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Shadow silence, p.23
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       Shadow Silence, p.23

           Yasmine Galenorn
 
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  “Yeah, it’s kind of nice to have someone else around here, isn’t it? Pretty soon, we’ll have Bryan around all the time.” All of a sudden I stopped, wondering where we were going to live. His place or mine? While I liked his estate, it wasn’t very cozy.

  “Well, we’ll just deal with that when it comes, won’t we, little guy? We’ve got a while until the wedding anyway.” I scratched Agent H’s head as he started noshing on the food. He let out a loud purr and then shook off my hand so he could concentrate on eating. Daphne and Gabby ran up, nudging him to the side so they could get at the food. I always gave them three bowls but they always gathered around one. The cat food is always tastier in the other bowl.

  After rinsing my cup, I leaned against the counter, staring outside. It had stopped snowing, but it was still cold and the snow had stuck. I had a feeling it was here for a few weeks at least. I had a sudden urge to drive up to Hurricane Ridge. Maybe we should buy snowshoes and take to the backcountry. But before that, I’d have to hit the gym a lot harder. I was in no shape for a long snowshoeing session.

  Finally, deciding to get started for the day, I gathered my purse and keys, slipped into my jacket, and headed to my car. As I stared at the dents, I remembered I should stop in at the garage to have Niles see if there’d been any underlying damage that I couldn’t see.

  “The damned Ankou. It’s bad enough dealing with ghosts, let alone the Shadow People.” At least nobody had died recently, and Ellia and I had had, for the most part, a bit of a rest. There were things I needed to do soon, but they could wait until after the holidays.

  As I slid into the driver’s seat and fastened my seat belt, I realized that I was slowly adapting to life back in Whisper Hollow.

  * * *

  I headed to the store. I had been debating whether to buy a real tree or an artificial one, but I knew that if I brought a real tree into the house, the cats would go bananas. They would climb it and tip it over, given all three were each at least eighteen pounds or more. Maine Coons were into everything, and they were smart.

  I eased into a parking spot next to the door at Krugels, the local department store. For such a small town, the store was quite large, and they prided themselves on carrying just about anything from fabric to household goods to sports equipment. They had a surprisingly good selection of artificial trees, and I found one that was seven feet tall and looked real. It was American made, much to my surprise and delight. I also found a selection of delicate cat ornaments, twelve to a box. I added those to cart along with some sparkling glittery balls, garland, tinsel, and anything else that caught my eye. I deliberately avoided looking at the prices, not wanting to know how much I was spending.

  Grandma Lila’s ornaments were all in shades of blue and white and silver, so I decided to keep with the theme. I found little wooden birdhouse ornaments, as well as buri animals. A tiny snow village caught my eye, and then I picked up three boxes of chocolate-covered cherries, a tin of peppermint bark, and some holiday-themed paper plates and cups. For the first time in my life I was nesting, able to make my home feel like a real home to me

  Of course, when I came to the checkout line, I went into sticker shock, but I handed over my credit card without comment and gratefully accepted help out to my car. My next stop was to pull through the drive-through window at Whidbey’s Burgers. I ordered a double large cheeseburger, a mocha shake, and small fries. I was just easing into my driveway when I got a phone call. It was Peggin.

  “Kerris, there’s a fire! My house is on fire and everything I own is in there! I’m headed over there now. Can you please meet me?” She sounded frantic.

  “Of course. I’ll be there in five minutes. Don’t get out of your car until I get there.” I grabbed a bite of the cheeseburger and a long sip of the shake, then eased back onto the road, wondering how the hell the fire had started. Everything was wet and covered in snow, and unless somebody had broken in to torch the place, I couldn’t figure out what had happened. The furnace was almost new, and the wiring was supposedly in decent condition.

  * * *

  I arrived at the Foggy Downs subdivision before Peggin. The fire department was already there, and I could see that the house was fully engulfed in flames. I could already tell they wouldn’t be able to save it. As I eased out of the car, finishing off my cheeseburger, I could only stare at the brilliant orange glow flickering against the sky. The fire marshal came over to talk to me.

