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Night Smoke

Nora Roberts


  Fire. It cleansed. It destroyed. With its heat, lives could be saved. Or lives could be taken. It was one of the greatest discoveries of man, and one of his chief fears.

  And one of his fascinations.

  Mothers warned their children not to play with matches, not to touch the red glow of the stove. For no matter how pretty the flame, how seductive the warmth, fire against flesh burned.

  In the hearth, it was romantic, cozy, cheerful, dancing and crackling, wafting scented smoke and flickering soft golden light. Old men dreamed by it. Lovers wooed by it.

  In the campfire, it shot its sparks toward a starry sky, tempting wide-eyed children to roast their marshmallows into black goo while shivering over ghost stories.

  There were dark, hopeless corners of the city where the homeless cupped their frozen hands over trash-can fires, their faces drawn and weary in the shadowy light, their minds too numb for dreams.

  In the city of Urbana, there were many fires.

  A carelessly dropped cigarette smoldering in a mattress. Faulty wiring, overlooked, or ignored by a corrupt inspector. A kerosene heater set too close to the drapes, oily rags tossed in a stuffy closet. A flash of lightning. An unattended candle.

  All could cause destruction of property, loss of life. Ignorance, an accident, an act of God.

  But there were other ways, more devious ways.

  * * *

  Once inside the building he took several short, shallow breaths. It was so simple, really. And so exciting. The power was in his hands now. He knew exactly what to do, and there was a thrill in doing it. Alone. In the dark.

  It wouldn’t be dark for long. The thought made him giggle as he climbed to the second floor. He would soon make the light.

  Two cans of gasoline would be enough. With the first he splashed the old wooden floor, soaking it, leaving a trail as he moved from wall to wall, from room to room. Now and again he stopped, pulling stock from the racks, scattering matchbooks over the stream of flammables, adding fuel that would feed the flames and spread them.

  The smell of the accelerant was sweet, an exotic perfume that heightened his senses. He wasn’t panicked, he wasn’t hurried as he climbed the winding metal stairs to the next floor. He was quiet, of course, for he wasn’t a stupid man. But he knew the night watchman was bent over his magazines in another part of the building.

  As he worked, he glanced up at the spiderlike sprinklers in the ceiling. He’d already seen to those. There would be no hiss of water from the pipes as the flames rose, no warning buzz from smoke alarms.

  This fire would burn, and burn, and burn, until the window glass exploded from the angry fists of heat. Paint would blister, metal would melt, rafters would fall, charred and flaming.

  He wished … for a moment he wished he could stay, stand in the center of it all and watch the sleeping fire awaken, grumbling. He wanted to be there, to admire and absorb as it stirred, snapped, then stretched its hot, bright body. He wanted to hear its triumphant roar as it hungrily devoured everything in its path.

  But he would be far away by then. Too far to see, to hear, to smell. He would have to imagine it.

  With a sigh, he lit the first match, held the flame at eye level, admiring the infant spark, mesmerized by it. He was smiling, as proud as any expectant father, as he tossed the tiny fire into a dark pool of gas. He watched for a moment, only a moment, as the animal erupted into life, streaking along the trail he’d left for it.

  He left quietly, hurrying now, into the frigid night. Soon his feet had picked up the rhythm of his racing heart.

  Chapter 1

  Annoyed, exhausted, Natalie stepped into her penthouse apartment. The dinner meeting with her marketing executives had run beyond midnight. She could have come home then, she reminded herself as she stepped out of her shoes. But no. Her office was en route from the restaurant to her apartment. She simply hadn’t been able to resist stopping in for one more look at the new designs, one last check on the ads heralding the grand opening.

  Both had needed work. And really, she’d only intended to make a few notes. Draft one or two memos.

  So why was she stumbling toward the bedroom at 2:00 a.m.? she asked herself. The answer was easy. She was compulsive, obsessive. She was, Natalie thought, an idiot. Particularly since she had an eight o’clock breakfast meeting with several of her East Coast sales reps.

  No problem, she assured herself. No problem at all. Who needed sleep? Certainly not Natalie Fletcher, the thirty-two-year-old dynamo who was currently expanding Fletcher Industries into one more avenue of profit.

