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Lena Jones' most dangerous case...
At the age of four, Scottsdale private eye Lena Jones was shot in the head and left to die on a Phoenix street. After her rescue, she spent years in the abusive foster care system, never knowing who her parents were and why they didn’t claim her. When Desert Redemption begins, she still does not know her real name.
Lena’s rough childhood--and the suspicion that her parents may have been members of a cult—keeps her hackles raised. So when Chelsea, the ex-wife of Harold Slow Horse, a close friend, joins a “new thought” organization called Kanati, Lena begins to investigate. She soon learns that two communes—polar opposites of each other—have sprung up nearby in the Arizona desert. The participants at EarthWay follow a rigorous dietary regime that could threaten the health of its back-to-the-land inhabitants, while the more pleasure-loving folk at Kanati are dining on sumptuous French cuisine.
On an early morning horseback ride across the Pima Indian Reservation, Lena finds an emaciated woman’s body in the desert. “Reservation Woman” lies in a spot close to EarthWay, clad in a dress similar to the ones worn by its women. But there is something about her face that reminds Lena of the Kanatians.
While investigating, Lena’s memory is jolted back to that horrible night when her father and younger brother were among those murdered by a cult leader named Abraham, who then vanished. Lena begins to wonder if either EarthWay or Kanati could be linked to that night, and to her own near-death. Could leaders of one or both shed light on what had happened to Lena’s mother, who vanished at the same time as Abraham?
All these mysteries are resolved in Desert Redemption, the tenth and final Lena Jones case, which can also be enjoyed on its own.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY REVIEW
Desert Redemption: A Lena Jones Mystery
Betty Webb. Poisoned Pen, $26.95 (328p) ISBN 978-1-4642-1095-2
In Jones’s electrifying 10th and final Lena Jones mystery (after 2017’s Desert Vengeance), Scottsdale, Ariz., PI Lena is approached by Harold Slow Horse, one of Arizona’s leading artists, who insists that she investigate the Kanati Spiritual Center, a compound promoting a mishmash of Native American symbolism and philosophy, where his flighty ex-wife, Chelsea, has taken up residence. Lena reluctantly agrees, and discovers that Chelsea is thriving on the fresh air, sunshine, and gourmet cuisine on offer at the center. When the body of a woman with a possible link to the center turns up in the desert, Lena begins to think that there is "something more horrific than religious plagiarism going on at Kanati." Lena gets on a trail that leads her at long last to answers about her troubled past: "I was an orphan… I’d been found comatose on a Phoenix street at the age of four with a bullet in my head. No one came forward to claim me." (Mar.)
[In DESERT VENGEANCE] Lena’s inquiries and the way her moral decisions affect her make for compelling reading. Webb offers fans the profound pleasure of watching Lena mature as she comes one step closer to understanding and accepting her difficult past, while providing new readers with an introduction to this strong and genuinely likeable character.” PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
“Webb, no stranger to hot-button issues (Desert Wind, 2012, etc.), takes on child molestation in a page-turner that presents both her flawed heroine and the reader with plenty of challenges to their moral codes.” KIRKUS
“No one writes southwestern mysteries as well as Betty Webb.” GOODREADS -- 5 stars
BELOW -- READ DESERT VENGEANCE'S FIRST TWO CHAPTERS
I was waiting for him when he stepped out of the prison van. The man who had raped me when I was nine years old squinted against the savage August sun and took a hesitant step towards the beat-up Honda Civic. The driver’s side door opened.
“Get in here quick!” the rapist’s wife yelled. “She’s here, too!”
And so I was. Instead of parking my tricked-out 1945 Jeep at the far side of the prison lot to escape notice, I had parked right behind the Civic. I wanted them both to see me, to take note, to realize that after almost thirty years I still remembered.
As the rapist shuffled towards his wife I stepped out of my Jeep. Smiled. Waved. Flashed my Vindicator. Made certain the rapist noticed the gleam of the sun along the knife’s ten-inch-long, tempered steel blade. Made certain the rapist knew it was nothing like the cheap kitchen knife I had defended myself with the last day I’d spent under his roof.
My Vindicator wouldn’t break.
Neither had I.
Chapter Two of DESERT VENGEANCE
It’s easy to follow a car once you’ve affixed a GPS tracker onto its passenger-side wheel well, so I could have slipped several cars back while following the Civic north along SR-79 to Apache Junction, but what would be the fun in that? I wanted the Wycoffs to know they weren’t done with me, nor I with them.
During the trial, two of the Wycoff’s former foster children came forward to testify against him, with five more kids waiting their turn. But knowing what I now know, I guessed there had been even more victims during the couple’s years working with Child Protective Services.
Child Protective Services? What a joke.
When the Civic sped up, I sped up. When the Civic slowed down, I slowed down. When the Civic pulled into a rest area at the side of the road, I pulled in. Neither Wycoff got out of the car, but I saw Norma take out a cell phone and punch in a number. I was close enough to see her lips moving, but I didn’t need to be a lip reader to know she was on the phone with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, begging for help. After a few minutes’ wait and not one squad car in sight, the Arizona heat finally got to the Wycoffs and they took off again with me right behind them.
I’ve always loved this stretch of desert. Miles and miles of low flat land forested with saguaro, cholla, and prickly pear cacti. A hard landscape, but if you knew its moods, a sustaining one. Had Brian Wycoff recognized its beauty as he paced the exercise yard at the Florence Correctional Facility? I doubted it, since his eye was more attuned to the defenseless beauty of nine-year-old girls.
