Paris: 1922. A brave woman and a dreadful secret.
Coming April 4, 2023
Zoe Barlow knows the pain of loss. By the age of 18, she'd already lost her father to suicide and her reputation to an ill-fated love affair, not to mention other losses too devastating for words. Exiled from her home and her beloved younger sister by their stepmother, Zoe has been dumped in Paris without a friend to help her make her way.
Now, four years, later Zoe has forged a new life as a painter amidst fellow artists, expats, and revolutionaries who are all struggling to make sense of the world in the aftermath of the Great War. Zoe has adopted this Lost Generation as her new family, so when her dear friend Hadley Hemingway loses a valise containing her husband Ernest's writings, Zoe happily volunteers to track it down. But she doesn't realize that her hunt has put her in the crosshairs of a merciless killer.
READ THE FIRST CHAPTER BELOW!
December, 1922. Paris
Despite the sudden snowstorm, Poker Friday was going well at the pretty little house on Rue Vavin. Zoeline Eustacia Barlow— "Zoe" to her friends—was almost fourteen hundred francs up. But then the Marquis had to go and ruin everything.
"Too bad about Hemingway, is it not?" Fortier said, in that aristocratic nasal twang that had always grated on Zoe's nerves. "His poor wife will certainly pay the price." Although well into his forties, Fortier's patrician face was clear of wrinkles, and despite the long scar on his cheek from German shrapnel—he'd fought bravely in the War to End All Wars—he was still handsome.
But handsome is what handsome does.
"What are you talking about, Antoine?" Zoe said, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice. She held two pairs, treys and fives and a lonely jack, but had been counting the cards and knew Fortier held two eights and at least one ace. Her friend Jewel Johnson, lead dancer at the Moulin Rouge, appeared to be hoping for a flush, and the infamous artists' model, Kiki of Montparnasse, didn't have much of anything. Neither did Kiki's escort, Nick Stewart, of the filthy rich Boston Stewarts.
Zoe couldn't decide what to do. Raise? Hold? Draw?
Outside, a cruel gust of December wind rattled the house's tall windows, giving a twinge to her left leg, the one she'd broken as a child, but Zoe had fed enough coals into the ceramic-faced iron stove to keep the sitting room toasty. Even if a finger of chill did manage to creep inside, the excellent Montrachet they were drinking tasted robust enough to fight it off. With good friends, fine wine, and a possibly winning poker hand, all should have been well, but thanks to Fortier, it wasn't. Maybe she should stop inviting the old bore to her Poker Fridays.
Fanning away the cigarette smoke wafting towards her from his stinking DeReszke, she said, "The last I saw of the Hemingways, they were fine."
Fortier lifted one edge of his lip in a sneer, which irritated Zoe even more than his voice. On one of her many trips to the Louvre, she'd come across a portrait of Fortier's lordly ancestor, the sixth Marquis Antoine Phillippe Fortier de Guise, who'd lost his head in the French Revolution. The Marquis's sneer was the same as his descendant's.
Zoe tried her best to concentrate on her cards, but Fortier's comment stirred the other players, too. Count Sergei Ivanovic Aronoffsky—who had folded early--said, "You truly haven't heard of your friend Hadley's misfortune, Zoe? Why, all Paris is abuzz!"
Dominique Garron, the war artist who'd lost an eye covering the Battle of the Marne, glared at Fortier with her remaining hazel orb. "Who cares about the Hemingways? Shut up and play your cards, Antoine, so we can get started on another hand." Like the Count, Dominique had already folded, recognizing danger when she saw it. Same as sculptor Karen Wegner, with whom Dominique was finishing off a bottle of Cognac Gelas to drown her poker sorrows.
As the war artist leaned back against her chair, a glowing shred of tobacco from her Gitane drifted down to the chair's maple arm. The expensive fifteen-piece Art Nouveau dining set had only been delivered last week, and Zoe was quite proud of it. Trying not to think about her new chair's fate, she said to the Count, "Since Fortier's so busy smirking, perhaps you could tell me what's going on with the Hemingways. I've been too busy painting to keep up with the latest gossip."
The Count gave her a gentle smile. She'd always seen a touch of El Greco in Sergei Leonovich Aronoffsky's gaunt, hollow-cheeked face. His arms and legs were thin, too, testaments to the hungry months he'd spent on the run from the Bolsheviks. "You announce you've been painting? Ha! As if we couldn't tell, dear Zoe. We can smell the turpentine and linseed oil from here. I don't understand why you can't copy the others of your kind and maintain a separate studio. It's certainly not because you're hurting for money."
At this, Kiki giggled. Zoe didn't.
One aristocrat at the poker table was bad enough, but whenever two of them showed up the same evening, snobbery ran rife, and Zoe sometimes found herself in sneaking sympathy with the mobs who'd dragged her friends' lordly forebearers to their deaths on the guillotine. True, the Count's woes were more recent than Fortier's. Only five years earlier, when the Bolsheviks took over Russia, the poor man lost his wife, his grand estate, and two Rembrandts. In the odd way of the world, his luck had almost immediately turned. Upon reaching the welcoming arms of Paris, he'd met and married a wealthy French widow. Shortly thereafter, he found himself widowed again. Despite the Count's travails, he still looked down his nose on the untitled. One would think that Jewel's love would cure him of his snobbery, but it hadn't happened yet.
Zoe sighed, thinking it was no wonder the Bolsheviks had shot his kind against their tapestried walls. However, it was rumored Sergei had managed to escape the bloodbath with a small hoard of diamonds, and since he was a laughably bad poker player, she'd grown to appreciate the extra pin money his inclusion at her Poker Fridays earned her. Besides, despite his occasional bouts of arrogance, she'd grown fond of the man. Unlike other aristocrats she could mention, at least the Count had a heart.
Feeling the need to defend the acrid aromas in her snug little house, she said, "Now, now, Sergei. I'm a painter, and like most painters, I keep odd hours. Two and three a.m. often find me working, so having my studio here keeps me from walking the streets in the wee hours and being confused with another sort of woman."
At this, everyone laughed, but the mischievous Kiki pretended to find more than humor in Zoe's off-color joke. "Walking the streets? But, Zoe, chérie, it would be fun! Perhaps you and I could do that together."
Since the raven-haired model's spat with her lover, photographer Man Ray, she'd been attending Zoe's Poker Fridays with a variety of new suitors, all of whom had loads of money. Zoe didn't mind. The young men were always good for a laugh, and wasn't that what Paris was all about? Laughter and good times? Nick Stewart, Kiki's suitor-of-the-moment, wasn't a half-bad artist himself, despite the color-blindness that ran amok through his inbred Boston family. But color blindness had never hampered a Dadaist, what with the urinals, hair clippings, and other nonsense objects they hung on gallery walls and called Art with a capital A. Few of them bothered to paint anymore, including Nick, who was currently working on an installation combining shoe laces and chicken bones.
Kiki's outré begged an answer. "Walk the streets together, Kiki? Sorry, but I must decline. I don't have what you French ladies call savoir faire, or your beauty, and I'd wind up with a less than top-notch clientele. And who wants to have sex with hobos?" Directing her attention back to the Marquis, Zoe asked, "Now, what were you saying about Ernest and Hadley?"
Not that Zoe cared about Ernest Hemingway, having once observed the bully sucker-punch an inoffensive young man in the Closerie des Lilas café just for the thrill of seeing him fall. But she did care about Hadley. She'd often wondered how such a sweet-natured woman could put up with the ill-tempered man, who remained far from the success he imagined himself to have attained. Love, probably. Love, that old betrayer. Love, that old destroyer. For the past four years, Zoe had taken pains to avoid it. One broken heart was enough.
Oblivious to his hostess's feelings, Fortier was more than happy to expound on the Hemingway scandal. "The story I hear is that Hadley lost all of Ernest's manuscripts. Every word he ever wrote, even that certain-to-be-terrible novel he was working on."
Zoe frowned. "That makes no sense. How could Hadley lose his manuscripts? She's not his secretary."
"I know the answer to that," the Count said, his mournful countenance buoyed by a semi-smile. "It happened aboard a train. One of the porters at the Gare de Lyon, a Russian like myself, gave me chapter and verse of the incident."
"Do tell, since we're all agog," snapped Fortier, jealous that Sergei had stolen his place on the soapbox.
With an indulgent nod, the Count cleared his throat. The story he then related was a troubling one, in which poor Hadley did indeed emerge as irresponsible. A few days earlier, while Ernest was in Switzerland reporting on the Lausanne Peace Conference, he'd run into a publisher who asked to see some of his fiction. Thrilled, as any aspiring novelist would be, Ernest immediately telegraphed Hadley, who had stayed behind in Paris, to post him a few stories and his unfinished novel.
Under most circumstances, this would have been a sensible enough request.
