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Home > Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(11)

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(11)
Author: Ann Aguirre

I knew what he meant; without city lights and noise, this place freaked me out too. Add in the looming threat of the trees, and I could hardly think, but I couldn’t help teasing him. “You’re scared of the dark, Chance? You?”

“I’m not scared of anything as long as you’re beside me.”

Call me an idiot, but I melted a little over that. I covered by unpacking the food. I found it unspeakably sad that the old woman who’d lived and died here had probably spent her mornings sitting at a table with placemats laid for two. The kitchen was small, old-fashioned, and painted a pale, streaky yellow. The fridge looked like it had last been updated in 1945—a squat Hotpoint unit with rounded edges and a silver handle.

Before we sat down to eat, I set out Butch’s portable dishes. After the dumplings earlier, he wasn’t too interested in dog food, but he did take a drink, and then he came to sit on the floor by the table, telling us via big bulging eyes he thought we sucked for not giving him more people food. The waitress at Ma’s had packed us two blue plate specials, which turned out to be meat loaf and green beans. Good packaging had kept it warm while we drove around country roads after dark, looking for our destination.

Chance tucked into his food, but I had a phone call to make first. To my surprise, I had twelve text messages and four voice mails, but the phone hadn’t rung. I checked the settings, and it was programmed to vibrate and play J.Lo’s “If You Had My Love.” My cell hadn’t made a peep all day.

I tried to dial out, but even though I had two bars, I couldn’t get a call to connect. A dark, dreadful feeling crept over me, as if I were marooned on a broken log with flood-waters rising all around me. We had to find a way to contact the outside world. Jesse would go nuts if he didn’t hear from me, and what about Chance’s mom? Not to mention Chuch and Eva. We would not disappear in Kilmer, an unsolved mystery.

Taking a deep breath, I started wading through my text messages. The first one astonished me. Jesse—the man I’d left to clean up the mess in Laredo—had simply written, You ok? That might not have been so shocking if it hadn’t also been time stamped around the moment when I’d been so terrified, standing in the bathroom at the Kilmer Inn. Things got weirder as I read the next message.

Corine, what the hell is going on? This one bore a time stamp just after Chance pushed me out of the way of a rampaging Cutlass. Even in text, Jesse’s tone grew increasingly more agitated as he asked why the hell I wasn’t answering. The tenth just said, Where are you?

I read the last text message with a growing sense of foreboding. Jesse had written in shorthand, as if he were driving, or in a hurry: Omw. I dont hear from u in 24, I report u missin.

He’d packed up and was coming to look for me? From that, I extrapolated he’d sensed my emotional state from hundreds of miles away. Jesus. I didn’t know how he expected to find Kilmer when it wasn’t on MapQuest, but I didn’t imagine that setback would deter Jesse Saldana. But what would an unexpected trip mean to his suspension from the police department? Dammit, I had enough to worry about.

The last message came from Booke. A weight lifted when I realized he was all right. I’ve been ringing all day; left messages. Hope you get this. The astral over Kilmer is like a wicked dark scar. I tried for hours, but I couldn’t see a thing, just swirling, inky fog. Do be careful, and get in touch if you can.

As I closed my phone, Chance called, “What are you doing in there? Eat your dinner, woman.”

I smiled at his faux-peremptory tone. He was trying to keep the mood light, dispel some of the shadows, but he didn’t know the worst of our problems. I decided to let him finish his food before addressing the issue, so I came back to the kitchen and sat down with the folder we’d stolen. While I ate cold meat loaf and green beans, I skimmed through the collection of yellowed articles, most of which dealt with the town losing bids for contracts, developers building elsewhere, businesses closing down, and other crappy developments.

None of it was helpful.

Before I knew what I meant to do, I slapped it from the table and lunged from my seat, stomping on the articles. Chance cut me a worried look, but I didn’t care. A storm of words rose, tangling in my throat until I couldn’t tell one from another, and it became a voiceless scream. It took me a moment to recognize the pain I’d been repressing; then it drowned me in a red wave.

“This stuff is worthless! Your luck doesn’t work here, because nothing here works the way it’s supposed to. This is the ass-end of hell, a stupid Southern Bermuda Triangle!”

Chance put out a hand, as if he might try to calm me, and I took a step, wanting to fight. I wanted to hurt someone, break things, because here I stood, a grown woman surrounded by the woods where I’d hidden as a child, and I felt as helpless as I had then.

My mother died in this town, and I didn’t know where to begin. I had no ideas, no leads; just a certainty something was wrong. We had no object for me to handle and find the answers. He backed off, looking worried.

For a good ten minutes, I ranted at Chance about broken cell phones, evil trees, murderous Cutlass Supremes, and black astral mist. I’m sure I made no sense, but he gazed at me steadily all the while. When the storm blew itself out, I crumpled amid the fallen clippings, tears burning at my eyes. I never had the luxury of crying as a kid. I’d dedicated my energy to dealing with the stress of living with strangers.

