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When the car door slammed shut on his hand, the universe came to a stop and nothing else mattered. Nothing. He dropped to his knees, howling in agony while a nearby coyote, startled by the sound, responded with a howl of its own. Rigid with pain, at first he couldn't even reach for the door handle. By the time he did, it was too late. The door lock inside the vehicle had already clicked home.
"Please," he begged. "For God's sake, open the door."
But the answer to that was no -- an unequivocal no. The engine turned over and the car began to move.
"You can't do this," he screamed. "You can't!"
By then the pavement was moving beneath him, slowly at first, then faster and faster. He held out his other hand, trying to brace himself or somehow pull himself back to his feet. For a moment that almost worked and he was close to upright, but then the speed of the car outdistanced his scrambling feet and he fell again, facedown this time, with the full weight of his body pulling on the exploding pain in his fingers.
As the speed of the vehicle increased, so did his agonized screams. The parking lot's layer of loose gravel scraped and tore at him, shredding his blue-and-white jogging suit; shredding his skin. By the time the hurtling car bounced over the first speed bump, he was no longer screaming. Plowing face-first into the second one momentarily knocked him unconscious.
He came to when the car door opened. Once his trapped hand was released from the door frame, he fell to the ground. He couldn't actually see the car or even the ground for that matter. He seemed to have been struck blind. Nor could he differentiate the pain in his crippled hand from the agony in the rest of his tortured body, but his ears still worked. He heard the car door slam shut again and felt the spray of gravel from the tires as it drove away into the night, leaving him in absolute darkness.
He lay there for a long time, knowing he was barely alive and feeling his life's blood seeping out through layers of damaged skin. He tried crawling, but he couldn't make that work.
"Help," he called weakly. "Somebody, please help me."
In the wilds of Phoenix's South Mountain Preserve, only a single prowling coyote heard the dying man's final whispered plea for help. The coyote was on the trail of his dinner -- an elusive bunny -- and he paid no attention.
No one else did, either.
* * *
Sybil Harriman strode through the early morning chill and reveled in the sunlight and the clear crisp air. Across the valley, she could see the layer of smog settling in over the rest of the city, but here it was cold and clear -- cold enough to see her breath and make her nose run and her eyes water, but not cold enough to scare her away from walking the full course of the park's Alta Trail and back to the parking lot along the Bajada.
She had been warned that Alta was "too difficult" for someone her age, and that she certainly shouldn't walk it alone. So she did so, at least twice a week. Because she could. And as she walked along, huffing and puffing a little, truth be known, she was also drinking in the view and the cactus and the birds -- birds so different from the ones she'd grown up with back in Chicago -- and she was also thinking about how wrong she'd been and wishing things had been different.
Herman had wanted to move here the moment he retired from working for Merck. She was the one who had fought it, saying they should stay where they were in order to be closer to the kids and grandkids, although a lot of good that had done. Finally, when Herm's arthritis had gotten so bad that he could barely walk, she had relented. Now she was sorry they hadn't come sooner, while Herman would have been able to reap some of the benefits of desert living.
His arthritis had improved so much once they were in Arizona it was unbelievable, but then the rest of it had happened. The dry climate could do nothing at all to stave off the ravages and gradual decline that was Alzheimer's. As for the kids? Once Herm died, it had been plain enough that what they wanted more than anything was to get their greedy little hands on their father's money. Well, thanks to the trust Herm had wisely insisted on setting up, they weren't getting any of that, not until Sybil was damned good and ready. And that was another reason she walked every single day. She was determined to live as long and as well as she could.
Let 'em wait, she told herself fiercely as she marched along. They can wait until hell freezes over.
When she returned to Chicago for Herm's funeral, her friends there hardly recognized her. They thought she had dropped the
excess weight she had carried all those years in a fit of sudden grief. In actual fact, the process had been much less abrupt than that -- and much more permanent. She had started by walking four miles each day on the flat but circular streets in their Awatukee neighborhood. Later she had forced herself up and down the steeper grades and gradually more and more difficult trails throughout South Mountain Preserve.
Sybil was one of the early birds this crisp January morning. She had seen not a soul on her morning walk -- at least no other humans -- in the course of her almost three solitary hours. There had been plenty of bunnies, however, and scads of other early birds -- doves, quail, skittish roadrunners, breakfasting cactus wrens, finches, colorful hummingbirds, hawks, and even an ebony-feathered, red-eyed phainopepla. Now, as she approached the spot where the trail crossed San Juan Road, it was close to midmorning and the sun was high.
