Cover Of Night (Chapter 14)

That night Teague met with Toxtel and Goss again. The three men he'd called in came, too: his first cousin, Troy Gunnell: his nephew. Blake Hester; and an old friend, Billy Copeland. Troy and Bill) were almost as good in the mountains as league was himself; Blake was pretty good, but his main accomplishment, and the reason he was included, was his marksmanship. If there were any tough shots to be made, Blake would be the triggerman.

The six of them went over the plan again and again. Teague had spent most of the day mapping it out, literally, using a combination of road maps, topography maps, satellite images, and maps he himself had made of the area. While he'd been in Trail Stop, he'd also surreptitiously taken pictures, using a digital camera, and printed out the photos on his computer. Using the photos and his own memory, he'd drawn a rough map of Trail Stop, showing the placement of the houses and their distance apart.

"Why do we need to know where the houses are?" Goss asked, staling intently at the map. There was no impatience in his tone, but a genuine interest. He was looking better than he had the day before; when Teague had commented on that, he'd admitted he'd been bashed in the head by Trail Stop's handyman, whom Toxtel described as a skinny-assed bastard with a big shotgun.

"Because these aren't people who'll just throw up their hands and surrender," Teague explained. "One or two might, but for the most, part they'll get mad, and they'll try to fight back. Don't underestimate them. These people have grown up hunting in these mountains, and there'll be some damn fine marksmen among them. By choosing our spots, we can neutralize most of their avenues of effective fire; plus we need to get them congregated as much as possible. Makes them easier to watch. See how the houses are spread out?" he asked, tapping the map. "With the firing platforms I've selected, we have direct lines of fire at twenty-five of the thirty-one houses."

"What about the bed-and-breakfast?" Toxtel asked.

Teague drew a dotted line from one of his selected firing positions to the bed-and-breakfast. There was a clear shot only to the upper-right corner room; everything else was blocked by another building.

Toxtel frowned at the dotted line. He'd evidently hoped for something more. "You can't move your position and get a better angle?"

"No, not without repositioning way the hell up on this slope." Teague tapped a spot on the map, at the northeast corner of Trail Stop.

"Why don't you, then?"

"First, I'm not a damn mountain goat; that's an almost vertical slab of rock. Second, it isn't cost effective, because any attempts to escape won't go in that direction. We've left them only one way out, and it's through here." He traced a route that ran roughly horizontal to the land peninsula on which Trail Stop was situated, then angled northwestward through a deep cut in the mountains.

"Why don't you close that gap, too?" Goss asked.

"Last time I looked, there are only four of us. Six, counting you two, but I gather neither of you has any experience with a rifle. Am I right?"

Goss shrugged. "I don't. Can't say about Toxtel."

"Some," Toxtel said grudgingly. "Not much."

"Then, what it comes down to is the four of us will have to split the watches into twelve-hour shifts. That's tough enough as it is. At first there will be one of us with a rifle on each of these three firing positions, but after we drive most of the people to the far left corner, the position here at the bridge will be turned over to you two. They won't know the rifles have been concentrated on the other two filing positions, and on the right the river makes an effective barrier anyway."

"What about the nights? Do you have night-vision goggles?" Goss asked.

Teague gave a feral grin. "I have something better than that. FLIR scopes."

"Flur? What the hell's that?"

"Forward-looking infrared. FLIR. Picks out body heat. Camouflage can fool night vision, but it can't fool the heat seekers. Our field of vision will be limited with scopes, so we'll have to be on our toes, but by limiting the places where we'll have to look, we can offset that shortcoming."

Teague had put some thought into the scopes. For one thing, they were heavy, three pounds at least. That meant he and the others couldn't hold the rifles for any length of time; they'd have to be on rests. And the battery packs lasted only about six hours – in optimal conditions, meaning around eighty degrees. He thought they'd be lucky to get five hours out of them. Given that daylight hours were shrinking daily, it was a given each man would have to change battery packs at least once a shift, and probably twice if the weather turned cold. Last night the temperature had dipped into the low forties. Snow wasn't all that unusual in September, so the weather could turn bad without notice. To be on the safe side, he'd gotten twelve rechargeable battery packs, plus heavy-duty rechargers capable of handling more than one pack at a time.

