J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds Mysteries 3-Book Boxed Set, Volume 1: Web of Evil, Hand of Evil, Cruel Intent (4 page)

What old friends?
Ali wondered. Other than Sister Anne, she didn’t seem to have any real friends waiting for her. The ones she did have were people who were primarily friends of Paul’s. In the aftermath of her blowup with Paul and the abrupt ending to her television career, Ali had been surprised and hurt by the number of people who had simply vanished from her life the moment her face had disappeared from the evening news. It had been hard to accept that people she had considered close friends had been drawn by her celebrity rather than anything else. Coming to terms with the reality of those lost relationships still hurt, but Edie Larson didn’t need to know that.

“Already handled, Mom,” Ali said as airily as she could manage. “Not to worry.”

But it wasn’t. When Ali got off the phone with her mother, she slipped out of her new Nordy’s “court dress” and changed into a T-shirt and jeans. There were, of course, people she could have called, some of whom were bound to be in town. But she didn’t call any of them. There was something so trite and Holly-woody—so whiny and pathetic—about gathering a group of pals around to hold your hand during stalled divorce proceedings that she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead, Ali pulled out her computer and turned to Babe of Yavapai’s new friends—the ones who were only a mouse click away.

CUTLOOSEBLOG.COM
Friday, September 16, 2005

Surprisingly enough it’s more difficult to be cut loose legally than one would think. The divorce that was supposed to be finalized today isn’t because my soon-to-be-former husband was a no-show in court, and our rent-a-judge refused to issue a decree without his being present and accounted for. So here I am stuck in limbo for a little longer. This should all be brought to a conclusion next week, but for now I’m here with time on my hands and not much to do.

In the past I’ve always had work to fall back on. And family responsibilities. But my son is raised now. I no longer have to look after him, and although I’m not entirely finished with him yet, I no longer have a husband to look after, either.

So I’ve decided to treat this like an extended vacation—a vacation in a place where I used to live, but where I was always too busy working to do the things tourists from around the world come here to do. Starting with the Getty. And the La Brea Tar Pits. Who knows? I may even throw over the traces completely and go for a walk on the beach or spend a day at Disneyland.

In other words, blogging will be light for a while for the very good reason that I’m out having fun.

Posted 2:16
P
.
M
., September 16, 2005 by Babe

After that, Ali read through and posted some of the comments that had come in from her readers while she’d been otherwise engaged.

Dear Babe,

I know you’re lawyer said your divorce would be final, but don’t you believe him. Divorces ain’t never final. They can give you a hundred pieces of paper that say your single, but being married don’t just go away because of a piece of paper, especially if you have kids. And I should know. My husband can still drive me crazy even though we’ve been divorced for fifteen years and hes been dead for ten. If I end up still being married to him when I get to heaven, I may just turn around and walk right back out.

L
ILY

The next comment came from one of Ali’s regulars, a widowed longtime fan from California, who wrote cheery little notes every other day or so. Over the months, Ali had come to think of the woman as a friend, despite the fact that they had never met in person.

Dear Babe,

I know this is a tough time for you. I just wanted you to know my thoughts and prayers are with you.

V
ELMA
T
IN
L
AGUNA

Then there was Fred.

What happened to “Whosoever God has joined together let no man put asunder”? No wonder the world is going to hell in a handbasket. First women wanted the Equal Rights Amendment and now they don’t even want to bother with having husbands. And did you ever give any thought as to how you treated your husband and what might have driven him into the arms of another woman? I’m glad I only have sons and no daughters.

F
RED

So am I,
Ali thought. She decided not to post Fred’s comment. Then she changed her mind. She suspected there were a lot of people in the world who shared his opinion and regarded independent women as a direct threat to their manhood and to their very existence. Maybe that was something cutlooseblog needed to bring up as a topic of discussion.

Dear Babe,

My husband did the same thing, married his little cutie two days after our divorce. It didn’t last. Two months later he was back, knocking on my door because she’d thrown him out and begging me to take him back, which I did. He stayed for three more years after that then he left again and now I don’t know where he is. But I know you’re smarter than I am, so if your cheating husband asks you to take him back, whatever you do, don’t.

W
ISER
N
OW

Ali’s phone rang. She recognized the number—the Flagstaff branch of the YWCA. “Hi, Andrea,” Ali said.

