Shelter in place, p.11
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       Shelter in Place, p.11

           Nora Roberts

  He sat in the equally creaky chair beside hers.

  “You being the police, you’d know who the woman was who died in that house tonight.” She pushed the glasses back up her nose to peer through them at the smoldering rubble across the street. “Maybe you’re not stupid police as you know to keep your mouth shut waiting to see if I know what I know. That poor woman had a son go bad on her, and he killed people. DownEast Mall.”

  “Can I ask how you know that?”

  “I pay attention, that’s how. I got clippings from back when it happened, and some have her picture. She didn’t age well since, but I saw who she was.”

  “Did you talk to her, or anybody else about that?”

  “Why would I?” With a sad shake of her head, she looked back at Reed. “She was just trying to live her life, to get by. I had a son go bad on me. He didn’t kill anybody, as far as I know, but he went bad all the same. I’ve got another son and a girl who make me proud every day. I did my best by all of them, but I had a son go bad. She was a sad, troubled woman.”

  “Were you friendly with her?”

  “She wasn’t friendly with anybody. She just holed up in there, went off to work, came back, and shut herself in.”

  “Any visitors?” Reed prodded.

  “The only person I ever saw go inside would be her daughter. She’d come by now and again, stay awhile. She’d bring groceries every couple weeks. Saw her bring flowers this past Mother’s Day. Did her duty.”

  Patricia Hobart, Reed remembered. JJ’s younger sister. “Did you ever talk to the daughter?”

  “Ayuh, a time or two. Polite, but closemouthed all the same. She asked me if there might be a young boy willing to cut the grass, shovel snow, and that sort of thing, so I told her to ask about Jenny Molar, two doors down there. She’s a good girl, helps me out when I need it—and more reliable than most boys. Jenny, she told me the daughter paid her what she asked, and told her not to bother her mother. How she wasn’t real well, and shy with it. So the daughter did her duty by her mother, no more, no less.”

  He caught the tone. “No more?”

  “That’s how I see it, but I have high standards.” She smiled, then looked back across the street. “Shame about the house. It wasn’t much, but it could’ve been better. The man who owns it isn’t worth a half bucket of spit, so he didn’t mind having it rented out to somebody who wouldn’t dog him about repairs. I guess he’ll collect his insurance and sell off the plot.”

  While Reed considered that, she gave him another long study. “My grandson’s a police. Officer Curtis A. Sloop.”

  “Seriously? Come on. I know Sloopy.”

  She tipped down her glasses again. “Is that so?”

  “Yes, ma’am. We went to the Academy together, and were rooks the same year. He’s good police.”

  “He’s trying to be. If you talk to him before I do, you tell him you met his granny.” She offered a hand, small and delicate as a doll’s. “Mrs. Leticia Johnson.”

  “I sure will, and I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Johnson.”

  “You go be good police, young, good-looking Reed Quartermaine. And maybe you’ll come by and see me sometime.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  He left her rocking, hunted up Michael. Found him talking with Essie.

  “Your case?” he asked her.

  “It is now.” With her hands on her hips, she studied the wreck and rubble. “The arson investigator’s already in there, so we’ll see. Official ID of the body’s going to take awhile.”

  “I hear the landlord isn’t big on repair and maintenance.”

  Essie slanted him a look. “Is that what you hear?”

  “Mrs. Leticia Johnson—her grandson’s on the job. I know him, he’s solid. She’s sitting on the porch across the street. You’ll want to talk to her. Chloe and Rob, from the house next door, were awakened by their dog barking about three a.m. Rob got up, as the barking woke up the baby in the baby thing beside the bed. He saw the fire, got his wife up, grabbed the phone to call it in while they headed out. The explosion came next, shattered their bedroom windows.”

  Essie’s eyebrows lifted. “You’ve been busy, Officer.”

  “Well, I was here anyway. She lived alone, didn’t socialize, didn’t have visitors except for the daughter. The daughter came by occasionally, brought groceries every couple weeks, hired a local kid to cut the grass, shovel snow in the winter.”

