Here are the preview chapters of Bell Park! Enjoy!
Juls woke that morning feeling tired from running from Komodo Dragons in her dream. In the dream, the dragons ran round her as if herding her closer and closer to the sea.
As she showered for work she thought of the dragons as the hot water poured against her. The shower still had the pale aqua tiles her mother had “updated” it with in 1972 and with a small frosted window that allowed the morning sunlight to flow into the bathroom and bathe her in a natural light.
She lived in the house her grandfather had first owned in the early 1940s. It was an adaptation of a California bungalow, a small house tucked onto the hillside of what had begun as an early 20th century housing development in her hometown. Her grandparents and parents had lived there and now she lived there alone.
When she closed her eyes as she washed her hair, she could see the dragons circling her while meaningless words from an unrecognizable language were repeated in her brain like some tuneless chant. The dream had been so vivid that she could visualize the texture of their hides and their long and somewhat slimy split tongues. She thought of the words bouncing around inside her head and tried to connect the dragons and the sounds as if she were solving one of the logic problems she often worked as a method to drive away her nightly insomnia, but none of it made much sense.
Maybe the dream was a left over last night from watching Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin in Creation on Netflix. The movie had certainly been depressing enough to have seeded itself into some wee part of her brain because she knew that the Komodo Dragons were found in Indonesia, not in the Galapagos.
She sighed and began to put on her make-up. She dressed, gathered her papers for work, grabbed her keys and spent a long and quiet morning thinking of the dragons driving her across the sand to the seawater. She thought maybe the language was some South Pacific island language, but she had never had any desire to visit the South Pacific. She felt as if her head were trying to tell her something, but her brain might as well have been addressing her in Mandarin for all the sense it made.
She did live a quiet life, but it was of her own choice. She spent her days in a turn of the century house downtown in what was probably once someone’s beautiful second storey bedroom, her desk situated before a large bay window that faced the southwest.
Each day was a simple routine of editing press releases and advertising copy for Turner and Schulte, a small public relations firm which specialized in financial institutions as clients. She never met the clients. She never visited the firms. She did not even know what the buildings of her clients looked like or even what the clients looked like and she wrote for them without really caring. She had a good job – not an easy thing to find with a liberal arts English degree. She often thought that her luck might have been better had she chosen an English education degree, but the two paths gave her a choice between a class in learning to use audio visual equipment or learning a foreign language. She chose French and left the path to teaching.
C’est la vie, she often mused, wondering if she might have been a good teacher. Her father certainly had been. He had been loved by his geology students at Marshall and he found the field trips exhilarating. During her childhood years, her home had been filled with young students bringing specimens and talking with her dad as her mother worked in the kitchen fixing meals and snacks for all of them.
It was a happy childhood and Juls liked the students, but she didn’t think she could inspire anyone to such a passionate love of their work, Perhaps, she sometimes thought, because she held little passion for her own work.
She had started out with the company as a copywriter six years ago, shortly after graduating from Marshall University. By her fifth year there, she was the company’s editorial director and answered only to the owner of the company, John Schulte, who always spoke with the clients. His partner, Ed Turner, had left two decades earlier, but Schulte liked the idea of potential clients thinking of his company as a partnership so he kept Turner’s name on the door even though Turner had left town when he left Schulte behind.
It was an easy job, one that never tasked her and that held a routine that was both comfortable and expected.
Her evenings were spent either alone or with a few close friends who never really knew much about her other than the brief history she had given them. She did not purposefully hide anything from them and she did not lie. She simply failed to give them any more information that she felt they needed. She sometimes went out with them to Max & Erma’s restaurant or a movie at Pullman Square. Sometimes she went to a Marshall Artist Series event at the Keith Albee Theatre with a date. But she often came home alone. Again, a choice of her own.
But the truth of whom she really was would have surprised her friends and colleagues.
She was Julia Louisa Bell, known to all as “Juls”, and she lived in Bell Park in Huntington, West Virginia. To most people, including her neighbors in Bell Park, that meant nothing. She was their neighbor – a young woman who lived in another Craftsman style house perched on a very large lot at the back of the Park. The house had been given to her by her parents when they had left Huntington for Boca Raton about the same time she had gone to work for Turner & Schulte. Most of the people who knew her parents knew as little about them as they did about her. Sometimes someone would comment on her surname and the name of where she lived, but they usually did so in jest, never knowing if there was a connection between the two.
