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Authors: Ann Aguirre

Hell Fire (12 page)

BOOK: Hell Fire
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Excitement shivered through me. “They, who? I need names, Mr. McGee.”
But he seemed lost in a fit of dementia. “They thought I didn’t know. And I didn’t, not for a long while, but I heard it on the radio. I know. I know—” He began to choke, a hideous red froth burbling from his tobacco-stained lips.
Chance grabbed for the old man as he fell, and I ran, screaming, for the stairs. When I got back, Chance had given up on resuscitation. I stood there, trembling, soothing Butch with a touch to his head. He scented death in the air and gave a little whimper. I knew he wanted to leave. So did I.
The basement turned into a confused nightmare of agitated questions and implications of blame. Two young men from the funeral home arrived first, followed by the sheriff, and then the doctor. As they argued, Mr. McGee lay stretched out on the basement floor, dead as a doornail. He gave off a faint odor similar to the powder we’d found lining our doorway at the bed-and-breakfast.
Chance had the guy’s blood all over him. He’d done his level best to save him, but whatever got him had been inexorable.
The country doc knelt, gave a cursory look, and then pulled out a notepad. “John McGee, aged seventy-six. Apparently suffered a seizure, possibly stroke related. Time of death”—he checked his watch, an old-fashioned wind-up one—“one forty-five p.m.”
I could hear the librarian trying to keep order upstairs. Chance, the sheriff, and a couple of guys from the funeral home stood watching the doctor complete his rudimentary exam. To me, it looked like he just poked McGee here and there to make sure he was deceased.
There were no body bags here. While they wrapped him in a sheet, I edged closer to the worktable. Expecting to be caught at any moment, I edged McGee’s old cream and chrome radio into my bag. Butch yelped a little, which drew their attention back to me. It didn’t take much to look as though I were restraining loud, noisy sobs.
The sheriff put me in mind of a basset hound. Robinson had thinning brown hair, a weathered face with generous jowls, and a sizable gut on a short, spindly-limbed frame. Our chance of getting away without trouble seemed slim.
“Let’s go on up,” he said. “I’m going to need to ask y’all some questions.”
“Yes, sir.” I made my voice meek as I preceded him up the stairs.
We sat down at a library table near the back. They hadn’t yet taken us down to the courthouse, but I was pretty sure they would—in time. Chance told our story concisely, which was good, because I had a wiggly dog stashed between my knees and stolen goods hidden in my bag.
Robinson listened without comment, and then he turned to me. He couldn’t seem to grant Chance as much as a glance without going green around the gills. Admittedly, my ex did look a sight, blood-spattered as he was. “I’d like it in your words now, miss.”
In the background, I heard the librarian shooing towns-people away. She’d managed to get the doors locked after the man from the funeral home took the body away. Apparently they wouldn’t be calling a CSI unit to the scene. Imagine my surprise.
“We went down to visit with him.” That seemed nice and innocuous. “I lived here, years ago, and I’ve been paying respects to folks I knew back then.”
They could verify that part with Miz Ruth, at least. I hadn’t known Mr. McGee from Adam, but I didn’t see any point in advertising the fact. It wasn’t like the maintenance man could contradict me at this point, poor old soul.
“You’re from Kilmer?” The sheriff pushed up the brim of his hat, eyeing me with bloodshot eyes.
“Yes, sir.” I opened my eyes wide. Older Southern men were often suckers for respectful manners. Maybe it would work here, though cops generally hated me on sight—and the antipathy was mutual. But my twin plaits and lack of makeup probably made me look younger; another good thing.
“I need your name for the record, honey.”
Nothing like announcing yourself to your enemies, but I did wish it hadn’t killed Mr. McGee. After this, nobody would doubt who I was or what I wanted. Chance tensed, and his hand went to my knee, squeezing, silently begging me to lie.
I knew why. This was dangerous, dangling myself as bait. To his mind, I might as well rub sirloin on my bare ass and run around in the woods yelling,
Here I am.
“Corine Solomon,” I said deliberately, watching the sheriff’s face.
He wrote it down dutifully in his little notebook. “Sounds familiar.”
