Would you care for coffee, madame?”
Ali Reynolds glanced up from her file-littered desk as the French doors between her library office and the living room swung open. Leland Brooks, her aging majordomo, entered the room carrying a rosewood tray laden with a coffeepot as well as cups and saucers for two. It had taken years for Ali to convince Leland that when it was just the two of them at home alone, their sharing a cup or two of midmorning coffee wasn’t some terrible breach of employer/employee etiquette.
“Yes, please,” Ali said, rising from the desk as he placed the tray on the coffee table set in front of the burning gas-log fireplace. Before she could settle into one of the room’s two upholstered wingback chairs, she had to move her recently acquired miniature dachshund, Bella, to one side.
Bella, an unexpected wedding surprise, had been found abandoned in a hotel parking lot in Las Vegas. Ali and B. Simpson, her new husband, had taken time away from their wedding activities to locate the dog’s owner, a woman named Harriet Reid. After suffering a debilitating stroke, Harriet had left her beloved dog in the care of her ne’er-do-well son, Martin, who not only had mistreated the dog—locking her in a closet by day and in his garage by night—but also had
abandoned her, shoving the terrified creature out of a moving vehicle and speeding away in the midst of a busy parking lot. Only lightning-quick action on the part of Ali’s grandson, Colin, had saved the dog from certain death.
At the time Bella was found, she’d had no collar or tag, but she had been chipped. Unfortunately, the phone number listed in the chip company’s records led to a disconnected telephone line. Undaunted, B. had utilized the talents of his second in command at High Noon Enterprises, Stuart Ramey, to locate the dog’s ailing owner. In the process, they discovered that not only had the son mistreated the dog left in his care, he also was systematically emptying his mother’s bank accounts. An anonymous tip to an elder abuse hotline had put a stop to that.
Bella had been part of B. and Ali’s family for just under three months. In the beginning, unused to having a short dog underfoot, they’d had to resort to putting a bell on her collar. With persistent effort, they had convinced her to spend at least part of the night sleeping on a chair positioned next to their bed rather than in the bed itself. During the day, Bella’s preferred place to be was on a chair anywhere her people were. In this case, since Ali was working in the library, Bella was there, too.
With Bella’s long body stretched out between Ali’s thigh and the arm of the chair, Ali waited while Leland poured coffee. She noticed that his hand shook slightly as he passed the cup and saucer. The delicately shaped Limoges Beleme cup jiggled a bit, but not so much that any of the coffee spilled into the saucer.
Ali was glad Leland had seen fit to use her “good” dishes. Her mother’s good china had been displayed but mostly untouched from the time her parents married until they moved into an active-retirement community. At that time the whole set, with only a single dinner plate missing, had been passed along to their grandson, Ali’s son, Christopher. Chris and his wife, Athena, with two young twins in the house, didn’t use their inherited dishes for everyday, either. Ali
suspected the set would be passed on to yet another generation still mostly unbroken and unused.
Leland, seeming to notice the tremor, too, frowned as he set his own jittering cup and saucer down on the glass-topped table.
“Sorry about having the shakes like that,” he muttered self-consciously. “Comes with age, I suppose.”
“It does,” Ali said with a smile as Leland settled into the matching chair opposite her own. “In that case, you’ve earned those tremors in spades.”
In a very real way, eightysomething Leland had come with the house on Manzanita Hills Road in Sedona, Arizona. He had served in the same majordomo capacity for decades for the house’s two previous owners, Anna Lee Ashcroft, and her troubled daughter, Arabella. When Ali had purchased the aging midcentury modern home with the intention of rehabbing it, Leland had stayed on to oversee the complicated task of bringing the place back to its original glory. That remodeling project was now years in the past. Once it was completed, Leland had also played a vital role in creating the lush English garden out front—a garden Anna Lee had once envisioned but never managed to bring to fruition.
