One man knows the connection between two extraordinary acts of arson, fifteen years apart, in his Montana hometownif only he could remember it.
Having lost much of his memory from a traumatic brain injury sustained in Iraq, army veteran Matthew Rose is called back to Montana after his father's death to settle his affairs, and hopefully to settle the past as well. It's not only a blank to him, but a mystery. Why as a teen did he suddenly become sullen and vacant, abandoning the activities and people that had meant most to him? How did he, the son of hippy activists, wind up enlisting in the first place?
Then on his first night back, Matthew sees a house go up in flames, and it turns out a local college student has died inside. And this event sparks a memory of a different fire, an unsolved crime from long ago, a part of Matthew's past that might lead to all the answers he's been searching for. What he finds will connect the old fire and the new, a series of long-unsolved mysteries, and a ruthless act of murder.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
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Eastern Baghdad, Iraq
The first thing Matthew Rose remembered was pitching forward in the back of an Army Humvee and puking beef stew between his boots. The chalky Dinty Moore broth had a chemical tang on the way back up—chunks of stringy meat mixed with the subtle flavor of plastic bag. It took a couple of good heaves to get it all out. He pressed the top of his helmet against the seat in front of him and dotted tears on the backs of his tactical gloves. When he was able, he sat up, and found the other three soldiers in the Humvee all staring at him like a puppy who had just shit on the rug. Their faces said it wasn’t the first time. He must’ve been throwing up a lot lately.
They were all pocket-eyed and filthy, weighed-down by ballistic plates and the ammunition strapped to their chest rigs. It was so hot—so ungodly hot—that it took him a few heartbeats to realize he didn’t recognize any of them. Panic gripped him. A rolling wave of pain surged from behind his molars and crashed like a sucker punch on his frontal lobe. A solider in the front passenger seat hissed his name like it was the worst curse word he could think of. “Rose!” he said. “Tell me you didn’t just yack all over my new vehicle.” Tracks of sweat ran out of the soldier’s sideburns. His blunt little mustache looked like it had been grown as a joke. He had staff sergeant’s stripes on his chest and a nametape that read POTTS. Matthew didn’t think he’d ever seen the guy before.
There was so much about this moment he wouldn’t learn until later: That he was twenty-six years old and moving with the rest of his fire team down a narrow strip of blacktop on the crumbling edge of eastern Baghdad. That he’d just been promoted to sergeant and was supposed to be Potts’s second in command. That Potts felt protective of the Humvee because the last one had just blown up in an IED attack; a member of their team killed. That it was July and their unit had just one month left on a twelve-month deployment. They were all counting the days until they went home, paranoid and half-crazed from lack of sleep. But Matthew didn’t know any of that. Not yet.
He tried to say “sorry,” but the word caught in the burning clot of his throat and came out as a wet cough. The soldier across the backseat from him reached over the deck of gear and clapped him on the shoulder. “Holy shit, dude,” he said, “you OK?”
The guy’s nametape said RICKERT. His freckles and cow brown eyes made Matthew think of farmland, of rolling wheat fields and the domes of grain silos. From the casual way he touched him, Matthew guessed they were friends. It made him want to grab Rickert’s hand and hold it. He wanted to tell him that he didn’t remember who he was or what they were doing. He wanted to yell for help, but as he opened his mouth to try to explain he registered something else about how they were all looking at him. The other men in the Humvee were just as terrified as he was. Their eyes begged him to shut the fuck up. Whatever was wrong with him, they didn’t want to hear about it. Not at that moment. What they wanted to hear was that he had his shit together. He was fine. He had their backs. He covered his mouth with a fist and belched. “I’m good,” he said.
He was good, he thought. This feeling would pass. He would be fine. Just as he thought this, the Humvee lurched to a stop, sending them all rocking forward in their seats. Through the bulletproof windshield, he saw a slender bridge standing over a sluggish river. Beyond that, dark catacomb buildings rode the low crest of a ridge. At the mouth of the bridge a dead cow lay rotting in the middle of the road, blocking their way. Its hide was slick brown, almost black, a dark stain spreading out on the pavement beneath it.
“Fuck,” the driver said. He wore mirrored sunglasses, his lip fat with chew. “Not again.”
Rickert leaned into the center console to take a look. “The same exact spot?” he asked. “Do these motherfuckers think we’re that stupid?”
