“If we’re going to be here a while—”
“Then we need a base of operations,” I finished.
The streets were eerily quiet. I didn’t even bother to look as I crossed toward the Mustang. Only Chance’s choked cry gave me any warning of the car bearing down on me. He dove for me, shoving me out of the way, and we rolled across slick, leafy pavement to collide with the Mustang’s solid tires. I could feel a huge, throbbing bruise on my shoulder where I’d hit, and there would probably be other marks as well.
It would’ve been considerably worse if the car had hit me.
Chance shoved me half under the Mustang, as if to protect me, and then bounded to his feet. From my vantage point on the ground, I saw him drop into a fighting stance, probably in case the car stopped and the driver tried to finish what he’d started. Instead, the vehicle fishtailed around the corner, squealing as he—or she—peeled out away from us.
I checked on Butch, who whimpered up at me. Overall, he seemed less frightened than me. The stupid dog probably trusted me to take care of him.
Chance helped me to my feet with gentle hands. I found myself shaking at the unexpectedness of it. No dark magick, no chill in the air—a pretty mundane murder attempt, when you came right down to it—and there was nothing to ward off, and nothing I could do to protect myself except pay better attention.
“It was an Olds Cutlass,” he said grimly. “Dark blue. Mud all over the plates. Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I managed to say. “Thanks. I guess word’s gotten around, and somebody isn’t happy.”
“Understatement.” As if he couldn’t help it, he wound his arms around me and rested his chin on my hair. His heat seared me through our damp clothes, the lines of his body strong, beautiful, and heart-wrenchingly familiar. “I don’t think my luck had anything to do with this, though.” He sounded hesitant, as if I might blame him for the latest close call. “It feels like it’s hardly working at all here.”
I thought about that and agreed. “Don’t worry, Chance. This one’s on me. If I hadn’t come back, the driver of that car wouldn’t have targeted me. Since I’m back here asking awkward questions after all these years, it means I know something about the night my mama died—and
have something to lose.”
“So do I,” he muttered, running a thumb down my cheek. “I guess it’s pointless to ask you to take the warning and go?”
I answered that with a look. He sighed, let go of me, and opened my car door. As I got into the Mustang, I swept the street with a final glance and noticed twitching curtains on five different houses. They’d seen the near hit-and-run, but nobody came out to see if I was all right. People either hated me a lot more than I’d remembered or they didn’t want to risk being on the streets after dark.
I didn’t think I’d made that many enemies as a kid.
Chance checked his watch as he put the car in gear. “So . . . we’ve had our daily dose of adrenaline. It’s not quite five yet, despite the weather. Let’s see if we can find a real estate agent on the square somewhere.”
I couldn’t remember seeing anything of the sort, but we drove downtown, keeping an eye peeled for anything remotely helpful. Most of the stores were closed already, or had never opened for the day. At ten minutes to the hour, I spotted a small white sign that read REGIS PROPERTY MANAGEMENT.
“That looks promising.”
As Chance parked in a metered spot, I glanced down. Yuck. We’d be hard-pressed to convince the real estate agent we weren’t vagrants, given my current state. While I tried to brush the worst of the dirty leaves off, he came around to open my door. Despite my determination to sort my feelings without letting him influence me, my heart gave a happy little jolt. He
I was a sucker for such courtly, old-school gestures.
Butch pawed at me from inside the bag. I knew what that meant, so I set him down near the drain beside the curb. He did his business, and then we went on into the office. No bell jingled to sound our entry, but a middle-aged woman sat at a pasteboard desk, writing a memo by hand. There was an old typewriter on the table on the wall to her left. Dreary landscape photos lined the walls, and brochures about property taxes lay scattered on the table.
All told, it was a typical front office . . . if you’d flashed back to 1963. The woman looked mildly annoyed to see us, as it was nearly closing time. She reminded me of a cow, although not in a bad way; she was just placid and well fed. A fake walnut plate in front of her appointment calendar read AGNES PETTIGREW.
“Did you have an appointment to see a house?” she decided to ask when it became clear we weren’t going away.
