“Look I know you’re dressed for the desert and everything,” Bryan said, “but I hope you won’t be offended if I ask you to sit in the unit here for a minute or two and enjoy the air conditioning while I talk to my deputies.”
He could tell she was thinking over his request carefully, that Melanie didn’t quite trust him. She also didn’t act like someone who had just killed a child and was trying to cover it up, although—he judged—she might be clever enough to do just that.
“Well if I have to wait,” she said, “I guess I’m better off in here than out in hundred degree weather.”
Bryan opened the driver’s door. “One hundred and three degrees,” he corrected.
Frio and Midget were standing within a few feet of the discarded TV, as if to make sure the child inside did not get out and skip away. Midget paid less attention to the crime scene than the scrub brush and mounds of rock and dirt around him.
“Do we know who this was?” the sheriff asked as he joined them.
“No,” Frio said. “If she’s from this housing development, it won’t be hard to find out. Not too many girls her age up here.”
“They don’t know she’s gone,” Midget offered in his falsetto. “Otherwise they would have reported her missing before Flower Child over there found her.”
“Yeah, unless they killed her.” He glanced back to his Navigator. Melanie was staring at them. “So this Melanie Gray. More to her than meets the eye, you think?”
“Obviously,” Frio replied. “With all those clothes she wears, almost nothing meets the eye.”
“Yeah.” He turned back toward the TV. “I would totally discount her as being involved in any way, except for one thing. From the very first, she talked about this as if it’s a murder.”
Midget looked down at him. “You think it’s not a murder?”
He shrugged. “What is she—eight, nine-years-old? She sneaks out at night after bedtime and loses her way. No one notices she’s gone. She gets lost. She gets dehydrated. She finds the TV console and decides to sit it in for shelter. Maybe she dies of exposure. Or maybe one of those green rattlers around here bit her. Since no one could hear her crying for help, she crawled in the TV and the venom got her.” He looked up at Midget, who was gazing around them. “You don’t like snakes, do you?”
He chuckled. “So let’s proceed as if this is a wrongful death investigation. What do we need to do, Frio?”
She sighed. “Well, I’ve already called for the coroner and the bus. Midget and I will cordon off this area with tape and protect the scene as much as possible. We need to figure out who the little girl is and notify her parents.”
“What if they’re dead too?” Midget asked.
“That would be about my luck. What’s the name of the old fart who sits out in front of his house drinking tea and eyeballing everybody in the development?”
A broad smile broke across Frio’s face. “Mr. Franklin! Eloy Franklin. I had to serve a warrant on him for indecent exposure last year.”
“Shit. Did it involve children?”
“No. He had the habit of going around on the side of his house and peeing in the bushes. He knew the workmen building the McMansion next door could see him, but he claimed he didn’t know some of them were women.”
“Uh-huh. What did he think of you being a woman officer?”
“He mutters a lot, so I wasn’t sure what he was saying. Why do you ask about him?”
“He’ll know all the little kids in the neighborhood. He can point out which houses we should go to.” He kicked at the dirt. “I guess I have to do that part.”
The three turned toward the sound of another large vehicle, this one black and unmarked, rolling toward them. It stopped behind the other SUVs. Fine dust hung in the air about it like a yellow cloud.
“Well the coroner’s always prompt,” Frio said.
“Got to admire a man who likes a job like his,” Midget said.
“You know what to tell him, right Frio? I want everything preserved. I want TOD.”
“Can’t be long ago in this heat.”
“I know that, Lieutenant. I think that’s going to tell us a lot. I want to know about any marks on her. I want to know about any substances—bodily or otherwise. I want to know if she was raped. Whether or not she was, I want to know if her hymen is intact. I want to know about old broken bones, old bruises, old—”
“I got it, boss. You want it all.”
Bryan looked at the vast desert spreading before them, then over his shoulder toward the Rubicon Ranch development. “I also want to keep track from this moment about the movements of residents going in and out of this neighborhood. Nobody disappears. Any changes in routine, I want to know about it.” He paused. “I don’t suppose there’s a chance in hell we can keep this away from the media until we figure out what happened and who might be responsible.”
