Even for June, it was ungodly hot as Gemma Ralston pulled into a nearly deserted parking lot and slid her Mercedes SLK into a spot just in front of the brick-and-mortar offices of Video-Glam. Despite the name, Video-Glam appeared to be anything but glamorous. The office was located in a mostly dead and partly repurposed strip mall at Indian School and Forty-third Avenue. Video-Glam occupied a single storefront at one end of the complex. At the other end, two units had been combined to serve as a Spanish-language Baptist church. In between were three empty units, their boarded-up windows a colorful catalog of three-foot-high graffiti.
For a moment, Gemma sat in her car with the engine running, wondering if she wanted to bother going inside. From the outside, it didn’t look the least bit promising, even though the membership consultant at Hearts Afire, a dating site for “mature singles,” had assured her that Video-Glam was the only place in Phoenix that they would recommend as a source for uploadable videos.
“It’s like Glamour Shots,” the young woman had told her, “only with, like you know, videos instead of just pictures.”
That comment had told Gemma a lot about the age and general qualifications of her membership consultant without engendering a whole lot of confidence in the process itself.
She was considering putting the SLK in reverse and backing out of the lot when a car pulled in beside her. It was a dusty green Subaru months beyond needing a complete detailing. A collection of doggy nose prints on the inside of the back side window obscured the interior of the car but let the world know that a large dog of some kind was often a backseat passenger.
The woman who hopped out of the driver’s seat, a bedraggled thirtysomething, matched the car in every way. She looked harried and overworked and, from the way she hotfooted it inside, most likely late for an appointment. She was dressed in a pair of faded black sweats topped by a worn football jersey from Glendale High School. The whole woebegone outfit was underscored by a pair of blue rubber flip-flops. Stringy dishwater-blond hair was pulled back with a scrunchy. As far as Gemma was concerned, the woman looked like crap.
Gemma’s first thought was that this was someone desperately in need of a little glamour. Her second thought was along the lines of “If that’s the competition, I’m home free.”
Based on that, Gemma couldn’t help being a little curious if anyone at Video-Glam would be able to wave a magic wand at the poor unfortunate creature who was standing in front of the reception desk just inside the front door. Without really thinking about it, Gemma switched off the ignition, grabbed a small suitcase with her changes of wardrobe off the passenger-side floor as well as her out-of-season mink from its place of honor on the passenger seat.
Once inside, Gemma saw that the woman from the dusty Subaru was still ahead of her at the reception counter and in a full-scale case of hysterics. “I know I have to move on,” she sobbed, dabbing at her tears. “But I just don’t know how to do it. I’ve been out of the dating scene for so long that the whole idea scares me to death.”
“You’ll be fine,” the much-pierced young woman behind the counter reassured her, passing along a box of tissues. This was evidently a situation she had dealt with on more than one occasion. As the weeping woman blew into one of the offered tissues, Gemma noticed the pale spot on the skin of the woman’s ring finger from which, most likely, a wedding band had been recently removed.
Gemma felt a tiny stirring of irritation. It made no sense that she’d be in remotely the same boat as this unfortunate creature. If Charles had simply manned up and done what she had expected him to do—which was live up to his potential—things never would have come to this pass. He had told her that he would one day be a surgeon, and that was what she had expected. Had he done so, Gemma would have gotten a reasonable return on her investment, and she wouldn’t have had to dump him. Instead, after one stupid mistake—and one lost patient who probably wouldn’t have survived anyway—he had backed away from surgery and become a raving do-gooder. The money he made looking after Alzheimer’s patients was far less than she had planned on. And since all these patients were going to die, too, what was the point?
Gemma had decided to cut her losses and look for greener pastures while she could. Fortunately, she was starting over with a lot more going for her than Ms. Flip-flops, standing as if frozen in front of the receptionist, who slid a credit card and a receipt across the counter. The woman signed it and stuffed her copy in her purse. At that moment, another young woman, this one dressed entirely in black, stepped through an interior door into the reception area.
