Cover Of Night (Chapter 24)

Every time the outside door opened, Cate's stomach would tighten and her heart would give a little leap as she looked up, hoping to see a lean, shaggy-haired man coming in. When time after time it wasn't him, she felt her nerves wind tighter and tighter, until she had to distract herself or go crazy.

She tried to keep busy, but there was only so much to be done in a basement with so many people who were hungry, thirsty, and in need of a bathroom. The thirsty part, at least, was easily taken care of by Perry and his water bucket, Cate and Maureen did their best with food, but Maureen hadn't been prepared to feed that many people; she didn't even have a full loaf of sandwich bread on hand. They heated soup and stew on top of the kerosene heater, and slathered peanut butter on a mound of crackers for a quick protein fix. Other than that, without electricity, they were limited in what they could do.

The bathroom situation was more iffy, since it involved leaving the secure basement and going upstairs, where there wasn't as much protection, but desperation eventually sent every person up. With no electricity to run the water pump, flushing involved carrying a bucket of water up with you to pour in the toilet, which meant Perry was kept busy drawing water from the well. Even Creed managed to hobble up the stairs, to Neenah's consternation, using Ciena's cane.

"Last night was a lucky shot,' Creed said, pausing on his way up when Neenah mentioned Maureen's close call. "They were firing for effect, in the dark, keeping us off balance. They haven't been shooting as much today, because now they have to factor in how much ammunition they want to waste. Of course, they can always go get more, while we can't. I figure they've been shooting whenever they get a glimpse of Cal."

A sort of charged silence fell over everyone, and Creed looked around. He saw Cate standing at the foot of the stairs, white-faced and feeling as if she'd been punched in the stomach.

She knew that everyone who had arrived that morning had told of being located by Cal, rescued by Cal, taken care of by Cal, sent over by Cal. She had pictured him as a sort of shepherd, rounding up the flock. Instead, he was out there getting shot at.

Creed winced when he saw the look on her face, muttering, "Shit," under his breath. Then: "Cate, he'll be all light. Better men than those yahoos have tried to kill him."

She felt light-headed as she put out a hand for balance. Creed winced again, evidently realizing his last statement hadn't been exactly reassuring, and backtracked. "What I mean is – I was in the Marines with him. He knows what he's doing."

She didn't feel any better. Presumably Creed had also known what he was doing, but he'd gotten shot anyway. Maybe if she hadn't already been widowed once, she would have had a more noble outlook, but she had lost her husband suddenly at a young age. Untimely deaths happened – and doctors had been fighting to save Derek. Now people were actively trying to kill Cal; how could she possibly be reassured?

She felt as if she had just met him. and something was bursting to life between them. Everything was new and exciting and trembling with promise. She couldn't lose him now.

Forgetting about his errand for now, Creed hobbled back down the stairs and gently took her suddenly cold hands in his. His rugged face was kind, his hazel eyes full of understanding as he warmed her hands in his. "He 11 be okay. I don't know who those guys shooting at us are. but I promise you none of them is even close to being as good as he is. Cal wasn't a regular Marine, he was Force Recon. I don't know if you know what that means – " He paused, and she shook her head no. "Well, it means he's an expert at a lot of things, and high on that list is not getting killed.

Emotion roiled in her, terror and anger and even embarrassment that she was falling apart like this. But she couldn't help herself; she clung to his hands for support, looked up at him for even more reassurance. "Mr. Creed, I – "

"Call me Josh," he said. "1 think everyone here is on a first-name basis, don't you?'

"Josh," she said, vaguely ashamed because she had kept him, too, at a distance. "I – you – " She stopped because she was stammering and had no clear idea of what she wanted to say. Go get him? Bring him hark safe and sound? Yes, that was what she wanted. She wanted Cal to walk in that door.

"Listen." He squeezed her hands, then patted them. "He's doing what he does best, which is finding out what's going on."

"It's been hours – "

"People are still coming in, aren't they? He sent them, so you know he's okay. Roy Edward," he called, raising his voice. The elderly Starkeys were the most recent to arrive. "When did you last see Cal?"

Roy Edward looked away from Milly Earl, who had been cleaning his face. He and Judith, his wife, were bruised and scraped from falling. They weren't nimble on their feet; both had taken some bad tumbles, but, by some small miracle, hadn't broken any bones. "No more'n an hour," he replied. The old man was exhausted, his voice thready. "We were the last ones, he said. He was going to gather some things before he came back here."

