In the next stunning novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning Julia Keller, following the popular A Killing in the Hills, a pregnant teenager is found murdered at the bottom of a river.
Phone calls before dawn are never good news. And when you're the county's prosecuting attorney, calls from the sheriff are rarely good news, either. So when Bell Elkins picks up the phone she already knows she won't like what she's about to hear, but she's still not prepared for this: 16-year-old Lucinda Trimble's body has been found at the bottom of Bitter River. And Lucinda didn't drown—she was dead before her body ever hit the water.
With a case like that, Bell knows the coming weeks are going to be tough. But that's not all Bell is coping with these days. Her daughter is now living with Bell's ex-husband, hours away. Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, one of Bell's closest friends, is behaving oddly. Furthermore, a face from her past has resurfaced for reasons Bell can't quite figure. Searching for the truth, both behind Lucinda's murder and behind her own complicated relationships, will lead Bell down a path that might put her very life at risk.
In Bitter River, Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Keller once again weaves a compelling, haunting mystery against the stark beauty and extreme poverty of a small West Virginia mountain town.
About the Author
JULIA KELLER spent twelve years as a reporter and editor for the Chicago Tribune, where she won a Pulitzer Prize. A recipient of a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, she was born in West Virginia and lives in Chicago and Ohio. Bitter River is her second adult novel.
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 © 2013 Julia Keller
All rights reserved.
Three people stood on the south bank of the Bitter River. Two of them, a petite woman and a stocky man, had stationed themselves near the water but the third, an older and even bigger man in a long black overcoat and a brown flat-brimmed sheriff's hat, was positioned halfway up the steep slope, a spot that granted him a more generous perspective. All three looked anxious, uncomfortable, as if they weren't quite certain what to do or how to be. Motion was their preferred state, action was how they defined themselves, and this interval — this standing and waiting — was unusual. It made them feel clumsy, pointless. Their arms flared out slightly from the sides of their bodies, hands retracted into fists that they held next to their thighs. Each wore a pair of dusty black boots. Their feet were spread a little wider apart than normal, to help them keep their balance on the riverbank.
It was a cold, dry Thursday morning in early March. The occasional cloud sliding by was difficult to distinguish from the sky surrounding it; both were flat and gray and featureless. Here on the ground, though, there was a sharp-edged clarity to things, as if the shapes had been carefully traced and then cut out with a new pair of scissors and arranged for maximum dramatic effect.
The call had come in just after sunrise, when a passerby spotted what would prove to be the roof of a car in the river. As she moved closer, the caller said, she had noticed the rhyming ruts leading to the water's edge. It wasn't unusual to glimpse junk dumped in the river — tires, old washing machines, and beer cans led all categories — but when the object was big, as big, possibly, as a car, people liked to have the law check it out. The investigation had been delayed until Leroy Perkins could get here with his rig.
Right now, Leroy was up to his biceps in the greenish-black water, cursing in a low continuous mutter — his mutter seemed to mimic the river's steady rustle — as he tried to attach the big rusty hook under any part of the car. The hook bounced and joggled at the end of a greasy black cable. The cable stretched its way to a winch on Leroy's truck, which he had backed down the riverbank as far as he could safely go. The truck was pale blue and on the driver's-side door, in flaking white letters, were painted the words LP TOWING HAULING & SALVAGE, and on the next line ACKER'S GAP WV.
The river wasn't forbiddingly deep here. The current was more of a frisky scallop than the thunderous wallop that would come later, after the water had twisted around the mountain and picked up speed on its way to the mighty Ohio. There was no real danger. But retrieving the vehicle was proving to be a tedious and cumbersome task, and Leroy was ticked off.
"Damnation," he sputtered. He was a big-nosed, medium-sized man, compact and balding, with a horseshoe of curly gray hair that looked as if it had been perched on his ears like a commemorative wreath. His denim coveralls were permanently stained with grease and muck, and his thigh-high rubber wading boots — not currently visible, submerged as they were beneath the viscous liquid constituting the Bitter River — were dark green, with a thin line of yellow piping around the tops.
"Damnation," he repeated, grabbing at the hook, having missed the back bumper yet again. He had meaty, callused hands that clearly had done this sort of thing many times before. "I'm tellin' you, Nick," he complained, "this ain't as easy as it looks."
Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, the big man in the long black coat standing higher on the riverbank, nodded. "I hear you, Leroy," he said.
Greg Greenough, one of the two deputies, turned and looked up at the sheriff. His expression spoke for itself:Maybe give him a hand?
Fogelsong shook his head. No. Leroy was the professional. The sheriff didn't want his personnel interfering. One slip of that winch, one errant swing of that big hook, and Deputy Greenough's head would open up like a melon dropped on a sidewalk. The sheriff had seen it happen before. Twenty years ago, as a young deputy loaned out temporarily to another county, Fogelsong had investigated a felonious assault allegedly perpetrated on a coal barge, and while he was ambling around the deck, kicking at coils of rope and kneeling down to run a thumb across motley stains on the pitted wood, he watched a six-year-old kid — the son of the barge owner — get his scalp ripped off when he blundered into the path of a swinging hook. Everybody was sorry, everybody felt terrible about it, but those torrents of emotion and regret couldn't bring back Chauncey Simms, who had bled out in minutes, his small body twitching on the deck like a caught fish.