“Oh, hi, Noelle,” the receptionist said. “Here’s your stylist, Rachel. She’s the one who’ll be helping you today. Just go with her and don’t worry about a thing.”
Looking more than a little lost, Rachel allowed herself to be led away while Gemma stepped up to the receptionist and tossed her fur on the counter in front of her.
“Is she here for Hearts Afire?” Gemma asked, nodding toward the door where Rachel and her stylist had disappeared.
“Oh, no.” The receptionist’s smile was one step short of a purr. “We do videos for several different sites. If you’re with Hearts Afire, you must be Gemma.”
Gemma had to beat back her first inclination, which was to say, “Ms. Ralston to you.” She nodded. “I’m here for my ten o’clock,” she said, pulling out her Amex card.
“You’re aware of our charges?” the receptionist asked. “You’re paying for the shoot only, as well as your initial upload. We keep the videos on file, and you’re charged a nominal fee each time you ask to have them uploaded on another site.”
“Yes, yes,” Gemma agreed impatiently. “That’s fine.”
Now that she was here, what she wanted more than anything was to get the process over and done with, sort of like going to the dentist for a root canal. She already knew it was going to be bad. The only question was how long it would take.
The receptionist ran Gemma’s card, then passed back the card and receipt as the interior door opened again and yet another black-clad young woman appeared.
“This is Roxanne,” the receptionist announced to Gemma. “She’ll be your stylist today.”
Roxanne was young—probably not over twenty-five—but as Gemma examined the young woman’s hair and makeup, she could find nothing to complain about. Roxanne was naturally good-looking to begin with, and her carefully applied makeup and precision-cut bob added to her appeal. So maybe, Gemma thought hopefully, with any kind of luck, with someone like that doing the styling, it wouldn’t be all that bad.
Gemma picked up her coat and suitcase and allowed herself to be led into the next section of the building, which turned out to be a tiny but exceedingly well-equipped beauty salon. There were four stations in all, two for hair and two for makeup. Off to the side was a walled-off section with a door marked WARDROBE.
“Most people stop here first and choose their outfits. That way we can be sure we have the right makeup,” Roxanne explained, pointing toward the door. “Once you choose what to wear, we’ll select which of our backdrops you’ll want once we get to the studio.”
“I don’t need any of that stuff,” Gemma told her stylist. “I brought my own.”
As they walked by the wardrobe door, Gemma noticed that Rachel, the dishwater blonde, was inside trying on a Harley-Davidson jacket. A discarded stack of obviously fake furs lay on the floor beside her.
At a table outside the wardrobe, Gemma opened her valise and laid out her three different outfits. Eventually, they settled on her favorite, a chartreuse silk sheath that came complete with a pair of high-heeled strappy sandals.
Roxanne nodded approvingly and then brought up a series of photos on a laptop. One showed a summery garden through the rail of what was evidently a front porch. “We have a porch swing that we use with this one,” she said. “That will be perfect with the dress.”
“What should we use for the mink?” Gemma asked, wanting to be certain Roxanne understood that her coat was the real thing, not some rip-off fake.
Roxanne clicked through a series of photos. “What about this one?” she said, pausing on what looked like a snow-covered Swiss chalet. “I think this one will do it justice. Believe it or not, we have some perfectly wonderful faux snow back in the studio that looks just like the real thing.”
By the time they finished background-shopping, Rachel had emerged from wardrobe, and the change was nothing short of miraculous. Noelle had evidently persuaded her to skip the Harley-Davidson jacket in favor of a sapphire wraparound dress with a plunging neckline and simple, flowing lines that evidently could be adjusted to fit almost any figure. The flip-flops had disappeared, replaced by a pair of classy pumps dyed to match the dress. The wardrobe department at Video-Glam apparently had a whole selection of shoes in all kinds of sizes to go with the very adjustable dress.
