For the hundredth time that day, Ali Reynolds asked herself why she’d ever let her agent, Jacky Jackson, talk her into being a part of MCMR, short for Mid-Century-Modern Renovations, a program aimed at the Home & Garden TV viewer, documenting restoration projects designed to bring back venerable old twentieth-century American houses that otherwise would have fallen victim to the wrecking ball.
Months earlier Ali had come into possession of one of those precious fixer-uppers when she had purchased Arabella Ashcroft’s crumbling hilltop mansion at the top of Sedona’s Manzanita Hills Road. She had been intrigued when Jacky contacted her about filming the entire project. According to Jacky, MCMR would be the next great thing. Mid-Century-Modern Renovations was due to air on Home & Garden TV sometime in the not too distant future, but there was always a chance it would follow the lead of some of the Food Network’s cooking shows and make the jump over to one of the major networks.
Jacky had begged and pleaded until Ali finally agreed. At first her contractor had been thrilled at the prospect, and his
crew had enjoyed mugging for the two cameramen, Raymond and Robert. Now, though, with construction seriously behind schedule, the workers were becoming surly at having the cameras forever in the way, and so was Ali. It was bad enough when things were going well. But then there were days like today, when Bryan Forester, her general contractor, had gone ballistic after Yvonne Kirkpatrick, the city of Sedona’s queen-bee building inspector, had decreed that the placement of some of Bryan’s electrical outlets in both the bathrooms and the kitchen were out of compliance.
The cameras had been there filming the entire epic battle as Bryan and the fiery-haired Yvonne had gone at it nose-to-nose over the issue. Later, they had been missing in action when Yvonne, who had returned to her office to check the rules and regs, had called back with the embarrassing admission that Bryan had been right and she had been wrong. From her days as a television newscaster, Ali Reynolds knew the drill. After all, confrontations make for great TV. Reconciliations don’t. Compared to war, peace is B-O-R-I-N-G. And even though Yvonne had admitted her mistake, she had yet to come back and sign off on the permit. The drywall guys couldn’t start hanging wallboard until she did.
Ali had hoped to have the place ready for a grand Thanksgiving dinner unveiling for friends and family. Right now her house had no running water or electricity, and the interior walls were nothing but bare studs. This latest delay made a turkey-day gathering in her remodeled home even more unlikely. Disheartened, she had retreated to the wisteria-lined flagstone patio where they had erected a canvas canopy over the worn redwood picnic table that served as a lunchroom for workers and film crew alike. Before Ali could summon a really serious funk, though, Leland Brooks appeared, bearing a silver tray set for tea.
“Tea?” he asked. “You look as though you could use a cuppa.”
“Yes, please,” Ali said gratefully, shivering in the late-afternoon chill. “That would be wonderful.”
Ali had taken on restoring Arabella Ashcroft’s dilapidated home as her personal rehabilitation project, and Brooks, Arabella’s former butler, had made fixing Ali Reynolds his. Months earlier and already dealing with the end of both her newscasting career and the end of her marriage, Ali had abandoned California and returned to her roots in Sedona, Arizona, looking for respite and a little peace and quiet. That hadn’t worked very well. Instead of achieving idyllic serenity, she had been propelled into life-and-death struggles with not one but two murderous nutcases.
Afterward Ali had been drifting aimlessly into a sea of depression when Leland Brooks came to her rescue, determined to find a way to help her help herself. Refusing to take no for an answer, he had set before her the daunting challenge of buying and re-creating Arabella Ashcroft’s mother’s house. In the ensuing months, every time the resulting complications had threatened to overwhelm Ali, Leland had been at her side. He still referred to himself as her butler, but she saw him as her property manager and also as her trusted aide-de-camp. He had taken up residence in a fifth-wheel trailer set up in the driveway, where he could make sure tools and supplies stayed put when the workmen left the site.
Ali waited while Leland dosed her tea with two cubes of sugar and a wedge of lemon.
“I see that building inspector was here again,” he said.
“Yes,” Ali returned. “She rode in on her broom, out on same, and fouled up the wallboard guys for at least another day. I’m pretty sure Thanksgiving is a lost cause.”
Leland handed over a cup and saucer. “Mr. Forester is a good man,” he said thoughtfully. “Surely he’ll be able to find a way to carry us over the finish line.”