That was the kid's name. The sheriff hadn't realized until now that he still remembered the name, all these years later. Seeing the big hook had jarred it loose from his memory.
He wondered what the boy's father had done with his grief and his guilt — and his love for his boy. Where had he put them? Had he carted them around with him, all these years, like extra cargo on the barge? Or had he been able to unload them somewhere along the way?
"Hold up, hold up," Leroy called out. Groping under the water, he'd come to the open window on the driver's side, and that was when his probing fingers had encountered something. Something that didn't feel like part of a car.
Fogelsong shoved his memories aside and bucked forward, almost toppling on the sharp-angled bank; he'd momentarily forgotten where he was. He righted himself and kept going. Greenough and the other deputy, Pam Harrison, let him pass and enter the water first, then followed right behind.
"Just a sec," Leroy said. "Lemme get this out of the way," he added, meaning the big hook. He backpedaled, securing the hook between his hands for safekeeping, and gave the sheriff a clear lane to that side of the car.
"Shoulda brought your hip waders," Leroy lectured amiably, watching the water fill in around Fogelsong's churning knees and then his hips and his waist and his chest as the sheriff moved forward, his big black coat spreading out around him like a water lily.
Fogelsong didn't answer. He was reaching under the river's surface, feeling for whatever had caught Leroy's attention. He couldn't see his own hands — the water was alarmingly cold and dark, the start of the massive spring runoff from the mountains — and he was aware of the spongy river bottom below, sucking at his boots.
He located the window frame. Let his fingers inch hurriedly around the curve, like a blind man trying to read a face. He reached in.
And then he found it. He waited a second or so, to let the human being part of him register the shock before the sheriff part of him — the professional part — kicked in.
Instantly, he knew what it was.
And he wished like hell that he had access to something more profound in his inventory of verbal responses. A poem, maybe. Or a line from a hymn. Something dignified. Something commensurate with the enormity of what he'd now be forced to reckon with.
As it was, he said the first word that came to mind.
Bell Elkins grimaced. She was still a good eighty-five miles from Acker's Gap, and she'd made the mistake of stopping for coffee at a place she didn't know. She'd slammed down the liquid and now it burned and it roiled, punishing her stomach.
Might as well have scraped up some road tar and mixed it with a little hot water, Bell thought. Same difference.
Hell of it was, she knew better. All coffee was not created equal.
She crushed the empty cardboard cup and flipped it over her shoulder without looking. It landed on the backseat of the Explorer, joining the newspapers, file folders, and briefcase that she'd slung there yesterday afternoon when she left Acker's Gap in a hurry, and it rode the rest of the way snagged in a crinkly nest of Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie wrappers.
She'd needed the caffeine. Desperately. Leaving a motel on the outskirts of Alexandria, Virginia, at 4 A.M. made sense if you wanted to get home before the start of the business day, but after the first hour or so on the road, Bell's focus had begun to drift and blur. The cockpit of her vehicle quickly succumbed to the stale, sullen, boxed-in feel of the predawn road trip, a taint that not even the abrupt rolling-down of all four windows in succession could eliminate, so she'd rolled them right back up again, flicking her finger restlessly on the buttons that controlled the motion. Her head throbbed. Her eyes were clouding over. If she didn't have some coffee soon, she knew, she'd be getting intimate with one of the chunky gray coal trucks thumping along in the opposite direction, the kind that bumped and quivered over these roads, taking the dirty treasure of West Virginia away from its birthplace, load by lurching load.
So she'd stopped. The place was called Lively's Market, and the sign said it sold gas, cold beer, live bait, and hunting and fishing licenses. Bell hoped that list might include coffee, too.
It did. With the jerk of a dirty thumb, the woman behind the front counter — slit-eyed, sallow-faced, wide-hipped, and big-stomached, with badly dyed hair and a misshapen nose that suggested a savage accident and so-so repair job — indicated a cloudy coffeepot and a short stack of dusty cardboard cups in the far corner. Bell helped herself, forked over a dollar and a quarter, and left.
Back on the road, she'd taken a hasty gulp. Instinct told her to spit it right back into the cup, but she was on a narrow section of the highway, hemmed in on three sides by coal trucks, and she couldn't take her attention away from the windshield. So she swallowed. And then, because the degree of her fatigue had started to worry her even more, she took another drink and swallowed that, too, and another, until she'd finished the whole damned thing.
Wicked, wicked stuff.
Bell's impulse — impractical, but delicious to contemplate — was to whip the Explorer right back around again and flame down the road and march into Lively's Market and demand her money back, while hollering at the woman about all the laws that prohibit the mixing of old motor oil, battery acid, and cleaning fluid and selling it as coffee.
She would've done so, too, if she'd been able to spare the time.
