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Shelter in Place, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  Then his sister took the heat off with her fierce talent on the soccer field.

  He served a table of four their starters—insalata mista for the mother, gnocchi for the dad, mozzarella sticks for the boy, and fried ravioli for the girl. He flirted harmlessly with the girl, who gave him long, shy smiles. Harmless because he figured she was maybe fourteen and off the radar for a college man heading into his sophomore year.

  Reed knew how to flirt harmlessly with young girls, older women, and pretty much all in between. Tips mattered, and he’d honed the charm for customers after four summers of waiting tables.

  He covered his section—families, some old couples, a scatter of date-night thirty-whatevers. Probably dinner and a movie, which made him think he’d see if Chaz—assistant manager at GameStop—wanted to catch the late showing of The Island after their shifts.

  He ran credit cards—chatting up table three had bagged him a solid twenty percent—turned tables, swung in and out of the insane kitchen, and finally hit break time.

  “Dory, taking my ten.”

  The head waitress gave his section a quick scan, gave him the nod.

  He stepped out of the double glass doors and into the Friday night mayhem. He had considered texting Chaz and taking his ten in the kitchen, but he wanted out. Plus he knew Angie worked the Fun In The Sun kiosk on Friday nights, and he could take four or five of his ten for some not-so-harmless flirting.

  She had an off-and-on boyfriend, but the last word he heard said off. He could try his luck there and maybe score a date with somebody whose miserable schedule matched his own.

  He moved fast on long legs through shoppers, through cliques of teenage girls and the teenage boys who scouted them, around moms pushing strollers or herding toddlers, through the incessant brain-numbing music he no longer heard.

  He had a mop of black hair—his mother’s Italian half. Dory didn’t bug him about getting a trim, and his dad had finally given up. His eyes, deep set, pale green against olive-toned skin, brightened when he saw Angie at the kiosk. He slowed his pace, slipped his hands into his trouser pockets—casual—and sauntered over.

  “Hey. How’s it going?”

  She flashed him a smile, rolled her pretty brown eyes. “Busy. Everybody’s going to the beach but me.”

  “And me.” He leaned on the counter with its display of sunglasses, hoping he looked smooth in his uniform of white shirt, black vest and pants. “I’m thinking of catching The Island, it’s got a ten-forty-five last show. It’s almost like a trip to the beach, am I right? Want in?”

  “Oh … I don’t know.” She fussed with her hair, a beachy blond that went with the golden tan he suspected she got from the self-tanner in another display. “I do kind of want to see it.”

  Hope sprang, and Chaz was bumped off his list.

  “Gotta make some fun, right?”

  “Yeah, but … I sort of told Misty we’d hang after closing.”

  Chaz jumped back on the list. “That’s cool. I was heading down to see if Chaz wanted to catch it. We could all go.”

  “Maybe.” She flashed that smile again. “Yeah, maybe. I’ll ask her.”

  “Great. I’m heading down to see Chaz.” He shifted to give more room to the woman waiting patiently while her kid—another who hit about fourteen—tried on half a zillion pairs of sunglasses. “You can text me either way.”

  “If I could have two pairs,” the girl began, checking herself out in a pair with metallic blue lenses, “I’d have a spare.”

  “One, Natalie. This is your spare.”

  “I’ll text you,” Angie murmured, then shifted to work mode. “Those look awesome on you.”


  “Totally,” Reed heard Angie say as he headed off. He quickened his pace—he had to make up time.

  GameStop buzzed with its usual crowd of geeks and nerds and, for the younger geeks and nerds, the glazed-eyed parents trying to move them along.

  Monitors previewed a variety of games—the PG variety on the wall screens. The less friendly ones were on individual laptops—for use with over-eighteen ID or with parental supervision.

  He spotted Chaz—king of the nerds—explaining some game to a confused-looking woman.

  “If he’s into military-style game play, strategy and arc building, he’d go for it.” Chaz shoved his coke-bottle glasses up on his nose. “It’s only been out a couple weeks.”

  “It seems so … violent. Is it appropriate?”

