High summer in Acker's Gap, West Virginia―but no one's enjoying the rugged natural landscape. Not while a killer stalks the small town and its hard-luck inhabitants. County prosecutor Bell Elkins and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong are stymied by a murderer who seems to come and go like smoke on the mountain. At the same time, Bell must deal with the return from prison of her sister, Shirley―who, like Bell, carries the indelible scars of a savage past.
In Summer of the Dead, the third Julia Keller mystery chronicling the journey of Bell Elkins and her return to her Appalachian hometown, we also meet Lindy Crabtree―a coal miner's daughter with dark secrets of her own, secrets that threaten to explode into even more violence.
Acker's Gap is a place of loveliness and brutality, of isolation and fierce attachments―a place where the dead rub shoulders with the living, and demand their due.
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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The flat-roofed shack was situated along a country road sunk deep in summer darkness, the kind of darkness that comes after a day of brash sunlight and thus seems more intense and deliberate than ordinary nightfall. The lights in the small tavern made it look, by odd contrast with that shadow-blackened road, like a living thing, shimmying and caterwauling and ready to leap up and lurch away, leaving behind a shallow hole and the sullen stink of piss.
Bell Elkins knew it was an illusion. She knew the only real motion came from the quivering lights in four porthole windows across the building’s front and from the ugly thuds of the live band’s bass beat, a percussion that hit like a fist on the heart. Yet she hesitated anyway, remaining for a few more minutes in her vehicle at the edge of the dirt-ridged parking lot. Other cars were stuck at crazy random angles, abandoned by their drivers with don’t-give-a-damn nonchalance.
It was 3:42 A.M. on a sticky-hot Saturday night—no, Sunday morning—in the middle of June, and Bell was angry. The anger moved across her mind like a wire being threaded slowly through her veins, millimeter by millimeter. It didn’t flare, the way her anger usually behaved; this time, it was gradual. A steady, ominous rise. As she reminded herself of each galling fact, the anger ticked up a notch, and then a notch past that.
Fact: Her sister Shirley hadn’t been home in three days. Shirley was a grown woman, and the house rules were loose—but still. Three days. And no call, no text.
Fact: The cell on Bell’s bedside table had played its perversely chipper tune just before 3 A.M. On the other end of the line was Amanda Sturm, a deputy sheriff in Collier County. “Got a call ’bout a ruckus over at Tommy’s,” Sturm said after identifying herself. She didn’t have to identify Tommy’s. It was a bar—this bar—out along Burnt Ridge Road, a place notorious for fights and drugs and trouble. “Looked in on things,” the deputy went on, “and got the lay of the land and then figured I oughta give you a call. Sorry ’bout the time.”
She hadn’t awakened her; Bell hardly slept these days, and spent many of her nights sitting up in the battered old easy chair in her living room, reading or trying to. Tonight, she’d actually made it upstairs to bed, but sleep was a nonstarter. Still, though, the call had startled her. “What do you mean?” Bell had asked. Her cell was as light and sleek as a Hershey Bar, yet she used both hands to wrangle it, one to secure it against her ear, the other to keep the bottom half tilted against her chin.
There was a pause, and then the deputy said, “Well, ma’am, one of ’em says her sister is the Raythune County prosecutor and I better lay off. Checked her wallet and sure nuff—you’re listed as contact person. Shirley Dolan’s her name.”
Fact: Commingling with the clientele in a place like Tommy’s could put Shirley in real danger of violating her parole.
Fact: Shirley was well aware of that. She also knew Bell was grappling with a terrible case, the brutal and apparently unprovoked murder of a retired coal miner two nights ago, right in the man’s own driveway on the west side of Acker’s Gap. The town was still reeling from the shock of it, from a crime that had injected a paralyzing chill into the warm, loose-limbed languor of summer in the mountains.
Fact: Shirley didn’t give a rat’s ass. She didn’t care what sort of extra hassle she caused for Bell, what kind of shame or embarrassment or inconvenience.
Fact: Shirley was not only selfish; she was reckless, too. Dropping Bell’s name to a deputy sheriff to garner special treatment was bad enough, but when you added the risk this posed to Shirley’s fledgling status as a free woman—well, the whole thing made Bell so incensed that she wrapped her hands even tighter around the steering wheel of her Ford Explorer, glad to have a way to channel her rage, a place to direct it temporarily.
She’d done everything she could do for Shirley. In the three months since her sister’s return, Bell had given her a place to stay, bought her clothes, tolerated her smoking. And she’d stayed out of her hair, letting Shirley make her own decisions—and by “decisions,” Bell meant “mistakes.” The two words had become synonymous in her mind, when it came to Shirley.
There’d been trouble from the start. One night, Shirley fell asleep in a kitchen chair with a burning cigarette notched between two fingers, jerking awake just in time to avert disaster, and another, she came home drunk and surly, and when Bell tried to guide the weaving woman to a bed, Shirley shook off the helping hand, and the foul word that fell out of her mouth made Bell shudder in shock, as if Shirley had coughed up a toad or a spider.
