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Breakheart Hill

Thomas H. Cook



  “Cook has crafted a novel of stunning power, with a climax that is so unexpected the reader may think he has cheated. But there is no cheating here, only excellent storytelling.”


  “Cook’s writing is distinguished by finely cadenced prose, superior narrative skills, and the author’s patient love for the doomed characters who are the object of his attention.… Highly recommended.”

  —Library Journal (starred review)

  “Gripping.… The simple plot becomes more than the sum of its parts—a haunting evocation that gains power and resonance with each twist of its spiral-like narration.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Cook is a gifted writer, and here he infuses every page with the kind of melancholy that has defined the southern gothic novel for years.”

  —Plain Dealer, Cleveland

  “I’m a pure fool for the kind of cadenced, melancholy, distanced-in-time prose that Cook uses here. It reminds me of To Kill A Mockingbird.… This is the best crime novel I’ve read so far in 1995 against some strong opposition, and it may well be the best on December 31st. Cook does a superb job of building and maintaining an almost relentless suspense from the opening paragraphs to the final few pages of the book. You’ll think you know who (and maybe you do) and you’ll think you know why (and I suppose it’s possible); but trust me, you won’t have guessed everything. Breakheart Hill is one of the best written and most marvelously crafted books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s dark, and it’s sad, and it’s very, very good, a personal best from a fine writer. Read it.”

  —Mystery News

  “One of Cook’s most evocative, captivating and haunting [novels]…. Cook is a truly lyrical writer.… Breakheart Hill is a book to read slowly and savor, but it is so compelling that readers will be turning the pages as fast as they can. This haunting story will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page and reluctantly set it aside.”

  —Flint Journal

  “A thrilling story of close to unbearable suspense.”

  —The Neshoba Democrat

  “An opening line to rival the best. A story that also rivals the best. Breakheart Hill is first and foremost an outstanding mystery, but it is also a distinguished novel.”

  —Deadly Pleasures

  “A seductive mood piece.”

  —The New York Times Book Review

  “There’s something Conroyesque in Thomas H. Cook’s Breakheart Hill.… A book to be read for the intensity of its plot and the beauty of its words. This is a rare combination from any author, but Cook manages to pull it off. A triumph.”

  —The Rockdale Citizen

  “The writing here is extraordinary.… A haunting read that will stay with you a long, long time.”

  —Contra Costa Times

  “In the style of Pat Conroy, Thomas Cook poetically weaves a tapestry of love and deceit that will not soon be forgotten.”

  —San Antonio Express-News

  Also by Thomas H. Cook



















  And coming in hardcover from Bantam Books:


  *Available from Bantam Books

  This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition. NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.


  A Bantam Book


  Bantam hardcover edition published July 1995

  Bantam paperback edition / August 1996

  All rights reserved.

  Copyright © 1995 by Thomas H. Cook.

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  For information address: Bantam Books.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-57271-4

  Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.


  For Susan Terner

  Through the darkness,

  still at my side.



  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page



  Part One Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Part Two Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Part Three Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Part Four Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  About the Author



  THIS IS THE DARKEST STORY THAT I EVER HEARD. AND ALL my life I have labored not to tell it.

  It goes with gray clouds and heavy rain, and when I remember it, I see her feet running over sodden ground. But actually the sun was full and bright the day it happened, and the kudzu vines they found tangled around her legs were thick and green at the end of a long spring growth. In fact, the vegetation had become so thick on the mountainside by then that even from a short distance it would have been hard to hear all that went on that afternoon, all that was said and done.

  And yet there are times when I do hear certain things very distinctly: her body plunging through the undergrowth, birds fluttering from their nests, a frantic scurrying through the leaves and shrubs as small landbound creatures rush away, panicked by the same alarm that has disturbed the birds.

  From time to time, though rarely, I actually hear her voice. It is faint, but persistent. Sometimes it comes in the form of a question: Why are you doing this to me?

  Since then there have been many summers as beautiful as that one more than thirty years ago, and yet there is none I can recall as vividly. I remember the way the azaleas had flowered in a fiery brilliance, their red and white blooms like small explosions just above the ground, how delicate pink fluffs had hung from the mimosas, how even the great magnolias appeared to strain beneath their burden of unscented blooms. More than anything, I remember how the violets had overflowed every garden wall and window box, flooding the town with a torrent of purple flowers and filling the air with their powdery, sweet smell.

  Many times during the years that have passed since then, my friend Luke Duchamp has commented on how exquisite the world seemed that afternoon. He means the flowers, of course, but there has always been an edgy tension, a sense of unanswered questions, couched within his description of that resplendent summer day.

