Flanked by armed guards on the landing were three others she recognized. Collared and in white, gold mane loose around his shoulders, Peter was rigid. She was surprised to see that his hands weren’t tied. On the other hand, the guns, one jammed to Wolf ’s temple and a second to Penny’s, were probably control enough. At the scent of Wolf ’s fuming rage, her monster gave her a nudge, wanting to get out, make contact.

Tall and broad and black, Finn was on the landing, too. A square woman, with a very large gun, stood on his left. A boy with dark hair—an altered Changed, clad all in white—hovered to his right, like a pet dog. But it was what and who she saw next that made her heart try to break apart in her chest.

The slam had come from the village hall doors. Two of Finn’s men were bulling their way out with someone else—bloody and battered—who still put up a real fight, kicking and bucking so much that two more men bounded up the steps to help. One jackhammered a very hard, fast, and brutal punch to their prisoner’s gut, bad enough to double him over. Bad enough that Alex, for all the distance between them, heard the gasping cry jump from his mouth as he crumpled and sagged to his knees.

At the sound, she fell to her own. Everything came together, all the pieces: the early warning; why the children were gone; that fleeting scent at the village hall and on this decoy bomb she hadn’t dwelled on, something so minute, barely there at all—and she’d had to hold her grief at bay because there were so many more important things to worry about, like keeping the monster in check and her head from being blown off.

Of course, he’d handled it, fashioned this, labored to make it as flawless and perfect as he could: something that would fool the eye for just long enough. There was no one else capable. She should’ve understood that from the very beginning because of his scent, musk and smoke and spice so rich and sweet and strong, what she’d told herself was only wishful thinking.

But it was real. He’s real. He’s alive, he’s . . . If she hadn’t clapped both trembling hands to her mouth, she surely would have screamed his name.

Tom.

My God.

They had Tom.

120

He hadn’t lied to Chris. When he cooked up this cockamamy plan, he had one very healthy leg and one that was plenty strong, only slightly gimpy. The timing had worked fine. After the RPGs, that changed. So he miscalculated, didn’t factor in distance, how far and fast he could hobble on a bloody leg with a hunk of metal in it that kept wanting to give out. A lot of time got chewed up while he got the ball rolling, lurched his way to the huge compressor on the roof and then around back, making doubly sure all the outside vents were sealed. The last thing he needed was for the smell of burning thermite and live det cord to leak. He went as fast as he could, but by the time he was gimping back around the building and up the village steps to head for the jail, Finn’s men were halfway across the square—and he just . . . froze. Like Chris on the plateau: he looked, and the sight of all those Changed stopped him dead a good five seconds. Three seconds too long, as it turned out.

Which was not the plan. First principles, again: hold out bait, entice the enemy, lull them into believing they were safe. The idea was to arm the decoys, set off his incendiary, then hustle back to the real deal—that back room filled with propane tanks, C4, cans of fuel oil, and his homemade ANFO—and keep tabs on Finn while he waited for the thermite three stories above to eat through the floor and into an air conditioning duct where it would set off a long snake of det cord. If something failed along the way—say, the thermite didn’t work or the det cord didn’t ignite—or if it looked like Finn was delayed or ready to leave, all Tom had to do was wait for the right moment and then touch off the explosives himself. So, let Finn discover the fakes. Even if they suspected he’d survived the church, Mellie already thought she had all his bomb-making materials. That was the whole point of putting that small stash under the horse trough back at their old camp to begin with. The decoys here would reassure them they were right. Buy the kids a little more time, and then boom!

Great plan. Sucked about the leg. Anyway, it was bad. Frightened men are brutal. Storming the building, they crowded into the jail where he was desperately monkeying up metal shelves. It took four to pry him off, and they did it with enough violence that the back of his head cracked stone. He still felt the warm wet slither of blood down his neck. The rain of punches and blows was worse. One particularly well-aimed kick nearly buried that metal dagger in his left thigh, and his right flank, the recipient of a steel-toed boot, was screaming. Be lucky not to have busted a kidney. The only consolation? Tom’s eyes brushed Jed’s Timex. Assuming he got the right proportions of ABC to ground aluminum and plaster of Paris, and his math was correct— having experimented with those fire extinguishers enough, he was pretty sure it was—he had about, oh, fourteen minutes left to worry about that.

“Found him in the jail,” the steel-toed kidney kicker was saying, “with the fuel stores. Trying to start these up, but they’re fakes. Just, I don’t know, bread dough or something.”

“There’s nothing?” Finn was much bigger than Tom had guessed from that picture: a wide, imposing giant, all in obsidian-black, with a head that looked chiseled out of stone. On the other hand, Finn might seem huge because Tom was on his knees. Standing slightly off Finn’s right shoulder was that dark-haired boy in white, the one with Finn at the ruined church. Now that he was close, Tom saw how the kid’s savage, red eyes watched Finn with this eerie, quivering attentiveness reminiscent of a really well-trained dog waiting for a command.

“Not a single live bomb?” Finn asked Kidney Kicker.

“What about smoke?” This came from the woman next to Finn. “Cigarettes? Anything burning? It’s how he did it the last time.” Kidney Kicker pulled a frown. “Nothing like that. We’d have smelled det cord or smokes. No C4 either. Just these fakes. Probably thought he could get us going, running around, looking for the real deal, to buy those kids more time. Even if he tried the cigarette trick, we’ve been here long enough that if there was a bomb, it’d have gone off by now.”

“And we’d all be in hell before we knew we were dead,” Finn said, without a trace of irony. He tossed a look over his shoulder. “Which I’m sure you’d approve of, Yeager.”

“You need my approval?” Yeager’s face was calm, though his hungry eyes raked the face of a boy to Tom’s right. Tom nearly had a heart attack when he first spotted the kid. For a second, he thought, Oh my God, they got him before he could get away. But this boy’s hair was longer, almost to his shoulders. No fresh blood on his face or in his hair, no necklace of blue-black bruises, no cuts or raw flesh. This boy’s eyes were dark brown, almost black, no hemorrhage at all. Chris was lean, but this Changed was gaunt, his sunken cheeks like axheads. Then, of course, there was the very pregnant girl hanging onto the boy’s left arm.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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