Home > Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles #1)(10)

Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles #1)(10)
Ilona Andrews

As if on cue, Officer Marais turned and looked directly at us.

"He suspects something," Caldenia said.

"He has no proof."

"If he ever becomes an issue, I could eat him. He looks delicious."

"Thank you, but that won't be necessary." And that wasn't creepy. Not at all.

Caldenia smiled. "You will be surprised how difficult it is to get rid of a human body. I'd say he is perhaps a hundred and seventy pounds? That's a lot of flesh to manage. We could freeze it. He'd feed me for at least three months."

He also was happily married with two small daughters. I had Googled him after our first encounter and found his wife's blog. She worked as a therapist and liked to knit.

"I need to leave," I said. "I should be back today before midnight. Please stay inside."

"I will. I have a brand new Eloisa James book to keep me company."

Ten minutes later, my backpack was packed. I went back to the lobby.

The house creaked around me.

"I'll be back tonight." I petted the wall. "Don't worry. Security Protocol AWAY in sixty seconds."

I petted Beast, grabbed my keys, and stepped outside. The Shih Tzu whined quietly.

"Guard the house. She may need help. I'll be back soon."

I pulled the car out of the garage and waited for a few moments on the street, counting backward. Five, four, three, two... One.

The house clanged. From outside nothing had changed, but I knew that inside shutters slid closed behind the glass and curtains. The two doors visible from the street locked and barred themselves, the two less obvious doors had melted completely into the walls. The inn became a fortress that would defend itself and record everything that transpired while I was gone.

Drive at speed limit, get to Dallas, visit, get back. Do not linger. I started down the street. The sooner I got there, the sooner I could get back.

Chapter Four

I-45 stretched before me, a flat ribbon of asphalt bordered on both sides by short trees, mesquite, ash, and oak. The car sped forward, chomping down the miles. I always liked driving. My mother had too.

My father had been born in a time when a galloping horse was the top speed a man could attain. The moment he'd get into a car, he'd begin what my mother used to affectionately call the Gerard Show. At the start of the drive he'd sit perfectly still in the passenger seat, gripping the door with white-knuckled strength, his face a pale, rigid mask of grim determination, his eyes wide open. This lasted until we encountered traffic, at which point he would start pointing out cars and road hazards in this quiet emergency voice. He would close his eyes and brace himself when we switched lanes. If we had to come to a stop before a red light and another vehicle had gotten there before us, he would throw his hands in front of his face or sometimes in front of Mom's body, trying to shield her, when we came to a stop. One time we were on the road and a giant semi veered a little too close. He'd screamed, "Jesu, Helen, turn the horses!" and then spent the rest of the day being embarrassed about it.

I'd once had a teacher with a severe airplane anxiety. She'd told me that every time she stepped on a plane, she'd done so with a full expectation that she was going to die. She had made a folder with a skull and crossbones on it, which contained her will and life insurance policy and would make sure to leave it in plain view so her family wouldn't have to "scramble for information" in case of her death. My father, who was the bravest man I had ever known, had a similar mindset: every time he entered a vehicle, he did it with the expectation that he --or Mom and me, which was infinitely worse for him --wouldn't survive the trip. Every car ride was a near-death experience.

Despite all this, Mom did somehow teach him to drive. Very occasionally, when he absolutely had to, he would drive the car down a quiet street for a mile and a half to the grocery store and gas station. We weren't allowed to go with him because he refused to be responsible for our deaths. He never let it get faster than thirty-five miles per hour. When he returned, armed with groceries, he would park the vehicle in the driveway, get out, and lay on the grass, looking at the sky for about ten minutes. Sometimes I would come and lay with him. We'd look at the sky and the trees rustling above us and be happy we were alive.

I missed them both so badly. I would find them. Someone somewhere had to know something about them. One day that someone would walk into my inn, see the portrait of my parents on the wall, and I would see that knowledge on his or her face. And then I would find my parents.

My GPS came on and Darth Vader prompted me to take the next exit. Ten minutes later, after bearing left "to the dark side," I parked before a large house. It sat recessed from the street, behind tall, slender palms and acacias, and I could barely make out the peach stucco walls under terra-cotta tile roof. A winding stone path led across the grass toward the house.

I crossed the street and stopped before the walkway. Ghostly bugs skittered across my skin. The small hairs on my arms rose. I was on the edge of another inn's grounds.

I took a step forward. The magic rolled over me. I braced myself and stood still, waiting. If the innkeeper didn't want me to enter, he would let me know. My father was well regarded because before he'd become an innkeeper, he'd been a guest, and he had chosen to risk his life to help the owner of an inn. It had cost him centuries of incarceration and solitude. But he had his detractors as well. If I was lucky, Mr. Rodriguez wasn't one the latter.

Silence stretched. Birds chirped in the trees above me. A minute chugged by. Another. Long enough. Since nobody came to throw me out, I must be welcome.

I started down the path. The air smelled fresh and clean, with a hint of moisture. The path turned and I saw the source of the humidity: a shallow pond bending in natural curves in the center of a beautifully tiled courtyard. Orange-and-white koi moved ponderously through a foot of green water. Around the pond, plants thrived in bordered flower beds: bright red and yellow canna flowers with big leaves, small purple and scarlet clusters of verbena, and dandelion-gold stars of yellow bush daisy. Short palms and artfully pruned mesquite provided shade for aged wooden benches with wrought-iron frames. Beyond the courtyard curved the house, a two-story-high semicircle of arcades, shady balconies with ornate columns, arches, and wooden doorways.

Various traces of magic signatures slid past me, footprints of power left by dozens of guests. This was a thriving inn, frequented by many creatures of different talents. My parents' inn used to feel this way too: strong and vibrant. Alive. If this inn was a floodlight, Gertrude Hunt would be a flame in a lone lantern by comparison. That's okay, I promised myself. One day...

A man crouched by one of the flower beds, carefully digging at the soil with a hand rake. He looked to be in his late fifties, with silver in his dark hair and naturally bronze skin, weathered by time and the elements into deep wrinkles. A short, carefully trimmed beard hugged his jaw. A young woman stood next to him in a conservative blue dress and silvery pumps, her dark hair curled into a stylish updo. She was a couple of years older than me, but the look on her face was unmistakable. It was the look that any child past twelve would recognize and could perfectly duplicate. It said "I'm being chewed out by my parent. Again. Can you believe this?"

"...If I wanted to handle it myself, Isabella, I wouldn't have requested your help."

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