Andrea was Andrea Rogers. A year ago, Andrea had been second in command in what was essentially a two-woman nonprofit spearheaded by Ali’s girlhood best friend, Reenie Bernard. Reenie had been the outgoing, fund-raising brains of the outfit, while Andrea had functioned as office manager, keeping the place running smoothly in Reenie’s absence. After Reenie’s tragic murder, it had been Andrea who had tracked down Reenie’s personal effects and, for the benefit of Reenie’s orphaned children, rescued them from the thrift shop where they’d been shipped by Reenie’s less-than-grief-stricken husband.

For Andrea, that one act of kindness on behalf of Reenie’s kids had been the beginning of a new sense of self-confidence and independence. The Flagstaff YWCA had been so much Reenie Bernard’s baby that, in the initial aftermath of her murder, there had been serious talk of shutting the place down, but Andrea in particular had been determined that Reenie’s dream wouldn’t perish with her. Over a period of several months, Andrea had managed to keep the doors open while Ali worked to convince the board of directors that, with a little assistance and encouragement from them, Andrea could be groomed to take over the executive director’s position.

Her official promotion had happened three months ago. The board had hired a new assistant for Andrea, but Andrea had yet to catch on to the fact that she no longer needed to answer the phone herself—which she did most of the time.

Andrea was a plugger. She was dependable. She didn’t have the finesse or the vision of a Reenie Bernard. What she had instead was an absolute devotion to her murdered boss and unbridled enthusiasm about carrying Reenie’s life’s work forward. One way or another, Andrea managed to get things done.

“Is it over then?” Andrea asked.

“‘It’ being the divorce?” Ali asked.

“Of course, the divorce,” Andrea returned. “What else would I be asking about?”

“I’m beginning to wonder if my divorce will ever be over,” Ali replied and went on to repeat the gory details one more time.

“But what if you’re not home in time for the board meeting next Friday?” Andrea asked, as a hint of her old reticence crept into her voice. “I’ve never handled one of those by myself. I’ve always had you there to backstop me.”

“I’ll do what I can to be home by then,” Ali said. “But if I’m not, you’ll be fine. You know more about what’s going on at the YWCA than anyone. You’ll be able to handle it.”

“I hope so,” Andrea said, but she didn’t sound convinced.

Ali was talking on her cell phone. It surprised her when the room phone began to ring. “Sorry, Andrea,” Ali said. “I need to take that.”

“Ms. Reynolds?” a woman’s voice asked.

“Yes.”

“My name is Detective Carolyn Little,” she said. “I’m with the LAPD’s Missing Persons Unit. Mr. Ted Grantham said you were staying at the Westwood, and I took the liberty of calling.”

“About?” Ali asked.

“About your husband.”

“My soon-to-be-former husband,” Ali corrected.

“Are you aware he’s missing?”

“I know he failed to show up in court this morning for our divorce hearing,” Ali answered. “That’s all I know.”

“He’s been reported missing by one April Gaddis.”

“His fiancée,” Ali supplied.

“Yes,” Detective Little answered. “She did mention that she and Mr. Grayson are engaged. It seems he went to a bachelor party last evening and never came home.”

Ali felt like mentioning that for Paul to declare himself a bachelor prior to his divorce being finalized was a bit like putting the cart before the horse, but Detective Little didn’t sound like she had much of a sense of humor.

“When was the last time you saw your husband?” Detective Little asked.

“That would be Friday, March eleventh of this year,” Ali answered at once.

There was a slight pause. “March eleventh? That’s a long time ago—six months, but you still remember the exact date?”

“And the exact time,” Ali responded. “I had just lost my job. I came home, expecting some sympathy from my husband, but in our house, you find sympathy in the dictionary between ‘shit’ and ‘syphilis.’ He took off with his girlfriend bright and early the next morning before I even woke up.”

The “‘shit’ and ‘syphilis’” reference was one of her father’s more colorful expressions, one that was guaranteed to send Bob Larson’s wife into a spasm. Even Carolyn Little chuckled a little at that, so the woman wasn’t entirely devoid of humor.

“This same girlfriend?” the detective added. “The fiancée?”

“Yes,” Ali agreed. “That would be the one—the same one who’s expecting his baby.”

“And you came to town when?”

“Last night,” Ali said. “I drove over from Sedona yesterday afternoon. I got a late start. It was almost two in the morning before I finished checking in.”

“And you’re here until?”

“Paul and I have another court date scheduled for next week.”

“On Thursday,” Little said. Obviously she had already acquired the information from Ted Grantham. “And you’ll be staying at the Westwood? And is there another number in case I need to reach you again?”

It had been six months since Ali had seen Paul Grayson, and she didn’t see why the Missing Persons Unit would need to speak to her again, but she gave the detective her cell phone number all the same.

