J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds Mysteries 3-Book Boxed Set, Volume 1: Web of Evil, Hand of Evil, Cruel Intent (55 page)

Ali’s helper stepped into the waiting room, carrying Jason’s bag. The killer’s gun, at the end of a fully extended arm, appeared next. Taking aim from that, Ali waited for one more fraction of a second before squeezing off a shot. The bullet hit Jason square in the chest. He grunted with surprise but he didn’t go down. The force of the blow knocked the wind out of him. He dropped the .38. It went spinning away from him and came to rest under the chair where Crystal had been sleeping minutes earlier.

After what seemed like only a moment, Jason seemed to catch his balance. He came roaring back into the waiting room, pausing in the doorway, clutching his chest, and looking for his weapon—looking for any weapon.

I hit him!
Ali thought desperately.
Why the hell isn’t he dead?

That’s when she realized that he had come to the hospital fully prepared for a shoot-out, carrying weapons and wearing a Kevlar vest.

He turned on her then, holding out his hand. “Give it to me,” he demanded. “Give me that gun.”

There were noises out in the hallway now, running footsteps, voices shouting. But before any of the arriving cops made it to the doorway, something else happened. Moving faster than Ali would have thought possible, the old man—the paunchy, out-of-shape old man—turned on Jason Gustavson and head-butted him back out into the hallway where he came to rest against the far wall.

“Get down,” one of the cops shouted unnecessarily. “On your stomach. Hands behind your head.”

Ali hurried over to her rescuer who, still gripping Jason’s computer bag, stood in the doorway and stared out into the hall. Then he limped across the room and put the bag down on what had been Crystal’s chair.

His face was bright red. He was breathing heavily, and his hair was still standing on end, but he was grinning from ear to ear.

“Are you all right?” Ali asked.

“Hurt my leg when I tackled him,” he muttered. “But damned straight I’m all right! Those vests may be bulletproof, but they sure as hell ain’t headproof. Not by a long shot!”

With chaos still reigning in the hallway behind him, the man wrapped his pudgy arms around Ali’s body and held her close. Hugging him back, Ali realized that right that moment, this unassuming, quiet man with his dying son had become her greatest hero. He had come to her rescue when there was no one else to step up. Ali had no doubt that his actions had saved her life and probably several others as well—and she didn’t even know his name.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.”

He gave her another squeeze. “You’re welcome,” he said. “It’s nice to do something useful for a change.”

The next several minutes were frenetic. While the cops handcuffed Jason, someone removed the makeshift barricade that had temporarily barred the way into the ICU. When the swinging doors opened, the lady with the knitting needles shot out through them. She bodily booted Ali out of the way and fell into her ex-husband’s arms.

“Bernie, Bernie, Bernie,” she murmured. “How could you do something so stupid and wonderful at the same time? How could you? There’s a security monitor in the nurse’s station. We saw the whole thing. It’s a miracle you weren’t killed.”

When Crystal emerged, she was crying. “Thank you,” she said, giving Ali a shy hug. “If it hadn’t been for you…” She shuddered and fell silent.

“It’s all right,” Ali said. “They’ve got him now. He won’t be able to come after you again.”

Except it turned out that wasn’t true.

A uniformed cop had just approached Bernie and, with a latex glove-covered hand, tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me, Mr. Bernstein,” the cop said, pointing. “Is that Mr. Gustavson’s suitcase…computer case?”

Bernstein. That was the first Ali remembered hearing Bernie’s last name, but it was one she would never forget.

With some difficulty, Bernie extricated himself from his former wife’s fierce embrace long enough to nod in the direction of the chair. “That’s it,” he said. “I put it down over there to keep it out of the way.”

From the moment Jason Gustavson had moved the computer case to reveal his .38, Ali had assumed the case had held an arsenal of reserve weapons. It seemed likely the cops were of the same opinion. Ali watched as the young uniformed officer went over to the chair, picked up the computer case, and opened the zipper. She also saw the look of horror that washed across his face when he saw what was inside. Moments later the whole east wing of St. Francis Hospital was being evacuated.

As they were hustled out of the waiting room toward the emergency exit, Ali managed to grab her own computer from the chair where she’d left it earlier. On the way down the hallway, she heard her cell phone ringing. The phone was still in her purse, which she had inadvertently dropped in the hallway during the confrontation. She made no effort to retrieve either the purse or the phone. Those as well as her Glock were now part of a crime scene investigation. She knew from past experience that it could take weeks if not months to regain her property from evidence impounds.

