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A timely and penetrating mystery about the intersection of policing, racism, and the community—set in a city at its boiling point—from an author who’s been in the trenches and seen it all.
A senseless act of violence.
During a vigil calling for police reform, students from Spelman College, a historically black women’s institution, are assaulted by rifle fire from a passing vehicle. On her way to interview witnesses, Detective Sarah “Salt” Alt confronts the fleeing vehicle of the suspects, but they get away.
A city in turmoil.
While other detectives take the lead on the Spelman murders, Salt is tasked to investigate the case of a recently discovered decomposed body. When she combs through the missing-persons reports, it becomes clear the victim is a girl Salt took into custody two years before, and Salt feels a grave responsibility to learn the truth about how the girl died. But before she can pursue any leads, Salt is called onto emergency riot detail—in the wake of the assault on the Spelman students, Atlanta has reached the boiling point.
In a city burdened by history and a community erupting in pain and anger, Salt must delve into the past for answers. A gripping and astute story about what it means to serve and protect, Old Bones solidifies Trudy Nan Boyce as an evocative, authoritative voice in crime fiction.
About the Author
Trudy Nan Boyce received her Ph.D. in community counseling before becoming a police officer for the City of Atlanta. During her more-than-thirty-year career she served as a beat cop, homicide detective, senior hostage negotiator, and lieutenant. Boyce retired from the police department in 2008 and still lives in Atlanta. She was awarded both a Georgia Author of the Year Award and a Pinckley Prize for her debut, Out of the Blues.
Read an Excerpt
The call came at three minutes after midnight. Detective Sarah Alt's shift was over.
"Detective radio raising any Homicide Unit." Dispatch sounded out of breath.
"4132, go ahead," answered Detective "Cochise" Chatterjee, the midnights detective who'd just walked in the door of the Homicide office.
"Zone Five is requesting Homicide to respond to Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue, Woodruff Park, eleven people shot, one dead on the scene. Witnesses report that the victims are Spelman College students who were participating in the Take Back the Night vigil."
"Radio, copy. Show myself and 4137 en route," said Chatterjee, walking toward Huff's office.
Alt, known to most as Salt, stood up in her cubicle at the far end of the aisle. Wills, Gardner, and Felton stepped into the aisle as Sergeant Huff came out of his office, radio in hand. He nodded at Chatterjee, then responded to radio. "4110 to radio. Show myself and"-he looked down the aisle at the detectives who hadn't yet left for the night- "4125, 4120, 4144, 4133, and 4139 also en route."
As the familiar adrenaline rush began, Salt's scalp tightened around the scar barely visible at the top of her forehead; no longer tired from the previous eight hours, she lifted the long coat from the peg above her desk, the coat she'd just begun wearing as the weather turned colder.
Sergeant Huff and the detectives looked at one another, acknowledging the oncoming storm that an incident of this kind would generate, a high-profile case like this, a red ball: Spelman College was the historically black women's college in the heart of Atlanta; Woodruff Park at the intersection of Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue was the crossroads of Atlanta commerce and the cradle of the civil rights movement. The red ball was rolling.
"Fuck me!" Huff said, turning to get his coat. "Radio, notify Unit One."
The burning-oil smell inside the unmarked Taurus was worse with the windows up; she could taste the smell in the back of her throat. The coat, on the passenger seat beside her, once belonged to her father. She'd gone looking for it when she'd been promoted to detective last year. Detectives with the least seniority got the shit cars. At this time of night, traffic on five-lane, one-way, southbound Courtland was light. Sirens echoed off the downtown buildings, helicopter lights washed over the streets, and the Handie-Talkie on the car seat beside her crackled with units responding and arriving at the scene of the shooting. Huff had assigned her to report to the city hospital in order to interview the victims as they arrived, those conscious and able to talk.
Police reform had been the unifying message of the recent demonstrations and tonight's vigil. In silence they'd carried posters, blow-up pictures of injuries to local victims, an unsolved rape and a bungled domestic violence investigation, and photos of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. The students wore midnight-blue T-shirts. "No Justice, No Peace," was chanted mournfully rather than angrily.
Salt was a few blocks from the hospital ready to make the turn when an insistent dispatcher broke through the radio chatter. "Units in the vicinity of Peachtree and Memorial, a witness to the Woodruff Park incident reports that she is following the vehicle occupied by the shooter."
Salt picked up the handheld and turned the volume knob. "4133, en route," she responded. "Peachtree and Memorial. I'm two away." It was a straight shot and possible for her to intercept the perp vehicle. "Description, radio?"
"4133, be advised caller is in a silver-blue Jaguar, Georgia license BR 951. Suspect vehicle is a black Chevy Blazer." Dispatch's voice was hurried but firm.
"I'm southbound on Courtland, radio." She switched on the emergency lights and flipped on the siren, but both were weak and unconvincing; lights only in the back window, the siren sounded like a squawk.
"4133, caller reports they are now eastbound on Memorial."
