Rainey Bell, a former FBI Behavioral Analyst, has had a couple of quiet years since her last brush with death. Her old teammate with the BAU and her children’s Godfather, Danny McNally, pays a visit to North Carolina from Quantico to escort Rainey into the Butner Federal Correctional Complex.
Rainey made a promise almost twenty years ago to a distraught mother of a missing child. The opportunity to fulfill that pledge, one she should never have made, presents itself in the form of Chance Obadiah Hale. The teenager Rainey believed responsible for Alyson Grayson’s disappearance was now a man in prison who wanted to talk, but only to Rainey.
Can Rainey and Danny finally get to the truth about Alyson and Chance? Or will Rainey’s stubborn belief in his guilt put everyone she loves in mortal danger? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Who will be the first to go?
January 9, 1998
Home of Joshua Lee Hale
Pembina, North Dakota
“It’s cold enough to freeze off body parts.”
Chance Hale ignored the federal agent seated on the other side of the kitchen table. The sixteen-year-old pressed on his temples with the palms of his hands, in what appeared to be an attempt to keep the contents of his skull inside.
FBI Special Agent Rainey Bell noted the pot resin stains on his index finger and thumb, the reek of stale cigarettes, and the nauseating stench of booze-laced puke-breath. While they waited for his father to come back from the garage with the other agent, Rainey kept the hung-over teenager talking. Rather, she talked, and he tried to remain upright.
Chance Hale was in deep trouble. A suspect in the disappearance of his fourteen-year-old neighbor, Alyson Grayson, he was connected by proximity to the two frozen bodies recently discovered in the lake behind his home. Two frozen bodies and a missing girl resulted in FBI involvement. Chance didn’t seem the least bit concerned.
Rainey looked out the window over the sink, continuing her weather observations, “Still spitting snow at zero degrees.” She glanced back at Chance. “What did they say the wind chill was—minus twenty-one? I could be out there, what, thirty minutes before my face froze? This is just nuts. Pulling me from Louisiana to the frozen tundra—I don’t think a prank deserved this assignment.”
Rainey saw a brief millisecond of eye contact. Chance took notice that she may be a fellow rule breaker.
“I’ve only been here a week. The bureau said I was transferred to fill a temporary vacancy. I’m calling bullshit on that one. It was that picture of super-agent Walsh standing in his front yard in his boxers that landed me here.”
Rainey made quote marks in the air and mocked the man she imitated with, “Mr. ‘My Security System Can’t Be Compromised.’ Ha!”
She flashed a self-satisfied smile at Chance. “Patriarchal narcissism is why I am here. Guys like him can’t abide being wrong or laughed at. I proved the one and certainly did the other.”
She waited for a comment, a nod, anything, but received only a vacant teenage stare. Forced to resume her monologue, she continued the tale of her removal to the frozen tundra.
“I suppose his being my supervisor brought with it a tad of insubordination. But, you know, sometimes you have to show a braggart he isn’t all that smart to make a point. Of course, the FBI frowns on that particular type of behavioral modification technique. Thus, here I sit with you freezing my ass off.”
Nothing, no reaction, not even a hint of a smile. Chance closed his eyes and rubbed his temples with his fingertips.
Rainey tried another tack. “You moved up here from North Carolina, didn’t you? Hillsborough, right? I grew up in Chapel Hill.”
A grunt was Chance’s only response, but he did respond. Progress had been made. Rainey abandoned her attempt to bond over shared nonconformist attitudes and stuck with their childhoods in warmer climes.
“You understand it takes time to adjust from coastal temps to ‘Oh, my God! I’m freezing my tits off,’ don’t you?”
“I don’t have tits,” the slump-shouldered teen said, still rubbing his temples.
“Balls then,” Rainey replied, dropping the “we can be friends” tone from her voice and adding, “Most mammals have tits, male and female. Unless you’re a platypus or a species of rodent, you have them too. I’m assuming you didn’t pay much attention in biology class—if you ever went.”
Chance stretched and yawned over a barely concealed, “Fuck you.”
It crossed Rainey’s mind that young Chance Hale needed to be reminded of the seriousness of his situation. He was the last person seen with Alyson Grayson and professed to have no memory of the early morning hours of New Year’s Day when she disappeared. The FBI was now at his home at the crack of dawn. If none of that raised young Chance’s heart rate, Rainey had to wonder what would? She pondered the idea that he was either a cold-blooded killer devoid of empathy, or he was just a drunk, drugged-out teenager with detachment issues.
It was well known that Chance drank excessively. Three days ago, he dropped out of school on his sixteenth birthday, though he had attended only enough to avoid a truancy charge. He worked as a mechanic on his family’s fleet of long-haul trucks. According to a completely frustrated and candid school counselor, the old pickup truck he restored seemed to be all that Chance cared about.
