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Night Smoke, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “Yes, that’s so.” She slid into the car. “You’ve managed, in one short meeting, to change my mind.” She slammed the door, sorry she didn’t do it quickly enough to catch his fingers. With one last glance at the ruined building, she drove away.

  Ry watched her taillights disappear and added another note to his book. Great legs. Not that he’d forget, he mused as he turned away. But a good inspector wrote everything down.

  * * *

  Natalie forced herself to sleep for two hours, then rose and took a stinging-cold shower. Wrapped in her robe, she called her assistant and arranged to have her morning appointments canceled or shifted. With her first cup of coffee, she phoned her parents in Colorado. She was on cup number two by the time she had given them all the details she knew, soothed their concern and listened to their advice.

  With cup number three, she contacted her insurance agent and arranged to meet him at the site. After downing aspirin with the remains of that cup, she dressed for what promised to be a very long day.

  She was nearly out of the door when the phone stopped her.

  “You have a machine,” she reminded herself, even as she darted back to answer it. “Hello?”

  “Nat, it’s Deborah. I just heard.”

  “Oh.” Rubbing the back of her neck, Natalie sat on the arm of a chair. Deborah O’Roarke Guthrie was a double pleasure, both friend and family. “I guess it’s hit the news already.”

  There was a slight hesitation. “I’m sorry, Natalie, really sorry. How bad is it?”

  “I’m not sure. Last night it looked about as bad as it gets. But I’m going out now, meeting my insurance agent. Who knows, we may salvage something.”

  “Would you like me to come with you? I can reschedule my morning.”

  Natalie smiled. Deborah would do just that. As if she didn’t have enough on her plate with her husband, her baby, her job as assistant district attorney.

  “No, but thanks for asking. I’ll let you know something when I know something.”

  “Come to dinner tonight. You can relax, soak up some sympathy.”

  “I’d like that.”

  “If there’s anything else I can do, just tell me.”

  “Actually, you could call Denver. Keep your sister and my brother from riding east to the rescue.”

  “I’ll do that.”

  “Oh, one more thing.” Natalie rose, checked the contents of her briefcase as she spoke. “What do you know about an Inspector Piasecki? Ryan Piasecki?”

  “Piasecki?” There was a slight pause as Deborah flipped through her mental files. Natalie could all but see the process. “Arson squad. He’s the best in the city.”

  “He would be,” Natalie muttered.

  “Is arson suspected?” Deborah said carefully.

  “I don’t know. I just know he was there, he was rude, and he wouldn’t tell me anything.”

  “It takes time to determine the cause of a fire, Natalie. I can put some pressure on, if you want me to.”

  It was tempting, just for the imagined pleasure of seeing Piasecki scramble. “No thanks. Not yet, anyway. I’ll see you later.”

  “Seven o’clock,” Deborah insisted.

  “I’ll be there. Thanks.” Natalie hung up and grabbed her coat. With luck, she’d beat the insurance agent to the site by a good thirty minutes.

  * * *

  Luck was with her—in that area, anyway. When Natalie pulled up behind the fire-department barricade, she discovered she was going to need a great deal more than luck to win this battle.

  It looked worse, incredibly worse, than it had the night before.

  It was a small building, only three floors. The cinderblock outer walls had held, and now stood blackened and streaked with soot, still dripping with water from the hoses. The ground was littered with charred and sodden wood, broken glass, twisted metal. The air stank of smoke.

  Miserable, she ducked under the yellow tape for a closer look.

  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

  She jolted, then shaded her eyes from the sun to see more clearly. She should have known, Natalie thought, when she saw Ry making his way toward her through the wreckage.

  “Didn’t you see the sign?” he demanded.

  “Of course I saw it. This is my property, Inspector. The insurance adjuster is meeting me here shortly. I believe I’m within my rights in inspecting the damage.”

  He gave her one disgusted look. “Don’t you have any other kind of shoes?”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Stay here.” Muttering to himself, he stalked to his car, came back with a pair of oversize fireman’s boots. “Put these on.”


  He took her arm, throwing her off balance. “Put those ridiculous shoes into the boots. Otherwise you’re going to hurt yourself.”

  “Fine.” She stepped into them, feeling absurd.

