[EXCERPT, THE ARSONIST’S LAST WORDS]
“Get something on the janitor.” Her editor didn’t bother with small talk. Juni had pulled off the highway, sick a second time, throwing up the coffee and Excedrin she’d swallowed at the dentist’s office. The radio reports were enough to turn her stomach, even without the migraine.
The Plaza was gone.
She found a napkin in the glove compartment and wiped her mouth. A pair of sandhill cranes grazed in the field beside the road, heedless of traffic and the strange woman leaning out of her car. Watching the birds wade slowly through the grass, she began to feel better. For a few minutes now, she’d be able to think, almost function on a human level. The knifing pain at the back of her head had dulled to a throb. She could almost move her lips. While she’d been retching, the line of cars had crawled to a full stop.
Juni tried her cell phone again, still marveling at the ability to dial from her car. Before today, she’d only used the new toy twice: once to activate the account, and once to call her brother in Chicago to say, “Peter, guess where I’m calling from!” Carl Hamblin’s number had been busy all morning, the network down. Radio announcers were begging people to stay off the lines, except for emergency calls. Like everyone else, Juni considered herself exempt. Human nature made dialing compulsory, just to know you could.
It was a shock when she finally got through.
“Where are you?” Carl rasped.
“The Greeneway. Oviedo.”
“Are you drunk?”
“What are you doing getting your teeth drilled at a time like this?”
Juni realized the pain-free interlude would be mercilessly short. She rubbed a pressure point along her brow and tried to concentrate. “What do you need?”
“Davidson’s guy at the OPD says they’re looking at a janitor,” Carl said. “Got a pen?”
“M-a-u-r-o A-b-i-s-s-i. He carried a package into the building, and nobody stopped him. The security guard was talking in the ambulance, but he’s out of it now. Third-degree burns or some such. Margaret’s down at the hospital.”
“Where’s the janitor?”
“Under the building, with any luck.”
Juni had a vision of the wicked witch’s toes curling up beneath the house in Oz.
“How bad is it?”
“Couldn’t tell you,” Carl said. “We can’t get close. The whole area’s cordoned off.”
“State of emergency, babe. Do not pass Go.”
Two lanes over, an idling semi released its brakes with a roaring hiss. The cranes took flight, wheeling away into the empty sky.
“What the hell was that?”
Up ahead, drivers were getting out of their cars. Juni sighed into the phone. “I’ll be home for Christmas.”
“Remember that piece you wrote on the Plaza when it opened? We’ll need that copy, fluffed and dried.”
“When? Today? I don’t know”
“Do what you can. Get something on the janitor first,” Carl said. “We pulled the records. Sounds like this guy beat his wife, among other things. Wanted his name on the nightly news, the fucking bastard. What’s ‘Abissi’ anyway? Lebanese, Palestinian?”
“Fax the papers to my house?”
“Will do. Tonight’s print run is held up. Get something filed by ten.”
“How bad is it really?”
“Honey, you don’t want to know.”
He was wrong, of course. Not knowing was worse.
Juni shut off the engine, rolled down the window and changed the AM station to NPR. Hearing Cokie Roberts say the word “Parramore” made it real somehow. This wasn’t just a local tragedy—it was national news.
Despite the sun’s heat through the windshield, Juni shivered.
She wanted to go back. Back to this morning in the shower. Back when the worst that could happen was a root canal.
On her drive to the dentist’s office, the morning radio astrologer had offered his usual, inscrutable advice. “Mercury is in retrograde,” he’d said, whatever that meant. “We must turn our attention to unfinished business.”
Not a hint about the end of life as you knew it.
Copyright © 2012 by Alison R. Lockwood. All rights reserved.