She could have probably spent her entire life without anyone knowing anything important about her had the man not knocked on her door the evening after she had dreamed of the dragons. She answered it without looking outside first, thinking that it was possibly a neighbor with some question or request. Bell Park was secluded from the main part of Huntington and few people who did not live there ever found a reason to go there since it was not really a park, just a name of an isolated section of the city.
So when Juls opened the door and found the man at her door holding what appeared to be a tablet computer within his folded arms, she suddenly remembered the dragons and frowned.
She did not like surprises or strangers. She liked her orderly routine with a small roster of people she allowed to have access to her life.
Her frown must have given him a different impression of her and he stepped back from the door. He really wasn’t an unusual man. He was on the whole a normal looking man, perhaps 35 or 40, with brown hair that was starting to recede a bit. He was neither tall nor short, normal weight, and eyes that actually were hidden by heavy tortoise shell frames. His most distinguishing feature might have been his very broad shoulders buried under a white oxford cloth shirt and navy blue sports coat. He certainly had no rough hide and as far as she could tell, no split tongue. And that thought made her suddenly smile.
He pushed his glasses up and held out one hand to introduce himself.
“I hope I’m not bothering you. I’m looking for, uh,” he paused and consulted the tablet, “for Julia Bell.” He looked up to find the woman at the door unresponsive.
“My name is Jack Robbins. I’m writing a history of the Collis Huntington railroad empire and I came here from New York to research Huntington as the western terminus of the line. I thought I’d try to speak to Ms. Bell, but everyone said I should come here, so if you’re not Ms. Bell, would you know where I could find her?”
He stopped and again waited for her response, but none came.
“I apologize for appearing so abruptly and I would have called, but her number was unlisted and . . .” he said, unsure as to how to continue what was increasingly becoming a one sided conversation.
The minute he had said Collis Huntington and railroad she had frowned again. Until that point, she had had a brief moment of curiosity about the man, but she lost all interest then. She knew exactly why he was here and she had no desire whatsoever to talk with him about what he wanted to discuss.
“I’m sorry,” she said interrupting his small speech. “I am Julia Bell, but I’m going out and really can’t talk with you. If you’re interested in early Huntington history, you might try the local history room at either the downtown library or the special collections over at Marshall University. I’m sure you’ll find more information on Huntington at either place,” and she began to close the door in the man’s face.
But he reached his hand out to her again and looked pleadingly at her, “I’ve already gotten everything I can from those sources. I need to talk to someone whose family was involved with the railroad. I was hoping that the Bell family might have something that the libraries didn’t have, since they were so involved with the railroad,” he paused and then added “Please, any help would be invaluable.”
She sighed inwardly. He wasn’t going to go away, but she wasn’t going to allow him to enter her home, either.
“I really have plans this evening, but I could meet with you tomorrow around noon at Marshall. And call me Juls. No one calls me Julia.”
He smiled brightly. “That would be great. Where on campus would be good?”
She bit her lip for a moment trying to think of a place that was public, yet would afford her some privacy if the discussion took the direction she expected it to take.
“The library. Second floor. But, please be as punctual as possible. I only have a short time to talk with you,” she replied.
“I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me.,” he said reaching his hand out again.
Damn, she thought. He was one very determined man about trying to shake hands. She reluctantly took his hand and was surprised to find his handshake firm and strong and his skin just a bit rough.
As he began to walk away from her house, he was stopped by her voice from the porch. He turned back to wards her and could barely make out her form on the porch in the falling twilight.
She knew she should have left at that point and should have planned to stand him up tomorrow, but something about him made her stop him and ask the question to which she already knew the answer.
“Are you really here to ask about Jonas Bell and the murder?”
The man stopped and looked around the neighborhood. Lights were beginning to appear in the windows of some houses and he could hear in the distance the voices of children being called in for the evening. He knew that she was not going to like his response, but he told her the truth nonetheless.
“Yes. I am.”
Ok, he thought, here’s where she disappears.
When he again heard no response from her, he saw that as a bad sign. She could hold the key to the mystery of what had really happened to Jonas Bell. He squinted to see if she were still standing on the porch. He could barely see her white shirt now.
“I see,” she said rather too quietly. “I will see you tomorrow,” and she turned and reentered her home without any other reaction or words.
