J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds Mysteries 3-Book Boxed Set, Volume 1: Web of Evil, Hand of Evil, Cruel Intent (2 page)

{ CHAPTER 1 }

CUTLOOSEBLOG.COM
Thursday, September 15, 2005

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?”

“I promise.”

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.

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