Desert Vengeance: A Lena Jones Mystery #9

Desert Vengeance: A Lena Jones Mystery #9

When the man who raped Scottsdale PI Lena Jones when she was a nine-year-old foster child is released from prison, Lena is waiting for him in the parking lot—with a ...

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

I was waiting for him when he stepped out of the prison van. The man who had raped me when I was nine years old squinted against the savage August sun and took a hesitant step toward the beat-up Honda Civic. The driver’s side door opened.

“Get in here, quick!” the rapist’s wife yelled. “She’s here, too!” And so I was. Instead of parking my tricked-out 1945 Jeep at the far side of the lot to escape notice, I had parked right behind the Civic. I wanted them both to see me, to take note, to realize that after almost thirty years, I still remembered.

As the rapist shuffled toward his wife, I stepped out of my Jeep. Smiled. Waved. Flashed my Vindicator. Made certain the rapist noticed the gleam of the sun along the knife’s ten-inch-long, tempered steel blade. Made certain the rapist knew it was nothing like the cheap kitchen knife I had defended myself with the last day I’d spent under his roof.

My Vindicator wouldn’t break. Neither had I.

 

Chapter Two

It’s easy to follow a car once you’ve affixed a GPS tracker onto its passenger-side wheel-well, so I could have slipped several cars back while following the Civic north along State Route 79 to Apache Junction, but what would be the fun in that? I wanted the Wycoffs to know they weren’t done with me, nor I with them. During the trial, two of the Wycoffs’ former foster children came forward to testify against him, with five more kids waiting their turn. But knowing what I now know, I guessed there had been even more victims during the couple’s years working with

Child Protective Services.

Child Protective Services? What a joke.

When the Civic sped up, I sped up. When the Civic slowed down, I slowed down. When the Civic pulled into a rest area at the side of the road, I pulled in. Neither Wycoff got out of the car, but I saw Norma take out a cell phone and punch in a number. I was close enough to see her lips moving, but I didn’t need to be a lip-reader to know she was on the phone with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, begging for help. After a few minutes’ wait and not one squad car in sight, the Arizona heat finally got to the Wycoffs and they took off again with me right behind them.

I’ve always loved this stretch of desert. Miles and miles of low flat land forested with saguaro, cholla, and prickly pear cacti. A hard landscape, but if you knew its moods, a sustaining one. Had Brian Wycoff recognized its beauty as he paced the exercise yard at the Florence Correctional Facility? I doubted it, since his eye was more attuned to the defenseless beauty of nine-year-old girls.

The Wycoff house, on the eastern edge of Apache Junction, wasn’t much. To pay the trial’s expenses, Norma had vacated their Scottsdale house and moved to this cheapo neighborhood. It hadn’t looked too bad at first, but over the years I watched it deteriorate to the point where most people would have torn the house down and built a new one. I doubted Norma Wycoff, that Mistress of Denial, could see it as it was: an unkempt faux-stucco with blistered blue paint defacing the window and door sills. As if determined to keep up with all that ugliness, the dying grass in the front yard was littered with empty soda cans, plastic Circle K bags, and freebie newspapers rolled into rotting cylinders.

Welcome home, perv.

Yet the house sat at the base of one of the most spectacular sights in Arizona—the Superstition Mountains. Lit by the morning sun, the mountains’ red, gold, and purple cliffs rose straight up behind the Wycoff hovel, as if trying to shame it into beauty. Fat chance. Once my former foster father had been outed for the monster he was, Norma stopped trying to keep up appearances and let everything slide. If it had been within her power, like all good passive-aggressives, she would have allowed the mountains themselves to crumble.

The Civic pulled into what was left of an asphalt driveway. I parked at the curb and watched them exit the car. Before they reached the door, I caught up with them.

“No balloons, Papa Brian? No party favors?” He said nothing.

“You can’t harass us like this,” Norma said, her chin jutting out from her fleshy face. “It’s against the law.”

“So’s child rape.”

“You were a liar then, and you’re a liar now. My husband never touched you.”

Behind her, as if taking refuge in her bulk, Wycoff plucked at her dress. “Norma. Please. Let’s just get in the house.”

