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Blue Smoke, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  The man walked toward the ruin of Sirico’s. He switched on a flashlight and went into the dark.

  Together, they carried the leftover food and drink back inside. Reena thought they all looked like survivors in those war movies, dirty hair, tired faces. When the food was put away, her mother asked if anyone wanted to sleep.

  Bella started to sob again. “How can we sleep? What are we going to do?”

  “What comes next. If you don’t want to sleep, go clean up. I’ll fix breakfast. Go. We’ll think better when we’re clean and have some food.”

  Being third in line in age meant Reena was always third in line for the bathroom. She waited until she heard Fran come out and Bella go in. Then she slipped out of her room to knock on her parents’ bedroom door.

  Her father had washed his hair, and it was still wet. He’d changed into clean jeans and a shirt. His face looked the way it did when he got sick with the flu.

  “Your sisters hogging the bathroom?” He smiled a little, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “You can use ours this time.”

  “Where’s your brother, Reena?” her mother asked.

  “He fell asleep on the floor.”

  “Oh.” She pulled her damp hair back into a band. “That’s all right. Go, have your shower. I’ll get you clean clothes.”

  “Why did the fireman go in when the others went away?”

  “He’s an inspector,” her father told her. “He’ll try to find out why it happened. They got here faster than they would have if you hadn’t seen it. Pete and his family are safe, and that’s most important. What were you doing up so late, Reena?”

  “I—” She felt the flush heat up the back of her neck as she remembered her period. “I need to just tell Mama.”

  “I won’t be mad.”

  She stared down at her toes. “Please. It’s private.”

  “Can you go start some sausage, Gib?” Bianca said casually. “I’ll be down soon.”

  “Fine. Fine.” He pressed his hands to his eyes. Then he dropped them, looked at Reena again. “I won’t be mad,” he repeated, and left them alone.

  “What is it you can’t tell your father? Why would you hurt his feelings at a time like this?”

  “I didn’t mean . . . I woke up because I—My stomach hurt.”

  “Are you sick?” Bianca turned, laid a hand on Reena’s forehead.

  “I started my period.”

  “Oh. Oh, baby girl.” Bianca drew her in, held her hard. Then began to weep.

  “Don’t cry, Mama.”

  “Just for a minute. So much, all at once. My little Catarina. So much loss, so much change. My bambina.” She eased back. “You changed tonight, and because you did, you saved lives. We’ll be grateful for what was saved, and we’ll deal with what was lost. I’m very proud of you.”

  She kissed Reena on both cheeks. “Does your tummy still hurt?” When Reena nodded, Bianca kissed her again. “You’ll take a shower, then a nice warm bath in my tub. It’ll make you feel better. Do you need to ask me anything?”

  “I knew what to do.”

  Her mother smiled, but there was something sad in her eyes. “Then you take your shower, and I’ll help you.”

  “Mama, I couldn’t say it in front of Dad.”

  “Of course not. That’s all right. This is women’s business.”

  Women’s business. The phrase made her feel special, and the warm bath eased the achiness. By the time she got downstairs, the family was in the kitchen, and she could tell by the gentle way her father touched her hair he’d been told the news.

  There was a somberness around the table, a kind of exhausted quiet. But at least Bella seemed to have used up all her tears—for the moment.

  She saw her father reach over, lay his hand over Mama’s, squeeze it before he began to speak. “We have to wait until we’re told it’s safe. Then we’ll start cleaning up. We don’t know yet how bad the damage is, or how much time it’s going to be before we can open again.”

  “We’re going to be poor now.” Bella’s lip trembled. “Everything’s ruined, and we won’t have any money.”

  “Have you ever not had a roof over your head, food on your table, clothes on your back?” Bianca asked sharply. “Is this how you behave when there’s trouble? Crying and complaining?”

  “She cried the whole time,” Xander pointed out as he played with a piece of toast.

  “I didn’t ask you what I can see for myself. Your father and I have worked every day for fifteen years to make Sirico’s a good place, an important place in this neighborhood. And my father and mother worked to build all that for more years than you can know. It hurts. But it’s not the family that burned, it’s a place. And we’ll rebuild it.”

  “But what will we do?” Bella asked.

  “Be quiet, Isabella!” Fran ordered when her sister started to speak.

  “I mean, what do we do first?” Bella asked again.

  “We have insurance.” Gibson looked down at his plate as if surprised to find food on it. But he picked up his fork, began to eat. “We’ll use it to rebuild or repair or whatever we need to do. We have savings. We won’t be poor,” he added with a stern look at his middle daughter. “But we’ll need to be careful, for as long as it takes. We’re not going to be able to go to the beach like we planned over Labor Day weekend. If the insurance isn’t enough, then we’ll have to go into our savings, or take out a loan.”

