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Authors: Ann Aguirre

Hell Fire (4 page)

BOOK: Hell Fire
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“The library it is. Which way?”
“It used to be downtown, near the courthouse.”
It still was, a pale stone building set along the square. For the first time, I noticed it possessed a Gothic air, ornate stonework and bizarre symbols etched into the rock. Most people would call this Gothic Revival style, as it even had gargoyles on the roof. If I watched them too long, they might even have moved, and I didn’t want to see that. Chance parked, and I climbed out of the car.
The rest of the square was less dilapidated. Outlying regions had gone positively seedy, but here, the rectangular brick buildings were in pretty good shape. Too many of them sat empty, though, the small, striped awnings blowing over businesses that had closed or moved out of town. Faint gilt lettering had been half scraped away on some of the windows, so they said things such as AILOR and OOKSHOP. The death of a bookstore always made me sad.
In front of the courthouse, there was a Grecian-inspired lady carved out of marble; the folds of her robe were filthy now, stained with a combination of dirt and dead leaves. I knew she was supposed to be Themis, the goddess of justice. Many towns had a similar statue near the courthouse, but she was usually depicted with a sword in one hand and scales in the other. Maybe the sculptor knew something about Kilmer, because he’d depicted her sitting on a rock, sword slack, and the scales beside her. Maybe it was just my imagination, but she looked sad, frozen in that pose.
Everything smelled wet, and the air was heavy in my lungs. Water pooled on the small brown lawn out front, so we picked our way carefully up the path. Three steps led up to a glass door. A posted sign read OPEN, but I could only see our misty reflections; no lights within.
“Stay down,” I instructed Butch, who complied with a little huff.
It was weird and eerie, how little this place had changed. In some ways, Kilmer struck me as the town time forgot. There were no restaurant chains, no big stores, not even a single Micky D’s. Common sense offered “no money to be made” as the reason, but I wondered if there was more to it. The lack of modern touches seemed unnatural, creepy, rather than comforting.
small town offered the feeling of “I know where you live” instead of the security of recognizing all your neighbors.
A grungy gray runner waited for us just inside, so we wiped our feet and let our eyes adjust to the dim interior. Immediately to the left sat the checkout desk, where a gimlet-eyed librarian studied us with disapproval. I guessed she thought we should be at work.
Well, we were.
“Where’s the microfiche?” I asked.
The old woman’s mouth pursed as if I’d given her a persimmon to suck. Then I realized I’d done something worse—I hadn’t greeted her or rambled about the weather for ten minutes. “In the back. Are y’all wanting to look at something special?”
I could’ve made up some story about writing an article, but that would have made the rounds faster than some random woman poking around the periodicals. Sooner or later, people would start asking who I was and why we were here. I just wanted to put it off as long as possible.
“Just the daily paper to start, the back issues. Are those still in a file cabinet by the machine?”
Her eyes narrowed behind granny-framed glasses. “Have you been in before? Do I know you?”
Beckoning to Chance, I chose not to answer and wove my way through the stacks. I’d once spent a lot of time in here, reading old mysteries. She called after me. “Copies are ten cents and I don’t make change!”
“Nice,” Chance whispered. “I’m glad I let you do the talking. I’m sure
couldn’t have done any better.”
I waved a hand at him. “She’s too old for you to seduce with a few charming words and a killer smile. It wouldn’t have been worth the time.”
His smile widened into a cocky grin. “You might be surprised.”
“Aw, come on. Did you have to put
image in my head?”
“No. It was just fun. So what’re we looking for exactly?”
As I fired up the machine, I thought about that. “We need dates before we’ll get anything out of the local paper. So let’s start with the day my mom died.”
The winter solstice, December 21. Men had come in the night, bearing flaming brands. She’d shooed me out the back door and then gone to face them in her white nightgown, her hair streaming loose. All night long, while I crouched in the woods, I could smell the flames, curling up into the ink-dark sky.
And ever after, I’d smelled smoke in times of trouble.
“Good idea. We might turn up a pattern.” Chance sat down beside me while I pulled Butch out of my bag and set him on the floor.
