Exclusive Excerpt: Killer Instinct: A Lesbian Thriller by Barbara Winkes

Excerpt

Joanna was about to dispose of the printouts still scattered over her desk when her phone rang. She half feared it could be Grace again, half hoped Theo would get back to her with news, but of course it was too early for that. The connection was too vague for him to get a warrant, so he’d have to tread carefully.

Much to his credit, he hadn’t commented on the fact that she couldn’t give him a last name. There was no name on the door, and in her emails and text, it only said GracieL. Theo would have to do the rest, but she figured it wouldn’t be too hard.

“You apartment isn’t that big,” Kira said. “Why aren’t you picking up the phone?”

Because I’m afraid it could be a serial murderer on the other end…

“Sorry,” Joanna mumbled. “What can I do for you?”

“Call every once in a while? You’re doing it again.”

Kira had been the closest she’d had to a friend in prison, and surprisingly, she’d kept in touch, even after being released eight months earlier. Life could take surprising turns, and not all of them were bad, at least for people other than Joanna. Kira had found a kind man, the father of two boys, and married him less than two months ago. She often tried to convince Joanna to come to dinner, but Joanna wasn’t comfortable around all that newfound happiness. Mostly, she thought her presence made others unfomfortable. Not Kira—she knew her friend understood completely what her reality looked like. The husband and kids, Joanna wasn’t so sure. She felt like every time she was over, he was beyond wary.

“I’m not doing anything. In fact, you’ll be glad to know that I reconnected with an old colleague.”

“Vanessa doesn’t count. You two have a sick relationship.”

“Thank you so much, and no, I wasn’t talking about Vanessa. I saw Theo, my old partner. He’s talking to me again, which is a major improvement. Another officer let me talk to a witness once I laid on the charm.”

“I don’t understand. What are you doing with a witness? You unload trucks and lift palettes for a living—which, I’d like to say, is not such a bad thing. I thought that part of your life was over, and you were okay with it.”

“It’s a long story.”

“You could come over and tell it to me.”

“I don’t think Coby would approve.”

“Coby likes you,” Kira protested. “Besides, he’s not here tonight, and neither are the boys. I’ve got Merlot and chocolate chip ice cream. As much of it as you like.”

“You’re trying to bribe me?” Joanna didn’t need much more. She was already in her coat.

“Works every time, doesn’t it? I miss you.”

“Miss you too. I’ll be over there in ten.”

Instead of staring at the walls, waiting for Theo’s call and hoping her gut had betrayed her, she would see Kira, and toast to the future.

Yeah, right.

Sticking to her promise, Kira greeted Joanna with a hug and then served her ice cream and wine. It had become something like a ritual for them after Joanna’s release, even after it became clear that Kira and Coby were serious, and moved in together.

“This is so good. Thank you. I needed that.”

“I’m glad I could help. You said you had a story to tell.”

Joanna figured that halfway through her glass, she couldn’t back out now.

“All right. You heard about the woman who ran away from a man who abducted her, and was found by a truck driver?”

“Yeah, I heard about it. What’s that got to do with you?”

“I saw her in the hospital today.”

“You did what?” Kira exclaimed. “Are you crazy?”

“The case is similar to one I once worked. I had to speak up.”

“Going to the hospital is not the same. Honey, do you realize that any defense lawyer will just love to jump on the fact you were anywhere near her? You’re famous. You killed a murderer. As unfair as that might be, I don’t think your colleagues want to be seen with you, and sadly, they have a point. Someone will make the connection.”

“Theo said something like that,” Joanna admitted. “Damn, I had hoped for some support from you.”

“This is the way I offer support,” Kira indicated the delicacies on the table with a sweeping gesture, “and by telling you the truth. You can’t be involved. I don’t want you to put yourself in danger.”

Joanna finished her glass and reached for the bottle.

“It might already be too late for that.”

Before she could elaborate, the vibration of her cell phone indicated the arrival of a text message.

“Excuse me.”

Once upon a time, she had known what to do, without hesitating, without doubt. After the brief conversation with Theo, Joanna felt confused. Relieved, too. Grace had apparently fully cooperated, told the cops she’d broken up with the boyfriend and apologized again for the text messages. More important, she had an alibi for the night Christina Danvers had hooked up with the couple.

Christina had confirmed that she’d never seen Grace before.

Something had been off about her. Joanna didn’t think her instincts would betray her so badly. She shook herself. She should be grateful that she had avoided adding another nightmare to the ones that never went away.

“Are you okay?” Kira asked when she returned to the living room.

“Yeah. It’s actually good news. Forget what I said earlier—it’s not all that dramatic. All of you were right. I should stay far away from that case.”

Kira poured them both another glass.

“Hey, better late than never. Let’s drink to that. You should fall in love too.”

“Uh, no. It’s doesn’t work that way for everyone.”

“Because you have commitment issues. You panic when someone calls you back.”

“That’s not true.” Was it? Was there a possibility that there was something wrong with Joanna instead of Grace? Oh, the possibilities were endless. “Look at my life. Who would want to get caught up in that mess?”

Kira laid an arm around her shoulders. “Last time I checked, you cleaned up that mess pretty nicely. Back on the inside, you could’ve gotten caught up in all kinds of bad stuff, but you stayed out of it. You have a job that pays for a roof over your head and more booze and cigarettes than you should have.”

“I sense some criticism coming on.”

“Just give it a chance sometime, won’t you?”

Joanna took another spoonful of ice cream.

“I like fewer complications in my life. Simple pleasures, you know?”

“I really don’t know. You hook up with some bizarre people. That’s the only part you haven’t quite figured out yet.”

You don’t know the half of it, Joanna wanted to say. Then again, she hadn’t been so great at relationships before she and Decker crossed paths. For some things, she had no one to blame but herself.

“Maybe there’s nothing to figure out. I get by.”

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Author Barbara Winkes Bio:

Barbara Winkes writes suspense and romance with lesbian characters at the center. She has always loved stories in which women persevere and lift each other up. Expect high drama and happy endings.
Discover a variety of genres, serial and standalone. Women loving women always take the lead.

Exclusive Excerpt: Flesh and Gold (a Cantor Gold Crime – Book 4) by Ann Aptaker

Excerpt:

I’m no saint. I’m certainly no prude. I’ve been visiting cat houses—what the old timers call notch joints back in the States—since I was a teenager and Sig owned a few houses back in our Coney Island days. The professional ladies of pleasure know what they’re doing, and sometimes, on my loneliest nights in my dangerous life, when I miss Sophie so much I’m dizzy with longing, it takes a professional to do what needs doing. And I have a soft spot for the ladies. They and I have something in common: we make our living outside the Law, because the Law dealt both of us rigged hands. The Law says I’m a criminal just because I romance women. And the Law says it’s a crime for the ladies to decide what to do with their own flesh and bones.

I can’t kid myself, though. I know that “the life” can be risky. It’s not unusual for a Lady of Pleasure to have the “pleasure” beaten out of her by rough trade or a vicious pimp who gets his kicks by using her as a slave. The only freedom she can hope for is to grow old, discarded, and die. The idea that Sophie, my Sophie, is caught in such a life scares me to death.

And then there’s the filthy horror that sends its stench through all those other horrors, a scenario twisting me up so bad I can barely breathe: the thought of Sophie pawed over by sweaty tourists and needy locals not only breaks my heart, it makes me sick.

Sure, add hypocrite to my list of sins.

I soothe myself a little by believing that whoever took her would realize Sophie is a class act and would stow her in one of the town’s fancier, ultra-discreet joints catering to the island’s secretive aristocrats and moneyed clientele, the kind of places where the women aren’t batted around, and even protected from violent clients.

It’s been a long time since I was last in Havana and availed myself of its erotic pleasures. Considering the current power shifts in the local underworld, and those gang wars Lansky and Nilo talked about, the Who’s Who of the cat houses is probably not the same Who’s Who I dealt with ten years ago. As far as I know, nobody in the fancier fleshpots owes me any favors, and without an invitation from a regular client or someone else well connected, I can’t get into those joints, and I don’t even know where they are. I can’t get information about those places without help. But until that help comes, I’m on my own, with nowhere to look but the back rooms of bars, the fleabag hotels, and the streets.

Blurb:

Havana, 1952, a city throbbing with pleasure and danger, where the Mob peddles glamor to the tourists and there’s plenty of sex for sale. In the swanky hotels and casinos, and the steamy, secretive Red Light district of the Colón, Cantor Gold, dapper art thief and smuggler, searches the streets and brothels for her kidnapped love, Sophie de la Luna y Sol. Cantor races against time while trying to out run the deadly schemes of American mobsters and the gunsights of murderous local gangs.

Learn more about award-winning author, Ann Aptaker:

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Native New Yorker Ann Aptaker has earned a reputation as a respected if cheeky exhibition designer and curator of art during her career in museums and galleries. Taking the approach that what art authorities find uncomfortable the public would likely enjoy, exhibitions Ann has curated have garnered favorable reviews in the New York Times, Art in America, American Art Review, and other publications.

She brings the same attitude and philosophy to her first love: writing, especially a tangy variety of historical crime fiction. Ann’s short stories have appeared in two editions (2003 and 2004) of the noir crime anthology Fedora. Her flash fiction story, “A Night In Town,” appeared in the online zine Punk Soul Poet. In addition to curating and designing art exhibitions and writing crime stories, Ann is also an art writer and an adjunct professor of art history at the New York Institute of Technology. (Publisher).

Timing Is Everything: (The Gulfport Mystery Series Book 1) by Alison R. Solomon

Excerpt:

Where the fuck are you? Gordy saw the text as she sped up Beach Boulevard, racing toward Kenwood. Stopping to reply would slow her down and she was determined to get to Dana’s on time, so she ignored it. A line of cars was waiting to pull into the main drag, which was surprising, but Gordy knew the area well enough to know she could avoid them by going down a side street. She pulled the steering wheel sharply to swing a right down a narrow one-way street. She was halfway down when she realized there was a U-Haul farther down completely obstructing the street. Who the heck moved at this time of night? And if they did what gave them the right to block the street? She watched as two people of undetermined gender struggled to pull a large mattress from the back of the truck. Shit. This could take awhile, especially if they had a whole lot more furniture to unload. Now what? She supposed she could try to back all the way up this street but it was narrow and she wasn’t great at backing up the SUV at the best of times.

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She heard a ping and looked down: I’m gonna put Sammy out on the curb if you’re not here in seven minutes. She’d promised Dana she’d be back before ten and even though she didn’t think her ex would really leave their child in the street, the second text worried her. She remembered what Dana had said the last time she was late to pick up Sammy. It was the night she met Kat. “I’ll sue for full custody if you do it again.”

Ahead of her to her left she saw a dirt alley that ran between the homes. She could use it to cut over to the next street. She generally avoided these alleys at night because they were dark and could be rutted, but she had no choice. She swerved left off the street feeling the gravel of the alley crunch beneath her tires. She should have explained to Kat that she didn’t have time to listen to the man serenading them, however romantic it was. She didn’t think Dana would put Sammy out on the street and she wasn’t totally convinced her ex would really ask for full custody, but she couldn’t risk either. She decided to text, just in case. She looked down at her phone. There in ten—, her thumbs flew across the keys and just as she was about to type mins she felt a massive jolt and heard a loud bang. Moments later she heard dogs barking in the distance.

She looked up in horror as the car shot forward. Shit! What the heck had she hit? She glanced in the rearview mirror and from the light reflectors made out something that looked like a large pile, though she couldn’t tell of what. Had she hit it? Was that what caused the loud thud? If she hadn’t been looking at her lap, texting, she’d know for sure. Meanwhile her car was still moving forward and was already at the end of the alley.

She was shaking badly. She should run back and take a quick look. What if she’d damaged something on someone’s property? But it was an alley so the only stuff out there was yard debris or trash to be picked up by the city. There must have been something in that pile. She pulled out from the alley onto the street, thankful that she hadn’t blown a tire, but then, feeling guilty, she decided she had to make a quick stop. She grabbed her flashlight and ran back down the alley. She shone her flashlight, sweeping it from side to side. There was a pile of wood, stacked neatly next to some trashcans. Several logs seemed to have toppled off it. That must have been what she’d hit. Relieved, she ran back to her SUV and gunned the engine. Dana would make a song and dance about being late. Thank goodness the SUV was in her name only. If it were joint property, she could only imagine the torrent of criticism that Dana would have hurled when she saw the damage to the body and paintwork.