I let that go. If he didn’t know and did some digging, he’d find out soon enough. “I lived here until I was eighteen. Now I’m on vacation and catching up with folks I haven’t seen in a while. It’s such a pretty little town.”
Robinson practically glowed. “That’s surely true. You just don’t find places like Kilmer anymore.”
Not outside of hell, anyway.
My smile didn’t falter.
“I’m sorry if we broke the rules,” I said quietly. “Mr. McGee had told us to come see him anytime we liked.”
Also not true, but again, who would know?
“Did y’all talk about anything that might have upset him?” Robinson asked, clearly trying to be delicate.
I pretended to think about that. “No, sir. He was telling us about wanting to start a home repair business, when he started to choke. I got scared and ran for help. I think Chance tried to revive him, but he’s not a doctor or anything.” I sounded ridiculously guileless, but Robinson seemed to be buying it, lock, stock, and barrel.
“Well, I guess it’s not so unusual for an old gent like McGee to keel over. I’m sorry you had to see it.” He patted my forearm. I tried not to tense, but I was terrified he’d notice the scars on my palms and start looking closer at me in other regards.
“It was scary,” was all I could think to say. To my vast relief, he took his hand away and closed his notebook.
“Here’s how it’s going to have to be,” he told us. “The doc will check out old Mr. McGee down at the funeral home in the morning. I’m sure things happened just like you said, but just in case Doc finds evidence otherwise, I’m going to detain one of y’all overnight, just to make sure you don’t run off.” He offered a friendly smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes when he looked at Chance. “That would surely make fools of us, if y’all got away with murder.”
That was crap, but I knew Robinson didn’t have to be polite or reasonable about it. Here, the law operated however he wanted it to. Hell, even in big cities, they could hold a suspect for up to twenty-four hours for “questioning.” I wasn’t sure about these circumstances, but personal rights seemed to be shrinking all the time. I started to object, but Chance silenced me with a gesture.
“I don’t mind,” he said quietly. “In the interest of full cooperation, I can take a night in custody.”
As Sheriff Robinson led Chance away, I had a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Divide and conquer, right?
I wondered if either of us would last the night.
Lost Cause
I followed them to the courthouse, where they had a tiny jail in the basement, but it didn’t do any good.
“You can pick him up in the morning,” the sheriff said with a jovial smile. “Once I’ve heard from the doc. Don’t fret, miss. We’ll take good care of him.”
I was
of that. I gave Chance a desperate look from across the room. He sat, quiet, on a cot. As if he felt the weight of my gaze, he glanced up from his clasped hands. “I’ll be fine,” he said, obviously trying to reassure me. “See you tomorrow, Corine.”
I wished I could’ve said something that would’ve made a difference. If his luck worked there, then I could believe he would be fine but, like the cell phones, so far it had only functioned in the library, which was closed to us for the duration of our stay. Edna had made it clear that if we came in again, she’d call the sheriff.
Dispirited, I turned and trudged back up to the street, where the Mustang sat at a metered spot. I got in and mangled the manual transmission as I drove out of town. My speed gradually accelerated. I’d lost track of time and thought I might find Jesse waiting for me, but there was no Forester parked in front when I arrived.
Butch hopped out of my purse and did a perimeter check. That meant peeing at various corners of the house, but he seemed calm enough when he returned. The weather was better than it had been, cool and temperate, but not rainy. I didn’t know how I’d like being out here after dark, but before night fell, I had work to do. It kept me from thinking.
With a lot of heaving and huffing, I managed to get all the supplies up on the porch. I had no idea how I was going to get all the herbs mixed and then poured around the foundation of the house. Chuch used a wheelbarrow. I’d never done wards by myself before. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what ratio to use. I couldn’t call anyone to ask, either.
I’d never felt more alone in my life.
Trying not to think about Chance, I unloaded the staples we’d purchased: coffee, tea, sugar, instant milk, raisins, peanut butter, jelly, rice, bread, and a bag of apples. I assumed we could survive for a good long while on this kind of thing. In fact, I remembered my mother making rice pudding out of sugar, rice, raisins, and instant milk. I stashed our groceries in the cupboard, where I found unexpected bounty, a tin of unopened powdered eggs.
