In the sunny desert landscape of Palm Desert, Julia Fairchild and her adventurous sister Carly embark on a thrilling hot air balloon ride. Little do they know, this seemingly innocent excursion will thrust them into a web of mystery and intrigue that they never could have imagined. As they float peacefully through the sky, their carefree afternoon takes a dark turn when their eyes catch sight of a lifeless body lying motionless among the unforgiving sands below.
Speculations arise when it is revealed that the deceased is believed to be a missing financier, Trevor Lundgren, who had been under investigation for unusual investment practices. Authorities were convinced that he had fled the country to escape the consequences of his actions.
However, as Julia and Carly investigate deeper, they unravel a murderous plot which puts them in the line of fire.
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A Julia Fairchild Novel
© 2023 PJ Peterson
The temperature on her FitBit watch said it was eighty-eight degrees, but the dry desert air didn’t make it feel that hot to Julia Fairchild, MD, and her sister, Carly Pedersen, as they trudged along the Bump and Grind trail in the hills west of Rancho Mirage. The rugged desert scenery was dramatically different from the forested mountains and streams of the Pacific Northwest. Julia hadn’t expected to find it beautiful in its own way. She had pictured it in her mind as being foreboding and desolate, like in the cowboy movies of her childhood.
Lured by the promise of clear blue skies and warmer weather after a particularly wet September in their home state of Washington, Julia had jumped at the chance to spend the month of October in Palm Desert, California. Their cousin, Vickie, had recently moved there after forty years of living in Minnesota, adding another reason for Julia to accept a temporary position as a physician in a medical clinic, her first locum tenens position.
Vickie had said she was tired of winter weather and having to shovel three or four feet of snow every year. She was able to transfer her accounting skills across the country to a regional bank that hired her to manage their corporate accounts. She also was given the opportunity to work part-time, which fit perfectly into her plan to transition into full retirement in a few more years.
After ten years of practice in Parkview and with no husband or children to worry about, Julia had decided to take a sabbatical leave from her clinic to work as a traveling physician while she was still (barely) in her thirties. There were opportunities all around the United States, and even in other countries, where she could fill in for a physician who was off for vacation, maternity leave, or in other situations where she might be needed. This would be the first of what she hoped would be a year of interesting and fulfilling assignments.
She had arrived a couple of weeks early so she could enjoy the area without work obligations and because she needed a vacation anyway. Julia hadn’t been anywhere fun for vacation since a visit to Seattle several months back and was eager to kick back and relax. In addition to chatty visits with Vickie and Carly, she hoped to read a few books that she’d saved up for the occasion. Little sister Carly, four years younger than Julia, was eager to get away herself after a recent challenging software update at the company located on the outskirts of Parkview, where she worked in the accounting department.
Julia loved to hike and hadn’t made time in several years to do so. Her athletic sister had once climbed Mount St. Helens with a group of her coworkers. Hiking in the desert would be a new experience for both of them. Julia had hiked and backpacked through much of western Washington and Utah during her college and medical school years. She now preferred day hikes so she could sleep in her own bed at the end of the day. She’d never enjoyed sleeping on thin foam mattresses with mosquitoes buzzing near her. She’d been warned about scorpions, and they didn’t sound very likable either, especially if they shared her sleeping bag.
Cousin Vickie had duly warned them about rattlesnakes in addition to the vile scorpions in the area, so Julia and Carly were armed with a first aid snakebite kit plus sunscreen, water and lunch. Their cousin hadn’t been able to join them because of a recent ankle sprain. In her stead, she had given them a topographic map and a booklet of the trails in the immediate area, and pointed out her own favorites.
“I’m glad we have this map so we can figure out what we’re looking at,” said Julia, pausing for a moment to check their bearings. She looked up and pointed eastward. “That’s the Coachella Valley below. I can pick out some of the golf courses.”
“That’s because they’re the greenest areas down there,” said Carly. “Even I could figure that out without a map.”
Julia snorted. “If you look northward, you can see the southern part of Rancho Mirage. It looks so far away from here, even though it’s not very many miles if we could draw a straight line from here to there.”
“I’ll take your word for it. You’re the map lover. I just want a good GPS on my cell phone.”
Julia folded the map and said, “What about stopping for a snack? I’m sure it’s this dry air that’s making me hungry.”
“Okay by me. I see a big rock just ahead that would be a good place to sit, as long as you check it for rattlesnakes first.”
Julia smiled and shook her head at her sister, then duly ascertained that the flat-topped rock had no critters of the poisonous type resting on top. The jumbo rock was partially in the shade and was a perfect place to sit and enjoy the sandwiches and juice that Vickie had kindly prepared. The chocolate chip cookies were warm from the desert heat and tasted like they were fresh from the oven, much to Carly’s delight. “The chocolate chips are melted! Yum.”