As Ali ended the call with Detective Little, she was already groping for the television remote. Within minutes of turning on the set she located a news tease from Annette Carrera, Ali Reynolds’s blond, blue-eyed, surgically enhanced news anchor successor. The promo was already in progress when Ali tuned in: “…network executive who disappeared from his bachelor party last night. We’ll have the story for you live on the evening news.”

Carrera! Ali had to give credit to whoever had dreamed up that name. It was calculated to be high-toned enough to appeal to L.A.’s Porsche-craving yuppies, but it also sounded vaguely Hispanic—if you didn’t look too closely at the blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. In Ali’s not-unbiased opinion, Annette was far too young and far too perky. Her hair looked as if she had stuck her finger in an electrical outlet and then moussed the resulting hairdo into a froth of permanent peaks—like whipped cream beaten to a turn.

Disgusted at the idea of having to wait another two hours to glean any additional details, Ali reached for her computer, intent on surfing the Net to track down a breaking-news Web site. As she touched the keyboard, though, she heard a new-mail alert. She paused long enough to read the new message.

Dear Babe,

I just saw a news blurb on your old channel. I’ve gone back to watching them even though I hate that new Annette person. Anyway, it said a man named Paul Grayson, some network bigwig, is missing. I seem to remember that was your husband’s name. So is this your Paul Grayson or is it just someone with the same name?

V
ELMA
T
IN
L
AGUNA

No matter who he is, he isn’t my Paul Grayson,
Ali thought, but she sent Velma an immediate response.

Dear Velma,

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. The missing man most likely is “my” Paul Grayson. Once I have more details on the situation, I’ll try to let you know.

B
ABE

{ CHAPTER 3 }

F
or the next while, Ali surfed the Net. Her years in L.A. had taught her that Southern California news outlets had an insatiable appetite for anything involving the entertainment industry—movies or television. Paul Grayson was high enough up the network food chain that it wasn’t long before Ali found what she was looking for, even though it offered little more information than she had gleaned from the earlier news promo.

NBC EXEC MISSING

Paul Grayson, long considered NBC’s West Coast go-to guy, has gone missing after an early and abrupt departure from his own bachelor party at the stylish Pink Swan on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. His red Porsche Carrera was found stripped and abandoned in an apartment parking lot in Banning early this afternoon.

There it was again. Everybody seemed free to refer to Paul as a bachelor, despite the inconvenient fact that he was still legally married—to Ali. And what exactly was this “stylish” Pink Swan? Probably some cheesy strip joint or pole-dancing outfit. Whatever it was, the name sounded suitably sleazy. The next paragraph, however, shook her.

A spokesman for LAPD’s Missing Persons Unit said they have reason to believe that Mr. Grayson has been the victim of foul play.

“Foul play.” Ali repeated the words aloud. The very possibility that Paul had been victimized made Ali’s earlier conversation with Detective Little seem much more ominous.

Jake Maxwell, who co-hosted the bachelor party, said the guest of honor departed early on in the proceedings. “Somewhere around ten or so, Paul went outside to take a phone call and didn’t come back. Everyone was having a good time. It was a while before anyone noticed that he hadn’t returned.”

Because everyone was too blasted to notice,
Ali thought. The news item ended. For several long minutes afterward, Ali wondered what, if anything, she should do. Finally, however, it seemed reasonable to let her divorce attorney know that Paul had now been declared a missing person. Ali picked up her cell phone and dialed Helga Myerhoff’s number.

“What’s up?” Helga asked.

“I thought you should know Paul didn’t just miss his court appearance this morning,” Ali told her attorney. “He disappeared from what they’re calling his ‘bachelor party’ last night. There’s some suspicion that foul play may be involved. His Carrera was found abandoned in an apartment house parking lot in Banning this afternoon.”

Helga was all business. “How did you find this out?”

“Part of it I learned just now from reading a breaking-news Web site. The rest of it, though, came from a phone call from Detective Carolyn Little of the LAPD Missing Persons Unit.”

“Why did she call you?” Helga asked. “And, beyond that, how did she even know to call you?”

“Since I hadn’t seen Paul in more than six months, I thought it was odd that she’d be asking me for information, but Ted Grantham evidently told the detective I was in town and where I was staying.”

Ali heard a slight rustling on the phone and could picture Helga standing behind her desk and squaring her shoulders, bristling to her diminutive but tough-as-nails five foot two. “What exactly did this detective say? And what’s her name again?”