“He’s too smart to drop out like this,” the counselor said. “If he’d just sober up and try a little harder, he could do anything he wanted. He was in our school system for only three semesters. He was already in academic trouble when he enrolled.”
The counselor pulled a folder from one of the file cabinets lining the wall in her office.
“Let me just check my file.”
She read, silently nodding in agreement with her notes before she looked up and finished her assessment of young Mr. Hale.
“What I can tell you by law is that I believe his mother leaving when he was four years old did severe damage to such a young boy. I recommended to his mostly absent father that he get Chance into rehab and counseling. He refused to take the list of therapists I offered. It’s just a shame, really. Chance can be quite charming and engaging when he wants to be. Just ask that gaggle of girls that swoon every time he walks by.”
After an initial witness interview with Chance, who was not an official suspect at the time, he refused further questioning from Rainey and Supervisory Special Agent Stanley Hébert. Chance claimed his long-haul truck-driving father advised against it. Hébert, who had been observing Chance, was convinced it was not a coincidence two other bodies had been found behind his home.
“I know it in my bones, Bell. Something’s wrong in that house,” he said the previous evening when he dropped her back at the office. With his graying temples reflecting the car’s dome light, he declared, “I’m not going to let that son of a bitch get away with killing those girls.”
Rainey had only known SSA Hébert for seven days, but she liked him. She liked him enough not to be snarky when he called her hotel room in Grand Forks before dawn.
“Bell, get downstairs. We have to run up to Pembina. Locals say Joshua Hale came home about two this morning.”
“What time is it now?” Rainey had to ask because her eyes were not yet cooperating. They only burned and watered from lack of sleep on the unfamiliar hotel mattress, when she tried to focus on the bedside clock.
“It’s five a.m. The snow will slow us down a bit, but if we’re on the road in thirty, we can be there by sunrise.”
“I’ll be down in fifteen,” Rainey said, coming fully awake.
“Dress accordingly, we’re in for negative temps today.”
Rainey chuckled. “This adds a whole new level to being frozen out.”
Hébert, in standard North Dakota form, answered, “It’s not so bad. You’ll get used to it.”
“I don’t want to be here long enough to get used to it,” Rainey said without thinking.
“Well now, Special Agent Bell, you should have thought of that while you were down in the sunny south and before you told your last supervisor to ‘lighten up.’ Care to piss off two in a row?”
Rainey wasn’t about to let her career crash over a prank. She responded with a crisp, “No, sir. I’ll be right down.”
After a harrowing drive up US Highway-29, even with an experienced North Dakota winter driver, they arrived just as the sun began to rise. The ruse for a visit was a verification of the whereabouts of all males in the vicinity the night of Alyson Grayson’s disappearance, but they really wanted another crack at Chance. In his previous interviews, he had informed them that his dad was in Canada on a short run and didn’t make it back until the afternoon on the first day of 1998. Joshua Hale left again before Alyson was reported missing and had been on the road until late last night.
The polite knock garnered no interest from the occupants of the Hale home. The much more intrusive cop knock brought a woman wearing a turban and face cream to the door, where two freezing but smiling federal agents greeted her. She was tall and a redhead, judging by the curl peeking from the headdress. That’s about all Rainey could say about her, other than she looked unhappy to be answering the door at the crack of dawn.
“It’s a little early. What can I do for you?” she asked, tugging the thick robe tighter against the cold seeping under the storm door.
“Good morning. I’m SSA Hébert. Are you Jean Berry? I believe we’ve spoken on the phone.”
“Yes, Agent Hébert. How can I help you?”
“I’m here to see Joshua.”
“Wait here. I’ll get him,” she replied, in an accent Rainey recognized as originating in the Piedmont area of North Carolina.
“Who was that?” Rainey asked.
Hébert’s answer formed a trail of smoke, as he said, “Jean Berry. She works for Hale Trucking. That garage out back keeps their rigs on the road. Ms. Berry is here from the Carolina office to do parts inventory and accounting work for the shop. She does that about once a month. She has a private apartment and an office in the basement.”
Rainey wondered why she hadn’t seen anything about Jean Berry in Hébert’s case notes, or why this was the first she knew of a private apartment. He seemed to read her expression.
“This house was searched top to bottom. Alyson is not here.”
“What did she tell you about New Year’s Eve?”
“She wasn’t here that night. I verified with the home office in North Carolina that she drove up the next day after Alyson was reported missing. She answered the phone a time or two when I called to ask about Mr. Hale’s whereabouts. She’s usually a little nicer, but I guess it is early.”
Rainey didn’t think Jean Berry was all that “nice,” having left them to freeze on the steps until Joshua Lee Hale came to the door.
“Good morning, Mr. Hale. Sorry to knock so early, but you’re a hard man to catch at home. I’m Supervisory Special Agent Hébert with the FBI, and this is Special Agent Bell. Do you mind if we come in out of the cold to chat for a few minutes? It won’t take long.”
