Simon? Which meant the girl was Penny. His eyes ticked to the big blond with the mad red eyes, and he saw the sister’s ghost in the brother’s jaw, the shape of his nose. Has to be Peter.

At the sound of Yeager’s voice, Simon stirred, although without much energy. Tom knew the look. Throw a burlap bag over that kid’s head, slap on plasticuffs, squat him next to a mud-baked wall, and Simon could’ve doubled as a captured Taliban. Finn had broken Simon—and you were talking about breaking a monster.

Yeager saw it, too. To Tom, the old man looked like a weary scarecrow with no straw. “I won’t beg, Finn.” Yeager gestured to the waiting crowd. “We made our choice.”

“In a hurry to die? You’d be amazed how stubborn the body is, Yeager.” Finn turned back to Kidney Kicker. “Anything else?” “Only his weapons.” The man held up Jed’s Bravo and the Glock 19. “Lucky he was so busy trying to fake us out, he didn’t take a shot. Coupla knives, too.”

“That’s not right.” Mellie gave him a narrow look, her gray eyes careful and suspicious. Other than the blocky square of her head, she didn’t look like her brother. “He had an Uzi.”

“Yeah, and you would know. I saw where you got all my other stuff from under the damn trough,” Tom said, knowing the dismay showed. He tried pulling himself a little straighter, but his stomach grabbed and the words came on a grunt. He braced his middle with one arm. He kept the other hand propped on his right thigh, over that divot of scar from Harlan’s bullet, to keep from falling over. A crazy thought sparrowed: now he had a matched set—scar on the right, scar on the left. “I lost the gun in the explosion at the church.” “But not your head.” Finn’s right hand rested on the revolver’s pearled handle, his index finger keeping time in a slow, thoughtful tap-tap-tap. Like the tick of a countdown. A sheathed parang hung from his left hip. “Mellie said you were smart. I wondered if you’d made it.”

“Yeah, I noticed you wired my tent. What’d you do?” His lips skinned back in a grimace against a jab of pain. “Count left feet?” “Would’ve, if there’d been any to count.” One of Finn’s bushy white eyebrows arched. “I suppose we have you to thank for all this? No children? Well, but those shots. Does give you the willies, doesn’t it? All those poor kids, so much shish kebab.”

This guy really was an ass**le. “No shots now,” he said, and noticed that Simon’s gaze had drifted from his grandfather to the bell tower. The tiniest crinkle had appeared between the boy’s brows, almost as if he’d spotted something. Was one of Finn’s men up there? Well, no big deal. There was only another decoy to find. “I hope not. But, well, I’ve got your kids.” Finn eyed him. “What tipped it?”

“The trash.” Bracing his side helped as long as he didn’t take too deep a breath. At least he was no longer gasping. The ache in his back was down to a dull roar. Not much longer he’d have to deal with either, though, or Finn. First principles: keep him busy, keep him relaxed, looking at me. All warfare is based on deception. “Cindi always picked up. Not like I’ve never seen IEDs hidden under garbage. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long.”

“I’m impressed. I mean that, sincerely.” Finn gave him a speculative look with eyes that were colorless and cobra-flat. “That’s twice now you’ve survived. First on the snow, now this. And here I thought you were just another dumb grunt. That’ll teach me. How old are you?”

“Why does that matter?”

“Well.” Finn hooked a thumb at Peter, who only glared mutely.

“Let’s just say he’s from the bad section of the Petri dish. If I’m not mistaken, you’re younger.”

“Never.” Tom knew where this was going. The fact that none of them had much longer to argue this didn’t stop the chill from shivering down his spine. “Not in a million years.”

“That’s what I said.” Peter suddenly let go of a broken, brittle laugh. “I fought, I—”

“Peter.” Ernst’s flaccid jowls were streaked with tears. He lumbered a half-step before two of Finn’s men moved in to block him.

“Don’t. You’re not to blame.”

“Then who is?” Peter looked at Tom with brimming, vermillion eyes. “You won’t be able to hold out forever. Best thing is to die fast. Cut your throat first chance you—”

“Please be quiet, Peter. We’ve had so many interesting talks, I’d be sorry to lose you now.” Finn’s hand hovered over that Colt, although his eyes never left Tom. “But Peter does have a point. Everyone has a price, an Achilles heel. We just need to find yours.”

“You have my kids. I don’t have anything left for you to take.” He was afraid to glance at Jed’s Timex. Funny how subjective time was, dragging when you most wanted it to fly. He hadn’t lied to Chris. He didn’t want to die. There were the kids and Ellie to live for, and Alex, out there, somewhere. Stay alive, Alex, stay safe. Please understand this was the only way.

“Don’t wish your life away, Tom”—and then there was a rasp of metal against leather, a blur of motion as Finn brought his parang around in a slashing cut that cleaved air with a whistle. A laser burned across his chest as blood spilled down his front. Crying out, Tom began to fall before Finn got a fist in his hair and that newly blooded blade to Tom’s throat. Tom heard gasps and alarmed cries from the old people. Yeager and Ernst were shouting, trying to work their way up the steps, but it was Peter who broke from his guards and started forward. “Finn, no!”

“Be quiet, Peter,” Finn said. Through a sudden, wavering sheen of tears, Tom saw the big boy’s head snap. A shriek bulleted from Peter’s mouth as he crumpled.

“D-don’t,” Tom managed. His heart hammered. Warm streamers of blood were drizzling to cold stone. A millimeter deeper and Finn would’ve flayed bone. Hold on, Tom, you can stand this. Just a few more minutes. On the other hand, if Finn cut his throat, this would end for him a lot sooner. Six of one, half dozen of the other. “Leave him alone. Your fight’s with me, Finn.”

“We’re fighting? I don’t think so. Look at what you’ve done, the lengths you’ve gone and what you’ve suffered, and then tell me that your fight is with me. Isn’t it with yourself, Tom?”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror