Seth Bryan left the Navigator running as he stepped out and rang the doorbell. Gazing at the upstairs window, he could see the shadow of Melanie rising and heading out of the room. In a moment, she came to the door.
“Well. Now who can’t get enough of whom?” she asked.
“Proper English. You got to love a writer.”
“It’s 10 o’clock, Sheriff. Why are you here?”
“I need your help with something.”
“You need my help with something that can’t wait until daylight?”
“I intentionally waited until after dark, Melanie.”
“. . . Why?”
He stepped closer, leaning against the doorframe. “Have you not seen your neighbors’ houses on TV? This place is crawling with reporters and cameras. Something else has happened and I’m trying to keep it as quiet as I can. We’re not talking about it on the radio and we’re keeping as low a profile as possible. In the morning we’ll have to tell the world, but tonight we’re trying to find out all we can.”
“Something about Riley?”
He sighed. “We haven’t found a connection yet, but I think it must have something to do with the girl. I need you to trust me and come with me.”
She studied his face. For some reason, she seemed to find him humorous. A smile flickered. “And if I won’t?”
He put his hands on his hips. “When I started to go into law enforcement, my aunt asked me, ‘What are you going to be, Seth? I know a lot of guys who wear a badge. Some of them are police. Some are cops. And some a pigs.’ She told me I had to decide. I know you think I’m a cop. And you’re right. I am. I’m a cop with all that comes with it. That doesn’t mean I don’t know my job. And because I’m a cop, I’m also willing to take that extra little half step across the line. Which means, come with me nicely and help me. Otherwise, I’ll cuff your hands behind your back and arrest you for impeding an investigation and throw you over my shoulder, making sure to put both my hands on that round little ass of yours.”
They stared at each other across the threshold. He felt the spite, brass and curiosity in her glare. He tried not to smile, mostly because she wouldn’t understand it wasn’t scorn he felt for her, but admiration. And attraction.
“If you think you need my help, then you’re going to have to trust me,” she replied.
She turned and quickly climbed the stairs. He could hear her shuffling through papers and small items—perhaps on a work desk—then coming back down toward him. She had a little bag strapped over one shoulder and with the other hand held out a flash drive toward him.
“The photos I promised.” She gave him a grim, fierce smile. “I am as good as my word.”
He slipped the plastic tube into his shirt pocket and motioned toward the patient Navigator. “Oh, I have no doubt you’re very good.”
They pulled out of her driveway and accelerated down the street. It was apparent immediately they were leaving Rubicon Ranch.
“Where are we going?”
Nodding, he responded, “The morgue.”
“I’m not going to have to look at the little girl again, am I?”
“No. But . . . there’s another body.”
He sensed that her little gasp was involuntary. “Another? Another—”
“No. An adult.” He glanced at her. “You were right about that car. It did seem sinister. No plates on the outside. No registration on the inside. Nothing to reveal who left it there. We ran the VIN right at the scene. Belongs to one of those places in LA where they rent junkers, you know. It was rented to the night manager, who conveniently is gone. You understand what this means?”
She shook her head.
“Somebody with cash bribed the manager to lease the car to himself. That way, if it were, say, used in a crime or got involved in a police chase, there would be no way to track it back to whoever rented it.” He looked at her again, as if to make sure she was paying attention. “We felt like it was essential to find out who rented that car, just in case it had something to do with Riley.”
“Then we caught a break.”
He smiled. “Deputy Midget was one of the officers scouting out the area, trying to find any tracks or trash or anything that might help us. He’s really scared of creepy, crawly things, you know. So he came up on this outcrop of rocks with a bed of sticks and vegetation inside it. He was really eyeballing it because it’s exactly the sort of place a sidewinder might curl up. And he saw something reflecting in the setting sun.” He faced her and said, “Turned out to be a wedding ring—on the hand of a corpse. White male. Thirty-five to forty-five. Probably dead about the same length of time as Riley. And, like the girl, it’s not clear what killed him. He was scraped up a little, but that may have been a result of somebody burying him and covering him. . . . And, no surprise, the body had no identification on it. Nobody in the sheriff’s department or coroner’s office recognized him.”
“Is that why you came to get me?”
The city lights of Rojo Duro were bright in the clear desert air. The Navigator coursed smoothly along the two-lane blacktop toward the county seat.
“Well, two things, sweetie.”
“Call me ‘sweetie’ again and I’ll blacken your eye.”
A broad smile crossed his face. “Two things, Miss Gray. First, we know that you don’t know the names of everyone in Rubicon, but you are tremendously observant. You take pictures. You walk every day. If this guy lives up there or has been up there in the last few days, we figure you will have seen him. If you haven’t, that’s worth knowing too.”
“. . . And the second thing?”
He shrugged. “It’s like I said to Frio and Midget today, you see things better than most folks. You catch stuff other’s don’t. You put things together.”
“Isn’t this your job?”