She was almost at Dana’s house. Once her ex had finished dressing her down she’d take Sammy home and put him to bed. Then she’d be able to relive the earlier part of the evening, remembering the way Kat’s eyes danced and how a little dimple appeared in her cheek when she smiled. In the morning she’d see what the damage was to the Hyundai and ask her cousin Rico to fix it. And from now on she absolutely wouldn’t text while driving. It was stupid and she could have gotten into serious trouble. What if she’d damaged someone’s property and they got nasty and wanted to call the cops? An even scarier thought came to mind. What if she’d hit someone and been arrested on the spot? The form she’d completed for her green card had asked her not only if she’d been convicted of a crime, but also if she’d been arrested for one. If she were arrested now, it would be catastrophic. She knew they would repeat that question verbally when she got to her fingerprinting appointment. That appointment next week was so they could do one more full background check. If she told them she’d been arrested that week, even if she were out on bail, they would turn down her request for the ten-year green card. Once they did that, it was the same as being given a deportation notice—she’d have no legal way to stay in the country. How could she have been so stupid as to risk all that?

Just the thought of deportation made her shake all over. People who’d never been through the immigration system had no idea how tenuous life as an “alien” could feel, especially now. It never even occurred to them that people like her, professionals with legal permits, felt some of the same stress and strains as those who lived in the shadows. They didn’t realize that until she was actually a citizen, she didn’t enjoy the full protections they did. But now, finally, she was getting closer to that day. The ten-year card would end much of that stress, and long before the ten years were up she’d be eligible to apply for citizenship and become just like everyone else.

For months before she got the letter requesting her presence for fingerprinting, she’d visualized herself over and again getting the card. She spent nights picturing herself walking through those wide doors into the Tampa Immigration and Naturalization office, waiting way past her appointment time (as she always did), then getting called back to an office. In her mind, the immigration official who would quiz her and Dana would be supportive and sympathetic and would smile warmly at them when they gave her the stamp of approval. Gordy tried not to remember the officer who granted the two-year card. A large military-looking women who’d made it clear she didn’t believe in same-sex marriage, she’d scowled throughout the entire interview and then snarled at Gordy in her Russian-accented English, almost spitting as she made jabbing motions in the air. “You think you citizen? You not. Don’t forget. You commit crime? You deported.”

At the time she’d shrugged it off. She wasn’t going to commit a crime, and there was no reason why an upstanding professional would be deported. She’d felt pretty secure. But lately everything had changed. Just this week a soccer coach had been deported, his only crime being a traffic violation.

She was so close to the finish line, but tonight she’d almost blown it. All she had to do was keep her nose clean for another week. And if that meant picking up her son late and getting in trouble with her ex for not texting, the price was worth it.

Blurb:

Click on image to learn more about Alison R. Solomon

A hit-and-run. A terrified suspect. A woman caught between her friend and her lover Wynn Larimer (who readers met in Along Came the Rain) is putting out the trash late one night when a car smashes into her, injuring her so badly that her entire livelihood is put in jeopardy. Gabriella Luna (Gordy) is about to achieve permanent resident status in the USA when she’s accused of a felony crime. The timing couldn’t be worse—she’s terrified of being deported. The woman caught in the middle is Kat Ayalon (who readers met in Devoted.) Wynn is Kat’s best friend and Gordy is Kat’s new love interest. But when the worlds of Wynn and Gordy collide, Kat doesn’t know how she can support both women, if helping one means selling out the other.

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Exclusive Excerpt: Rainey with a Chance of Hale (A Rainey Bell Thriller Book 6) by R.E. Bradshaw

Blurb:

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?

Excerpt:

Chapter 2

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.”

“Yes.”

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?”

“Cust—”

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

http://www.rebradshawbooks.com/

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.

Lesbians on the Loose: Tales of Murder, Mayhem and Suspense

Lesbians on the Loose

edited by

Lori L Lake and Jessie Chandler

 

Blurb:

These tales of murder, mayhem, and suspense by some of today’s finest crime writers will keep you up way past your bedtime!

LesbiansontheLoose
The lesbians on the loose in this collection are an entertaining mix of protagonists: cops, amateur sleuths, a PI, a judge, a bounty hunter, and one very insightful dog. There’s even an intrepid high schooler and a mystery writer.
Despite greed and grief, rage and revenge, secrets and lies, many of the stories feature humor from a variety of characters trying to find their way in a difficult world–cops who’ve seen too much, revenge seekers, and women who want justice for themselves and others.

You won’t regret going on the lam with these terrific writers: Elizabeth Sims, Carsen Taite, SY Thompson, Andi Marquette, Linda M. Vogt, VK Powell, Kate McLachlan, Lori L. Lake, Lynn Ames, Sandra de Helen, Jen Wright, Sue Hardesty, Jessie Chandler, J.M. Redmann, and Katherine V. Forrest

 

An interview between the co-editors:

http://tinyurl.com/oysqz44

 

The book trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FG4uGwUWkw

 

The buy links:

Bella: http://www.bellabooks.com/9781633040311e-prod.html

Or

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00X08X9A2

EXCERPT: Relatively Rainey (A Rainey Bell Thriller) by R. E. Bradshaw

Relatively Rainey

by

R. E. Bradshaw


Part I

PRELUDE TO A NIGHTMARE

“There are moments when even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity may assume the semblance of Hell.”

 ― Edgar Allan Poe

 

CHAPTER ONE

7:00 PM, Monday, September 2, 2013

Chancery Court Subdivision

Durham County, NC

The small window screen in Dr. Kent Barker’s hand puzzled him. His profound bewilderment drew the attention of his neighbor.

“What’s the trouble there, Kent?”

“I’m sorry, what?” Kent, half listening, still tried to make sense of things.

The smiling neighbor pointed a dripping hose nozzle at the screen.

“You’ve been standing right there since I started watering this flowerbed.  I was so caught up in watching you, I think I over-soaked it.”

Kent looked at the perfectly maintained bed of flowers edging the driveway next door. The flowerbed exemplified the order in Kent’s upper-middle class, manicured subdivision. The homeowners’ association made sure everyone conformed to the neat and tidy rules. Upon returning an hour ago from a Labor Day weekend trip to the beach with family, the Thomas Kincaid-ness of his cul-de-sac struck him once more. The French Country style homes formed a perfect jigsaw puzzle picture of the American dream. No matter how many times Kent made that corner, the image remained the same.

