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Jane reached over from the steering wheel and squeezed her arm in sympathy. "I know you're thinking about Dylan," she said. "But you were right to let him go."
Let him go ... an interesting choice of words. Bliss could never truly let Dylan Ward go. She thought of what he had done for her: kept her sane, given her the strength she needed to fight her father's spirit, to stand up to the Dark Prince. Her sacrifice had released her link to him - Dylan had moved on, gone to a better place - but she missed him with an ache that was a physical pain. She would never heal from it.
"One day, you will find a love as great as the one you two shared. You deserve happiness, my dear, and you will find it," said Jane.
Bliss sniffed, blinked back her tears. "I'm okay."
"I know you are." Jane smiled. "You are stronger than you know."
They drove the rest of the way in silence, and an hour later arrived at their destination. Jane pulled the rental car up to a police barricade around the remains of the burned-out house in the middle of the street. "I think this is it," Jane said. It was after midnight, and the streets were empty, the heavy cloak of darkness impenetrable. The only sound came from the crunching of their tires on the gravel. The night air was bracing cold.
They stepped out of the car. Bliss clicked on her flashlight and led the way. Once they'd reached what remained of the house, she swept the flashlight across what must have, at one time, been the living room. "What do you think?" she asked. True to the reports Jane had pulled up for her to read on the drive, only the front door was still standing. Otherwise, everything had burned to the ground, to ashes and dust, rubble and debris, covered by a light gray snow. "An accident? Arson? Or ... ?"
"Not sure yet," Jane said. "Let's take a closer look around, see if we find anything odd."
Jane had printed a story about the burned house from a blog that documented supernatural phenomena. Those who'd witnessed it burning said they had heard terrible screaming, eerie roars, and manic howling from inside the house as the fire raged. But it was an abandoned home - no one was supposed to be living there - and after the fire had consumed everything, the police had found no human remains, no proof that anyone had even been in the house when it burned.
The fire had been written off as an accident - the electric company had forgotten to turn off the power and a utility cable had sparked during a blackout. That was all.
Maybe the police were right. Maybe nothing had happened here. Maybe there was nothing to see, nothing here that would lead them to the hounds.
But Bliss kept staring at the door that was still standing, that hadn't burned. It was impossible that an entire house could burn down leaving just the one door. She could imagine it only if there had been some sort of spell, some kind of protection over the house that the fire had managed to extinguish, but only in part.
She shone her flashlight on the scarred face of the door, and up close she could see faint traces of writing on the burned wood. Runes of some kind, perhaps. Across the dark lot Jane sneezed from the dust. "Hamlet's ghost," she muttered, blowing her nose.
An accident, the official reports had concluded. Maybe the whole incident had been just a hoax. That was another possibility. There was no way to know for sure. No way to know, unless ...
Bliss kept her light fixed on the door, slowly sweeping it down to the ground. She pushed some splintered wood off to the side with the edge of her sneaker.
There. She saw something.
She moved closer and shone her light directly on it, her heart beating in excitement at the heady rush of discovery.
"Aunt Jane!" she called. "Here!"
In the middle of the burned wood, half-buried in the ashes, was a black pebble that shone as bright as a glittering diamond. Bliss knew what it was immediately. The Heart of Stone - it was a remnant of the Black Fire of Hell.
Bliss clicked off her flashlight with some satisfaction. They were right. The hounds had been here.
The former fire chief lived in a tidy house in a pleasant suburb, and as Bliss walked up the driveway she was struck by a feeling of homesickness so deep that she had to stop and catch her breath for a moment. The house was just an ordinary one-story home, a little cottage with pretty Christmas lights. She had grown up in a sprawling, elegant mansion in Houston and then a three-story penthouse in New York, but after traveling and then going on the road, she found something appealing about a home that was so orderly and neatly kept. Home. Where is home now? Bliss did not belong anywhere. She no longer had a home.
"It's all right," Jane said, squeezing her forearm. Her aunt always seemed to know what Bliss was thinking.
