Read an Excerpt
A Haunting of the Bones
By Julia Keller
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Julia Keller
All rights reserved.
A Haunting of the Bones
We each devise our means of escape from the intolerable. —William Styron, "A Tidewater Morning"
Jackie LeFevre was in a business that thrived on banter and raillery, on mundane observations about the fickleness of the weather or the routine injustices of the world, but she was not a talker. Her habit was to deliver a customer's order with a brief nod or grunt or quick-dissolve smile—just enough interaction to avoid a reputation for rudeness, but no more. Occasionally she'd add, "Anything else?" but the words had an impersonal chill to them, an edge. Plainly, you were expected to reply, "No, I'm good," so that Jackie could return to work. Her careful reticence was a matter of efficiency, but it was also, Belfa Elkins thought, something else: a way of keeping the world at arm's length.
That was why, when Jackie set a cup of coffee in front of Bell and then slid into the booth seat across from her, Bell was surprised.
"Hey," Jackie said. "Need to ask your advice. Mind some company?"
"Not at all." Bell closed the manila file folder she'd opened a moment ago and replaced it atop the other folders she'd carried in with her. JP's—the diner Jackie owned and operated—was nearly deserted at this time of day, making it an ideal auxiliary office for Bell, Raythune County's prosecuting attorney. JP's was a block and a half from the courthouse. When Bell wanted to escape bleating phones, shoulder-tapping text messages, and the steady arrival of both pissed-off constituents and well-meaning but obtuse courthouse employees who liked to stop by and chew the fat, even though they knew they were interrupting her, she came to JP's. On weekday afternoons the restaurant tended to sink into a hushed calm, as if it had suddenly recalled the mountains surrounding this small West Virginia town and decided to absorb a portion of their beguiling stillness.
"Don't want to impose," Jackie said. She didn't sound apologetic; it was a statement of fact. She was one of the most self-sufficient people Bell had ever known. Asking for help, Bell understood, was costing Jackie. Costing her a lot.
"Tell you what," Bell said. "You talk, I'll listen, and we'll say the coffee is on the house. Deal?"
Jackie looked relieved. A transaction was fine. She was a merchant, a businesswoman, and this was a realm in which she felt comfortable. "Deal," she said.
Jackie turned her head away. She seemed to be contemplating the long stainless steel counter and its six red-topped stools, but Bell suspected she wasn't seeing those things; she was working up the courage to get to the point.
She turned back. "Got married right out of college," Jackie said. "Guy named Larry Pratt. We'd been at Middle Tennessee State together." She spoke rapidly. It seemed to Bell that she wanted to get it all out in one go, before she could change her mind about telling the story in the first place. "Just for a year," Jackie added. "I realized right away that it was a bad, bad mistake. About as stupid a thing as I've ever done, before or since. I wasn't close to my folks anymore, and I think I was looking for some kind of stability. Trying to make my own family, I guess. Didn't work. Larry, though, never came to terms with the divorce. It's been ten years, Bell, and he still won't let me alone. That's one of the reasons I came back to Acker's Gap. To get away from him. I figured—out of sight, out of mind."
Bell nodded. She knew the other reason Jackie had returned, a reason that neither of them was inclined to talk about out loud. Two years ago, Jackie's mother, Joyce LeFevre, who had owned a diner on this very spot, was killed in an explosion along with her partner, Georgette Akers, and five other townspeople. Jackie used the insurance settlement to open JP's—short for Joyce's Place—as a way of honoring her mother. JP's had been slow to catch on; the people of Acker's Gap weren't used to a vegan section on a menu or the scolding presence of a salad bar. Gradually, though, they'd come around. They now patronized JP's almost as eagerly and regularly as they had Ike's, the diner run by Jackie's mother.
Jackie herself was a tougher sell. She rarely engaged in small talk—and small talk was an important part of life in small-town West Virginia. It was a daily pleasure that cost people nothing but time. Yet Jackie left the socializing to her two waitresses—Wanda Harshbarger and Mindy Lewis. A third, Shirlene McAboy, had been laid off last month, a move Jackie had delayed for as long as possible. But the economic outlook in Acker's Gap, never robust, had declined precipitously of late. Jackie simply couldn't afford a third person on the payroll.
"Where does he live?" Bell asked.
"Richmond. Or he did, anyway." Jackie frowned. She had long, straight black hair, shiny as patent leather, that she parted in the middle. Her frown deepened, and she used an index finger to flick away a section of hair that had trespassed onto the side of her face. "Got an e-mail from him last night. Said he's headed here. To Raythune County."
"And that's not what you want."
"I've moved on. It's been ten years, for God's sake. But he won't give up." Jackie shifted her position in the booth. Her discomfort—with the situation, and with having to discuss a personal topic—was obvious. "My question is: What if he shows up here and makes trouble? He's got a temper on him, Bell. A bad one. Rile him up—and you just don't know where it's gonna end."
"Has he ever touched you in anger?"
