In 1944, three young men from a small town in West Virginia are among the American forces participating in D-Day, changing the fortunes of the war with one bold stroke. How is that moment aboard a Navy ship as it barrels toward the Normandy shore related to the death of an old man in an Appalachian nursing home seventy-two years later?
In Sorrow Road, the latest mystery from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Julia Keller, two stories—one set in the turbulent era of World War II and one in the present day—are woven together to create a piercingly poignant tale of memory and family, of love and murder.
Bell Elkins, prosecuting attorney in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, is asked by an old acquaintance to look into the death of her beloved father in an Alzheimer’s care facility. Did he die of natural causes—or was something more sinister to blame? And that’s not the only issue with which Bell is grappling: Her daughter Carla has moved back home. But something’s not right. Carla is desperately hiding a secret.
Once again, past and present, good and evil, and revenge and forgiveness clash in a riveting story set in the shattered landscape of Acker’s Gap, where the skies can seem dark even at high noon, and the mountains lean close to hear the whispered lament of the people trapped in their shadow.
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.
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By Julia Keller
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Julia Keller
All rights reserved.
Darlene Strayer nodded. "Copy that," she said. "So what's second?"
"And third? Fourth? Fifth?"
"Drugs. Drugs. And drugs."
"I'm sensing a pattern here." Darlene offered a brief, tight smile. She picked up her shot glass and moved it around in a small level circle, making the river-brown liquid wink and shiver. The whiskey did not slosh; it trembled. Barely.
Darlene had no intention of finishing her drink. Bell Elkins was sure of it. She had used the technique herself on occasion. Order a drink — because not ordering one is too conspicuous, especially when your invitation had been casual but specific. Hey, want to meet for a drink? Take one tiny sip. No more. You needed to keep a clear head. Use the glass as a prop, as a thing to do with your fingers, to stop those fingers from fidgeting. Lift the glass, tilt it, let the liquid move. Lower the glass. Pretend to be just about to take a second sip. But somehow, you never do.
This little get-together, Bell had recognized right away, had nothing to do with alcohol. Or with friendship — the friendship between them was nonexistent. And it certainly had nothing to do with a desire to spend time in the Tie Yard Tavern in Blythesburg, West Virginia, a tattered, ramshackle bar as overstuffed as a sausage casing on this Saturday night in February, filled with too many people, too much bad country music, too much loud talk, and too many peanut shells on the painted concrete floor. Annoyingly, you crunched with every step.
So what was the actual purpose of this rendezvous, which had come about as the result of Darlene's phone call two days ago?
Bell had no idea. She was letting Darlene run things. It was her show. Her choice of venue. Bell had indulged her opening question — What's the number one problem that county prosecutors face in the state today? — even though they both knew what the answer would be.
It was always the same. Prescription drug abuse and its following swarm of illegal activities had upended life in the hills of Appalachia, turning ordinary people into addicts, and addicts into criminals. Unlike meth, unlike heroin or cocaine or Molly or all the other sexy-sounding, forbidden substances that people pictured when they heard the word "drugs," pain pills had ushered in their very own, very special version of hell.
"Asked you the same thing the last time we talked," Darlene said. "Four years ago, remember? You gave me the same answer."
"Things stay pretty consistent around here." Bell raised her own glass. "Consistently hopeless." She smiled as if she was making a joke, which they both knew was not the case. Then she set the glass back down again, also without drinking from it. The liquid in her glass was clear: Tanqueray and tonic. The darker pond in Darlene's was Wild Turkey. But the differences between these two women went far beyond their choice of drinks they weren't drinking.
Bell and Darlene had been classmates at Georgetown Law. During the subsequent two decades, Darlene became a federal prosecutor based in Northern Virginia, and had handled, over the years, the kinds of major criminal cases that landed her unsmiling, this is business face in photographs on the front page of The New York Times alongside the equally grim mugs of the attorney general and the FBI director. Bell was the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, West Virginia. The closest she had ever gotten to the front page of the Times was when she managed to dig up a copy in rural West Virginia and read it over breakfast.
Oddly, as Bell found herself musing now and again over the years, anyone who had known them back in law school would have expected each woman to live the other one's life. Both had grown up poor in rural areas — Bell right here in Raythune County, Darlene in Barr County — and yet it was Belfa Elkins who had seemed destined for a glittering career in a big city, surrounded by tall buildings and knotted traffic and a magisterial sense of importance, while Darlene Strayer was the misfit, the shy, slightly awkward and even somewhat gauche girl who was never able to shed the small-town veneer of earnestness and yearning. Her clothes were never quite right; her hairstyle was always a few years out of date. She had talked endlessly about returning to her hometown and using her law degree to help the people there escape the poverty and hopelessness that engulfed them.
Dang. Just look at us now, Bell thought, glancing across the battered wooden booth at the woman who, once again, had lifted her glass in order to not drink out of it.