Bell Elkins had a temper. She could be calm and reasonable, but she also had a razor-edged aggressiveness that could leap out at any moment, like a box with a booby-trapped lid, the kind that could open fifty times without incident but on the fifty-first, might explode right in your face. She had a good excuse for that — her childhood had been a rough one, and fierceness was required for survival — but the fact that it was justified didn't make it any easier to live with. Not for the people around her, and not for herself, either. The anger thing. That's what her ex-husband called it, giving it its own category years ago, for handy reference in future disputes. Gotta get that anger thing under control, Belfa. Gonna get you in real trouble one of these days.
Yeah, well. She'd managed to deal with it so far. Hell with him, anyway.
She would turn forty in less than a month. Her shoulder-length hair, which looked brown in some lights and faintly red in others, still didn't have any gray invading the temples or edging the left-side part. But Bell knew it was coming. She had counted the lines she'd been seeing around her eyes for the past few months, lines that winked in and out of sight, depending on her expression, on the severity of a grin or a grimace. Tick tock, Bell always thought when she noted the total. Tick tock.
What bothered her wasn't just the fact that she was getting older. Hell, who wasn't? What bothered her was the fact that she was getting older in Acker's Gap, West Virginia, where time seemed to keep a different rhythm than it did anywhere else, like a counting system tied to something other than base ten. Time moved slower, but people aged faster. Which made no sense, but there you were. This place, her daughter, Carla, had once said, shivering with disdain, is where time goes to die. Bell had given her resistance on that point, had made a show of arguing back, but she knew what Carla meant: If time didn't exactly perish in Acker's Gap, it surely slowed down so much that it seemed to be playing dead. And yet, in the way-too-well-lit mirror in the small bathroom in the Hampton Inn that morning, Bell had discovered a new line on her face. Deep-set, already. Damn.
The driver of a coal truck going in the opposite direction honked at her, a long, sustained complaint. Her left front tire had drifted over the center line. Just a little bit, but a little bit was all it took to initiate disaster in these parts. Bell yanked the wheel.
"Screw you, buddy," she muttered at the now-long-gone truck driver, which was really just a gruff thanks for reminding her to focus.
She needed to be more careful. The mind-drift, she knew, had gotten to be a habit. Sometimes a dangerous one. It happened even when she wasn't wildly sleep deprived. Since late last fall, whenever she drove anywhere — down the street or through the county or across the state — she perpetually scanned both sides of the road. Just a quick, tidy sweep of a glance, up and down, over and back, every now and then. But it was enough to distract her momentarily.
She was looking for her sister.
Come on, Bell scolded herself, not for the first time. Don't be a dumb-ass. There was no chance — surely less than a 1 percent chance, if you wanted to get all statistical about it — that she'd actually find her sister here, along this particular stretch of highway. I mean, Bell went on scornfully, her thoughts as black and bitter as the coffee she'd just downed against her better judgment, how would that work, exactly?
How many wild coincidences would have to line up just so, in order to create a situation in which Shirley Dolan suddenly would happen to be walking along the very road down which her little sister, Belfa, happened to be driving? At precisely this moment in time?
You really are a dumb-ass.
Still, she looked. On casual drives, on work-related trips, no matter where she was or how many other things were on her mind, she always looked. She'd been looking since last November, when Shirley was paroled after almost thirty years in prison and, instead of waiting for Bell to pick her up on the day of her release, instead of starting a new life with Bell's help, had disappeared. She'd left Lakin Correctional Center an hour before Bell arrived to take her home with her.
Naturally, Bell had checked with Shirley's parole officer, and he was maddeningly — but lawfully — curt: I can give her your phone number, Mrs. Elkins, he'd said, and I can deliver a message, but I can't divulge her whereabouts. It's policy.
So Bell looked. Knowing the odds were ridiculous, absurd, she looked. It was a habit now. She looked in Raythune County, and she looked in Washington, D.C., and she looked in all points in between. She'd even let her eyes do a quick frisk of Lively's Market that morning, wondering what the hell she would've done if — probabilities be damned — she'd spotted a thin woman with a worn face and grit-gray hair standing near the stack of cardboard cups, hunched, furtive, watching the world out of eyes that were the color of Bell's eyes but different, too, so very different, because they had seen things Bell didn't know about and couldn't imagine.
Or could imagine, but didn't choose to.
Her cell phone, wedged in the crease of the seat beside her, suddenly came alive and played a jaunty little tune. Carla had rigged the new ringtone, canceling the standard one and selecting the ubiquitous jazz riff. Now you're cool, Mom, Carla said. The four of them — Bell, Carla, Sam, and Sam's girlfriend — had been sitting in the restaurant in Georgetown last night, waiting for Sam's friend to show up. Bell's reply — So that's all it took? — as she slid the phone back in her purse had made her daughter and her ex-husband laugh.
Bell retrieved it without taking her eyes off the road.
It was Sheriff Fogelsong. He knew about her trip to D.C. to have dinner with Carla. Since Christmas, Carla had lived there with Sam.
Excerpted from Bitter River by Julia Keller. Copyright © 2013 Julia Keller. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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