Her phone was tweeting. Howie, no doubt, calling to tell her he was going to be late, to just lock up the house and go to bed—
Then it came down on her again, like unpleasant presents raining from a poison pi?ata: the realization that Howie was dead. She didn’t know who could be calling her at—she checked her watch—twenty past midnight, but it wasn’t Howie.
She winced as she sat up, rubbing her neck, cursing herself for falling asleep on the couch, also cursing whoever had wakened her at such an ungodly hour and refreshed her recollection of her strange new singularity.
Then it occurred to her that there could be only one reason for such a late call: the Dome was either gone or had been breached. She bumped her leg on the coffee table hard enough to make the papers there rattle, then limped to the phone beside Howie’s chair (how it hurt her to look at that empty chair) and snatched it up. “What?
“It’s Dale Barbara.”
“Barbie! Has it broken? Has the Dome broken?”
“No. I wish that’s why I was calling, but it’s not.”
“You said your husband was investigating Jim Rennie.”
Brenda paused, getting the sense of this. She had put her palm against the side of her throat, the place where Howie had caressed her for the last time. “He was, but I told you, he had no absolute—”
“I remember what you said,” Barbie told her. “You need to listen to me, Brenda. Can you do that? Are you awake?”
“I am now.”
“Your husband had notes?”
“Yes. On his laptop. I printed them.” She was looking at the VADER file, spread out on the coffee table.
“Good. Tomorrow morning, I want you to put the printout in an envelope and take it to Julia Shumway. Tell her to put it in a safe place. An actual safe, if she’s got one. A cash strongbox or a locked file cabinet, if she doesn’t. Tell her she’s only to open it if something happens to you or me or both of us.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“Of course she will, but why not let her look?”
“Because if the editor of the local paper sees what your husband had on Big Jim and Big Jim
“Ye-es…” She found herself wishing desperately that Howie were the one having this post-midnight conversation.
“I said I might be arrested today if the missile strike didn’t work. Do you remember me telling you that?”
“Well, I wasn’t. That fat sonofabitch knows how to bide his time. But he won’t bide it much longer. I’m almost positive it’s going to happen tomorrow—later today, I mean. If, that is, you can’t put a stop to it by threatening to air whatever dirt your husband dug up.”
“What do you think they’re going to arrest you for?”
“No idea, but it won’t be shoplifting. And once I’m in jail, I think I might have an accident. I saw plenty of accidents like that in Iraq.”
“That’s crazy.” But it had the horrid plausibility she had sometimes experienced in nightmares.
“Think about it, Brenda. Rennie has something to cover up, he needs a scapegoat, and the new Police Chief is in his pocket. The stars are in alignment.”
“I was planning to go see him anyway,” Brenda said. “And I was going to take Julia with me, for safety’s sake.”
“Don’t take Julia,” he said, “but don’t go alone.”
“You don’t actually think he’d—”
“I don’t know what he’d do, how far he’d go. Who do you trust besides Julia?”
She flashed back to that afternoon, the fires almost out, standing beside Little Bitch Road, feeling good in spite of her grief because she was flush with endorphins. Romeo Burpee telling her she ought to at least stand for Fire Chief.
“Rommie Burpee,” she said.
“Okay, then he’s the one.”
“Do I tell him what Howie had on—”
“No,” Barbie said. “He’s just your insurance policy. And here’s another one: lock up your husband’s laptop.”
“Okay… but if I lock up the laptop and leave the printout with Julia, what am I going to show Jim? I guess I could print a second copy—”
“No. One of those floating around is enough. For now, at least. Putting the fear of God into him is one thing. Freaking him out would make him too unpredictable. Brenda, do you believe he’s dirty?”
She did not hesitate. “With all my heart.”
“And you remember what’s in the file?”
“Not the exact figures and the names of all the banks they used, but enough.”
“Then he’ll believe you,” Barbie said. “With or without a second copy of the paperwork, he’ll believe you.”