“No, sir,” Midget replied. “They scan our calls. I’ve seen ’em stake out the coroner’s office and even follow his van. They’ll be here soon enough too.”
He nodded. “That’s the bad part about a commuter community like Rojo Duro County—not enough real news to occupy the media. Well, keep ’em at bay as best you can. And, since we don’t know anything, for god’s sake don’t tell them anything—including what we don’t know.” He turned toward his car.
Frio shifted, the leather of her holster squeaking. “Where are you going?”
“Guess I’ll go see our old pervert and get a heads up about whether or not the girl belongs around here. Where she might have lived. What else he might know.”
“What about our witness there?”
“She’s going with me,” he said, reflection in his voice. “She’s holding out on me.”
“I knew your charm would fail you one day,” Midget said.
He laughed. “No. I haven’t propositioned her. Yet. What I mean is, she offered me the digital memory of her camera without my asking.”
“So?” Frio asked.
“When people offer you information without your asking for it, there’s usually something else they have they’re afraid you might ask for.” He glanced at the lieutenant. “Wasn’t her husband the poor jackass who wrecked out and killed himself while he was texting?”
“Few weeks ago. Yeah. That was him.”
“Actually, she’s concealing a lot from me. She told me she was a photographer. She’s no photographer. It was her husband who did that. I read that stupid ‘forest’ book enough to know that she wrote the text and the late Mr. Gray was the photog.” A smile spread slowly across his face. “I like her.”
Midget followed his gaze. “I don’t think she’s your type, Sheriff.”
“Well. She’s not a cheerleader and she’s not a cop.”
“Yeah, but don’t you think she’s too smart to fall for you?”
He looked up at the massive deputy, who was smirking at him. “How you doing on that weight loss program, Deputy?”
He exchanged a nod with Sweetum, the coroner, as they met and then pulled open the door to his car and slid onto the cool seat. He pushed the gear lever into reverse and glanced at the mirror. Only after he stopped backing up and slipped the unit in drive did he look casually at his passenger, who wore an expression of alarm.
“I guess you’re with me,” he said
“What do you mean I’m with you?”
“Well.” He shrugged. “The other officers all got duties. I’m taking you home.”
“Oh.” There was a note of relief in her voice.
“Pretty soon. We have to make a stop on the way.”
From the edges of his vision he could see her turn fully toward him. Her cheeks gained a pink, rosy tint against the flawless cream of her oval face. Her voice was tart with anger. “You really think you’re somebody, don’t you? You think you’re the most important guy around, don’t you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I haven’t written even one coffee table book.”
Her eyes flared. “Oh, you’re the man, aren’t you—tooling around like the king of the county in your Lincoln Navigator.”
“Actually I wanted the commissioners to get me a Beamer Z car.” He looked down at her. “But—no back seat. In case I have to arrest somebody and bring them in. That’s enough playtime. Back to business. I want to know everything you saw. Exactly what you saw from the time you left your house until your found the girl.”
Melanie sat back and looked straight ahead. She took a few deep breaths, then answered. “I saw the same things I always see: nothing. No one was outside. There were no people. There were no animals—except of course for that old man who sits on his porch and stares at me every morning when I walk by.”
“You mean this old guy?”
The Navigator whipped into the driveway of a two-story stone house and pulled all the way up to within a dozen feet of where Eloy Franklin sat on his front porch. The old man’s eyes grew wide at the suddenness of the patrol car’s appearance. His fingers tightened on the mostly empty tea glass as he leaned forward in his rocking chair. Slowly he leaned back.
“He seem nervous to you?” the sheriff asked.
“He must know you,” she replied tersely.
Bryan opened the door, but sat behind the wheel for an instant. “One thing, Mrs. Gray. Why did you assume from the beginning that the girl was murdered?”
He slid out of the vehicle and closed the door without waiting for her reply. He walked around to the sidewalk up onto the front porch without looking at the man who watched him intently. Only when he leaned against the white porch railing facing Eloy did he speak.