Chance shook his head. “We were hoping to talk to Mr. Regis about a rental. Are there any apartments or houses to let in town?”
She bestirred herself for him. All women did. “Let me check the books.”
“We have two properties that might qualify,” she told us after a moment. “And a couple of owners might be amenable to a long-term rent-to-buy program. They’re very motivated sellers.”
“Are they?” I asked, exchanging a look with Chance.
Desperate to get out of town, you might say.
Agnes took that as a polite rhetorical question. “But you’ll need to make an appointment. Mr. Regis can’t—”
“What can’t I do?” A booming voice came from the back room.
The door burst open, rebounding against the opposite wall, and the doorway filled with the largest man I’d ever seen in real life.
Destiny for Sale or Rent
Agnes stammered. I didn’t blame her. I wouldn’t have wanted to be caught trying to organize this man’s life for him, even if I did know best. But she didn’t look frightened; instead her gaze gobbled him up. As she stared up at him, her mouth went soft and she propped her chin in her hand.
Curious, I brushed her jacket with my fingertips. I didn’t expect much of a burn; there shouldn’t be any trauma associated with this object. The pain was slight, and the coat showed me that they usually walked out together. He made sure she got to her car safely each night, and he sometimes stood by the driver’s side, chatting to her, after he shut her door.
Wonder if he knows how much that means.
I could see her face tilted up toward him, reflected back in the rearview mirror, and these moments meant everything to her.
“You don’t have time to talk to these folks tonight, Phillip,” Miss Pettigrew said then. “They should schedule a proper appointment.”
And you won’t miss your nightly date.
The real estate agent dismissed her concerns with a wave of one meaty paw. “Go home, Agnes. I can talk to these folks without you hovering, so don’t worry. You won’t miss
Wheel of Fortune
. Lock up on your way out and flip the sign to ‘Closed.’ I can surely handle this myself.”
Her lips drooped as she gathered up her purse, but she didn’t waste any time in getting herself out the front door. She probably wanted to make it home before dark. I offered a pleasant wave, and she frowned before turning to hurry down the walk, head down in anticipation of a coming storm.
“Thanks for your help,” I said with a polite smile. He was the first normal person we’d met in Kilmer. He didn’t seem nervous or frightened—just eager to sell us something, which fit the real estate agent profile to a T. His face was broad as an iron skillet, pink skinned, and smooth. His eyes shone like blue stones, but with considerably more warmth.
“Not at all. I’m Phil Regis.” He shook my hand with a grasp that ground my knuckles a bit, and then he ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, sheepish, as if he constantly forgot his own strength.
Mr. Regis stepped back and waved us into his office, a good-sized space with a big cherry desk littered with pens and paperwork. The pictures in here were prettier than the ones in the waiting area, good watercolors that might be worth something. I’d need to look at the signatures before I could say for sure. Chance and I settled into padded vinyl chairs on the other side of the desk.
“Now then,” Regis said, “I heard something about y’all needing a rental. Are you newlyweds? Because I could probably get you a mortgage cheaper than you’d expect. It’s a buyer’s market, you know.” He gave a deep laugh that swelled his chest like a bellows.
Chance shook his head, though I don’t know whether he was disagreeing with the buyer’s market, the mortgage, or our being newlyweds. “We’re just vacationing in the area. I’d like to let for a month while we’re exploring all the historic sites nearby.”
“Huh,” said Regis. It was a thoughtful sound, not a doubtful one. “We don’t have much to rent, but I do manage a couple properties that might fit the bill.”
“The receptionist mentioned as much,” I said. “Can we take a look?”
“Sure, sure.” He stood, crossing past us into the waiting area. We heard him rummaging through Agnes’s desk; then he returned shortly with a black three-ring binder lofted in triumph. “She tries to hide it from me. Fool woman thinks I’ll put the pages out of order or something.” Regis shook his head, but I noted underlying fondness in his tone.
“She did seem protective,” Chance observed.
