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Authors: Ann Aguirre

Hell Fire (28 page)

BOOK: Hell Fire
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Jesse nodded. “Good to know. I didn’t think so, but these folks are to blame for your loss. I’m not sure what I’d do in your shoes.”
Most likely, he thought me kinder and gentler than I was. I didn’t dispel the ideal right then, but I was afraid he might be unpleasantly surprised if he took a good long look. Deep down, I suspected Jesse Saldana might be a much better person than me.
As we finished our lunch, a thought struck me. “How many people are on the town council?”
Shannon shrugged. “No idea.”
“Who’s the mayor?” I pushed away from the table and went to the fridge for bottled water. If we were doing this, we needed to be prepared.
“Reverend Prentice,” she said.
“Your grandfather.” It wasn’t a question. Chance leaned forward, finally seeming interested in the conversation.
Shannon looked embarrassed, hunching her shoulders. “Yeah, we’re what you call a ‘founding family.’ We can trace our line on my mother’s side all the way back to the people who first settled here.”
“That’s a long time,” Jesse said mildly.
Something about that revelation nagged at me, but we didn’t have time to pursue it. We needed to get into the woods before the day got any later. Jesse insisted we take a couple of back-packs stocked with crackers and water, just in case. Chance added a flashlight.
I changed into old jeans and a faded sweatshirt, layered that with a light jacket, and then put on battered sneakers. The others donned similar uniforms, and then we were ready. Butch trotted after us, so I paused.
“You want to come?”
The dog gave an affirmative yap.
“Promise not to run off this time?”
I swore he sighed. Then he barked once to confirm his good intentions. Before adopting this attitudinal Chihuahua with his lion-sized heart and spiked collar, I had no idea dogs could have so much personality. Half smiling, I picked him up and stepped outside to gaze at the nearby tangle of trees.
Though it was daylight, the forest cast long shadows. Spanish moss hung like spiderwebs, making the woods look even more foreboding. Scaly-bark cedar, white hickories, red maple, sycamore, sassafras, and black gum trees grew here. I’d come to know this wood too well the night my mother died. The hickories, maples, and sycamores guarded the perimeter, and as the terrain grew wetter, they gave way to bald cypress and giant tupelo, but if you found yourself that far in, you most likely wouldn’t find your way out again.
On most of the trees, the leaves had turned but not fallen. When the wind kicked up, it carried a desiccated rustle like dying things, and it made me think of the ghosts that whispered in Mr. McGee’s radio. The air was heavy with brine and a hint of threatening rain, like a fine static shock lifting your hair a whisper off your neck. It had been a wet November compared to what I remembered as typical. September and October were normally dry and sunny, as I recalled, true Indian summer.
That was very different from where I lived now. In Mexico, spring was the hottest time of the year. If you weren’t careful, you could run out of water with the city on rationing. I’d once needed to call a private water truck to refill my tank when I hadn’t noticed a slow drip from my outdoor tap. Then, when summertime—rainy season—rolled around, you could set your watch by afternoon storms. Sometimes hail pinged down on the passing cars, filling the air with the wet rush of tires and a peppery serenade. Like a listing iron rooster weather vane on top of a farmhouse, my memories of this place carried a tarnished patina of fear and darkness, making me more reluctant to do what I knew needed to be done.
Shit, I hoped I was brave enough for this. I could sense the thing’s sharpening prickle of attention, like it had been watching us the whole time, and now it knew something interesting was about to happen. I started to think better of this idea. I mean, the forest was huge, right? How did we think we could find anything at all in there?
Before I could drown in fear and doubt, the other three filed out, and we set off. Since he’d been there with me, Jesse led the way, Shannon and I walked in between, and Chance brought up the rear. I was pretty sure the guys had come up with that to try to protect us. I doubted it would work, but I appreciated the intent.
As we stepped into the trees, the air chilled markedly.
Behind me, Shannon shivered and pressed closer. “I haven’t been out here since last year.”
When that kid went missing.
She didn’t need to provide context; I understood her fear.
The trees loomed over us, bleak and skeletal. Like a lattice of graying bones, the limbs twined heavy overhead. Underfoot, fallen branches crackled as we walked. Ordinarily, silence didn’t bother me, but here, it did. There were no birds, no small animals nearby. I told myself it was just the season, but I drew the lapels of my jacket together nonetheless.