“Detective Carolyn Little, LAPD Missing Persons. She asked when I had arrived, why I was here, where I was staying, when did I last see Paul. All the usual stuff, I guess.”

“Did she mention the possibility that you might be under any kind of suspicion?”

The severity of Helga’s tone put Ali on edge and made her wonder if perhaps Detective Little’s questions weren’t quite so “usual” after all.

“Me?” Ali demanded, dumbfounded. “Why on earth would I be a suspect?”

“Has Paul changed his will?” Helga asked.

“I have no idea about that,” Ali said. “We’re getting a divorce, remember? I’ve rewritten my will so Chris is my primary beneficiary in case anything happens to me. I would assume Paul has done the same thing in favor of April and her baby.”

“Not necessarily,” Helga mused. “In my experience, men often put off handling those pesky little details.”

“What are you saying?” Ali asked.

“Let’s assume the worst,” Helga said. “Let’s say Paul Grayson turns up dead, a victim of some kind of foul play. If you and he aren’t divorced—and you’re not—and if, by some chance, his will hasn’t been rewritten, it’s likely you’ll make out far better as a widow than you would have as a divorcée. From an investigative point of view and considering the dollar amounts involved, that might well put you at the top of the suspect list in a murder-for-profit scheme.”

“Me?” Ali asked. “How is that possible? I had nothing to do with any of this—nothing at all. Besides, at the time Paul disappeared from his so-called bachelor party, I was out in the middle of the desert, somewhere this side of Blythe.”

“Let’s don’t push panic buttons then,” Helga reassured her. “We’ll just sit back and see what happens. But, in the meantime, don’t talk to any more detectives without having your attorney present.”

“My attorney,” Ali repeated. “You mean you?”

“No. Not me. I do divorces. I don’t do criminal law,” Helga continued. “That’s a whole other can of worms. Not to worry, though. Weldon, Davis, and Reed has several top-drawer criminal attorneys on staff. I’ll get a recommendation and have one of them be in touch with you.”

Great,
Ali thought.
Just what I need. Another frigging attorney!

Once she was off the phone, Ali paced for a while. Finally, she lay down on the floor and forced herself to do some relaxation exercises. After settling some of her agitation, she climbed up on the bed. She never expected to fall asleep, but she did, waking just in time to switch on the local news. Out of force of habit, she turned once again to her old station.

Of course, the amazingly perky and spike-haired Annette Carrera was front and center, but so was the rest of the old news gang. The foppish Randall James, still wearing his appallingly awful wig, continued on as co-anchor. There, too, was Axel Rod-bury, who, false teeth and all, had to be older than God. If Ali was considered over the hill, why wasn’t he? And there was Bill Nickels, too, the leering and always overly enthusiastic sportscaster. Ali had wanted to smack the smug grin off his face for years, especially after hearing rumors that, when it came to student interns, Mr. Sports Guy had a tendency to try for a home run.

Ali had steeled herself for the ordeal, expecting that seeing her old colleagues gathered in the familiar confines of the newsroom set would hit her with some sense of loss. But as the quartet yucked it up in the required and supposedly unscripted pre-newscast lead-in, Ali wasn’t at all surprised to see that Bill Nickels and Annette seemed to have an especially chummy relationship.

Don’t you have brains enough to aim a little higher than that?
Ali thought.
Not that aiming higher did me any good.

Beyond that, though, she felt nothing at all. Nothing. Her leaving may not have been of Ali Reynolds’s own volition, but as it turned out, she really had moved on. Whatever had happened, she was over it—except for her wrongful dismissal lawsuit. She wasn’t over that—not by a long shot.

The lead story, introduced by Annette herself, had to do with Paul Grayson’s disappearance. This was, after all, the NBC affiliate, and Grayson was a high-profile NBC bigwig. A young female reporter—one Ali had never seen before—delivered a brief story filmed in front of the gated entrance to the house on Robert Lane. That, Ali knew, would send Paul utterly ballistic once he got wind of it. Having your front gate identified on television news for all the world to see was not good from a security standpoint.

The second, related segment, done by a roving reporter, was filmed in the paved parking lot of a less than desirable apartment complex somewhere in Banning. Of course, by the time the filming occurred, Paul’s Arena Red 911 had already been towed away. Yellow crime scene tape was still visible but the vehicle wasn’t, as the reporter earnestly let viewers know that this was where Paul Grayson’s abandoned Porsche had been found early in the afternoon.

By the time the two segments were over almost three minutes of news time had elapsed and Ali had learned almost nothing she hadn’t known before from simply surfing the Net.

