In the second thrilling adventure of the New York Times bestselling Ali Reynolds series, Ali’s soon-to-be-ex-husband turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, and Ali soon finds herself the prime suspect at the center of a terrifying web of evil.
The highway from Los Angeles to the Palm Springs desert is parched, unforgiving, and deadly. In the suffocating stillness of a car trunk, a man—his mouth and hands bound with tape—waits to learn his fate. Fortunately for him, he’ll never know. What possible enemy could be bitter enough to commit such a heinous crime? And when will the monster make another move?
Ali Reynolds is traveling that same blistering, lonesome highway, looking forward to putting her past behind her. She’d left Los Angeles for the home comforts of Sedona, Arizona. But her cheating husband is in a hurry for a divorce; his very young and very pregnant fiancée has a wedding planned for the next day. And the television network that wrongfully dismissed Ali for the sole sin of being over forty will face her in court as well. So, Ali must return to the scene of those crimes. As she passes the site of a horrifying accident, she’s thankful it’s no longer her job to report the news. Until she finds out the news is her own: the victim is Ali’s husband, and soon she’ll find herself the prime suspect at the center of a terrifying web of evil.
“Gripping…Jance’s skills will keep the reader riveted...Ali couldn’t be better company” (South Florida Sun-Sentinel).
For all you cutloose fans out there who’ve been following my story from the beginning, tomorrow is the day the D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final. For those of you who may be new to the site, the last few months have been a bit of a bumpy ride since both my husband and my former employer simultaneously sent me packing in hopes of landing a younger model.
My soon-to-be-ex, aka Fang, as he’s known in the blogosphere, called me yesterday. It was the first time I’d heard from him directly in several months. What surprised me more than anything was how much I DIDN’T feel when I heard his voice. That, I believe, is a good sign. It turns out Fang was calling, in his own imperious way, to make sure I’d be in court tomorrow so the divorce decree can be finalized. I could have given him grief about it. Could have claimed I was sick or maimed or just too annoyed to bother driving eight hours plus from Sedona over to L.A. And, had I done so, it would have sent him up a wall. You see, Fang needs this divorce right about now a whole lot more than I do. Our court appearance is scheduled Friday. Saturday is Fang’s wedding day.
I’ve heard rumors that he and his blushing bride, aka Twink, are planning a big-deal celebration, a catered affair with all the right people in attendance at what used to be our joint domicile on Robert Lane. In view of the fact that Twink is expecting Fang’s baby within weeks of the scheduled nuptials, you might think a little more discretion was called for, but discretion has never been Fang’s long suit. For that matter, it must not be Twink’s, either, since the baby was conceived some time prior to my abandoning our marriage bed.
For those of you who are concerned about my state of mind as I approach this change in marital status, don’t be. I’m fine. I’m ready to make a clean break of it; glad to have what was clearly my sham of a marriage—as far as Fang was concerned anyway—over and done with. I’m moving on with my new life. When you’re doing that, hanging on to the old one doesn’t help. Neither does bitterness. As my mother is prone to point out, bitterness destroys the container it’s in.
If I do say so myself, this particular container is going to be in pretty fine shape tomorrow when I show up in court. With my son’s help, I’ve been working out. My personal shopper at Nordstrom’s down in Scottsdale has set aside a couple of new outfits for me. I plan on picking up one of them on my way through Phoenix later on this afternoon.
In other words, for today anyway, I’m a rolling stone, and rolling stones gather no moss—and do no blogging.
Posted 7:23 A.M., September 15, 2005 by Babe
As soon as Ali Reynolds hauled her suitcase out of the closet, Samantha, Ali’s now permanent refugee cat, disappeared. Completely. Ali found it hard to believe that a sixteen-pound, one-eared cat could pull off that kind of magicianship, but she could.
Six months earlier, a series of forced moves had left Sam in a new, unfamiliar home with a new owner who wasn’t exactly enamored of cats. Over time, Ali and Sam had developed a grudging respect for each other. With the unwelcome appearance of a suitcase, however, all bets were off. For Sam, the sight of a suitcase and/or the dreaded cat crate brought back all those bad old times and sent the panicky kitty scrambling for someplace to hide.
It took Ali a good two hours—two hours she didn’t have—to find the animal again, scrunched in beside the drainpipe behind the washing machine in the laundry room. And finding Sam was only part of the problem. Extricating the cat from her snug little hidey-hole and into the cat crate for a trip to Ali’s parents’ place was a whole other issue. Had it been any other weekend, Sam could have remained at home and been looked after by Ali’s son, Christopher, but it happened that Chris was due at a two-day seminar in Phoenix starting early Saturday morning.
