She felt a quick prick of fear. “Why can’t he stay?” she asked Yeager.
He ignored her. “Matt?”
“Sure. I’ll be right outside, Alex. It’ll be okay.”
Yeager waited until Kincaid was gone, and then he turned his searchlight gaze onto Alex once more. “Yours isn’t touch.”
“Why couldn’t he stay?”
“Because there are some things better kept behind closed doors,” Ernst said. Of all the others, he seemed to be the one closest to Yeager in authority. On Yeager’s right hand, she realized: pretty biblical. She wondered if Ernst’s first name was Michael. “The fewer who know, the safer for everyone,” Ernst said.
“What is it that you sense?” Yeager asked. His eyes pinned her. “Is yours touch?”
“No. But I can tell things like you can.”
“I know what people are feeling sometimes.” She paused. “I know when they—the Changed—are around.”
“What?” Ernst said, startled. “You can do that?”
“Yes,” she said, but she kept her gaze on Yeager.
“How?” Yeager asked.
“The same way I know there’s a murderer in this building,” she said. “Because I smell him.”
He’d lost weight and grown a beard. His hair was much longer, too, well past his shoulders. Yet the smell she’d caught in the front hall when the ladies were let in with their food trolley was the same as on the day he’d shot Tom: stale tobacco, rotten teeth, and Jim Beam.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Glaring, Harlan balled a grimy rag in one ham-fist. On top of his normal reek, he also smelled of the bleach and ammonia he used to mop the floors of the jail cells. As the village hall janitor, Harlan had, Alex decided, found his true calling. Harlan jammed the rag into a grubby hip pocket. “I’ve never seen this kid before in my life.”
“Why would she lie?” asked Yeager. The others were still at their places on the bench, but he had descended, coming to stand alongside her. Yeager was smaller than she’d imagined, nearly half a head shorter than she. He had not taken Harlan’s hands, however, which Alex thought must be a test of some kind.
Not of Harlan, though. Yeager was testing her.
Harlan glowered. “Because she’s a kid, and she’s got some kind of ax to grind. But I’m telling the truth. I never seen her before just now.”
“Liar. What happened to Ellie?” Alex asked.
“I’m sorry. Who’s that? Relative of yours? A dog, maybe?”
From the bench, Ernst said, “This isn’t getting us anywhere.”
“Let’s wait until—” Yeager broke off as the courtroom door opened and Peter hurried in, a bulging knapsack in his arms. Chris and Jet followed close behind.
“Sorry.” Peter’s hair was windblown, and his cheeks were ruddy with cold. He plunked the knapsack onto one of the courtroom’s long attorney tables as Chris dumped a second. “There was a lot of crap to gather up.”
“Hey,” said Harlan, “that’s my stuff. You got no right to go through my stuff.”
“On the contrary,” said Yeager, and nodded at Chris and Peter. “Open them.”
What tumbled out were clothes, mostly: underwear, jeans, sweaters, flannel shirts, long johns, socks. Peter had gathered up toiletries, shoes, two watch caps, a set of mittens, and several ratty magazines. “And a Bible,” he said, pulling the leather-bound volume from the knapsack.
“Anything you recognize?” Yeager asked her.
Alex shook her head. She’d felt a flare of hope, but a single glance told her that the Bible was not Aunt Hannah’s.
“See?” Harlan folded his arms over his chest. “You got the wrong guy.”
“No, I don’t,” Alex said. She looked at Chris. “There’s nothing else?”
“Just this,” Peter said, and reached into one of the knapsack’s side pouches. “Heavy sucker.”
Alex had to bite her lip to keep from crying out. “That’s my fanny pack.”
“That’s crap,” said Harlan, although Alex caught a thin stiletto of sour milk now. Harlan was worried. “I’ve had that thing for years.”
“No, I packed it myself,” Alex said.
“A fanny pack’s a fanny pack,” Harlan said. “She’s gonna guess some of it.”
“Yeah.” Peter unzipped the pack. “So that’s why we’ll let you tell us first. What’s inside?”
Harlan visibly relaxed, and Alex thought with dismay, He emptied it. “Sure,” Harlan said. “Lessee, there’s a pack of tissues, some old gum, knife …” He rattled off a list of items as Peter pulled each from the pack.
“Yeah,” said Peter when Harlan was done. “That’s all of it, except this.” He pulled out Alex’s soft-shell black case. “This thing weighs a good ten pounds. What’s inside?”
