In the darkening days of autumn, in a remote region near the Canadian border, a journalist has been murdered. Anne Marie Johnson was last seen with Reeve Landon, whose chocolate Labrador was part of an article she had been writing about a scientific canine research program. Now Landon is the prime suspect. Intensely private and paranoid, in a panic that he'll be wrongfully arrested, he ventures deep into in the woods. Even as he evades the detective, Landon secretly feels the whole thing is somehow deserved, a karmic punishment for a horrifying crime he committed as a young boy.
While Montana FBI investigator Ali Paige is not officially assigned to the case, Landon—an ex-boyfriend and the father of her child—needs help. Ali has only one objective for snooping around the edges of an investigation she’s not authorized to pursue: to save her daughter the shame of having a father in jail and the pain of abandonment she endured as a child. As the clock ticks and the noose tightens around Landon's neck, Ali isn’t sure how far she will go to find out the truth. And what if the truth is not something she wants to know?
A Sharp Solitude is a study of two flawed characters, bonded by a child, trying to make their way in an extraordinary place where escape seems possible. But no one can ever really outrun their demons, even in the vast terrain of Glacier, the ultimate backdrop for a journey of the soul.
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A Sharp Solitude
I IMAGINE IT LIKE this: the two nine-year-old boys, Reeve and his friend Sam, lounge lazily on the couch watching the Cartoon Network at home in Reeve’s parents’ ranch-style single-story home on a hot summer day in Tallahassee, Florida. Reeve’s mom and dad are both at work—his mom cutting hair at a local salon called Sasha’s and his dad selling beds at the Mattress Firm. The blinds are pulled down to block the afternoon sun, and harsh spears of light stab between the slits in the darkened living room. They’ve eaten an entire bag of Doritos when Sam sits up straight and turns to Reeve. “Let’s do something,” he says. “These shows are so boring.”
“Whaddya want to do?” Reeve asks.
“I don’t know. Anything.”
“Want to go outside?”
“Too hot,” Sam groans.
Reeve pries himself away from the couch cushion and sits forward, wiping his Dorito-stained fingers on the side of his shorts. “I wish it was already my birthday,” Reeve says, thinking of the day just a few weeks away, August seventh.
“Me too. You gonna have a party?”
“Probably. I think my parents got me a Nintendo.”
“No way,” Sam says.
“Yeah? Where is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where would they hide it?” Sam asks.
“I don’t know.” Reeve shrugs. “Probably in their bedroom.”
A mischievous expression brightens Sam’s face—one familiar to Reeve. It’s one he’s seen many times, the product of their age—two nine-year-old boys eager to explore. Once when they were playing by a creek, Sam found some old shark’s teeth mixed up in the gravel, and after they’d plucked them all out and put them in a plastic bag they’d gotten from Sam’s mom, Sam wanted to find more. He insisted they cross the creek to the other side. But Reeve knew water moccasins nested in that part of the stream where it was deep and cool from lush ferns draping over the water. “I don’t think we should,” Reeve said. Reeve was a cautious boy. Nobody would have ever described him as a daredevil. But Sam—he didn’t mind taking risks. “See you on the other side, scaredy-cat,” he had called as he took off his sneakers and fearlessly waded into the water.
“Let’s look,” Sam says, getting off the couch, wearing the same expression as the time he crossed the shadowy creek.
“No, my mom and dad said I can’t go in their room.”
“Oh, come on.” He runs out of the family room, down the hallway to the master bedroom. Reeve hops off the couch and follows, worried only about the transgression of going into his parents’ room for maybe a second.
The room is dim like the TV room, the stiff green curtains drawn, also to block out the August sun. The king-size bed is made with a stiff, gaudy floral-print bedspread perfectly smooth and neatly creased in all four corners.
Sam opens Reeve’s parents’ closet doors first and searches the floor, crouching down and shoving shoes aside to look into the corners. Then he stands and lifts his head to eye the upper shelf that he can’t reach. He jumps up to see if he can get high enough to peer over the top and to the sides to spy a box big enough to hold a Nintendo.
