by Ann Roberts
The vibrant Phoenix art happening First Friday promises business and pleasure for Ari Adams. For one thing, moving on from the painful past she shared with Molly Nelson has brought a new woman into her life. But an old building with a body inside threatens the art community and implicates every member of the First Friday Council.
Hired to investigate and guard the FFC’s interests, Ari takes on the disquieting assignment at her boss’s request. Secrets at the Veteran’s Administration and human greed create a dangerous quagmire, and when the victim’s identity and the names of her employers are revealed, Ari realizes she has no one she trusts to help her—except Molly.
But working with Molly again would mean opening old wounds and risking the fresh start Ari thought that she wanted…
A Grand Plan is the latest in the Golden Crown Literary Award-Winning Ari Adams Mystery series by best-selling and Lambda Nominated Author Ann Roberts.
Bill Clinton was only trying to help. Jonny had always blamed him for their troubles but it wasn’t that simple. Care had tried to tell her he was just succumbing to the political pressure of an unbending opposition, but Jonny wouldn’t hear of it.
“You’re thinkin’ small, Care. He’s the Commander in Chief. The buck stops with him. Like people aren’t going to ask and I’m not going to tell. I’ll tell whoever I damn well please! Sure as hell wouldn’t have happened with Truman.”
When she’d told her it was the Truman administration that had written the first policies to discharge homosexuals into the Uniform Code of Justice, Jonny had waved her arms and walked away. She hated politics and thought all politicians were crooks except for “Give ’em hell, Harry.” Her father had been a Korean War vet who’d instilled in her an unflagging admiration for Harry Truman.
Otherwise she was convinced the government had assassinated JFK and was hiding aliens in Area Fifty-One.
“They’ll bring ’em out when they really need ’em,” she always said, shaking her finger. “Thought it might’ve happened after nine-one-one, but clearly there’s somethin’ brewin’ we don’t know about. Somethin’ even bigger!”
When Jonny started spewing and spouting, Care just stayed quiet.
She readjusted her crooked RayBans and looked over her shoulder at the VA Medical Center. Jonny had thought the VA was full of the biggest crooks of all. She said there was a list of people they wouldn’t treat and she was on it. Maybe that was true.
She gazed up at the fiery ball overhead and started to hum softly. Noon. August. Thursday. Tomorrow was First Friday and that meant visitors. She needed to get back.
If I live to see the seven wonders…
She loved Fleetwood Mac and there was nothing that compared to Stevie’s voice. Sometimes she had the volume cranked up to ten, but right now it played at a four, a comfortable level for all those who’d ride the bus with her. A four meant the crazy was on the down low, but if it increased, Arnulfo would put her off the bus. He’d had to do it once before but never in August. And she didn’t have time. She needed to get on patrol. It was pie day.
No one else was on the bus bench, the two other riders choosing to stand rather than sit next to her. It was often that way. She sniffed an armpit. Even though it was a wicked hot day, she still smelled okay.
She reached into the front pocket of her shorts and pulled out the prescription bottle and her watch. Arnulfo was late. She hoped there wasn’t a sub driver. Subs never remembered to save her a seat, and subs had put her off the bus more than once. How many times had that happened?
She stared at the pill bottle with her x-ray vision. Shook them. It was one light. Why? She’d swallowed it or someone had stolen one. She shot a look at the middle-aged African American woman standing to her right. Her earbuds were in and she was reading something on her phone. Probably not her. The other suspect, a Hispanic teenager, leaned against the bus awning, his hands stuffed in his pockets, not making eye contact and minding his own business. Then she remembered the drinking fountain inside the VA. She smiled. Mystery solved. If I live to see the seven wonders…
* * *
She squeezed her eyes closed, picturing the little volume dial on her Hi-Fi. Turn it down. Daddy says it’s too loud. She heard the wheeze of the engine. She stood and craned her neck eastward as the bus rolled through the Seventh Street intersection and pulled up to the stop right in front of her.
“How ya doing, Ms. Wonders?” Arnulfo said with a wave. “I like your T-shirt.”
She glanced down at the four faces of the Beatles and gave him a thumbs-up. His jacket and cooler were spread across the two front seats behind him. She slid them aside and sat down.
“There’s an apple in the cooler if you want it,” he said, looking at her through the mirror above him.
