Later, crossing the square to the village hall, Tom spotted people trickling into the church. The stained-glass windows shimmered with color, something he’d have found calming on any other night. As he mounted the village hall steps, the faint strains of a hymn wound through the open church doors: I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless.

Bum leg nagging a touch from all the up-and-down—not to mention wrestling plastic primer buckets and bags of high-grade fertilizer into a back storage room just above the jail before humping back for cans of diesel and fuel oil and hoping he really did have the proportions down—he headed downstairs to check out the building’s air-conditioning ducts. He’d already found they were just large enough for him to worm through. (Thank God he wasn’t claustrophobic.) Now, to figure out how far he could stretch that det cord and if the math worked. All he needed to buy were fifteen, twenty lousy minutes on the outside.

And then the darkness will deepen, Tom thought. Whether we like it or not. Two hours later, he heard the clump of boots.


“Up here, Chris. To your left. Hold on.” He was flat on his back, on

a high shelf, a partially dismantled alarm clock in his hands, the jail’s ceiling a foot from his face. Wedging a finger on the clock’s escape wheel, he carefully seated a sliver of whittled matchstick between one tooth and the lever’s entry pallet before slowly easing pressure on the wheel. The pallet bit into the wood but didn’t break it. The clock’s gears were still, the hands frozen. “So,” Tom said, gently laying the clock aside and picking up a pair of crimpers, “guys at the barricade set?”

“About as ready as they can be. Kids should be away in another


“Cutting it close. Going to be dawn soon.”

“Can’t be helped.” Chris was taking in the tanks of propane, cans

of gasoline, premix. “I knew all this stuff was here, but what you’re planning? Gives me a whole different perspective.” “Yup. Just got to hope it’s enough of a bang.” Coring a hole in the end of a grayish-white block, he slipped in a slim length of tarnished pipe—yes, close enough to pass for an M18, a lucky break—then used his teeth to tear strips of black electrical tape. “You got your guys?”

“What’s left. There weren’t many of us Spared to begin with, and even fewer now. Pru and Greg are the oldest. I’d send both, but I held Greg back to go with us. There are some guys, Aidan and Lucian and Sam . . . after I left, they went over to the dark side. You know, locking up Pru and Greg? I don’t trust Aidan and his guys but can’t leave them. Wouldn’t be right.”

“Your people, your call. But you really want them for the long haul? Eventually, you’ll have to choose.”

“I know.” Chris shrugged. “We’re all Spared. If we make it, that might be the time to give them a share and cut them loose. Anyway, Pru and three other guys’ll go after your kids when we say.”

“Excellent.” Tom gestured at a thermos on the floor. “Coffee, if you want. I’ve been mainlining for hours. I’m so jacked, I’m vibrating.”

“Thanks.” Uncapping the thermos, Chris poured out a cup, sipped, then blinked. “Wow, that’s strong. I think my teeth just curled.”

“Enjoy it while it lasts. Found it in Weller’s stuff.” Tom returned his attention to his work. That sea of red hemorrhage in Chris’s eyes, so like Finn’s altered Changed, unsettled him. “You sound better.”

“Yeah. Kincaid said I was lucky my larynx didn’t fracture.” He heard Chris take another halting swallow. “How’s this going to work exactly?”

“Going to wire the block to an alarm clock the way I already have four others. Once I pull the matchstick, clock’s ticking. But this way, I can control exactly when we start instead of setting it now and then hoping we get lucky.”

“Won’t they hear it from the door? The ticking?” Chris gestured with a finger at a finished bomb attached to a bottom shelf. “That one’s in plain view.”

“Something interesting for Finn to look at. I’m betting they won’t have time to yank them all before one blows,” he said, amazed at how smoothly the lie flowed from his tongue.

“Wow, they really teach you guys a lot.” Chris ran a forefinger over the cup’s rim. “I saw this movie about this bomb disposal squad. You did stuff like that?”

“Yeah.” Tom used his knife to flay electrical cord. The more juryrigged this looked, all the better to fool Finn. “I know the movie.”

“Did they get it right?”

“Some. Most of the time we sent in robots and built water charges or used a hunk of C4 to blow IEDs. The suit’s a last resort.” He paused. “I’m not trying to be an ass**le, but I really don’t want to talk about it right now. I have to stay focused. Going back there in my head . . . it’s nowhere good.”

“Okay.” He felt Chris’s eyes. “What did Weller say?”

He knew what Chris meant. “Nothing very nice,” he said, ripping another long piece of electrical tape. Thank goodness, there was plenty. He’d worried he might not have enough for the real thing. “This isn’t how I imagined we would meet.”

“Oh?” Chris’s voice grew cautious. “How was that?”

“I was going to kill you.” He smoothed tape with the flat of his thumb. “For what Weller said you did to Alex. After the mine went, killing you was all I could think about. It was a . . . poison?” He felt his tongue test that, then shook his head. “That’s not right. It was the only thing I had to hang on to, that hate. Hate makes you feel more powerful, like you can keep yourself pumped, so you put one foot in front of the other, thinking that you’re going somewhere even if all you’re doing is looping the same movie over and over in your head.”

“Of how you were going to kill me.”

“Technicolor.” He nodded. “This afternoon . . . well, yesterday now . . . when Jayden called you by name, I thought, Jesus, it’s him; this is the guy I’ve come to kill.” Sighing, Tom folded his hands over his chest. When he was a kid, he used to lie like this in sweet-smelling grass and study clouds. “There was a second there when I thought, fine, let him die.”

There was a long pause. “What changed your mind?”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror