Sorrow Road by Julia Keller is the 5th book in the Bell Elkins series (Available August 23, 2016).
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.
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.”
“One person who believes in you,” Bell said. “The rest of the world can go to hell—as long as you’ve got one person in your corner.” Darlene did not ask, but if she had, Bell would have told her that for her, the one person had been Nick Fogelsong, former sheriff of Raythune County. He’d known her since she was ten years old. He’d seen her through all the major phases of her life, good and bad. Without him, her life would have been … Well, she did not want to finish that sentence. “Your dad must have been pretty special.”
“He was. He really was. Anyone who knew him will tell you that. He’d never been out of Barr County in his life and then—boom. Right after Pearl Harbor, he runs down and he enlists. Him and his two best friends. He was only fifteen, so he had to lie about his age. Served in the Navy. He was part of the D-Day landing. Never talked about it, but I got the story from other people over the years. He was a great man. A truly great man.” Darlene swallowed hard. “Which is why you’re going to be surprised at what I came here to tell you tonight.”
Darlene leaned across the table. Her face had changed. The look in her eye was unsettling.
“I killed him,” she said.
“I didn’t pull a trigger. But I saw there was something going on. I should have forced that director to get to the bottom of it. I’ll regret that for the rest of my life. Because now my father is dead. He trusted me to take care of him, and I let him down.” Her jaw tightened. When she spoke again, her voice had a lost and pleading quality to it. “If you don’t help me—someone’s going to get away with murder.”
* * *
Bell stood alongside her Ford Explorer in the dark parking lot. She watched the snow come down in a furious, wind-driven swirl, the millions of bits briefly illuminated as they intersected with the thin triangle of light provided by the single bulb fastened to a pole alongside the lot.
By now the snow completely covered the gravel. It piled up in sugary peaks and tufts against the tires of the cars. It smothered windshields like grave blankets.
Back in the bar, she had listened to the rest of Darlene’s story. It was long on accusation, short on evidence. They had discussed options, strategies, possibilities. Then Darlene settled the bill. They looped thick scarves around their necks and buttoned up their heavy coats and tugged on gloves and left the low-slung, cinder block building, exchanging the crunch of peanut shells for the crunch of snow in the parking lot.
Because they had arrived here almost simultaneously, their vehicles were parked side by side. Darlene paused at the driver’s door of her midnight-blue Audi. She brushed the snow off the shoulders of her coat, and then she opened the door, slid in, and pulled it shut. Bell waved. She said the thing she always said when anyone departed in winter, when snow added yet another treacherous element to mountain roads that were pretty damned perilous to begin with: “Be careful.”
Darlene’s window was rolled up, so she could not hear the words, but Bell hadn’t really meant them for her. The words were aimed at the universe, at whatever distant, brooding force controlled the destinies of people forced to live in dangerous circumstances. “Be careful” meant: Be careful with the souls in your care. They had suffered enough, most of them.
Hell. All of them.
As Bell watched, Darlene backed the Audi out of its spot and then pulled forward, leaving the lot in a wide, slow, wary turn. The snow was thickening so quickly that her tire tracks disappeared almost instantly.
Bell was consoled by the fact that Darlene knew these roads as well as she did, including the switchback halfway down that had caused more deaths than a serial killer. Yes, Darlene had moved away a long time ago—but some things, you never forgot. Mountain roads in winter definitely made the list.
She continued to stand by the Explorer. She didn’t want to leave right away. As cold and dark as it was, as furiously as the snow was falling, Bell wanted to wait here for just a few minutes more and contemplate what Darlene had told her. She needed to figure out what—if anything—she should do in response to it. The snow boxed in her thoughts, sealing them off. It temporarily kept distractions at bay. Soon, of course, the snow would be its own distraction; Bell would have to negotiate the switchback, too, and trust the Explorer to get her safely down the mountain.
But for the next few minutes, she wanted to watch the snow as it faithfully coated every object, obscuring edges and differences, making everything look the same. Simplifying the world. She felt the flakes melting in her hair.
Darlene was still grieving her father’s death. Bell did not know her well, but she did not need to know her well to understand that. Darlene was stunned, angry, turned inside out with the kind of despair for which there was no antidote. Grief was something you simply had to get through, howsoever you could. Grief was brutal, and it was cruel, and it lasted as long as it lasted. Grief could turn even the calmest, most poised and rational person into an emotional mess. And when grief was mixed with guilt—the guilt that burned and surged and twisted inside you because you so futilely wished you’d done more for your loved one, wished you’d stopped in more often and paid better attention when you did, wished you’d hugged him just once more during that last visit, and told him just one more time that you loved him, although, God help you, you did not know it was going to be your final chance to do that, to do anything—then you were in for trouble.
Bell had listened to Darlene. She had heard the pain in her voice. She had nodded. But she’d made no promises to her old acquaintance, beyond an agreement to look into the matter. Informally. Discreetly.