“Not a peep,” I told the dog. “I know this sucks, but if we get kicked out because of you, before we find out anything, I’m totally tossing your bacon snacks.”
I thought he believed me, because he didn’t even yap in protest. Instead, he curled up and went to sleep. I guessed he wasn’t heavily invested in our research.
“Don’t most libraries have free public Internet?” Chance asked.
Following his gaze, I peered around the reference section. Yeah, they usually did. But this place looked like it had last been updated in 1967, and there was no PC terminal anywhere to be found. We’d done so much investigating on the Net over the years, I wasn’t sure how we’d function.
And then it hit me.
“Let’s call Booke. He can research the date and see if there’s anything unusual.” I had my doubts events in Kilmer would’ve made the bigger papers, but you never knew.
We’d met Booke through Chuch, although not in the strictest sense. I only knew him from online chats and telephone calls, but he’d proved invaluable in research matters before. I had his number programmed in because, as he lived in the UK, there were a lot of digits—too many for me to remember. After I hit the button on my cell, I waited for it to dial. It should have been early afternoon there. The phone rang four times before he picked up.
“Corine! How fantastic to hear from you.” He had a great voice, deep and plummy. “How are you? Did you make it to Georgia?”
I felt a little sheepish because I hadn’t called just to see how he was doing. Then again, he probably knew that. Still, I figured I’d respect the niceties. “I’m fine, and yes, we’re in Kilmer now. Long drive. How are you?”
He made a noncommittal noise, as if he’d rather not lie to me, but he didn’t want to burden me with his problems, either. “Glad to hear you’re safe. Can I help with something?”
“Possibly,” I said. “Would you mind doing a little research on Kilmer, Georgia? Let me know if you find anything interesting. I’ll call you back tomorrow to check in.”
Before he answered, I heard keys clicking. I guessed he must be wearing a headset or an earpiece. “Huh.” He sounded puzzled. “How do you spell the name of the town?”
I enunciated each letter, and then more keys clacked on his end. His keyboarding sounded very impressive. And how much of a dork was
for noticing?
“What’s the problem?” I asked when the silence became extended.
“Well . . . there’s
about Kilmer, Georgia,” he told me at last. “Nothing. I’ve checked six different search engines to be sure. They offer me Kilmer as a last name . . . and ask if I mean Kildare, and finally suggest a swine farm in Monticello, Indiana. According to the Internet, Kilmer doesn’t exist.”
“But I’m standing here in the public library,” I protested. “I grew up here.”
How was that even
in this day and age?
“I can’t address that. If you can give me latitude and longitude, I can try to scout the place. I’ll proceed as if it’s dangerous and get back to you.”
“Jesus,” I said, shaken. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Booke sounded worried. “Be careful, Corine. I don’t like the feel of this.”
“You and me both.”
Once I promised to call him in the morning, I rang off. He said he’d contact us if he learned anything we needed to know before then. I stared at the microfiche machine with equal blankness until Chance brought me out of it with a tap on the shoulder. I had to fight the urge to lean into his arms. I knew he wanted me to. Instead, I filled him in.
“Weirder and weirder.” Chance touched my cheek lightly, drawing my face up. “I suspect we’ve got a hell of a mess here.”
“No kidding.” I couldn’t imagine the scope of whatever had scrubbed all traces of Kilmer from the outside world. Maybe we should talk to Sandra Cheney and find out how she’d ended up here. She might be the last new blood the town had seen.
His fingers trailed down my jaw and curled around the nape of my neck, as if he meant to lean down and kiss me. Instead, his gaze fixed on mine, steady and reassuring. “I just want you to know I’m in, just like you were in Laredo, no matter how bad this gets.”
I smelled something burning.
Familiar Strangers
The light had shorted out in the microfiche machine, as if somebody didn’t want us reading the article written about my mother’s death. As discouragement went, the dead dog offered more punch. But I was probably reading more into a minor mechanical failure than it warranted. After all, it had probably been years since anyone had used this station at all.