San Juan Road had been closed indefinitely for some strange reason, so there shouldn't have been any traffic. Still, Sybil was too much of a city girl to cross a road or a street without looking both ways. And that's when she saw it -- what appeared to be a pile of rags or trash lying in the middle of the roadway some thirty or forty yards northeast of the now abandoned San Juan parking lot.
Offended that someone would toss out a load of garbage and leave it there in the road, Sybil headed in that direction. She was determined to clean up the mess and haul it off to the nearest garbage containers. Ten yards or so away from the debris field, however, she saw the blood.
With a trembling hand, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911. "Emergency operator. What are you reporting?"
Sybil was closer to the mess now -- much too close -- and wished she wasn't. There was blood everywhere. It was hard to tell that the flayed and bloody pulp inside the pile of shredded clothing was even human, but she knew it was.
"A body," she managed at last. "I've just found a human body lying here in the middle of the road."
She didn't hear the panic in her voice, but the operator evidently did. "Calm down," the operator advised her. "What is your name and your location?"
Sybil took a deep breath and forced herself to get a grip. "Sybil Harriman," she replied. "I'm in the park -- South Mountain Preserve. The body is just to the east of the abandoned parking lot on San Juan Road."
"Units are on the way," the operator told her briskly. "Are you sure the person is dead? Did you check for a pulse?"
Sybil looked at the mound of bloody flesh, searching for wrists. One hand, virtually skinless, was little more than a bloody stump. The other hand contained a relatively recognizable thumb, but the four fingers seemed to have been mashed flat. Sybil knew at once there would be no pulse in either one of those two mangled wrists nor would there be any possibility of bringing the bloodied victim back to life.
"He's dead," she whispered to the operator. "Sorry. I've got to hang up now."
Sybil snapped the phone shut. Then, gagging, she staggered over to the edge of the road and promptly lost the single banana she had eaten for breakfast.
As she straightened up and waited, listening for approaching sirens, Sybil Harriman knew it was the last banana she would eat for a very long time.
Copyright © 2007 by J.A. Jance
With her laptop asleep and perched virtually untouched on her crossed legs, Ali Reynolds stared into the flames of the burning gas log fireplace. She was supposed to be working on her blog, cutlooseblog.com, but on this chilly January morning she wasn't. Or maybe she was. She was trying to think of what to say in today's post, but her mind remained stubbornly blank -- right along with her computer screen.
Ali had started cutloose in the aftermath of the sudden and almost simultaneous ends of both her television newscasting career and her marriage. Back then, fueled by anger, cutloose had been a tool for dealing with the unexpected bumps in her own life. To her surprise, what had happened to her was far more commonplace than she had known, and what she had written in cutloose had touched chords in the lives of countless other women.
Since the murder of Paul Grayson, Ali's not quite, but nearly ex-husband, cutloose had morphed into something else entirely. For weeks now it had focused on grief and grieving -- on the pitfalls and setbacks that lie in wait for those attempting to recover from the loss of a loved one or even a not-so-loved one. Ali had learned enough from her readers that she could almost have declared herself an expert on the subject if it hadn't been for the inconvenient reality that she had zero perspective on the topic. She was still too deep in grief herself. As her mother, Edie Larson, would have said, drawing on her endless supply of platitudes: She couldn't see the forest for the trees.
Because Ali was back in her hometown of Sedona, Arizona, grieving. She grieved for a phantom of a marriage that had evidently never been what she had thought it was and for a job she had loved but which had come with zero job security and no reciprocal loyalty.
Having people write to her and tell her that "someday you'll be over it" or "it doesn't matter how long it takes" wasn't helping Ali Reynolds. She couldn't yet tell what she was supposed to be over. Was she supposed to be over Paul's death or over his many betrayals? How long would it take her to move beyond the shock of learning of the child -- a little girl -- her husband had fathered out of wedlock while he was still married to Ali? Ali hadn't even known of Angelina Roja's existence until after Paul's death, and looking out for the financial welfare of the child and her mother had made tying up Paul's estate that much more complicated.
