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An eager new investigator proves indispensable in a novel about a Colorado cold-case murder

Author Donnell Ann Bell specializes in close-to-home thrillers -- like this 14-year-old unsolved killing suddenly revived by clues from a new crime

Award-winning author Donnell Ann Bell knows statistically that crime and accidents happen within a two-mile radius of home. With that in mind, she leaves the international capers to others and concentrates on stories that might happen in her neck of the woods. 

Donnell’s novels “The Past Came Hunting,” “Deadly Recall,” “Betrayed” and “Buried Agendas” have all been Amazon e-book bestsellers. “Black Pearl, A Cold Case Suspense” is book one of a series. 

Bell worked for a weekly business publication and a monthly parenting magazine, but  prefers fiction writing over writing about stock portfolios or treating diaper rash. She has a background in court reporting, has worked with kids and engineers, and has volunteered for law enforcement and other organizations.

A Colorado resident for forty years, Bell and her husband now split time between Colorado and New Mexico. To learn more about Donnell, check out her website at www.donnellannbell.com.

The following is an excerpt from “Black Pearl.”

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Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Thriller

Chapter Six

After Pope’s discussion with Ortiz, Pope and Brian traveled between Denver Health and the Denver Jail. The Rockin’ Diamond bartender proved to be sole-sticking scum. Propped in a hospital bed, Reggie O’Brien sat with swollen eyes, a fat lip, and a broken arm, demanding charges be brought against Merrick Roberts, the bouncer.

Not particularly remorseful, O’Brien claimed he’d been down on his luck last night when a customer slipped him a Ben Franklin to talk about Brandy Lieffield. Besides, the bartender insisted, the customer wasn’t their guy. Inside the club, he’d all but saved Brandy from an alky—why would he turn around and kill her? “As big as John Wayne, and he acted just like him. All right, slight difference,” he said. “The Duke never talked as if he’d pahked his cah in Hahvahd Yahd.”

Meanwhile at the Denver Jail, Merrick Roberts looked like a defeated grizzly, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, not a mark on him. Ortiz had been right—the man hired as the club’s security had been smitten with the deceased Brandy Lieffield.

Brian felt for the guy as he and Pope left the jail. The bouncer would be doing thirty days for assault, end up with a criminal record, while the bartender would lose his job and be sore for a few days.

Things were looking up as far as the investigation, though. In less than twenty-four hours, the homeless man’s description of the suspect had been corroborated—the probability was high that the suspect they were after was well over six feet and burly. And although he’d worn a baseball cap and glasses, yet another piece had been added to the puzzle. The suspect quite possibly spoke with a New England accent. Which was of little to no help at all—dialects were mistaken all the time, and Brian was fairly certain that Reggie O’Brien wasn’t a linguist.

Donnell Ann Bell.

At that point, Brian could have gone home. Too stoked about all they’d uncovered, he wasn’t the least bit sleepy—something he’d pay for later, he was sure. Nevertheless, he returned to the field office, relieved he’d have his cubicle to himself. His relief was short-lived.

Brian entered his cubicle, nearly tripping over Devon. Once again, the man with a military buzz cut had taken over his guest chair. Once again, he sat absorbed in his reading.

“Special Agent Taylor, it’s after one in the morning. I thought I told you to get a conference room.”

Devon looked up, yawned, and stretched. Glancing at his watch, he said, “So it is. Good morning, sir—Brian. I tried. There were none available.”

Shaking his head, Brian squeezed past Devon and circled the ludicrously tight space to get to his desk. “Then, by all means, make yourself at home.”

“Thanks. I already have.”

Brian prepared to kick the nut out of his office until he spied the contents on his desk. Next to his computer lay profiles of the Walker family, police reports, FBI reports, interviews, and crime scene photos—all broken down, labeled, and accessible.

The nut had been busy.

Brian chose the crime scene file, sat down, and perused. Inside were copies of architectural renderings of the Paradigm Branch Library’s exterior, accompanied by a layout of the building’s floorplan, from the basement to the second floor.

Also enclosed were duplicate photos of the crime scene supplied by the Montrose PD. Brian went back in time as he studied the pictures captured from that snowy night and those taken as a comparison after the snow had melted. He reviewed the tire tread tracks thought to be left by the subject’s fleeing vehicle made by a two-ton pickup bearing standard Goodyear tires. In 2003, in Colorado, that size and tread had to account for a quarter of the state’s vehicles.

Brian looked up. “Any luck with the physical evidence?”

“Black Pearl” by Donnell Ann Bell.

“No, but I can fill out a requisition form and have it delivered.” Devon came to his feet and picked up a file Brian had yet to access. “I did find a PDF with material found at the crime scene. I’d hoped that might work for now.”

Brian opened the file and stared at the list. Might work? Inside the folder, Devon had included pictures of the table at which Raelynn had been working the night she was kidnapped. Depicting various angles and close-ups of the scene were photos of her textbooks, her Texas Instrument calculator, and the all-telling scene of an overturned chair. Beside the chair lay the teen’s orange ski jacket, which police speculated might have been draped over the back of the chair when she was taken. Inside the coat pockets, police had found spare change, a package of Dentyne, a half-empty pack of Marlboros, and an empty bottle of long-expired Xanax prescribed to Lilly Walker, the girl’s mother. 

He’d forgotten about the cigarettes and the pills. Brian homed in on those images. Their discovery had been a shock to the grandparents. Lilly had been gone several years at the time of Raelynn’s disappearance, so where had she gotten her hands on her mother’s prescription meds? As for the cigarettes, they’d known their grandson was smoking. But to their knowledge, Raelynn never had. Nor had they ever smelled tobacco on her or her clothes.

A statement Allison verified when Brian asked her about it during her hospital stay.

So, if that were true, why were these items in the murder victim’s pocket?

