Read Downfall Online

Authors: J. A. Jance



Thank you to Oscar Soule, David Dettman, and William Peachey—
for keeping me on the straight and narrow


front of the Higgins Funeral Chapel, put her Buick Enclave in park, and then sat staring at the storefront before her, only vaguely aware of her surroundings. Lowering clouds blanketed the Mule Mountains in southeastern Arizona. It was the last day of August. The summer monsoons had arrived early and stayed on, leaving the desert grassland valleys of Cochise County lush and green.

A flash of lightning off toward the east roused Joanna from her reverie with a warning that the skies might open up at any moment. Still she lingered, unready to go inside and face down this awful but necessary task. She was relieved when her phone rang with her husband's name in the caller-ID window. Answering a call gave her an excuse to stall a little longer.

“Hey,” she said. “Where are you? I thought you'd be here by now.”

“So did I, and we would have been,” Butch said, “if not for the huge backup caused by a semi rollover on the I-10 bridge over the Gila. We're in Tombstone right now. If I come straight there, I could arrive before they close, but—”

“No,” Joanna said firmly. “Take Denny home. A funeral home is no place for a five-year-old. I'll handle this on my own.”

“You're sure?”

“I'm sure,” she said, reaching for the door handle. “I'll see you at home.”

She switched her phone to silent and stepped out of the SUV just as the first fat raindrops splattered down on the hot pavement. As soon as the moisture dampened nearby overheated creosote bushes, the air came alive with the unmistakable perfume of desert rain. Most of the time, Joanna would have rejoiced at that distinctive aroma, but not today. Instead, she crossed the sidewalk and opened an all-too-familiar door.

She had come to the Higgins Funeral Chapel for the first time as a teenager, arriving there with her mother, Eleanor, in the aftermath of her father's death. D. H. Lathrop had been changing a tire for a stranded family when he had been struck and killed by a passing vehicle. Then Joanna had come here alone nine years ago. On that occasion she had been a widow, making funeral arrangements for her newly deceased husband, Andrew Roy Brady. And this time?

A week earlier, in the dead of August, life had been as normal as Joanna's life could be, considering she was a busy county sheriff with a daughter heading off to college, a five-year-old son starting kindergarten, and a baby girl due to arrive in early December. That normal had been shattered by a three
. phone call that had rousted her out of bed with the news that her
mother, Eleanor Lathrop Winfield, and her stepfather, George Winfield, had been involved in a serious vehicular accident while driving their RV home to Bisbee from a summertime sojourn in Minnesota.

George died at the scene; Eleanor had perished after being airlifted to a Phoenix-area hospital for treatment. In the ensuing investigation, Joanna discovered that what had originally been regarded as a simple traffic accident was anything but. A troubled kid, wielding a high-powered rifle with a laser scope, had stationed himself on a highway overpass south of Camp Verde, where he had fired at passing vehicles. With the help of a relatively new friend, Ali Reynolds, Joanna had helped search for and eventually find the shooter.

While attempting to elude his pursuers, the boy had crashed his 4x4. Less than twenty-four hours after George and Eleanor's murders, Joanna had found herself kneeling on the ground at the injured boy's side, comforting their dying killer. Now she was left cleaning up the rest of the bits and pieces. The remains had finally been released by the Yavapai County Medical Examiner's Office. The mortuary had called earlier that day to say that the bodies had arrived in Bisbee shortly after noon.

A discreet chime sounded in a distant room as Joanna opened the funeral home's Main Street door. Norm Higgins, dressed in his customary suit and tie, appeared silently in the doorway of an office just to the right of the entryway.

“I've been expecting you, Sheriff Brady,” he said, giving her a stiff half bow. “So sorry for your loss. How can we be of service?”

He ushered her into an old-fashioned wood-paneled office where a single file lay on the polished surface of an ornate antique desk. “I took the liberty of glancing through your mother's
file,” he said. “At the time of your father's death, your mother purchased two adjoining plots at Evergreen Cemetery. According to this, she was opposed to cremation and wished to be buried in the plot next to your father's. As far as your stepfather's wishes are concerned, however, we're completely in the dark.”

