She sniffed. There was a strange smell in the air, like a greasy roast left too long in the oven. She waddled into the kitchen but it was empty. The dishes were heaped up, and the place was a mess as usual, stale food everywhere, and yet the smell wasn't coming from here. It looked like Mr. Jeremy had cooked fish the night before. She didn't usually clean his house on Tuesdays, but he'd had one of his countless dinner parties the prior evening. Labor Day had come and gone a month before, but Mr. Jeremy's weekend parties wouldn't end until November.
She went into the living room and sniffed the air again. Something was definitely cooking somewhere. And there was another smell on top of it, as if somebody had been playing with matches.
Agnes Torres felt a vague sense of alarm. Everything was more or less as she had left it when she went away yesterday, at two in the afternoon, except that the ashtrays were overflowing with butts and the usual empty wine bottles stood on the sideboard, dirty dishes were piled in the sink, and someone had dropped soft cheese on the rug and stepped in it.
She raised her plump face and sniffed again. The smell came from above.
She mounted the sweep of stairs, treading softly, and paused to sniff at the landing. She tiptoed past Grove's study, past his bedroom door, continued down the hall, turned the dogleg, and came to the door to the third floor. The smell was stronger here and the air was heavier, warmer. She tried to open the door but found it locked.
She took out her bunch of keys, clinked through them, and unlocked the door. Madre de Diosthe smell was much worse. She mounted the steep unfinished stairs, one, two, three, resting her arthritic legs for a moment on each tread. She rested again at the top, breathing heavily.
The attic was vast, with one long hall off which were half a dozen unused children's bedrooms, a playroom, several bathrooms, and an unfinished attic space jammed with furniture and boxes and horrible modern paintings.
At the far end of the hall, she saw a bar of yellow light under the door to the last bedroom.
She took a few tentative steps forward, paused, crossed herself again. Her heart was hammering, but with her hand clutching the rosary she knew she was safe. As she approached the door, the smell grew steadily worse.
She tapped lightly on it, just in case some guest of Mr. Jeremy was sleeping in there, hungover or sick. But there was no response. She grasped the doorknob and was surprised to find it slightly warm to the touch. Was there a fire? Had somebody fallen asleep, cigarette in hand? There was definitely a faint smell of smoke, but it wasn't just smoke somehow: it was something stronger. Something foul.
She tried the doorknob, found it locked. It reminded her of the time, when she was a little girl at the convent school, when crazy old Sister Ana had died and they had to force open her door.
Somebody on the other side might need her assistance; might be sick or incapacitated. Once again she fumbled with the keys. She had no idea which one went to the door, so it wasn't until perhaps the tenth try that the key turned. Holding her breath, she opened the door, but it moved only an inch before stopping, blocked by something. She pushed, pushed harder, heard a crash on the other side.
Santa María, it was going to wake up Mr. Jeremy. She waited, but there was no sound of his tread, no slamming bathroom door or flushing toilet, none of the sounds that signaled his irascible rising.
She pushed at the door and was able to get her head inside, holding her breath against the smell. A thin screen of haze drifted in the room, and it was as hot as an oven. The room had been shut up for yearsMr. Jeremy despised childrenand dirty spiderwebs hung from the peeling beadboard walls. The crash had been caused by the toppling of an old armoire that had been pushed up against the door. In fact, all the furniture in the room seemed to have been piled against the door, except for the bed. The bed, she could see, was on the far side of the room. Mr. Jeremy lay on it, fully clothed.
From Brimstone by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child; chapter 1 (pages 1-5 of the hardcover edition). Copyright © 2004 by Lincoln Child and Splendide Mendax, Inc.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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