some space to get through this.”

“Space? He’s been in that tower for over a week.”

“Cut the boy a little slack, Mellie, all right?” Weller shook a packet

down before ripping it open and dumping the contents into a mug. “I

know what I’m doing.”

“Do you?” In the Coleman’s flat light, her gray eyes were stones

and her lips were purple. “Because I’m starting to wonder, Weller. No

one is indispensable, not even Tom.”

“Jesus Christ on a crutch, I hope you’re listening to yourself.”

Exasperated, he turned, propping his butt against the kitchen counter. “Tom is actually the one person in this camp who is. Think about

Luke and Cindi, what they’re willing to do for him. I guarantee not

one kid would take a bullet for you or me.”

“Tom is only useful so long as he remains an asset, Weller, not a

liability. The last thing we need is for him to decide that this girl is

alive and it’s his mission to track her down.”

Weller had to work to keep the chagrin from making its way to his

face. This was precisely what Tom thought and wanted: There was the

ski pole, Weller. There’s the Glock. Tell me how I can ignore that. If those

Chuckies got her out, if there’s even a chance she’s alive . . .

“Why don’t you focus on the fact that he’s out of that damn tower,

and he came back.” Although that, Weller thought, was more a matter of luck than anything else. If that Chucky hadn’t shown her face,

he wasn’t sure Tom would’ve returned. He could picture the boy taking off, looking for some sign of where those Chuckies had taken

Alex—which, he thought, wasn’t necessarily as crazy as it sounded.

What Tom said about that entire fiasco on the ridge the night they

blew the mine and the way those Chuckies just kept coming . . . made

a lot of sense, damn it. “Right now, he wants to talk, so I’ll listen.” “Yeah, and I bet you’re just so very understanding.” Her eyes suddenly slitted. “Did you promise to help him look for her?” It was a little disconcerting that she’d jumped to that conclusion

so easily. “Not exactly.”

“Oh, for God—” She huffed. “What did you say?”

“That when we’re done with Rule, if there’s some sign, a direction

. . . I’ll help him.”

Mellie’s mouth unhinged. “She’s dead, Weller. He’s basing this on

a ski pole and a gun that’s not even hers.”

“Look, Mellie, he’s not so far gone he doesn’t see it’s nuts, a long

shot at best. But you weren’t up on that rise. You’re not carrying what

he is. The last thing he needs is us rubbing his nose in it, or you interfering, lecturing . . .”

“I will do whatever I think—”

“Shut the hell up,” he rapped. “Mellie, I need you to listen good

and hard. Tom is a soldier. He’s smart, he’s strong. He’s braver and

more loyal than almost anyone I’ve ever known—”

“And insane to go up there alone—”

“Because he still has a heart to break,” Weller grated. “For God’s

sake, Mellie, think for a damned second. Tom’s not eating; he’s

barely slept. He’s grieving. Now, there’s that Glock, and he’s grabbed

hold of this little bubble of hope, but it’s a fragile thing, and so is his

soul, and I am not going to be the one to crush either. I know he has

to let go eventually. He does, too, I think. But people let go in their

own way at their own time. He’s not ready yet, but he will be. This

fight was a good thing, all in all.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Nothing like a little near-death to make you reevaluate the merits

of living,” Weller said, but didn’t smile. “That boy nearly got his head

handed to him today, and that scared the hell out of him. Now, he’s

talking and that’s good. But it can go either way. Push him too hard

and he’ll bottle himself right back up. That’s what Tom does: handles

things on his own.”

“Like going to the lake by himself.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She was tiring him out. “Can we get past this already?

And give the kid some credit: other boys’d crawl into their bags and

never come out after a fight like this.”

“My God.” Her eyes sharpened. “You admire him. What is he, the

boy you always wanted to be but weren’t? Or is it more? Don’t tell me

you care about him. For heaven’s sake . . . he’s a tool, Weller.” “Anyone can tell you, you got to take good care of your tools, you

want them to work.”

“Don’t give me any of your folksy cowboy bullshit.” She let go of

a humorless grunt. “So when the sudden conversion?”

On the rise. When I heard her call and him answer and near about kill

himself to get to her. Then I realized just what I’d done and that nothing, not

even revenge, is worth this. If ever anyone needed to let go of the past

. . . But he doubted it would be wise to share any of this with Mellie,

who had her own allegiances and none of them to him. Showing her

his back, Weller tore open a second packet of instant. The aroma of

strong coffee hit him the way it always did, something so fine and

good it hurt to think there would come a time when this simple pleasure would also vanish. No one would be importing coffee beans or

manufacturing instant for years, maybe decades. “I’m only saying I

understand where he’s coming from. I also think it’s in our best interest to get at what’s bothering him about that Chucky. I’m just not

sold that he’s told us everything.”

“Oh?” He practically heard her eyebrows arch. “What do you

think he’s leaving out?”

“I don’t think it’s conscious,” he said, tipping the pack of instant

so the granules came in a slow stream. “Just a hunch. I think he knows

something but can’t put his finger on it. Understand what I’m saying?

Like seeing someone in a crowd you could swear you’ve met but you

can’t remember their name or even how you know them. Anyway, I

figure, sit with him awhile, don’t push, let him calm down . . . whatever’s bothering him will find its way out.” With a little help, that is.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror