Shelter in place, p.39
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       Shelter in Place, p.39
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           Nora Roberts

  It was maybe eighteen inches square, and full of light. Blue skies blurred pink and gold at the horizon, blue water streaked with those rich tones.

  But the mermaid was the star.

  She sat on a stand of rocks at water’s edge, her tail a treasure of gleaming blues and greens with touches of iridescent gold. She ran a gold comb through waving masses of red hair, which spilled over bare breasts, back, torso. Her face was turned toward the onlooker.

  And that face, he thought, eerily beautiful, exotic, bold green eyes all-knowing, the perfect lips curved in a sensual smile as water sprayed white against the rocks.

  “She’s … wow. One sexy mermaid.”

  “CiCi framed her—she’s better at that than I’ll ever be. Let’s go put her up.”

  “In a minute. First, one more wow, and thanks.” He set the painting down, drew her in for another kiss. Held her an extra moment.

  “I think you didn’t have such a good workday.”

  “That depends on your perspective. I want to get this said and done so we can put it aside, and just be.” He eased back. “I got another card this morning.”

  “Oh God.”

  “Wait now. What this tells me is: She’s still hung up on me, and has lost her main focus. She’s letting emotion and personal bitchiness get in the way. She’s given us that trail, Simone, communicating rather than concentrating on evading only. That’s a plus for us.”

  “She wants to kill you.”

  “She tried once,” he reminded her. “I always knew she’d try again. Now, instead of letting it all lie, then coming at me when I’m unprepared, she’s giving me a trail and a time line. Not just me, but the FBI. Jacoby’s all over this.”

  “If you’re trying to placate me—”

  “I’m not. She’s one dangerous, crazy, bloodthirsty psychopath. You’re not only on the island, too, you’re with me on the island. She wouldn’t know that second part yet, but she’ll figure it out, and she’ll want both of us. I’m not placating you.”

  “That’s clear now.” Simone blew out a breath. “Tell me about the card.”

  “This one was a ‘Thinking of You’ deal,” he began, and ran it through, took out his phone, showed her.

  “And the lock of hair again,” Simone added. “It’s not McMullen’s, is it? That’s been too long a gap.”

  “McMullen, for whatever reasons, hit another category for her.”

  “It’s poor Tracey’s, isn’t it?”

  “That’s my take. Forensics will confirm.”

  “I barely knew her, and only through Mi, but…” She had to take a moment, steady herself. “That link to me, links her to me. It’s harder than the others because of that.”

  He brushed a hand over her hair. “I love you. This island’s my home—I even have a dog to prove it. The people who live here, who come here, they’re my responsibility now. I need you to trust me, trust I’ll take care of all of it.”

  She thought of the sculpture, the heart of it. She’d created it because she knew who he was. “I do trust you. You’ll make her pay for Tracey and all the others, and that makes it easier. I’m glad you told me first, so we can put it away.”

  “Good. Let’s do that. Put this away, and have a normal evening.”

  “Normal sounds just right.”

  “Okay then.” He scooped her off her feet, heading for the stairs.

  “What’s this?”

  “This is me, Rhett Butlering you up the stairs and into bed.”

  “That’s a normal evening?”

  “That’s how I see it.”

  He made the turn, dumped her on the bed, dropped down to cover her. “You started it. Driveway kiss. So now I have to finish it.”

  Barney, who’d witnessed this behavior before, padded over to his bed with his toy, settled down to wait it out.

  “Big talk. Maybe I like to finish what I start.”

  “You’ll get the chance.” He lowered his mouth to hers, let the kiss spin and spin and spin out.

  Everything she wanted, Simone thought. Too much what she wanted. All these feelings and needs, the weakness and power rising and whirling inside her.

  She held on to him and let herself fall.

  He undressed her, slowly, piece by piece. No hurry, not when he felt drunk on her already. He glided his hands over bare skin, felt it heat under his touch, trailed his lips over it, felt it quiver.