He walked away from the house and got into his Honda rental. Before leaving, he took one last look at the bungalow and still saw no light or movements from within it. As he drove away, he thought of Jonas Bell and what the man’s dreams had become. It all seemed a bit sad after meeting her.
But inside the foyer, Juls Bell leaned back against the shut door and closed her eyes tightly. The dragons had arrived and she could swim away or face them, but they had arrived with the man with the tablet and she feared her quiet life was not likely to ever be quiet again.
Jack Robbins arrived 45 minutes earlier than Juls had asked of him. He wanted to take no chances of missing her. He knew he might not get a second chance at talking with her and at this point, she might be his last hope. He sat at a table near a bright window and had his tablet out, a legal pad, and some photocopies he had made of news stories about Juls’s great-grandfather, Jonas.
He leaned back in the hard plastic chair and watched the sidewalk below that led to the entrance of the library. The spring semester was winding down to finals week and students seemed to be preoccupied, probably with finals and summer plans.
A part of him did not expect Juls Bell to meet him, but she was the only one who might have the answers he needed and so he waited rather despondently.
His book had originally been a history on the Huntington Railroad, but he had been losing interest quickly in Collis Huntington until the discovery of the Jonas Bell scandal had taken him in a different direction. The more he learned about Jonas, the more he was taken in by the man who had died over 60 years ago. He wondered if Jonas had had that effect on people during his lifetime.
Either way, Jonas had changed Jack’s book and truthfully had taken over his life. Jonas, well, Jonas was a man who had had everything and had died with nothing but a resentful family and a horrible reputation.
It was fifteen minutes past noon and he was beginning to stack his papers to put back in his briefcase when Juls appeared at the other end of the table. He looked up over the top of his glasses and at first thought he was imagining the tall, young woman standing there in a well tailored blue pinstripe suit, a frown still creasing what appeared to be otherwise very pleasant and refined features.
She made him feel unkempt and somewhat schlumpy. He wasn’t wearing a jacket today and for some idiotic reason he felt as if he had ink smeared on his face, which he stupidly tried to rub away as if it were really there.
Everything about her was so very neatly packaged, from her smooth manicured hands to her clean and shining ash blonde hair pulled back with a baroque gold and pearl hair clip. She carried nothing with her. No purse. No briefcase. Nothing. She sat down next to him at the table and placed her hands flat on the table and looked to him as if expecting him to begin his questions without even an acknowledgement of her arrival.
And, so he did. He put the tablet in his briefcase and left only the legal pad and pen in front of him to make notes if he needed. He began with the most obvious question, but one that had to be asked first nevertheless.
“Was Jonas Bell your great-grandfather?”
“Yes,” she said without emotion.
He bit his lower lip for a moment and nodded. He might as well ask the big question now. If she were going to run or refuse his questions, she would at least have to respond in some way to the most important question he had.
“Did he or perhaps I should ask, do you think, he killed his mother? Your great-great grandmother . . . um, Julia? I didn’t notice till now that you shared her name.”
Her nostrils flared slightly, but no other hint of emotion crossed her face. She looked into his eyes before answering.
In the brighter light of the library, he appeared to be a handsomer man than she had initially thought and she saw something, but she wasn’t sure what, in his eyes behind those awful dark glasses.
“First, tell me what you think you know,” she replied.
He had picked up his pen, preparing to write, but now laid it back down, folding his arms in front of himself on the table and leaning toward her.
“Ok. According to what I’ve found in different source records, Jonas Bell was the son of one the men who served as a liaison of Collis Huntington here in Huntington. Bell was thought to have come into some financial difficulties in the 1930s and was thought by some to even have a gambling problem,” Jack said.
“Lots of speculation on him. I even found an article about his, uh, situation in the New York Times archives.”
He pulled out his notes againand looked through them to see if he had missed anything in his short speech.
Jack ceased his recitation of his notes for moment to see if Juls were reacting in any way. Still, he saw no emotions there. She was very self-controlled, he thought.
“Jonas’s mother was murdered in 1937 and he was the number one suspect. She was found in her parlor by her housemaid. She had been stabbed in the neck and,” he paused and decided not to mention that in some accounts he had read that the woman had nearly been decapitated.