“I told you,” the driver said. “This is how it happens. One guy gets killed and the bad luck spreads like a fucking virus.”
“Both of you shut up,” Potts said. “Rollo, back it up. Now.”
The Humvee lumbered into reverse, pushing Matthew back. Behind them he saw another vehicle riding their rear bumper, two more Humvees behind that. Potts spoke into the handset of a dash-mounted radio as the whine of the engine filled the cab. The convoy retreated three hundred yards and stopped again, the guy called Rollo easing the brakes this time. Matthew sat stock still, his thoughts moving as if underwater. Every synapse firing a beat too slow. He worried anything he might do would give away how confused and dizzy he felt. Before he could steady himself, the other soldiers in the Humvee cracked their doors and bailed out into the road.
A layer of dust coated him as he followed them out. He sucked a breath, taking in the stench of decaying concrete, sweat and burning oil. As he rounded the back of the vehicle, the world began to reorient itself around him. A few things were obvious: The desert. The war. Road signs printed in Arabic. Clockwork dials spun in his head, tumblers dropping into place. He knew who he was—Matthew Rose, sergeant insignia patched on his uniform in the same place Potts wore his. What else? he thought. What else?
Other soldiers appeared from the rear Humvees and pushed into the open land beyond the road. They had their rifles up, moving with the steady precision of training and muscle memory. He felt a jolt of relief to see Rickert waiting for him, but when the guy’s fingers latched around his wrist they squeezed hard enough to pinch bone. “You think you can fucking stick with me this time?” Rickert asked, pulling him close, shouting over the noise. Matthew nodded, not knowing why. “Good,” Rickert said. “Come on.”
They followed the others into the sand. Matthew pressed the butt of his rifle to his shoulder and felt strangely comforted at the way it fit. The horizon was empty besides the jigsaw face of the buildings. Nothing moved in there. They looked abandoned. Rickert dropped to one knee and Matthew copied him. The sun was a red marble in the sky, the air thick and damp. “What do we do now?” he asked, swallowing down the raw sting lingering at the back of his throat.
Rickert’s eyes shifted across his rifle sights, making clear this was a stupid question. “We wait for EOD to see if there’s a bomb stuck up that dead cow’s ass,” he said.
Matthew glanced back at the road, where Rollo and Potts leaned against the hood of the Humvee. Potts scribbling on a metal clipboard.
“What are they doing?” he asked.
Now Rickert’s whole head turned. “They’re filling out the fucking UXO,” he said. “Jesus, Matt, are you sure you’re alright?”
Before he could answer a crackling sound erupted from inside the buildings, followed by the thunk, thunk, thunk of slugs punching into the Humvees. Rickert’s rifle bounded as he returned fire. Matthew’s mind snapped into the hyper-awareness of being shot at. His finger closed around the trigger of his own gun, but before he could fire, a strange, high-pitched cry made him turn again. Rollo was down in the dirt, clutching his leg with both hands. Potts squatted behind him, trying to drag the man to cover, his face twisted from the effort.
Rickert and Matthew sprinted back to the road and each slipped an arm under Rollo’s shoulders. They dragged him behind the front wheel of the Humvee, where he sprawled on the ground, gripping his knee and saying “fuck-fuck-fuck-I-told-you-fuck-fuck-fuck” as blood flooded from a quarter-sized hole in his pants. Rickert ripped the Velcro strap off a prepackaged tourniquet and slipped it around the leg. The fabric band made a crunching sound as it ratcheted tight. Potts shouted into his radio. Crouching down next to Rickert, Matthew felt light-headed and useless until Rollo reached up and grabbed his hand. The sudden touch startled him. Rollo had pulled off his sunglasses and Matthew saw he was just a kid. Eighteen, nineteen, maybe. Face pale and grubby. “I’m sorry, Matt,” he said, tears brimming in the wells of his eyes. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get shot.”
He tried to smile. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. Not knowing if it was true.
The medic appeared and shooed them back. As he worked on Rollo, Matthew glanced up over the hood of the Humvee and saw a man making his way across the flood plain toward them. The man was a hundred yards out, balancing in the loose sand with a long, awkward-looking stick in his hands. When he got to a low series of boulders near the riverbank, he crouched down and fumbled to get the stick up on one shoulder. Matthew shaded his eyes and squinted, making out the bulbous, diamond-shaped head of a rocket propelled grenade.
