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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 carried 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 for the other shoe to drop. But this call from her banker probably wasn't it.
"I'm calling about your checking account," Ken Wilson continued. "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 directphone number, Connie slipped unhearing onto a nearby kitchen stool. In all the years she had handled 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 persevered. 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 because she was ashamed and afraid. Ashamed because other people had been right about him 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 far 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 they had told her so -- in spades. Any number of friends and relations had tried, both subtly and not so subtly, to explain that they thought Connie was making a mistake in marrying so soon after her mother's death. Connie's older sister, Maggie -- 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 pronouncement 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 prenup 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 simple 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 perfectly simple. All Connie had to do was call Ken Wilson back and tell him to make the necessary transfer. Once she did that, everything would be fine. Connie could return to her lonely vigil of waiting for Ron 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. He 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 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 handle 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 from 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.
"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 Connie, 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, Connie 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 quaking 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.
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 father 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 wife 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.
"So you see, Constance," Claudia had cautioned her daughter over and over, "you must keep some money set aside, and not just in banks, either, because many of the banks were forced to close back then, too. The only people who were all right were the ones who had cold, hard cash put away under their mattresses or hidden in a sock. You have to keep the money someplace where you can get your hands on it when you need it."
Over the years, long after Claudia had married Stephen Richardson and long after there was no longer any valid need for her to be concerned about such things, Claudia Armstrong Richardson had continued to put money in the Bible, right up until her death, insisting that Connie put the money there for her once Claudia herself was no longer able to do so.
There were times Connie had argued with her mother about it. "Wouldn't it be safer in a bank?" she had asked.
"No!" Claudia had declared heatedly. "Absolutely not."
"What if the house burns down?"
"Then I'll get a new Bible and start over," Claudia had retorted.
After her mother's death, Connie had left Claudia's Bible as it was and where it was -- in the bottom drawer of the desk. It had seemed disrespectful to her mother's memory to do anything else. Now, as Connie counted some of those carefully hoarded bills into a neat pile, she was glad she had abided by her mother's wishes. She had told no one of her mother's private stash -- not her father, not her sister, and not even her new husband.
When Connie had counted out enough money to cover her debt, she started to put the Bible back in the drawer. Then, thinking better of it, she took it with her. In the kitchen, she stuffed the Bible into her capacious purse. After hurriedly drying her hair and slathering on some makeup, she dressed and headed off for her meeting with Ken Wilson. Twenty minutes later she was standing in the foyer of the private banking offices of First Bank of the Southwest. At that point, Connie had her involuntary quaking pretty well under control.
Ken Wilson himself came out to greet her and take her back to his private office. "I hope this hasn't troubled you too much, Connie," he said kindly.
She gave her banker what she hoped passed as a supremely confident smile as he showed her to a chair. "Oh, no," she said, willing her face not to reveal the depth of her humiliation. "It's no trouble at all. I'm sure this is nothing more than an oversight on Ron's part. He was called out of town on business and ended up being gone longer than either of us intended. I expect to speak to him later on today, and we'll get this whole thing straightened out. In the meantime, I brought along enough cash to dig us out of the hole."
Carefully she counted out thirty-seven hundred-dollar bills. As she pushed them across the smooth surface of Ken's desk, the banker cleared his throat. "I took the liberty of looking at your account again," he said. "There's another four hundred dollars' worth of life insurance premiums that will be deducted within the next two days. Do you want to deposit enough to cover those as well?"
Grateful she had brought along the Bible, Connie extracted four more bills and shoved them over to Ken Wilson. "Good," he said. "Very good." He stood up. "If you'll wait just a moment, I'll be right back with your change and a receipt."
Connie nodded and then sat staring out the window at traffic rushing by until he returned. He handed her the receipt and carefully counted out the change.
"If you'll forgive my saying so," he said hesitantly, "it sounded as though you had no idea these monies were being transferred from First Bank. I trust there isn't some kind of problem. I mean, your family -- you and your parents -- have been good customers for a very long time -- since long before First Bank became First Bank, as a matter of fact. I'd hate to think we had allowed something untoward to happen, although, since the accounts were all joint accounts --"
"Oh no," Connie interrupted, answering too quickly and too brightly. She wanted to ask where the funds had gone, but she fought that one down. She didn't want to admit to Ken Wilson that she had been kept totally in the dark. She didn't want to admit to being that irresponsibly stupid. "If Ron decided to move the funds, I'm sure he must have had a good reason," she continued. "As soon as I talk to him, we'll have the whole thing ironed out."
"Good, then," Ken Wilson said. "I'm glad to hear it."
