Bone on Bone: New Excerpt

Bone on Bone

Julia Keller

Bell Elkins Series

August 21, 2018

Bone on Bone by Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Keller is the eighth book in the beloved Bell Elkins series, which sends readers headlong into the thick of a mystery as young as today’s headlines—but as old as the mountains that hold these lives in a tight grip.

How far would you go for someone you love? Would you die? Would you kill? After a three-year prison sentence, Bell Elkins is back in Acker’s Gap. And she finds herself in the white-hot center of a complicated and deadly caseeven as she comes to terms with one last, devastating secret of her own.

A prominent local family has fallen victim to the same sickness that infects the whole region: drug addiction. With mother against father, child against parent, and tensions that lead inexorably to tragedy, they are trapped in a grim, hopeless struggle with nowhere to turn.

Bell has lost her job as a prosecutorbut not her affection for her ragtag, hard-luck hometown. Teamed up with former Deputy Jake Oakes, who battles his own demons as he adjusts to life as a paraplegic, and aided by the new prosecutor, Rhonda Lovejoy, Bell tackles a case as poignant as it is perilous, as heartbreaking as it is challenging.

PART ONE

Chapter One

“‘Belfa.’ Is that right? Unusual name.”

Bell nodded. She’d been fielding that inquiry or a version thereof her entire life. It used to rile her when she was a kid—Yeah, granted, it’s not Jane or Sue or Mary, but maybe you could just shut up about it—because, really, why should she give a damn what anybody else thought about her name?

She’d let go of that anger a long time ago. After all, it was unusual. People often mistook it for “Belva.” Or, if a new teacher back in Acker’s Gap High School had been calling the roll and thought it was a typo, she’d ask Bell how to spell it.

B-E-L-F-A.

B-E-L-F-A? With an F?

Yeah. B-E-L-F-A. With an F. F as in—

Bell would stop herself just in time. Good way to get expelled.

So, yes. Her name was a hassle. No wonder her sister Shirley had started calling her Bell when she was barely two years old.

She shoved the thought of Shirley out of her head. She didn’t have time for that today. Her life was about to change—again—in a very big way, and she needed to focus.

“Some kinda family name?” the man asked. Unwilling to let it go.

Bell nodded again, even though she didn’t really know. There was nobody to ask. Her mother had died when she was an infant and her father … well, he wasn’t the kind of man you questioned. About anything. Unless you wanted a punch in the face.

The state official shrugged. His eyes dropped back to the document, which he was filling out with a blue Bic pen. He was right-handed. With his other hand, he anchored the paper to the desk while he wrote. His desk faced the wall.

Other than the man’s breathing, the only sound in the room was the occasional swish of paper-shuffling when he shifted from one page to another page, checking something, and then returned to the original page.

His name was Clifford A. Spalding. Bell knew that not because he’d introduced himself—he hadn’t—but because he had signed it on the required line at the bottom of each page.

She sat in a gray metal chair next to the left side of the desk. Her hands were folded in her lap. During a previous visit to this office last week—she was meeting with another bureaucrat that time, not this man—she had automatically perched her left forearm along the edge of the desktop, the same as anyone might do when a chair was angled sideways to a desk.

Instantly, the woman had told her to take her arm off the desk.

Bell, startled, had tried to explain that she wasn’t trying to—

“Right now.”

Okay, so she wouldn’t be making that mistake again. She kept her arm off the desk today. Feet flat on the floor. She would only speak when spoken to.

The office was bland, cramped, and beige, slapped together with cheap paneling and thin carpet and shoddy furniture. The drop ceiling was marked with yellow-brown stains; in certain spots, mysterious, pimple-like bulges hinted of backed-up water from roof leaks. There was a stubborn smell of warm plastic and old aftershave, with a yeasty tang of secret mold.

It was depressingly similar to all of the other state offices to which Bell had been summoned over the past month, as her community service neared its end and the amount of pre-release paperwork escalated.

Freedom was now within sight. Yet the prospect of that freedom didn’t make her excited or relieved or even especially happy.

It made her edgy. Apprehensive.

Spalding moved in his chair. He was a middle-aged, skinny-legged man with a soccer-ball paunch and a bald head that looked like a greasy peeled egg under the too-bright fluorescent lights. The skin on his forearms—he wore a short-sleeved, blue-plaid shirt—was the color of margarine, and included a string of tan blotches that would, Bell surmised, warm the heart of a dermatologist who’d been pricing sailboats.