  “Are you Peggin Sanderson?” he asked.

  I shook my head. “No, but she’s on the way. She’s been staying at my house the past few days. She just moved in.” I stared at the glowing flames. “We had an inspection done and they said that the furnace was new and the wiring looked pretty good. How did this start?”

  “I have no idea; that will take an investigation to figure out. We got the call about fifteen minutes ago. By the time we arrived, the house was already burning at a good clip. My men are trying to control the fire so it doesn’t catch into the woods but, honestly, I can’t send them in there. Not unless I know there’s somebody caught inside.”

  I let out a long sigh. “Unless someone snuck in, there shouldn’t be. I will say, there are a few ghosts hanging around though.” At his look I said, “I’m the spirit shaman. Kerris Fellwater.” I held out my hand and he shook it.

  “I don’t know if ghosts can start a fire. That’s not my department. But something had to have happened. We haven’t had any lightning for a while, and snow doesn’t usually cause a fire. Not unless there’s some electrical short and the water gets on it. As I said, we’ll have to do a thorough investigation. I hope your friend has insurance. Where is she?”

  “She works over at the hospital with Dr. Wallace.” I paused as Peggin’s car pulled into the driveway. “There she is now.”

  She screeched to a stop and jumped out, running over to me. “Kerris!” She turned to look at the house, which was now fully engulfed in flames. “Oh my gods, I can’t believe this.”

  The smoke roared into the sky, turning black with soot. The smell of burning fabric and whatever chemicals might have been in the abandoned house drifted past, making my throat ache and my eyes water. The next moment, an explosion filled the air, blasting debris everywhere.

  “Hell!” I grabbed Peggin and knelt close to the ground behind my car. The fire marshal joined us. A moment later, we could hear shouting as firemen raced around the house, and in the distance sirens roared, with another engine coming our way.

  “What the hell just happened?” My ears were ringing as I struggled to get to my feet. I reached down and helped Peggin stand.

  The fire marshal, shaking his head, staggered to his feet as well. “The furnace must have exploded. You need to back your cars out of this driveway before anything else happens.” He motioned for us to move our cars further back down the cul-de-sac.

  When we were far enough away to be safe, Peggin and I walked back to where he was standing, staring at the flames that had pretty much incinerated most of the house. As we watched, the roof began to ripple and firemen raced out of the way as the roof imploded in on itself.

  Peggin shook her head, speechless as she watched everything she owned vanish, eaten by the fire. “All my pictures and my journals and my desktop computer . . . They’re all gone. Everything I own . . . all destroyed.”

  I encircled her shoulders, leaning her against me as the flames gobbled what was left of the house, turning it into ash and charcoal. The firemen rushed this way and that, trying to control the burn so that it didn’t get out of bounds.

  I started to comfort her, to remind her that she was safe and her ferrets were safe, but then I realized that this wasn’t the time for that. Peggin was watching everything she had collected and worked for go up in flames, and right now nothing I could say would make it better.

  * * *

  Two hours and a dozen conversations later, Peggin and I slowly
turned away.

  Clinton Brady had come across the street and finally dragged us back to the pub, where he plied us with fresh bread, and brandy. Sophia and the fire marshal joined us. He had been very curious as to why Peggin was staying with me, and I had the feeling we weren’t done with him. Unless, of course, he found that it was an accident. Given the age of the house, that could easily be, but somehow things never seemed to work out as simply as we wanted them to.

  Jack, Peggin’s Realtor, burst through the doors just as we were finishing up our drinks.

  “This is going to be a mess to sort out,” he said, staring at Peggin. He raised his voice just enough for the fire marshal to hear. “Especially since you wanted out of the deal. Why you had to sic your friend Bryan on me, I don’t know. We could have talked this through.” His voice had a nasty edge. I had a sudden vision of him backstabbing Peggin so he wouldn’t be stuck with the cost.

