Royce Dillard doesn't remember much about the day his parents - and one hundred and twenty-three other souls - died in the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster. He was only two years old when he was ripped from his mother's arms. But now, Dillard, who lives off the grid with only a passel of dogs for company, is fighting for his life one more time; he's on trial for murder.
Prosecutor Bell Elkins faces her toughest challenge yet in this haunting story of vengeance, greed, and the fierce struggle for social justice. Richly imagined, vividly written, and deeply felt, Julia Keller's Last Ragged Breath is set in West Virginia, but it really takes place in a land we all know: the country called home.
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Last Ragged Breath
By Julia Keller
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Julia Keller
All rights reserved.
Goldie was a six-year-old shepherd-retriever mix with a thick yellow coat that had inspired her name, a riotous tail, and chocolate-brown eyes that suggested profound depths of mysterious wisdom. At present that wisdom had coalesced into a conviction that something smelled mighty good — that is, powerful and unusual — somewhere along the slanting bank of Old Man's Creek. Wet black nose plowing a shallow trench across the rugged terrain, body balanced expertly to accommodate the steep grade, Goldie rammed forward along the upper brow of the creek bank, sniffing and quivering. The smell, as it intensified, became even more intoxicating. It was like a string pulling her along, winding itself tight on a bobbin at the other end. Everything else dropped out of Goldie's thoughts.
From behind her came the distant syllables of someone calling her name: "Goldie! Here, girl! Go-o-oldeee! Come on!"
She didn't hear it. Rather, she heard it, but the hearing part and the subsequent ignoring part constituted a single supple action that had nothing to do with volition, nothing to do with stubbornness or calculation. Goldie wasn't being disobedient. Goldie was being a dog.
"Go-o-o-ldee! Come on!"
She didn't even lift her head. She knew her name, and she had a definite affection for the man yelling it, but those two facts counted for nothing now. She was All Nose. Her nose was her destiny.
"Goldie, you ornery girl, you. Taking off like that. Leadin' me a merry chase. Never seen the like." The yell had subsided into a running grumble. Andy Stegner was getting closer, following the trail of mashed-down dirt and still-trembling branches that testified to Goldie's hasty journey past them.
He was, at the moment, sorely regretting the fact that he'd stopped to pick her up that morning. Goldie was turning out to be Trouble-with-a-capital-T. His neighbor, Royce Dillard, had seven dogs, including Goldie. That was down from the fifteen he'd had a year ago, which sounded like the aftermath of a massacre but was actually due to the fact that eight of the dogs were dreadfully sick when Royce first took them in, and it was only through Royce's kindly labors that they'd lasted as long as they did, and were granted, one by one, a serene, dignified death. Stegner couldn't keep a dog — his wife was allergic to the fur, her only fault as far as he was concerned — but he liked to have company when he checked his raccoon traps. Royce never minded lending one out for a morning's patrol.
Today, though, Goldie was climbing Andy's last nerve. The instant they ventured near the creek bank she'd taken off as if she had firecrackers tied to her tail. She seemed determined to ignore him. It wasn't like Goldie to act this way; she was a good dog. Something had gotten hold of her and wouldn't let her go, just as surely as Andy's traps captured skinny gray-black raccoons from October to February, the official trapping season allowed by state law.
Goldie plunged forward, whipping back and forth between the leafless trees. She crossed the dirt and the rocks and the low scrubby bushes and the scat and the sloughed-off hunks of bark and the burrs and the seed pods and the dead insects and the dented green Mountain Dew cans. All emitted excellent smells, smells that under normal circumstances would have caused her to pause and savor — but the smell drawing her forward asserted its dominance. It separated itself from the others. It was the King of Smells. It ratcheted up in deliciousness a few notches more, even after it seemed that it couldn't get any more wonderful.
Goldie was getting close.
"I mean it, you rascal! You get back here! Goldie, come on!"
He was wasting his breath. The dog had it in sight now, mired down there in the creek itself, a broad hump of brown. It was snagged between a rock and a batch of cattails that, wind-whipped and top-heavy, arched low over the greenish-silvery water like skeletal fingers reaching into a fingerbowl. Goldie's hearty bark startled two turkey vultures, newly returned from their winter journey south, in mid-feast. They rose quickly and corkscrewed away, broad wingspans catching the circular updraft of air currents. They would be back. They had infinite patience.
Goldie slid deliriously down the bank — not even trying anymore to maintain her balance, enjoying the free fall of four scrambling paws and a glorious sense of anticipation — and collided with the hump. The smell exploded in her nostrils. She uttered a brief yip of joy.
She was up to her belly in the frigid water, water that had recently made its late-winter pilgrimage down from the mountain to creeks like this one, and she was thrashing and nipping at the hump, trying to unravel the core source of its splendid stink. She didn't mind the cold one bit. She pulled at a section of the brown mass. There was a quick sound of ripping cloth as something came away in her teeth — but it tasted bland, and she spat it out, flapping her tongue to rid herself of the unimportant. A few brown threads dangled from her left incisor as she returned to the mysterious mound. She moved to the other side of it, parting the water with her wide golden chest, prodding the object repeatedly with her muzzle.
"There you are, you ornery dog, you!"
Andy looked down at her from the top of the bank, hands at his sides, breathing hard. The left sleeve of his denim jacket was torn and his ball cap had been knocked askew. Low-hanging branches had done the damage. A few years ago he might've been able to keep up with her when she broke loose that way, running a good half mile like a furry streak of lightning. But he was sixty-one years old now. And creaky as hell. Arthritis pinched at his joints as if somebody — a mean somebody — had taken a pair of pliers to them.
"Whadda you got there, Goldie?"
He descended the bank carefully, gingerly, heel-hard, keeping his body sideways so that he wouldn't go headlong if he stumbled, grabbing at the thin branches of spindly trees and then releasing them again after he'd descended further. Goldie had gone for the water at another angle, but he went this way because there seemed to be a bit of a path here already, two faint parallel lanes of pushed-down plants, a running indentation. Then a branch snapped back and whacked him in the face — Dang, he exclaimed — and he broke it off and kept going.
Down below, Goldie splashed around like a young pup. Her tail was going in wild, incessant circles. She was obsessed with whatever it was that slumped by the creek, half-in and half-out, nudging it with her nose, then backing off and barking. Her barks rang sharply in the frigid air of the mountain valley.
"What's got into you, girl?" Andy muttered as he neared the spot where the dog pranced and bounced and shimmied. Her glee was giving way to agitation. The strong smell was still pleasurable but also perplexing, and Goldie seemed eager for him to help her solve it.
Moving closer, he saw that the hump was covered by a big brown coat. He picked up a wrist-thick black branch at water's edge. Used it to poke at the object. A few more pokes would be required to dislodge the thing. He pushed at the far end and something broke off, swaying briefly until it spun onto its other side, like a bobbing beach ball. He leaned toward the broken-off piece, holding the stick in both hands now so that he could hook it. He drew it closer to the bank.
Goldie instantly backed off, setting up a hysterical barking. Andy felt his stomach drop. Rational thought fled from his mind. Vomit rose in his throat.
It was a human head. Andy was staring at the place where the face ought to be. He knew a face belonged there because of the gray ear-shaped objects on either side of the central cavity and because of the presence of matted hair at one end. At the other end was the ragged fringe of what Andy now realized was a severed neck. The soft chasm in the center — where you would expect to see eyes and nose and mouth — was scooped out, replaced by a wormy mess.
Goldie, sensing his shock, not sure what she ought to do about it, went from barking to a kind of eerie, sirenlike crooning, an ancient song of lament that was as mindlessly instinctive to her as was her earlier devotion to the voluptuous smell of death.CHAPTER 2
The Highway Haven truck stop occupied six and a half acres of asphalt at Exit 127 along the major route linking Acker's Gap, West Virginia, with points east and west. It was divided into two distinct halves, with six rows of pumps — two pumps per row — on either side. One side was marked TRUCKS ONLY. The other was designated ALL OTHER VEHICLES. On the trucks-only side, the lanes between the pumps were wider, allowing the drivers of the eighteen-wheelers to maneuver with relative ease as they lined up their famished vehicles for lengthy refills. The heavy odor of diesel fuel was like a truth you couldn't turn away from.
Belfa Elkins parked her Explorer in front of the glass-walled building, a combination snack bar, coffee shop, convenience store, video-game arcade, lavatory, and, for truckers, shower facility. The building divided the truckers' side from the other side. She had made the drive here from Acker's Gap in a surprisingly quick fifteen minutes, but knew better than to chalk it up to skill or even luck: There was always a lull between 5 and 6 A.M. on this stretch of interstate, and the clock on her dash told her it was just before 6. Later this morning the place would be packed, crammed with buglike compacts and massive RVs and only slightly less massive SUVs that had turned off the highway and swung hungrily toward the pumps, along with all the big rigs driven by the professionals, the men and the very few women who could handle an eighty-foot length of steel and chrome and momentum — a vehicle that weighed forty tons even before its load was factored in — with apparent ease. After fuel, the next most-desired items for travelers were bathrooms and food, and so most of the drivers of the regular vehicles, after they'd finished their business at the pumps, nosed their cars into parking spots in front of the store. If it were any later in the day, there would've been no open slots left; Bell would have been forced to use the spillover lot in the back.
