Desert Rage: A Lena Jones Mystery #8

Desert Rage: A Lena Jones Mystery #8

Ferociously ambitious U.S. Senatorial candidate Juliana Thorsson has been keeping a secret. The horrific slaughter of a prominent doctor, his wife, and their ten-year-old son brings Thorsson to Private Investigator ...

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 ...

Read an Excerpt

Prologue:

2:31 p.m. Monday, July 8

The first thing Ali saw when she came through the door was the blood. The next things she saw were the bodies.

“Why’d you kill my dog?” she asked Kyle.

Kyle waited, like, forever before he answered, almost like he didn’t know what she was talking about, but then he shrugged. “Because she bit me?” He rubbed his leg like it still hurt.

Ali knelt down and placed her hand on Misty’s side. The dog’s body still felt warm. When she stroked the Yorkie’s head, it whined. She looked up at Kyle. “She’s not dead.”

“That’s all right, then. I didn’t know you cared about the dog.” “She’s the only thing I do care for.” At the expression on Kyle’s face, she added, “Besides you, of course. So what are we going

to do now? We can’t leave her like this.”

He grabbed the baseball bat leaning against the sofa. “Want me to…?”

“No!”

“Hey, girl, don’t get all jumped up about this. I only did what you wanted, didn’t I?”

“Not the Misty part. We have to take her to the vet.” “How?

“My mom’s car. The keys are in her purse. When we were talking about running off to California together, you said you knew how to drive.”

When Ali stroked the dog again, it opened its eyes and licked her hand. Ali lowered her face to the blood-matted fur, held it there for a minute. “We’ll drop her off at the vet on the way.”

“Better get on the road, then.”

“Wait a minute.” Ali stood up, walked over to the thermostat, and turned it down as far as it would go. “I read in a mystery once where the killer did this so it would take longer for the bodies to, you know, decompose, give him time to get away.”

“Good story?”

“Better than those stupid comics you read.” “They’re graphic novels!”

“Like there’s a difference.” As cold air blasted out of the family room vents, Ali returned to Misty and picked her up. She cuddled the dog until she realized that Misty’s blood was staining her new tee-shirt, the one with the picture of Rihanna on it. She made a sound of disgust.

“Hey, you okay?” Kyle asked.

“I’m always okay. Go up to my room and get me another top.

I can’t show up at the vet’s with blood all over me.”

“Well, duh, Ali. You’ll be carrying in a bleeding dog, won’t you? Nobody’s going to think anything about your stupid shirt. Say you found her all messed up like that and brought her straight in, that, uh, your parents were out and you didn’t want to wait.”

Ali made a face. “Driving over there with blood on me. Ugh.” With that, the two fourteen-year-olds left the house, leaving behind the cooling bodies of Ali’s mother, father, and ten-year-old brother.

 

Chapter One

Lena

I put the phone down and turned to my partner, who was, as usual, tapping away on his keyboard. “You won’t believe who just called me.”

“Santa Claus,” he replied, not looking up. “The Tooth Fairy.” “The Honorable Juliana Thorsson, that’s who.”

Jimmy stopped typing. “The politician? The one in Washington?” “Congress is in recess, so she’s back in Scottsdale and wants me to come right over.”

He grinned, his white teeth gleaming against his dark face. “Trying to win your vote, huh?”

“She wouldn’t say.”

“There’s a politician for you.”

Six years earlier, Thorsson had been elected to the U.S. Congress on a platform slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. At the age of thirty-four, she had already served two terms in the Arizona Senate, where her Olympic Bronze in skeet shoot- ing earned her instant popularity with gun-loving Arizonans. When naked pictures of our then-U.S. Congressman surfaced in the National Enquirer, she ran for his seat. The possessor of an immaculate reputation, she won in a landslide. Now she was touted as a possible senatorial candidate. After that, maybe even the presidency.

And for some mysterious reason, this political paragon had summoned me into her presence.

I looked out the window of Desert Investigations and saw no pedestrians trolling the Main Street art galleries. No wonder. July has always been a rough month here in Scottsdale, and this year promised to be one of the worst yet. Only nine in the morning and it was a hundred and three.

