In New York Times bestselling author J.A. Jance’s timely thriller, Ali Reynolds faces her most controversial mystery yet: the murder of a man whose Ponzi scheme bankrupted hundreds of people, and left them seeking justice...or revenge.
When Ali’s parents lose their life savings to a Ponzi scheme, her father goes to confront his longtime friend and financial advisor, only to stumble upon the scene of a bloody double homicide. With her father suddenly a prime suspect, Ali and her husband work to clear his name and seek justice for her parents, as well as the rest of the scheme’s suddenly impoverished victims. But if Ali’s father is innocent, that can mean only one thing: one of the others is a stone cold killer.
Publishers Weekly promises “series fans will enjoy this highly personal case.” Provocative and gripping, Clawback is further proof that no one writes suspenseful thrillers quite like J.A. Jance.
Clawback 1 As the sun came up over the Mogollon Rim to the east, Haley Jackson lay in bed, still tossing and turning. The day before, her Sedona-based insurance agency where she was the office manager had been shut down by agents from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her boss, Dan Frazier, had given her no advance warning that the raid was coming. In the hours since, she’d tried reaching out to him over and over—to no avail. He wasn’t taking her calls, and as far as she knew, he hadn’t tried calling her, either. Without hearing from Dan or having some kind of direction from him, she had no idea what she was supposed to do next. What was she was supposed to tell her employees, to say nothing of the firm’s anxious clients?
Try as she might, Haley still couldn’t make sense of what had happened. Late in the afternoon, a group of men in suits had walked into the Frazier Insurance Agency and paused in front of the receptionist’s desk. Although Haley didn’t recognize the new arrivals, at first nothing seemed amiss. She assumed they were new in town and in the market for some kind of insurance coverage. As they continued to speak to Carmen Rios, the receptionist, however, Haley noticed the young woman growing more and more agitated. Finally, sensing something out of the ordinary, Haley left her own desk toward the back of the room and walked up to Carmen’s.
“I’m the office manager here,” she said, focusing on the man who seemed to be in charge. “Is there something I can do for you gentlemen?”
“They claim they’re from the SEC,” Carmen whispered, sounding worried. “They say we have to close the office immediately.”
“The SEC?” Haley asked. “You want us to close the office? What’s this all about?”
The man standing directly in front of Carmen turned to Haley and extracted an ID wallet from his pocket. When he held it up for Haley’s examination, she saw that it belonged to one Donald Ferris, a senior agent with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“All right,” she said. “I see that you’re with the SEC, but I have no idea what that means or why you feel it’s necessary to shut down my office. What’s going on?”
“My understanding is that Daniel Frazier Jr. is the owner of this establishment. Correct?” the guy asked.
Haley nodded. “Yes, but he isn’t in right now. If you’d like to leave a card . . .”
Ignoring her objection, Agent Ferris continued. “Mr. Frazier is also a duly registered representative of a firm called Ocotillo Fund Management, right?”
“That’s true,” Haley began, “but . . .”
“Ocotillo Fund Management initiated bankruptcy proceedings earlier this afternoon. We’ve been directed to shut down this office and take custody of any and all applicable files. Since some of your insurance customers are also investment clients, we’ll be taking them all.”
“You’re taking our files?” Haley echoed. “As for Ocotillo Fund Management filing bankruptcy? This is the first I’ve heard anything about it. Besides, you can’t just walk in here like you own the place. Do you have a warrant?”
“Funny you should ask,” Agent Ferris said, producing a document from an inside pocket of his suit jacket and handing it over. “You and your employees are to clear the premises at once. You may take personal items—purses, cell phones, tablets, and such, but all company files and equipment are to remain here. If anyone attempts to remove files via something like a thumb drive or other device, they will be found and confiscated as you exit.”
When he said the words “thumb drive,” Haley remembered briefly that Millie Frazier, Dan’s wife, had stopped by the office on Friday morning. She had seemed exasperated and more than a little put out. “I had two appointments down in Paradise Valley later today, but Dan insisted that I cancel both of them and drive all the way up here to put this in the safe-deposit box,” she had grumbled, holding up a postage stamp–sized object.
“What is it?” Haley had asked.
“A kind of thumb drive,” Millie said. “I forget the real name—micro something or other. A memory card, maybe. Dan says he has an adapter here that’ll make it work in his dinosaur desktop. As for why he needed this little item to be in the bank this morning rather than later today or maybe even tomorrow morning? I have no idea. Anyway, you know how Dan is. Once he gets an idea in his head, it’s ‘my way or the highway.’ So that’s my next stop—the bank.”