“Off to Grandma’s with you,” Ali said, retrieving the indignant cat and stuffing her into the waiting crate. “And you’d better behave yourself, too.”
And so, hours later than she had intended, Ali finally finished packing. With Sam yowling in bitter protest, Ali left her hilltop mobile-home digs and drove her lapis blue Porsche Cayenne down to the highway, where she parked under the shady weeping willow tree outside her parents’ family-owned diner, Sedona’s fabled Sugar Loaf Café.
Inside, the lunch hour rush was just beginning. Edie Larson, Ali’s mother, was working the cash register and lunch counter while Ali’s father, Bob, held sway in the kitchen. Edie picked up an empty coffeepot and headed for the back counter to refill it, glancing reflexively at her watch as she did so.
“You call this an early start?” Edie asked.
Since Edie rose every morning at o-dark-thirty to prepare the Sugar Loaf’s daily supply of signature sweet rolls, she considered any departure that happened after 6 A.M. to be tardy. She had thought Ali’s initial estimated departure of nine to be close to slothful. Now it was coming up on noon.
“Unfortunately, Sam had other ideas,” Ali said. “She saw the suitcase and went into hiding. I found her, though, finally.”
“Good,” Edie said reassuringly. “Cats usually don’t like change, but by the time your father gets finished spoiling Sam, that ugly cat of yours won’t even want to go back home. Where is she, by the way?”
“Out in the car in the shade.”
Edie poured Ali a cup of coffee. “I’ll call Kip to come get the crate and take Sam back to the house.”
Kip Hogan was a formerly homeless Vietnam War vet Bob Larson had dragged home about the same time his daughter had adopted Sam. Originally Kip had been hired to help look after Bob in the aftermath of an unfortunate snowboarding accident that had left Ali’s father temporarily wheelchair-bound. Bob had since recovered and was back at work, but Kip continued to hang around, living in an old Lazy Daze motor home parked in the Larsons’ backyard, helping out with odd jobs around both the house and the restaurant, and gradually becoming more and more indispensable.
“Want some lunch before you go?” Edie asked. “Or should I have Dad make up one of the coolers for you to take along with you?”
“What would go in the cooler?” Ali asked.
“Fried chicken,” Bob Larson answered from the kitchen service window. “Biscuits. Some homemade applesauce.”
Having been raised on her father’s crisp fried chicken and her mother’s lighter-than-air biscuits, there was really no contest. “I’ll have coffee now and take the cooler option,” Ali answered.
Edie took a brief jaunt down the counter, delivering coffee as she went, then she returned to Ali. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m perfectly fine,” Ali said. “It’ll be good to have this whole mess behind me.”
“Yes,” Edie agreed. “I’m sure it will be.”
Ali had retreated to Sedona, her hometown, to find her bearings in the initial aftermath of both losing her job and learning about her husband’s infidelity. She hadn’t expected to like it; hadn’t expected to be comfortable there, but she was. The double-wide mobile home her aunt Evelyn had left her may have seemed like a big comedown from the gated mansion on Robert Lane, but it suited Ali’s needs, everything from the Jacuzzi soaking tub to the basement wine cellar. And having her son, Chris, for a roommate didn’t hurt, either.
Chris had graduated from UCLA and was in his first year of teaching welding and American history at Sedona High School. Ali enjoyed her son’s company. He never left a mess in the kitchen, didn’t stay out all that late, and spent much of his spare time working on his metal sculpting projects down in the basement. From what Ali could tell, she and Chris got along better than did many parents and their newly adult children.
All in all, she felt at ease being back home in Sedona—at ease and at peace.
“I wish Chris were going over with you,” Edie added, seeming to read Ali’s mind. “Driving to L.A. is a long trip to do all by yourself.”
“Chris is busy with a seminar this weekend,” Ali replied. “I don’t mind driving. In fact, I enjoy being on the open road. Besides, I’ve got Aunt Evelyn’s library of musicals along to keep me company.”
“Well, be sure you take plenty of breaks,” Edie cautioned. “They say tired drivers are as bad as drunk drivers.”
Bob rang the bell, letting Edie know that an order was ready. While she went away to deliver it, Kip Hogan turned up at Ali’s elbow. “Keys?” he asked.
When Kip had first appeared, six months earlier, he had come from a snowy, outdoor homeless encampment up on the Mogollan Rim. After years of living rough, he had been gaunt and grubby, with long, filthy hair, dirty clothes, missing teeth, and a much-broken nose. Kip’s missing teeth and crooked nose were still at issue, but months of eating decent food had allowed him to fill out some. And dressed in respectable if secondhand clothing and with ready access to running water, the man looked far less scary than he had initially.