“That makes two of us,” Joanna said, withdrawing a piece of paper from her purse. “In going through George's things, I located this letter saying that he wished to be cremated and have his ashes scattered near his cabin at Big Stone Lake in Minnesota. The problem is, this letter predates his marriage to my mother. Just today I've learned that my mother has been negotiating with the Rojas family, the people who own the plots next to my parents' plots, in hopes of purchasing the nearest one for George's use. Presumably he had changed his mind about cremation.”

She didn't mention how she had learned about the cemetery-plot situation because, the truth was, it hurt like hell. Joanna certainly hadn't heard about it from Eleanor herself. No, that bit of vital intelligence had been gleaned in a phone call with her brother, Bob Brundage—a brother born to her parents out of wedlock and given up for adoption long before Joanna was born. After the deaths of both his adoptive parents, Bob had come looking for his birth family. Once reunited, he and Eleanor had gotten along like gangbusters. And the fact that her brother had been privy to her mother's final wishes when Joanna herself had not was something that still rankled. In fact, Joanna had heard about the cemetery situation for the first time earlier this morning, mentioned in passing when Bob had called to let her know when he and his wife, Marcie, would be flying in from DC on Tuesday.

What am I?
Joanna had wanted to ask while they were still on the phone.
Chopped liver?
Why had her mother chosen to tell Bob
all about what was going on when it was Joanna, the daughter with boots on the ground, who would most likely be expected to oversee the arrangements? Why was she the one who had been left in the dark? Joanna's feelings had been hurt, but she hadn't said anything to Bob about it. After all, it wasn't his fault.

“Did it work?” Norm Higgins asked, bringing Joanna back to the present conversation and perhaps repeating a question he had asked previously.

“Did what work?”

“The negotiations to buy the plot.”

“More or less,” Joanna said. “I mean, my brother was able to reach an agreement on the deal this morning. He expects to have the certificate of purchase in hand by tomorrow afternoon, but I'm not at all sure that's how I want to handle this, and that's what I need to discuss with you. My mother specifically said she wanted to be buried rather than cremated? You're sure about that?”

“Yes,” Norm replied, patting the file but not bothering to open it and verify the information. “Her position in that regard is quite clear.”

“What am I supposed to do, then?”

Norm Higgins drummed his fingers on top of his desk. “We have a situation where we have reason to believe that Dr. Winfield and your mother wanted to be buried together even though there was no separate plot currently available. On the other hand, we have a handwritten document indicating his wish to be cremated.”

“So what do you suggest?” Joanna asked, rephrasing her earlier question.

Norm shook his head. “Quite frankly, Sheriff Brady, these
kinds of issues are usually resolved by what we commonly refer to as ‘the last person standing.' They're the ones who have the final say, as it were.”

“In other words, it's up to me.”


Joanna took a deep breath. “All right, then,” she said. “Here's what we're going to do. Go ahead and cremate George's remains. Put his ashes in an urn, reserving a small portion that Butch and I can scatter at Big Stone Lake later on. I want you to have both the urn and the casket on display during the funeral. At the end of that, we'll put the urn in the casket with my mother. That way Mom and George can be buried together. If my father objects, the three of them will need to sort that out among themselves when they get to the other side.”

Norm withdrew a piece of paper from his desk, a form of some kind, and began filling in the blanks. “I trust you're not expecting to have an open-casket service or a viewing, are you?”

Joanna was adamant. “Absolutely not. I saw the damage,” she said. “My mother wouldn't be caught dead looking like that.”

The unthinking words were out of her mouth before she realized how absurdly true they were. Eleanor Lathrop had always put her best foot forward. Remembering that and the appalling way her mother had looked in the hospital, Joanna forced herself to bite back a sob. If Norm noticed her discomfort, he didn't acknowledge it. No doubt he was accustomed to dealing with people who blurted out inappropriate comments because their emotions had been strained beyond the breaking point.

