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She awakened to the sound of roaring flames and to searing heat and lung-choking smoke. Maybe she was already dead and this was hell, but why would she go to hell? What had she done to deserve that? Just then a scorched beam fell across her leg, and she felt the horrifying pain of burning flesh -- her burning flesh. That's when she knew wasn't dead. She was still alive. And on fire.
She tried to shake the burning two-by-four off her leg but it was too heavy. It wouldn't budge. She tried shoving it away and managed to move it a little, but in the process her hand caught fire as well. She tried to sit up, desperate to find some avenue of escape, but the floor around her was a sea of flame. She was barefoot. She couldn't bring herself to step into the fire. There was nowhere for her to go, no way to escape. It was hopeless. She was going to die.
Falling back onto the bed, she began screaming and praying and coughing, all at the same time. "Please, God. Let it be quick. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Another wooden beam fell. This one didn't land on her directly, but as the hungry flames licked away at it, she knew they were really searching for her. The pain was all around her now. Her whole body was on fire. Somewhere, far beyond the flames, she heard something else -- the sound of breaking glass. Was there glass in heaven?
"Hello," a voice called. "Where are you?"
Why is He asking that? she wondered. God knows everything. He must know where I am.
Then, unexpectedly, a mysterious figure clothed all in yellow or maybe even orange rose up silently out of the flame and smoke. He was holding his arms stretched out toward her, reaching for her.
Not God after all, she thought despairingly. Satan. I really am in hell.
Darkness fell and there was nothing at all.Copyright © 2009 by J.A. Jance
On a gorgeous mid-May morning with temperatures still in the seventies, all was right with Ali Reynolds's world. The cobalt blue sky overhead was unblemished by even a single cloud, and Sedona's towering red rocks gleamed in brilliant sunlight.
The seemingly endless remodeling project on Ali's recently purchased Manzanita Hills Road house had finally come to an end. The workers were gone, along with their trucks and their constant noise. Now, seated on her newly refurbished flagstone patio and surrounded by an ancient wisteria in full and glorious bloom, she was enjoying the peace and quiet, as well as a third cup of freshly brewed coffee, while she worked on a speech, a commencement speech actually, that she was due to deliver at not one but two high school graduation ceremonies at the end of the week.
How she had gotten roped into doing two commencement speeches one day apart was a wonder to her still.
A year or so earlier Ali had agreed to take the helm of the Amelia Dougherty Askins Scholarship Fund, a charitable entity that helped provide financial assistance for college expenses to deserving students from schools all over Arizona's Verde Valley. Though she was once an Askins Scholarship winner herself, this was Ali's first year of administering the program. The time-consuming process of searching out and evaluating likely recipients had put her in touch with students, teachers, and administrators from a number of local schools.
Ali's ties to Sedona Red Rock High School had to do with the fact that both her son, Christopher, and her new daughter-in-law, Chris's bride, Athena, taught there. When it came time to cajole Ali into agreeing to speak at commencement, her son and daughter-in-law had known just which strings to pull.
Although Sedona was Ali's hometown, Sedona Red Rock wasn't her actual alma mater, since there had been no high school in Sedona at the time Ali was an eligible student. Instead, Ali and her classmates had been bused to nearby Cottonwood, where they had attended Mingus Union High School and where Ali's favorite teacher had been the head of the English department, a gruff but caring character named Ernie Gabrielson. Once word leaked out that Ali had been scheduled to speak at Sedona's graduation ceremonies, a delegation had been sent requesting that Ali do the same for Mingus. Hence the two separate invitations. The two events, however, required only one speech, and Ali had been working on it for several days.
She wanted her talk to be fun and meaningful. Ali had graduated from high school and gone away to college. After obtaining her degree in journalism, she had gone off to work in the world of television news, first reporting and then anchoring newscasts in Milwaukee, New York City, and finally L.A. She had returned to her hometown in the aftermath of losing both her anchor position and her philandering husband, Paul Grayson. Her initial intention had been to stay in Sedona just long enough to regroup, but now she had settled back into small-town life and was reveling in it. She was glad to be out of the constant hustle and bustle and traffic of L.A., and she was enjoying living close to her parents and her son.
