Smoke on the Water Episode 20

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 20: Caroline

The sun was cresting the horizon by the time we made it home from the island clinic, where Hoyt and I were both treated for smoke inhalation. There’d been a raging debate about whether we ought to be transported to the hospital at Nag’s Head, more for Hoyt than for me, as his injuries were worse than mine. Ultimately, he’d insisted he was fine, and he knew how to treat the second-degree burns he’d sustained. Because he’d rushed into a burning building with no gear to save me.

I was still processing that and pretty sure I’d fall apart about it later when the numbness of exhaustion had worn off. Judging by the crowd of vehicles at the house, that wouldn’t be anytime soon. I didn’t recognize all of them, though I knew at least a couple belonged to Sawyer and Ford, who’d come over to stay with Gabi while Rios was with me at the clinic. But the fire chief’s truck and the police cruiser were obvious enough.

I’d known I’d be questioned about last night. But I’d passed on as much information as I could to the firefighters on the scene before we’d been taken to the clinic, so I’d hoped there’d be a chance to rest before going through everything again. No such luck.

Hoyt and I were both moving slowly as we slid out of his father’s SUV. He’d been the one to stay with us all night. Rios had already parked his car on the shoulder of the drive and raced around to meet me. I waved off his effort to help me up the stairs. Everything hurt, but I was getting inside under my own power. Hoyt needed to see that I was okay so that he’d sit his ass down and rest himself.

Gabi flew out of our apartment. “Caroline!” She raced over to me, skidding to a stop inches from touching me.

I worked up a tired smile. “I won’t break, hermanita.” When I opened my arms, she came into them, squeezing me tight. It hurt, but I just held on because she needed the reassurance.

Her eyes were welling with tears when she pulled back. “You smell like smoke.”

“Yeah. Haven’t gotten the chance for a shower yet.” Though the nurse at the clinic had managed to dig up some scrubs for me to change into. That had helped a little, but the scent still clung to my hair and seemed to emanate from my pores. I wasn’t sure a single shower could wash it away.

“Chief Carson and Chief Thompson are here.”

“Of course they are,” Rios muttered.

“It’s procedure,” Hoyt said. “Let’s get this over with.”

We all trooped inside to find not only Ford and Sawyer but also Drew, standing like a sentinel. Ibbie hovered, a dishtowel in her hands as she frowned at the two unwelcome guests. The moment her eyes lit on Hoyt, she dropped the towel and rushed to him, stopping at the last second, as Gabi had.

“I’m all right, Mom. Promise.”

Her lip trembled as she spotted the bandages covering his burns. “But your hands.”

“Nothing that won’t heal.” He pulled her in for a hug. “Thanks for holding down the fort.”

“Of course.”

He’d called his family to be with Gabi, too? Circling the wagons to protect us. My throat went tight that his family was willing to do that for us.

“We’re sorry to invade like this. We know you’ve had a long night,” Chief Thompson began.

Bill Carson made a rude noise and folded his arms. He looked older than his forty-something years, with hair that was more iron gray than brown and a lined face that had been prematurely aged by years of wind and sun. That face was full of derision as he looked around the home we’d made, watching my brother prowl the room like a caged animal.

How much of that tension was because of the police chief’s presence and how much because of what had happened to me?

Thompson shot an impatient look toward his police counterpart. “I know you made a statement at the scene, but I’d like to go through things again, in case you remember anything more.”

“Of course,” I rasped.

“We’re going to sit.” Hoyt herded me over to the sofa, where we both lowered down. Why did I feel like I was eighty years old?

“Do you want some tea?” Ibbie asked.

“Just water. Thanks.” My throat was raw from the smoke, and would be for a while.

As she disappeared, Rios looked to Ford and Sawyer. “Any word from Jace?”

“He’s at Willa’s. She’s good.”

My head jerked up. “Is there any reason to think she shouldn’t be?”

“Just precaution,” Ford reassured me.

The Wayward Sons doing what they could to protect their own.

Ibbie came back with glasses for both Hoyt and me. I clutched mine in my hand, sipping gingerly.

“Take us through it at your own pace. What happened last night?” Chief Thompson prompted.

“It was a reasonably slow night. I was on my own with Jasper Bolton, our cook, and Willa Hollingsworth, one of our servers. Ed was on the mainland for an appointment and missed the last ferry back.” I told them about my altercation with David Foley and how I’d decided we would close early after that.

“Did he threaten you?”

“He was aggressive, clearly wanting to beat on someone, but he didn’t actually touch me. There were no explicit threats where he announced he’d do something to me if I didn’t do what he wanted, but he was very agitated.”

Thompson made notes on the little notepad he carried. “Did you see any sign of Foley after he left the bar?”