“Thank you.” His wife had packed his usual PBJ, chips and a pickle. Jonny had loved PBJ. Care held the apple against her cheek. The cold felt so good. She pulled out Jonny’s Swiss army knife and sliced the apple in half. Jonny had scrawled a J and an H on the side of the blade in black marker. Sometimes she just liked staring at it. It helped her remember the day Petey showed Jonny how to protect her stuff.
As they headed west down Indian School Road, Arnulfo glanced up at her in the mirror. “I’ve got a question for you, Ms. Wonders, if you’re up for it. What was the one song written by all five members of Fleetwood Mac?”
“‘The Chain’,” she replied automatically.
“How do you know all of this, Ms. Wonders? You are a musical encyclopedia.”
He was smiling so she smiled back but she wasn’t sure why. She liked him. He looked out for her like Tony did. Tony. She pulled out her watch again. She couldn’t let him down.
Jonny wouldn’t approve of her playing detective. “Just stay under the radar, Care,” she’d say. “Don’t draw attention to yourself.” Jonny always gave advice she never followed. If she’d kept her mouth shut, she wouldn’t have been discharged and then she wouldn’t have been so depressed.
There was something standing in the corner of her mind, like the empty space by the breakfast nook. “Only burglars will hide there,” Jonny had said.
“Hello?” she called. She looked up. Feet dangling in the air. She screamed.
If I live to see the seven wonders…
A hand waved in front of her face. A gentle voice called from far away. Jonny?
“Ms. Wonders? We’re here. Time to get off.”
No, not Jonny. Follow the voice.
“Ms. Wonders, time to come back. I need to finish my route and this is your stop.”
The bus. She blinked and got off quickly before he could see her embarrassment.
“See you next week,” he called before he shut the door.
She waved and watched the bus pull away. She turned in a circle. Nothing looked familiar. Lenny’s Burgers. A Circle K. Food City. She looked up. Fifteenth Avenue. Roosevelt Street. Grand Avenue. Lower Grand Avenue. She started walking home.
If I live to see the seven wonders…
* * *
Her head throbbed. Probably her new dosage. Her young VA doctor had made the prescription too strong. Sometimes that happened.
“Your episodes seem to be getting worse,” he’d said. “Just now you were gone for five minutes. Where do you go?”
She couldn’t explain it. This was one of those headaches that had a name…what was it? She was so sleepy.
Now is not the time to sleep! It’s just a headache. No pain, no gain! A little softer, Sergeant Coombs. Please.
It was pie day. She needed to go. Why am I on the floor?
She touched the back of her head and held her fingers in front of her eyes. Why are they covered in paint?
Red. The color of death.
If I live to see the seven wonders…
And before the darkness took her away she realized… I have.
Anyone studying a Phoenix map instantly located Grand Avenue, a diagonal slash across the simple grid system designed by the original city planners. The sprawling Valley of the Sun had since grown outward in every direction, leaving behind the parallel and perpendicular lines for winding roads and cul-de-sacs that snaked throughout gated communities in outlying suburbs such as Chandler, Scottsdale and Buckeye. Phoenix devoured five hundred and seventeen square miles and still Grand was the longest and most noticeable road on a map, its historic roots ending in downtown.
Ari Adams avoided Grand Avenue whenever possible. It was a grim reminder of one of the worst days of her life: the day her brother Richie was killed during a convenience store robbery. The store had sat on Grand Avenue. She’d only been twelve. Despite nearly twenty-four intervening years, every time her real estate business required her to cross Grand, memories of Richie interrupted whatever she might be thinking. The memories triggered a chain reaction of emotions Ari couldn’t control.
She felt them now.
Waiting to turn onto Grand, she glanced in the rearview mirror and realized she was frowning. She sat up straighter and glanced at her watch. It was nearing six o’clock and she was boiling in the 4Runner despite the continuous blast of cold air hitting her face and chest. August was like that. She’d removed her suit coat after her last appointment with a potential seller, and she longed to shed the rest of her clothes and step into her shower.
“I promised Lorraine,” she sighed.
She was meeting her boss Lorraine Gonzales at a commercial property. Lorraine had been cryptic with her explanation, stating it was a big opportunity and nothing else. Ari suspected Lorraine wanted to move her company, Southwest Realty, to Grand Avenue. Ari saw the obvious advantages, but she worried her fragile heart would endure a daily beating each day she drove to the office.