“Ideas on where to start?” Jesse asked.
I didn’t have any. None of our talents offered any help for this situation. Chance’s luck wasn’t working at all; Jesse might be able to find survivors; Shannon could only talk to the dead, if—
“We need to go back,” I said excitedly. “I have an idea.”
To my amazement, they didn’t ask, but just tromped back the way we came. They waited outside while I ran in. When I returned, I was carrying John McGee’s old radio. Shannon recoiled when she saw what I had, but Chance and Jesse looked intrigued.
“What did you have in mind?” Saldana asked as we retraced our steps.
“I was thinking maybe Shannon only had trouble with John McGee because they”—whoever
were—“knew we were trying to talk to him before he died. So they did a little afterlife damage control.”
Chance nodded to show he was following. “But to forbid her from communicating with all spirits around these parts would take a major working.”
“And I don’t think we’re up against that kind of magickal mojo. If we were, we’d be looking at sendings such as we had in Laredo, and so far, it’s been minor stuff. If there
a black coven here, I don’t think they have much juice.”
“That makes sense,” Jesse agreed, “and it fits the pattern.”
“What do you want me to do?” Shannon gazed at me wide-eyed, as if worried the trouble she’d had before would revisit itself on her.
That wasn’t good; she needed to face that fear, or she’d never get past it. Maybe these scary-ass woods weren’t the best place for it, but our enemies wouldn’t be able to target a spell if we kept moving; hence the big advantage to doing this on the fly.
“You knew Rob,” I said carefully. “There’s a good chance you can get in touch with him and maybe he can guide us to his body.”
Chance nodded. “That’s better than roaming around blindly.”
“But if you feel anything’s wrong, stop before it gets too tough, okay?”
She considered for a moment and then said, “I’ll give it a shot.” With some reluctance, she took the radio from me, flicked it on, and started messing with the tuning dial. Her eyes closed as she focused.
The antique radio crackled, hissing as she went point by point along spectral frequencies. Around us, the chill increased, eddying around us in currents that I imagined as spirits drawn to the power she exuded. Such unearthly cold could only come from a complete dearth of life. It reminded me of the shades that nearly drained me dry in Texas; I couldn’t repress a shiver.
“Cold—,” whispered a fuzzy voice through the old speakers. The person sounded young, frightened. “Shannon, I’m cold.”
The girl jerked as if she’d been struck. Hearing her name come through like that had to be unnerving. “He’s here with us,” she whispered. “Should I ask him?”
Christ, how was I supposed to mentor this girl? The dead were
my forte. I had to put her in touch with someone via the Area 51 message board as soon as I could. She needed help and training I simply couldn’t provide.
“Ask him where he is,” Chance said quietly.
There was no response, so I guessed the rest of us didn’t exist for him. One answer about how her ability worked, at least. I’d never met anyone who did what she did in exactly this way.
“Are you okay?” I asked, anxious. “No drain like when you called Mr. McGee?”
She shook her head. “It’s normal this time. Just weird because”—she shrugged—“I knew him. It’s . . . different.” But she braced herself for the next bit, likely knowing it would be difficult, and asked, “Do you know where you are, Rob?”
“I’m in the woods,” he answered at once.
Jesse whispered to me, “She’s a lodestone for them. It’s uncanny, isn’t it? I think they tune in to her just as she uses the radio to tune in to them.”
I agreed with a silent nod, letting Shannon work.
“You’ve been out here a long time,” she told him gently. “Can you show me exactly where? I’d like to bring you home. Your mom is worried.”
There was a long silence, and then: “I’m dead, aren’t I?”
How could he not know? I flinched, thinking he might freak out. But the girl merely replied, “Yeah. Sorry.”
Even through the old, tinny speakers, his answer sounded wistful. “I’m glad you made it out. I always liked you, Shannon.”
Her eyes looked so old in her small face. “I liked you too, Rob. I need you to lead me to where you died. Can you do that?”
“I—yeah. It’s a ways from here,” he told her.
“Just give me the directions,” she assured him. “We’ll get you out, I promise.”
