Authors: Sue Miller
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
ALSO BY SUE MILLER
The Lake Shore Limited
The Senator’s Wife
Lost in the Forest
The World Below
While I Was Gone
The Distinguished Guest
Inventing the Abbotts
The Good Mother
The Story of My Father
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2014 by Sue Miller
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Portions of chapter three first appeared, in significantly different form, as “From Burning Summer” in
vol. 37, nos. 2 and 3 (fall 2011).
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Miller, Sue, [date]
The arsonist / By Sue Miller.—First edition.
“THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK.”
ISBN 978-0-307-59479-2 (hardcover)—ISBN 978-0-385-35170-6 (eBook)
1. Arson—Fiction. 2. Arson investigation—Fiction. 3. Pyromania—Fiction. 4. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
PS3563.1421444A89 2014 813′.54—dc23 2013041004
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental
Jacket photograph by Simon Anstey/Millennium Images, U.K.
Jacket design by Gabriele Wilson
August 1941–November 2013
RANKIE WOULD REMEMBER
the car speeding past in the dark as she stood at the edge of the old dirt road. She would remember that she had been aware of the smell of smoke for a while.
Someone having a fire
, she had assumed then, and that would turn out to be correct—though not in the way she was imagining it. She had the quick thought, briefly entertained amid the other, rushing thoughts that were moving through her tired brain, that it was odd for someone to be doing this, having a fire this late—or this early—on an already warm summer night.
But in the moment she didn’t go beyond her quick assumption, her fleeting thought. She smelled the smoke, she saw the car approaching, and she got quickly out of the road, stepping first into the ditch that ran alongside it, and then, because it was night and she worried that the driver might not see her in the dark, onto the scrubby bank, pulling herself up between two trees that stood there. By the time she turned around to face the road again, the car had passed her. She stood for a moment watching as the wink of the red taillights disappeared behind a rise in the road, appeared again, dropped from sight, and appeared once more; and then was gone, the car’s sound fading into nothing, into the rustle and odd croak of the night. She’d been walking for more than an hour by then, awash in memories and images of the life she’d just left behind.
She’d waked, as she’d known she would, at about one-thirty, and in her jet lag and confusion, she didn’t know where she was, or even, for just a second or two,
she was. She’d felt this way only a few times before
in her life—in childhood mostly—a disorientation so profound that it momentarily wiped her consciousness clean. It left her breathless now, too, her heart knocking hard in her chest as she lay there slowly feeling the room and her life—her sense of being precisely
, Frankie—return and settle around her. It took her a few seconds longer than that, though, to understand why she might be here, in this room that meant summer, family.
She lay still for a while, feeling her body grow calm again, taking in the familiar shapes in the dark around her. The clock next to her on the bedside table glowed greenly—now 1:40, now 1:45. She turned on her back and stretched. She heard an animal screech somewhere far off and the tick of something shifting somewhere in the old house.
Okay, sleep wasn’t going to come again for a while. She got up. She dressed in the dark, pulling on the same clothes she’d shed onto the floor five hours earlier when she’d come, exhausted, upstairs to bed. Carrying her shoes in her hand, she went into the black hall, found the stairs, then the smooth wooden handrail, and descended slowly, each step loudly protesting her weight, even though she tried to stay at their edges on the way down.
The bright moonlight fell into the living room, clearly delineating the furniture. She could see the deep old slipcovered chairs hunkered companionably by the fireplace. This was where her parents sat on chilly nights, usually reading. The couch was turned toward the view of the mountains. Behind it, the globe of the earth with its obsolete borders and nations was bulbous in its wooden stand. The chest of drawers that held dress-ups and puzzles and games—Monopoly and Clue, Parcheesi, Scrabble—was a large dark block in the far corner of the room. She could hear her parents’ twinned snoring from their bedroom in the new wing down the hall from the kitchen, the wing they’d built this past year because they were retiring—retiring to this farmhouse they had used as a summer home for as long as Frankie could remember. She stood still and listened for a long moment. She thought she could distinguish one from another, her father’s snores low and regular, the proverbial sawing of logs; her mother’s more intermittent, more fluttery.
She thought of their faces as they’d looked at the dining room table earlier tonight, both turned to her inquisitively, both seeming to ask to understand something of who she was now, both seeming to want something from her, something she could feel herself pulling against giving, as usual.
She had a sense, suddenly, of how useless it was, that reflex. Probably they were just being polite. Probably the questions they were asking had been designed to keep the sense of a conversation going. Her resistance seemed to her now the residue of some childish impulse that had stayed with her into adulthood, the impulse to keep her life from them, not to let them own it.
She sat down in one of the chairs by the fireplace. As she bent to pull on her shoes, the smell of old ashes rose toward her, and she felt flooded with a sense of nostalgia—but a kind of aimless nostalgia. She couldn’t locate its source. Nostalgia for this place? For something in her past here? Or, perhaps, lost to her, in her past elsewhere? She sat there for a long moment, swept by this formless, hungry feeling.
Then she stood up, walked through the dining room, the kitchen, and came outside, setting the screen door of the little porch carefully, soundlessly, back into its wooden frame.
The moon was bright here, bright on the grass around the house and the field beyond it, bright on the gravel driveway that led to the blackness of the trees at the driveway’s end. The air was cool and smelled fresh after the closed-in warmth of the house. The noise of the gravel under her shoes seemed explosively loud.
When she got to the road, she turned left, away from town, and emerged from the dark well under the trees. The moon made a glowing white band of the road in front of her, made the woods on each side of the road read as more deeply black. As she walked, she was going over the steps that had brought her here the day before, a day that had gone on and on, that had lasted more than thirty-two hours as she traveled north and then west, across continents and oceans and time zones.
She saw herself in Lamu, climbing down onto the old wooden ferry that plied the water between the island and the airport, holding the hand of the weather-beaten, skinny ferryman as she stepped from the pier to
the boat’s edge, then to the built-in bench that curved inside along its hull, a bench covered in fresh straw matting. There were assorted other travelers waiting to be helped on, too, including a few tourists and a fat woman wearing a
. She looked ancient, her heavy, sallow face deeply lined, but Frankie knew from experience in Africa that she might have been only a few years older than she herself was. The woman was carrying two live chickens, white and plump, held upside down. This seemed calming to them. They were quiet anyway, they jerked their heads back and forth, looking around with a mild disinterest at everything within their purview.
The last to arrive were two younger women in head scarves. Once the boat had pushed off from the dock, once the ancient motor had caught and they were out on the choppy gray water, the girls pulled their scarves off, and the breeze lifted their thick dark hair. One of them closed her eyes and shook her head slowly in pleasure.
During the short trip across the channel, Frankie watched the dhows heading out to sea or returning, the one belling lateen sail turned this way or that to catch the wind. She looked back at the stone town rising behind the dusty waterside quay. She’d stayed for just four days this time, alone in one of the tall town houses. She’d slept out on the rooftop under a lattice covered with jasmine and bougainvillea and waked before dawn each morning to the electronically amplified call to prayer, to the rich erotic smell of the jasmine. She’d walked the streets slowly, avoiding the open-water channel, the meandering donkeys. She looked into the open shops, she bought food and trinkets from the street vendors. She’d wanted to mark what she thought might be the end of her life in Africa, and this was a place she had particularly loved.
On the other side of the wide channel, everyone disembarked in nearly perfect reverse order and walked up the sandy path to what constituted the airport—a few thatched-roof pavilions and huts where others were waiting, a short runway with a small plane parked on it. Everyone, including the chickens, got into this plane, each person having to lower her head when she passed through the narrow, low door hatch.