  And there would be profit. She’d put all her skill and experience and creativity into building Lady’s Choice from the ground up. Before profit, there would be the excitement of conception, birth, growth, those first pangs and pleasures of an infant company finding its own way.

  Her infant company, she thought with tired satisfaction. Her baby. She would tend and teach and nurture—and, yes, when necessary, walk the floor at 2:00 a.m.

  A glance in the mirror over the bureau told her that even a dynamo needed rest. Her cheeks had lost both their natural color as well as their cosmetic blush and her face looked entirely too fragile and pale. The simple twist that scooped her hair back and had started the evening looking sophisticated and chic now only seemed to emphasize the shadows that smudged her dark green eyes.

  Because she was a woman who prided herself on her energy and stamina, she turned away from the reflection, blowing her honey-toned bangs out of her eyes and rotating her shoulders to ease the stiffness. In any case, sharks didn’t sleep, she reminded herself. Even business sharks. But this one was very tempted to fall on the bed fully dressed.

  That wouldn’t do, she thought, and shrugged out of her coat. Organization and control were every bit as important in business as a good head for figures. Ingrained habit had her walking to the closet, and she was draping the velvet wrap on a padded hanger when the phone rang.

  Let the machine get it, she ordered herself, but by the second ring she was snatching up the receiver.


  “Ms. Fletcher?”

  “Yes?” The receiver clanged against the emeralds at her ear. She was reaching up to remove the earring when the panic in the voice stopped her.

  “It’s Jim Banks, Ms. Fletcher. The night watchman over at the south side warehouse. We’ve got trouble here.”

  “Trouble? Did someone break in?”

  “It’s fire. Holy God, Ms. Fletcher, the whole place is going up.”

  “Fire?” She brought her other hand to the receiver, as if it might leap from her ear. “At the warehouse? Was anyone in the building? Is anyone in there?”

  “No, ma’am, there was just me.” His voice shook, cracked. “I was downstairs in the coffee room when I heard an explosion. Must’ve been a bomb or something, I don’t know. I called the fire department.”

  She could hear other sounds now, sirens, shouts. “Are you hurt?”

  “No, I got out. I got out. Mother of God, Ms. Fletcher, it’s terrible. It’s just terrible.”

  “I’m on my way.”

  * * *

  It took Natalie fifteen minutes to make the trip from her plush west-side neighborhood to the dingy south side, with its warehouses and factories. But she saw the fire, heard it before she pulled up behind the string of engines. Men with their faces smeared with soot manned hoses, wielded axes. Smoke and flame belched from shattered windows and spewed through gaps in the ruined roof. The heat was enormous. Even at this distance it shot out, slapping her face while the icy February wind swirled at her back.

  Everything. She knew everything inside the building was lost.

  “Ms. Fletcher?”

  Struggling against horror
and fascination, she turned and looked at a round middle-aged man in a gray uniform.

  “I’m Jim Banks.”

  “Oh, yes.” She reached out automatically to take his hand. It was freezing, and as shaky as his voice. “You’re all right? Are you sure?”

  “Yes, ma’am. It’s an awful thing.”

  They watched the fire and those who fought it for a moment, in silence. “The smoke alarms?”

  “I didn’t hear anything. Not until the explosion. I started to head upstairs, and I saw the fire. It was everywhere.” He rubbed a hand over his mouth. Never in his life had he seen anything like it. Never in his life did he want to see its like again. “Just everywhere. I got out and called the fire department from my truck.”

  “You did the right thing. Do you know who’s in charge here?”

  “No, Ms. Fletcher, I don’t. These guys work fast, and they don’t spend a lot of time talking.”

  “All right. Why don’t you go home now, Jim? I’ll deal with this. If they need to talk to you, I have your beeper number, and they can call.”

  “Nothing much to do.” He looked down at the ground and shook his head. “I’m mighty sorry, Ms. Fletcher.”

  “So am I. I appreciate you calling me.”

  “Thought I should.” He gave one last glance at the building, seemed to shudder, then trudged off to his truck.

  Natalie stood where she was, and waited.

  * * *

  A crowd had gathered by the time Ry got to the scene. A fire drew crowds, he knew, like a good fistfight or a flashy juggler. People even took sides—and a great many of them rooted for the fire.