That was part of what she wanted to say to the graduates later this week, on Thursday evening in Sedona and on Friday in Cottonwood -- that it was fine for students to leave home in order to further their educations and make their marks in the big, wide world -- but she also wanted to tell them that it was fine for them to stay at home or to come back home eventually, bringing with them the benefit of both their education and their hard-won experience, which they could then apply to problems and opportunities that existed in their own backyards.
Lost in thought and concentrating on the work at hand, Ali was surprised when her majordomo, Leland Brooks, cleared his throat and announced, "Excuse me, madam, but you have a visitor."
For the better part of fifty years, Leland had managed the house on Manzanita Hills Road, first for the previous owner, Arabella Ashcroft, and for her mother. Now he did the same thing for the new owner. During Ali's massive remodeling project he had served as the on-site supervisor. Now he mostly supervised Ali. She didn't require much supervision, but she'd grown too fond of Leland Brooks to consider putting him out to pasture.
Ali looked up in time to realize that the guest in question, Gordon Maxwell, had followed Leland onto the patio. Maxwell was sheriff of Yavapai County, and he certainly looked the part. He was dressed in a crisply starched khaki uniform and held a white Stetson gripped in one hand. A loaded pistol, a 9-millimeter Smith and Wesson M&P in its molded scabbard, was strapped to his right hip. Weaponry aside, he looked like a man who could handle himself.
For one thing, he was large. The heels on his highly polished snakeskin cowboy boots added an extra inch or so to his barefoot height of six foot six. Ali estimated him to be somewhere in his early sixties, but he had the physique and carriage of a much younger man. If he had worn the Stetson instead of carrying it around, it would have completed the impression of youthfulness by covering his bald head. On his chest was a silver star and a name tag that said Sheriff Maxwell. The presence of that white hat, worn or not, served notice to one and all that Gordon Maxwell was one of the good guys.
"Morning, ma'am," he drawled in greeting. "Hope you don't mind my dropping by unannounced like this."
Ali could tell from the disapproving frown on Leland's forehead that her butler most certainly minded. In Leland Brooks's world, well-mannered guests never dropped by uninvited; it simply wasn't done. Sheriff Maxwell, however, had apparently failed to get that particular memo. Ali knew that since the sheriff lived miles away in Prescott, the county seat, he couldn't exactly claim that he was simply in the neighborhood and decided to drop in. No, he had come to see Ali on purpose, and he hadn't called in advance because he was worried she might try to dodge him.
"No," Ali said at once, clearing her laptop out of the way. "Of course not. Please have a seat. Would you care for coffee?"
"Yes, ma'am," Maxwell said. "A cup of coffee would be greatly appreciated." With that he eased his lanky frame into one of the empty patio chairs and then set his hat carefully, with the crown down, on the seat of another.
Ali nodded in Leland's direction. With only the smallest disapproving shake of his head, the butler picked up Ali's empty mug and bustled off to fetch coffee while Ali turned to her visitor.
"To what do I owe this honor?" she asked.
Sheriff Maxwell looked both thoughtful and uncomfortable at the same time. "It's to whom," he said finally, with the kind of carefully chosen grammar that would have done Mr. Gabrielson proud. "Not to what. And the real answer to your question would be your friend Detective Holman. I suppose he's told you that my department has been through a bit of a rough patch recently."
It was true that Dave Holman had mentioned the sheriff 's department's difficulties, but so had everyone else. The story had been the talk of the town, from the Sedona post office to the lunch counter at the Sugarloaf Cafe, a neighborhood diner run by Ali's parents, Bob and Edie Larson.
According to local gossip, a longtime evidence clerk named Sally Harrison had come under suspicion of hijacking some of the drugs that had been left in her charge. When the alleged thefts finally became known, her boyfriend, Devon Ryan, a deputy who not only happened to be the department's media information officer but was also still married to someone else at the time, had decked an overly inquisitive reporter from the Flagstaff daily newspaper, the Coconino Courier. Oscar Reyes, the reporter in question, had turned up at a press conference with plenty of questions about the alleged thefts, but also with pointed questions about the couple's illicit affair. The press conference altercation had gone from verbal to physical. Now both the evidence clerk and the media relations officer were off work on administrative leave while the reporter, more outraged than physically hurt, was supposedly in the process of filing suit against Devon Ryan as well as the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department.
