Cover Of Night (Chapter 27)

When morning came, Teague sat up and rolled his shoulders, glad the night was over and nothing had happened. He'd forced himself to stay alert through the graveyard shift, knowing that it Creed had planned anything, that was when it would take place; a person's natural arcadian rhythm was at its lowest point in those hours – at least for those who waited and watched. Teague had expected something, anything, even if just a few experimental forays. But hour after hour he'd scanned with the scope, without seeing the bright flare of a human thermal signature. Blake had been on edge, too, getting on the radio way too often to ask if Teague saw anything, but nothing had come their way.

Dawn was overcast, with sullen, low-hanging clouds that wreathed the tops of the mountains in mist. The warmer temperatures had held during the night, but now a chilly wind was beginning to blow. September weather could be iffy, as the seasons transitioned. Teague checked the level of coffee in his thermos; it was getting low. He'd need more if this wind kept blowing.

He glanced across at Frail Stop. It looked like a ghost town, with no one moving around. No, wait – he was certain he saw some smoke rising from the far side. It was difficult to tell, because the sky was so gray and, with the clouds hanging low on the mountains, everything sort of blended together, but – hell, yeah, that was smoke. Someone had a fire going in their fireplace. That was where the people would be, where they could get warm, maybe heat some soup, make some coffee. He keyed the radio. "Blake. Check toward the river, the houses farthest away. Is that smoke?" Blake's eyes were younger than his, more reliable.

Blake came back with an answer in just a few seconds. "It's smoke, no two ways about it. Want me to try getting a shot in there?"

"I don't think you have a clear shot, too much structure between here and there. I know I don't."

A minute went by. and Blake was on the radio again. "Negative on the clear shot. Used my binoculars to check it out."

"What I figured." Teague settled back on the blanket, once again studying the road and the houses closest to him. An uneasy feeling skittered up his spine. There was something spooky about the place today, but it could have been the grayness of the morning and the low clouds that made him feel sort of hemmed in. The empty road was somehow wrong. He froze, staring. The road was empty, completely so.

The bodies were gone.

He couldn't believe his eyes. He blinked, stared, but they didn't magically reappear. The bodies were fucking gone.

He picked up the radio. "Blake," he said hoarsely.

"Come back," said Blake.

"The bodies are gone."

"Wha – ?" Blake must have then looked for himself, because he said, "Shit."

Teague kept staring, unable to quite take it in. How in hell – ? Creed. Fucking Creed. He'd figured out they had thermal scopes instead of night vision, and devised some way for the locals to move around without being detected. Thermal imaging wasn't foolproof; going into water to mask your thermal signature was the best-known trick. But if they'd gone into the stream to the right, the water was damn rough from all the rocks and practically impassable; then they would have had to walk a good distance to get to the bodies, and by then they would have been showing a thermal signature again. Likewise, they couldn't have gone to the left, because that would have put them right in Blake's front yard, and he'd have seen them way before they got to the stream.

Some other way, then.

He narrowed his eyes, studving the place, then picked up his binoculars and made a slow sweep from house to house, pausing at what, from this distance, looked like a low block wall. There hadn't been a wall there before. He'd have noted something like that when he made his reconnaissance. Besides, the top wasn't level. Instead of a wall, it looked more like sandbags.

Well, son of a bitch. The locals had been busy during the night. He felt perversely pleased that they hadn't just rolled over and played dead; he'd have been embarrassed in front of the city boys if they had. He'd said they were tough, and they'd just proven him right. They were fortifying their positions and providing themselves with a safe way of moving about. Behind those bags, no bullets could reach them.

He got on the radio again. "Blake. Take a look at those sections of low wall. Those aren't walls. Looks like sandbags to me." Even as he said it, he realized they wouldn't have had access to sandbags. Something else, then, something in bags. Feed, concrete mix, something like that. Didn't really matter; the principle was the same.

Blake looked. "What're we gonna do?" he finally asked, evidently agreeing with the sandbag assessment.

"Nothing we can do, other than what we're already doing. Don't let anybody get by you: keep them hemmed up until they're reach' to give the city boys what they want.'" Could take longer than what he'd planned on, though, which wasn't good. This whole house of cards could come tumbling down at any time if the wrong person decided to come poking around. That was a risk he'd accepted, but he wasn't going to let this situation drag out indefinitely. He'd stay with his own timetable, regardless of what the city boys thought.

"Belay on?"

'"Belay on."

At Cal's quiet reassurance that he had her if she fell, Cate stretched for a grip on the rock. Cal had searched for a better route, because scaling rock was time-consuming, but he hadn't found anything that wouldn't have left them exposed to rifle fire. Going up this rock face was the safest, most direct route. She was glad it wasn't one of the tougher, higher climbs, since neither of them was in practice, and neither was wearing climbing shoes. She wasn't in good shape to be climbing, either; her leg muscles were strong, from climbing the stairs she went up and down every day. but her upper-body strength was probably half what it had been when she climbed regularly.