Years past what should have been retirement age, Leland simply refused to be put out to pasture. Ali had seen to it that the heavy lifting of cleaning and gardening were now done by younger folks. Leland stayed on, making sure those jobs were done to his stringent standards, but he had yet to relinquish control of his personally custom-designed kitchen to anyone else. There Leland Brooks still reigned supreme.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
Ali glanced over her shoulder at the scatter of files that littered her desk. They contained information on students from various Verde Valley high schools, all of whom had been nominated as possible recipients of that year’s Amelia Dougherty Scholarship. The scholarship was named in honor of Anna Lee Ashcroft’s mother, and students receiv
ing those highly sought awards would have the benefit of a four-year full-ride scholarship to the in-state institution of higher learning of their choice. Years earlier Ali herself had been the first-ever recipient of an Amelia Dougherty Scholarship. Now, through a strange set of circumstances, she was in charge of administering the program from which she had once benefited.
The rules of the award stated that the recipient had to have graduated from a high school in the Verde Valley. At the time Ali had been granted her award, there had been only one of those—Mingus Mountain High in Cottonwood. Now there were three, all of them with scores of deserving students.
Knowing that she held the futures of some of those students in her hands, Ali took her selection responsibilities seriously. In the beginning, Amelia Dougherty scholarships had been awarded to female students only. Ali had widened the scope to include both boys and girls, making her selection task that much more complicated.
Teachers at the various schools were encouraged to nominate students for the award. Once the recipient was chosen, he or she would be invited to tea at Ali’s home—usually toward the end of March or early in April—to receive the award in the same way Ali had been given hers, at a celebratory afternoon tea. Awarding the scholarships that early in the academic year gave recipients who might otherwise not have attempted to enroll in college a chance to do so. In the past several years Ali had expanded the tea attendees to include as many previous recipients as were able to attend.
This year a total of seventy-three nominations had come through the application pipeline. Leland, operating as Ali’s boots-on-the-ground intel agent, had tracked down information on all the nominees and she had winnowed those down to the twenty-four files that were now on her desk. Ali had spent days conducting personal interviews with the last ten finalists. This morning she had been up for hours poring over the individual files. All the students were deserving. Much as she wanted to help all of them, there was a limited amount of
money at her disposal. One by one she had moved most of the files into what she called the “almost but not quite” heap. At this point only two remained in the semifinal category.
“It’s been slow going,” she admitted, “but I’m almost there.”
On the surface, Sedona was considered to be both a tourist mecca as well as an enclave of privilege, but the downturn in the economy had taken a huge bite out of the tourism industry in Sedona just as it had everywhere else. The people who had been hit hardest were the “locals”—the blue-collar workers who waited tables, cleaned hotel rooms, tended bars, manicured yards, and worked in kitchens. Many had lost their livelihoods, their homes, and, in some cases, all hopes for their children’s futures. Ali had it within her power to make a huge difference in someone’s life.
Leland nodded sympathetically. “I don’t envy your having to choose,” he said, “but results are the final judge. Your previous choices have been nothing short of remarkable.”
That was true. Ali’s very first scholarship recipient had graduated magna cum laude and was now a second-year teacher down in Phoenix. The next year’s choice, due to graduate in May, had already been accepted into law school, having found additional scholarships to help pay for her graduate studies. None of Ali’s recipients had dropped out of school, and they had all maintained high enough GPAs to continue in the program from year to year. Two were working on nursing and premed programs at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
“Any front-runners at the moment?” Leland asked.
Ali stood up, retrieved the two semifinalist folders, and sat back down with them in hand.
“Natalie Droman,” she said, reading the name off the top file.
Leland nodded knowledgeably. “The girl from Cottonwood whose father has been diagnosed with ALS. Considering your own history with ALS, that’s only to be expected. On the other hand, Natalie is an exceptional student regardless of what’s going on in her family.”
Years earlier, long before Ali had met Leland, her best friend from
high school, Misty Irene Bernard, had died in a one-car motor vehicle accident when her aging Yukon had taken a deadly plunge off a snowbound cliff on Schnebly Hill Road. Because Reenie had been diagnosed with ALS a short time prior to the incident, her death had been categorized as a suicide until Ali had managed to prove otherwise.