“Do you know why I’m here, Mr. Franklin?”
There was a slight palsy in his face and hands. Bryan thought it might be age or perhaps fear. Rage?
“I ain’t committed no crime.”
“None I ain’t paid for.”
“That would be good news for me, Mr. Franklin. I have an important question to ask you. You tell me the truth about this and I’m going to get back in my car and leave right now.”
“What is it?”
“I know that you know everybody who lives here. I need to know about a little girl. Eight or nine. Curly blonde hair. Thin face. Carries around a faded pink stuffed rabbit. What’s her name and where does she live?”
He nodded. “I’m taking you at your word, Seth Bryan, celebrity sheriff.” A brief smile—cunning and sly—flashed. “You’re asking about the Peterson girl. Them people from up north up in the cul-de-sac.”
“Minnesota, as I hear it.”
“What’s her name?”
Bryan nodded. “Last time you saw her?”
“Yesterday. Before the sun went down.”
“Mr. Franklin, I’m pretty sure nothing in this neighborhood escapes you. Did you notice anything at all unusual in the last twenty-four hours? Did anybody act in some way they don’t usually act? Come and go at different times or different routes or walk in different places than they usually do?”
Eloy stared at him. Bryan could not read his expression.
“I didn’t see anything I don’t always see. . . . The girl’s dead, isn’t she?”
He turned back toward his unit. “If you think of anything, Mr. Franklin, or if you want to talk to me, you know how to get a hold of me.”
He slid into his seat and dropped the car into reverse. Melanie was watching him.
“You scared him.” When he didn’t respond, she said, “Do you really think that feeble old man could harm a child? And then carry her body out to the desert and stuff her into a TV?”
“I don’t think he can do anything but shuffle into his kitchen and back out to his rocking chair.”
“Hmm. Maybe so. How do you suppose he scampers up to that second story window?”
“You’ve never noticed him up there up an evening? It’s easier for him to break out his binoculars and look up and down the subdivision without being seen.”
Her face was so open, he could almost read her thoughts in her changing expression. He was sure she was considering his words, wondering if she had ever seen the old man in the upper front window of his house, wondering if this was something the sheriff knew or if was he simply playing more mind games with her.
He hid a smile. He really did like this woman.
He drove slowly up the hill, eased into the uppermost cul-de-sac, and coasted to a stop at the curb in front of a stucco two-story. A silver SUV and a black luxury sedan sat mutely in the driveway.
The sheriff’s shoulders sagged. He hadn’t expected to have to deal with both parents at once. He looked over at Melanie. “I would appreciate your help with this. It’s my job to tell them, I know. Only, if this goes the way I think it’s going to, these people are going to want to talk to you. They’re going to want to ask you what you saw. How you found her. Will you come in with me?”
“These are her parents?”
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure. I saw their vehicles when they first moved in not long after I got here myself. Minnesota plates. These are the Petersons and I think they have a daughter named Riley.”
“Riley.” A wave of emotion passed over her face, and he thought she’d refuse to help. Then, with a sigh, she said, “Okay. I’ll do it for Riley. And for her parents.”
They got out of the Navigator together and walked toward the slate gray front door. Bryan rang the doorbell. She stood behind him, waiting.
An altogether average-looking man, unshaven, wearing a t-shirt and pajama pants and holding a coffee mug in his free hand, opened the door. His head jerked—anxiously, Seth thought—when he saw the officer in uniform.
“Yes?” His voice had a nervous edge as well.
“Yeah. Jeff. Jeff Peterson”
“I’m Seth Bryan. I’m the sheriff of Rujo Duro County. This here,” he extended an upturned hand toward Melanie, “is Mrs. Gray. She’s one of your neighbors. We were wondering if we could come in for a minute.”
Jeff backed away from the door. “Uh, sure. Come on in.”
He led them through a large, airy entry down a hallway into a kitchen. Sitting at the table in a smart pantsuit, looking up from the morning newspaper as three people trouped into her kitchen was a woman as fit in her appearance as Jeff was slouchy in his. If the husband had seemed anxious, the wife seemed displeased and impatient.
