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“Somebody brought coffee, right?”
By way of replying to her, Nick Fogelsong set the cardboard carrier in the middle of the round wooden table at which Belfa Elkins sat. Four large cups of take-out coffee, their warmth sealed in by brown plastic lids, were rooted snugly in the slots.
Outside the small office, the streets of Acker’s Gap slid seamlessly from twilight to darkness. No streetlights fought back. As of a few months ago, the bulbs of burnt-out streetlights were no longer replaced. At issue wasn’t simply the cost of the bulbs; it was also the salary of the city worker whose job it was to switch them out. That city worker, Carter Shively, had retired earlier in the year. Like the bulbs, he wasn’t replaced.
With a pop and a hiss, the last remaining streetlight had gone out two Tuesdays ago. Night was now a hard, blunt dark.
It was just past 7:30 P.M.
“Excellent,” Bell said. She made a show of silent counting, pointing a finger at Nick, and at Jake Oakes, who had come through the door shortly after him, bumping his wheelchair across the threshold, and then at herself. She seemed perplexed by the total. “I see four cups. So who gets the extra?”
“Gimme a break.” Nick sat down next to her and offered her a Really? squint. Her love of coffee was legendary. She didn’t keep a pot in the office in a doomed attempt to cut down on her consumption. “You gotta ask?”
“Just testing you.” Bell grinned, reaching forward with both hands so that she could twist two cups at once out of their little square pens. “Hi, Jake.”
“Hey.” Jake nudged his wheelchair as far up under the table as it would go. He was frowning. “Risked my damned life crossing the street just now. A county Blazer was headed somewhere in a hurry. Couldn’t tell for sure, but looked like it mighta been Steve. Anybody know what’s going on?”
“Nope,” Nick replied, “but give it ten minutes or thereabouts and it’ll be old news. You know this town.” He levered a cup out of the carrier and handed it to Jake, who nodded his gratitude, and secured his own. Then Nick leaned back in his chair, tucking a thumb in his belt. He’d unbuttoned his jacket but didn’t take it off. Jake didn’t take his off, either, and Bell was still wearing her coat as well. The office was equipped with a space heater, “but not so’s you’d take any notice of it,” Bell had remarked wryly a few days ago, when she pointed out that her favorite beverage had turned into iced coffee right under her nose. She didn’t like iced coffee.
It was, she had realized at the time with the kind of surprise endemic to preoccupied people, almost November.
“So why’d you send up the bat signal?” Nick asked. “Thought we’d said our good-byes this afternoon. Now we’re right back here.”
Here was a storefront a block away from the Raythune County Courthouse. The compact establishment was wedged between the Raythune County Public Library and a nail salon named Razzle-Dazzle. It featured a single room, twice as long as it was wide, with a small bathroom in the back. In former lives it had been an insurance company office, a bookstore that specialized in used paperback mysteries, a dentist’s office, and sometime in the 1920s—or so Bell had been told by one of the elderly townspeople—a ladies’ hat shop.
It wasn’t any of those things now. It was a far more unlikely enterprise: a detective agency.
The straightforward name of the business—INVESTIGATIONS—had been stenciled in small black block letters in the lower right-hand corner of the plate-glass window by Nick’s cousin, Lulu Truscott, who had an artistic flair. Below the name was a phone number. Below that, a Web site address. Below that, the street address.
“Might have a new case,” Bell said.
“‘Might’?” Jake’s voice was skeptical, but not aggressively so. He was simply curious about the conditional nature of the news.
“Depends on the particulars,” she answered. “Got a call about an hour ago from a woman named Maggie Folsom. Works in the cafeteria at the grade school. She’s on her way over. Her daughter hasn’t been home in three days. She wants to hire us to find her.”
Nick used a thumbnail to scratch his left cheek. “I know Maggie Folsom. The only daughter she’s got is Dixie Sue. They live in a trailer over in Swanville. And Dixie Sue must be eighteen or nineteen by now. If she doesn’t want to come home—that’s her choice. She’s an adult. She can do as she pleases.”
“Ordinarily I’d agree with you,” Bell said, “but according to the mother, we could be looking at an abduction situation. Running away might have started out as Dixie Sue’s idea, but maybe it didn’t end up that way.” A meaningful pause. “There’s a boyfriend involved.”
“This guy have a name?” Nick asked.
“No—well, yes, of course he does. But Maggie doesn’t know it. She’s never met him. Only found out about him when she called some of Dixie Sue’s friends to check on her. Apparently her daughter was keeping some secrets. And she hasn’t shown up for work, either. She runs the front counter of a florist shop in Swanville.”
“Still sounds like an ordinary domestic dispute to me,” Nick said, making no attempt to hide his disgruntlement. “I don’t have the patience anymore for family dramas. Wish people would just work it out their own damned selves. Quit bothering the rest of the world.”
