Bell Elkins, prosecuting attorney and small-town heroine of Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Keller's A Killing in the Hills, Bitter River and Summer of the Dead, faces one of her most challenging days in this exclusive digital short story. Featuring an exclusive extract from her new full-length novel Last Ragged Breath.
For Bell Elkins no day is ever the same.
But on this day, for the third day running, Bell has woken up from the same dream. A dream about a boy needing her help, reaching out to her. Bell, always unable to help.
Already unsettled, she becomes embroiled, in her role as prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, in an investigation into a couple running a local day-care centre, and Bell suspects that her day is only going to get worse. A suspicion that is compounded when she's forced to confront a friend's treachery and a ghost from her past.
No day is ever the same, but will Bell be forever changed by this one?
About the Author
Julia Keller, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and former cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, is the author of many books for adults and young readers, including A Killing in the Hills, the first book in the Bell Elkins series and winner of the Barry Award for Best First Novel (2013); Back Home; and The Dark Intercept. Keller has a Ph.D. in English literature from Ohio State and was awarded Harvard University’s Nieman Fellowship. She was born in West Virginia and lives in Ohio.
Read an Excerpt
By Julia Keller
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Julia Keller
All rights reserved.
It was The Dream, again. Same one, three nights running.
Bell Elkins didn't believe in dreams. Not the nighttime kind, anyway. Not the kind that came because you were restless and preoccupied, your mind unable to shed the burden of a problem and so the problem invaded your sleep, too, just as it invaded your conscious hours, until you solved it or learned to live with it. She didn't believe that dreams carried any particular significance. They weren't symbols or omens or portents. They weren't trying to send a message. You couldn't sift through them for clues about the future. Or for dire warnings. That, she was sure, was total crap.
But this one wouldn't go away. Wouldn't leave her alone. When she awoke on the third straight morning and realized that she'd had it again — same dream, which meant the same sticky residue from it would cling to her thoughts throughout the day — Bell was annoyed. She pushed away the comforter and sat up on the side of the bed, rubbing her eyes, rubbing her temples. Remembering.
The Dream was about a child. Cliché 101, she scolded herself. A woman in her mid-forties, dreaming about a child? It was so lame and predictable. The road not taken; the children never born because she was too busy with her job as prosecuting attorney for a small county in West Virginia; the bittersweet regrets; the sense of lost opportunities. Last chances. Etcetera, etcetera. Right?
Ridiculous. For one thing, she already had a child. Her daughter, Carla, was twenty years old now. She lived with Bell's ex-husband in Alexandria, Virginia, and she was a great kid, levelheaded and generous-hearted, spirited and smart. Bell talked to her several times a week.
And for another, Bell was doing exactly what she wanted to do with her life. Armed with a law degree from Georgetown, from which she'd graduated near the top of her class, she could've become a highly paid corporate lawyer in a big, interesting city; instead she was a poorly paid prosecutor in the middle of nowhere. But it was her choice. It was the kind of choice you didn't make just once. You made it over and over again, each morning when you woke up and decided to stay. Your reasons for staying might change over the years, but still: Here you were.
So what was the deal with The Dream? Three nights in a row. It was really starting to piss her off. It kept her from getting a good night's sleep — sleep she needed, because her days brimmed with challenge.
The Dream was always the same: The face of a young boy is visible through a cloudy window. He never moves. Never even blinks. He just stares. He's undersized, thin-cheeked, with a narrow forehead and a straight-line mouth. His hair is razed brutally short. He wears a dark sweater, ragged around the collar. She senses that he is in distress of some kind, and so she signals to him: I'm coming. I'm coming. No response. She runs to the front door and tries to enter the house, but the door is locked. She rattles the knob, pounds her fist on the wood. Nothing. She comes back around to the window, to somehow communicate to him that he needs to open the door for her, but he's gone. The space is blank.
