Consuela, the hostess, acknowledged Frio and Midget as they entered the café. By the time they were seated at the table with Seth and Melanie, she was beside them with their drinks. Coffee—with cream, no sugar—for the lieutenant and a large fruit punch for the deputy.
The officers stared at Melanie, clearly uncertain about why she was there and what they could say in front of her.
“This may be the most amazing development of this entire unbelievable morning, Deputy,” Seth said casually. “I just watched Miss Gray here put away two-thirds of Consuela’s Number Three Special in five minutes. Never said a word while she was eating.”
“That is amazing,” Midget said. “I’ve never been able to finish one myself.”
Frio laughed. “What caca! I’ve seen you down two Number Three’s at one sitting.” She nodded toward the civilian. “We need to talk and I’m not sure about your guest here.”
“What a coincidence,” the sheriff said. “She’s not sure about us. I’m bringing her on, unofficially, as a special consultant.”
Her chin tilted to one side, Melanie asked, “What makes you think I want to be some special consultant?”
“And what makes you think she can help us?” Frio’s voice was tinged with impatience.
“Because she doesn’t miss anything,” Seth said. “I knew that about her before today. I read that book she wrote about forests. Sure, her husband took the pictures and they were beautiful and all, but to really understand what you were seeing you had to read the text. She made you see the photos in new ways—even if you were a trained observer, like me.” He stirred his coffee. “Then there was this morning. She picked up on things at the scene better than most investigators.”
“Yeah. I wanted to ask about that.” Midget leaned back, gazing across at Melanie. “How exactly did you decide the child was murdered? I find that real interesting, since we still don’t know that for sure.”
“And what about the lack of decomp?” Frio added. “I guess it was just a lucky thing you found her as soon after her death as you did.”
The writer arched her eyebrows. “Much longer out there and the scavengers would’ve found her. As far as knowing her death was unnatural, no one could get inside a broken TV like that by themselves.” Whether from the familiarity she had gained or the irritation she was feeling, Melanie’s tone was more certain. “Obviously someone wadded up her body and stuffed it in there.”
“Well maybe,” Seth responded. He blew across the top of his coffee mug. “Little kids are incredibly limber. What if she got lost? The night gets quite cool compared to the day. She looks around for any kind of shelter. She ignores the broken edges of the glass and the prickly electronic gizmos and climbs in and rolls up into a little ball.”
She waited for him to continue. “And then what? She dies of frostbite on a 60 degree night?”
“I’m thinking she didn’t know there was a sidewinder in the box before she crawled in. Something like that.” He shook his head. “I’m still hoping Sweetum will tell us this isn’t a murder.”
“What’s a ‘sweetum’?” Melanie asked.
“The coroner,” Frio replied. She shifted her gaze to the sheriff. Are we really going to discuss this in front of your girl here?”
Melanie’s jaw dropped. “‘Your girl’?”
“Yeah,” Seth said. “She can keep a secret.”
Frio smirked. “So, assuming this is a murder, we’re ruling Miss Gray out as a suspect?”
“Yeah, why not. Unless we can’t find a better one.” The sheriff shrugged. “Who else in our little subdivision can we eliminate as possible a killer?”
“Not many,” Frio responded. “We know that lots of residents had contact with the victim. Turns out Riley girl was a social butterfly. She got on her little pink bike—it was in the Peterson’s garage this morning, by the way—and rode all over the development. She paid regular visits to lots of people. Including the counselor lady.”
“That’s one house she went to a frequently. Apparently she and her dad went over there together for a while. Then dad stopped and daughter kept going.” When Seth didn’t speak, she went on. “She also spent some time with the ‘nutty professor.’”
“Yeah. She came and went all around when the mood suited her.”
“. . . Anybody else we know she went to see?”
“Somebody apparently went to her house,” Midget offered. “A kid. Teenage boy. Nobody seems to know who he is or where he’s from.”
“What? In Rubicon Ranch? Did he drive up here from down in the valley?”
“We don’t think so,” Frio said. “A couple people caught a glimpse of him. They saw him lurking around the Peterson’s house. Only thing is, he doesn’t fit the description of any teenager in the neighborhood: fourteen to sixteen; all black clothes; leather wrist band; tough looking kid.”
“Hard for me to believe nobody knows who he is?” He turned to Melanie. “Have you ever seen anyone like that?”