  He last mentioned it only a few days ago, and as he did so, I once again felt the truth approach me like a dark figure, grim, threateni
ng, determined to do me harm. We’d just come from one of the many funerals that punctuate small-town life, though this one had been more significant than most, since it was Kelli’s mother who had died. We had attended it together, then returned to my house to have a glass of tea, the two of us sitting on my front porch as the sun slowly lowered over the distant range of mountains.

  Luke took a quick sip from the glass, then let it drift down toward his lap. He looked thoughtful, but agitated as well, his mind no doubt recalling what he’d seen so long ago. “It’s still hard to believe that someone could do something like that,” he said.

  He meant to Kelli Troy, of course, and so I answered with my stock reply. “Yes, it is.”

  His eyes were fixed on the high wall of the mountain, as if clinging to it for support, and his face took on that odd stillness that always comes over it when he begins to think about it all again. “Hard to believe,” he repeated after a moment.

  I nodded silently, unable to add anything further, unable, despite all these many years, to relieve the burden of his doubt, offer him that truth which is said to set us free.

  “An awful thing for a teenage boy to see,” he added quietly.

  In my mind I saw Kelli’s body as Luke had seen it, lying facedown on the forest floor, her long, curly hair splayed out around her head, a single arm reaching up toward the crest of the slope. I could hear Mr. Bailey’s voice ring out as he’d displayed the last photograph to the jury. This is what was done to her.

  And as I recalled it all, I felt that Luke was right, that it was hard to believe that such a thing could have happened, that she could have ended up in such disarray, with her white dress soiled and her hair littered with debris, her right arm stretched out, palm down, fingers curled, as if she were still crawling desperately up the slope.

  “I still can’t imagine why,” Luke said softly, though not exactly to himself. His eyes shot over to me. “Can you, Ben?”

  His eyes were motionless as they stared at me, and I knew that I had to answer quickly in order to deflect all those other questions that have taunted him through the years, colored his view of life, darkening its atmosphere.

  “Hate,” I said.

  It was the same answer Mr. Bailey had given so many years before, and I could easily remember the way he’d held the photograph up before the jury, his words washing over them, high and passionate, filled with his righteous anger. This is what was done to her. Only hate can do a thing like this.

  Luke continued to watch me steadily. “Maybe so,” he said. “But you know, Ben, I’ve never quite believed that explanation.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because there wasn’t all that much hate,” Luke said. “Even here. Even then.”

  Here. Then. Choctaw, Alabama. May 1962.

  At those times when I feel night come toward me like something closing in for the kill, I recall that vanished time and place. In memory, it seems kinder than the one that followed it, but I know that it was not. It was closed and narrow, a small-town world where nothing towered above us but the mountains and the churchhouse spires, nor loomed in distances more vast than those that separated us from the next village streets. Most of the seven thousand people who lived in Choctaw had either been born at the local hospital or in one of the hundreds of farmhouses that spread out along the valley on either side of the town. It was a Protestant world, entirely without Catholics or Jews, a white world despite the small black population that lived, as if in a vague netherworld, on the far side of town. More than anything, it was a world in which we trusted only people exactly like ourselves. And so, when I imagine Kelli plunging through the green, I sometimes see her not as she was that day, a young girl running desperately from the sudden violence of a single person, but as a stranger, wrongly accused and set upon by a huge, howling mob.

  Or perhaps that is only how I wish to see it, a single victim, but a world of blame.

  Luke placed the glass on the small wooden table beside his chair, pulled his old briar pipe from his shirt pocket and began to fill it with tobacco. “You remember the first time we saw her, Ben?” he asked.

  “Yes,” I said. I knew he meant the time in the park, the time he’d seen Kelli for the first time. But I had seen her long before that, as a little girl, when she’d come into my father’s grocery with her mother.

  “I’m Miss Troy” were the first words Kelli’s mother said to my father. She was a tall, slender woman with pale skin, light brown hair and an air of nervous distraction about her, as if she were continually trying to recall where she’d mislaid her keys. She flopped her shiny black purse onto the counter as she spoke, and it lay there like a dead bird between herself and my father. Overhead an old ceiling fan whirled slowly in the summer heat, and I remember that its breeze gently rustled through her hair.

  “I’m Miss Troy,” she said, emphasizing the “Miss,” though without explanation, even after she’d added, “And this is my daughter, Kelli.”