Roxanne went to work shampooing Gemma’s hair. When she was finished, Gemma noticed that Rachel’s formerly drab locks had been lightened by some kind of rinse and were trimmed swiftly but deftly. Once the new cut had been blow-dried, combed, and sprayed, Rachel looked like a different person entirely. The revised hairdo was followed by the meticulous application of makeup that took a full ten years off her face. Watching from the sidelines while her own hair was being shampooed and styled, Gemma couldn’t help but be impressed. The sophisticated look made Rachel a different person, smiling and laughing and maybe enjoying herself for the first time in a long time. But the change in appearance didn’t change the fact that Rachel had arrived for her shoot in a filthy Subaru with dog snot all over the windows.
“Noelle’s really great,” Roxanne commented. “She’s especially good with the broken birds. She makes them look good, but she also makes them feel good.”
“What about me?” Gemma asked.
Roxanne stopped and gave Gemma an appraising look. “I don’t think you’ve ever been a broken bird,” the stylist said with a laugh. “By the time I’m finished with you, though, you’ll be spectacular.”
Which turned out to be the case. Roxanne made no effort to adjust Gemma’s already perfect haircut, but she did put just the right amount of curl and body into it, and the skillfully applied makeup left Gemma smiling and nodding at her reflection.
“You like?” Roxanne asked.
“Very much,” Gemma answered.
When Gemma’s makeover was complete, Roxanne led her into the greenroom, where it was time to hurry up and wait. Rachel had disappeared into the studio before Gemma’s makeup was finished. While she waited, Gemma pulled out a hard copy of the script she intended to use. It was supposed to be three to five minutes long and would be transferred to a teleprompter before the actual filming. She had struggled with what to say. She wanted to hit all the right notes—breezy, fun, lighthearted. She didn’t want people to think she took herself too seriously. Guys who were interested in fun and games weren’t looking for serious.
“I’m Gemma,” the script read. “With a name like that, it’s only natural that I have a soft spot for gems, two in particular: emeralds because they match my eyes, and diamonds because diamonds really are a girl’s best friend.”
It seemed to her that simple introduction made it clear she was looking for someone with dollars in his wallet that he’d be willing to spend on her. Cubic zirconia? Thanks but no thanks! Not her type.
The script continued, “I’m looking for companionship, but I have no interest in getting married again.” (Lose out on her hard-earned alimony? Not on your life!) “And I’m definitely not interested in kids. If I had wanted kids, I would have had my own. If you’ve got kids, I’m sure they have mothers who don’t need any competition in the motherhood department. I’ll be glad to meet your kids, but I don’t want to raise them or take them away from their real moms.
“Without kids or marriage on the table, my age is none of your business. I believe in being open-minded as far as age is concerned, in both directions, up and down. If you’re looking at this video and thinking I’m probably too old for you or too young, then you’re probably right. So let’s not even go there.
“By now you’re probably wondering, So what does she really want?
“In a word—fun! I’ve spent enough of my life knowing that tomorrow would be a repeat of today. I want to be able to expect the unexpected. I want adventure. A white-water rafting trip down the Colorado? I’m there. An African safari? Yes; have passport, will travel. A sunset walk along a sandy beach, yes. A quiet evening of reading books in a snowbound cabin? Yes to that, too. Maybe you’re into long-distance bicycling and would like to help me train. I’d also like to try my hand at ballroom dancing and bowling.
“In other words, the boring day-to-day stuff is fine for me to do by myself, but when I’m with you—whoever you are—nothing that sounds like fun is off the table, and the sooner we get started, the better.”
Noelle emerged from the studio looking perplexed. “Sorry for the delay,” she said. “Rachel looks great, but she keeps freezing up the moment the camera starts recording. It shouldn’t be long, but the director was wondering if you brought along a copy of your script. If so, he wants me to start loading it into the teleprompter.”
“No problem,” Gemma said, smiling and handing it over. “I’ll be ready when you are.”
With that, she settled in to wait. She knew she looked good. She knew that before long, she’d have men groveling at her feet, but she also knew who to thank for it—her grandmother Natalie Hooper.
Gemma didn’t remember the roach-infested hovel from which her grandparents had rescued her as a two-year-old, although her grandmother, also known as Nana, had told her about it so many times that she could see it in her mind’s eye. Two days after Gemma’s second birthday, Nana and Papa had gone to war with their drug-addicted daughter, Caroline.
