Desert Wind (Lena Jones Series #7)by Betty Webb
When P.I. Lena Jones’s Pima Indian partner Jimmy Sisiwan is arrested in the remote northern Arizona town of Walapai Flats, Lena closes the Desert Investigations office and rushes to his aid. What she finds is a town up in arms over a new uranium mine located only ten miles from the magnificent Grand Canyon. Jimmy’s sister-in-law, founder of Victims of… See more details below
When P.I. Lena Jones’s Pima Indian partner Jimmy Sisiwan is arrested in the remote northern Arizona town of Walapai Flats, Lena closes the Desert Investigations office and rushes to his aid. What she finds is a town up in arms over a new uranium mine located only ten miles from the magnificent Grand Canyon. Jimmy’s sister-in-law, founder of Victims of Uranium Mining, has been murdered, but the opposing side is taken hits, too. Ike Donohue, the mine’s public relations flak, is found shot to death, casting suspicion on Jimmy and his entire family. During Lena’s investigation, she finds not only a community decimated by dangerous mining practices, but a connection to actor John Wayne and the mysterious deaths resulting from the 1953 filming of “The Conqueror.” Gabe Boone, a wrangler on that doomed film, is still alive, but the only person the aged man will confide in is John Wayne’s ghost. It’s up to Lena to penetrate Gabe’s defenses and find out the decades-old tragedy no one in Walapai Flats wants to talk about. By delving into the area’s history, Lena learns that old sins never die; they’re still taking lives. As with “Desert Wives: Polygamy Can Be Murder,” this seventh book in the Lena Jones series exposes real life crimes, and the reason why high-ranking government officials want those crimes to remain under wraps.
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Desert WindA Lena Jones Mystery
By Betty Webb
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2012 Betty Webb
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAugust 1954: Snow Canyon, Utah
From his vantage point with the horses on a small hillock, Gabe Boone watched the cameras track the actor across the simmering desert floor toward the skin-draped yurt. Even with the heavy makeup around the man's eyes, no one would have mistaken him for Genghis Khan. His height, his build, his long-legged stride—they could only have belonged to one man: John Wayne.
"He sure is something to see, ain't he?" drawled Curly, another wrangler on the film set.
They'd been standing there holding the horse's reins going on two hours now. Curly was twice Gabe's age, but because of a life spent mainly on ranches and in too many bars, he looked sixty. His face had been burned saddle-brown by the sun and wind, his tobacco-stained teeth almost the same color.
Gabe, only twenty-two and a non-drinker, non-chewer, flashed pearly whites. "He is that. But he don't look like no Mongol."
"Seen a lot of Mongols, whatever those be?"
Gabe walked over to a big bay, straightened its saddle, and tried to look knowing. "Cowboys like us is what they are, from somewhere out in China."
"Commies." Curly spit a disdainful wad of tobacco on the ground, barely missing his own boot.
Gabe sighed. There Curly went again, seeing a Commie behind every rock and cactus. You'd think he was the one left Korea minus a finger. Gabe stared down at the stump where his left forefinger had been. Curly could rave on, but as for himself, after what he'd been through over there, he didn't want to think about war, politics, or what-have-you, didn't want to think about anything except settling down and raising a family. Abby wanted kids, lots of them. He did, too. The sound of kids laughing, well, wasn't that what life was all about?
Curly wasn't through griping. After spitting again, this time a little further away, he said, "Damned Commies, them Chinese, them Ruskies and all their stinking friends, think they can come over here and take away our horses and saddles and make us call 'em Comrade. Well, we got a big ol' answer for 'em, don't we?"
Gabe didn't want to hear about that, either. He was sick of it. "All right, all right. The Commies is devils and the rest of us is angels. Have at it, I don't care. But that Mongol emperor Wayne's playing lived hundreds of years ago, long before Red China or that Korea mess, and I'm betting you dollars to doughnuts ol' Genghis wasn't no Commie. What I was trying to tell you is that Abby and me, when we drove her dad's truck over to Los Angeles last year, we went to this Chinese restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard and met a guy who was actually born in Mongolia, and believe me, he didn't look nothing like John Wayne. Not that it matters. With the big man in the movie, it's sure to be a hit."