"So I've heard," was all Ali said.
Maxwell nodded. "I'm afraid that reporter from Flagstaff isn't the only one with a black eye over this. The county attorney is hinting around about making a settlement with him. If that happens, the voters will have my balls." Suddenly aware of his slip, he said, "Oops, please excuse my blunt language. The truth is, both Harrison and Ryan were working for the department long before I was elected to office, but that's not going to count in my favor. As far as people in the county are concerned, riding herd on my employees is my responsibility. They'll say I wasn't supervising them properly."
Ali knew that was true as well. It was exactly what people around town were already saying, including Ali's mother, Edie Larson; but that bit of gossip didn't explain why Sheriff Maxwell was here on Ali's patio, staring off across the valley at some of Sedona's most spectacular red rocks.
Before anything more could be said, Leland Brooks marched onto the flagstone patio carrying a fully laden tray. Ali noticed at once that Leland was taking a butler's revenge on their impromptu guest: rather than the casual everyday dishes, he had loaded the tray with a pair of tiny, carefully ironed napkins and Ali's good Limoges Be;lème-pattern china. Ali knew at once that the oversized fingers on Sheriff Maxwell's meaty paws would barely fit inside the handles of those delicately shaped cups.
Without a word, Leland unloaded the tray, depositing napkins, bread plates, and silverware along with a platter of freshly baked cookies onto the patio table's glass top. Then, after serving the coffee, he returned to the house.
Maxwell watched him go with a bemused expression on his face. "Didn't he used to work for Arabella Ashcroft, and for her mother?" Maxwell asked as he stirred a pair of sugar cubes into his coffee.
"He works for me now," Ali replied civilly, but she wasn't about to reveal any more than that about her domestic arrangements. Besides, Leland Brooks wasn't the only one who was more than a little put out by Sheriff Maxwell's taking the liberty of dropping by her place uninvited, especially when she was impatient to get back to work on her speech. If the man's visit had a point, he had yet to set about making it, and Ali thought it was high time he did.
"Why exactly are you here?" she asked.
Maxwell shifted in his chair. He reached for his Stetson as if considering holding it in front of him as a shield. Then, sighing heavily, he left the hat where it was.
"My two miscreants -- Sally Harrison and Devon Ryan -- are off on administrative leave right now. They'll stay that way as long as the charges against them are being investigated. That leaves my department shorthanded, but I can't hire permanent replacements until the situation has been resolved. If it goes the way I think it will, they'll both get their walking papers."
Listening to him, Ali still wondered what any of this had to do with her.
"I've got someone on my staff who can take up the slack in the evidence room," Maxwell continued, "but the media relations problem is a white horse of a different color. Ryan made quite a mess of it, and our recent history with the press is such that no one inside the department is willing to step up to the plate."
Ali was beginning to get the picture, and she was astonished. "Are you asking me to take on the media relations job?"
Maxwell nodded and then took a sip of his coffee. Hanging on to the tiny cup with one pinky finger poking out in the air made him look as silly as Leland Brooks had intended. Finally he gave up and engulfed the tiny cup in one massive hand.
"On a temporary basis," Maxwell added, after carefully returning the cup to its matching saucer. "Of course, we can't pay you nearly what you earned when you were a television news anchor out in California, but you used to be a reporter, Ali. You know how those people think. You know what they want, and you'll know how to handle them."
"I'm not a cop," Ali said. "Never have been."
Maxwell gave her the smallest grin. "There have been several times the last couple of years when you could have fooled me."
It was true. Since returning to her hometown, Ali Reynolds had found herself in one scrape after another, sometimes dealing with some very bad people. The previous winter she and her mother had helped bring down a serial killer, but that had all come about through her being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I'm forty-seven years old," she said. "I haven't been thinking of starting a new career. Besides, back in the day I did a couple of stories on the L.A. County Sheriff 's Department Police Academy. It struck me as being pretty intense. I don't think I could hack it."
