City of Screams (Page 5)

After Cooper passed on his location, Jordan led the others to the far side of the village. He found Cooper crouched with Farshad by a jumble of boulders at the edge of the village. The ruins of Shahr-e-Gholghola rose behind their position. Jordan felt uneasy turning his back on that mountainous graveyard to face the village.

“Over there,” Cooper said, and pointed his rifle at a small mud-brick house with a snow-dusted thatched roof. The door was closed, but a window faced them. “Someone’s in there.”

“Or maybe you’re jumping at shadows,” McKay said. “The Rangers cleared every building. They found nothing.”

“Doesn’t mean someone didn’t sneak back here when we weren’t looking.” Cooper turned to Jordan. “I swear I saw a flash of something pale pass by that window. It wasn’t a gust of snow or a trail of mist. Something solid.”

McKay showed Cooper the pictures of the giant paw prints.

Cooper crouched lower and swore. “I didn’t sign up to be a big game hunter. If that’s some big lion in there—”

“Leopard,” McKay corrected.

“I don’t give a flying fart what it is. If it’s got teeth and likes to eat people, I’ll let McKay’s big a*s take point.”

“Fine by me,” McKay said. “Especially since we know there are at least two of them and the professor here thinks they’re holed up in that craggy hill behind you.”

Cooper glanced over his shoulder and swore again.

Jordan settled the matter. “Cooper and Farshad, stay here with the professor. I’ll take McKay and Azar and check out that house.”

With his H&K pistol in hand, Jordan led his two men toward the targeted house, feet silent in the newly fallen snow. He was confident his weapon had enough firepower for whatever hid in this house. Still, he kept looking over his shoulder, wishing he had more ammunition.

As Azar kept his weapon fixed on the window, he and McKay approached the door. They slipped to either side and readied themselves. Jordan glanced over and got a silent confirmation from his teammate.

Upon Jordan’s signal, McKay stepped up and kicked the door in.

It burst open with a loud crack of wood.

Jordan ran low inside, weapon at his shoulder. McKay kept post, standing higher, sweeping the room with his own gun.

The home was a single room with a small table, a corner stone oven, and a pair of straw beds, one large and one small. Empty. Just as the Ranger search team reported. Cooper had been wrong, which both surprised and relieved Jordan. He should have known—

“Don’t move, Sarge,” McKay said from the doorway.

He obeyed, hearing the urgency in his teammate’s voice.

“Look slowly up. At your eight o’clock.”

Jordan shifted his eyes in the direction indicated, barely moving his head. He followed the mud-brick wall to where it met the thatched roof. Half hidden by a rafter, a pair of eyes shone back at him, as if lit by an inner fire. A rustling of straw whispered in the quiet room as the hidden watcher slipped deeper into the nest of thatch, a perfect hiding place, using the musty, stale straw to mask any scent.

Smart.

Jordan slung his weapon back and lifted his empty arms.

“It’s okay,” he said softly, gently, as if he were encouraging a skittish colt. “You’re safe. Come on down.”

He didn’t know if his words could be understood, but he hoped his tone and mannerisms made his intent plain.

“Why don’t you—”

The attack came suddenly. The shadowy lurker leaped from the rafters, coming down with a rain of dry thatch. McKay’s weapon twitched up.

“Don’t!” Jordan warned.

He caught the diving shape in his arms, recognizing the simple need in that falling form. He had been raised with a passel of brothers and sisters, and now nieces and nephews. Though he had no children of his own, he knew that plain desire. It went beyond language and country and borders.

A child needing comfort and reassurance.

Small arms clasped around his neck, a soft fiery cheek pressed against his own. Thin legs wrapped around his waist.

“It’s a little girl,” McKay said.

A terrified little girl.

She quaked in his arms, shivering with fear.

“You’re safe,” he assured her, while silently hoping that was true. He turned to McKay. “Bring Cooper and the others inside.”

McKay dashed out, leaving Jordan alone with the child. Jordan guessed the girl was no more than ten. He crossed to the table and sat down. He unzipped his coat and wrapped it around her, cradling her thin form against his chest. Her small body burned against him, feverish through the pajama-like garment she wore. He read raw terror in her every twitch and soft sob as she hovered at the edge of shock.

What had she seen?

He hated to treat this small child as a witness, especially in this state, but she might have the only answers to what really happened here.

The other men crowded into the small room, which only made the girl cling more tightly to him, her eyes huge upon the newcomers. He squeezed as much reassurance as he could. Her small round face, framed by black hair parted down the middle, constantly glanced at him, as if making sure he didn’t vanish.

“Leopard tracks all around the house, Sarge,” Cooper said. “It’s like they had a dance party out there.”

Atherton spoke from the door. “She’s the cook’s daughter. I don’t know her name.”

The girl looked at Atherton as if she recognized him, then shrank back against Jordan.

“Can you ask her questions?” Jordan asked. “Find out what happened?”

Atherton kept his distance from the girl. He rapped out questions as if he wanted to get through them as quickly as possible. His eye twitched madly. She answered in monosyllables, her eyes never leaving Jordan’s face.

Holding the girl gently, Jordan noted the two Afghanis standing by the smaller of the two beds. One man knelt down and picked up a pinch of white powder from the dirt floor and brought it to his lips. It looked like salt and from the squint and spit probably tasted like it, too.

Jordan noted that a whitish ring circled the bed, and a cut rope hung from one bedpost.

The two Afghanis kept their heads bowed together, looking from the circle of salt to the girl. Their eyes shone with suspicion—and not a small amount of fear.

“What’s that about?” McKay whispered to Jordan.

“I don’t know.”

Atherton answered their question. “According to folklore, ghosts or djinn often attack someone as they sleep, and the salt holds them at bay. The mother probably believed she had to protect her child, what with them working within the shadow of Shahr-e-Gholghola. And perhaps she did. Things happen out here in the mountains that you cannot believe when you are safe in the city.”

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