Such behavior confirmed her sister’s lack of judgment, of manners, of respect, of—well, maybe Sheriff Fogelsong had nailed it. “Lack of gratitude,” he’d said to Bell when she confided her frustration about Shirley. “That’s what’s really eating at you. You expect her to be grateful. Even humble. For sticking by her, for waiting, for taking her in. Plus—ever held a cork underwater? And then let it go? Shoots up like a geyser. Way the hell up in the air.”
The sheriff, Bell quickly decided, had a point. “Ever get tired,” she had countered, “of being right all the damned time?”
His reply: “Oh, I’m wrong on purpose every now and again, just to keep things interesting.”
The recollection of that encounter reminded Bell of how much she missed him—and not just because she was staring straight in the face of an unsolved homicide that had left the town edgy and restive. Fogelsong had taken a month’s leave of absence. He was scheduled to return in the coming week, at which point Pam Harrison would hand back over the top spot and resume her job as chief deputy—but still. Even a short spell without him was too long for Bell. Nick Fogelsong knew her better than anyone else; he understood her right down to the ground, and she appreciated his perspective. Needed it, more to the point.
Shirley, he’d gently remind Bell when her irritation got in the way of sound thinking, was a forty-six-year-old woman who’d never had a chance to be young. She’d been in prison for three decades, and in that bleak and tightly regulated place, every step was monitored, every spontaneous impulse blocked.
So Bell had cut her some slack. Backed off. Held her tongue.
But tonight an entirely new threshold had been crossed. This was the first time Shirley had stayed away for several days running. Or used Bell’s name in a scrape with the law. This was disturbingly fresh territory. And it came at a time when Bell ought to be focusing on public safety in general, not a misbehaving sister in particular. If Shirley was caught up in a sweep at Tommy’s—the bar’s proprietor, Tommy LeSeur, was himself a convicted felon, having served four and a half years on a narcotics charge—her parole could be revoked.
“Hey, pretty lady.”
At the same moment Bell heard the words, she smelled the hot oniony stink of the man who had suddenly thrust his face in the Explorer’s open window. He’d taken her by surprise, so intent was she on her thoughts as she stared at the run-down bar. But she wasn’t frightened. She was pissed off. The man had a fat face, swollen to the point of resembling an allergic reaction. Bristles of beard stuck out from his round cheeks and from the undulating rolls of blubber that propped up his tiny chin. Booze, sweat, and the heavy fug of a recent bout of vomiting invaded her space.
Before Bell could react, he was talking again. He’d hooked his hands across the bottom of the window and hung on as if it were an upper-story sill.
“Lookin’ for somethun?” he slurred. “Or somebody? Wanna party?” A wicked leer seized his mouth, making both ends of it pointy. A pearl of sweat—or maybe another liquid, although who’d really want a positive ID?—was poised on the bottom rim of a nostril. His eyes were bleary. “How ’bout it, baby?”
First Bell wanted to laugh—Oh, yeah, here I come, you’re freakin’ irresistible, mister—and then the anger roared back, this time mixed with revulsion.
“Get the hell away from me,” she said. Low voice. Words measured and calm, but laced with threat. Only a fool would miss her meaning.
“C’mon, baby. Don’t be doin’ me like that,” the intruder said. His oily wheedle—delivered on the back of a gust of smelly breath—was enough to make Bell’s stomach turn.
With a gesture so quick that it caught him in the middle of a wink, she flung open the car door. Knocked back, he teetered for a tenth of a second and then landed flat on his ample butt.
Behind him, starkly visible in the glare of the crude spotlight rigged to a corner of the building, was a stumpy ring of three men—his buddies, Bell assumed, because these types always traveled in packs. The men pointed at Fat Ass and stomped their work boots and laughed, a hard-edged, mirthless laughter that sounded like another variety of assault. They wore baseball caps and long-sleeved plaid flannel shirts with the cuffs buttoned and the shirttails flapping out behind them, even though this was the middle of summer; such, Bell knew, was the year-round uniform of the good ole boys, the kind you could find lining the back roads around here like lint on a comb.
“Bitch!” Fat Ass yelled at her. He’d yet to rise from his seat on the ground, thwarted by, in equal measures, obesity and drunkenness. “Goddamned bitch.”
That only made his friends laugh harder. “Looks like she up and tole you what she thinksa you,” one of them opined, nudging Fat Ass with the toe of his boot, as if his buddy were a clump of dirt that needed relocating. The others re-upped their laughter, hooting like fools, slapping at their knees when they weren’t using their fingers to point at Fat Ass. A gray scab of moon regarded the scene indifferently from above.
