Home > Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)
Author: Ann Aguirre

Home Again

I’m still a redhead.

Before we left Texas, I touched up the roots, and then I had some tawny apricot highlights put in. I guess that meant I intended to keep this color for a while. Symbolic—I’d made a commitment, at least to my hair.

Too bad I couldn’t do the same with Chance. I didn’t trust him entirely, and what was more, he didn’t trust me, either. He secretly thought I’d leave, which I had done; die, which I’d nearly done; or break his heart. I just hoped I wouldn’t combine the three.

Until we resolved the conflict between us—such as his luck, which might kill me, and the former lover he wouldn’t talk about—I couldn’t be more than a friend to him. He knew it too. I think he’d known as much even when he pressed the point back in Laredo.

The Mustang purred along, emphasizing Chance’s silence. He wasn’t happy about this trip to Kilmer, Georgia, but he’d promised, and I wanted answers. He owed me.

When he’d shown up at my pawnshop in Mexico City, asking for my help after our breakup eighteen months before, I agreed because he swore to turn his luck toward helping me find out what happened the night my mother died. This point was nonnegotiable. I needed to understand why it happened, and who was responsible. I wanted justice for her death. Now that I’d fulfilled my end of the bargain in Laredo, he was keeping his promise.

We passed the woods that encircled the town. Sometimes, when I was a kid, it had seemed to me that someone simply burnt a patch out of the forbidding forest, and there, Kilmer had been built. Over long years, the trees grew back in around it, overhanging the rutted road.

With the windows open, I smelled dank vegetation heavy in the air, and pallid sunlight filtering through the canopy overhead threw a sickly green glow over the car as Chance drove. McIntosh County didn’t get snow or earthquakes, and the median temperature was sixty-six degrees. It was also deeply historical, containing forty-two markers. I knew all about local history: how old Fort King George was built nearby in 1721; how the Highlanders voted against slavery in 1739, not that it did them any good in the long run; and how the War of Jenkins’ Ear motivated early settlers to attack Spanish forts. There were still ruins on Sapelo Island.

Just a piece up the road, there lived the only known band of Shouters, a Gullah music group. I’d seen them perform the ring shout once at Mount Calvary Baptist Church. I couldn’t remember which foster parent had taken me; there had been so many, and most of them had thought I could benefit from religion in some form or another. On paper, this seemed the perfect place to live, steeped in cultural heritage and tradition.

On paper.

In Kilmer, the rules of the Deep South lasted long after laws and social expectations changed in the wider world. White men did as they pleased, and everyone else kept their mouths shut. I couldn’t rightly say I’d missed it.

“This place has a weird feel,” Chance said, breaking the silence at last.

“You’re getting it too?” I’d always thought it was the trees, but we’d passed beyond them. Now only scrubby grass lay between us and the weathered buildings of town. Overhead, the sky glowed blue and white; it was a pretty, partly sunny day that should’ve warmed me a lot more than it did.

“Yeah.” Before he could say more, a dark shape darted in front of the cherry red Mustang. Chance slammed on the brakes, and only the seat belt kept my head from kissing the dash. The car fishtailed to a stop.

Butch whined and popped his head out of my handbag. He was a blond Chihuahua we’d picked up along the way; I’d resigned myself to keeping him, but I hoped we hadn’t scared the shit out of him. I had important stuff in my purse.

I soothed him with an absent touch on his head, my heart still going like a jackhammer.

“What the—”

Chance motioned me to silence as he got out of the car. Hands shaking, I needed two tries to do the same. I checked the back, staring into the dead air beneath the tunnel of trees. Black skid marks smeared the pavement behind us.

He knelt and peered under the Mustang. Despite my better judgment, I joined him. Butch hopped down and backed up three steps, yapping ferociously. A low animal growl answered him.

Near the tires, a big black dog lay dying—a Doberman. We hadn’t hit him, but all the blood oozing out of his ragged wounds told me he wasn’t long for this world. He’d come from the tall grass that lined the road, or maybe from the trees beyond the field. A hard shudder rocked through me, and the air turned as cold as a northern winter night.

“Something got at him,” Chance said finally. “Are there bears here? Wolves?”

I had no idea. I wasn’t a wildlife expert in any location, and I hadn’t been back to Kilmer in nine years. Things changed; habitats evolved. But times must be tough if wild animals had been forced to resort to hunting dogs.

I couldn’t seem to look away from the shadow-dark flesh. The animal gave one final whine, as if he understood we couldn’t help, and then he died. I saw the moment his eyes went liquid still, living tissue reverting to dead meat. There was a blood trail we could follow, but I didn’t think that was a good idea. Sizable claws created those wounds; nothing we need to mess with just before nightfall.

I glanced down at the Chihuahua as he sniffed around next to my feet. “What do you think? Do you smell anything you recognize?”

He yapped twice. Hm, so it probably wasn’t a regular wild animal. I shivered, wanting nothing more than to get off this road.

