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Authors: Ann Aguirre

Hell Fire (26 page)

BOOK: Hell Fire
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“Did someone attack you?” Chance demanded.
I shook my head slowly to make sure that much was clear. There would be no point in Shannon stopping the SUV so they could comb the area for someone long gone days before. Concentrating, I mimed writing.
Chance got it right away. He delved into Jesse’s glove box and found a pen and scrap of paper for me. I scrawled what I’d done, what I’d seen, and then passed it to my ex. His jaw tightened as he read, and he slanted a look over the seat that could’ve cut glass. Before he said a word, I could tell what he thought of my pushing my power.
“You’re out of your mind,” he bit out. “Are you
determined
to die here? Because I see you taking risk after risk and you don’t seem to—”
“Stop,” Jesse said quietly. “She’s been through enough at this point. She doesn’t need you yelling at her too.”
Chance’s eyes glittered like amber with ire frozen in their depths. “
Don’t
tell me what to do where Corine’s concerned.” He looked as if he would break Jesse’s fingers and pull them away from me by force.
“Every time I handle, it’s a risk.” I pushed the words through a raw throat. “I made the choice; I’ll live with the consequences.”
“Where to?” Shannon cut in, diffident.
I silently thanked her for the change in topic. I struggled off Jesse’s lap and belted myself with some difficulty into my own seat. My fingers stung like hell.
“I need a drink,” I told Shannon. “Strong enough to burn off the clouds. Is there a bar anywhere nearby?”
In answer, she cut right on the county road and headed toward town.
After a short drive, she pulled up outside a roadhouse that sat just outside the city limits, a little way past Ma’s Kitchen. No signs revealed the name of the establishment, but small orange neon lettering proclaimed CHEAP COLD BEER. That was probably enough for local clientele.
Refusing Jesse’s aid, I slid out of the SUV. I brushed myself off as best I could and then gave up, figuring people who hung around in bars this early deserved my dishevelment. My knees felt shaky for the first few steps, but I declined to take anybody’s arm. They would just argue I shouldn’t be drinking if I couldn’t walk straight
before
I started, and they would have a point.
Chance opened the door for me and I stepped in, squinting at the dim interior. There were no lights on at this hour, just the uncertain light filtering through dirty windows. The place was open for business, though, and decorated with liquor store paraphernalia. Beer signs and old advertisements littered the walls.
There was nobody at the bar, nobody in here at all. A guy in a dirty yellow ball cap paused in stocking the bar when we came in. Did they even
have
tequila here? Drowning in a sudden onslaught of homesickness, I wanted some.
This place was nothing like the warm, inviting cantinas at home. It wasn’t even as nice as Twilight in San Antonio. Still, my nerves needed steadying, and I could use something to numb the pain.
The proprietor tried on a smile, as if he hoped we were there to spend money and not just use the toilet or telephone. At a glance, the place didn’t seem to have one—a public phone, that is. A handwritten sign pointed toward the rest-rooms.
“What can I get you folks?” His voice boomed out, jocular and forced.
Shannon asked for a Coke.
Smart girl.
I hadn’t even thought of her being underage when I suggested this; I wasn’t used to hanging around kids. Chance and Jesse both requested beers, but Jesse said the can was fine for him.
“Hell Fire,” I said aloud, my voice low and husky as a phone-sex operator.
He blinked at me. “I reckon I have no idea what that is, but if you tell me how, I can mix it for you.”
“Equal parts tequila, vodka, Red Aftershock, and a dash of Tabasco. Mix well, pour over ice.”
Their drinks came quick. Mine he had to think about. “I got the tequila and vodka,” he muttered, more to himself than me. Cheap stuff it was too. He dumped some ice in a glass, anticipating success. I watched, feeling almost cheerful about his uncertainty. He finally glanced over at me. “I don’t have no Red Aftershock.”
“Cinnamon schnapps will do,” I said, easing down at the bar.
Something spicy might clear my head and burn away the confusion. If nothing else, I needed to hold a drink that reminded me of home, one that burned as it went down. I missed Mexico. Georgia had been my home once, but it wasn’t anymore.
After I told him what to substitute, it went quickly for him: tequila, vodka, cinnamon schnapps, a dash of hot sauce. With an expression that said
yuck
, he slid it my way. The bar-tender studied me as I drank the concoction, as if expecting smoke to rise from my mouth. But I was used to stronger stuff.
I was
made
of stronger stuff.
Bar None
 
