Concrete Desert: A David Mapstone Mystery #1

Concrete Desert: A David Mapstone Mystery #1

Having recently lost his job as a history professor, David Mapstone returns to his boyhood home of Phoenix, Arizona, to find the city dramatically changed. It's now a haven for ...

About The Author

Jon Talton

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan, the author of 12 novels, and a former columnist for the Arizona Republic. Talton now ...

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Chapter One

The storms don’t come into the city anymore. When I was a little boy, when we had evaporative cooling and Kennedy was president, the late-summer monsoons swept into Arizona from the Sea of Cortez and cooled Phoenix with wind and rain. Now the city has become a concrete slab eighty miles across and the weather has changed. Most times, we can only see the clouds hovering out beyond the mountains, dropping precious rain on the desert, tantalizing us with lightning, leaving us with dust.

It was July. High summer in Phoenix, when a temperature of 105 degrees is a relief and workaday guys in traffic jams can turn into killers if they get into a fender bender. It’s the time  of year when the asphalt gets so hot, it can leave second-degree burns on your skin; when $350-a-night resorts hold half-price sales, and everybody who can afford it heads to the ocean; when the air-conditioning of 3 million people pushes the power grid to the edge of a shutdown and a headline about a dozen illegal immigrants suffocating in a locked tractor-trailer brings a resigned shrug. My hometown.

I had been back in Phoenix for exactly six weeks, back in the house that had belonged to my grandparents, the house where I grew up. It was a small Spanish Mediterranean two blocks west of Central on Cypress Avenue, surrounded by oleander hedges, orange trees, and palms. Grandfather built the house in 1924. During the years I was gone, the city had taken to calling the area the Willo Historic District. When I was a kid, it was just a neighborhood and everybody knew everybody else. Now my grandparents had been dead for years, and the families that lived nearby had moved away. The neighborhood was supposed to be popular with young professionals. I hoped so. I needed to sell the house and find a new job.

It was a Sunday evening, the worst time of the week to be alone. Ellington was on the CD player, the 1956 Newport concert. I was about half a martini away from loose ends when the wind started to unsettle the palm trees outside the big picture window and the doorbell rang. Maybe I’d been a little isolated for those six weeks, but it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard the doorbell for years, at least since Grandmother was still alive. The deep clang put a stake of dread in me that usually comes with late-night phone calls. Then I opened the door and saw a ghost.

“David Mapstone!” The ghost knew my name and rushed to give me a hug. At five feet five, she could fit completely inside my arms and have the top of her head nestle under my chin. Once upon a time, her name had been Julie Riding, my first lover.

I blathered the nervous small talk of unexpected reunions and invited her inside. In the high-ceilinged living room, she sat in one of the leather chairs that face the picture window and accepted my offer of a drink—scotch, neat. I poured her a couple of fingers of McClelland’s and then sat opposite her in the other chair with my glass of Bombay Sapphire.

“I can’t believe you’re back in town,” she was saying in a bright alto chirp. She wore a short summer dress that was a little too young for her. But she still had damn nice legs and she knew it. Her hair was a couple of shades darker than the honey color that I remembered, and it was shorter now, businesslike, above the shoulders. Time was beginning to cut itself into the skin around her eyes, but they were still the darkest blue I had ever seen, the color of the dusk sky in the mountains. She was saying how little the house had changed, how she was sorry to hear about my grandmother’s death a few years before, how she’d tried to keep up with my teaching career after I left town.

Then she turned red and downed the scotch in one gulp. I refilled her glass, and she didn’t stop me.

“Shit,” she said, the chirp gone from her voice. “I rehearsed this speech a few hundred times, but I know it sounds forced. I know how strange it seems for me just to show up suddenly, when I walked out the way I did. Now, here I am. Wanting something.”

I filed that away. “I just thought you’d been held up a really long time in the ladies’ room.”

“David, it’s been twenty years.”

My head is always full of dates—1066, 1492, 1789, 1914. It’s an occupational hazard when you teach history. The last time I saw Julie Riding was just before Christmas 1979, when she sat across from me in a dark little bar near the university and said she didn’t want to see me anymore. She was in love with someone else, she said. He was older and—let me remember this right—“was a real world-beater,” which I took to mean  he had money. I was just a college student with a smoky old convertible.

For months after that, amid various stages of anger and hurt, I imagined the life Julie was living without me—I have a very vivid imagination—and what I would say and do if she ever came back. But as my life began to change, she faded from my thoughts, until the years pushed her into that fond drawer of occasional memory reserved for first lovers. Now she was here in my living room and part of me was feeling odd, but another part was feeling as if she’d been gone about twenty minutes. Mostly, I was just glad for the company.

“Do you mind?” She produced a Marlboro Light from her purse. I shook my head. She lit it and took a drag that sounded soothing even from where I was sitting. “I’m seriously addicted,” she said.

We sat in silence awhile, watching the clouds and wind flow in from the east; then a curtain of dust began to fall out of the sky. I leaned forward and just let her find her words. She played with her hair, pushing it back. She’d always done that.