As patients, visitors, and workers alike were being herded outside and away from the building, the bomb squad van arrived along with a phalanx of ambulances and aid cars. Those were lined up outside the ER doors and were used to transport the hospital’s most seriously ill patients—Kip Hogan and Danny Bernstein among them—to other facilities. Meanwhile everyone else gathered in anxious groups where, dazed and shivering from fear as much as cold, they tried to make sense of what had happened while a collection of news helicopters clattered noisily overhead.

For more than an hour, they stood outside, waiting for an explosion that never came. Finally the bomb squad, still wearing protective gear, emerged from the hospital and put something in their armor-plated van. As they drove away, the people outside applauded ecstatically.

Caught up in the emergency evacuation, there had been no time for investigators to take statements from anyone. Instead, they placed Ali and the others under the watchful eye of uniformed officers.

Standing in the dazed crowd, waiting to be interviewed, Ali knew that sooner or later someone from the media would pick up on her involvement in the situation. When that happened, there would be all kinds of unwanted attention. The same would be true for Bernie Bernstein as well. For the moment, Ali reveled in her anonymity. She wasn’t dead. Neither was Crystal or anyone else for that matter, and for that Ali Reynolds was incredibly grateful.

Jane Braeton came by and sought Ali out. “They’ve trans-ported Kip to Phoenix Providence,” she said. “I have Elizabeth and Sandy in my car. I’m going to drop Sandy off with Kip and take Elizabeth back home. This has been a very long night for her. She’s tired. It’s all been too much.”

Ali nodded. “I’m sure it has.”

“But she needed to be here,” Jane added. “She wanted to be here. It’s an answer to thirty years of prayers. So, thank you, Ali. Thank you for everything. You go, girl.”

With that Jane Braeton disappeared into the crowd. Watching her walk away, Ali was amazed by the difference those few critical hours had made.

Moments later, Crystal sidled up to Ali. “Can we go sit in the car, please?” she asked. “I’m freezing.”

Ali put one arm around the girl’s shoulder. She was shaking convulsively. Her teeth were chattering.

“Of course,” Ali said. “Come on.”

After telling the watching cop where investigators could find them, Ali and Crystal made their way through the crowd to the parking structure, where they walked up the stairs to the Cayenne parked on the second level. With her shoulder aching from the added weight, Ali was happy to unload her laptop. Once in the car, she started the engine and activated the heated seats.

“You saved all of us tonight,” Crystal said thoughtfully a short while later. “If it hadn’t been for you and that old man, I’d probably be dead by now. So would Kip and Sandy.”

“Bernie,” Ali interjected. “The old man’s name is Bernie Bernstein, and you’re probably right. What he did made all the difference.”

“I heard two of the nurses talking,” Crystal mused. “Bernie’s son, Danny—the one who was in the motorcycle wreck?”

Ali nodded.

“They said Danny probably isn’t going to make it, but his father helped us anyway. He helped you. How come?”

Ali shrugged. “Because he wanted to, I guess,” she said. “He thought it was important, thought it would make a difference.”

“And why did you do it?” Crystal asked.

Ali considered for a moment before she answered. “Because I could,” she said finally. “Because I didn’t think anyone else would.”

“When I was watching, when he was pointing the gun at you, I kept thinking that if you died, it would be my fault, just like it’s my fault Coach Curt is dead.”

The events of the evening seemed to have made an impression on the girl. She was far more subdued. As a consequence, Ali hoped that Crystal might be in a place where she’d be willing to listen to reason.

“What happened isn’t your fault,” Ali told her. “Yes, you and Curt Uttley were both in the wrong place at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons, but Jason is the one who murdered Curt, not you. And I’m sorry Curt’s dead, but since he was a pedophile who went prowling the Internet looking for young women to prey upon, he wasn’t exactly blameless.”

“But he didn’t deserve to die,” Crystal protested.

“You’re right. If he’d been arrested for child molestation or statutory rape, he probably would have gone to prison. What he did to you wasn’t a capital offense, but men like that do deserve to be in jail, Crystal. It’s against the law,” Ali added.

Crystal’s phone rang. “Hi, Daddy,” she said in a voice that was choked with emotion. “Yes, I’m okay. I’m with Ali. It was cold, so we’re sitting in her car in the parking garage. Yes, I love you, too. Do you want to talk to her? Here she is.”

Crystal handed the phone to Ali. “Thank God you’re both safe!” Dave exclaimed. “I’ve been worried sick. I’ve been trying to get through to you, but the circuits are busy. Why don’t you answer your damned phone? You need to call your parents. Your dad managed to get through to me. He heard about what happened at the hospital and he’s frantic.”