  “Sixteenth birthday, you said.” He gave Reed a quick nod. “And he’s into the Splinter Cell series. If he’s good with those, he’d be good with this.”

  She sighed. “I guess boys are always going to play war. I’ll take it, thanks.”

  “They’ll ring you up at the register. Thanks for shopping at GameStop. Can’t hang, man,” he told Reed as the customer walked away. “Slammed.”

  “Thirty seconds. Late show, The Island.”

  “I’m all about it. Clones, baby.”

  “Solid. I’ve got Angie on the hook for it, but she wants to bring Misty on.”

  “Oh, well, I—”

  “Don’t let me down, man. It’s the closest I’ve got to a date out of her.”

  “Yeah, but Misty’s a little scary. And … Do I have to pay for her?”

  “It’s not a date. I’m working on turning it into a date. For me, not for you. You’re my wingman, and Misty’s Angie’s. Clones,” he reminded Chaz.

  “Okay. I guess. Jeez. I wasn’t figuring on—”

  “Great,” Reed said before Chaz changed his mind. “Gotta book. Meet you there.”

  He rushed out. It was happening! Group nondate could clear the way for a one-on-one let’s-hang-out and that opened the door to the possibility of a little touch.

  He could use a little touch. But right now he had three minutes to make it back to Mangia or Dory would scorch his ass.

  He started to lope when he heard what sounded like firecrackers or a series of backfires. It made him think of GameStop’s shooting games. More puzzled than alarmed, he glanced back.

  Then the screaming started. And the thunder.

  Not from behind, he realized, from up ahead. The thunder was dozens of people running. He jumped out of the way as a woman careened toward him racing behind a stroller where the kid inside wailed.

  Was that blood on her face?


  She kept running, her mouth wide in a silent scream.

  An avalanche rolled behind her. People stampeding, stomping on discarded shopping bags, tripping over them, and as some fell, over each other.

  A man skidded over the floor, his glasses bouncing off to be crushed under someone’s foot. Reed grabbed his arm.

  “What’s happening?”

  “He’s got a gun. He shot—he shot—”

  The man shoved to his feet, ran on in a limping sprint. A couple of teenage girls ran weeping and screaming into a store at his left.

  And he realized the noise—gunfire—came not only from in front of him, but also from behind him. He thought of Chaz, a thirty-second sprint behind him, and his restaurant family, double that ahead.

  “Hide, man,” he muttered to Chaz. “Find somewhere to hide.”

  And he ran toward the restaurant.

  The cracking, popping sounds went on and on, seeming to come from everywhere now. Glass shattered and crashed, a woman with a bloodied leg huddled under a bench and moaned. He heard more screams—and, worse, the way they cut off, like a sliced tape.

  Then he saw the little boy in red shorts and an Elmo T-shirt staggering like a drunk past Abercrombie & Fitch.

  The display window exploded. People scattered, dived for cover, and the kid fell down, crying for his mother.

  Across the mall, he saw a gunman—boy?—laughing as he fired, fired, fired. On the ground, a man’s body jerked as the bullets tore into him.

  Reed scooped up the kid in the Elmo T-shirt on the run, hooking him under one arm like the football he�
�d never been able to handle.

  The gunfire—and he would never, never forget the sound of it—came closer. Front and back. Everywhere.

  He’d never make it to Mangia, not with the kid. He veered off, running on instinct, did a kind of sliding dive into the kiosk.

  Angie, the girl he’d flirted with five minutes before, a lifetime before, lay sprawled in a pool of blood. Her pretty brown eyes stared at him while the kid hooked under his arm wailed.

  “Oh God, oh Jesus. Oh Jesus, oh God.”

  The shooting wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t stop.

  “Okay, okay, you’re okay. What’s your name? I’m Reed, what’s your name?”

  “Brady. I want Mommy!”

  “Okay, Brady, we’re going to find her in just a minute, but now we have to be really quiet. Brady! How old are you?”

  “This many.” He held up four fingers as fat tears splashed on his cheeks.

  “That’s a big guy, right? We have to be quiet. There are bad guys. You know about bad guys?”

  With tears and snot running down his face, eyes huge with shock, Brady nodded.

