Flames licked across the floor, attracted to an unrolled canvas, its painting half-finished. Then the fire leapt to the framed paintings stacked against the wall like oversized dominoes, first eating their stretched cloth and then attacking their hardier wooden frames. Now fed, the fire grew even more powerful, its flames leaping and dancing, lighting up the darkness of the studio at night.
In a far corner behind a curtain, a man lay sleeping. Smoke flowed over, under, and around the drape, filling the cubbyhole where he slept. On the floor next to him was an open bottle of Bushmill’s whiskey, three-quarters of it gone. The man did not stir.
The insatiable flames found fuel in the form of alcohol, most meant for painting or thinning paint, but some meant for drinking. Fire caught the bottom of a curtain covering the warehouse loft windows and stretching the height of two stories. It raged up the length of the drape in a bright orange column, giving off intense heat.
The man, Donnie, did not wake up. In his sleep, this is what he dreamed:
That crazy new broccoli they serve in fancy restaurants, the kind with the swirled florets. But this bunch is sitting in a bowl on his parents’s Formica kitchen table. He feels drawn to the fractal shapes of the lime green florets. They’re like the fractals he saw as a kid, when his dad took him to the science center in Cleveland. A scientist showed the crowd how to find fractals in nature, in clouds and crystals and snowflakes. Ever since that day, Donnie sees them everywhere.
As fractals, the broccoli whorls could spiral in the exact same pattern over and over again at smaller and smaller scales. They would keep repeating into infinity, so small his eye wouldn’t be able to see them. If he found a way to paint that infinite rhythm, capture that impossibly beautiful 3-D patterning on a 2-D canvas, then he would feel like he had finally done something with his life.
But they’re sitting there in the bowl, steam rising, and he’s hungry. So he eats them, swallowing each floret whole.
And since the florets are made of the energy of fractals, they keep repeating inside him. He can feel them spiraling through his gut. Soon he can only watch as they emerge from his belly, bursting out of the core of his body, rippling in space, turning him inside out so that he is now part of the fractal, too, a vibrating, swirling entity of math and matter. His body dissolves.
But he still exists—in a larger way, even, his spirit flowing as part of the energy that is everything in the universe at once, the largest supernova and the smallest quark and everything in between.
In this way, Donnie both ceases to exist and will always exist.
If any of our dreamslippers had been there to pick it up, they would have known what this particular man, this artist, dreamt of as his body was consumed by fire.
About twenty minutes away, past the neon Art Deco lights and the swishing palm trees and the line of shiny cars ambling between the scene on the street and the dark quiet of the beach at night, a party raged. The artists in attendance were oblivious to the fact that one of their own was now dead.
Holding a sweaty gin and tonic in one hand, the napkin under the glass damp, Amazing Grace watched her granddaughter out of the corner of her eye.
Cat had lost too much weight. The young woman’s cocktail dress seemed to hang on her, and her face lacked color, her spunk gone. It had been more than a year since Cat’s childhood sweetheart was killed. Amazing Grace thought the trip to Miami would knock her out of the Seattle doldrums—the weather in winter there hardly helped matters. But here in Miami, surrounded by vibrant art and tropical sights, sounds, and smells, Cat had remained sullen, non-communicative. It was all Grace could do to get Cat to attend the party tonight. Her granddaughter had wanted to stay in the hotel, reading statutes and case law.
“You’re worried about her, I can see,” said a voice at Grace’s elbow.
She turned to find Ernesto Ruíz, an old Miami flame of hers she’d bumped into a few days ago. He’d been hovering around her ever since, trying to get her alone for a bit of the nostalgic, trade-wind-fueled romance they always enjoyed. At seventy-eight, Grace commanded as much attention from men as she had in her twenties. Even more, in fact. She was much more self-possessed now, and she understood that this quality radiated from her, drawing men like Ernesto to her despite the wrinkles, the grey hair, the natural aging of her physique. A smart man like Ernesto knew he would find Grace a much more satisfying partner than anyone from the throngs of young, inexperienced, waifish artists in line for the bar.
Ernesto cut a dashing figure, his hair perfectly trimmed, his freshly shaven face giving off a musky aftershave scent. His impeccable suit appeared tailor-made. His shoes reflected the light of the crystal chandeliers as if a source of illumination themselves. Grace had to hand it to Miami men. No matter how hot the weather, they turned out as if every event were red carpet.
But she knew she was too distracted to take full advantage of Ernesto’s charms this time. Grace allowed his arm to nestle her waist, drawing her toward a nearby alcove. But Grace’s gaze returned over his shoulder to Cat, who was slumped against a balcony railing opposite them, a plump Miami full moon hanging overhead.
“It is simple.” Ernesto’s speech was correct but inflected with Cuban rhythm. “She still thinks the shooting was her fault. That’s what we do. Blame ourselves for that which we cannot control.”
