He opened his mouth to call, then hesitated. Listened. The dog’s yark-yark-yark was muffled, though he thought there might be two barking now. This seriously creepy vibe suddenly tickled his neck, like the day he snuck into his parents’ bedroom and started opening drawers to discover, well . . . things. Like, my dad reads these? They do things like that? He kept expecting his dad to pop out of a closet. For weeks, whenever his dad put an arm around his mom, Luke broke into a sweat.

This was like that. He was someplace he didn’t belong, about to see something he had no business seeing, not if he knew what was good—

From down the hall came a muted mechanical click. And then two more.

He went rigid. After a moment, the sounds came again: click. Pause. Click-click-click. Pause. Click-click-click.

Luke’s heart skipped. He might not know the meaning, but he understood what this was.

Code.

92

When he spotted the blood, Tom made them peel off the road, get under cover, and wait. This went against every impulse that screamed he needed to get to Cindi and Chad, right now. But it was the same as it had been in Jed’s shed when the bounty hunters came: panic, and everyone died. So, instead, he and Weller crept in gradually, ducking behind and under what scant cover they had.

The church’s front doors were ajar, an open invitation they took, Weller sweeping low as he angled high because everyone forgot to look up. The church’s interior was deeply shadowed, with dark corners from which anything might spring. Tom’s eyes scoured the stone floor and along the pews for trip wires, a curl of det cord. But there was nothing.

The tower had seven landings accessible by wrought iron ladders fixed to limestone walls. Weller covered as he led the way, scrutinizing each rung and rail for wires, pressure switches. More nothing, and no one blasted down from above. A defunct carillon console was still just as thick with dust and cobwebs as it had been when Tom climbed down two weeks ago.

Which left only the trap at the top of the seventh ladder. Tom stood there a good minute, listening for the tread of a boot, a squeal of wood. He felt cold air seeping from the open belfry, and thin slivers of daylight glimmered through gaps in the wood. But there were no dead spaces, nothing blacked out. He used the tip of his Uzi to ease open the trap. Nothing went ka-boom, and there was no muzzle flash.

The first thing he saw in the belfry was that the stool, on which he’d perched for hours, lay on its side. Beside it, on the floor, was the rumpled mound of a sleeping bag. A book splayed, facedown, next to the stool and Cindi’s binos, a pair of Nikon 8X42s that she liked for when the light started to go. Wrappers were scattered over the floor. A small litter of crumpled lunch bags and balled waxed paper half-covered Cindi’s Nikons. A water bottle and thermos were overturned. The air smelled of cold chicken broth and wet noodles.

From the looks of it, the kids put up a fight. Yet as they headed down from the belfry and out of the church, Tom worried the tableau. Something was off, but damned if he knew precisely what.

“I don’t know about this.” Weller crouched over the mutilated body of Chad’s dog. The animal had been decapitated, its severed head lying at the bottom of the steps like a discarded basketball. “That’s a clean cut, and I’ll bet it was the first one, too. Look at the blood spray. But”—he reached to turn the dog over—“if you look at these cuts here . . .”

“Don’t!” Tom snatched Weller’s wrist. “It could be booby-trapped; they plant bombs in dead dogs.”

“Ease down, Tom. We’re not in Afghanistan.” Weller gave his hand a pointed glance. “Mind?”

“No. Just . . . be careful.” Exhaling, Tom forced his hand to relax. He did not like this at all. The back of his neck was jumping. Being out in the open, on this bald knob, made him nervous. He and Weller were static targets, just begging to be picked off. “First time for everything.”

“No arguments from me there.” Weller rolled the dog’s stiffening body, then grunted. “Look at the blood.”

The vermillion pool was small, a few tablespoons. “Not enough.” Tom turned back and eyed the spray-painted stone of the church’s

il sa j . bick front. “So those had to come first, when the heart was still pumping. You’re saying they cut the head off first and then mutilated the body after the dog was dead?”

“Be my guess.” Weller held a hand over a slop of the dog’s colon. “Cold. Blood’s real thick. Whatever happened here happened a while back. Hours, probably. Same thing with Chad’s horse.” Like the dog, the mare’s belly was ripped. Pulverized organs splattered the snow. The stink was terrible, a rancid, fecal odor that made a pulse of bile boil to the back of Tom’s throat. The horse’s skull had been hacked straight down through the poll, leaving an ax-shaped divot that neatly split the skull in two. “Hatchet or a big machete for the killing blow, and then they could take their time tearing up the animal once it was down. But Tom . . .” Weller aimed a forefinger at the stump of the dog’s neck. “That is a clean cut.”

Tom stared at Weller for a full ten seconds before he got it. “The dog was standing still. It recognized whoever did this.”

“Or responded to commands, yeah. Or it could’ve been helped along.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look at the head. What’s missing, something Chad’s dog always wore?”

Tom’s gaze raked over the dog’s glazed eyes, the sagging halfshuttered lids, that lolling blue tongue. “The muzzle. Chad always muzzled his dog when he went on lookout.”

“Right. I think someone removed the muzzle and fed the dog something. Put it to sleep and then you can chop off the head pretty easy. So, one thing’s for sure, it couldn’t have been a Chucky. That dog would never stand still or let it get close, and they only killed the one horse. Why do that unless you need the other? Chuckies don’t ride.”

“Unless, now, some do or can.” Tom thought about that. “You know what else is wrong? There’s nothing covert about this. It’s like they’re trying to spook or impress us. This all feels ”—he waved a hand—“arranged.” That jogged something else loose. “You remember upstairs? It looks like there was a struggle, right? But what wasn’t there, Weller?”

“I don’t follow.”

“No brass. No smell of gunpowder.”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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