She looked questioningly at Leland. “You have an encyclopedic knowledge of each of these kids, don’t you?”
“I do my best,” he agreed.
“And you’re right,” Ali added. “Natalie is an exceptional student.”
“And the other one?”
Ali smiled and waved the remaining file in Leland’s direction. “That would be your personal favorite, I presume,” she answered. “Mr. Raphael Fuentes.”
Athena, Ali’s daughter-in-law who taught math at Sedona High School, had been the first of three teachers to nominate Raphael. His parents were divorced. His mother, left with three kids to raise, struggled to make ends meet with the help of sporadic child support and what she earned working as a receptionist in a small insurance agency. Raphael’s father, whose engineering career and income had been seriously impacted by “outsourcing” was, as a result, unable to help his son financially, but he was nonetheless in the picture enough to pressure Raphael about going after an engineering degree.
There were several serious problems with that. Although Raphael was a good kid, his math skills were mediocre at best, and he had zero interest in engineering. His heart’s desire was to attend Cordon Bleu and become a chef, a goal that his mother liked but couldn’t help him achieve and one his father regarded with derision.
“Considering your own history,” Ali added, mimicking what Leland had said earlier, “it’s not too surprising that you’d be rooting for Raphael.”
Leland Brooks knew as much as anyone about swimming against the tide of parental disapproval. His interest in cooking wasn’t the only reason he had joined the Royal Marines as soon as he was old
enough to sign up. He had spent most of the Korean War serving as a cook and had devoted his lifetime since then to honing his cooking skills and using them to good effect.
“I would like the lad to have an opportunity to better himself,” Leland said. “But, of course, your policy has always been that the scholarships go to students attending a state-run college or university. Unfortunately, even though there’s a Cordon Bleu branch in Scottsdale, it’s nonetheless a private institution.”
“It is private,” Ali agreed. “But it’s also a two-year program as opposed to a four-year one, making the total cash outlay not that different.”
“I’m sorry,” Leland apologized. “I shouldn’t presume to lobby one way or the other.”
“Why not?” Ali said with a laugh. “You’ve been part of this process since the very beginning, first for Anna Lee and Arabella and lately for me. Why shouldn’t I have the benefit of your opinion?”
“It’s not my place,” he said.
“It is if I say so,” Ali countered. “So how about if you set about issuing invitations to the tea?”
“Invitations as in plural?” Leland inquired.
“Yes,” Ali said, making up her mind. “You’ve convinced me. This year we’ll award two scholarships—one to Natalie and one to Raphael.”
“Excellent,” Leland said enthusiastically, standing up and gathering the coffee cups. “I’ll consult your calendar and see to it right away. I assume you’d like me to use the Montblanc stationery Mr. Simpson gave you for Christmas?”
“Yes, please,” she said. “And use my pen, too. You’re far better at using fountain pens than I am.”
Ali’s cell phone rang just then, and her daughter-in-law’s name appeared in the caller ID screen.
“Hey, Athena,” Ali said when she answered. “What’s up?”
“I need your help.” Ali was surprised to hear Athena sounding close to tears. An Iraqi War vet and a double amputee, Ali’s daughter-in-law was not the tearful type.
“Why?” Ali asked. “Is something wrong?”
“I just got off the phone with my grandmother,” Athena said. “Gram has always been my rock. I’ve never heard her as upset as she was just now on the phone.”
“What’s going on?”
“Gram says someone tried to kill her last night. Someone came into her house while she was asleep. They turned on the gas burners on her kitchen stove without lighting them. The whole house filled up with gas. If it hadn’t been for Princess, Gram’s little dog, they both might be dead by now.”
“Look,” Ali said, “if we’re talking attempted homicide here, your grandmother needs to report the incident to a local law enforcement agency and let them investigate it.”
“That’s part of the problem,” Athena answered. “She already did that—at least she tried to. They pretty much told her she’s nuts. They claim she’s so old and frail that she probably turned the burners on herself and doesn’t remember doing it. They didn’t even bother sending someone out to check for prints. You’ve met Gram. Did she strike you as nuts?”