Ali took a sip of her tea. It was perfect. “Mr. Brooks,” she said, “has anyone ever told you that you’re an incurable optimist?”
Leland frowned. “I don’t suppose that’s a compliment, is it?” he returned.
Ali laughed aloud. No matter how bad things got, Leland always seemed to cheer her up. Just then a car came winding up the driveway, threading its way between lines of workers’ vehicles. As it parked behind Ali’s Porsche Cayenne SUV, she recognized Detective Dave Holman’s sheriff’s department sedan.
Dave, a fellow graduate of Cottonwood’s Mingus Union High, was a longtime friend and recently a sometime beau. Several months earlier, he had been granted primary custody of his two daughters, nine-year-old Cassie and thirteen-year-old Crystal. Since then Dave had thrown himself wholeheartedly into his unexpected second chance at fatherhood. His newly assumed parenting responsibilities combined with a realization that both Dave and Ali were in full rebound mode had led to a mutual decision to back off for a while. As a result, he and Ali had been spending far less time together of late. On this occasion, though, Ali was delighted to see him—until she caught sight of the grim set of his jaw. Clearly, this was some other kind of visit.
At another time in her life, Ali Reynolds might not have thought the worst, but after months of dealing with one disaster after another, her heart went to her throat. Had the brakes failed in her father’s doddering antique Bronco, or had her mother’s Alero been T-boned making a left-hand turn across traffic into the Sugarloaf Café’s parking lot? Or was it Christopher? Had
something happened to her son? Holding her breath, she gestured Dave onto the patio.
“Hey, Dave,” she croaked. It was a lame attempt at pretending she wasn’t terrified. “Good to see you. Care for some tea?”
Dave shook his head. “No, thanks.” He glanced toward the house. “I’m looking for Bryan Forester. Is he here?”
Relieved, Ali let out her breath. “In the far bathroom,” she answered. “Would you go find him, please?” she said to Leland.
Leland nodded. “Certainly,” he said and marched away.
“Is something wrong?” Ali asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Dave answered. “Morgan Forester’s been murdered. Their two girls came home from school a little while ago and found their mother dead in the front yard. Has Bryan been here all day?”
Even though all of Bryan’s worker bees had shown up on time, Bryan himself hadn’t appeared until later in the morning. Given that he had several different jobs going, his late arrival wasn’t so unusual. Ali had noticed, however, that the generally even-tempered Bryan had seemed out of sorts. Even before his confrontation with the building inspector, Bryan had been barking at his people and growling at the guys wielding their cameras.
“He wasn’t here all day,” she said. “But he was here most of it. Why?”
Before Dave could ask anything more, Leland returned, bringing Bryan Forester with him. “What’s up?” Bryan asked, looking questioningly from Ali to Dave.
Ali knew from personal experience what it meant to be given that kind of devastating news. Not wanting to witness Bryan Forester’s heartbreak, Ali thought of taking Brooks and disappearing into the house. Before she could rise from the bench, however, Dave cut off that avenue of retreat by speaking immediately.
“It’s about your wife,” he said. “I’m afraid I have some very bad news.”
“Bad news about Morgan?” Bryan asked. “What about her? What kind of bad news. Has she been in a wreck or something?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this. Your wife has been murdered,” Dave said. “Your daughters found her this afternoon when they came home from school.”
Ali felt a momentary flash of anger at Dave Holman. Couldn’t he have found a gentler way of delivering such awful news? Couldn’t he have couched it in less blunt terms?
Bryan’s face contorted in grief and astonishment as the brutal blow landed. He staggered over to the picnic table and sank down onto the redwood bench across the table from Ali. “No,” he said, shaking his head from side to side in absolute denial. “That can’t be. It’s impossible. Morgan was fine when I left for work. This is wrong. You must be mistaken.”
“I’m afraid there’s no mistake,” Dave replied. “If you don’t mind, Mr. Forester, I’ll need you to come with me. Once the body has been transported, we’ll need you to identify…”
At first Ali thought he had softened slightly, but then she noticed the odd shift from “Bryan” to “Mr. Forester.” Ali was a year younger than Dave, and Bryan Forester was over ten years younger than Ali. Dave’s turn to formality struck her as ominous.