“I didn’t know thumb drives could be that small,” Haley said, “but it must be important.”
“Something to do with work, I expect,” Millie allowed. “Something he doesn’t want falling into the wrong hands. How are things here?”
“Fine,” Haley had told her.
“Glad to hear it,” Millie had said, then she was gone.
Standing there facing down Agent Donald Ferris, Millie Frazier and her tiny memory card were the least of Haley’s worries.
“Before you or your people touch a thing,” she said, reaching for her cell, “I need to check with Mr. Frazier.”
“Sorry,” Agent Ferris insisted. “This warrant says otherwise. Now if you and your people will gather all your belongings and clear out, we’ll be able to get started.”
“This is outrageous. You can’t just shut us down.”
“Yes, we can.”
“For how long?”
“For as long as it takes—maybe indefinitely. We’ll be sorting through the material tonight and deciding what’s to stay and what’s to go. We’ll send a truck here tomorrow to pick up what’s going. In the meantime, I’ve called a locksmith.”
“You’re changing the locks?”
“Yes, ma’am. Once you leave here, no one’s allowed back inside until we give the go-ahead. Presumably, you’re in charge, so I’ll need your contact information.”
With the phone pressed to one ear, Haley listened as her call to Dan’s cell phone again went unanswered. “Call me,” she said when the voice mail recording came on.
“It’s time,” Agent Ferris said. “We need to get started.”
It had taken only a couple of minutes for the eight office employees—Haley included—to gather up their goods and be herded into the parking lot, with all purses having been thoroughly inspected on the way out. Naturally everybody was upset, and a couple of the girls were crying. What was going on? Did they still have jobs? What were they going to do?
Haley had done her best to be reassuring to the others, but that was a tough act to maintain, especially when a locksmith showed up in a van and proceeded to change the locks on the doors, both front and back, rendering Haley’s prized master key useless.
While the locksmith worked, Haley had continued to try to reach Dan. There was still no answer at any of Dan’s numbers, but she finally left brief messages on all three. “Please call me. Agents from the SEC came by and shut down the office. I need to know what’s going on. Call me when you can. I’m worried.” As a last resort, she tried Millie’s cell phone, too. There was no answer there, either, and Haley left yet another message.
Gradually the other women drifted away to their cars. Haley stayed on, watching through the windows as a crew of workers dismantled the office. Computer terminals and keyboards were removed from desks and left in a heap near the front door. She was horrified to see the files from her superefficient wall-mounted and color-coded filing system be summarily tossed into a collection of empty Bankers Boxes and carted over to the door in no particular order. Had Agent Ferris allowed Haley to participate, she could have pointed out that files with blue tabs indicated investment clients only. Green and blue meant the customers had both investment and insurance accounts, while files with solo green tabs indicated insurance customers only.
Watching the haphazard way things were stuffed into boxes and stacked in random piles left Haley sick at heart. Once the files were returned, it would take days to sort them and put things back to rights. If ever.
What if the files never did come back? What if the demise of Ocotillo Fund Management spelled the end for the Frazier Insurance Agency as well? What if, rather than being a temporary measure, the office ended up being shut down for good? What would happen to her and to the other women who had worked there? During a mostly sleepless night, while fruitlessly checking her phone for incoming texts from Dan or Millie, Haley had wrestled with that question both for herself and for the others. What would become of them?
As far as Haley was concerned, the Frazier Insurance Agency was the only place she had ever worked. Like little Carmen Rios at the reception desk, Haley had gone to work for Dan Frazier straight out of high school. Almost two decades later, she was the office manager and the beneficiary of a business continuation plan that would allow her to buy the business outright in the event of either Dan’s retirement or death. But what if the business was wiped out completely? Where would she go then? With her experience and with professional designations to back it up, she supposed some other insurance company would hire her, but working for someone else wasn’t something to look forward to.
Haley’s childhood had been chaotic at best. She had seldom ended a school year in the same school or even the same district where the year had started. The best thing her druggie mother ever did for her was to leave. As an awkward seventh-grader, Haley had been dumped into the care and keeping of her grandmother, Carol Hotchkiss. Not only was she an outsider in her new surroundings, she was also terribly behind as far as academics were concerned. Nonetheless, under her grandmother’s tutelage Haley had come into her own.
Carol had spent her adult life working as a secretary for a local attorney, and she had deemed that what had been good for her would be good for Haley as well. Carol had insisted that Haley learn to type, teaching her at home on an aged Toshiba laptop. She had also taught Haley the intricacies of shorthand—something that was no longer offered in high school.