He moved on to another section separated by a tab. Devon had labeled this one, “Impressions,and highlighted questions: “Did Raelynn have any friends besides Allison?” “What was the status of their relationship before she was kidnapped?” He’d underlined “loner” several times, followed by “driven, honor student,” then written, “Smart, under stress, depressed—was that why she’d resorted to cigarettes and pills? Did Raelynn disconnect the alarm to sneak outside to have a smoke?”

Brian glanced up again, impressed. Naturally, these theories had been covered in the initial investigation. Still, not many came from first office agents. Brian still liked his theory that someone with construction experience had taken out the alarm, but graduates from the FBI Academy weren’t wet-behind-the-ear rookies. They possessed high IQs and brought real-life experience to the job. Besides, having butted heads with the likes of Ian Carver over the years, Brian had found it advantageous to hear differing viewpoints. “Not that I’m glad you’ve moved in with me,” he said to the encroacher in his guest chair, “but this is excellent. Let me ask you something—did Human Resources not assign you a cubicle?”

Devon had the decency to turn red. “They did. But the other agents Bernard assigned me have made me their own personal grunt.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to advance my career by making copies or fetching coffee. The Black Pearl Killer case is urgent. I’m used to helping. In the Navy, I counseled people with adjustment disorders, marital problems, PTSD.” Devon held out his hands. “I want to work with you, and if I prove myself while doing it, so much the better.”

Brian tamped down his frustration as the memory of Meridian and two agents in body bags weighed heavily. His demand for nonsupervisory status was systematically being ignored and tucked away in moth balls. He balanced whether Devon would be a major asset or a royal pain in the ass. Brian believed an asset, provided overconfidence and ambition didn’t get him killed first.

“Naturally, we considered Raelynn had emotional baggage,” Brian said. “But the grandparents had put the grandchildren through counseling. We interviewed the family minister, Raelynn’s teachers, her older brother. They all said the same thing: she was a level-headed, college-bound girl, going places. But you think something else was going on, don’t you?”

“Yes sir, I do.”

“Do you think Raelynn knew her killer?”

“It’s a high probability.”

No pause, no hesitation. When Devon failed to back up the statement, Brian scowled and displayed his palm. “Well, don’t stop now, Einstein. Explain.”

The new hire sat back and appeared to gather his thoughts. “You’ve already said the authorities didn’t believe the abduction was random—that someone had to have been watching her. On that premise, I’m basing my assumption. Most days after school, Raelynn rode her bike to the library until she either rode home or, if the weather turned bad, somebody picked her up.”

“I remember that. So . . .?”

“This was a cautious girl, Brian. How many teenagers remove the front wheel of their bike and leave it with the librarian? This says to me she was hyperaware of her surroundings. It also suggests she was deeply afraid of more loss.” Devon sighed. “But that’s another matter, and I digress. My point is, if a stranger were lurking, she’d most likely report him.”

“Not if he snuck up on her as the evidence suggests.”

“True. But the evidence also suggests she was at ease. Her bike was secure, she was at her standard table by the window, and because all these ‘rituals’ were in place”—Devon used his fingers to produce quotes—“she was able to engross herself in her studies.”

Brian folded his arms. “You make her sound like she was autistic.”

“She may very well have been, albeit high functioning, and not diagnosed.”

“All right, I’m with you. If there was somebody on that second floor she didn’t know, she wouldn’t have been able to concentrate. Does that apply to the patrons or staff?”

“Strangers. It applies to people she didn’t know or who she felt didn’t belong.”

“You got a whole lot from reading those reports.” Brian tugged at his lower lip. “Was she becoming unhinged?”

Devon smiled. “Unhinged is a lot like the word crazy; we don’t like to use it. But something was going on with her. This was a girl who’d lost her parents within two years of each other at nine years old. Losing one parent is devastating. Losing both, particularly at an age where a child’s entering puberty and forming her own identity, has enormous effect on the psyche. I cannot believe, despite the grades Raelynn made, that she wasn’t suffering enormous depression.

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“The cigarettes suggest she might have been acting out. Or, she might have simply been trying to imitate her older brother. If you read the interview from the grandfather and the report from the police chief, she was even on the outs with Allison, her closest friend, someone Raelynn had known since grade school.”

Brian expelled an irritated breath. “I remember. Milt Walker didn’t like her. He essentially blamed Allison for his granddaughter’s kidnapping. Even convinced the police chief.”

“Which apparently backfired and ultimately terrified the Shannons. Maybe that’s the real reason they hired the lawyer and made her stop cooperating.” Devon shot Brian a pointed look. “I’ve said it before, Allison Shannon is key to this investigation.”

Brian was beginning to see Taylor’s logic. “Any luck finding her?”

He pointed to a single file on Brian’s desk. “It’s right there on the edge of your desk. She’s an interesting study.”

“I suspect everyone’s an interesting study to you.”

The younger man smiled. “You may be right, sir.”

Brian rolled his eyes. In a few hours’ time, Special Agent Taylor had done a behemoth-sized amount of reading, organizing, and analysis. Paul had been right; Brian couldn’t work this case without him.

He picked up the file on Allison. “Go home, Devon. Get some sleep. I’ll speak to SAC Bernard about assigning you full time to this case.”

Devon’s mouth curved upward. “Thank you, Brian.” He stood and gathered his things.

“You’re welcome. Hey, before you go, what made you think Allison was such an interesting study?”

“Mainly, because she’s not in many of our databases. I couldn’t find her on Google, and she doesn’t use social media. I finally located her through the DMV.”

“And that makes her interesting?”

Devon winked and assumed a cat-like, canary-eating smile. “Oh, no, sir. What makes her interesting is the reason she was so hard to find.”

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Read an interview with author Donnell Ann Bell.