  Time seemed to slow; the air thickened. Every sigh, every murmur, soft as moth wings, floated out and away as they moved together, came together.

  He loved everything she was, had been, would be. She loved, he knew, so he could wait for her to look at him, into him, and say the words. Because here and now, she showed him, and no words were needed.

  He opened her; she couldn’t explain it. He unlocked things in her she hadn’t known existed, and he held those secret things so carefully.

  She ran her hand down his side, over the scars. The Protector, she thought, but who protected him?

  I will. She cupped his face, rose up to him. I will.

  He slipped inside her, slow, slow, with his eyes on hers.

  I will, she thought again, and surrendered.

  When she lay beneath him, feeling his heart trip against hers, the beauty flooded her throat with tears.

  “I like your version of normal,” she managed.

  “I was hoping.” He brushed his lips over the curve of her shoulder. “I could spend a couple lifetimes being normal with you.”

  Not yet, she thought. Not yet. “Does normal include dinner?”

  “Right after I Google how to grill chicken.” He levered up, looked down at her. “Hey.” Brushed a tear from her lashes.

  “They’re the good kind,” she told him. “The very good kind. You make me feel more, Reed. I’m still getting used to it. Let’s do this. You figure out how to do the chicken, and I’ll hang the mermaid. I suspect we’ll both be playing to our strengths.”

  “Let’s see if you feel that way after you eat the chicken. The good kind?”

  “The very good kind.”

  He fed the dog and grilled chicken that was pretty damn okay. He admired the sexy mermaid on the bathroom wall. They took a walk, and he studied the spearing green of his emerging lupines, before they wound through the woods and down to the beach.

  They gave each other normal.

  He tried tossing the ball for Barney, to no avail. Then Simone picked it up, threw it. Barney trotted after it, snagged it, brought it back.

  “Why does he fetch for you?”

  “Because he’s a gentleman.”

  “Throw it again.”

  She obliged with the same results.

  “Let me have that thing. Go get it, Barney!” Reed tossed it. Barney stared up at him. “Well, for—”

  “Barney.” Simone pointed to the ball. “Get that for me.”

  He wagged his tail, raced down the beach, and brought the ball back to her.

  “He’s messing with me,” Reed decided. “I can get him to sit. We’ve got about a ninety percent success rate on that. But he gets his head caught in the stair rail a couple times a week. And he’s getting bigger, so it’s not as easy to get him out again.”

  They walked on, and he tried a new tactic. Reed tossed the ball back over his shoulder. Barney ran back for it.

  “I’ve got his number now.”

  With Simone’s hand in his, and his dog trotting along with a red ball, he watched the moon come up over the water.

  “Can you stay tonight?”

  “I have to leave early. It’s a timing thing, but I can stay.”

  He brought her hand to his lips, watched the moon, and thought he couldn’t ask for better normal.


  Summer came to the island, and so did the summer people. Day-trippers with their sunscreen and beach blankets, weekenders prepared to pack fun and sun into their two days. Others flooded in to spend a week or two, a month, or the season.

; The ferry ran every hour on the hour with cars, bikers, hikers lined up at the dock on both sides of the bay.

  Every hour on the hour Reed himself or a team of deputies stood watch.

  He’d checked on a scatter of bookings by single females, but none panned out.

  He worked every day, on the roll or off, he walked the village, the beaches, cruised by rentals.

  Sooner or later, he thought.

  * * *

  On a lovely June evening at a well-attended fund-raiser in Potomac, Maryland, Marlene Dubowski—victim’s advocate attorney, political activist, DownEast Mall survivor—gave a short speech, raised her glass in a toast.

  She sipped, mingled, sipped, schmoozed, sipped. And began gasping for breath. As she collapsed, Patricia, in the guise of a wealthy donor, dropped down beside her, quickly snipped a lock of hair. “Oh my God, call nine-one-one!”

  “I’m a doctor,” someone shouted. “Let me through!”

  In the confusion, Patricia slipped away.

