“Could you break down the pros and cons of each?” Chance asked.
This should be funny. I didn’t think salesmen ever admitted anything had cons.
“Well, the farmhouse has a lot more space, but it’s outside town, less convenient, but private and nicely wooded. The bachelor apartment is small, but it’s centrally located. You’d be in walking distance to a little corner store and a couple of nice shops on the square.”
“What’s the rent on them?” The fact that we hadn’t asked before now probably told Regis we had more money than sense; a couple of yuppies fresh from the big city, curious how the other half lived.
“I can let you have the farmhouse for seven hundred dollars,” Regis said, after pretending to run some numbers on an adding machine. “Since it’s smaller, three hundred seventy-five for the apartment.”
“Could we have a minute to discuss it?” Chance curled his hand around the nape of my neck. The gesture looked possessive, but I knew it was mostly for show.
“Of course. I’ll just run down the block to get coffee. Would y’all like anything?”
We both shook our heads, bemused by this small-town mentality. We could have rifled his office looking for cash and valuables and taken off long before he returned, if we were lying about wanting to rent property in town.
“Town or country?” Chance asked after we’d confirmed Regis’s departure.
I sighed. “Hell, I don’t know.”
“I think it’d be harder for someone to sneak up on us out at the farmhouse, and it’s easier to ward a house than an apartment inside an office building.”
“You don’t want to stay in town,” I guessed.
“I’m not crazy about shoe box flats, and I don’t want people to be able to mark our movements so easily.”
“The house it is,” I said. “Though I’m none too excited about the prospect of a ghost and the proximity of those woods.”
Chance grinned. “We’re safe unless Birnam Woods marches on Dunsinane?”
“Funny,” I grumbled. “The yard will be better for Butch, anyway.”
By the time Regis returned, we were sitting quietly, hands folded. The rich, slightly bitter scent of coffee wafted from his Styrofoam cup as he rounded his desk. He set it down on the edge and regarded us expectantly. “Did y’all decide?”
“The house,” Chance told him. “But Corine is a little nervous about the prospect of staying where someone passed away. I’m afraid I can’t offer more than five fifty. If you can’t help us, I’m sure there’s another little town down the road.”
Even when he had plenty of money, Chance was always a businessman. I could hear him saying it now:
Never take the first offer.
Regis’s face fell.
“Now, let me run the numbers again, sir. Don’t be hasty.”
I stifled a smile as Chance offered his impassive look. “If you think it would help.”
“Six hundred,” Regis finally said, sweating. “Final offer. I pay the utilities on the house, you see. The power is still on, though I had the phone cut off. And if you’re out there, using up the juice, I just can’t afford to—”
“That’ll be fine,” I cut in. I didn’t want to stroke the man out.
“The cook stove is gas,” he went on, “but there’s a propane tank out back. You should be fine for a month. I’ll need one hundred down as a damage deposit. If you want to write me a check, I won’t cash it. I’ll just hold it until the month’s out.”
Regis seemed to think, probably based on my messy, disheveled appearance, that we were strapped for cash. Well, I defied
to look any better after being shoved across a wet, muddy street. I set my jaw.
“Cash is fine,” Chance said. He drew out his expensive leather wallet and counted seven bills. “Here’s the deposit and one month’s rent.”
I could see Regis revising his initial impression of us, but Chance didn’t have much ready cash left, between the bed-and-breakfast, and these alternate lodgings. I didn’t know what we were going to do with the stinky powder we’d found there, or what had become of Booke. When I checked my cell phone, I was a little worried we hadn’t heard from him yet, considering he’d intended to scout the place.
“Is there an ATM in town?” I asked.
The real estate agent looked blank for a long moment. “You mean a money machine? I don’t think so. People just stop by the bank during business hours or write a check. Some folks get a check-cashing card from the supermarket, I guess, if their paychecks aren’t too big.”
He had to be shitting us. I felt like we’d slipped through a gap in time, or taken a wrong turn to wind up in May-berry.
“Okay,” I said, feeling dazed. “Thanks.”
“We’ll have to make this last,” Chance murmured, tapping his wallet.
