And felt a hand on his shoulder.

99

A scream surged up Tom’s throat, crashed over his tongue, then flattened against the wall of his teeth. Tucking, he rolled away, once, twice, then brought the silenced Uzi to bear. Just before it was too late, in the split second before his finger tightened on the trigger and sprayed gunfire he could not take back, he saw what he’d missed before, because his eyes hadn’t adjusted and he’d been focused on the gap, not what waited at his back, in the dark.

The Chucky who’d decided on the crawl space as his personal meat locker had been a busy, busy boy. In the gray gloaming, Tom thought there might be as many as four bodies, but certainly two, because of the heads. (Pro forma for an accurate count at any bomb scene: forget heads. Heads pop like corks from champagne. Count left feet.) The soft, fleshy parts—eyes, noses, lips, tongues—were gone. The heads stared with wide, black-eyed wonder. One body was being systematically consumed from the waist up, the Chucky probably reaching in and scooping out all the good stuff before setting to work on the leaner rib meat. Alongside a half-gnawed thigh was a spool of colon in a neat cobra’s coil.

Jesus. Fear spidered down his neck. Either those boys were living here, or had dropped by to grab a quick snack. And here, I’ve saved them the trouble of hunting me down.

But they hadn’t figured out where he was yet. Sweat oozing over his temples, he rolled away from the grisly sight and readied the Uzi. He could still take them. If these Chuckies weren’t the only ones, or they lived nearby, he would have to make tracks pretty fast. Maybe this was why the village had pulled back: because there were too many Chuckies and no way to defend against them all. But then I should’ve spotted more, not just these two . . .

Then, he heard one of the boys: “Did you—”

“—hear that?” Jayden whispered. From his place in the middle of the kitchen, Chris gave Jayden a slow nod, then put a finger to his lips. The sound had been brief, a kind of scurry like a rat or opossum. Or a raccoon. He tipped a look at the hole in the floor. From the smell, it seemed as if something had taken up residence. Maybe the cat, whose prints he’d spotted in back. His gaze inched from the hole to the hall beyond Jayden. In the weak light, he saw watery tread marks. Too late to ask Jayden if there’d been water before.

They’d stopped at Jess’s first. The house was empty, the girls’ bedrooms cleaned out. Yet the floors in Jess’s house were intact. This was not the case with two other houses on the same block that he knew had been occupied the last time he was in Rule. The only difference between those houses and Jess’s was that Jess had a root cellar and basement. Every house without one or the other showed similar damage: floorboards pried up or simply splintered with sledges and axes, open drawers, crap on the floor, broken dishes, the backs of cupboards staved in with hammers.

Now he swept his eyes over the wreckage that had been the Landrys’ kitchen. He thought he understood what had happened here. Whoever was left in Rule had gone around ripping up houses on footings to look in crawl spaces and behind walls for supplies that had been squirreled away. Then each house had been X’ed from the list.

Which means they’re pretty desperate. His gaze lingered on the

mo ns ters pantry door, open just a crack. Things certainly had gone downhill here in a— A faint squee and then a shuffle from directly overhead. At the sound, his eyes darted to the ceiling. He knew it. That ghostly flash of a face hadn’t been his imagination. Now, he was very glad he’d made Ellie wait behind the woodpile with Mina when the dog started getting antsy. Looking up at Jayden, he aimed a finger at the ceiling, then lifted his chin in the direction of the front hall. Nodding, Jayden turned a quiet about-face, hugged the left wall, and padded for the front door, with Chris only steps behind. Pausing at the bottom of the staircase, Jayden leaned in for a quick peek, then darted across to take up position in a doorway that led to a formal dining room. Moving past the understairs closet, Chris paused at the newel post, tapped his chest with a forefinger, then turned to aim at the stairs. He had a brief moment when he wondered just why he was bothering to clear this house, then considered that something had gotten under the dog’s skin and that the only good Changed was a dead one.

Unless it’s Lena, a small inner voice whispered. This is what you wanted, right? For her to follow? So what if she got here first?

No way, he thought right back. Lena knows Jess, not the Landrys. She has no reason to be in this house.

Unless she’s running an end around, the voice said. You drop north, so she circles, tracks you by scent, and meets you head-on.

Yes, but accomplishing what? He was overthinking this. Lena hadn’t shown herself at all in the last four days. He wondered now if she’d followed. Maybe he and Jayden weren’t enough of a draw.

Can’t worry about Lena now. He just hoped that whatever was up there wasn’t armed. Socking his rifle against his shoulder, he followed his weapon in a slow creep up the stairs, keeping to the right, away from any squeaky centers. The hall above opened right and left, and he jumped his eyes to the right corner and then the left, bringing his rifle around, clearing each slice of the pie. To his relief, he had wall to his back the whole way. Make it to the corner, clear left, then pivot, move to the right, clear that corner, then get the hell out of the stairway. What they did next depended on how many doors were open—

Something vaulted from a side table snugged against the far wall. Jerking right, he brought his rifle around, but he was off-balance. The cat barreled into his chest, dug in with its claws, spat, and then launched itself, using him as a springboard, to catapult itself the rest of the way down the steps. With a yelp, he jerked off a wild shot, then staggered as his heel snagged. He fell backward, his head cracking a step hard enough to bring on a shower of shooting stars, and then he was watching his boots whip past as he turned a somersault and caromed down the steps.

“Are you okay?” Jayden’s face, chalky with alarm, swam into view. “You could’ve broken your neck. Cat scared the hell out of me.”

“Uh,” Chris croaked. He could only lie a moment, listening to the bawl of his battered head. His right shoulder hurt where he’d collided with hardwood, but he thought it could’ve been worse. Propping himself up on his elbows, he gulped back against a swirl of vertigo, then made a face, worked his jaws, and spat out a gob of red foam. “Bit myself. Stupid cat.”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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