While scouting locations for a film documentary on Arizona’s Apache wars, private investigator Lena Jones and Oscar-winning director Warren Quinn discover the mutilated body of a young girl. The gruesome manner of the child’s death evokes memories of Lena’s own rough childhood.
Clashing with the local law, Lena’s investigation uncovers a small town with a big secret. Los Perdidos is not the Eden it at first appears. Founded by the descendants of pioneers who fought Geronimo, it now holds a significant population of documented foreign-born residents who live and work in the town’s modern plant.
Then two more girls disappear from Los Perdidos, and as the death toll mounts, Lena is tempted to implement some frontier justice of her own.
About the Author
As a journalist, Betty Webb interviewed U.S. presidents, astronauts, and Nobel Prize winners, as well as the homeless, dying, and polygamy runaways. The dark Lena Jones mysteries are based on stories she covered as a reporter. Betty's humorous Gunn Zoo series debuted with the critically acclaimed The Anteater of Death , followed by The Koala of Death. A book reviewer at Mystery Scene Magazine , Betty is a member of National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and the National Organization of Zoo Keepers. www.bettywebb-zoomystery.com
Read an Excerpt
Desert CutA Lena Jones Mystery
By Betty Webb
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2008 Betty Webb
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe morning was perfect. Early October, a clear sky, a symphony of songbirds, and here in the foothills of Southern Arizona's secluded Dragoon Mountains, no sign of the urban pollution we had left behind in Phoenix. But there is always a snake in Eden. A hint of the serpent slithered into view when my horse topped the ridge and I saw a coyote tugging at something white.
Fabric. Protruding from a mound of fresh earth.
"Warren!" I shouted. "Get back!"
Cops—and I had been one, once—know that few people bother to bury yardage. Not out here in the desert, they don't. Perhaps a child's pet lay underneath, a dog, a cat. But I saw no twig cross marker, something grieving children usually insisted upon.
Ignoring me, Warren galloped his horse up the slope and reined it in next to mine. I repeated my command, since the least amount of damage done to a body dump, the better, but, as he had so many times before, he misunderstood me. "Listen, Lena, I'm getting tired of all this, and your behavior isn't helping." Then, spotting the coyote, he fell silent.
Interrupted at its meal, the animal pivoted to face us. Fabric dangled from its teeth, one end of the cloth stained with blood.
"Do. Not. Move." I told him, then dug my heels into my horse and charged the animal.
Snarling, it ran off, disappearing into a distant creosote thicket. It didn't come out the other side, and I knew why. In the desert, animals took their meals where they found them, and a body dump could provide a two-day banquet, depending on the size of the victim. The coyote was simply waiting for us to move on.
I looked down at the small bundle of rags the animal had unearthed. No, not rags.
She was wrapped in white and from the condition of her body, not long dead. Her grave had been dug so shallowly that she lay half in, half out, of what was supposed to be her final resting place. An angel smothered in dirt.
At least the coyote hadn't had time to do much damage.
Behind me, Warren called, "Lena? That's not a kid, is it?" His twins were seven, and about this girl's size. Unlike his little blondes, she was black, her fine-boned ebony face sculpted with delicate features. A beauty, even in death.
Keeping an eye on the creosote thicket lest the coyote reemerge, I rode back to him. "I'm afraid so. Give me your cell phone."
With a shaking hand, he passed it to me. I punched in 91-1, said what needed to be said, and gave the dispatcher our location. Yes, a child. Yes, we would wait. I rang off, amazed at the steadiness in my voice.
Not yet ready to look down again, I stared up at that hard blue sky and saw vultures riding the thermals. I tried staring at the Dragoons, but that didn't work, either. The mountains simply reminded me of other deaths. Once a sanctuary for Geronimo and Cochise during the Apache Wars of the late 1800s, they now served as a hiding place for the illegals who slipped over the nearby Mexican border on their way to Tucson. Mexican nationals, mostly, with a sprinkling of Central and South Americans. Every now and then the Border Patrol discovered a few Africans and Middle Easterners among them, desperate people seeking easier access to the U.S. than post-9/11 immigration policies allowed.
The illegals who were caught are among the lucky ones. The desert kills the others.
I looked down at the child and willed myself not to cry.
