Having recently lost his job as a history professor, David Mapstone returns to his boyhood home of Phoenix, Arizona, to find the city dramatically changed. It's now a haven for wealthy retirees and a seasonal retreat for West Coast "sophisticates," but pockets of his earlier life - some welcome, some not - remain. Mapstone eagerly accepts a temporary job from his old friend, Maricopa County Chief Deputy Mike Peralta: look into still-open cases and see if he can close any. He is settling into his new job when his college sweetheart appears at his door one evening. True to his memory of her, she is there because she wants something. Her sister is missing, and she wants Mapstone to look for her.
Mapstone's search for the missing woman is quickly resolved when her body is discovered in the desert, but he is stunned to find the dead sister in circumstances identical to a sensational 40-year-old unsolved murder. Mapstone's dogged investigation of both murders bridges the chasm of clashing cultures, meshing his own long-ago memories with the tangled doings of newcomers and their acolytes, young women eager to share the lifestyle of tainted wealth, drugs, and careless violence.
About the Author
Jon Talton is the author of 11 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries and the thriller Deadline Man. He is also a veteran journalist, including the former business editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Jon lives in Seattle where he is the economics columnist for the Seattle Times and runs the blog Rogue Columnist.
Read an Excerpt
The storms don't come into the city anymore. When I was a little boy, when we had evaporative cooling and Kennedy was president, the late-summer monsoons swept into Arizona from the Sea of Cortez and cooled Phoenix with wind and rain. Now the city has become a concrete slab eighty miles across and the weather has changed. Most times, we can only see the clouds hovering out beyond the mountains, dropping precious rain on the desert, tantalizing us with lightning, leaving us with dust.
It was July High summer in Phoenix, when a temperature of 105 degrees is a relief and workaday guys in traffic jams can turn into killers if they get into a fender bender. It's the time of year when the asphalt gets so hot, it can leave second-degree burns on your skin; when $350-a-night resorts hold half-price sales, and everybody who can afford it heads to the ocean; when the air-conditioning of 3 million people pushes the power grid to the edge of a shutdown and a headline about a dozen illegal immigrants suffocating in a locked tractor-trailer brings a resigned shrug. My hometown.
I had been back in Phoenix for exactly six weeks, back in the house that had belonged to my grandparents, the house where I grew up. It was a small Spanish Mediterranean two blocks west of Central on Cypress Avenue, surrounded by oleander hedges, orange trees, and palms. Grandfather built the house in 1924. During the years I was gone, the city had taken to calling the area the Willo Historic District. When I was a kid, it was just a neighborhood and everybody knew everybody else. Now my grandparents had been dead for years, and the families that lived nearby had moved away. The neighborhood was supposed to be popular with young professionals. I hoped so. I needed to sell the house and find a new job.
It was a Sunday evening, the worst time of the week to be alone. Ellington was on the CD player, the 1956 Newport concert. I was about half a martini away from loose ends when the wind started to unsettle the palm trees outside the big picture window and the doorbell rang. Maybe I'd been a little isolated for those six weeks, but it occurred to me that I hadn't heard the doorbell for years, at least since Grandmother was still alive. The deep clang put a stake of dread in me that usually comes with late-night phone calls. Then I opened the door and saw a ghost.
"David Mapstone!" The ghost knew my name and rushed to give me a hug. At five feet five, she could fit completely inside my arms and have the top of her head nestle under my chin. Once upon a time, her name had been Julie Riding, my first lover.
I blathered the nervous small talk of unexpected reunions and invited her inside. In the high-ceilinged living room, she sat in one of the leather chairs that face the picture window and accepted my offer of a drinkscotch, neat. I poured her a couple of fingers of McClelland's and then sat opposite her in the other chair with my glass of Bombay Sapphire.
"I can't believe you're back in town," she was saying in a bright alto chirp. She wore a short summer dress that was a little too young for her. But she still had damn nice legs and she knew it. Her hair was a couple of shades darker than the honey color that I remembered, and it was shorter now, businesslike, above the shoulders. Time was beginning to cut itself into the skin around her eyes, but they were still the darkest blue I had ever seen, the color of the dusk sky in the mountains. She was saying how little the house had changed, how she was sorry to hear about my grandmother's death a few years before, how she'd tried to keep up with my teaching career after I left town.
Then she turned red and downed the scotch in one gulp. I refilled her glass, and she didn't stop me.