I topped off Butch’s food and freshened up his water, then stood staring out the window above the kitchen sink for a moment. Oddly enough, I felt safer in a house where the walls bled berry juice, close to woods that used to terrify me. My dread had solidified, and what I needed to fear lay inside the town borders, not out here. These . . . were just trees, however skeletal and imposing.
I explored the house, looking for a big bin of some kind. Butch trotted along behind me, not seeming to want to let me out of his sight. I couldn’t blame him. He’d whined all the way back to the house, trying to tell me we were a human short. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything about it.
“I’ll have to check the attic,” I told him.
He yapped twice, disagreeing. I guess he thought we should get back in the Mustang, get Chance, and blow this creepy town. For a dog, he had good instincts.
After some searching, I found the pull cord and tugged the stairs down in a puff of dust. I stared up into the dark, slanted maw, and then gathered my courage. I climbed slowly, hands on the upper steps, until my head and shoulders emerged into the eerie twilight created by the triangular slatted window.
My imagination too easily created a scenario where a madwoman was locked up there. I felt loath to enter, mainly because the space seemed to be unfinished, boards laid in a lattice across visible insulation. Even at the best of times, I didn’t qualify as coordinated.
Still, the house wasn’t going to ward itself, so I inched up the ladder and onto the first plank. It bucked under my feet, and I let out a yelp that would do the dog credit. As I windmilled my arms, I imagined myself splattered at the bottom of the ladder. That didn’t help, so I skip-hopped forward three paces, and my weight distribution steadied the board.
That was key to walking around up there, sort of like being on a balance beam, except I couldn’t step on the ends. As long as I kept to the middle, it seemed sturdy enough. There was a fair amount of junk up there, most of it worthless. I bypassed a chest full of old clothes and a dressmaker’s dummy, shoved up against the wall.
I couldn’t help my fascination with that triangular window, so I shuffled over to look at the slats nailed across it, definitely not storm shutters. But then, I’d known that, even from out front. A tiny shriek escaped me when I realized what I was seeing.
Scratch marks on the white paint, rusty streaks. Someone had clawed at these, desperate to escape. Someone had been imprisoned.
I shouldn’t. It wouldn’t give me any peace, yet I found myself unable to resist touching my fingers to the scars. I screamed.
Pain subsumed me, and in a fiery rush, the world melted.
She’s not more than twelve or a tiny thirteen, a child, really. Her dark hair hangs lank around her sallow face, all eyes and jutting bone. She’s starving, eating insects to supplement the bread and water. She knows pain, grief, and in-comprehension. They think she’s mad. They won’t listen to what she knows is true. They say she’s demon touched.
She scratches at these boards, day after day. One day, she will break free. One day, she will fly. Then she turns from the window, and—
I lost her. I didn’t know what became of her. Nothing else I touched yielded a flicker of charge; nothing else had absorbed enough of her energy. I felt sick, shaken. The weight of conspiracy seemed too much for me to bear; this town had a hundred years of them, not just what happened to my mother. I envisioned them as blood soaked into the red Georgia dirt, bones buried beneath the stones that paved the streets.
I staggered, hardly remembering why I’d come up. At last I spied a galvanized metal tub, probably used for laundry a hundred years ago. Butch barked somewhere in the distance. I called, “Heads up!” before letting go. The tub clanged when it hit the floor, but I didn’t hear anything else.
The house sat weirdly still and silent, waiting, as I came down the ladder. I felt like I was no longer alone, and yet, conversely, Butch had stopped barking. I didn’t know where he’d gone.
Did I leave the door open?
Tub forgotten, I pressed my back to the wall and inched my way along toward the parlor. I found nothing so convenient as a candlestick to use as a weapon. Whatever waited for me out there, I’d have to face it bare-handed. I heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked.
Then I went boneless as a familiar voice said, “Come out where I can see you. Slowly. I have a weapon. I will not hesitate to use it.”
“Jesse?” I breathed.
“Corine?” He stepped around the corner, and he seemed to slump a little in relief. Nothing like fearing for someone’s safety to make a man forget he was mad. After the mess I’d left him in Laredo—a dead partner and a field full of bodies used in necromantic magick—it was a wonder he would come looking for me at all.
BOOK: Hell Fire
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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