Ali did know Athena’s grandmother. In fact, Betsy Peterson was the only member of Athena’s family who had bothered to show up for Chris and Athena’s wedding. Athena was estranged from her parents, Jim and Sandra, who, in the aftermath of Athena’s divorce, had, for some strange reason, cast their lot with their former son-in-law along with his new wife and baby.
The summer following Chris and Athena’s wedding, soon after discovering they were expecting, the newlyweds had taken a trip to Minnesota. Ali had hoped that the visit, including the prospect of the fast-approaching arrival of grandchildren, would help smooth over whatever had caused the estrangement. The hoped-for reconciliation hadn’t happened, and the arrival of the twins had made no difference in the status quo, either. Ali had never been made privy to the gory
details of the trip to Bemidji. Once Chris and Athena returned to Sedona, they had been completely closemouthed about it. Ali gathered from their silence on the topic that things had been difficult, but she had resisted the temptation to pry.
“That’s the other part of the problem,” Athena continued. “Donald Olson, the Beltrami County sheriff, and my folks are great pals. They went all through school together, and they belong to the same Rotary group. That might influence the way the incident is being treated. Do you think you could speak to Sheriff Olson and find out what the deal is?”
“It’s not my place,” Ali said.
“Please,” Athena begged. “Can’t you just say that you’re my mother-in-law. I’m concerned about Gram, but since I’m stuck in school and can’t call, I told Gram I’d ask you to do it for me. Besides, it’s true. I can’t call. I have to get back to class.”
“What’s the name of the county again?” Ali asked.
“Give me your grandmother’s number, then,” Ali conceded. “I should probably talk to her about this before I go poking my nose into a hornet’s nest.”
Athena reeled off the number. Ali jotted it down on the outside of Raphael Fuentes’s file folder. After hanging up, she sat with the phone in her hand for some time before finally breaking down and punching in the number.
“Athena?” Betsy asked when she answered the phone. She sounded anxious.
“No,” Ali explained. “It’s Ali Reynolds, Athena’s mother-in-law. We met at the wedding.”
“Of course,” Betsy said. “I remember you. When I saw the unfamiliar number on caller ID, I thought maybe Athena was calling me back from a phone at school.”
“I just finished speaking with her,” Ali replied. “She told me a little
about what happened last night. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“If the local authorities won’t lift a finger, I can’t imagine what you can do from all the way down there in Arizona.”
There were no awkward pauses in Betsy’s replies. If she was operating with a few screws missing, Ali would have thought there’d be at least a momentary bit of confusion or hesitation about who Ali was or where she was. Ali had been impressed by the woman when she had met and interacted with her at the wedding. Betsy Peterson had seemed sharp enough back then, and Ali’s first impression now was that she hadn’t lost any ground.
“What do the local authorities say?” Ali asked.
“They insist I’ve lost my marbles. They claim I turned on the gas burners on my own stove my own darned self and never bothered to light them. The deputy they sent out overnight somehow got the idea in his head that I had tried to use the stove-top burners to warm up the house—something I would never do, by the way. Even if I had been that dim, I certainly would have been smart enough to light them. I’ve had that same stove top for almost thirty years, from back when my husband and I first moved in here. It’s the stove Alton insisted we get for that very reason—that there were no pilot lights. The burners all have to be lit by hand. I hated them then, and I hate them now, but there’s no sense tossing the stove out on the scrap heap since it still works perfectly.”
“It’s cold there, I take it?” Ali asked.
“Not that cold,” Betsy answered. “It’ll probably get all the way up to the twenties today, but we had a blizzard last night, so we’ve got at least six inches of new snow on the ground.”
In the twenties with six inches of snow sounded cold to Ali. “But not so cold that you would have turned the burners on to warm the place up?”
“I have central heating and cooling,” Betsy replied indignantly. “Doesn’t anyone understand that? Why on earth would I try heating
the house with the burners on the kitchen stove. It makes no sense at all. It’s not something I would do.”