Born with what should have been a silver spoon in her mouth, Caroline Hooper was the daughter of a small-town physician and a stay-at-home mom. Money was never an issue in their Lake Havasu home. In grade school and junior high, things were fine. Caroline got good grades and was considered an exemplary student, but once she got into high school, that all went south. By the time she turned fifteen, she was a pot-smoking dropout. By the time she was eighteen, she had an out-of-wedlock baby and a serious drug problem. For a time, Natalie and Daniel Hooper had done what they could to care for both their struggling daughter and her baby girl—paying rent and utility bills; sending money and gift certificates for groceries.
Caroline had told them that she was having a birthday party on Gemma’s birthday, and it would be too complicated to try to include her parents. Two days later, Natalie and Daniel had turned up unannounced, expecting to deliver a stack of tardy birthday presents. They knocked, but no one answered, even though they could hear Gemma crying from somewhere inside. Finding the door unlocked, they let themselves into a nightmare. The apartment was filthy. The place was littered with empty pizza boxes. Cockroaches scurried out of sight as the door opened. There were flies circling a garbage can overrun with dirty diapers. Natalie went straight to the wailing baby and found Gemma dirty and hungry and inconsolable in a crib. Daniel found Caroline on a bare mattress on the floor in the second bedroom. She was passed out cold with a syringe lying on the floor next to her.
Natalie stayed with the baby while Daniel went looking for a police officer. Natalie wanted to change Gemma’s diaper, but Daniel told her to wait. He wanted to be sure the authorities knew how bad it was, and he was right. The cops came, and so did social services. Child Protective Services was only too happy to turn the child over to a pair of responsible grandparents. A grant of temporary custody was soon made permanent.
Gemma stepped out of that filthy crib and into what previously was her mother’s life. Caroline’s room became Gemma’s room. The playhouse that once was Caroline’s was now Gemma’s. Caroline’s piano teacher became Gemma’s piano teacher. Most important, Caroline’s parents became Gemma’s parents—Natalie her caring but disciplining mother and Daniel her doting father.
Soon after Gemma’s arrival, the household’s economic situation took a hit when Parkinson’s forced Daniel into early retirement and he had to give up his medical practice. It was essentially the same stable home with the same two loving parents, but the results with Gemma were very different. She was bright and beautiful but cooperative, whereas her mother had fought her parents and teachers every step of the way. As far as Natalie and Daniel were concerned, raising Caroline had been a nightmare; raising Gemma was a piece of cake.
Unlike her mother, Gemma breezed through high school and graduated near the head of her class. When it came time for her to leave for her freshman year at Arizona State University, Natalie Hooper offered Gemma her own road map to success.
“When your mother was your age, Caroline was out smoking dope, protesting the war, and burning her bra. You can see how well that worked out for her,” Natalie counseled Gemma. “So do what I did. Find yourself some dependable young man, preferably a premed student, and marry him. You can see that worked for your grandfather and me. Daniel was only a GP. You’d be better off finding yourself a surgeon. Those are the guys who make the big bucks.”
Unlike her mother, Gemma listened to every one of her grandmother’s words and took them to heart. Unfortunately, because she really was Caroline Hooper’s daughter, she put her own particular spin on Natalie Hooper’s heartfelt advice. Daniel Hooper’s pet name for Gemma may have been Sugar, but she knew that when it came to sugar and spice and everything nice, she didn’t come close. She also understood that it was entirely possible to act nice without actually being nice, though it was the best way to get what you wanted.
Growing up, Gemma had understood her mother’s mistakes, and she had no intention of repeating them. As she packed her possessions to head to Tempe, Gemma instinctively accepted the idea that her grandmother had laid out an excellent game plan.
It was left up to Gemma to work that plan to the best of her ability, and she had done a masterful job. Now, after years of making the best of what she had come to consider a useful starter marriage, she was ready to reap some of the rewards.
