When an old friend is accused of murdering a sociopath who courted women over the internet only to steal all of their money, Ali Reynolds steps in to investigate in this white-knuckled mystery from the New York Times bestselling author of The A List.
Ali Reynolds begins the summer thinking her most difficult challenge will be surviving a six-week-long course as the lone forty-something female at the Arizona Police Academy—not to mention taking over the 6 a.m. shift at her family’s restaurant while her parents enjoy a long overdue Caribbean cruise. However, when Brenda Riley, a colleague from Ali’s old news broadcasting days in California, shows up in town with an alcohol problem and an unlikely story about a missing fiancé, Ali reluctantly agrees to help.
The man posing as Brenda’s fiancé is revealed to be Richard Lowensdale, a cyber-sociopath who has left a trail of broken hearts in his virtual wake. When he is viciously murdered, the women he once victimized are considered suspects. The police soon focus their investigation on Brenda, who is already known to have broken into Richard’s home and computer before vanishing without a trace. Attempting to clear her friend’s name, Ali is quickly drawn into a web of online intrigue that may lead to a real-world fatal error.
Fatal Error 1
Peoria, Arizona August Get on the ground,” Ali Reynolds ordered. “On the ground now!”
“Make me,” Jose Reyes said, glaring back at her with a withering sneer. “Try and make me, bitch.”
Jose Reyes was a stocky Hispanic guy in his early thirties, tough as nails, with the muscle tone of a serious weight lifter. A guy with attitude, one who could toss out schoolyard taunts and make them sound deadly.
“I gave you an order.”
“And I told you to go to hell.”
Ali moved in then, grabbing his arm and setting up for the hip toss. Only it didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Jose spun out of the way and suddenly Ali was the one flying through the air. She landed hard on the gym mat and with him right on top of her. The blow knocked the wind out of her and left her seeing stars. By the time Ali got her breath back, she was face down on the floor, with her wrists at her back, imprisoned in her own handcuffs. Lying there under Jose’s full weight, she felt a rage of impotent fury flood through her. She was still there, helpless but furious, when a pair of highly polished shoes appeared in her line of vision.
“My, my, little lady,” Sergeant Bill Pettit said. “I don’t believe that’s the way takedowns are supposed to work. He’s the one who’s supposed to be wearing your handcuffs.”
Ali Reynolds was in week four of a six-week-long course at the Arizona Police Academy. Of all the instructors there, Pettit was her hands-down least favorite. The class had started out on the fourth of August with an enrollment of one hundred seven recruits, five of whom had been women. Now they were down to a total of seventy-nine. Two of the original females had dropped out.
“Uncuff her,” Pettit told Jose. “Good job.”
The restraints came off. Jose tossed them to her, then he grabbed Ali by the elbow and helped her up.
“No hard feelings, Oma,” he said with a sly Cheshire grin that said he was lying. He had done it with malice and had hit her far harder than necessary, to prove a point and because he could.
To begin with, Ali’s fellow classmates had called her “Oma” behind her back. Originally the word came from one of the other young recruits, a blond-haired, ruddy-faced guy whose family hailed from South Africa. In Afrikaans oma evidently meant something like “old woman” or maybe even “grandma.” There it probably had an air of respect about it. Here in the academy, however, most of Ali’s classmates were fifteen to twenty years younger than she was. In context, the word was intended as an insult, meant to keep Ali in her place. To her knowledge, this was the first time she had been called that in front of one of the instructors.
“That’s why female officers end up having to resort to weapons so often,” Pettit said. “They don’t know how to use their bodies properly. By the way, what’s that he called you?”
Ali’s face flushed. “Old Lady,” she answered.
“Old Lady, sir!” she corrected.
“That’s better. Now get your butt over to first aid. You should probably have a Band-Aid on that cut over your eye. And have them give you an ice pack. Looks to me like you’re gonna have yourself a real shiner.”
It was a long walk through the sweaty, overheated gym. The Phoenix metropolitan area was roasting in triple-digit heat. Although the gym’s AC was running at full strength, it couldn’t do more than thirty degrees below the outside temp of 116.