  He stepped out of his car, a lean, broad-shouldered man with tired eyes the color of the smoke stinging the winter sky. His narrow, bony face was set, impassive. The lights flashing around him shadowed, then highlighted, the hollows and planes, the shallow cleft in his chin that women loved and he found a small nuisance.

  He set his boots on the sodden ground and stepped into them with a grace and economy of motion that came from years of training. Though flames still licked and sparked, his experienced eye told him that the men had contained and nearly suppressed it.

  Soon it would be time for him to go to work.

  Automatically he put on the black protective jacket, covering his flannel shirt and his jeans down past the hips. He combed one hand through his unruly hair, hair that was a deep, dark brown and showed hints of fire in sunlight. He set his dented, smoke-stained hat on his head, lit a cigarette, then tugged on protective gloves.

  And while he performed these habitual acts, he scanned the scene. A man in his position needed to keep an open mind about fire. He would take an overview of the scene, the weather, note the wind direction, talk to the firefighters. There would be all manner of routine and scientific tests to run.

  But first, he would trust his eyes, and his nose.

  The warehouse was most probably a loss, but it was no longer his job to save it. His job was to find the whys and the hows.

  He exhaled smoke and studied the crowd.

  He knew the night watchman had called in the alarm. The man would have to be interviewed. Ry looked over the faces, one by one. Excitement was normal. He saw it in the eyes of the young man who watched the destruction, dazzled. And shock, in the slack-jawed woman who huddled against him. Horror, admiration, relief that the fire hadn’t touched them or theirs. He saw that, as well.

  Then his gaze fell on the blonde.

  She stood apart from the rest, staring straight ahead while the light wind teased her honey blond hair out of its fancy twist. Expensive shoes, Ry noted, of supple midnight leather, as out of place in this part of town as her velvet coat and her fancy face.

  A hell of a face, he thought idly, lifting the cigarette to his lips again. A pale oval that belonged on a cameo. Eyes … He couldn’t make out their color, but they were dark. No excitement there, he mused. No horror, no shock. Anger, maybe. Just a touch of it. She was either a woman of little emotion, or one who knew how to control it.

  A hothouse rose, he decided. And just what was she doing so far out of her milieu at nearly four o’clock in the morning?

  “Hey, Inspector.” Grimy and wet, Lieutenant Holden trudged over to bum a cigarette. “Chalk up another one for the Fighting Twenty-second.”

  Ry knew Holden, and was already holding the pack out. “Looks like you killed another one.”

  “This was a bitch.” Cupping his hands against the wind, Holden lit up. “Fully involved by the time we got here. Call came in from the night watchman at 1:40. Second and third floors took most of it, but the equipment on one’s pretty well gone, too. You’ll probably find your point of origin on the second.”

  “Yeah?” Though the fire was winding down, Ry knew Holden wasn’t just shooting the breeze.

  “Found some streamers going up the steps at the east end. Probably started the fire with them, but not all the material went up. Ladies’ lingerie.”


  “Ladies’ lingerie,” Holden said with a grin. “That’s what they were warehousing. Lots of nighties and undies. You’ve got a nice stream of underwear and matchbooks that didn’t go up.” He slapped Ry on the shoulder. “Have fun. Hey, probie!” he shouted to one of the probationary firefighters. “You going to hold that hose or play with it? Got to watch ’em every minute, Ry.”

  “Don’t I know it …”

  Out of the corner of his eye, Ry watched his hothouse flower pick her way toward a fire engine. He and Holden separated.

  “Isn’t there anything you can tell me?” Natalie asked an exhausted firefighter. “How did it start?”

  “Lady, I just put them out.” He sat on a running board, no longer interested in the smoldering wreck of the warehouse. “You want answers?” He jerked his thumb in Ry’s direction. “Ask the inspector.”

  “Civilians don’t belong at fire scenes,” Ry said from behind her. When she turned to look at him, he saw that her eyes were green, a deep jade green.

  “It’s my fire scene.” Her voice was cool, like the wind that teased her hair, with a faint drawl that made him think of cowboys and schoolmarms. “My warehouse,” she continued. “My problem.”

  “Is that so?” Ry took another survey. She was cold. He knew from experience that there was no place colder than a fire scene in winter. But her spine was straight, and that delicate chin lifted. “And that would make you …?”