Cochise County Sheriff Bill Avery, accompanied by a deputy and a two-man forensics unit, arrived too long after my call. When I revealed my displeasure at the lag time, Avery, a desert-browned man with startling blue eyes, merely shrugged.
"We get this a lot, Ms. Jones. It's a shame, but short of completing that fence between us and Mexico, there's nothing we can do except collect the bodies when it all goes wrong." His eyes were not devoid of compassion, but the flat line of his mouth revealed a peace officer who found it hard to care when there was so much to care about.
"Still. A child."
Not even a blink. "The crossing's tough on kids. Now tell me again what you two are doing way out here. Camping, did you say?"
Behind me, Warren made an exasperated sound. In his comfortable Hollywood world, law officers treated Oscar-winning film makers with respect. But this wasn't California, it was the badlands of Southern Arizona, where Warren and I were nothing more than two strangers whose discovery had just made the sheriff's job harder.
"Not really camping," I told him. "We're renting a tepee over at the Apache Dream Bed and Breakfast."
One corner of the sheriff's mouth pulled up. "Oh, yeah. I know those things. Tepees, which the Apaches never used. All the amenities, including heat, beds, and champagne breakfasts." He looked Warren up and down, taking in the designer jeans, custom-made ostrich-skin boots, the diamond-sprinkled Rolex. "Not from around here, are you, sir?"
"What's that got to do with anything?" Warren snapped. "You need to get tracking dogs up here, a full forensics team. Undocumented alien or not, that child deserves a full investigation." He started to say something else, then head down, walked away.
The sheriff watched him for a moment, then turned to me, his eyes flickering briefly over the scar on my forehead. "Actually, I did a quick check on you both and found out you're an ex-cop who's set up shop as a private investigator. Mr. Quinn over there's some sort of movie director. I'd think this is a pretty unusual place for you two to be taking a vacation. Especially a sensitive soul like him."
Having been in the sheriff's position many times myself, I understood what he was doing, so I repeated my story. After finishing work on a documentary about a WWII German POW camp near Scottsdale, Warren had taken the raw footage to California for editing. I went along to do some consulting work on Desert Eagle, one of those over-glamorized television crime dramas that makes everyone involved obscene amounts of money. Three days ago, after finishing our respective duties, we embarked on a working vacation together, with Warren scouting the area for his new project: a documentary on the Apache Wars.
"You headed back to California after this?" It was hard to tell from Avery's flat tone if he believed me or not.
"If you did all that checking, Sheriff, you know where Desert Investigations is based. The TV thing, I just fly from Sky Harbor to LAX, attend a production meeting, then fly home. When this gets cleared up, I'm returning to Scottsdale."
Avery jerked his head toward Warren. "How about him?"
There was no point in telling him that during the past few months, my relationship with Warren had developed several conflicts. "Beverly Hills. He has a business to run, too."
Then I paused. "Sheriff?"
Avery's eyes were as cold as the day had become. "What?"
"We didn't know her."
A dangerous smile. I'd been wrong. He did care.
An angry wind tore down from the Dragoons and whipped at the dead girl's white wrappings. In the distance, a coyote howled. Her finder, lamenting the loss of his meal?
The sheriff winced at the sound. Like me, he had seen the bite marks on the child's hand. "Damn things," he said into the wind. "No wonder the ranchers shoot them." Then he gestured at the tiny body, which the crime scene techs had now completely uncovered. "See how carefully she's wrapped, Ms. Jones? That white stuff, it's probably a shroud. She mattered to the person who buried her."
Yet she had been abandoned in this wilderness.
A beautiful little girl.
Left for the coyotes and vultures.
Chapter TwoWarren and I tried to pick up our vacation where we left off, but I kept seeing the child's face on our ride back to the Apache Dream B&B, during dinner, and even while asleep, where she replaced my usual nightmare. Around three, when I awoke screaming, Warren took me in his arms and traced gentle fingers across the bullet scar on my forehead.
"It happened a long time ago, Lena. You're safe now."
Brushing his fingers away, I buried my face in his chest. I usually hated displaying any kind of vulnerability, but Warren and I were both damaged goods, and so we understood each other. The son of a Hollywood porn king who hadn't known where the screen left off and real life began, he stilled his own nightmares by filming documentaries about society's victims. As for me, I tracked down the victim makers. Sometimes it even helped.
