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When Matthew Fielding, the four-year-old son of a San Diego telecommunications mogul, turns up missing, the psychic skills of P.I. Elizabeth Chase are requested. The stakes are raised soon after Elizabeth begins her investigation when a wildfire breaks out in Rancho Santa Fe, the secluded community where Matthew and his family-and Elizabeth's own parents-live. Aided and abetted by the Santa Ana winds, flames rage out of control, consuming thousands of acres and dozens of homes.
Before the ashes can be cleared away, another fire blazes through everything in its path. Are the kidnapper and arsonist one and the same? Will Elizabeth be able to find the clues she needs in the dying embers around her? It's a race against time itself as man and nature combine to wreak destruction on Elizabeth's community and keep a little boy lost forever.
In the fifth installment of a series Sue Grafton referred to as "a natural...and a supernatural as well," Martha C. Lawrence once again combines the quirky and the familiar as her smart, resilient and endearing heroine uses her psychic ability and incomparable detecting skills to hunt down a killer.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Martha C. Lawrence has worked as a book editor, a professional astrologer, and a business writer. Inspired by her own psychic experiences, she began her mystery series featuring Elizabeth Chase, a licensed P.I. and parapsychologist. Ashes of Aries is the fifth Elizabeth Chase novel. It follows the critically acclaimed Pisces Rising, named by San Diego Magazine as one of the best books of 2000 by a local author, Aquarius Descending, The Cold Heart of Capricorn, and Murder in Scorpio, which was nominated for the Edgar, Agatha, and Anthony awards for the best first novel of 1996. Martha C. Lawrence currently lives in Escondido, California.
The hot Santa Ana swept across the open desert, hissing through the bone-dry cheatgrass and shaking the stiff sagebrush. I did my best to ignore it. There was a red and white bull’s-eye target tacked to a hay bale ten yards away. I was trying to keep my attention focused there.
Willpower, girl. Mind over matter. You can do it.
I locked an unblinking stare onto the target, drew back the bow string, and let the arrow fly. The slim, feathered spear shot forward but caught the breeze and veered left, missing the hay bale entirely. I sighed in exasperation.
“Great. What am I now, zero for six?”
The wind whipped a shank of hair across my eyes and I called it the F word. As if to mock me, the gust grew in strength, sending up a flurry of straws around the hay bale.
Sequoia stood motionless beside me, his long, black ponytail dancing in the wind. The Luiseno Indian’s name suits him well. Sequoia is broad and tall, with skin the deep color of redwood. Like the ancient tree, something about him inspires reverence.
“This isn’t about keeping score, Elizabeth. This is about using the power around you.”
Spoken like the twenty-first-century medicine man that he is. A distant cousin of my best friend, Thomasina, Sequoia has lived most of his life on the Temecu Reservation east of San Diego. He claims to have learned his shamanic powers in Mexico from a mysterious woman he calls Aunt Christina. I believe he used those powers to save my life a few months ago. It’s rare that I meet someone more versed in the unseen realm than I, which is why I’d signed on as his unofficial student. I still wasn’t clear what archery had to do with shamanism, but had a feeling I was going to find out.
“What power would that be?” I asked.
“The wind. Don’t fight it so much. Harness it.” Sequoia pulled another arrow from the leather pouch strapped to his thigh and handed it to me.
I gave him a dubious look as I placed the notched end of the arrow onto the string and drew back the bow. The wind blew steadily, rustling the cheatgrass. I aimed at the target, corrected for the breeze, and concentrated. Harness the power around you.
The gust picked that moment to die and my arrow sailed right past the hay bale, missing by an embarrassing distance. Something inside of me snapped. I pulled my Glock out of my waistband, set my sights on the target, and blew three hollow-points into dead center. The gunshots reverberated in the open air and left my ears ringing. I confess the release felt wonderful.
“There,” I said. “How’s that for using the power around me?”
Sequoia lifted his Wayfarers off the bridge of his nose and squinted at the hay bale.
“Nice shooting, but you didn’t harness the power of the wind.” He dropped his shades back into place. “You got frustrated and pulled your gun. That”—he nodded toward the bullet-riddled target—“was the power of your anger.”
“So your anger used you, instead of the other way around.”
Sometimes he sounded more like a psychologist than a shaman. Having once worked as a psychologist myself this annoyed me, perhaps proving the point that doctors make the worst patients.
“Who cares? I nailed the target, didn’t I?”
The heat was getting to me. As if reading my mind, Sequoia pulled a flask from a large pocket in his cargo pants, unscrewed the cap, and offered me a drink of water. Even lukewarm, it tasted sweet and wonderful. I controlled my urge to guzzle the whole thing and handed the flask back. Sequoia took a sip and screwed the cap back on, a thoughtful look on his face.
“When you act out of anger you might win the battle, but you’re gonna lose the war. Anger makes you feel powerful, but it’s the kind of power that doesn’t last.”
“But my anger got the job done,” I argued. “I hit the damn target.”
He walked toward the hay bale, collecting stray arrows along the way. “What are you mad about?” he called over his shoulder. “Let’s deal with that first.”
I went with the easy answer.
It had been just a few months since my fiancé had been killed in an investigation gone bad. The emotional fallout lingered, and probably would for some time.
“Besides that,” Sequoia said.