“Down!” he yelled, pulling Rickert onto the concrete just as the RPG made a hollow whompf and fired.
He covered his head with his arms and waited a single, long second for the grenade to hit them, but it never did. The man missed his shot. The grenade streaked between the bumpers of the Humvees and slammed into an embankment behind them, flinging a plume of dirt into the air. The explosion was a loud, flat sound, more like a slap than a boom. Matthew and Rickert stayed down as debris pinged against the hoods of the vehicles.
“Well,” Matthew said, his lips against the chunky blacktop. “This is pleasant.”
The words came in a sarcastic monotone his brain hadn’t authorized, his voice muffled by his arms and the ringing in his ears. When he lifted his head to take a peek, Rickert was grinning at him. The skin around his eyes was so crusted with grit and sweat that it mapped every crease in his face. Stretched out side-by-side on their bellies, they might have been two kids at sleepaway camp. “I can’t fucking wait to go home,” he said. “See Ali and the baby.”
“Yeah,” Matthew said, though he didn’t feel it. “Me neither.”
“You going to get back with that girl?” Rickert asked, resting his cheek on his bicep.
Matthew thought: What girl? He said: “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You should,” Rickert said. “I mean it, Matt. No bullshit.”
He gave a slight nod, not knowing what to say.
Rickert pushed him himself up and stood. “Come on, my man,” he said, offering a hand. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
FIVE MONTHS LATER
An eleven-foot grizzly guarded the bottom of the stairs leading to the airport terminal. The taxidermist had done a good job stuffing it, posing the bear mid-roar—its yellow teeth flashing, paws swiping the air as if warding off a cloud of bees. Somebody had wrapped the beast up in Christmas lights and perched a red and white Santa hat between its fuzzy ears. As Matthew came down the steps carrying his duffle and messenger bag, the blinking lights made it hard to tear his eyes away. He thought at any moment the bear might cock one fuzzy hip at him and wave hello.
The digital wall clock said 6:15 p.m. A sparse crowd loitered in the arrival bay, waiting for passengers on the Saturday evening connecting flight from Denver. He searched their faces with his eyes but walked right past Georgie Porter before she reached out and pulled him into an awkward hug. It felt like being grabbed by the person next to you at a football game when the home team scores a touchdown.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, her breath hot on his shoulder. “Shit, Matthew, I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks,” he said, “for doing this. I didn’t know who else to call.”
The first thing he noticed was how tall she was—almost as tall as him. She had fine features and big dark eyes and wore a puffy purple parka over jeans and knee-high Sorel boots. Just a fringe of brown hair stuck from under her navy watch cap. From the snowflakes still melting on top of the hat he guessed she hadn’t been waiting long. So, he thought, this is you.
She stepped back and held him by the elbows. “You look different,” she said.
“I am different,” he said without thinking. “I have a brain injury.”
Her grin flickered but she steadied it. “I meant your hair,” she said, tugging softly at a loose curl. “It’s longer than I remember.”
He tucked the strand behind his ear. “Oh,” he said, “yeah. I guess I kind of let it go.”
She led him through the terminal, asking easy stuff like: “How was your flight?”
“Just a six-hour party in the sky,” he said. “Plus, an hour layover in Denver. On this last connection the guy next to me took his shoes off? I think he was smuggling onions in there.”
A little scar dimpled on her chin as she smiled at him. It felt like a physical thing in his chest. He reminded himself: Be normal. Make small talk.
The truth was, this had been Matthew’s first day of commercial travel since getting out of the army. Back in August, the military had issued him a new uniform for his trip home—a full kit of cammies still stiff and creased from the bag, the dome of the patrol hat not yet wilted and crusted with sweat. At every stop, people came up to shake his hand and thank him for his service. Their faces were eager, all trying to do a nice thing for him, but none taking the time to notice how damaged he was. They couldn’t tell his head was pounding and the itchy new uniform made him want to squirm out of his own skin. Today’s trip had been the opposite. It had been sunny and seventy-seven degrees when his mom dropped him at the airport that morning in Fort Myers. Nobody had looked twice at him all day. In his civilian clothes he moved easily through security and boarding gates. Just a regular guy flying home for Christmas. No reason to notice him in the rush of holiday travelers.