"Damn," Salt said, slowing and burping the siren through a red light. "Copy, radio, eastbound." She stepped on the gas hard, eased off when she got to Memorial. Holding the wheel tight, she took a hard left, then accelerated out of it. At the top of the hill at Capitol and Memorial she saw the Jag a quarter of a mile in front of her and two lights farther the black Blazer. "Radio, I have a visual." She barely slowed through another red light gaining on the target vehicles.
"4110 to 4133, hold your distance. Do not approach. Radio, advise the witness to back off," Huff ordered.
"Beat cars are en route. The zone has been notified," radio reported.
"Radio, I'm at Hill Street." Salt was one light behind the Blazer as the Jag pulled off.
"4110 to 33, back off. Hold your distance. Repeat. Do not approach. Zone units will make the stop." Huff was loud.
"Copy," Salt said as the Blazer, one block ahead, turned right on Cherokee. "They're southbound on Cherokee," she reported, taking the turn.
The Blazer, idling, exhaust clouding the air, had stopped in the middle of the street ten yards in front of her. Sirens sounded in the distance, closing. A rifle extended from the passenger-side window. "Radio . . ." Her windshield shattered, glass spraying inward as she ducked. A tire blew, sending the Taurus across the sidewalk and into a low brick wall. The gunfire ceased, replaced by the sound of squealing tires.
It was the smell of Homicide tripled, pungent. More detectives, body odor, overripe clothes: morning-watch detectives held over, day watch just in waiting for assignments, and Salt and the rest of evening watch dragging butt after being up all night after the shooting and chase. The coffeepot and microwave going all night; the smell of burnt grounds and popcorn permeated the air.
Huff, wearing the same clothes he had worn the night before, came out of his office pulling on his "good" jacket, a nubby brown number, over a straining Harley belt buckle. Walking through the aisle of detectives on his way out, he said, "I've been ordered to the fucking press conference upstairs."
Rosie was at Salt's desk as soon as Huff left. The six-three transgender cop, a former uniformed officer, placed a large hand on the back of Salt's head. "Anything hurting? Sometimes whiplash doesn't show up until later."
"Sore knee, not anything much. That's about it. Aikido helps. You on your way to the break room?" She and Rosie joined the others as they pulled molded plastic tables and chairs around the TV in the crowded, too-bright room. On the screen a reporter for a national news station was saying, "Press conference about to begin . . ." The mayor, the chief, the deputy chief, two majors, three sergeants-including Huff-Detective Chatterjee, and representatives from the FBI filled the area in front of and below the city's phoenix-rising seal. Community leaders and prominent civil rights figures stood in front of the officials.
The mayor stepped up to the podium. "Not since the Atlanta Child Murders in the late seventies has Atlanta experienced this degree of horror and . . ."
Detectives, some dead on their feet, dragged chairs close enough to the TV in order to hear and gauge the amount of pressure the case would generate.
The FBI assistant special agent in charge was mercifully brief. "The attorney general has asked me to . . . contribute whatever resources . . ."
Eyes rolled all over the break room. "Yeah, they'll be more busy tryin' to squirrel our informants," said a day-watch veteran.
A senior civil rights leader took the podium and began an homage to the movement interspersed with demands that suspects be quickly identified and brought to justice.
"I think I heard him make that same speech in the seventies," said Marshall Daniels from Salt's crew. He and Steve Barney, both prone to antics, had been partners for so long they were known as the Wild Things, One and Two. Street smart and good investigators, they were not great with the paperwork, but they solved cases.
The chief was at the mic for Q and A. First question from the reporters: "Is the officer who chased the suspects here?" The chief turned to the major, who turned to Huff, who shook his head. "She's not available right now."
The break room audience turned to Salt, who smiled tightly and waved like a prom queen.
"Why were no other officers able to assist with apprehending the suspects?" was the next question.
"I've been informed that the chase developed so quickly that no other cars were able to arrive before the suspects fired on Detective Salt . . . Alt. The first officer to arrive attended to Detective Alt to determine the extent of her injuries. Two other beat cars arrived within two minutes and began searching the area. Be-On-the-Lookouts were immediately broadcast to all zones and other jurisdictions. Unfortunately that location is close to both the east/west and the north/south interstates and the suspects were not located."
"Was the detective injured? Why didn't she return fire?" another reporter shouted.
"Yeah, Salt, where was your Wonder Woman bullet deflector?" shouted Barney from across the break room.
Another voice from the press: "Can you give us the name of the witness? Will the witness be able to identify the suspects? What about a license tag number?"
"The investigation is ongoing. The witness will not be identified for safety reasons. The witness saw the shots coming from the truck and followed them while trying to call 911. The witness was not able to obtain a tag number because it was obscured."
"Mud, dirt, we don't know."
"Are the suspects white? Did race play a role in Detective Alt's decision not to return fire?"
The Public Affairs officer stepped up to end the press conference: ". . . providing daily updates . . ."
A Cold Day
As Salt pulled next to the curb behind the patrol car, its blue lights flashing, she was already composing the report in her head: Intermittent clouds, temperature in the mid-forties. Low-income residential neighborhood. Tightening the belt on her coat and securing her fedora in the rearview mirror, she saw Felton's Taurus pulling up behind her.
