Desert Lost: A Lena Jones Mystery #6

Desert Lost: A Lena Jones Mystery #6

Winner of the Best Mysteries of 2009 of Library Journal. While running surveillance in an industrial section of Scottsdale, P.I. Lena Jones discovers the body of a woman connected to ...

About The Author

Betty Webb

Betty Webb is the author of the acclaimed Lena Jones mystery series, which includes "Desert Cut" and "Desert Wives." A ...

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Chapter One

Thumb out, shoulders hunched against the wet Phoenix night, eighteen-year-old Jonah King stood at the curb trying to catch drivers’ eyes as they stopped for the light. Most ignored him. A cool wind was blowing the rain sideways and they were in a hurry to get home.

Home.

Jonah tracked his mind away from the word. Better not think about home. Looking like you were about to cry wouldn’t help business.

There. The silver Mercedes with the dark tinted windshield. It had passed him earlier, blazing through the yellow-lit intersection, but had returned, the driver checking him out with a slow curb crawl. Encouraged, Jonah puffed out his chest, straightened his shoulders and ran his hand through his wet blond hair, confident he still looked good. He’d managed to keep his weight up and his teeth hadn’t yet eroded. Nothing wrong with his skin, either, that a little borrowed Cover Girl couldn’t hide.

All things considered, he was a bargain.

The Mercedes stopped, its tires hissing like snakes against the wet pavement. The automatic window hummed down. “Need a ride, son? Or…?” The voice hesitant, as if the driver hadn’t done this often.

Jonah phonied a smile. “Looking for a party, dude. How ’bout you?” When the Mercedes didn’t pull away, he approached the window and looked inside. Big car, little man; the standard.

The guy wasn’t too bad, though. Fifty-plus, balding, soft around the middle. Jonah didn’t mind. Preferred it, even. The athletes, they were the ones you had to watch out for because they could catch you if things went bad. Mr. Softie would be easy to handle.

Sensing it was time, Jonah took control. “Hey, man, like I said, I’m just out here looking for a party. You want some fun, I’m your boy. If not, leave me alone and let me do my thing.”

An exhale from the Mercedes. “How much?”

At Jonah’s answer, the man opened the passenger’s side door. “Climb in.”

Not for the last time that night, Jonah did as he was told.

Chapter Two

Stake-outs are boring, which is why I tend to avoid them. But there I was at midnight, lurking in an RV parked in a friend’s south Scottsdale storage yard, waiting for taggers to swarm over the wall and spray paint nasty things about snowbirds on the sides of mothballed Winnebagos. At least, thanks to the RV’s in-service potty, I wasn’t wearing diapers.

The rest of Scottsdale liked to pretend this area of town didn’t exist. Instead of the trendy condos and palatial homes further north, the neighborhood consisted of a series of heavy equipment storage yards semi-protected by cyclone fencing topped with loops of razor wire. No one lived here. No one wanted to.

I had been sitting in the RV for six hours, drinking coffee to keep me warm, killing time with stomach crunches and push-ups. I was just congratulating myself that the storm which had blown through Phoenix earlier in the evening had skipped Scottsdale altogether when a car pulled up near the fence. Grunts and shoe-shuffling floated toward me on the crisp March air. The taggers, out for another night of ageist vandalism? Grateful that my boring vigil was about to end, I grabbed my Mag-Lite and camera, and tiptoed to the half-open door.

Although security lights bathed much of the storage yard in weak green florescence, pockets of black dotted the gaps between the RVs. To add to my sightline problems, the cyclone fencing around the yard was ringed by a thick row of eight-foot-high oleander bushes, the Arizona remedy for ugly.

So I waited.

More grunts, more shoe shuffling. Then a thud, followed by quick steps and a car door closing. A few seconds later, the car rolled away as silently as it had arrived.

Not taggers.

Curious, I stepped out of the RV and approached the fence. Doves, awakened by the bustle, cooed briefly, then went back to sleep. A soft wind scraped oleander leaves together. Florescent lights hummed. The only other sounds came from cars rushing along the freeway and the lonely yip of a coyote on the nearby Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Reservation.