He remarked to Marilyn, his wife, “I could take a picture of this street every day, and it would only reflect the change in seasons.” He smiled at his college freshman daughter’s reflection in the rearview mirror, adding, “There is comfort in that sameness.”

Hannah was almost on her own now, soon to relegate her time with the family to weekends when she could manage it. She was the last of the Barker brood to leave the nest. Kent had just turned fifty, and the slower pace of suburban living suited him. None of his medical school buddies would believe beer-bong champ Barker would prefer the mundane and routine in his later years. But after a long day of surgery, surprises were the last thing an anesthesiologist wanted. Spotting the screen out of place interrupted the solace Kent felt in his world of comfortable banality.

The neighbor persisted, “What happened? Did you get that off and now can’t figure out how to put it back?”

Kent asked, “Reece, were you around this weekend?”

“Yes. Well, I was. Travis took his mother to see his brother on Sunday, but I was here all weekend. Why, what’s wrong?”

Kent glanced back down at the screen and the basement window it should have been covering.

Shrugging, he answered, “I don’t know. This screen was off, but the window was still locked on the inside, and the alarm was active. Marilyn says it just feels like someone was in the house, but we can’t find anything missing.”

“Now, that’s disconcerting. I sure didn’t see or hear anything. Is she sure?”

Kent’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Hannah, came screaming out the front door with the answer.

“Daddy, some pervert went through my laundry and stole all my underwear, all of it, bras, and everything.”

Hannah left her first week’s worth of college laundry in the basement, before joining the family for the beach holiday with her older siblings and their spouses. Kent knew this because he carried the bulging duffle bag down the stairs Friday afternoon.

Kent’s wife fled the house close on Hannah’s heels, phone to her ear, and in mid-sentence, “…broke into our house and stole our teenaged daughter’s underwear. And if I’m not mistaken, there is some genetic material you need to come collect.”

At that moment, everything in Kent’s banal world changed.

#

10:00 PM, Friday, July 25, 2014

Buckhorn Road, Chatham County, NC

Arianna Wilde climbed into her grandmother’s farmhouse canopy bed, sinking into the feather top and down pillows. A source of countless fond memories, she felt the bed cradle her as it had on those special occasions when she came to visit the farm. Snuggled under Nana Wilde’s arm, Arianna would listen to her favorite books read aloud. Her war bride grandmother maintained her cultured British accent throughout her life, even after spending the last sixty-nine years of it near the banks of the Cape Fear River. Arianna believed a genuine appreciation achievable for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan only when the texts were read aloud by a British grandmother.

She inherited the farm and her grandmother’s feather bed in January. After finalizing her divorce and the sale of the matrimonial home, Arianna moved into the farmhouse in May. The money from the settlement helped restore and modernize the old place. Having lived in Chapel Hill since her college days, the move twenty-five miles south to her family’s ancestral country home was a welcomed one. Wherever her laptop received a signal became an office, and the solitude of country living appealed to her at this juncture in her life. Relocating seemed the answer to the question Peggy Lee sang over and over in her mind for the last few years, “Is that all there is?”

The intense stress of living on site during a remodel was well worth it. Arianna relearned the self-sufficiency of her youth after too many years of living dependent on the skills of others. Now in the final stages, she was down to the cosmetics of painting the interior and trying to get a handle on the overgrown grounds. Beating back nature to the wood line in the massive yard by day and painting the two-story interior by night, Arianna worked her body to its limits over the last few weeks. She had no spare moments to dally in the past. The work focused her and kept her old friends Regret and Dread at bay.

Arianna regretted she didn’t love her husband. He was sweet and kind, but it wasn’t enough. She regretted that she’d stuck it out for thirteen wasted years and dreaded the thought of dating again at forty-one. She regretted she hadn’t spent more time with her aging grandmother. She dreaded the weekly phone calls from the ex, ostensibly to make sure she was all right, but it was more about propping him up.

He ended almost every conversation with some form of, “I could understand if it was someone else, but you just stopped loving me.”

Arianna regretted ever being honest with him about her feelings. She had contemplated telling him there was someone else, in hopes that he would move on with his life. She regretted that she didn’t care enough to lie.

Today she added a new bit of remorse to the list. She thoroughly regretted saying, “How hard could this be,” before turning the key on the old tiller and promptly sending it through the side of the barn.

“I should have remembered the tractor debacle,” she said aloud, following it with chuckles.

Her muscles ached but were taut. Her body looked better than it had in years. She overcame many things since the move, learning something new about herself and the farm seemingly minute by minute. She had taken back her name and worked on taking back her life one day at a time. Regrets aside, Arianna had mastered her dread of a coming new day.

Tomorrow, I will conquer the tiller.

She reached for the bedside lamp. As she pulled the old chain, plunging the room into darkness, she said aloud, “Think happy thoughts.” It was something her grandmother would say each night. Arianna thought of the happiest thing she could.

The new washer and dryer will be installed in the morning. Praise baby Jesus.

The lace curtains of the canopy bed swayed slightly with the light summer wind coming through the open windows. The heat and air would be installed once all the construction dust settled.

“No need to clog up a new system, ma’am,” the installer informed her, as he handed her a trip ticket with a much later installation date than she had hoped scribbled at the bottom.

The dust was the reason the wood-framed screens were removed downstairs and the large windows thrown open. Fans sat on sills, running day and night to dry paint and suck out the seemingly never-ending drywall dust. She cleaned and vacuumed every day, but the dust prevailed. Plastic covered the portal to the bedroom where she slept. With the door shut much of the time the room stayed relatively free of contaminants. The powder-fine gypsum dust still managed to slip through the tiniest cracks. She thought the hand-tatted canopy should come down before it was damaged, but it comforted her with the retained fragrance of her grandmother’s perfume. Arianna’s eyes fluttered shut as the night breeze tickled her nose with Nana Wilde’s Chanel no. 5.

#

He knew she would be one of his girls the first time he saw her. He had twenty-five regularly visited targets, but was always ready to add a new one if the urge struck. He had jogged past the old Wilde farm the day she ran the tractor into the ditch by the road.

“Perhaps brush-hogging the front forty wasn’t your wisest choice for a first outing,” he had said to her.

“No kidding,” she said, and then laughed before blowing strands of stray hair from her brow.