  The tops of the boots covered her legs almost to the knee. The navy suit and matching wool coat she wore were runway-model smart. A trio of gold chains draped around her neck added flash.

  “Nice look,” he commented. “Now, let’s get something straight. I need to preserve this scene, and that means you don’t touch anything.” He said it even though his authority to keep her out was debatable, and he’d already found a great deal of what he’d been looking for.

  “I have no intention of—”

  “That’s what they all say.”

  She drew herself up. “Tell me, Inspector, do you work alone because you prefer it, or because no one can stand to be around you for longer than five minutes?”

  “Both.” He smiled then. The change of expression was dazzling, charming—and suspicious. She wasn’t sure, but she thought the faintest of dimples winked beside his mouth. “What are you doing clunking around a fire scene in a five-hundred-dollar suit?”

  “I …” Wary of the smile, she tugged her coat closed. “I have meetings all afternoon. I won’t have time to change.”

  “Executives.” He kept his hand on her arm as he turned. “Come on, then. Be careful where you go—the site’s not totally safe, but you can take a look at what she left you. I’ve still got work to do.”

  He led her in through the mangled doorway. The ceiling was a yawning pit between floors. What had fallen, or had been knocked through, lay in filthy layers of sodden ash and alligatored wood. She shivered once at the sight of the twisted mass of burned mannequins that lay sprawled and broken.

  “They didn’t suffer,” Ry assured her, and her eyes flashed back to his.

  “I’m sure you can view this as a joke, but—”

  “Fire’s never a joke. Watch your step.”

  She saw where he’d been working, near the base of a broken inner wall. There was a small wire screen in a wooden frame, a shovel that looked like a child’s toy, a few mason jars, a crowbar, a yardstick. While she watched, Ry pried off a scored section of baseboard.

  “What are you doing?”

  “My job.”

  She set her teeth. “Are we on the same side here?”

  He glanced up. “Maybe.” With a putty knife, he began to scrape at residue. He sniffed, he grunted and, when he was satisfied, placed it in a jar. “Do you know what oxidation is, Ms. Fletcher?”

  She frowned, shifted. “More or less.”

  “The chemical union of a substance with oxygen. It can be slow, like paint drying, or fast. Heat and light. A fire’s fast. And some things help it move faster.” He continued to scrape, then looked up again, held out the knife. “Take a whiff.”

  Dubious, she stepped forward and sniffed.

  “What do you smell?”

  “Smoke, wet … I don’t know.”

  He placed the residue in the jar. “Gasoline,” he said, watching her face. “See, a liquid seeks its level, goes into cracks in the floor, into dead-air corners, flows under baseboard. If it gets caught under there, it doesn’t burn. You see the place I cleared out here?”

  She mois
tened her lips, studied the floor he had shoveled or swept clear of debris. There was a black stain, like a shadow burned into the wood. “Yes?”

  “The charred-blob pattern. It’s like a map. I keep at this, layer by layer, and I’ll be able to tell what happened, before, during.”

  “You’re telling me someone poured gas in here and lit a match?”

  He said nothing, only scooted forward a bit to pick up a scrap of burned cloth. “Silk,” he said with a rub of his fingertips. “Too bad.” He placed the scrap in what looked like a flour tin. “Sometimes a torch will lay out streamers, give the fire more of an appetite. They don’t always burn.” He picked up an almost perfectly preserved cup from a lacy bra. Amused, his eyes met Natalie’s over it. “Funny what resists, isn’t it?”

  She was cold again, but not from the wind. It was from within, and it was rage. “If this fire was deliberately set, I want to know.”

  Interested in the change in her eyes, he sat back on his haunches. His black fireman’s coat was unhooked, revealing jeans, worn white at the knees, and a flannel shirt. He hadn’t left the scene since his arrival.

  “You’ll get my report.” He rose then. “Draw me a picture. What did this place look like twenty-four hours ago?”

  She closed her eyes for a moment, but it didn’t help. She could still smell the destruction.

  “It was three stories, about two thousand square feet. Iron balconies and interior steps. Seamstresses worked on the third floor. All of our merchandise is handmade.”


