Desert Wives: A Lena Jones Mystery #2

Desert Wives: A Lena Jones Mystery #2

Now in its second edition, Betty Webb's Desert Wives is a startling, real look into the polygamous communities of Northern Arizona. When private detective Lena Jones helps thirteen-year-old Rebecca escape ...

About The Author

Betty Webb

As a journalist, Betty Webb interviewed U.S. presidents, astronauts, and Nobel Prize winners, as well as the homeless, dying, and ...

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Chapter 1

What do you call a dead, sixty-eight-year-old polygamist?

In the case of my thirteen-year-old client, you call him your fiancé.

“Oh, Lena! Prophet Solomon’s been hurt!” Rebecca Corbett gasped as I pulled her away from his body. “Shouldn’t we stop and help him?” She was such a nice girl.

But I’m not a nice girl. Few private detectives are. We see too much of the dark side of human nature, such as fathers who would trade their beautiful thirteen-year-old daughters in exchange for two not quite as beautiful sixteen-year-old girls. Kind of like baseball cards, I guess.

Besides, “nice” was a luxury I couldn’t afford. The cool September night had clouded over and the full moon all too infrequently illuminated the inky sky. Impenetrable darkness carpeted the floor of Paiute Canyon, where loose shale, sliding gravel, and humped boulders conspired to break our legs at any moment. Yet Rebecca and I still had more than a mile to travel before we reached the piñon pine thicket where my partner waited.

We had no choice. The dirt road above, which paralleled the canyon for almost twenty miles, would soon swarm with the men from the polygamy compound at Purity, all eager to take back what they saw as their property: a breeding-age girl.

“Lena? Didn’t you hear me?”

I shook my head. Maybe a nice person would have sat down with Prophet Solomon Royal and waited for help, but when I aimed my flashlight beam, the condition of his chest informed me that the old man was a lost cause. His stiff arms crooked upward, as if embracing the moon. The flashlight showed me something else: a double-barreled shotgun lying among rocks at least twenty feet away from the body.

This was murder.

“He’s dead, Rebecca,” I told her, not taking time to cushion my words. “Once we get on the Arizona side of the state line I’ll call the Utah State Police so the coyotes  won’t…”

I stopped myself. Thirteen-year-old girls didn’t need to hear what coyotes would do to a dead body. I had seen that once and it still gave me nightmares. I started again. “I’ll call so Prophet Solomon won’t have to lie here alone all night. But for now we’ve got to keep  moving.”

“Can’t we at least say a prayer over  him?”

“We don’t have time.” I gently pushed her  ahead.

Twenty minutes ago, Rebecca had slipped out of bed to meet me in the canyon. She had sworn no one in the compound had seen her, but I was in no mood to take chances. If Prophet Solomon’s henchmen caught up with us, they certainly wouldn’t take the time to pray. They all claimed to be religious men, but what kind of religion forces polygamous “marriages” on girls still playing with Barbie dolls? I heard the call of a nightbird, then the rustle of wings.

Something shrieked in the darkness. The Arizona Strip, a one-hundred-mile stretch of badlands between Utah and Arizona, was no place to be caught out alone at night. I had already learned its dangers during the three days and nights I camped out in the canyon, waiting for a chance to signal Rebecca as she walked from her father’s house to the com- pound’s schoolhouse. One night a black and white king snake had slithered across my foot, but since it was nonpoisonous, its presence did not bother me. I had been less enchanted with the seven-inch-long centipede crawling up my leg.

“Hurry, Rebecca!” This time I did not bother to lower my voice.

Rebecca did her best, but in the darkness she ran straight into a straggly mesquite jutting out from the canyon wall. Bless her gallant heart, she didn’t make a sound. As she disentangled her bleeding face and hands from its grasping limbs, she took a final backward glance toward the  body.

“Oh, Prophet Solomon, I’m so sorry!”

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry about,” I  said, wiping her blood away with the hem of my T-shirt. “You didn’t kill him, did you?” I tried to turn it into a joke but she didn’t laugh.

Come to think of it, neither did  I.