Since Ari rarely discussed her childhood with anyone, a time that brought her more pain than joy, Lorraine had no knowledge of her tragic history with Grand Avenue.
The light changed and she rolled across a bright orange and green highway sign that announced her entry into historic Lower Grand Avenue, otherwise known as LGA. She crept along at ten miles per hour, her gaze ping-ponging from the west to the east side of the street. No one was behind her. Workers had just left the skyscrapers amassed at the south end of LGA, heading north to the suburbs of Peoria and Surprise. Most people who traveled Grand did so only to commute from their reasonably priced stucco tract homes to their downtown jobs. The road was a means, not a destination.
Still, it was obvious Lower Grand Avenue was trying. The expansion of First and Third Fridays to the LGA area guaranteed a steady stream of visitors strolled through the handful of galleries twice a month. A national movement, First and Third Fridays was a huge party, drawing people to artists’ communities for exhibit openings, live performances, great food and street vendors hawking their wares. LGA was part of First and Third Fridays, joining its larger and more established sister art community Roosevelt Row, aka RoRo.
There just aren’t as many draws to LGA as RoRo, Ari thought as she cruised down Grand. She pulled up in front of the abandoned Bali Hi. LOW RATES, NEW ROOMS and NOW OPEN still hung sadly from the graffiti-covered sign. A chain-link fence sagged around the property’s border, a feeble attempt to keep the criminal element away from the four dark buildings that comprised the old motel. She knew there was a plan to renovate the structure but it would take an incredible amount of money.
Across the street a homeless man lounged against the exterior of A-1 Liquors, a beer in his hand and his shopping cart beside him. He glanced toward two women sweeping a section of the lime-green bike path littered with leaves. Their industry did nothing to motivate him, and he looked as if he had no intention of leaving any time soon.
You’d never see this kind of eyesore on RoRo.
Still, murals and artwork adorned many of the masonry buildings, some of which possessed unique angles due to their location on a diagonal street. They were works of art themselves. Cylindrical planters stretched the length of LGA, decorated with mosaic tiles, clay art, black and white photos and recycled materials such as curled metal shavings.
Palm trees along the west side of the street wore festive knitted cozies on their trunks. Lights hung from the trees to the roof of the Frontal Lobe Gallery, located next to ABLOOM, which offered an art gallery, holistic beauty and Sunday worship.
She pulled up next to Brown’s Diner. Built on the diagonal corner between Grand and Tenth Avenue, the building was triangular with the front door situated at the point. A huge sheet of plywood covered the large picture-frame window next to it. The vandalism was part of a crime spree occurring on LGA, and a private detective, Ari’s former lover Molly Nelson, had been hired to find the culprit.
She quickly pulled away and focused on her driving rather than her relationship woes.
The next block symbolized LGA’s struggle between its industrial roots and the vision imagined by the artists. Gallery 7 and The Lodge sat sandwiched between two long-standing businesses: Quality Bumper and Arizona Patio Furniture. The faded Arizona Garage sign two doors south suggested the company had been in business for decades but spent its profits on something other than the exterior.
Three different used car lots lined the east side of LGA next to Sterling Trucking. None of these venues would ever stay open until ten p.m. during a First or Third Friday. For every gallery there were three or four boarded-up buildings or businesses that detracted from the artistic atmosphere: the transmission shop, the brake shop and many she couldn’t name because they had no signage at all.
So maybe it’s the galleries that don’t belong…
She knew more businesses had perished rather than flourished and the fate of LGA remained undetermined. The slogan amongst commercial real estate agents was, “Good businesses come to LGA to die.” It was still too early to tell whether it would reinvent itself as an artists’ haven or be swallowed by the industry that claimed historical ownership of it. Perhaps there could be a balance and it would emerge as a destination spot, completely different from RoRo, unique in itself.
She glanced at the address Lorraine had given her and made a quick right onto the last side street before she reached Seventh Avenue. Lorraine’s Lexus sat in a small parking lot behind a red brick building. Stretching the length of the block, apparently it had once been three businesses, each with a separate back entrance and loading dock. Lorraine was working the lockbox of the northern dock’s rolling aluminum door as Ari parked.
Lorraine’s expensive gray suit and bright red pumps were a contrast to the faded brick building. She was a curvy woman with incredible fashion sense. Her shoes and handbag always complemented or matched her outfit, and she considered clothes shopping a recreational sport. She enjoyed dressing up, unlike Ari who hated wearing suits and dress shoes.