  She drove by the fine homes, sweeping driveways, to the post office she’d already earmarked. Humming to herself, she slipped the lock of hair into the bag and the bag inside the card she’d already signed, addressed, and stamped.

  She’d chosen:



  After sealing the card, she slipped it into the mailbox in front of the post office.

  Pleased with herself, she took the Beltway, cruised off the exit ramp to the mid-level hotel she’d prebooked, as she’d considered the crowds of vacationers.

  She only needed a night, a good meal.

  In her junior suite—the best she could do—she pulled off the ash-blond helmet wig, took out the blue contacts, the device that pushed her jaw out to prominence.

  With a grunt, she removed the matronly designer cocktail dress and the body padding beneath. She took the lifts out of her evening shoes.

  She ordered room service, took a long shower to start fading the self-tanner she’d used.

  In the morning, she’d dump the car she’d rented in long-term parking at Dulles airport, rent another. A change of plates somewhere along the way, and she’d be off again.

  She set the photo of Reed on the table beside her bed—she’d bought a frame for it.

  “We’ve got a date, don’t we? Just because.”

  * * *

  Jacoby sat in Reed’s office, frustration in every line of her body. “We had an agent at the damn fund-raiser, and she slipped through. People panicked, crowded in, cut him off. He got a look at her, and gave chase, but … He believes she fled in a black Mercedes sedan, but he couldn’t get the plate. No plate light.”

  Reaching in her bag, she took out a sketch. “Artist’s rendering.”

  “She added some years, some weight, changed the jawline. And she went back to cyanide.”

  “She stayed to see her target collapse, and even got down beside her for a moment when keeping back, leaving would be smarter.”

  “She’s gotten more arrogant, and she didn’t know how close you were.”

  “Not close enough. She’s going to send you another card.”

  “I’m counting on it. Her time between kills is compressing.”

  “Another sign she’s losing the control that kept her under for so long. It goes back to you, Reed, and putting a bullet in her. Initially I thought, and our analysis agreed, she might string you along. Play it out because, for her, it must be torturing you. I don’t think that now. She needs to right that wrong.”

  “Agreed. If she wants to take out another on her way here, and at the rate she’s escalated, I think she will, you need to put Mi-Hi Jung and Chaz Bergman under some protection. I think Brady Foster falls in there, too. She won’t go after Essie yet. Essie’s too high up the chain. She wouldn’t go after Simone yet if I didn’t live on the island. But she won’t be able to resist a doubleheader. But…”

  He rose, wandered over for a Coke, held out a second.

  “Have any Diet?”

  “Hold on.” He went out, through the bullpen, into the break room, took a Diet Pepsi out of the fridge.

  “I owe you one,” he said to Matty, and took it to his office, closed the door.

  “Thanks. ‘But’?”

  “She’s escalating, and she’s devolving, but she’s still smart, she’s still cagey. We saw just that in how she played us with and after McMullen. She knows, has to know, you’re following her route, connecting dots.”

  “You think she’ll veer off, take another detour.”

  “If she needs another kill before me, she’d be stupid to take a direct route to Maine. She’s not stupid.”

  Jacoby rose, walked to the map he’d pinned to his wall, studied the pushpins that represented Hobart’s kills since she’d started the journey.

  “Any instincts on where she might detour this time?”

  “I have to think about it. Would she stick to driving, book a flight? Will she stick to fame and/or fortune, or go off pattern there, too? I have to think about it.”

  “So will I, and the rest of the task force. I had a man in the same room with her, and she killed her target, drove away.”

  Reed picked up the sketch. “Do you see Hobart when you look at this?”

  “I probably wouldn’t have, and witnesses confirmed a Southern accent—a good one. She mixed with people, Reed, made small talk, and worked up tears when she spun a story about her daughter and what she went through after a rape. She paid the five thousand to be there.”

  “She lives the role while she’s in it. She’s good. Crazy good.”

  “I’ve got to get back. Contact me when you get the next card.”