“And isn’t that a hoot?” Regis laughed. “She seems to think the world will come to an end if someone sees me without an appointment. It’s beneath my consequence, according to Agnes.”
“Thanks for seeing us,” I said again, hoping to nudge him back on track.
The real estate agent flipped through the binder, then tapped a white piece of paper with handwritten notes. I admired the penmanship, even upside down, and imagined Agnes deserved the credit. A picture had been stapled to the top of the listing. He spun the book so we could take a look.
“This farmhouse belonged to Mrs. Everett. She passed away, oh, a good three years ago. She had no kin, so I bought the property myself for a song. I intended to flip it—” At our blank looks, he explained, “Renovate, then sell on a mark-up. So far I’ve had no luck.”
“How come?” I asked.
“Superstitious idiots. Mrs. Everett passed away there. In her sleep,” the real estate agent hastened to add. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, but I can’t even get anybody out there to remodel the place. So other than having it dusted and aired out every few months, I haven’t been able to do anything with it. So it’s still mostly furnished.”
I wondered if it would still be full of old-lady smell, lavender, and Vicks VapoRub. I hoped her possessions didn’t clutter up the place as well. Old ladies were notorious pack rats, keeping boxes of rubbish nobody else could see a use for.
“Her personal things?”
“Gone,” Regis assured me. “I’m sure it just needs a good airing. Leave a window or two open, and you’d be just fine out there. I could lease the place to y’all for a month . . . and I’d be willing to go longer if you decide you want to stay. We could work out a rent-to-buy program, if you don’t have a down payment.” He sounded so hopeful; I didn’t have the heart to tell him there wasn’t a chance in hell of that happening.
Chance studied the picture with such concentration, I took another look: white house, windows on either side of the front door, and red steps leading up to a wraparound porch. Ten thin rectangular columns supported the roof over the porch. The downward slope gave the black tile roof a tiered but pointy look, like a witch’s hat.
All told, it appeared habitable enough, but I didn’t like the weird triangular window I assumed led to the attic or other unused space. Why else would it have been boarded up? But maybe those were just creepy storm shutters. I read the amenities with half attention: three bedrooms, bath and a half, bi-level with storm cellar and artesian well.
“What’s the other option?” Chance asked, as if he sensed my hesitance.
If Regis was disappointed we didn’t leap on the house immediately, he didn’t show it. Instead, he flipped through the binder some more and then turned it so we could see.
“This is a bachelor apartment, above what used to be an accounting business. But he left town, and I haven’t rented that space to anyone yet.”
From what I’d seen of Kilmer, he wasn’t likely to, either.
“Do you own that building too?”
“No, but I manage the property for August.”
For a moment, I thought he meant the month, and it was November. Then it hit me. Augustus England, publishing magnate.
“He runs the newspaper and prints up the town phone books, right?” The question spilled out before I thought better of it.
Regis’s gaze sharpened. I could tell he wanted to know why I knew that much about the town, if we were just tourists passing through. For the first time, I saw steel behind his bluff, friendly exterior. The very air in the office seemed to chill.
“We looked you up in the directory over at the filling station,” Chance said easily. “Corine has a head for trivia. I’m sure she read the information page, the credits, the emergency numbers, and who knows what else while she was looking for a real estate agent.”
I made my smile sheepish. “I read the copyright page in books too. I love finding out real names when authors write under a pseudonym.”
I hoped I looked properly guileless. I had the feeling he wouldn’t rent us anything if he knew we were here to poke around. Sure, he’d find out sooner or later. Such was the way of small towns, but once we had a contract, he couldn’t boot us out.
Regis seemed to relax. “Oh, my wife’s the same way. She’ll read anything, even the cereal box.”
I wondered whether the woman knew Agnes Pettigrew would dearly love her job. Filing that away under relatively useless information, I said, “So, tell us about the apartment.”
“Well, it’s cozy,” said Regis. “All utilities included, of course. It has one bedroom, a sitting room, full bath, and a kitchenette with two electric rings for cooking.”
Real estate agent to real-world translation: Cozy equals claustrophobic.