Read Paradise Lost Online

Authors: J. A. Jance

Tags: #Police Procedural, #Detective and mystery stories, #Arizona, #Mystery & Detective, #Cochise County (Ariz.), #Brady; Joanna (Fictitious character), #General, #Policewomen, #Suspense, #Women Sleuths, #Mothers and daughters, #Sheriffs, #Mystery Fiction, #Fiction

Paradise Lost

This document was generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter program PROLOGUE

Connie Haskell had just stepped out of the shower when she heard the phone ringing. Hoping desperately to hear Ron’s voice on the phone, she grabbed a towel and raced through the house, leaving a trail of wet footprints on the worn carpeting of the bedroom and hallway. For two weeks she had car-ried the cordless phone with her wherever she went, but when she had gone to the bathroom to shower that morning, she had forgotten somehow and left the phone sitting beside her empty coffee cup on the kitchen table.

By the time she reached the kitchen, the machine had already picked up the call. “Hello, Mrs.

Haskell. This is Ken Wilson at First Bank.” The disembodied voice of Connie’s private banker echoed eerily across the Saltillo tile in an otherwise silent kitchen. As soon as she heard the caller’s voice and knew it wasn’t her husband’s, Connie didn’t bother to pick up the receiver. It was the same thing she had done with all the other calls that had come in during this awful time.

She had sat, a virtual prisoner in her own home, waiting the other shoe to drop. But this call from her banker prob-ably wasn’t it.

“I’m calling about your checking account,” Ken Wilson con-tinued. “As of this morning, it’s seriously overdrawn. I’ve paid the two outstanding checks that showed up today as well as one from yesterday, but I need you to come in as soon as possible and make a deposit. If you’re out of town, please call me so we can make some other arrangement to cover the overdraft. I believe you have my number, but in case you don’t, here it is.”

As Ken Wilson recited his direct phone number, Connie slipped unhearing onto a nearby kitchen stool. In all the years she had han-dled her parents’ affairs—paying bills and writing checks after her father had been incapacitated by that first crippling stroke and then for her mother after Stephen Richardson’s death—in all that time, Connie had never once bounced a check. She had written the checks and balanced the checkbooks each month under Stephen’s watchful and highly critical eye. Because of stroke-induced aphasia, her father had been able to do nothing but shake his head, roll his eyes, and spit out an occasional “Stupid.” But Connie had perse-vered. She had done the task month after month for years. After her marriage to Ron, when he had volunteered to take over the bill-paying, she had been only too happy to relinquish that onerous duty. And why not? Ron was an accountant, wasn’t he? Dealing with numbers was what CPAs did.

Except Ron had been gone for two weeks now—AWOL. For two long, agonizing weeks there had been no word to Connie. No telephone call. No letter. She hadn’t reported him missing be-cause she was ashamed and afraid. Ashamed because other people had been right about hirer and she’d been wrong, and afraid she might learn that there was another woman involved. The woman was bound to be far younger and tar better-looking than Constance Marie Richardson Haskell. She was unable to delude herself into thinking there was a chance of foul play. No, Connie had made a point of checking Ron’s carefully organized side of the closet. Her missing husband had simply packed one of his roll-aboard suitcases with a selection of slacks and custom-made, monogrammed shirts, and left.

The main reason Connie had kept silent about his absence was that she didn’t want to have to face up to all those people who had told her so. And theyhad told her so—in spades. Any number of friends and relations had tried, both subtly and not so subtly, to explain that they
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thought Connie was making a mistake in marry-ing so soon after her mother’s death. Connie’s older sister, Mag-gie—someone who never suffered from a need to keep her opinions to herself—had been by far the most outspoken.

“If you ask me, Ron Haskell’s nothing but a gold-digging no-account,” Maggie MacFerson had said. “He worked for Peabody and Peabody for six months before Mother died. He knew everything about Mother’s financial affairs, and now he knows everything about yours. He also knows how naive you are, and he’s taking you for a ride. For him, you’re nothing but a meal ticket.”