“I can’t call anyone,” Ali said. “I lost my phone.”

“Lost it. Where?”

“It was in my purse. I dropped it during the struggle out in the hallway—a hallway that’s now a crime scene. My purse and phone—and my driver’s license, most likely—are all in some crime scene investigator’s evidence bag. At least I had my car keys in my pocket and not in my purse. Where are you?”

“Seventh and Thomas,” Dave said. “I’ve been on my way for the better part of an hour—ever since you hung up on me. But with all the emergency vehicles, traffic’s a mess. I could probably get there faster if I just parked the car and got out and walked. Have they interviewed you yet?”

“Not so far. They’re too busy with the bomb squad.”

“And you shot the guy?”

“Tried to,” Ali replied. “He was wearing a vest.”

“More’s the pity,” Dave said.

“If the third victim in that house fire wasn’t Jason, who was it?” Ali asked.

“We still don’t know about that,” Dave answered. “Since Jason’s vehicle was there and so was Uttley’s we assumed…”

“Did Jason have a job?” Ali asked.

“A job? Are you kidding? Not as far as I know. He’s a playboy kind of student who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and goes through life with a Platinum AmEx in his pocket. I doubt he’s ever done an honest day’s work in his life. Why?”

“Because when I saw him, Jason was wearing a Roto-Rooter shirt—a uniform shirt.”

“You say Roto-Rooter—as in stopped drains? Let me get back to you on that,” Dave said.

Ali closed the phone and gave it to Crystal.

“Is my dad coming?” Crystal asked.

“He’s trying to,” Ali said. “He’ll be here soon, but traffic’s not helping.”

“At least he’s coming,” Crystal murmured. “I’m glad.”

“I need to call Chris and my parents,” Ali said. “Can I use your phone for a few minutes?”

“Sure,” Crystal said, handing it back. “They’re probably really worried.”

Crystal Holman had done yet another about-face. When it came to dealing with teenagers, it was getting harder and harder for Ali Reynolds to keep score.

{
CHAPTER
14 }

I
t was almost 4
A.M.
before Ali finally left the grounds and headed home. By then many of the displaced patients were being readmitted to St. Francis.

She should have been sleepy, but she wasn’t. After everything that had happened, Ali wasn’t sure she’d ever sleep again. The preliminary interview had lasted until well after three, but the detectives had cautioned that there’d probably be more to come at a later date.

For Ali, the best part about leaving the scene at that late hour meant that the crisis was pretty much over and most of the media folks had disappeared hours earlier. In other words, although Ali Reynolds’s name would no doubt be mentioned in reporting on the incident, her photo would be mercifully absent.

On the drive back to Sedona, Ali mulled over everything she had learned. Yes, she had shot a man—she had tried to shoot him, that is. And yes, if he hadn’t been wearing a bullet-resistant vest, she probably would have killed Jason Gustavson. If that had happened, maybe Ali would have been sorry, but she doubted it. At this moment, instead of being dead, he was now being held in the Maricopa County jail, where he was expected to be charged with several counts of homicide and several more of attempted homicide.

It was chilling to think that this privileged young man had somehow turned into a murderous monster who had taken the lives of both friends and strangers with zero compunction. One of his presumed victims was a Roto-Rooter plumber named Tom Melman, now declared missing. The married father of two had been dispatched to Gustavson’s Tempe house earlier that afternoon to install a new toilet. His missing company van had been traced to the parking garage at St. Francis Hospital, where it had been found in a space only a few slots away from Ali’s Cayenne.

“So you’re saying he followed me here?” Ali had asked the detective.

He nodded. “Looks that way—followed you into the garage at least.”

“But how did he know it was me? How did he know I was driving a Cayenne?”

“Jason has a girlfriend who works Records for Maricopa County. When she heard he was possibly involved in the hospital situation, she came forward and spoke to her supervisor, and believe me, she will be dealt with. He evidently called her earlier this afternoon requesting information about you. He claimed it was for a friend who had seen you and was hoping to hook up.”

“How did he get my name?”

“He didn’t have your name. We’re theorizing he must have noticed you following him home from Phoenix earlier. All he had when he called in was a partial plate number.”

That was the whole problem with living in the information age, Ali decided. If critical information ended up in the wrong hands, it could do incredible damage. But of course, she and Dave had been doing exactly the same thing—trying to locate Curtis Uttley. It seemed best not to mention that.