Yes, she thought, sitting back and waiting her turn at Video-Glam. It’s about time.
Several miles across town, Ali Reynolds sighed and looked at her watch. She had known when she had agreed to do the shoot at the Phoenix FOX affiliate that it would be the same day and time that her mother, Edie Larson, would be speaking before a luncheon meeting of local Sedona Rotarians as part of her run for mayor. Edie had done a number of informal coffee-hour appearances, but this would be her first major speaking engagement, one in which she would be going head to head with her thirtysomething opponent. As Edie’s campaign manager, Ali felt she needed to be there to handle the background issues and put out any fires that cropped up. Unfortunately, the scheduled shoot for FOX’s new Scene of the Crime news magazine had been chiseled in granite.
“You go do the shoot and don’t worry about me,” Edie had assured her daughter earlier that morning. “Brenda Riley is counting on you.”
“But so are you,” Ali had objected.
“You can’t afford to miss the taping,” Edie said firmly. “Besides, with Brenda’s book due to come out the same week the show is scheduled to broadcast nationally, she has a lot more riding on this than I do. I’ll be speaking to that bunch of Rotarians, most of whom I know on a first-name basis. How bad can that be? Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
Ali shook her head in resignation. What her mother wasn’t saying was that both candidates had been invited to speak at the luncheon, and this was the first time Edie would be trading campaign rhetoric with an opponent socked with a supply of well-rehearsed replies.
“Why do I always end up with people counting on me?” Ali asked.
Edie smiled. “Because that’s the way your father and I raised you,” she said, “and we love you for it.”
As a consequence, Ali had left her house on Sedona’s Manzanita Hills Road a little before noon on that Tuesday morning to drive down into the sunbaked oven known as the Valley of the Sun. Since it was already pushing the nineties in Sedona, she knew Phoenix would be a scorcher. She didn’t even attempt to put on camera-ready makeup for the drive down. Instead she took along the traveling makeup kit she had used back in the old days, when she was an on-air reporter and later a television news anchor.
For the better part of two years, she had known that her friend Brenda Riley, also a former newscaster, had been working on a book about a cyberstalker named Richard Lowensdale who, operating under any number of aliases, had victimized dozens of lonely women from all over the country, romancing them with digital sweet nothings that had promised the world and delivered only humiliation and heartache.
Richard’s preferred victims were vulnerable women considered high-profile in their various communities. Ali had first met Brenda Riley when they were working as news anchors, with Ali at a news desk in L.A. while Brenda was at a sister station in Sacramento. Brenda had been drawn into Richard’s clutches in the aftermath of a difficult divorce, along with a sudden sidelining from her newscasting job when she outlived her on-camera shelf life. For Brenda, those two major losses had resulted in a booze- and drug-fueled midlife crisis. Ali had been dragged into the fray when Brenda asked for help in doing a simple background check on the new man in Brenda’s life. Unfortunately, that supposedly simple check had uncovered the existence of Richard Lowensdale’s full contingent of fiancées, all of whom, like Brenda, had been wooed through cyberspace.
That revelation, coupled with all the other losses, had been enough to send Brenda off on an almost fatal series of benders. When Brenda finally sobered up and wised up, she set out to expose the man for what he was. Before she could do so, however, someone else beat her to the punch. Unfortunately for Richard, one of his erstwhile victims, Ermina Vlasic Cunningham Blaylock, happened to be a serial murderer in her own right. She had lured him into doing an illicit engineering job with the promise of a large payday when in fact she had every intention of taking him out once he was no longer useful.
Ermina had carried out the cold-blooded killing with utter ruthlessness, leaving evidence that should have put the blame for Lowensdale’s murder at Brenda Riley’s door. All of that might have gone according to plan had it not been for the timely arrival of Ali and a Grass Valley homicide detective named Gilbert Morris. Brenda’s mother had alerted Ali to the fact that her daughter had gone missing. Between Ali and Detective Morris, they not only managed to capture Ermina, they also rescued Brenda, who was found, close to death, locked in the trunk of Ermina’s rented Cadillac.
