She would just have to protect all of them.
The hush of deepest night hung about the farmhouse like a pall now, and Ashley sensed the valley lolling itself to sleep once more, but she was far too keyed up to even think about bed. She spread a blue plastic tarp on the living room rug and began placing guns atop it. The pistol from under her pillow, the revolver from the drawer in the bedside table, the Remington pump twelve-gauge from beside the bedroom door. She lifted the shorter double-barrel shotgun from the hooks beside the kitchen cupboard and carried it and the lever-action 30-30 beside the refrigerator into the livingroom. Opening the gun cabinet next to her reading table, she lay the four rifles and carbines and the stockless 18″ Winchester pump riot gun beside the other weapons. Finally she retrieved the sawed off from beside the front door.
Maxie lay beside her as she broke down every gun to its last screw and bolt–always careful to keep at least one loaded beside her–cleaned them as carefully as a surgical nurse cleansing a scalpel, then placed them back in their designated space. The guns were only moved from their assigned positions for target practice or her cleaning ritual. Without thinking Ashley could place her hand on a weapon and know what it was, what it was loaded with, and what it could do. Finished with the 44 magnum carbine, she shoved it back into the gun case and closed the door, then slid the Glock from beneath the middle cushion on the sofa and field stripped it.
When she was certain not a speck of dust was left anywhere on the weapon she slipped it back into its assigned place. She glanced at Maxie and noticed the hint of anxiety in his eyes. The dog understood her patterns. Tonight the cleaning. Tomorrow target practice.
“Don’t give me the glum look,” she said. “I put cotton in your ears.”
She folded the tarp and stuck it behind the sofa. Only then did she turn out the lights and head for bed, exhausted enough that she just might be able to sleep at last.
Clad in a t-shirt and panties she pulled back the sheets. Maxie curled onto his blanket beside the door, watching her. When she opened the drawer on her bedside table to replace the revolver there she stared for just a moment at the face in the frame resting inside. She set the revolver on the table top and removed the picture, wincing at the tugging in her chest. In that instant she wished that there was some way she did not have to face the world alone anymore. She replaced the picture and closed the drawer, but Trace’s image was now burnt onto her brain again, and she knew sleep would be illusive.
In counterpoint to Trace’s pounding pulse, the incessant sound of something splattering in the distance echoed along the sinuous acoustic channels of the underground maze like the rimshots of some infernal, one-armed drummer. Unnerved by his blindness and convinced now that he was bound to die and be buried forever below the streets of New York, it had taken him ages to work his way back down to the main sewer tunnel to search for the flashlight. Maybe, just maybe, the splash he’d heard earlier hadn’t been the flashlight falling into the sluice. If there was the remotest possibility that it had simply rolled against the wall and gone unnoticed he had to check.
He crawled twenty yards up and down the walk, feeling for the light, even running his fingers along the side of the open trough to see if it might possibly have gotten caught there somehow, all the time unreasoningly fearful of something reaching up out of that dark water and dragging him into its depths. The fear was so irrational it brought a cautious smirk to his lips, but he could not dispel it.
But finally he had to admit that the flashlight was, indeed, somewhere in the sluice, and he just couldn’t imagine himself dipping beneath the surface of that…gunk… again. Even if he did and somehow–against all odds–found the flashlight, what were the chances that it would still work? Zero to none. But what really kept him from sliding back into the sluice was the memory of the way he’d gotten himself lost in the middle of a six foot span of filthy, stagnant water. That was completely impossible, and yet it had happened, and the very idea of setting foot in the trough and being dragged back into that insanity was more than he cared to even consider.