The pantry was, suddenly, very cramped, and much too dark, and he’d left his rifle in the kitchen. So had Jarvis, but he also carried a pistol in a paddle holster. Greg flicked a glance to the old man’s waist, then wished he hadn’t given himself away like that.

Jarvis read the move. “Afraid I’m going to take a shot?”

Before Greg could think of the right answer—was there one?— Pru said, “Seeing as how I’m right behind you, Jarvis, that would be a real bad idea.”

“You got a Ruger, kid.” Jarvis cracked a laugh. His Adam’s apple wobbled in his turkey neck. “Punch right through. Blast me, you blast him.”

There was the sound of metal sliding over plastic, and then Greg saw Jarvis’s back stiffen. “Yeah, but this don’t have bullets,” Aidan said, and he must’ve pressed the tip of his knife just a touch more into Jarvis’s neck, because the old man gasped. “I did this once in bio, to this big honking bullfrog.”

“I remember that lab,” Lucian said. “Kind of a rush, the way the frog spazzed?”

“No one’s pithing frogs, and no one’s blasting anyone. Now I’m just picking up Lucian’s knife here, okay? Everyone be cool.” Slowly unfolding himself from the floor, Greg raised his right palm out while he held the machete’s blade in his left and prayed Lucian didn’t grab it so quickly he lost a few fingers in the bargain. Beyond, he could see Pru, his Ruger Mini-14 holding steady on the back of Jarvis’s head, and Aidan, whose lips were drawn into a predatory grin Greg knew all too well. Lucian only looked thoughtful, like all the gears were clicking away in there, all the angles being considered. That was somehow even scarier.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” His jaw was so tight, Greg could barely get the words past his teeth. “Screw the cat, okay? We pack up this stuff and then we all leave, together. We take everything to the food stores and then we don’t have to worry about it anymore, all right?”

“Out of sight, out of mind?” Jarvis gave a bitter cackle, like the snap of bad ice. Didn’t sound—or look—much like a gobble-gobble now. “You think it’s that easy?”

“Hey.” Aidan’s teeth showed in a snarl. “You threatening us poor little punks?”

“Aidan, put the knife away.” Greg’s eyes slid to Pru. “You, too.” After a long second, Pru’s elbows broke, and Greg heard the click of the Ruger’s safety. “Aidan,” Greg said again.

“Yeah, yeah,” Aidan said, but from the way Jarvis’s cheek twitched, Greg thought the little rat-creep still managed a cut.

“Okay,” Greg said. “We need something to carry this stuff. Pru, you and Jarvis go look for some pillowcases.”

“How do we know you won’t slip a jar into your pocket or saddlebags while we’re gone?” Jarvis said. “Why should we trust you?”

“Because you can. Jarvis, really, we’re on the same side,” Greg said.

“Yeah?” Jarvis said. “Which side is that?”

43

Move! The fine down on Sarah’s neck bristled with an electric surge of terror. Something coming, move, move! “No!” Gasping, she bolted like a spooked rabbit, springing for the storage room door, keys tinkling to the Formica, but no time to search for them, just enough to get away! The door crashed open with an enormous bang. As Sarah bulleted through, she felt fingers whisking through her hair. With a wild yelp, she spun on her heel and lunged for the door to clap it shut. Her flashlight jittered crazily, ripping wide gashes, cutting shelves out of the dark before she lost her grip. The light clattered to the floor, the orange spray winking out. Blind now, she swam through the dark, made a wild grab, felt the bite of wood, and then she was muscling the door home with a solid clap.

Safe, she was safe. Chest heaving, she leaned back, bracing the door with her body, expecting to feel the thud. But nothing happened. No bang. No battering of a fist. No kicks.

Barricade the door. Without the keys, she couldn’t lock it, and this might be her only chance. She knew the storage area well enough to navigate in the dark: freestanding, largely barren metal shelves right and left. The only shelves with any food at all were on her left. So grab a shelf off to her right, haul it in front of the door. Unless she’d imagined the whole thing. She pulled in a screaming breath, held it, listened over the clamor of her heart. The air smelled, very faintly, of peanut butter, but she heard nothing. So, nerves? No, she’d felt something grab for her hair. Unless that had been a phantom terror, too.

Felt so real. Maybe only her mind playing tricks? Because I’m stressed, starved, exhausted . . .

What to do now was the question. She could stay here, barricade the door. But the Coleman was on. Eventually the ice would melt, boil off. Forget the waste of fuel; the flame would burn a hole through that pot and then they’d have a fire.

She listened again, pressing her ear against the keyhole. Still nothing. If she decided to leave, go back out there, she would need light. Which meant retrieving her flashlight from the floor and hoping to God that it worked. Sarah dropped to her hands and knees. Grit bit through her jeans. Okay, which way? She’d been spinning for the door when she lost the flashlight. From the sound the metal tube made as it struck the floor and then rolled, she thought it might be ahead, at roughly ten o’clock. Moving carefully, she swept her trembling right hand over the cold floor. She kept expecting something to skitter across her skin. A spider, maybe, but no self-respecting spider would set up shop here, and it was too cold besides. Her fingers skimmed more dirt—a lot of it, and that was so strange because Tori was such a stickler about neatness. But Cutter had interrupted Tori this afternoon. So she might not have swept here at all.

Sarah inched forward, her hand moving back and forth like a metal detector, for what seemed like an hour but which was likely no more than a minute before her fingers nudged a curve of cool metal that tried rolling away. The flashlight. Snatching it up, she rocked back on her knees, let out a long sigh of relief, and butted her thumb against the metal switch.

A cone of yellow light leapt away, spraying itself against the darkness to reveal bare metal, cinderblock, and—

“No!” The word jumped from Sarah’s throat as huge hands shot from the dark. One battened on her jaw, clamping down on her mouth. The other jumped into her hair, fisted, and yanked as if pulling a long cord. Her head whipped back, exposing her throat, and then she was tottering, her balance gone. She crashed to the ice-cold floor, legs kinked at an excruciating angle, the impact smacking the breath from her lungs. Terrified, wild not only with fear but the need to breathe, she flailed, the flashlight she still clutched whipping around. She felt when it clubbed bone, the solid thunk shuddering into her hand. From the hulking dark above her came a strangled grunt, a deep and guttural unh. The hand in her hair jerked like a fish trying to flip from a net, then groped for her thrashing wrist, found it, ground down. An enormous bolt of pain shot up to her elbow and she relaxed her grip. The flashlight tumbled to the floor again. This time, however, the light did not wink out, which wasn’t necessarily a mercy.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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