With the keys the yard’s owner had loaned me, I unlocked the front gate and peered out. As my eyes became accustomed to the shadows, I saw something wedged between the gap in the oleander hedge fronting a boat storage yard across the street. A wee hours garbage drop from a nearby business whose Dumpster was already full? Such bad-neighbor practices were not uncommon in this area of the city, but experience had shown me that objects other than garbage were sometimes dumped, too.

Conscious of the sounds of my own footsteps, I crossed the street for a better look. At first the bundle appeared to be little more than thick wrappings of cloth holding together a red-splotched tarp, but when I switched on my Mag-Lite, I saw the terrible reality.

A woman. She looked dead.

The faraway coyote howled again. Another answered. When I drew in my breath, the doves rustled once more, then flew away.

The breeze on my face felt like cold fingers.

No. It couldn’t be. Not here.

I fought back the surge of sorrow that threatened to render me useless and knelt down to check for a pulse. My initial impression had been correct. Although the woman’s skin was still warm, her carotid artery didn’t pulse, and her glazed blue eyes stared sightlessly into the merciless night. The wounds on the left side of her head had leaked onto her single braid. More blood had spread onto her calico dress, a garment so long it covered everything except her hands and feet.

As I gazed into those dead eyes, I realized that she looked vaguely familiar.

I didn’t know her, but I’d seen her on a hundred other faces, pale Nordic features made almost identical by generations of incest. The prairie-type dress, designed to hide a woman’s shameful body from lustful eyes, sealed the deal.

Not possible. Not in Scottsdale.

But the truth lay before me, cooling in the night. The dead woman was a polygamist.

“Isn’t this neighborhood a bit low rent for you, Ms. Jones?” Lieutenant Dagny Ulrich, of the Scottsdale Police Department, stared at me. In the normal course of business I kept out of her way, but murder changes everything. What was she doing here? Lieutenants usually stayed in the cop shop, shuffling paperwork and playing politics.

I motioned toward the nearby RV storage yard, now strobe-lit by blue police flashers. “There’ve been some break-ins at The RV Corral, tagging and stuff, so Henny Allgood, the owner, asked me to run surveillance for a few nights. When I heard suspicious sounds coming from here, I walked over to investigate and found…this. Like any good citizen, I immediately phoned it in.” Especially like any good citizen who was an ex-cop.

Dagny had taken charge as soon as she arrived, and now a fleet of police cruisers blocked both ends of the street. Yellow crime scene tape glowed under portable spotlights. Dozens of officers walked back and forth mumbling into their radios, while from another nearby storage yard, an irritated Rottweiler barked a warning. Car exhaust and male sweat buried the perfume of the desert.

Without taking her eyes off the dead woman, Dagny asked, “Do you know her?”

I pretended not to understand. “Who? Henny? She’s an  old friend, but we don’t hang out much any more. The usual scheduling problems.”

Dagny frowned, not that she had been smiling earlier. “Don’t get smart with me, Lena. Do you know the vic?”

“No.”

“You sure?”

Crime scene techs bustled around the body, taking pictures, picking up detritus, looking for any leavings which might identify the woman’s attacker. Official time of death would be determined when she arrived at the medical examiner’s office, but to my experienced eyes, the beginning of rigor in her extremities meant she’d been killed only three or four hours earlier. Yet the closest polygamy compound remained a six-hour-drive north, near the Utah border.

“I never saw her before.” Technically, it was the truth. Dagny finally looked at me. Her hazel eyes held no warmth.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.”

“And, of course, you wouldn’t tell me if you did, would you?

Being helpful was never your strong suit.”

Dagny wasn’t the type to let bygones be bygones. Several years earlier, the report I had handed in after getting shot in the botched drug raid she’d scheduled without adequate prior surveillance stalled her climb up the Scottsdale PD career ladder. She’d contested the report, but in the end, my version—backed up by two other officers on the scene—won out. Still, she blamed me alone for her subsequent career troubles, especially her bust from captain to lieutenant, and since then she’d done what she could to sabotage my P.I. business.