  He had traffic issues, parking issues, beach issues, boating issues, drinking issues, even some petty theft to deal with. Every day was a holiday, and people swarmed the streets, shops, trails, beaches.

  Most days he worked until after sundown, and then some. But most evenings he had Simone. If he found an hour or two of quiet and solitude, he settled into his office, studied the map, the faces, tried to put himself in Patricia’s mind-set.

  He stepped out one morning—Simone tended to leave at the crack of dawn these days— and found CiCi in his yard with canvas, easel, and paints.

  “Morning, Chief Delicious.”

  “Morning, love of my life. You’re painting.”

  “I want the morning light. I’ve been out here a couple times this week later in the day—which shows how sneaky I am—but I need this light.”

  He walked around to her—the dog had already hurried over to wag and lean.

  “It’s the house.” And the lupines, he noted. Those rivers of color he still marveled belonged to him.

  “They’re not at peak yet. Next week they will be. But I need this light, and a good start before they peak. I like the lines of this house, always have. Somebody was smart enough to paint those porches orchid.”

  “Somebody had someone with an artist’s eye tell him to.”

  “You figured out painting the main doors that plum would add punch all by yourself.”

  “I have my moments. And HGTV.”

  “More than a few moments. The lupines, they’re a study all on their own.”

  “Leon helped me out there, and with the other flower stuff. He knows his fertilizer. I had to buy a composter. He wouldn’t take no.”

  CiCi studied him as he spoke. “You haven’t been getting enough sleep, my cutie. I can see it.”

  “Summertime. Busy time.”

  “And not just that. Why can’t they catch her?”

  “She’s slippery.” He leaned in to kiss CiCi’s cheek. “But we will.” He pulled out his key ring, took off a spare.

  “To the house. Help yourself—and go ahead and lock it when you leave. Keep the key. Just don’t roll a joint while you’re out here. I’m the chief of police. I have a hat.”

  He clipped on Barney’s leash, walked to work, stopping at a rental along the way to wake up the tenants
—college kids—and tell them to pick up the beer and wine bottles scattered every damn where. Left with a warning that a deputy would be back within the hour to fine them if it wasn’t done.

  So, he thought, begins a summer day on the island.

  And since he’d estimated the arrival, it didn’t surprise him when Donna brought in the third card.

  “Don’t call everybody in, we’re too busy for that. Just contact them, let them know we’ve gotten a third, and this one from Potomac, Maryland.”

  “That crazy woman’s ruining my damn summer.”

  “Not making mine a picnic, either,” he replied as he got gloves, the penknife, and opened the card.

  “Cute,” he said as he read the printed greeting.

  This time she’d drawn hearts with blood dripping from them and arrows through them.

  What do you think? I could try some archery. Or maybe we’ll just stick with bullets in the heart, and the head. Maybe I’ll shoot you in the balls first for shits and giggles. The fancy, bleeding-heart lawyer climbed on my brother’s dead body to get on her pedestal. I knocked her off. She didn’t know what hit her. Neither will you, asshole.

  XXOO, Patricia

  She even drew a very distinct middle finger after her name.

  Devolving, he thought. Angrier, or less able to control that rage, so a more overt threat.

  She’d need that next kill, no question about it. She’d need that rush.

  But who? And where?

  He looked at the map as he contacted Jacoby.

  * * *

  Simone inspected every inch of the investment casting over the wax mold. She’d done the wax chasing, using delicate tools for minute scraping, hot tools for filling in imperfections. She studied it now, and deemed it ready.

  She’d taken hours to design, create, and attach the sprue system, the channel system of wax rods and gates to feed the molten bronze into the mold.

  More hours still coating the wax with slurry. First, the very, very fine grain—two coats—to pick up all the minute and delicate details. More layers—nine in all—of various grades and mixtures, letting each dry between coats to create that thick ceramic shell.

  All the tedious, technical work had kept her mind occupied for days, and off the anxiety of that third damn card.

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admin 22 September 2018 10:55
new Nora Roberts book
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