Shelter in place, p.10
Shelter in Place,
“It’s not yours.”
“You’re nineteen. Plenty of time to find your passion.”
“I tried sex.”
After a throaty laugh, CiCi toasted and drank. “Me, too. It’s a damn happy hobby.”
Amused, Simone scooped up some salsa. “I’m taking a break there.”
“Me, too. You’re an artist—and don’t contradict your grandmother. You’re an artist, with talent and with vision. Painting’s a good discipline for you, but it’s not your passion, and it’s not going to be your primary medium. Experiment.”
“With what? Dad’s still trying to nudge me into prelaw, and Mom thinks I should find a nice, reliable boyfriend.”
“They’re traditionalists, baby. They can’t help themselves. I’m not, but I can’t help it, either. So I’m going to say you’d be stupid to do either of those. Experiment,” she repeated, “with everything. For art, I’m going to give you what nobody wants: advice. You remember the August you spent here after the horrible?”
Simone looked out at the strip of beach, the rocks that edged it, the water beyond that never ended.
“I think it saved my sanity, so, yeah, I remember.”
“You and Mi spent a lot of time on the beach the week she was here. You built sandcastles. Mi’s were precise and pretty and traditional—very like her. And yours were fascinating and imaginative and fanciful.”
Simone took another drink. “So I should build sandcastles?”
“Create. Try clay for a start, see where it takes you. You took the basics last year.”
“How do you know?”
CiCi only smiled, sipped. “I know a lot of things. And knowing we were going to have this conversation, I ordered some supplies. They’re in my studio. We can share it, we’ll work out a rotation. Try it. If it’s not clay, it’ll be something else. Take the summer to start, see if you find out what your passion is.”
After checking Roberta Flisk off her list, Patricia decided she’d had enough of college. Besides boring her brainless, actually attending class and doing the work restricted her time and cut into her focus now that she’d experienced her first kill.
She moved back to Rockpoint and, with a little finagling, in with her grandparents. It thrilled them to have their sweet, considerate, helpful granddaughter under their roof.
She made sure of it because there was no way she’d move back to some crappy rental with her useless whinefest of a mother.
To satisfy her grandparents’ questions about her education, her future, Patricia took some online and community-college courses. They also served as a cover for her research on creating fake identification and credit cards.
She had plans.
She also had the run of her own wing in the dignified old mansion, a BMW Roadster, and already enough skills to skim from their accounts.
With the extra funds, she began to stockpile weapons, and to compile a healthy supply of cash.
She laughed at their jokes, ran errands, drove her grandmother to salon appointments, and made herself indispensable. The vague talk of looking for a job, investing in a career, faded like mist.
They never noticed.
At the same time, she bought and delivered groceries to her mother, made her duty visits, arranged for snow removal from the walk and driveway of the miserable rental.
And kept her head down.
She kept it down for the two years she waited to kill her mother. She considered it a reward for her patience, and her hard work playing the devoted daughter and granddaughter.
Everyone knew Marcia Hobart was a weak and troubled woman. A woman who had never sloughed off the guilt for her son’s actions, or the grief of his death.
Even when she’d turned to God, she’d chosen His most vengeful and punishing form. Her penance—as a Daughter of Eve—demanded a lifetime of suffering and regret.
The only light in her personal darkness came from her daughter (Patricia made sure of it). Surely if she’d given birth to a child of kindness and compassion, a child with a bright mind and a quiet demeanor, that made up, in part, for birthing a monster.
And still, she loved the monster.
Patricia used that love as a stealth weapon in the five years since the DownEast Mall.
She saw to it that articles on the shootings, ugly letters reviling Marcia as responsible, and death threats ended up in her mother’s hand. Some she mailed, others she taped to the front door or shoved under it. The night before she’d left for Columbia, she’d thrown a rock wrapped with a particularly vicious note through the living room window, then rushed inside to huddle screaming behind the sofa.
An anonymous tip had McMullen dogging Marcia—at home, at work. Marcia lost her second job. Though the lawyers would have kept her on, she moved farther away—another miserable rental—isolating herself.
She took pills to sleep, more pills to hold off the constant and increasing anxiety. Patricia planted the seeds with her grandparents of her own worries. Her mother sometimes mixed up the pills, or took a double dose because she’d forgotten she’d taken the first.
They, who’d cut Marcia off for divorcing their asshole of a son, showered Patricia with sympathy.
She planted nanny cams in her mother’s house so she could watch her. She knew just when to call from the drop phone she’d bought, how to wake her groggy mother up out of a Xanax-assisted sleep and whisper her brother’s name.
On visits she’d add an extra pill or two, grinding them into the soup the dutiful daughter prepared, then play old videos from when JJ was a baby.
She tearfully reported to her grandparents about finding her mother in a stupor on the couch with the videos playing. While still in college, she’d asked her instructors and professors—she’d majored in psychology—for advice. She arranged an accidental overdose, placed a frantic nine-one-one call, and held her mother’s limp hand in the ambulance.
She left the trail of a worried, loving daughter with a mother lost in pills and guilt. Even as she attended support groups for children of addicts, she found fresh ways to gaslight her mother.
