Home > Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(15)

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(15)
Author: Ann Aguirre

I staggered, hardly remembering why I’d come up. At last I spied a galvanized metal tub, probably used for laundry a hundred years ago. Butch barked somewhere in the distance. I called, “Heads up!” before letting go. The tub clanged when it hit the floor, but I didn’t hear anything else.

The house sat weirdly still and silent, waiting, as I came down the ladder. I felt like I was no longer alone, and yet, conversely, Butch had stopped barking. I didn’t know where he’d gone.

Did I leave the door open?

Tub forgotten, I pressed my back to the wall and inched my way along toward the parlor. I found nothing so convenient as a candlestick to use as a weapon. Whatever waited for me out there, I’d have to face it bare-handed. I heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked.

Then I went boneless as a familiar voice said, “Come out where I can see you. Slowly. I have a weapon. I will not hesitate to use it.”

“Jesse?” I breathed.

“Corine?” He stepped around the corner, and he seemed to slump a little in relief. Nothing like fearing for someone’s safety to make a man forget he was mad. After the mess I’d left him in Laredo—a dead partner and a field full of bodies used in necromantic magick—it was a wonder he would come looking for me at all.

Jesse Saldana was an intriguing mix of long, tall Texan in battered boots, touched with Latin heat. He had a nice face, if scruffy and unshaven. He looked tired, as if he’d continuously run his hands through his tawny, sun-streaked hair. Ostensibly my mentor, in charge of introducing me to Gifted society, he’d hinted that he wanted to be more. Empathy was his particular gift; sometimes it was nice to have a man who knew how you felt. Right then, it was damn convenient.

I managed a smile. “The same.”

“Your dog was out front in hysterics. I came in, saw your car, but couldn’t find anybody. I had a feeling something was wrong, but I couldn’t get a fix on what. I pounded on the door, but it was unlocked, and—”

“You got worried.” Up in the attic, I hadn’t heard a thing, lost in someone else’s memories.

“To say the least.” He came toward me then and swept me up in a big hug. A small blue spark showed when we touched, not unpleasant—just the reaction of our two gifts renewing acquaintance. I let myself lean for a moment, so glad to see him I couldn’t speak. He stood back and took a look at me. “You seem to be in one piece . . . but I wonder what had that dog so worked up. Where’s Chance?”

A strangled laugh that wanted to be a sob hiccupped out of me. I backtracked to where the tub lay on its side in the hall. “Put the ladder back up, help me with the wards, and I’ll fill you in.”

If Jesse thought my priorities strange, he didn’t say so. Instead, he gave me a quick and dirty course on what herbs we should mix and how much, along with the spoken words. He explained, “This would possess more power if we were practitioners, but the herbs alone should work. You bought just about every protective plant known to man.”

“That was the idea.”

“A good witch can ward a house without the herbs,” Jesse told me, “weaving protective energy in place like a net.”

He’d know that because of Maris, an ex-lover who died because she could have identified the warlock involved in a kidnapping we’d investigated in Laredo.

We went around the house three times, intoning, “Three times around, three times about, the world within, the world without; we deny all access to any who mean us ill, whether through doorway, tiny crack, or windowsill.” I made sure we wedged the ward mixture well up against the foundation, where it would theoretically bond with the stone. The last step sometimes failed in newer houses where there was often too much inorganic material.

Not content with that, I went through the interior of the house and lined the windows and doorjambs. I had mixed feelings about protecting a house where that poor girl had been locked up . . . but maybe she hadn’t died there. By the time we finished evil-proofing the place, I’d filled him in on everything that had happened.

Saldana got out his cell and dialed. At first I thought he didn’t believe me; then I realized he meant to test our wards. To my delight, my phone rang.

“Well, there’s one problem solved,” he said, ending the connection. “As for the rest, it’s a hell of a mess, sugar. We should get back to town and see what we can do for Chance. We can’t leave him there overnight.”

Tell me something I don’t know.

With Jesse, a cop from Texas, by my side, they might listen. He knew the law better than I did, and he had physical presence to back up his claims. We just needed to grab Butch and . . .

The silence troubled me. For a moment, I couldn’t decide why, and then it hit me. I hadn’t heard or seen the dog since Saldana arrived.

“Have you seen Butch?”

Jesse cocked his head. “He was outside, watching us work, wasn’t he?”

“Was he?”

We scoured the yard, calling for him. I grew more frantic with each passing moment. I would’ve given a year of my life to see Butch come bounding out of the woods. I saw only stillness, trees wrapped in autumn skins.

“Should we go looking for him?”

Definitely, we should. I just didn’t look forward to thrashing around in the woods. This felt like a trap, like we were being herded, but I couldn’t just leave him.

I sighed. “Let’s make a couple peanut butter sandwiches and then take off. Looks like we’re going for a hike.”

