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Authors: Ann Aguirre

Hell Fire (6 page)

BOOK: Hell Fire
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“Lunch is ready,” she said. “I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss it. I made a lovely pot roast with potatoes and carrots. Peach pie for dessert.”
Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled, but no lightning flashed afterward. To me it sounded like a portent of things to come.
“Thank you, but we have an engagement,” I returned as politely as I could manage.
Something flickered behind her pale blue eyes. “An engagement? I didn’t realize you knew anyone in Kilmer. I took you for tourists, not that we get many these days.”
I dodged her question. “Why is that?”
She made a vague gesture. “Oh, you know. People just bypass the town, since the highway doesn’t run by here.”
“What made you open a bed-and-breakfast?” Offense seemed like the best defense. If I questioned her all the way to the foyer, she wouldn’t be able to do the same. Chance walked ahead, apparently trusting me to deal with the situation. I had to admit; I liked the sensation.
“It was always here,” Sandra said. “My husband’s maternal grandmother used to run the place. Jensen’s Boardinghouse, she called it. We just updated the look and changed things a little when we took over.”
We reached the stairs and I let her pass. I didn’t want her thinking too hard about why I had both my backpack and my purse; nor did I want her getting a glimpse of Butch.
“How did you wind up in Kilmer?”
Sandra cut me a surprised look. “Why, I’ve always lived here. Before I married Jim, I was Sandy Prentice.”
Said as if the name means something to me.
I tried to appear suitably impressed.
“Nice.”
Her expression morphed into a tight-lipped courtesy that said
I just knew you weren’t from around here.
Good for me.
“Reverend Prentice is my father,” she went on, “and the minister at the Methodist church.”
The same one Miss Minnie always tried to drag me to? No wonder I didn’t recognize Sandra. I never went inside churches if I could help it. The whole witch’s daughter thing made me uncomfortable.
As I cast about for something to say, Chance put in, “Well, no wonder you have such a knack for setting people at home. As a preacher’s daughter, you must’ve helped host a lot of get-togethers.”
Sandra flushed, obviously delighted. I struggled not to snort.
“Yes, I
did
help my father when he’d have the deacons over to Saturday breakfast. And aren’t you a sweet thing to notice?” Her newscaster accent finally stressed and broke, giving way to a drawl as she flirted.
“I could hardly help it.”
“I hope you’ll stop by the dining room and meet Jim and Shannon before you leave. That way you won’t be disturbed if you run across them at odd hours.”
Now why would she put it like that?
“We’d love to,” Chance told Sandra.
His palm settled into the small of my back, nudging me toward the dining room. I could only assume he wanted to get a look at her family. I didn’t remember Jim Cheney, but if he was Sandra’s age, they would’ve been well out of school before I got there.
To my surprise, the dining room table was set for a meal, laid with fine china and good crystal. The food had obviously been prepared with painstaking care, but there wasn’t a chance in hell we’d eat it. In fact, I wished we hadn’t eaten breakfast.
A man with dark hair and silver at his temples sat in a wine velvet wingback chair, staring at his hands. His worn chambray shirt and slightly stained jeans clashed with the pristine, if slightly fussy, décor. He seemed miles away, or maybe he just wanted to be.
“You must be Jim,” I said, forcing a smile. “You have a lovely place here.”
His head came up, revealing haunted, gunmetal gray eyes. “That’s all Sandra’s doing,” he answered. “I just keep things from falling apart. But thank you.”
Maybe I was just overly attuned to nuances and searching for weirdness, but this family offered it in spades. Oddly, the daughter provided a much-needed link to normalcy.
Shannon wore her hair dyed black, tipped in electric blue. She was skinny, swathed in black clothing, and she had a ring in her nose. When her mom made the introduction, she scowled at us. I’d never been so happy to see a punk-Goth kid with a bad attitude. Based on what we’d glimpsed thus far, I’d feared Kilmer was permanently stuck in 1962.
“Mind your manners,” Sandra snapped. “And be polite to our guests or I’ll take away that iPod your uncle Kenneth sent you.”
The kid mumbled something, and then said grudgingly, “I’m pleased to meet you.”