# # #

It took us almost an hour to make it to the stair-stepped boulder cascade leading out of the canyon and onto the desert floor, but we found Jimmy waiting exactly where he’d promised to be, where he’d waited for us every night since I had gone down in the canyon to rescue Rebecca. His Toyota truck was parked, lights off, in a piñon pine grove several yards back from the road. A cloud picked that moment to slip away from the moon and as we approached; its silvery glow highlighted the curved lines of the Pima tribal tattoos on his temple.

Rebecca pulled back in shock. “Who…?”

I patted her shoulder. “There’s nothing to worry about, Rebecca. That’s Jimmy Sisiwan, my partner at Desert Investigations. He’s a detective, too.”

Jimmy’s smile transformed his fierce face into beaming beneficence. “We Pima Indians aren’t into scalping, Rebecca. We’re just peaceful farmers. Want some lima beans? Some squash? Or how about a nice barbequed rabbit?”

She didn’t laugh, but at least she relaxed enough to crawl into the truck beside him. I followed and as I did, the wind picked up. Piñon needles scraped against the cab. In the distance, something muttered crossly. A mountain lion? Or a polygamist seeking blood atonement for his fallen prophet? Given a choice, I would take my chances with the mountain lion.

“There were complications,” I told Jimmy, forcing my voice to remain steady. “A shooting. We’d better get the hell out of here and across the state line. Don’t stop for anybody, you hear? Anybody. Especially not Rebecca’s father.”

Abel Corbett, damn his hide, had caused all this mess in the first place. Fourteen years ago, he and Rebecca’s mother had run away from Purity, married, and moved to Arizona where they had led as normal a life as possible for people with their backgrounds. But the marriage eventually fell apart when Abel, who had kept in touch with his polygamist father and uncles, began to pine for multiple wives. After his father wrote that Prophet Solomon had promised him two sixteen-year-old girls if he returned to Purity with Rebecca, Abel promptly kidnapped his daughter and took her back to Utah with him.

Jimmy’s hand froze on the way to the gearshift. “Did you say there’s been a shooting?” He looked down at my hip where my own .38 was secured in its holster. During the past three days I had not fired it  once.

“Prophet Solomon’s dead,” I told him. “And no, I had nothing to do with it. We discovered his body in Paiute Canyon while we were making our escape. Now let’s get going, okay? I’ll give you the details  later.”

Jimmy gave me another worried look but for once heeded my advice. He flicked on the headlights and threw the truck into gear. The tires spit a small avalanche of pine needles and rocks as we shuddered northwest, leaving the sheltering piñons far behind. Facing us now were empty miles of desert and scrub, where we’d be easily spotted by pursuers. I threw a glance over my shoulder and saw nothing but blackness, but that did not mean Prophet Solomon’s body hadn’t already been found. I wondered if the law hanged fiancé thieves in Utah. Or was that just horse thieves?

The Toyota took a nasty dive into a deep rut, almost bottoming out. Rebecca fell against me.

“Can’t you be a little more careful?” I complained. Jimmy’s gaze didn’t shift from the road. “Fast or  careful,

Lena. Take your pick.” I said nothing.

The Toyota dove downward again. Reflexively, I put my arm around Rebecca. She shook worse than the truck.

As the crow flies, less than two miles separated us from Arizona, but after leaving the compound which straddled the Utah/Arizona state line, the dirt road veered sharply northwest toward Zion City and didn’t cross the two-lane blacktop heading south to Arizona for another twenty miles. But the terrain, gullied by sudden canyons and drop-offs, was so treacherous that even if we’d had a four-wheel vehicle we wouldn’t risk leaving the road at night.

As we bumped along I tightened my arm around Rebecca’s thin shoulders. “I’ve got a surprise for you, a really good surprise. Your mom’s back on the Arizona side of the border, at the motel. She came with us because she didn’t want to wait until we returned to Scottsdale to see  you.”

For the first time that night, Rebecca’s face crumpled. “I want my Mommy!” she wailed.

# # #

When we finally pulled into the parking lot of the North Rim Motel, I saw a colony of bats diving for moths in the incandescent light. Rebecca didn’t look at them once. She barely waited for the truck to stop before she climbed over me, pushed open the cab door, and ran across the parking lot into the arms of the wild-looking woman pacing back and forth in front of the open door to Room 122.

“Mommy!” Gasps. Sobs. Muffled love words.

Damp-eyed myself, I watched them for a moment, then whispered to Jimmy, “Let’s give them a few minutes alone. They’ve got a lot of catching up to  do.”