“Her jewelry was missing as well as her money and some things from her upstairs safe. The local police believed Jonas had committed the murder, but they were never able to prove anything. The jewelry and bonds were never found. A local charity inherited her estate, but no money was included and if there was money, it was never found at the time he died.”
Juls pursed her lips and then smiled. “That’s been the big question my family has been asking since Jonas died.”
“As to your original question,” she continued, “I don’t know. Of course, I never knew him. He died years before I was born and my father never spoke much about him. I know many of the same things you’ve just said – that his father worked for Collis Huntington and my family was once wealthy. I know that Jonas’s mother was murdered. I know that he was the chief suspect. I know that he was indicted or arrested for the murder, but was released before trial. Beyond that I know very little.”
Jack sighed. He already knew everything she had just said. He had hoped for some information that the family had withheld. He had nothing to continue with if this were all the information she had to offer.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s never been a story of which my family has been particularly proud. Jonas may well have killed her. The disappearance of the family money was a horrible blow for those he left behind. My father was a geology professor at Marshall who attended school on scholarships. My grandfather sold real estate for someone else in the very place Jonas had started – Bell Park. No one knows what Jonas did with any of the money. Even if he did murder his mother, nothing was ever found. Nothing. It was pathetic, I suppose, for a family who had been one of the early families of Huntington to end up penniless with Jonas’s crime painting everything in their lives.”
Jack listened carefully, hoping that something, anything, might come out of this conversation. He actually felt a small pang of pity for Juls. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She had simply been born a Bell. He wondered for the first time if many people really knew her family history.
“I didn’t mean to be rude to you yesterday. I do not like to discuss what happened with Jonas or my great-great grandmother.”
She glanced around the room, watching students with backpacks passing by, each of them absorbed in his or her own little world. While it had only been six years ago that she had been one of them, it now felt as if it had been a lifetime ago. She wondered why for the first time she had not allowed herself to dream about a life away from this place and the curse that seemed to hang over her family.
“I don’t talk about it with anyone. You may be the first person I’ve ever told about Jonas. Not even the local media has ever contacted me about him. I’ve always preferred it that way.”
Jack was beginning to feel like a bit of a jerk now. She really didn’t know much of the story at all. The people involved in the story may have been family members, but they had as much to do with her as he did with his own ancestors.
He looked at her face. He realized that during her entire recitation of her facts that she had not looked at him one time.
“What about your dad? Do you think he might know something?”
Juls shook her head. “Dad rarely talks about his grandfather. He had a tough time of it growing up. The family had no money, but enough people were still left alive who remembered the scandal. It was hard on him. Very hard on him.”
“And before you ask me, no, I won’t ask him. He’s been through enough with that part of his family. Damn. The only reason it hasn’t come back at me is that almost everyone who was involved is dead or has forgotten it or they don’t know who I am,” she continued, this time her voice becoming terse with anger.
Jack stopped for a moment and removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes and then looked at her.
“I’m sorry for showing up and presuming you had all the answers I was looking for. I just was at a point in the book where everything seemed to come to a dead stop, well, poor choice of words.”
“Can you remember anything that might help? A conversation you might have overheard as a child or photographs or any family papers?” he asked.
She smiled a little. She knew he had more questions and that he would continue asking questions. She saw that she could not get rid of him with just this short meeting.
“Why should I share any of this with you? How can I know that you won’t paint my entire family as if they were the Borgias with no attempt at truth?”
She was absolutely right, he thought. Why should she trust him? He had known some writers who would have simply created links where none existed. He had no idea how to convince her that he would not.
She looked him in the eyes and knew that he would write this with or without her help. Perhaps, if she did help, she could convince him to at least be fair.
The dragons had come back in her dreams again this morning. She had expected this, had known it on some subconscious level. She laughed quietly and began to think that she might understand Mandarin more than she had thought.
“Alright. Today is Thursday. I will give you this weekend. Meet me at my house around six tomorrow. We can begin then,” she said and stood and started to walk away.
“What changed your mind?” Jack asked.
“Dragons,” she said and laughed as she walked away.
Jack leaned back in the chair once more. She was not one for either saying hello or goodbye, he thought, and she was one of the most unusual women he had ever met. There were many aspects to her that he knew he was not seeing.
Why had she changed her mind? He shook his head and finished putting his things together. He wondered if she would be more receptive tomorrow or simply deceptive. Either way, he was going to try.