Once out of high school, those basic but increasingly rare secretarial skills had been enough to get her an entry-level job with Dan Frazier. Eighteen years later, nearly forty, Haley was married to her job. At Dan’s insistence, Haley had earned her CLU, CPCU, and ChFC designations, and those had been sufficient for Dan to promote her to office manager. For years her duties had also included many of the functions more in line with those of a personal assistant. Once Dan had joined forces with Ocotillo Fund Management, however, Haley’s PA duties had been passed along to corporate hires down in Phoenix.
Jason McKinzie had insisted that, as an executive with the firm, Dan have a full-time PA in Phoenix rather than a part-time one ninety miles away. The latest of these was Jessica Denton, someone Haley regarded as little more than a BBB—blond, bombshell bimbo—words Haley never uttered aloud. Jessie, as she liked to be called, may have been long on looks, but she seemed to be short on everything else, including shorthand and typing skills. Her occasional telephone conversations with Haley reeked of condescension.
It hadn’t taken long for Haley to resent this latest unwelcome addition, but thank goodness, Jessie was Phoenix-centric. She seldom ventured far from the city, and when Dan was back home in Sedona, it was easy for Haley to ignore Jessica’s existence entirely and fall back into the comfortable old ways of doing things—and running occasional errands when needed. Regarding Dan’s Sedona-based clientele? At this point Haley knew his local customers far better than he did.
But was that enough? Haley wondered. If Frazier Insurance had come to the end of the road, would her intimate knowledge of the business and her years of faithful service make it possible for her transition to a comparable job somewhere else?
Although Haley was wide awake and had been for hours, she started when her alarm went off. Scrambling out of bed, she realized that, by now, the failure of Ocotillo Fund Management was probably not only public knowledge but a hot topic of conversation all over town. Even though the office would be closed, Haley’s sense of responsibility prodded her to dress for work. After all, someone needed to be there to provide a company presence not only for concerned customers but also for whoever the SEC was sending to retrieve the Bankers Boxes packed with files.
Dressed and with her makeup on, Haley headed for the kitchen, where she turned on the coffeepot and prepared to make the oatmeal that Gram insisted on having for breakfast summer and winter. While waiting for the water to boil, Haley switched on the television set in the living room, coming into the news broadcast just as someone mentioned Ocotillo Fund Management. By the time the segment was over, Haley was frozen in her grandmother’s recliner and on the verge of hyperventilating. The broadcast moved on to a commercial break, but Haley stared unseeing at the figures on the screen with a storm of questions flashing through her mind. How had this happened? And would her office be able to weather the storm.
By the time Haley staggered back into the kitchen, the water in the saucepan had mostly boiled away. As she started over on the oatmeal, she recalled one bit from the broadcast that had hit her especially hard—the quote from an unnamed source, reportedly a former OFM employee, who claimed that the bankruptcy proceedings had come as a complete surprise to everyone.
That couldn’t be true, Haley realized. Dan must have known. Had to have known. She had worked with the man long enough that she understood his moods, both good and bad. It seemed to her that he’d been in a dark place recently—for the past several months, anyway. Now with the bankruptcy issue out in the open, she thought she understood why. He must have realized that there was trouble brewing with the SEC. Still, it hurt more than Haley could fathom that this man she had trusted so completely—someone who had been the only thing close to a father figure in her life—hadn’t confided in her or given her so much as a single word of warning that disaster was looming. It was one thing for him to do that to relative strangers, but how could he do that to her?
The oatmeal was almost ready to serve when she heard the click, click, click of her grandmother’s walker coming down the hall. Haley reached for the remote to silence the TV set.
“Morning,” Gram said, easing herself onto her chair and placing her walker off to the side. “Don’t bother turning it off,” she added. “I was watching the news in my room before I came out. Have you heard from Dan?”
Haley shook her head. “Not a word.”
“Asshole,” Gram muttered as Haley placed a cup of coffee and a bowl of steaming oatmeal in front of her. “You’d think he’d at least have the decency to call you back.”
“You’d think,” Haley agreed, taking her own seat.
Despite whatever pitfalls the coming day might hold, Haley couldn’t help smiling at her grandmother’s plainspoken opinion, but then, Carol Hotchkiss had never been one to hold back. Two years ago, Haley’s mother had dropped by for an unexpected and unwelcome visit, making her first appearance after an almost thirty-year absence.