The jowls on Norma’s face wobbled as she jerked her head around. “She needs to be told a thing or two!”

Oh, I loved the way this was going. I flashed my knife again. “Pretty, isn’t it, Papa Brian? You wouldn’t believe how much it cost me.”

Wycoff’s complexion, already prison-white, paled even further. “It’s called a Vindicator. Correct terminology is important, don’t you think?”

Norma jerked her head back toward me. “I’m calling the police right now!”

“Be my guest.”

“I’m going to tell them all about you!”

“I’ve always been a fan of freedom of speech.”

By now several neighbors had emerged from their houses to see what was going on. Exactly what I’d intended.

“Hey, everyone, look who’s home!” I shouted, as Norma messed with her iPhone. “Brian Wycoff! Isn’t that great?”

The pregnant woman in the well-tended house next door was too young to have followed the trial so I briefly summarized it for her. Loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Mr. Wycoff here was convicted of thirty-eight counts of child rape and sodomy, got sentenced to twenty-five to life but hit the jackpot in his last parole hearing. Prison over-crowding, good behavior, the usual excuses. No children for him to rape in prison, right? Mr. Wycoff is what they call a Level Three sex offender, a perp most likely to re-offend. Anyone up for a Welcome Home party?”

After a horrified look at her new next-door neighbor, the pregnant woman ran back into her house and slammed the door. Several other neighbors did the same, but a few stragglers remained. One of them, a grizzled oldster, listened intently.

“You bitch,” Norma huffed.

“Takes one to know one. Hey, Papa Brian! I can hardly see you there, hidden behind your wife. Get fitted for your ankle bracelet yet? You’re supposed to wear one for the rest of your life, I hear, and not live within one thousand feet of any school or child care facility. But unless I’m wrong…” I pointed down the street “…that’s a nursery school on the corner.”

“It’s just some slut had more brats than she can handle!” “Hmm. I see two toddlers on a swing set, three on the  slide, and the woman watching them doesn’t look like their baby mama. Even if it’s an unlicensed day-care facility, the law would still apply.”

Norma looked like her eyes were about to explode. “The police are on their way!”

The oldster went back into his house but left the door open, which I found interesting since Arizonans are usually careful to block the heat out and keep the air conditioning in. Seconds later he returned with a Mossberg shotgun almost as big as he was. After delivering a fuck-you look at Wycoff, he flourished the shotgun in the same manner I’d flourished my Vindicator. A warning, not yet a promise, but considering it, considering it…

My work here finished, I drove away as the music of sirens filled the air.

When I reached Desert Investigations, it was just after eleven, time for an early lunch if I felt so inclined. But the faces of the two Scottsdale PD detectives waiting for me would put anyone off their feed.

I forced a smile. “If it isn’t my good friends Sylvie and Bob!” Bob smiled back. Sylvie, the pit bull of the two, snarled.

At separate times, Bob Grossman and Sylvie Perrins had been my partners while I was still with the Department, but that was many years and many loyalties ago. Their visit today would show if any of those old loyalties remained.

“You just had to go and do it, didn’t you?” Sylvie snapped. Last week she’d been a blonde; today she was a brunette. Woman never could make up her mind who she wanted to be. A scowl marring her otherwise model-perfect face, she sat behind my desk, leafing through my papers while Bob watched, aghast.

“Go and do what?”

“Pester the Wycoffs. Sumbitch did his time, now leave him alone.” She looked down. “Jesus, your handwriting’s as bad as my gynecologist’s.”

Jimmy, my business partner at Desert Investigations, wore an I-told-you-so look on his face. He shook his head sadly, then went back to his computer.

Knowing Sylvie wouldn’t move until she was ready, I sat down in the client’s chair across from her. Like everything else in the office, it was new, purchased after arson had forced a redo of the entire office. This time I’d let Jimmy choose the furnishings. Thus the décor was a hymn to his Pima ancestors, with a sand-colored carpet, chairs upholstered in hand-worked Pima Indian designs, and petroglyph-style paintings by one of his artist cousins that featured Earth Doctor, Spider Woman, and Night Singing Bird. I waited for Sylvie to say something nice about it. She didn’t.