He had been obliged to stop, along with several other helpful country neighbors. That was the thing about people living in the county where they buried Mayberry’s Sheriff Taylor’s Aunt Bee. Down on the river, away from the suspicion and self-absorption of urban life, folks were there to help a neighbor in need. He needed Arianna Wilde from the moment she smiled in his direction.

He paid his first furtive visit to her that very night. He helped himself to a black bra and panties left hanging from a makeshift clothesline on the back porch, and now treasured among the many items he removed during successive visits over the last eight weeks. It took him only a few minutes the next day to find out about the new resident on Buckhorn Road. He simply mentioned the activity around the Wilde place to the man at the feed store over in Brickhaven. What the old timer didn’t know, his nosey wife filled in. A little more searching on the Internet and he had all the information needed on his new target, Arianna Wilde.

He watched her bedroom window, as the amber glow of the bedside lamp went dark. It wouldn’t be long now.

RelativelyRainey

#

7:50 AM, Saturday, July 26, 2014

Arianna Wilde’s Farmhouse

“What do you mean there wasn’t anyone at home? I’m at home. I saw you drive away.”

Arianna listened to the voice on her phone for only a second, before unleashing a tirade.

“I think spending thousands of dollars with your company warrants more than a cursory knock. Flash Gordon could not have made it to the door before you decided no one was home.”

The voice interrupted her rant, causing her to pause. Upon hearing the delivery driver’s response, she sighed heavily.

“You want to know who Flash Gordon is? Oh, for the love of— Look, your office said the delivery would be between eight and nine this morning. It is just now seven-fifty. You turn that truck around this instant or return after I get off the phone with your boss, your boss’s boss, and on up the chain of command until I have a washer and dryer installed and working in my home, today.”

Arianna was halfway down the stairs when she hung up on the apologetic driver. The old washer was on its last legs and the dryer gave up the ghost years ago. Dogs or cats or some other creatures had been making off with her lingerie for weeks. She suspected the crow that hung out near the clothesline. He looked guilty and seemed always to be watching. Arianna laughed at the thought of a tree somewhere decorated with her bras and panties. She hated to think of the alternative—that one of the workers had a thing for ladies underwear. Her dirty clothes from the past week waited in a basket on the kitchen counter, in anticipation of a new working washer and dryer, and as a way to stem the tide of vanishings. She couldn’t afford to hang any more underclothes on the line to dry. She had no time right now to shop for more.

Reaching the front door, she flung it open and stood there ready to speed dial the appliance store if its truck did not return in a timely fashion. Another bright July day had dawned on a clear blue Carolina sky. Sunrays shot through the open door, illuminating the dust she stirred on her way down the stairs. Arianna watched the particles dance in the sunbeams. The light revealed a floor and stairs she’d cleaned the evening before, cast again with a layer of powder-thin dust.

“When will this end?” She asked, with a palm raised to the invisible powers that be.

She saw the footprints at the same time the appliance truck slowed on the road in front of the house and began the turn into the driveway. Tracing the path of the footprints with her eyes, Arianna noted they approached from the back of the house, went up the stairs, and then returned the way they came.

“Carl, are you here already?”

Arianna called out to the handyman she’d hired to help with the finishing touches. Maybe he arrived early and realized she had not come out of her room yet. He was supposed to finish the tile repair on the upstairs bathroom today. No response came from Carl. He was probably out back, waiting for her to appear with coffee. The guys were getting out of the delivery truck, tools in hand. All was right with Arianna’s world for a moment.

The euphoria was short-lived. As she led the installers through the kitchen to the laundry room at the back of the house, Arianna saw her dirty clothes dumped on the floor. The empty basket was left on the counter. As she reflexively picked up the clothes and returned them to the basket, she froze with her eyes on the footprints. She could see now they led up to her bedroom from the back door. Arianna’s sense of security took a major hit. Her anxiety registered with the men now watching her.

“Are you okay?” One of them asked.

Her shaken state evident in the reply, Arianna answered, “I believe someone has just stolen all my underwear.”

#

7:10 AM, Saturday, September 20, 2014

Chancery Court Subdivision,

Durham County, NC.

Kent Barker turned the last bend in the running trail, legs and lungs on fire. With the end in sight, he dug deeper, sprinting as fast as his fifty-one-year-old legs would allow. Crossing his imaginary finish line, Kent alternated between walking off the lactic acid surging through his near cramping muscles and grabbing his knees, gasping for air.

“Nice sprint,” a sheriff’s deputy said from the edge of the woods.

He and two other deputies appeared to be searching the strip of land behind Kent’s house that separated the running trail from the yards in the neighborhood.

“Thanks,” Kent replied, between gasps. “What’s going on?”

The deputy approached, asking, “Do you live around here?”

“Yeah,” Kent said, finally able to stand erect. “I live right there.” He pointed to the back of his home.

The deputy pulled out a pad and pen. “Could I have your name, sir?”

“Dr. Kent Barker. What’s going on? Has something happened to my wife?”

“Why would you ask that, sir?”

Kent became impatient. “Because you’re standing in the woods behind my house asking me questions.”

“Your wife is Marilyn Barker?”

“Yes. What’s happened? Is she okay?” Kent demanded.

“May I have a look at the soles of your shoes, sir?”

Kent immediately showed the bottoms of his shoes to the deputy and began to panic, “Oh, my God. Marilyn. Tell me what’s happened.”

“Your wife is fine, Dr. Barker. Someone broke into the house two doors that way.” The deputy pointed just a few hundred yards down the trail. “During the canvas this morning, we found tracks in the mud there and the same tracks here behind your home and more muddy prints on your back patio. They do not match your shoes. We spoke to your wife. We understand you reported a theft a little over a year ago. Is that right?”

“Yes. Did he come back?” Kent asked.

“The crimes seem to match the fetish burglaries we’ve had over the past twelve months, starting with your home last September, only this time the female was at home.”

“The Tanners, that’s who you’re talking about, right? Is anyone hurt?”

“Tanner, yeah that’s right. Do you know them?”

“Yes, we all know each other. It’s a friendly neighborhood. You didn’t answer me. Is everyone okay?”

“Yes, sir. No one was hurt. The teenager was home alone. She took a shower and when she came out, the clothes she left on the bathroom floor were gone along with the contents of her lingerie drawer.”

