As I closed my phone, Chance called, “What are you doing in there? Eat your dinner, woman.”
I smiled at his faux-peremptory tone. He was trying to keep the mood light, dispel some of the shadows, but he didn’t know the worst of our problems. I decided to let him finish his food before addressing the issue, so I came back to the kitchen and sat down with the folder we’d stolen. While I ate cold meat loaf and green beans, I skimmed through the collection of yellowed articles, most of which dealt with the town losing bids for contracts, developers building elsewhere, businesses closing down, and other crappy developments.
None of it was helpful.
Before I knew what I meant to do, I slapped it from the table and lunged from my seat, stomping on the articles. Chance cut me a worried look, but I didn’t care. A storm of words rose, tangling in my throat until I couldn’t tell one from another, and it became a voiceless scream. It took me a moment to recognize the pain I’d been repressing; then it drowned me in a red wave.
“This stuff is worthless! Your luck doesn’t work here, because
here works the way it’s supposed to. This is the ass-end of hell, a stupid Southern Bermuda Triangle!”
Chance put out a hand, as if he might try to calm me, and I took a step, wanting to fight. I wanted to hurt someone,
things, because here I stood, a grown woman surrounded by the woods where I’d hidden as a child, and I felt as helpless as I had then.
My mother died in this town, and I didn’t know where to begin. I had no ideas, no leads; just a certainty something was wrong. We had no object for me to handle and find the answers. He backed off, looking worried.
For a good ten minutes, I ranted at Chance about broken cell phones, evil trees, murderous Cutlass Supremes, and black astral mist. I’m sure I made no sense, but he gazed at me steadily all the while. When the storm blew itself out, I crumpled amid the fallen clippings, tears burning at my eyes. I never had the luxury of crying as a kid. I’d dedicated my energy to dealing with the stress of living with strangers.
He came to me then, quietly. Maybe he didn’t think he could offer any words to assuage my feelings; he would’ve been right. Instead, he wrapped his arms around me and drew me between his long legs, cradling me against his chest. He rocked with me, ever so slowly. Butch crawled into my lap, and I half hiccupped, half laughed.
“This place is evil,” I whispered. “And I don’t know what to do about it. Jesse is on the way here. I’m afraid something terrible’s going to happen to him while he’s looking for us, and it’ll be my fault. I won’t be able to stop it. I won’t be able to save him.” The words just kept spilling out of me.
I felt Chance tense, and I knew he had to wonder what Jesse Saldana meant to me, but those feelings had tangled with old guilt.
“It seems worse,” he said at length, “because we don’t have any idea what’s wrong. We have no clue what we’re fighting—or whom.” Despite his closeness, I heard distance in his voice. “From a psychological standpoint, the unknown threat always seems worse. Identifying patterns and putting pieces together would allow us to construct a strategy. Right now we’re flying blind, and you’re exhausted.”
“Okay,” I said, leaning my head against his shoulder. “Tomorrow we make a list of everything we noticed about the town. We ward this place, and we see about getting messages out. Booke might be able to figure something out if we tell him exactly what we’ve encountered.”
“That’s a plan,” he agreed, stroking my hair. “We won’t get this done in a day. I have no idea how long it’ll take for us to get to the root of the problem, and . . .” He trailed off in hesitation, then continued. “I’m sorry my luck isn’t more use, Corine.” He sighed. “Here, it’s like a magnetized compass where the needle never stops spinning.”
Magnetized . . .
That word hung in my thoughts but never found purchase. My mind was tired, but I couldn’t imagine snuggling down and falling asleep. After a moment, I pushed away from him and climbed to my feet.
“Thanks,” I murmured. “I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s okay.” As he stood, he dismissed my uncharacteristic meltdown with a shrug.
I wanted to get away from him, so I left the kitchen, passing through the dining room and then the parlor. Wondering how the old woman had died ate at me. Did we have a resident ghost?