He came to me then, quietly. Maybe he didn’t think he could offer any words to assuage my feelings; he would’ve been right. Instead, he wrapped his arms around me and drew me between his long legs, cradling me against his chest. He rocked with me, ever so slowly. Butch crawled into my lap, and I half hiccupped, half laughed.

“This place is evil,” I whispered. “And I don’t know what to do about it. Jesse is on the way here. I’m afraid something terrible’s going to happen to him while he’s looking for us, and it’ll be my fault. I won’t be able to stop it. I won’t be able to save him.” The words just kept spilling out of me.

I felt Chance tense, and I knew he had to wonder what Jesse Saldana meant to me, but those feelings had tangled with old guilt.

“It seems worse,” he said at length, “because we don’t have any idea what’s wrong. We have no clue what we’re fighting—or whom.” Despite his closeness, I heard distance in his voice. “From a psychological standpoint, the unknown threat always seems worse. Identifying patterns and putting pieces together would allow us to construct a strategy. Right now we’re flying blind, and you’re exhausted.”

“Okay,” I said, leaning my head against his shoulder. “Tomorrow we make a list of everything we noticed about the town. We ward this place, and we see about getting messages out. Booke might be able to figure something out if we tell him exactly what we’ve encountered.”

“That’s a plan,” he agreed, stroking my hair. “We won’t get this done in a day. I have no idea how long it’ll take for us to get to the root of the problem, and . . .” He trailed off in hesitation, then continued. “I’m sorry my luck isn’t more use, Corine.” He sighed. “Here, it’s like a magnetized compass where the needle never stops spinning.”

Magnetized . . . That word hung in my thoughts but never found purchase. My mind was tired, but I couldn’t imagine snuggling down and falling asleep. After a moment, I pushed away from him and climbed to my feet.

“Thanks,” I murmured. “I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s okay.” As he stood, he dismissed my uncharacteristic meltdown with a shrug.

I wanted to get away from him, so I left the kitchen, passing through the dining room and then the parlor. Wondering how the old woman had died ate at me. Did we have a resident ghost?

If Chuch had been here, he could have told me, but I had zero aptitude for such things. Like a spirit myself, I passed through silent rooms, touching this or that. Deliberately, I shut down the filter that kept everyday life from turning into a barrage of searing pain and maddening impressions. If Chance wondered what I was doing, passing in and out of the kitchen, following threads of energy stored in objects she’d used on a daily basis, he didn’t ask. He sat at the table, poring over the clippings I’d spilled on the floor.

The pain was bearable. Bit by bit, I built a picture of Mrs. Everett’s daily life. She did crossword puzzles in the morning while drinking her coffee, and she sat in the rocking chair in the parlor, reading the Bible in a spill of sunlight in early afternoon. Evening found her staring out at the woods, fingers pressed up against the windows. I could feel her layered beneath me as I stood in her place, gazing at those dark trees.

And then I saw her crumple beneath the picture window in the parlor. Everything went dark, and I swayed. I’m Corine. Corine Solomon. My heart hammered as I extricated myself from her quiet death, feeling I’d narrowly avoided a patch of quicksand. None of her experiences caused the agony I associated with violent death, so I concluded she’d died naturally, a consequence of her worn body.

“Well,” I said to Butch, “at least the house seems to be phantom free.”

As if in response to my words, heaviness seeped into the air. The dog pressed close to my ankles, and I felt him trembling. Ice prickled along my nerve endings. This was similar to what I’d felt in Laredo, just before the shades appeared. But we’d killed the warlock responsible. This had to be different.

Movement in my peripheral vision had me jumping at shadows. I felt a presence, something watching us. The cold intensified until I could feel my skin prickling into goose bumps. Butch whined, so I spun to face whatever had frightened him.

Carmine bled from the parlor wall, coalescing into the words WELCOME HOME.

In Dreams

For a long moment, we stood frozen, and then I bent to pick up Butch. He nestled in my arms and hid his face. The heaviness in the air grew more profound, as if there were a giant hand pressing down on the top of my head. Frost crackled on the windowpane, and when I called for Chance, my breath swirled like white fog before my face.

“Coming!”

When he stepped into the room, there was a localized boom, as if he carried enough heat in his body to offset the chill. I could swear I saw storm clouds around him for just a few seconds, as if two powerful weather fronts had collided in the front parlor. Then the weight went away, and I could move again. Without speaking, I pointed at the wall. With Chance here, my fear was subsiding.

“It’s not blood,” he said after a short inspection.

No real surprise there. Bleeding walls rarely spilled the liquid of life. That didn’t decrease the creepiness of the timing—after I’d said the house held no ghosts, as I recalled.

“What is it, then?”

“If I had to guess? Berry juice.”

“Like from the woods?” I went back to the window, staring out at the dark, and received the disconcerting impression it stared back.

What was it Nietzsche said? “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” And so it did. I became convinced something sat out there, judging our movements. My scalp prickled. I didn’t know whether to take heart from the message or consider it a warning meant to frighten.

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