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Home > Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(6)

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(6)
Author: Ann Aguirre

But when I stepped onto the bath mat, safely wrapped in a towel, I didn’t receive the sizzling welcome I anticipated. I started to make a joke about finding him frozen in the middle of the room, but Chance motioned me to silence. At first I didn’t know what I was listening for. Then it registered.

Creak. It came from the floorboards in the Plumeria room. For reasons I couldn’t articulate, the sound chilled my blood. I stilled too, listening to light, furtive steps coming closer and closer. Steam twirled in the air between us like a fiendish fog.

I held my breath, every muscle coiled. And then . . . the decorative brass doorknob turned ever so slowly, side to side. Nobody knocked. The door didn’t rattle. I heard no steps going away, but they might have been drowned by my thundering heart. After what seemed like an eternity, I had to inhale. Stars sparked in my field of vision, and the terror I hadn’t been able to explain before returned twofold.

Would they come into our room? Would they try the door from the other side? There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation, but my twitchy nerves screamed no.

“Whew. Either we’re both crazy, or . . .” Chance wrapped his arms around me, rubbing my back through the damp terry cloth of my towel. “We should find somewhere else to stay.”

While Chance stood guard, I scrambled into clean clothes. Butch trotted into the bathroom and whined. I tried to shush him, but he ignored me, scratching at the bottom of the door that led into the Plumeria room. Against my better judgment, I hunkered down on all fours and peered to see what had the dog so riled up. I spied something through the little crack beneath the door, and a foul smell told me the powdery residue wasn’t dust.

“Chance, come take a look at this.”

He crouched down. “Smells rotten.”

“We’ve either been visited by something nasty or this is a spell component.” Dammit, I wished I had my mother’s books. “Let’s get out of here.”

“First . . .” He got a zip bag out of his duffel and used a comb, wrapped in toilet paper, to scoop up a little of the powder. I didn’t know what he planned on doing with it, but it didn’t seem like the time to question him.

We snatched our belongings, and I opened the door into the hall. Another line of evil-smelling powder ran across our threshold. I remembered the way Chuch and Eva had warded their house with sea salt and wormwood and I hesitated, wondering if we’d been hexed or blessed.

“Could this be for our protection?” I wondered aloud. “A country tradition?”

“Either way, step over it. Don’t get it on your shoe.”

That sounded like a wise idea, if only to avoid the smell, so I did just that. Chance followed me, closing the door behind him. I stifled a little scream when Sandra Cheney came around the corner.

“Lunch is ready,” she said. “I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss it. I made a lovely pot roast with potatoes and carrots. Peach pie for dessert.”

Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled, but no lightning flashed afterward. To me it sounded like a portent of things to come.

“Thank you, but we have an engagement,” I returned as politely as I could manage.

Something flickered behind her pale blue eyes. “An engagement? I didn’t realize you knew anyone in Kilmer. I took you for tourists, not that we get many these days.”

I dodged her question. “Why is that?”

She made a vague gesture. “Oh, you know. People just bypass the town, since the highway doesn’t run by here.”

“What made you open a bed-and-breakfast?” Offense seemed like the best defense. If I questioned her all the way to the foyer, she wouldn’t be able to do the same. Chance walked ahead, apparently trusting me to deal with the situation. I had to admit; I liked the sensation.

“It was always here,” Sandra said. “My husband’s maternal grandmother used to run the place. Jensen’s Boardinghouse, she called it. We just updated the look and changed things a little when we took over.”

We reached the stairs and I let her pass. I didn’t want her thinking too hard about why I had both my backpack and my purse; nor did I want her getting a glimpse of Butch.

“How did you wind up in Kilmer?”

Sandra cut me a surprised look. “Why, I’ve always lived here. Before I married Jim, I was Sandy Prentice.”

Said as if the name means something to me. I tried to appear suitably impressed.

“Nice.”

Her expression morphed into a tight-lipped courtesy that said I just knew you weren’t from around here. Good for me.

“Reverend Prentice is my father,” she went on, “and the minister at the Methodist church.”

The same one Miss Minnie always tried to drag me to? No wonder I didn’t recognize Sandra. I never went inside churches if I could help it. The whole witch’s daughter thing made me uncomfortable.

As I cast about for something to say, Chance put in, “Well, no wonder you have such a knack for setting people at home. As a preacher’s daughter, you must’ve helped host a lot of get-togethers.”

Sandra flushed, obviously delighted. I struggled not to snort.

“Yes, I did help my father when he’d have the deacons over to Saturday breakfast. And aren’t you a sweet thing to notice?” Her newscaster accent finally stressed and broke, giving way to a drawl as she flirted.

“I could hardly help it.”

“I hope you’ll stop by the dining room and meet Jim and Shannon before you leave. That way you won’t be disturbed if you run across them at odd hours.”

Now why would she put it like that?

“We’d love to,” Chance told Sandra.

His palm settled into the small of my back, nudging me toward the dining room. I could only assume he wanted to get a look at her family. I didn’t remember Jim Cheney, but if he was Sandra’s age, they would’ve been well out of school before I got there.