“My job—” His voice was the slightest bit testy. “—is to use whatever resources are necessary to determine who murdered two people in my county, one of them an innocent little girl. I will do whatever I have to do to accomplish that.”
She considered his words, staring down the road at the approaching lights of the town. “I guess I should feel complimented.”
He chuckled. “Let me tell you something, Melanie. This is something I don’t say to other peace officers. I don’t tell it to media people. I don’t tell it to civilians. It sounds way too esoteric for a So-Cal county cop to say. . . . A crime is a living thing.”
“Like I said, this is an unusual idea. A crime is a living thing,” he said slowly. “It’s meant to have a short, definite life expectancy. It happens. It’s uncovered. It’s investigated. It’s solved. The responsible parties are dealt with. Now that’s in the ideal world. In reality, often it doesn’t work that way. Still, the reality is that a crime is organic. It wants to be solved. I’ve seen that again and again and again. It’s like watching a flower bloom. If you’re patient. Ask the right questions. Investigate the right people. The truth of what happened, and why, will begin to emerge. And that—” He looked at her again. “—makes a good investigator into something akin to a midwife.”
Melanie snorted. “That’s pretty crazy, Sheriff Seth. That’s a pretty ‘California’ sort of an idea. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s true. Let’s say this crime—god, it’s a double homicide now—wants to be solved. Just for the record, if I personally were a homicide, I’m not sure I’d want a cheesy guy like you trying to solve me. But let’s say you’re right, what in the world would make you think I could help birth the solution to this crime?”
He chuckled. “Well, maybe I’m just metaphysical enough to think that fate wouldn’t have brought a person like you around here if we weren’t supposed to use your gifts.”
“Oh. Is that what you call metaphysical? Using my gifts? Are you sure it’s not arousal instead?”
He shifted on the leather upholstery. “If you ever aroused me, even you would know it.”
They were coursing down the streets of Rojo Duro. As he had been since picking up Melanie, he was driving more than ten-miles-an-hour over the speed limit. It seemed to bother her more in the city than in the country.
The hospital loomed above them. Seth drove around behind it and pulled into an underground parking area denoted with a large, stern sign: “Ambulances and Police Only.”
He pulled right up to a large glass sliding door, cut off the engine and unbuckled his seatbelt. “This is our stop.”
She scrambled to get out of the Navigator before he could come around and open the door for her.
The glass slid open and they walked into a security area. A triage desk with a weary-looking nurse sat prominently before them. The sheriff nodded at her and she reached beneath the counter. There was a buzzing sound of the door latch being released. Melanie followed him as he walked directly toward the entrance to the ER department. She almost ran into him when he stopped suddenly, distracted by a young man in his early twenties wearing the dark scrubs of a patient aide and leaning against the wall by a coin operated soda machine.
The sheriff’s head slanted to one side as if he were trying to figure out what he was looking at. “Are you Dr. Sweetum’s boy?”
The kid looked surprisingly anxious, as if he had been caught doing something wrong. “Yeah, Sheriff. I work here.”
“I thought I saw you this morning.”
“Yeah.” The kid swallowed. “Long day.”
“For all of us, huh?” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “Just in case an ambulance rolls up, the keys are in that Navigator. You move it, okay?”
They continued through the door and down the corridor past the array of cubicles, most empty, where patients were treated. At the far end of the hallway was another door, painted with red letters: “No Admittance.” He held it open for her. The hall on the other side of the door was much darker, and silent. She could hear his footsteps on the tile.
“What’d you notice about that youngster back there?”
“. . . He seemed a little overly anxious.”
“‘Overly anxious’? He was nervous as whore in church.” They stopped in front of a wide, unmarked slate gray door. “Makes you wonder why.”
She realized it was the morgue the moment she followed him in. Two empty stainless steel tables, drains in the middle of them, lights and microphones hanging over them, dominated the center of the room. Cabinets and supply closets ringed the walls, except for the one farthest from the door. There she saw what appeared to be a half-dozen large, rolling file drawers. Each one big enough to hold a person’s body.
Seth, without hesitation, walked to the drawers. “‘John Doe.’ Here’s our man.” He glanced back at her. “Are you ready for this?”
She shrugged. “I guess. He’s not all cut up or anything, is he?”
“No. Sweetum’s going to do the post mortem tomorrow. It was a long day for him too.”
He thumbed the locking latch and pulled on the handle. The door and tray inside rolled smoothly out of the wall.
“Oh!” she gasped. “He’s naked.”
The sheriff smiled. “This isn’t TV, Miss Gray. This is the real world. There is no reason to cover a corpse in the morgue.”
She moved alongside the body, looking down at the ashen face. There were superficial scrapes on forehead and one cheek.
She sighed. “Sorry. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen him before.” She stood above the body, considering it, tilting her head slightly. “You know who he reminds me of?”
“Well, I think he sort of favors Riley.”