Bell pondered her next move. Her mission was simple: Go in the bar, find Shirley, and somehow persuade her to come home. She wasn’t looking for a fight. If these creeps kept it up, though, and interfered with her, she would handle it. Fat Ass didn’t know what trouble was until he’d tangled with the likes of her. Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Carla—currently living with Bell’s ex-husband, Sam, but due back in Acker’s Gap for summer vacation in a week—had put it best: “Mom,” Carla said, “when you get mad, I think I’d sorta rather deal with the guy in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre movies, you know?”
The bar’s double doors flapped open. During the few seconds that the interior of the establishment was exposed—the hot wild noise, the undulating red lights framed by the solid black night—it looked, to Bell’s eye, like a peephole into hell.
A female deputy sheriff—short, hatless, and heavyset—came striding out of Tommy’s, turning this way and that to cut a path between the parked cars. Her long gray hair was funneled into a twisty braid that perched on her shoulder like a pet. Black boots chopped at the gravel with each forceful step. Her gun was holstered on her wide hip, but she kept her big right hand in contact with the grip, a Don’t make me use this set to her meaty jaw.
The three men scattered like scrap paper swept off a desktop by a sudden draft. Fat Ass, also highly motivated, flopped over on his hands and knees and crawled a short distance and then hoisted himself up, courtesy of the rusty back bumper of a Dodge Ram 1500.
As he and his buddies hustled away, the deputy nodded in approval. “Evening, ma’am,” she said to Bell. “Deputy Sturm. Thought you might be arriving right about now.”
“Met the welcoming committee.” Bell stepped out of the Explorer and gestured toward the severe darkness that bordered the lot, a bottomless pit into which the four men had disappeared. The darkness seemed all the more menacing because of its adjacency to the garishly lit space. There was no middle ground. If you left the illuminated area, it was as if you’d fallen off the edge of the world. No dark like summer dark, Bell thought. No end to it. Goes on forever.
She shuddered. She’d had a sudden unwanted memory of the crime-scene photo still on her desk back at the courthouse: Freddie Arnett’s lanky body facedown on the oil-stained concrete of his driveway, blood and brain matter shining wetly in the velvety glow of the front porch light.
“Those boys tried to get friendly with me, too.” Sturm chuckled. With two fingers, she tapped the badge pinned to the left breast pocket of her gray polyester shirt. “Then they saw this.”
Bell nodded. Enough with the small talk. “Where’s Shirley Dolan?”
“Right where I left her—rounded up in the back of the bar with a bunch of troublemakers, waiting to see if I’m going to give ’em even more of a hassle than I already have. Maybe haul ’em in for drunk and disorderly. They’ve been calling me every name in the book and then some.”
“What started it?”
“Don’t know. I mean, Bobo Bolland’s here with his band, and it seems like he brings trouble wherever he goes. Somebody calls somebody else a low-down sumbitch or a man-stealing whore or something similar, and before you know it, the whole place goes crazy.” Two more cars fishtailed into the lot, one right behind the other. The drivers must have caught the glint of the badge on Deputy Sturm’s broad chest—or, the more likely scenario, simply sniffed out the presence of the law after long experience with dodging same—because their hasty U-turns back onto the road were executed with a panic-fed zeal.
Sturm barely noticed. She and Bell had begun walking toward the door of Tommy’s, and something else was on her mind. “Listen,” Sturm said. “Before we go in, I wanted to say—well, I heard about that poor old man. Hell of a thing. Bet folks in Acker’s Gap are plenty shook up.”
Bell nodded. Freddie Arnett had suffered multiple blows to his head from a sledgehammer—that was the coroner’s preliminary analysis, given the shape of the wounds and the fact that the probable murder weapon was lying in the grass next to the driveway—in an astonishingly vicious assault. No prints, no motive, no suspects, no leads; it was, Bell had reflected, almost as if the summer night itself had reared up and come after Arnett, as if the darkness had taken shape just long enough to grab a handy weapon and use it to crush an old man’s skull, then spread itself out again in a soft black ooze.
“Makes you wonder,” Sturm said.
They had reached the entrance to Tommy’s. Bell heard muffled thuds from the other side of the wall, along with wicked guitar licks and fuzzy throbs from a cheap amplifier and the ominous insect hum of packed bodies rubbing up against one another.
Sturm’s big right hand reached for the dirty wooden handle. The upper half of one of the doors was smothered by a thumbtacked white poster that showed off the wobbly work of a black Sharpie:
TONITE! BOBO BOLLAND AND HIS ROCKIN’ BAND!!! 11 pm to????
Bell followed her into the bar—and into the kind of frantic, sweaty bedlam that Bell had spent a good portion of her adult life trying to avoid, because it reminded her too much of her childhood, when the world was big and bad and loud and out of control, and she was the weakest, frailest thing in it. The prey.
* * *
There she was.
Shirley Dolan stood at the far end of the bar, her back to the nicked brown counter that featured what looked to be at least a century’s worth of interlocking rings from wet-bottomed glasses of beer. Long gray hair frizzled down her narrow back. Bell had anticipated that it might take a ...
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