The truth in Ernesto’s statement singed her. And Ernesto didn’t even know the half of it. He had no idea Grace and her granddaughter were both dreamslippers, and that a good deal of Cat’s depression had to do with something she couldn’t control. Dreamslipping was in Grace’s estimation a rare gift, something to cultivate and hone, but Cat regarded it as a curse and blamed it—and herself—for Lee’s death.
Ernesto took her hand. “But she is young, my Grace.” He lifted her hand to his lips. “She will survive this. It will pass. In time.”
“You’re right.” Grace shifted her gaze at last from Cat to Ernesto. “But it’s been a year. She needs to move on. And you know it’s never been my style to wait around for time to take care of things.”
Ernesto laughed, revealing unnaturally white teeth. The band, which had been on a break, picked up again. “Care to dance?”
She accepted his hand with a nod. The two of them slow-danced across the room, Ernesto a gentle but firm lead.
Suddenly there was a commotion at the entrance to the ballroom. A group of uniformed police appeared, a woman officer and two wingmen. “We’re looking for an artist,” she said, and the crowd chuckled at that.
“Almost everyone in this room is an artist,” someone called out. “This is Art Basel. One of the biggest art shows in the world.”
“The one we’re looking for is Mick Travers.”
Grace felt alarm at the sound of her brother’s name. Where was Mick, anyway? She scanned the room and found him in a crowd of people less than half his age. One of them, a woman with her hair piled on top of her head in an exaggerated beehive, elbowed him and pointed to the cluster of cops.
Someone in the crowd near the door motioned toward Mick, and the police made their way over to him. Grace caught Cat’s eye, and the two of them followed suit.
Once all parties had descended upon Mick, who hung back, waiting for them to come to him, the officer announced, “I’m sorry, Mr. Travers. There’s been a fire at your studio.”
Mick dropped his drink, a tumbler of honey-colored whiskey that shattered to the floor on impact. A white-coated waiter swooped in to take care of it, and Mick and the police moved away from the mess.
“W-what happened?!” Mick rubbed his chin. And then, as if it had just dawned on him: “Donnie.”
“We need to speak to you in private.” The officer’s hands dropped to her belt, which supported a sidearm and nightstick.
She led the way, with Mick following right behind. “Is Donnie all right?”
Not answering, the officer took Mick by the elbow and steered him into a side room. Grace followed, and when the officer held up a hand as if to keep Grace out, she set her voice hard and said, “I’m Mick’s older sister. I should stay with him.”
Mick looked surprised. “Oh, I’m okay by myself.”
Grace shot her brother a sympathetic look, and he shifted gears. “Uh, yeah, Pris should be there.”
She ignored Mick’s use of her birth name and spotted Cat, who looked confused and worried. Grace walked over to her granddaughter, slung an arm around her, and declared, “This is my partner. She’s a PI, too. And she’s Mick’s great-niece.”
“Well, I suppose we’ve got ourselves a family reunion here,” said the officer. But then, surveying the group, her voice softened. “This is a shock, I realize. So I suppose you can be present. But please, don’t interrupt. We need to talk to Mr. Travers now.”
Then the officer’s gaze settled on Ernesto Ruíz, who politely hung back. “Don’t tell me you’re somebody’s third cousin twice removed,” she said. “And that you’re a PI as well.”
Ernesto chuckled. “No, no. Just a friend… who’s perfectly content to wait out here.”
The officer nodded for her staff to close the doors to the room.
“Now then, Mr. Travers,” she said, motioning for Mick to sit down in a chair opposite from the one she chose. “I’m Sergeant Alvarez, and these are Deputies Speck and Santiago.” The one she called Speck remained standing, but Santiago sat near them and began to take notes.
“I know this is hard,” Alvarez continued, “but I need to ask: How long have you been at this party?”
Mick seemed confused. His eyes had that watery look to them, Grace noticed, which meant he was more than a little drunk.
“This party?” he asked.
Alvarez sighed, and Grace detected a weariness in her bearing that suggested the sergeant was at the end of a very long shift. “Of course, this party.”
“I don’t know. What time is it now?”
Alvarez checked her cell phone. “It’s nearly two in the morning.”
“A couple hours, I guess…”
“I know this is a lot to take in. But you’re going to have to be more specific with us here, Travers.”
Grace’s feeling of alarm worsened. Come to think of it, where had Mick been before the party? He was supposed to meet them at the hotel, but he’d called and told them to go ahead, that he would be at the party later.
“Why? You think I torched my own studio?”
“When was the last time you were there?”
“Not since this morning.”
Grace broke in, “He was busy entertaining us for most of the day. Cat’s never been to Miami before.”
“The two of you are from out of town then.” She said this not as a question but as if noting its suspicious nature.
