Read Random Acts Online

Authors: J. A. Jance

Random Acts

BOOK: Random Acts
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Dedication

In memory of my mother, Evie.

 

Random Acts


M
OM,”
J
ENNIFER
A
NN
Brady said, “what if you lose?”

Sheriff Joanna Brady and her daughter, Jenny, were seated at a booth in the Triple T Truck Stop where they'd stopped for deep dish apple pie on their way home to Bisbee from a shopping expedition in Tucson. Jenny would be leaving for her first semester at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in a matter of days. Because Tucson was a hundred miles one way from Bisbee, both of them had taken the day off work—­Jenny from her job at a local veterinarian's office and Joanna from work as well as pre-­election campaigning.

Since there had been no panicky phone calls or texts from Tom Hadlock, her chief deputy, or from her campaign manager, either, it seemed likely that things on that end must be fairly well under control.

Somewhere between Wal-­Mart—­towels, bedding, pillows, sheets, a tiny microwave, and a one-­cup coffeemaker—­T.J.Maxx—­clothing that would have caused Joanna's mother, Eleanor, to have a conniption fit—­and Western Wearhouse—­boots, shirts, jeans, and a new hat—­it had occurred to Joanna that kids needed lots of goods to head off to college these days. That was especially true for Jenny. After being awarded a full-­ride athletic scholarship to join NAU's recently reinstated rodeo team, she would also be going off to school with a pickup truck loaded with tack and a horse trailer hauling her relatively new quarter horse, Maggie.

Jenny had insisted that for this shopping trip it should be just the two of them—­“like the old days,” she had said. The old days in question were the years between the death of Joanna's first husband, Deputy Sheriff Andrew Roy Brady, and the arrival of her second husband, Butch Dixon. During that difficult interval after Andy's murder and before Butch's making his way into Joanna's heart, Jenny had been the only star in her firmament. It had been just the two of them back then . . . well, three really—­Jenny, Joanna, and a single dog. Now there was Butch; Jenny's younger half brother, Dennis; and a menagerie of dogs, horses, and cattle, to say nothing of the growing baby bump at her expanding waistline, who was just then pummeling the inside of Joanna's ribs with a series of field-­goal worthy kicks.

All in all, it had been a lovely day, but Jenny's question left a somber note lingering in the air over the Formica table in the bustling and noisy truck stop dining room.

“I'm not planning on losing,” Joanna said quietly.

This was not a planned pregnancy. Joanna considered herself to be a case study in the statistics that said birth control pills don't always work. And being pregnant at the same time she was running for reelection for the office of county sheriff wasn't that great an idea, either. But she had done it before when she had been pregnant with Dennis, and she was doing it again with Sage. That was what Joanna was currently calling her baby girl, but since Butch wasn't wild about Sage as a girl's first name, that wasn't exactly a done deal.

“Donald Hubble is a cheat,” Jenny said, her blue eyes sparking fire. “I'd never vote for him even if you weren't running.”

Jenny was eighteen now. This would be the first election in which she'd be able to vote. And the fact that Don Hubble was a cheat—­or at least the fact that some of his campaign workers cheated—­had been one of Jenny's hot buttons for weeks. She and Butch would go out on a yard-­sign trip, only to return an hour or so later to discover that the yard signs they had just installed had already disappeared. Part of the problem with that had to do with the fact that Donald Hubble apparently had more money than God and was prepared to pay his campaign workers, while Joanna had to depend on volunteers, including her fiercely passionate daughter.

“We don't know for sure that he cheats,” Joanna said mildly, “although it's clear that some of his workers do.”

“It's the same thing,” Jenny insisted. “He should know what his ­people are doing and put a stop to it.”

Joanna had been surprised when Hubble had thrown his oversized Stetson into the ring. He was one of those “good ol' boy” types. Cochise County born and bred, he came from pioneer ranching stock, a family that had settled in the Willcox area in the late 1880s. After graduating from high school, he had earned a degree in criminal justice from Arizona State University. He had worked as a police officer in Phoenix for years, eventually rising to the rank of assistant chief before taking his retirement. In the meantime, the deaths of first his grandparents and later his parents had left him with a considerable fortune. He had sold the family ranch for a bundle and subsequently retired to Sierra Vista. Joanna suspected that what had really prompted his entry into the race was a severe case of boredom. Hubble's campaign literature—­which Joanna had read cover to cover—­said that if he was elected sheriff, he would make the department “more accountable.” Whatever the hell that meant!

