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Consumed

Consumed

Page 44

Her real one was shaking too badly.

By the time she reemerged into the parking garage, she was light-headed from the adrenaline and fear, and as she went over to her car, she looked up. Pods containing security cameras were set into the ceiling at regular intervals, and she was willing to bet every property that Ripkin owned was the same.

A man who watched everything like this? No accidents happened on his land without his knowledge.

Approaching her municipal sedan, she half expected her tires to be slashed, and she gave into paranoia, covering her hand with the sleeve of her jacket as she touched the handle to open her door. She didn’t take a deep breath until she was out on the streets and merging into traffic. When she was back on 93 and heading for New Brunswick, she called her boss.

Don picked up on the first ring. “That sonofabitch.”

“You’re right. He’s capable of anything.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Did you like my speech at the end?”

“Outstanding, I couldn’t have said it better myself. The recording was a great idea of yours. Good job, Anne.”

A bloom of professional pride warmed up her chest. “Thanks, boss.”

“Drive safe. And watch out for anyone suspicious around you.”

“Will do. How’s my dog?”

“He’s in my office. I told him we’d have lunch at the deli—you’re coming with us.”

“Great. I should be back in about an hour.”

“Just be careful.”

As she ended the call, she took a deep breath and felt echoes of what it had been like to battle a fire, the rush of fight-or-flight as she faced off at a blaze with a charged hose in her hand, the mental and physical challenge, the conquering of fear, the triumph at the end.

The smile that hit her face came from a very deep part of her, a part that she had resigned to leaving behind.

t was affirming to find purpose—and, to use Danny’s monster analogy, something to slay.

On that note, she tried to remember what had happened to Ripkin’s daughter.

The young woman had been at Ripkin’s shore house by the Brunie yacht club when the fire had broken out. It had been off-season, December, and she’d been there alone. She had been found, badly burned, on the third floor, having run upstairs instead of outside from the fire that had started in the first-floor parlor. At the time, the blaze had been ascribed to a faulty gas line that fed the hearth in question, with a resulting explosion ripping through the old home. No internal sprinkler system—the mansion had been updated to include a car wash and a movie theater, but all it had had was the most basic of alarms.

Anne remembered what the daughter had looked like, being taken out on a stretcher, sheets of skin melting off of her even as she was put in the back of an ambulance. It was callous, but once they’d returned to the stationhouse, Anne hadn’t thought about it again.

Just one more in a long series of alarms that had gone off that night. That week. That month.

Why had Constance Ripkin gone up instead of out?

* * *

When Danny had first come in as a probie fresh out of the academy, Allen Barrister, a since-retired lieutenant, had taken him aside and told him that, sooner or later, every fireman went on the dead-baby run.

Horrible way of putting it, but an accurate enough description for the phenomenon.

As Danny sat rear-facing in the engine truck on the way back to the stationhouse, he remembered the morbid curiosity and shameful excitement he’d felt. He couldn’t wait to get into the grit and the grime, see the underbelly, lift up the rock of inhuman ugliness and see the twisted, gnawing worms beneath.

The dead-baby run was the incident that stained your brain, the first glimpse, out of the corner of your eye, of a woman who had been sexually tortured, doused in lighter fluid, and lit like charcoal for a grill with a match.

He could still remember how she’d smelled like barbequed meat.

He still didn’t order ribs in restaurants because of her, and it had been seven years.

Veterans usually had only one. That was because if you had more than one that stuck with you, followed you around like a ghost, became the nightmare your subconscious fed you when you were stressed, you got out of the service.

You either learned to process and let go of what you saw, and you had to, or you were not cut out for a long-term career.

Danny had always prided himself on his ability to triumph over all manner of gore and depravity. He had held people as they’d bled out, pulled the bodies of children out of crawl spaces and out from under beds, done CPR and lost that fight . . . hell, he’d thrown open the door to a messy room just as the seventeen-year-old kid on the bed had put a shotgun to his own face and blown his brains out all over the Shaun White poster above his headboard.

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