  “Yes, that’s the idea. We have another plant in this district where most of the sewing is done. The twelve machines upstairs were just for finish work. There was a small coffee room to the left, rest rooms … On the second, the floor was made of linoleum, rather than wood. We stored the stock there. I kept a small office up there, as well, though I do most of my work uptown. The area down here was for inspecting, packaging and shipping. We were to begin fulfilling our spring orders in three weeks.”

  She turned, not quite sure where she intended to go, and stumbled over debris. Ry’s quick grab saved her from a nasty spill.

  “Hold on,” he murmured.

  Shaken, she leaned back against him for a moment. There was strength there, if not sympathy. At the moment, she preferred it that way. “We employed over seventy people in this plant alone. People who are out of work until I can sort this out.” She whirled back. He gripped her arms to keep her steady. “And it was deliberate.”

  Control, he thought. Well, she didn’t have it now. She was as volatile as a lit match. “I haven’t finished my investigation.”

  “It was deliberate,” she repeated. “And you’re thinking I could have done it. That I came in here in the middle of the night with a can of gasoline.”

  Her face was close to his. Funny, he thought, he hadn’t noticed how tall she was in those fancy ankle-breaking shoes. “It’s a little hard to picture.”

  “Hired someone, then?” she tossed out. “Hired someone to burn down the building, even though there was a man in it? But what’s one security guard against a nice fat insurance check?”

  He was silent for a moment, his eyes locked on hers. “You tell me.”

  Infuriated, she wrenched away from him. “No, Inspector, you’re going to have to tell me. And whether you like it or not, I’m going to be on you like a shadow through every step of the investigation. Every step,” she repeated. “Until I have all the answers.”

  She strode out of the building, dignified despite the awkward boots. Her temper was barely under control when she saw the car pull up beside hers. Recognizing it, she sighed, made her way to the tape barrier and under it.

  “Donald.” She held out her hands. “Oh, Donald, what a mess …”

  Gripping her hands, he looked beyond her to the building. For a moment he just stood there, holding her hands, shaking his head. “How could this have happened? The wiring? We had the wiring checked two months ago.”

  “I know. I’m so sorry. All your work.” Two years of his life, she thought, and hers. Up in smoke.

  “Everything?” There was a faint tremor in his voice, in his hand as it gripped hers. “Is it all gone?”

  “I’m afraid it is. We have other inventory, Donald. This isn’t going to whip us.”

  “You’re tougher than me, Nat.” After a last quick squeeze he released her hands. “This was my biggest shot. You’re the CEO, but I feel like I was captain. And my ship just sank.”

  Natalie’s heart went out to him. It wasn’t simply business with Donald Hawthorne, she thought, any more than it was simply business with her. This new company was a dream, a fresh excitement, and a chance for both of them to try something completely different.

  No, not just to try, she reminded herself. To succeed.

  “We’re going to have to work our butts off for the next three weeks.”

  He turned back, a small smile curving his lips. “Do you really think we can pull it off, after this, on schedule?”

  “Yes, I do.” Determination hardened her lips. “It’s a delay, that’s all. So we shuffle things around. We’ll certainly have to postpone the audit.”

  “I can’t even think of that now.” He stopped, blinked. “Jesus, Nat, the files, the records.”

  “I don’t think we’re going to salvage any of the paperwork that was in the warehouse.” She looked back toward her building. “It’s going to make things more complicated, add some work hours, but we’ll put it back together.”

  “But how can we manage the audit when—”

  “It goes on the back burner until we’re up and running. We’ll talk about it back at the office. As soon as I meet the insurance agent, get the ball rolling, I’m heading back in.” Already her mind was working out the details, the steps and stages. “We’ll put on some double shifts, order new material, pull in some inventory from Chicago and Atlanta. We’ll make it work, Donald. Lady’s Choice is going to open in April, come hell or high water.”

  His smile flashed into a grin. “If anybody can make it work, you can.”

  “We can,” she told him. “Now I need you to get back uptown, start making calls.” PR, she knew, was his strong suit. He was overly impulsive perhaps, but she needed the action-oriented with her now. “You get Melvin and Deirdre hopping, Donald. Bribe or threaten distributors, plead with the union, soothe the clients. That’s what you do best.”

  “I’m on it. You can count on me.”

  “I know I can. I’ll be in the office soon to crack the whip.”