By the time Ali turned off I-17 and headed toward Sedona, she was back to thinking about Arabella Ashcroft’s diary. Nothing in it had been even obliquely worthy of blackmail, yet Ali was convinced that there was some connection between what had been written in the book and the fact that Billy Ashcroft was now dead. But what was Ali’s responsibility in this regard? She had raised hell with Crystal for not stepping forward and sharing vital information with the authorities after the vicious attack on Kip and the kidnapping of Curt Uttley. If Ali had reason to believe Billy’s failed extortion scheme had something to do with his death, didn’t she have a moral obligation to come forward as well?

But for the time being, the whole question was moot since Arabella’s diary had been collected along with all the other hallway debris as part of a major crime scene investigation.

Once back home Ali entered her bedroom and found Sam curled in regal splendor on her pillow. When the bedside lamp came on, the cat decamped at once, however, hopping off the bed with an annoyed huff and stalking away as if to say Ali had been out past her curfew and was now persona non grata in her own bed.

“Hey,” Ali called after her. “Come back. It isn’t my fault I’m so late.”

But Sam wasn’t interested in doling out forgiveness. Giving up on the cat, Ali crawled into bed, where she fell into a deep, dreamless slumber. It was after eleven when she finally staggered out to the kitchen the next morning. Even in its thermal carafe, the coffee Chris had made before he left for school was dead cold when Ali tasted it. She’d had nothing at all to drink the night before—except for far too much coffee and cocoa, which hadn’t kept her awake. Even so she felt groggy and tired and nowhere near ready for the onslaught of attention she knew was likely once her connection to the St. Francis Hospital incident was made public.

Determined to have a robe day, Ali went to make a new pot of coffee. There she found the note Chris had left for her on the counter.

“Welcome home. I know you got in very late. I pulled the phone jack out of the wall so you could sleep. Love, Chris.”

Grateful that her son was so thoughtful, Ali plugged in the phone. Immediately it began to ring.

“You’re awake then,” Edie Larson said. “I’ve been trying to call you off and on all morning.”

“What’s going on?”

“Kip didn’t make it,” Edie said. “Sandy Mitchell just called. She and Kip’s mother…How did they ever find his mother, by the way? Anyway, the two of them were both there with him a little while ago this morning when they took him off life support.”

“I’m so sorry,” Ali murmured.

“I am, too,” Edie agreed. “And your father’s really broken up about it. It gave Dad a lot of satisfaction to think he had helped Kip back from the edge. Now it’s all for nothing.”

Ali thought about the look on Elizabeth Hogan’s face as Jane Braeton had wheeled her into the ICU.

Not for nothing
, Ali thought.
But too little too late.

“Anyway,” Edie continued, “Bobby just went home to shower, then he’ll head down to Phoenix to bring Sandy home. Did Dave reach you?”

“No.”

“He called here a little while ago. He was on his way back to Prescott to testify in that trial. He said to tell you that Crystal’s at home sleeping, and Roxie’s supposedly coming down from Vegas later today to pick her up. Crystal wasn’t a problem when she was here at the restaurant, but from what I’m hearing about everything that’s gone on the past few days, it sounds like she’s a kid who could use some serious counseling.”

Edie Lawson’s instinctive diagnosis of Crystal Holman’s mental issues had Ali’s wholesale agreement, although she had no intention of going into any of the particulars. All Ali said was, “Yes, I think counseling is definitely in order.”

During their conversation Ali’s call-waiting signal had buzzed several times. Those had been easy to ignore. Now though, when someone rang the doorbell, Ali ended the call. While Sam scampered for the nearest hiding place, Ali pulled her robe tight around her and went to answer. Arabella Ashcroft’s butler, Leland Brooks, stood on Ali’s front porch while the yellow Rolls-Royce idled in the driveway.

“So sorry to disturb you, madam,” Mr. Brooks said through the screen when Ali opened the inside door. “Miss Arabella was most interested in being in touch with you this morning. Something about a borrowed book, I believe. She’s been calling to ask about it, but your telephone seems to be out of order and your cell phone keeps going to voice mail.”

On the way home from Phoenix Ali had struggled with what she should do. She knew she would most likely call someone down in Phoenix to report her suspicions, but not until after she’d had at least one cup of coffee.

“I’m so sorry,” Ali told the waiting butler. “I don’t have access to Miss Ashcroft’s book right now. I can’t answer my cell phone since I had to leave it down in Phoenix last night.”

Mr. Brooks glanced warily over his shoulder in the direction of the Rolls.

“Is she with you?” Ali asked.

He nodded. “I’m afraid so,” he said. “As I said, she’s rather upset about this. I’ll be glad to relay the information, however.”