  “We’re going to be quiet so the bad guys don’t find us. And I’m going to call for the good guys. For the police.” He did his best to block the boy’s view of Angie, did his best to block his own mind from the idea of her, of her and death.

  He yanked open one of the sliding doors for storage, shoved out stock. “Climb in there, okay? Like Hide and Seek. I’m right here, but you get in there while I call the good guys.”

  He nudged the kid in, got out his phone, and that’s when he saw how badly his hands shook.

  “Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”

  “DownEast Mall,” he began.

  “Police are responding. Are you in the mall?”

  “Yeah. I’ve got a kid with me. I put him in the stock cabinet in the Fun In The Sun kiosk. Angie—the girl who worked it. She’s dead. She’s dead. God. There are at least two of them shooting people.”

  “Can you tell me your name?”

  “Reed Quartermaine.”

  “Okay, Reed, do you feel you’re safe where you are?”

  “Are you fucking kidding me?”

  “Sorry. You’re in a kiosk so you have some cover. I’m going to advise you to stay where you are, to shelter in place. You have a child with you?”

  “He said his name’s Brady, and he’s four. He got separated from his mother. I don’t know if she’s…” He looked around, saw Brady had curled up, eyes glazed over, as he sucked his thumb. “He’s probably, you know, in shock or whatever.”

  “Try to stay calm, Reed, and quiet. The police are on scene.”

  “They’re still shooting. They just keep shooting. Laughing. I heard him laughing.”

  “Who was laughing, Reed?”

  “He was shooting, the glass exploded, the guy on the ground, he kept shooting him and laughing. Jesus God.”

  He heard shouting—not the screams, but like war cries. Something tribal and triumphant. And more shots, then …

  “It stopped. The shooting stopped.”

  “Stay where you are, Reed. Help is coming to you. Stay where you are.”

  He looked down at the boy again. The glassy eyes met his. He said, “Mommy.”

  “We’re going to find her in a minute. The good guys are coming. They’re coming.”

  That was the worst part, he’d think later. The waiting … with the smell of gunfire burning the air, the calls for help, the moans and sobbing. And seeing the blood on his own shoes of the girl he would never take to the movies.


  At seven-twenty-five on July 22, Officer Essie McVee finished the on-site report on a fender bender in the parking lot of the DownEast Mall.

  No injuries, minimal damage, but the driver of the Lexus got pretty aggressive with the trio of college girls in the Mustang convertible.

  Though the Mustang was clearly at fault—the weeping twenty-year-old driver admitted it—by backing out of the space without checking, the hotshot and his mortified date in the Lexus had—also clearly—had more than a few drinks.

  Essie let her partner handle the Lexus, knowing Barry would pull out the old women-drivers bullshit. She’d ignore that, also knowing Barry would cite the guy on an OUI.

  She calmed the girls, took statements and information, wrote the ticket. Lexus didn’t take kindly to the OUI—or to the cab Barry ordered—but Barry handled it in his “Aw, shucks” way.

  When the radio squawked, she tuned her ear to it. Four years on the job didn’t stop her heart from banging.

  She jerked around to Barry, saw by his face his ear had been tuned in as well. She turned her head to her mic.

  “Unit four-five is on scene. We’re right outside the theater.”

  Barry popped the trunk, tossed her a vest.

  Mouth dry as dust, Essie strapped it on, checked her sidearm—she’d never fired it off the range.

  “Backup’s coming, three minutes out. SWAT’s mobilizing. Jesus, Barry.”

  “Can’t wait.”

  She knew the drill, she’d had the training—though she’d never really expected to use it. Active shooter meant every second counted.

  Essie raced with Barry toward the wide glass doors.

  She knew the mall and wondered what twist of fate had put her and her partner seconds outside the theater entrance.

  She didn’t wonder if she would get home to feed her aging cat or to finish the book she’d started. She couldn’t.

  Locate, detain, distract, neutralize.

  She put the scene inside her head before they hit the doors.

  Theater lobby opening to the main mall, turn right to ticket booth, move to concessions, left to corridor to the three theaters. Nine-one-one stated shooter in One—the biggest of the three.