On the night before her brother’s birthday, she slipped into the house, baked his favorite chocolate cake. Deliberately, she left ingredients scattered on the counter, the mixing bowl and pan in the sink, setting the stage.
Then she blew out the oven’s pilot light.
After waking her drug-addled mother, she led her into a kitchen smelling of chocolate and baking.
“It’s dark.” Marcia shuffled and swayed. “What time is it?”
“It’s time for cake! You baked such a nice one.”
“I did? I don’t remember.”
“JJ’s favorite chocolate cake. He wants you to light the candles, Mom.”
Marcia’s eyes darted around the room. “Is he here?”
“He’s coming. Turn on the TV. There’s the remote.”
Obediently, Marcia picked up the remote, and with Patricia guiding her fingers, hit play. On the TV, a grinning, gap-toothed JJ giggled as his mother lit his birthday candles.
“Light the candles, Mom. For JJ.”
“He was my sweet little boy.” Tears, sentiment, and guilt filled Marcia’s eyes. She took the long butane lighter, lit the candles. “He didn’t mean to be bad. He’s sorry. Look, look, he’s so happy. Why did he stop being happy?”
“You need to take your pills. JJ wants you to take your pills. They’re right there. You need to take your pills.”
“I took them. Didn’t I take them? I’m so tired. Where’s JJ? It’s dark outside. Little boys shouldn’t be out in the dark.”
“He’s coming. You need to take your pills for JJ’s birthday. I think you should take one for each candle.”
“Six candles, six pills. My baby boy is six.” Eyes damp as they stared at the TV screen, Marcia took six pills, one by one, with the wine Patricia had set beside them.
“That’s good, very good. JJ needs
“No. No. Where’s my little boy? JJ!”
“You have to light the curtains. If you squirt some of the lighter fluid on them, they make such a bright light. He’ll see it, and he’ll come home.”
Marcia picked up the can of fluid. For a moment Patricia wondered if she saw a kind of awareness in her mother’s eyes. Maybe a kind of relief. Marcia doused the curtains with the fluid, set them to flame.
“See how bright! You need to turn on the oven, Mom.”
“I baked the cake?”
“Just like always.” Taking Marcia’s arm, Patricia led her to the oven. “Turn on the oven.” And guided her mother’s hand to the knob.
“I’m so sleepy. I need to sleep.”
“Just turn on the oven, then you can take a nap.”
“Then JJ will come?”
“Oh, you’ll see JJ soon. Turn on the oven, that’s right. Why don’t you just lie down over here on the couch?”
As her mother collapsed on the couch, Patricia used a second lighter—one she would take with her—to light the already soaked living room curtains.
As she edged toward the door, she watched her mother’s slack face. “Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to JJ, Mom.”
Her voice slurred, her eyes closed, Marcia tried to sing.
By the time the gas fumes did their work, when they met flame and combusted, Patricia was in her bed in her grandparents’ house.
She slept like a baby.
* * *
The phone on Reed’s nightstand signaled an alert. He rolled over, scooped it up, squinted at it.
“Cop stuff?” Eloise Matherson stirred beside him.
“Yeah.” Not directly, he thought, but since he’d followed Essie’s tack with alerts on incidents connected to the DownEast Mall, not one he wanted to ignore, either.
“How it goes.” She stirred again. “Want me to take off?”
“No, go back to sleep. I’ll text you later.” He gave her butt an easy pat as he got out of bed.
Their friends with—occasional—benefits status suited them both. Nothing serious, as the friends aspect of the equation remained the priority.
He grabbed some clothes in the dark and, taking a quick shower, thought about Marcia Hobart.
He had a file on her, and he’d refresh himself there, but he remembered she’d been divorced when her son had opened fire in the DownEast Mall Cineplex. Hobart had lived with his father, and his younger sister with the mother.
Domestic worker, he recalled as he pulled on jeans. Moved twice—that he knew of—since the shooting.
His alert reported firefighters battling a five-alarm blaze at her current residence—one that threatened neighboring properties. They’d recovered a single body inside the Hobart residence.
He snapped on his off-duty weapon, grabbed his keys and a bottle of Mountain Dew from the refrigerator. Chugging some, he jogged down the two flights of steps from his apartment to the weedy gravel lot and his car.
The car, the same Dodge Neon his parents had given him when he’d graduated high school, was pretty much a piece of crap. Just the way his apartment building was pretty much a dump.
He’d opted to make do and follow Essie’s lead, saving whatever he could toward a down payment to buy a house.
And as it turned out, his dump of an apartment put him five minutes from Marcia Hobart’s address.
In under two he heard sirens.
When he spotted patrol cars, he pulled over to park. He recognized one of the uniforms working the barricades, aimed for him.
“Quartermaine. In the neighborhood?”
“Not far. What do you know?”
“My ass from a hole in the ground.”
“Good you confirmed that. What else?”
“Heard the nine-one-ones reported an explosion and the fire. House down there is toast with a crispy critter inside. Smoke eaters are still knocking it down. The house on the east side took a hit, but everybody got out.”
“Mind if I walk down?”
“No skin off mine.”
