Shelter in place, p.24
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       Shelter in Place, p.24
 

           Nora Roberts

  “Coffee’s good.” He stomped off his boots, stepped into the house, the warmth.

  She turned on the fire first, then stripping off the coat, hat, scarves, gloves, walked to the coffee machine. “Straight or fancy?”

  “Just black.”

  “Manly man.” She kept her voice light. “I usually go for lattes myself. I worked in this crappy coffee shop when I first got to New York. But we made excellent lattes.”

  “I upset you the night of the party. Your friend said I didn’t, but—”

  “Mi’s right, as usual. You didn’t. I was thinking about something, and you made me think harder. I was abrupt, but that’s because I was inside my own head.”

  “The SBZ?”

  Her lips curved as she shrugged. “Maybe just inside the border.”

  As she frothed milk for her latte, she glanced over her shoulder. He hadn’t taken off his coat. “The phone. It has something to do with that. With the DownEast?”

  “Are you a little bit psychic like CiCi?”

  “No. It’s a logical assumption. You should tell me.” She turned back to finish the coffees. “Not all that long ago I’d have made sure you didn’t. You couldn’t. Now I’d like you to tell me.”

  He took off his coat, but didn’t say anything when she brought him the coffee.

  “Let’s sit down.” She gestured toward the sofa facing the fire. “You’re the first person I’ve asked into the house, and made coffee for in … I can’t think if ever. I wonder why that is. I don’t think it’s your famous affability.”

  “I don’t want it to be because of shared trauma.”

  “But part of it has to be, doesn’t it? Nobody who hasn’t experienced what we did can ever really know. For years, I shut it out. You can’t see if you don’t look, can’t hear if you don’t listen. Do you want to know why I started looking and listening again?”

  “Yeah, I do.”

  Simone shifted to sit cross-legged on the sofa. “I ran into my archenemy from high school. She was golden and beautiful and had breasts. I was brown and gawky and ordinary.”

  “You were never ordinary.”

  “That’s what I saw in the mirror that night in the bathroom. I thought, Why can’t I be beautiful like Tiffany? She’d come into the theater with the boy who’d just dumped me for her because I wasn’t ready to put out. Heartbreak, humiliation, with the intensity you can only feel at that age. World over.

  “Then it happened. The boy who’d dumped me was dead. Tiffany was shot in that young, beautiful face. Now, years later, she confronts me—another bathroom, in the universe of irony. She said ugly things, and for whatever reason that few minutes of ugliness made me start looking and listening. Not for her. For me.”

  “I couldn’t stop looking and listening,” Reed told her. “I don’t think it’s an obsession, but I’ll cop to mission. I followed every story, put together files. It never seemed right, or complete. They barely had a brain among them, and the only one with a brain? Why didn’t he go after the girl he blamed for ruining his life? There had to be more, and I wanted to know what it was.”

  “And you were right,” Simone added. “The ‘more’ turned out to be Patricia Hobart.”

  “Yeah. That made sense, in a sick, twisted way, once we—they,” he corrected, “went through the things she had to leave behind in her rush to rabbit. She was, like, fifteen at the time of the DownEast. Already a psychopath, and a smart one,” he added. “Really smart even at fifteen. Smart enough to hide her nature. But before she shot me, before it made that sick, twisted sense, I followed everything. Essie did, too. One of the ways she did—and I did? We get alerts whenever anyone who was there that night dies. Any reason.”

  So she understood the look on his face, just for that second. “Who died?”

  “He was mall security. Took a couple of bullets that night. Went back to work when he recovered. A seriously good guy.”

  “Did … Did she kill him?”

  “I’m going to say yes. No proof, not yet. And she’s good,” he added as he pushed up to pace. “She’s damn good. She’s been in the wind since she shot me. Not a damn trace. Now Robert Kofax is dead because she laced his drink on a beach in Bermuda.”

  “Bermuda?”

  “I don’t know why he was there—I’ll find out. I just got the alert: his name, COD. Cause of death,” he explained.

  “She found a way,” he continued, “because that’s her mission.”

