Low Midnight Page 24

Cormac sat back and considered. On the one hand, this sounded like someone who knew something. On the other hand, they were sure being cagey about it. Kitty’s Web guru had shown him how to check for IP addresses and e-mail origins, but when he dug into the header on this one, it didn’t tell him anything. The sender was using the same methods to hide his identity that Cormac used. Whoever sent this, man or woman or something else entirely, Cormac didn’t trust them. Of course he didn’t. But it was a thread to follow.

He wrote a reply using his own anonymous e-mail, dangling a piece of information as bait, to see what bit. “Yes, the book belonged to Amy Scanlon. She was a magician. Worked with a vampire named Kumarbis.” He hit SEND and was prepared to wait for an answer, but the mail box pinged a reply after just a minute. The sender was online and ready to respond.

His blood warmed and his senses focused on the job in front of him. This was almost like hunting.

The reply read: “Where is Kumarbis?”

Dead, destroyed, but Cormac wasn’t ready to say that. He replied, “I don’t know.” True enough, from a certain point of view. He waited.

Another message popped up. “Who are you? You have her book—did you inherit it? Are you an apprentice of hers?”

Cormac wasn’t doing a good job of fishing for information if the other guy was asking all the questions. Amy had had a checkered history; this might have been a previous teacher of hers or some other magical associate. Cormac wanted to keep him, or her, talking. “I’m a student of magic,” he wrote back. “Just curious.”

The reply came a moment later: “So am I.”

“And who exactly are you?” Cormac sent back.

No immediate reply came, and none came after another stretch of waiting. The guy must have logged off. Or been scared off.

He shut off the laptop, sat back and considered. They’d put the book online because they wanted to see what it would dredge up. Well, here they were then. This could still be some crackpot. But the guy knew something. Maybe not how to break the code, but something. Cormac would just have to figure out how to draw him out.

*   *   *

LAYNE CALLED later that day, which was quicker than Cormac had expected him to.

“Cormac!” Layne said, as if they were old friends. “I pretty much figured you’d given me a fake number.”

Fake numbers were too much work. “I wouldn’t do that, I’m not some girl you’re trying to pick up in a bar,” Cormac answered.

Layne’s chuckle was uncertain. “You’re pretty funny.”

Yeah, right. “You said you’d have something for me, Layne.”

“You want to come down to my place? Talk about it in person?”

Not really, he thought. This is the only way to learn more about Kuzniak, Amelia reminded him. Even though this felt like walking into a bear’s denin springtime.

“Sure,” he said, and Layne gave him directions.

The roads to Layne’s parcel of land in the hills of Fremont County weren’t marked; most of them weren’t even professionally built, but rather tracks that had been worn into the ground over time. The point was obvious—if you didn’t get directions straight from Layne, or you didn’t already know where you were going, you weren’t supposed to be there. The last turn was a two-rut 4x4 trail cutting through a stand of scrub oak that opened out into a typical farmstead. An unkempt barbed wire fence, posts rotted and close to falling down, ringed the open pastureland. A post-and-wire gate could be pulled across the road, but lay off to the side for now. A square metal sign hung on the wire nearby: NO TRESPASSING it read, predictably. He drove on.

The house was a two-story clapboard box, probably a hundred years old, in decent repair. Nothing was falling off it, the roof was in one piece, and the paint wasn’t too badly worn. TV dish on the roof. The barn nearby was in less good shape: unpainted, wooden sides weathered to a pale gray, roof patched with sheets of tin. The remnants of corrals marked off with rotted posts indicated the place hadn’t functioned as a working ranch in a long time. A half-dozen cars and trucks, some of them covered in tarps, some of them in pieces, were parked outside the barn, along with rusted equipment—tractor frames, chain drags, and old-fashioned mowers—long ago grown over with grass and weeds.

A handful of newer, functional cars and trucks sat outside the house, and Cormac headed there, parking at the end of the row.

When he got out of the Jeep, he heard the steady pop of small arms fire on the other side of the house.

The twitch of anxiety in the back of his mind was Amelia’s. A shootout? Here?

She still had some romantic notions about the West. This wasn’t a shootout. Yes, he heard more than one gun firing—but the shots were controlled, evenly spaced out, steady. He came around to the back of the house and saw the firing range, a homemade setup, soda cans and empty beer bottles on straw bales about thirty yards out. Layne’s two sidekicks from the other day were shooting semiautomatic handguns, managing to hit most of what they were aiming at. A couple of other guys, more of Layne’s followers, Cormac guessed, stood by to wait their turn. Layne hung back, leaning on a fence to watch, along with Milo Kuzniak. Kuzniak was flipping the pages of a pocket-sized book, ignoring everyone else.

Knowing it would be a terrible idea to sneak up on these guys at this particular moment, he scuffed his feet on the dirt path circling the house and called a hello to Layne. One of the sidekicks still spun around, gun raised, a wild look in his eyes. Like he really was going to shoot at intruders. Cormac was expecting this and didn’t even flinch. He was pretty sure that even if he did shoot, the guy was in too much of a panic to actually hit him.

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