Jake leaned forward in his wheelchair. “Well, Nick, what you call family dramas—I call job security.” He took a sip of his coffee. He made a cringing motion with his shoulders. “Where’d you get this crap, anyway? That rusty barrel out behind the Jiffy Lube where they store the used oil? Or maybe you scraped it off the bottom of your boot and mixed it with a little hot water? This can’t be from the diner.”
“JP’s closes early now. You know that,” Nick replied gruffly. “Had to go on out to the Highway Haven.”
“Tastes fine to me,” Bell said, before Nick could formulate an additional retort alluding to beggars and choosers. She finished off her first cup to drive the point home. She stowed the empty next to the closed laptop on the table.
Nick, though, had stopped paying attention to their debate over the merits of his gift. “If it’s kidnapping,” he said, “then Maggie Folsom should be talking to the sheriff, not us.”
“Granted.” Bell uncapped the second cup. Sipped, smiled, gave the requisite Ahhhhh. “But that’s the problem. She knows Dixie Sue might very well have gone off with the boyfriend voluntarily. She’s worried, though. There’s been no communication at all from the girl. Maggie doesn’t want to bother Sheriff Harrison unless she has to. Which is decent of her. Not everybody’s so thoughtful.”
“Or,” Nick countered, “she knows the sheriff would tell her there’s nothing to be done. Adults are in charge of themselves.”
Jake gave him a thoughtful look. “You got some kind of beef with this Folsom woman? You sound a little testy.”
“Just don’t like wasting time,” Nick snapped back. He cast an eye toward his wristwatch.
“Late for something?” Bell asked.
She let a minute go by, hoping that the tension—and Nick’s bad mood—would dissipate. She took another drink from her second coffee, allowing herself a quick glimpse around the wood-paneled room. She hadn’t quite gotten used to it yet, even though they’d officially been in business over a year now—and even though there was precious little to get used to: a table and chairs, a mini-fridge, a black metal filing cabinet shoved against the wall. On top of the filing cabinet, a printer. In the corner, one extremely ineffective space heater.
The circuit of her gaze ended at the big glass window, which reflected the images of the three people sitting around the table.
Here we are, Bell thought ruefully. In all our glory.
She allowed herself a few seconds to contemplate the images, starting with herself: She was a fifty-four-year-old woman with a thin face, narrow shoulders, and straight, medium-length hair that she wore tucked behind her ears. The skin beneath her gray eyes was slightly darker than it was elsewhere on her face. Her hair was brownish-blond. For most of her adult life she’d looked younger than her actual age; that gap had now officially closed. She’d caught up with herself. Little wonder: Her life over the past few years had not been easy. A lot of people ended up wearing their histories on their faces. She was one of them.
She moved on to her colleagues.
Jake had just turned thirty. He had a lean, handsome face with somewhat delicate features—large brown eyes, high cheekbones, noticeable eyelashes—that he’d recently decided to complicate with the furry scraggle of a beard. The tough-guy look was offset, though, by the butternut-colored hair that tumbled to his shoulders in a soft wave. “You look like Jesus in one of those paintings on the Sunday school wall,” Nick had teased him the other day, the first time he’d deigned to comment upon Jake’s appearance. “Far as I know, though,” Nick went on, “you ain’t the Savior. You drink too much beer for that.” Jake’s reply had involved the cheerful brandishing of an upraised middle digit, a gesture at which Nick couldn’t take offense because, frankly, he’d been known to employ it himself on more than one occasion.
Nick was sixty-eight. His body was large but solid, and his face was seamed and leathery. He had a crew cut and a square chin. His deep-set hazel eyes looked out at the world with a definite wariness and a default attitude of mild suspicion, the inevitable result of having spent multiple decades in law enforcement. His broad forehead was scored with horizontal lines. Somebody had once told him, in Bell’s hearing, that he looked a little like the retired NFL star Howie Long. That pleased him. And then the guy added, “Or maybe Howie Long’s dad.” That didn’t.
Nick was sending a quick text. Like a lot of older people, he typed with a single index finger, not with both thumbs moving in an ambidextrous blur.
Bell was about to get back to business when she was struck by a thought. She’d had this particular insight before, to be sure, but somehow the force of it was intensified now, as she studied the visual echo of the three of them, sitting at a spindly table in a small, lighted office surrounded by the darkness of a disintegrating town. She couldn’t help but think of this place as a lighthouse jutting from a rocky cliff, while just beyond it, an ocean slapped and clawed at the hapless ship trying to make landfall. All that stood between a desperate crew and certain disaster was this: the faint but steady source of light.