So I wrote it off as an odd coincidence, though the librarian made such a big fuss about calling the maintenance man, you’d have thought he was flying in from New York instead of coming up the basement stairs. When Mr. McGee finally presented himself, I understood her concern a little better. With his long white handlebar mustache and unruly head of hair, he looked like a Civil War relic himself.
This repair could take a while. The librarian frowned at us and returned to her post at the front desk. Thank God she hadn’t noticed Butch napping in the chair beside me; that would have gotten us tossed out on our collective ears. I tried to block him with my body, but Mr. McGee said, without glancing up from his work, “I don’t care a bit about that little dog. He ain’t harmed nothin’.”
So he wasn’t quite as blind as he seemed. “Are there archives downstairs?”
“If you wanna call it that. We got some boxes of junk that don’t go nowhere else. Don’t let Edna see if you’re fixing to sneak down there. You’ll get her blood pressure up.”
I took that as tacit permission, and tucked Butch beneath my arm. He whined a little but had the sense not to make a big fuss. Chance followed me as we wove through the shelves, angling toward the door Mr. McGee had emerged from. In a small town like this, it wasn’t locked, so we headed downstairs unnoticed.
The basement smelled of dust and mildew. I wrinkled my nose; Butch sneezed. Old brown boxes sat piled on green industrial shelving. Numerical codes had been scribbled on the front, but I had no idea what they meant. I felt sure Dewey wouldn’t approve.
We each opened a box at random and prowled through the contents. It was worse than it appeared. Old deeds, marriage licenses, letters and diaries had all been tossed together without rhyme or reason. As far as I could tell, the numbers on the outside of the boxes seemed to indicate a range of years for the junk contained therein. If I cared about quantities of cotton ordered by the general store in 1887, I’d be in heaven.
The air felt heavy and still, not even a hint of ventilation. Noticing that made me pause and look at the walls. “Chance, how many feet of rock would you say lie between us and the street?”
He shrugged. “A lot. Why?”
“Seems to me it would take an awful lot of power to block you in here. Why don’t you try your luck again and see if there’s anything we can use?”
“Worth a shot.”
Chance focused. The room came alive with that raw static feel, as if we were mere moments away from a thunder-storm bursting to life around us. When his eyes opened, I saw tiny sparks of lightning. There was something deliciously elemental about him when he used his talent. I shivered a little, following him over to a metal filing cabinet shoved up against a wall.
He pulled out a manila folder with the initials
scrawled on the front in red ink. “This is it.”
is,” I muttered.
Chance flipped it open, looking dubious.
He’d found a bunch of random newspaper clippings. Most of the articles had yellowed with age, and they didn’t relate to any one subject, either.
I plucked out the top one and read aloud. “‘Highway Built Ten Miles West of Proposed Route; Town Council Irate.’” The next one was even less interesting: “ ‘No Cable for Kilmer.’” If we’d found someone’s secret research, I had no idea what they were doing, except maybe documenting how sad and boring this town was.
Maybe Chance’s gift just wasn’t working right.
He closed the folder with a snap. “We should just take the lot and read them later. We don’t want Edna to catch us down here.”
That seemed like a good idea, so I slipped the file into my bag. Butch went in on top of it, and then we headed back up the narrow, spiderweb-clogged stairs. My heart almost stopped when I ran into Mr. McGee. He steadied me with strong, gnarled hands, but his eyes looked weird and filmy in the half-light.
“She’s gone to the lavatory, young ’uns. Thinks y’all already left.” He sounded oddly urgent. “Don’t let her catch you messin’ around down here.”
His fervor took root in the form of dread. I had no idea what a withered old librarian could do to us, but if I’d learned anything over the years, appearances could be deceiving. We quick-stepped to the front door and out into a dismal, drizzling rain.
To my consternation, a woman I recognized met us on the way out. Miss Minnie had offered me a home after my mother died. I’d been happy there for a time. She respected my need to grieve, but she drew me back into daily life with irresistible requests for me to do this or that because she wasn’t as spry as she used to be.
BOOK: Hell Fire
7.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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