“You don’t give a rat’s ass about either one of us,” Grandma C. had told her errant daughter. “You may think you can show up after all these years and hope to hang around long enough for me to die so you can pick my bones. Well, my dear, you’ve got another think coming. Haley and I are doing just fine without you, thank you very much, so get the hell out of here and don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.”
Haley’s mother had left and hadn’t come back. A few months later Gram had suffered a stroke. She had made what her doctors said was a remarkable recovery for someone in her mideighties, but ongoing mobility issues made the walker a must. Without Haley there to look after her, Carol would have had to go into some kind of assisted care situation. Had Haley been married with kids, it might have been a different story, but as things stood, she didn’t begrudge the fact that their caregiving roles—that of guardian and ward—were now totally reversed. It was a debt Haley was happy to repay. After all, Gram had been Haley’s safe harbor once, and now Haley was hers.
“Looks like you’re dressed for work,” Gram observed a few moments later. “I thought you told me that the office would be closed today. Are you still going in?”
Haley nodded. “Someone needs to be there.”
“Dan’s the one who should be putting in an appearance, not you,” Grandma C. groused. “After all, he’s the one who went overboard for Jason McKinzie in the first place. Where do you suppose Dan is? And where’s Jason McKinzie, for that matter? According to what they said on the news there’s a possibility that he’s fled the country. For all we know, somebody may have slapped Dan’s ass in jail. From the sound of it, deservedly so.”
The thought of Dan’s being in jail somewhere had occurred to Haley as well. That would explain why Dan hadn’t called her back, but Millie hadn’t returned her calls, either. Why not?
Haley’s phone rang just then. Hoping it was Dan, she answered on the first ring, but the caller turned out to be Carmen Rios.
“Have you heard anything?” Carmen asked anxiously. “Are we supposed to come to work today or not?”
“I haven’t heard otherwise,” Haley said, “so I’m assuming the office is still closed.”
“Do you want me to call and change the message on the answering machine?” Carmen asked.
“Good thinking,” Haley said. “Say that the office is temporarily closed and that messages left on the machine will be returned as soon as possible. Can you monitor the messages from off-site?”
“I’m afraid that the voice mail box will be overwhelmed. If you could keep track of messages—writing them down if not necessarily replying to them—I’d really appreciate it. That way we’ll be able to get back to them eventually. If people keep getting messages that the mailbox is full, it’ll be that much worse.”
“Sure thing,” Carmen said. “I’ll be glad to. I saw what they said on TV,” she added. “It sounds bad.”
“Yes, it does,” Haley agreed. “We just have to keep the faith. I’ll call you if anything changes.”
Leaving half her oatmeal uneaten, Haley stood up and began clearing the table. “The fact that people have lost their money isn’t your fault, you know,” Gram said, “so don’t hold yourself responsible.”
“But I am responsible for some of them,” Haley countered. “Over the years I’ve sent plenty of Frazier Insurance customers over to the investment side.”
“It’s still not your fault,” Gram insisted. “You’re not the one who ran the company into the ground. Somebody else did that.”
With tears springing to her eyes, Haley hurried across the room to give her grandmother a quick hug.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “You’re the best.”
Realizing that television crews might be present at the office, once Haley finished loading the dishwasher, she went back into the bedroom and changed into something dressier. It was while she was taking another crack at her makeup when Haley thought again about her conversation with Millie Frazier on Friday morning, the one about the memory card that was probably, even now, hidden away in Dan and Millie’s safe-deposit box.
Haley remembered the part about it containing something from work that Dan didn’t want to fall into the wrong hands. When Agent Ferris had shown up at the office, issuing orders and laying down the law about the search, he had mentioned thumb drives specifically, but presumably the ones in question had been thumb drives on the premises rather than somewhere else. And whose hands exactly constituted the “wrong” ones? Maybe Agent Ferris himself was on the wrong side of that equation.
Finished retouching her makeup, Haley reached for her purse and key ring. And there it was—the third key to Dan and Millie’s safe-deposit box. Dan and Millie had given her the key when they had named her to be the executrix of their wills. They had entrusted her with the key along with the expectation that she would faithfully carry out their wishes. For right now and until she heard otherwise, that memory card was safe with her as well.
J.A. Jance is the New York Times bestselling author of the Ali Reynolds series, the J.P. Beaumont series, and the Joanna Brady series, as well as five interrelated Southwestern thrillers featuring the Walker family. Born in South Dakota and brought up in Bisbee, Arizona, Jance lives with her husband in Seattle, Washington, and Tucson, Arizona. Visit her online at JAJance.com.