“My God, he was in there with her. When did this happen?”

“Where were you around midnight last evening, Dr. Barker?”

Incensed that he was under suspicion, Kent responded, “What? You think I stole my own daughter’s underwear, and now I’ve moved on to the neighbor’s?”

“We’re asking these questions of everyone, Dr. Barker.”

“I was home with my wife. Didn’t you speak to her? Didn’t she tell you that?”

The deputy smiled. “We have to ask and yes she did. Did you see or hear anything unusual last night?”

Kent relaxed. “No, nothing. We went to bed around eleven. I take a sleeping aid, and I was out pretty quickly. I wouldn’t have heard a thing for at least six hours. My wife says I’m like the living dead.”

“In the last year, have additional personal items disappeared from your home?”

“Not that I’m aware of, but our daughter doesn’t live here anymore. She shares a house with some friends a few miles away and closer to her school. The responding officers last year told us she was the target, that it was probably a teenager with issues.”

“I think we’re reevaluating that assessment, Doctor. This is the eleventh reported fetish burglary in the last year.”

“My God, I had no idea,” Kent said, feeling sick to his stomach.

The deputy made a note and put the pad back in his pocket. “We might want to speak with you again. Keep your doors and windows locked, sir.” He started to turn away but added, “You might lay off that sleeping aid for a bit. At least, until we catch this guy.”

#

4:56 AM, November 22, 2014

Arianna Wilde’s Farmhouse

Buckhorn Road, Chatham County, NC

She watched the second hand on her grandmother’s kitchen wall clock tick away the minutes in slow motion. The large red rooster with the clock in his belly hung in that very spot as long as Arianna remembered.  She’d been sure to rehang it as soon as the new paint dried. Mr. Rooster’s clock hands said it was closing in on five in the morning. Her attacker left her at three, two hours ago. Two hours that crept by one tick at a time.

“Arianna, can you look straight ahead for me?”

The EMT’s smile did not cover his concern, as he focused a small flashlight in each of her eyes.

“Thank you,” he said, clipping the penlight back inside his shirt pocket. He checked the bandage on her head, seemed satisfied, and asked, “Are you warm enough? Can I get you anything?”

Arianna pulled her grandmother’s quilt tighter around her shoulders and resumed watching the seconds tick by.

“Are you sure we can’t take you to the hospital?” A second EMT asked.

“I’m sorry, gentleman. May we have a moment alone with Ms. Wilde?”

Arianna heard the voice of the female detective again, the one who tried to interview her before without much luck. The only words Arianna spoke in the last two hours were to the emergency operator. The details she gave were sparse. Her name, address, and the declaration “he raped me” were all she said before hanging up. The phone repeatedly rang in the long minutes she waited for the police to arrive. Arianna ignored it while she watched Mr. Rooster tick-tick-tick away the life she knew. Convinced this was punishment for walking out of her marriage, for trying to start over, for seeking the life of independence she craved—Arianna Wilde stopped talking because there was nothing left to say.

The flashlight bearing EMT protested being asked to leave, “She needs medical attention.”

“That’s the goal, but right now what she needs is to process,” the detective responded with authority.

“Well, if she starts showing signs of shock—”

A female voice unfamiliar to Arianna interrupted the EMT.

“I think what Ms. Wilde needs right now is a little quiet. If you will just wait outside in the hall, I’m sure she’ll leave with you voluntarily when she’s ready.”

The room cleared of all but the detective and the other woman, the one with the calm, controlled tone. The moment the police arrived the normally peaceful country night had filled with male voices and the sound of heavy footsteps. They attempted hushed communications, but Arianna could still hear them—and smell them. Or was that his odor lingering on her skin. She rubbed her nose in her grandmother’s quilt, hoping for a whiff of Chanel no. 5, as quiet returned to the kitchen.

Arianna heard the refrigerator door open. She turned to see the calm voice belonged to a tall woman with short chestnut curls, dressed in a black, classic, long wool coat. At the moment, she was removing a carton of half and half from the shelf. Arianna became entranced with the woman who did not try to speak to her, but went about making tea. A full five minutes of silence passed before the tall stranger sat down across from Arianna and slid a cup of tea in front of her. A little wisp of steam curled up between them.

“I hope I got it right,” the darkly attractive woman said. “You look like you could use something warm. It’s getting chilly in the early mornings, isn’t it?”

Arianna nodded and reached for the cup. She pulled it close, wrapping both hands around it for the warmth. To her bones, she felt a chill that only seemed to turn colder as time wore on. Tea was exactly what she wanted, but she hadn’t been able to articulate that to anyone. Arianna stared across the table into eyes that understood.

With eye contact made, the woman began to talk. Nothing in her voice registered the seriousness of the situation. She spoke as if they were sitting down for a casual tea, two strangers meeting for the first time.

“I’m a coffee drinker, but my spouse spent a summer in England during college. I’ve been told putting the milk in first and then adding the tea and water makes a better cup. Do you add your milk first?”

Arianna answered without thinking. “Yes, my grandmother was British and taught me to make it that way.” She then took a sip of the tea and found it tailored to her taste. She smiled at the stranger. “It’s perfect. How did you know?”

The woman returned the smile and replied nonchalantly, “You have half and half in the refrigerator. The used cup in the sink has a residue, giving me a clue as to the color I was shooting for. The sugar bowl, a few spilled granules, and the spoon on the paper towel by the hot water dispenser were a clue that you stirred a bit of sweetener into your tea. Since you are health conscious, according to your food choices, and appear to be in great shape, I guessed it was only a small amount, a guilty pleasure.”

Arianna took another sip before asking, “Are you some kind of Sherlock Holmes?”

“In the way that Doyle explained the power of observation, I guess you could say I am a believer. My name is Rainey Bell. I’m a behavioral analyst by trade.”

“Are you a detective, like her?” Arianna indicated the other woman standing silently by the kitchen sink.

“No, Detective Robertson and I go back to my days as an FBI agent, but I’m a consultant for local law enforcement now.”

“Why are you here?” Arianna wanted to know.

“Sheila,” Rainey said, giving a nod to Detective Robertson, “thought I might be uniquely qualified to help you.”

“Why, because you have experience making victims talk?”

Rainey Bell leaned a little closer and locked her eyes on Arianna’s. “No, because I’ve been exactly where you are. I know what this feels like, and I think I know what you need to hear.”

