five

After Harold opened the gate, Bernie turned down the street toward the Eldridges’ house so that he wouldn’t get suspicious. The Eldridges were situated on an outer lot around the bend, so as soon as Bernie rounded the corner, she knew she was safe.

She kept driving until the road branched off to another street where the lots were larger and the houses were more extravagant. Bernie passed homes with their own sets of gates and long stone walkways leading to the front doors. They had ivory columns and magnificent verandas — one even had turrets.

Bernie rolled her eyes. Some people had no shame. It didn’t matter that the world was entrenched in an energy crisis or that the food shortage was becoming more dire by the week. Why settle for small when one could afford a huge monstrosity of a house?

The residents of Bon Goût dug private pools so they wouldn’t have to use the subdivision’s communal one. They built their own saunas and hot tubs so no one would see them hot and sweaty at the country club where they conducted their business.

The lion’s share of their homeowners association fees went to cover the hefty water taxes the city of Albuquerque levied against them, and yet most of them had probably never played on Bon Goût’s swanky private golf course.

These were people with money to burn.

Bernie chuckled to herself. Money to burn. Maybe that was the headline they’d use when they wrote about this in the newspaper. Maybe she could write in anonymously with the suggestion.

Bernie shook her head and gripped the steering wheel tighter. She was slipping over the edge. She could feel it in her bones.

She’d just pulled up to the Bodetskis’ family home, which looked enormous in the glow of its wrought-iron lamps. The pictures online hadn’t done it justice.

The shrubs were green and meticulously trimmed. The decorative concrete had been recently power washed. The three-car garage was tucked off to the side and tastefully camouflaged with white carriage-house doors. Natural stone complemented the buff stucco and alder trim around the magnificent arched doorways.

None of the lights were on inside.

Shivering with excitement, Bernie pulled into the driveway and parked her car out of sight behind a tree. An exterior light flipped on over the garage, and Bernie’s heart shot into her throat.

She waited, pulse racing, watching for any signs of movement. Perhaps she had been wrong to think that no one would be home that night. Mr. and Mrs. Bodetski were at the gala and their kids were off at college, but perhaps they had a maid or a cook who was still at home?

Bernie waited in silence, wishing her heart would stop racing. Her breathing was heavy and ragged, and she was sure she looked as guilty as sin. Hopefully whoever had turned on the light wasn’t calling the cops at that very moment.

Bernie allowed her car to idle in the driveway for nearly five minutes. In that time, no lights came on inside the house, and no one came out to ask her what she was doing. The light above the garage must have been motion activated.

Steeling herself for the next phase of her plan, Bernie got out of the car and walked around to the back, sliding on a pair of yellow rubber gloves to obscure any fingerprints.

The living room was surrounded by ceiling-to-floor windows, and when she peered inside, she could see that the bottom floor was completely deserted. Grabbing a paving stone from the landscaping, she chucked it against the window.

On the first try, it banged off the glass and toppled into the rosebush. Bernie swore. She picked it up again and threw it harder. This time, the glass shattered into a million tiny pieces. The jagged shards flew into the living room and scattered in the river rock around the landscaping.

Bernie half expected to hear the shriek of an alarm or the distant wail of police sirens, but there was nothing.

Of course there wasn’t, she told herself. The alarm wasn’t activated. She’d made sure of it.

Taking a deep breath, she climbed over the windowsill, careful to avoid the glass, and hopped into a living room that smelled like sandalwood and freesia. She could see the shadows of furniture hulking like sleeping giants, and Bernie stepped over the glass and padded across a plush Persian rug to investigate.

The house gave her the creeps. It was big and empty and beautifully decorated, but everything looked mysterious and threatening in the dark. A shadowy figure moved across the room, and she wheeled around to find herself looking at her own reflection in an enormous mirror above the mantel.

“Hello?” she called. Her voice sounded meek, frightened, and unsure. It was the voice of an intruder.

Nothing.

“Hello?” she repeated, moving toward the audacious spiral staircase.

Still nothing.

Satisfied, Bernie opened the front door and went back out to her car. Everything inside suddenly seemed cheap and childish — her tote bag, the blue plastic sunglasses propped on her dashboard, and the knitted blanket she kept in the back seat.

Stuffing down her own creeping sense of inadequacy, she popped the trunk and extracted two of the three gas cans she’d brought along with her.

She carried the first two inside the house as quickly as she could and doubled back for the third. The street in front of the Bodetskis’ house was still deserted, and she wanted to get everything inside before someone drove by and called the cops.

