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Authors: Ann Aguirre

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BOOK: Hell Fire
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Chance sat beside me on the love seat while she perched opposite us in what was probably her husband’s recliner. It was plain blue velour or velveteen, whatever they called that fabric, and it had scuff marks on the bottom. She didn’t pop the footrest up, though she did look tired—or maybe worn would be the better word. Miz Ruth couldn’t be more than fifty-five, but she looked ten years older. Purple bruises cradled her eyes, the kind that only came from many, many sleepless nights.
Miz Ruth folded her hands in her lap, as if stilling her nerves with conscious effort. “So what brings you back? It’s been ages now, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I acknowledged with a nod. “Nine years, to be exact.” I didn’t know what I was going to say until it came out in a rush. “Well, I reckon I wanted to show Chance where I grew up. Introduce him to the people who raised me.”
That was inspired. They’d had years to forget how much I freaked them out.
Her expression softened. “Well, if that isn’t the sweetest thing.” Miz Ruth turned to him with a smile. “You must be Corine’s young man. It’s a pleasure to meet you . . . Chance, is it?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He stood up to shake her hand, earning an approving nod.
“Well, I’m Miz Ruth. We had Corine, when she was, oh, fourteen or so, I guess. She was a great help around the farm, particularly with the animals.”
I correctly interpreted his look.
Yes, I
do
know how to milk a cow. No, I won’t be doing it again any time soon.
The older woman probably didn’t even remember why they’d called the social worker and had me reassigned. But I did. I’d touched a gun and experienced a hunting accident that scared the bejesus out of both me
and
them. My inexplicable burns frightened them the most, making them think, as most decent, God-fearing folk did, that my powers must be infernal in origin. I curled my hands in my lap, not wanting to remind her.
“I bet she was,” Chance said with an especially winning smile. “I don’t suppose you remember any stories to embarrass her with. She’s met
my
mother more than once, but—”
“Oh, I’m sure I can come up with something.” Miz Ruth blushed girlishly. She probably thought I’d told him she had been like a mama to me. If she felt flattered by the notion, well, that was all right; better if we softened her up so she wanted to talk.
And
Lord
, could she talk. She told a good ten stories about me, half of which I was pretty sure weren’t true. She just didn’t want to disappoint Chance, I suspect. He listened with every appearance of fascination, leaning forward so he didn’t miss a word. Miz Ruth probably hadn’t held a handsome man’s attention this long in years. I sat quiet, understanding he was gaining her confidence, so I could work around to my questions. Those would be hard and horrible, and they’d go better if they felt like normal curiosity over the course of a friendly visit instead of the inquisition I wanted to invoke.
She broke off at last to say, “Whew, I’m parched. Have y’all eaten? I have chicken and dumplin’s left from last night. I could heat some up in a jiff.”
As if summoned, Butch poked his head out of the top of my bag. He yapped, letting us know he could eat. I hoped Miz Ruth wasn’t allergic or afraid of Chihuahuas.
“Sorry,” I started to say.
“What a darling animal!” She came over to pet him on the head.
Butch consented to her attentions with great dignity. Then he leaped down from my purse and trotted around, sniffing here and there. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “He’s house-trained. He just wants to explore a little.”
“That’s just fine. He might even smell the cat,” Miz Ruth said. “He’s been gone a year, but . . .” She shrugged.
“I’m sorry to hear that. What happened to him?” I wondered if pets had been disappearing. After all, that Doberman on the road into town had to belong to someone.
“You know, I have no idea.” She spoke over her shoulder, and we followed her into the kitchen, done in faded yellow and white gingham. “One morning, he just didn’t come home. I’d let him out of a night, and usually he’d show up like clockwork at six a.m., crying for his breakfast.”
I grinned. “Isn’t that just like a man?”
She laughed softly as she got out a pan. “Oh, I’m sure your Chance has good reason to stay in, so they’re not all like that.”
“Thank you.” He favored her with another warm smile, and I swore she almost melted into syrup on the floor.
Butch trotted in and curled up at my feet; his calmness actually reassured me. He had a solid track record for sensing danger, knowing when to panic, and when to take a nap. Miz Ruth hummed as she whipped up the noon meal, chatting about this and that. She seemed to have taken heart from our presence, which made me wonder what was wrong, and where her husband was.
