“Well, we can talk about that,” he said, trying to inject notes of both sympathy and steel. A cat. I’m harassing this poor woman over a cat. It was always a toss-up, trying to decide how many guys to take, and whether they should be really, really ancient or just normal old. This time he’d opted for six, with four Spared—him, Pru, Aidan, and Lucian—and two geezers: a really ancient denture-sucker with a bugle of a voice named Henry, and Jarvis, who was just plain old and knew the woman’s husband, Chester. “I really need you to open the door, Mrs. Landry.”

“This is my house. You have no right to come here making accusations.” That single gimlet eye clicked right. “Jarvis, you took all our food seven weeks ago.”

“Well, Verna, see, that’s the problem.” A pallid geezer, Jarvis had the kind of knobby neck Greg always associated with a turkey, but he was one tough old bird. “Chester kept going on about how he got the runs eating cat food—”

“It was a ration.”

“No one’s giving out cat food to people.” Lucian skimmed that serpent’s tongue over his lips. His silver stud winked. “Cats, maybe,” Lucian drawled, “but not cat food.” Beside him, Aidan sniggered and blocked off a nostril with his thumb, let out a juicy honk, did a quick peek, then wiped his hand on his jeans.

“That all goes to the dogs,” Greg said, unsure if he only wanted to kick Lucian in the teeth or never touch anything Aidan got near again. Maybe both. “So where’d Chester get it?”

“Fine.” Verna’s voice ratcheted up a notch. “ Fine, yes, we had a cat. It was Lisa’s, but it ran away once she . . .” Verna petered out, then revved up again: “We still had the food.”

“Then you should’ve turned that in last time we did a door-todoor.” Pru moved a little closer and said, “Council gave orders right after the ambush.”

“All right, we made a mistake. But did you find a cat then? No. And why pick on cats? Why not dogs and horses?”

This was why Greg had left Daisy with Tori and Sarah. All they needed was a pissed-off villager taking a potshot. “Please, ma’am, this’ll go a lot easier if you just open the door.”

“Not until Chester gets home. You’ll just have to come back when he—”

“Do it.” Greg was suddenly just so sick of the whole thing. Let them just get in, get out, get this over with, so he could go back to Tori.

“Playing our song,” Aidan said. Moving in a swift sidestep around Greg, he and Lucian pistoned quick cop-style kicks. The old woman saw them coming, let out an abortive squawk, but didn’t move fast enough. There was a splintering scream as both the lock plate and chain popped free of the jamb. Greg heard a sickening thuck and an ugh as the old woman’s head first connected with wood, then snapped on the spindle of her neck. Lurching back, a hand clapped to her streaming nose, she began a stuffy screech: “Mah noth, mah noth!” “Lucky it’s still attached,” Aidan said.

“Fucking A,” Lucian said, though whether he was agreeing or commenting on his friend’s prowess at breaking an old woman’s nose, Greg didn’t know and didn’t care.

“Henry, make sure she doesn’t go anywhere,” Greg said, stepping over the blubbering old woman as Henry doddered up and piped on an improbably high note: “Now, Verna, I coulda tole you . . .”

Man, I hate this. Striding past an understairs closet, Greg moved down the hall, darkened now with late afternoon gloom, and toward the kitchen with Pru and Jarvis on his heels. For no particular reason, his scalp suddenly tingled, and a maddening itch dug at the back of his neck. Whoa, something wrong here. He had this very weird sense that the house was both empty and yet occupied. He shot a glance over his shoulder. Aidan and Lucian were sauntering, their eyes roaming over walls of photographs, tables cluttered with bric-a-brac, ready to liberate anything they took a fancy to the second Greg or Pru or Jarvis might not be looking. He watched Aidan open that under-stairs closet, peek, then move on.

Nothing really untoward. He frowned. So why am I so spooked? Something wrong . . .

“Bingo. Food dish.” Pru chinned a cheery yellow placemat tucked into a corner of the kitchen, behind a farmhouse table and chairs. A round ceramic bowl decorated with fish skeletons and the words Meow and Yum Yum squatted next to an aluminum water bowl, which was half full. The food dish held a single kibble. “I don’t see a litter box.”

“Maybe they let it out,” Aidan said. “Might still be out unless the old geezer run off.”

“Hey,” Greg said, uncomfortably aware of Jarvis, who fit the definition of both old and geezer. Aidan really needed to watch his mouth. “Just keep it zipped, okay?”

“What?” Aidan managed to look confused. “What’d I say?”

“Nothing, kid,” Jarvis said, laying it on thick, then looked at Greg. “Chester wouldn’t run. And that fuss Verna put up? Ten to one, that cat’s still here.”

“Maybe they shoved it into a closet or something.” Spying a corner pantry, Greg pulled the door. The pantry was completely enclosed and pitch black. Pulling out his flashlight, Greg sprayed orange light over the pine floor. “Got a bag of dry, couple cans of wet . . .”

“What?” Aidan and Lucian both asked when Greg trailed off.

“Hang on.” The wood floors of the old house were none too clean, but with so little traffic here, the pine was much lighter, and he spotted one board that looked scuffed, its seams wider than the rest. Like it’s been replaced or popped. When he pushed, the board rocked. Oh boy. He was afraid to hope, but his heart drummed just a little faster. We might have something here, we might really . . . Flicking open his pocketknife, he worked the tip into a seam. The blade passed through easily.

“Hey,” he called. As the others crowded in the doorway, he pointed. “This board’s been pried. I can’t get enough leverage to pop it, though.”

“Here.” Lucian pulled a black, carbon steel machete that probably could carve a buffalo from his waist sheath. “Try this.”

Working the blade, Greg eased it a good eight inches through the gap before the steel ticked. Metal? “Got something.”

“Sure you don’t got just a joist?” Pru asked.

“It’s not wood. I can feel a draft. I think this is a crawl space under the house.” Another five seconds and Greg popped the board, stared, then said, “Oh, holy shit.”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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