To my surprise, the dining room table was set for a meal, laid with fine china and good crystal. The food had obviously been prepared with painstaking care, but there wasn’t a chance in hell we’d eat it. In fact, I wished we hadn’t eaten breakfast.

A man with dark hair and silver at his temples sat in a wine velvet wingback chair, staring at his hands. His worn chambray shirt and slightly stained jeans clashed with the pristine, if slightly fussy, décor. He seemed miles away, or maybe he just wanted to be.

“You must be Jim,” I said, forcing a smile. “You have a lovely place here.”

His head came up, revealing haunted, gunmetal gray eyes. “That’s all Sandra’s doing,” he answered. “I just keep things from falling apart. But thank you.”

Maybe I was just overly attuned to nuances and searching for weirdness, but this family offered it in spades. Oddly, the daughter provided a much-needed link to normalcy.

Shannon wore her hair dyed black, tipped in electric blue. She was skinny, swathed in black clothing, and she had a ring in her nose. When her mom made the introduction, she scowled at us. I’d never been so happy to see a punk-Goth kid with a bad attitude. Based on what we’d glimpsed thus far, I’d feared Kilmer was permanently stuck in 1962.

“Mind your manners,” Sandra snapped. “And be polite to our guests or I’ll take away that iPod your uncle Kenneth sent you.”

The kid mumbled something, and then said grudgingly, “I’m pleased to meet you.”

She offered her hand, and when I shook it, we threw a tiny blue spark. Shannon frowned as she drew back, rubbing her fingers as if she suspected me of shocking her on purpose. Interesting. Very, very interesting. I didn’t know yet what I intended to do with the information, but Shannon was Gifted.

“That’s better,” Sandra said with an approving smile. Something about her put me in mind of The Stepford Wives.

Jim said nothing at all. He’d returned to staring, although now he gave the impression of gazing out into the rain and wishing himself a thousand miles away. His misery felt tangible as an extra presence.

Well, I’d had enough. “Enjoy your lunch. It looks delicious.”

“I’m a vegetarian,” Shannon snapped.

Of course she was—probably Wiccan too, and possibly a lesbian as well; anything she figured would get her mom good and riled. She might have been the one sneaking around, practicing faux spells as part of her teenage rebellion. Maybe she thought if she ran off all the guests, she wouldn’t have to clean the rooms. Maybe that incident in the bathroom was nothing to worry about at all.

And maybe I was Miss Universe.

Between the daughter’s rebellious scowl and the husband’s quiet despair, I felt sure there was something wrong in this house. Whether it had anything to do with my mother’s death remained to be seen.

Shannon watched us go. Chance waved as he went, and I followed him out. I didn’t say I’d see them later because I knew that, unless something went heinously wrong, we wouldn’t be back.

The way our luck had been running, I figured we’d probably return before dinnertime.

Gone Fishing

Butch was none too pleased at going back out into the rain.

I couldn’t say the notion pleased me mightily, either, but something was wrong at the Kilmer Inn. I didn’t know where we’d get lunch or where we’d stay, but it seemed like it was time to start knocking on doors. Much as I loathed the idea of seeing all my foster parents again, I couldn’t think of anywhere else to start.

“Head for that filling station,” I said, pointing at a run-down building on the right.

It wasn’t a chain, either. A faded sign read CHUCK’S GAS-N-GO. Near as I could tell, there were no chains at all in Kilmer. I couldn’t remember if there ever had been, come to think of it. My memories of the place, apart from ones about my mama, seemed odd and fuzzy.

While Chance topped off the tank, I lowered my head and dashed for the dirty white building. Rain pelted me, trickling down my neck to the small of my back. I went up a cement step into the office. To the right stood an attached garage with two repair bays. A guy in a filthy coverall came through the connecting door, wiping his hands on a rag.

“Something I can do for you?” He touched the brim of his yellow cap, but I wasn’t sure whether he meant it as a courtesy or if he was just wiping his fingers some more.

My gaze went to the soft drink cooler on the left. “Just need a couple of these.” I snagged two cans at random. “And to pay for gas, whenever he gets done.”

The guy nodded, folding his arms across a spindly chest. He sported a fierce red hickey on his neck. He preened a little when my gaze lingered on it. Yeah, buddy, you’re getting some. We’re all proud of you. I then noticed that the station lacked a console to tell him how much gas was being pumped, and the cash register didn’t have a place to scan a credit card, either. Behind the register, I spied an old sliding imprinter. Holy crap, they still used paper and carbons here.

“Looks like he’s set,” the guy said. “I’ll just check how much.”

The attendant stepped out into the weather like it didn’t bother him, though maybe he reckoned a drenching as good as a shower. It sure couldn’t do his coverall any harm. I stared out over the cracked cement into the storm; rain fell in sheets spattering in rhythmic bursts driven by the wind. Beyond the gas station, no cars passed at all, the road an empty gray ribbon that threaded through town.

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