"Threatened to, plenty of times. Never followed through—not yet, anyway. He's a coward. A big talker. At least he used to be. Haven't actually laid eyes on him in years. Our only contact's been through e-mail and phone calls. He goes through spells. I'll hear nothing for a few months and then he'll call late at night, night after night, and he just goes on and on about how I've ruined his life, about how he can't get a foothold anywhere because all he wants is me. Longer he talks, the meaner and madder he gets. Revs himself up, you know? If I hang up on him, he calls back. If I block the number he called from, he just gets another one."
"Does he own any firearms?"
Jackie looked down at her hands. That was an affirmative.
"I want you to talk to Sheriff Fogelsong," Bell said. "Show him a picture of your ex. He can distribute it to his deputies." She added what she was sure Jackie already knew, but was worth having on the record nevertheless. "Unless and until he actually commits a provocative act, there's not a whole lot we can do—except be ready. Be alert."
"Maybe I'm overreacting," Jackie said after a pause. She sounded uncertain. "He might be harmless by this time. No telling. And anyway, he's been bothering me for so long now—telling me I'm gonna regret what I've done to him—you'd think I'd be used to it. Larry's a sad little man. Won't get on with his life. Blames me for the fact that he can't keep a job. He just lost another one. Told me so the other night, before I could hang up on him. Which is probably why he's headed here. He's hit rock bottom."
"Well, promise me you'll let Nick Fogelsong know what's going on. And if this guy walks in and starts anything—you don't engage, okay? You call nine-one-one. Right away."
Jackie shrugged. Bell took it as another affirmative.
"Let me get you a refill," Jackie said. She was standing now, looking down at Bell's empty mug.
"Is that still part of the bargain?" Bell said, trying to lighten the mood. "Or just a trick to make me pay up, after all?"
Jackie smiled. A rare sight. "You got me."
By the time Jackie returned with the coffeepot—she'd been waylaid by Wanda Harshbarger, who needed permission to leave early that afternoon to babysit her brother's two kids while he took an extra shift—Bell had answered her cell, taken in the information, ended the call. The conversation had lasted less than three minutes.
"Bell?" Jackie said. No answer. "Is everything okay?"
Still no reply.
What Bell was unable to communicate right then—in any way other than the ghostly vacancy in her eyes—was that the phone call had blown apart her life almost as cataclysmically as the explosion two years ago had ripped open Jackie's. It changed everything.
* * *
"Right over here," he said.
Without a word, Bell followed the man. He'd been waiting for her when she'd pulled up in her Ford Explorer, adding her car to the shiny mix of vehicles in the cleared-off section at the foot of the mountain: Suburbans, Land Cruisers, Pathfinders, Grand Cherokees, the usual zoo of overgrown SUVs that proliferated in rural areas with primitive roads. It had taken her twenty minutes to get here from downtown Acker's Gap. She'd driven in a fog that had nothing to do with the weather.
Bell had only met the man a few minutes ago, but she was doing exactly as he instructed because the numbness, the shock, still had not worn off, and she needed to be told what to do. Every step. Step by step. Bell couldn't think. She could only react.
"Be careful," he said. He reached over to take her hand to steady her, but Bell didn't respond, keeping her arms at her sides. She wasn't rejecting his help; she simply wasn't aware of the offer.
It was unseasonably dry for early fall. Low-lying areas that normally would have been swampy were dusty, the dirt crusted over and cracking when stepped upon. Bell wove around a succession of thigh-high piles of rust-colored earth. The ground was rock-strewn and treacherously uneven and she stumbled, then stumbled again, then a third time, but she kept going. The members of the excavation team had immediately halted their work here three days ago, once the discovery was made, and now they waited at the perimeter, having drifted over from their new digging site when they heard Bell was coming. They leaned on shovels and rakes, watching quietly and respectfully but also with a kind of rabid curiosity. Bell had barely given them a glance, and registered only a vague blur of youth: Two dozen or so women and men in their twenties, wearing faded Levi's or cargo shorts, thick socks, hiking boots, T-shirts emblazoned with sarcastic commentary or slogans of environmental rectitude, bandanas, and baseball caps. The women had either very long or very short hair; there was no in-between. The men all seemed to have scraggly goatees.
"Here," the man said. He gestured toward a long, shallow hole. It was empty now.
She had known it would be empty; Sheriff Fogelsong had made that clear when he'd reached her at JP's on her cell. Yet Bell still had to come here. To see.
Fogelsong had explained things quickly. For the past month, an archeology class from Virginia Tech had been excavating sites in rural Raythune and Collier counties, hoping to find evidence of the Native Americans who had lived in the region in the early nineteenth century. Three days ago, they'd come across what appeared to be human remains. A forensics team had transported the bones back to the university lab. They'd quickly determined that the bones had been placed there far more recently—probably no more than twenty or thirty years ago. And then, as a matter of protocol, they'd done a DNA analysis and tested the results against the FBI's DNA database. To their surprise, Fogelsong told Bell, choosing his words carefully, the tests indicated that the bones belonged to a deceased person whose DNA was closely related to DNA already on file—that of a convicted felon named Shirley Abigail Dolan. Bell's sister. Given the approximate length of time that the bones had been in the ground, and given the close proximity of the match, there was a good chance that this was their mother, Teresa Dolan.