Annoyed, I said, “Don’t keep me in suspense. What did the Wycoffs claim I did?”

“Threatened them with bodily harm.” “What kind of bodily harm?”

“The standard, I imagine. Loss of life, loss of limb, et cetera.” She flipped another page. “You can actually read this shit?”

“On occasion. Which one of the Wycoffs told you this? Norma? Brian? Or do you just sit around listening to rumors these days?”

“Apache Junction PD reached out.”

“So it was AJPD who told you I threatened the Wycoffs with bodily harm, not the Wycoffs themselves.”

A slight smile. Sylvie wasn’t as cranky as usual, which I found interesting.

“Say, it’s hotter than hell outside. You guys want some Tab?

Ice tea?”

“Tea, no sugar, I’m sweet enough.” The smile broadened.

Bob spoke for the first time. “I’ll go for the Tab. God knows where you find it.” Judging from his incipient pot belly, he drank Classic Coke, calories and all.

“I have my sources.” I got up and went to the office refrigerator. “Jimmy, how about you?”

“Tea for me, too.” He stopped typing.

For the next few minutes the four of us sat around sipping beverages and discussing the weather. We came to the conclusion that it was hot.

“Already one-eighteen at the airport.” Bob.

“Made it to one-twenty-one in Scottsdale yesterday.” Sylvie, leafing through my papers.

“Only one-fifteen on the Rez.” Jimmy. “More brush, less asphalt.”

“Rain’s forecast for tomorrow. Should cool us off some.” Me. “Monsoon season’s starting early.” Sylvie.

“Sure hate them haboobs.” Bob.

“Handwriting like this, I can’t see how you made it through college.” Sylvie. In one big gulp, she drained her glass.

“Same way your gynecologist did, probably.” Me.

Sylvie put my papers back down, squared them off in a neat pile, and stood up. “Bob, we better get our asses back in gear. Places to go, creeps to see.”

Without another word, they left.

But they didn’t drive off right away. They sat there in their unmarked black Dodge, studying our storefront while sweating early-bird tourists passed by them on their way to the nearest Main Street souvenir shop or art gallery. Some might even make it before collapsing from heat stroke. August in Scottsdale should come with a warning label.

Fully ten minutes later, Sylvie and Bob drove away. Slowly, making certain we noticed.

After a few moments, Jimmy said, “That was weird.” “Sylvie has a nine-year-old daughter. Bob’s  got two    girls.

One’s eleven, the other’s eight. They had to put up a front, not that they wanted to.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh.”

But I wasn’t kidding myself. The detectives had delivered an official warning, and whatever I did from here on out needed to be less publically confrontational than the airing of grievances, so I spent the next hour designing and printing two hundred flyers on Day-Glo yellow paper. Over the photo I’d taken of him in the Florence Correctional Facility’s parking plot, the headline read: BRIAN WYCOFF, CONVICTED MULTIPLE CHILD RAPIST NOW  RESIDING AT  70325 E.  SARSAPARILLA LANE, A.J. Below his picture, it said: LEVEL THREE SEX OFFENDER—LIKELY TO RE-OFFEND. The lettering was large enough for a blind man to read.

The day slid into routine. One phone call after another requested our assistance in tracking down deadbeat parents and runaway children. The high spot was when Evelyn Morris, a four-times-married sixty-something woman who walked in without an appointment, told us she was about to tie the knot again but first wanted to make certain her pool-boy boyfriend was marrying her for love, not her considerable fortune

“Make sure there’s nothing unseemly in his past,” she said. “Like cattle-rustling?”

She cracked a dentured grin. “I just want to make certain he’s never done this before. Marriage, I mean. I don’t want any trouble with jealous exes.”

I told her she’d come to the right place, had her pay a retainer, and sent her happily out the door.

Fifteen minutes later, Jimmy’s computer check came up with the name of the pool boy’s current (his second) wife; he was still living in her twelve-room mini-mansion overlooking some scrub land up north. She, too, was in her sixties.