Reeve opens drawers by the bed, but sees nothing but papers and envelopes containing Polaroid family photos, school portraits of him and his younger sister, progress reports from their elementary school, and other miscellaneous papers and special certificates. Sam comes over and torpedoes himself onto the bed, stands, and begins hopping on it. Reeve laughs and joins him—two giggling boys caught up in the giddiness of being in a forbidden place. They bounce as if it’s a trampoline, the springs of the mattress squeaking, protesting with each landing, the bedspread no longer perfect.
“What about in that chest?” Sam points to the base of the bed.
“Nah, she doesn’t usually put anything in there except clothes.”
Sam launches himself off the mattress and lands with a thump on the floor. He flings an afghan folded across the wooden chest onto the now-rumpled bedspread, lifts the lid, and peers in. “Not in here,” he says, moving its contents around with his free arm. “Just a blanket and bunch of old sweaters.”
“Told ya.” Reeve hops off too, his cheeks hot and flushed from the jumping. He kneels down to look under the bed, lifting the skirt. White stringy strands worn free from under the lining of the mattress box drape down like webbing made from a huge spider. Reeve blows at them, but they fall right back into place, so he moves them aside with his hand.
“Whoa,” Reeve says when he spots the rifle. He’s seen it only once before. He’d been out playing in the neighborhood when several other kids spotted a rattlesnake curled up in a cement drainage ditch at the end of the cul-de-sac. Word spread, and everyone in the neighborhood gathered around while his father came out to take a look. His dad told the kids and other neighbors who’d gathered to stay away from the ditch until he returned. When he did, he carried the gun, walked over with purpose, instructed all the other parents to keep their kids back, but when he looked down into the ditch, there was nothing but moss and twigs. The snake had slithered away into the brush.
“Wow!” Sam says, walking over to Reeve, who’s kneeling beside the bed and holding the rifle across his thighs. The barrel is shiny smooth, its heft intimidating but stealth-like, and Reeve is excited to show Sam that he’s not always a bore. For a second, Reeve thinks he shouldn’t have pulled it out from under the bed, but it’s as tempting as shark’s teeth and Sam would have grabbed it if he hadn’t. “Cool,” Sam says.
“I know.” Reeve breathes hard with excitement, the back of his neck slick with sweat. He’s sure the gun is not loaded, and in one quick motion, he stands and lifts the rifle to take aim at . . . at . . . he’s not sure what, maybe the chair in the corner of the room, maybe the curtains. He barely feels his finger on the trigger when a deafening boom blasts his ears—the report so explosive and the kick so violent that he thinks that he’s just launched himself into something vast, like the sky or outer space. And that’s where he remains—tumbling through that empty void, never really landing—for a very long time.
• • •
I also imagine the six-foot diameter spatter of reddish-brown blood because he fired a .30-06 caliber rifle. The force of it at close range is quite destructive and would blow a ragged hole through the victim, typically shattering bone and tissue. There would have been spatter on the wall, the carpet, and the bed. The bullet tore through the victim’s shoulder, blew through his heart and lodged into the wall behind them, so there would have been a hole about the size of a pea in the plaster.
The boy—the shooter—attempted to stop the flow of blood by putting his hands over the wound, so ugly smears would stretch across both the victim’s and the shooter’s clothes. He also tried to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the victim, which he’d apparently learned about in school just months before, so his DNA could be easily collected from the victim’s mouth if they’d needed it, but they didn’t because the boy admitted everything.
Bloodstains as well as the spatter would also be on the bedside table and phone because the boy called 911 and frantically said, “I’ve shot my best friend. My best friend is dead. I didn’t know my dad’s gun was loaded.” He shouted this in a guttural panic that was recorded by the 911 emergency service operator and would later be played over and over by the press in the aftermath of the gun-control debates that eventually ensued across the state.
I always consider details like this since I’m trained to look at the particulars. I used to work in the bustling Newark field office until I was transferred to a resident agency, a smaller office with only one or two agents that have jurisdiction over an area, usually someplace more rural. For an agent, the best way to gain experience is to work in a variety of settings, even if it means moving across the country to the remote resident office in Kalispell, Montana.