“Something else is interesting,” I told Jimmy. “The Honorable Juliana told me not to drive my Jeep, that it was too recogniz- able, which means she’s already researched me. Did you get the air-conditioning in your pickup fixed yet?”

“If I say I did, are you going to ask if you can borrow it?” “I’ll have to borrow it regardless.”

“Then lucky you. I took it in Saturday and now it’s like Alaska in there. When are you supposed to see her?”

“As soon as I can get there.”

“Bring my baby back in the same condition you borrowed it, that’s all I ask.”

Jimmy Sisiwan has been an equal partner at Desert Investigations since it opened. A full-blooded Pima Indian who lives on the nearby reservation, he performs three-quarters of our revenue-earning work—background checks for the human resources departments of local companies. Only rarely does he share field- work with me, but that’s the way he likes it. Especially in July.

“Have fun,” he said, tossing me the keys to his Toyota.

By the grace of our landlord, Desert Investigations had been granted three covered parking spots painted with the warning FOR DESERT INVESTIGATIONS ONLY. ALL OTHERS WILL BE TOWED. My pictograph-decorated 1946 Jeep took one of the spots, Jimmy’s Toyota another, with an empty space left for a client. Or rather, it should have been empty, consider- ing no clients had shown up. Yet there sat a nasty-looking black Hummer 2. For the third time in a week the space-hogging beast had parked so close to my Jeep that I checked my own baby for any dings on its custom-paint job. Lucky for the Hummer’s driver, there were none.

I don’t like Hummers on principle. They’re oversized, heavy, and present a threat to the environment. They’re also pretentious, a Scottsdale trait I am heartily sick of. Out of patience with the interloper, I hauled my pen and notebook out of my carryall, and in big block letters printed, PLEASE STOP PARKING HERE; IF YOU CONTINUE, YOUR CAR WILL BE TOWED AT YOUR EXPENSE.

After tucking the note behind Big Black Hummer’s wind- shield wiper, I hopped into Jimmy’s pickup and took off for the Honorable Juliana’s residence.

Although called “the West’s most Western town,” Scottsdale hasn’t lived up to that motto for decades. Long ago, strip malls had replaced cattle ranches when housing developments sprawled across once-pristine desert. Now, except for a few rare pockets, the city looked just like any other metropolis: overdesigned and overcrowded.

So much for truth in advertising.

A half-hour of bumper-to-bumper traffic later, I arrived at Arabian Run, a bland condo community situated on the site of a former horse farm. Nothing was left of the horses except the name and the black silhouette of a horse on the gate blocking off the development from the great unwashed. When I tooted my horn, a rotund guard emerged from the de rigueur security hut. I announced myself as Miss Brown, the name the Honorable Juliana told me to use. With that, he opened the iron gate and ushered Miss Brown and her borrowed Toyota pickup through. The view that greeted me was of uninspired, uniform buildings lined up next to each other in ranks so unbroken that back East, they would have passed for government-assisted housing. This meant that unlike many politicians, Juliana Thorsson wasn’t filthy rich. Not yet, anyway. The big money would roll in when, and if, she became a U.S. senator. For now she remained ensconced in an area more middle-class than upper, in a modest condo instead of one of Scottsdale’s McMansions. But the land- scaping was nice. I enjoyed a slow drive through curved asphalt streets made lush with planting of purple bougainvillea, pink oleanders, and here and there—as if to remind the residents they lived in Arizona—transplanted saguaros lifted their one hundred-year-old arms to the harsh July sky.

The Honorable Juliana’s condo faced the narrow greenbelt that wove its way through the complex. At first I couldn’t figure out why flags dotted the grass, then realized I was looking at a putting green. Par what? Two?

With the covered parking spaces reserved for tenants only, I parked on the street and put up Jimmy’s sunscreen. On the exterior the sunscreen said PALEFACE GO HOME; on the other, a picture of Geronimo loomed over the sentence: FIGHTING DOMESTIC TERRORISM SINCE 1492.