"Shit," she said, the chirp gone from her voice. "I rehearsed this speech a few hundred times, but I know it sounds forced. I know how strange it seems for me just to show up suddenly, when I walked out the way I did. Now, here I am. Wanting something."
I filed that away "I just thought you'd been held up a really long time in the ladies' room."
"David, it's been twenty years."
My head is always full of dates1066, 1492, 1789, 1914. It's an occupational hazard when you teach history. The last time I saw Julie Riding was just before Christmas 1979, when she sat across from me in a dark little bar near the university and said she didn't want to see me anymore. She was in love with someone else, she said. He was older andlet me remember this right"was a real world-beater," which I took to mean he had money. I was just a college student with a smoky old convertible.
For months after that, amid various stages of anger and hurt, I imagined the life Julie was living without meI have a very vivid imaginationand what I would say and do if she ever came back. But as my life began to change, she faded from my thoughts, until the years pushed her into that fond drawer of occasional memory reserved for first lovers. Now she was here in my living room and part of me was feeling odd, but another part was feeling as if she'd been gone about twenty minutes. Mostly, I was just glad for the company.
"Do you mind?" She produced a Marlboro Light from her purse. I shook my head. She lit it and took a drag that sounded soothing even from where I was sitting. "I'm seriously addicted," she said.
We sat in silence awhile, watching the clouds and wind flow in from the east; then a curtain of dust began to fall out of the sky. I leaned forward and just let her find her words. She played with her hair, pushing it back. She'd always done that.
"God, you look great," she said finally I was wearing jeans and a white polo shirt, nothing special. "No, I mean it. It's like you've really grown into your face. You're going to be a hell of a good-looking middle-aged man."
"Thanks, I think," I said.
"Our birthdays are two weeks apart, remember?" She sipped her scotch and gave me a sly smile. "David, it's the strangest thing. I was at the Hard Rock Cafe with some girlfriends one night, and there was Mike Peralta at the bar. He wasn't in uniform, of course, and he looked like he was with some pretty high-powered people, but I just went over and gave him a hug, I mean, my God, it had been about as long as since I'd last seen you.
"Anyway, I asked about you, and Mike said you were back in Phoenix and working for the Sheriff's Office again. I knew I had to see you, so here I am. My God, are you a deputy again? I thought that was just your youthful adventure."
She stubbed out the butt and lit another, melting a little into the chair. "Deputy David Mapstone of the Old West." She giggled.
I smiled at her, glad to provide amusement for an old girlfriend. Some people decide at age fourteen that they're going to be accountants, and that's all they do for their whole lives. My resume is a little more complicated. Especially after this summer.
"I'm just doing a little consulting. Researching some old cases for Peralta. I'm in between jobs."
"So you're not teaching?" she asked. "Your great dream was to be a history professor, I thought."
Since when do we get our great dreams? I thought, getting up to refresh our drinks. I said over my shoulder, "The tenure committee at San Diego State didn't like me, and there are too many people with Ph.D.'s in history, anyway. Something will come up."
She followed me into the kitchen. "When did you start drinking martinis?"
"When I was married to a millionaire's daughter."
"Dorothy Parker said martinis lead to all sorts of sexual misjudgments," Julie said absently, then added, "What was her name?"
"Your ex-wife, you goof."
"Patty," I said.
"Good boomer name," Julie said. "All those fathers in lust with Patti Page. Kids?"
"And you've been divorced about a year?"
"I can tell it in your voice," she said. She wasn't wearing a wedding ring. I looked out the window at the garden courtyard, where a palm tree was dancing slowly in the wind. We weren't going to get any rain. Julie Riding in my kitchen, talking about my divorce. "Tell me about you."
"What's to tell?" She smiled. "Life goes on. I'm divorced. My daughter's fourteen, and she just made cheerleader. I'm in marketing at the Phoenician resort, and I work all the time." She made it sound like a neat package.
Finally, she asked, "Do you remember my little sister? Phaedra."
Now we were down to the "wanting something" part of the evening.
I said I remembered an eight-year-old kid.
Truth was, I barely remembered her sister at all. A skinny kid with red hair who played the cello and had an odd name. She was in the background one night when Julie took me home to meet her parents, and they all had a big fight. Mostly, I remembered her name, Phaedra. Not a popular boomer name.
"She's twenty-eight now, David," Julie said. "And she's missing."
"Have you been to the cops?" I asked.
