Julia Keller Excerpt: Fast Falls the Night

Based on a real-life event, Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Keller’s latest Bell Elkins novel Fast Falls the Night takes place in a single 24-hour period, unfurling against the backdrop of a shattering personal revelation that will change Bell’s life forever (available August 22, 2017).

The first drug overdose comes just after midnight, when a young woman dies on the dirty floor of a gas station bathroom. To the people of the small town of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, it is just another tragedy. It is sad—but these days, depressingly familiar.

But then there is another overdose. And another. And another.

Prosecutor Bell Elkins soon realizes that her Appalachian hometown is facing its starkest challenge yet: a day of constant heroin overdoses from a batch tainted with a lethal tranquilizer. While the clock ticks and the bodies fall, Bell and her colleagues desperately track the source of the deadly drug—and engage in fierce debates over the wisdom of expending precious resources to save the lives of self-destructive addicts.


12:04 A.M.

The woman asked to use the bathroom. Danny Lukens was 99 percent sure of what she wanted it for—and it had nothing to do with the usual uses to which bathrooms are put. He said yes, though, because it wasn’t worth arguing about. He had a long night still ahead of him. He had just started his shift. He didn’t want any trouble.

“Okay, thanks,” she said.

Her speech wasn’t slurred, which surprised him. Then he realized that he shouldn’t have been surprised. The slurring would come later. Right now, she was honed to a clean, brittle edge, polished to a gloss of pure longing. No wonder the “Okay, thanks” had come out intelligibly. She was too sharp, too attuned to her life and its attendant miseries. Slurring—not only her words, but also her world—was the goal, not the current reality. In a few minutes, she would be able to relax into the newly made mess of herself. The beautiful ooze.

“Back there,” he said, pointing. “It ain’t locked.”

Whatever she did in the bathroom was her business. Not his.

She nodded and moved away from the counter. He took a quick mental snapshot with his sideways glance, just in case she trashed it and his manager asked him for a description of her to give to the sheriff. As if, Danny thought, they’d be able to find her again if she didn’t want to be found. Addicts were ghosts. They drifted in and out of people’s lives, just as they drifted in and out of their own lives.

He sort of knew her and he sort of didn’t. He had seen her before, most likely, but he didn’t have a precise recollection of it, and they all ran together in his mind, anyway, the faces and the skinny bodies. She had been in here before; again, he didn’t remember it, but the odds favored it. This was a small town. Not that many places to go. She wore cutoff denim shorts and a too-tight black T-shirt with the word PINK splayed across her chest in—Duh, Danny thought—pink letters. She was very, very thin; her arms and legs were like tiny white PVC pipes. She had a long narrow face, scraggly blondish hair with black roots, and dead eyes. Her eyebrows were charcoal smudges. She was barefoot. She was—how old? Danny couldn’t guess. Maybe eighteen. Maybe forty.

Did it matter? It did not.

Until she came in, he had been alone since his shift started at 11 P.M. Chuckie Purvis, the guy with the shift before his, had reported that it had been slow all night. Which was strange, really, for August. Usually August nights brought an unbroken line of customers: smart-ass kids, say, out for midnight rides in dusty pickups, buying gas and beer, shedding waves of look-at-me bravado, slapping a fake ID down on the counter like the winning card in a blackjack game. Or truckers craving a can of Red Bull and a flap of conversation. Or sometimes it was deputies from the Raythune County Sheriff’s Department. They had a habit of stopping in, too, at intervals throughout the night, propping a black-holstered hip against the front counter and slowly unwinding the brown wrapper from a Snickers, alternating bites with observations about how anybody in their right mind would’ve gotten the hell out of this state a long time ago. No question about it. Once the last chunk of candy was chewed and swallowed, they would use the tip of their tongue to pry out the nut pieces from their back teeth.

The Marathon was a natural gathering place. It was the only station in these parts open after 11 P.M., except for the Highway Haven up on the interstate. The Marathon was closer to Acker’s Gap, the county seat. At one time there had been a Lester Oil station even closer, but it shut down last year, the front glass window replaced by sheets of yellow plywood. The pumps and the underground tank had been hauled out, leaving open holes and a trough gorged with trash and rainwater. Husky weeds had colonized the long cracks in the asphalt.

The Marathon, though, was still going strong.

Danny’s favorite deputy was Jake Oakes. He liked Charlie Mathers, who had retired a while back, well enough, and he didn’t mind Steve Brinksneader, Charlie’s replacement. Jake, though, was the best; he was the one Danny most admired, most looked forward to seeing during his shift—or any other time, for that matter, which was weird, because Danny wasn’t the kind of guy who liked authority figures. That had been his whole problem back in high school, and the reason he had to drop out: He couldn’t stand it when somebody tried to tell him what he could and couldn’t do. In study hall one afternoon in his junior year, he spat at Mrs. Pyles, the civics teacher. She had told him to quit talking and do his work. Witnessing him being called out that way, some of the other guys laughed at him. That was not okay. And so when Mrs. Pyles marched down the aisle in his direction, surely intending to repeat her reprimand, he stood up and sent a ginormous wad of spit right in her eye. It was worth everything that came after—being expelled for the rest of the year—just to see the look on the old bitch’s face, the shock and the fear. By the time the school year rolled around again, he was out on his own. To hell with her. To hell with all of them.