That Jimmy, such a card.

The congresswoman met me at the door. “Come in quickly so the cold air doesn’t escape,” she said, waving me through. She looked somewhat older than in her campaign posters, but younger than the last time I saw her on CNN arguing about immigration with Anderson Cooper. A natural honey-blond, she downplayed her Nordic good looks by dressing like a banker. Gray suit, plain white blouse, sensible black pumps, But at age thirty-six, she was still a beauty and the dowdy outfit couldn’t hide it.

As soon as I stepped into the frigid house, a small dog of indeterminate breed limped up to meet me. She wore a cast on her right front foreleg, and her back was shaved almost bald, revealing a map work of sutures. When I bent down to pet her, she backed away with a whine.

Thorsson scooped the poor creature up in her arms. “She wants to be friendly but she’s not ready yet.”

“Looks like she’s been through a lot.”

“You could say that. By the way, do you have a different sunscreen you could put on that truck? The whole point of my asking you to drive a vehicle other than your Jeep was to avoid notice.” “You don’t think PALEFACE GO HOME sends a nice anti-immigration message?”

She gave me a sour smile. “I’ll put the dog in the bedroom, then step into the garage and get you another sunscreen to replace that anti-American message.”

Less than two minutes after saying hello I already doubted I’d take her on as a client, but business is business. Until I knew enough to issue a formal turndown, I’d listen to what she had to say.

Her brief absence gave me a chance to look around the large living room. Not fancy, but if she won the U.S. senatorial seat, that would change. Pale blue walls, pale blue carpet, pale blue sofa and chairs. If the air-conditioning hadn’t been blasting away to beat the band, I would still have felt cold. I noted with amuse- ment that she didn’t own one gun cabinet, she owned three, each glass-fronted case filled with enough firepower to arm a small nation. In addition, a brass-fitted antique Winchester .22 hung over the sofa, flanked by two mounted elk heads. Apparently clay pigeons weren’t her only targets. Other than the guns, I saw few personal touches. No art, no books, no knickknacks, just a couple of family photos and a pile of newspapers on the table next to the sofa. She must have loved reading about herself.

Several freshly inked campaign posters stood against one wall, giving away the congresswoman’s future plans. THORSSON FOR SENATE! they announced. A WOMAN OF THE PEOPLE.

When Thorsson returned with a lizard-green sunshade extoling Geico Insurance, I went outside and made the switch. Despite my misgivings, I was curious about this Olympian-turned-politician. “How about some iced tea?” she asked, when she let me inside again.

“Anything cold and wet would be much appreciated. It’s over a hundred degrees already.”

“Going to be a hot one.”

“Maybe as bad as 2007.” This is how Arizonans talk when they either have nothing interesting to say or are putting off what might turn out to be an unpleasant conversation.

“Nothing can be as bad as 2007, Miss Jones.”

“Don’t be so sure. Global warming, and all.”

She frowned. “Global warming is a myth perpetrated by left- wing scientists. Sugar in your tea?”

“I like it bitter.” “Me, too.”

At least we agreed on something.

She waved toward the sofa. “Have a seat. I’ll be right back.” Apparently she had already made the tea, because almost by the time my rump landed on a blue sofa cushion, she returned and handed me a tall frosted glass filled to the brim. After a taste,

I pronounced it excellent.

She sat down on the chair next to a magazine rack filled with more newspapers, sipped at her own glass. “There’s nothing like cold tea on a hot day, is there?”

“No, there isn’t. Look, I have an appointment at eleven thirty, so I would appreciate it if we got this show on the road. Why am I here? By the way, how should I address you? Congresswoman? Honorable Juliana?” I smiled to take the sting out of the ques- tions. It was never a good idea to annoy a politician.

“Plain Juliana would be fine, Miss Jones. I don’t stand on ceremony.”

“Then call me Lena.” I kept the smile plastered to my face. “Do you read the papers, Lena? Watch the news?”

“Sure, but I try to stay away from the political stuff.” The minute the words were out of my mouth, I knew they were a mistake because they immediately elicited the kind of political mumbo jumbo that numbed my eardrums.

