“Damn you,” she muttered, her finger slipping onto the trigger.
She stepped out of the shadows and strode with an air of confidence she hardly felt down the steps onto the walk. The figure never moved. When she reached the last concrete square in the lawn she crunched along the gravel drive. A light huffing at her side assured that Maxie was still with her, but he wasn’t quite brave enough to growl or bark or lead the way. Still the presence of the big dog lent her courage. Only now she wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to leave him inside with Marie to lend the girl support. She hadn’t been thinking clearly enough, and muddy thinking could get them all killed.
“Who are you?” she shouted when they were thirty feet from the figure. “What do you want?”
The arm slowly dropped from the tree as the man straightened, mountainous and muscular. Errant starlight through the branches shone all around him, but not one feeble ray seemed willing to settle upon his shadow as he turned away into the deeper shadows. Ashley clicked on the flashlight.
But the figure was gone.
She flicked the light back off, but the man-shape did not reappear as it should have had the image been merely a moon-conjured silhouette. Maxie followed her obediently into the trees, sniffing the underbrush, stepping lightly on tiptoe, his hackles high, and Ashley felt as though her own adrenalin-charged senses were now as acute as the dog’s.
But there was no one in the trees.
Maxie seemed overjoyed when she finally headed back up the drive, racing ahead of her to wait on the top step, barking loudly. She stopped beside him and turned, half expecting to see the figure again, but the woods remained empty, only the same inky, skeletal trees. She let Maxie in the front door and followed him inside. The dog sat in the middle of the den floor, wagging his tail and glancing contentedly from her to Marie. The girl stared expectantly at Ashley, but all Ashley could do was shrug.
“I guess it was nothing,” she said.
But she could see that Marie didn’t believe her. Ashley didn’t believe herself.
She closed and bolted the door behind her, replacing the shotgun beside it and resting the flashlight on the table. But she shook her head at the now grinning Maxie because he was, after all, only a four-year-old dog. He didn’t have her experience, and she knew what she felt because she had experienced it before. The valley was no longer secure.
The Angels were back.
Surrounded by a protective barrier of sandbags, the clapboard structure of the Meeting House had served the Brethren for the past five years as a gathering place on days of worship or fellowship. It had also been configured to be a stronghold in the event of an attack with shuttered windows that included gun slits and walls reinforced with brick, and as she pulled into the parking lot Ashley couldn’t help but glance around at the woods which had been cut back fifty yards on all sides to create what Stan called a killing field. But all seemed quiet tonight, and she wondered if she was making a fool of herself and stirring up a passel of more anxiety the valley could do without. Marie sat stoically in the passenger seat of the rusted Subaru, lost in thought. Ashley understood the girl’s reticence. Talking about evil might bring it to life.
By the time she parked the stationwagon at the far end of a double line of thirty cars and trucks there were only a couple of people still entering the building. A barrage of light burst through the tall double doors, shattering the cloud-tossed shadows that lurked amid the nearest cars, but she had the sense that the gleams were not illuminating the night so much as racing to escape the valley, to flee back to the stars glowing impotently overhead. Better to vanish forever into that cold emptiness than to remain here.
None of the valley people had been born to this place, this life. Ashley, herself, had once experienced a very brief window of time when her world had seemed not only full of possibilities but of wonder, but that period seemed remote now. For most of her life she had known distrust and terror, and on one horrible night everyone who now dwelt in this valley had shared in a horrible transformation.