It always ends the same way, this infuriatingly stubborn dream, this dream that wouldn't let go of her: She keeps looking for him. She goes back to hammer on the door, using both fists now, and then she returns to the window, and back to the door. Back and forth she goes, and by now she's yelling, screaming, demanding that somebody let her in so that she can check on the boy. What have they done with him? She threatens, she claws at the door, she returns to the window. She's out of breath from running. She bends over, sucking in air, releasing it. Then she stands upright again, rejuvenated, ready to storm the place. She races to the front door. Turns sideways. Lowers her right shoulder. She plunges toward the door, breaking it down with a loud splintering crack of wood. The hinges give way with a snowflake-flutter of rust.
There are no separate rooms inside. Just one small, square, empty space. She stands in the threshold, holding her throbbing shoulder, her eyes sweeping across the emptiness. No boy. No people, period. No furniture. Nothing. The only sound is her own husky, erratic breathing, in and out, in and out. She looks toward the window, the one through which she saw the boy's lonely, solemn face.
The window is boarded up from the inside. A sheet of plywood has been nailed over the space. The plywood is covered with a thick layer of dust. No one's looked out of that window for a long, long time.
And that was when she'd wake up, frantic and sweaty and confused — and aware, inexplicably, of a soreness in her right shoulder.
* * *
"Somebody's lookin' for you."
By way of response to this remark, Bell Elkins aimed a thin smile at Jesse Jarvis, the postmistress of Raythune County. She didn't ask Jesse to elaborate. She knew that Jesse would, whether encouraged to do so or not. There was no one else in line, and without the press of impatient customers, Jesse might go on for a long time, mistaking Bell's silence for curiosity.
"Older fella," the postmistress added, a gleam in her eye. Bell had dubbed this particular look the gossip-gleam. Jesse was not the only one who exhibited it regularly around here.
Bell still didn't reply. Once again, Jesse decided to interpret that not as indifference, but of an interest so profound as to have leapt beyond the provinces of speech to express it.
"Old or not, though, he was in real good shape," Jesse said. "I mean, his hair was gray and all, but he moved like somebody lots younger. Thought maybe he was a retired astronaut, you know? Had that air about him. Like he'd been to places that the rest of us ain't."
Bell decided not to offer the observation that the chances of a retired astronaut fetching up in Acker's Gap, West Virginia, were small. She continued to thumb through her mail while Jesse talked. Catalog, catalog, catalog, offer for credit card, catalog, bill, credit card, catalog. At what point, Bell wondered, did mail go from being something you looked forward to, something you savored, to something that left you either bored or irritated?
Her mail came to her house, of course, but if she had a minute, if things settled down at the courthouse long enough for her to leave the premises for a mind-clearing stroll, Bell sometimes walked over to the post office in the next block to collect it herself.
Jesse relished her visits. The postmistress was sixty-four years old, edging closer each day to the mandatory retirement age that frankly frightened her, meaning as it did that she'd be trapped in her house with nowhere to go, no post office to run, no responsibility for getting the mail in and out of a small Appalachian town that was wedged so tightly down in this mountain valley that not even a crowbar could likely pry it loose. White-haired, with a weary, crumpled-looking face that seemed at odds with her bright and lively eyes, Jesse loved to talk to people. If you bought a book of stamps, you'd get, along with your purchase, an update on somebody's hip replacement surgery or pending divorce; if you mailed a package, you'd get a well-considered opinion about global warming as well as the receipt for the transaction.
"And so I finally just asked him," Jesse was saying. "Bold as brass. I said, 'Hey, mister. Bell's our prosecuting attorney and we all think the world of her, so if you're here to make some kind of trouble, you better turn around and go back the way you came — because you'll be fighting the whole town. Not just her.' "
"So he didn't know I was prosecutor?"
"Well, see — that's the funny part. He did and he didn't. He said, 'Oh, so she's still in office?' And I said, 'Yeah, why wouldn't she be?' And then he said, 'Just thought maybe she'd moved away by now.' And then I said, 'Why would she do that?' And then he said, 'After all that happened, figured maybe she'd had enough.' And then I said —."
