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Home > Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(8)

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon #2)(8)
Author: Ann Aguirre

Since I didn’t want to upset her before she fed us, I sat quietly, letting Chance charm her. The warm and homey aroma wafted from her cook pot, better than a big country hug. I could use a little comfort; that was for sure.

After lunch, it might get ugly.

Catch of the Day

I thoroughly enjoyed the chicken and dumplings. Southern women knew how to cook them from scratch, and I hadn’t eaten any this good in years. Miz Ruth was kind enough to offer a little plate to Butch, who looked properly appreciative. He gave her the happy bark and wagged his tail as he dug in.

We declined the offer of leftover brown Betty but accepted some fresh coffee. She made it fancy for us with ground chicory and cinnamon, and it made me homesick for a place that had burnt to the ground years ago. I remembered sitting with my mama on the front porch, that wondrous smell wafting up from her cup. We’d watch the sunrise together over the trees, sharing the colors slipping from pearly to passionate to happy-summer blue. Birdsong, trilling wrens and finches, filled the air at the birth of the new day. We didn’t need to talk; we had the call of the meadowlark and mockingbird to keep us company.

At full light, my mama would head to the kitchen and start breakfast. Afterward, we would prowl the woods or work in the garden. Sometimes we’d take her battered old Duster to town to do a little shopping, but mostly we kept to ourselves. We always had a parade of visitors: hurly-burly men, peddlers, Gypsies, witches, and one man who told me he was a king in hiding. I always thought he was funning me, but now I had to wonder.

While I was woolgathering, Miz Ruth had laid out a plate of cookies. She seemed inclined to linger. She nibbled at a sugar cookie with the air of someone who was indulging a habit more than a desire; in the South, dinner wasn’t over until people had coffee and a taste of something sweet.

And maybe she didn’t have anything better to do today. I wished we could afford to sit and be social, but we had nine more houses to hit. I started looking for a segue.

It came in the form of her husband, Glen. She had danced around the subject of his absence, casting looks back to the easy chair that still bore an imprint of his behind. At first I thought he must be running errands, but when she said, “It hasn’t been easy with him gone,” I knew he wasn’t coming back.

“What happened?” I asked gently.

“Don’t know,” she answered with an unhappy shrug. “He went hunting, maybe two weeks back, and just never came home.”

Like the cat. Thankfully, I had the sense not to say it out loud.

“Did you file a missing persons report?” Chance asked.

Like that would do any good in this town, but Miz Ruth nodded. “The sheriff sent a deputy around when I called in. He wrote it all down in his notebook and said they’d have someone troll the woods, but nobody ever found anything.” Her tone said she was none too sure a search had ever been conducted.

The way I’d felt driving through the woods, I couldn’t imagine anybody being eager to go out and prowl around in them, so I figured she was right.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said sincerely. “You must miss him.”

She smiled, a touch of sadness in her eyes. “I do. But you know all about losing somebody, don’t you? And you just a child at the time.”

Perfect. I couldn’t have asked for a better opening, but I had to be careful or she might get suspicious. “What do you remember about that, Miz Ruth? Nobody told me much. Like you said, I was a kid, and people don’t tend to explain things to children.”

“Such a shame.” She shook her head. “There was a terrible fire,” she added for Chance’s benefit. “Your mama, God rest her soul, fell asleep with a lit cigarette. That’s what I heard, anyway.”

A lit torch, more like. I set my jaw. Nobody knew I’d seen the men in our front yard, or I’d probably be dead too. When they realized I’d survived, I told them I sneaked out hours before to meet a boy in the woods behind the house. Even then, I had a strong sense of self-preservation, and I never felt safe in Kilmer after my mama died.

“My mother didn’t smoke,” I said with deliberate bite, knowing I shouldn’t contradict whatever story had been given out. “Never did. She was a vegetarian too.”

Worry stirred in Miz Ruth’s tired eyes. “I hope you don’t mean to go poking around, Corine. Stirring old ashes doesn’t do nothin’ but throw sparks, and it just might get the wrong people riled up.” It sounded more like a warning than a threat. I wondered if she’d bring up my mother’s home business selling potions and charms, but she just shook her head and sighed.

“Would you care to tell me who those folks are?”

“I’ve wasted enough time jawing,” she muttered. “I have to get to the washing up, and then there’s more housework. I hope you don’t mind seeing yourselves out.”

I had no choice but to scoop Butch off the floor and acquiesce with a nod. She knew something she wasn’t telling; I’d stake my life on it. And she was frightened, as well she might be. Her hands shook as she carried our coffee mugs to the sink, porcelain chattering in her grasp like gag teeth.

“I’m sorry for bothering you, ma’am.”

I think she knew then that everything before had been a pretext. She turned with a sharp look. “No, you’re not. You’ll poke around until—well.” Her shoulders slumped. “Maybe I’d do the same thing in your place, if I were younger and had somebody to help.” She glanced at Chance. “Please be careful, Corine. This town isn’t like you remember.”

