Home > Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(7)

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(7)
Author: Ann Aguirre

I reached across the counter and snagged the directory sitting next to the phone, and then I rummaged through my bag, looking for a pad and paper. If nothing else, I remembered their names. There had been ten of them. I never stayed in one home more than a year after my mother died, and the quality of my foster parents had declined as the social worker lost patience. As I recalled, she was less interested in the quality of my placement than checking me off a to-do list. Unlike most small towns, Kilmer had its own branch of social services, independent from the county. That had never struck me as odd before now.

The cashier came back in while I was writing and named a sum for the sodas and gas. Absently, I paid the amount, still flipping through the phone book. It took me another five minutes to finish the job. As I closed the cover, I noticed it was printed locally by the same company that owned the newspaper. I tapped the front thoughtfully.

“Who’s in charge of Paragon Publishing?” I asked, not expecting him to answer.

“Well, I reckon that’d be Augustus England. Did you want to put an ad in the paper? You don’t need to talk to him, if you do. He’s got an office assistant.”

I tried to imagine a publishing empire being run by one guy and an office assistant. Clearly that would only work in Kilmer. On impulse, I checked for a personal address for Mr. England and found him unlisted. Well, of course. I probably wouldn’t find a single town councilman in the book.

I did scrawl the address of the business offices for Paragon Publishing, however. The town reporters might know something about the weird stuff going on. At least, they always seemed to in movies . . . right before they died horribly as a result of their meddling ways. With a smile, I slid the directory back over the counter and stepped out into the rain.

I dashed for the Mustang, where Chance sat waiting in the driver’s seat. His smile twanged my heartstrings as I hopped in. “Get the addresses?”

“Yep. This would be easier if we could map them online,” I said. “Some of these are out in the country, so I suspect this is going to be a long day.”

He sighed. “Then let’s start with the ones here in town. Maybe the rain will let up.”

I surveyed the list.

The third address on the list belonged to Glen and Ruth Farley. I’d stayed on their farm for about nine months. They worked me hard over the summer, but I had no complaints. They’d let me be, otherwise, which was more than could be said for some. It looked liked they’d sold off their acreage, though, and moved into town. I tapped the paper.

“This one isn’t too far. They’re over on Twelfth Street now.”

Chance acknowledged that with a nod and made a left. He’d already learned the layout, and within five minutes, we pulled up outside a small brick house. A black wrought-iron fence separated the yard from the sidewalk. It was identical to its neighbors in every respect, except for the statues on the front lawn. I thought it odd to see a full Nativity scene out already, before Thanksgiving. Lights twined around the rustic wooden frame, twinkling in a weirdly festive cascade of white, gold, red, and green. They cast fey shadows over the wet brown blades of grass.

“Shall we?” He arched a brow at me, lips quirking into a wry half smile.

I had no idea what I was going to say when we got to the front door. Butch gave a little woof of disapproval at being dragged out again. If we had a safe place to leave him, I would have, but since we were the reason he’d been orphaned, I didn’t want anything to happen to him.

Chance didn’t wait for me to muster my nerve. He opened the screen, and then rapped on the door, as if he had everything figured out. I guessed our tack depended on whether they recognized me. With the red hair, I didn’t know whether they would, although Miss Minnie had said she knew me by my eyes.

After a minute, something rattled and the door swung open slowly, like monsters might lurk on our side. A small woman with faded gray and brown hair peered at me around the crack between the door and chain. Her gaze flicked nervously to Chance. “I’m not interested,” she said, “whatever you’re selling.”

She started to slam the door, but I caught it with my palm. It would have to be the truth, or some close facsimile thereof. “Miz Ruth, it’s Corine. Solomon? May we come in for a minute?”

“I declare,” she exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age, girl. Look at you with that wicked red hair. Come in, do come on in, and get out of the wet.” With that, she unhooked the chain, but I noticed she gave the empty street a long, hard look before stepping back to let us in.

I murmured something noncommittal. Chance gave me a look as we followed her into the parlor, furnished in country blue with lots of homemade throw pillows. Her furniture had big fat cabbage roses, and the arms were threadbare. She’d tried to cover that with lace doilies, but as I sat down, I saw the loose threads through the holes in the lace.

The carpet was worn and yellow; I could see the paths where she had walked in the years they’d been living there. Most people would lay down runners to prevent that, but I found it comforting to see evidence of passage. Someone, probably Miz Ruth, had hung cross-stitch on the wall. I read the messages with disquiet: BLESS THIS HOUSE and SAVE US FROM THE TIME OF TRIAL and DELIVER US FROM EVIL. I recognized the latter from the Lord’s Prayer, but I found it ominous she would have excerpted those lines and nothing more.