She was an attractive woman with a slender build, medium-length wavy brown hair, and a quiet intensity in her gray eyes. Those eyes seemed to take in everything all at once, filing most of it away for later; there was nothing cursory or slack about her gaze, nothing casual. She was closer to forty-four years old than she was to forty-three, but she looked younger than that, owing in part to an edgy restlessness, a sort of spirited impatience, in her manner. She wore jeans, a taupe barn coat with a dark brown collar, and a blue cable-knit sweater. The thin strap of a black leather purse made a diagonal slash across the front of that sweater.
Just before she opened the double doors with the giant red H painted on each side of the glass, she glanced to her left. The last parking place on that side was occupied by a white Chrysler LeBaron. Nick's car. She felt a slight but definite pang. In years past, when she arrived at a crime scene and looked around for his vehicle, her eyes would search automatically for a black Chevy Blazer with an official Raythune County seal on both sides. This wasn't a crime scene, but she'd automatically had the old expectation. Since November, however, when Nick had handed over the Blazer keys to his successor, he had been driving his own car. He had decided not to stand for reelection. His deputy, Pam Harrison, had won easily.
She gave the car a quick going-over with her glance, same as she'd done the three previous times she'd come out here to see him. The Chrysler didn't suit him. Nothing suited him but the Blazer.
On the curb in front of his vehicle was a pert warning delivered in red stenciled letters: RESERVED N. F. He had his own spot. Unreasonably, that also bothered her; it gave his new job an aura of permanence, of finality. This wasn't some temporary gig — which she already knew, of course, but seeing it spelled out that way forced a firmer kind of knowing.
Nick Fogelsong worked here now, as head of security for the Highway Haven chain. He wasn't coming back to the courthouse.
She and Fogelsong had worked together for six years. She was the prosecutor; he was the sheriff. They had been friends since Bell was ten years old — he was one of the few people she allowed to call her by her given name, Belfa — but it was as colleagues, as professionals, that they had truly bonded. They had solved difficult cases. They had faced death together, more than once. They had sparred and argued. They had gone long days without speaking after especially intense quarrels over tactics or priorities or ethical issues — and then resealed their friendship over long chats while chain-drinking cups of black coffee at JP's, a diner in Acker's Gap. They'd run the justice system as best they could in this beautiful, beleaguered patch of West Virginia.
All of that was over now. In the fall, after his testimony at a trial that concluded one of their most challenging cases — the middle-of-the-night murders of two defenseless citizens, and other revelations that had shocked a town whose residents thought they were well beyond that kind of dark astonishment — Nick Fogelsong announced he was giving up the sheriff's post. He didn't notify Bell before he did it. He was afraid, he told her later, that she'd talk him out of it. And I would have, too, she'd snapped back at him. You bet your ass I would've done just that. She was still upset when she said it, still mourning the loss of him as her comrade.
She'd had an inkling he was losing his enthusiasm, losing his keen edge, losing his relish for the job — but who didn't, from time to time? Who didn't occasionally falter, wondering if it was all worth it? This was a place that would challenge anybody's optimism. It featured, after all, a steady cascade of falling-down shacks and crumbling roads and slow slides into alcoholism and drug addiction, along with red spikes of random violence. To believe in the future around here required a unique kind of fire. You needed your anger, an anger that initially had to be directed at the long line of public officials who, throughout the last century, had sold out the state and its uniquely bounteous natural resources to unscrupulous corporations. An anger that was creative instead of destructive. A vigorous, motivating anger. A righteous anger. Without it, you ran the risk of sinking down into the same sticky pit that had swallowed up the very people you were trying to help.
Fogelsong, though, had given up. That's how Bell saw it, anyway: He knew as well as she did how much was at stake around here, how much they were needed, and he'd put a Gone Fishin' sign on the front door of his life. He'd shed his sheriff's badge and his hope that things could ever change, and he'd walked away.
"Excuse me, ma'am."
Bell stepped aside, realizing that she was blocking the narrow sidewalk and thus impeding access to the store. Moving past her, a heavy man in a green plaid wool coat pulled at the ragged bill of his Peterbilt cap. "Ma'am," he repeated.
She followed him in. Rolling off his shoulders was the odor of nonstop tobacco use and truck-cab staleness, a sour, adhesive smell that seemed to be a distillation of everything she was feeling about the day that lay before her.
* * *
The store had few customers at this hour on a Saturday, but still felt crowded on account of all that it stocked: stairstepped wire racks of candy, mini doughnuts, gum, cookies, mints, nuts and sunflower seeds; bright rows of crackling bags of chips and pretzels and popcorn and two-liter plastic bottles of soft drinks; barrels filled with discounted DVDs of John Wayne movies and complete seasons of The Andy Griffith Show; waist-high freezers featuring ice-cream bars and Popsicles. On account of the snapped-in tubes of fluorescent lighting that hummed overhead there was a bright, sunrise feel to the place, an atmosphere bound to eventually surrender its taut freshness over the long course of the day but that had yet to begin that unraveling.
Excerpted from Last Ragged Breath by Julia Keller. Copyright © 2015 Julia Keller. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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