  It was the summer of 1952, long before much had really changed in the South, and a woman with a young daughter and no husband was not a common sight in a town like ours, where the Confederate battle flag still waved above the courthouse lawn, and the older ways of life it represented, a strict moral and social code, personal reticence, a world order that was essentially Victorian, still held sway. Miss Troy had clearly broken with that world, not only in having borne a child without a husband, but in declaring it so bluntly.

  “Nice to meet you, ma’am” was all my father said. Then he smiled that quiet, knowing smile of his, the one that seemed to accept life on its own terms rather than as something that had somehow broken its promise to him. “And what can I do for you, Miss Troy?” he added.

  “I’d like to buy a few things,” Miss Troy answered. “I’d like to put the bill on my mother’s account.” She said it almost sharply, her eyes still fixed on my father’s face, as if expecting him to turn her down. “My mother’s not well and I’m down here to see after her for a while.”

  My father nodded, then glanced down at Kelli. “Mighty pretty little girl you got there,” he said gently. “How old is she?”

  “Six,” Miss Troy answered matter-of-factly.

  My father pointed to me. “This is my son. Name’s Ben. He’s the same age as your little girl.”

  “Thelma Troy, that’s my mother,” Miss Troy said briskly. “She says you know her.”

  “Yes, ma’am, I do.”

  “Do you need to see some identification for me to put things on her account?”

  The question seemed to surprise my father. “Identification? What for?”

  “So you’ll know I’m really her daughter.”

  My father looked at her curiously, in wonder at such cold formality. “No, ma’am, I don’t need to see any identification.”

  Miss Troy gave him a doubtful glance. “So I can go ahead and do my shopping now? You don’t need to check anything?”

  My father shook his head. “I’m sure you’re who you say you are, Miss Troy.”

  “Well, thank you, then,” Miss Troy said, still a little coolly, but with some part of my father’s trust already warming her.

  She went directly to her shopping after that, tugging Kelli along with her as she made her way down one of the aisles.

  From the front of the store, I watched as the two of them moved among the canned goods and stacks of paper products. From time to time, Kelli would glance back at me, her face half hidden in the black curls of her hair. She was darker than her mother, with nearly black eyes, and she wore a white dress that had small green lines scattered across it so that, at first, I thought she must have been rolling in new-mown grass. But more than anything, I noticed how directly she stared at me, as if she were expecting me to challenge her in some way, demand something she had already determined to refuse.

  “Hi,” I said as she passed by.

  She did not answer but only continued to watch me closely, her eyes evaluating me with what even then I
sensed to be a fierce intelligence.

  They left a few minutes later, Miss Troy holding her groceries in one hand and tugging Kelli along with the other, both of them passing quickly through the store’s old screen door, letting it fly back with a loud pop.

  With a little boy’s purposeless curiosity, I followed after them, and stood on the wooden porch, my small hands sunk deep into the pockets of my faded blue overalls, watching them go.

  They’d come in a dusty red pickup truck with black-wall tires and a rusty grille, an old model, scarcely seen anymore, with the headlights mounted on the front fenders, like frog’s eyes. Kelli sat on the passenger side, of course, the window rolled down so that I could see her slender arm as it dangled outside the door. When it pulled away, she glanced back at me, her face still locked in an odd concentration, earnest and unsmiling.

  It is the absence of that smile that most haunts me now, and each time I recall it, I remember how serious she appeared even at that early age, how guarded and mistrustful, and how, years later, at the instant of her destruction, all the trust and belonging she had come to feel during the previous year must have seemed to explode before her eyes.

  Within an instant, she was gone.

  I remained on the porch, my hands still in my pockets, toying with one of the assortment of dime-store clickers I’d collected over the years. I was always clicking them, using them, as I realize now, to click away boredom, loneliness, fear. At night I clicked away the darkness. Alone in my backyard I clicked up imaginary friends. I suppose that as I stood on the store’s front porch that afternoon, I half believed that with a single innocent and fantastic click I could bring Kelli Troy back to me.

  Such a wonder does not exist, of course. Only memory does, the standing miracle of life. And so, despite the passage of over thirty years, the slightest thing can still return her to me. Sometimes, for example, I will glance out my office window, fix my eyes upon the gray upper slope of Breakheart Hill, and recall the many times I’d wanted to take her up that same hill and lie down with her. I had dreamed of it quite often during the time I knew her, and it was always the same dream, delicate enough, and tender, but unmistakably sensual as well. I would take her to the crest of Breakheart Hill, lower her upon a dark red blanket, and as the music swelled to a thrilling height, we would come together in that passionate embrace I’d seen in countless movies, a touch I had never felt, though many times imagined.