Home > Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(13)

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(13)
Author: Ann Aguirre

“They worked in the library yesterday,” I reminded him.

“You need to check on your mom too. So we’ll stop there after we shop for the sea salt, but I don’t know where we’re going to find agrimony, wormwood, cedar, dill, and coriander in bulk around here.”

“I’d include pine, heather, marjoram, and slippery elm, but we’ll have to make do with whatever we can get.”

Chance’s mom had taught us about protective herbs, and living with Chuch, we’d received a refresher course in good wards. The mechanic layered them inside and out for double coverage. We’d do the same—and I wouldn’t leave Butch out there until we did.

That morning, I felt energized. Though things weren’t any better than the previous day, I had a handle on them. We’d go shopping for supplies, and then we’d make phone calls. Booke was on the case, and if I knew Chuch and Eva, they would want to do some legwork if they could. Jesse was on the way.

If Kilmer thought they could frighten me off, they had another think coming.

This was for my mom, Cherie Solomon.

We had not yet begun to fight. Sure, they’d crippled us by taking away the tools we generally used to solve problems, but we’d find ways around the obstacles they threw in our path. No matter how many times they knocked me onto a dirty road, I would rise. I’d ferret out their secrets and then handle the objects that would spill them.

In other words, Kilmer, game on.

Luckless Bastard

By one p.m., we had a trunkful of bulk spices. We’d driven to a neighboring town to pick up most of them. More interesting, twenty miles away, nobody seemed to have heard of Kilmer. They’d never even driven through.

We stood outside the public library while I snapped pictures of the building’s exterior with Chance’s phone. When I thought I’d gotten all the angles, we went inside. I studied the screen and, sure enough, as the door closed behind us, five bars lit up on the device, as opposed to the straggly one or two we got anywhere else in town.

I gave it back. “Can you take some pictures of the inside and then send the lot to Booke? Do you have his e-mail?”

“Sure,” he said, and glanced around the interior as if deciding where to start.

Once he’d gone, I dug my cell out of my pocket. The librarian glared at me from the desk, so I moved away from the front door. Somewhere in the middle of History and Philosophy, I took a look. I had more messages from Jesse, but none from Booke. First thing, I called Saldana, knowing he was probably here—or nearly so—by now, depending on what time he’d left Texas. I had never been so happy to hear a call connect.

He answered on the first ring, his voice warm, worried, and touched with a Texas drawl. “Corine, are you all right? Where are you?”

“At the library,” I told him, keeping my voice low. “It’s the only place my phone works. Things are weird. I’ll tell you more when you arrive.” I wanted to say I was touched that he’d drop everything to come looking for me, but I couldn’t find the words, so I went with a question instead. “Where are you?”

A long silence followed, but background noise told me he was driving. “I have no idea,” he said at last. “I can’t find the town. GPS has never heard of it.”

“Booke said there was no reference to Kilmer anywhere online, either. If you’re totally off course, I suggest finding a library and looking for archived maps, anything before 1900. If that doesn’t work, go earlier . . . until you find it. It’s here.” I paused. “Even if the rest of the world seems to have forgotten about the place. For now, though,” I went on, “look for a road sign. There should be something posted about the next town.”

“Yeah. There’s one coming up—looks like Darien. I’m five miles away.”

“You’re fairly close.” I gave him directions to the house from the road he was driving on. “We’ll meet you there in two hours. If you have trouble, text me. If I’m not here, I may not be able to answer, but I can come looking for you.”

“And vice versa.” I heard the smile in Jesse’s voice as he rang off.

Then I called Booke. It was so weird that we couldn’t call out anywhere else. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen pay phones anywhere in this godforsaken town.

“I have bad news, good news, and maybe more bad,” he reported.

“Bad first, then good, please.”

“You sent me a mixture of burnt cat hair, ground bone dust, powdered stinkweed, and . . . one thing I can’t seem to isolate. If it’s been transmuted as a result of the spell, I may never know what it was.”

“The spell or the component?”

“Both,” he said, sounding unhappy. “Right now, it could be a spell meant to cause genital warts, prevent attacks from unfriendly spirits, make you grow hair on your back and develop unpleasant body odor, or summon a demonic cat to smother—”

“And that’s the bad news?” I figured he could go on like that for a while. “What’s the good?”

“Well. None of those things has happened, right?”

Only Booke would ask that, though I did give my arm-pits a tentative sniff. “Nope.”

“Then the spell might have been interrupted when you fled the bed-and-breakfast.”

“Great. Finally, something swings our way.”

“Or . . . ,” he said, hesitant, “it might have been cast with a timer or trigger.”

“So it could go off like a bomb if we put a foot wrong.” I rubbed my forehead. I’d never wished harder that I had my mother’s abilities instead of a relatively worthless and limited gift like the touch. “That’d be the other bad news, right?”