Jake, though, he respected. He never made Jake pay for his Snickers. Yet so far tonight there had been no sign of Jake. No sign of anybody. Just this woman. Danny didn’t see a car outside, which meant that wherever she had come from, she had walked.

It had been a strange summer. The heat never really settled in. Throughout June and July and the first two weeks of August the weather seemed to be in a sort of trance, a holding pattern, as if it was waiting for a secret signal to let loose and intensify, prompting a moist and insistent misery. That is what usually happened. Not even the cooler air in the mountain valleys was any match for the sudden descent of the wipe-out heat of August. This year, though, things were different; temperatures remained moderate. And yet people could not quite trust the moderation. They waited nervously for that final blast, for a day when a red, pitiless sun stuck to the sky like a wet lollipop on a sidewalk. It was like expecting a call with bad news and listening always for the phone to ring.

Danny looked toward the short hallway leading to the bathroom. He wondered how long he should give her—the station only had the one bathroom, and both women and men had to use it—before he fist-knocked on the door and muttered, “Hey,” followed by, “you okay in there?”

Chuckie Purvis had gotten in trouble last month for not checking on a trucker whose name turned out to be Gil Trautwein. Trautwein had stumbled in through the double doors at about 2 A.M. on a very busy night, lurching past the counter and into the bathroom. According to Chuckie, he was sweaty, disheveled, grimacing, and he clutched at his shirtfront, mumbling about how “goddamned awful” he felt, and how it must be the flu. Forty-five minutes later, after several other customers had come up to the counter and complained that the bathroom door was still locked, Chuckie unhooked the key from the bent nail under the counter and went to investigate. The bathroom door could be secured from the inside with a little push-button lock, but the key overrode the button.

Chuckie had knocked, called out, knocked again. Silence. Then he shouted. More silence. Finally he used the key. He found the trucker curled up on his side next to the toilet, pants puddled around his ankles, his skin the color of sliced beets. Apparently he’d had a heart attack or a stroke or a seizure—Danny never heard any confirmation about which it was—and he damn near died. Chuckie called the squad. The paramedics hauled the trucker out of there on a rattling gurney. Later Chuckie got an earful from the regional manager, Brady Sutcliffe, and now the instructions were clear for all employees: Give them twenty minutes in the can and then go check. No matter what you find, do not touch them.

Like you have to tell us that, Danny thought. Like some guy passed out by the shitter is so freakin’ irresistible.

He liked this job. He liked the fact that he had regular company—customers coming and going, unless it was a night like tonight, with that odd stretch of nothingness until the girl came in—but he never really had to get to know anybody, and they didn’t know him. Mostly you were your own boss. Danny had never had a serious problem on his shift. Chuckie had once been held up at gunpoint—what was it about Chuckie and bad luck?—but it turned out that the guy’s gun was a fake and the deputies caught him down the road. He was a meth head and stupid to boot. If he’d had a real gun, Jake Oakes told Danny, he’d have blown off his own pecker. He was that dumb.

So maybe it’s my turn for some trouble, Danny thought. My number’s up.

He stood in front of the bathroom door.

“Hey,” he said. He started out with a mild tap, using a flat hand and not a fist. What if she was—well, sick with some kind of female thing? Something embarrassing?

If that was the case, then she could tell him so. Through the door. He would be able to hear her plea for privacy.

“Hey,” Danny repeated.

He waited.

“Just need to know,” he said, raising his voice, “that you’re okay in there.”


Now he pounded. He made a fist and he rammed it against the gray metal door. Four times—boom boom boom boom—in quick succession.

“Come on,” he said. “Don’t make me get the key, okay? Just tell me you’re okay and I’ll leave you be.”


Danny was pissed. He liked things to go as planned. His pleasures were simple: He enjoyed standing behind the front counter, arms crossed, looking out through the glass toward the gas pumps. He liked to watch the bugs nosing in and out of the wedge of light dropped by the bulb up on the high pole at the edge of the lot. He liked it when somebody pulled in and bought their gas with a credit card and then pulled out again without even looking his way; he and the customer were like two people stuck on separate islands, never acknowledging each other. Night after night Danny was on his own here, and he was totally in charge, yet there was very little to do, which was the perfect combo: authority without duties. He also liked having his days free to do as he pleased. That suited him just fine.

And now: this. The woman in the bathroom. Doing God knows what.