"Better now?" Warren asked, stroking my hair.
"Yes," I lied. But I kept seeing the gun in my mother's hand, kept hearing the shot that ended my childhood.
You can't force yourself to relax, but I tried. I thought clichéd happy thoughts: horses, cactus blooms, the smells of the desert after rain, heavenly choirs ...
I stiffened. No. Not choirs.
Warren's baritone penetrated the memory of people singing hymns on a bus. "This is senseless, Lena. Let's pay up and leave."
"But you still have so much to do." I didn't want my nightmares to interfere with his life. It was bad enough they interfered with my own.
When he shook his head, I realized I wasn't the only one having trouble sleeping. "Maybe if I weren't a father it would be different," he said, then added, "We'll leave as soon as it's light."
Relieved, I agreed, thinking that the decision would allow me some rest. The interior of the teepee was dark, but through an opening in the leather-flap doorway, I saw the full moon bathing the main building of the B&B in creamy light. Stars not visible in neon-lit Phoenix spangled the sky. The wind, so strong in the afternoon, had eased to a whispery moan. Lulled, I finally fell asleep.
But the nightmare was waiting. The singing started and my mother raised her gun. This time, though, the child she shot in the face wasn't me.
It was the girl in the desert.
The next morning Warren and I bid farewell to our hosts, two retired real estate brokers from Scottsdale, and promised to return, but I doubted we would. For us, the Dragoon Mountains were ruined forever. As the rented Mercedes wound through low foothills toward I-10, I wondered aloud, "Do you think the autopsy's done yet?"
Warren stared at me, appalled. "I don't want to think about it at all."
"Me neither." Oh, her beautiful face. I touched my own scar.
"Lena, a child dies getting across the border, her parents stop to bury her, then continue on their way. It's the sheriff's business, not ours. All we can do is feel terrible about it."
"I need to know how she died."
His hand slammed the steering wheel. "You don't already know? She died from dehydration! That's what gets them all! This damned desert, that damned border!"
Resting my head against his shoulder, I massaged his neck and felt his tension slip away as the saguaro-sprinkled landscape streaked by. We drove silently until we saw the fork in the road. The left would take us to I-10.
"Turn right," I told Warren.
"Right? But that'll take us into Los Perdidos."
"You agreed we'd go back to Scottsdale."
I shook my head. "I need to see the sheriff."
His fist hit the steering wheel again with such force that for a fleeting moment I worried the air bag might explode out. "No, you don't need to see the sheriff, Lena. You just want to. Why can't you ever leave things alone?"
Averting my head so he couldn't see the tears in my eyes, I answered, "Because I can't." The fact that the girl was now beyond her sufferings made no difference to me. She deserved justice, and to ease my own nightmares, I needed to make sure she got it.
So many children didn't.
Warren pulled the car to the side of the road. After a few seconds, his blue eyes darkened with concern, and he leaned over to touch my cheek. "Lena, let it go."
I said nothing.
"You can't save the world."
"I know that."
He shook his head. "I don't think you do."
"You're a good one to talk."
Sighing, he pulled the car onto the road again. Fifteen minutes later we were in Los Perdidos.
The small city was your typical schizophrenic Arizona town. Named the lost ones for a group of cavalrymen who in 1881 had set out in search of Geronimo and never returned, it was an uneasy mixture of New West and Old. The edge of town boasted functional modern structures that housed real estate offices and chiropractors, but leftovers from Territorial days made up the city center, where every other business seemed to be named after Geronimo and his band.
This was the area that drew Los Perdidos' thriving tourist trade, with its raised board sidewalks, authentic saloons, Western store fronts, and the popular Apache Museum. Unfortunately, these charms had been marred by the insertion of an antiseptic steel-and-glass government complex that housed the sheriff's office.
As Warren parked the Mercedes next to an unmarked sedan, obviously a sheriff's vehicle, he made one last attempt to dissuade me. "Lena, we can still salvage this vacation. Let's check into a resort, get a seaweed wrap, and not worry about anything other than ourselves."
"I'm sorry," I said, climbing out of the car. "You're right. I do want to save the world, and when I can't, I have to figure out what went wrong. That child ..." I couldn't get her face out of my head.