If Chuch had been here, he could have told me, but I had zero aptitude for such things. Like a spirit myself, I passed through silent rooms, touching this or that. Deliberately, I shut down the filter that kept everyday life from turning into a barrage of searing pain and maddening impressions. If Chance wondered what I was doing, passing in and out of the kitchen, following threads of energy stored in objects she’d used on a daily basis, he didn’t ask. He sat at the table, poring over the clippings I’d spilled on the floor.
The pain was bearable. Bit by bit, I built a picture of Mrs. Everett’s daily life. She did crossword puzzles in the morning while drinking her coffee, and she sat in the rocking chair in the parlor, reading the Bible in a spill of sunlight in early afternoon. Evening found her staring out at the woods, fingers pressed up against the windows. I could feel her layered beneath me as I stood in her place, gazing at those dark trees.
And then I saw her crumple beneath the picture window in the parlor. Everything went dark, and I swayed.
I’m Corine. Corine Solomon.
My heart hammered as I extricated myself from her quiet death, feeling I’d narrowly avoided a patch of quicksand. None of her experiences caused the agony I associated with violent death, so I concluded she’d died naturally, a consequence of her worn body.
“Well,” I said to Butch, “at least the house seems to be phantom free.”
As if in response to my words, heaviness seeped into the air. The dog pressed close to my ankles, and I felt him trembling. Ice prickled along my nerve endings. This was similar to what I’d felt in Laredo, just before the shades appeared. But we’d killed the warlock responsible. This had to be different.
Movement in my peripheral vision had me jumping at shadows. I felt a presence, something watching us. The cold intensified until I could feel my skin prickling into goose bumps. Butch whined, so I spun to face whatever had frightened him.
Carmine bled from the parlor wall, coalescing into the words WELCOME HOME.
For a long moment, we stood frozen, and then I bent to pick up Butch. He nestled in my arms and hid his face. The heaviness in the air grew more profound, as if there were a giant hand pressing down on the top of my head. Frost crackled on the windowpane, and when I called for Chance, my breath swirled like white fog before my face.
When he stepped into the room, there was a localized boom, as if he carried enough heat in his body to offset the chill. I could swear I saw storm clouds around him for just a few seconds, as if two powerful weather fronts had collided in the front parlor. Then the weight went away, and I could move again. Without speaking, I pointed at the wall. With Chance here, my fear was subsiding.
“It’s not blood,” he said after a short inspection.
No real surprise there. Bleeding walls rarely spilled the liquid of life. That didn’t decrease the creepiness of the timing—after I’d said the house held no ghosts, as I recalled.
“What is it, then?”
“If I had to guess? Berry juice.”
“Like from the woods?” I went back to the window, staring out at the dark, and received the disconcerting impression it stared back.
What was it Nietzsche said? “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you
” And so it did. I became convinced something sat out there, judging our movements. My scalp prickled. I didn’t know whether to take heart from the message or consider it a warning meant to frighten.
I refused to let it.
“Maybe,” he said, still staring at the writing on the wall—literally. “You think someone lives out there? It would take a precise, sympathetic translocation spell to achieve this.” He pointed at the dripping letters.
I wasn’t interested in the practical aspects. If this was an intimidation tactic, it was doomed to fail. Instead of dwelling on how the unsettling effect had been achieved, I found a bucket and some rags, and started scrubbing it off the wall. That morning I’d been accosted in a bathroom and nearly run over by a car. They’d have to do better to get me riled up. The fact that I’d cried earlier probably had something to do with my steady emotional state too.
Enough was enough. We wouldn’t solve anything today, and I was no longer worried about Mrs. Everett’s lingering spirit, so I located some old sheets not taken in the haphazard packing and gave them a good shake. They were faded and ragged at the edges, but soft from many washings. I went into the master bedroom and tucked the flat end between the mattress and box springs.
A quick rummage through the dresser unearthed an ancient quilt in the bottom drawer. I retrieved my bag from the parlor and changed into loose shorts and a T-shirt. Once I brushed my teeth, I was set to get some sleep.
“Let Butch out before you go to bed,” I called. “Night, Chance!”
