Page 58


“Yeah,” she said, and snuffled. She used her jacket to wipe her nose. “I’m okay. I should sleep.”


“Yeah, that’s a good idea. You do that.” Then he wheeled around and let her go on her way.


Hurrying back to Jess’s, she considered the problem of Lena.


Lena was the only person she knew who’d gotten anywhere close to leaving Rule, and Lena was also from Oren. She would know the quickest way and what they ought to avoid. Hell, for all she knew, that dead boy might be related to Lena somehow.


But taking Lena, even trying to talk to her, made her queasy. Even if she hadn’t seen her with Chris—and Lena had avoided her since—Alex didn’t know her well enough. What she did know of Lena, she really, really didn’t like. The last thing she needed was someone along she’d rather kill than have watching her back, and there was the little problem of trying to sneak back into the house, which was a complete nonstarter….


Ghost.


A small moan pushed out in a steamy cloud. She would have to leave Ghost behind. The thought made her heart knot. There had to be a way to retrieve her dog. It was so unfair. Why was she always losing—


She pulled in a breath. Oh shit, shit.


The ashes.


The ashes were upstairs, in their case, on the desk in her bedroom.


No way to get at them. No way to take them.


No, no, no, not again, not again, not again.


Mom. Her throat convulsed, and then she was crying again, only soundlessly, like a very small child. Dad … Daddy …


She’d completely forgotten about the stupid guard.


Nathan’s dog fawned over Alex like a long-lost relative. She gave the same story to Nathan about Kincaid, then said she wanted to take the horse down to the garage at the end of the cul-de-sac where she stabled Honey. If he suspected anything, Nathan didn’t give any indication; he just dragged off his dog and waved her on her way.


As a precaution, she crossed the street, hugging the sidewalk where the snow was deep enough to muffle the sound of the Appaloosa’s hooves. Jess’s house looked quiet enough, curtains drawn tight. All the bedrooms were at the back, anyway. No one would be up quite yet, not even Jess.


Honey nickered when she led the Appaloosa into the garage. “I’m glad to see you, too,” she whispered, stroking Honey’s nose. “But you can’t come, girl.”


Climbing a stack of boxes, she reached up, patted around until she found the feed bag, and then pulled it down from the ceiling joists. Her stash was miserably small and she hadn’t managed to find any food other than peanut butter and a few energy bars and four petrified rolls she’d wrapped in napkins and snuck out of the kitchen the week before. She scooped some oats into saddlebags, threw the bags behind the cantle, then tied them off.


Then her eye fell on a wooden dowel protruding from a bale of hay, and she felt a surge of elation: Yes! She twisted out the hay hook. The point was wicked and the hook itself was high-grade. She could smell it: white and icy, the cold-rolled steel as thick as her thumb. The white, clean smell of the steel was nearly


overpowering and—


White?


Wait, she thought, that’s not right; steel doesn’t smell white. Steel smells like metal. Steel doesn’t smell like glare-white ice.


Only one thing, one person, smelled like that.


She wouldn’t go back without a fight. Her fingers curled around the hook’s wooden dowel. No way, no way she was going back.


Fight. She turned, hay hook in hand, thinking, Fight, fight.


“Well,” said Jess. She racked her shotgun. “It’s about time.”


66


“Why,” asked Alex, “are you helping me?”


“I’ve been trying to help you all along, girl,” said Jess. Beneath her parka, she still wore a white flannel nightgown, but her hood was thrown back and her hair was loose, flowing over her shoulders in a river of steel. She wore her shotgun—a Remington—slung over her back in a cross-carry. “You had to come to this yourself. Besides, I had to make sure that—” She broke off as Nathan slid out of the darkness with two horses. “Well?”


“Maybe fifteen minutes, Jess … Not now, Vi, heel!” Nathan rapped at his dog, which had spurted over to greet Alex. Nathan jerked his head to the left. “They’re coming. We going to do this, we got to do it now.”


“Fifteen minutes before what? Who’s coming?” asked Alex.


“All right then.” Jess jerked her head at Alex. “Come on. Bring Matt’s horse. We don’t have much time.”


“Fifteen minutes before what?” Alex asked again as she led the horse out of the makeshift stable. She saw that the night was bleeding away. The sky was still a deep cobalt directly overhead, but fading to slate, fast. It would be dawn in another half hour, maybe less.