She flipped on a light, and instantly the entire house lit up around her. It was even more gorgeous than she’d expected. No detail had been neglected. Everything from the throw pillows to the coasters was as fine as one could buy. There was an Hermès cigar box on the mantelpiece, Waterford crystal on the drink cart, and a commercial-grade espresso machine in the kitchen. She ran a gloved hand over the fringe on the drapes as she crossed to the steps and climbed the dizzying staircase.

Bernie couldn’t resist. She snooped.

With the can of gasoline sloshing against her leg, she let herself into each of the four extra bedrooms. Everything upstairs was tasteful and uncluttered: down comforters with silk duvet covers, cherry-wood furniture, and expensive modern art hanging on the walls.

There were no lotion bottles or hair products befouling the shiny bathroom vanities. There was a whirlpool tub but no bath beads — just a single soy candle that had never been lit. Someone had placed an antique gilded clock on the master vanity for decoration, but it wasn’t set to the correct time.

The master bedroom boasted a California king draped in the sort of golden-brown bedspread that screamed wealth and taste but didn’t make anyone particularly happy. The four-poster bed was absolutely gorgeous, but it belonged in a museum — not in someone’s actual bedroom. There was a ficus tree in the corner and two stiff chairs facing away from the balcony. Clearly no one ever sat there to watch the sun rise over the mountains or wait for the stars to appear in the sky.

The study was by far her favorite: smooth, rich wood, books galore, and that day’s copy of The Wall Street Journal sitting folded on the desktop. The high-backed leather chair smelled like dead cow and money, and Bernie couldn’t resist lowering herself into it just to see what it felt like.

The instant her butt hit the seat and her head settled against the studded leather wings, a spiral of guilt and shame ripped through her like a gust of cold wind. Everything about the house was just as she’d expected — lavish, excessive, and nauseatingly beautiful.

And yet, it was still a home. Somebody had picked out all of this stuff to live in. Brian Bodetski got up every morning, padded down that ridiculous staircase, and brought his coffee up to his study. Maybe Mrs. Bodetski read by the balcony. Their kids hadn’t toddled around the house or had their heights scratched into the kitchen wall, but it still meant something to them.

Bernie gritted her teeth and shook her head. It didn’t matter what the house had meant to them. It was just a house — wood and stone and Portland cement. It could always be replaced, rebuilt, or remodeled.

Her mother was never coming back. She was dead, and no amount of Adobe Petro’s money could change that. Their team of lawyers was probably hard at work dismantling those cases one by one. Bernie would soon run out of money, and her mother’s house would be sold at auction. Everything they had shared would be gone.

Fortified by the anger and helplessness coursing through her veins, Bernie got to her feet and opened the gas can. The smell was acrid and inviting.

She started pouring along the edges of the room, startled by the way it sloshed onto her shoes and splattered up her leg.

It was on her — the stench of destruction. Would Harold be able to smell it when she got into her car and drove away? Would he know what she had done, or would it only occur to him once he saw smoke billowing over the golf course?

She couldn’t think about that. Who knew how long she’d been in that house? Nobody had bothered to wind the antique clock in the bathroom, so she had no clue what time it was.

Quickening her pace, Bernie poured a trail of gasoline across the floor and into the master bedroom. Only when she’d completed half of the perimeter did she began to panic in earnest.

She hadn’t brought enough gasoline — not enough to do the whole house, anyway. The place was enormous. She hadn’t counted on that. She should have, but she hadn’t. She’d never torched a house in her life — certainly not a six-thousand-square-foot castle.

She’d already known that she’d have to forgo the wet bar, the pool room, and the home theater in the basement, but she hadn’t counted on having to skip over half of the bedrooms.

It was all right, she told herself. The fire would spread rapidly over the hardwood floors. It would engulf the drapes in flame, and the fire would burn so hot that no amount of firefighting would be able to save the house.

Bernie continued to work, feeling another twinge of anxiety as she emptied the can of gasoline.

She only had one left. She had to make it count. She’d poured a continual trail down the steps, but halfway around the living room, she forgot if she’d already hit the sitting room or not. It was full of lush carpeting and overstuffed couches. She couldn’t forget it. But then she saw the glow of headlights on the road, and a surge of panic shot through her veins.

The car was driving very slowly. She couldn’t see who it was, but they would be able to see the lights from the road. Could they see her car? Why had she turned on all the lights? Anybody who knew the Bodetskis were at the gala would be suspicious. How much did the neighbors talk?