  She scanned through the glass, went through, tacked left as Barry tacked right. She heard the piped music from the mall, the rumble of shoppers.

  The two guys at concessions gawked at the pair of cops, weapons drawn. Both shot their hands up. The jumbo soda in the hand of the one on the left hit the counter, smashed and splashed.

  “Anybody else here?” Barry demanded.

  “J-j-just Julie, in the lockers.”

  “Get her, get outside. Now! Go, go!”

  One of them leaped toward a door behind the counter. The other stood, hands up, still stammering, “What? What? What?”


  He moved.

  Essie turned left, cleared the corner, saw the body, facedown outside the doors of One, and the blood trail behind it.

  “We got a body,” she told dispatch, and kept moving. Slow, careful. Past the laughter in the theater on her right, and toward the sounds pushing against the door of One.

  Shots, screams.

  She exchanged a look with Barry, stepped over the body. At his nod, she thought: Here we go.

  When they dragged open the theater doors, the sounds of violence and fear flooded out, and the muted light from the corridor slid into the dark.

  She saw the shooter—male, Kevlar vest, helmet, night-vision goggles, an assault rifle in one hand, a handgun in the other.

  In the instant it took her to register, he shot a male—who was fleeing for the side exit—in the back.

  Then he swung the rifle toward the theater doors, and opened fire.

  Essie dived for cover behind the wall behind the last row, saw Barry take a hit in the vest that flung him back and down.

  Not center mass, she told herself as adrenaline pumped through her, not center mass because, like Barry, the shooter wore a vest. She sucked in three quick breaths, rolled, and to her shock saw he was charging up the sloping aisle toward her.

  She fired low—hips, crotch, legs, ankles—and just kept firing even when he went down.

  She had to shove aside the instinct to go to her partner, pushed herself to the shooter.

  “Shooter down.” Keeping her weapon trained on him, she pulled t
he pistol out of his hand, slapped her foot on the rifle he’d dropped. “Officer down. My partner took a hit. We need medical. God, multiple gunshot victims. We need help here. We need help.”

  “Reports of another active shooter, possibly two or more in the mall area. You confirm one shooter down?”

  “He’s down.” She scanned his lower body, the mass of blood. “He’s not getting up.” Even as she said it, the shooter’s harsh, rapid breaths went out.

  He had a pimple on his chin. She stared at it until she could lift her head, until she could look at what he’d done.

  Bodies, splayed in the aisle, slumped in the seats, crumpled in the narrow spaces between rows where they’d fallen or tried to hide.

  She’d never forget it.

  When a quad team burst through the theater doors, she held up a hand. “Officer McVee. Shooter’s neutralized. My partner.”

  As she spoke, Barry coughed, moaned. She started to straighten from her crouch, swayed as her head swam.

  “You hit, McVee?”

  “No. No, just … No.” Bearing down, she went to Barry.

  “Next time I bitch about how hot and heavy these vests are, slug me.” He hissed in a breath. “Hurts like a motherfucker.”

  She swallowed bile, took Barry’s hand. “Would’ve hurt more without it.”

  “You got him, Essie. You got the bastard.”

  “Yeah.” She had to swallow again, hard, but she nodded. “I think he’s a kid. Barry, he’s not alone.”

  More cops poured in, and medical first responders. While other police units rushed into the mall hunting for the other shooter or shooters, Essie worked with Barry to clear the theater’s bathrooms, storage area, lockers.

  “You need medical,” she told him as they approached the ladies’ room.

  “I’ll get it later. Nine-one-one caller.” He nodded toward the bathroom door.

  Essie shoved it open, swept with her weapon, and caught a glimpse of her own face in the mirrors over the sink. Sickly pale, but better than the gray tone under Barry’s deep brown skin.

  “This is the police,” Essie called out. “Simone Knox? This is the police.”

  Silence echoed back.

  “Maybe she got out.”

  The stall doors stood open, but one hardly more than a crack. “Simone,” Essie repeated as she walked over. “I’m Officer McVee with the Rockpoint police. You’re safe now.”