“We fell in love,” Connie had declared hotly, as if that one fact alone should resolve all her older sister’s concerns. “Besides, Ron’s resigning from the firm, so there can’t be any question of conflict of interest.”

In response, Maggie MacFerson had blown an exasperated plume of smoke in the air. She shook her head and rolled her eyes. When she did that, she looked so much like Stephen Richardson that Connie had expected to hear her father’s familiar pronounce-ment of “Stupid!”

“We all have to make our own mistakes, I suppose,” Maggie said with a resigned sigh. “At least do yourself a favor and get a pre-nup agreement.”

That was the one and only time the two sisters had discussed Ron Haskell. Naturally, Connie hadn’t followed Maggie’s advice. She hadn’t wanted to ask for a prenuptial agreement because she was afraid if she mentioned it, Ron might think she didn’t trust him, which she did—absolutely and with all the lovesick fervor of a forty-two-year-old woman who had never fallen in love before, not even once.

But now, sitting alone in the house on Southeast Encanto Drive—a house that had once belonged to Stephen and Claudia Richardson but that now belonged to Connie and Ron Haskell—she suddenly felt sick to her stomach. What if Maggie had been right about Ron? What if his disappearance had nothing to do with another woman and everything to do with money?

What if, in the end, that was all Ron had wanted from Connie—her money?

As soon as the thought surfaced, Connie shook her still-dripping hair and pushed that whole demeaning notion aside. Surely that couldn’t be. And whatever was going on at the bank was all a sim-ple mistake of some kind. Maybe there had been a computer glitch, a virus or something.

Those happened, didn’t they? Or else maybe Ron had merely forgotten to transfer money from one of the investment accounts into the household bill—paying account.

By then, the answering machine had clicked off, leaving the light blinking to say there was a message, which Connie had already heard and had no need to hear again. The solution was per-fectly simple. All Connie had to do was call Ken Wilson back and tell him to make the necessary transfer. Once she did that, every-thing would be fine. Connie could return to her lonely vigil of waiting for Icon himself to call or for some police officer somewhere to call and say that Ron was dead and ask her to come and identify the body.

Taking a deep breath, Connie grabbed the phone. She punched in *69 and let the phone redial Ken Wilson’s number. I le answered on the second ring. “Ken Wilson here.”

“Ken, it’s Connie,” she said, keeping her tone brisk and businesslike. “Connie Haskell. Sorry I missed your call. I was in the shower. By the time I found the phone, your call had already gone
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to the machine. I can’t imagine what’s going on with the checking account. Ron is out of town at the moment. He must have forgotten to make a transfer. I’d really appreciate it if you could just han-dle that for us—the transfer, I mean. I’m not sure what checks are outstanding, so I don’t know exactly how much is needed.”

“Which account do you want to use to transfer funds?” Ken asked.

Connie didn’t like the guarded way he said that. It sounded wary and ominous. “You know,”

she said. “We always transfer out of that one investment account. I can’t remember the number exactly. I think it’s nine-four-something.”

“That would be account number nine-four, three-three-three, two-six-two. Is that right?”

Connie could barely contain her relief. “That’s right,” she breathed. “I’m sure that’s the one.”

“But that account was closed two months ago,” Ken Wilson returned.

Suddenly Connie felt her pulse pounding in her throat. “Closed?” she stammered. “It was?”

“Why, yes. I thought you knew that. Mr. Haskell came in and closed all your accounts except for the checking. He said that you had decided to go with another banking institution, but since you had all the automatic withdrawals scheduled front that account, he’d leave .just that one as is for the time being. He closed all the investment accounts, as well as taking all the CDs. I advised against it, of course, especially the CDs, but ...”

“He closed them all?” Connie asked incredulously.

“Yes. After all the years I’d been looking after your family’s accounts, I was personally very disappointed. I thought we’d done a good job of handling things for you and your parents both, but I didn’t feel it was my place to argue with your husband.”