Ari joined her on the dock and she flashed a smile. “You’re gonna love this, chica.”
Ari followed her into the recesses of the building, their heels echoing in the cavernous space. Feathered cracks permeated the original concrete floor marred with stains from misuse but overall it still looked good. She admired the red brick walls, picturing the masons laying each one by hand. Time had blanched huge patches with discoloration and chipping. A few sections would need to be completely redone. Hardwood trusses framed the skylights above, and she imagined that the morning sunlight from the eastern exposure would greatly cut lighting costs. A small doorway led to the second room, which looked much like the first.
“What was this place?” she asked. She winced as her question bounced off the walls with the echo.
“This is the O.S. Stapley building built in nineteen twenty-seven. It was a hardware company that helped develop Phoenix. In September of two thousand and twelve the building was listed in the Historic Property Register.”
They crossed the threshold into a similar third space that included a loft. Ari stared at the skylight and said, “So what’s your plan?” When Lorraine didn’t answer, she pulled her gaze away from the amazing ceiling. Lorraine was facing her, wringing her hands. She’s nervous.
“I want us to buy it together, fifty-fifty. I want you to become my partner in Southwest Realty and I want us to expand. Business is booming and we need to take advantage of the opportunity. This space will give us enough room to grow. It’s not like I’m retiring tomorrow, but eventually I’m going to want my life back and I’ll leave the company to you.”
Ari struggled for words. “Lorraine, I’m flattered, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that, for this.”
A smile crept onto Lorraine’s face. “Surprised you, huh? Well, I think you’re ready. All you need to do is take your broker’s exam.”
Ari glanced through the front window. “This can’t be cheap,” she said.
“It’s not. It’s historic.”
“I’m just glad we’re not standing in the Bali Hi,” Ari joked, thinking about the abandoned hotel down the street.
“That’s already spoken for. Tony Sanchez has a plan. He wants to turn it into an artists’ community where they’ll live and work. It’s completely doable, and the best part is there’s nothing like it on RoRo.”
From Lorraine’s smug smile Ari could tell she was immensely pleased at the thought of LGA having the upper hand for once. Roosevelt Row got all of the attention and LGA was the stepchild. If LGA could do something unique, perhaps it would gain equal footing and more First and Third Friday patrons would travel two miles on the trolley to buy LGA artwork.
“But first he has to win the bid,” Lorraine continued. “Apparently, there’s someone else interested but he doesn’t know who it is. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to help the area as much as Tony. It would mean so much to LGA. But I promise you, this area is gonna take off.”
“Only if the crime wave stops,” Ari corrected.
Lorraine shook her head. “I’m not so sure those four incidents were anything more than coincidence and silliness.” She held up her index finger and said, “Mark my words. LGA is here to stay.”
She knew Lorraine might be right, but she also thought Lorraine was rationalizing the crime spree. Too much had happened for it to be coincidence. Up until the last few months, LGA was on the upswing. Recent articles in the Arizona Republic had proclaimed Grand Avenue as the next hotspot and the surrounding cities were committed to its revitalization. It was only a matter of time. The question was how much time? Other investors had tried to breathe life into Lower Grand but they had jumped too soon. She knew the average life span of a business on Grand was about eighteen months. Is it still too early? Or is someone afraid LGA will flourish and compete with RoRo? Is that why these incidents are happening, because LGA is about to make it?
“I’ll think about it, Lorraine. Before I decide,” Ari said, “I want to come down here on First Friday tomorrow night.”
Lorraine sighed. “Honestly, chica, you won’t be impressed. It doesn’t compare to Roosevelt Row—yet. It’s like RoRo eight years ago when there were only a handful of businesses involved in First Fridays and before there ever was a Third Friday.”
“Are you saying this area needs eight more years?”
Lorraine bit her lip, realizing her mistake. “No, it won’t take that long. It has the benefit of following on the coattails of RoRo. They had to start from nothing and the commitment from the neighboring cities will ensure LGA’s success. All of Grand Avenue is slated for a facelift.”
They climbed a wooden staircase to a small loft. The air smelled stale and Ari inhaled a mouthful of dust. She quickly covered her mouth and nose as they reached the top. The fading glimmers of daylight eked through the glass, displaying the swirling particles in front of them. The loft was empty except for a mattress, a rolltop desk, its matching chair, and a body on the floor.