Clad in only a bathrobe with her hair a mess and no makeup on, Ali was hardly in any condition to receive guests—especially guests who were accustomed to entertaining in the manner Arabella Ashcroft did. Still, Ali felt an obligation to give the woman the bad news about the missing diary in person.

“No,” Ali said. “I’m not exactly prepared for company, but I’m the one who should tell her what happened to it. Please ask her to come in, Mr. Brooks.”

The butler bowed. “Of course, madam,” he said. “I shall extend your invitation.”

While he was gone, Ali hurriedly swiped all the loose papers off both the dining room table and the coffee table. She stowed those and the computer in her bedroom. By the time she emerged, Mr. Brooks had ushered Arabella to the front door. She didn’t look nearly as put together as she had the other day. She seemed anxious and ill at ease. The butler handed her off to Ali and then returned to the waiting Rolls. Arabella allowed herself to be led inside. When she spoke, though, she sounded like her old self.

“You’re most gracious to invite me in this way,” Arabella said. “I shouldn’t have come. It’s quite rude to show up unannounced like this. I’ve never done it before—ever.”

“It’s fine,” Ali assured her. “Please do come in. I’m sorry you weren’t able to reach me by phone. As I told Mr. Brooks, I ended up leaving my cell phone down in Phoenix last night. My landline is back in service now, but it was temporarily out of order.”

Once seated on the couch, Arabella glanced curiously around the room. “Evie always said she was going to buy a mobile home,” she remarked. “I must say, it looks quite solid and not the least bit mobile.”

Ali laughed. “Mobile homes should probably just be called manufactured homes. Most are only mobile until they’re delivered,” she explained. “Once they’ve been set up on a slab or a foundation, they usually stay put.”

“Barring tornadoes or hurricanes,” Arabella said.

“Yes,” Ali agreed. “Barring those. Now how do you take your coffee—black, cream and sugar?”

“Black by all means,” Arabella said.

Ali went out into the kitchen. As she filled coffee mugs and set them on a tray, she wrestled with how best to break the bad news. In the end Arabella beat her to the punch.

“Where is my diary?” she asked as Ali carried the coffee into the living room. “I must have it back.”

“Arabella,” Ali said. “I’m so sorry. I don’t have it.”

“You don’t have it!” Arabella exclaimed. “What do you mean? Surely you haven’t lost it!”

Ali set the tray on the table. “It isn’t lost,” she said soothingly. “But I don’t have it here. There was a problem in Phoenix last night—at one of the hospitals. You may have seen it on the news. I was there, and, as it happens, so was the diary. It was in my purse. I lost my purse in all the confusion. I’m sure the police have the purse and the diary, too.”

“How could you be so careless!” Arabella declared angrily. “I want it back, and I want it back today!”

Arabella’s abrupt change of mood took Ali by surprise. Surely this wasn’t that big a deal. The diary had been under wraps for more than half a century. Why was it so essential that she have it back immediately?

“Please, Arabella,” Ali continued hurriedly. “I didn’t do it on purpose. My purse, my cell phone, and your diary were picked up during the evidence sweep. I’m sure they’ll all be returned in good time. Besides, when you gave it to me the other day, it didn’t seem like you were in that big a hurry. I was under the impression that I could read it at my leisure.”

“Did you read it?” Arabella asked sharply.

“Yes.”

“I hoped you wouldn’t. I told you not to.”

“I thought I was supposed to read it so I could help you decide about the book you’re writing.”

“I’m not writing a book,” Arabella said at once. “I’ve changed my mind about that, too.”

“Why?” Ali asked. “What changed your mind? What’s going on?”

“I want my diary back. How can that be so difficult to understand?”

“Have the police talked to you about what happened to your nephew?”

“Two very nice detectives from Phoenix came to notify me that Billy was dead,” Arabella said, softening a little. “Yesterday, I think it was, or maybe the day before.”

“And did you tell them what was going on between the two of you?”

“I told them Billy wanted to do a reverse mortgage for me. Once I had time to think it over, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea.”

“Wait a minute,” Ali objected. “You told me the other day that Billy threatened you; that he was going to try to have you declared incompetent and put away somewhere.”

“He wouldn’t have,” Arabella said. “He’d never do such a dreadful thing.”

Of course not,
Ali thought.
Especially if he’s dead.

“The cops need to know what was going on between the two of you,” Ali said aloud. “And I’m going to tell them.”

Arabella looked at Ali in dismay. “The things I said to you were relayed in the strictest confidence.”

“You may have thought it was in confidence, but I’m not an attorney,” Ali said. “There’s no attorney/client privilege when you talk to me, and no expectation of privacy, either. Concealing information in a homicide investigation is a felony.”

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