Gloriana Alden-Taylor wasn’t exactly satisfied. The word rarely appeared in her personal lexicon, but with two new titles due out by Patriot’s Blood Press by the end of the week, she felt, at a minimum, gratified. Both books had money written all over them, especially A Man Stands Alone, that odd little memoir penned by the Death Row inmate. She hoped the man wouldn’t get the needle before she could coax a sequel from the recalcitrant creature. Say what you will about serial killers, some of them could really write.
Lips stretched into a rare smile, Gloriana let the waiter exchange her half-eaten Arizona agave salad for an even stranger chicken dish, then peered around the banquet hall. Was it her imagination, or had the number of publishers attending the Southwest Book Publishers Expo—SOBOP, to its friends—actually doubled since last year? Her smile faded. If the field became too crowded, her own market share might decline.
Gloriana was just wondering what strategy might work best if one of her competitors encroached upon her own hard-won territory when her heart began to race. The sensation wasn’t unpleasant at first; it felt more like the bumpity-bump she’d experienced when she read the first-ever New York Times review of a Patriot’s Blood title. Hardly a rave—vilification would be a more accurate term—but the national coverage put her little publishing house on the map. Almost immediately, orders from Idaho,
Utah, Montana, and even Vancouver flooded the sales department. Patriot’s Blood had become international! Bad reviews be damned, sales was the name of the publishing game.
Someone laughed, high and screechy.
Frowning with disapproval, Gloriana looked for the laugher, only to find her table mates staring at her, mouths agog. When she shut her own mouth, the sound stopped.
“Oh, lord,” she said, patting her lips with the overly starched napkin the waiter had foisted upon her. “I can’t imagine what brought that on.”
The brown man sitting next to her put his hand on her arm. What was his name? Something ridiculous, if she remembered correctly. Hernando O’Riley? Sean Gonzales? Just the thought of his name started another paroxysm.
“Mrs. Alden-Taylor, are you feeling all right?” The voice of the brown man with the ridiculous name sounded strange to her, thick and grumbly, like some fairytale ogre howling up from the bottom of a well. Surely she couldn’t be losing her hearing. Then again, with her seventy-sixth birthday just around the corner….
Annoyed, she slapped his hand away. “Of course I’m feeling all right, you fool. Why wouldn’t I?” Then, with a spasm-like motion, she stood up and stepped away from the table, all the while noticing her heart beating faster and faster, as if it were in a hurry to get someplace exciting. Perhaps the whole thing should have alarmed her, but it was fun, really, what the young people today called an adrenaline rush.
When she settled down, though, she’d have to talk to the resort manager about the banquet hall’s lighting. What did he think he was doing, lighting a movie set? As she squinted her eyes against the glare, her hands and feet began to tingle. Maybe she should move around more, get her circulation going. Old age was such a bitch.
The people at the other tables gaped at her again. Not that she could blame them, because to her consternation she realized she was walking around in tiny circles, her legs lifting high in the air like a drum majorette’s.
She wanted to ask the brown man if he knew why she was doing such a strange thing, but her throat, the same throat which had issued those bursts of laughter just moments before, had begun to narrow. Now she could only utter ungainly uh-uh-uh sounds.
How embarrassing! Almost as embarrassing as the nausea which threatened to make itself evident at any moment.
“Mrs. Alden-Taylor, I think we need to call.…”
Before the brown man with the ridiculous name finished his sentence, Gloriana spewed her dinner. Then, horror upon horror, her knees buckled and she fell to the floor, landing face down in the middle of the puddle. But her legs continued to high-step, high-step, high-step on the way to some mysterious destination.
And what was this new mess?
If she hadn’t known better, she’d swear that she, Gloriana Alden-Taylor, descendant of the Plymouth Brethren, kin to senators and presidents, was actually frothing at the mouth.
“I need to clear her airway!” A woman’s voice. That dermatologist she’d been talking to earlier, the one who published the skin care books.
Skin care books in the desert, such a waste of time and money. Anyone with half a brain knew that no matter how much you pampered your skin in Arizona, by the time you were fifty you looked like a prune. Hadn’t her husband constantly reminded her of that? “Old Prune Face,” Michael had called her, pretending to joke. But she knew, oh, she knew. The slur was his way of excusing his behavior with all those sluts.
Yes, his words had hurt, but she had enjoyed her consolations. At least she was now a rich old prune, every sag, every crease bespeaking her Mayflower lineage. Why, she was American royalty!
Just before her throat closed for good, it relaxed long enough for her to rasp, “Prune!”
Then the pain began, Jesus, the pain. Had she broken her hip in the fall? No, everything hurt, quite possibly because her body was bending backward on itself, her head almost touching her heels. Ahhhhh…
A few minutes later, Gloriana Alden-Taylor’s heart stopped.
Despite the dermatologist’s efforts, it never started again.