  “You bucking for a gold shield, Officer Quartermaine?”

  He smiled. “Next year.” He turned to Michael. “Do you think arson?”

  “I can’t say. I can say it looks like two points of origin—kitchen and living room, and my best guess would be curtains. It wasn’t a gas leak, most likely gas from the stove. Actually, the explosion was fairly contained, and that’ll help the investigators determine cause.”

  “My partner’s talking to the neighbors. I think I’ll walk over and have a chat with Mrs. Johnson. Officer Quartermaine?”

  “Detective McVee.”

  “I’m requesting you be assigned to this investigative unit.”

  “Hot damn.”

  “Start by canvassing the block. Write up your notes.”

  She walked across the street, leaving him grinning.

  * * *

  Simone broke under relentless, benign family pressure. While her father conceded his dream of his oldest following in his lawyer footsteps wasn’t to be, the change of tack worked.

  She would focus her studies on business management. She’d had her scattershot period, her parents told her, and now she had to buckle down. A degree in business management would keep her focused, open doors, forge a future.

  She tried. She pushed herself so hard in the next semester even the responsible Mi urged her to ease off, take some breaks.

  She ended the year with grades that made her parents beam, and spent the summer working as an assistant to the assistant of the manager of the accounting branch of her father’s firm.

  By the end of June, she was back in therapy.

  In August, plagued with headaches, ten pounds underweight, with a wardrobe of suits she hated, she thought of the girl she’d been, the one who’d called for help, then hidden in a bathroom stall.

  The one who’d feared she’d die before she’d lived.

  And realized there were other ways to die.

  She chose to live.

  On the night before she left for New York, she sat down with her parents and Natalie.

  “I can’t believe both our girls are heading off to college,” Tulip began. “What are we going to do, Ward, with our empty nest? Natalie off to Harvard, and Simone off to Columbia.”

  “I’m not going back to Columbia.”

  “We’re just so … What?”

  Simone kept her hands gripped together in her lap. They wanted to shake. “I’m going back to New York, but I’m not going back to college.”

  “Of course you are. You had a brilliant third year.”

  “I hated every minute of it. I hated working in the law firm this summer. I can’t keep doing what I hate, what I’m not.”

  “This is the first I’m hearing about it.” Ward shoved up, stalked across the room to mix himself a drink. “Your evaluations were glowing. Just as Natalie’s were in her internship. We don’t quit in this family, Simone, or take our advantages for granted. You disappoint me.”

  It stung. Of course it stung, as he’d meant it to. But she’d prepared herself for that.

  “I know I do, and I know I might always disappoint you. But I gave you a year of my life. I did everything you wanted me to do, and I can’t do it anymore.”

  “Why do you have to spoil everything?”

  She spun around to face Natalie to take some of the burning sting out on her sister. “What am I spoiling for you? You’re doing what you want, what you’re good at. Go do it, be good at it. Be the perfect white sheep to my black.”

  “Your sister’s mature enough to understand she need
s a foundation, she needs goals, and she has parents who’ve given her a foundation, and support her goals.”

  “They match yours,” Simone told her mother. “Mine don’t.”

  “Since when have you had goals?” Natalie muttered.

  “I’m working on it. I’m going back to New York. I’m going to take some art classes—”

  “Oh, for God’s sake.” Tulip threw up her hands. “I knew this was CiCi’s doing.”

  “I haven’t even talked to her about it. While I’ve been trying to please you, I disappointed her. But here’s the thing. She’s never thrown it in my face, not once. That’s the difference. She’s never tried to shove me into a box where I don’t fit because it was what she wanted. I’m going to take art classes, I’m going to find out if I’m any good. I’m going to find out if I can be better than good.”

  “And just how do you plan to support yourself?” Ward demanded. “You can’t throw your education away and expect us to pay for it.”

  “I don’t. I’ll get a job.”

  “At some dump of a coffee shop?” Natalie tossed out.

  “If necessary.”

  “It’s obvious you haven’t thought this through.”

