Some books have money written all over them. Books like Recreational Explosives and How to Build Them. Or Finding Your Patriot Ancestors Through DNA Testing. Or Losing America. Yes, Patriot's Blood Press has gone racist, making money from books that play into the worst elements of society and its darkest behaviors. It's no surprise there are plenty of suspects when Patriot's Blood publisher Gloriana Alden-Taylor is poisoned, but the hammer falls on just one: Owen Sisiwan, a Pima Indian. Scottsdale PI Lena Jones enlists in Owen's defense. To her horror, Lena finds herself rubbing elbows not just with greedy Gloriana's family and employees, but with disgruntled authors and extremists of all sorts.
Lena, a survivor of a childhood spent in foster care, is further pained by her sessions with a therapist for anger management. Soon her flashbacks to the time just before her mother shot her four-year-old self accelerate and move her closer to the mystery of her own identity.
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 ShadowsPublishing Can Be Murder
By Betty Webb
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2004 Betty Webb
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIndians never cry, so why were Jimmy's eyes red when he came through the door? He didn't have allergies and I knew he never drank.
"Jimmy, what's wrong?" I didn't know whether to get up from my desk and throw my arms around him, or give him a chance to collect himself. Remembering that Pima Indians didn't approve of touchy-feely demonstrations, I chose the latter.
"Lena, I just need a minute here," he muttered, closing the door behind him.
My partner walked straight to his desk and fired up his computer. He even skipped his usual trip to the office refrigerator for his morning bottle of prickly pear cactus juice. Computers acted on Jimmy the same way booze acted upon others; they offered a soothing balm against life's ills. His addiction to cyberspace, coupled with his workaholism, kept Desert Investigations in the black no matter how many pro bono cases I accepted.
"Jimmy, please. Tell me."
Had something happened to his girlfriend? Or worse yet, to his girlfriend's thirteen-year-old daughter?
"Lena, I said to wait." He stared at the computer monitor as the icons appeared, cocked his head as Bill Gates' cheesy chimes did their thing, and even managed a faint smile when his screen saver, a montage of ancient Pima pictographs, covered the generic blue. The chimes finally faded, replaced by a recording he had made of his cousin's Chicken Scratch band. As the raucous music rang out, he sighed in relief. "There."
Then he swiveled his chair around to face me. "Scottsdale PD arrested Owen last night."
Impossible. Jimmy's cousin Owen, a straight-up former Marine, had never received so much as a parking ticket. "Is this some kind of joke?"
Jimmy's red eyes gave me the answer.
"What did he do? Smart off to a traffic cop?" Owen would never do anything so stupid; he respected uniforms. But I wasn't yet ready to accept the evidence of Jimmy's ravaged face.
"The cops say he murdered Gloriana Alden-Taylor."
"What!?" The very idea that Owen Sisiwan, a Bronze Star-winning Afghan War hero, would murder an elderly woman was beyond ludicrous. Go gunsight-to-gunsight with a Taliban sniper, neutralize a land mine, enter a terrorist-filled cave, hey, no problem. But hurt an old woman? Not the Owen I knew.
"That's crazy, Jimmy. I'll straighten this out." I reached for the phone to call my old boss, Captain Kryzinski, head of the Violent Crimes Unit of the Scottsdale Police Department. Kryzinski admired Owen, too, and knew he'd never do anything violent. Outside of a war zone, anyway.
Jimmy leaned forward and placed his hand on mine, keeping me from picking up the receiver. "Listen to me before you make that call. The situation's worse than you think."
And it was.
His voice trembling, Jimmy told me that Gloriana Alden-Taylor, founder of Arizona's most controversial publishing house, had collapsed and died during a banquet the evening before at Desert Shadows, a Scottsdale resort.
"The medical examiner says she was poisoned by water hemlock, and the cops think Owen got the stuff when he took some people for a hike up near Oak Creek."
Oak Creek, about one hundred and twenty miles north of Scottsdale, was a popular recreation area thanks to its spectacular red cliffs and deep blue streams. "Some people, Jimmy? Who, exactly?"
He pushed a strand of long raven hair away from his dark face. "A bunch of publishers attending their yearly convention. Owen works ... worked for Gloriana, and she wanted him to show them the sights. Supposedly, Owen brought the water hemlock back to the resort and sprinkled it on her salad. She died fast, I guess, but real ugly."
When is murder not ugly? "Where is Owen now?"
"He's already been transferred to the Fourth Avenue Jail."
I grunted. The Scottsdale City Jail serves mainly as a holding tank for drunks and batterers. Serious felons are ultimately moved to the new facility run by the Maricopa County Sheriff in downtown Phoenix.
I grabbed my carry-all and started toward the door.
"Lena! Where are you going?"
I stopped, hand on the doorknob. "To the cop shop to give Kryzinski a piece of my mind. Does Owen have an attorney yet?"
Jimmy shook his head. As usual, when upset, the curved tribal tattoo on his temple stood out in startling relief. "Janelle was talking to some lawyer on the phone when I got over to their house this morning. But the money situation, it's not real good, and it sounded to me like the guy wasn't eager to take the case."
The money situation, as Jimmy so delicately phrased it, was always the problem. Since the O.J. trial, it had passed no one's notice that money, not innocence, was the best defense. Owen's salary as Gloriana's chauffeur/bodyguard/handyman probably didn't amount to much, especially when you factored in a non-employed wife and three children, one of them barely a month old.
Jimmy stood, but I motioned him back down. "You stay here and take care of business, partner. I've got a feeling we're going to need the revenue."
He looked doubtful. "Owen's my cousin."
"Yeah, but now he's my client."
* * *
As I drove to the cop shop, I remembered my one run-in with Mrs. Alden-Taylor, or, as she preferred to be addressed, Gloriana. Jimmy and I had attended a Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce mixer to scout new clients when she walked up and introduced herself. She didn't bother to greet my partner. After all, he was just an Indian.
Gloriana was even taller than I, and her pale blue eyes had to look down to study the scar on my forehead. Unlike more polite people seeing the scar for the first time, she didn't disguise her interest.
"I've heard a lot about you, Ms. Jones," she said. "Judging from your stature and coloring, you have got good genes. Too bad about that scar."
From the articles I'd read about Gloriana in the Scottsdale Journal, I suspected why she approved of me. With my five-foot-nine-inch stature, natural blond hair and green eyes, I probably look like she thought an American was supposed to look. For a woman who claimed to trace her lineage all the way back to the Mayflower, she held oddly Germanic opinions about race.
"Oh, I don't know, Gloriana," I answered. "I think the scar gives me a certain panache."
I didn't bother responding to the remark about my genes. Anyone who followed my cases in the Arizona media knew I had no idea who my parents were, let alone the rest of my ancestral DNA donors. Raised in a series of foster homes, the name Lena Jones had been bestowed upon me by a particularly unimaginative social worker. For all I knew, I was descended from cannibals.
"The scar doesn't really matter, Ms. Jones. Your bone structure is quite marvelous."
As the old woman continued her head-to-toe inventory of my "bone structure," I wondered about her sexual preference. Then I dismissed the thought. In my experience, lesbians tended to be more subtle.
Inventory finished, Gloriana said, "Good, very good. You can tell a lot about a person from the way they look."
Was she serious? "That's what the women who trusted Ted Bundy thought, too, Gloriana."
When she smiled, her desert-weathered skin creped around her thin mouth and eyes, making her look like an unwrapped mummy. "There might be an exception or two, but overall, breeding tells. That's why the Alden-Taylors have flourished. As you know, we are not only descended from the Plymouth Brethren, but we can count a president and several senators and generals among our number. The recent research I've commissioned even suggests a genetic connection to Thomas Jefferson himself."
"Through Sally Hemings?" I suspected the old bat might not be quite so thrilled if her genetic connection proved to be through Jefferson's reputed slave mistress.
A faint snicker at my side alerted me that Jimmy, at least, noticed the acid in my voice.
Gloriana missed the sarcasm. "Personally, Ms. Jones, I doubt the entire Hemings story. Jefferson was much too fastidious to get himself caught up in such a scandal."
For a moment, I considered another barb, but decided she wasn't worth the effort.
"Your, ah, genetic theories are certainly interesting." I turned to go.
She leaned forward and tapped my arm. "Oh, they're more than theories, Ms. Jones."
After I walked away, I brushed at my sleeve. It felt dirty.
* * *
The perfect March morning brought out the last of the snowbirds. Fat herds of Winnebagos, Airstreams, and Holiday Ramblers wallowed north up Hayden Road ten miles under the speed limit, tying up traffic and spewing diesel fumes into the crisp Arizona air. As much as Arizonans appreciate the money the snowbirds funnel into our economy, their turtle-paced driving makes commuters crazy. No wonder so many local vehicles sport bumper stickers that snarl, IF IT'S SNOWBIRD SEASON, WHY CAN'T WE SHOOT THEM?
I sounded the horn on my 1945 Jeep when a beige Wildwood with, ho ho, racing stripes, drifted toward my lane. At the very last second, its elderly driver remembered where he was (Driving. On a crowded city street. In a multi-ton vehicle.) and straightened his metal monster. Death once more averted, I unclenched my hands and continued north, Scottsdale's narrow green belt on my right, ass-to-ass condos on my left.
When Scottsdale North, the police department's main station, had been built a decade back, the city had pretty much ended at Bell Road. Now urban sprawl continued all the way to the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, more than twenty miles north of where the town first began. The pristine Sonoran Desert I loved was being replaced by tract homes and strip malls; the protests of various environmental groups had been unable to stop it. Not even the groups backed with Alden-Taylor money.
Gloriana had loved the desert, too, although this trait seldom endeared her to other environmentalists. She actually considered the wilderness her family's private legacy, not a resource to be enjoyed by everyone, rich or poor, Anglo or non. I suspected that if Gloriana had had her way, the entire Sonoran Desert would have been strung with barbed wire and patrolled by armed militia to keep out the riff raff.
Come to think of it, that kind of thing was already happening down by the Mexican border.