Bryan, on the other hand, seemed oblivious. He surged to his feet. “No,” he interrupted. “Where are Lindsey and Lacy? What have you done with my daughters? I’ve got to see them, be with them.”
“The girls are fine,” Dave said reassuringly. “I called in Deputy Meecham, the DARE officer from their school. She knows
your kids, and they know her. I asked her to take them to the sheriff’s office. The girls are probably already there.”
“Let’s go, then,” Bryan said impatiently, changing his mind about going to the house. “Why are we standing around here jawing?” He took two long strides toward Dave’s car, then stopped and turned back to Ali. “Tell the guys for me, please,” he said. “They should probably plan on taking the rest of the week off. Until I—” He broke off, unable to continue.
“Of course,” Ali said reassuringly. “I’m so sorry about this, Bryan. You do what you need to do. We’ll be fine.”
She watched as Dave took Bryan Forester by the arm and escorted him to the waiting patrol car. Dave opened the door—the door to the backseat, Ali noted, to let Bryan inside. Ali had to concede that was probably necessary, since there would likely be weapons and equipment in the front seat, but still, was it really necessary for Bryan to be locked in the back of the vehicle like a common criminal—like he was under arrest or something? But then Ali remembered that when her almost–ex husband, Paul Grayson, had been run over by a speeding freight in southern California, the investigating officers had driven her to Riverside in the back of a patrol car as well. Perhaps this was the same protocol and it meant nothing. Maybe Ali was simply reading too much into it.
“If you’d like me to, madam,” Leland Brooks said quietly, “I’d be happy to track down the work crew and relay the bad news.”
Ali knew that in the past, Leland had dealt with Arabella Ashcroft’s periodic flights from sanity by retreating into that very proper butler mode. Dave’s uncharacteristic detour into formality had disturbed her, but as Leland switched gears, Ali felt herself comforted.
“Thank you,” Ali said. “That would be greatly appreciated.”
Ali sat staring into the depths of her teacup and thought about two little girls coming home to the shock of finding their mother murdered. It appalled Ali to think about them being thrust into this awful turmoil and then being carted off to the sheriff’s office by some stranger to await the arrival of their father.
Ali’s cell phone rang. Glad to be jolted out of her grim contemplations, she hurried to answer, but it didn’t do her much good.
“Have you heard about Morgan Forester?” Edie Larson asked. “It’s positively dreadful! I still can’t believe it.”
Ali Reynolds had always marveled at her mother’s uncanny ability to know everything that was going on in Sedona, Arizona, before almost anyone else did. Since Edie’s sources were quick and nearly always accurate, Ali didn’t bother questioning them now. Obviously, whoever had delivered the news knew what was going on.
“Just did,” Ali admitted. “Dave was here a few minutes ago and told Bryan what had happened.”
“Those poor sweet little girls,” Edie went on. “Can you imagine coming home from school and finding something like that? The one is already such an odd little duck, I doubt she’ll ever recover.”
“Odd?” Ali asked.
“They’re twins, you know,” Edie said. “They’ve come to the Sugarloaf on occasion, usually with their daddy.” The Sugarloaf Café was the family-owned diner Ali’s parents had run for years.
“The two of them are the cutest little things. They look just alike, but the one—I don’t know which is which—talks nonstop. She chatters on and on like a little magpie, while the other one never says a word. The one eats everything in sight and cleans
her plate without the least bit of fuss. The other one has to have everything on a separate plate—one plate for the eggs, another for the hash browns, another for the bacon, and still another for her toast or sweet roll. God forbid if one crumb of food should touch another. It’s always a problem when they come in, because there’s not enough room on our four-tops for one person to use four separate plates.” Edie paused and then added, “I guess you’ve never waited on them.”
Periodically, Ali pitched in as a substitute waitress. She knew of several adult customers with similar phobias, but she didn’t remember ever waiting on Bryan Forester’s little girls. “I guess not,” she agreed.
“I’m baking one of my tuna casseroles right now. Your dad will deliver it to their house a little later. I understand Bryan’s folks moved down to Sun City a few years ago. His dad has arthritis, and the winters up here were too cold, but I’m sure they’re on their way. I don’t know about Morgan’s folks. It seems to me they’re not from around here.”
