Desert Wives by Betty Webb released on Jun 24, 2004 is available now for purchase.
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
A Lena Jones Mystery
By Betty Webb
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2002 Betty Webb
All rights reserved.
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 compound'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.CHAPTER 2
A week after my return from Utah, my old boss walked through the door of Desert Investigations.
I blinked in surprise. Usually, when Captain Kryzinski, head of the Scottsdale Violent Crimes Unit, wanted to see me, he simply phoned and asked me to come down to Scottsdale Main, where his glass-walled office was only ten feet away from my old cubicle. Then I noticed two other men behind him, one of them wilted from the 115-degree heat. They were in their early thirties, both well over six feet, both blonds. Mr. Wilted's muscles bulged like a professional wrestler's, but Mr. Cool, the man who did not have a bead of sweat on him, looked more whippet-thin than buff. If I were a betting woman, I'd lay three-to-one odds that Mr. Cool could beat the crap out of anybody in the room.
Cops. But not from any Arizona law enforcement agency that I knew of. With their plain gray suits and Temple white shirts, they looked like Utah.
Jimmy turned away from his computer and stole a worried glance at me before wiping all expression from his face.
I forced a smile. "Why, Captain Kryzinski, you old hound. It's been a coon's age." Actually, it had been two days since we'd run into each other at an art opening just down the street. After we'd both worked together on a case involving the murder of an art dealer, Kryzinski had developed an interest in painting.
Today the usually affable Kryzinski wasn't smiling, a bad sign. He merely gestured toward Mr. Cool. "Lena, this is Sheriff Howard Benson from Zion City, Utah, and his deputy, Scott Yantis. They're here about a homicide with Arizona ties, and I want you to know that the Scottsdale P.D. is extending them every courtesy."
Of course. In Scottsdale, just about one in every four passers-by had Mormon relatives. Those who didn't knew enough not to offend those who did, because Mormons counted among the state's major power brokers and held controlling interest in several industries and banks.
I stood up and held out my hand. Deputy Yantis stepped forward and shook it in friendly enough fashion, but when I held it toward Sheriff Benson, he let my hand hang in the air until I finally lowered it.
Kryzinski gave him a dirty look but his voice remained neutral. "Sheriff Benson here says he wants to ask you and Jimmy some questions. How about we go into the conference room, Lena? We got lots to talk about."
I liked Kryzinski but I didn't feel like making nice, so I motioned to the hard wooden chairs scattered around the office. "Sit, stand, whatever."
Jimmy frowned. Like most Pima Indians, he was very polite. Left to his own devices, he would not only have ushered Sheriff Benson and his deputy into the conference room, but would also have offered them cold drinks of his own private stock of organic prickly pear cactus juice.
Excerpted from Desert Wives by Betty Webb. Copyright © 2002 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the 2nd book in a series of 7 about Lena Jones, Scottsdale PI. All modern PI's and police detectives carry an abundance of personal baggage - Lena's is that her mother shot Lena in the head when she was 4 and still has the scar to prove it. "Desert Wives" is probably the best known and most highly regarded of the series, dealing with a polygamist compound on the Arizona-Utah border. The Prophet has been killed and Lena's client is accused; the client's young teen-aged daughter, Rebecca, is pursued by the father so that he can effect a trade of his daughter for two young teen brides. The compound is huge, the law against polygamy is skirted via divorce, and it becomes clear that while this story is fiction, polygamy remains a shameful and significantly large practice in this section of the country. Large, like 30-50,000 current polygamist family members. The author, Betty Webb, does not pull her punches in describing these "families", nor the Mormon faithful and Utah officials that turn a blind eye to the practice - nor to the evils which result. As a piece of crime fiction, the whodunit aspects are so-so. There is a lot of set-up and description in the first 60% of the book with no real tension. But theplot is well developed, and the book does cast a less than scenic view of the Arizona-Utah region. It's well done on that basis and I recommend it. I'll likely read another book in the series.
I will admit something- I was prepared not to like this book for numerous reasons ( having nothing to do with the subject matter).However, Ms. Webb has written a very well researched book on polygamy and the polygamous settlements on the Arizona/Utah border. The book , is, of course, fiction, being written as a mystery, with the central mystery being who killed the Prophet. The plot is thin and predictable, but it does accomplish it's purpose- taking you inside an imaginary compound of polygamists. The book on this score, is well written and does an admirable job of describing/depicting life in the settlements and more particularly, the devastating effect of the polygamous lifestyle on the women and children of the settlements. If you have an interest in this subject, or would like to know something about the subject, I would recommend this book, it is well done..
Very important book about polygamy among fundamentalist Mormons in Utah/Arizona strip; eye-opener.
Every once in a while a book comes along in which the message is so strong it overwhelms the shortcomings of the novel. On the other hand, Cecil B. DeMille is supposed to have said, in regard to “message” films. “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Desert Wives is certainly a novel with a message. The author is an investigative reporter for Phoenix area newspapers and it shows. When she’s in that mode, her writing is spare, to the point, powerful and even dramatic. Everything a good reporter ought to produce. Where the book falls short is when the author writes dialogue and attempts to dramatize the event she write about in the manner of a good mystery novelist. And like all good novels, this one is based on reality. This is a story of polygamy, set in the isolated towns amid the high plains along the Utah/Arizona border, a place where a lot of people are related and the prevailing attitude is live and let live. Or die. Scottsdale private investigator Lena Jones tries to locate the killer of a man called Prophet Solomon, who ran a large polygamous settlement called Purity. A woman, under great duress, has fled the place, rather than acquiesce to the forced marriage of her daughter, thirteen, to a man old enough to be her grandfather, a man who already has several wives. The story begins in highly dramatic fashion when Lena goes into the desert to spirit away Rebecca from he father before the marriage can take place. In a remote canyon, Lena discovers the body of Solomon Profit in a scene which clearly indicates he was murdered. When Lena’s client is arrested for the murder, it appears the girl will be returned to her father and the marriage will take place. In a desperate attempt to save the girl and the accused mother, Lena goes undercover as a sister wife to a sympathetic member of the clan. This gives her the opportunity to observe life in Purity. In troubling scenes that remind one of the assaults on the Davidians at Waco, Texas, Lena explores Purity and discovers some awful secrets. The dialogue is at times preachy and stilted, and the pace of the book suffers from too many words, yet the story has an awful fascination that will hold readers to the end.
Outside of the region, it¿s not a well-known fact that along the Arizona-Utah border, there are various polygamous communities flourishing and the authorities turn a blind eye because their family trees also contain many polygamous members. Private detective Lena Jones, based in Scottsdale, is hired by thirteen year old Rebecca¿s mother to get her out of the polygamy compound of Purity. The girl¿s non-custodial parent kidnapped her with the intention of marrying her off to the Prophet Solomon Royal in exchange for receiving two sixteen-year old wives. Lena is able to get Rebecca out safely but not before they both see that Solomon was murdered by a gunshot. A few days later Rebecca¿s mother is arrested for the crime because she can be placed near the scene just before the murder, yelling at the Prophet. Lena, with the help of an inside sympathizer, infiltrates the compound to discover who the real murderer is, a difficult job because many people had various reasons to want Solomon dead. After reading DESERT WIVES, reader will come away horrified that women in the twenty-first century in America can be treated like cattle and have no recourse but to endure their suffering. Betty Webb tells a compelling story and raises a social issue that most people don¿t even realize exists. This is one book that the audience will be unable to forget due to its subject matter. Harriet Klausner