  “Mom, I haven’t thought of anything else for weeks. Look at me. Please, really look at me. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I’ve got a closet full of clothes you picked out and bought. My social life this summer’s revolved around the appropriate son of a friend you handpicked for me. The clothes don’t fit, and the son of a friend bores me to death. But I wore them, and I dated him, and I lay awake at night with my head pounding. I’ve been seeing Dr. Mattis since June, three times a week, and paying for it out of my savings so you wouldn’t know.”

  “You’ll take a semester off,” Tulip decided, her eyes going shiny with tears. “You’ll rest, and we’ll take a trip. We’ll—”

  “Tulip.” Ward spoke gently now, coming back to sit without his drink. “Simone, why didn’t you tell us you starting seeing Dr. Mattis again?”

  “Because I knew part of the reason I needed to go back to him was you, and it’s not your fault. It’s just reality. It’s me not being what you hope for. It’s me closing myself into that bathroom stall in my head, and being afraid to open the door. I have to open the door. I’m sorry,” she said as she rose, “but you have to let me. I’m of age, and I’ve made my choice. I’m leaving tonight.”

  “We’re going to talk this through,” Tulip insisted.

  “There’s nothing more to say, so I’m leaving tonight. My bags are in my car,” she added, but didn’t tell them she intended to go to the island first. She needed that bridge before she stepped into the unknown. “Natalie’s leaving tomorrow, and you should have tonight with her. I love you, but I can’t be here.”

  She walked out quickly, and Natalie ran after her.

  “How could you treat them that way?” Furious, she grabbed Simone’s arm. “You’re ungrateful and mean. Why can’t you just be normal?”

  “You sucked up all the normal left around here. Enjoy it.”

  She wrenched her arm away, got in her car as Natalie shouted at her. “Selfish, stupid, crazy.”

  As she drove, she thought of the day she’d walked out of her old coffee shop job. She couldn’t say she felt happy this time, but she could say she felt free.

  * * *

  For a year she waited tables to pay her share of the rent. She wasn’t so proud and independent that she refused checks from CiCi to help defray other expenses, including her classes, her supplies. But she helped herself there, too, by modeling for students.

  As she did two nights a week—three, if she got lucky—Simone stepped onto the platform in front of a class, shed her robe, and posed as instructed. Tonight, right arm bent at the elbow, palm open and up, left hand resting just above and between her breasts.

  It didn’t embarrass her to pose naked any more than it embarrassed her to sketch or to sculpt a naked model. And the modeling fees helped pay for the instruction, the sketchbooks, the clay, the firing, the tools.

  She’d learned she was good, and believed she could be better than good.

  * * *

  While Patricia baked her dead brother a birthday cake to commemorate the anniversary of her mother’s death, Simone let herself back into her apartment after a long day, poured herself a glass of wine, and was happy.


  In April of 2013, Essie gave birth to a healthy baby boy she and the besotted father named Dylan. As her partner retired that same month, she requested Detective Reed Quartermaine as her new partner when she returned from maternity leave.

  Though she happily took that leave, she kept her finger in the pie with regular news, gossip, and reports from her future partner.

  Her life, Essie thought as she crept out of the bedroom where her husband and baby slept, had taken so many unexpected turns.

  She’d never expected to become a detective second grade, much less part of the Major Crimes squad. She’d never expected to have a man as sweet, funny, smart, and sexy as Hank in her life. She sure as hell hadn’t expected the dizzying wave of love she felt whenever she looked at or even thought about her son.

  Her life had taken a turn one night in July, and out of tragedy, the path from it had been, well, pretty damn great.

  She poured herself a glass of herbal tea over ice, grabbed one of the magazines off the stack, walked out to sit on the front porch and watch her little world go by.

  She’d probably fall asleep—and she should be upstairs doing just that. Sleep when the baby sleeps had been her mother’s advice. But she wanted the spring air and a little time to bask.

  Maybe they’d take the baby out for a stroll later. And maybe the fresh air would help three-week-old Dylan sleep longer than his record of two hours and thirty-seven minutes.

