A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller

A Killing in the Hills - book cover

Go back to the place you know, do good, stay out of trouble. Not easy for this lawyer.

Read a Short Extract


Chapter Two

Pale yellow tape stamped with a repeating bleat of ominous black block letters – CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS – stretched across the mouth of the Salty Dawg’s parking lot, bouncing and twisting in the crisp fall wind, bellying and sagging.
     Bell Elkins tore through the tape as if it were tinsel on last year’s Christmas tree – as if it were, that is, superfluous, out of place, and certainly nothing that ought, under the present circumstances, to be impeding her progress. She crossed the lot in five long strides, dodging emergency vehicles, hopping over crumble-edged fissures in the blacktop. Her arms were tucked tight against her sides, hands curled into fists, chin tilted up as she charged forward.
    The door was blocked by Deputy Charlie Mathers. He was a wide man with slicked-back hair, a perpetual frosting of sweat on his bright pink forehead, and a small dimple on his chin that looked like a half-moon print of a baker’s thumbnail pressed randomly in a ball of dough.
    “Ms. Elkins,” he said, palms held straight up like stop signs, as if she might just take a mind to run him over, “this here’s a crime scene and I really can’t let you –“
    “Hell with that, Charlie. My daughter’s in there.”
    Bell pressed the crunchy ball of yellow tape against his massive chest and prepared to go right on by. She had run track in college, before she became pregnant with Carla, and while that was almost twenty years ago and she hadn’t kept up with the punishing daily regimen, she still had strong legs and a kind of permanent forward momentum. Her body language, she been told too many times, gave off the constant vibe that she was pushing against things: doors, rules, limits, propriety, even the wind. ‘Maybe I am’, had become her standard reply, more to shut people up than anything else. ‘Maybe I am.’ She had springy reddish brown hair divided by a left-side part, a high forehead, thin mouth, small nose. Because she’d bolted from her desk and headed over here in such a hurry, she was still wearing black-rimmed reading glasses, glasses that she would’ve torn off if she’d remembered them. Behind the lenses, her eyes – ferocious-looking at the moment, half-wild, aimed at the place where she knew her daughter was – were light gray.
    “Ms. Elkins, you can’t just go bustin’ in there without proper authoriza-“
    “Back off, Charlie. I mean it.”
    Sixteen minutes earlier, Bell had been sitting in her office in the county courthouse, lost in the thought-maze of a complicated case, when her assistant, Rhonda Lovejoy, had arrived in a frantic dither, the orangey-blond curls of her perm bouncing and shivering, as if her hair were even more frightened than she was.
    “Trouble!” Rhonda had squealed. Foamy flecks of spit accumulated in the loose corners of her mouth. “Gunshots… downtown – “ She paused to pant dramatically, sticking out a chubby index finger to mark her place in the narrative. With her other hand, she clutched her considerable stomach.
    Bell, frowning, had lifted her gaze from the tiny print in the massive leather-bound law book that lay open between her spread elbows on the desktop. The case – she had to decide in two days whether to indict a mentally challenged man named Albie Sheets for the murder of a six-year-old – was a daunting one, fraught with moral and legal dilemmas as tightly tangled as miscellaneous string and single shoelaces and ancient rubber bands nested in the back of a kitchen drawer. Whenever Bell sat down to tackle it, she lost all sense of time. She had instructed her assistant to meet her here at the office this morning by 9 a.m. Hearing a heavy step in the hall, Bell had rediscovered her watch and realized how late Rhonda was. Ridiculously late. At which point another thought had occurred to her. She, too, was late – late to pick up Carla at the Salty Dawg.
    First things first, however. Bell had squared her shoulders, readying herself to be the fire-breathing boss, to address Rhonda in all-out, full-on, rip-her-a-new-one mode.
    And then her assistant’s words finally registered.
    Gunshots. Downtown.
    “Where?" Bell said.
    Rhonda, first gulping another spoonful of air, had managed a raspy, “Salty Dawg.” The syllables came out in three ragged gasps. Rhonda’s rapid ascent of the courthouse steps had just about done her in.
    Bell was up and out of her chair so fast that it had startled Rhonda, causing her to tilt back and wobble precariously like a sideswiped bowling pin, nearly knocking over the yellow vase on the book shelf behind her. Bell whipped past her assistant and flew through the narrow public hall, loafers clicking against the polished wooden floor, hand diving into the pocket of her black linen trousers to fish out her car keys.
    She was halfway down the courthouse steps before she was aware of Rhonda’s voice behind her, plaintive, wailing her name, pleading with her to slow down.
    “Carla’s there,” Bell said, curt, final, flinging the words back over her shoulder, not breaking her stride. Her runner’s rhythm had, like always, come right back to her, like an obscure fact seemingly forgotten but then instantly available, tucked as it was under the first layer of consciousness.
    “Oh my God!” Rhonda had cried. “Oh my God oh my God oh my God. Do you want me to come with you or should I – “
    “Go back to the office,” Bell snapped. “Get to work.”

Deputy Mathers knew Bell Elkins well enough to know it was hopeless, but he had to try. Or at least look like he was trying. As she swept past him, he leaned over and reached out a big hand to pluck at her sleeve. Bell shrugged him off like a bug, then made short work of the restaurant door.
    “Don’t touch nothing!” Mathers said to her back. “I know you know what you are doing, but the sheriff said he’d have my butt if I let anybody –“
    “Got it, Charlie.”
    Inside, the chaos was receding, like a wild animal tricked back into its cage. The stunned customers had been shepherded into a far corner of the room, away from the carnage. An old woman swayed back and forth like a human metronome, muttering ‘Jesus Jesus Jesus’
    A teenaged boy had thrown up, and he was curved over the smelly mess he’d made, sobbing and quivering, his skinny tattooed arms wrapped tightly around his T-shirted torso.
    A Satly Dawg employee – you could tell by her black polyester pants and blousy bright white shirt and shiny white ‘Hi! Have a Dawg-gone good day’ button pinned to the front of that shirt – stared at nothing, eyes wild, mouth open, hands dangling, feet spread.
    Two portly women had locked arms and were moaning in unison. They might have been best friends since fourth grade or they might have met seconds ago; it was impossible to tell. Their moaning had a rhythmic, purring quality, almost sexual in its soft undulations.
    The little girl who’d been in the midst of the chicken-biscuit meltdown was screaming; her dad, instead of trying to comfort her, was screaming too, as if in such a terrible moment, the kid was on her own and no business of his. Screams also emanated from a pudgy middle-aged man with a round face and a black goatee.
    Bell’s hop-skip of a gaze halted near the centre of the room.
    It was worse than she’d imagined. And she had imagined it, of course, the way everyone does when they hear about violent death, visualising it, feeling the dark echo of it in the belly as well as the brain.

Copyright © 2012 Julia Keller