Their timely rescue had been good for Brenda but not so good for an FBI surveillance team also on the scene, intent on bringing down both Ermina and the drug cartel movers and shakers who were the intended end customers of her illegal stock of supposedly dismantled drones. When offered a possible plea deal, Ermina arrogantly refused. Rather than walking away with what would have been a hand slap on three separate charges of homicide, she chose to go to trial. As a result, juries in two different California jurisdictions and one in Missouri all returned guilty verdicts.
Two years later, some legal maneuverings continued, but with Ermina sentenced to life without parole in two different states, Brenda Riley, now married to the retired detective Morris, was free to publish the whole story. Scene of the Crime, a new televised true-crime weekly magazine, was prepared to give the story full-court-press treatment for its premiere show, and Ali had agreed to go on camera to tell her part of the story.
It wasn’t until she arrived at the television studio in Phoenix that Ali discovered one of Richard Lowensdale’s cyberstalking victims, Lynn Martinson, formerly of Iowa City, Iowa, was now living in the Phoenix area and would be filming her segment with the same crew in the course of the afternoon.
Lynn—in her mid-forties, at least, a bit on the frumpy side, and incredibly nervous—was already in the greenroom when Ali arrived. A receptionist had just given her the unwelcome news that the film crew and host were delayed, having missed a flight connection. If Ali had known about the delay earlier, she could have stayed for part of the luncheon meeting and driven to Phoenix immediately afterward. Now that she was here, there was nothing to do but wait. She went into the greenroom powder room to reapply her makeup, then settled in to wait.
Lynn, on the other hand, paced the floor and agonized over her hair, makeup, and clothing. “Your makeup is perfect,” she said, examining Ali. “Do I look all right?”
Ali had spent years in front of a camera, and she was an expert in what to do and what not to do. She didn’t have the heart to tell the poor woman the truth.
“You’re fine,” Ali assured her. “The crew will probably have someone along who can doctor your makeup should they decide it needs fixing. Sit down. Relax. It’ll be okay.”
With a resigned sigh, Lynn sank down on one of the room’s several uncomfortable chairs. “I take it you’re one of Richard’s victims, too?” she asked.
“No,” Ali said. “I’m from Sedona. Originally, I was a friend of Brenda’s. I’m the one who ran the background check that started the whole unmasking of Richard Lowensdale.”
“Oh,” Lynn said. “You’re the detective, the one who figured it all out, you and that guy from Grass Valley.”
“Gil Morris is the detective,” Ali said. “I was a concerned bystander.”
“Luckily for Brenda,” Lynn said. “I’m glad you’re not one of us. Because of Richard, I ended up losing everything—my job; my self-respect. And then my son committed suicide . . .”
“I’m so sorry,” Ali murmured.
Those three words of sympathy were enough to launch Lynn on a long, sad monologue, leaving Ali no choice but to listen.
“Thank you,” Lynn said. “Lucas died just after I learned the truth about Richard. That’s where I met him, by the way—in a tough-love chat room shortly after Lucas was picked up on drug charges. Here I was, the superintendent of schools, and my kid was in jail for dealing drugs. You can imagine how that went over in a place like Iowa City.
“When Lucas was arrested, my ex refused to take any responsibility. He blamed the whole thing on me, and that’s why I fell so hard for Richard. He told me his name was Richard Lewis. It’s no wonder I fell in love with the guy. Here was a caring man who was willing to listen to my troubles and who really seemed to understand what I was going through because he had a similar story. Richard claimed he had a daughter who had gone down the same druggie path Lucas was on—including spending time in juvie. Fortunately, his daughter had come out all right on the other side.
“Hearing that gave me a glimmer of hope that maybe someday Lucas would be all right, too. Then I found out Richard was a complete fraud, that everything he had told me was a lie—he didn’t even have a daughter. That’s when everything caught up with me, and I went to pieces. I couldn’t go to work. Couldn’t get out of bed some days. It was then, while I was lying around feeling sorry for myself, that Lucas committed suicide. He left a note saying he was sorry but he couldn’t live in prison and he’d rather be dead. That’s my fault, too. If I had been there for him, maybe I could have saved him.”