  “Remember this,” Bianca added. “The people who work for us have no job now, not until we can reopen. Some of them have families. We aren’t the only ones hurt by this.”

  “Pete and Theresa and the baby,” Reena said. “They might not have any clothes or furniture or anything. We could give them some.”

  “Good, that’s a positive thing. Alexander, eat your eggs,” Bianca added.

  “I’d rather have Cocoa Puffs.”

  “Well, I’d rather have a mink coat and a diamond tiara. Eat. There’s going to be a lot of work to do. You’ll all do your part.”

  “Nobody. Nobody,” Gibson added with a jab of his finger toward Xander, “goes inside until you have permission.”

  “Poppi,” Fran murmured. “We have to tell him.”

  “It’s too early to call him with news like this.” Bianca pushed food around her plate. “I’ll call him soon, and my brothers.”

  “How could it have happened? How can they tell how?” Bella asked.

  “I don’t know. It’s their job. Ours is to put it back together.” Gibson lifted his coffee cup. “And we will.”

  “The door was open.”

  Gibson turned his gaze to Reena. “What?”

  “The door, the front door, was open.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “I saw. I saw the door was open, and the lights—the fire in the window. Maybe Pete forgot to lock it.”

  This time it was Bianca’s hand that reached out and covered her husband’s. Before she could speak, the doorbell rang.

  “I’ll get it.” She rose. “I think it’s going to be a very long day. If anyone’s tired, they should try to sleep now.”

  “Finish eating,” Gibson ordered. “Take care of the dishes.”

  Fran rose as he did, came around the table to put her arms around him. At sixteen she was slim and graceful, with a femininity Reena recognized and envied.

  “It’s going to be all right. We’ll make it even better than it was before.”

  “That’s my girl. Counting on you. All of you,” he added. “Reena? Come with me a minute.”

  As they walked out of the kitchen together, they heard Bella’s irritated, “Saint Francesca.” Gibson merely sighed, then nudged Reena into the TV room. “Um, listen, baby, if you don’t feel well I can spring you from KP.”

  A part of her wanted to jump at the chance, but guilt was just a little heavier. “I’m okay.”

  “Just say something if you’re . . . not.”

  He gave her an absent pat, then wandered off toward the front of the hou

  She watched him. He always looked so tall to her, but now his shoulders were bowed. She wanted to do what Fran had done—say the right thing, put her arms around him, but it was too late.


  She meant to go right back into the kitchen, to be good. Like Fran. But she heard Pete’s voice, and it sounded like he was crying. She heard her father, too, but couldn’t understand the words.

  So she moved quietly forward toward the living room.

  Pete wasn’t crying, but he looked like he might, any second. His long hair fell over the sides of his face as he stared down at the hands he clenched in his lap.

  He was twenty-one years old—they’d given him a little party at Sirico’s, just the family. Because he’d worked there since he was fifteen, he was family. And when he’d gotten Theresa pregnant and had to get married, her parents had let them have the upstairs apartment dirt cheap.

  She knew that because she’d heard Uncle Paul talking about it with her mother. Eavesdropping was something she had to do penance for—a lot. But it always seemed worth a couple extra Hail Marys.

  Now she could see her mother sitting beside Pete, her hand on his leg. Her father sat on the coffee table—which they were never allowed to do—facing him. She still couldn’t quite hear what her father said, his voice was so low, but Pete kept shaking his head.

  Then he lifted it, and his eyes glimmered. “I swear, I didn’t leave anything on. I’ve gone over it a thousand times in my head. Every step. God, Gib, I’d tell you if I screwed up. You have to believe me, I’m not covering. Theresa and the baby—if anything had happened to them—”

  “Nothing did.” Bianca closed her hand over his.

  “She was so scared. We were so scared. When the phone rang.” He looked at Bianca. “When you called, said there was a fire and to get out, it was like a dream. We just grabbed the baby and ran. I didn’t even smell the smoke until you were there, Gib, running up to help us get out.”

  “Pete, I want you to think carefully. Did you lock up?”

  “Sure, I—”

  “No.” Gib shook his head. “No, don’t just knee-jerk it. Go through the steps. Lots of times routines get so automatic, you can skip something without remembering it later. Just go back. Last customers?”

  “Ah. God.” Pete pushed a hand through his hair. “Jamie Silvio and a girl he’s seeing. New one. They split a pepperoni, had a couple of beers. And Carmine, he hung out till closing, trying to talk Toni into going out with him. Um, they left about the same time, about eleven-thirty. Toni and Mike and I finished the cleanup. I did the drawer—oh God, Gib, the bank envelope’s still upstairs. I—”

  “Don’t worry about that now. You and Toni and Mike left together?”