The two of them stood looking down at the yellow tape wavering from a bank of brown waist-high blackberry brambles midfield. Felton's presence on crime scenes was welcome by most cops and by every Homicide detective; he had a one hundred percent clear-up rate on his cases. He was one of the few out gay detectives on the PD, and for that reason, it was assumed, he had not been offered a partner. Truth was he'd declined all offers for partnering. Lately he'd been assisting Salt, helping to process her scenes and talking her through cases.
"This sucks," he said. "We've got our hands full." He pulled down the black fedora he always wore. Atlanta Homicide was known as the Hat Squad for the fedoras they earned once they solved their first case.
"People will still get murdered. Somebody has to work the new cases; they didn't ask me to be on the task force."
"That makes no sense. You saw the perps. Did you go home at all last night?" he asked.
Silently they began walking single file down a narrow footpath worn through the weedy, vacant urban lot. "I napped at Wills' house for an hour," she said. Briars caught at their pant legs and brown-seed tagalongs attached themselves to their clothes from the knee down.
"You gave us a scare, you know?"
"Bit of a shock to me, too, when I took the turn and there they were."
Salt shrugged. She and Wills had been lovers for close to two years. They'd met over dead bodies while Salt was still in patrol and he was already a veteran Homicide detective.
"He's still shaken, I take it?"
The low four o'clock winter sun shone on the tips of the taller grasses and just barely lit the top of the bank, underneath which the body lay. The rest of the field and surrounding crumbling neighborhood was cast into lavenders and mauves. They stopped five yards from where a uniformed officer stood protecting the crime scene. "Officer Greenberg," the young woman officer introduced herself and semi-saluted as they approached. "I was chasing a perp from that code 19." She pointed to a car, exhaust billowing, driver's-side door open, idling in front of the patrol car on the street above. "I lost sight of him on the other side." She nodded to the opposite street. "So coming back through here, breathing heavy-I guess the smell caught my attention-I looked and saw a bit of pink, her shirt, then the skull here." She lifted a long, thorny stem.
The overly sweet smell had lost most of the cloying heaviness of the newly decomposed. Instead there was just enough of an organic lump in the air around the bones to halt one's breath. The officer called the remains "her." Salt wouldn't assume a gender but noted the small shirt grayed by weather and dirt holding a rib cage, bones outlined beneath the fabric, in spots its original pink slightly visible. "I got it." Salt nodded. Officer Greenberg stepped back. Clumps of matted hair were entwined with dried foliage beneath the mostly denuded facial and cranial bones. Bits of connective tissue had loosened their hold, causing the left arm and hand to lie separated some two feet beyond where they originally came to rest. Denim shorts covered the small pelvis.
The day suddenly darkened. A low, gray cloud overcame what was left of the sun and lowered the "feels like" by ten degrees. Felton slipped an actual pocket watch from his vest.
"How gay." Salt winked at him.
"If you're happy and you know it . . ." he sang and hummed. "We've got at best an hour or so before we won't be able to see anything. I'll notify the ME. Techs are on the way." He started back up to the street, his attention on his mobile phone.
"Meanwhile . . ." Salt bent over, parting the brambles and weeds, and drew close to the remains. Just then the rain began, splattering drops that sounded full and fat as they landed on Salt's shoulders and the brim of her hat. She lifted out of her crouch, told Greenberg she could stand by in the patrol car, then bent back to the victim. Rain began to form in little streams on either side of the skull, beside one wrist joint, and below the pelvis. As water gathered, a bit of hair further separated from the matted mess under the head. Salt tucked her notepad in an inside pocket and stood. Entwined among the thorny vines and briars was a pokeberry bush, its gray stalks no longer lively summer crimson, but it still held dried berry clusters, a few tiny withered fruits just above the skull.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Detective Sarah Alt (“Salt”) returns in this novel that combines the best aspects of a police procedural with the richly-developed characters of a literary novel. The author is a former Atlanta police officer, and it shows – in her knowledge of police work (the positives as well as the negatives, which are usually political), in the hard-edged compassion of “Salt” and her fellow officers, and in her use of the city of Atlanta as a character in its own right. I enjoyed “Old Bones” even more than I did the first novel, “Out of the Blues,” and I have a feeling the next novel in the series will be even better.
Old Bones by Trudy Nan Boyce is a challenging and entertaining police procedural taking place in a riot torn Atlanta that resembles today's occurrences. We follow Detective Sarah Alt a.k.a. Salt as she tries to clear a number of murder cases most notably the death of an under aged stripper as well as the death of a college student who was participating in a Take Back The Night rally. What I liked about this novel was the historical perspective of the deep South. Even though Atlanta is considered "the new south”, this book still reminds the reader that we have a long way to go before there is racial equality. Detective Salt is a complex character who is battling her own demons both race related as well as typical cop concerns. Old Bones is a book that I would recommend not only for its entertainment value but for its ability to make the reader examine his or her own believes about policing, criminals, race relations and how the three are intertwined.