So Jimmy made a big, slow deal of wrestling the truck into a parking space beside Esther’s Geo, which was so coated with dust that its green paint barely peeked through. I frowned. The trip to the motel from Scottsdale, although long, had been by interstate, then blacktop; we’d never once left asphalt. Surely she hadn’t disregarded my orders and driven out toward the compound.

But I kept my concern to myself. As Jimmy took his sweet time, I gave him more details on the night’s  adventures.

“Do you have any idea when it could have happened?” he asked, when I finished. “I mean, did you hear the shot?” “I’m no coroner, but since he was in full rigor, I’d say he could have been dead anywhere from five to twelve hours. Maybe even more. And yes, I heard a shot. Dozens of shots. Hunters are always in  that  canyon, and I’m telling you, keeping away from them for three days wasn’t easy.”

“Is there any chance it could have been a hunting accident? Maybe he dropped his gun and it went  off?”

I snorted. “He had no powder burns on his chest, and the shotgun was too far away from his body for it to have been merely dropped. No, someone grabbed it, shot him, then discarded it. It was murder, all right. We need to report the death, but let’s get Rebecca and her mother further away from Utah first. We’re still too close to Purity for comfort.”

Jimmy said something under his breath in Pima but when he switched to English, he sounded all agreement. “You’d better use a pay phone on the way, then, because cell phones…” “Can be traced,” I finished for him. “Now let’s get moving.” We bailed out of the Toyota and hurried over to the motel, where Rebecca still stood wrapped in her mother’s arms. The sight brought a lump to my throat. This was how normal mothers were supposed to behave, not as my own mother had thirty-two years earlier when she’d shot me in the head and left me to die in a Phoenix street. I’d been four years old. I survived only because I had been found by an illegal Mexican immigrant, who without concern for her own precarious position had carried me to a nearby hospital.

Swallowing hard, I forced away the memory of my mother’s betrayal. I did not know where she was now and I did not care, or so I told myself. I had put my past behind me. After all, most of my foster homes hadn’t been too bad.

When I thought I could trust my voice, I explained our latest problem to Esther. “Prophet Solomon is dead. We found his body in Paiute Canyon, and I might as well tell you straight out, that it looks like murder.”

Her face paled but she said nothing, so I continued on. “It’s only a couple of hours to sunrise, and pretty soon now someone’s going to notice that Prophet Solomon and Rebecca are missing. When that happens, they’ll form a search party and it’s my guess they’ll figure out the Rebecca part pretty quick. Then the shit will hit the fan.”

Esther nodded, her strawberry blond hair slipping out of its barrette. It was easy to see from which parent Rebecca had inherited her beauty. Even with the stresses of the past few days, Esther’s perfect face remained as flawless as a Botticelli angel’s. Her pale blues eyes, though, looked  guarded.

“You’re saying Solomon was shot?”

I frowned. I had said nothing of the  kind.

Rebecca tore herself away from her mother’s arms and gave me a terrified look. “I already told Mother about the Prophet. About the hole we saw in his…in his…” She hiccupped, then attached herself to her mother again.

I directed my next words to Esther, careful not to say too much. “Yes, I’m sure you did. But this is no time to be worrying about assisting the police with their inquiries, at least not before we get back to Scottsdale and get your child custody mess cleared up. Then you can help the authorities all you want.”

“I have no intention of helping the Utah authorities with anything,” Esther said. “They never helped me or Rebecca when we needed them.” She gestured into the room behind her, and I saw several suitcases sitting on the bed. “We’re already packed.”

“Then let’s get moving.”

Since we had paid a week’s rent in advance for the room, we simply threw the luggage into our vehicles, and within seconds our two-car caravan peeled out of the parking lot. Fifty miles slid by before I directed Jimmy into a truck stop. As I ran up to the bank of pay phones to relay my information to the Utah State Police, I saw the taillights on Rebecca’s Geo disappear over a ridge. I didn’t blame her for not stopping. After six months’ forced separation, Esther and her daughter had a lot of catching up to  do.

What I didn’t know was that they would soon be separated again.

This time, by jailhouse bars.

Reviews of

Desert Wives: A Lena Jones Mystery #2

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

The New York Times

“[An] arresting novel brimming with moral outrage.”

Publishers Weekly