We’d acquired Butch after his prior owner was killed, and we were astonished to learn he could communicate on a basic level. There was something special about him for sure, but I had lacked the opportunity to investigate what his other talents might be. This certainly wasn’t the time.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Butch scampered into the weeds and did his business. I exhaled a long, unsteady breath, and then pulled myself to my feet using the Mustang’s hood. If I believed in omens, we were off to a hell of a start.

Chance went to the trunk and wrapped his hands in rags used to wipe off the oil dipstick. Before we left Laredo, Chuch—our mechanic friend—had taught him how and threatened to beat him if he didn’t look after this car properly. So far Chance was doing fine.

Wordlessly, he reached under the chassis and towed the carcass to the side of the road. Without a shovel, that was really all we could do, but I appreciated the kindness. Otherwise, that poor dog would be splattered all over the road when the next car came, and he had suffered enough.

Even if we did have digging tools in the car for some unlikely reason, I wouldn’t have been interested in hanging around. My intestines coiled into knots over the idea of losing the light out there, within a stone’s throw of those dark trees. The whorls on the bark resembled demonic sigils in the wicked half-light, and the long, skeletal limbs stirred in the breeze in a way I simply couldn’t like.

There was a reason I hated these trees. I’d hid among them while my mother died.

While Chance took care of the dead dog, I gave Butch a drink and tried to reassure him that he wasn’t doomed to suffer the same fate. His bulging brown eyes glistened with what I’d call a skeptical light as I hopped back in the Mustang. Chance joined us shortly, working the manual transmission with a dexterity I couldn’t help but admire.

“What a welcome.” He shook his head.

“Tell me about it.” As I said that, we passed a faded white sign that I knew read WELCOME TO KILMER, HOME OF THE RED DEVILS AND THE WORLD’S BEST PEACH PIE.

“Think anyone will recognize you?”

I shook my head absently, taking in the familiar sights. It was bizarre. The road into town hadn’t changed at all. Ma’s Kitchen, an old white clapboard restaurant, still sat just outside the city limits. The shopping plaza on the left had been given a face-lift—fresh paint and new lines in the tiny parking lot—but the general store, the dry cleaner’s, the Kilmer bank, and a coffee shop still occupied it. The names on the dry cleaner’s and coffee shop had changed, but otherwise, the town seemed just as I’d left it.

If we stayed on this street, we’d wind up in the town square, where the old courthouse reigned like an aging duchess who refused to admit her day had passed. The clock on the tower hadn’t worked since before I moved away, and I couldn’t imagine, given the faded air, that they’d come into the money to fix it since. The “historical” district simply contained the oldest houses; most hadn’t been restored.

But Kilmer retained a certain turn-of-the-century charm, if you didn’t know what lurked beneath its exterior. I recognized Federal-inspired houses with their rectangular structure and slim, delicate iron railings; those stately old dames mingled freely with Georgian homes with hipped roofs and quoins.

Most of those neighborhoods exuded a genteel aura of decay. The streets hadn’t been paved in a long time; they were faded to the pale gray of rotting teeth from years of neglect, and Chance had to turn smartly to avoid the deep potholes.

“It seems sadder,” I said at last. “Smaller.”

“Well, you’re older now.” To his credit, he didn’t say I was bigger. That would’ve earned him a slap upside the head.

Anyway, I wasn’t bigger. I still needed to lose a few pounds, but I’d been pretty chunky at eighteen when I climbed on that Greyhound bus. At the gas station-cum-video store, I’d begged a lift from a farmer headed into Brunswick. I’d known buses ran from there, so I’d used my school ID to get a discount ticket and I rode all night. The next morning, I got off in Atlanta with just a backpack and a few dollars in my pocket.

My chest felt tight, remembering. I’d gotten work at a used bookstore the following day. The owner had felt sorry for me, I think, but I loved that job. I rented a room in a boardinghouse, and I was happier than I’d ever been in Kilmer. I had been sadder than Roy to see the bookstore go under. With no friends and little money in the bank, my life took a turn for the worse. I’d left Atlanta with only enough money for a bus ticket, and things went south from there.

But I didn’t want to think about that.

By the time Chance met me, I’d put myself back together somewhat. But I’d held eight different jobs in half as many years, and I seldom stayed in one place for long. There was nothing like running from your memories while trying to fit in, though I never made it. People always seemed to suss out that I wasn’t quite like them.

It was more than the scars on my palms that came from a gift I didn’t want. My mother’s death stayed with me in the form of the pain that subsumed me each time I read a charged object. There was a name for what I did. Most people called it psychometry; I called it a curse.

For years, I tried to forget.

When Chance came into my life, he changed everything. But I wouldn’t think about that, either. Sometimes the past needed to stay buried; it was the only way you could move on. And sometimes you had to dig it up, because that too was the only way.

For my mother’s sake, I had to deal with what’d happened in Kilmer. I’d find answers about the men who came by night to our house and burnt the place with her trapped inside. I’d discover why. Maybe then the dreams would stop. Maybe then she could rest. In the twilight, the town looked so quiet, almost peaceful, but to me, it hid a fetid air. Corruption fed in the stillness, like a pretty corpse that, when split open, spilled out a host of maggots.

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