Low Midnight Page 47

Cormac only had a few minutes to do this. Carefully and methodically, because rushing wouldn’t do a bit of good, he went to the back of the house, trotted up the steps to a back porch and rickety door, which he opened slowly, waiting for hinges to squeak. He stepped inside, slowly closed the door behind him, without a sound. Layne most likely took Kuzniak’s book to the house and set it down somewhere. Hell, the guy might even be reading it, to try to pick up where Kuzniak left off.

The inside was exactly what he’d expect from a bunch of bachelor types sharing a house. The place had an unwashed, dirty laundry odor to it. The door opened into a mudroom and kitchen. Beyond the kitchen doorway was a living room containing a worn sofa, armchairs, and a big LCD TV that was no doubt the most expensive, well-kept thing in the house. The kitchen smelled of burned coffee, but the rest of the place seemed to have been cleaned recently—the floor and surfaces weren’t as grimy as he expected, even if dirty dishes filled the sink. He studied all the surfaces, imagining what Layne would have done when he came in, the first place he might have gone, where he’d have been likely to set the book. He hoped he wouldn’t have to go looking upstairs for it.

He went down a hall along a threadbare runner on a hardwood floor, passed by the staircase—and found it there, lying on the sixth or so stair up, along with wallets and car keys and all the other detritus guys pulled out of their pockets when they came home. Exactly where Layne must have set it after walking in, because the sucker didn’t know what he had, just wanted to keep it out of Cormac’s hands. Fair enough. Cormac grabbed it—and paused when a creaking sounded on the stairs above him. He didn’t give himself time to process the sound and what it meant, just slipped the book in his pocket and headed to the back door so he could get out of there before anyone had a chance to catch him.

The footsteps pounded down the stairs, chasing after him. Whoever it was had seen him, and he wasn’t going to make it to the back door before they overtook him. He ducked into the kitchen to hide behind the wall, and waited.

The steps continued through the entrance way, and Cormac prepared to tackle whoever came into view. Legs braced, fists up.

It was Mollie.

The first thing he noticed, she had a semiautomatic in her hand, down by her leg, finger resting on the trigger guard. She was in a blue T-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms, her hair tied up with an elastic, makeup washed from her face. Her eyes widened when she spotted him, and he put his finger to his lips, a request for quiet. They stood like that a moment, and part of him figured he should maybe just knock her over and run like hell. But he didn’t. He put his hands up, tried to project calm.

He hoped that wasn’t her car he just blew up.

A whump and a whoosh blew from outside the front of the house, the fire spreading. Guys shouting for water, a fireextinguisher. Cormac had lingered here too long, and any second now someone was going to come in looking for that extinguisher. Mollie still didn’t say anything. Didn’t draw on him, either.

Gently, he put a hand on her shoulder, urged her aside so he could slip past her and through the doorway. Her expression turned quizzical, but he wasn’t going to give himself away any more than he already had by answering her look. He nodded a thanks, backed away, and strode out the back door.

He kept expecting her to come after him, to yell at him to stop, for shots from her gun to ring out. None of that happened.

You are very lucky, Amelia thought at him as he continued down to the back of the property to slip over the barbed wire before Layne and his gang noticed.

Yeah, he figured he was.

*   *   *

AFTER A quick but careful trek through the woods, he returned to the Jeep and drove about thirty miles or so before stopping in a turnoff and taking a look at the notebook he’d gone through all that trouble for. Worst case, it would be in code, like Amy Scanlon’s, and the wild goose chase would start all over again.

His luck was holding—the book wasn’t in code.

The guy had sloppy handwriting and used a lot of abbreviations that needed interpreting, but once he got used to it he could read it okay. Not that any of it made much sense. There were recipes, diagrams, instructions, observations written in the form of experiments, like he was a chemist trying to come up with just the right formula. Mostly, Cormac let the contents flow through him, to Amelia.

He was a great experimenter, wasn’t he? Amelia observed. Definitely more of an alchemical magician than a folklorist or ceremonial ritualist, like Amy was. Definitely spent much time working on protection magic—I imagine that would be the most easily commodified skill to have if he was approaching people like Anderson Layne for work.

Cormac sat back and let her read whatever she wanted, flipping back and forth, studying certain passages and referencing them with others. She kept up a running commentary, as if she were reading over his shoulder.

“So it was worth it?” he asked finally. “Burning up Layne’s place to get this was worth it?”

I don’t imagine you burned his entire place. That fire would die down soon enough, I think. But yes, I do believe it was very much worth it. This is fascinating.

“Then is it okay if we maybe hold off on the book club and get back home?” He turned the engine back on to encourage her.

Helpfully, she retreated from the fore and let him return the book to his pocket. They only had one set of eyes between them and couldn’t read and drive at the same time.

They were back on the freeway when Amelia said, Do you think Layne will attempt some kind of retribution for the attack?

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