“You got in to see him? How’d you manage that? From what I’ve heard, the man’s office is like a fortress.”
Her voice got dry. “Funny how if you mention you’re an arson investigator, doors open.”
“I gotta remember this.”
He braked at a red light and watched two young women pass in front of his SUV. They both looked at him, did a double take, stared like they were sizing him up for a fuck. Ah, yes, the younger generation with their high standards and fine-tuned morals at work. And if he had any sex drive at all, maybe he’d reroute from this stupid meeting and go pick the two of them up in a bar.
Instead, he might as well have been looking at a pair of bicycles.
There was something very, very wrong with him.
“Hello?” his sister said.
“Sorry.” He hit the gas as the light changed. “What were you saying?”
“I never got to sweep the house. As soon as the fire was out on the first and second floors, we got called onto another alarm. The six-one-seven closed the scene and you were the Incident Commander.”
“Did you guys find anything that wasn’t in the official arson report?”
“Are you accusing me of withholding evidence?”
“No. I’m asking because the agent died before he finished his job on the scene, and I’m worried that information was lost.”
“Oh . . . shit, that’s right. I remember something about the guy dying. Lemme think, I mean, you saw it all yourself: old house, daughter was a mess, Charles Ripkin shows up the next day and does a presser on how he owes the department an unbelievable debt. A month later, he sends a crew to break ground on the new facility. Daughter, Kristina, survived, but was scarred.”
“Constance was her name.” There was a pause. “It just doesn’t add up. Why’d she make her way to the attic? While she was one fire?”
“She panicked. Instead of dropping and rolling, she ran and ended up in the elevator. She told us later she thought that was where a fire extinguisher was. She flailed around, pushed a bunch of buttons, fell out upstairs. She was found right outside the open doors of the thing.”
“That makes no sense.”
“It’s what she told police happened. Why would she lie?”
“I don’t know. I want to find out, though.”
“Anne, you’re not a homicide detective, and the case is closed. Oh, and there was a fire extinguisher in the elevator, mounted under the button panel.”
“So why didn’t she use it on herself?”
“I guess she collapsed. I don’t know.” There was a silence. “Hey, before you go. What’s up with you and Mom? You can’t wait to get rid of her most times and won’t even talk to her on the phone—and now she’s staying with you?.”
Up ahead, the Canterbury Inn’s lit-up exterior looked like an ad for autumn in New England, the maples on either side just beginning to turn red, the colonial’s yellow clapboards, white trim, and black shutters as traditional as they were attractive.
“She’s fine,” Anne muttered. “And I want her to stay.”
As Tom pulled into the lane that went back to the parking area, he was aware of a loosening in him, his breath entering his chest and exhaling suddenly not that great an effort. How long had he been suffocating? he wondered.
Okay, that was a question he’d do well not to dwell on.
“Thank you,” he heard himself say. “Thank you for . . . being with her. She loves you a lot and has never understood why you hate her so much.”
* * *
Anne was pulling into her driveway as she ended the call with her brother, and as she tossed her cell into her bag, she glanced back at Soot.
“You ready for dinner?”