He kept his eyes mostly on the form. But when he did look at her, there was, she thought, little to cause his gaze to linger. She was a forty-nine-year-old woman with gray, hooded eyes and an expressionless face. Her brownish-blond hair was long, falling well past her shoulders; it was longer, in fact, than it had been since she was a teenager. She’d had nowhere to get a decent haircut and so she just let it grow. She was heavier, too, than she had ever been before in her life, owing to the food in the prison cafeteria, the preponderance of starchy carbs. If she never saw a potato again, it would be too soon.

Even now that she was living in her own home again, as she finished up the community-service portion of her sentence, she still hadn’t gotten back into a routine of healthy eating. Hard to make herself care.

“You’ll be getting a packet with the basic information you need to know,” Spalding said. “There’ll be a phone number. And a website. Any questions, anything you’re not clear about, you call that number. Or go to the website. Always have your ID number handy. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Good.” He checked another box on the form.

He was treating her with the indifference that she had come to expect from all state officials over the past three years, from guards to cooks to custodians to employment counselors. She was a number, not a person.

That didn’t bother her. In fact, it was a comfort. Being treated as special was not a kindness. It always carried a price tag. Anonymity was armor.

“Okay,” Spalding said. “So you’re almost done with your community service. Says here you’ve got five more days at Evening Street Clinic.”

“Nights.”

“What?”

“Five more nights. I work the night shift.”

That got a reaction. He lifted his eyes from the paper and looked at her. He didn’t like to be corrected. “Nights. Whatever.” Back to the document. “The point is, I need to inform you that you’re eligible for employment assistance from the state if you qualify and if you fill out the—”

“I’m fine. I have tons of support from lots of family members.” That part wasn’t true. “And financial means.” That part was. She had always lived frugally, and her ex-husband had kept an eye on her mutual fund and her 401(k) while she was away. She wasn’t wealthy, but compared to most women leaving prison, she was, Bell knew, practically Oprah-rich.

“Okay, fine,” Spalding said. Still looking at the paper. “Moving on. I know you’ve already heard all this, but it says here that I’ve got to go over it again and then have you sign a form that says you acknowledge that you received the information. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“You’ll be required to check in with your parole officer at a time and place designated by the PO. You’re responsible for your own transportation to and from said meetings. You won’t be reimbursed—so don’t ask. If you’re caught with a firearm you’re subject to immediate arrest. And you can count on random drug tests, okay? Not that drugs had anything to do with your offense—it’s just policy.”

“Okay. I’m not complaining.”

When he looked at her this time, it wasn’t out of annoyance. It was curiosity. She saw it in his eyes: the hunger to know more. His mouth twitched.

“You don’t do that, do you?” he asked. The pen hovered over the paper, and he moved it in a small clockwise circle. “There’s nothing in here about any sort of complaint. You didn’t bitch about anything. In three years. That’s pretty rare.”

She shrugged. “Just wanted to get along. Let the time pass.” She was keenly regretting the fact that she had said anything beyond “Okay.” She’d interrupted his rhythm, causing him to give her an extra bit of scrutiny.

He was looking at the document again, but she wasn’t off the hook and she knew it. This time, his eyes didn’t automatically sweep over the long paragraph in the middle of the second page, the single-spaced summary of her life—her offense, her sentence, her background. Her story was unusual. Unusual got you noticed. She didn’t want to be noticed.

Dammit.

Had she kept her mouth shut, he’d probably be finished with his spiel by now and would be signing the bottom of the last page of the form, crafting the letters that spelled Clifford A. Spalding and doing it with the same bold, dramatic flourish she’d spotted on previous pages. A lot of bureaucrats—this was her pet theory—channeled all of their thwarted individuality and their tamped-down creativity into the way they signed their names. The signatures on the various forms that defined her life now were a veritable art show, a one-dimensional aerobatic circus of loops and swirls and spirals.

Too late. She wasn’t just a number anymore to Clifford A. Spalding. She watched his face as he read—really read this time, not just skimmed—her file. There it was again: the mouth twitch. He was intrigued.

Intrigued wasn’t good. Intrigued meant hassle.

“Says here you used to be a county prosecutor,” he said.

“Yeah.”

He offered her a small, tidy smile. It might have been a smirk. She didn’t know Clifford A. Spalding well enough to know if he was the smirking type. “Not something we see every day around here,” he said.

She shook her head. “No. I guess not.”

At first, of course, she’d expected to be recognized everywhere. By everyone. She thought the whole world knew her story. She had braced herself for celebrity, for a bobbing knot of reporters outside the courthouse and at the entrance to the prison. Video cameras. Shouted questions.