 
 
 
“So does this place have a name?” I asked Stu, my new friend.
His name could’ve been short for Stuart, Studebaker, or Stupid, for all I knew. After two more Hell Fires, I no longer felt the pain in my throat or my fingers. I’m sure it was still there, but I was nicely numb. Not drunk, mind you—I could hold my liquor. After I left Chance, I’d spent a number of nights doing tequila shots and trying not to wonder whether I’d ever see him again.
“Not really,” he answered, wiping down the bar. “But
I
call it Bar None . . . ’cause it don’t really have a name, and I bar none from entering who got money. Get it? Bar none?” He laughed, slapping his palm on the counter.
I got it, so I smiled politely. Through my alcoholic buffer, I thought Stu had, perhaps, spent too much time in his own company, but then, something else struck me. He didn’t seem to suffer from the downtrodden, nervous fear that plagued everyone else in this godforsaken town. I wondered why.
Jesse and Chance were off at a table by the window, arguing. I didn’t know what about, and I didn’t care. Shannon sat next to me at the bar, nursing her Coke. Stu hadn’t asked her for ID and I had an idea he wouldn’t, as long as she didn’t try to order booze.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked him.
He smiled, pleased by my interest. The man had a seamed face and a couple of missing teeth, but he seemed happy, an emotion I hadn’t noticed a lot of in Kilmer. “About eight years, I guess.”
My interest perked up. So he’d arrived after I left. It might be helpful to get his perspective. “Have you noticed anything weird about this town?”
Stu snorted. “Better to ask what
ain’t
weird about it. People don’t drink much, and the ones that come out here do it sneaky, like they’re ashamed, even if they don’t get shit faced. Sorry, miss,” he added in an aside to Shannon. “Now what kind of sense does that make? There’s nothing wrong with having a drink now and again, is there?”
I certainly didn’t think so. “Not from where I’m sitting.”
He continued. “Not a single liquor store in town, either. It’s a weird place. I got lost off the highway, stumbled on this little place, and figured it would be a gold mine. No competition! So I scoped it out and bought this parcel of land. Had my brothers come in and help me put up the bar—it was a prefab kit—and once I got opened up, nothing. Crickets. I’m barely making enough to make it worth my while to stay open, but I don’t reckon I could even sell the land without taking a loss at this point.” He sighed a little.
“Did you have trouble getting permits or permission?” Shannon asked. It wasn’t a question you’d expect from an eighteen-year-old, but she wasn’t typical. She’d coped with a hell of a lot the last few days, and probably better than someone twice her age too.
“Might have,” Stu conceded. “But since I built here, I went through the McIntosh County zoning office instead of the Kilmer town council, and they’re easier to deal with. But they’re a little strange too. They kept asking how come I wanted to build a bar in the middle of nowhere. I’ll allow I could be closer to the square, but this ain’t no more than a mile outside town limits.”
I remembered Jesse had mentioned not being able to find Kilmer on a map, Booke telling us about the lack of information on the Internet, and the corresponding black smear in the astral. Stu’s story drove the point home; people as close as the county seat had forgotten this place existed. A shiver ran through me.
Shannon regarded me, wide-eyed. I thought it certain she’d put the pieces together too. When Stu went to wash the glasses from my first two Hell Fires, she whispered to me, “We’re truly forsaken, aren’t we?” She imbued the words with Old Testament weight, as if God himself had abandoned the town.