  * * *

  Boyfriend? Ry wondered as he watched the two embrace. The tall, polished executive with the pretty face and shiny shoes looked to be her type.

  As a matter of course, he noted down the license number of the Lincoln beside Natalie’s car, then went back to work.

  Chapter 2

  “She’s going to be here any minute.” Assistant District Attorney Deborah O’Roarke Guthrie put fisted hands on her hips. “I want the whole story, Gage, before Natalie gets here.”

  Gage added another log to the fire before he turned to his wife. She’d changed out of her business suit into soft wool slacks and a cashmere sweater of midnight blue. Her ebony hair fell loose, nearly to her shoulders.

  “You’re beautiful, Deborah. I don’t tell you that often enough.”

  She lifted a brow. Oh, he was a smooth operator, and charming. And clever. But so was she. “No evasions, Gage. You’ve managed to avoid telling me everything you know so far, but—”

  “You were in court all day,” he reminded her. “I was in meetings.”

  “That’s beside the point. I’m here now.”

  “You certainly are.” He walked to her, slipped his arms through hers and circled her waist. His lips curved as they lowered to hers. “Hello.”

  More than two years of marriage hadn’t diluted her response to him. Her mouth softened, parted, but then she remembered herself and stepped back. “No, you don’t. Consid
er yourself under oath and in the witness chair, Guthrie. Spill it. I know you were there.”

  “I was there.” Annoyance flickered in his eyes before he crossed over to pour mineral water for Deborah. Yes, he’d been there, he thought. Too late.

  He had his own way of combating the dark side of Urbana. The gift—or the curse—he’d been left with after surviving what should have been a fatal shooting gave him an edge. He’d been a cop too long to close his eyes to injustice. Now, with the odd twist fate had dealt him, he fought crime his own way, with his own special talent.

  Deborah watched him stare down at his hand, flex it. It was an old habit, one that told her he was thinking of how he could make it, make himself fade to nothing.

  And when he did, he was Nemesis, a shadow that haunted the streets of Urbana, a shadow that had slipped into her life, and her heart as real and as dear to her as the man who stood before her.

  “I was there,” he repeated, and poured a glass of wine for himself. “But too late to do anything. I didn’t beat the first engine company by more than five minutes.”

  “You can’t always be first on the scene, Gage,” Deborah murmured. “Even Nemesis isn’t omnipotent.”

  “No.” He handed her the glass. “The point is, I didn’t see who started the fire. If indeed it was arson.”

  “Which you believe it was.”

  He smiled again. “I have a suspicious mind.”

  “So do I.” She tapped her glass against his. “I wish there was something I could do for Natalie. She’s worked so hard to get this new company off the ground.”

  “You’re doing something,” Gage told her. “You’re here. And she’ll fight back.”

  “That’s one thing you can count on.” She tilted her head. “I don’t suppose anyone saw you around the warehouse last night.”

  Now he grinned. “What do you think?”

  She blew out a breath. “I think I’ll never quite get used to it.” When the doorbell sounded, Deborah set her glass aside. “I’ll get it.” She hurried to the door, then opened her arms to Natalie. “I’m so glad you could come.”

  “I wouldn’t miss one of Frank’s meals for anything.” Determined to be cheerful, Natalie kissed Deborah, then linked arms with her as they walked back into the sitting room. She offered her host a brilliant smile. “Hello, gorgeous.”

  She kissed Gage, as well, accepted the drink he offered and a seat by the fire. She sighed once. A beautiful house, a beautiful couple, so incredibly in love. Natalie told herself if she were inclined toward domesticity, she might be envious.

  “How are you coping?” Deborah asked her.

  “Well, I love a challenge, and this is a big one. The bottom line is, Lady’s Choice will have its grand opening, nationwide, in three weeks.”

  “I was under the impression that you lost quite a bit of merchandise,” Gage commented. Cloaked by the shadow of his gift, he’d watched her arrive at the scene the night before. “As well as the building.”

  “There are other buildings.”

  In fact, she had already arranged to purchase another warehouse. It would, even after the insurance payoff, put a dent in the estimated profits for the year. But they would make it up, Natalie thought. She would see to that.

  “We’re going to be working overtime for a while to make up some of the losses. And I can pull some stock in from other locations. Urbana’s our flagship store. I intend for it to go off with a bang.”