The kitchen seemed to swirl around her. Connie closed her eyes in an effort to stop the spinning. “Which checks?” she asked woodenly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Which checks are overdrawn?” she asked. Connie knew that she hadn’t written any checks since Ron had disappeared. Unless he had the checkbook with him and was still writing checks, the overdrafts most likely had come from some of those automatic deductions.

“One to Blue Cross, one to Regency Auto Lease, and the third is to Prudential,” Ken told her.

Connie nodded. Their health insurance premium, the lease on Ron’s car—his new BMW

740i—and their long-term care. After years of being the unpaid maid-of-all-work for her ailing and eventually bedridden parents, Connie Haskell had been determined to have the wherewithal to pay for long-term care for both herself and her husband should they ever reach a point where their own declining health required it. It was the one purchase she had insisted she and Ron make as soon as they returned from their honeymoon.

“How much?” she asked.

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“The total outstanding?” Ken returned. Connie nodded wordlessly, although her private banker couldn’t see that.

“Let’s see,” he said. “‘That’s eighteen hundred forty-six dollars and seventy-two cents, including the service charges. Under most circumstances I’d be happy to waive the service charges, but since we no longer have any of your other business ...”

He let the rest of the sentence hang in the air. Meanwhile Con-nie, grappling with finding a way to fix the problem, wrote down the amount he had mentioned.

“What about my credit card?” she asked. “Can we transfer the money in from my VISA?”

Ken Wilson cleared his throat. “There’s a problem there, too, Connie,” he said apologetically.

“Your VISA account is over the limit right now, and the payment was due yesterday. That’s another seventeen hundred sixty dollars and forty-three cents. That would just bring the balance down to where you wouldn’t be over your limit.”

As Ken Wilson spoke, Connie was remembering how Ron had encouraged her to sign application forms for several other credit cards—ones that evidently weren’t with First Bank.

“Even if we never touch them,” Ron had told her, “we’re better off having them available.” And indeed, if any of those applications had been approved, the resulting credit cards had never made it into her hands or purse. And if her VISA at First Bank was maxed out, what about balances on the other cards—ones Connie had no record of and no way to check?

I won’t think about that right now,Connie told herself firmly as she wrote down the second figure. After adding that one together with the first, she arrived at a total of $3,607.15.

Swallowing hard, ( ;mini. drew a circle around it.

“Your office is still on Central, isn’t it?” she asked.

“That’s right,” Ken Wilson replied. “Central and Camelback.”

“And how long will you be there?”

“I have an appointment out of the office this afternoon, but that won’t be until one o’clock. I’ll need to leave here around twelve-thirty.”

“All I have to do is dry my hair and throw on some clothes,” Connie told him. “I should be there with the money within forty-five minutes.”

She heard Ken Wilson’s sigh of relief. “Good,” he said. “I’ll be looking forward to seeing you.”

Connie hung up the phone. Then, with her whole body quak-ing and unmindful of her still-dripping hair, she walked back through the house. She went to the room which had once been her mother’s study—the green-walled cozy room which had, after her mother’s death, become Connie’s study as well. With trembling hands she opened the bottom drawer of the dainty rosewood desk and pulled out her mother’s frayed, leather-bound Bible. One by one she began to remove the old-fashioned but still crisp hundred-dollar bills that had been concealed between many of the thin pages. Claudia Armstrong Richardson had told her daughter the story so many times that even now Connie could have repeated it verbatim.

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Claudia had often related how, as an eleven-year-old, her idyllic life had been shattered when she awoke that fateful morning in October of 1929 to learn that her once affluent family was affluent no longer. Her lather had lost everything in the stock market crash. There had been a single payment of three hundred dollars due on the family home in Columbus, Ohio, but without sufficient cash to make that one payment, the bank had foreclosed. Months later, the day they were scheduled to move out of the house, Claudia’s father had gone back inside—to make sure the back door was locked, he had told his wile and daughter. Instead, with Claudia and her mother waiting in a cab outside, Roger Armstrong had gone back into the empty room that had once been his book-lined library and put a bullet through his head.

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