Without a word, Ali handed over her car keys.
“Leave the cat in her crate in the living room,” Edie told Kip as he started for the door. “That way she’ll have a chance to get used to her new digs before we let her out to explore.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Kip replied. “Will do.”
“When will you be back?” Edie asked her daughter.
“Tuesday or Wednesday,” Ali replied. “The divorce hearing is tomorrow. Then on Monday or Tuesday there’s supposed to be a deposition in the wrongful dismissal suit. It didn’t make sense to do two trips when one would work. So I’ll stay over however long it takes to give the deposition.”
“Good,” Edie agreed. “It’s always better to kill two birds with one stone. More coffee?”
Ali let her mother refill her cup. Initially she had blamed her tardy departure on Sam. Now Ali realized that she was stalling even more all on her own—and she knew why. Months after the fact, there was part of her that dreaded getting on I-17 and heading down to Phoenix. Ali Reynolds had almost died on one particularly dangerous stretch of that freeway when someone had tried to push her off the highway and over the edge of a sheer cliff. Being the target of an attempted murder is something that lingers, and even though Ali had driven that same route several times between then and now, she was still skittish. Just thinking about driving past the Sunset Point rest area and heading down the steep grade into the valley was enough to make Ali’s hands go clammy.
Her face must have betrayed some of the concern she was feeling.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some company?” Edie Larson asked solicitously. “And some moral support once you get there and have to go to court? I’m sure your father could manage without me for a day or two. He wouldn’t like it, but having to get up early enough to make the rolls wouldn’t kill him.”
Touched by the offer, Ali smiled. “Thanks, Mom,” she said. “I’ll be fine. Really.”
“And you’ll call and let us know how it’s going?”
Kip returned with her car keys, and Ali took her leave. She stopped by the bank and picked up some cash. She had a particular pet charity that she wanted to help along while she was in L.A., and she knew a cash gift would be most welcome.
A little less than an hour after leaving the bank, Ali was past the most worrisome stretch of the Black Canyon Freeway and headed into Scottsdale. At the time she had left her evening news gig in L.A., she had ditched her old newscasting wardrobe and her California persona like a snake shedding a cast-off skin. For as long as she’d been in Sedona, she’d worn her hair in a less than stylish ponytail and limited her wardrobe to what was comfortable—mostly sweatshirts and worn jeans. Now, though, facing courtroom appointments and the prospect of more than a little public notoriety, Ali understood that she needed to dress and look the part. Not only did she pick up several outfits, she stopped into one of Scottsdale’s upscale salons for some much needed pampering, including a haircut along with a spa-style mani/pedi.
Properly attired, coiffed, and accessorized, Ali felt ready to face what she had come to think of as her California ordeal. She headed west in late-afternoon, rush-hour traffic and soon found herself stuck in a jam of speeding eighteen-wheelers, all of them driving blindly but hell-bent-for-election into the setting sun. Tired of trying to stay out of their way, Ali pulled off at the first rest area she saw. There, sitting at a shaded picnic table, she opened her cooler. Not only was her father’s carefully prepared food there, so was a collection of plastic utensils. With noisy traffic rushing by in the background, Ali savored her combination lunch/dinner of fried chicken and honey-slathered biscuits. Then, feeling fatigued and still not wanting to face into the blazing sunset, she returned to the Cayenne, locked the doors, lowered her seat back, and allowed herself the luxury of a nap.
She slept far longer than she expected. It was dark when she woke up, but she felt refreshed. Once back on the road, Ali was relieved to realize that traffic was noticeably lighter, and she was grateful she’d had the good sense to wait out the setting sun rather than driving into it.
Ali realized that that was one of the wonderful things about traveling on her own. She could eat when she was hungry, sleep when she was tired. It wasn’t necessary to take anyone else’s needs, wants, or opinions into consideration. Yes, being back on her own was definitely growing on Ali Reynolds.
She took her mother’s advice to heart. When she stopped for gas in Blythe, she stopped at a roadside restaurant for coffee as well. She was halfway through the second cup when her phone rang.
“Well,” Helga Myerhoff said in her distinctly gruff and smoky voice. “Have we girded our loins?”
Helga, sometimes called Rottweiler Myerhoff, had a not-undeserved reputation for being one of the Hollywood elite’s premier divorce attorneys. With Helga’s help and with the added impetus of Paul wanting a fast divorce as opposed to a cheap one, Ali had a generous divorce settlement coming to her, one that gave her pretty much everything she wanted. Between them Helga and Ali had, in fact, taken Fang to the cleaners.
Ali laughed. “They’re girded, all right. New duds, new haircut, killer nails. Believe me, I’m ready.”