"No one is asking you to go through police academy training," Maxwell said. "This would be on a temporary basis only, until we can officially give Ryan the boot and appoint someone else to the position permanently. Please believe me when I say this. I certainly wouldn't expect you to go around mixing it up with any bad guys, although I know you've done that on your own account on occasion. I also understand that you have a concealed-weapon permit and that you're fairly handy with both your Glock and your Taser. 'Armed and dangerous' is the way Dave Holman put it."
"He would," Ali said. And so would my dad, she thought ruefully. Bob Larson had yet to resign himself to the fact that his wife, Edie, now carried her own pink metallic Taser with her wherever she went. As for Ali's Glock? He disapproved of that as well.
"So we need someone who can help us smooth things over with the media in the meantime," Maxwell said. "Dave thought you might be just the person to fill that bill."
The voice in Ali's laptop chose that moment to speak up. You are now running on reserve power, it announced, which brought Ali back to the words she had been writing at the time Sheriff Maxwell had appeared. Her message had been all about encouraging local students to go off into the world and then come back home, bringing whatever expertise they had gained on the outside to help out the home team. Did Ali mean those words? Or were they just meaningless rhetorical flourishes on her part -- a case of "Do as I say, not as I do"?
Then there was the fact that with the complex remodeling job finally over, Ali had been at loose ends, casting about and wondering what she would do with the rest of her life.
It wasn't as though she needed to discuss her decision with anyone or ask for anyone's permission or opinion. That's one of the things that went with the territory of being single at her age. Ali knew without asking that her mother would be thrilled. Her father, on the other hand, would disapprove -- mostly because he wouldn't want his little girl putting herself in some kind of "pressure-cooker job." Christopher and Athena might swing either way on the subject, most likely down the same division as her parents, with Christopher advising caution and Athena saying, "Go for it." Leland Brooks would back Ali's decision to the hilt regardless of what it was. As for Dave Holman? From what Sheriff Maxwell was saying, Dave had already made his position on the matter quite clear.
"I like my life at the moment," Ali said. "I got out of the habit of punching a time clock a long time ago."
"There won't be any call for time clocks," Maxwell said. "I'd be hiring you as a media consultant."
"With no benefits, I presume," Ali put in.
Maxwell nodded. "That's the best way for me to walk this past the Board of Supervisors. Besides, by doing it this way I can offer quite a bit more money than I could otherwise. Most of the time you could operate out of the Village of Oak Creek substation, but I'd need you to come in to the office in Prescott some of the time -- especially early on, so I can brief you on some of our policies and procedures and bring you up to speed with what we've got going at the moment. There are the usual press issues -- when we're dealing with the Board of Supervisors, for example, or seeing to it that routine police matters make it into the media -- but there are times when we'll need to be able to call you out if there are emergency situations that need to be handled."
"Company car?" Ali asked.
Maxwell grinned at her again. He knew she wouldn't be asking that question if she hadn't already made up her mind to take him up on his offer. What they were doing now was negotiating terms.
"I saw that nifty blue Porsche Cayenne of yours as I came up the driveway," he said. "Your helper was in the process of detailing it. Believe me, none of the vehicles in the department's fleet would measure up to that. I'm afraid you'd need to use your own wheels and settle for a car allowance. You'll need to keep track of your mileage."
"Of course," Ali said. "What about a radio?"
"It'll take some time, but we'll set you up with the same kind of communications equipment our plainclothes people use, although you may not want a radio permanently installed in your vehicle. We'll also equip you with a Kevlar vest, which will need to be worn at all times when you're working for us -- except when you're in the office, that is. Oh, and you'll need a complete contact list."
Will need, Ali noted. Not would need.
In other words, Maxwell knew that he had hooked her. Now he was going for the assumed close.
"When would I start?" Ali asked.
Sheriff Maxwell looked enormously relieved, as though a huge weight had been lifted from his broad shoulders. "Anytime," he said, getting to his feet and donning his Stetson. "The sooner the better."
He left then, sauntering away across the patio. Watching him go, Ali had no idea how much her life had just changed -- in ways she could never have envisioned.Copyright © 2009 by J.A. Jance