  “Natalie Fletcher. I own the building, and everything in it. And I’d like some answers.” She cocked one elegantly arched brow. “And that would make you—?”

  “Piasecki. Arson investigator.”

  “Arson?” Shock had her gaping before she snapped back into control. “You think this was arson.”

  “It’s my job to find out.” He glanced down, nearly sneered. “You’re going to ruin those shoes, Miz Fletcher.”

  “My shoes are the least of my—” She broke off when he took her arm and started to steer her away. “What are you doing?”

  “You’re in the way. That would be your car, wouldn’t it?” He nodded toward a shiny new Mercedes convertible.

  “Yes, but—”

  “Get in it.”

  “I will not get in it.” She tried to shake him off and discovered she would have needed a crowbar. “Will you let go of me?”

  She smelled a hell of a lot better than smoke and sodden debris. Ry took a deep gulp of her, then tried for diplomacy. It was something, he was proud to admit, that had never been his strong suit.

  “Look, you’re cold. What’s the point in standing out in the wind?”

  She stiffened, against both him and the wind. “The point is, that’s my building. What’s left of it.”

  “Fine.” They’d do it her way, since it suited him. But he placed her between the car and his body to shelter her from the worst of the cold. “It’s kind of late at night to be checking your inventory, isn’t it?”

  “It is.” She stuck her hands in her pockets
, trying fruitlessly to warm them. “I drove out after the night watchman called me.”

  “And that would have been …”

  “I don’t know. Around two.”

  “Around two,” he repeated, and let his gaze skim over her again. There was a snazzy dinner suit under the velvet, he noted. The material looked soft, expensive, and it was the same color as her eyes. “Pretty fancy outfit for a fire.”

  “I had a late meeting and didn’t think to change into more appropriate clothes before I came.” Idiot, she thought, and looked back grimly at what was left of her property. “Is there a point to this?”

  “Your meeting ran until two?”

  “No, it broke up about midnight.”

  “How come you’re still dressed?”


  “How come you’re still dressed?” He took out another cigarette, lit it. “Late date?”

  “No, I went by my office to do some paperwork. I’d barely gotten home when Jim Banks, the night watchman, called me.”

  “Then you were alone from midnight until two?”

  “Yes, I—” Her eyes cut back to his, narrowed. “Do you think I’m responsible for this? Is that what you’re getting at here—? What the hell was your name?”

  “Piasecki,” he said, and smiled. “Ryan Piasecki. And I don’t think anything yet, Miz Fletcher. I’m just separating the details.”

  Her eyes were no longer cool, controlled. They had flared to flash point. “Then I’ll give you some more. The building and its contents are fully insured. I’m with United Security.”

  “What kind of business are you in?”

  “I’m Fletcher Industries, Inspector Piasecki. You may have heard of it.”

  He had, most certainly. Real estate, mining, shipping. The conglomerate owned considerable property, including several holdings in Urbana. But there were reasons that big companies, as well as small ones, resorted to arson.

  “You run Fletcher Industries?”

  “I oversee several of its interests. Including this one.” Most particularly this one, she thought. This one was her baby. “We’re opening several specialty boutiques countrywide in the spring, in addition to a catalog service. A large portion of my inventory was in that building.”

  “What sort of inventory?”

  Now she smiled. “Lingerie, Inspector. Bras, panties, negligees. Silks, satins, lace. You might be familiar with the concept.”

  “Enough to appreciate it.” She was shivering now, obviously struggling to keep her teeth from chattering. He imagined her feet would be blocks of ice in those thin, pricey shoes. “Look, you’re freezing out here. Get in the car. Go home. We’ll be in touch.”

  “I want to know what happened to my building. What’s left of my stock.”

  “Your building burned down, Miz Fletcher. And it’s unlikely there’s anything left of your stock that would raise a man’s blood pressure.” He opened the car door. “I’ve got a job to do. And I’d advise you to call your insurance agent.”

  “You’ve got a real knack for soothing the victims, don’t you, Piasecki?”

  “No, can’t say that I do.” He took a notebook and pencil stub from his shirt pocket. “Give me your address and phone number. Home and office.”

  Natalie took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, before she gave him the information he wanted. “You know.” she added. “I’ve always had a soft spot for public servants. My brother’s a cop in Denver.”

  “That so?”