The Wycoff house, on the eastern edge of Apache Junction, wasn’t much. Due to the trial’s expenses, Norma had vacated their Scottsdale house and move to this cheapo neighborhood. It hadn’t looked too bad at first, but over the years I watched it deteriorate to the point where most people would have torn it down and built a new one. I doubted Norma Wycoff, that Mistress of Denial, could see it as it was: an unkempt faux-stucco with blistered blue paint defacing the window and door sills. As if determined to keep up with all that ugliness, the dying grass in the front yard was littered with empty soda cans, plastic Circle K bags, and freebie newspapers rolled into rotting cylinders.
Welcome home, perv.
Yet the house sat at the base of one of the most spectacular sights in Arizona – the Superstition Mountains. Lit by the morning sun, the mountains’ red, gold, and purple cliffs rose straight up behind the Wycoff hovel, as if trying to shame it into beauty. Fat chance. Once my former foster father had been outed for the monster he was, Norma stopped trying to keep up appearances and let everything slide. If it had been within her power, like all good passive-aggressives she would have allowed the mountains themselves to crumble.
The Civic pulled into what was left of a crumbling asphalt driveway. I parked at the curb and watched them exit the car. Before they reached the door, I caught up with them.
“No balloons, Papa Brian? No party favors?”
He said nothing.
“You can’t harass us like this,” Norma said, her chin jutting out from her fleshy face. “It’s against the law.”
“So’s child rape.”
“You were a liar then, and you’re a liar now. My husband never touched you.”
Behind her, as if taking refuge in her bulk, Wycoff plucked at her dress. “Norma. Please. Let’s just get in the house.”
The jowls on Norma’s face wobbled as she jerked her head around. “She needs to be told a thing or two!”
Oh, I loved the way this was going. I flashed my knife again. “Pretty, isn’t it, Papa Brian? You wouldn’t believe how much it cost me.”
Wycoff’s complexion, already prison-white, paled even further.
“It’s called a Vindicator. Correct terminology is important, don’t you think?”
Norma jerked her head back towards me. “I’m calling the police right now!”
“Be my guest.”
“I’m going to tell them all about you!”
“I’ve always been a fan of freedom of speech.”
By now several neighbors had emerged from their houses to see what was going on. Exactly what I’d intended.
“Hey, everyone, look who’s home from prison!” I shouted, as Norma messed with her iPhone. “Brian Wycoff! Isn’t that great?”
The pregnant woman in the well-tended house next door was too young to have followed the trial so I briefly summarized it for her. Loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Mr. Wycoff here was convicted of thirty-eight counts of child rape and sodomy, got sentenced to twenty-five to life but hit the jackpot in his last parole hearing. Prison over-crowding, good behavior, the usual excuses. No children for him to rape in prison, right? Mr. Wycoff is what they call a Level Three sex offender, a perp most likely to re-offend. Anyone up for a Welcome Home party?”
After a horrified look at her new next-door neighbor, the pregnant woman ran back into her house and slammed the door. Several other neighbors did the same, but a few stragglers remained. One of them, a grizzled oldster, listened intently.
“You bitch,” Norma huffed.
“Takes one to know one. Hey, Papa Brian! I can hardly see you there, hidden behind your wife. Get fitted for your ankle bracelet yet? You’re supposed to wear one for the rest of your life, I hear, and not live within one thousand feet of any school or child care facility. But unless I’m wrong… ” I pointed down the street. “…that’s a nursery school on the corner.”
“It’s just some slut had more brats than she can handle!”
“Hmm. I see two toddlers on a swing set, three on the slide, and the woman watching them doesn’t look like their baby mama. Even if it’s an unlicensed day care facility, the law would still apply.”
Norma looked like her eyes were about to explode. “The police are on their way!”
The oldster went back into his house but left the door open, which I found interesting since Arizonans are usually careful to block the heat out and keep the air conditioning in. Seconds later he returned with a Mossberg shotgun almost as big as he was. After delivering a fuck-you look at Wycoff, he flourished the shotgun in the same manner I’d flourished my Vindicator. A warning, not yet a promise, but considering it, considering it…
My work here finished, I drove away as the music of sirens filled the air.
HERE'S WHAT NetGallery HAS TO SAY IN THEIR FIVE-STAR REVIEW ABOUT THE REST OF "DESERT VENGEANCE..."
The first chapter of Desert Vengeance is a half page long without a wasted word. It grabs you and twists you with a hold so tight that you know you will keep reading. This book is the latest in a series of mysteries by Betty Webb about PI Lena Jones. It could easily be a successful standalone. Nuances of relationships are effortlessly grasped even without the backstory. Lena’s professional status is clear. In the process of the mystery unfolding, the reader learns what happened to Lena as she made her way through a series of foster homes and emerged with emotional scars, but a strong character.
The subject matter, child molestation, is a very difficult one, but is handled in such a way that the reader understands the trauma the children went through without an account of the details of the abuse. The mystery centers around two murders and there are multiple suspects with strong motives. Lena finds through expert interviewing skills that not everyone is telling the truth. Some people have things to hide, even if it is not involvement in the murder. Others don’t really want the murderer caught.
The setting is a very hot Scottsdale, Arizona, with some reprieve in Black Canyon Creek. Both are accurately depicted without lengthy passages, leaving the reader sweaty, dusty, and thirsty. The other characters are interesting and developed appropriately according to their contribution to the plot.
I highly recommend this book either as a standalone or as part of the series. I am looking forward to reading more books by Betty Webb who has eight more books in her Lena Jones Mystery Series and three books in a humorous series about a California zoo-keeping sleuth. A former journalist, Webb deals with controversial topics in many of her books, but she approaches these difficult subjects through the lens of a consummate storyteller.
"The world looks so hopeful at sunrise. The air is clean, birds sing, frogs hush their complaints, and coyotes stop their slaughter of innocent bunnies and head home to bed. It’s all a lie, of course. The world is as vicious in daylight as it is at night."