“I encourage all citizens to educate themselves on the issues, especially those which concern the great state of Arizona.”

“Can’t argue with that.” I finally stopped smiling. “Could we just get on with it?”

Regally, she inclined her head. “Of course. Before I called your office, I had you investigated. You were raised in foster homes. At the age of nine, one of your foster fathers raped you. After putting up with that for a while—there was something about a pet dog he threatened to kill if you told—you stabbed him. Almost killed him, too.”

Since I’d been a minor at the time, the newspapers had refrained from printing my name or photograph, so the fact that Juliana had managed to unearth that old criminal case came as a shock. But I wasn’t about to let her know it, so I shrugged.

“‘Almost’ being the operative word, Juliana. My foster father didn’t die, just went to trial. And kudos for your own investi- gative skills, although I imagine that for someone with your contacts, everything is ultimately accessible, sealed records or no. Still, why does what happened to me almost three decades ago matter in the here and now?”

“I also know that the man who raped you will be released from prison sometime next month.”

“Quite the detective you are. But as impressed as I am, I repeat my question: why am I here?”

She didn’t answer right away, just kept staring at me with those cold eyes. Finally, she said, “You’re very controlled.”

“Part of my job description.”

When her face relaxed, it was as if a different woman had entered the room. “Oh, yes. I know all about job descriptions and how necessary it is to live up to them.” Her eyes flicked to the gun cabinets then back to me. “This entire conversation is off the record, correct?”

“Of course.”

“Good. Have you been following the Cameron case?”

“I take it you’re talking about the murders a couple of weeks ago.”

“Nine days ago, to be exact.”

The Cameron house, where an entire family had been slaughtered by a fourteen-year-old girl and her boyfriend, was separated from Quail Run by less than a mile, which meant that the Camerons would have been her constituents. The family was well-off, the kind of people who might want politicians for friends, so perhaps there was even a personal connection.

“I read about the case, yes. Dr. Arthur Cameron, his wife, and their ten-year-old son were supposedly beaten to death with a baseball bat by a fourteen-year-old boy. Tragic. And in my opinion, tragic for the girl in the case—the daughter—since from what I hear, she—supposedly, again—masterminded the whole thing. At least that’s what they swore to in their confessions.”

Juliana narrowed those cold eyes and studied me like I was a smear under a microscope. “Why tragic for the girl, if she was supposed to be the ringleader?”

“You’re an educated woman, Juliana, so you must know that scientific studies prove that at the age of fourteen, the cerebral cortex isn’t fully formed. It’s doubtful the girl understood what she was doing, not that our court system will care. Considering the fact that Arizona loves to prosecute kids as adults, the girl’s lucky the County Attorney filed in Juvenile Court, not in the adult system.”

“Correct,” she said. “You were nine when you stabbed your foster father. Did you understand what you were doing then?” “I just wanted to keep him off me. If I’d been an adult in that situation, I would probably have contacted the authorities, not taken the law into my own hands.” Uneasy, I shifted on the sofa. I didn’t like talking about my past. Especially not that part. To my surprise, she nodded, as if satisfied with my  answer.

Then she picked up one of the newspapers, and handed it to me.

RUNAWAY TEENS FOUND IN QUARTZSITE screamed the headline.

“Yellow journalism at its finest,” I said. But at least the head- line read RUNAWAY instead of KILLER.

“Now open the paper to the middle.”

I did, and found a candid photograph of a teenage girl slipped between the pages. It was slightly out of focus, as if been taken from a distance by a shaky hand but you could still tell that the girl would grow into a beauty. Perfect oval face, blond hair, blue eyes, the lanky but perfectly proportioned build of a budding runway model. She’d been snapped carrying a load of books in her arms, walking down a palm-lined street.

“I took that picture,” Juliana said. “It’s a bit out of focus.”

“I’m not much of a photographer,” she admitted. “Who is it?”

“We’ll get to that shortly. Now tell me what you think of this.” She lifted the rest of the newspapers in the magazine rack, revealing a framed studio portrait hidden underneath.

When she handed the portrait to me, I still couldn’t figure out why I was here. Comparing the blurred snapshot to the formal portrait, it was easy to see they were the same person, and I told her so.

She shook her head. “Wrong. The snapshot was taken two months ago, just before school let out. The studio portrait is more than twenty years old.”

“But…”

“The girl in the formal portrait is me at the age of fourteen.”

I inspected the two photographs more closely. The girls were so alike they could have been identical twins, but given the age gap, there could only be one explanation. On second thought, two explanations.

“Your niece?” I asked, recalling that Helga, Juliana’s older sister, had a daughter named Ilsa. Both blue-eyed blondes often appeared in the congresswoman’s campaign ads.

But Juliana shook her head. “Ilsa is two years older than this girl.”

I had an idea where this was going, and I didn’t like it. Clean- ing up a politician’s peccadilloes isn’t my thing. “Then at some point you had an illegitimate daughter, who up until now, you’ve successfully kept hidden.” I waved toward the campaign posters. “Obviously, you’re about to make a run for the U.S. Senate, so you want me to make all this go away.”

Those cold blue eyes never wavered. “You’re right and you’re wrong. The girl is my daughter, yes, but she’s not illegitimate.” I realized I’d forgotten something. While still studying at Arizona State University, Juliana had briefly been married, but less than three months after the wedding, her husband was shot to death in a road rage incident. The tragedy had actually helped her first congressional run: brave widow carrying on despite personal heartbreak, still a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment. “Fine. You had a child, but for some reason kept her a secret.

What’d you do, adopt her out?”

“Once again, you’re partially right and partially wrong. If you’re familiar with my official biography, you know that my parents weren’t wealthy, not even close, and they could barely afford my tuition at ASU. Getting a bronze at the Olympics didn’t bring me much in the way of endorsement deals, either. My parents were prepared to take out a second mortgage on their home to see me through school, but there was no way I would accept such a sacrifice. They’d worked too hard to get where they were. I was about to quit school when I saw an ad in the back of the New Times, that leftist rag you can pick up for free on any street corner.”

Here she paused to give me a frosty smile. “My politics weren’t fully formed then, you understand. Anyway, the ad I’m talking about was paid for by a private party, and it offered fifty thousand dollars for the right young woman to perform a certain service. When I checked it out, I realized it was the perfect solution for my situation.”

At the look on my face, her smile broadened, but somehow became even colder. “It’s not what you’re thinking. I didn’t become an escort.”

“But you…?” I let the sentence hang there. “I became an egg donor.”

It’s not often, these days, that anything a politician says shocks me, but Juliana had managed. “You’re telling me that to pay your tuition you sold your, ah, eggs?”

“Correct. Eggs from young women of my description— Nordic, tall, athletic, blue-eyed blondes with high IQs—we bring top dollar. Since I was all of those, I signed on. And was accepted right away.”

Now I knew I didn’t want her for a client. “Interesting, but irrelevant. Here’s the deal. I really don’t care what anyone does with their sperm or their eggs. Freedom of reproduction, and all that. What I do mind are your motives. You’re afraid someone will leak news of your little clone to the media and you’ll lose your extreme right-wing base. Well, Congresswoman, if you think you can hire me to hush this up and find some way to keep the girl hidden, maybe even funnel enough PAC money to pay for her removal somewhere else, you’re asking the wrong private investigator.”

I stood to leave, but her next words froze me in my tracks. “Ask me the first girl’s name.”

Curious despite myself, I complied. “All right, Congress- woman. What’s her name?”

“Alison Cameron. Yesterday, Ali—as she’s known to her friends—was charged in Juvenile Court for masterminding her family’s murder.”

Reviews of

Desert Rage: A Lena Jones Mystery #8

“Several red herrings arise along the road to a surprising and satisfying ending.”

Publishers Weekly

“The Lena Jones series is notable for its persistent protagonist and vivid southwestern setting; this eighth entry, centered on a gruesome crime, also is particularly sensitive to the issues of foster children and what really makes a mother.”

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