Bottom line? Joanna had no idea. Law enforcement had become her passion. It wasn't something she'd simply be able to walk away from.

“You still haven't answered my question,” Jenny insisted.

Joanna shrugged. “If you make plans for losing, you run the risk of turning that into a self-­fulfilling prophecy. Who knows? Maybe I'll decide to stay home with the baby for a while—­you know, sit around eating bonbons all day.”

“You'd go nuts in a week, tops,” Jenny said with a grin. “And so would Dad. The only person who'd be happy about that would be Grandma Lathrop and maybe Marliss Shackleford. Which reminds me, what does that woman have against you anyway? She's always putting snide remarks about you in that column of hers. I wish she'd stop.”

Marliss, a reporter for the local paper, the
Bisbee Bee
, also wrote a column called “Bisbee Buzzings” which was the local print and e-­version of tabloid journalism. She also happened to be a great pal of Joanna's mother, Eleanor Lathrop Winfield. After Joanna was elected sheriff, it had taken time for her to realize that anything she said to her mother was likely to make it into print through the Eleanor/Marliss connection.

Lately Marliss had devoted several of her columns to the importance of having a “full-­time” sheriff as opposed to one with “severely divided interests.” The column didn't come right out and say “with a new baby on the way,” but everyone in town got the message.

“I wish she'd stop, too,” Joanna said. “But it's a free country—­which happens to include freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and she's entitled to say whatever she wants. As for what she has against me other than the fact that I exist? That I can't say.”

“I suppose Grandma will want to invite her to the barbecue,” Jenny said.

Her mother and stepfather, Eleanor and George Winfield, usually stayed in Minnesota until much later in the fall. They were coming home several weeks earlier this time around, traveling a meandering route in their RV, in order to be in Bisbee in time to host a Saturday afternoon going-­away kickoff barbecue for their college-­bound granddaughter—­a party being cohosted by Jenny's other grandparents, Jim Bob and Eva Lou Brady.

On Sunday, Butch, Dennis, and Jenny would caravan from Bisbee to Flag. Butch and Dennis would ride in Joanna's SUV loaded with Jenny's stuff, while Jenny would haul Maggie in a trailer behind her truck.

“Since your grandparents are hosting the party, they get to invite whomever they want. In other words, don't be surprised if Marliss shows up,” Joanna said finally. “And don't say a word of complaint about it, either.”

“Right,” Jenny said in a tone that implied she wasn't the least bit thrilled.

Lightning flashed outside the windows and a clap of thunder rumbled overhead. While they'd sat in the restaurant, chatting over coffee, a storm they'd earlier seen hovering over the mountains arrived in dead earnest. It was monsoon season in southern Arizona, where late afternoon storms could be fierce, in terms of both rain and dust.

“We'd better go,” Joanna said, gathering the check and her purse. “But first I need a pit stop. Getting from here to the ranch without having to find a restroom is about as far as I can make it these days.”

By the time they reached the car in the parking lot, the rain was coming down in torrents, and they were both soaked to the skin. They landed in the SUV dripping wet and laughing.

“That was fun,” Jenny said, fastening her seat belt.

“Yes, it was,” Joanna agreed. “We should do this more often.”

With pouring rain blowing sideways across the roadway, the drive took longer than normal. A few months earlier, Butch had surprised Joanna with a new-­to-­her, just-­off-­lease Buick Enclave. Her official “geezer car,” as he called it. By the time they made it back to High Lonesome Road and found with the dirt roadway awash in water, she was thrilled to be driving a high ground clearance vehicle with four-­wheel drive.

Butch had food ready and waiting. After dinner, Jenny was happy to show off her collection of new outfits while Denny contented himself with the new LEGO set Joanna had brought home for him. It wasn't until Joanna and Butch were alone in the bedroom that she was able to show off her own prize purchases. She had bought two new pairs of uniform pants. That day, while she and Jenny had been shopping, a tailor had taken both waistbands apart and installed elastic expansion joints to help accommodate what she knew would soon be a much enlarged belly.