As he watched her die, the brown man with the ridiculous name murmured, “Prune?” Wonder what she meant by that?
Indians never cry, so why were Jimmy’s eyes red when he came through the door? He didn’t have allergies and I knew he never drank.
“Jimmy, what’s wrong?” I didn’t know whether to get up from my desk and throw my arms around him, or give him a chance to collect himself. Remembering that Pima Indians didn’t approve of touchy-feely demonstrations, I chose the latter.
“Lena, I just need a minute here,” he muttered, closing the door behind him.
My partner walked straight to his desk and fired up his computer. He even skipped his usual trip to the office refrigerator for his morning bottle of prickly pear cactus juice. Computers acted on Jimmy the same way booze acted upon others; they offered a soothing balm against life’s ills. His addiction to cyberspace, coupled with his workaholism, kept Desert Investigations in the black no matter how many pro bono cases I accepted.
“Jimmy, please. Tell me.”
Had something happened to his girlfriend? Or worse yet, to his girlfriend’s thirteen-year-old daughter?
“Lena, I said to wait.” He stared at the computer monitor as the icons appeared, cocked his head as Bill Gates’ cheesy chimes did their thing, and even managed a faint smile when his screen saver, a montage of ancient Pima pictographs, covered the generic blue. The chimes finally faded, replaced by a recording he had made of his cousin’s Chicken Scratch band. As the raucous music rang out, he sighed in relief. “There.”
Then he swiveled his chair around to face me. “Scottsdale PD arrested Owen last night.”
Impossible. Jimmy’s cousin Owen, a straight-up former Marine, had never received so much as a parking ticket. “Is this some kind of joke?”
Jimmy’s red eyes gave me the answer.
“What did he do? Smart off to a traffic cop?” Owen would never do anything so stupid; he respected uniforms. But I wasn’t yet ready to accept the evidence of Jimmy’s ravaged face.
“The cops say he murdered Gloriana Alden-Taylor.”
“What!?” The very idea that Owen Sisiwan, a Bronze Star- winning Afghan War hero, would murder an elderly woman was beyond ludicrous. Go gunsight-to-gunsight with a Taliban sniper, neutralize a land mine, enter a terrorist-filled cave, hey, no problem. But hurt an old woman? Not the Owen I knew.
“That’s crazy, Jimmy. I’ll straighten this out.” I reached for the phone to call my old boss, Captain Kryzinski, head of the Violent Crimes Unit of the Scottsdale Police Department. Kryzinski admired Owen, too, and knew he’d never do anything violent. Outside of a war zone, anyway.
Jimmy leaned forward and placed his hand on mine, keeping me from picking up the receiver. “Listen to me before you make that call. The situation’s worse than you think.”
And it was.
His voice trembling, Jimmy told me that Gloriana Alden- Taylor, founder of Arizona’s most controversial publishing house, had collapsed and died during a banquet the evening before at Desert Shadows, a Scottsdale resort.
“The medical examiner says she was poisoned by water hemlock, and the cops think Owen got the stuff when he took some people for a hike up near Oak Creek.”
Oak Creek, about one hundred and twenty miles north of Scottsdale, was a popular recreation area thanks to its spectacular red cliffs and deep blue streams. “Some people, Jimmy? Who, exactly?”
He pushed a strand of long raven hair away from his dark face. “A bunch of publishers attending their yearly convention. Owen works…worked for Gloriana, and she wanted him to show them the sights. Supposedly, Owen brought the water hemlock back to the resort and sprinkled it on her salad. She died fast, I guess, but real ugly.”
When is murder not ugly? “Where is Owen now?” “He’s already been transferred to the Fourth Avenue Jail.”
I grunted. The Scottsdale City Jail serves mainly as a holding tank for drunks and batterers. Serious felons are ultimately moved to the new facility run by the Maricopa County Sheriff in downtown Phoenix.
I grabbed my carry-all and started toward the door. “Lena! Where are you going?”
I stopped, hand on the doorknob. “To the cop shop to give Kryzinski a piece of my mind. Does Owen have an attorney yet?”
Jimmy shook his head. As usual, when upset, the curved tribal tattoo on his temple stood out in startling relief. “Janelle was talking to some lawyer on the phone when I got over to their house this morning. But the money situation, it’s not real good, and it sounded to me like the guy wasn’t eager to take the case.”
The money situation, as Jimmy so delicately phrased it, was always the problem. Since the O.J. trial, it had passed no one’s notice that money, not innocence, was the best defense. Owen’s salary as Gloriana’s chauffeur/bodyguard/handyman probably didn’t amount to much, especially when you factored in a non- employed wife and three children, one of them barely a month old.
Jimmy stood, but I motioned him back down. “You stay here and take care of business, partner. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to need the revenue.”