The last ones. Stunned out of her own misery, Cate looked around at those who were here, and those who weren't. Everyone in the basement was doing the same thing, because no more neighbors would be arriving to cries of relief and welcome. Mario Contreras. Norman Box. Maery Last. Andy Chapman. Jim Beasley.

Lanora Corbett. Mouse Williams. They'd lost seven people – seven!

Silently Creed made his halting way up the stairs. Tears streaked Neenah's face as she went with him, lending him support so he wouldn't damage his leg more.

"We can't let 'em just lay there," Roy Edward declared, something fierce entering his cracked old voice. "They're our people. We have to do right by them."

Again there was silence as, one by one, they realized the enormous responsibility that lay before them. Retrieving the bodies would be a daunting task, and even then, without electricity, there was no way to present" them. Still, they had to do something. The weather was warm today, which meant the need for action was extremely pressing.

"I have that generator," Walter finally said. "We all have freezers. People, we'll manage something."

But Walter's generator was on the side of the community closest to the shooters – and moving chest-type freezers around was a two-man job that would require them to be in the open.

Gena couldn't bear up any longer, not even for Angelina's sake. She buried her face in her hands, sobbing in great, raw sounds, her entire body heaving. Cate remembered when she, too, had cried that way, and she crossed to Gena, sat down, and put her arms around her. There were no words that would make the pain less, so she didn't say anything. Angelina's face crumpled and her big dark eyes began swimming with tears. "Mommy, don't cry!" She patted Gena's leg, both giving and searching for comfort. "Mommy!"

Cate gathered Angelina close, too. Her babies had been too young to know anything when Derek died, too young to miss him and cry for him, but Angelina wasn't. When she understood that her daddy was gone and was never coming back, nothing in die world except time would give her solace.

"Mow do you do it?" Ciena sobbed, the words so thick with tears and choked out through sobs that Cate barely understood her. "How do you manage?"

How do you function when your entire body has been overtaken by searing emotional pain? How do you function day to day when a huge hole has been ripped in your life? How do you ever smile again, laugh again, feel joy again?

"You just do it," Cate answered quietly. "Because you have no choice. I had my babies. You have Angelina. That's why you have to do it."

The door opened and Cal came in.

He'd changed clothes. He was wearing what she thought of as deer-hunting clothes: a pair of woodland-pattern camouflage cargo pants, an olive-drab T-shirt, and an unbuttoned shirt in the same woodland pattern as his pants. He also had on flexible Gore-Tex boots, a hunting knife in a scabbard on his belt, the shotgun with its sling hooked over his left shoulder, and a rifle with a big scope mounted on it in his right hand. 11 he'd been going deer hunting, though, he'd have been wearing either a cap or a hunting vest in bright orange.

The bottom dropped out of her stomach. What he was wearing told her louder than words that he intended to go after the men who were shooting at them. She released Gena and stood up, galvanized by the sheer, icy terror that seized her. She wanted to scream; she wanted to tackle him and tie him up so he couldn't go. She refused to let him do this; she couldn't watch him walk away knowing there was a strong possibility he wouldn't come back –

His gaze snagged hers. She saw him take in her white, strained expression. Carefully he stood both weapons in a safe place where they couldn't be knocked over and then threaded his way across the crowded, cluttered room to her side. People spoke to him, patted him on the shoulder, and he nodded and spoke and traded greetings, but he never paused, never wavered from his course.

When he reached her, he touched her hand and said, "Are you okay?"

She felt as if she would choke if she tried to utter a word. She gave a fierce, single shake of her head.

He looked around, saw there was no privacy to be had for even a moment. "Follow me."

Numbly she did, scarcely aware of anything around her as she trailed in his wake, seeing nothing but his back. He led her outside, into the warm sunshine, but stopped while they were still protected by the downward curve of the land. Turning to study her with his pale, steady gaze, he said. "What's wrong?"

What was wrong? "Your clothes," she blurted, unable to formulate a more coherent reason.

Bewildered, he looked down at himself. "My clothes?"

"You're going after them, aren't you?"

Understanding dawned. "We can't just sit here," he said quietly. "Someone has to do something."

"But not you! Why does it have to be you?"

"I don't know who else it would be. Look around you. Mario was the youngest man, and he's dead. Josh could have done it, but he's got a cracked bone in his leg. Everyone else is older and out of shape. I'm the logical choice."

"Screw logic!" she said fiercely, grabbing his shirt with both hands. "I know I don't have the right to say anything because we aren't – we haven't – " She shook her head, fighting a sudden rush of tears. "I can't lose… not again – "

He stopped her incoherent babble by dipping his head and putting his mouth on hers.