She shook her head. “The only boy that age I’ve seen is a geeky kid who lives with his father down the street.”
“Ah!” Frio exclaimed. “That would be the McKenzie house. Yeah, I almost arrested the dad this morning. Fresh guy. Card carrying male chauvinist. But the son—you can write him off. He’s scared of his shadow.”
“Hmm. Shuffle him to the bottom of the deck if you want, but still check him out. He’s the right age and size as our mystery thug.” He frowned. “Okay, let’s slow down a minute and look at this systematically. Let’s take the worst possible scenario and assume we do have a killer in our midst. Rosaria, help me list the people we’re looking at so far.”
She produced her BlackBerry and began to press the buttons across the face of it. “For starters, there is Eloy Franklin, our resident pervert.”
“That’s a cop thing isn’t it,” Melanie protested, “jumping to conclusions. Just because he sits around watching everyone in the neighborhood doesn’t make him a dirty old man and it certain doesn’t make him a pedophile.”
“He is though.” Seth’s voice was matter-of-fact. When she turned to him abruptly, he said, “Before he came here he was found guilty of possessing kiddy porn. He had to report to the county as a sex offender when he came to Rojo Duro County.”
“Oh my god,” Midget said slowly.
“Him being a child predator doesn’t make sense to me,” Seth continued. “This guy was a full bird colonel with a distinguished military career.”
“Sometimes perverse people lead two lives,” Frio said. “Maybe he was trying to make up for his obsession with children by being a decorated serviceman.”
“Oh I understand that. What I meant was, if you’re into pedophilia, seems like the last place you’d go is the military. By definition, no kids. I keep asking myself if there is more to that story than we know. And you know, I have it on good authority that a search of the hard drive on his computer would reveal no kiddy porn whatever.”
Midget smiled broadly. “Wonder how you would know that?”
“Well, the parents.” Frio manipulated the BlackBerry. “Jeff and Kourtney Peterson.”
He nodded. “In the murder of a child, once sex offenders are ruled out, the parents are automatically at the top of the list. What makes the Peterson’s even more interesting is their weird behavior when Miss Gray and I told them about Riley.”
“They didn’t seem surprised?” Frio asked.
“They just reacted strangely. They seemed genuinely shocked. The dad ran upstairs to see if the girl was there before I got around to telling them she was dead. Mom was cool from the beginning and just got colder and colder the longer we were there. I had this feeling that nothing I could say or do was going to rattle her. And you could tell that dad was pretty much under her control. . . . Never have I seen parents learn about the death of a child and pull in together like that.”
“Maybe Jeff and Riley were going to see the counselor lady because Kourtney is crazy,” Frio said.
“Maybe.” Seth looked at her. “Something weird as hell is going on with them and we’ve got figure it out. They strike me as a ‘big secret’ family.”
Melanie frowned. “‘Big secret’ family?”
“Yeah.” Midget nodded. “That’s when there is something in the history of a family that they all know, but they keep from everybody outside the family.”
“All right,” the sheriff said, “beside Mr. Franklin, is it possible we have another pervert in the subdivision?”
“You mean Dr. Dahlsing?” Midget asked.
Frio tilted her head. “There are a couple things about him that set off alarms for me: unmarried adult male; very friendly to small children; recently moved here under mysterious circumstances. And he’s just an odd duck. I mean, who in this is day and age and county doesn’t have a car?”
“I don’t,” Melanie responded dryly.
“Oh,” the lieutenant said. “I am sorry about your husband’s accident. But you have to admit the Dahlsing guy’s strange.”
“Well let’s keep him on the suspect list,” Seth said. “Who else?
“What about Miss Sinclair,” Frio asked, “your de-frocked counselor?”
Seth glanced at the writer. “Moody did some prison time for causing the death of an eight-year-old child. The kid seized during a ‘rebirthing’ treatment. Suffocated inside a bed sheet.” He smiled at her reaction. “It is eerily similar, isn’t it? That’s why Moody is the absolute last person I would suspect. She lost her life and career as a result of that death. Plus she’s on parole. Anything suspicious and she would go back to the women’s penitentiary without any trial. I just can’t picture it being her. On the other hand, because of the death of that child we can’t remove her from the list.”
