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Abigail Browning squirted charcoal lighter fluid on the mound of papers she'd torn up and piled into her backyard grill.
She had more pages to go. Another two spiral notebooks.
She set her lighter fluid on the little wooden shelf next to the grill and picked up the top notebook from the plastic chair behind her. When she opened the cover, she tried not to look at her scrawled handwriting, as pained as the words she'd written, or at the stains of long-spent tears that had smeared the ink as she'd forced herself to recount the tragic story of her honeymoon.
Each journalthere were fourteen, two for each year of lossbegan with the same litany of facts, as if the re-telling itself might produce some new tidbit, some new insight she'd missed.
It's the fourth day of my Maine honeymoon, and I'm napping on the couch in the front room of the cottage my husband inherited from his grandfather.
Two loud noises awaken me. Tools clattering to the floor in the back room. A hammer. Perhaps a crowbar. I'm startled, but also amused, because I'd spent the morning helping Chris repair a leak.
As I get up to investigate the noises, I think it must be an unwritten rulenewlyweds aren't supposed to fix leaks on their honeymoon.
Abigail tore off that first page by itself and ripped it into quarters, setting them neatly atop her pile, the lighter fluid seeping into the cheap paper and old blue ink as if it were fresh tears.
Last night's anonymous call had changed everything. She needed a cover story to explain her actionswhat she planned to do next.
She also needed clarity and objectivity.
Seven years of journals. Seven years, she thought, of trying to restore her emotional life.
I smell roses and ocean as I get up from the couch. A window must be open.
Even now, at thirty-two, no longer a young bride, no longer a law student with a handsome FBI special agent husband, no longer inexperienced in matters of violent death, Abigail could feel herself walking into the back room, convinced the wind had knocked over tools she and Chris had left haphazardly that morning, when they gave up their leak-fixing to make love upstairs in their sun-filled bedroom.
She noticed the slight tremble in her hands and swore under her breath, tensing her fingers as she tore more pages and set them atop her pile. There was no wind, and the grasswhat there was of it in her postage stamp of a backyardwas damp from an overnight rain. Adequate conditions for burning, although she was in a tank top and shorts. If her bare skin got hit with sparks, it'd serve her right.
As I step into the back room, I see not a cracked window but the door to the porch standing wide open, and for the first time I feel a jolt of real fear.
I didn't leave the door open. "Chris?"
I call my husband's name just as I hear the floor-boards creak behind me.
Just as the blow comes to the back of my head.
Her chest tightening, Abigail dropped the partially torn spiral notebook back onto the chair and quickly struck a wooden match, tossing it onto the pile of ripped pages.
Flames shot two feet into the hot, still air.
"Whoa, there. That's some fire you've got going."
She looked up at Bob O'Reilly trotting down the last of the steps from his top-floor apartment in the triple-decker they and Scoop Wisdomall three of them detectives with the Boston Police Departmenthad bought together a year ago, pooling their resources to afford the city's sky-high real estate prices. Bob, a twice-divorced father of three, lived alone. Scoop, who worked in internal affairs and had a well-earned reputation with the women of Boston, occupied the middle floor. Abigail, a homicide detective and widow, had the first floor. She got along with Bob and Scoop partly because they understood she had no intention of sleeping with either of them.
"Outdoor burning's illegal," Bob said.
"I'm getting ready to throw some hot dogs on the grill."
"You don't eat hot dogs."
At six-two, the veteran detective had nine inches on Abigail in height, and, although he was pushing fifty, he could run ten miles and still move the next day. He'd taught her how to use free weights properly, and he'd taught her crime scene investigation. She'd taught him what it was like to lose someone to violence.
She'd taught him that seven years was the blink of an eye.
A page, filled with bloodred ink, went up in flames.
As I regain consciousness, I feel the ice pack on the lump on the back of my head and almost vomit from the raging pain of my concussion.
"Don't move," my husband tells me quietly. "An ambulance is on the way."
I try to tell him that I'm fine, but I become very still as I notice the anger in his face. The knowledge. The awful sense of betrayal.
He knows who did this to me.
Bob pointed at the five-pound Folgers coffee can that she had set on the plastic chair, behind the stack of spiral notebooks. "What's that for?"
"I'm performing a cleansing ritual."
"A firebug I arrested ten years ago said the same thing."
"This is different," Abigail said, watching the pages blacken and burn. Once Bob left, she'd finish tearing up the last two notebooks, burn their pages, rid herself of their raw emotion.
Detective Bob O'Reilly of the BPD wouldn't understand cleansing rituals. He had pale skin and freckles and red hair that was graying gracefully; only his cornflower eyes suggested the work he'd done for almost thirty years ever got to him. His second wife had walked out on him two years ago, telling him he was an emotional basket case and recommending therapy. Instead, Bob got drunk with cop friends, packed up his stuff, and, swearing off marriage forever, moved out, eventually buying the triple-decker with Scoop and Abigail.
"Is that your handwriting? The purple ink?" he asked.
Abigail glanced at a scrap that had just caught fire. "I used different colored inks depending on my mood."
"How's a purple-ink mood different from, say, a blue-ink mood?"
"I don't know. It just is."
"What are these, journals or something?" He seemed to have to struggle to keep the disbelief out of his tone.
"I started keeping a journal after Chris died. My therapist suggested it."
"She said to write stream-of-consciousness, without thinking, but to try to use all five senses and the present tense. She wanted me to write about our time together what happened when he died."
Bob scratched the back of his thick neck. "It helped?"
"I don't know. I guess. I haven't thrown myself off Cadillac Mountain."