“Unfortunately, yes. You need someone to cleanse all your possessions, but I suspect you don’t have anyone handy who could.”

“Not right here, no.”

I thanked him and rang off. If we were to get a witch out here, I’d need to visit Area 51—a message board that the Gifted used to communicate—and ask around. We might be able to use Chance’s phone to connect to the Net and do it that way, but it would have to be before closing time. After five p.m., we were on our own.

Chance found me a few minutes later. “Anything?”

First I relayed what Booke had told me; then I borrowed his phone. It took fifteen minutes for me to log into Area 51 and post a request for someone to perform a cleansing. Maybe we’d get a nibble, maybe not. If nothing else, before we left the library, we should talk to the handyman again. Mr. McGee might remember something from years ago, and he looked ornery enough that he wouldn’t care about keeping other people’s secrets.

“Quick,” I said. “Downstairs. Don’t let the librarian catch us.”

We ran Mr. McGee to ground in the basement. It wasn’t hard. He was sitting at a table, listening to an old transistor radio. To my ears, it sounded like the whispers and hisses of mechanical failure—no music or words broke the soft, sibilant hiss.

“What’re you listening to, sir?” Chance spoke first, politely announcing our presence so we didn’t startle him.

We came around the other side. I find it difficult to hold a conversation with someone’s back. In this case, it didn’t help any. Whether some trick of shadows or light, his eyes appeared blind, all darkness devoid of iris or pupil. He turned his face toward us.

The old man said in a vacant voice, “Dead people.”

If he intended to frighten me, well, it worked. Icy fingers crept down my spine, and I could imagine I heard ghost whispers buried in the mechanical static—broken phrases and pleas for salvation. Now and then, I could almost make out the words. It felt as though the sound burnt itself into my brain, as if my flesh fused with the signal. Despite myself, I edged closer to Chance, who wound an arm around my shoulders.

“Can you understand them?” I asked quietly.

Mr. McGee tapped his gnarled fingertips against the table, yellowed nails sounding like chitin-shelled insects beneath a boot. “Sometimes,” he said at last. “More often than not, these days. They say you can only hear them if you’re near death yourself. Can you make out what they’re saying, missy?”

The question hit me like a fist in the chest. My lips felt numb. A charged tingle shot up my spine and out the top of my head. I felt compelled to answer; the truth spilled out of me like a black ribbon, linked to the awful ink of his eyes.

“Help us.” I mouthed the words, nearly soundless. “They’re saying, ‘Help us.’”

Chance cut me a sharp look, as if wondering whether I was playing along, humoring the old bastard. I wished to hell I was. The infernal chorus had coalesced for me; I heard a thousand souls moaning in torment, begging for deliverance.

“Ah,” McGee said, nodding. “Ah. Poor pretty thing.” If he hadn’t been so damn terrifying, I would’ve dismissed him as nuts and walked away. But I couldn’t seem to move. “I wondered when y’all would come back,” he went on.

“You knew we’d be back?” Chance asked, lofting a brow. He didn’t seem afflicted with the same raw horror that weighted my bones.

“I know everything about this town worth knowing.”

“Then you know what happened at the Solomon house,” I said. It wasn’t a question.

He peered at me, seeming surprised for the first time. “You’re her. The one who got away. Oh, missy, you ought not to have come back. They’ll do for you this time for sure.”

Excitement shivered through me. “They, who? I need names, Mr. McGee.”

But he seemed lost in a fit of dementia. “They thought I didn’t know. And I didn’t, not for a long while, but I heard it on the radio. I know. I know—” He began to choke, a hideous red froth burbling from his tobacco-stained lips.

Chance grabbed for the old man as he fell, and I ran, screaming, for the stairs. When I got back, Chance had given up on resuscitation. I stood there, trembling, soothing Butch with a touch to his head. He scented death in the air and gave a little whimper. I knew he wanted to leave. So did I.

The basement turned into a confused nightmare of agitated questions and implications of blame. Two young men from the funeral home arrived first, followed by the sheriff, and then the doctor. As they argued, Mr. McGee lay stretched out on the basement floor, dead as a doornail. He gave off a faint odor similar to the powder we’d found lining our doorway at the bed-and-breakfast.

Chance had the guy’s blood all over him. He’d done his level best to save him, but whatever got him had been inexorable.

The country doc knelt, gave a cursory look, and then pulled out a notepad. “John McGee, aged seventy-six. Apparently suffered a seizure, possibly stroke related. Time of death”—he checked his watch, an old-fashioned wind-up one—“one forty-five p.m.”

I could hear the librarian trying to keep order upstairs. Chance, the sheriff, and a couple of guys from the funeral home stood watching the doctor complete his rudimentary exam. To me, it looked like he just poked McGee here and there to make sure he was deceased.

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