We sat at the kitchen table, a genuine antique I valued at nearly a thousand dollars. You didn’t see woodwork much like this anymore. She didn’t even have a tablecloth on it—just woven placemats. The pawnshop owner in me wanted to make her a lowball offer. I stroked my fingertips across the burnished wood and let the images come.
If I didn’t block them, every item I touched would singe my skin and whisper to me about what had happened to it. This time, I was curious enough to risk the gentle burn, but I saw only a pale collage of meals, first with Ruth and Glen, and then Ruth, all by herself. Then I glimpsed a woman in Phoenix who wanted a table like this more than anything, and she’d pay a ridiculous price for it too. When the images flickered out, I was grateful they hadn’t delivered a scene of heel-banging sex. It would be hard to sit and eat chicken and dumplings after that, but I’d manage. Of all my foster mothers, Miz Ruth had been the best cook.
Since I didn’t want to upset her before she fed us, I sat quietly, letting Chance charm her. The warm and homey aroma wafted from her cook pot, better than a big country hug. I could use a little comfort; that was for sure.
After lunch, it might get ugly.
Catch of the Day
 
 
 
 
I thoroughly enjoyed the chicken and dumplings. Southern women knew how to cook them from scratch, and I hadn’t eaten any this good in years. Miz Ruth was kind enough to offer a little plate to Butch, who looked properly appreciative. He gave her the
happy
bark and wagged his tail as he dug in.
We declined the offer of leftover brown Betty but accepted some fresh coffee. She made it fancy for us with ground chicory and cinnamon, and it made me homesick for a place that had burnt to the ground years ago. I remembered sitting with my mama on the front porch, that wondrous smell wafting up from her cup. We’d watch the sunrise together over the trees, sharing the colors slipping from pearly to passionate to happy-summer blue. Birdsong, trilling wrens and finches, filled the air at the birth of the new day. We didn’t need to talk; we had the call of the meadowlark and mockingbird to keep us company.
At full light, my mama would head to the kitchen and start breakfast. Afterward, we would prowl the woods or work in the garden. Sometimes we’d take her battered old Duster to town to do a little shopping, but mostly we kept to ourselves. We always had a parade of visitors: hurly-burly men, peddlers, Gypsies, witches, and one man who told me he was a king in hiding. I always thought he was funning me, but now I had to wonder.
While I was woolgathering, Miz Ruth had laid out a plate of cookies. She seemed inclined to linger. She nibbled at a sugar cookie with the air of someone who was indulging a habit more than a desire; in the South, dinner wasn’t over until people had coffee and a taste of something sweet.
And maybe she didn’t have anything better to do today. I wished we could afford to sit and be social, but we had nine more houses to hit. I started looking for a segue.
It came in the form of her husband, Glen. She had danced around the subject of his absence, casting looks back to the easy chair that still bore an imprint of his behind. At first I thought he must be running errands, but when she said, “It hasn’t been easy with him gone,” I knew he wasn’t coming back.
“What happened?” I asked gently.
“Don’t know,” she answered with an unhappy shrug. “He went hunting, maybe two weeks back, and just never came home.”
Like the cat.
Thankfully, I had the sense not to say it out loud.
“Did you file a missing persons report?” Chance asked.
Like that would do any good in this town, but Miz Ruth nodded. “The sheriff sent a deputy around when I called in. He wrote it all down in his notebook and said they’d have someone troll the woods, but nobody ever found anything.” Her tone said she was none too sure a search had ever been conducted.
The way I’d felt driving through the woods, I couldn’t imagine anybody being eager to go out and prowl around in them, so I figured she was right.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said sincerely. “You must miss him.”
She smiled, a touch of sadness in her eyes. “I do. But you know all about losing somebody, don’t you? And you just a child at the time.”
Perfect. I couldn’t have asked for a better opening, but I had to be careful or she might get suspicious. “What do you remember about that, Miz Ruth? Nobody told me much. Like you said, I was a kid, and people don’t tend to explain things to children.”