But then another thought hit her: Maybe it was neighborhood security. Maybe Harold had grown suspicious and called the police after all. Even if she didn’t reek of gasoline, she’d never be able to explain what she was doing at the Bodetskis’ home when she was supposed to be at the Eldridges’.

Clearly she didn’t belong there. She stuck out like a sore thumb. The cops would ask her a series of very basic questions, and she’d end up blurting out the whole thing.

But then the car passed, and Bernie let out an enormous breath of relief. Her heart was beating so forcefully that it hurt, and she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to go through with her plan after all.

The matches were in her purse. Where the fuck was her purse? She’d left it in the car, but she was afraid of leaving the fume-filled house to retrieve it. If she did, she might not be able to work up the guts to come back inside and light the house on fire.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

What the hell had she been thinking? Did she really think she could pull this off? Did she really believe that she wouldn’t be caught? She’d done what she could to cover her tracks, but she wasn’t exactly a professional. It hadn’t felt real to her until that moment, and suddenly she didn’t think she was up to the challenge.

Calm down, she told herself. It was too late to back down. The house was soaked in fifteen gallons of gasoline. Everything was ruined. She had to cover her tracks. She had to see this through.

Bernie’s legs felt wobbly as she let herself out the front door and crossed the driveway to get the matches. The fresh evening air hit her like a wall, and she drank it in like a drowning woman. She hadn’t realized how strong the fumes in the house had gotten.

Bernie fumbled around in her purse for several minutes before she found what she was looking for. Her hands were shaking uncontrollably, and her purse was stuffed with all kinds of crap: old receipts, ibuprofen, lip gloss, a hair clip — everything a budding arsonist needed for an evening of crime.

Finally, she found the matches. She’d gotten the big box from Costco. Clearly she’d thought that part through. Why hadn’t she brought more gasoline?

When she stepped inside the house, the fumes from the gas almost bowled her over. She choked and pulled the neck of her blouse up over her nose. It didn’t help.

Eyes stinging, she took the stairs two at a time and found her way to the farthest corner of the master bedroom. At that moment, she stopped thinking. Maybe it was the fumes burning wormholes in her brain and turning everything to a haze. Maybe it was the adrenaline.

Bernie struck the match against the box. Nothing happened. She scratched it against the side again — three more times before the flame finally lit. She watched it dance on the end of the match for a moment before dropping it onto the carpet. The carpet smoked, but then the match went out.

Bernie’s heart sank. Maybe she wasn’t cut out for this.

She struck another match — it ignited on the first try this time — and held it against the bottom of the drapes. They instantly engulfed in flame, working their way down to the baseboard, which lit like a pile of tinder.

A surge of excitement shot through Bernie’s body, and she quickly lit another match and held it to the carpet. The carpet began to melt, exposing the wood floor beneath. Once the flame found her trail of gasoline, the fire began to spread rapidly.

Everything after that became a heady blur. Bernie dashed from room to room, dropping matches onto the bedspreads and gasping as flames lapped at the windows and chased her out into the hallway.

Soon she could feel heat emanating from the open doorways, and beads of sweat sprang up all over her forehead. She lit her way down the stairs — very nearly singeing her capris — and then dashed into the living room.

It was there that she ran into a problem. The flames quickly melted a patch of carpet, but the couch appeared to be drenched in some sort of flame retardant. She managed to get the rug ablaze, but by the time she got the rest of the living-room furniture smoldering, she could feel a staggering amount of heat radiating from the floor above. She pictured the bedclothes being reduced to ash — flames lapping at the walls and gnawing at the floor joists.

Suddenly, the scream of the smoke alarm pierced her eardrums, and she felt a surge of satisfaction. She lit the sitting-room curtains ablaze, choking on the noxious black smoke billowing down the stairs. More smoke alarms in the house had caught on to the fire, and she began to worry that the neighbors would hear and call the fire department.

Looking around for a clear path through the flames, Bernie realized that the fire had spilled down the staircase and was now blocking the front door. She dashed around through the formal dining room and felt a swell of heat from the cherry-wood table that would soon be reduced to ash.

Bernie was sweating through her clothes. Her hands and arms were covered in soot, and she knew her hair had probably absorbed the stench of smoke.

The heat was almost unbearable by the time she reached the living room. The cool evening air coming through the broken window seemed to have stoked the fire, and the flames were already four or five feet high. She had to get out.