“Oh yeah, and what is that?” Arianna asked with a bit of attitude, thinking this woman couldn’t possibly know what to say to take away the self-blame. Could she have fought harder? Should she have fought him until he killed her? He would have, she was sure of that. And what was that feeling, nagging, pulling at her heart—was it shame for choosing compliance over death?

The behavioral analyst kept her deep green eyes focused on Arianna as she explained,  “Every assault is unique, but one thing remains the same. You did what you had to do to survive and that is all that matters. You survived. Hang on to that. Hold it tight. It will help you in the days to come. When your brain starts telling you what you should have and could have done differently, simply remind yourself that you are alive to hear those doubts.”

“He was going to kill me,” Arianna said, and finally broke.

#

9:15 PM, Sunday, November 30, 2014

Long-term Parking, RDU Airport

Wake County, NC

“Park on the other side of that RV in the last row. The security cameras can’t see this far back.”

The older man laughed. “I see this isn’t your first rodeo. How old are you kid?”

The teenager turned to the man. “However old you need me to be to complete our business.”

The man eased the car into the parking place and put the car in park.

The teenager instructed, “Turn it off. The security guard tools around here on a golf cart. He won’t notice us if the car isn’t running. Keep your foot off the brake.”

“You come here often?”

The man’s attempt at humor was lost on the teen. He replied to the joke, “Let’s get this over with. Fifty bucks for the blow, like I said. If you want to touch me, that’s going to cost you double. Money up front.”

The man dug into his back pocket for his wallet. “I don’t usually pay first.”

“Well, you haven’t been tossed out of a moving car by an asshole that didn’t want to pay up.”

The kid held out his hand for the money, unprepared for the cold steel that slapped around his wrist.

“You are under arrest for prostitu—”

The teenager didn’t hesitate. He snatched his wrist free of the man’s grasp, taking the handcuff with him. In an instant, he was out of the car and running toward the woods. There was no moon, and once he was out from under the parking lot lights, he was plunged into inky black darkness. His eyes took their time adjusting, but he didn’t slow down. He heard footsteps and shouts coming fast on his heels.

“Stop! Police!”

“Fuck that,” the boy said, and ran faster.

His heart pounded in his chest as his feet flew across the ground before he felt the earth drop out beneath him. A few seconds of hang-time later he plunged into the frigid water of the drainage pond.

“Dammit,” he thought, “I forgot about the fucking pond.”

He thrashed around in the cold water and finally found his footing. He stood up in the glare of multiple flashlights.

Silhouettes of officers shouted, “Let me see your hands. Let me see your hands.”

The teenager reached for the sky. A submerged tree branch caught on the handcuff still dangling from his wrist. It followed his hand into the air and slapped against his side.

“Jesus Christ,” a voice behind a flashlight exclaimed.

“Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot,” the kid yelled, before stumbling backward.

As he swung wildly to catch his balance, the branch swung around in front of him. That’s when he saw it wasn’t a branch at all. The teenage tough-guy turned into the little boy he truly was, screaming and falling on his back in the water, as skeletal arms wrapped around him.

#

1:00 PM, Monday, December 1, 2014

Bell’s Bail and Investigations

East Franklin Street

Chapel Hill, Orange County, NC

“Rainey Bell,” she said into the phone.

“Ms. Bell, this is Detective March, from the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.”

“Good afternoon, Detective. How can I help you?”

“Actually, I have some information for you,” the detective replied. “It’s about your assault case. I was told you should be informed of a recent finding.”

“Okay, I’m listening,” Rainey said and sat up straighter in her chair.

“We found three bodies in the drainage pond near a long-term parking lot at RDU. Two of the bodies haven’t been there long enough to be JW Wilson’s victims, but the third, a male, appears to be that of Dr. John Taylor. We don’t have DNA evidence yet, but we did find his wallet and credit cards near the body. We aren’t making this public knowledge until the test results come back, but things leak. You know how it is. We thought you should know before you read it in the paper.”

“Thank you for that consideration, Detective. I appreciate it. You don’t have to call the former Mrs. Wilson. I’ll take care of that.”

“You’re welcome. Yeah, Detective Robertson, over in Durham, said you’d probably want to do the notification with Mrs. Wilson.”

Rainey tensed and corrected him. “She’s Mrs. Bell-Meyers now.”

“Yeah, I guess she remarried. Anyway, we can put the case to bed. Wilson must have sunk the missing escorts out deep in the lake.”

Rainey commented, “I guess we will know that when the bodies are discovered. Thank you again for calling. Is there anything else?”

The detective seemed confused by Rainey’s dismissal. “Uh, no. I guess that’s it. Have a good day, Ms. Bell.”

“You too, detective,” she hesitated, before sending him off with the truth. “By the way, Katie Meyers Wilson married me. She’s my wife and the mother of our triplets. You can put that in the file before you close it. People should know there was a happy ending for us.”

Rainey was pleasantly surprised at the detective’s response, “I’ll do that, Ms. Bell. That’s good to hear. Congratulations.”

She hung up the phone and stared at the wall.

Ernestine Womble, the office manager who only came in two days a week now, topped the stairs leading into Rainey’s office. Known as Ernie by all that loved her, she was still as spry as ever, acting and looking much younger than her seventy-two years. She was semi-retired but kept an eye on things, as she had since Rainey’s father opened the bail bond business back in the seventies.

“What crazed idiot does Wake County want you to help them catch this time?”

“That wasn’t a consultation request,” Rainey replied. “They found John Taylor’s body—the veterinarian set up to take the fall for JW Wilson’s crimes.”

“Oh,” came Ernie’s one-word reply.

“I guess I better call Katie before the media leaks the story.”

“You all right kid?” Ernie asked.

Rainey would always be a kid to Ernie. She helped Rainey’s dad, Billy, raise her and was more of a mother figure during her formative years than her biological mother. Ernie was giving Rainey the eye, the one that said, “Don’t lie to me.” Rainey knew better than to be anything but truthful.

“I think so. I’m not sure. Every time I get to a place where the memories of that time dissipate, something pops up to remind me. Here comes another round of nightmares.” She added sarcastically, “Katie will be thrilled.”

“He didn’t win, you know,” Ernie reminded her.

Rainey shook her head in response. “Yes, he did. He intended to scar me for life and apparently he has. JW Wilson will just not go away.”