“No. But I wasn’t looking outside. After the last customers left, I locked the main door and started to clean up.” Step-by-step, I went over everything I’d done, all the way through getting shoved into the supply closet.

“Did you hear anything after that?”

“No. I was shouting for Jasper. For a minute, I thought he’d pushed me in as some kind of stupid prank. But then I couldn’t get out, and I smelled the smoke.”

I closed my eyes as remembered terror washed through me. Trapped, with flames creeping up the walls mere feet away on the other side of that door, with no way to know if anyone would make it in time.

A warm hand closed around mine, grounding me. Hoyt. Always Hoyt. Mindful of his injuries, I didn’t let myself squeeze back, but I laced my fingers with his.

“I don’t know what happened outside that closet until Hoyt found me.”

“Convenient,” Carson drawled.

I stiffened. “Excuse me?”

“It’s the second fire you’re connected to that you mysteriously don’t know anything about. Somebody might think you’ve got it in for your employers.”

Hoyt nearly exploded off the sofa. “She didn’t lock herself in the goddamned closet and levitate a chair underneath the door handle to lock herself in. Someone tried to kill her. Get your head out of your ass and work this case properly instead of letting your personal prejudice get in the fucking way.”

Carson scowled. “Watch yourself, boy.”

This time, Hoyt did stand. Drew and Thompson were both there to block him from access to the chief of police.

Thompson maintained his reasonable tone. “Sit back down, Hoyt.”

Hoyt’s shoulders were heaving as he glared daggers toward Carson, but at length, he sat.

“Clearly, she didn’t set the fire herself. That’s objectively impossible. We’re looking for someone else. But it’s possible there could be a connection to you. That it might be a hate crime directed toward you and your family. Both the beach house fire and this one strike at your means of income. It’s possible that someone is trying to drive you off island. Can you think of anyone who’d want to do that?”

Over the past two years, we’d faced so much hatred and prejudice. But had anyone seemed so determined that they’d go to this much trouble to get rid of us?

“Not that I can think of. A lot of people have made snide remarks or been outright ugly to all of us. But no one seemed angry enough to do something like this.”

“What about Chet Banks? You had some kind of run-in with him and Marcus Hoffman.”

I glanced at Hoyt. “It wasn’t exactly me who had the run-in. I make it a policy not to react, but Hoyt defended me to them and got into a verbal altercation.” That felt like a lifetime ago.

“And Troy Lincoln?”

“We’ve had him under surveillance since the vehicle fire,” Carson interrupted. “He wasn’t anywhere near this.”

“Are you sure?” Thompson prompted. “Have you spoken to the officer assigned to watch him? Or have you slacked off since everything’s been quiet until now?”

“Don’t tell me how to do my job, Thompson.”

“I’m just pursuing all avenues. Lincoln wanted Caroline and was pissed she chose Hoyt. Could be he wanted some kind of payback.”

Wasn’t that a cheery thought?

“That doesn’t fit with the beach house fire,” Carson insisted.

“No. It’s likely we’re dealing with more than one perpetrator. Right now, we’re trying to get at the details that will help us evaluate which fires were likely set by the same one.” Thompson turned back to us. “Is there anyone else?”

I thought of the horrible scene from the day my father had confronted me at work. “Our father.” I outlined what had happened that day, again citing Hoyt’s defense. “But he’s steered clear since his blow up. I guess he’s disowned us.”

“Fine with me,” Rios muttered.

“Well, you’re just making enemies left and right,” Carson sneered. “Guess it runs in the family.”

Hoyt shot up again, vibrating with rage. “Get the fuck out.”

Carson didn’t even flinch. “I’ve got everything I need, anyway. I’ll be in touch.” The chief of police turned in the doorway. “And don’t leave town, Miss Carrera. You’re a person of interest in this case.”

“You son of a bitch—”

This time, Rios and Drew caught Hoyt before he could fly at Carson.

The older man looked at Frank. “I’d think you’d be worried about the company he’s keeping. Sure seems to be having a bad influence on him.”

Thompson sighed. “Carson, get out of here and stop antagonizing my witnesses.”

“Just remember which of us is in control of this investigation.”

Everyone in the room held their collective breath as he strode out of the house and thumped down the steps.

Hoyt rounded on my brother. “Were you not going to say a word to defend her?”

Before I could open my mouth to say how out of line that was, my brother responded with admirable calm. “That man wants to put me away for a murder I didn’t commit. I can’t afford to antagonize him.”

Hoyt’s nostrils flared. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to plow my fist into his face.”

“I’ll hold him down,” Hoyt snarled.

“Maybe don’t be plotting an assault on an officer. You’re no good to me in jail,” Thompson said mildly.

