A dark, stiff finger slid into view. She felt her breath catch as the barrel of Tori’s shotgun—just the tip—hung there a moment. She was afraid to call out again because she didn’t want him to look her way. The sound of his boot on stone reached her again, just that single step. The shotgun moved. The shotgun was pointing up, away from her and at an angle. He had no choice because of the tower’s geometry. It would take time to swing down for a shot.

Heart rampaging in her chest, she watched the barrel bob as he took another step and then another. First, his hands came into view— wait, wait—then the hump of his forehead, the jut of his nose—wait, just another second—and then he was only three steps below her—wait, wait—and she saw shoulders, his chest, how his head was swiveling, his face ballooning to a gray oval—almost, almost—and then she heard his quick inhale the instant he realized he was looking in the wrong place at the wrong time and the sharp rap of the shotgun’s butt against stone as he tried swinging down but couldn’t—because he was a tall boy with a long gun trying to turn in a too-tight space.

“Ahh!” The sound was more wheeze than scream. But she squeezed the trigger.

And this time, the gun went off.

Greg’s headache still pulsed in his teeth. His vision was fuzzing around the edges, but as he shouldered open the door and stepped from the village hall’s entryway and back into the cold, Greg huffed out in relief. The village hall triggered a lot of bad memories: images of refugees, all of them old and decrepit, cringing along the walls; the Council eyeing him owlishly from their raised bench in that bat cave of a courtroom the very first day he’d sought sanctuary.

Probably that post-traumatic stuff. Pulling on his gloves, he stomped his feet in a freezing-kid two-step, shuffling from right to left as he waited. The others were still inside, offloading their loot. Located belowground and through a double set of iron doors, the basement jail was where they stored what remained of their food and feed as well as stockpiles of fuel, high-grade fertilizer, and ammo.

What nagged even more was how much they didn’t have. The jail was wide and deep, equipped with ten four-person cells, five to a row. One huge iron cage—probably once a drunk tank, from the faint, steeped-in odor of old vomit—dominated the wall at the very back. This was where they kept their fuel stores: propane tanks, red plastic cans of gasoline siphoned from stalled cars, fuel oil, premix. Of all their supplies, their fuel situation was the least dire simply because no one did any welding, went boating, fired up a chain saw, or headed out for a nice country drive anymore. All that combustible material made him nervous, too. No one had asked him, but he always worried about what might happen if someone got careless, or a spark flew. Couldn’t you use premix or fuel oil and fertilizer to make ANFO?

Of the remaining cells, only three held food, and of those, one was devoted to dog food: cans of wet, twenty-pound sacks of dry kibbles. While not exactly barren, the steel shelves in the remaining cells weren’t fully stocked either. What had looked so amazing in the tight, dark cubby of the Landrys’ pantry hidey-hole made barely a dent. Those eight jars he’d hauled now huddled in a forlorn little knot, surrounded by a lot of empty space. As the guard had slotted in the jars, Greg had counted the cans of condensed soup on the shelf above . . . just to see.

Thirty cans. The thought sent a shiver down his neck. That would last forty hungry kids about three minutes. The guards also kept a very careful tally of every single can and jar, every sack of kibble. So just how were they supposed to sneak out food, much less bricks of ammo, for their great escape? Hopeless. He massaged his right temple with a forefinger. We’ll never find enough—

Something snapped. The sound was very brief, crisp, firecrackershort. Greg stiffened, his ears suddenly tingling, aware of just the faintest echo bouncing off brownstone. That had been a shot. Headache forgotten, he turned in a full circle. But from where?

Behind, he heard the door scrape open. “Boy, I’m glad that’s . . .” Then Pru must’ve gotten a look at Greg’s face. “What is it?”

“Either I’m going crazy,” Greg said, “or I just heard a shot.” Sarah wasn’t aware she’d screamed or even fired until she felt the burn in her throat and the kick in her hands. The sound was monstrous, although the muzzle flash was more like the burst of a spent bulb. Yet in that brief, spastic light, she saw him drop, not straight down as if he had ducked—or, better yet, had no head left to duck with—but backward. Just falling? Or dead? She didn’t know, couldn’t hear anything. Scrambling to her feet, she turned to scurry up but pivoted much too quickly. Her right boot skidded on a slick of her own blood. Her center of gravity shifted; she could feel her balance going, and then the scream tear itself from her throat.

Sarah knew how to run with a weapon about as well as she knew how to fire it. So she was holding onto the Sig in exactly the wrong way, with her finger through the trigger guard. When she tripped and fell up the stairs, her hand hit stone, and the gun went off again. This time, she lost her grip, too. The Sig went skittering down the steps as shards of stone—blowback from where the bullet punched into the newel—nipped her face and neck and cut fresh blood.

God, oh God, please make him be dead or hurt or gone. . . . If he was still alive, he’d now have her pistol. How many bullets did that thing hold? Doesn’t matter. One will be enough.

She scrabbled up the slippery steps. All she could hope now was that the Changed was running the opposite way. Maybe no one had heard the shotgun because the church’s walls were so thick, but someone had to have heard those pistol shots through the open bell tower. So where was everyone?

All at once, she ran out of stairs and stumbled into a short, stonelined passage slotted with rectangular openings on either side to let in light. Dead ahead, no more than ten feet away, she saw an array of trusses and ropes and handles that reminded her of a weaver’s loom.

But where are the bells? She stood, panting, heart thudding, calf screaming with pain, ears still roaring. The bells must be above her somewhere. Lurching to the tangle of ropes, she saw how they looped around dowels and were tied off in hard knots. The icy ropes would be stiff, and her chilled fingers were tacky with blood. If the knots were too tight, she’d never loosen them. But all she needed was one, right? She yanked ropes, searched the knots with quaking fingers, then gasped as the tip of her right index finger slipped through a very small loop.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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