Ernie would not abide self-pity. “He intended to kill your ass, how many, three times? He did not succeed and is dust in an urn as we speak. You’re still here. You fill your head with that beautiful family of yours and evict that evil SOB from your mind. He’s of no consequence to you now.”

Rainey smiled at Ernie’s simplification of a complicated neural process.

“That’s not exactly how PTSD works. I can’t control when the memories come. It doesn’t matter how happy my life is. He comes again in the night with no warning. Each round of nightmares brings more detail than the last. I suppose until my mind processes the entire event, I’m going to be forced to witness the explorations of my repressed knowledge of that night.” She paused, before adding another truth with a sigh, “Ernie, I don’t want to remember.”

“Maybe that’s the problem, Rainey. You need to talk it out. You never have. Your dad was the same way, kept everything tight to the vest. He wouldn’t even talk to Mackie about the war for years. His demons came in the night too until he had to get help. Do you know when that was?”

“No, I just remember his nightmares, his screams, and barking orders.”

“Oh, those were mild compared to the early years. He shot a hole through the sliding glass door in his bedroom once. He was dangerous in his sleep.”

“I never knew that,” Rainey said, wondering what else she did not know about her father. The first ten years of her life, she hadn’t known he existed. She didn’t come to live with him until she was fourteen. Parts of Billy Bell’s life remained a mystery. Rainey had discovered only a few years ago that she had a half-sister.

“When you started coming to visit, Mackie and I told Billy he had to go to therapy, or he might shoot you during one of his nightmares. He went every day for a while. He’d check in at the office in the morning and then head to the VA hospital over in Durham before beginning his day. It changed him for the better. He still had the dreams occasionally, but they were never as bad.”

“I knew he spent a lot of time with vets, working through their PTSD battles.”

“He was working on his own as well, Rainey. You can’t keep those horrid memories locked inside forever. At some point, they are going to come out. The question is, will it be on your terms or theirs?”

#

The house was finally quiet. After feeding, bathing, and tucking the triplets into their beds, Rainey read to them until the last little eye closed. She and Katie went to bed a few minutes later, exhausted from the trying day. The discovery of John Taylor’s body had veiled the evening in somberness. Emotionally drained, they lay there quietly, each lost in thoughts of her own. Freddie, Rainey’s cat, was comfortably curled at her feet. With Katie’s head resting on Rainey’s chest, they drifted off to sleep.

The movie in her dream began almost immediately. Rainey had experienced it many times before. Disconnected from her bound and gagged body, spread-eagle on the bed, she watched him rape her. Rainey saw him dig the scalpel into her flesh, as she floated above the scene, able to look on now without the heart-pounding panic of earlier viewings. Time had hardened her emotions toward the violence perpetrated against her body. The physical scars from those injuries had healed. It was the gaping wound to her psyche that had yet to close.

She had come to view this part of the dream as the prelude to the impending nightmare. If she were lucky Rainey could force herself awake, before being thrust into the helpless body on the bed and returned to the pain and panic of the attack as if it were happening for the first time. But that was not to be the case on this occasion.

He was at her ear, whispering, “You be a good girl now, or I will have to hurt her.”

Rainey felt the plastic wrapped mattress beneath her body. She closed her eyes against the panic and the searing pain screaming through her body. She fought the bindings, flailing her head wildly from side to side.

“Look at her,” he demanded.

Opening her eyes to see an unconscious Katie tied on the bed next to her, Rainey’s guttural cries were muffled by the gag while the nightmare continued to veer from its normal course.

“What?” He asked, his eyes sparkling with delight behind the black mask concealing the rest of his face. “You don’t want me to hurt her?”

Rainey glared at him through eyes nearly swollen shut, her breath fast and shallow, air puffing in and out of her gagged mouth. Her nose bled profusely, providing no access to more air and threatened to drown her in her own blood, but still she fought him.

He raised the scalpel over Katie’s chest. “She should have known, you know. She should have seen what I was. She wasn’t paying attention. This is all her fault, right? She should pay for the pain she allowed me to inflict on you. Katie should have seen it all coming, don’t you think?”

The blade glinted in the air. Rainey tried to scream and tore at the bindings, ripping skin as the rope dug deeper into her wrists. The small part of Rainey’s brain that was conscious and horrified by what it saw began to beg.

Please God, start the siren.

Rainey’s silent prayer was answered with the sweet sound of a distant whine blaring from a patrol car in route to save the day. It was an accident, a mistake that saved her life. The orders were to approach in silence. A rookie cop hit his siren and charged toward the scene before someone told him to turn it off. Mercifully, it sang out just long enough to warn her attacker.

The dream resumed its chilling retelling of the night JW Wilson nearly killed her. Katie’s body disappeared. Rainey once again inhabited her private hell alone with JW, who bolted from the bed and scampered out of the room. Now came the moment when he paused at the door and looked back over his shoulder. Rainey could see his mouth move, but she could never make out what he said—until now.

She could only imagine he believed she wouldn’t survive the overdose of narcotics he’d given her, or at least the amnesia-inducing effects would block her memories. Rainey didn’t remember, but her subconscious had witnessed the entire attack and kept a record. It had been a long reveal, one painful disclosure at a time, but Rainey had now seen it all. Her mind finally played the last moments on the memory reel.

JW looked down at her. “I should have done that years ago.”

The next and last second of the movie played in slow motion. It was the first time it had ever advanced this far. Rainey watched in disbelief.

Oh, my God!

“Rainey, wake up. Rainey! Wake the hell up!”

Rainey’s eyes flew open. Katie was standing by the bed, cautiously hitting her with one of the decorator pillows from the chaise lounge by the window.

“Wake the hell—oh, there you are. Wow,” Katie said, “that was a bad one. Sorry, I had to hit you. You were losing it. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Rainey sat up. “I’m sorry, honey. I wasn’t loud, was I? I didn’t wake the kids, did I?”

“No,” Katie said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “It was one of those where you’re trying to talk, but it’s all garbled in your throat. Are you okay, now? Did Freddie hurt you? He was biting your wrist.”

Rainey blinked her eyes a few times and looked down at the tiny feline bite marks on her left wrist. She sighed deeply and then wrapped her arms around her wife. She buried her face in Katie’s hair and whispered into her neck, “No, honey, I’m not. I need to call Danny. I need help.”