Coughing and choking, Bernie lowered herself to the ground and crawled toward the window. She felt a shard of glass pierce her glove and swore, holding her hand high to avoid dripping blood on the carpet.

Had the lights come on at the house down the street, or was she imagining things? Suddenly the lanterns around the Bodetskis’ house seemed much too bright, and the smoke billowing out the window was like a giant arrow pointing right at her.

She cut herself on another shard of glass swinging her legs over the windowsill, and she only hoped that she hadn’t left any forensic evidence behind. She hopped down onto the gorgeous back porch, wishing more than anything that she could cannonball into the pool.

The fake hair of her wig was stuck to the back of her neck with sweat, and her face felt as though she’d been standing in front of an open oven. The cool air felt amazing, but she was also a little woozy from the smoke and the fumes.

Bernie staggered around the courtyard to her car, staring up at the enormous house she had just set ablaze.

She could see flames dancing in the windows, adding a hellish glow to the house on the hill. Once it was completely engulfed, the flames would burn so bright that people would be able to see the house for miles. Neighbors would gather in their pajamas to watch the spectacle as firefighters struggled to contain the blaze. Maybe they’d even make the evening news.

It took the sound of a siren to jolt Bernie out of her trance. She’d been staring up at the house for much too long, and she could feel the heat radiating toward the forest, sending animals scampering for safety.

She got in her car and backed out of the driveway, nearly plowing into their fancy stone mailbox on her way out.

The sirens were growing louder and louder, and Bernie could still feel the heat on her face. Maybe she was imaging things. Maybe she’d burned herself. The house couldn’t be putting off that much heat, could it?

Halfway to the entrance, Bernie remembered that she was still wearing the bloody rubber gloves. She pulled them off with her teeth and gagged when she tasted gasoline on her tongue.

She spit out her open window and ran a hand through her fake hair. Her wig was sweaty, disheveled, and caked in soot. It left a coating of gray ash on her hand, and it made her wonder how she looked.

She suppressed a giggle. There was no way she looked normal after all of that. Maybe Harold would say babysitting the Eldridges’ kid had turned her prematurely gray. Maybe he would call the cops.

Bernie couldn’t hold it in anymore. She let out a burst of maniacal laughter.

She’d done it. She’d set the fire in motion. She’d outsmarted — nay, defeated — Bon Goût, and she’d enacted her revenge on Mr. Bodetski.

But as she came around the bend, Bernie saw something that made her heart turn over. Police sirens, red and blue, were glowing near the entrance. There were only two squad cars, but she knew whom they were waiting for.

Choking down a swell of paralyzing fear, Bernie kept driving, watching the cops in her rearview mirror. She didn’t hear a burst of sirens, and nobody pulled in after her. She was so distracted by the cops that she almost drove right into the fence that blocked off the pool.

Her heart skipped a beat as she straightened her wheel and glanced back at the squad cars disappearing behind her.

So they didn’t know it was her who’d broken into the Bodetskis’ house. A neighbor must have called in the fire, then. That was the only explanation. If Harold had reported her, they would be on her tail at that moment, but they weren’t. Maybe they were only there to investigate the possibility of arson. Maybe they didn’t suspect a thing.

Scanning the shadows for another way out, Bernie swerved around the corner at breakneck speed. All the homes were lit up like little ceramic houses at Christmas, but there weren’t very many streetlamps. Bernie pushed the gas pedal harder, fighting down the choking anxiety that was threatening to overwhelm her.

Then she saw what she was looking for: a service entrance on the other side of the subdivision. There was another squad car parked just beyond it, but she could fit through the gap between him and the curb.

The gate was closed, but it looked flimsy. She had to bust through it. She didn’t have a choice.

Clenching her muscles, Bernie aimed her car at the gate and slammed her foot down on the gas. Her engine groaned as she picked up speed, and she closed her eyes just before the impact.

She felt a body-wrenching jolt, accompanied by a deafening bang!

Bernie’s head whipped forward with breakneck force, but she managed to keep the wheel straight and her foot on the gas pedal.

Her car burst through the gate with a shudder and a moan. The officer was shouting from his squad car, but she didn’t stop or even slow down.

Bernie heard a sickening scrape of metal on road as she tore away from Bon Goût. Any thought she’d had of slipping into the night and watching the house burn on the news was gone.

Her cover was blown. They knew it was her. She was officially on the run.

***

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