Chapter 33: Seth Bryan — by Lazarus Barnhill

Standing with his arms folded across his chest, the sheriff scanned the three large whiteboards pushed together across the longest wall of the investigation room. He moved his head slowly from left to right and then right to left as he took in the information.

He sighed. “I have no idea how many of these are ‘persons of interest’ but they are beyond a doubt the most interesting people. . . . How many of these folks are Golden State natives?”

“You mean born in California?” Midget asked from behind his left shoulder.

“Not many,” Frio replied. “The Petersons are from Minnesota. The Westbrooks are from parts unknown—but they’ve been everywhere. Dr. Dahlsing is also from the Upper Midwest. Wisconsin, I think. Melanie Gray is a real newcomer to California. Cort and Dylan McKenzie may be from around the state somewhere, but they haven’t been here all that long. Of course Moody Sinclair has spent a lot of time around, but I think her dad brought her to California when she was a kid.”

“Eloy Franklin is retired military,” Bryan said. “So wherever he started, he had to decide to come to Rubicon Ranch. Not many of these ‘unique’ people started out here, did they? . . . I wonder sometimes if California makes people weird or weird people just feel comfortable coming here.”

“Well I’m not from here.” Midget’s tone was thoughtful. “I’m a little different sort of guy, but I don’t think I’m ’specially weird. There are some really strange folks around here though.”

“Midget, for a fellow who stands out in any crowd, you are pathetically normal. Although, over time, you might weird-out like everybody who comes here.”

Frio narrowed her eyes.Esta tierra no era extraño delante de tu pueblo que nos robaron.”

Midget glanced at Bryan. “What did she say?”

“She said California wasn’t weird before the anglos stole it from her people. Okay, let’s look at all these individuals, shall we? And before we give in to our prejudices, let’s think about the whole story and where everybody fits in. Give me the tour, Rosaria.”

“Okay. Thirty-six hours ago Melanie Gray, author and widow, is walking along in the desert just outside of the subdivision taking photos for her next book. She discovers the body of a child, Riley Peterson, inside a hollowed out TV console. She takes a bunch of photos on two different digital cards and gives us one of them. The child’s body goes with Sweetum the coroner and we begin our investigation.

“We notify her parents, Jeff and Kourtney Peterson, of her death. This seems to surprise her father. Her mother shows almost no emotion. We canvas the neighborhood and find out that little Riley was a social butterfly. She knows pretty much everybody. She is in-and-out of everybody’s house and into everybody’s business. She has a personal relationship with Mary Sinclair—aka ‘Moody.’ She has a relationship with the token teenager of the subdivision, Dylan McKenzie. She knows Cooper Dahlsing. The only person she seems to keep her distance from is Eloy Franklin. Therefore, during the course of our investigation we find that, contrary to a typical elimination of individuals from our interest list, the number of potential suspects just continues to grow.

“Then the investigation takes an unexpected turn. Another dead body is found in the desert, not near the television set, but instead near a rental car half a mile away. The corpse had been a Minnesota resident, one Mr. Herman Neuhaus. This man and his wife had an infant daughter, Anne Neuhaus, stolen from the hospital shortly after her birth. The child would have been born at almost exactly the same time Riley Peterson would have been born. Apparently some social website alerted the Neuhaus family that a child resembling their missing child was going to school here in Rubicon. Herman makes the decision to come here, perhaps to abduct Riley. Perhaps his thought was that, if the Petersons had kidnapped her at birth, they would not risk getting themselves in trouble with the law if her true parents stole her back.

“Somehow Herman Neuhaus also ends up dead and partially buried. In his car and on his person are evidences of chloroform. Preliminary observations of the coroner indicate that Neuhaus was strangled. Riley, according to the autopsy, died of asphyxiation.”

Bryan nodded. “Okay, of the good people we’ve listed here, who can we at least rule out in Riley’s death?”

“Nobody.”

He looked at her. “Nobody? Really?”

“Sorry, boss. Nobody.” Frio moved to the middle white board and put her hand by the trio of photos in the center. “Any time you have a homicide, you always have to rule out the family first. This family is sketchy as hell, not to mention they probably stole this kid out of the hospital nursery.”

“So they thought if Riley was dead they would be less likely to answer questions about their past?” Bryan asked. “That seems like kind of a stretch to me. Anyway, if they were going to get rid of her, why didn’t they do a better job of concealing her body?”

“I’m just saying, you can’t rule them out. And if you’re talking about natural suspects, there is the neighborhood pervert, Mr. Franklin. We know he has a sexual inclination toward small children, which puts him at the top of the list just under the parents.”

“Yeah, supposedly. . . . What doesn’t make sense to me is why a pedophile would join the military. By definition if you’re in the armed services you won’t be around children. Plus, apart from the kiddy porn, there is no evidence that he ever acted out.”

“Pervert, boss.” Frio tapped Eloy’s photo. “Top of the list.” She moved over to the photo of a graceful, insecure looking woman. “Just under him on the list is the psychologist, Moody Sinclair. She already killed one child and did time for it. That child, like Riley, died of asphyxiation. So maybe she was trying the same sort of ‘therapeutic’ technique and thought she could get it right this time. So she’s on the list.”