While most sheriffs' offices aren't quite as casual as that of Andy Griffith's fabled Mayberry, they can be cheerful places, with snacks on desks and deputies cracking wise. This was not the case here, where the front office bristled with grim-faced men who stopped talking the moment I walked through the door.
I spoke into the silence. "I'm Lena Jones, the woman who found the body yesterday."
"Wish you hadn't," muttered a rotund man whose uniform stretched tightly over his too-generous stomach. His remark earned him an elbow jab from the lanky deputy next to him.
"Is Sheriff Avery in?"
"He's busy," said the elbow-jabber.
"Maybe one of you could tell me if the autopsy's been done."
No answer, no "tells," not even a shifting of feet. There was a lot of tension in the room for a dead illegal, even though the illegal was a child. Before I said anything else, the door at the far end of the room opened and Sheriff Avery stuck out his head. "Ms. Jones, go back to Scottsdale. We may not be as flashy as you folks up north, but we can handle this."
Nothing like a warm welcome. "I just want some information about that little girl."
"She's not your problem." Although his face bore a neutral expression, it appeared even more drawn than before, which I thought odd if the girl had simply died of natural causes. But as he had noted yesterday, border crossings were hard on kids.
"All I want is to find out her cause of death, if you don't mind. You'll have to release the information to the media, anyway. If they ask." I tried to sound polite, not confrontational.
A slight narrowing of his eyes. "What makes you think we already know?"
From the tension in this room, I started to say, but stopped myself just in time. "I'm an ex-cop, remember?"
"Very ex. You left the job years ago."
Recognizing the stall, I took evasive action. "Okay. What's the medical examiner's name? If you don't tell me, I'll just call my office and find out."
"From that Pima Indian partner of yours."
At least the sheriff's background check had been thorough. "That's right. Give my partner a computer and before you can say 'somebody's keeping a secret,' he'll have your mother's maiden name and the day and time she first kissed your father."
Avery glowered, then appeared to change his mind. "The M.E.'s name is Dr. Nelson Lanphear. Now like I said, please go away."
"Is he at the hospital now?"
"You think he gives me his schedule?" Without another word, the sheriff closed his office door. At least he didn't slam it.
The deputies suddenly found business that needed attending to, so amid a great rustling of paperwork, I left.
Outside, the sun blazed down as if it wanted to bring back summer. I found Warren under the shade of a gnarled mesquite, studying the street with a worried expression. "We need to get the hell out of Dodge, Lena. These people look like something out of a Wes Craven movie."
Excerpted from Desert Cut by Betty Webb Copyright © 2008 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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Desert Cut Betty Webb Poisoned Pen, Feb 2008, ISBN 9781590584910 Private investigator Lena Jones and Oscar-winning documentary director Warren Quinn seek locations for the latter to film late nineteenth century Apache Wars. To their horror, they find a mutilated corpse of a small child that the Cochise County medical examiner sadly calls ¿Precious Doe¿. Lena, who suffered child abuse from the foster homes she grew up in, takes it personally as this angel could not have been more than seven years old she vows to find justice for the child. Her investigation takes Lena to the nearby town of Los Perdidos where the descendents of the founders are armed for war against illegal aliens coming in from Mexico just like their ancestors were fighting Geronimo. As Lena keeps digging angering the generational locals although supported by legal immigrants working at a nearby plant, two more young girls vanish. Lena refuses to quit, but the more she learns the more confused she becomes as she starts to believe there is a conspiracy that crosses racial and religious lines to keep females subservient or worse but the disappearances make no sense as they seem deliberate. --- As Lena continues to uncover more about her infant abandonment, fans of the Desert saga (see DESERT NOIR, DESERT WIVES, DESERT SHADOWS and DESERT RUN) will enjoy her latest thriller that takes a fascinating spin on Southwest immigration. The story line is driven by the heroine who seeks to insure the young are safe unlike her own past. Interestingly, being a legal immigrant with documentation means nothing when corrupted power needs a fall guy because immigration has become tied to 9/11 (as if it was illegal Mexicans who hijacked the four planes). Betty Webb provides another strong whodunit with her usual thought provoking underlying social message that America is only as strong as our weakest. --- Harriet Klausner