# # #
As I drove to the cop shop, I remembered my one run-in with Mrs. Alden-Taylor, or, as she preferred to be addressed, Gloriana. Jimmy and I had attended a Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce mixer to scout new clients when she walked up and introduced herself. She didn’t bother to greet my partner. After all, he was just an Indian.
He looked doubtful. “Owen’s my cousin.” “Yeah, but now he’s my client.”
Gloriana was even taller than I, and her pale blue eyes had to look down to study the scar on my forehead. Unlike more polite people seeing the scar for the first time, she didn’t disguise her interest.
“I’ve heard a lot about you, Ms. Jones,” she said. “Judging from your stature and coloring, you have got good genes. Too bad about that scar.”
From the articles I’d read about Gloriana in the Scottsdale Journal, I suspected why she approved of me. With my five-foot-nine-inch stature, natural blond hair and green eyes, I probably look like she thought an American was supposed to look. For a woman who claimed to trace her lineage all the way back to the Mayflower, she held oddly Germanic opinions about race.
“Oh, I don’t know, Gloriana,” I answered. “I think the scar gives me a certain panache.”
I didn’t bother responding to the remark about my genes. Anyone who followed my cases in the Arizona media knew I had no idea who my parents were, let alone the rest of my ancestral DNA donors. Raised in a series of foster homes, the name Lena Jones had been bestowed upon me by a particularly unimaginative social worker. For all I knew, I was descended from cannibals.
“The scar doesn’t really matter, Ms. Jones. Your bone structure is quite marvelous.”
As the old woman continued her head-to-toe inventory of my “bone structure,” I wondered about her sexual preference.
Then I dismissed the thought. In my experience, lesbians tended to be more subtle.
Inventory finished, Gloriana said, “Good, very good. You can tell a lot about a person from the way they look.”
Was she serious? “That’s what the women who trusted Ted Bundy thought, too, Gloriana.”
When she smiled, her desert-weathered skin creped around her thin mouth and eyes, making her look like an unwrapped mummy. “There might be an exception or two, but overall, breeding tells. That’s why the Alden-Taylors have flourished. As you know, we are not only descended from the Plymouth Brethren, but we can count a president and several senators and generals among our number. The recent research I’ve commissioned even suggests a genetic connection to Thomas Jefferson himself.”
“Through Sally Hemings?” I suspected the old bat might not be quite so thrilled if her genetic connection proved to be through Jefferson’s reputed slave mistress.
A faint snicker at my side alerted me that Jimmy, at least, noticed the acid in my voice.
Gloriana missed the sarcasm. “Personally, Ms. Jones, I doubt the entire Hemings story. Jefferson was much too fastidious to get himself caught up in such a scandal.”
For a moment, I considered another barb, but decided she wasn’t worth the effort.
“Your, ah, genetic theories are certainly interesting.” I turned to go.
She leaned forward and tapped my arm. “Oh, they’re more than theories, Ms. Jones.”
# # #
The perfect March morning brought out the last of the snowbirds. Fat herds of Winnebagos, Airstreams, and Holiday Ramblers wallowed north up Hayden Road ten miles under the speed limit, tying up traffic and spewing diesel fumes into the crisp Arizona air. As much as Arizonans appreciate the money the snowbirds funnel into our economy, their turtle-paced driving makes commuters crazy. No wonder so many local vehicles sport bumper stickers that snarl, IF IT’S SNOWBIRD SEASON, WHY CAN’T WE SHOOT THEM?
After I walked away, I brushed at my sleeve. It felt dirty.
I sounded the horn on my 1945 Jeep when a beige Wildwood with, ho ho, racing stripes, drifted toward my lane. At the very last second, its elderly driver remembered where he was (Driving. On a crowded city street. In a multi-ton vehicle.) and straightened his metal monster. Death once more averted, I unclenched my hands and continued north, Scottsdale’s narrow green belt on my right, ass-to-ass condos on my left.
When Scottsdale North, the police department’s main station, had been built a decade back, the city had pretty much ended at Bell Road. Now urban sprawl continued all the way to the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, more than twenty miles north of where the town first began. The pristine Sonoran Desert I loved was being replaced by tract homes and strip malls; the protests of various environmental groups had been unable to stop it. Not even the groups backed with Alden-Taylor money.
Gloriana had loved the desert, too, although this trait seldom endeared her to other environmentalists. She actually considered the wilderness her family’s private legacy, not a resource to be enjoyed by everyone, rich or poor, Anglo or non. I suspected that if Gloriana had had her way, the entire Sonoran Desert would have been strung with barbed wire and patrolled by armed militia to keep out the riff raff.
Come to think of it, that kind of thing was already happening down by the Mexican border.
The more I reflected on Gloriana’s self-involved life, the more I realized that her murder didn’t surprise me. Given her ability to make enemies, it was odd that no one had killed her until now.