  It could happen.

  Maybe she and Hank could snuggle up together, watch a movie—and, if she pumped first, drink a little wine.

  Maybe …

  She dozed off in her Adirondack chair.

  Came awake with a start, reaching for the weapon she wasn’t wearing.

  “Sorry! Sorry.” Reed held his hands up. One of them held a bouquet of pink-and-white-striped tulips. “I didn’t mean to wake you up. I was just going to leave these.”

  “What time is it?”

  “About five-thirty.”

  “Okay, okay.” She sighed. “I just dropped off for a few minutes. You brought me tulips.”

  “I have it on good authority—my sister—that people tend to forget the sleep-deprived mom after the first couple weeks. Why aren’t you sleeping inside the house?”

  “I wasn’t going to sleep yet. Sit down. My boys are snoozing upstairs. I could use the company to keep me from drooling on the porch. Wait, go on in and get a drink first. There’s this tea, there’s beer.”

  “I could use a beer.”

  At home at her place, he went in, got a cold bottle, popped it. He came back, sat down with her. “How ya doing?”

  “Honestly, I never thought anybody could be so damn happy. And the hits keep coming. Hank told me today he’s decided to take a year’s sabbatical. He’s going to be a stay-at-home dad. I don’t have to think about leaving Dylan with a nanny or at a daycare.”

  When her eyes teared up, she slapped her own cheeks. “God, God, hormones. Will they ever go back to normal? Talk cop to me. That’ll work.”

  “We closed the Bower case.”

  “You got her.”

  “Yeah, the greedy, scheming widow’s booked. Her boyfriend flipped. He gets the deal, she gets murder one.”

  He filled her in on a couple of open cases, made her laugh over some office gossip.

  “I looked at a couple more houses over the weekend.”

  “Reed, you’ve been looking at houses for nearly a year now.”

  “Yeah, but none looks back and says: Here I am.”

  “Maybe you’re too fussy, and you’re going to end up living yo
ur life in that shitcan of an apartment.”

  “An apartment’s just a place to sleep. A house has to be right.”

  She couldn’t disagree, and yet. “That place I waddled into with you a couple months ago was great.”

  “It was close. No direct hit. I’ll know it when I see it.”

  “Maybe it’s Portland.”

  “Portland’s okay. I’m close to family, I’ll be working with you. That makes up for the shitcan until I get the direct hit.”

  “I’d say that’s the same attitude that keeps you from having a serious relationship, but I was the same way there until Hank.”

  “No direct hit,” he agreed. “I got an invitation to Eloise’s wedding. June.”

  “She’s really doing it.”

  “Looks that way. Eloise is taking the plunge, and I think it’s working for her.”

  “There’s something else.” She poked his arm. “I can see it.”

  He studied his beer a moment, shook back the mop of hair he no longer had to shear short. “You didn’t get the alert?”

  “Shit. I don’t even know where my phone is right now. Who?”

  “Marshall Finestein. He’s the one who took one in the hip, managed to crawl off.”

  “And served as an eyewit, with considerable detail, on Paulson. He consulted on a documentary. He pops up on TV at every anniversary.”

  “He won’t make the next one. Hit-and-run. He jogged every morning, started it after he got back on his feet after the incident. The car didn’t even slow down, knocked him out of his Adidas, and kept on going.”

  “Any witnesses?”

  “Quiet stretch of road, early morning. But a Toyota Land Cruiser with front-edge damage and blood, fiber, skin, turned up abandoned a half mile from the scene. The owners—parents of two, a CPA and a pediatrician—reported it stolen about the time it was mowing Finestein down. We’ll take a harder look, but they’re clean, Essie.”

  “Somebody knew Finestein’s routine and his route, stole the car to take him out.”

  “That’s six deaths with the victims connected to the DownEast Mall. Three murders with this one, two suicides, and Marcia Hobart’s one accidental. There’s a pattern, Essie.”

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admin 22 September 2018 10:55
new Nora Roberts book
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