The weather wasn't great for climbing, either; the wind was picking up, and the clouds were pressing lower and lower. If it started raining, they wouldn't be able to go back down and wait for better weather; they'd have to press on, even though rain would make the rock more slippery. They'd just have to be extra careful. She thanked God this was what she would have considered an easy climb, back in the day. It was about a hundred yards, maybe a hundred and twenty, to the top – and it wasn't vertical.

Other climbers had been there before them; bolts and anchors were already hammered into the rock in various places. Some climbers removed them as they went, leaving the rock as they'd found it, others didn't bother. Generally Cate didn't like trusting a bolt she hadn't set herself – or that Derek hadn't set – but in the name of speed she was prepared to use some of the presets if they felt sturdy.

Both of them were harnessed and securely roped together. Because she had the most experience, she was the lead rope; she set the way, and when she reached, literally, the end of their rope, she would stop and he'd follow. With the belay set, he would catch her if she fell. When she stopped, she became the belayer and would catch him if he fell.

Part of her was exhilarated to be back on the rock, even an easy rock. It was the stretch and play of muscle, her strength and skill against the rock. At the same time, she knew deep down in her bones this would be her last climb – at least until her boys were grown – and the only reason she was doing it now was because of the severity of the circumstances. Because she knew this was the last time she'd experience this particular thrill, she paid attention to every second, every scrape and smell and sound, the whisper of the ropes, the wind in her face, the cool, rough rock beneath her fingertips. Every time she looked around and saw how high she'd climbed, she felt intense satisfaction.

She gained a solid foothold, set a chock, and securely clipped herself to the rock. At her signal, Cal began climbing toward her, following her established route. She watched his every move, her brake hand ready on the rope in case he slipped. The boots he wore were even less suitable for climbing than her sneakers, so every move he made was risky. His upper-body strength compensated somewhat for his boots. Despite the chilly wind, he'd taken off his jacket and rolled it up before adding it to the supplies strapped to his back, so she could see the flex of muscle and tendon in his bare arms. A climber's strength was sinewy and flexible, like a steel coil, not bulky in the way of bodybuilders'. Cal's arms looked as if he'd been climbing all his life.

A cold mist swept over them, and in a matter of seconds, visibility was down to about zero as the cloud engulfed the mountain.

She knew he was still there, she could feel him on the rope, but she couldn't see him. "Cal!"

"I'm still here."

He sounded as calm as if they were out for a stroll. One day soon she needed to have a talk with him about this; it wasn't natural. "I can't see you, so talk to me. damn it. Tell me everything you do, every step. I have to be able to anticipate."

He obliged, talking steadily to her until the wind blew the mist away and he once more emerged into sight. That was the way it went for the next hour, with the mist blowing in and out as the low clouds engulfed them. At one point the mist was like a heavy fog, and they both stopped to put on thin, cheap ponchos that would at least keep most of their clothing dry. That was the rain gear they d brought, because the ponchos weighed so little, but climbing was impossible with them on. So they simply waited for the mist to clear again. When they could take the ponchos off, they climbed.

The weather slowed them considerably, and it was just after ten in the morning when they finally reached the top of the rock face, which was nowhere near as high as they needed to get ultimately. Stretching ahead of them was a thickly treed slope; the geography would take them due north instead of northwest, the direction they needed, but they had to follow the land and its restrictions.

After sipping some water and eating more muesli, then stepping away from each other to answer nature calls in private, they carefully coiled the ropes, slung them over their shoulders, and set off again, this time with Cal in the lead. A light rain began to fall. They put the ponchos on again, and kept hiking.

"Let's talk!" Toxtel boomed out, cupping his hands around his mouth to make the sound carry.

The hell of it, Goss thought, was that, he didn't know if anyone was within hearing distance. All those damn people had disappeared, dropping out of sight as if they'd never existed. Even the bodies were gone. When he and Toxtel had first noticed that this morning, they'd been a little unnerved, because Teague had put such faith in his fancy thermal scopes and now, somehow, the yokels had outsmarted him. It was time for the next step, before these people had a chance to come up with something else.

Toxtel had been bellowing for a good fifteen minutes, and there hadn't been so much as a flicker of movement on the other side. He might as well have been farting in the wind, for all the effect he was having.

After half an hour, Toxtel's voice was hoarse, but finally a hand waving a white piece of cloth appeared out the front door of the first house. Toxtel shouted again, then waved his own flag, and an old man shuffled out onto the porch.

The old guy looked to be close to ninety, Goss thought in disbelief, watching as he laboriously made his way down the steps and tottered the hundred yards to the mangled wreckage of the bridge. Was this the best they had to send? But then again, why send the best? Why take that risk? Come to think of it, the old guy was a damn smart choice.

"What do you want?" he demanded querulously, looking disgruntled at having to go to all this effort.

Toxtel went right to the point. "The Nightingale woman has what we're after. Tell her to hand it over, and we'll pull out and leave."

The old guy stared across the ravine separating them, working his jaws as if he were chewing the idea over. Finally he said, "I'll pass the message on," and turned around, retracing his steps as if uninterested in anything else they might have to say. They carefully placed themselves behind cover, then watched until he was once more out of sight.

"What the hell do you make of that?" Toxtel asked rhetorically.

"They're pissed" was Goss's reply.