Bliss sighed as she rang the doorbell, steeling herself for what lay ahead. "He knows we're coming, right?" she asked.
"I spoke to him just this morning," Jane said. "He didn't seem to want to meet with us, but I can be very persuasive when I want to be."
Bliss smiled. She knew that without Jane she would have given up long before. As she rang the doorbell again, Bliss wondered what would happen if she did end up finding the hounds. Would they even give her a chance to speak? Would she have to strike a bargain of her own? Why had her mother sent her to them? And how would she ever get them to join their cause?
"Apathy is the glove in which evil slips its hand," Jane murmured.
Bliss frowned. "Shakespeare?"
"No, just something I read on the Internet the other day." Her aunt laughed. "A reminder to remain vigilant against our enemies."
Finally, a friendly older woman in a white apron opened the door. "So sorry - we were out back and didn't hear the bell. Come on in."
The former chief of the fire department had retired only a few weeks earlier. He was a tall, handsome older gentleman, deeply suntanned and courteous. His wife, the woman who'd let them inside, offered them cookies and tea, led them to a cozy room where they sat on flowered cushions. "So you guys are from New York, huh?" he asked, settling into his lounger. "Writers, they tell me." He sounded skeptical.
"Yes," Jane said brightly. "But don't worry; we don't work for the insurance company. We're writing a book about spontaneous combustion." It was the cover story they'd agreed on: they were researchers, writing a book about fire disasters. They hoped that knowing they were in the presence of academics, of writers, would put people at ease and would loosen their tongues. Everyone liked feeling important.
"We're here to ask about the fire out in Hunting Valley the other week," Bliss said.
He nodded. "Yep, that one. It was like nothing I'd ever seen. We couldn't put it out - not until every last bit of that place was burned to the ground, except the door, of course. When we got there, the walls were still standing but the door was locked from the inside, which happens, but when we hit it with the ram, it just wouldn't budge. The thing was wood, but it felt like steel. We couldn't break it. We couldn't get inside at all."
"Can you tell us again how the fire was started?"
"From the burn trailer it looked as if it had sprung around the house, all at once." He took a bite from a cookie and looked pensive. "Talk about spontaneous combustion. Water seemed to feed the flames instead of putting them out, and the smoke had a different odor. Weird."
"Like what?" Bliss asked.
"Pungent and strong, as if hell itself was burning." He frowned.
"There were eyewitness reports that they heard screaming ... but you found no survivors?" Bliss asked.
He shook his head. "None."
"But the howling - " Bliss argued.
"Coyotes, most likely, there are some around the area," he said gruffly.
"Coyotes who walk upright? Right here it says someone saw great 'wolflike' silhouettes in the windows ..." She held the printout in front of him but he dismissed it.
"People have vivid imaginations," he said, looking uncomfortable.
Bliss was disappointed; other than the Heart of Stone, she had been hoping to discover something more about the fire, something that could be a real clue to the hounds' whereabouts. She and Jane began to gather their things when the fire chief coughed and looked guiltily at them.
"Well, there was something," he said finally. He lit his pipe and the room filled with the sweet smell of tobacco.
Bliss and Jane exchanged looks, but neither of them said anything.
"We found something." He squirmed in his seat. "It's ... difficult to talk about."
Bliss sat back down and leaned forward. "Tell us. You can tell us."
"Actually, not something ... but someone. A girl." He closed his eyes, wincing at the memory. "The house burned right to the ground, piles of ashes everywhere - great mounds of it - you saw. It was a few days after the fire was out - me and my boys were doing cleanup when we saw her ... a girl, buried under the ashes. Naked, covered in blood and dust. We thought she was dead."
"But she's not?" Bliss asked, hope thrumming in her chest. This was something - a beginning - a clue at last.
He shook his head. "Nope. She was breathing."
"Who was she?"