“That’s correct, Sergeant Alvarez. We’re visiting from Seattle.”
Alvarez slowly shook her head. “Such a long way to come for an art show.” Grace bristled inwardly at the way she said it, as if that in itself suggested guilt. She glanced at her brother for assistance.
“Say, why don’t you tell us what this is about,” said Mick. “Where’s Donnie?”
Alvarez sighed again, this time with genuine feeling, not weariness. “I’m very sorry to inform you of this, Mr. Travers, but Don Hines is dead.”
“No,” Mick refused, running a hand through his hair. “He can’t be. He didn’t want to go to the party. He hates parties. He wanted to paint. His own stuff, not mine. He said he was onto something big…”
Mick covered his face with his hands.
Grace wobbled a bit on her heels and went to embrace her brother as much to steady herself as to comfort him. Mick’s body felt tense, as if rejecting the news in a physical way. Grace hadn’t known Donnie well, but she found him to be a charming character, always ready with a smile. And she was a great admirer of his art. What a loss for the world, she thought. And Mick was so fond of him, too.
Over Mick’s shoulder, Grace tried to catch Cat’s eye across room, but her granddaughter looked away. Cat didn’t know her great-uncle very well, so even if she hadn’t already been lost in a cloud of her own grief, it was understandable that she didn’t seem drawn to comfort him. Grace felt the heaviness of their double losses, and her own inability to ease their pain.
Mick’s grief seemed to take more of the edge off Alvarez’s questioning. She waited a few beats for him to regain his composure, and when she spoke again, her tone had softened further. “I’m sorry to ask this, Mr. Travers, but I’m going to need a full account of your timeline for the evening. And your help contacting Hines’s next-of-kin.”
“Where is he?” Mick asked, standing up. “I want to see him.”
Grace touched her brother’s arm. “Mick, wait,” she pleaded. “The fire marshal, forensics—they’re probably still on the scene.” She glanced at Alvarez, who nodded. Grace lowered her voice. “And he might be unrecognizable.”
Mick sat down again. “Oh, God.”
Alvarez touched Mick’s hand. “Take it easy tonight, Mr. Travers. We’ll deal with the details in the morning.”
She nodded a good-bye to Grace, who nodded in return.
Cat had disappeared for a moment but was back with a cup of coffee for Mick, who held it in both hands as if it were the only thing he had left in the world.
“She’s right, Mick,” Grace said. “Let’s head back to the hotel. I don’t think you should go home tonight. You can stay in my room. I have an extra bed.”
Mick did not respond at first. He gulped the coffee, and then he set it down. He wiped his eyes. “I don’t know how I could sleep.”
There was nothing Grace could say to that, so she squeezed her brother’s shoulder instead.
She and Cat watched him finish his coffee. When he was done, he let the cup clatter onto the tabletop near him and announced, “I’ve got to get out of here.”
The three of them went back into the ballroom. Grace saw Speck and Santiago talking to people, probably asking around about Mick’s attendance at the party. She overheard Alvarez on her phone with a member of the forensics team, which was most likely crawling over the wreck that was her brother’s art studio.
They left the scene behind, Grace leading them through the corridors of the convention complex to the hotel adjoining it, where she and Cat had rooms. The hotel had seemed so impersonal at first—Grace would have preferred rooms in a boutique hotel or a bed and breakfast were it not for the convenience. But now it seemed like a refuge.
Grace let them into her room. She slipped off her heels and sat down on the bed, wondering vaguely where Ernesto had gone, realizing she hadn’t said good-bye to him. Cat slumped into a chair by the window, the lights of South Beach garish behind her. Mick went straight for Grace’s laptop, sitting on a desk.
“What are you doing, Mickey?”
“I’ve got to call his parents.”
“That can wait till tomorrow.”
“I don’t want them to find out from the news.” Mick pecked away at the keyboard.
Grace came over to him and put her hand on his shoulder again, just as she had at the party. “It’s two in the morning,” she said softly. “You don’t want to wake them, tell them like that.”
Mick slowed down, his face crumpling again. “Here’s their phone number and address.” His voice cracking as he spoke, he spun the laptop toward Grace.
“That’s great,” she said. “We can give it to Alvarez in the morning.”
Grace motioned to Cat to hand her a pad of hotel stationery and a pen. Then Grace copied down the information from the laptop screen, feeling as if getting it down on paper helped.
“I’m not going to sleep,” Mick announced. “How can I?”
They were quiet a minute, and then Grace said, “All right then. Let’s talk about your timeline for the evening, before you forget the details.” She slid the pad of paper and pen in front of him.
Mick crossed his arms over his chest. “What am I supposed to write?”
“Write down where you were every hour today, and who you were with.”
He stared at the paper. “No.”
Cat finally spoke up. “But Uncle Mick, the police are going to make you do this anyway. It’s better to be cooperative.”