“Useless,” Ali muttered under her breath. She was close to changing the channel when part of a story Randall James was relating penetrated her consciousness. This one concerned an unidentified man found dead in the desert late Thursday night in the aftermath of a fatal train/vehicle collision that had occurred northwest of Palm Springs. Since Ali had been in such proximity to the incident when it happened, she stayed tuned to see the remainder of the piece.

The smiling faces on the tube, reading blandly from their teleprompters, didn’t seem to make any connection between that case and the one they had reported on two stories before, and why should they? After all, they were paid to read what was given to them—stories that had already been written and edited by someone else. Connecting dots was never a required part of the news desk equation.

But Ali’s life had undergone a fundamental change months earlier when she had started trying to piece together the details that would explain the sudden death of her friend Reenie Bernard. And now, this newly reconstituted Ali Reynolds was incapable of
not
connecting dots, especially when they were this obvious.

The body of an unidentified man found outside Palm Springs? Paul’s abandoned vehicle located in a parking lot somewhere in Banning, ten or fifteen miles away? Without knowing how, Ali understood immediately that the two incidents were connected. She knew in her bones that the dead man found near Palm Springs had to be Paul. The only remaining question was, how long would it take for someone else to figure it out?

The answer to that question wasn’t long in coming. Before Axel could launch into his weather report, there was a sharp rap on Ali’s door.

“Who is it?” she asked, peering out through the security peephole. Two men wearing white shirts, ties, and sports jackets stood in the hall. One was white and older—mid-fifties—with a bad comb-over and the thick neck of an aging football player. The other was younger—mid-thirties, black, with a shaved head and the straight-shouldered bearing of an ex-Marine.

“Police,” the older one said, holding up a wallet that contained a badge and photo ID. “Detectives Sims and Taylor, Riverside Sheriff’s Department. We need to speak to you about your husband.”

Helga Myerhoff’s warning should have been uppermost in Ali’s head, but it wasn’t. Shaken by her sudden realization that Paul really was dead, she unfastened the security chain and opened the door.

“Is he dead?” she asked.

“He may be,” Detective Sims, the older one, said. “That’s why we need to speak with you. May we come in?”

Ali opened the door and allowed the two men into her room. Their looming presence combined with the weight of the news they carried filled what had previously seemed to be a spacious room. Ali retreated to a nearby chair. The detectives remained standing.

Ali’s mind raced. She remembered the desolate desert, the darkness, the flashing emergency lights. She had driven Highway 111 into Palm Springs numerous times. She remembered the tracks running alongside the roadway. On the other side of the tracks was nothing—only desert. There was no reason to cross the tracks there, unless…

“This is about that car that got run over by the train last night, isn’t it?” she said. “What happened? Did Paul commit suicide?”

The two detectives exchanged glances. “You’re aware of the incident then?” Detective Sims asked.

“The incident with the train?” Ali asked. “Sure. It was on the news just now. So was the story about Paul. When I saw that his Porsche had been found stripped and abandoned in a parking lot in Banning, I put two and two together.”

“That’s what we’re doing, too,” Detective Taylor said, “putting two and two together. We have an unidentified victim we
believe
to be your husband, but we’re not sure. Detective Little from LAPD told us where to find you. We need someone to do a positive ID.”

“I’ll get my purse,” Ali said, standing up. “Where do you want me to go?”

“To the morgue,” Sims said quickly. “In Indio.”

“But that’s hours from here, on the far side of Palm Springs.”

“Riverside is a big county,” Taylor returned. “That’s where they’ve taken the body. But don’t worry about how far it is. We’ll be glad to take you over and bring you back. It’s the least we can do.”

Ali’s purse was on the desk. Her Glock 26 was locked away in her room safe. She had left it there that morning when she was on her way to court, and she was glad it was still there. Even though she had a properly issued license to carry, it was probably not a good idea to show up in a cop car with a loaded handgun in her possession. Ali collected her purse and her cell phone.

“Let’s go then,” she said.

People glanced warily at the trio as they walked through the Westwood’s well-appointed lobby. Ali was in the middle with the two cops flanking her on either side. Detectives Sims and Taylor may not have been in uniform, but they were still clearly cops. Outside, the real giveaway was the plain white, well-used Crown Victoria parked directly in front of the hotel entrance. Sporting a rack of two-way-radio antennas and black-wall tires, the Crown Victoria stuck out like a sore thumb next to its nearest neighbors—a silver Maserati Quattroporte and a gleaming black Bentley GT.

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