"Don't know. We had her checked out at the hospital ... and it was the oddest thing ... they said she was completely unharmed. No signs of physical injury, not one bruise, not one cut, not one burn. Just - covered in ashes. Ashes and blood." He took a puff from his pipe.
He hitched his pants, put down his pipe in the ashtray, stood, and left the room. When he came back after a few minutes, he was holding a notebook. It was covered in soot. "We also found this." He handed it to Bliss. "Will you take it? I don't like having it around." He seemed glad to be relieved of the burden.
"What happened to her? The girl you found?" The girl covered in ashes and blood.
"Do you have the address?" asked Jane, ready with her pen.
He nodded. "I can get it."
This is it, Bliss thought, her excitement bubbling as she tucked the journal into her bag. Find the girl, Bliss knew, and she would find the hounds.
St. Bernadette's Psychiatric Clinic had taken great pains not to look like a mental asylum, to distance itself from the negative connotation of institutional sanatoriums: nightmarish loony bins where crazies were locked up and caged, left to sit in a mess of their own filth. It was a small four-story building located on a pretty hillside in a sleepy Cleveland suburb. There were no bars on the windows, there were no armed guards at the gates, and none of the nurses were named Ratched. The lobby was peaceful and cheerful, decorated in soothing pastel colors, and patients were allowed to wear their own clothes - none of that shuffling in hospital gowns and slippers.
The mental hospital looked innocuous enough, but even so, when Bliss arrived in the afternoon, she could not help shuddering. In a past life, she had been sent to a place not unlike this one, and she could still remember the horror of that experience: the shackles and the tests, the buckets of cold water poured on her head during her ravings. The clinic was more like a college dormitory than a prison, but Bliss could bet that the windows at Case Western weren't built from two inches of shatterproof acrylic you couldn't break with a sledgehammer.
She had left Jane back at their motel. For a moment she wondered whether she'd done the right thing; Jane had wanted to come, though she was too tired to protest when Bliss insisted she stay behind. But Bliss wanted to speak to the girl alone. It was her task, after all, her burden, to find the hounds.
"Sign here," the young guy at the desk said, pushing over a few papers.
Bliss scribbled on the page. "What's this?"
"Liability waiver. Means you can't sue the clinic if anything happens to you after seeing her. Or when you see her." He had a flat nasal accent, less midwestern than southern Appalachian, a real twang. Bliss had always thought of Ohio as the Midwest, like Kansas or Nebraska, but as they'd moved through the state, she'd discovered it was a real patchwork, a hodgepodge of big cities and dying steel towns, affluent suburbs that rivaled the toniest Westchester neighborhoods and a pretty rural countryside dotted with horse farms and lush green forests.
"I don't get it. What's going to happen?"
The orderly shrugged. "Not supposed to say, but see that lady sitting over there?"
Bliss nodded. There was a smiling middle-aged woman sitting by the window, talking softly to herself. Once in a while her whole face would twitch in a frightening spasm.
"Yeah, well, Thelma used to work here. Now she's a patient. She was your patient's nurse you know. Spent a week with her and went insane. And then there's the janitors ..." He stopped without finishing the sentence. He only shook his head as he took the clipboard back and handed Bliss a visitor pass. "What do you want with her, anyway? You a reporter or something? Or family?"
Bliss shook her head. "Neither."
She shook her head again. The orderly finally stopped asking questions and they arrived at the girl's room. Bliss noticed immediately that there was something strange in the air. The feeling of death was all around, a grim darkness just behind the door. She did not feel frightened, only curious. She had lived with the spirit of Lucifer, so she knew what evil felt like. This was not the same. It was not the emerald-sharp feeling of hatred and spite; this was a feeling of dread and sloth, rot and ruin, misery and pain.
There was a small placard next to the door that read PATIENT: FIFTEEN.
"No name. Nomen nescio," the orderly said proudly, as if Bliss would question his knowledge of Latin. "The doctors thought they'd call her Nina but it didn't stick. She's not a Nina. So now we just call her by her room number. Fifteen."
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