough to stop any round they had.

But by holding his fire, he'd given Creed a false sense of security, 'league figured. Thinking they were unseen, Creed wouldn't be as careful in his next movement. This time, Teague would be ready.

A sliver of light in the scope caught his attention; then it bobbed out of sight. Shit. What were they doing? Changing position maybe, shifting around and getting ready for another run. They' wouldn't be running back toward the house, and they wouldn't be coming toward the bridge, so that left only two directions. Creed had someone with him, someone he was trying to protect – someone smaller. A woman? Logically he would be trying to put more cover, more walls, more distance, between them and the shooters, which meant he would be pulling back, toward the river.

Time passed – way too much time. What the fuck was Creed waiting for – Christmas? Teague checked the luminous dial of his watch and saw that thirty-four minutes had passed since Blake had radioed with the info about Creed, making it maybe forty-four, forty-five minutes since the bridge blew. The rifle shots now weren't being fired at anyone, because all the inhabitants were either down, behind cover, or had withdrawn beyond the range of the scopes. The occasional shot now was meant to remind them to stay where they were. Maybe that was what Creed had decided to do.

No, the cover of the vehicle – Teague was almost certain that was what they were behind – was too restrictive, and offered no shelter from the cold, no food, no water. Creed would move, but he was a patient bastard, more patient than Teague would ever have guessed.

The minute hand on his watch clicked off another minute, then another, then another. Fifty minutes since the bridge blew. He could be just as patient, Teague thought – more patient, because he knew they were there.

Fifty-three minutes.

Yes. There! The heat signature filled his scope, clear and bright, both of them bent low and moving fast. He took a breath, let half of it out, and pulled the trigger just as the glowing figures disappeared.

A split second later, a flare of light brighter than any he'd seen appeared in the bottom half of his scope, and the boulder in front of him exploded in his face.