Now here he was: On the ground in Montana, in the town where he’d spent the first twenty-three years of the life he no longer remembered. They whooshed out through the airport’s automatic doors and a gust of wind cut him to the bone. It was dark and hard little snowflakes blew by his face. He zipped his jacket to his chin and clamped a hand on his hat to keep it from flying off. Georgie laughed. “Kind of different than Florida?” she asked.
“Little bit,” he said.
Before the trip, he’d gone online to buy himself some warm clothes. He’d picked out a billed farmer’s hat, a red and black plaid parka, jeans and sturdy boots. Now he realized they weren’t good enough. The cold hung on him like a chain around his neck as they walked across the parking lot. Georgie’s truck was an old Chevy S-10, painted the distinctive mint green of an old Forest Service vehicle. Matthew could still see where they’d scraped the words PARK RANGER off the side doors. Inside, the plastic seats leaked chunky orange stuffing, but the engine fired-up when she cranked the key.
“So,” she said, “I’m just going to ask. How are you doing, really?”
The way she looked at him across the bench seat he knew “fine” wasn’t going to cut it. “Honestly?” he said. “I walk around feeling doomed most of the time.”
“Jesus,” she said, “that’s awful.”
“What can you do?” he said. “The doctors say it’s normal to experience a certain amount of paranoia after a severe cranial trauma.”
She handed the woman in the parking booth a few bucks and turned onto the highway. “And your mom?” she asked. “How’s she handling it?”
“My mom,” he said, “is different than I imagined.”
“In what way?”
A few times during his last days in the army, after his memory had been scrubbed clean, he’d tried to dream his mother up from scratch. He pictured a woman in a garden somewhere, her hands in the dirt, skin brown and creased from the sun. Once he got to Florida, he realized the only thing he got right was the suntan. His mom worked in PR for the public-school system. She played golf on weekends and drank too much at book club.
For four months he’d been staying in her big house outside Naples—Matthew, his mom and stepdad all getting to know each other again. He relearned his mom’s shampoo-and-skin-cream smell, the rich, fluttery sound of her laugh. One of his first nights back, she cooked his favorite dinner—beef stroganoff—and the taste of the mushrooms made him retch. He couldn’t finish it. As he scraped his plate into the garbage disposal he could feel them staring at him from the table. This stranger who now lived in their house.
“I’m sorry,” his mom had said. “I thought you liked it.”
“I did too,” he’d said.
He told the story to Georgie hoping it explained what he meant. “She wants to help but doesn’t know how—and I honestly don’t know what I need from her. I try to ask her things about the past, what things were like while I was growing up, but she mostly sticks to the broad strokes. I get the feeling the past isn’t her favorite subject.”
“I don’t blame her,” she said. “Toward the end of their marriage, your dad wasn’t an easy guy to live with.”
“To hear her tell it,” he said, “neither was I.”
The truck rounded a bend and the lights of town filled up the belly of a wide valley. Drawing himself up, he scanned the landscape for anything familiar. He’d already gone online to learn what he could about his hometown and had the basics in his head: Population: 67,000. Elevation: 3,200 feet. Date of incorporation: 1885. The city’s Wikipedia page showed pictures of a university clock tower, a packed football stadium, the pillars of city hall. They were all taken in sunny weather—Chamber of Commerce stills that made the place look homey and inviting. None of it helped get a feel for what it was like to actually be here. Winter had leached the color out of everything, the blacktop and sky now the same color slate. He saw the glowing moon-base of a grocery store parking lot and the hulking silhouette of a hospital. In the distance, mountains loomed like tall white ships. There was nothing he recognized.
The third time she glanced at him in the glow of the dashboard light he said: “What?”
“What do you mean, what?” she asked. “You don’t think this is a little weird?”
“No, I get it,” he said. “You pick your ex-boyfriend up from the airport—a guy you’ve known your whole life—and he says he doesn’t remember you at all. Does that about cover it?”
She scrunched her nose. “I don’t like the word ex-boyfriend,” she said. “More like ex-best friend. And you skipped the part where you don’t speak to me for eight years, join the army, go off to war—”
“Get blown-up,” she repeated, cutting him an apologetic glance, “and then email me out-of-the-blue trying to reconnect. So, yeah, it’s pretty weird. You really don’t remember anything? You don’t remember me? Us?”
“I know the basics,” he said. “Now.”
“You know what I told you,” she said. “What your mom told you. It’s not the same as really remembering it.”
That stung him. “Ouch,” he said. “I guess we’re going to dive straight into it, huh?”