The more I reflected on Gloriana's self-involved life, the more I realized that her murder didn't surprise me. Given her ability to make enemies, it was odd that no one had killed her until now.
Chapter TwoThe distressed look on my old boss' face resembled Jimmy's, so I didn't launch into the denunciations I had planned. Instead, I asked Captain Kryzinski why Owen Sisiwan had been the first person tagged for Gloriana's murder. As I listened to his reasons, I tried not to stare at his new gray suit. The current police chief, an Ivy League yuppy imported from the East Coast, had come down hard on Kryzinski, making him shed all his colorful Western wear. Now the captain looked just as dull as everyone else.
Maybe that had been the point.
"Let's see, why did we arrest Mr. Sisiwan? Well, kid, why do you think? Could it be because he had motive, means, and opportunity? Lena, our guys found water hemlock in his jacket pocket, more than enough to do the deed. You know what I think?" Kryzinski's tone softened and his face grew sorrowful. "I think the poor guy stayed in Afghanistan too long."
There it was, the standard excuse for any veteran's odd behavior, an excuse sometimes used to let a perpetrator off the legal hook, but more often to rachet up the charges. This time, our local hero was the vet du jour. Welcome back to the States, Corporal Sisiwan.
"Oh, please, Captain," I said, not bothering to hide my disgust. "Where's the murder book?"
Kryzinski tugged at his K-Mart tie until I thought he'd choke himself. "You know I can't let you see that, Lena. If the chief caught me, I'd get fired."
We'd danced this dance before. Kryzinski, still trying to lure me back into my old job at Scottsdale PD, had helped Desert Investigations sub rosa on various occasions. In return, Jimmy and I allowed his department to take credit for cracking cases that we had actually solved.
"You're not going to get fired and you know it," I said, confident that Kryzinski, a close friend of the mayor, knew too many secrets to be professionally vulnerable. His job was secure until the mayor, like so many other Arizona government officials, was indicted for corruption.
Kryzinski looked around and saw several other detectives watching us through his office's clear glass partition. When he scowled at them, they looked away. They probably knew why I was here, though, and wouldn't rat the captain out because they disliked the new police chief as much as I did. Besides, I knew most of them from the days I'd worked Scottsdale North, before a bullet acquired during a drug bust put an end to my police career.
With a theatrical sigh, Kryzinski slid a Sports Illustrated over his desk to me. "Check out the story on the Cardinals, page twenty-nine."
"Those losers." But I duly opened the magazine to the page, where, nestled next to the quarterback's mug shot (Drugs? Sexual assault? Insider trading?), Kryzinski had tucked some case notes and crime scene photos. There Gloriana Alden-Taylor lay, twisted like a pretzel on the carpeted floor of the Desert Shadows banquet hall, swollen tongue protruding from her mouth. A regurgitated leaf of something or other dangled from her ear.
I looked through the rest of the material while Kryzinski gave me a quick rundown. "The M.E. says that water hemlock, commonly known as cowbane, is some pretty serious shit. It used to be found only in elevations above six thousand feet, but lately has been popping up near San Antonio, San Diego, and now Oak Creek. Ain't we lucky? Apparently what we're getting is wicked potent, too. Affects the central nervous system, causes grand mal seizures, the mucous membranes swell, the throat constricts, then lights out, heart failure, el finito, sayonara. Toward the end there, the M.E. says that old Gloriana couldn't breathe at all. That's why the doc at her table was trying to give her CPR, not that it would have done the poor woman any good. In fact, it's damn lucky the doc didn't get any of that crap in her mouth or we'd be looking at more than one murder here."
I studied the close-ups of Gloriana's body a little longer, then moved to the photographs taken of her table. The centerpiece was some weird-looking purple vine twisted around an unidentifiable silvery object, the usual Southwest Modern decor nonsense. The place settings looked just as silly: white, gold-rimmed plates decorated with minuscule helpings of something that appeared to be a burnt chicken breast criss-crossed by strips of purple and green crepe paper. The whatever-it-was hadn't been touched.
"Raspberry Lemon Chickenàl aÉtienne," Kryzinski explained. "They got themselves a new chef up there, won all kinds of awards."
"Looks like the same old chicken shit to me," I muttered. "Give me a taco anytime." I continued to shuffle through the photos until I'd seen them all, then went through them again. "Let's see, Gloriana ate the salad, too bad for her, but didn't make it to the main course. How long after the waiter took her salad away did the chicken arrive?"
"The waiter took the salad away with one hand, served the chicken with the other. Here's the deal. People tell me that these big resorts try to hurry people through the meals so the staff can go do something else. By the time Gloriana exhibited symptoms, some folks had already started on the main course, the chicken shit, as you so delicately put it. All told, we're talking maybe ten, fifteen minutes. With water hemlock, ten minutes is apparently time enough to die."
I frowned. "Do you have any idea how Owen—if it was Owen, which I doubt—could have slipped the hemlock into the salad without being seen?"
Excerpted from Desert Shadows by Betty Webb Copyright © 2004 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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I've loved all of Betty Webb's Lena Jones mysteries, the best being Desert Wives. A strong female character who isn't perfect but extremely likeable. I just wish she would write more in this series.