"Yeah, they took a report. What does that mean? They told me she was an adult and that unless there was some indication of foul play, there wasn't much they could do."
"So what can I do?"
"I know you have friends in the Sheriff's Office. Even if you're just a consultant. Maybe you could ask around?" The blue eyes implored. "It's been two weeks since she was supposed to come over for dinner. I haven't had a call, nothing. Her apartment hasn't been slept in."
"That's never made her drop off the face of the earth."
"What about her job?"
She shook her head. "Phaedra was kind of in between careers. She was working at a photo studio. She had a lot of gifts, but she never did well playing the game at work, you know what I mean?"
As a matter of fact, I did. I asked, "Do you have any reason to suspect something bad has happened to her?"
Julie paused and the tip of her cigarette glowed contemplatively. "This is a very dangerous city, and she's a pretty young woman. What more do you need?"
I promised to ask some questions around the Sheriff's Office. Julie smashed out the cigarette, and it was time to leave. I walked her out to her car. The storm had blown through, and the night was dusty, hot, and expectant.
"You're back in time for the monsoon season," she said, aiming her key chain at a silver Lexus, which beeped attentively.
"You're down in the barrio now," she said.
"I guess. I haven't lived in this house for a long time."
"It's all coming back down here," she said, starting up the car. "Close-in city living."
I watched her drive her car to the end of the block and disappear around the corner. I didn't care about Julie Riding, and I didn't want to start.
Excerpted from CONCRETE DESERT by jon talton. Copyright © 2001 by Jon Talton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I like to "discover" new authors who set their work in the southwest. Talton succeeds in making his love-hate realtionship with Phoenix compelling, but fails badly in constructing believable characters or plot.
Because he was politically incorrect, Professor David Mapstone failed to attain tenure at San Diego State or obtain a job at his alma mater Arizona State. He return to his hometown of Phoenix to accept a job at the sheriff¿s office working cold but open cases. He also teaches an American History course at the local college. Maricopa County Chief Deputy Mike Perralta, David¿s former partner when he worked as a cop, assigns the professor with the 1959 Rebecca Stokes murder. At the same time, David¿s first girlfriend Julie Riding, who dumped him twenty years, ago asks for his help in finding her missing sister Phaedra. On the Stokes case, David links the murder with four similar killings. When the police find the corpse of Phaedra, David sees the same pattern as he found in the Stokes inquiry. David wonders if the killer is a three-decade old copycat, the original ¿Creeper¿ back on line, or an attempt to hide the homicide within a serial investigation? CONCRETE DESERT is an exciting, very entertaining police procedural with a slight twist in that the main character is not a law enforcement official. The story line is fun as the complex David feels genuine and the law enforcement side of the cast provides further depth to his character. Though Julie and the suspects seem two-dimensional, they do not take away from a wonderful investigative tale. Harriet Klausner
I admit I like free stuff. I also admit I'm not entirely rational in my thought process. For example, I happily hand over my Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime Conference fees and feel like I've won the lottery when I receive a bag filled with books. Seriously, this ends up being one of the major highlights of these conferences. So in my continued pursuit of this high, minus the conference fees, I have decided to scour Amazon for the best free short stories and books available. With that being said, let's get to the review. The Arizona sun never felt hotter. Blazing, beating, reverberating off my skin, blistering my face, and stripping layers off my forehead. I peeled my cheek from the scorching asphalt, the sweltering concrete bouncing off my feet. The metropolitan monstrosity otherwise known as Phoenix bounding up around me, the sounds of traffic bouncing around me. Adobe and enchiladas surrounded me, and I packed my boxes with a hardened heart. Atmosphere popped out at me, pounding away at my chest, and it was hard not to be intrigued by a city I had never ventured to. David Mapstone may have reached the front of the unemployment line with his history degree hanging at his side, and a sea filled with regret hanging around his neck, and a case colder than the Canadian border bounding from the confines of his mind. The cast of characters might have lacked a few mental faculties, and there was so much blow I thought it might snow in the Phoenix sun. There’s a more than good chance I might get shot in a mall, or at the side of the road, and the bad guys might wield flak vests and submachine guns like popcorn and Junior Mints, and the plot might move a bit slowly at times while speeding nearly out-of-control at others. But that’s just a part of the experience in CONCRETE DESERT. It’ll shave more than a few years off your life, and it’ll have you staring up at a starry sky while your eyes roll back in your head from the concussion you just suffered. Robert Downs Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator