“Maybe Chad never got off a shot.”

“Come on, the place was a mess. Cindi dropped her book, the binos, kicked over her stool and the thermos, but Chad never fired a shot?” There was still something else wrong with that scene, too, a nag in his mind like a loose tooth begging to be nudged from its socket.

“You’re saying it’s the same as the dog? That they knew him?”

“Or had no reason to be scared until too late, yeah. But how many people, who could do something like this, do the kids know? There are only three: you, me—and Mellie.”

“I hear you, but . . .” Weller shook his head. “I don’t see it. Besides, she’s been at camp all day. Couldn’t have been Mellie, and I know it wasn’t me.”

Had he seen Weller earlier in the day? “She could’ve arranged for it to happen.”

“What? She’d never do that. What are you saying?”

“You heard me,” Tom said. “I think there’s another player.”

93

“Another player?” Weller echoed. Tom nodded. “Has to be, unless it really was Mellie. But I’m thinking that it’s someone she knows and who could convince the kids he wasn’t a threat.”

“I . . .” Weller’s gaze danced to the snow as he drew a careful hand over his mouth. “I’m not seeing it, Tom. Why would she do that?”

Tom’s stomach went leaden. He knew Weller’s mannerisms and tells, and now he had to be careful. More compact, the arc of swing required to bring his Uzi to bear was much shorter than for Weller’s rifle. This was a contest he could win. But they weren’t there yet, and he had no wish to nudge them any closer to the brink. If this old man wanted Tom dead, he’d already had plenty of opportunities. “I guess that’s what I’m asking you,” he said.

For a long, tense moment, Weller only looked at him. He must’ve read something in Tom’s face he didn’t like, because the old man suddenly raised both hands in surrender. No way Weller would win in a draw down now. “Take it easy, Tom.”

“Two kids are missing, this horse and the dog are hamburger, and I should take it easy?” When Weller said nothing, he said, “Do you know what’s going on?”

“No,” the old man rasped, then sighed. “Not entirely, and not anything about this.”

“You want to tell me what you do know?” At Weller’s silence, he said, “Am I not supposed to make it back alive?”

The utter astonishment on Weller’s face was real. “What? Tom, that’s crazy.”

“According to Mellie, I’m the resident expert on crazy.” Now he felt a simmer of anger, the sneak of a finger on his trigger guard. Take it easy. Don’t make a move you can’t take back. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know what’s going on here,” Weller snapped. “Whatever game Mellie’s playing, if she even is, I don’t have a clue. Now I’m putting my hands down.”

Sentimentality aside, he wasn’t stupid. Tom took another step back. “You could put the rifle down, too.”

“Not a chance in hell. I’d like to live to see tomorrow, thank you very much, and there is no way you’re taking my weapon. So either shoot me and go save those kids, or we get out of here now, together, because I do . . . not . . . like this, Tom. There is something going down, and we are in the wrong place to stop it.” When he didn’t move, Weller grated, “Jesus Christ on a crutch, Tom, I do not want you dead. I don’t want any more dead kids if I can help it. I will tell you what I know, but right now, all we got is each other, and we got to get to our kids. You’re going to have to trust me that far. You have my word on it, Tom, soldier to soldier.”

That, he believed. “All right,” Tom said, breaking his elbow, hoping it wasn’t the last thing he ever did. “But I’m not sure we should race back. We need to think this through because it might be that what’s going down is going down now. We still need to find Cindi and Chad.”

“I’m with you on all that.” Weller’s shoulders drooped with relief. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think Mellie would hurt the kids, not intentionally anyway.”

“You don’t sound very certain.”

“Because I’m not,” Weller said. “So let’s go figure out what to do next.”

* * *

They were halfway to the horses, Tom a step or two behind Weller because, soldier to soldier notwithstanding, it paid to be careful. All of a sudden, Weller came to a dead stop and tipped a look at the sky. “Where the hell’s my head?”

Tom narrowly missed plowing into the older man’s back. “What?”

“We’re going to need to scout things out, work some sort of angle, right? Well, I don’t have my binos. Do you?”

“They’re back at camp. We can take Cindi’s. I’ll go back up—”

“No, you go on, get the horses. It’s further, and I’m a lazy cuss.” Cracking a grin, Weller was already trotting back up the steps. “Won’t be but a minute.”

It was when Tom was leading the horses back to the church that he realized what else it was that bothered him about that mess in the belfry.

An overturned stool. A dropped book. The tipped thermos. And garbage.

Cindi’s a neatnik. Whenever she visited him, she carefully refolded paper bags, waxed paper. Yet now there was trash, and not just anywhere, but—

You’re startled enough to drop a book and your binoculars. You kick over the stool. There’s chicken soup on the floor, and litter. His eyes widened. But that one mound of trash is piled on the binoculars, and that can’t be, not if she dropped—

“Weller!” Tom charged for the church. “Weller, no, NO!” Click-click-click. Click. Click. And now a sputter, like a snake.

Static. The hairs stood on Luke’s scalp. Mellie’s got a radio, and she’s talking to someone, in code.

Against every particle of good sense, he eased down the hall. The clicks sounded at erratic intervals. His pulse banged in his ears. This was dumb; what could he tell Tom? Well, there was this funky clicking? But if there was a radio and someone spoke—

From beneath his left boot came a loud, high squeal of a fatigued board: a real horror-show CREEEEE that made his brain freeze. A second later, he heard the telltale squall of bedsprings, and . . . “Hello?” The tone was sharp, the volume growing as Mellie moved for the bedroom door. “Who’s—”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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