"Billy got some collapsible sawhorses, painted them up to look like the ones used by the state, to block the road and keep nosy people out. We've also put a magnetic construction company sign on a pickup we can use, to make it look like work is being done on the bridge. I'm not worried about the state people. What worries me are the power and telephone companies. Everything they have is computerized. Are they gonna know when Trail Stop goes dark?"

Blake spoke for the first time. He was twenty-five, a six-footer, with short dark hair and eyes, a lot like his uncle. "Not necessarily. They don't know if an individual customer is having trouble, even when it's line trouble; someone has to report the problem. Trail Stop is the end of the line; there's nothing beyond. And if" they do show up – hell, the bridge is out, they can't get across. What they gonna do? Wait for the state to fix the bridge, that's what."

Teague thought that over and gave a short nod. "That should work. All you two guys have to do" – he glanced at Toxtel and Goss – "is convince them you work for either the state or the construction company hired to rebuild the bridge. Neither of you looks like a construction worker, so state would be more believable – but you have to lose the suit." That last was targeted at Toxtel. "Khakis, boots, flannel shirts, jackets. That's what you wear on this job. And get a couple of hard hats, to make it look official."

"Time line?" Goss asked.

"There's one more little detail I need to take care of." Creed wasn't so "little," but they couldn't put the plan into action until Teague had located the guide. "You two take tomorrow to get the clothes and gear you need. I'm good with my supplies. And while you're buying, don't forget camping gear. None of us are leaving Trail Stop until the dance is over, so that means food, water, lanterns, and heaters. It can get damn cold at night, and the weather's changing. Thermal underwear. Extra socks and underwear. Whatever else you can think of. Get all of that packed and ready, so we can move in tomorrow after midnight. I'll have the power and telephones off by two o'clock, and then we take out the bridge."

* * *

There hadn't been any point in calling Creed's cabin when he didn't expect Creed to be there, but by Saturday morning Cal Harris judged Creed should have sent his client home by now and would be kicked back for some downtime. Old Roy Edward Starkey had judged the client to be a major pain in the ass, and Roy Edward was a good judge of character. That meant Creed would need even more alone time than usual, to reward himself for not choking the son of a bitch to death.

First Cal treated himself to a muffin and cup of coffee at Cate's house, just to watch her move among the customers and to hear her voice. Her mother had taken the twins home with her for a visit, and he was of two minds about that. On the one hand, he missed the little stinkers. On the other, this was the first time in the three years he'd known Cate that the boys weren't close at hand, the first real opportunity he'd had for some private conversation – provided he could string two words together without stammering and turning beet red like some idiot.

Cate barely glanced at him as she served his muffin, though when he darted a look at her. he saw that her cheeks were pink and she seemed flustered. lie didn't know if that was good or bad. He wanted her to be aware of him, but he didn't want her feeling uncomfortable. That couldn't be good, could it?

The entire community was aware of, and amused by, his predicament. Everyone was also unfailingly on his side, though he'd warned them to stop deliberately sabotaging Cate's plumbing, wiring, Explorer, or doing whatever else their fertile brains could concoct to throw the two of them together – as if having his head stuck under her sink with his ass in the air was going to ignite her interest. Besides, all those little "repairs" caused her added stress, and she was tinder enough of that without their help. She was a young widow with four-year-old twins, trying to make a go of an old Victorian bed-and-breakfast in the middle of nowhere, for Cod's sake.

When he was certain that what he was repairing was one of those little sabotage jobs, like Sherry's loosening the connection beneath the sink to make it leak, he refused to let Cate pay him. Even when it was a legitimate repair, he cut his charge down to expenses. He wanted Cate to succeed in business; he didn't want her to close down and move back to Seattle. He wouldn't have charged her anything at all, except he had to live, too. There was a surprising amount of work for him to do here, considering how small the community was; he'd become the go-to guy for just about any kind of repair work or odd job that needed doing. He'd always been good with his hands, and though his strength was mechanics, he'd found he could repair a windowsill or put up a screen door as well as the next person. Neenah had asked if he could refinish her old cast-iron tub, and he'd been reading up on that, so he guessed next he'd be a tub refinisher, too.

Hell of an occupation for a man who'd spent most of his life with a rifle in his hands.