Ali’s classmates stopped what they were doing and stood on their own mats to watch her walk of shame. Some of them were sympathetic, but more shared Jose’s opinion that no self-respecting fortysomething female had any business being there, and they wanted her to quit. Blood dribbled down the side of her cheek and onto the neck of her T-shirt. She made no effort to wipe it away. If her classmates were looking for blood, she’d give it to them.
She stepped out of the gym into glaring sunshine and brutal afternoon heat. The mountains in the distance were obscured by a haze of earth-brown smog. August was supposed to be the rainy season with monsoon rains drenching the thirsty Sonoran Desert, but so far the much-needed rains were absent although the rising humidity was not.
By the time Ali arrived at the administration office, she had made herself a promise: sometime in the next two weeks, Jose Reyes was looking at a takedown of his own.
BettyJo Hamilton, the academy’s office manager, was also in charge of first aid. “Oh, my,” she said, peering at Ali over a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. “What do we have here?”
“Just a little bump,” Ali said.
After determining that no stitches were required, BettyJo applied a butterfly Band-Aid to the cut and then brought out an ice pack. “If I were you,” she said, “I’d take it pretty easy for the rest of the afternoon. Let me know if you feel faint or experience any nausea.”
Ali was glad to comply. She wasn’t used to losing, and she didn’t need to go back to the gym to revisit her ignominious defeat. Instead, she returned to the dorm, shut herself in her room, and lay down on the bed, with the ice pack over her eye.
Most of the academy attendees from the Phoenix area made the nightly trip home. The out-of-towners, recruits who lived too far away for a daily commute, made use of the dorm facilities. The three remaining women had rooms to themselves. Ali was especially grateful for that now. She needed some privacy to lick her wounds.
Months earlier Ali had been serving as an interim media relations consultant for the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Department when Sheriff Gordon Maxwell had broached the idea of sending her to the academy. Once a well-known TV news anchor in L.A., Ali had returned to her hometown of Sedona, Arizona, after both her career and marriage came to sudden ends. Paul Grayson, Ali’s philandering, late, and very much unlamented second husband, had been murdered the day before their divorce would have been final. As a divorcée, Ali would have been in somewhat straitened financial circumstances. As Paul’s widow, however, and through no fault of her own, she was now an extremely wealthy former anchor and aspiring cop.
After her life-changing pair of crises, Ali had spent a year or two back in her hometown, getting used to the idea of being on her own. Her parents, Bob and Edie Larson, owners of the Sugarloaf Café, lived there in Sedona, as did Ali’s son, Christopher, and his fairly new and now newly pregnant bride, Athena, both of whom taught at Sedona High School.
For a while it was okay to be Bob and Edie’s daughter and Chris’s mom, but Ali was used to working, used to being busy. Finding herself bored to distraction, she took on the project of purchasing and remodeling the house on Manzanita Hills Road, which she shared with Leland Brooks. Mr. Brooks was her aging but entirely capable personal assistant or, as she liked to call him, her majordomo, since both he and the word seemed to hail from a more gracious, bygone era. Ali had had a boyfriend, but at her age the word boyfriend rankled. She liked to think of B. Simpson as her “lover.” When speaking to others, she referred to him as her “significant other.”
Ali was lying on the bed, wondering what B. would think about her showing up for Labor Day weekend with a shiner, when her cell phone rang. She checked the caller ID.
“Hi, Mom,” Ali said to her mother, Edie Larson. “What’s up?”
“One of your friends dropped by the Sugarloaf this afternoon, looking for you.”
“Really,” Ali said. “Who was it?”
“Dad said her name was Brenda Riley. She used to work with you in L.A.”
“Not exactly worked with,” Ali replied. “She was the anchor for a sister station in Sacramento when I was in L.A. So we were acquaintances and colleagues rather than friends. She got booted off the air about the same time I did for approximately the same reason. They thought she was too old. I haven’t heard from her in years. What did she want?”
“She told Dad that she really needed to see you—that it was urgent. You know your father. He’s such a softie, he falls for every sob story on the planet.”
“What kind of sob story?”
“Just that she needed to see you—that she was looking for help. From what he said, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was really looking for money.”
