Randy glanced at Monique, standing beside Niko. “This is Monique Slater,” Niko said, having followed his gaze. “She’s an attorney from Los Angeles now living here and running for mayor.”

“Good to meet you,” Monique said, holding out her hand. “Though I wish it were under different circumstances.”

Randy responded with a brief nod before returning his attention to Niko. “Except for one person, it seems that everyone has been accounted for.”

Niko and Monique took collective breaths. “Lawrence?” Niko asked.

“Thank God the principal is fine. On his way to an emergency meeting with all of the teachers, school officials, the police chief and some members of the city council. Even if part of the building can be salvaged, we’re going to have to move classes to an alternate location temporarily. More than likely that will be the city auditorium.”

Monique stepped forward. “Who have you not located?”

“A young man who cleans the place at night.”


“I don’t have a name, ma’am, but he’s the janitor there.”

The news hit like a physical blow. She sagged against Niko. His arm immediately came around her.

“Try him again.”

She did, her hands shaking as she made the call.

“No answer?” She shook her head. “Leave another message. He’ll call.”

“I hope you’re right,” she replied, regaining her composure and stepping away from his touch.

Niko looked around to see where his brother and father had gone. They were standing with a group of parents, two of whom he knew from their gated community. When he saw the fire chief walking in their direction, he turned to Monique. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

“It looks as though the fire started somewhere near the gymnasium,” the chief was saying when Niko reached him. “The whole place has no doubt received smoke damage. Most likely the gym, cafeteria and surrounding classrooms are totally destroyed.”

One of the women listening held up her hand. “But the building was empty, correct? All of our children are safe?”

“We’re still trying to account for one employee who so far has not been located. We’re hopeful that if he was in the building, he had time to escape before the fire got out of hand.”

“You’d think if he escaped that he’d call someone,” the woman’s husband said. “He has to know the school was looking for him and would be worried.”

The woman nodded at her husband before saying to no one in particular, “No one could have survived the blaze in that part of the building.”

Niko felt a hand grab his arm and knew that Monique had not followed his instruction. He turned to see her eyes wide with fear.

“They found him?”

“No,” Niko said, gently guiding her away from the group. “The chief said that they wouldn’t be able to check the building until tomorrow, once the fire is out and the scene has cooled enough for a thorough search.”

Monique brought a hand to her mouth as she shut her eyes against unexpected tears. “I asked him to come here,” she said, forcing down anguish and squaring her shoulders in an effort to regain control of her emotions. “I swore that by leaving the city he’d be safe.”

Niko almost reached for her, but remembering her reaction from earlier, he refrained. “Why don’t you come over to my house, share a cup of tea? My dad is friends with the fire chief. I can make sure we’re notified as soon as there’s news.”

“But you just said it would be morning before a thorough search is conducted.”

“Yes, but a preliminary one might be done tonight. I’d feel better knowing that you’re not home alone, worrying yourself to death. If we haven’t heard something by midnight I can have my driver take you home.”

“That’s not necessary. I’ve handled my share of crises.”

“Then will you come and sit with me until I calm my nerves?”

Monique eyed him speculatively. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?”

She looked around. “This is a very small town. I don’t want someone to see me go into your house and start tongues wagging.”

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