I miss the city, but I don’t mind Montana. I remember seeing the great spine of the Rockies for the first time when I drove across the eastern plains from Newark toward the Continental Divide. I’ll admit I was a little freaked out at the sight of bleak fields the color of camel hair stretching into oblivion; the glimpses of old long-abandoned cabins and wood barns buckling and decomposing onto the bare ground; the rain blowing horizontally against the ribs of horses and cows; the Blackfoot Indian town of Browning settled in the high plains like an oversize, unkempt Easter basket with its turquoise, pink, and yellow ramshackle houses—as if colorful paint were all it took to lift one out of poverty. Stray dogs ran amuck, and I couldn’t tell if they were neglected or if they were contented community pets wandering around and being fed by local business owners and residents. It gave me an unsettled feeling—that the new life I was stepping into was unprotected, not propped up by the busy cacophony of city life.
But when I glimpsed the Great Divide, the way the mountains heaved out of the brown prairies toward the expansive sky both warned and comforted me. I’d never seen anything like it, anything so stunning and dramatic, so separate from my sense of everyday city life. Is this why people went west, because the mountains bucking up to kiss the expansive sky made you feel as if you could have a fresh start or reach your highest dreams? Maybe, I had thought, I could grow accustomed to a place with such striking scenery, a place with buildings no higher than two stories and people with unsuspicious eyes.
It was in Montana that I met that nine-year-old shooter, Reeve Landon, when he was twenty-nine and I was twenty-eight, and he had suspicious eyes. We began dating, and when I brought up the incident, he said, “I figured you’d find out. Not because you’re FBI, but because anyone googling my name would find out. It’s not really a secret. I just don’t like to bring it up every time I meet someone.” Reeve then recounted to me the incident that made him one of the unlucky children whose tragedies altered Florida’s gun laws in the late 1980s.
Ten months later—a year and a half after I had moved west—over coffee in a Starbucks, he told me he couldn’t do it any longer, it referring to our blossoming relationship. He’d been thinking about it for weeks. “I’m sorry,” he had said. “I just can’t, Ali. I thought I could, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to.” He never said it had anything to do with what happened all those years ago, but I have a good imagination and I find myself going back to it—running my mind over and over the story like a cloth polishing silver to make it shine clearly in my mind.
The baby, though—that was a surprise. I found out I was pregnant three weeks after Reeve told me he couldn’t see me any longer. We had used birth control, but it failed. I kept it from him for a time. I was at my wit’s end when I found out. It felt like I was being swept away by powerful currents spinning me around and around. I even thought about ending it at first, but I was twenty-nine and had already been bitten by the bug. I’d been thinking of being a mother since my mid-twenties. I considered having the baby without ever telling him.
But then I thought about how hard it was not having a dad present in my own life. Having an absent parent can take a toll on you. I used to waste so much time fantasizing about my father’s turning things around and driving up at any minute, like a prince, to rescue me. Every summer, when the other kids were heading to the Jersey Shore with their moms and dads, I desperately wanted him to show up with his smile and his dark unruly hair and say, “Hop in, chickadee. I’m all better now. Let’s go to the beach.” I’d wait every year on my birthday for him to arrive with a cake and presents as if I were starring in a cheesy movie, a lonely child sitting patiently on a curb in front of her apartment building. When I didn’t even get a card, my heart closed up a little further like a dying daisy, knowing deep down that he’d never change and that actually having him in our lives would be so much worse, with the chronic yelling and fighting.
I decided that I could not deny the child growing inside me a father. Reeve may have a few issues, but he’s not abusive or volatile, so I told him about the pregnancy. He was shocked, but had enough sense not to try to talk me out of going through with it. He offered to marry me, but the suggestion seemed pathetic—an offer he made over greasy burgers and fries while we sat in a cheap restaurant with Kenny Chesney playing in the background. Deep down, I knew it could never work, even though I deeply wanted it to, so I said no thanks and we worked out a plan. Turns out, fear can be greater than desire.