Mick glared at Cat. “Did they teach you that in cop school?”
“It was a bachelor’s program in criminal justice,” Cat said. “And yes.”
Grace winced a bit at Cat’s defensive tone. If Grace weren’t glad to see her granddaughter finally exhibiting some emotion other than passivity, she would have lightly reprimanded her. Instead, she turned to her brother, whom she felt was acting unreasonably.
“Cat’s right, Mickey. You need to be as specific as possible.”
“Not right now.” He put the pen down and stood up. “I want to see Donnie.”
“That’s not a good idea,” Cat protested. “You’ve been drinking.”
“Nonsense. I’ve had coffee.” He stood up and made for the door.
Grace had no choice but to follow her brother. She grabbed the pad of paper with the contact information and ran after him. Cat followed.
By the time they got to the parking lot, they’d managed to talk him out of driving. He wasn’t in shape for it, and besides, Grace regarded his small brown convertible as a death trap. It was a ’78 and on its third clutch, which Mick had a tendency to ride hard. He’d acquired it in a trade for several of his paintings.
Grace knew the authorities wouldn’t be keen to let any of them into the crime scene until investigators were done, which might not be till the next day. By the way Alvarez and her crew were acting, they must already suspect arson.
But she couldn’t keep Mick away, and she owed it to him to find out whatever she could.
So Cat drove the rental car, with Mick riding shotgun and Grace in back. As they turned onto Coral Way, Grace immediately smelled the smoke. Where his corner studio had been was a mass of charred beams and broken glass. Water left over from the firehoses pooled and dripped. Wisps of smoke drifted up out of the sodden, burned mess. A palm tree that had filled the two-story bank of studio windows was nothing but a burned stump, its pot cracked and leaking water and soot.
As the three of them gaped at the wreckage, a woman in a pink peignoir clapped over to them in silver mules. Her unnaturally red hair was in curlers, a gauzy yellow scarf tied around them. Grace had met Rose de la Crem the night before; she was one of the artists who had studio space in the same building as Mick. Her prominent brow ridge and masculine feet revealed the gender of her birth. But other than that, the transformation to woman was a convincing one. She’d clearly had work done to shave down her Adam’s apple.
“Mick!” she exclaimed. “Oh, Mick.” She wrapped her arms around him.
The four of them gazed at the burned structure, one whole exterior wall now gone, the studio’s remnants exposed to the full moon’s judgment.
“I’m the one who called 911,” explained Rose. “I smelled the smoke. Oh, God, Mick. Donnie. I can’t believe it. At first the cops thought he was you—but I told them you were at the party. They found Donnie’s ID bracelet on him.”
Grace remembered that Donnie was diabetic. He wore a medic alert bracelet, which would have made his identification easy, no matter the condition of the body.
Sergeant Alvarez was on the scene, chatting with the fire marshal. Grace sidled over toward them and stood within earshot. She heard the word “accelerant” several times. She waited for a break in their conversation and then moved in to talk with Alvarez when the fire marshal returned to the burnt studio.
“Do you suspect arson?”
“That’s police business.” Alvarez began to walk away.
Grace raised her voice to Alvarez’s departing back. “If you do, it won’t be a secret for long.”
The sergeant turned around. “If we determine this was arson, your brother is a suspect. He arrived at the party after this fire was set. And he has no other alibi so far.”
Grace set her voice to calm. “I believe my brother was the intended victim. If it weren’t for our visit, he would have been working in his studio tonight. The only reason he went to the party is because I insisted.” Then Grace motioned toward her granddaughter, who was talking with Mick and Rose de la Crem. “I thought the party would cheer up Cat. She’s been depressed.”
“That’s very interesting.” Alvarez did not seem swayed.
Several members of the forensics team brought out a stretcher to be loaded into a waiting ambulance. It held a body bag.
Mick went to it. “Can I see him?"
Alvarez blocked him. “You can see him at the morgue, after the autopsy.”
Mick appeared taken aback by her refusal, but didn’t fight it.
Wanting to leave with a gesture of cooperation, Grace copied the contact information for the Hines’s onto another piece of paper and handed it to Alvarez. “Here’s how to get in touch with Don Hines’s parents. Let Mick call them first, though. Please. Give him some time.”
Alvarez nodded and took the paper.
Cat stepped in then, speaking to Alvarez in an authoritative voice, the likes of which Grace hadn’t heard much since Lee’s death. Her granddaughter had been distant and cerebral ever since, and she’d shied away from any case that seemed the least bit exciting. They had yet to take a murder case, and it had been almost a year.
“We’d like to see the evidence reports,” Cat demanded. “We’ll need to see the lab and autopsy reports, too. We’re happy to comply with any further questioning you have for us.”
Alvarez surveyed the trio. “Don’t any of you leave town.”
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