"Got the picture, Jess." Bell scooped up the rest of her mail from the tall wooden counter. Jesse, she knew, had to stand on a stool on the other side in order to serve the customers. The post office was a very small brick building with dark wooden floors. Jesse ran the counter, and the single delivery man, Artie Minton, used his own car, a swaybacked, rust-scored white station wagon, to make his rounds.
There'd been talk, a few years ago, of shutting down this post office for good, forcing the residents to drive over to the one in Blythesburg. Fortunately, the place had been granted a reprieve. Everyone knew, though, that the clock was ticking. If the population kept dropping, the postal service would have no choice. Thus Jesse Jarvis had a two-pronged anxiety: the years creeping up on her from one side, and from the other, the deteriorating economic situation of Acker's Gap, which also threatened her position.
She didn't let the worry show. She was a merry woman, one who luxuriated in the information that came her way, hour by hour, as people stopped in at the post office and chatted.
"Well," she said, "you be careful, Belfa. Never know about some folks." Because Jesse perused her mail, including official correspondence, she sometimes slipped and called Bell by her formal name. Bell didn't like it, but let it go. "You heading back to the courthouse?"
"Got to stop at the bank first," Bell answered.
When she'd first moved back to Acker's Gap seven years ago, she would've answered Jesse's inquiry with a decided snippiness: "And what the hell business is it of yours?" But she understood a few things now, like the fact that Jesse wasn't being nosy. Jesse was being Jesse. And the postmistress never hid the fact that, if another customer came in thirty seconds after Bell went out the door, the new person would be fully informed about Bell's morning plans. That's how it was around here.
The bank was two doors down. Bell had gone to Acker's Gap High School with the manager, Dot Burdette, and if the office door was open when Bell finished her business with a teller, as it was today, Dot always waved at her, beckoning her to come inside and sit down.
"Thank the Lord it's finally spring," Dot said. She was a thin woman, sinewy, given to long tunics with matching skirts and heels, plus necklaces that ended in dangling gold pendants, all of which tended to emphasize her height. In high school she'd been serenely, untouchably popular, vastly more popular than Bell. Bell, raised in foster care, was a dark cipher, a girl whose face was absent of expression and who seemed to find her only true friendships in books. Her clothes were wrong, her hair was wrong. Dot had never acknowledged her existence. But now Bell was prosecuting attorney, and Dot acted as if she and Bell had been BFFs back then, as if they'd hung out on weekends and braided each other's hair and giggled their way through prank calls. It was a lie — but some lies, Bell knew, you simply had to find a way to live with.
"Yeah," Bell replied. "Sure seems that way."
Dot clearly had something on her mind, and it wasn't the weather. She sat hunched over the desktop, hands linked on the lid of her laptop. A sudden frown aged her face by about a decade, igniting the wrinkles around her eyes and at the corners of her downturned mouth.
"So," Dot said. "Real glad you came by. Something I need to mention."
"I keep an eye out for patterns of small cash deposits, just like you asked me to," Dot said. "At the end of the day, I do a quick check. Haven't said a word to the tellers about it."
"Good." The turnover in the teller ranks was constant, Bell knew, and you couldn't vet employees as thoroughly as you'd like to.
"Lots of new businesses lately," Dot went on. She shook her head. It sounded like good news, but it wasn't; few of the new businesses lasted more than a month or two, popping up only because so many people couldn't find jobs and decided to go it alone. They ended up losing what little was left of their savings by investing in dubious franchises or by opening restaurants or T-shirt shops or tattoo parlors, businesses with abysmally high failure rates. The average length of time between the hanging of the GRAND OPENING sign and its replacement by one announcing GOING OUT OF BUSINESS — EVEYRTHING MUST GO had dwindled to mere weeks.
But there was a subset of such establishments that stuck around, and that, too, was often bad news. The trade in illegal prescription narcotics was thriving in the hills of West Virginia and throughout Appalachia; it was the foremost problem that Bell and her fellow prosecutors faced. Drug dealers had to find quick, easy ways to get rid of their cash, hence they often opened up cash-heavy businesses such as tanning salons, convenience stories, tobacco outlets, and drop-in day-care centers. Bars and restaurants didn't work, because their sales receipts were too closely monitored by the state.