Damn, that absolutely meant grocery shopping . . . and cooking. I sighed. Kilmer didn’t seem to have a limit in the ways it would torture me.
It was almost, almost enough to make me turn tail and run.
I accepted the key while Chance signed some paperwork for Mr. Regis. He drew us a map on a yellow legal pad, giving good directions on how to reach the place. “You’ll pass Ma’s Kitchen on the way out of town. That’s how you know you’re on the right track.” Then he began outlining all the twists and turns. It sounded like the house was really in the middle of nowhere, like a witch’s cottage in a fairy tale. He hadn’t been kidding when he said “deeply wooded and private.”
“Shall we?” Chance asked.
“I guess.” We thanked Mr. Regis and stepped out into a heavy, purple twilight. The horizon seemed oddly dark and devoid of color, with none of the usual fiery streaks. I shivered as I got into the Mustang. “Let’s see if Ma does takeout. We’ll need something to eat while we go over that file.”
Butch popped his head out of my bag—I needed to reward him for sleeping through the meeting with Regis—and yapped once in agreement. He could always eat.
Alone in the Woods
There were no lights for miles. Everywhere I looked, there were only the trees and the dark. In daytime I could tell you the names of them and what medicinal plants grew in their shadows. My mother meant me to be a witch when I grew up, and she had been preparing me for it. I still had my grimoires back in Mexico, but I had no magick.
The house we’d rented sent a cold chill through me. Most likely, it was the light slanting through the trees that gave the place such a desolate, devilish look. It could also be the way the rough gravel drive snaked through the woods, rounding a corner and opening into a cleared field, like a witch’s cottage from children’s stories.
This house was bigger than a cottage, of course, and more run-down than it had been in the photo. The roof over the porch sagged a little, but it appeared structurally sound. I hefted my purse as I got out of the car. Call me a coward, but I immediately set Butch down and let him go sniffing around the exterior. I trusted him to find anything we should know about, like, say, a reanimated corpse crawling around the perimeter.
He trotted around the side of the house and out of sight. I clutched the paper bag full of takeout from Ma’s Kitchen, waiting for the dog to reappear on the other side. When Chance touched my shoulder, I almost threw our dinner at him.
“Whoa,” he said softly. “We’re okay, Corine. We can handle this. I admit, the place is a little creepy, but we’ve been in worse spots.”
I didn’t know whether he meant this house in particular or Kilmer in general, but I was worried about our stupid dog. To my vast relief, Butch came trotting around the other side with nothing to report. He climbed the stairs and sat waiting beside the front door.
Chance smiled. “Our security expert has approved the place, it seems. Let’s go see what seven hundred dollars bought us.”
I gave him the keys, and he led the way, carrying both his duffel and my backpack. Trailing behind, I cast a nervous glance over my shoulder as I went into the house. We stood inside a sitting room, furnished only in the most basic sense. All the pictures had been stripped from the walls, but they’d left a flowered sofa and matching settee. The place smelled musty and damp with a hint of old-lady lavender. Butch poked his head beneath a chair and sneezed.
“Is there a lamp or an overhead light anywhere?” As I said it, a dim circle of gold dispelled some of the shadows. Chance had found a side table with an old-fashioned glass lamp. It must not have been worth anything, or it would’ve been removed along with the paintings. A fine layer of dust covered everything, so it had been a while since anyone cleaned.
“It has a hairline crack,” he told me over his shoulder.
It was scary how well he knew me.
Learning the layout didn’t take long. The downstairs was arranged in a semicircle, connecting parlor to dining room to kitchen. A hallway branched from the parlor, forming the other side of the circle, leading to the bedrooms. The corridor terminated in a bathroom, and what I took to be the master “suite” had a half bath attached.
I flipped a light switch, and a dim overhead light came on. Whoever removed Mrs. Everett’s personal effects had done a haphazard job. They’d hauled off the bed frame and headboard, and left the mattress on top of the box springs on the floor, but they hadn’t taken an exquisitely carved armoire, just because it had been painted a hideous green and dinged up a bit. If someone put a little effort into refinishing that piece, it would retail for nearly a thousand bucks. I resisted the temptation to find who might be willing to pay it.