  “She’s killing survivors? That doesn’t make sense.”

  “Finishing what she started—because she left enough behind to prove she started it. She planned it—hadn’t quite finished the plans. Her brother got impatient. My theory, anyway.”

  She lost some of the color the cold had pumped into her cheeks. “Mi’s a survivor. My mother, my sister. Me. You.”

  “Mi got some press, but she didn’t give any interviews. The same with you. Your family didn’t get a lot of attention. I think she’s after ones who did. But you and me? We got through to nine-one-one. First and second callers. You should be careful, and you can believe I’ll be watching for her.”

  Anxiety churned in her stomach. “The island’s mobbed in the summer. Day-trippers, vacationers, summer workers.”

  “I’m going to be chief of police. Every cop and first responder’s going to have her photo. I’m going to have it posted in every fricking shop and restaurant and hotel. On the ferry. I’m not saying she won’t try to get here, but I think, for now, she’s after easier targets. And if she tries to come here, it’ll be to finish me first. I shot the bitch.”

  He didn’t sound affable now, Simone thought. He sounded hard, tough, and very, very capable.

  “I think I want something stronger than coffee.” She rose. “How about you?”

  “I wouldn’t say no.”

  She opted for wine, a full-bodied red, and poured two generous glasses.

  “Now I haven’t just upset you. I’ve scared you.”

  “I don’t think so. I don’t know how I feel, exactly. Unnerved, you bet. I’m not brave. I wasn’t brave that night.”

  “You’re wrong about that. You didn’t run screaming, and there wouldn’t have been any shame if you had. But you did the smart thing. You hid and called for help. I’ve heard the nine-one-one call. You held it together. That’s bravery.”

  “I didn’t feel brave, and I haven’t since. But … Come up to my studio. I want to show you something.”

  “Like etchings?”

  She smiled, didn’t feel quite as unnerved. “Not in the least.”

  “I keep striking out with the beautiful artists in this house. I have to try another tactic.”

  But he went with her. “I can arrange for a cop—a girl cop—to stay with you tonight if you’re worried.”

  “No, but thanks. I’ve always felt safe in this house. She won’t make me a victim again. I know her victims.”

  In the studio he saw dozens and dozens of sketches pinned to boards.

  He knew them, too.

  He knew the faces, the few she’d created with clay.

  “I started with her. Tiffany.” Simone picked up the small bust. “I did her before.” She turned the bust. “And after. It, I thought, would be a kind of purge for me. But it didn’t turn out that way. You’re one of the reasons.”

  Fascinated, he watched her. “I am?”

  “The night of the party, I talked to Mi up here, showed her these two faces. I talked to you. More, I listened to you. And since …

  “She survived,” Simone said, and set the bust down again. “But she’s not grateful. I hadn’t been, either, not really. That’s what struck me. I lived, and instead of being grateful, I wanted to pretend it never happened. What does that say about the ones who died? Was I saying they never happened?”

  She took a long drink. “‘Proof of life,’ you said that night, about Emergence. About Tish. It struck me, it rang the damn bell. So, I’m—in my way, I guess—giving them all proof of li
fe.”

  He looked at her now, at that face, not just because it made his heart thump, not just because she made his blood swim. But because he felt a kind of awe and respect.

  “This is bravery.”

  She closed her eyes a moment. “God. I hope so.”

  He stepped to the shelf, carefully lifted one of the busts. “I knew her. Angie—Angela Patterson. She was so damn pretty. I had a real thing for her.”

  “Oh. You were in love with her.”

  “No, but I liked her a lot.” He thought of the kiosk, the blood, the body. And looked at the face, young, lovely, just on the edge of flirty. “I talk to her mother a couple times a year. This? This will mean the world to Angie’s mother.”

  “I want to create a memorial, all their faces. People shouldn’t forget who they were, what happened to them. You could help me.”

  “How?”

  “I want to include the people who’ve died since, because of that night, or because of Patricia Hobart. You could help me.”

  “I could.” He set the bust down. “I will. What will you do with it when you finish?”