I tuned into myself. First thing I noticed was the aforementioned heat. On an October day when much of the country would be putting logs on the fire, southern California was baking. It was only nine in the morning and the temperature was climbing toward ninety. Plus, the wind was making me miserable. Blowing down from the high desert, the scorching Santa Ana had sucked all the moisture from the air. I ran my tongue over my lower lip, which had become a ridge of flaky skin. It felt like a wound.
“What’s really bugging me is this weather,” I called, raising my voice to be heard over the wind. “This Santa Ana makes me nervous, like something bad’s going to happen.”
Sequoia returned to my side, the fistful of feathered arrows a bouquet in his hand. “Sounds like a premonition. Maybe you’re afraid of what you know is going to happen, and your anger is covering up your fear.”
A crow cawed in the distance. As I turned toward the sound, the Santa Ana blew another shank of hair across my face. The ends slapped my cheek so hard it stung.
“No,” I said irritably, “it’s just this damn wind. It’s getting to me. Make it stop.”
I brushed the flyaway strands out of my eyes and bent at the waist, gathering my hair into a ponytail. I twisted it into a knot at the top of my head and stood upright. Sequoia had turned away from me and was facing east, into the wind. He’d once told me that if I ever had a problem I had no answer for, I could face east and the answer would come to me. I looked at his stoic profile and wondered if he was seeking an answer now.
At that moment the wind simply died. It had been blowing hard, but suddenly it was gone, as if someone had pulled the plug on a giant fan beyond the foothills. A hush came over the land and I found myself standing in complete stillness. After a morning of nonstop gusting, the change was as dramatic as a full eclipse. At first I figured it was a temporary ebb, but the calm stretched for over a minute.
He stood silently, still facing east, where the sun had risen halfway into the sky. I tried to read his face, but couldn’t see his expression behind his sunglasses. Watching him, I had a sense he was communing with someone—or something—I couldn’t see. Without the cooling effect of the wind, the heat from the blazing sun intensified. Despite the broil, I felt goose bumps rising along my neck.
“Sequoia, did you make the wind stop?”
He didn’t move. My question sat on the breezeless air, unanswered. Even the crows were quiet.
A high-pitched electronic beeping erupted from the pager clipped to my waistband, killing the moment. Sequoia turned to me and nodded toward the pager on my hip.
“Better answer that one.”
I pushed the button and glanced at the display. I didn’t recognize the phone number but did recognize the three digits tacked on the end-911. Whoever was paging considered it an emergency.
I reached for the backpack that served as my combination purse, briefcase, and tool chest. I searched and came up empty.
“Shit. I think I left my cell phone in the car.”
“You can use mine.” Sequoia dug into another pocket of his cargo pants and handed over a phone. I dialed the number on my pager display and waited. After the first ring a somber male voice answered.
“Hi. This is Elizabeth Chase, responding to your page.”
“You the psychic PI?”
A breeze had begun to riffle through the cheatgrass again. I got a funny feeling in my gut—whether it was from the wind or something else, I wasn’t sure.
“Thanks for calling back. You know Detective McKenna?”
The name was fresh in my mind. McKenna worked SDPD homicide. We’d met on a case I’d worked recently and had stayed in casual touch.
“Yeah, I know Karl.”
“He’s the one who gave me your number. Said you were the real McCoy.”
“And you are?”
“Oh—sorry. Bruce Loebman. I’m an area detective with the San Diego Sheriff, working the Fielding case.” He emphasized the name, as if I should be impressed.
“Sorry, I’m not familiar with that one.”
“The telecommunications mogul out in Rancho Santa Fe? His son’s been missing for five days. It’s all over TV. Crime Stoppers has been running public-service announcements on it every night. Surprised you haven’t seen them.”
Now I put it together. Frank Fielding was the CEO of a wireless communications firm headquartered in north San Diego County. In the past few years the company’s stock had rocketed in value. Fielding became a multimillionaire and moved to Rancho Santa Fe, the community my parents had settled into long before the place became synonymous with obscene wealth. I remembered seeing the story about the kidnapping on the news and thinking that a family like the Fieldings was the perfect target.
There was no need to ask how Loebman’s case was going. If he had any solid leads, he wouldn’t be calling me. I heard a sigh on the end of the line.
“Anyway, Karl said it might be worth my time to talk to you so, uh, I’d like to do that.” The hesitancy in his voice told me he wasn’t sure about working with a psychic. I could have reassured him with my credentials—my double Ph.D. from Stanford, my state-certified PI license, my VIP commendations—but I hate self-promotion.
“Sure,” I said. “Missing persons cases are my strong suit.”
“Great.” Hope was edging out his skepticism. “What do you pick up about the Fielding boy?”
I smiled to myself and forgave Loebman’s naïveté.
“I don’t know what McKenna told you, but this doesn’t exactly work like a psychic hot line. I’ll need to meet with you first and get briefed on the case. If I take it on, my standard retainer is five hundred dollars, plus expenses.”
“Oh.” Loebman took a minute to let that sink in. “Okay, that’s doable. I’m at the Fielding place now. You got a pen? I’ll give you directions.”
“I’m not available right this minute. I’m way out in—” Sequoia’s hand on my arm stopped me short. “Just a minute.” I turned and looked into a face so solemn it took me aback.
“Go now,” Sequoia said.
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