He could see the firefighters in turnout gear silhouetted against the snaps and pulse of fire. Spumes of water arced through the haze of smoke and raining ash. Civilians stood back, clutching children or each other. Some wept.
He heard the bark of orders, the crackle of radios.
And saw Bushner had it right. The house where the beleaguered Marcia Hobart lived was toast. He watched it fold in on itself, shooting flames and firefly sparks into the smoke-choked dark. More hoses attacked the flames crawling up the west wall of the house on the east side, still more soaked down the walls of the house on the west to stop the spread.
The patch of lawn in front of all three houses, the narrow strips between, were a blackened morass of soaked ash and mud.
He scanned the crowd, considered the young couple with the infant in the woman’s arms and a yellow Lab at their feet. Tears streamed down the woman’s face as they stared at the east-side house.
Reed moved toward them.
“Is that your place?”
The man, late twenties by Reed’s gauge, with a sleep-tousled mop of blond hair, nodded as he put an arm around the woman. “It’s burning. Our house is on fire.”
“They’re putting it out. And you got out. You and your family got out.”
“We just moved in two weeks ago. We haven’t even finished unpacking.”
Reed watched the water drowning the flames. “You’re going to have some damage, but nothing you can’t fix.”
The woman sucked in a sob, turned her face into her husband’s shoulder. “It’s our fixer-upper, Rob. We bought a fixer-upper.”
“It’ll be all right, Chloe. We’re going to make it all right.”
“Would you mind telling me what happened? What you know. Sorry.” Reed pulled out his ID. “Not just nosy.”
Chloe swiped at tears. “God. God. Custer, our dog, started barking and woke the baby. I was so mad because we’d barely gotten her down. She’s not sleeping through the night, and I’d just fed her at around two. It was just after three when Custer started barking, and the baby started crying.”
“I got up. My turn,” Rob said. “I got up, and I yelled at the dog. I yelled at him.” Rob bent down now to stroke the Lab, who leaned on him. “But he wouldn’t quit. I glanced out the window. It just didn’t register at first—the light—then I looked, and I saw the house next door. I saw the fire. I could see the fire through the windows of the house next door.”
“Rob yelled at me to get up, get the baby. I grabbed Audra, and Rob grabbed the phone to call nine-one-one while we were running out of the bedroom.”
“Something exploded.” Fire reflected in Rob’s eyes before he pressed his fingers to them. “It was just this boom. Our bedroom windows shattered.”
“The glass. If Custer hadn’t— The glass flew. Audra had been in her bassinet on the window side of our bed. If Custer hadn’t barked, woken us up, the glass…”
“That’s a good dog.”
“We ran out,” Chloe continued. “We didn’t even stop to get anything, just ran out while Rob called nine-one-one.”
“You did just right. You got your family out. That’s what matters. Fire’s out,” he told them.
“Oh God. It didn’t burn down. Rob, it didn’t burn down.”
“You’ll fix it, and I’m betting you’ll make something special out of it. Look, if you need anything—supplies, clothes, hands to help put things back together?” He pulled a card out of his pocket. “My mother’s always organizing something, so she knows a lot of people. I can hook you up.”
“Thank you.” Chloe knuckled another tear away while Rob slipped the card in his pocket. “Do you know when they’ll let us go back in? Go in and see?”
“That’ll be up to the fire department, and they’ll want
He moved off to one of the pumpers, spotted a sweat-and-soot-soaked Michael Foster.
“Reed. What are you doing out here?”
“JJ Hobart’s mom—that used to be her house.”
Michael’s eyes sharpened in his soot-covered face. “You’re sure about that?”
“That’s my information.”
“Son of a bitch.” Michael sucked in air. “Son of a fucking bitch.” And released it in a hiss. “Hobart,” he murmured, “again.”
“I know, man. Look, have you got a minute?”
“Not now, but I will have in a few.”
“I’ll hang until you do. Meanwhile, that couple over there with the dog and the baby? That’s their house you guys just saved. Is there somebody who can talk to them?”
“Yeah, I’ll send somebody over. Hobart’s mother? Did she live alone?”
“As far as I know.”
“Then there’s not much left of her.”
Reed figured there wasn’t any harm in talking to some of the people still gathered outside, on the street, on their own lawns, on their porches.
The main impression he formed said Marcia Hobart hadn’t just kept to herself, she’d isolated herself. His secondary impression was the neighbors hadn’t known her relationship with the organizer of the DownEast Mall massacre.
He turned, saw the old woman in a creaky rocker on a creaky porch. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You a reporter or some such?”
“No, ma’am, I’m a police officer.”
“You don’t look much like a police. You come on up here.”
She had a face like a raisin, golden brown and wrinkled beneath a snowball of hair. Glasses rested on the tip of her nose as she eyed him up and down.
“Good-looking boy, I’ll give you that. What kind of police are you?”
“Officer Reed Quartermaine, ma’am.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“I’m trying to be good police.”
“Well, some are, some aren’t. Maybe you will be. Sit down here, ’cause I’m getting a crick in my neck looking up at you.”
Shelter in Place by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love / History & Fiction / Thrillers & Crime / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.7 out of 5 / Based on33 votes