Nick, she knew, would’ve instantly made fun of her if she’d shared the metaphor. What’s all this crap about a lighthouse? he’d ask. Bunch of nonsense. She didn’t care. She’d think it, anyway. She’d gotten used to his cynicism, just as she had Jake’s irreverence. They made a good team, the three of them.
These men were the closest thing Bell had to a family, now that her sister had passed away. She had her daughter, yes—but Carla was twenty-five and lived in Charleston, more than an hour’s drive away. Carla was busy with her work at an environmental lobbying firm. She came back to Acker’s Gap from time to time, but she wasn’t a regular feature of Bell’s life anymore. For that, she had Nick and Jake.
They took the cases that the Raythune County Sheriff’s Department was too busy to handle. Sheriff Harrison was smart, and she was honest, and she worked very hard, but she lacked the time, the budget, and the personnel to fight the drug dealers who had set up shop in these mountain valleys over the past decade. Drugs—and the fact that the dealers didn’t give them away for free—had kicked up an avalanche of other crimes, ancillary crimes: homicide, burglary, home invasion, grand theft auto. The county was overwhelmed.
And so Bell had rented the small office on Main. At first, she’d only been looking for a way to keep busy while she waited for the chance to get her law license reinstated. She had one more year to go before she could apply. A felony conviction—for a crime committed when she was ten years old, a crime that many thought was justified—and her time in a minimum-security prison had triggered mandatory disbarment.
If she wanted to stay in Acker’s Gap—and she did, for reasons that were not entirely clear to her but that she hoped might become so eventually—she needed a place to go every day where she had work to do. Good work. Fulfilling work. A detective agency would play to her strengths.
The same was true for Nick and Jake. They didn’t need a way to make a living. They needed a way to make a life—a means of feeling useful again. Nick, the former sheriff, had his pension. Jake, a former deputy sheriff, had the settlement he’d received from the county for being critically injured on the job. Bell, for her part, was the former county prosecutor.
That’s a lot of damned formers all in one spot, she had groused to herself in the beginning. But it was the truest way to describe them. No use pretending otherwise.
Rhonda Lovejoy, Raythune County prosecutor, had made it official by hiring them as special consultants on a case-by-case basis. So far they’d tracked down a fair number of bail jumpers and cornered more than a few suspects in hit-skip accidents. Gradually, they had started picking up their own cases, small ones and large ones: Background checks for employees at the fast-food chains up on the interstate. Consultations on security procedures for retail stores in the mall over in Blythesburg.
And tracking down missing loved ones, when the sheriff’s department couldn’t spare a deputy. These cases typically involved a grandparent with dementia who’d wandered off when nobody was looking, or a runaway teenager. Once, they had located a hunting dog who’d become disoriented in a storm and separated from his owner, a giant of a man named Jefferson Ferris. When they returned the German short-haired pointer, Bell had been astonished to see the six-foot-six, 310-pound Ferris drop to his knees and sob like a baby, his wet cheek pushed up against the dog’s quivering flank as he embraced him.
Ferris and his dog had reminded Bell of a lesson she’d learned early on: People get to choose what they love. Nobody else has anything to say about it; nobody else can judge.
“Just hope Maggie Folsom doesn’t try to tell us how to do our jobs,” Nick muttered. “You know how people are. Reminds me of that old sign you see on the wall of every car repair shop that ever was. The charge is twenty-five bucks an hour. But it’s fifty if you stick around to watch—and make suggestions.” He put a big hand on top of his bristly scalp, rubbing it vigorously as if he had an itch, which he didn’t. He was just restless. “We’re not committed, right? You didn’t officially take the case?”
“Of course not,” Bell answered quickly. “That was our agreement. Nobody takes a job without getting the okay from the other two. Checks and balances.” She let her gaze rove back toward the window. Beyond their reflections was a solid wall of darkness. The lack of streetlights had taken a toll on Acker’s Gap. In mountain towns the darkness was the serious kind, solid and seamless. Too much darkness, she knew, could affect your dreams, your ambitions, hemming them in like a stockade fence.
She put the lid on her coffee cup to preserve its heat. And she put the lid on that kind of thinking, too, to preserve something else: the fragile scrap of hope that enabled her to keep fighting.
She started to say something else to Nick. It was going to be a wisecrack, something to nudge him out of his sour mood. Something clever. Something silly, even. Something to make him laugh, or at least grunt appreciatively. Before she could do that, though, the office door swung open, letting in a surly punch of cold air.
Long after this night, Bell would remember the odd, unruly feeling that overtook her just then. This is where it starts, she thought. She didn’t know what the phrase meant in this context or where it had come from or why—but suddenly it was there, filling her mind, followed by another: It’s beginning.
Copyright © 2019 by Julia Keller