Connie grabbed her purse and fled Ken Wilson's office. She dashed through the marble-floored bank lobby and sank gratefully into the overheated leather of her mother's oversized Lincoln Town Car. Although it was not yet the end of May, the Valley of the Sun had been sweltering in triple-digit temperatures for almost two weeks. Even so, Connie felt chilled. When she switched on the engine, she quickly turned off the air conditioner and opened the window, letting in a blast of broiling outside air.
Joint accounts! she chided herself. She had done that on purpose, too. In a fit of defiance, Connie had put Ron on as a signatory to all her accounts just to spite people like her sister Maggie and the other naysayers who had told her Ron was only after her money.
Had she listened? Had she paid any of them the slightest bit of heed? No. Her father had been right after all. She was stupid -- unbelievably stupid. She had taken everything Ron Haskell told her as gospel, and he had betrayed her. Other women might have railed and cried and blamed their betrayers. Driving back home, her eyes dry and gritty with unshed tears, Constance Marie Richardson Haskell blamed only herself.
Once in the house, Connie saw the blinking light on the answering machine as soon as she put her car keys and purse down on the kitchen counter. Hurrying to the machine, she punched the play button. First came Ken Wilson's message, which she had already heard but had failed to erase. She fast-forwarded through that one. Then, after a click, she heard Ron's voice, and her heart leaped in her throat.
"Connie," he said. "It's Ron. I don't know if you're there or not. If you are, please pick up." There was a pause, then he continued. "I guess you're not. I don't know where to start, Connie, honey. I'm so sorry. About everything. I'm at a place called Pathway to Paradise. I thought these people could help me, and they are -- helping me, that is. It's going to take time, and I want to talk to you about it, Connie. I want to explain. Maybe you'll be able to forgive me, or maybe not. I don't know.
"I can't leave here, because I've made a commitment to stay for the full two months, but it would mean so much to me if you would come here to see me. That way I can be the one to tell you what happened instead of your having to hear it from somebody else. Please come, Connie. Please, preferably this evening. Pathway to Paradise is at the far end of the Chiricahua Mountains, just outside Portal on the road to Paradise. It's north of town on the righthand side of the road. You'll see the sign. Wait for me along the road, sometime between nine and ten, and --"
At that point an operator's voice cut in on Ron's. "If you wish to speak longer you'll have to deposit an additional one dollar and sixty-five cents."
"Please," Ron added.
And then the answering machine clicked off. For almost a minute afterward, Connie stood staring blankly at the machine, then she began to quake once more.
Connie Richardson Haskell was a woman who had always prided herself on keeping her emotions under control. Her father had expected it of her. After all those years under her father's tutelage, Connie had come to expect it of herself. The whole time she had cared for her aging and at times entirely unreasonable parents, she had never once allowed herself to become angry.
But now anger roared through her system with a ferocity that left her shaken. It filled her whole being like an avalanche plunging down the throat of some narrow, rock-lined gorge. How dare he! After disappearing for two weeks without a word, after taking my money without permission, now he calls and expects me to come running the moment he crooks his finger and says he's sorry?
Finally she nodded. "I'll be happy to join you in Paradise, you son of a bitch," she muttered grimly. "But I'm going to bring along a little surprise."
With that, she turned and walked into the bedroom. There, behind one of her mother's vivid watercolors, was Stephen Richardson's hidden wall safe. Inside the safe was her father's well-oiled .357 Magnum. Connie didn't need to check to see if the gun was loaded. Stephen Richardson had always maintained that having an unloaded weapon in the house was as useless as having a plumber's helper with no handle.
Not taking the time to shut the safe or rehang the painting, Connie walked back to the kitchen, where she stuffed the pistol into her purse right next to her mother's Bible. Then, without a backward glance and without bothering to lock up the house, turn on the alarm, or even make sure the door was firmly closed, Conme went back out to Claudia's Town Car. Her father had always insisted on keeping a Rand McNally Road Atlas in the pocket behind the seat. Connie pulled out the atlas and studied the map of Arizona until she located the tiny dots that indicated Portal and Paradise. After charting a route, she put the atlas back in its spot and climbed into the driver's seat.
This time, when she switched on the engine, she turned on the air conditioner as well. Until that moment, Connie Richardson Haskell had thought the term "heat of anger" was only a figure of speech.
Now she knew better.
Slamming the big car into reverse, she tore out of the garage and headed for Pathway to Paradise to find her husband. As she drove down the citrus- and palm-tree-lined street and away from the house that had been her home her whole life, Connie didn't bother to look back, and she didn't notice that the garage door had failed to close. There was no reason to look back. It was almost as though she knew she was finished with the house and the neighborhood, and they were finished with her. No matter what happened, Connie Richardson Haskell wouldn't be returning. Ever. Paradise Lost
. Copyright © by J. Jance. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.