Roast Mortem

PROLOGUE

COLD here in the alley, but things will get hotter soon . . .

The Arsonist moved deeper into the shadows, orange shopping bag in hand. Back on the busy Queens sidewalk, the day felt bright and balmy. Just a few steps away from humanity, all warmth fled and nearly all light.

Weak shafts of sun barely penetrated the crisscrossing maze of phone wires and fire escapes, coaxial cables and clothing lines. With certain strides, the Arsonist bypassed iron grates and grimy windows, broken crates and dented trash cans. Finally the destination—one particular back door.

Down went the glossy tangerine sack, squatting on the cold concrete. Cloying scents of soy and garlic still haunted its boxy interior, ghosts of last night’s Korean takeout. The reinforced bottom and laminated sides made it sturdy enough to carry the necessary items.

Feeling sweaty despite the chill, the Arsonist bent over the shopping bag, grasped two wires from the battery, and fixed them to circuits on the bleach bottle with no bleach inside.

Now it’s ready . . .

The Arsonist rose, lifting the bag’s handles of nylon rope.

Heavier now, or my imagination?

Nervous fingers tested the shiny brass knob. Unlocked, as promised, the back door swung open on a small utility room. A sink, shelves, supplies neatly stacked.

Male laughter seeped through the brocade curtain. The Arsonist crossed the tight space, teased apart the muffling fabric. An archway framed the caffè’s main room. Up front, the elderly owner gabbed with a customer about the rush hour pedestrian parade, mostly about the women.

Stepping back, the Arsonist quickly searched out a spot for the bag. Under the shelf, behind the cleaning products . . .

Perfect.

A stifled sneeze, a few more steps, and the Arsonist was back on the sidewalk. Warmth, pedestrians, unobstructed light. It felt as if nothing had happened—or more like something good had happened.

At 9:25 PM, the caffè would be closed, the old Italian off playing bocce in the park. No one would be in the building. No one would be hurt.

Unless something goes wrong . . .

That prick of a thought had vexed the Arsonist multiple times. This would be the last.

After all, thought the Arsonist, it’s out of my hands now. The schedule was set for me, and I held up my end. Tonight Caffè Lucia will burn. If people get in the way, it’s their own stupid fault.

ONE

“BOSS, I hate to leave you like this, but I have got to go.”

“Go,” I told Esther. “We’ll be okay . . .”

At least I hoped we would. I was standing behind my espresso machine, facing a line out my door. The usual Village Blend regulars were here along with a swell of caffeine-deprived commuters grabbing a java hit before heading home. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, and in most respects the day felt like any other. Except it wasn’t. This was the day the fires began. When the smoke finally cleared, the fatalities would number two, and they would not be accidents. The deaths would turn out to be murders and I, Clare Cosi, would be the one to prove it.

At this particular moment, however, I wasn’t thinking about killers or arsonists, lovesick Italian women or blustery FDNY captains, and I certainly wasn’t thinking about a bomb. Mostly what I was thinking about was traffic.

Tucker Burton, my lanky, floppy-haired assistant manager, had arrived on time for his shift and was just tying on his Village Blend apron. A part-time actor-playwright and occasional cabaret director, Tuck loved being a barista in the Italian tradition, which (like a good bartender) had as much to do with convivial customer interaction as it did