Home > Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(3)

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(3)
Author: Ann Aguirre

Because I felt hunted, fragile, I bit back. “Fine, but my mother died here. How would you feel about Mexico, Chance? If that mountain had been Min’s grave.”

He didn’t move; didn’t flinch. Dammit, I’d never known when I wounded him, and I still didn’t. I hated that he could read me like a book, whereas he was microfiche to me, and I didn’t know how to work the machine.

“Like you do now. And I wouldn’t stop until I had the people responsible for it. I do understand your reasons; I just want to make sure you can bear up. It isn’t likely to get easier, if just being here unsettles you.”

He had a point.

I exhaled. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. Yeah . . . I’ll hold. Don’t even worry about me.”

His smile came sad and sweet, like the dying notes of a blues sax at closing time. “I can’t help that.”

Well, I knew. I’d always think about him too. Some things just never stopped being true. My heart ached at his expression, quietly resigned but hungry for what I couldn’t give. Not when he couldn’t offer what I needed back.

More as a distraction, I set Butch down and let him run around, sniffing. He pronounced the room clean with a little yap and jumped into the armchair by the window. The little dog circled three times and then lay down on the pale yellow cushion. He’d eaten and had a drink at the last place we stopped for gas, and done his business outside town, so I expected him to be good for a while.

With the last light gone, the sky looked like a bruise over the treetops in the backyard. I gazed outward, wondering what they were doing—the men who’d murdered my mother. Were they eating their dinners and then settling in with their TVs? What the hell happened all those years ago?

Chance came up behind me, but he didn’t touch. I could feel his warmth just beyond my personal space, and I wanted to turn into his arms; let him hold me and kiss my throat until the hurt receded into heat.

I didn’t.

When I finally spun round, I managed to move back in the motion. “We’ll get started in the morning.” I made my tone businesslike as I checked the time on a reproduction vintage clock. “You feel like rummaging in the kitchen for us? Looks like we missed dinner.”

“Anything special you want?” Why, oh why did he have to put it that way?

“Fruit and cheese.” I hesitated. “Thanks, Chance.”

Not just for getting dinner—for everything. Without him, I had no hope of getting at the truth. We’d always possessed a symbiotic relationship, where our gifts were concerned. It was all the emotional stuff that tripped us up.

He went out the door smiling, as if he knew I’d meant more than I said and felt more for him than I wanted to admit, even now.

But then, I always had.

Out of Luck

I’d like to say things looked better in the morning, but since it was pouring rain, that would be a lie. I smuggled Butch out in my bag first thing, and we both wound up drenched. After wrapping him in a towel, I took a quick shower, which made me feel marginally better.

I gave Butch his breakfast while wondering where Chance had gone. Since he hadn’t left a note or taken the Mustang, I could only assume he’d return soon. By the time I finished braiding my long hair, he showed up with coffee. That was when I figured out he must’ve vacated the room to give me some privacy.

“Thanks.” I took the steaming mug and noted he’d doctored it with cream and sugar, just as I liked.

He was trying so hard, and sometimes I felt tempted to give in, but we hadn’t resolved anything. The reasons I had for leaving in the first place still resounded with truth. His luck might very well be the death of me.

Chance’s talent was also unique, which was why I’d blackmailed him into coming to Kilmer with me, after I helped him find his missing mother. He had what I called uncanny luck; with a little focus, he could shake loose whatever he needed from the cosmos. Sadly, that ability came at a terrible price. Because he got all the lucky breaks, the world balanced itself out on the person closest to him, which meant all the bad karma stuck to me when we were together.

His lover before me died. He’d never mentioned that . . . until a few weeks ago in Laredo. And that just underscored my wariness about him. How could we have spent years together—years!—and he’d never seen fit to tell me?

When I remembered all of that, it became easier not to succumb to temptation. The problem was, I couldn’t cut him out of my heart entirely. A certain heated look from him still had the power to turn me into hot butter.

I grabbed Butch and slid him into my bag. “Be good. Don’t make any noise.”

In answer, the dog snuggled down on top of my wallet and made himself at home. Downstairs, we ate a good breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, and biscuits; I slipped tidbits to Butch whenever the coast was clear. And on the way out, it occurred to me that Chance and I needed only another couple to qualify as a Scooby-Doo unit. I was grinning as I got into the Mustang.

“What’s so funny?” A smile started in Chance’s eyes, as if he wanted to share the joke but feared it might be at his expense.

That stung a little. I’d never hurt him on purpose. “We should call Chuch and Eva to join us.” I explained my rationale, and then he laughed too.

“We’d need a painted van, and Chuch would kill me if we traded the Mustang. He still loves this car, even if his name isn’t on the deed anymore.”

Subtle, Chance. Very subtle.

Not being an idiot, I didn’t touch that line. “So, where do we start?”