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “That's my assessment, too. There's only so much we're able to do. But placing an urn in the casket is a creative way of handling a complex issue. I believe you mentioned
the word ‘funeral' rather than ‘funerals.' Does that mean you're anticipating a joint service?”

Joanna's cell phone buzzed in the pocket of her blazer. She had turned the ringer to silent when she came inside. Over the course of the last several days, she had been overwhelmed with condolence calls. She appreciated all of them, of course, but the sheer number made it hard for her to think straight. Right now she needed to deal with Norm.

“Yes,” she said. “A joint service.”

“Here in our chapel or at your mother's church? I believe Eleanor attended the Presbyterian church.”

“Here,” Joanna said, “and with my friend Marianne Maculyea officiating. How soon could you schedule it?”

Norm leaned back in his chair. “We keep a very limited number of caskets and urns in stock,” he said. “If you were to make your selection from those, we would have more flexibility. Otherwise, scheduling would depend on how soon we could receive the shipments.”

“Assuming I find something suitable in your inventory and choose from those?”

“In that case, I would suggest scheduling the funeral for late Friday morning—say, eleven or so,” Norm suggested. “Doing it as early as Thursday would make it difficult to get notices to the local media. We handle all of those, by the way,” he added. “The notices, I mean. That's part of our comprehensive service. And I'll need to get bio information from you on both your mother and Dr. Winfield in order to write the obituaries. Or would you rather do that yourself?”

“I'll provide the info,” Joanna said, “but I'd rather someone else did the writing. And when you post those notices, please
mention that the service itself will be private, by invitation only. I'll give you a list of the people who should be there. What I don't want is to have a bunch of outside gawkers show up just for the fun of it.”

Joanna's phone buzzed again. Whoever had called earlier had just left a message. She ignored the message notice just as she had ignored the call.

“How much will all this cost?” she asked. “And how soon do I need to pay?”

“Let's worry about that after you've selected the casket and urn,” Norm said, rising to his feet. “We expect payment in advance, of course. Once you've made casket and urn selections, I'll be able to prepare an invoice, and since we'll be holding only a single service, I'm sure you'll find the charges reasonable. This way, please.”

Back in the mortuary's warehouse section, Joanna found precious little to choose from—at three distinct price points. Knowing her mother would have been pissed if any expense had been spared, and since Bob had agreed to split the funeral expenses fifty-fifty, Joanna opted for the high-priced version—for both Eleanor and George, putting the whole bill on her Visa. Finished at last, she staggered out of the mortuary an hour and a half after entering. It was dark now—well past closing time. Norm unlocked the front door to let her out and then locked it from the inside and closed the security shutters behind her.

Relieved that the funeral-planning ordeal was finally over, Joanna stood on the sidewalk and took a deep breath. The air was cool and fresh. The rainstorm had come and gone, leaving the streets wet and shiny under the glow of recently illuminated
streetlights. Runoff from the rain was still draining away, flowing down Brewery Gulch, across Main Street, and into the storm gutter—known locally as the Subway—where Joanna had once done hand-to-hand battle with a killer.

Her phone buzzed with a text from Butch:

Come home. Making dinner. You need to eat to keep up your strength.

After sending a text back saying she was on her way, she scrolled through her recent calls. The last one had come from her chief deputy, Tom Hadlock.

She listened to his voice mail. “Sorry to bother you at a time like this, but we've got either a double homicide or a murder/suicide. Can't tell which. Can you give me a call?”

Joanna ground her teeth in frustration. Tom had served admirably as her jail commander, but she worried that promoting him to chief deputy had been a mistake on her part. He was still out of his depth in certain situations, and this was clearly one of them. She dialed him back immediately.

“What's up?”

“A couple of kids out climbing Geronimo east of Warren late this afternoon found two bodies at the base of a cliff—two females. No visible gunshot or stab wounds. Looks like they either jumped or were pushed. One of them seems to have had a campsite set up near a water hole at the base of the peak, and we found ID in a purse at the campsite. The name on the ID is for one Desirée Wilburton. Apparently she's a grad student from the University of Arizona. The other victim had no identification of any kind. I know you're on bereavement leave, but—”

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