“Good,” Helga said. “And you’re staying at the Westwood on Wilshire?”
“That’s right,” Ali answered. “I’m booked there through Tuesday. Marcella has a wrongful dismissal deposition coming up on either Monday or Tuesday. I’m staying over for that as well.”
Marcella Johnson and Helga both worked for the same high-end legal firm, Weldon, Davis, and Reed, but the two women had wildly divergent styles and areas of expertise. Helga specialized in divorce cases. Marcella focused on employment issues. Ali counted herself fortunate to have not one but two dynamic attorneys on her team.
“Don’t worry about tomorrow,” Helga said. “We’re in good shape on this and I’m pretty sure it’ll go through without a hitch. Still, though, until everything’s signed, sealed, and delivered, our agreement in principle could conceivably go south.”
“Paul won’t let that happen,” Ali said with a laugh. “Not with his shotgun wedding set for Saturday. If something goes wrong with his walking April Gaddis down the aisle, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“You’re all right then?” Helga asked.
Everyone seemed to be concerned about how Ali was holding up through all this. Why didn’t anyone believe her when she said she was fine? She said it again, one more time and for the record.
“I’m fine, Helga. I wish people would stop worrying about me.”
“Getting a divorce is stressful,” Helga said.
“No,” Ali corrected. “Compared to being married to a jerk, getting a divorce is easy.”
“All right,” Helga said. “See you in court, ten A.M. sharp. Judge Alice Tennant is very old-fashioned. She doesn’t brook tardiness from anybody—attorneys or plaintiffs.”
“Ten sharp,” Ali repeated. “I’ll be there.”
Leaving Blythe, Ali turned up the volume on her MP3 player and sang along with the tunes from one musical comedy after another, from A Connecticut Yankee to A Chorus Line. As she drove, only a bare sliver of rising moon was visible in the rearview mirror behind her, but the nighttime sky was clear enough that even by starlight she could see the hulking forms of distant mountain ranges jutting up out of the silvery desert floor.
Crossing into California, Ali felt a strange disconnect. She had gone there years earlier with a new husband and a new job, following what had seemed then to be an American dream. Now, coming back to L.A. for the first time since that dream had exploded in her face, she realized that she was, literally, yesterday’s news. Her job and her connection to her prominent network-exec husband had made her part of the L.A. in crowd. This trip was the exact opposite. As an antidote, she turned up the music even louder.
Sometime around midnight, shortly after passing the exit to Twentynine Palms, Ali saw a whole phalanx of emergency vehicles surging eastbound and toward her on the freeway. Worried that debris from some unseen accident might litter the road ahead, Ali slowed, but then, one by one, the approaching vehicles veered off on what she knew to be the Highway 111 exit angling toward Palm Springs.
The emergency response was so massive that Ali found it worrisome. Wondering if maybe a plane had gone down, Ali turned off her original cast recording of Camelot and scanned through the radio dial until she found one of L.A.’s twenty-four-hour all-news channels. It was another ten minutes, after bits about Iraq and the latest riots in France, before the announcer cut in with a local news flash.
“The Riverside Sheriff’s Department is investigating a possible train/vehicle collision on the eastbound tracks approaching Palm Springs. Emergency vehicles have been dispatched to the area and a CALTrans spokesman is suggesting that the area be avoided until further notice.”
Relieved to hear that whatever was wrong didn’t involve a problem on the freeway, Ali punched the “resume” button on her cruise control and took the Cayenne back up to speed. Then she switched off the news and went back to listening to King Arthur’s bored and disaffected knights singing their rousing rendition of “Fie on Goodness.”
As she drove past the Highway 111 interchange, the emergency vehicles had mostly stopped, forming a long, unbroken string of flashing red and yellow lights that erased the starlight and cast an eerie pulsing glow on the surrounding desert.
Ali drove on, thinking about trains and cars and what happens when one crashes into the other. In her days as a newbie television reporter, Ali had seen plenty of incidents like that, ones where people seemingly determined to opt out of the gene pool had decided, for one incredibly stupid reason or another, to try to outrun a speeding train, leaving behind a trail of bloody carnage and shattered metal. Sometimes the incidents included groups of teenagers playing a deadly game of chicken. Others drove onto the tracks deliberately and with the full intention of ending it all. Regardless of their motivation, the people in the vehicles usually didn’t survive. Sometimes the engineers on the trains didn’t make it out alive, either. The ones who did often lived out their days with a lifelong burden of guilt.
“At least this time it’s got nothing to do with me,” she breathed aloud as she headed west toward Banning and Beaumont and the sprawling city of Los Angeles glowing far in the distance. “And thank God I don’t have to report on it, either.”
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.