  “No, Mike left first. Toni hung out while I finished up. It was about midnight, and she likes if one of us watches while she walks home. We went out—and I remember, I remember hauling out my keys, and her saying how cute my key ring is. Theresa had this picture of Rosa made into a key ring. I remember her saying it was sweet while I locked the door. I locked the door, Gib. I swear. You can ask Toni.”

  “Okay. None of this is your fault. Where are you staying?”

  “With my parents.”

  “You need anything?” Bianca asked. “Diapers for the baby?”

  “My mom, she keeps some stuff there for her. I just wanted to come, to tell you. I want to know what I can do. I just went by. You can’t get in, they’ve got it blocked off. But it looks bad. I want to know what I can do. There must be something I can do.”

  “There’s going to be plenty to do once we’re cleared to get in there and clean up. But right now, you should go be with your wife, your baby.”

  “You call me at my mom’s, you need anything. Anytime. You guys have been good to me, to us.” He reached out to hug Gib. “Anything you need.”

  Gib walked to the door before turning to Bianca. “I need to go down, take a look.”

  Reena dashed into the room. “I want to go with you. I’m going with you.”

  Gib opened his mouth, and Reena could see the denial on his face. But Bianca shook her head at him. “Yes, go with your father. When you get back we’ll talk, again, about listening to private conversations. I’ll wait until you get back before I call my parents. Maybe we’ll have more to tell them. Maybe it isn’t as bad as we think.”

  It looked worse, at least to Reena’s eye. In the daylight, the black brick, the broken glass, the sodden debris looked horrible, smelled worse. It seemed impossible that fire could have done so much, so fast. She saw the destruction inside through the gaping hole where the big window with its painted pizza had been. The burned mess of what had been the bright orange benches, the old tables, the twisted mess that was once chairs. The sunny yellow paint was gone, as was the big menu sign that had hung in the open kitchen area where her father—and sometimes her mother—tossed dough to entertain customers.

  The man with the fireman’s helmet and the flashlight came out carrying a kind of toolbox. He was older than her father; she could tell because there were more lines on his face, and the hair she could see under the helmet was mostly gray.

  He’d given them a quick study before stepping out. The man—Gibson Hale—had the long, lanky build that rarely went stocky. A little worse for wear with the night he’d put in. He had a lot of curling hair, sandy with some bleached-out tips. Got out in the sun when he could, didn’t wear a hat.

  John Minger didn’t just study the fire, but the people involved in it.

  The kid was pretty as a picture, even with the hollow, sleep-starved look in her eyes. Her hair was darker than her father’s but had the curl in it. Looked to John as if she was going to get his height and build along with it.

  He’d seen them last night when he arrived on scene. The whole family, grouped together at first like shipwreck survivors. The wife, now she was a looker. The sort of bombshell you didn’t see often outside the movie screen. The oldest daughter favored her the most, he recalled. With the middle one missing that wow factor by a fraction. The boy had been handsome, with the sturdy look of childhood still on him.

  This kid looked whippy, and there were some bruises and scrapes on the long legs that made him think she probably spent more time running around with her little brother than playing with dolls.

  “Mr. Hale. I’m not going to be able to let you go in yet.”

  “I wanted to see. Did you . . . could you find out where it started?”

  “Actually, I’d like to talk to you about that. Who’s this?” he asked with a smile for Reena.

  “My daughter Catarina. I’m sorry, I know you told me your name, but—”

  “Minger, Inspector John Minger. You mentioned one of your daughters saw the fire, woke you.”

  “I did,” Reena piped up. She knew it was probably a sin to be proud of her status. But maybe it was just a venial sin. “I saw it first.”

  “I’d like to talk about that, too.” He glanced over as a police car pulled up to the curb. “Can you give me a minute?” Without waiting for an answer, he went to the car, spoke quietly to the policemen inside. “Is there someplace you’d be comfortable talking?” he asked when he came back.

  “We live just up the block.”

  “That’s fine. Just another minute.” He went to another car and stripped off what Reena saw now were like coveralls. Beneath he wore regular clothes. He put them, and his helmet, in the trunk, along with the toolbox and, after locking it, nodded to the policemen.

  “What’s in there?” Reena wanted to know. “In the toolbox?”

  “All kinds of things. I’ll show you sometime if you want. Mr. Hale? Can I have a second? Could you wait here, Catarina?”

  Again, he didn’t wait, simply stepped off a short distance.

  “If there’s anything you can tell me,” Gib began.

  “We’ll get to that.” He took out a pack of cigarettes, a lighter. He took the first drag as he pushed the lighter back in his pocket. “
I need to talk with your daughter. Now your first instinct might be to fill in details for her, prompt her. It’d be better if you didn’t. If you just let the two of us talk it through.”

  “Okay. Sure. She’s, ah, observant. Reena.”