The forest stood watchful, as if it had eyes trained on us. Trees tangled their limbs together, creating a thorny wall, ringed in deciduous greenery. Inside, it would be cool, shadowed, dark, with soft things squishing underfoot. I remembered well.

If I’d ever wanted to do anything less, I couldn’t remember.

Secrets Dark and Deep

My bag felt too light on my shoulder.

I’d gotten used to Butch’s slight weight on top of my stuff. He was a good dog, well trained, polite, and he listened uncommonly well. In fact, he was almost too smart.

For that reason, it made no sense for him to run off into the woods with the sky scowling thunderclouds. It looked like it might pour buckets on us any minute. That didn’t stop us from setting out, calling quietly.

Skeletal trees closed in around us as we passed from the overgrown yard into the woods. A small animal like Butch wouldn’t leave a trail. He could cut right through the underbrush and go any way he wanted. I’d never noticed a propensity in him for chasing squirrels, but he was a dog.

I felt half a step from coming unglued. Find Butch. Get Chance. I repeated the four words like a mantra as we passed deeper into the forest. Even in late fall, it felt dank and oppressive, as if it had been years since sunlight had last touched the ground. We had no choice but to follow the rough trail, which came to a parting of ways, east and west, at a big lightning-scarred tree. The limbs were twisted and blackened, dropping away in dead chunks of wood. Ahead, the trees formed a nearly impenetrable barrier, ancient live oaks growing in tight knots, shrouded in Spanish moss in funereal fashion.

“Any idea which way?” Jesse asked.

I shook my head. I couldn’t read the forest, a network of living things. My gift applied only to inanimate objects. To make matters worse, if we went deep enough, the area shifted to swampland, and then we were talking about an enormous ecosystem full of creatures, some of which could devour Butch in one bite. A sick feeling coiled in the pit of my stomach.

“Can you feel him?”

Saldana gazed at me with an expression that said he thought I’d lost my mind; then he shrugged. “I can try.”

His bitter chocolate eyes went odd and distant, much as I imagined I looked when I handled something. I tried to be patient, but I didn’t know much about his gift. Should he be able to tune right in? Did he visualize the person (or animal) and then try to pluck an emotional state out of the ether?

At last he came out of it, looking dazed. “Never tried that before. I’m not eager to repeat it.” Jesse rubbed his head and pinned on a smile, but I saw it had caused him pain.

“You all right?” I reached out a hand, tentative, and he took it, pressing my palm to his temple. That roused definite warmth. I liked his simplicity. He didn’t prevaricate or pretend not to hurt when he did. I wasn’t used to things being that uncomplicated.

In response, I shifted and cupped his head in my hands, massaging with my thumbs and fingertips. It seemed like the least I could do, given he’d hurt himself trying to find my dog. Jesse leaned down into my touch, nuzzling his head into my hands. We spent a few moments like that before he groaned and rolled his shoulders, as if I’d given him a full body massage.

“Better,” he said, smiling. “Nothing a few Advil won’t cure.”

But he didn’t step back. Instead, he leaned his brow against mine, as if I held his head in anticipation of a kiss. Awareness kindled. I remembered how sweet his mouth tasted and how he knew exactly where to touch me. Such knowledge came from his empathy, no doubt, but that made it no less delicious.

“You came all that way,” I whispered. “Are you going to get in trouble?”

He shrugged, his hands coming up to frame my waist. “Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. I knew you were hurt and scared.”

“And you had to come riding in like the white knight?”

“It’s not about my being a hero, Corine. It’s about keeping you safe.”

That struck a deep chord; I’d been on my own so long. “You think you can do the job? I can be a handful.”

His voice deepened, roughening with desire. If only I could be sure he wanted me—and not because of my feelings. “I’d like to try.”

“I . . .” This is not the time. Focus. “Did you find him?”

Jesse stepped back, accepting the deferral. “I think . . . he’s to the east. And he’s excited about something; not frightened at all. I got the impression he’s waiting for us.”

Astonishment washed over me. “You’re kidding.”

“I could be wrong.” He spread his hands. “But unless a wolf smelled us coming and is looking forward to eating us, I’m pretty sure that was Butch.”

I smiled reluctantly over that. “East it is.”

Our steps turned in tandem, crunching over fallen tree limbs that sounded like bones breaking underfoot. Navigating the trail took most of my attention as I tried not to get caught on stickers or slapped in the face with a wayward branch. The wan sunlight didn’t penetrate in here, and I snuggled deeper into my jacket.

My tennis shoes would be worthless after this, stained green and black. I didn’t even want to look at the hem of my jeans. I sensed he wanted to say something, but I didn’t hurry him. I’d like to know how he’d sensed my feelings from so far away—and whether it had hurt him like scanning for Butch, but I’d let him go first.

After a few minutes of walking, he finally spoke. “What’s next for you? After this?”

“Home,” I said, right off.

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