“You said it snowed. If someone came and left, wouldn’t he have left tracks?”
“The snow was just starting when I got home from bingo. If there were any other tracks, they’re completely covered over. The only tracks Deputy Severson seemed to be interested in were mine. He was all hot and bothered that I went outside in the snow in my bare feet. I was afraid the house was going to be blown to smithereens, but he thought I should go back to the bedroom to put shoes on? My idea was to get the hell out.”
According to Athena, her grandmother was a plainspoken woman. That appeared to be true. “Did anyone come back this morning to investigate?”
“They did not, even though I begged them to please, please send someone out first thing this morning to dust for prints or collect DNA. Sheriff Olson told me that would be a waste of time. He made it sound as though I had made the whole thing up. After all, since I had enough presence of mind to turn the burners off before I went outside, the gas was long gone by the time Deputy Severson showed up. The way that man—the sheriff—spoke to me, I wanted to reach through the phone lines and wring his scrawny neck. Why on earth would I grab my dog and go running barefoot out of the house into a snowy yard if I hadn’t been scared to death? And what did he expect me to do, leave the gas running until one of his slowpoke deputies managed to get himself over here?”
Betsy’s umbrage at being told she was imagining things hummed through the phone.
“Do you know of anyone who would wish you harm?”
Betsy thought about that for several seconds before she answered. “About a year ago I had a disagreement with Sarah Baxter over the way she handled the glasses after Communion. After Sarah’s turn at
cleaning up, the next time I set out the Communion glasses some of them still had lipstick smears on them. It was unsanitary. I took her aside and told her that if she wasn’t prepared to do the job properly, she shouldn’t volunteer to do it at all. I tried to keep the matter private, but she took offense and turned the whole thing into World War Three. She ended up getting the entire congregation up in arms.”
Nothing like a little “neighbor loving thy neighbor” to keep things interesting at church, Ali thought.
“But that’s all water under the bridge now,” Betsy continued. “I regret to say that Pastor Anders had to be called in to settle things. It turns out Sarah was having problems with cataracts and so was I. We both decided to resign from the Communion Committee and that took care of that.”
“It doesn’t sound like the kind of issue that would cause someone to break into your house and try to do you in.”
“Sarah is out of town at the moment, so it couldn’t have been her,” Betsy said. “Besides, there was no break-in involved. I have no idea how the criminal or criminals got in or out of my house.”
“Do you have an alarm?”
“Was it set?”
Betsy sighed. “No, it wasn’t,” she admitted. “My son would have a conniption fit if he knew I turned it off when I got home and left it off when I went to bed. When Princess needs to go out overnight, the last thing I need is to have that blasted alarm shrieking at us the whole time she’s out in the yard trying to pee.”
“So maybe whoever came into the house followed you inside when you first came home and then let themselves out again after you fell asleep. What kind of dog?”
“Princess is a dachshund,” Betsy replied, “a sweet little wiener dog.”
Ali remembered Athena’s mentioning something about her grandmother having a dog that was a near look-alike to Bella. “Did Princess bark at all last night?”
“Not really. She whimpered rather than barked when she smelled the gas. At least, I think that’s what woke her up, and that’s when she woke me up. She’s fourteen. Like me, she’s probably more than a little deaf. Fortunately her sense of smell hasn’t gone the way of her hearing. Now that you mention it, Princess did bark at Deputy Severson once he showed up.” She paused and then added plaintively, “Do you believe me?”
Ali thought about it and then nodded to herself. “Yes,” she agreed aloud. “I think I do.”
“Thank you for that,” Betsy said with a grateful sigh. “Thank you so much. You have no idea what a boost that is. I was beginning to think that maybe everybody else was right, and I was starting to go bonkers.”
There was a buzz in Ali’s ear—probably a call-waiting signal on Betsy’s phone rather than Ali’s.
“Sorry,” Betsy said. “I have to take this, but thank you. Athena was so right to have you call me. You’ve been a huge help, even from that far away.”