Her words chilled me. Given my history, I didn’t recall Kilmer as the pinnacle of warmth and security. When we stepped out onto the porch, I saw the rain had abated some. Now it was no more than a miserable drizzle, misting my hair. I glanced over at Chance, who looked pensive.

“What do you think?” I asked.

He fell into step beside me as we descended the porch steps. At hitting the sidewalk my heels skidded on some wet leaves, and Chance steadied me, but he didn’t take the opportunity to sweep me against him. I appreciated his restraint; he wouldn’t pressure me about the relationship thing, which meant he’d learned something about me. Which made me want to throw myself into his arms—and by his maddening smile, he knew it too.

“Honestly?”

I nodded.

“It sounds like there’s a monster loose. Missing people and pets? That mauled dog? The whole town stinks of dark magick.”

“A monster,” I repeated. “Like something out of Creature Feature? That’s an awful lot of ground to cover.”

“Don’t be a smart-ass. As a hypothesis, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we’ve never come across anything quite like this place before, have we?”

“I meant the woods, you know, ground to cover? If there’s a monster in Kilmer, where else would it be?”

Chance slid me a look that said he wasn’t convinced.

Butch whined. “All right, already, I’m getting in the car.”

“My other guess would be a black coven,” Chance said after we’d slammed both doors. The rain pattered on the Mustang, lending credence to the impression we were safe from the world within its metal frame. I locked my door nonetheless.

A black coven. That made more sense and might even offer a clue as to why they’d gone after my mother. The answer might be as simple as opposing hermetic traditions. That gave me no comfort, mind you, but at least it was comprehensible, when otherwise I’d only been dealing with intuition and ominous foreboding.

It didn’t help us put the pieces together, however.

Only legwork could do that.

By the time the dismal gray sky filled with the diffuse, muted rays that signaled sunset, we’d visited four houses. At the first two, nobody answered, and at the second two, they pretended not to recognize me (or really didn’t) and wouldn’t let us in. They had all been afraid. That offered a clue we would be fools to ignore.

Unfortunately, we had no place to stay for the night, unless we returned to the bed-and-breakfast, where somebody might try to kill us. That possibility wasn’t new, but usually I had some idea why. I suspected Sandra, if for no reason other than because she made my flesh crawl. Somebody in that house was making Jim miserable, and I didn’t think it was Shannon.

“If we’re going to be here a while—”

“Then we need a base of operations,” I finished.

The streets were eerily quiet. I didn’t even bother to look as I crossed toward the Mustang. Only Chance’s choked cry gave me any warning of the car bearing down on me. He dove for me, shoving me out of the way, and we rolled across slick, leafy pavement to collide with the Mustang’s solid tires. I could feel a huge, throbbing bruise on my shoulder where I’d hit, and there would probably be other marks as well.

It would’ve been considerably worse if the car had hit me.

Chance shoved me half under the Mustang, as if to protect me, and then bounded to his feet. From my vantage point on the ground, I saw him drop into a fighting stance, probably in case the car stopped and the driver tried to finish what he’d started. Instead, the vehicle fishtailed around the corner, squealing as he—or she—peeled out away from us.

I checked on Butch, who whimpered up at me. Overall, he seemed less frightened than me. The stupid dog probably trusted me to take care of him.

Chance helped me to my feet with gentle hands. I found myself shaking at the unexpectedness of it. No dark magick, no chill in the air—a pretty mundane murder attempt, when you came right down to it—and there was nothing to ward off, and nothing I could do to protect myself except pay better attention.

“It was an Olds Cutlass,” he said grimly. “Dark blue. Mud all over the plates. Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” I managed to say. “Thanks. I guess word’s gotten around, and somebody isn’t happy.”

“Understatement.” As if he couldn’t help it, he wound his arms around me and rested his chin on my hair. His heat seared me through our damp clothes, the lines of his body strong, beautiful, and heart-wrenchingly familiar. “I don’t think my luck had anything to do with this, though.” He sounded hesitant, as if I might blame him for the latest close call. “It feels like it’s hardly working at all here.”

I thought about that and agreed. “Don’t worry, Chance. This one’s on me. If I hadn’t come back, the driver of that car wouldn’t have targeted me. Since I’m back here asking awkward questions after all these years, it means I know something about the night my mama died—and they have something to lose.”

“So do I,” he muttered, running a thumb down my cheek. “I guess it’s pointless to ask you to take the warning and go?”

I answered that with a look. He sighed, let go of me, and opened my car door. As I got into the Mustang, I swept the street with a final glance and noticed twitching curtains on five different houses. They’d seen the near hit-and-run, but nobody came out to see if I was all right. People either hated me a lot more than I’d remembered or they didn’t want to risk being on the streets after dark.

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