Chance closed his eyes for a moment, and the car livened with the thrum of a charged wire. Use of his gift never failed to prickle the hair on my forearms, rousing a little chill that hinted at arcane energy in play. Rain tapped away at the Mustang and cloaked us from the wider world. I felt I could sit all day and gaze at the purity of his profile.

When his long lashes unfurled, I caught my breath a little. His striated gaze, amber, topaz, and sherry brown, just never lost its magic. I forced myself to sound brisk, no matter what my pulse was doing. “Got something?”

“I have no idea,” he said finally. “It’s faint, really faint. But if I do, it’s west.”

Well, that was odd. Generally, his ability worked like dowsing, and the pull got stronger the closer we came. I’d only seen him blocked one other time, which didn’t bode well. To date, only demon magick had proved stronger than what Chance could do. He put the car in gear, looking uneasy.

“So I was right. There is something wrong here.”

Chance nodded. “Wrong and old. Whatever’s happening in Kilmer, it isn’t recent.”

By my reckoning, it was at least fifteen years old, and might hark back farther still. Tragedy had a way of running under your radar if you weren’t personally affected by it. Maybe other families had been torn apart as mine had; I just hadn’t noticed.

“Well, don’t just sit there. ‘Go west, young man.’” I forced a smile.

He didn’t offer one in return, just started the car and waited long enough for the windows to defog before he circled around the inn. This late in the morning, there were no cars to challenge us when we pulled into the street. Driving west offered no answers, though, just took us to the road that led out of town.

Chance frowned at the wet pavement as he pulled into the parking lot of what had been a used-car dealership. Now it was just a sea of broken cement with a small vacant building at the far end. The chains had long since rusted away.

“I hate to say it, Corine, but I don’t think I can be your Magic 8-Ball. I think we’re going to need old-fashioned legwork.”

I should’ve known it wouldn’t be as easy as I wanted, but some part of me wasn’t even surprised to find my suspicions confirmed about Kilmer’s rotten core. My flesh had been crawling ever since we drove through the tunnel of trees leading to town. It didn’t look like things would improve any time soon.

“There are two obvious places to start. I can make a list of all my old foster parents and we can drop by to see how they’re doing . . . and pick their brains.” My tone expressed how much that notion pleased me. “Or we can do a little research at the library. We may end up doing both, anyway, but I know where I’d prefer to start.”

“The library it is. Which way?”

“It used to be downtown, near the courthouse.”

It still was, a pale stone building set along the square. For the first time, I noticed it possessed a Gothic air, ornate stonework and bizarre symbols etched into the rock. Most people would call this Gothic Revival style, as it even had gargoyles on the roof. If I watched them too long, they might even have moved, and I didn’t want to see that. Chance parked, and I climbed out of the car.

The rest of the square was less dilapidated. Outlying regions had gone positively seedy, but here, the rectangular brick buildings were in pretty good shape. Too many of them sat empty, though, the small, striped awnings blowing over businesses that had closed or moved out of town. Faint gilt lettering had been half scraped away on some of the windows, so they said things such as AILOR and OOKSHOP. The death of a bookstore always made me sad.

In front of the courthouse, there was a Grecian-inspired lady carved out of marble; the folds of her robe were filthy now, stained with a combination of dirt and dead leaves. I knew she was supposed to be Themis, the goddess of justice. Many towns had a similar statue near the courthouse, but she was usually depicted with a sword in one hand and scales in the other. Maybe the sculptor knew something about Kilmer, because he’d depicted her sitting on a rock, sword slack, and the scales beside her. Maybe it was just my imagination, but she looked sad, frozen in that pose.

Everything smelled wet, and the air was heavy in my lungs. Water pooled on the small brown lawn out front, so we picked our way carefully up the path. Three steps led up to a glass door. A posted sign read OPEN, but I could only see our misty reflections; no lights within.

“Stay down,” I instructed Butch, who complied with a little huff.

It was weird and eerie, how little this place had changed. In some ways, Kilmer struck me as the town time forgot. There were no restaurant chains, no big stores, not even a single Micky D’s. Common sense offered “no money to be made” as the reason, but I wondered if there was more to it. The lack of modern touches seemed unnatural, creepy, rather than comforting. This small town offered the feeling of “I know where you live” instead of the security of recognizing all your neighbors.

A grungy gray runner waited for us just inside, so we wiped our feet and let our eyes adjust to the dim interior. Immediately to the left sat the checkout desk, where a gimlet-eyed librarian studied us with disapproval. I guessed she thought we should be at work.

Well, we were.

“Where’s the microfiche?” I asked.

The old woman’s mouth pursed as if I’d given her a persimmon to suck. Then I realized I’d done something worse—I hadn’t greeted her or rambled about the weather for ten minutes. “In the back. Are y’all wanting to look at something special?”

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