They
are,” I told her grimly. “Not us. Whatever happened here, we didn’t do it. In fact, we’re trying to fix it. So if there’s a right side, we’re firmly on it.”
By the way she smiled, she liked the idea of fighting evil, crusaders for truth and justice. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that after the first time it almost killed you, you lost your taste for it. I did, at least; she might be different. Unfortunately, sometimes you just had to keep pushing. I wasn’t the type to leave a job half done.
Stu came back to check on us. “Y’all want anything else?”
I shook my head, lofting my third drink. After slamming the first two, I’d nurse this one. “Who comes in here from town, anyway?”
He grinned at me. “Did you want a list? To tell their churchy friends on them?”
Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea.
“Sure,” I said. “I could have me some fun at the next potluck, couldn’t I?”
The owner gave a booming belly laugh. “You’re a tonic, you surely are.” Then he seemed to realize I meant it. Stu considered for a moment, no doubt debating on the wisdom of it. If they got chided by friends and family, it could hurt his business. With a shrug, he wrote down the names of his regulars on a cocktail napkin. I wasn’t a bit surprised to find Curtis Farrell and Dale Graham among them.
I pocketed the info with a smile. We’d use it to cause all manner of awkwardness at the church social on Saturday.
“Do you ever have trouble getting supplies out here?” My voice still sounded throaty.
Stu huffed. “Ever? Huh. I couldn’t get on anybody’s shipment list, no matter how many times I called. Stupid computers. I drive clear to the warehouse in Savannah to get my stuff. They load the truck for me, but I swear, if I’d known how much trouble this spot would turn out to be, I’d have taken my court settlement and moved to Mexico instead.”
“Funny you should say that,” I said, smiling.
I might have said more, but across the room, Jesse and Chance stood up and shook hands. I told myself I didn’t want to know what dispute they’d settled.
“You ladies ready to go?” Chance asked politely.
“Yep.” I left a healthy tip on the bar for Stu.
I was glad we’d come in. I felt a little sturdier. I wouldn’t advocate finding strength in a bottle every day, but sometimes there was no substitute for a good jolt. As an added bonus, we had information that might serve as leverage to get people to talk. Walking ahead with Chance, Shannon jangled the keys, cheerful in her role as designated driver.
“Learn anything?” Jesse fell into step with me as we left the bar.
I filled him in as we got into the backseat. In my mind’s eye, I saw Jesse’s expression as they shook hands, quiet and resigned. What the hell
had
Chance and he been talking about, anyway? If it had to do with me, didn’t I get a say? With a sigh, I checked myself. They’d likely just agreed to stop snapping at each other until we were done here.
Setting that aside, I pondered our next move. Little as I liked it, there was only one thing we could do before the potluck on Saturday: Return to the woods. So I offered the idea for consideration. Chance argued against it all the way back to the house. I knew what was bothering him; I had died out there. It seemed like testing fate to go back and give the forest a chance to finish me off.
Ignoring Chance’s objections, I took Butch from Shannon and let him out to run a bit. He’d been remarkably good and remarkably helpful the past few days, but he still needed some exercise. I stood on the porch, keeping a sharp eye on him. Jesse and Shannon went inside; she wanted to change his bandages, and since I felt no real affinity for the Florence Nightingale thing, I was happy to let her.
“What do you think you’re going to find out there?” Chance asked.
“Bodies.”
“How will that help us?” he demanded.
“We should be able to tell if they were killed by a human being. Or . . . not.” I didn’t elaborate; he’d sense the thing once we stepped into its domain. Frankly, the idea of doing that made me want to leave Kilmer for good, but I wouldn’t. We were too close to figuring things out.
“And if we have bodies, the authorities can’t ignore the problem any longer, or sweep it beneath the rug.”
I agreed with a nod. “A dead dog on the side of the road isn’t the same thing as a dead husband, so if we can, I’d like to find Glen, for Miz Ruth’s sake. She deserves to know, one way or another.”
“And that sheriff isn’t going to look for him,” Chance said in disgust.
Wonder of all wonders—I’d
managed
him. I didn’t even think he’d noticed my doing it. Instead of thinking about how it could hurt me, I’d presented him with alternative trains of thought with branching benefits. Now, to his mind, the pros outweighed the cons. Could I do that again?
Butch ran around the yard, sniffing, prancing, and eventually looking for the perfect place to do his business. Then he ran over to me and put his paw on my foot. I’d figured out that meant he wanted me to pick him up, so I did.
“There are a lot of people in town with missing loved ones. Consider Rob Walker’s family.” I named the kid from Shannon’s class who never made it out of the woods. “Who’s going to give them closure, if not us?”
BOOK: Hell Fire
3.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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