Mood soothed, Curly jerked his head toward the actress below, a porcelain-skinned redhead who looked even less Asian than Wayne. "Miss Hayward should sell a few tickets, too. Wonder if I can get Harriet to dress up like that."
At the thought of Curly's wife, with her doughy arms and massive belly, dressed in a see-through harem outfit, Gabe laughed so hard it spooked Steel, Wayne's favorite horse. Once he settled the animal down, he said, "Can't hurt to ask."
Curly grunted. "There's inexperience talking."
Gabe didn't bother to argue. Now that Wayne was out of sight of the cameras and his own worshipful eyes, he turned his attention elsewhere. While Steel and the other horses pawed at the hot earth in irritated boredom, he studied the scene spread out below. A mile of dusty flatland stretched out before him, encircled by tall red and white sandstone formations. Here and there black lava boulders dappled a renegade patch of green, while above, the cloudless blue sky almost seemed to glow. Normally deserted, Snow Canyon swarmed with more than two hundred Hollywood types, a dozen or so wranglers, and upwards of three hundred Paiute Indians outfitted to look like Mongols. Because of their high cheekbones and weathered faces, the Paiute looked a lot more Asian than the high-priced actors.
But they were all—wranglers and Indians—grateful that in the two months working on this movie they'd earned more than they usually saw in a year. Enough for Gabe to finish the down payment on that little ranch he and Abby had been saving up for. God bless Hollywood. It had made her smile for the first time in ...
"How is Abby these days?"
Curly's question, coming right on top of Gabe's thoughts, startled him. "Uh, fine, I guess."
"That blue-eyed pup I brought over cheer her up any?"
Gabe believed that if there was any trait worse than being mean to horses, it was lying to a friend, so he was careful in his answer. "She's been feeling some better, has that pup sleeping in a box right next to the bed. But it takes a woman hard, losing a baby like that."
"Men, too, maybe."
Refusing to let Curly see him flush, Gabe turned away from the other man's watchful eyes and fiddled with Steel's bridle. The night before he'd polished the leather until it gleamed, but by mid-morning it had already been coated by red dust. Not just the bridle, either. Yesterday, Curly had joked that all the wranglers were red by the end of the day. "Red as them Paiutes," he'd finished.
The old wrangler hadn't exaggerated much. The red dust covered every man and woman in the canyon, darkening their faces, hennaing their hair, even creeping into their underclothes. The wranglers didn't mind. Dust and heat, it was all the same to them, part of the pattern of the day. It was different for the actors. They made their money from their faces, so a crowd of make-up artists kept fussing around to keep them pretty.
Except for Wayne. The dirtier he got, the better he liked it.
Now, there was a man, Gabe thought. The real deal. No wonder he was called "The Duke." Unlike most of those Hollywood actors, Wayne could ride with the roughest of them, damned be the dust, damned be the scorpions, damned be the snakes and the cactus and damned be all the hell Snow Canyon threw at him. Sometimes at night the Duke even came over to the chuck wagon and shared a bottle or two—or three or four—with the wranglers, matching them drink for drink, slapping them on their backs, telling dirty stories that made you laugh in spite of yourself. And that wasn't all. Despite his movie reputation as an Indian-killer, Wayne didn't ignore the Paiutes, either. The fact that some of them couldn't speak English didn't faze him none; he had the gift of making himself understood. Many was the night Gabe heard the Duke's deep laugh boom over the Paiutes' own, carried on the wind from the Indian encampment.
"A man's man," Gabe whispered to the horse. "Tough as need be."
"What's that you mumbling?"
Before Gabe could give another carefully considered answer, Curly doubled over and began to cough. He coughed so long and hard that Gabe feared he'd cough up his lungs.
"You okay there, pardner?"
Between coughs, Curly waved Gabe's concern away. "Never ... been ... better. Damned ... dust."
There had been a lot of coughing lately, from the wranglers, the Paiutes, the Hollywood people—even the horses. That red dust oiled its way out of the air and down into a man's lungs, settling there to make trouble until he coughed it back out. But men could take care of themselves. It was the horses Gabe worried about. He didn't know which was worse on the animals, the dust that gave them so much trouble breathing or the blisters that formed on their mouths after they'd grazed on the puny straggles of buffalo grass poking from the parched red earth.