That thought brought him back to the reason he needed to call Creed.

The two of them were a pair, he thought with amusement. Give them weapons, point them at the enemy, and they functioned like Swiss clockworks. Throw a woman they wanted in front of them, though, and apparently neither of them could find his ass with both hands and a flashlight. Creed was even worse than Cal; at least Cal had a reason for waiting, because Cate had still been shell-shocked from losing her husband. Three years was a long time to wait, but grief took its own sweet time; even after she had recovered from that and could laugh again, she had protected herself by building a wall between her and any eligible man. He understood, and because he'd judged the prize worth the wait, he'd hung in there. His patience had been rewarded; now that wall was showing signs of cracking, and he was ready to help it along with a few nudges.

Creed, though, when it came to the woman he cared about, the toughest man Cal knew had proven himself a coward.

About ten o'clock, figuring Creed could sacrifice a little of his downtime, Cal called. And got the answering machine.

"Major, this is Cal. Give me a call. It's important." He could picture Creed scowling at the machine as he listened, trying to decide whether or not to pick up. Normally Creed would ignore a call until he was damn good and ready to respond, so Cal had tacked on the "it's important" to whet his curiosity. Creed knew there was damn little Cal would consider all that important; if he was there, he should call back in a few minutes.

Cal waited for the call. The telephone remained silent.

Well, shit. It was possible, after being on a hunt for five days, Creed had gone into town to restock his supplies so he'd be ready for the next client. Small stuff he would pick up here in Trail Stop, but a full-bore restocking called for more than the community could offer. Hell, he might even be meeting a new client, though Cal doubted it. Creed seldom did back-to-back hunts. He offered guiding trips, at outrageous prices, so he could afford the solitary but small-scale luxurious life he wanted; too many trips would have meant he wouldn't have time to enjoy that life. The irony of it was, the higher he set his prices, the more he was in demand, Creed was turning down jobs left and right, which in turn made him seem even more requested, and the people doing the asking responded by asking earlier and more often.

As Cal had once told him, success was a vicious circle – to which Creed had replied with a suggestion that Cal do something anatomically impossible. Cal had responded that while Creed's dick might be floppy enough to do that, his wasn't, and from there the conversation had disintegrated to the point that even two old battle-hardened former marines had been wincing in disgust.

After waiting as long as he could, Cal left to attend to his current job of replacing the sagging step on old Mrs. Box's back porch. When that was finished, he helped Walter put up a new shelving unit in the hardware store. He then went back to his place over the feed store to check his answering machine, but Creed still hadn't returned his call.

Neenah was moving bags of feed around, and though she was stronger than the average woman, Cal took over the job. Some days he didn't get around to using the free-weight set he had in his bedroom, so lifting fifty-pound bags of feed helped keep him in shape.

Neenah had been quiet and a little withdrawn since the episode with the two men in Cate's house. She was a quiet, serene woman anyway, but friendly. Cal suspected that had been the first time she'd experienced violence firsthand, and she'd been left reeling. She was trying to handle it herself, and he didn't think she should, but he wasn't the person to help her.

Night had fallen when Creed finally returned his call, and Cal was pissed. "Took you long enough," he snapped.

Greed paused, and Cal could almost see his eyes getting squinty, and his back teeth grinding together. "I've spent six days with the biggest fucking asshole this side of the Rockies." he finally said. "He was supposed to have left yesterday, but the son of a bitch sprained his fucking ankle, and I had to fucking carry him five fucking miles to camp, then hold his fucking hand until I could get him to a clinic and get him X-rayed and on a fucking plane home at five fucking o'clock this afternoon. So what's so fucking important?"

Over the years, Cal and the others on their team had learned that Greed's mood could be measured by how many times he inserted the word fuck into a sentence. Judging from the number of F-bombs he'd just spit out, his mood was a centimeter short of homicidal.

"Two guys got rough with Neenah and Cate," Cal said. "A couple of days ago."

The silence on the line was black and icy; then Creed said softly, "What happened? Were they hurt?"

"Scared, mostly. One jammed a pistol against Neenah's temple and she's sporting a bruise. I bashed the other one in the head with my Mossberg, then got a bead on the guy holding Neenah."

"I'll be right there," Creed said, and crashed the phone down in Gal's ear.