There were times Ali felt downright resentful when she heard from widows -- real widows whose husbands had been faithful, honorable men -- who were struggling with their own overwhelming sense of loss. It was all she could do sometimes to keep from writing back to them and saying, "Hey, you, don't you know how lucky you were? At least your dead husband's not driving you nuts from beyond the grave."
Sam, Ali's one-eyed, one-eared sixteen-pound tabby cat, shifted uneasily on the back of the couch behind her and let one paw fall on Ali's shoulder. Sam's presence in Ali's life was supposed to have been temporary. Sam had belonged to Matt and Julie Bernard, children of Ali's murdered friend, Reenie Bernard. When the children had gone to live with their grandparents, Sam had been unable to join them and Ali had taken Sam in. Ali had never liked or particularly disliked cats. She had never thought about them much one way or the other -- and Sam was anything but outgoing or sociable. But now, almost a year since Sam's unexpected arrival, Ali had started thinking of the animal in terms of "my cat" rather than "their cat."
Ali turned and scratched the seemingly permanent frown lines on Sam's ugly forehead. "How about if you do the blog this morning?" she asked.
Sam simply yawned, closed her one good eye, and went back to sleep. When the doorbell rang, Sam leaped to life. Spooked by newcomers of any kind, the cat scrambled off the couch and disappeared from view. Ali knew from past experience that it would probably be several hours before she'd be able to coax the wary feline back out of hiding.
Putting the laptop on the coffee table, Ali hurried to the door. She was expecting Kip Hogan, her parents' handyman, to drop off her refinished bird's-eye maple credenza. That and the comfy leather sofa were the two pieces of furniture she had brought to her mountaintop mobile home with her from her former home digs in L.A. The top of the credenza had been damaged when someone had carelessly deposited a wet vase on it. Now, after careful sanding and varnishing, Ali's father assured her that the wood had been restored to its former glory.
Except, when Ali looked out the peephole, Kip Hogan was nowhere in sight. The man on Ali's front porch, a wizened but dapper-looking elderly gentleman in a suit and tie, was holding a small envelope. He looked somewhat familiar, but she couldn't quite place him. In the old days, growing up in smalltown Arizona, Ali wouldn't have hesitated at opening the door to a stranger, but times had changed in Sedona. More important, Ali had changed. She cautiously cracked the door open but only as far as the length of the security chain.
"May I help you?" she asked.
"Ms. Reynolds?" the man asked. He wore a brimmed leather cap, which he tipped respectfully in Ali's direction.
"A message for you, madam," he said politely. Removing a soft leather driving glove, he proffered the envelope through the narrow opening. "From Miss Arabella Ashcroft."
Ali recognized the name at once. "Thank you." She took the envelope and started to close the door, but the man stopped her.
"If you'll forgive me, madam, I was directed to wait for an answer."
Using her finger, Ali tore open the creamy white envelope. It was made from expensive paper stock, as was the gold-bordered note card she found inside. Written across it, in spidery, old-fashioned script was the following: Dear Alison, Please join me for tea this afternoon if at all possible. 2:30. 113 Manzanita Hills Road. Miss Arabella Ashcroft.
A summons from Miss Arabella, one of Sedona's more formidable dowagers, was not to be taken lightly or ignored.
"Of course," Ali said at once. "Tell her I'll be there."
"Would you like me to come fetch you?" the messenger asked, gesturing over his shoulder at the venerable bright yellow Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud idling in Ali's driveway.
"Oh, no," Ali told him. "I can get there on my own. I know the way."
And she did, too, despite the fact that it had been twenty-five years earlier when she had last had afternoon tea with Arabella Ashcroft and her equally daunting mother, Anna Lee, at the imposing Ashcroft home on Manzanita Hills Road.
Ali's visitor bowed slightly from the waist and backed away from the door. "Very well," he said. "I'll tell Miss Arabella she can expect you." He tipped his cap once again, turned on his heel, and marched away. Once he drove out of sight, Ali closed the door. Then, with both the note card and envelope in hand, she returned to the couch lost in a haze of memories.
On a Friday afternoon two weeks before Ali had been scheduled to graduate from Cottonwood's Mingus Mountain High School, she had bounded into her parents' diner, Sedona's Sugarloaf Cafˇ, for her after-school shift. All through high school she had helped out by waiting tables after school and during Christmas and summer vacations. As she tied on her apron she spotted an envelope with her name on it propped up next to the cash register. There was no stamp or return address, so obviously it had been hand delivered.
