Chapter Excerpt

Deadly Stakes


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.

Excerpted from Deadly Stakes by J. A. Jance
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.