“You’ll need this.” Jess handed over a medium-size backpack. A pair of lightweight Tubbs snowshoes was lashed to the pack. “Supplies, enough to last two weeks. Clothes from your room, and a nice sweater. I’m sorry, I couldn’t risk a larger pack or a sleeping bag, but there’s an emergency blanket in there, a plastic tarp, waterproof matches, a knife, and a flint.”


“Thank you,” said Alex. She unzipped the backpack to peer inside. If Jess had been in her room, maybe she’d taken the case? But no, she saw at a glance that her parents weren’t there. She’d actually already known that; the pack was too light. Zipping the pack, hefting it to her shoulders, she looked up to find Jess studying her.


“Best you shake the dust off your sandals, girl,” Jess said. “The past is past.”


She didn’t ask Jess how she’d known. It was a moot point anyway. “I could use a gun. That Remington would be nice.”


Jess shook her head. “That, I cannot do. You won’t need it anyway.”


“How do you figure?”


“Trust me.”


That, Alex did not. But did she have other options? What would happen if she refused to go? Would Jess shoot her?


“Why can’t I have a gun?” Alex asked. “I’m no threat to you. I want to leave.” When Jess didn’t reply, Alex persisted: “You know what it’s like out there, Jess. I’ll go, but give me a fighting chance.”


Jess studied her for a long moment, then said to Nathan, “Give her your rifle.”


Nathan’s eyes widened. “Jess, I’m not sure—”


“But I am.” Turning, Jess boosted herself onto her horse. “Give her the rifle.”


Nathan’s jaw tightened, and for a second, Alex thought he would refuse, but then he thumbed off his carrying strap. “You know how to use a bolt-action?” he asked Alex.


“Yes,” she said, trying to hide her elation. The rifle was a scoped Browning X-Bolt, with a stainless-steel barrel and dark walnut stock: a very good weapon. “What’s the pull?”


She couldn’t tell if Nathan was contemptuous or amused. “Medium. Three and a half pounds, no take-up or creep. You got a detachable box mag here.” He unlocked the floor plate and swung it open. “Holds five two-hundred-seventy Magnum shorts, and there’s one in the chamber now, so you’re loaded for bear. Safety’s here on the tang, and there’s a separate unlocking button where the bolt and the body meet up, so you can open the rifle on safe and unload, okay? She’s a real good gun.”


That was an understatement. Not only did she have a rifle and a scope, a Magnum short meant higher velocity and more power for the same amount of bang. She slung the rifle to a cross-carry, then tucked a box of cartridges Nathan handed over into her parka pocket and zipped that. “Thank you,” she said to them both.


“Depending on what you find, you may not have cause to thank us,” Jess said. Her scent had not changed, but that didn’t mean much. Alex thought Jess was as good at hiding as Chris. Better, actually. In the months that she’d lived in Jess’s house, Jess had


remained a cipher. But the rifle convinced her.


Jess wants me gone, she thought. But why now?


As if she’d read her thoughts, Jess said, “Now or never, girl. This is a onetime offer.”


Alex hopped onto the Appaloosa’s back without another word and followed Nathan, already plowing into the woods at the end of the cul-de-sac. In two minutes, the three of them were deep into the woods, and Alex could no longer see any houses at all.


“Now, listen very carefully,” Jess said. They were moving fast, the horses high-stepping through the snow. “The Zone in this direction extends for two miles. After that, there are no guards.”


No more guards? And Kincaid had implied that the Zone went on for five miles, not two. Unless there was something different about the terrain? “How are we going to get—”


“Hold your tongue and listen. We will get you through, but once we reach the edge of the Zone, I can no longer help you, and I can’t send anyone with you either. The trail is plain as day. A mile further on, the trail forks, and from there, you’ll have to go on foot.”


“Why?”


Ducking beneath a low-hanging branch, Jess flashed a look of impatience. “The trail’s only a footpath and too narrow for the horse. You want to go left, not right, you understand? Right will loop you back to Rule. So you must dismount and send the horse back. It will find its way.”


With no horse and no skies, slogging through snow in the woods, even with the snowshoes, would be rough. “How long before I hit anything like a road?”


“Ten miles. From there, you can go anywhere you want. There’s a map in the zipper pocket of the backpack. But remember, take the left fork—you understand?”


She nodded. “But why are you helping me? Why me, and not Lena?”


“Peter wanted Lena,” said Jess, kicking her horse to a fast trot. “But Peter isn’t the one who has to decide.”


Alex urged her horse after. “Decide? Decide what?”


“Whether to break the rules or not.”

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