  “Do you really have to do this now? Right now? Seriously?” Hands on my hips, I stood, exasperated with him.

  “Yeah, well, now nobody has to deal with the house, but somebody’s going to be stuck with the cost. I have the contract right here! You signed an option to buy the house.” He jabbed his finger against his briefcase, staring at her as he ignored me. “I know you wanted out. Well, I can let you off the hook for buying it—as long as you didn’t torch it. But you still owe me a year’s rent and you forfeit the three thousand.”

  “There’s no house to rent. If I owe you a year’s rent, it’s got to be on something that I could make use of!” Peggin was getting mad now, and so was I.

  The fire marshal cleared his throat. “So she doesn’t officially own the house yet?”

  Peggin shook her head. “I optioned to buy it, but it’s rent-to-own, so I had a year to decide. I already figured out that I didn’t want to live there. I called Jack to see if we could work out some arrangement but he told me I couldn’t get out of the option fee or the lease for a year.”

  “What? Did you hate it so much that you decided to burn the fucking house down?” Yeah, Jack was playing hardball.

  “What? I was at work when it caught on fire. I’ve been staying at Kerris’s house the past couple days. I moved in Saturday, and that same day, the Lady almost took me down by the pier. So yeah, I decided it wasn’t safe to stay there. But burn the house down? What good would that do me?” Peggin leaned across the table, glaring at Jack. I was afraid she was going to smack him across the face.

  “Enough.” Sophia stepped in. “Jack, you’d better not make any accusations you aren’t prepared to back up. We’ll wait for the fire marshal’s investigation before deciding anything. So you just keep your temper under control. That goes for you, too, Peggin. I don’t want to hear anything about the two of you getting into any brawls or causing any trouble. Do I make myself clear?”

  “Yes ma’am,” Peggin said, sitting back down in her chair.

  Jack just glared at Sophia but then gave her a grudging nod. “I hear you.”

  And with that, Peggin and I headed back to my house. As we exited the Fogwhistle Pub’s parking lot, we both took one last glance down the cul-de-sac toward the smoldering house. Luckily, no firemen had been hurt during the explosion—a minor miracle in itself. But I really didn’t want to think about the cleanup ahead.

  * * *

  After I got Peggin calmed down, which entailed sitting guard beside her while she took a long hot bath, I bundled her into her robe with another brandy, and we curled up on the sofa.

  “You don’t think I had anything to do with this, do you?” The hurt in her voice told me more than her words.

  “Of course I don’t. My money’s on one of the ghosts. I know this is bad,” I added. “But you and Frith and Folly are safe. And you do have some clothes and your laptop. I know it’s small consolation, but . . .” My voice died away. I wasn’t exactly the best at comforting people.

  She let out a long sigh and took a sip of the brandy. “I know,” she said, hanging her head. “And believe me, I am more grateful than you can ever know that my ferrets and I are safe. Without Frith and Folly, I don’t know what I’d do. But Kerris, it feels like I did something to piss off the gods. Maybe I did something horrible in another life and now karma is biting me in the butt. I don’t know. If I did anything, I don’t know what it is.”

  I let out a long sigh and enfolded my feet up on the sofa underneath me. “They say everything happens for a reason, but I’m not so sure about that. And karma . . . karma isn’t what most people think it is. The concept is quite different than you reap what you sow, or everything comes around. It’s a Buddhist and Hindu concept, and is far more complicated than people realize.”

  She frowned. “Then why did this happen?”

  All I could do was shrug. “Sometimes, I think that bad things just happen to good people. Now, maybe we’ll find a reason for this happening, maybe something good will come out of this. But right now, it’s okay to be upset and it’s okay to cry. You only wanted to make yourself a nice home. You didn’t ask for any of this.”