Okay, so maybe God wasn’t the only one who knew. Danny had a pretty good hunch himself. She was skinny and from the look of her, she was well on her way to being dope-sick. He knew the signs. Heroin was as common as stray cats around here. It was swiftly replacing the pain pills, because heroin was so much cheaper. Sure, it was also a lot more dangerous—but you couldn’t argue with the math.

He had to get her out of his bathroom. Had to get her moving on down the road, even if that road led nowhere. At least it wouldn’t be here.

“Last chance,” he yelled at the door.


Danny returned to the front counter. He was bending over to find the key on the bent nail when it occurred to him that it was high time for Deputy Oakes to pay him back for all those free Snickers. He would call Jake, make it his problem. He knew Jake’s schedule. He was working tonight.

Fourteen minutes later, a black Chevy Blazer with the county seal branded on its flanks pulled up in front of the glass. The vehicle juddered and then was still, as if a cord had suddenly been snipped. Danny watched as Jake Oakes unfolded himself from the driver’s side. He was a big, black-haired, sturdy man, and his brown deputy’s uniform made him look even bigger; the fabric fit tightly across his chest and his taut stomach, and snugly encased his thick thighs. It was a hot night but Jake Oakes always looked cool and sleek, no matter what the temperature was.

“Evenin’, Danny,” Jake said. He had gotten the greeting out of the way before he even reached the counter. He showed Danny his palm, wiggling his fingers. “Gimme the key.”

Danny retrieved it. He had filled in the details for Jake during the phone call: A woman wouldn’t come out of the bathroom. Possible overdose. “On my way,” Jake had barked back, sounding abrupt, almost mean. Danny had known him long enough not to take offense. Jake was a nice guy, but when he was focused on his job, nothing else mattered.

Danny followed him down the corridor.

“Ma’am, this is Deputy Oakes.” Jake stood in front of the door. He kept his voice at an ordinary, business-as-usual pitch. Danny figured that Jake didn’t want to scare her if this wasn’t a “situation,” if she was just hanging out. “You’ve got thirty seconds,” Jake said. “Tell me you’re okay or I’m coming in.”

The only noise was the hum of the refrigerated case on the other side of the wall, the one with the assorted six-packs and racked cans of energy drinks.

Jake did not wait the full thirty seconds. He thrust the key in the lock.

“Coming in,” he said. He twisted the key as he grasped the doorknob, pushing at the metal door with a meaty shoulder. Danny leaned to the left so that he could see around the deputy’s broad brown back.

She was lying faceup in the middle of the floor, her head partially blocking the round gray drain in the center. Her limbs extended straight out from her body, stiff as sticks. Her face was a bluish color. Her mouth was slack; foam leaked from one side of it, glistening on her chin. Her black T-shirt had rolled up, exposing both her concave belly and a wet red sore next to her navel. The syringe had slipped out of the swollen wound and rolled into a lane of cracked grout separating the yellow tiles.

“Damn,” Danny said in a whisper. There was more awe than shock in his tone.

Jake dropped to his knees and checked for a pulse, thrusting two fingers up under her flaccid chin. He used a thumb to prop up her eyelid. The pupil was dilated. He didn’t bother yelling at her or shaking her shoulder or slapping her face to revive her. She looked to be long past the point at which that sort of intervention would be effective. He did the only thing he could, Danny figured, under the circumstances: He used his radio to call the paramedics, keeping his voice low and calm, his description specific and succinct.

He had seen this before, Danny knew. Many, many times. They had talked about it, on one of the few occasions when their conversation turned serious. Talked about how Jake and the other deputies handled more overdoses these days than car accidents.

Now they waited for the squad.

“Look at her left wrist,” Jake said. He stayed where he was, kneeling on the sticky floor beside her. “Must be left-handed. Left wrist’s clean. Right arm’s a mess. She uses the left to inject herself.” He waved his hand toward the prime access spots: ankle, belly, groin, thigh, between the toes, under the fingernails.

Danny squinted. Her left wrist was indeed white and delicate, like a fluted piece of fine china. The rest of her was filthy and nicked with scars and ablaze with oily dark sores, but not that left wrist. It looked like the wrist of a little girl.

Jake was muttering again. “Such a waste. Such a fucking goddamned waste.”

Danny shrugged. Jake didn’t usually talk like that. In fact, Jake had told Danny that you couldn’t get emotional about these things. Anger and sorrow were useless. Worse than useless: They made a person sloppy. You took your eye off the ball and you couldn’t handle your job. If by some miracle this woman lived, she would, Danny knew, be doing this again another night, in another dirty bathroom. Again and again. And so would all the others. Rinse and repeat. It wasn’t worthy of anybody’s grief. Nothing was ever going to change. There was nothing special about any of this, Danny told himself; there was nothing special about this woman, or about this night.

He was wrong.



Copyright © 2017 Julia Keller.

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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. Julia is the author of the Bell Elkins Novels, beginning with The Devil's Stepdaughter.

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