Come to think of it, some of those Paiutes suffered from the same blisters. Maybe that was because they ate the rabbits and ground squirrels that had been eating the bad grass. Used to hunt the antelope, the Indians did, brought down deer and elk. But lately, the larger animals had been dying off, covered with sores all over their bodies. Sometimes their coats and muzzles looked so scary the Paiutes wouldn't touch them, made do with smaller game and whatever else they could forage. Desert plants, pine nuts, spindly stuff that would hardly keep a chicken alive.
This canyon country was a hard country. Men and horses had to be hard to endure it.
When Curly's coughs died away, Gabe turned his eyes to the film set, where the Duke was swaggering toward Susan Hayward, his hand on the huge knife at his waist. The cameras—one of them mounted on a small metal track—moved back as he approached her.
The scalding wind, blowing down from the canyon and toward the small hillock where Gabe and Curly waited, lifted the actor's words to them. "What Temujin wants, he takes, Bortai!"
The beautiful redhead clutched her skimpy costume close to her breasts. Defiance lit her eyes. "No dog of a Mongol ..."
She began to cough.
Chapter TwoPresent day: Scottsdale, Arizona
Monday, 9 a.m.
It had been a rough weekend, but the new week wasn't looking much better. When I unlocked the door to Desert Investigations, Jimmy wasn't there.
The very fact that I'd had to unlock my office should have been warning enough. Even though I lived in the apartment upstairs and Jimmy lived three miles away on the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Reservation, my partner always beat me to the office by at least an hour. Nothing pleased him more in the early mornings than to raise the blinds, turn on the computer, and while it was warming up, grind some Starbucks while he sang a Pima prayer. By the time I made it downstairs, the hourold coffee would be thickened to perfection.
Not today. Shut blinds. Cold computer. No coffee.
Jimmy's desk being closest to the door, I grabbed his phone and punched in his cell number. After four rings, it switched over to voice mail. "Ya-ta-hey, hola, and hello! I'll be out of reach for a week or two, but if you leave the standard message, you'll receive the standard reciprocal phone call as soon as I get back." Beep.
Out of reach for a week or two? "Hey, Jimmy. Lena here. Call me. I'm at the office, it's Monday morning and, well, I expected you to be in. Why aren't you?"
Then I tried his landline.
Deciding that coffee would help me think, I went over to the fancy Krups he'd bought for the office last Christmas, dumped in a handful of Guatemalan Antigua beans, hit ExprEss BrEw, and waited while the machine made grinding, then gurgling, noises. Sixty seconds later I poured the steaming cup and sipped at it as fast as my scalded taste buds would let me. Once the caffeine hit, I opened the office blinds, hoping that more light would chase away my growing sense of unease. It didn't.
At nine on Mondays, there is little pedestrian traffic in Old Town Scottsdale. Most art galleries don't open until ten, and given the August heat, few tourists braved the ninety-five-degrees-and-rapidly-climbing temperature. As I watched, one perspiring couple shuffled along the pavement, wiping sweat in unison from their brows. Not far behind, a lone woman wearing a dangerously bare sundress—melanoma, anyone?—peered into the window of an Indian jewelry store, then moved past my sightline, leaving the sidewalk empty and me alone in a growing silence.
By now I should be listening to the tap-tap of Jimmy's fingers on his keyboard, his soft chuckles whenever he uncovered the old crimes prospective employees of Southwest MicroSystems believed were long-erased. We should be discussing how the past eventually caught up to everyone, trailing after them like the stink of dog shit on new shoes. Instead, all I could hear was the discreet hiss of our new air conditioner. Unnerved, I walked over to my own desk and turned on my computer. Seconds later I called up my favorite blues station, and the haunting wail of Blind Willie McTell on "Statesboro Blues" killed the silence.
Now I could think.
Jimmy Sisiwan had been a full partner ever since Desert Investigations had opened several years back, and we had so much in common that I sometimes called him "Almost Brother." Like me, he was an orphan, his Pima parents having died not long after his birth from the diabetes that ravaged the tribe. Unlike me, he'd been adopted by people who loved him, whereas I—deemed unadoptable because of certain behavioral issues resulting from a gunshot wound to the head—had made the rough rounds of Arizona's foster care system. Jimmy was even-tempered, but as for me, let's just say that ongoing anger management therapy kept me out of jail. The point is, Jimmy calms my chaos. No matter what kind of crazy messed with my mind, he always has my back. Without that big Indian, I feel naked.