Listening and nodding, Ali didn’t bother saying what she knew to be true—that kids from even the most loving of families could fall victim to suicide. Survivors were always too ready to accept blame and assume that something they might have done or said, or might not have done or said, would have made a difference.
“I’m sorry,” Ali said again.
Lynn nodded and continued. “With Lucas gone, I just gave up. I ended up quitting my job. I also lost my house. My parents had retired and moved to Surprise. By then my father’s Alzheimer’s was getting worse and worse, so I came here to help my mom look after him. That’s one good thing. Once I was without a job, I was able to lend a hand. I think the stress of looking after a man who was essentially an eighty-year-old toddler would have killed my mother without my help. Alzheimer’s is hell,” she added.
Ali nodded again. Lynn’s tale of woe was appalling. “How’s your dad doing?” Ali asked.
“He passed away a few months ago,” Lynn replied. “I’m sorry he’s gone, but he was gone a long time before he died. It’s not easy, but my mother and I are starting to recover. It’s hard not to feel guilty about feeling relieved. Not everyone gets that. You need to have lived it to really understand. My mother has started reconnecting with her bridge-playing friends, and she’s taken up golf again. As for me? There’s a wonderful new man in my life. A real one this time,” she added with a shy laugh. “Without my coming out here to help my mom, I never would have met Chip.”
The sudden glow on Lynn’s face had nothing to do with makeup, and Ali found herself hoping that Chip was as nice a person as Lynn seemed to think he was.
Ali’s phone rang. The readout showed her mother’s number. A glance at the clock told her the luncheon was most likely over. “Sorry,” she said to Lynn. “I need to take this.” Into the phone, she added, “Hey, Mom, how did it go?”
“Harlan Masters is full of himself,” Edie muttered.
Ali laughed. “That’s hardly news,” she said. “Tell me something we didn’t already know.”
Ali’s longtime boyfriend, B. Simpson, owned High Noon Enterprises, now an internationally respected Internet security company, though the company still did what once was High Noon’s bread-and-butter business—security checks. The one they’d done on Harlan Masters revealed that he was a trust-fund baby. He had moved to Sedona from Southern California some five years earlier and had set out to bring Sedona up to what he regarded as an acceptable level of Southern California sophistication by running for mayor. During his first four-year term, he set out on a program to transform Sedona as far as rules and regulations were concerned. Having never gotten his hands dirty in the world of business, he did so without giving much thought to how much it would cost local businesses to implement some of his bright ideas.
The one that had galvanized Edie into running for office was a city-imposed requirement that restaurants inside the city limits post the calorie and fat content of each item on a menu. That might not have been much of a hardship for chain-type operations, but for struggling independents like the Sugarloaf Café, redoing the menus not once but twice—first for the calorie count and later for the fat content—had been a costly process. Naturally, Edie’s signature sweet rolls had been off the charts in both categories.
Emboldened by passing his restaurant regulations through a city council that was completely in the mayor’s pocket, Masters had set off on a campaign to outlaw contrails inside the city limits, thus forcing commercial airline traffic to detour around Sedona’s airspace. Edie thought the whole contrail controversy was nothing short of ridiculous.
“How did the meeting go?” Ali asked.
“He must have worked the word ‘old’ into every other sentence,” Edie grumbled. “As in ‘Now is no time to return to old, timeworn ideas.’ Or ‘Let’s not settle for old-fashioned thinking when what’s needed are progressive youthful ideas to carry us forward in the twenty-first century.’ Everything he said implied that I was old and decrepit, and it took every bit of restraint I could muster to keep from calling that little jerk a young whippersnapper.”
“Now, Mom,” Ali said. “Let’s not resort to name-calling this early in the process. In fact, let’s not resort to it at all. What were the reactions from the audience?”
“Three people came up to me afterward and offered to host coffee hours for me. I have their names and numbers.”
“You gave those to Jessica?”