She grabbed the partially torn notebook and opened it up to the middle, tearing a hunk of pages, trying not to look at the words.
Chris leaves me with the ambulance crew, who will take me to the emergency room at the hospital in Bar Harbor. He doesn't say where he's going. He doesn't promise to be back soon. He doesn't promise anything.
I have no premonition of anything bad about to happen.
I just don't want him to leave me.
Bob unhooked a pair of tongs from the side of the grill and stirred the blackened pages, rekindling the dying fire. "You never thought about killing yourself, Abigail," he said, not looking at her. "Only thing you thought about was finding out who killed your husband."
She flung more pages on the fire.
By nightfall, I'm worried. So are Doyle Alden, a local police officer, and Owen Garrison, Chris's rich neighbor. I can see it in their faces.
Chris should be back by now.
"Abigail? You're not breathing."
She made herself exhale and smiled at Bob, who, initially, hadn't even wanted her in the department, much less working at his side in homicide. Too much baggage, he'd told everyone, including her. It wasn't just her husband. It was quitting law school, it was her background. She'd had to earn his trust. "I'm okay. I should have done this sooner. It feels good."
"Why are you doing it now?"
Bob wasn't one to miss anything.
Abigail tore more pages, tossed them whole onto the fire, nearly smothering it.
I ignore warnings to stay insideto restand instead put on my hiking boots and go off on my own into the unfamiliar landscape. Unlike Doyle and Owen and my husband, I don't know every rock, every tree root, every snaking path through the woods or along the shore.
I'm not from Mt. Desert Island.
Bob watched her squirt more charcoal lighter fluid on her fire, the orange flames glowing in his face.
"The journals are emotional cluttera drag on me." Her words sounded okay to her, anyway. Plausible. "I'm heading up to Maine in the morning."
"I need to do some work on the house."
"Taking vacation time?"
"Some. Things are quiet right now. I have plenty of time coming to me."
Bob poked at the fire with his tongs. He wasn't by nature a patient man, but he had explained to Abigail, equally impatient, how his experience had taught him the value of strategic silence. She knew if she tried to fill the void, he'd have her.
The combination of the lighter fluid, the flames, the heat and the emotion had her eyes stinging. But she didn't cry.
She'd never cried in front of Bob or Scoop, any of her fellow police officers.
I see Owen Garrison down on the rocks, near the waterline, below the skeletal remains of the original Garrison house, burned in the great Mt. Desert fire of 1947.
I can taste the ocean on the air and smell the acidic odor of the damp, peat-laden earth.
My mind doesn't want to take in what I'm seeing.
The body of a man.
Owen tries to stop me from running. "Don't, Abigail "
She picked up the spiral notebook on the bottom of her pile. The last one to burn, and the first one she'd filled, the handwriting oversized and thick, a pen difficult for her to hold in those initial, terrible weeks of rage, shock and grief.
With a sharp breath, she ripped out too many pages at once and distorted the metal spiral, ended up tearing sheets on an angle. She threw what she had onto the fire and pulled off the bits that had stayed behind, then grabbed another fistful and yanked those pages free.
Bob O'Reilly continued to watch her.
"I'm taking the ashes with me to Maine. As many as I can fit in the coffee can. I'm going to dump them in Frenchman Bay. It's part of the ritual."
"Should be pretty up there," he said.
I keep running. I don't slip on the rocks or hesitate, even as Owen grabs me by the waist. "Chris was shot, Abigail. He's dead. I'm sorry. There's nothing you can do now."
Owen won't let me go to my husband. He won't let me contaminate the crime scene when there's no hope.
All we can do now, he says, is find the killer.
Bob hooked the tongs back onto the side of the grill. "Forget it, Detective Browning. You're not fooling me. You're not even coming close. Cleansing rituals. Emotional clutter." He snorted. "Bullshit."
Abigail tilted her head back and gave him a lofty look. She could feel her tank top sticking to her back. Her hair, short and dark, had twisted itself into corkscrews. Bob didn't wilt under her scrutiny, and finally she sighed. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
His cornflower Irish eyes leveled on her. "You haven't given up, Abigail. You won't toss in the towel on finding your husband's killer, ever."
"If you were in my position, would you give up?"
"We're not talking about me." He leaned in toward her.
"Something's happened. Something's changed. What?"
Abigail turned away from him. "Bob "
He grunted, silencing her. "If you can't tell me what's really going on, you can't tell me. Just don't give me cleansing rituals."
"Okay, but the part about fixing up the house"
"That's a little better, as cover stories go."
"It's not a cover story"
She decided not to push her luck, and Bob didn't press her further, scowling once more before heading back up to his third-floor apartment. Abigail watched her fire die out, here and there bits of unburned paper amid the ashes. She peeled the lid off her coffee can and noticed that she'd started to cry, almost as if she were someone else.
Using a long-handled spatula, she scooped ashes into the Folgers can.
Not all the ashes fit.
She stirred those left in the grill. All she needed to do was start a fire with two of Boston's most respected detectives on the premises. She'd been a detective for just two years. By Bob O'Reilly and Scoop Wisdom's standardsby her own standardsshe was still a novice.
They believed in her, and she proved herself one day at a time, but she'd decided, even before she'd formed her own plan of action, not to tell them about last night's call.
An anonymous tip.
It wasn't the first in seven years, and it wasn't the craziestbut she didn't need two trusted colleagues, two unwavering friends, to talk her out of following up on it.
Her spatula struck a half-burned page pasted to the bottom of the grill, the words jumping out of the ashes at her in thick, black marker, as if somehow she needed reminding.
I am a widow.