Before I lay down on that bed, I had to know, though. I wiggled my fingers in preparation for contact with the mattress and relaxed my mental grasp on my gift. Heat rocketed through my palms and up into my arms, but I didn’t receive the impression of death. Instead, I saw a mosaic made of many nights: just an old woman sleeping or reading, or lying awake and staring at the ceiling. Whatever became of her, Mrs. Everett didn’t die in bed. Thank the gods.
I felt more like a squatter than an honest renter, but we could make do here. I checked the bathroom and found a toilet, a stained, once-white pedestal sink, and a shower stall; nothing fancy, just blue tile with a green tinge to the grout. I hoped we wouldn’t be here long enough for that to bother me.
“Finishing scoping out the place?” Chance asked from behind me.
This time I didn’t jump. “Yeah. It looks bearable.”
“Let’s eat before the food gets cold. There’s no microwave.” He led the way into the kitchen, Butch trotting at our heels. Apparently Chance had flipped light switches wherever he found them, as if he could banish the ocean of night that surrounded us. He caught my look and added, a touch defensive, “What? It’s really dark out there.”
I knew what he meant; without city lights and noise, this place freaked me out too. Add in the looming threat of the trees, and I could hardly think, but I couldn’t help teasing him. “You’re scared of the dark, Chance?
“I’m not scared of anything as long as you’re beside me.”
Call me an idiot, but I melted a little over that. I covered by unpacking the food. I found it unspeakably sad that the old woman who’d lived and died here had probably spent her mornings sitting at a table with placemats laid for two. The kitchen was small, old-fashioned, and painted a pale, streaky yellow. The fridge looked like it had last been updated in 1945—a squat Hotpoint unit with rounded edges and a silver handle.
Before we sat down to eat, I set out Butch’s portable dishes. After the dumplings earlier, he wasn’t too interested in dog food, but he did take a drink, and then he came to sit on the floor by the table, telling us via big bulging eyes he thought we sucked for not giving him more people food. The waitress at Ma’s had packed us two blue plate specials, which turned out to be meat loaf and green beans. Good packaging had kept it warm while we drove around country roads after dark, looking for our destination.
Chance tucked into his food, but I had a phone call to make first. To my surprise, I had twelve text messages and four voice mails, but the phone hadn’t rung. I checked the settings, and it was programmed to vibrate
play J.Lo’s “If You Had My Love
” My cell hadn’t made a peep all day.
I tried to dial out, but even though I had two bars, I couldn’t get a call to connect. A dark, dreadful feeling crept over me, as if I were marooned on a broken log with flood-waters rising all around me. We had to find a way to contact the outside world. Jesse would go nuts if he didn’t hear from me, and what about Chance’s mom? Not to mention Chuch and Eva. We would
disappear in Kilmer, an unsolved mystery.
Taking a deep breath, I started wading through my text messages. The first one astonished me. Jesse—the man I’d left to clean up the mess in Laredo—had simply written,
That might not have been so shocking if it hadn’t also been time stamped around the moment when I’d been so terrified, standing in the bathroom at the Kilmer Inn. Things got weirder as I read the next message.
Corine, what the hell is going on?
This one bore a time stamp just after Chance pushed me out of the way of a rampaging Cutlass. Even in text, Jesse’s tone grew increasingly more agitated as he asked why the hell I wasn’t answering. The tenth just said,
Where are you?
I read the last text message with a growing sense of foreboding. Jesse had written in shorthand, as if he were driving, or in a hurry:
Omw. I dont hear from u in 24, I report u missin.
He’d packed up and was coming to look for me? From that, I extrapolated he’d sensed my emotional state from hundreds of miles away. Jesus. I didn’t know how he expected to find Kilmer when it wasn’t on MapQuest, but I didn’t imagine that setback would deter Jesse Saldana. But what would an unexpected trip mean to his suspension from the police department? Dammit, I had enough to worry about.
The last message came from Booke. A weight lifted when I realized he was all right.
I’ve been ringing all day; left messages. Hope you get this. The astral over Kilmer is like a wicked dark scar. I tried for hours, but I couldn’t see a thing, just swirling, inky fog. Do be careful, and get in touch if you can.