Her eyes darted back to the road. “You don’t want to talk about it,” she said. A statement, not a question.
“It’s not that,” he said, “it’s just not really a drive-in-from-the-airport kind of conversation.”
They drove in silence until she asked: “How long are you around?”
“Two weeks,” he said. “I fly out Christmas Day. Look, don’t get me wrong, I definitely want to talk. You’re one of the only people who might be able to help me get back what I’ve lost. I just might need to ease into it a little bit.”
That seemed to satisfy her. She asked where he was staying and when he told her the name of his motel she made a face like she’d just noticed a bad smell. “Why that place?”
“It was the cheapest I could find with a swimming pool.”
“A swimming pool? What for?”
“For swimming,” he said. “I’ve been doing it a lot in Florida. It keeps my head on straight.”
“Huh,” she said. “Well, that’s a switch.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, smiling to keep things light.
“I haven’t seen you swim since you were fourteen years old,” she said. “It was a big deal when you quit the team. Your parents saved-up for private lessons, a youth aquatic club membership, all that. You won the city meet for your age group in eighth grade, made varsity on the relay team as a freshman in high school. People thought you might get a scholarship, but you quit before sophomore year. Said your parents pressured you into it and—” she caught herself and stopped. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he said. “I’m still getting used to playing so much catch-up. It’s like every social interaction is a test set up for me to fail.”
He had one hand propped on his knee. She reached across the gear shift and squeezed it. A few blocks later, the sign for The Hollywood Motel appeared on the left. Its neon orange sun and twinkling palm tree were out of place in the middle of the Rockies. She pulled the truck in front of the main office and he looked at the C-shaped layout of the place. Two floors of rooms all facing the parking lot. Most of the cars parked there were clunkers, holes rusting in some of the bodies. He guessed most of the other people staying there weren’t passing through. Still, there it was: At one end of the complex, a large square enclosure with big windows fogged over in the cold. The pool. Just seeing it eased the tension between his shoulder blades.
“You didn’t have to come back here, you know,” she said. “You could have handled all the executor stuff from Florida.”
“I know,” he said. “I wanted to come.”
“My mom said when you left, you told everyone you were done with this place forever.”
He let a breath out slow. “You want to know how I found out my dad was dead?”
“I don't know,” she said. “Do I?”
“I’d been calling him on the phone,” he said. “Ever since I got back from Iraq. I had an old number for him in my phone. I didn’t even know if it was still good, but I probably called it two dozen times. I left a bunch of messages. My mom said it was a waste of time. She didn’t like seeing me get my hopes up. She said my dad was a deadbeat, that it had been years since he and I wanted anything to do with each other. So, eventually I gave up. Then, on the day I went to see the neurologist and got my diagnosis, I tried him again—just to give him the news, you know?—and a cop answered.”
“Oh,” she said. “Shit.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It was a woman’s voice, which confused me at first, because nobody had said anything about my dad having a girlfriend or whatever. Then she asked me, ‘Are you any relation to David Michael Rose?’ and just from the tone in her voice I knew he was dead. Nobody else would say it like that besides a cop.”
“You mean he had just done it?” she asked.
“The landlords found his body that morning. The cop told me he’d shot himself in his rental house by the lake. That’s how she said it—the lake—like I was supposed to know where that was.”
“That’s the fucking worst,” she said.
“Sort of,” he said. “I mean—yeah, it was—but my mom said it had been at least a few years since he and I last talked. I don’t remember my dad at all, so it’s hard for me to feel sad about it, to be honest. The point is, now he’s dead, and I might never remember him. I missed my chance. I don’t want to miss anything else like that. Something about talking to that cop made me realize, all the people I want to remember, the life I want to figure out, it’s here. It’s not in Florida. So here I am.”
She smiled a sad smile at him. “You want me to wait until you get checked-in?”
“I can manage,” he said.
“Tomorrow is my day off,” she said. “If you feel like it, you should give me a call.”
“Can you do evening?” he asked. “I have to go to my dad’s in the morning. Load up all his earthly possessions so we can get the probate started.”
“Jesus,” she said again.
“Your mom is going to help me with the legal stuff. Maybe with my other thing, too.”
“Laurie Porter will set you straight,” she said, making it sound like an advertising slogan. “No case too big or too small.”
They shared a half hug across the seat and he watched her drive away before shouldering through the door into the motel office.