“Such a shame.” She shook her head. “There was a terrible fire,” she added for Chance’s benefit. “Your mama, God rest her soul, fell asleep with a lit cigarette. That’s what I heard, anyway.”
A lit torch, more like.
I set my jaw. Nobody knew I’d
seen
the men in our front yard, or I’d probably be dead too. When they realized I’d survived, I told them I sneaked out hours before to meet a boy in the woods behind the house. Even then, I had a strong sense of self-preservation, and I never felt safe in Kilmer after my mama died.
“My mother didn’t smoke,” I said with deliberate bite, knowing I shouldn’t contradict whatever story had been given out. “Never did. She was a vegetarian too.”
Worry stirred in Miz Ruth’s tired eyes. “I hope you don’t mean to go poking around, Corine. Stirring old ashes doesn’t do nothin’ but throw sparks, and it just might get the wrong people riled up.” It sounded more like a warning than a threat. I wondered if she’d bring up my mother’s home business selling potions and charms, but she just shook her head and sighed.
“Would you care to tell me who those folks are?”
“I’ve wasted enough time jawing,” she muttered. “I have to get to the washing up, and then there’s more housework. I hope you don’t mind seeing yourselves out.”
I had no choice but to scoop Butch off the floor and acquiesce with a nod. She knew something she wasn’t telling; I’d stake my life on it. And she was frightened, as well she might be. Her hands shook as she carried our coffee mugs to the sink, porcelain chattering in her grasp like gag teeth.
“I’m sorry for bothering you, ma’am.”
I think she knew then that everything before had been a pretext. She turned with a sharp look. “No, you’re not. You’ll poke around until—well.” Her shoulders slumped. “Maybe I’d do the same thing in your place, if I were younger and had somebody to help.” She glanced at Chance. “Please be careful, Corine. This town isn’t like you remember.”
Her words chilled me. Given my history, I didn’t recall Kilmer as the pinnacle of warmth and security. When we stepped out onto the porch, I saw the rain had abated some. Now it was no more than a miserable drizzle, misting my hair. I glanced over at Chance, who looked pensive.
“What do you think?” I asked.
He fell into step beside me as we descended the porch steps. At hitting the sidewalk my heels skidded on some wet leaves, and Chance steadied me, but he didn’t take the opportunity to sweep me against him. I appreciated his restraint; he wouldn’t pressure me about the relationship thing, which meant he’d learned something about me. Which made me want to throw myself into his arms—and by his maddening smile, he knew it too.
“Honestly?”
I nodded.
“It sounds like there’s a monster loose. Missing people and pets? That mauled dog? The whole town stinks of dark magick.”
“A monster,” I repeated. “Like something out of
Creature Feature
? That’s an awful lot of ground to cover.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass. As a hypothesis, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we’ve never come across anything quite like this place before, have we?”
“I meant the woods, you know, ground to cover? If there’s a monster in Kilmer, where else would it be?”
Chance slid me a look that said he wasn’t convinced.
Butch whined. “All right, already, I’m getting in the car.”
“My other guess would be a black coven,” Chance said after we’d slammed both doors. The rain pattered on the Mustang, lending credence to the impression we were safe from the world within its metal frame. I locked my door nonetheless.
A black coven.
That made more sense and might even offer a clue as to why they’d gone after my mother. The answer might be as simple as opposing hermetic traditions. That gave me no comfort, mind you, but at least it was comprehensible, when otherwise I’d only been dealing with intuition and ominous foreboding.
It didn’t help us put the pieces together, however.
Only legwork could do that.
By the time the dismal gray sky filled with the diffuse, muted rays that signaled sunset, we’d visited four houses. At the first two, nobody answered, and at the second two, they pretended not to recognize me (or
really
didn’t) and wouldn’t let us in. They had
all
been afraid. That offered a clue we would be fools to ignore.
Unfortunately, we had no place to stay for the night, unless we returned to the bed-and-breakfast, where somebody might try to kill us. That possibility wasn’t new, but usually I had some idea why. I suspected Sandra, if for no reason other than because she made my flesh crawl. Somebody in that house was making Jim miserable, and I didn’t think it was Shannon.
BOOK: Hell Fire
4.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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