In some ways—and Bell knew she didn’t have to explain this to Darlene—a prosecutor had less power than an average citizen, not more. When a prosecutor made a casual inquiry, it wasn’t casual anymore. It couldn’t be. A clanking, wheezing, cumbersome bureaucracy always came along for the ride. Unless she was prepared to initiate a formal investigation on the basis of what seemed to Bell to be fairly skimpy evidence—or, more accurately, to persuade Muth County Prosecutor Steve Black to do so, being as how Thornapple Terrace was on his patch—she had to tread very, very lightly. She’d probably have to let a surrogate do the gentle probing.
“Surrogate” was a euphemism for Rhonda Lovejoy, her assistant prosecutor, who specialized in just this sort of sideways, not-quite-official errand. Rhonda’s roots in the region ran so deep that when she asked questions, people just assumed she was collecting contact information for a family reunion. It was easy to forget that she worked in the Raythune County prosecutor’s office.
Didn’t Rhonda have a cousin or two up in Muth County? Bell was almost sure of it. She recalled Rhonda talking about a branch of the Lovejoy clan that had shifted northward, following a rumor of jobs, as prospects in Acker’s Gap had steadily dwindled. Maybe Rhonda could, under the guise of visiting her relatives, stop in at Thornapple Terrace and have a look around. Nothing overt. No big deal. And then maybe, if the opportunity presented itself, Rhonda could find a chatty employee and hang out long enough to ask about Harmon Strayer’s fate.
A cell ring tone sliced into Bell’s thoughts. It was the ring assigned to her twenty-one-year-old daughter, Carla—Adele’s “Hello”—and so, with fingers that felt paralyzed with cold despite the protection of gloves, Bell fished the phone out of her purse with extra urgency.
“Is everything all—”
“Fine. It’s fine. Why do you always ask me that, first thing? It’s like you’re expecting to hear that I’ve screwed up.”
“No, I…” The conversation needed a reset. Bell changed directions. “It’s snowing like crazy here.”
“Here, too. Has been for hours. CNN says they might shut down Reagan National. Dulles, too.”
Carla lived with five roommates—and an untold number of mice and other anonymous freeloaders—in a tilting, fraying three-story house in Arlington, Virginia. Before that, she had lived with her father, Bell’s ex-husband, Sam Elkins, in a condo in Alexandria. She’d spent her senior year at a private school, transferring from Acker’s Gap High School after the terrifying night when she almost died at the hands of a killer whose real target was Bell. Carla had decided to postpone college for a few years, a decision that Bell found keenly disappointing, but she capitulated after sensing Carla’s resolve. Pick your battles, was the advice everyone had given her. Made sense—for moms as well as for prosecutors.
“Are you home?” Bell asked.
“Yeah. Just watching the snow from my bedroom window. Can’t even see the pavement anymore. How about you?”
“Actually, I’m standing in the parking lot of a bar in Blythesburg. Getting ready to head home. Met an old friend for a drink.”
“Mom, come on—hang up and start driving. That’s what you’d be saying to me.”
“You’re right. I would.” Bell turned around and opened the Explorer’s door. “Kind of nice, though. Being out in it. Peaceful.” She scooted in and pulled the door shut.
“Peaceful, my ass. Go home, Mom. It’s a long way from there back to Acker’s Gap. With the snow, you’re looking at an hour or more.”
“Surprised you remember.” Bell started the engine, wanting to warm it up before she headed out. She’d have to wait, anyway, for the wipers to shove aside the snow that had congregated on the windshield.
“Oh, I remember all right. And I also remember almost skidding down the mountain when I was driving back home once with Kayleigh Crocker,” Carla said, naming one of her best friends from Acker’s Gap High School, a young woman whose wildness had continued into adulthood. Bell knew that because, as a prosecutor, she’d had several encounters in court with Kayleigh Crocker and a revolving cast of worthless boyfriends clearly bound for much more significant trouble. “Trash magnet” was the category in which Bell placed Kayleigh Crocker.
“We went to a party in Blythesburg,” Carla added. “Winter of junior year.”
“Stop right there. Retroactive worry is a mother’s prerogative—even though it’s totally pointless.”
She waited. There had to be more. Her daughter didn’t need a specific reason to reach out—Bell loved their casual, spontaneous conversations, and had told Carla so, many times—but she could feel the looming weight of whatever it was that Carla had called her to talk about.
“Sweetie?” Bell said. “What’s going on?”
A pause, a brief throat-clearing, and then a flying wedge of words: “I need to come home, Mom. Right away. To Acker’s Gap. For good. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“But this weather—can’t you wait until Monday or Tuesday?”
“You’re not listening to me. I have to come now. Roads will be clear by late morning. Promise I’ll be careful.”
“One day can’t make that much diff—”
“See you tomorrow, Mom.”
Copyright © 2016 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 Viriginia and lives in Chicago and Ohio.