"Jimmy, where the hell are you?"
I hadn't realized I'd spoken aloud, and the sound of my voice echoing around the sharp corners of the room startled me. Furnished in mauve and bleached pine, the office had all the personality of a furniture showroom, but it worked for our high-roller clientele. By the time they came to see us, life—in the form of predatory gold-diggers, missing teenagers, and various and sundry con artists—had kicked them around so much they needed soothing, not stimulation. But now all that Yuppie Bland unnerved me. Something was wrong.
As Blind Willie finished the last few bars of "Statesboro" and started on "Broke Down Engine Blues," I finished the last of the Guatemalan Antigua. That's when I noticed the message light blinking on my phone. I entered my PIN number and hit the speaker button.
Jimmy's voice floated out.
"Hi, Lena. Sorry about the short notice, but something's come up and I have to leave town. At least it's August and not much is going on. In the unlikely event that Southwest MicroSystems sends over a new batch of background checks for us to run, which is doubtful because as you'll remember, they're in the middle of a hiring freeze, call Jean Begay. I checked with her before I left town, and she said she'd be happy to help with backgrounders or anything else computer-wise. See you in a week." Pause. "Or two."
When the relief that he hadn't been mangled in a car accident faded away, I replayed his message and listened all the way to the end. A week or two? If he'd had time to contact Jean Begay, why hadn't he bothered to phone me? Swallowing my annoyance, I muted Blind Willie in mid-yowl and called Jean. She answered immediately, but our conversation proved something I already knew: Navajos aren't chatty.
"Good morning, Jean. Lena Jones here."
"Um, I just called to ask, well, do you know where Jimmy is?"
"Other phone's ringing. Have a nice day."
Jean rang off, leaving me staring at the receiver as the silence closed in again. When I turned the radio station back up, Blind Willie had finished and Big Joe Williams was carrying on about his "Little Leg Woman." I listened to that for a while and pretended I wasn't worried. Jimmy was a grownup. If he'd wanted me to know where he was, he would have told me.
Big Joe Williams gave way to Mississippi John Hurt, who morphed into Elmore James, who later stepped aside for John Lee Hooker—who reminded me of my murdered father ...
I cut the Internet radio off and tried to find something to do.
Not easy, today.
The television series that had hired me as a consultant remained on hiatus while industry gossip hinted that it might not be renewed for the next season. Fortunately, Desert Investigations had thrived for years before Hollywood came a-knocking and would continue to thrive after the program was cancelled. But as Jimmy had been careful to point out, it was August, and our clients had fled for cooler climes. Nonetheless, I called up our case files on the computer and started going through those that remained open.
DI-CASE:4109/Stallworth. Elizabeth and Douglas Stallworth had hired us to track down their twenty-one-year-old daughter, Jennifer. When last seen, Jennifer was part of the inner circle surrounding a New Age minister who fleeced his flock out of millions. Upon his release from prison, his shorn flock welcomed him back with open arms.
Excerpted from Desert Wind by Betty Webb Copyright © 2012 by Betty Webb. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Sometimes, a novel’s ending spoils what preceded it. In this case, a well-thought-out plot concludes with a muddied confession to three murders. It begins when PI Lena Jones’ partner, Jimmy Sisiwan, disappears from Desert Investigations and Scottsdale and re-appears when he is arrested in the small Arizona town here his adopted family operates a dude ranch. It seems his “brother” is being held as a “material witness” in the murder of a PR flak for a uranium mine which is about to open nearby. Apparently Jimmy was attempting to “interview” witnesses and his efforts were “interpreted” as coercion. So, Lena to the rescue. Earlier, Jimmy’s sister-in-law was found shot to death. She was a kingpin in a group known as Victims of Uranium Mining, obviously those opposed to the opening of the mine, who were successful in obtaining a delay. As the story continues we learn a lot about the effects of bad mining practices on mine workers and of the atomic bomb tests in Nevada in the decades following World War II on local population and across the nation. The novel presents a well-drawn murder mystery, with interesting characters and a subject that is of vital importance. Some of it is a little gimmicky, but that really doesn’t detract from the importance of the subject. Recommended.