Janet’s driver seemed to be going deliberately slow. When they reached the last corner, Janet flung the door open and ran the rest of the way, heels clacking, rain spattering her umbrella.
The fading wisps of smoke should have confirmed her fears, but she denied them, forcing herself to approach the line of fire trucks and police cars until she could see incontrovertible proof: the smoldering wreckage of Ariana’s home.
A young sergeant approached her. “Sorry, ma’am, you can’t go any further.”
She feigned neighborly concern. “Can you tell me what happened?” Fear wavered her voice and she cleared her throat as nonchalantly as possible.
He eyed her shrewdly and took out his notebook . “Are you a friend or relative?”
She collected herself. Clearly something had changed during the night. It would be a bad idea to admit to being a friend or associate of Ariana and her husband, not until she knew more. Luckily, she was able to tell a truth: “Our daughters go to school together.”
“As far as we know, both kids were staying with relatives.” He hesitated, surveying the wreckage, evaluating Janet. She put on an expression of polite curiosity. “There’s a chance one or both of the parents survived. How well did you know them?”
Past tense, she noted. They must have found remains. Janet stilled a shudder. “Just through school.” That was a lie, but she’d become adept at lying during the years her husband worked with Ariana’s.
Who was she trying to fool? Janet was just as complicit. So was Ariana.
“If either of them happens to contact to you, let us know, okay?” the sergeant said. “We have…a lot of questions for them.”
Janet made her way back to the car, using her umbrella to shield her face from the nearby police commissioner, who would almost certainly recognize her. She forced herself to keep her pace relaxed all the way back to the car.
Ariana was inside, rigid as a captured animal, waiting for her.
Shocked, Janet closed the door hastily and signaled the driver to go. “Safe house B.” She had bought the house a year ago and paid the driver almost the same amount to keep it secret from Charlie.
She closed the privacy screen and faced her friend. “What happened?”
“I did it. I burned it down.” Ariana’s face was set, her fingers fiddling with a nonexistent cigarette. Janet didn’t smoke anymore, and Ariana would know not to contaminate the car. “The children are safe. It was their cousin’s birthday, so they spent the weekend at the coast. Their aunt – my sister – she’s the only one who knows everything.”
“Isn’t that dangerous for her?”
Ariana smiled sadly. “She needed to know. She’s their guardian now.”
“Oh, Ari. I’m so sorry – ”
“Don’t,” she whispered. “Not now. I have to keep it together until everything is settled.”
Janet nodded, but squeezed her friend’s trembling hand. “Ian?”
“Gone,” she said flatly. “So far his organization is in a holding pattern, but after they confirm the death, things will collapse quickly. The fire will keep spreading.”
She glanced at Janet then. “It might make things…difficult for you and Charlie. I am sorry for that.”
“It’ll be worth it,” she promised. “Where will you go?”
“Switzerland, maybe. South America.” She clenched her jaw, containing the impending onslaught of tears. Ariana had only stayed because Ian could ensure she never saw her children again. Now, he was dead and his criminal network crippled – but she was still paying the price.
“Maybe in a few years you can come back,” Janet offered. “Explain everything to the children, after enough time has passed.”
Ariana squeezed her eyes shut. Janet realized she was hardly wearing any makeup, just the barest mascara and a pink sheen on her lips. She looked pale, exhausted, and heartbroken.
“They’ll miss their father. Isn’t that ironic? He was such a monster…”
“You’ve saved them,” Janet insisted. “Maybe they won’t see it that way for a long time, but you’ve made their lives better. You’ve made this whole city better!”
Ariana smiled, a small but true smile. “I’ll miss you, Janet. You always know just what to say.”
“And you always knew what to do. I think that’s more important.”
Now it was Ariana who squeezed Janet’s hand. “You’d be surprised.”
The car slowed to turn down a driveway. Their farewell loomed. “So what do I do now?”
Ariana smiled, a flicker of her old ruthless self. “Keep the fire spreading.”