“Honey. This is—I’m sorry.”
“Seth Bryan. I’m the county sheriff. And this is Mrs. Melanie Gray. She lives down the street.”
“Yes,” the woman replied without rising. “You’re the writer whose husband died in the car wreck.” She folded her paper and stood up, extending her hand to the sheriff. “I’m Kourtney Peterson. How can we help you?”
Bryan took off his baseball cap. “Mr. and Mrs. Peterson, do you have a daughter?”
For just an instant it seemed as if Kourtney Peterson swayed backward, shock in her eyes. Then she regained her composure. “Yes, of course. Our daughter Riley.”
Jeff Peterson on the other hand reached out for the back of one of the kitchen chairs to support himself.
“Where is your daughter now, ma’am?”
As his wife opened her mouth to speak, Jeff back away from the table. He looked toward the ceiling.
“Riley!” He dashed from the room. “Riley?” There was the sound of his feet pounding up hardwood stairs.
The three who remained in the kitchen gazed at each other. Kourtney seemed intent on neither offering nor asking for information. Bryan listened to the panicked search of the father, clearly audible from upstairs. Melanie stared at the mother, struggling to understand her reaction—or lack of reaction.
The frantic steps of the father came back down the stairs, slowing as he entered the kitchen. His face was full of dread as he asked, “Where is Riley? Why are you here?”
Bryan took a breath and said, “This morning Mrs. Gray was taking photographs in the desert a few hundred yards outside the subdivision. There was some debris out there. People had dumped some household goods. As she was taking photos, she found a child. A child who was not living. This little girl is about nine-years-old or so. She had curly blonde hair. She was carrying a faded stuffed animal.”
“Oompah!” the father cried out. He began to sob, pulling out the chair and collapsing into it. “Her rabbit. Oompah. Oh my god.” He moaned, covering his face with his hands.
“What happened to Riley?”
Bryan turned his attention to the mother. “We don’t know, ma’am. There are no obvious signs of trauma. She might have died of exposure. Of course, we haven’t ruled out foul play either. Right now the coroner is out in the desert with her. They’ll take her back to town. We’ll need you two to go down this morning and positively identify this child.” He paused until the father’s sobs subsided. “Afterwards the doctor will conduct a postmortem examination and that will help us determine the cause of death.”
He paused, waiting for their questions. Waiting for the grief that so often burst forth from parents who lost a young child. Waiting for some response from them, a response that did not come. He rubbed his chin and slipped the ball cap back onto his head.
“Mr. and Mrs. Peterson, do either of you have any idea what happened? Did you daughter have a habit of sleepwalking or perhaps running away? Was there anyone in the neighborhood who might have expressed some intent to harm her?”
The mother shook her head. “No. Nothing like that. As far as we knew this morning, Riley was upstairs asleep in her bed. Like always.”
He nodded. “I’m so sorry to have to share this news with you. We’ll be leaving now.” He produced a business card and set it gently on the table. “This is my private number. Please call me if I can do anything to help or if you think of anything that would help us understand what happened. We have your contact information in the sheriff’s office and officers will be coming in the next hour or so to escort you to the coroner’s office.”
No other word was spoken as Kourtney left Jeff sitting at the table and walked the two of them to the front door. In silence they climbed into the patrol car. Bryan turned on the ignition and backed out of the driveway. They headed out of the cul-de-sac down the hill.
“I know,” he cut her off. “I know where you live.” He glanced at her. “Do you have children?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Me neither. . . . If you did, and one of them turned up dead, would you react the ways those people did?”
“No. No way.” He passed three houses before she spoke again. “So you were just jerking me around when you said they’d want to talk to me, right?”
“Not at all. When a child dies like this, the parents have a million questions. I just knew they’d want to ask you exactly where you were and exactly how you found her and what she looked like. Hell, they didn’t ask a thing.”
“Hmm. It was more like they were afraid you were going to ask them something.”