"What's this?" she had asked Aunt Evie, her mother's twin sister and her parents' full partner in the restaurant venture.
"It's still sealed, isn'tit?" Aunt Evie had asked. "How about if you open it and find out?"
Ali had opened the envelope on the spot. Inside she had found a note card very similar to the one she had received just now: "Please join my daughter and me for tea, this coming Sunday, May 21, 2:30 p.m. at our home, 113 Manzanita Hills Road, Sedona, Arizona." The note had been signed Anna Lee Ashcroft, Arabella's mother.
"Tea!" Ali had exclaimed in disbelief. "I've been invited to tea?"
Taking the note from Ali's hand, Aunt Evie examined it and then handed it back. "That's the way it looks," she said.
"I've never been invited to tea in my life," Ali said. "And who all is going? Are you invited?"
Aunt Evie shook her head.
"Is anyone else I know invited, then?" Ali asked. "And why would someone my age want to go to tea with a bunch of old ladies in the first place?"
"You'll want to go if you know what's good for you," Aunt Evie had said severely. "But this doesn't give us much time."
"Time for what?" Ali had asked.
"To get down to Phoenix and find you something appropriate to wear," Aunt Evie had answered.
Ali's high school years had been tough ones for the owners and operators of the Sugarloaf Cafˇ. Things had been so lean during Ali's junior year that she had turned down an invitation to the prom rather than admit she didn'thave a formal to wear and couldn't afford to buy one.
By the end of her senior year, things were only marginally better, but she was astonished when Aunt Evie took the whole next day -- a Saturday -- off work. She drove Ali to Metrocenter, a shopping mall two hours away in Phoenix, where they spent the whole day at what Ali considered to be the very ritzy Goldwater's Department Store putting together a tea-appropriate outfit. Aunt Evie had charged the whole extravagant expense -- a stylish linen suit, silk blouse, and shoes -- to her personal account. The loan of Aunt Evie's fake pearls would complete the outfit.
At the time, Ali had been too naive to question her aunt's uncharacteristic behavior. Instead she had simply accepted Aunt Evie's kindness at face value.
The next week at school, Ali had held her breath hoping to hear that some of her classmates had also received invitations to the unprecedented Ashcroft tea, but no one had. No one mentioned it, not even Ali's best friend, Reenie Bernard, so Ali didn't mention it, either.
Finally, on the appointed day, Ali had left her parents and Aunt Evie hard at work at the Sugarloaf doing Sunday afternoon cleanup and had driven herself to Anna Lee Ashcroft's Manzanita Hills place overlooking downtown Sedona. Compared to her parents humble abode out behind the restaurant, the Ashcroft home was downright palatial.
Ali had driven up the steep, blacktopped driveway and parked her mother's Dodge in front of a glass-walled architectural miracle with a spectacular view that encompassed the whole valley. Once out of the car, Ali, unaccustomed to wearing high heels, had tottered unsteadily up the wide flagstone walkway. By the time she stepped onto the spacious front porch shaded by a curtain of bloom-laden wisteria, her knees were still knocking but she was grateful not to have tripped and fallen.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, Ali rang the bell. The door was opened by a maid wearing a black-and-white uniform who led her into and through the house. The exquisite furniture, gleaming wood tables, and lush oriental rugs were marvelous to behold. She tried not to stare as she was escorted out to a screened porch overlooking an immense swimming pool. Her hostess, a frail and seemingly ancient woman confined to a wheelchair and with her legs wrapped in a shawl, waited there while another somewhat younger woman hovered watchfully in the background.
Ali was shown to a chair next to a table set with an elaborate collection of delicate cups, saucers, plates, and silver as well as an amazing collection of tiny, crustless sandwiches and sweets.
"So," the old woman said, peering across the table at Ali through a pair of bejeweled spectacles. "I'm Mrs. Ashcroft and this is my daughter, Arabella. You must be Alison Larson. Let's have a look at you."
Feeling like a hapless worm being examined by some sharp-eyed, hungry robin, Ali had no choice but to endure the woman's silent scrutiny. At last she nodded as if satisfied with Ali's appearance. "I suppose you'll do," she said.
Do for what? Ali wondered.
"Your teachers all speak very highly of you," Anna Lee said.