“Believe me,” she told Butch. “I got these just in time. Yesterday when I zipped up my uniform, it almost didn't go.”

“It sounds like you both had fun today,” Butch said, once they were in bed.

“We did,” Joanna said, “except for one thing. Jenny's worried about my possibly losing the election.”

“We're all worried about the election,” Butch replied, “but don't concern yourself. No matter what happens, we'll be fine.”

“That's what I told her.”

“Have you thought any more about applying to law school?” Butch asked. That was one of the possibilities they had discussed earlier if the election happened to go the wrong way.

“I haven't,” Joanna said firmly, rolling over onto her side and then snuggling up next to him. “Because I haven't thought any more about losing. I want to win.”

“That's my girl,” Butch said. “What a surprise.”

He reached around her and let his hand settle on her midsection, where the baby was still kicking up a storm.

“Has she been doing this all day?” he asked.

“All long day,” Joanna murmured. “Obviously the kid never sleeps.”

But Joanna did. When her phone rang at five past three, it took her two full rings before she was able to grab her crowing cell phone off the bedside table. She sat on the edge of the bed to answer, knowing that a middle-­of-­the-­night call-­out like this would probably summon her to a homicide investigation somewhere within the vast 6,400-­square-­mile boundaries of Cochise County.

“Hello, Tica,” Joanna said. “What's up?”

Tica Romero was Joanna's nighttime dispatcher. There was a slight but worrisome pause before Tica replied.

“There's been an incident,” the dispatcher said. “Detective Carbajal is on his way to your place right now. He should be there any minute.”

An incident?
Joanna thought. “He's on his way here?” she said. “Why? What's going on?”

“It's an MVA,” Tica replied reluctantly. “He'll tell you the rest when he gets there.”

A motor vehicle accident?
Joanna thought with sudden dread. Her first thought was that Jenny had pulled a wild-­haired teenaged stunt, snuck out of the house for some reason, and had been involved in an accident. But where? And how badly was she hurt?

Without pausing long enough to grab her robe, Joanna sprinted out of the master bedroom and down the hall to Jenny's. She flung the door open and switched on the light, expecting to find Jenny's bed empty. It wasn't. Jenny was right there with her deaf black Lab, Lucky, on the floor beside her bed.

Jenny sat up, rubbing her eyes. “Hey,” she said sleepily, “what's going on?”

Before Joanna could answer, the doorbell rang. That awakened Lady, her rescued Australian shepherd who now slept in Dennis's room, and Lady's frenzied barking automatically awakened Dennis. With the whole household, including Butch, now fully awake, Joanna zipped into the bedroom to grab her robe.

Who can it be?
she wondered.
Please, God, not one of my deputies.
I can't lose another
one of them.

By the time she reached the living room, everyone else was already there. Butch stood at the end of the hallway with Dennis on his hip. Lucky may have been stone deaf, but since Lady was barking her head off, he immediately followed suit. Jenny, also in her robe, stifled both dogs with an urgent hand signal. Obviously Lady had learned a thing or two while Jenny had been training Desi, the hearing assistance dog Jenny had recently turned over to his new ten-­year-­old owner.

Joanna finished tying her robe and then flung open the door, where she found Jaime Carbajal standing on the front porch. She shoved open the security screen for him to enter. “Come in,” she said urgently. “What's going on?”

“It's your folks,” Jaime said simply.

“My parents?” Joanna asked stupidly. “George and my mother?”

Jaime nodded numbly. “Yes,” he said.

“Are they dead?”

“George is,” Jaime said quietly. “Your mother has been transported to a St. Gregory's Hospital in Phoenix. She's undergoing surgery right now.”

As sheriff, Joanna had done her share of next-­of-­kin notifications. Some ­people simply collapsed when they heard the bad news. Some ­people screamed. Some ­people fell to their knees as if in prayer or waved their arms as if the terrible words were a swarm of Africanized bees. Joanna took two steps backward and then leaned against the arm of a nearby sofa as Jenny gasped behind her. “I can't believe it. Grandpa George is really dead?”

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