A shaft of the hallway light kissed the tops of his shoulders, giving Arden an ethereal glow.
Laina folded her arms. “What on earth made you think I came to visit Simmy?”
“We call this area the Cauldron for a reason. Folks come here for drugs or the occult. I can usually spot an addict. Unless you’re better at hidin’ it than most, I don’t reckon that’s what brought you to my neck of the woods.” He gazed up into her face from his crouched position. “Simmy’s trouble, Laina.”
Laina shifted in her seat, blinking against the intensity of his hazel eyes. “Anyway, it was just for the article I’m writing.”
“I don’t think so.” Arden shook his head and stood. He strode to the table and grabbed a red plastic cup. A hiss escaped as he untwisted the soda cap to pour her drink. “Folks read books to get the info to write about hell. They don’t visit in person. You didn’t take the bus out here just to do research. There’s more to it than that.”
“I suppose.” She sighed. “It’s been the worst week. If you don’t mind, Reverend, I’d really appreciate it if you’d spare me the sermons about judgment.”
“Judgment?” He chuckled. “That’s about the most upside down thing I ever heard.”
“So, you’re trying to say that’s not where you were heading?”
“Not aimin’ within a country mile of it. Ain’t my style.” Golden bubbles fizzed against his arched hand as Arden offered her the drink.
“Oh, guess I got a little confused by the reference to hell.” She sipped the room-temperature soda. Effervescence crawled down her gullet, failing to quell the parch scratching within it. She clawed under the amulet’s chain at her chafing neck.
“I was tryin’ to help you. Which’d be a heck of a lot easier if you’d let me.” He pulled up a chair to sit within a bistro table’s distance, about six inches from her knees.
“Not sure you can help.” Laina pressed the cup against her throat.
“I need a chance to try before it’s fair to give up on me.”
She rested the trembling cup on her leg.”I’m afraid of freaking you out, to be honest. This probably isn’t up your alley.”
“I hang out with prostitutes, gang-bangers, and addicts. Whatever you’re dealing with, I’ve probably heard worse.”
“You’ll probably think I’m nuts. Which I haven’t ruled out myself.” She shot a glance at him.
He tipped up the brim of his cowboy hat, his gentle smile rousing dimples in his cheeks. “Why don’t you tell me what’s goin’ on, and I’ll let you know.”
She tried to clear her throat, but a tremor lingered in her voice. “You know about the murders in my apartment building, right?”
His grin faded. “Yes. Heard there was another incident last night, too.”
“Other things are happening around me. I didn’t know why. And the attack on the street was just one of them.” The amulet grew warmer and the chain prickled against her skin. “There was a ghost at my desk.”
“You didn’t tell me you saw a spirit.” He leaned forward.
“Then Rory tried to force his way into my apartment.” The heat of the necklace intensified, scathing her chest. She grabbed at it through her shirt.
“Wait, who tried to force their way into your apartment?”
“I should probably just show you.” She drew the medallion out of her shirt. The green jewel’s glow flashed an angry pulse.
Half of an expletive escaped Arden’s lips before he clapped a hand over his mouth.
“It amplifies fear and attracts evil. On an apocalyptic scale.” Hot tears spilled down her cheeks. “Simmy said it won’t even matter if I take it off. I can’t get rid of it.”
“Simmy didn’t tell you everything.” Arden kicked the chair out behind him and rose, nostrils flaring. “We need to get that off of you. Now.”
“Whom have you so dreaded and feared
that you have not been true to me,
and have neither remembered me
nor taken this to heart?” Isaiah 57:11