My daughter’s arrival the following spring, a perfect bundle of beauty with a tiny head of fine, dark hair, compelled us to figure out a parenting plan on our own terms without legal assistance. I picked her name, Emily, and we decided that when she got old enough, Reeve would take her every other weekend, and I’d have her the rest of the time. We also agreed that Emily would keep my surname and he’d contribute what he could, when he could. I never cared about the money, though, and so far he’s been pretty consistent, sending me a check every month. No paperwork or lawyers necessary. We never went through the nastiness that some couples go through when their relationship collapses. It was almost like we both knew we wouldn’t last, and at the slightest provocation, we quickly assumed cordial, cooperative attitudes. Both of us probably thought we couldn’t get too hurt if we kept things businesslike.
Now we rarely speak other than to discuss Emily or her schedule or when I see him to either drop her off or pick her up from his place. It’s possible to get over your attraction to someone; it just takes time and the ability to move the feelings to the corner of your mind, where they pop up only occasionally, similar to old acquaintances at the grocery store, sometimes welcome, sometimes not. It’s not ideal—coparenting never is—but Emily, who is five now, loves to spend time with her daddy and his dog, McKay.
So when I get the call from Reeve on a chilly early November day, I assume it has something to do with Emily, that he needs to reschedule his weekend with her for a work excursion, which irritates me because I know if he misses the little time he has with Emily, she’ll be sad. But the second I hear his voice, I sense something is up, because he sounds a little breathless and worried.
“What’s up?” I ask, sitting at my desk in my office in Kalispell. The day is cloudy and dim, so I have my desk lamp on and it’s exposing every bit of dust on the black chrome-framed furniture even though I dust the damn thing all the time.
“Ali,” he says after clearing his throat, “I need your help.”
Help? Reeve Landon doesn’t ask for help any more than I do, so I pause before saying more.
“Ali,” he says again, his voice slightly rising, a trace of worry in the pitch of it, which is also unusual. “You still there?”
“I’m here. What kind of help?”
“I need you to go to my place. I need you to get McKay and take care of him for a few hours. Just until I can sort out a few things. I’d ask Wallace, but he’s just left for the winter.”
Now I know it’s serious. Reeve rarely parts with his dog. He’s worked with McKay for at least five years as part of a detection-canine program that performs conservation and biological research. Apparently there is a lot you can learn from the poop animals leave behind. It didn’t take me long to understand—a few months after we began seeing each other—that the program and the dog are lifelines for Reeve. I get that. I’ve got a few of those myself, mainly Emily and my job.
The training is an ongoing process, Reeve has said more times than I can count, especially when he’s making excuses for why he can’t be there for Emily. According to Reeve, he’s the only one who understands how to keep the dog on a schedule. He’s taught Emily a little, but she’s too young to understand much.
“Watch McKay? Why? Where are you?”
Reeve doesn’t answer at first, and silence hangs between us on the line.
“Reeve,” I press. “Where are you? Whose line are you using?”
“I’m at the county building, at the sheriff’s office. I’m using one of their landlines. I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”
“How long you’ll be there? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. I think they think I’ve done something. . . . I’ve already been here for four hours. They’ve been questioning me—making me go over the same information over and over, but mostly I’ve been doing a lot of sitting and waiting. They’re inspecting my phone, so I had to use theirs to call to you, but look, I have to go. The officer wants me to hang up now.”
“Wait,” I say. “They’re looking at your phone?”
“They asked to see it.”
“What are they saying you’ve done?”
“I’m not sure,” he says. “But whatever they think, it’s not true.”
“What’s not true?”
“I don’t know. That I’ve got something to do with whatever is up with that journalist.”
He pauses, then sighs. “I’m not positive, but I think something happened to her, and whatever it is, they think I’m involved.”
The sense of something icy, like a cold hand, presses against my neck and moves down my spine.
“Listen, Ali, the spare key to my cabin is under the tin can in the back.” And just like that, he’s gone, the line blank.