Ali should have been delighted to hear that, but she couldn't help wondering why Anna Lee Ashcroft had been gossiping about her with Ali's teachers at Mingus Mountain High. As it was, all Ali could do was nod stupidly. "Thank you," she murmured.
"I understand you want to study journalism," Anna Lee continued.
Ali had discussed her long-held secret ambition once or twice with Mrs. Casey, her journalism teacher, but since going to college seemed like an impossible dream at the moment, Ali was trying to think about the future in somewhat more realistic terms -- like maybe going to work for the phone company.
"I may have mentioned it," Ali managed.
"You've changed your mind then?" Anna Lee demanded sharply. "You're no longer interested in journalism?"
"It's not that," Ali said forlornly, "it's just..."
"I still want to study journalism," Ali said at last, "but I'll probably have to work a couple of years to earn money before I can think about going to college." It was a painful admission. "My parents really can't help out very much right now. I'll have to earn my own way."
"You're telling me you're poor then?" Anna Lee wanted to know.
Ali looked around the room. Even out on this screened patio, the elegant furnishings were far beyond anything Ali had ever seen in her own home or even in her friend Reenie Bernard's far more upscale surroundings. Ali had never thought of herself or of her family as poor, but now with something for comparison she realized they probably were.
"I suppose so," Ali said.
Without another word, Anna Lee Ashcroft grasped the handle of a small china bell and gave it a sharp ring. Almost immediately a man appeared bearing a tray -- a silver tray with a silver tea service on it. Remembering the scene now, Ali couldn't help but wonder if that man and the sprite who had delivered that morning's envelope weren't one and the same -- albeit a few decades older.
The man had carefully placed the tea service on the table in front of Anna Lee. She had leaned forward and picked up a cup. "Sugar?" she asked, filling the cup to the brim and handing it over with a surprisingly steady hand.
"One lump or two?"
"No, thank you."
Arabella moved silently to the foreground and began deftly placing finger sandwiches and what Ali would later recognize as petit fours onto delicately patterned china plates. Mrs. Ashcroft said nothing more until the butler -- at least that's what Ali assumed he was -- had retreated back the way he had come, disappearing behind a pair of swinging doors into what Ali assumed must lead to a hallway or maybe the kitchen.
Ali juggled cup, saucer, napkin, and plate and hoped she wasn't doing something terribly gauche while Anna Lee Ashcroft poured two additional cups -- one for her daughter and one for herself.
"I don't have a college education, either," Anna Lee said at last. "In my day young women of my social standing weren't encouraged to go off to college. When Arabella came along, her father sent her off to finishing school in Switzerland, but that was it. Furthering her education beyond that would have been unseemly."
No comment from Ali seemed called for, so she kept quiet and concentrated on not dribbling any tea down the front of her new silk blouse.
"But just because my daughter and I don't have the benefit of a higher education," Anna Lee continued, "doesn't mean we think it's unimportant, right, Arabella?"
Arabella nodded but said nothing. Sipping her tea, she seemed content to let her mother do the bulk of the talking, but there was something in the daughter's wary silence that made Ali uneasy.
"You must be wondering why you've been asked to come here today," Anna Lee continued.
"Yes," Ali said. "I am."
"This is the first time I've done this," Anna Lee said, "so it may seem a bit awkward. I've been told that most of the time announcements of this nature are made at class night celebrations or at some other official occasion, but I wanted to do it this way. In private."
Ali was still mystified.
"I've decided to use some of my inheritance from my mother to establish a scholarship in her honor, the Amelia Dougherty Askins Scholarship, to benefit poor but smart girls from this area. You've been selected to be our first recipient -- as long as you go on to school, that is."
Ali was stunned. "A scholarship?" she managed, still not sure she had heard correctly. "You're giving me a scholarship?"
Anna Lee Ashcroft nodded. "Not quite a 'full ride' as they say," she added dryly. "What you'll get from us is enough for tuition, books, room, and some board. If your parents really can't help, you may need to work part time, but you shouldn't have to put off starting. In fact, you should be able to go off to school this fall right along with all your classmates."
And that's exactly what Ali had done. The scholarship had made all the difference for her -- it had made going on to college possible. And everything else in Ali's life had flowed from there.
So Alison Larson Reynolds owed the Ashcrofts -- owed them big. If Arabella Ashcroft wanted to summon her to tea once again some twenty-five years later, Ali would be there -- with bells on.
Copyright © 2007 by J.A. Jance