Hoyt spun toward him. “Tell me you didn’t hear everything he just said. He’s not going to take this investigation seriously. He’s going to blow this off and point it toward something else, just because he doesn’t like Caroline’s family for God knows what reason. We can’t let that happen.”

“We won’t. We’ll continue to run our own investigation, separate from the police department. We’re going to find out who did this.”

I appreciated his intent, but I was losing faith.

Because it seemed like maybe the questions were over for now, I finally asked the one that had been circling around my brain since we’d left the scene. “How bad is the tavern?”

At the fire chief’s hesitation, my heart sank. “We won’t know for sure until we get a structural engineer in to confirm it’s safe to do further investigation, but we know the control valve for the sprinkler system was damaged. That’s why they didn’t turn on. There’s no question this was arson. We’ll be checking out David Foley to find out where he went when he left the bar last night. We’ll also be speaking with Ed Cartwright to see if he’s had any problems with anyone who might target the tavern. It could be a coincidence that you happened to be there. We’ve had multiple fires on-island this summer, and not all of them had anything to do with you directly or indirectly. So we’re going to keep looking. In the meantime, Hoyt, you are officially off duty until further notice. Rest. Heal. Take care of each other. We’ll keep in touch.”

Frank shook the fire chief’s hand. “Thanks for looking out for my boy. For both of them.”

Then he was gone.

“Well, that was some shit.”

I had to admire Drew’s tendency to cut through the niceties to get to the heart of the matter.

Hoyt sighed and sank back to the couch beside me. “It’s been a long damned night. Thank y’all for coming out for us.”

“Always, brother.”

Rios finally stopped pacing, moving over to settle into one of the folding camp chairs that were the only other seating we had. There were still things to discuss. Long-term ramifications of last night’s events, and it was obvious he knew it.

Ibbie fidgeted in the living room doorway. “Do you want something to eat?”

Hoyt’s stomach let out a growl in answer to that. “I could eat.”

I wasn’t sure if I could, but if she was kind enough to put food in front of me, I’d sure as hell try. “Some breakfast would be great. Thank you.”

Hoyt’s mom wrapped an arm around Gabi’s shoulders. “Come on, honey. Let’s put together some food for everybody.”

As soon as they were out of earshot, I dropped my voice to a near whisper. “I have no idea how we’re going to keep afloat after this.”

Rios reached out to squeeze my shoulder. “I’ve got some put by. And you’ll find another job.”

I hadn’t even begun to process the reality of that. Because regardless of the degree of damage to the tavern, chances were it would be closed the rest of the season. And that was if Ed decided to rebuild. Maybe he’d decide it was too much. Maybe with whatever he had going on with his health, he’d elect to retire. Either way, that didn’t solve the immediate problem.

“Who’s going to want to hire me? I’m lucky that Mr. Foster didn’t fire me from my cleaning job.”

“You had nothing to do with that,” Sawyer defended.

I lifted my gaze to his, then to Ford’s, and back to my brother. “But think about it. Carson’s not actually wrong about this. One of the properties I clean caught on fire and is still being repaired. Now the tavern? Regardless of whether this is bad luck or if it’s directed at me or our family, seriously, who is going to want to hire me after this? Who would want to risk it?” As the fresh fear began to take hold, my throat tightened. “I don’t know how we’re going to afford rent, groceries, anything.”

Hoyt wrapped an arm around me. “We’ll make it work. I don’t need the rent. Put what you’ve got toward essentials right now. It’ll be fine.”

How the hell was it going to be fine? It wasn’t reasonable for him to have to pay for his association with me. That was what all this felt like. No amount of arguing could convince me that the burning of his truck wasn’t somehow connected to me. What was going to be next? I closed my eyes as every single doubt and worry I’d had about getting involved with Hoyt ignited again.

His lips brushed my temple. “Don’t you dare. This is not your fault.”

Of course, he knew where my head was going.

I blinked back tears. I’d managed to hold them in all these hours, but now, my head ached and my throat was raw from smoke inhalation and too much talking. “I’m so tired,” I rasped.

“Go to bed, sis. Get some rest. We’ll talk about everything when you wake up later.”

I didn’t know that things would look any better on the other side of sleep, but the idea of a few hours of attempted oblivion sounded like heaven. But first, a shower.

When I shoved up from the couch, Hoyt rose with me.

“No. I want a shower and a few hours alone.”

I registered the flash of hurt in his eyes and turned away before I caved. The seams of my control were fraying, and I didn’t want him there when they ripped. That wasn’t an intimacy I wanted to share with anyone. Not even him.

I made it up the stairs on my own. But as I turned on the water and stripped down, I couldn’t stop myself from considering the realities of what came next. We were free of our father. Maybe it was finally time for all of us to cut our losses and consider leaving the island.

No matter who we’d be leaving behind.