Hébert managed an invitation to the kitchen and scored a couple of hot cups of coffee, while he cagily pried information from Joshua Hale. Rainey admired Hébert’s non-confrontational style and relaxed into the role of quiet sidekick. She mostly watched Chance, who reluctantly joined them at his father’s request. The redhead had not reappeared.
“I got my logbook out in the cab of my truck. It’ll show when I entered the country from Canada on New Year’s Day,” Joshua said, as a way to back up his alibi. “I was on a run to Mexico City and stopped by the house for a couple of hours, then I was back on the road.”
Joshua started for the back door when Hébert asked, “May I come with you? I’d like to see this truck Chance restored. I hear it’s something.” He turned back to Chance. “A ’51 Chevy 3100, five-window, right?”
Chance only grunted, which Rainey was learning was his preferred response.
“He ain’t much for conversation in the mornings,” Joshua said of his son, almost apologetically.
While Hébert and Joshua Hale left to recover the trucker’s logbook from the eighteen-wheeler parked in the massive garage behind the house, Rainey was left with the insolent teenage boy. After nearly five years as a federal agent questioning cunning criminals, she knew how to handle the disrespectful, rebellious type. She figured Hébert had left her alone with Chance in hopes that a female could connect with the motherless child the counselor identified as in need of help. It didn’t appear to be working.
Rainey stood and walked to the kitchen counter. She topped off her cup with fresh brew from the half empty pot warming on the coffee maker and looked out the window toward the garage. The snow fell heavier now. The grayness of the day delayed the sunrise. The glass in the garage’s oversized rolling doors glowed with the stark white light of the fluorescent tubes illuminating the interior. As Rainey turned back to Chance, she noticed on the counter a picture of the sheepishly smiling teenager standing beside his pride and joy.
“The paint on this truck looks exactly like the original. That shade of green is hard to come by.”
Chance opened his eyes to see Rainey holding the framed picture in her hand. He didn’t say anything, but at least she had his attention.
She continued, “You did a great job on the woodwork. All hand-sanded and stained, I bet.” Softening her features and smiling not at him, but the photo, Rainey asked, “Did you do a wood floor in the bed too? I can’t tell from this picture.”
Finally, she had drawn out a responsive syllable, and a whole word at that. Rainey leaped at the opening.
“What’s under the hood, restored original or custom?”
That was the last syllable Chance Hale spoke before the wall behind Rainey buckled with an explosive concussion. She noticed a split second of total silence, as if the sound was too loud to hear, then came the blast that sent her diving for the floor. The picture frame and coffee cup flew from her hands. The shattered windows showered the room with tiny shards of glass. Wood splintered into skin ripping projectiles.
Rainey lay stunned on the floor, her ears ringing. As the air and disorientation began to clear, her instincts kicked in. She pushed herself up from the floor, grabbed the Glock from her waist, and went immediately into a defensive posture. She had no idea what had just happened, but it couldn’t be a good sign that snow mixed with bits of insulation floated into the kitchen through the gaping hole in the wall.
She called out to Chance, who was under the table, “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
Chance’s eyes were focused on a hubcap that spun like a top not two feet from the now wide-awake teenager. Rainey thought he might be thinking about how close it had come to taking his head off. A small secondary explosion made them both flinch.
Warily watching the door leading to the back porch for a foe and hoping for a friend, she tried again for a response. “Are you hurt? What the hell just happened?”
Rainey saw the hatred in his eyes when Chance responded, not with concern for his father, but with absolute abhorrence.
“That fucker blew up my truck.”
Rainey was still a bit disoriented she thought. Maybe she didn’t hear him correctly.
She asked one more time, “Are you hurt?”
Chance answered with a question. “If he isn’t dead, will you kill him?”
“Not unless I have to,” she said, moving her eyes from the door to the teenager.
“If I told you he was a killer, would it make a difference?”
Rainey glanced at the door and then back to Chance, before she answered, “No. I can’t just execute him.”
He gave Rainey a cold stare and declared, “I can.”
About the Author
Four-time Lambda Literary Award Finalist in Mystery—Rainey Nights (2012), Molly: House on Fire (2013), The Rainey Season (2014), and Relatively Rainey (2016)—and 2013 Rainbow Awards First Runner-up for Best Lesbian Novel, Out on the Panhandle, author R. E. Bradshaw began publishing in August of 2010. Before beginning a full-time writing career, she worked in professional theatre and also taught at both university and high school levels. A native of North Carolina, the setting for the majority of her novels, Bradshaw now makes her home in Oklahoma. Writing in many genres, from the fun southern romantic romps of the Adventures of Decky and Charlie series to the intensely bone-chilling Rainey Bell Thrillers, R. E. Bradshaw’s books offer something for everyone.