“You have some chocolate on your chin, Carly.” Julia wet a corner of a napkin with her tongue and started to wipe it off.
“Yuck!” Carly pulled away. “I’ll use my own spit, thank you very much.”
“What a beautiful way to spend a Saturday morning,” said Julia. “Much better than being in the intensive care unit making morning rounds.”
“Anything is better than work, isn’t it?” Carly winked at her sister. “This is certainly nothing like hiking back home,” she said between bites of her cookie. “Even though I knew we would be in the desert, I somehow imagined there would be more trees and green plants.”
“The only green areas we’ve seen down here are where the land is irrigated for crops or in people’s yards and parks,” said Julia. “Even the cacti are a strange shade of green. Like they’re washed out.”
“I know we missed the colorful blooms of the desert’s spring season, but the oranges and yellows we’ve seen fit right in with an autumn landscape. It feels serene.” Julia closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, then exhaled slowly.
“I agree. And the tallest interruptions to the horizon were when we turned one corner and saw what must have been a thousand windmills planted in the distance! I wonder if anyone has considered painting them green to blend in with nature better.”
Julia giggled at the idea. “Actually, in that instance, painting them tan to match the sandy ground would make more sense. The general terrain makes me wonder how the native Americans managed to survive in conditions like this. They had to be tough, resilient people. I’m glad I live in today’s world instead of being born in the 1800s. Especially if I had lived here.”
Carly guzzled some water. “Have you tried making the frybread that Dolores taught us a few summers ago? I felt so sad when she told us how difficult life was for her Native American grandparents when they were forced to move from their tribal lands.”
Julia nodded. What their cousin-in-law told them had really hit close to home when she and Carly realized they were related to the Chippewa people through their great-uncle’s marriage. “I originally thought she called it ‘cry bread’ because of the sadness and hardship they experienced in those terrible days. I pictured the women crying as they made do with their limited provisions.”
“We should get together with our Native American cousins again,” said Carly. “Maybe next summer we can arrange a get-together in our part of the country.”
“Sounds like a plan. We can mention it to Vickie. Hey, I’m ready to get going if you are.” Julia began gathering up the remains of their meal following the hiker’s creed, “leave only footprints, take only pictures.”
They followed the sandy path for another quarter mile or so, then after a short interval, came to an optional extension that would take them higher and farther. The sisters looked at the map, then at each other, and shook their heads, laughing at the simultaneous decision to forego the extra hiking.
“Let’s complete the loop and head back to the car,” said Julia. “No sense trying to do too much hiking our first day.”
They continued following the trail that would take them back to the trailhead where they’d parked their vehicle. The path was well marked, unlike many trails in the densely wooded forests in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in their home state. Carly led the way along the path, which meandered through the desert rock and cacti, Julia following close behind.
“Wait a sec, Carly. I see something over there,” said Julia, pointing to her right where a multi-branched cactus waited to prick an unsuspecting hiker. She moved carefully through the clumps of sagebrush to a pile of dusty rocks that were stacked in an untidy heap near a Joshua tree. She started to kneel but aborted her move when Carly reminded her about rattlesnakes. Julia nodded, kicked a rock to the side, and listened for a rattle. Hearing nothing, she peered more closely. “It’s a dog tag. Like our father’s.” The small, rectangular piece of silver-colored metal was wedged between two rocks. She bent over and picked it up by its chain, careful to avoid touching the tag itself.
“Let me see,” said Carly. She walked over to Julia, careful of the long spines of the killer cactus next to her sister. She blew some dust off the surface while Julia twisted it around so she could read what it said. “The name on it is Nathaniel J. Colton.”
“I wonder how it got here,” said Julia. “And when.” She looked around at the dry terrain punctuated by scraggly Joshua trees, cacti and rocks. “This is not a very hospitable place,” she pronounced as she pocketed the tag after putting it in an empty Ziploc from her lunch.
“At least it’s not a dead body this time,” said Carly. Julia’s medical expertise — and maybe her nose for trouble — had found the sisters involved in more than one instance of a dead body while on vacation. Not something Carly cared to ever repeat. “Let’s head back to the trailhead. I’ve seen enough desert today.” She started walking down the trail, her eyes peeled for signs of rattlesnakes.
P.J. PETERSON‘s first dream at the age of seven was to grow up to be a doctor and “help” people. After 37 years of practicing internal medicine, she published a mystery that had lain dormant on a floppy disc for almost 40 years. She discovered the thrill of pressing that “publish” button and found a whole new world.
Writing mysteries is her way of using her diagnostic skills in a different way–burying puzzles to solve inside a story with snippets of real life. And it keeps her out of trouble, more or less.
PJ’s passions, when she’s not writing, are health care and education. She donates time to the local free medical clinic and shares a portion of her royalties with St. Rose Catholic School and Seton High College Prep, both of which are close to her heart.