I didn’t know where he would crash, but I felt safer here than I had at the bed-and-breakfast, so I wouldn’t ask him to bunk with me. His dangerous luck aside, he had to get better at talking about his feelings. It couldn’t be all about me any more than it should’ve been all about him the first time. I’d driven myself half mad trying to please him, and now he was doing the exact same thing. We needed to strike a balance, somehow.
Maybe the pendulum would eventually come to rest between us. Maybe—
There was no gentle rollover from waking to sleep, no dreamy, hazy lassitude. I didn’t even remember closing my eyes. Then . . . I was somewhere else.
Given the day I’d had, if I hadn’t been to this room before, I might have panicked. From the mahogany shelves to the cream and ivory wingback chairs, this gentleman’s library suited my impression of Ian Booke, who sat at a heavy antique desk, brow furrowed in concentration.
Our man in the UK had perfected lucid dreaming, and we’d talked this way once before. Relief washed over me when I realized he’d been trying to get in touch when I went quiet. He must have been at it for hours.
In my dreams, Booke had a shock of nut-brown hair and charcoal eyes. His face was narrow and clever rather than attractive. I didn’t know anything about him in real life; nobody did.
I came toward him clad in the Wonder Woman body Booke envisioned for our dream encounters. He glanced up at my movement, his expression revealing visible relief. He left his desk and took two steps in my direction before apparently remembering we couldn’t touch or I’d wake up.
“You’re all right? I’ve left five messages now.”
“Depends on what you mean by that,” I said ruefully. “I’m glad to see you—er, talk. You know what I mean.”
He inclined his head with a half smile and led the way over to the chairs. I sank down gratefully, unused to the height of the form I wore in the dreamworld. After taking a deep breath, I summed up everything we’d noticed about Kilmer: the unusual behavior of the citizens, a maimed dog, the lack of modern conveniences, dying business, broken cell phones, strange, stinky powder, murderous automobiles, and bleeding walls.
Damn. The recitation alone made me tired.
“So,” I concluded, “the only place we’ve gotten the cell phone to work is the library. I have no idea why.”
“I might be able to help. If you can, use your cell phone to snap some pictures, interior and exterior views, and send them to me via e-mail. Do you have a Smartphone?”
I rather doubted it; unlikely the device would be any cleverer than its owner. “Chance does, I think.”
“Get those to me as soon as you can, and I’ll see if I can sort why the library prevents the technological failure that plagues you elsewhere.”
I smiled with genuine warmth. “Thanks. That could really help us devise some defense. I’m glad you found me like this.”
“I wasn’t sure I could,” he admitted. “Not with the bizarre shroud encircling the coordinates you gave me. But this technique focuses on the person more than the place, so I think I could find you anywhere.”
That statement carried an oddly reassuring resonance. “Can you help? Kilmer feels so cut off from the real world.”
Booke frowned. “That would take some doing, serious power, there. I wonder if the dark spot in the astral has anything to do with your isolation.”
I could only shrug. “That’s your stomping ground, not mine. But maybe you could research what rituals might achieve that effect.”
“I’ll get on that as soon as we’ve finished here,” he said with a nod. “I can’t scout as I did in Laredo, so that’s right out. But I can relay messages. Today”—he hesitated, ducking his head—“I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”
A flicker of pleasure washed over me. “I am. Just a bit bruised. By the way, could you call Chuch and let him know we’re fine? He’ll pass the word to Saldana, who’s riding to the rescue like a white knight.”
“Must be nice,” Booke muttered.
I raised a brow. “What?”
“Getting to play the hero.”
“Well, he hasn’t done anything yet,” I said. “He might just make things worse.”
But he wasn’t looking for sympathy. By his expression, his agile mind had already moved on to something else. “You mentioned a strange residue.”
“From the bed-and-breakfast. We figure it’s a component, but we don’t know what it is or whether it’s used in a baneful or beneficial spell.”
“I wish I had a sample.
know,” he added without false modesty.
“There’s no FedEx here,” I grumbled, “and it would take forever in the mail, assuming they’d even send it out.”