Red Hot Murder Online - Joanne Pence

Chapter 1

On a bridge midway over the Colorado River, Angie Amalfi read the WELCOME TO ARIZONA sign. Her heart palpitated, her breathing quickened, and her feet tingled as a feeling of warmth, well-being, and certainty filled her. Above her head like a bubble in a cartoon strip, she was sure the words “Destination Wedding Locale” danced in red neon letters.

Not only was this going to be the perfect place for the perfect wedding, but that she’d found it on her very first try was nothing short of remarkable. Something told her Jackpot, Arizona, would be a memorable spot—from the moment her fiancé, San Francisco Homicide Inspector Paavo Smith, suddenly announced that he planned to spend a week there.

Before then, she’d never even heard of Jackpot, so when Paavo mentioned that he had spent time there as a boy, she was stunned. Paavo was close-mouthed, true, but to have kept an entire chunk of his childhood from her was maddening. She was doing all she could to get him to open up, and usually she thought she’d succeeded. But every so often he threw her a curve that left her gasping.

This was one of those times.

While he claimed to be a “private person,” she was someone who believed that it was necessary for people to share their feelings. As a matter of fact, she’d speak her thoughts to anyone who’d listen, always interested to hear the response. If not, what was the difference between being with a real live person and being with a statue in a dark, stuffy museum?

That was why, as soon as she learned about Jackpot, wild horses couldn’t keep her from joining Paavo to see it for herself. And the more she learned about the area, she realized wild horses—bucking broncos, mustangs, stallions—and plenty of other large, intimidating four-legged beasts might well be in her future.

No matter. The trip was a way to learn more about her taciturn fiancé. And if she just happened to find an interesting and unique wedding locale at the same time … well, who ever said killing two birds with one stone was a bad thing?

Just getting there had been an adventure. They’d flown from SFO to Palm Springs, California, and rented a car. Paavo had wanted a four-wheel-drive truck, she wanted a Beemer. When they found a four-wheel-drive Mercedes SUV, they’d compromised. The drive to Jackpot took over three hours.

Angie had to admit, though, to being impressed. The sky was a brilliant turquoise and the desert stretched out like a butternut sea of rolling sand and gravel, dotted with saguaro, barrel cactus, sage, and scrub. Precariously balanced red and granite rock piles, high crags, and jagged ridges of low-lying hills touched the horizon.

She’d never been deep into the desert before and found the land harsh in its emptiness, yet it held a quiet, naked beauty that intrigued and mystified her.

Turning off the interstate, they’d edged the river, driving along a two-lane road until a small, dusty town appeared in the flatness.

“There it is,” Paavo said, and Angie felt anticipation bubble up inside.

Paavo had explained that Jackpot, Arizona, a town of 912 permanent residents, quadrupled in size in winter when the “snow birds” arrived to get away from harsh northern climates. Each spring they’d leave, complaining that the land was too hot and dry and spindly, and Jackpot would once again become as lonely as the desert surrounding it.

Now that the warm days of spring were rapidly hurtling toward a fiery summer, the town should be quiet.

She knew that going back to a place he’d spent time in as a child was bringing back lots of memories to Paavo. Some happy, others not.

She reached over and grasped his arm, giving him a smile of support. He lightly patted her hand, glancing at her briefly before his eyes returned to the road, letting her know he appreciated her understanding.

When Paavo was very young, his father had died, and for reasons he’d only recently came to understand, his mother had abandoned him. A Finnish friend of his parents, Aulis Kokkonen, raised him.

Years ago Aulis became good friends with a Dr. Loomis Griggs who was in San Francisco studying at the University of California Medical Center. Now Doc Griggs lived just outside Jackpot, where, prior to his retirement, he’d been the town’s doctor as well as the doctor at the nearby Colorado River Indian Reservation. When Paavo was young, Doc invited Aulis and Paavo to spend time with him on his ranch. Paavo had gone there