Chance sat beside me on the love seat while she perched opposite us in what was probably her husband’s recliner. It was plain blue velour or velveteen, whatever they called that fabric, and it had scuff marks on the bottom. She didn’t pop the footrest up, though she did look tired—or maybe worn would be the better word. Miz Ruth couldn’t be more than fifty-five, but she looked ten years older. Purple bruises cradled her eyes, the kind that only came from many, many sleepless nights.

Miz Ruth folded her hands in her lap, as if stilling her nerves with conscious effort. “So what brings you back? It’s been ages now, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I acknowledged with a nod. “Nine years, to be exact.” I didn’t know what I was going to say until it came out in a rush. “Well, I reckon I wanted to show Chance where I grew up. Introduce him to the people who raised me.”

That was inspired. They’d had years to forget how much I freaked them out.

Her expression softened. “Well, if that isn’t the sweetest thing.” Miz Ruth turned to him with a smile. “You must be Corine’s young man. It’s a pleasure to meet you . . . Chance, is it?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He stood up to shake her hand, earning an approving nod.

“Well, I’m Miz Ruth. We had Corine, when she was, oh, fourteen or so, I guess. She was a great help around the farm, particularly with the animals.”

I correctly interpreted his look. Yes, I do know how to milk a cow. No, I won’t be doing it again any time soon.

The older woman probably didn’t even remember why they’d called the social worker and had me reassigned. But I did. I’d touched a gun and experienced a hunting accident that scared the bejesus out of both me and them. My inexplicable burns frightened them the most, making them think, as most decent, God-fearing folk did, that my powers must be infernal in origin. I curled my hands in my lap, not wanting to remind her.

“I bet she was,” Chance said with an especially winning smile. “I don’t suppose you remember any stories to embarrass her with. She’s met my mother more than once, but—”

“Oh, I’m sure I can come up with something.” Miz Ruth blushed girlishly. She probably thought I’d told him she had been like a mama to me. If she felt flattered by the notion, well, that was all right; better if we softened her up so she wanted to talk.

And Lord, could she talk. She told a good ten stories about me, half of which I was pretty sure weren’t true. She just didn’t want to disappoint Chance, I suspect. He listened with every appearance of fascination, leaning forward so he didn’t miss a word. Miz Ruth probably hadn’t held a handsome man’s attention this long in years. I sat quiet, understanding he was gaining her confidence, so I could work around to my questions. Those would be hard and horrible, and they’d go better if they felt like normal curiosity over the course of a friendly visit instead of the inquisition I wanted to invoke.

She broke off at last to say, “Whew, I’m parched. Have y’all eaten? I have chicken and dumplin’s left from last night. I could heat some up in a jiff.”

As if summoned, Butch poked his head out of the top of my bag. He yapped, letting us know he could eat. I hoped Miz Ruth wasn’t allergic or afraid of Chihuahuas.

“Sorry,” I started to say.

“What a darling animal!” She came over to pet him on the head.

Butch consented to her attentions with great dignity. Then he leaped down from my purse and trotted around, sniffing here and there. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “He’s house-trained. He just wants to explore a little.”

“That’s just fine. He might even smell the cat,” Miz Ruth said. “He’s been gone a year, but . . .” She shrugged.

“I’m sorry to hear that. What happened to him?” I wondered if pets had been disappearing. After all, that Doberman on the road into town had to belong to someone.

“You know, I have no idea.” She spoke over her shoulder, and we followed her into the kitchen, done in faded yellow and white gingham. “One morning, he just didn’t come home. I’d let him out of a night, and usually he’d show up like clockwork at six a.m., crying for his breakfast.”

I grinned. “Isn’t that just like a man?”

She laughed softly as she got out a pan. “Oh, I’m sure your Chance has good reason to stay in, so they’re not all like that.”

“Thank you.” He favored her with another warm smile, and I swore she almost melted into syrup on the floor.

Butch trotted in and curled up at my feet; his calmness actually reassured me. He had a solid track record for sensing danger, knowing when to panic, and when to take a nap. Miz Ruth hummed as she whipped up the noon meal, chatting about this and that. She seemed to have taken heart from our presence, which made me wonder what was wrong, and where her husband was.

We sat at the kitchen table, a genuine antique I valued at nearly a thousand dollars. You didn’t see woodwork much like this anymore. She didn’t even have a tablecloth on it—just woven placemats. The pawnshop owner in me wanted to make her a lowball offer. I stroked my fingertips across the burnished wood and let the images come.

If I didn’t block them, every item I touched would singe my skin and whisper to me about what had happened to it. This time, I was curious enough to risk the gentle burn, but I saw only a pale collage of meals, first with Ruth and Glen, and then Ruth, all by herself. Then I glimpsed a woman in Phoenix who wanted a table like this more than anything, and she’d pay a ridiculous price for it too. When the images flickered out, I was grateful they hadn’t delivered a scene of heel-banging sex. It would be hard to sit and eat chicken and dumplings after that, but I’d manage. Of all my foster mothers, Miz Ruth had been the best cook.

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