Ali didn’t know anything about Morgan Forester’s family. Wherever her parents lived, once they learned the news, their hearts, too, would be broken, but Ali suspected that no one from either side of the family would be very interested in Edie Larson’s excellent tuna casserole.
“If the house is a crime scene, it’ll be empty,” Ali said quietly. “No one will be allowed to be there.”
“You’re right, of course,” Edie said after a pause. “Well, then, I’ll talk to one of the neighbors and find out where your father should deliver the food once I have it ready. Now, what about Thanksgiving?”
Her seamless segue from tuna casserole to turkey and dressing left Ali momentarily confounded.
“I know you had your heart set on having everyone over to your new place,” Edie continued. “But we have to be realistic. That just isn’t going to happen. We need a new plan.”
If Edie Larson had a sentimental bone in her body, her daughter had never seen it. After spending her entire lifetime either working in or running a restaurant and being in the day-to-day business of food, Edie looked at life’s ups and downs through a framework of what needed to be cooked, where, and when. Yes, Morgan Forester’s murder was a terrible thing, but after taking care of that required tuna casserole, Edie was ready to move on to the next piece of critical culinary business—Thanksgiving dinner. Meanwhile, Ali had been so shocked by what had happened that she had yet to consider how the terrible disruptions in Bryan Forester’s life might also impact her own situation.
“Don’t worry about it, Mom,” Ali said. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
Ali was hanging up when Leland emerged from the house and began gathering up the tea things. She passed him her cup, cold now but still half full.
“You told them?” she asked.
Leland nodded somberly. “I talked to Billy, Mr. Forester’s second in command. He said that if it’s all the same to you, they’d like to come on the job tomorrow anyway. If he can get the building inspector to come out and sign off on the permits, he said they’ll be able to go ahead with the wallboarding with or without Mr. Forester. But only if you don’t mind.”
The fact that Bryan’s crew was ready and willing to move forward without him seemed commendable. “It’s fine with me,” Ali said.
Leland nodded. “Very good, madam,” he said. “I told them I’d let them know if you had any objections.”
As if on cue, the workmen emerged from the building. Carrying tool belts, tool cases, and lunch boxes, they headed first to the Mini-Mobile, the metal storage unit where they stowed tools and supplies. Leland locked it each evening after the workmen left the job site and opened it every morning before they arrived. Minutes after the workmen left, the camera crew decamped as well, but they took their load of expensive equipment along with them. Leland picked up the tray, but before he could head back to his cozy fifth wheel, Ali stopped him.
“Detective Holman asked me if Mr. Forester had been here all day,” she said casually.
Dave had come to notify Bryan Forester of his wife’s death, but Ali had no doubt the man had been in Dave’s sights as a possible perpetrator from the moment Morgan’s homicide had been reported, and Dave had already started the process of tracing Bryan’s movements.
Leland returned the heavy tray to the table. “I seem to recall he did arrive a little later than usual,” he said thoughtfully. “Most of the time he’s here early enough to park at the top of the driveway. Today I noticed that his truck was down near the bottom of the hill.”
Ali nodded. “Did he seem upset to you?” she asked.
Leland frowned. “Now that you mention it,” he said, “I believe Mr. Forester did appear to be slightly out of sorts. He spent a good part of the day talking on his phone.”
“Did he happen to mention any kind of difficulty at home?” Ali asked.
Leland gave her a wry smile. “That’s not the kind of thing one would mention to the hired help,” he said quietly. “It’s just not done. It’s getting quite cool out here,” he added. “Would you like me to light the heater?”
They had stationed a propane-fueled outdoor heater near the picnic table so the guys could have their morning coffee without freezing their butts off.
“That’s all right,” Ali said. “I think I’ll head home.”
“By the way,” he reminded her, “it is Monday. Your evening to cook, I believe. Would you like me to come by and throw something together for you?”
Ali looked at this remarkably caring man.
“Thanks for keeping me on track,” Ali said. “You’ve done more than enough for today. I’ll handle dinner.”
“Very well,” Leland said. “Will we see you in the morning?”
“If the work crew is coming, I’m coming,” Ali told him.
But as Ali pulled out of the driveway, she wasn’t thinking about getting her job done. She was thinking about two little girls, Morgan Forester’s daughters, who would have to grow up without their mother.
Poor babies, Ali said to herself. Those poor babies.