Another check showed that the love-struck Evelyn Morris owned a twenty-two-room mansion—nothing mini about it—overlooking Paradise Valley Country Club.

“Boy’s moving up in the world,” Jimmy said. “Not once I call her.”

At five, we closed up shop for the day. I took the flyers and a heavy-duty stapler to my Jeep, then drove back to Apache Junction.

Two hours later, all the supermarket bulletin boards and utility poles closest to the Wycoffs’ house were papered with flyers. I had saved the best for last—the telephone pole right in front of their house. The Civic was still parked in the driveway, and as I stapled the Day-Glo yellow sheet to the pole, I saw Norma watching open-mouthed from her window. Good. I wanted her to see me, to think about me. I smiled and gave her a wave.

I have a memory…

I was nine years old. It was Thursday morning, the day Norma always volunteered at her church, the day Papa Brian always came home early from work, the day he always raped me. It had been going on for weeks and I couldn’t stand it anymore. This time I would tell, no matter what he threatened to do to me or to my dog Sandy.

Norma was in the kitchen, where several loaves of banana bread sat cooling on the counter. She was adding an egg to a large bowl of what looked like cookie dough. As I watched her, Sandy leaned against my leg, giving me the courage I needed.

“Mama Norma, I have to tell you something.”

“Make it quick, Lena. I still have four dozen cookies left to bake. Those homeless families, these might be the only treats they get all month.”

I took a deep breath. “Papa Brian’s been doing things to me, bad things.”

Norma dipped a finger into the cookie batter. Tested it. “Needs more sugar.”

“Bad things.”

She looked up. “You’re late for school.”

Last week one of the girls at school, another foster child, had used the word so now I knew how to say it.

“He raped me, Mama Norma. Papa Brian raped me.”

She added sugar to the bowl. Tasted the batter again. “I said you’re late for school!”

“He raped me lots of times. The first time he was hiding in my closet when I got home from school and he told me that if I ever told anyone he would kill Sandy.”

She didn’t look up. “Little liars go to Hell.”

“He hurts me a lot. Every Thursday because you get home from church late.”

She still didn’t look at me or raise her voice in the slightest, but she said, “Get out of my kitchen you lying little bitch before I knock you from here to wherever. And if you ever say anything about this to anyone, I’ll cut out Sandy’s heart with a knife.”

I got out of her kitchen.

Papa Brian raped me twice later that day, but Mama Norma had given me an idea.

Pleased to see Brian Wycoff join his wife at the window, I reached into my tote, and pulled out the Vindicator. When I was nine, he had looked so big. Now, wizened by decades in prison, he looked little taller than me. Norma, however, had fattened to twice his size.

Hoping they could hear me or at least read my lips, I shouted, “Maybe my Vindicator isn’t as long as the knife I gutted you with years ago, Papa Brian, but it won’t break like that one did!”

I sat there for another hour until the AJ cops pulled up and ran me off.

Reviews of

Desert Vengeance: A Lena Jones Mystery #9

“Webb, no stranger to hot-button issues, takes on child molestation in a page-turner that presents both her flawed heroine and the reader with plenty of challenges to their moral codes.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Webb offers fans the profound pleasure of watching Lena mature as she comes one step closer to understanding and accepting her difficult past, while providing new readers with an introduction to this strong and genuinely likable character.”

Publishers Weekly

“Former cop Lena has a fine sense of justice, which she achieves in this ninth entry of a series that features a vivid sense of place, an indomitable protagonist, and a sensitivity to painful social issues.”

Booklist

“Webb’s pithy first-person narration cuts to the chase without a lot of filler, making Desert Vengeance a pleasure to read. Though lean and mean, the prose carries enough quirk and nuance to convey the protagonist’s distinct, cheeky voice. Lena Jones is tough yet vulnerable, irreverent and sarcastic, yet dead serious at times. She’s the flawed hero one can’t help but love. Webb depicts her evenhandedly in terms of balanced characterization, and in relating her to the setting. The Arizona desert and its touristy towns offer up a strange bonanza of desert tropes, and Webb mines them with enough restraint to strengthen, rather than overshoot, her themes of loss and retribution.”

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