She offered her hand, and when I shook it, we threw a tiny blue spark. Shannon frowned as she drew back, rubbing her fingers as if she suspected me of shocking her on purpose.
Interesting. Very, very interesting.
I didn’t know yet what I intended to do with the information, but Shannon was Gifted.
“That’s better,” Sandra said with an approving smile. Something about her put me in mind of
The Stepford Wives
.
Jim said nothing at all. He’d returned to staring, although now he gave the impression of gazing out into the rain and wishing himself a thousand miles away. His misery felt tangible as an extra presence.
Well, I’d had enough. “Enjoy your lunch. It looks delicious.”
“I’m a vegetarian,” Shannon snapped.
Of course she was—probably Wiccan too, and possibly a lesbian as well; anything she figured would get her mom good and riled. She might have been the one sneaking around, practicing faux spells as part of her teenage rebellion. Maybe she thought if she ran off all the guests, she wouldn’t have to clean the rooms. Maybe that incident in the bathroom was nothing to worry about at all.
And maybe I was Miss Universe.
Between the daughter’s rebellious scowl and the husband’s quiet despair, I felt sure there was something wrong in this house. Whether it had anything to do with my mother’s death remained to be seen.
Shannon watched us go. Chance waved as he went, and I followed him out. I didn’t say I’d see them later because I knew that, unless something went heinously wrong, we wouldn’t be back.
The way our luck had been running, I figured we’d probably return before dinnertime.
Gone Fishing
 
 
 
 
Butch was none too pleased at going back out into the rain.
I couldn’t say the notion pleased me mightily, either, but something was wrong at the Kilmer Inn. I didn’t know where we’d get lunch or where we’d stay, but it seemed like it was time to start knocking on doors. Much as I loathed the idea of seeing all my foster parents again, I couldn’t think of anywhere else to start.
“Head for that filling station,” I said, pointing at a run-down building on the right.
It wasn’t a chain, either. A faded sign read CHUCK’S GAS-N-GO. Near as I could tell, there were no chains at all in Kilmer. I couldn’t remember if there ever had been, come to think of it. My memories of the place, apart from ones about my mama, seemed odd and fuzzy.
While Chance topped off the tank, I lowered my head and dashed for the dirty white building. Rain pelted me, trickling down my neck to the small of my back. I went up a cement step into the office. To the right stood an attached garage with two repair bays. A guy in a filthy coverall came through the connecting door, wiping his hands on a rag.
“Something I can do for you?” He touched the brim of his yellow cap, but I wasn’t sure whether he meant it as a courtesy or if he was just wiping his fingers some more.
My gaze went to the soft drink cooler on the left. “Just need a couple of these.” I snagged two cans at random. “And to pay for gas, whenever he gets done.”
The guy nodded, folding his arms across a spindly chest. He sported a fierce red hickey on his neck. He preened a little when my gaze lingered on it.
Yeah, buddy, you’re getting some. We’re all proud of you.
I then noticed that the station lacked a console to tell him how much gas was being pumped, and the cash register didn’t have a place to scan a credit card, either. Behind the register, I spied an old sliding imprinter. Holy crap, they still used paper and carbons here.
“Looks like he’s set,” the guy said. “I’ll just check how much.”
The attendant stepped out into the weather like it didn’t bother him, though maybe he reckoned a drenching as good as a shower. It sure couldn’t do his coverall any harm. I stared out over the cracked cement into the storm; rain fell in sheets spattering in rhythmic bursts driven by the wind. Beyond the gas station, no cars passed at all, the road an empty gray ribbon that threaded through town.
I reached across the counter and snagged the directory sitting next to the phone, and then I rummaged through my bag, looking for a pad and paper. If nothing else, I remembered their names. There had been ten of them. I never stayed in one home more than a year after my mother died, and the quality of my foster parents had declined as the social worker lost patience. As I recalled, she was less interested in the quality of my placement than checking me off a to-do list. Unlike most small towns, Kilmer had its own branch of social services, independent from the county. That had never struck me as odd before now.