Darlene was the one in the cool black suit. The one who owned the elegant Massachusetts Avenue town house along Embassy Row and the Sanibel Island condo. The one whose life was as smooth as a fitted sheet.
Bell was the one in the jeans and turtleneck sweater. The one who lived in Acker's Gap, West Virginia, in a crumbling stone house built more than a century and a half ago. The one whose life was as rumpled as that same sheet, after a passel of rowdy kids has used the bed as a trampoline.
It was as if, late at night just after graduation from Georgetown, they'd met in some secret location and agreed to swap ambitions. And lives.
"I suppose I thought things had improved a little bit," Darlene said.
"Really. That's what you thought." Bell did not even try to keep the skepticism out of her tone. Darlene, she knew, had access to more and better crime statistics than any county prosecutor could ever hope to obtain. Those stats were grim and getting grimmer by the minute.
"Well, maybe it's what I hoped," Darlene said. "Let's put it that way." She started to bend two fingers around the glass one more time, preparatory to another pointless lift. But Bell had had enough. She reached across the table and stopped her hand.
"Hey," Bell said. "Let's cut the small talk, okay? You're busy. I'm busy. You drove a long way in some pretty lousy weather to get here tonight. So come on — why am I here? What do you really want?"
"Fine." Darlene slipped her fingers out from under Bell's grip. They did not like each other. They never had. They were cordial, but just. Two social encounters in twenty years — one in D.C. four years ago, at a class reunion, and now this — strained the outermost limits of each woman's politeness allocation.
"Truth is," Darlene went on, "I need your help."
"Forgive me, but I'm trying to imagine how a federal prosecutor who routinely takes on special assignments from the attorney general of the United States could possibly need any assistance from a small-town DA in West Virginia."
"I'm not a federal prosecutor anymore. I resigned last month."
"I'm taking a little time off, and then I'll be heading the litigation department of a D.C. law firm." Darlene told her the name of the firm, but she didn't have to; it was exactly the sort of practice that Bell would have expected her to join. It rivaled the snooty splendor and cool exclusivity of the law firm at which Bell's ex-husband was a partner. Darlene and Sam Elkins would be like bought-and-paid-for bookends: two very talented attorneys who spent their time massaging the egos of millionaires.
It was not Bell's idea of personal satisfaction, but it didn't have to be. Free country, she reminded herself. To each her own.
Bell waited for Darlene to say more. When she did not, Bell began to speak.
"Listen, I've got to wind this up pretty soon because —"
"Jesus, Bell. Give me a minute, okay? Just hold on." An exasperated Darlene shook her head. Her soft dark hair was cut so stylishly short — it looked like a velvet bathing cap, Bell had thought when she'd first spotted her across the crowded expanse of the Tie Yard Tavern — that not a strand moved. "Jesus," Darlene repeated.
She took a brief sip of her drink. She coughed. She shook her head. Her shoulders rose and fell. She seemed to be recalibrating herself. "Look, Bell. This is about my father. Harmon Strayer." She coughed again. Bell was surprised, but remained silent. Whatever it was that her former classmate needed to say to her, she would say it when she was good and ready.
In the back of Bell's mind there stirred a vague recollection of a story she had been told a few years ago by another Georgetown alum. A story about Darlene Strayer's father, a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, and the long, lightless road to nowhere that the disease brought about.
"He died last week," Darlene finally said. "He was almost ninety."
"Sorry to hear that. Always hard to lose a family member."
"Yeah. It was rough toward the end. Hell — it was rough all the way through. He was living in Thornapple Terrace. Do you know it? An Alzheimer's care place over in Muth County. Pretty close to his home — although why that even mattered, I don't know, because he didn't have a friggin' clue where he was. He'd been there about three years. Ever since it opened."
"I think I've heard of it." Bell was being polite. The name meant nothing to her. That was not surprising. New elder care facilities seemed to pop up monthly; an aging population riddled with end-of-life issues such as Alzheimer's made such places the only growth area around here. Bell couldn't keep track of them all. Typically they were christened with names like Sunnyside and Brooksdale and Willow Walk and Friendship Bay — happy, soothing, cheerful names. Names that tried to gloss over the reality of what went on past the pleasant lobby and the carpeted corridors: a swan dive into decline and a ragged death. Such places were located at the end of one-way roads paved with sorrow. But that was better, she supposed, than what used to happen years ago, when a deteriorating older relative was left to rot in a back bedroom with a portable commode and the blinds pulled shut.
"Thornapple Terrace," Darlene said, "is supposed to be one of the best."
"You don't sound convinced."