Ali had found that old acquaintances did have a way of doing that, of showing up on her doorstep and asking for a loan or an outright handout. They seemed to think that since she had money and they didn’t, she was obligated to give them some of hers.
“Did Dad give her my number?”
“I chewed him out for it, but yes, he did. Worse than that, he also told her where you were and what you were doing. He said she seemed shocked that you were in the process of becoming a police officer.”
Ali ran a finger over her rapidly swelling eye. “I’m shocked by that myself sometimes,” she said with a laugh.
“Anyway,” Edie Larson continued. “From what he said, she may very well be on her way down to Phoenix to see you right now.”
Ali suppressed a groan. Brenda Riley was pretty much the last person she needed to see right now—especially with a cut on her eyebrow and with a black eye coming on. Brenda had been one of those irksome women who never went anywhere without being perfectly put together—hair, makeup, and clothing. She had been almost as tall as Ali—five ten or so—but as far as Ali was concerned, Brenda was better-looking in every way.
“Thanks for the heads-up, Mom,” Ali said. “Tell Dad not to worry about it. Whatever Brenda wants, I’m sure I can handle it.”
“Are you coming home for the weekend?” Edie asked.
Ali knew that B. Simpson was flying in from his most recent business trip and was due to arrive at Sky Harbor late the next morning. Ali had been looking forward to going home for the long Labor Day weekend and escaping the August heat in the Valley of the Sun. There would be socializing and barbecues galore, but knowing she’d be showing up with a black eye made Ali think twice.
Small towns were small towns, and Sedona was no exception. If Ali appeared in public with B. Simpson and a black eye, tongues were bound to wag. She could try explaining that her injury was a result of her police academy training, but she doubted anyone would listen. In fact, the more she protested, the more they would talk behind her back.
“I’m still planning on being home,” Ali said, finally, “but I’ve got a whole lot of studying to do this weekend. I may have to bail on the barbecue end of things.”
“I hope you don’t dodge out on everything,” Edie said. “Chris and Athena would be so disappointed. I know they’re planning on having everyone over on Sunday afternoon.”
“We’ll see,” Ali said.
The call waiting signal buzzed in Ali’s ear. The number was one she recognized as having a Sacramento area code.
“Gotta go now, Mom,” Ali said. “I have another call.”
“Ali?” a woman said when Ali switched over. “Is that you?”
“Yes, Brenda,” Ali said. She might not have recognized the voice without the benefit of her mother’s advance warning. “How are you doing? My parents said you might call. Where are you?”
“I’m in a place called Black Canyon City, although it doesn’t look like much of a city to me.”
“Coming from California, it wouldn’t.”
“Could we get together for a while tonight? Is there someplace where we could meet near where you are, like a bar or something?”
“There’s a joint called the Rimrock Inn,” Ali said. “It’s off Grand Avenue here in Peoria. If you’re on the 101, exit to the right and turn right. That’s only a couple of miles from here. I’ve heard some of the guys here at the academy talking about it. According to them, the Rimrock has great burgers.”
Ali had also heard that the Rimrock was something of a dive—cheap and relatively dingy. Maybe in the dim light Ali’s bruised and swollen eye wouldn’t show up quite so much.
“How long will it take me to get there?” Brenda asked.
“Probably forty-five minutes.” Ali glanced at her watch. “It’s coming up on rush hour. So maybe a little longer than that.”
“Okay,” Brenda said. “See you there.”
Ali got off the bed, stripped off her bloodied T-shirt and shorts and made her way into the bathroom. She was grateful she didn’t have to share the bath with anyone else. The half-inch cut over her eye was no longer bleeding, so she peeled off the Band-Aid before she got in the shower. After blow-drying her hair, she used makeup to repair as much of the damage as possible. It wasn’t great, but it was better than nothing. By the time she left the dorm, classes were getting out for the day. She managed to dodge her returning classmates as she headed for her car.
She had no intention of running into Jose Reyes and giving him a chance to rub her nose in it.
J.A. Jance is the New York Times bestselling author of the Ali Reynolds series, the J.P. Beaumont series, the Joanna Brady series, and the Walker Family series. Born in South Dakota and raised in Bisbee, Arizona, Jance lives with her husband in Seattle, Washington. Visit her online at JAJance.com.