"I've noticed that," Bell said. She had neither the time nor the investigative staff to check out every shady-looking new business in Raythune County to make sure it wasn't a money-laundering portal for drug dealers.
"Had my eye on this one." Dot pushed a deposit ticket across the desk, turning it around so that it would be right-side-up for Bell.
The preprinted slip read LITTLE MISS 'N' MISTER DAY CARE, ROUTE 6, ACKER'S GAP WV. On the numbers side, Bell saw, the cash deposits totaled $897.14.
"That was yesterday's deposit," Dot said. "Usually it's right around three or four hundred bucks. Never been more than five. But for the past several days, the daily total has been close to a thousand dollars. Creeping up a little bit, day by day."
"Wonder why the place is suddenly so popular? Did they hire Mary Poppins, or what?"
Dot grinned, glad for the relief. "Right. That was my thought, too — it's way, way too much for a day care around here. Raised a red flag."
"How long have they had the account?" Bell asked.
"Probably figure you're not watching them too closely anymore. They keep the amounts low at first, and then, when you've moved on to other new accounts, they accelerate things."
The grin on Dot's face had disappeared seconds after its arrival. She looked haggard again, older than her years. Drug money had changed the banking business, and her job nowadays was less about helping people finance their homes or manage their savings and more about reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement.
"What do you want me to do?" Dot said.
"Nothing, for now. Don't say a word. Just keep taking the deposits. I'll head out there and look around."
They both stood up. "You be careful, Bell."
"No — I mean it." Dot's voice dropped a decibel, even though her office door was closed. "Things have changed around here since the days when we were growing up."
Bell nodded. She'd had this conversation before with Dot — she'd had it with many people — and she'd have it again, most likely, before the day was out. It was like a secret handshake they all shared, this need to remind each other at regular intervals that the world was different now, that the amiable serenity of the life they'd known was officially over. It was easy to be deluded about small towns, to see them as what they'd been, not what they were now. It was tempting to let yourself get misled by the superficial ambience of a place like Acker's Gap: the sleepy streets, the single stoplight, the stolid brick buildings fronted by metal awnings that looked like a long row of green eyeshades, the familiar faces, the laid-back glaze of peace and sameness. Underneath, however, the ground trembled from the unmistakable vibration of trouble on the way. Trouble was always on the way.
"Can I ask you something?" Dot said.
"You doing okay? You look a little tired, is all."
"Not sleeping too well," Bell said. "Busy days over at the courthouse. Same as always." She could've deflected Dot's question, brushed it off; for some reason, however, she decided to tell the truth in a general way. She almost confided in Dot about The Dream, too, but stopped short of that. Telling someone your dreams invited a kind of intimacy that Bell didn't want with anyone — and certainly not with Dot Burdette.
"You have to look out for yourself, Belfa," Dot said.
"Appreciate the concern." Bell's voice was curt. She already regretted having mentioned her rough nights to Dot. She'd opened herself up to an extra dose of Life Advice.
"Yeah," Dot replied drolly. "Just bet you do."
* * *
He was waiting for her in her office — in her outer office, more specifically, the small reception area presided over by Lee Ann Frickie, Bell's secretary, a watchful woman who wore her sixty-seven years as tidily as she did her assortment of plaid wool suits. Today's plaid was gray and chalk.
The man sat in one of the green vinyl armchairs along the wall. Shoulders back, arms crossed, feet together, he'd kept an eye on the doorway with the attentiveness of a dog monitoring a gopher hole. When Bell walked in, he sprang to his feet in a single fluid movement. Just as Jesse had said, he was remarkably fit for a man who was clearly past seventy, and perhaps even older than that.
"Mrs. Elkins," he said.
Excerpted from Ghost Roll by Julia Keller. Copyright © 2015 Julia Keller. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Read on for an excerpt from the next book featuring Bell Elkins,
Teaser from The Last Ragged Breath,
About the Author,
Also by Julia Keller,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good author. Cheap way to get you into the new book. Not the least bit professional. I will not buy any more of her books. Next book of course is very expensive. Tacky!!!