“We can take her dad off, though,” Midget said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because he was walking around in the front yard this morning with a rolling pin, talking about bashing in Riley Peterson’s head and making her dead. Well, we saw her come out of that TV and her head was definitely not bashed in. Mr. Sinclair would have known that if he was the killer.”
Seth shook his head. “You know, that guy was weird way back when he was in his right mind. And he was sly. What if he’s faking the Alzheimer’s? What if he did kill the girl and then publicly, intentionally described the murder incorrectly? We would just say he has diminished capacity and he’s harmless and ignore him as a suspect. . . . No, we keep Moody Sinclair on the suspect list because we have to. And Morris Sinclair on the list because he may not be the harmless coot we’re supposed to think he is. Who else?”
“What about Cort McKenzie?” Frio asked.
Seth rubbed his eyes with the back of knuckles. “You know, my first inclination is to say ‘no’. I’ve never known a male chauvinist who wasn’t a big, fat momma’s boy and, by nature, all bluster and talk. But guys like that typically end up with docile women who mother them. As I understand it, Mrs. McKenzie is allegedly traveling the European continent like a hobo. So why is she staying away from her husband?” He gazed at the officers. “Something in that house just doesn’t add up either. Let’s keep Court McKenzie on the suspect list. And what’s his kid’s name?”
“Him too, even though the lieutenant thinks he’s nothing but a nerd. Maybe we can find out if he knows the mystery teen. So we have Kourtney and Jeff Peterson, Eloy Franklin, Cooper Dahlsing, Morris and Moody Sinclair, and Cort and Dylan McKenzie. Christ! That’s eight ‘persons of interest’ for us to check out. The good news is that, at most, only one of them can be the killer.”
Seth looked at Melanie again. “Yep. Got me there.” He folded his arms on the table in front of him. “There’s something else. Lieutenant?”
“Day before yesterday I stopped a guy for running a stop sign. Ran it right in front of me, bigger than shit. I hate to enforce traffic stuff, but I couldn’t let him get by with that. So he hands me this fake ID. He’s the one I sent you to check out this morning with the information I took yesterday.”
“Yeah,” Frio responded warily.
“I figured he would be smart enough to know that I was smart enough to know that was a fake, that he would ‘get the hell out of Dodge’. But yesterday I saw that slick black luxury sedan parked here when I came over for breakfast. It’s still down there this morning. When we came in just now, I saw the flashy chick who’s with him. So we have a strange couple—what do they call themselves?”
“Westbrook,” Frio answered. “Mark and Jamie Westbrook.”
“Yeah, so we have a strange couple showing up and hanging around just as we have a child die under strange circumstances.”
“So you want them on the list as well?”
“Yep. I guess we got our work cut out for us.” He pulled Melanie’s photo memory chip from his breast pocket. “Print these pictures out too. See if you can light a fire under Dr. Sweetum.”
The lieutenant pushed back her chair and stood. “I’m going to take Dylan out for a shake or something later. Get to know him, take it slow and easy. Maybe he’ll warm up to me and learn to trust me. I saw a bruise on his wrist that was probably put there by his dad. If he’s abused, maybe we can get him some help, but if I confront him directly, he’ll probably lie to protect his abuser – usually the child blamed himself for the abuse. It makes me angry. I’ll take him to that little restaurant by the drugstore. Probably tell him I eat lunch there every day so he can find me when he’s ready to talk.”
“But you don’t eat lunch there every day,” Midget objected.
“From now on I will. At least for a while.”
Midget finished his drink and got to his feet. He and Frio turned to leave.
“Lieutenant,” Seth said.
Frio looked back at the sheriff. “Yes?”
He motioned slightly with his head. Frio came close and bent over him, her face by his.
“I want you to go to the closed case files and find Alexander Gray’s case. Leave it in my top drawer.”
She straightened. “Yes sir.”
Melanie waited until they were alone. “So you told me the truth?”
“You mean about looking into your husband’s accident? Well, I wasn’t involved with that case and as the sheriff it’s always a good policy to spot check the work of your investigators.” He studied her face. “Never know what you might stumble across. Would you like some coffee or tea for the road?”
“Seriously? You let people take drinks inside your Navigator?”
“Well, like I said, I really wanted them to get me a Beamer.” He waved at the hostess. “Consuela. Por favor, un café largo para el camino.” He turned back to Melanie. “Would you like me to take you home now?”