  “That’ll be months—longer. I’ll need to take a break from it or I won’t see or hear clearly. But I’m hoping my father can help there. He’s a lawyer, and has a lot of connections. And, of course, there’s CiCi. I’d like to do molds, cast it in bronze, place it in a park.”

  “I could maybe help there, too.”

  “How?”

  “I talk to the next of kin, survivors off and on. Like Angie’s mom. So with that, we might be able to help get that going when you’re ready for it.”

  She nodded, slowly. “An appeal from survivors and loved ones? Hard to refuse. Some might not want this.”

  “They’d be wrong. So.”

  He set aside his glass, stepped to her. He took her face in his hands, watched those gorgeous eyes calculate. He kissed her, soft, slow. No demand, no pressure. And felt—hoped he felt—her give just a little before he eased away again.

  “Change of tactic,” he said.

  “It was interesting.”

  “Told ya. I’m going to head out, for my lonely meatloaf. I’ll see you around.”

  “I don’t get around very much,” she said as he started out.

  “That’s okay. I do.” He stopped at the doorway, turned for just a moment. “I’ve gotta say this one more thing. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in my goddamn life.”

  She laughed, sincerely amused. “I’m not even close.”

  “You’re wrong again. I ought to know what I’ve seen in my own life. CiCi’s got my number around here somewhere. You need anything, call.”

  She frowned as he walked out, as she listened to his boots on the stairs. She sipped more wine, then poured what he’d left in his glass into her own, drank a little more.

  He was interesting, she thought. And could put the affable on and off like a pair of socks. She had a sense he could be dangerous, and that just made him more interesting.

  Plus he knew how to kiss in a way that nudged open the door, just a crack.

  She’d have to think about that one.

  Most of all, he’d looked at her work and seen what she needed to give it, what she’d needed from it.

  And he’d understood.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  Standing on the widow’s walk, Essie McVee marveled. The day shuddered with dead gray February, cold as the lash of a frozen whip, and still the view spread like wonder.

  The sea and sky, both that broody, bored gray, couldn’t erase the breadth of it or the power of the rocky coastline with the incessant flick of icy water.

  She smelled pine and snow, breathed air so cold and damp it felt like she swallowed chipped ice. Far to the right, the buildings of painted clapboard formed the village and a path of trampled snow wound through trees with white-coated branches.

  Far off, the lighthouse stood, a beacon of color and joy against the stubborn winter gloom.

  Below the house, a rickety pier, with some worrisome gaps, cut on an angle through a break in the rocks.

  “You’ve got a dock.”

  “Yeah, such as it is. I’ve got a boat shed, too. No boat. Mrs. Dorchet sold it after her husband died. I might get one. A boat. Maybe.”

  “A boat.”

  “Maybe. I’ve already got the shed and the pier. It seems like I should have the reason for them.”

  She looked up at him, remembered the sorrowful boy on the bench at the park, the young cop learning his way, the partner she’d gone through doors with. The friend she’d found bleeding.

  Now this. A man looking out at what was his.

  “It’s not a shithole, Reed.”

  He grinned. “Needs some work here and there, but nope, not a shithole.”

  “How’s it feel to be chief?”

  “I’ll let you know next month. I’m making some progress, finding my feet. For the most part, people seem to be reserving judgment on whether or not the off-islander can make the grade.”

  “You’ll make it.”

  “Yeah, I will. It’ll be quiet for the next couple of months, so more time to find my feet, get to know who’s who and what’s what. And take control at the station house.”

  “Any issues there?”

  He made a noncommittal grunt. “The current chief’s got my back, and that helps. The deputies, the dispatcher, they know what’s what, and things are in a kind of lull during the transition. Got some quirks, like anywhere, but they’re solid enough. The best of the bunch is the lone female.”

  “Do tell?”

  “Smart and tough. A little bit of a hothead, but I can work with that.”

  “Beware the office romance.”