She had disappeared in 1976, when Bell was three years old and Shirley was nine. They had been raised—if that's what you could rightfully call a noxious combination of cruelty and indifference—by their father, Donnie Dolan, until the night when he turned his grotesque leer in Bell's direction and Shirley murdered him, an act that had sent her to prison for three decades. She was paroled a year and a half ago.
Dental records were being sought to nail down the identification, but the most plausible initial conclusion was that Teresa Dolan at last had been found.
"There's nothing to see out there," Fogelsong had told Bell a second time during his brief call. She hadn't spoken since he'd broken the news. "Heard from the principal investigator at the lab—that's what she called herself—and she promised to let us know once they get more information," he added. "But for now, Belfa, I'd recommend just sitting tight. I wanted to call and let you know—you've got a right to know, and I'll leave it to you to tell Shirley—but until they can confirm the results, there's really nothing for you to do or to see out at the site. Okay?"
"Like I said, there's really no point because right now there's nothing to—"
And then she'd hung up on the sheriff. It was not Bell's habit to hang up on anyone, much less a valued colleague and a cherished friend who had seen her through the roughest patches of her life, who had known her since she was ten years old and who had encouraged her to go to college and law school and who deserved a large share of the credit for her having carved out a decent life for herself after a horrific childhood.
But she had to go. She couldn't just sit in JP's and drink coffee. She had to be in motion. She had bolted out of the booth—she heard, from somewhere behind her, a startled Jackie asking, "Bell? Everything okay?," but she didn't hesitate—and slammed out the door and hurried down the block and flung herself in the Explorer, and she drove out to the area Fogelsong had named. She drove too hard, too fast.
And now here she was.
* * *
"Rick was the first one to realize there was something down there," the man said. He was considerably older than the bandana-clad students hovering at the periphery, and he was dressed in gray slacks, a lavender linen shirt, and a floppy white hat with a drawstring knotted under his chin. Bell had barely glanced at him during their walk over the rugged terrain, but now she had time for a more careful appraisal. Fogelsong had told her that the person in charge was Dr. Peter Burnside, the professor whose class was conducting the excavation work.
Burnside, tipped off by the sheriff, had met her at her vehicle and escorted her to the site. Fogelsong wasn't there. He had business on the other side of the county that he couldn't postpone.
"Rick called me over to take a look," the professor continued. "I told everyone to stop digging and back away. And then the forensics unit took over. We moved to another section."
Bell returned her gaze to the shallow indentation in the ground. She estimated it to be about five feet long and two feet wide, a cradle of reddish-brown dirt.
"Mrs. Elkins?" Burnside said. The silence had gone on too long for anyone's comfort.
Bell looked up. "Which one is Rick?"
"I'm Rick." A young man—thin, but with a visible strength to him and a sheen of sweat on his skin—stepped forward. He was holding a rake. From under the rim of his maroon ball cap, scruffy orangey-blond hair stuck out. The shade matched the patchy hair on his face. As he moved, the canteen hooked to his belt with a shiny new carabineer joggled against his lean hip. "Rick Drayton, ma'am. I'm a junior anthropology major."
He put out his hand. Bell ignored it.
"So, what were you doing? Tell me exactly," she said.
"Ma'am?" He was confused. He didn't know what she meant.
"When you found it," Bell said testily. "The remains. What were you doing? Digging? Raking? Walking? Texting? Skipping along and singing a show tune? What?"
The student looked at Burnside, who shrugged.
"Well, ma'am," Drayton said, still avoiding Bell's eyes, "we've divided up the sections we're excavating into a big grid. That's how we keep track. I was in charge of this section here and I—"
"What do you call it?"
"This section. The section where you found the body. What name did you give it?"
"Well, first off, it wasn't really a body, ma'am, it was more like some bones that looked like a bunch of sticks until I got closer and—"
"Whatever." Bell's voice was suffused with frustration and impatience. "Whatever," she repeated. "Just tell me what you called this section. The section where you found it."
Drayton looked once more at his professor. The young man was plainly afraid of saying the wrong thing, of pissing off this woman even more.
"Mrs. Elkins," Burnside said. He talked gently, slowly. "I think Rick is confused. He's not sure what you're asking him."
"Really," Bell snapped back. Not gently. Not slowly. "I thought I was pretty clear. I guess the intellectual requirements for college admission aren't what they used to be. Let me try again." Mockingly, she enunciated with exaggerated care: "I want to know what you called this section when you set up your goddamned grid."
Drayton, stung by her insult as well as her tone, glared at her. Fine. He wouldn't try anymore to be sensitive. "So we called it Fourteen-B. Okay? The grid lines are numbers and letters. Okay? Longitude and latitude. Okay? Everybody uploads the grid on their iPads and off we go. Then, when a section is finished, we mark that and then we reload the whole thing. Okay?"
Excerpted from A Haunting of the Bones by Julia Keller. Copyright © 2014 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.