Harlan opened his mouth, but Yeager said, “Just a minute.” He took the case from Peter, studied its contents, then raised his searching, bird-bright eyes to Alex. “Tell us what this is.”
“Hey, it’s my pack,” said Harlan.
“Then she won’t have the slightest idea, will she?” Yeager nodded at Alex. “Go on. Tell me. What are these?”
Later, she would wonder why Harlan had kept them. The pack, she could understand, but not the rest. Maybe, when he saw the Bible, he realized what he’d done and was just superstitious enough to think that keeping them would somehow undo all the rest. In the end, all that mattered was this: if the pack was still heavy, she knew exactly what—who—was inside.
“My parents,” she said.
Her parents’ ashes were there, but Aunt Hannah’s Bible—and her mother’s letter—were gone.
“The little kid musta done it,” said Harlan miserably. He was slouched in a hardback chair, looking as shriveled as a deflated balloon. Once Kincaid looked through the bags to confirm that they contained cremated remains—teeth survive cremation—Harlan had dropped the bluffing tough-guy routine. Now he stared at his hands and sighed. “She said the stuff was important to her.” He jerked his head at Alex. “Once Marjorie got killed, I had my hands full just keeping us alive. Couldn’t be watching the kid every five seconds.”
“Where is she?” Alex demanded. It was all she could do to keep from screaming and scratching Harlan’s eyes out.
Harlan hunched a shoulder. “I don’t know. Like I said, she run off maybe a day south of here.” He let out a grunt of disgust. “Brett was so sure the army was gonna let us in … only we never got that far. I told Brett we ought to keep off the interstate, and Marjorie wanted to go west—to come here, is what she wanted—but he just had to check on his sister, who lived in Watersmeet…. Anyway, that’s where we lost the truck … you know, in an ambush. Buncha guys watching the town, outnumbered us by about twenty. Shot Marjorie before we knew what was happening.”
“Yeah,” Alex said, “I know how getting ambushed and shot at feels.” Chris put a warning hand on her arm, and she bit back the rest.
“What happened after that?” Peter asked.
Harlan shrugged again. “What the hell you think? We couldn’t go south on account of we heard they wasn’t letting people across the border into Wisconsin, and we sure as hell wasn’t staying in Watersmeet. Outside that town, they don’t even give you a chance to explain, not like here; they just start shooting. So we walked.”
“You still had the little girl and the dog?” asked Yeager.
Harlan nodded. “The dog saved our ass a bunch of times. It knew way ahead of us when there was one of those things out there. The dog and the kid was with us right up until we was east of the mine, and then the dog went crazy. Just wouldn’t go any farther. Even the girl couldn’t get it to mind. The dog kept wanting to get away from here. Probably we should’ve listened to it, because that’s the night five of them kids … you know, the Changed … they got to us.”
“The dog didn’t warn you?” asked Peter.
“Well, I think it tried and we wouldn’t listen. I don’t know, man,” Harlan said. “Brett was standing watch. One minute I’m sleeping and the next the dog … it never did settle down, pacing all night long and whining. It started going crazy, and next thing I know, Brett starts in blasting away. His rifle jammed and I couldn’t draw a bead fast enough.”
No, this was a lie; Alex smelled it. But whether Harlan had dozed off or accidentally shot Brett wasn’t important. Yeager must’ve sensed something, too, because he said, “Now why do I think that’s a lie?”
The skin of Harlan’s neck flushed a mottled scarlet. He said, “What are you going to do to me?”
“You left a little girl out there to die,” Peter said. His voice snapped like an angry whip. “What do you think?”
Harlan’s Adam’s apple bobbled. His gaze skittered away from Peter’s angry face to the blank faces of the men on the bench and then finally to Yeager. “But you can’t shoot me.”
“True, but you cannot stay,” said Yeager. “Your sin stains us all.”
There were murmurs of assent from the men on the bench. Peter was nodding, but Chris’s face was impassive, the scent of his darkness very strong.
“Banned?” Harlan’s eyes filled. “Man, please, don’t make me go back out there. Those things …”
Peter, for whom most solutions seemed to involve a gun, said, “Hey, man, no skin off my nose. I’m happy to put a bullet in you right now.”
Yeager put up a restraining hand. “You’ll be no worse off than that little girl, and a fair sight better. You will have the same three days’ rations we give any person to whom we refuse sanctuary.”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com