"For the past several months, my father had gotten more and more agitated. We used to sit in the visitors lounge, but he didn't want to go there anymore. He wanted to stay in his room. Something — or someone — was bothering him. He couldn't tell me — he didn't talk very often — but I knew. I just felt it. And when I tried to have a chat with the director about it, she —"
An argument suddenly erupted in the booth next to theirs, a tangled snarl of voices jump-started by beer and bad manners. Bell had seen the trio of twentysomethings on her way in. She could not see them now — the back of the bench seat rose too high — but she got the gist of the fight based on the spillover noise.
Two women were quarreling — shrieking, really — over whether or not the man across from them was, as one of the women had just eloquently dubbed him, a shithead, because he had been dating them simultaneously, without either one knowing about it. Until tonight. "He is too a shithead," the woman said, and the other countered wittily, "Is not."
This went on for a few more dreary minutes, while the man said nothing. Bell couldn't see his face, but she imagined he was lapping up the attention, even though his evening would probably end with a Bud Light bottle smashed over his head and a lot of blood loss.
Violence was always lurking just below the surface in a place like this. It made up its mind, moment by moment, whether to rise up with a bellow and a roar, or to lie in wait, biding its time, eager for an opportunity to do the most possible harm.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, the loud part of the argument stopped. The voices dropped to inoffensive mumbles.
Darlene waited until she was sure it was over, and then spoke. "Anyway, it really bothered me — seeing my father upset like that. Not much I could do, though, unless I wanted to move him, which would have been a major ordeal. I didn't think he was up to that." She paused. "It was a lot of responsibility. All the decisions were mine. I'm an only child. My mother died when I was in grade school. So it was all on my shoulders."
"I'm sure you did your best." Bell had no idea if Darlene had done her best or not, but it seemed like the kind of thing you were supposed to say.
"You're sure of that, are you?" Darlene shot back. Her tone was cold, belligerent.
Bell had a flash of recollection about this woman, from back in their Georgetown days. Darlene Strayer hated bullshit. She brutally dismissed well-meant clichés and platitudes like a soldier waving around a saber at a batch of flies. Trying to console her was a dangerous business. You might very well come away with flesh wounds.
"From the little I know of you, Darlene," Bell said carefully, "you're a woman who would do right by her father. That's all I meant."
"Yeah. Sure." The sarcasm in her voice was heavy and dark. She rearranged her elbows on the wooden tabletop. There was a restlessness in her movements, an ill-concealed frustration.
"What's really going on?" Bell said.
Darlene did not look at her. Instead she dropped her eyes and studied the tabletop. It was the color of mud, and it was shiny from repeated coats of shellac, which only served to preserve the undesirable, like a fly trapped in an ice cube. The surface had been roughed up over the years by the assorted shitheads and their assorted girlfriends who had occupied this booth, and used it as a scratch pad for their switchblades. It had absorbed their spilled beer and sopped up their unused dreams.
The tabletop, Bell thought as she watched her, did not belong anywhere near Darlene's present life — a life defined by the sleek haircut, the elegant wool suit, the pressed white silk blouse, the necklace of tiny pearls. Yet it was still a part of her, too, still a part of her deep and abiding past. Darlene, like Bell, had tumbled out of a scuffed-up, stripped-down childhood. She had risen above all that — far, far above it, and good for her — but when Darlene glanced down at the creased and greasy-looking tabletop, Bell guessed, it probably came back to her, all of it, just for a moment. And a moment was long enough.
"When we were in law school," Darlene said.
"When we were in law school," Darlene repeated, needing to start again, "I didn't like you very much. I'm sure you figured that out." She lifted her head and looked at Bell with a solemn, unblinking stare.
Bell shrugged. "If there was one seat left in the Williams Law Library, and that seat was next to me, you'd leave the building. Find somewhere else to study."
"Was I really that bad?"
"I'm exaggerating. But, yeah — I picked up on your attitude and just steered clear."
"We come from the same place. And I wanted to be the Appalachian success story, you know? I wanted to be that woman. I didn't care to share any of it with you. Plus, I was jealous."
"Oh, come on."
"I mean it. You had a handsome husband and a cute little baby girl and a life — a real life. You know what I had? I had a studio apartment and a rusty bike and a debt total that was rising so high and so fast I couldn't see over it anymore." Her voice shifted, lightened, lost its load of bitterness. "And my dad. I had my dad." She smiled. The smile chased the bleakness out of her face. "He believed in me, Bell. As little as he had, he gave it to me. So that I could make something of myself. And not just money. He'd send me these amazing letters twice, three times a week. That's what kept me going — seeing that West Virginia postmark. I'd run home after class and I'd tear open those letters and I'd read every word. Just standing there, holding my books. I was hungry and tired — it didn't matter. I'd still stand there, reading every damned word. I couldn't wait. I craved those letters. Needed them. Turns out that's what I was really hungry for."
"Just takes one."
Excerpted from Sorrow Road by Julia Keller. Copyright © 2016 Julia Keller. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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