Thus followed one of the most chilling hours I’ve ever experienced; two kids, one of them dead, communicating via a decrepit transistor radio, as we trekked through the tangle of trees. Sometimes we hacked away at the undergrowth in order to pass where Rob’s spirit said we must. I think Chance shared my latent fear we might be walking into a trap, but we kept pushing forward because I couldn’t think what else to do.
I had to trust in Shannon and her gift. It was damn hard, even for a believer like me. Now I knew how other people must feel when I presented them with some inexplicable truth from touching their father’s pocket watch.
The unnatural cold sank into my very bones, making my joints ache. Only the fingers of my right hand contained any heat, still burning from their immersion in the soil. Pain accompanied that warmth, of course, but everything had its price.
Gradually, the ground sloped downward, leading toward a deep gully. I knew what we’d find at the bottom, but we climbed down nonetheless. The radio popped and hissed, revealing Rob’s agitation as we grew closer.
Overhead, the trees grew tight overhead, giving the gorge a bizarre greenish hue reminiscent of corpse flesh. My companions looked sick and strange in the primeval half-light. I braced myself for the smell I associated with dead bodies, but I detected only the dank vegetation surrounding us.
“Here.” The distant voice crackled from the radio, telling us we’d reached our destination.
The rest would be up to us.
At first I didn’t find what we were looking for, as dead leaves littered the forest floor. Shannon knelt, then brushed away some of the desiccated kudzu shroud, and I saw the pallid glimmer of bone. The rest of us joined her in uncovering his final resting place.
A hush fell as we worked, different than the eerie stillness signifying the absence of all life. This silence felt reverent. I’d been wrong, though. We couldn’t tell how this kid died. Thanks to scavengers and insects, there was nothing left but his skeleton.
We backed off so Jesse could take a look. Among all of us, he had the most expertise. He spent a few moments studying the remains, and then glanced up with a regretful shake of his head.
“Based on his posture, I’d say the kid died from a fall,” he said, pointing to damage on the skull. “To me it looks like he dashed his head on the way down, but I’m just guessing. It would take someone more skilled than me to be sure.”
I exchanged a wry look with Jesse. The chances of Kilmer possessing a bona fide forensics expert were less than the possibility of my morphing into a six-foot supermodel. I hadn’t expected this, but I guess I should have. A year was a long time for a body to lie exposed.
“We could try asking him,” Chance offered.
Shannon didn’t look eager, but she said, “Rob, do you remember what happened? How you—”
“Died?” the spirit filled in. “I was running. Scared. That’s all I know.” The radio popped with his frustration.
“What now?” Shannon sounded anxious. “I promised we’d get him out.”
Would a blessing and a proper burial be enough to usher his spirit where it needed to go? I wished Chuch were here; he might know. I made a mental note to call him when we got back to the house.
“We will,” Chance said, reassuring her. “We just have to decide the best way to go about it.”
Saldana rummaged through his backpack, cursing beneath his breath. “I wish I had flags,” he muttered. “We need to mark the site somehow.”
“Was anyone paying attention to the route we took?” I asked.
“I was,” Jesse answered. “I can get us back here again. But maybe . . .” He pulled out his cell phone and tried about six different angles before pocketing it with a huff of disgust. “Nothing,” he growled. “What the hell is wrong with this place?”
I really wished I knew. Or rather, I knew
was wrong, but I wished I knew
It went without saying that Shannon couldn’t use her radio trick once we’d notified the authorities. The girl didn’t want to leave, but we had to get Sheriff Robinson out here somehow. We couldn’t scoop up the bones and deliver them to Rob’s family. With our reputation, that would be the last straw.
Shadows curled around my peripheral vision. My skin prickled with awareness of the otherness that chased Jesse and me all the way to the forest edge. It was here now.
Eager as I was to get out of these woods, I suspected that if we walked away now, Rob’s remains would disappear in a malicious game of hide-and-seek. There’d be nothing to show for the sheriff’s trouble, making him unlikely to believe us ever again. We might need his goodwill down the line. Of course, I could only gauge our moves by Jesse’s impression that Sheriff Robinson was scared, not a conspirator.
BOOK: Hell Fire
10.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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