His lips were soft, so soft. The kiss was gentle, questing. His lips moved against hers, learning and asking, and she tilted her head up to answer.

"You have the right," he murmured, and framed her face with his hands, his fingers sliding into her hair as he took her with a series of tender, hungry kisses, as if he were eating her mouth. She gripped his forearms, digging her fingers into the hard muscles and tendons, holding on for dear life as she sagged against him.

His tongue made leisurely forays, touched and stroked and enticed as though he had all the time in the world and couldn't think of a better way to spend it.

She had never before been kissed so… contentedly.

He was aroused; she could feel the hard bulk of his penis against her. She expected to feel his hips move, but he remained still except for his tongue and those soft, soft lips. Warmth glowed to life within her, pushing away her fear, her anger that he would take such a risk when they were hovering on the verge of something that felt so wonderful she could scarcely believe it.

Leaving her mouth, he pressed kisses on her cheek, her temple, her eyes, then went back to her lips for more.

If he made love as leisurely as he kissed – oh, dear God.

"We should go back inside," he whispered against her mouth, then rested his forehead against hers. "I have a lot to do."

She pulled back and looked into his blue eyes. They were as calm as always, but now she recognized the steel core of this man. He wasn't dramatic; he wasn't someone who demanded attention – because he didn't need it. He was supremely certain of himself and his capabilities. He would risk his life for them without a moment's hesitation.

She would have stayed out there and argued until they were both drawing their social security checks, but he turned her and somehow herded her back into the basement. A lot of smiling, knowing looks were directed their way, but that wasn't a surprise, considering how he'd acted last night, and that they'd just now been kissing outside the door. What did surprise her was that no one, absolutely no one, seemed surprised. Apparently, she was the only one who was having trouble coming up to speed on this, but then, she was the only one who had deliberately worn blinders.

In the irritating way that most men seemed to have, he'd already reverted completely to business mode, gathering with Creed and the other men. Creed even had a notebook and was mapping out something with swift strokes of a pen. Everyone crowded around to hear what was being said.

"The bridge is out," Cal was saying. "That was the explosion.

The electricity went out right before that, which means they cut the wires. The phones are out, too. From the way the shooters have positioned themselves, their intention is to keep anyone from going for help through the cut in the mountains. They wanted to cut us off and hem us in."

"But why in hell are they doing all this? And who are they, anyway?" Walter growled, running his hand through his thinning hair in frustration.

"I haven't seen anyone, but my guess is those two guys from last week brought in reinforcements, and as for what they want – " Cal shrugged, "I'd say they want me."

"Because you got the drop on them?"

"And bashed one of them in the head," Neenah added. She was sitting on the cold concrete next to Creed. She hadn't strayed far from his side since the night before.

"I didn't say it was reasonable," Cal said. "Some people let their egos get involved, and they turn vicious."

"But this – this is so far over the top, it's insane," Sherry protested. Seven people were dead. This was way beyond squashed egos. "If they're that mad, why didn't they just catch you out somewhere and stomp your ass?"

"I'm hard to stomp," he said mildly. "Maybe this is the mob way of saying, 'Mind your own business.' I just don't know."

"Mob? You think it's the mob?" Milly put in.

That question earned another shrug. "I'd have to say it's possible."

"The geography works against us," Creed said, pulling the conversation back on subject. He indicated the map he'd sketched. "The river makes it impossible to operate on this side. The current is too fast to ford the river anywhere around here, and those rocks would bash any boat to pieces in seconds. Upriver is a vertical canyon that you can't go around, so that direction is a no-go."

"The land peninsula Trail Stop is on is shaped like a paramecium," Cal continued. "The bridge was at the tail, and on this side of the tail is the river. We have no land there to work with, and the river is a natural barricade. Right here'" – he touched Creed's sketch – "are mountains only a goat can negotiate. So that funnels us down this side of the paramecium, toward this cut in the mountains, and they've sealed that off with shooters. They have thermal scopes, which work best at night, but during the daytime they don't need the scopes to see. I'll have to wait until night, and go into the water to dissipate my heat signature."

"How long would it take you to get through the cut?" Sherry asked.

"I don't have to go through the cut. All I have to do is get by one of the shooters, then I'm behind them and can follow the road."