And initially, right after her sentencing, there had been a brief squall of press coverage. She had refused comment but that was irrelevant. In a two-paragraph story, a USA Today writer referred to her ten-year-old self as a “pint-sized patricide.” A snippet in a news roundup in The Washington Post included a quote from one of her classmates from Georgetown Law. It was a neutral observation, something about how quiet Bell Elkins had been back then, quiet and smart, but still she wished her classmate had kept his mouth shut. She barely remembered him. She was convinced he didn’t really remember her, either. Just wanted his name in the paper. MSNBC made her the lead story on a thirty-second newsbreak. They’d dug up a photo from her undergraduate days, a black-and-white headshot from the West Virginia Wesleyan yearbook. She had forgotten how long her hair was back then. Almost as long as it was now.

But that was the extent of the ripple she’d made. The world, it turned out, didn’t much care about Belfa Elkins, no matter how terrible her crime. Or how unusual the circumstances.

Three years ago, she had resigned from her job as prosecuting attorney of Raythune County, West Virginia, and pleaded guilty to murder. Bell declared that it was her, and not her older sister, Shirley, who had killed their father, Donnie Dolan, thirty-nine years ago. She had rejected every mitigating circumstance offered to her by the court—her age at the time of the crime; her sister’s claim that Bell had blocked out any recollection of cutting their father’s throat while he slept; the fact that Donnie Dolan was abusing them repeatedly, physically and emotionally.

Bell had been adamant with the judge: She deserved punishment. It wasn’t just the murder, she argued. Because she didn’t remember what she’d done, she had let her sister take the blame. She had let her sister spend the majority of her adult life in prison.

Deliberate or not, Bell had taken Shirley’s place in the world. That was her point. She had flourished, prospered, while Shirley sat in a prison cell.

The judge reluctantly went along with her request. Bell served her time in the women’s minimum-security prison in Alderson, West Virginia. She had been released eight weeks ago to do her community service at Evening Street Clinic.

Now that, too, was coming to an end.

By Friday she’d be a free woman.

“Because you’re almost done,” Spalding was saying, “we’ve had some media requests to interview you. I’m obligated to pass ’em along.”

“Do I have to respond?”

“Nope.”

“Then put down ‘No response.’ I’m not interested.”

“Gotcha.” Spalding checked a box on the third page of the document. “We don’t give out any information on your whereabouts, so if somebody finds you, that’s not on us,” he added. He licked an index finger and riffled twice through all four pages—one, two, three, four—to make sure he had signed and dated each page.

He looked up at her. “Mind a question?” he asked.

Here it comes. She knew what he was going to ask. It was the same question everyone asked.

She shrugged. Of course she minded. But “no” was a luxury she couldn’t afford right now. He still had power over her.

“What’re you gonna do?” he asked. “You can’t be a prosecutor again, am I right? Or practice law?”

A nice surprise. Not the question she’d anticipated.

“Correct.” Her conviction had triggered mandatory disbarment. “Honestly, I haven’t thought that far down the road.”

Not true. She knew what she was going to do, at least initially. She’d figured it out during those endless nights in Alderson, when she read every news report she could get her hands on.

But that was none of Clifford A. Spalding’s business.

He didn’t say anything, and so she started to stand up. Surely their session was over now.

Wishful thinking.

“Also,” he said, “I wondered about something else, too.”

Her heart sank. She’d almost gotten away clean.

“I don’t get it,” he went on. “Based on what it says here, why’d you serve time? Jesus—you were ten years old when you did it. Sure, you let your sister take the blame. But that wasn’t your fault. She wanted to, according to the statement. She told you she’d done it and you believed her. And besides, your old man was messing with you, right? The both of you? In my book, that made it pretty darn justifiable. So—why?”

And there it was. The question she had expected to be asked. The one she knew she’d face over and over again, slung her way by just about everybody. Once she was out, once she was fully back in the world, the question would clang as reliably as a church bell on Sunday mornings:

Why?

She’d been auditioning answers in her mind for months now, as her final release date approached. Trying them out to see how they felt when she said them. “None of your damned business” was her first instinct, but she’d rejected that one as maybe a little too combative. “It’s complicated” was a possibility, but that sounded coy, as if she were inviting speculation, daring people to keep on guessing.

Finally she had settled on the answer she offered right now to Clifford A. Spalding. She knew it was a lie, she knew it was lame and weak, she realized she’d have to come up with a better one—without, of course, ever revealing the truth—and she would have to do that soon.

But for now, as a short-term solution, as something that would get her out of this place and on the road toward what might pass for a life, it would have to do:

“I don’t know.”

Copyright © 2018 Julia Keller.

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