The cashier came back in while I was writing and named a sum for the sodas and gas. Absently, I paid the amount, still flipping through the phone book. It took me another five minutes to finish the job. As I closed the cover, I noticed it was printed locally by the same company that owned the newspaper. I tapped the front thoughtfully.
“Who’s in charge of Paragon Publishing?” I asked, not expecting him to answer.
“Well, I reckon that’d be Augustus England. Did you want to put an ad in the paper? You don’t need to talk to him, if you do. He’s got an office assistant.”
I tried to imagine a publishing empire being run by one guy and an office assistant. Clearly that would only work in Kilmer. On impulse, I checked for a personal address for Mr. England and found him unlisted.
Well, of course.
I probably wouldn’t find a single town councilman in the book.
I did scrawl the address of the business offices for Paragon Publishing, however. The town reporters might know something about the weird stuff going on. At least, they always seemed to in movies . . . right before they died horribly as a result of their meddling ways. With a smile, I slid the directory back over the counter and stepped out into the rain.
I dashed for the Mustang, where Chance sat waiting in the driver’s seat. His smile twanged my heartstrings as I hopped in. “Get the addresses?”
“Yep. This would be easier if we could map them online,” I said. “Some of these are out in the country, so I suspect this is going to be a long day.”
He sighed. “Then let’s start with the ones here in town. Maybe the rain will let up.”
I surveyed the list.
The third address on the list belonged to Glen and Ruth Farley. I’d stayed on their farm for about nine months. They worked me hard over the summer, but I had no complaints. They’d let me be, otherwise, which was more than could be said for some. It looked liked they’d sold off their acreage, though, and moved into town. I tapped the paper.
“This one isn’t too far. They’re over on Twelfth Street now.”
Chance acknowledged that with a nod and made a left. He’d already learned the layout, and within five minutes, we pulled up outside a small brick house. A black wrought-iron fence separated the yard from the sidewalk. It was identical to its neighbors in every respect, except for the statues on the front lawn. I thought it odd to see a full Nativity scene out already, before Thanksgiving. Lights twined around the rustic wooden frame, twinkling in a weirdly festive cascade of white, gold, red, and green. They cast fey shadows over the wet brown blades of grass.
“Shall we?” He arched a brow at me, lips quirking into a wry half smile.
I had no idea what I was going to say when we got to the front door. Butch gave a little woof of disapproval at being dragged out again. If we had a safe place to leave him, I would have, but since
we
were the reason he’d been orphaned, I didn’t want anything to happen to him.
Chance didn’t wait for me to muster my nerve. He opened the screen, and then rapped on the door, as if he had everything figured out. I guessed our tack depended on whether they recognized me. With the red hair, I didn’t know whether they would, although Miss Minnie had said she knew me by my eyes.
After a minute, something rattled and the door swung open slowly, like monsters might lurk on our side. A small woman with faded gray and brown hair peered at me around the crack between the door and chain. Her gaze flicked nervously to Chance. “I’m not interested,” she said, “whatever you’re selling.”
She started to slam the door, but I caught it with my palm. It would have to be the truth, or some close facsimile thereof. “Miz Ruth, it’s Corine. Solomon? May we come in for a minute?”
“I declare,” she exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age, girl. Look at you with that wicked red hair. Come in, do come on in, and get out of the wet.” With that, she unhooked the chain, but I noticed she gave the empty street a long, hard look before stepping back to let us in.
I murmured something noncommittal. Chance gave me a look as we followed her into the parlor, furnished in country blue with lots of homemade throw pillows. Her furniture had big fat cabbage roses, and the arms were threadbare. She’d tried to cover that with lace doilies, but as I sat down, I saw the loose threads through the holes in the lace.
The carpet was worn and yellow; I could see the paths where she had walked in the years they’d been living there. Most people would lay down runners to prevent that, but I found it comforting to see evidence of passage. Someone, probably Miz Ruth, had hung cross-stitch on the wall. I read the messages with disquiet: BLESS THIS HOUSE and SAVE US FROM THE TIME OF TRIAL and DELIVER US FROM EVIL. I recognized the latter from the Lord’s Prayer, but I found it ominous she would have excerpted those lines and nothing more.
BOOK: Hell Fire
13.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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