Jessica Townley, a recent graduate from Sedona High School, was this year’s winner of the Amelia Dougherty Scholarship, a program Ali personally administered. In the fall, Jessica would be attending Arizona State University on a full-ride scholarship. Since her intention was to major in political science, she had volunteered to spend the summer working as an unpaid intern in Edie Larson’s campaign.
“Yes, I did,” Edie answered. “Do you want her to wait until you get back to schedule something?”
“That’s not necessary,” Ali said. “Jessica has access to your campaign schedule, and she’s perfectly capable of setting up events. When people say yes to something like that, it’s important to follow up with them right away. So have her call. If she has any problems, she knows she can always call me for backup. And now that you know Harlan is going to go after you on the age issue, we need to strategize on how to disarm that attack the next time you run into it. The best way to do it is turn it into a joke instead of getting all bent out of shape about it.”
“All right,” Edie agreed grudgingly. “I’ll give it some thought.”
“And give yourself the rest of the afternoon off,” Ali suggested.
“Can’t do that,” Edie replied. “I have a whole afternoon’s worth of doorbelling to do. Jessica said she’ll ride along on that, too.”
“Don’t overdo,” Ali advised.
“What?” Edie retorted. “Because I’m too old?”
“No,” Ali said, “because it’s a long campaign, and you need to pace yourself.”
When Ali hung up, Lynn Martinson was looking at her questioningly.
“My mother,” Ali explained. “She’s running for office for the first time—mayor of Sedona. She was at an event this afternoon, and her opponent is a young guy who thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
“I hope she wins,” Lynn said. “I’ve met a few guys like that in my time, and it’s fun to see them get taken down a peg.”
The door to the greenroom opened, and a tiny black-haired woman bounded through it. “All right,” she said. “I’m Carol, Scene of the Crime’s producer. We’re ready to rumble. Ms. Martinson, how about if we take you first?”
“Sure,” Lynn said, rising to her feet. “Is my makeup all right?”
Carol gave Lynn an appraising look. “We’ll do a few additions and corrections before we turn on the cameras, but you look all right to me.”
As Carol led Lynn out of the room, Ali turned on her iPad and switched over to her downloaded copy of A Tale of Two Cities. It was the latest in her self-imposed task of reading some of the classics—all those books she had heard about in school over the years but had never read. It was either that or sit there and worry about her mother’s political campaign.
Right that minute, reading seemed like a more productive use of her time—better than worrying. Either Edie would be tough enough to survive in the ego-bruising world of small-town politics, or she wouldn’t. However it went, there wasn’t much Ali could do about it.
Hired to investigate the grisly murder of a gold-digging divorcée on behalf of the woman accused of the crime, Ali Reynolds is immediately drawn to the case of the secretive teenager who found the body. A. J. Sanders was in the Camp Verde desert to retrieve a mystery box buried by his absent father—a box that turns out to be filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of poker chips. When a second body is found in the desert, it seems the three cases are more closely related than anyone could have imagined. Though Ali’s friends in the police department grow increasingly irritated by her involvement, Ali must stop a ruthless killer from claiming another victim . . . before she is lost in this game of deadly stakes.
J.A. Jance explains her writing routine
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
When Lynn Martinson and her boyfriend Chip Ralston are arrested for the murders of Chip’s gold-digging ex-wife, Ali Reynolds is contacted to clear two innocent names. As a former reporter with police academy training, Ali is more than equipped to unearth the facts that underpin the increasingly complex case, especially with her connections in and outside of the police force. But danger may be closer than she thinks—and the cost of her involvement with the case could be deadly.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1.In Deadly Stakes, Ali has to trust her gut instincts in order to untangle the tangle of lies that surround Gemma Ralston and James Sanders’s murders. For instance, Ali has met Lynn Martinson only once before, but she feels convinced of her innocence. What were your initial impressions of Lynn Martinson? Molly Handraker? A.J. Sanders? How accurate were your first judgments, and how did they change throughout the book?
2.Why do you think that Ali is so hesitan see more