  “What? Oh no.” Laughing, he shook back his disordered mop of hair. “Hell no. Not my type, and I’d be her boss on top of that. Boss—ha ha. Anyway, she’s about forty, divorced, and hooked up with an island plumber. Then there’s Leon Wendall. Former navy—petty officer. Seven years on the force here. Likes to fish. His wife of thirty years is a teacher. Three kids, one granddaughter.”

  “Seven years? And they brought you in over him?”

  “He’s not a boss,” Reed said with a shake of his head. “Doesn’t want to be. He’ll keep his eye on me though. Guaranteed. We’ve got Nick Masterson, thirty-three, newlywed. He’s competent. His family owns the Sunrise Café. His mom keeps the books. And we finish the full-timers with Cecil Barr. Twenty-four, easygoing, but not stupid. His father’s a fisherman, mother’s a nurse, older sister studying to be a doctor, younger brother still in high school.

  “We wind up with Donna Miggins, dispatcher. Sixty-four, sharp. I’ve been warned by the lady herself that I can fetch my own coffee, do my own errands, and she won’t take any sass. I like her. I’m a little afraid of her, but I like her.”

  “You’re happy.”

  “I am that.”

  “And you’ve put back most of the weight you lost.”

  “I’ve been patronizing the Sunrise Café. Most islanders wander through sometime during a given week. And I’m a crap cook anyway.”

  “You ought to learn to deserve that kitchen.”

  “If I don’t cook,” he pointed out, “it stays clean.”

  “That makes a stupid kind of sense,” she conceded.

  “Let’s head down, get some coffee. I just bought that fancy machine.”

  “I don’t know why,” she said as they went in, down the stairs. “When you drink it, it’s black.”

  “The girl of my dreams likes lattes.”

  “The artist?”

  He flapped a hand on his heart. “Thump, thump.”

  She paused, as she hadn’t on the way up, outside the master suite and, with the privilege of an old friend, wandered in.

  “Really nice space, great views again. You still don’t have a bed.”

  He pointed to the mattress and box springs. “That’s a bed.”

  “A bed has a frame, a headboard, possibly a fo
otboard. Some style. You’re never going to get the girl of your dreams on that.”

  “You underestimate my charm and sex appeal.”

  “No, I don’t.” She looked around, noting the teddy bear cop sitting on what he mistakenly called a dresser. “You need an actual dresser instead of that ugly block of wood you’ve had since college. Maybe a nice chair. Some tables, nice lamps. A rug. And…” She trailed off as she peeked into the en suite. “Jesus, the bathroom’s fabulous.”

  “Previous owner’s son, like the kitchen. No more piss-trickle showers for me, baby!”

  “Spring for some new towels, find some local art for the walls in here—and a good mirror for the bedroom.”

  “You’re a tough sell, Essie.”

  “I know what I know.”

  She walked out, and into an empty bedroom. “What’re you going to do with this? Home office?”

  “No, I set that up already, down the hall. I figure a guest room—I’ll end up having two of them. You and your family could come stay sometime. I’m going to buy a big-ass grill. I’ll start paying you back for all the meals and the nights I ended up flopping at your place.”

  “We’d love it.”

  “First decent grill-on-the-deck weekend we’re both off.”

  “Deal. Queen bed—you’ve got the room—simple duvet and curtains, a little desk and chair, nice lamps and end tables—nothing matchy—an old dresser—not a crap one, but an old one.”

  “What are you, my decorator? Yeah, yeah,” he said, before she could. “You know what you know.”

  She continued her exploration, came across the unrehabbed bath. Sea-green tiles bordered in black. Sea-green john and shower/tub combo. Sea-green sink in a white vanity.

  “I like it.”

  “You do?”

  “It’s retro and kitschy, and it has possibilities. You need a new vanity, and some paint, and some fun towels, shower curtain. It’ll be adorable.”

  She wandered on—rattling off ideas to the point he figured he should be taking notes. Then opened the door to his office.

  “Ah,” she said.

  He’d put his desk—a big, clunky holdover from college—in the middle of the room. That way, he could see the views, the door, and the pair of rolling boards he’d set up against a wall.

 
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admin 22 September 2018 10:55
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