“God, you look great,” she said finally. I was wearing jeans and a white polo shirt, nothing special. “No, I mean it. It’s like you’ve really grown into your face. You’re going to be a hell of a good-looking middle-aged man.”

“Thanks, I think,” I said.

“Our birthdays are two weeks apart, remember?” She sipped her scotch and gave me a sly smile. “David, it’s the strangest thing. I was at the Hard Rock Café with some girlfriends one night, and there was Mike Peralta at the bar. He wasn’t in uniform, of course, and he looked like he was with some pretty high-powered people, but I just went over and gave him a hug, I mean, my God, it had been about as long as since I’d last seen you.

“Anyway, I asked about you, and Mike said you were back in Phoenix and working for the Sheriff ’s Office again. I knew I had to see you, so here I am. My God, are you a deputy again? I thought that was just your youthful adventure.”

She stubbed out the butt and lit another, melting a little into the chair. “Deputy David Mapstone of the Old West.” She giggled.

I smiled at her, glad to provide amusement for an old girlfriend. Some people decide at age fourteen that they’re going to be accoun- tants, and that’s all they do for their whole lives. My résumé is a little more complicated. Especially after this summer.

“I’m just doing a little consulting. Researching some old cases for Peralta. I’m in between jobs.”

“So you’re not teaching?” she asked. “Your great dream was to be a history professor, I thought.”

Since when do we get our great dreams? I thought, getting up to refresh our drinks. I said over my shoulder, “The tenure committee at San Diego State didn’t like me, and there are too many people with Ph.D.’s in history, anyway. Something will come up.”

She followed me into the kitchen. “When did you start drinking martinis?”

“When I was married to a millionaire’s daughter.” “Dorothy Parker said martinis lead to all sorts of sexual misjudgments,” Julie said absently, then added, “What was her name?”

“Dorothy Parker?”

“Your ex-wife, you goof.” “Patty,” I said.

“Good boomer name,” Julie said. “All those fathers in lust with Patti Page. Kids?”

“No.”

“And you’ve been divorced about a year?” “Mmmhmm.”

“I can tell it in your voice,” she said. She wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. I looked out the window at the garden courtyard, where a palm tree was dancing slowly in the wind. We weren’t going to get any rain. Julie Riding in my kitchen, talking about my divorce. “Tell me about you.”

“What’s to tell?” She smiled. “Life goes on. I’m divorced. My daughter’s fourteen, and she just made cheerleader. I’m in marketing at the Phoenician resort, and I work all the time.” She made it sound like a neat package.

Finally, she asked, “Do  you  remember my  little sister? Phaedra.”

Now we were down to the “wanting something” part of the evening.

I said I remembered an eight-year-old kid.

Truth was, I barely remembered her sister at all. A skinny kid with red hair who played the cello and had an odd name. She was in the background one night when Julie took me home to meet her parents, and they all had a big fight. Mostly, I remembered her name, Phaedra. Not a popular boomer name.

“She’s twenty-eight now, David,” Julie said. “And she’s missing.”

“Have you been to the cops?” I asked.

“Yeah, they took a report. What does that mean? They told me she was an adult and that unless there was some indication of foul play, there wasn’t much they could do.”

“So what can I do?”

“I know you have friends in the Sheriff’s Office. Even if you’re just a consultant. Maybe you could ask around?” The blue eyes implored. “It’s been two weeks since she was supposed to come over for dinner. I haven’t had a call, nothing. Her apartment hasn’t been slept in.”

“New boyfriend?”

“That’s never made her drop off the face of the earth.” “What about her job?”

She shook her head. “Phaedra was kind of in between careers. She was working at a photo studio. She had a lot of gifts, but she never did well playing the game at work, you know what  I mean?”

As a matter of fact, I did. I asked, “Do you have any reason to suspect something bad has happened to her?”

Julie paused and the tip of her cigarette glowed contemplatively. “This is a very dangerous city, and she’s a pretty young woman. What more do you need?”

I promised to ask some questions around the Sheriff ’s Office. Julie smashed out the cigarette, and it was time to leave. I walked her out to her car. The storm had blown through, and the night was dusty, hot, and expectant.

“You’re back in time for the monsoon season,” she said, aiming her key chain at a silver Lexus, which beeped attentively.

“You’re down in the barrio now,” she said.

“I guess. I haven’t lived in this house for a long time.”

“It’s all coming back down here,” she said, starting up the car. “Close-in city living.”

I watched her drive her car to the end of the block and disappear around the corner. I didn’t care about Julie Riding, and I didn’t want to start.

Reviews of

Concrete Desert: A David Mapstone Mystery #1

“The perfect setting for private eyes used to be the urban jungle, rife with alienation and secrets. More recently, though, such writers as Tony Hillerman and Nevada Barr have opened up regions of landscape, history, and soul previously unexplored by the detective novel. Talton’s summer mystery, a first novel, shows how fertile the desert can be as mystery setting…A stunning debut.”

Booklist starred review

“[Talton’s] economical style and fast pacing keep the story flowing, and the dialogue is intelligent and realistic. The Phoenix setting is particularly strong, with wonderful and succinct descriptions of a city in flux…more intelligent and rewarding than most contemporary mysteries.”

Washington Post

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