Cate sucked in her breath with an audible gasp. She wasn't a tactician, but she knew how cold he'd been last night, how close to hypothermia. And the water hadn't gotten any warmer since then. Who knew how long heel have to stay in the stream, waiting for the right moment? Then he'd have to walk miles in those cold, wet clothes, and he'd be losing more body heat every moment. And if he was seen by any of them on the other side of the stream, they would be hunting him as if he were an animal, and he would be too cold to evade them. Why wasn't anyone saying no, this was too dangerous? Why were they so willing to let him risk his life?

Because, as he'd pointed out, there was no one else. Creed was hurt. Mario was dead. All the others were middle-aged and out of shape, or elderly and really out of shape.

Except for her.

"No," she said, because no one else would. "No. It's too dangerous, and don't try to tell me it isn't," she said violently when Cal opened his mouth to do just that. "Do you think they won't be waiting for someone to try that? You could barely walk last night, you were so cold from being in that water. And what happens to us if you get killed?"

"I imagine they'll go away, since I'm the one they want."

His calmness made her want to scream, to grab him and shake him for daring to be so casual with his life. She stood with her fists clenched while all those damned men stared at her as if she just didn't understand. She understood, all right, and she wasn't going to live through that again.

"You don't know that. We don't know for certain who they are or what they want. What if it has nothing to do with you? And even if it did, what makes you think they'd just pack up and leave? They've killed seven people, and we're all agreed that's a drastic action to take just because you got the better of them. It's something else, it has to be. We just don't know what."

He regarded her thoughtfully, then nodded. "You're right. It has to be something else."

"Can you guarantee you'll make it past them without being spotted?"

"No, I can't guarantee it."

"Then we can't risk losing you, Cal. We can't. We aren't helpless, but we ate cut off, and they have the upper hand." Desperately she searched for inspiration, some way out that didn't involve Cal risking his life against odds that were weighted against him. He was right, in that the most direct way was through the shooters. If they could somehow go up and over –

"We can't just sit and wait," Creed said. "We aren't prepared for a siege, and that's what this is – "

Cate felt as if her voice were coming from outside her. "There's another way," she heard herself say. Everyone shut up and looked at her, and she found herself moving forward. Deep inside her a panicked little voice was saying no, no, but somehow she couldn't stop her feet from moving as she pushed her way through the knot of people to jab her finger hard on the mountains Cal had judged goat-worthy. "I can get up those mountains. I've been up those mountains. I'm a climber, you know that, you saw my gear. It's safe when you tie off" – that wasn't quite the truth, but she was going with it – "and they won't be expecting us to try that route, so they won't be watching. No one will be shooting, no one will be sticking his neck out like a sacrificial lamb."

"Cate," Cal began. "You have two kids."

"I know," she said, tears gathering in her eyes. "I know." And she wanted to see them grow up. She wanted to take rare of them and hold her grandchildren and have all the million other things parents dreamed of. But she couldn't shake a sudden certainty that he wouldn't make it through if he went with his plan, which would leave them even more vulnerable. Everyone here could end up dead, and her kids would lose their mother anyway. As dangerous as it was, she didn't think going up the mountains was as dangerous as what Cal was proposing.

"She's right, Roy Edward interrupted.

They all turned toward the old man. He was sitting on one of the dining room chairs that they'd brought down the night before. His left arm and the left side of his face were colored a deep purple from a fall, but his mouth was a grim line. "What you're wanting to do is dangerous, boy, and I don't see why you'd think we'd be willing to sacrifice you to save ourselves."

There was a murmur of agreement. Cate was so grateful to the crusty old man she could have hugged him.

"Going over the mountains in that direction will take too long," Cal pointed out.

"If you kept on in that direction, yes, but these mountains are riddled with abandoned mines." Roy Edward hauled himself to his feet and unsteadily made his way over to them. "I know because my daddy worked in some of them, and I played in 'em when I was a sprout. There used to be trails from the cut that wound all over, because even' one of them started from there. Makes sense they weren't going to climb up from the other side, don't it? As I remember, one or two of those old mines go completely through a fold in the mountains. Don't know what kind of shape they'd be in after all these years, but if you could get through one of them, that could save considerable time."

He traced a shaky forefinger across the mountains to the cut and looked up at Cate. "Even if the mines are blocked, which I expect they are, you could work your way over to the cut. You'd be way above where these bastards would be looking, and the cover is dense up there. Once you got to the cut, you'd be behind them."

She wiped the tears from her face and turned to face Cal. "I'm going," she said shakily. "No matter what you do, I'm going."

He was silent a moment, his pale gaze searching her face and reading the desperation there. He glanced at Creed, and she couldn't read the message that passed between them.

"All right," he finally said in that calm way of his, as if she'd said she was going to the grocery store. "But I'm going with you."