  “But I should have listened to you and not moved in there to begin with. I was just so scared about imposing on D-D and ruining our relationship. I wanted my own place and I was angry at my landlady for kicking me out. I’ve been a model tenant for years, I’ve done everything she asked me to around the place. I fixed it up, planted flowers, and then boom . . . just a ‘get out’ without even a thank-you or acknowledgment for what I’ve done. I want my own place, that nobody can take away from me.” She sounded so plaintive that I wanted to gather her in my arms and let her cry it out, but I knew it would take more than tears to fix this.

  I glanced over at the clock. “Do you want me to call off the party tonight? I know it’s not going to be particularly cheery for you. Anything you need, just ask me.”

  “No,” she said. “They’re going to want to hear what happened anyway. I might as well tell them now, and at least I’ll be among friends tonight. Maybe it will take my mind off of what happened. Waiting’s going to be the difficult part. Waiting to see what the fire marshal has to say and if Jack continues to turn on me like he did. I think that hurts most of all. We’ve been friends for a long time, and he just turned on me like . . .”

  “He betrayed you. He did something no friend should ever do. And I’m sorry about that.”

  We spent the rest of the afternoon watching mindless TV to take our minds off of what had happened. But I knew Peggin’s thoughts were back at the house, with the charred remains of her life, and I knew it would take a long time to repair the damage that it had done.

  * * *

  Peggin stirred herself off the sofa. “Let’s haul the tree in here. We’re strong enough to do it. We don’t have to wait for the men.”

  I glanced up at her from where I was aimlessly eating chips out of the bag. “Are you sure?” The tree was still in the back of my CR-V, along with everything else.

  “I can only take so much sitting around watching Judge Judy before I start thinking about the fire. Do you realize the only things I have left are the clothes that you brought for me, and the ferret supplies? I don’t even know if my jewelry survived. Not that I had a lot of it. Everything was still in boxes. Cardboard catches like tinder.” She sounded so plaintive that I gave in. After tromping around the woods the day before, I was still sore, but if it would help Peggin, I would drag my ass out to the car and carry things in.

  The manufacturer had managed to jam a seven-foot tree into a four-foot box, damned heavy and hard to manage. Somehow, we wrangled it into the living room, where we dropped it with a thud. Then we went back for the rest of the things. After we had brought in all of the packages, Peggin let out a groan.

  “I forgot! I was supposed to bring dinner home for everybody.”

  “Don’t worry about it. And don’t even think about offering to go out and get it. Not after today.” I
moved to one side, where I called Bryan. “We need dinner for everybody. I was going to call you earlier but things got rough.”

  “What’s going on? I’ve been locked up in my office all day.”

  “Peggin’s new house caught fire. We are talking burned to the ground. We got over there after the firemen had arrived. The place went up like old kindling. She’s lost everything except what she has at my house.” I suddenly realized that Peggin hadn’t called Deev. If she had, he would have been over here in a heartbeat. But then again, he was showing up in a couple of hours so maybe it didn’t matter.

  “Why didn’t you call me? I would have been there—”

  “I know, but what could you do, really? The firemen couldn’t even get into the house. Then the furnace blew up, or at least we think it was the furnace, and the entire place is gone. And that prick, Jack? The Realtor? He hinted that Peggin started the fire to get out of buying the house or paying the year’s lease.” I was grumpy, but I couldn’t help it. I was pissed out of my mind.

  “Oh, did he? That, I can take care of.”

  I wasn’t sure what Bryan meant but he didn’t sound friendly.

  “If you could do something, it would be one big worry off her mind. Jack managed to get the fire marshal’s attention with his comments. Meanwhile, Peggin had planned on bringing home dinner for everybody. Would you mind picking up something?”

  “Not a problem. I’ll head out now and be over within the hour. Meanwhile, tell Peggin we’ll make sure everything works out. Somehow, we’ll manage to help her.” He signed off.

  I leaned back, staring at my phone. Whatever he was planning to do to Jack, I hoped it would be discreet, especially if it involved anything like a black eye. Peggin was in the kitchen, which meant she hadn’t heard the conversation. Probably a good thing, actually. Deciding that I might as well make the cocoa, I pocketed my phone and headed into the kitchen.

 
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