I bore my own grudge. Thanks to Dagny’s ambition-fueled impatience, I still carried around a bullet in my hip and it hurt like hell on rainy days. Good thing I lived in the desert.

With difficulty, I kept my voice neutral. “I’m helping as much as possible, Dagny, but like I said, I just heard the car. I couldn’t actually see it because the oleander hedge obstructed the view. I heard the killer dump her, but couldn’t see him.”

“You sure?”

“What, you think I bashed her head in myself and somehow avoided covering myself in blood spatter?”

A faint smile. “You could have covered yourself in plastic.” “Plastic?

The smile disappeared, or maybe I’d imagined it in the first place. “Take a little trip back through time, Lena, say, seven years ago. To that case where the insurance salesman drove home during his lunch break, wrapped himself in garbage bags, beat his wife to death, then went back to his office clean as a whistle. No blood spatter.”

The Moss Hayward case, the second-to last one I’d worked under Dagny’s supervision. Hayward had beat his wife to death for the insurance money, then tried to make it look like a botched burglary. In his rush to discard the garbage bags, the homicidal hubby had neglected to wash his hair, and a bright crime tech discovered one almost-invisible drop of blood underneath Hayward’s comb-over. Hayward was now doing twenty-five to life in the state prison.

“Dagny, you can’t possibly suspect that I…”

She waved my protest away. “Of course not. But you’ve always been a loose cannon.”

“Not that loose.”

The smile returned. “Really? Then tell me, how’s the anger management therapy going?”

Without answering, I turned on my heel and headed back to The RV Corral.

Certain that Henny’s taggers had been scared away by the police presence, I spent the rest of the night with my feet up against the RV’s console, staring at the pictures of the dead woman I’d taken with my digital camera before the police arrived. What had she been doing so far from home? Her single blond braid, balanced by a slight pompadour over her forehead, proclaimed that she was a “sister-wife,” a woman who shared her man with numerous other women. She appeared to be somewhere in her forties but might easily have been younger since the lifestyle, with its non-stop child-bearing, aged women before their time.

I forced my memory back to the miserable weeks spent working undercover in Purity, one of the many polygamy compounds clustered around the Arizona/Utah border. Plenty of motives for murder there. Simple jealousy, battering that escalated beyond the standard wife-controlling punch, and money. Always money.

Polygamy was rife with welfare fraud. Since multiple marriages weren’t legal, the great majority of its children were illegitimate, and like most illegitimate children, each received a monthly welfare check. If there were fifty children in a household—not uncommon—the haul could run to several thousand dollars per month per family. The money was obediently turned over to the compound’s prophet for “investments,” while the women and their children continued on in poverty. Although in recent years the Feds had instituted some welfare modifications, payouts continued to make their way into the compounds. Polygamy wasn’t merely a religion in Arizona; it was big business. Sister-wives weren’t just pawns; they were cash cows.

The women seldom protested their lives’ difficulties—they knew better—but every now and then one broke the silence when an unusual greedy prophet left her with hardly enough money to feed her children. Still, even if the dead woman had been killed for challenging her prophet’s financial practices, the question remained: why kill her, then drive past three hundred miles of empty desert to dump her in south Scottsdale, and by doing so, insure a police investigation? Given the sect’s penchant for secretiveness, it didn’t make sense.

I stared at the woman’s face again, wondering how many children would wake in the morning to find their mother gone.

That face. That familiar face.

Maybe I couldn’t identify her, but I knew someone who probably could.

Reviews of

Desert Lost: A Lena Jones Mystery #6

“If Betty Webb had gone undercover and written Desert Wives as a piece of investigative journalism, she’d probably be up for a Pulitzer….”

New York Times on Desert Wives, A Lena Jones Mystery #2

“Richly researched and reeking with authenticity – a wicked exposé.”

Paul Giblin, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for journalism

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