But Hadley had fallen ill with the flu, Sergei continued, which is why she hadn't accompanied Ernest to Lausanne in the first place. Anxious to please her husband, she'd staggered around their tiny apartment collecting the manuscripts, and in her delirium, packed up the carbons as well. She stuffed everything into a valise. Hoping to surprise him, she hitched a ride with their landlord to the Gare de Lyon, where she bought a ticket on the Lausanne-Express. Once aboard, Hadley placed the valise under her seat. Still feverish, she went back out on the platform to purchase a bottle of Evian for the long journey.
"The porter told me when the poor woman returned to her seat, the valise was gone," Sergei finished. "So I ask you, Zoe, an important question, one for which you, as her most trusted friend, should have the most informed answer. Yes, all Paris is aware of Ernest's habit of knocking down unsuspecting men in cafés, but do you know if he is also in the habit of knocking down his wife? Given the enormity of her crime, should we worry about pretty Hadley's safety?"
Zoe was so miffed it took her a moment to answer, and when she did, she discovered she'd lost the poker hand. Kiki, the little sneak, had been holding an inside straight, and had been too foxy to let it show. The sly cat was still raking in the francs when Zoe finally found her voice.
"Ernest may be a bully-boy in the cafés, Sergei, but I doubt he hits Hadley. She's the one with the money, remember. Ah, did I hear you say she packed the originals and carbons?"
As much as Zoe hated to admit it, Sergei might be right.
Zoe had met Hadley earlier in the year, when the Marquis, already a poker-playing regular, invited Zoe to accompany him to one of Gertrude Stein's famous "evenings." Gertrude, who looked and acted like more a Roman emperor than a woman, had gained fame for her foresight in championing the talents of Picasso, Matisse, and others while they were still unknowns, and now she reigned supreme in the salons of Paris. To be granted entrée into one of her gatherings signaled that your work was being taken seriously, so Zoe was thrilled to accept Fortier's invitation. A meeting with Gertrude would surely turn her luck around!
It hadn't worked out that way.
The evening had started off promisingly enough, with everyone feasting at a table spread with rare delicacies. But after the housekeeper whisked away the remnants, the mood changed. Instead of allowing Zoe to join in the conversation with the other artists and writers—all male, she noted—Gertrude insisted she join the wives and mistresses in a small adjoining room. With a condescending smile, the big woman explained, "Ladies always enjoy talking to Alice. She knows so much about running a household, sewing and cooking and such."
Sewing and cooking and such? Oh, bushwa!
Deeply offended, the only reason Zoe hadn't sloshed her wine into Gertrude's face was because she didn't want to further humiliate Fortier. The moment Gertrude made her pronouncement, he'd flushed with embarrassment, and his mouth opened and closed, and opened again as he tried to find the proper words to decry their host's prejudice. Taking pity on him, Zoe stood up and with the rest of the rest of the ladies, filed out of the room. She was spoiling for a fight, though, and was looking forward to giving Alice a piece of her mind. But once she was settled in a room overstuffed with paintings and furniture, Hadley, who sat next to her on the uncomfortable horsehair sofa, leaned over and whispered, "Patience, Zoe. It'll be ugly, but you'll survive. We all will."
Zoe had noticed Hadley earlier, her enviable porcelain skin—much smoother than Zoe's own—the glorious auburn hair cut into a flapper's bob, and the dance of intelligence in those blue-gray eyes. Although appearing several years older than her husband and nowhere near as pretty, Hadley's long, slender fingers revealed the gifted pianist she was reputed to be.
"Does Gertrude do this often?" Zoe whispered back. "Banish the females to Purdah?"
"Every damned time."
Hadley placed a beautifully-manicured forefinger against her lips. "Shh. Here comes Alice."
Zoe found Alice Toklas less condescending than Gertrude. If anything, the small woman seemed a bit shy. But the following discussions of petite-point and the proper mincing of truffles bored her, and only Hadley's witty asides made the experience bearable. By the time the evening was over, Zoe realized she'd found a kindred spirit. Since then, hardly a week passed when she and Hadley did not share a drink or three at La Rotonde. Sometimes Hadley would even visit the little house on the Rue Vavin and serenade her with mini-concerts of Bach or Handel on Zoe's Gaveau upright. When in a particularly rebellious mood—usually after another humiliating visit to Gertrude's with her vain husband—she'd pound out jazz.
Now Zoe's friend was in big trouble.
[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, 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."
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.)