Midget spoke up. “What about her daddy?”

“What about him?” Bryan asked. “He’s a harmless old coot who suffers constant dementia. That’s why his daughter has to live with him.”

“Listen, Sheriff,” the deputy persisted, “right after the girl died, Morris Sinclair was standing out in his yard making rhymes about her being murdered. How many Alzheimer’s folks can do that? Maybe he’s not so crazy as he is sly.”

“. . . Okay, so Morris Sinclair can be on the list. I always thought his penchant for bizarre, grotesque violence was a Hollywood kind of thing. Maybe he’s trying to live it out.” He shifted from one foot to the other, deciding. “I’m going to tell you all now that I don’t think either of them is involved in this. But I also don’t want to be accused of playing favorites. So I want officers in the Morris house. I’ll invent some reason for Moody to bring her dad down here. You call Judge Offenbie. I want a search warrant for their house. If Morris is faking the dementia and he thrill-killed the girl, then he kept a souvenir. They always do. If Moody messed up and accidentally killed her, then there will be a porous blanket of some kind that she wrapped her in. Who’s next?”

“Well, we have another household of suspects—Dylan and Cort McKenzie. Dylan is our resident B. and E. rebel. Elise Boyd, who lives across the street from the McKenzie’s, claims Dylan broke into her house and stole a bracelet, but she refuses to press charges. Doesn’t want to cause any trouble. She says she thinks he’s the one who’s been sneaking in and out of houses and taking little things, but when the deputy asked her to sign a statement, she backed off. Says she wasn’t sure. Says she feels sorry for him. His dad beats the hell out of him and in return Dylan acts out. I’m pretty sure he has the availability of some illegal drugs. So Riley sees him breaking in or coming out of a house and confronts him. Dylan chokes her or even dopes her. That agrees with her preliminary tox report.”

“So you like the kid for her death?”

“Actually no. Dylan is a messed up kid—a little worse than I first thought—and hoped. I don’t think he’s a killer. I tell you who, of all these people, I like for the girl’s murder. It’s Dylan’s dad. Cort is a chauvinistic thug with anger management issues big time. I have no trouble seeing him smothering the girl just trying to shut her up. And stuffing her in the TV instead of burying her has Cort written all over it.”

“So they both stay on the list. We sure aren’t ruling many folks out. Who else?”

“The Westbrooks. Consuela gave us a glass dish and a fork with the young woman’s prints on them. We got a match. She and a partner have been indulging in a crime spree. Don’t know their real names, but the descriptions fit the Westbrooks. It’s no accident they showed up about the same time as Neuhaus. They were in this to make a buck. Apparently they figured out that the Petersons stole Riley and they inserted themselves because both families were easy targets.”

Midget chuckled. “I bet they were blackmailing the Petersons and taking money from Neuhaus to recover his little girl.”

Frio nodded. “Good bet. And something went wrong. People started ending up dead.”

Bryan tilted his head. “Why didn’t they leave?”

“What?” Frio asked.

“Once the girl and her biological father were dead, why would two shiftless con artists stick around? That would be totally out of character. They would only stay if they didn’t know the girl or her father were dead.”

“So—” Frio turned to him. “—you’re saying the only people we can rule out of this homicide are the two career criminals?”

“Not at all. There is too much going on we don’t know about. Maybe there was some payoff they were waiting for and they couldn’t leave right away. It will be interesting, I think, to hang onto them and sweat them. I bet Jamie turns on Mark if it keeps her out of serious jail time. So is that it?”

“Nope,” Frio said. “Two more. First is your current favorite woman, Melanie Gray.”

Bryan nodded. “Heartbreaker. And she’s on the list because?”

“She found the body. She suggested immediately that it was a murder and not an accident. She withheld evidence. She had an uncanny perception of the crime scene. And also, her husband died recently under circumstances that we understand now to be suspicious.”

“What could that possibly have to do with Riley?”

“Riley was into everybody’s business, Sheriff,” Midget responded. “Suppose she saw something she wasn’t supposed to? Maybe Ms. Gray had to clean up her first homicide by getting rid of the child.”

He frowned. “Back in the good-old-days we never suspected attractive women. Still, we do have to keep her on the list. Who else?”

“The kooky professor, Cooper Dahlsing,” Frio said. “We know he knew and spent time with Riley. We know he has some emotional issues because he was secretly going to Moody Sinclair for counseling. We don’t know what those issues are and that makes it all the more interesting. We also don’t know why he relocated here long before he was retirement age and gave up his car. We do know he walks in his sleep.”

“How do we know that?”

“I tracked down a colleague of his in Wisconsin,” Midget said. “The professor does strange things in his sleep and he doesn’t remember doing them. The colleague once saw him in a bar, talking and drinking with a bunch of guys, and when he mentioned it the next day, Dahlsing looked totally blank.”

“Interesting. With all this business of potential blackmail and kidnapping coming to light, it’s hard for me to imagine our sleepwalker figuring into this. But we really can’t take him off the list either.” He grimaced. “So we have no real solid direction for one homicide. And to make matters worse we have a second homicide. Surely the pool of suspects is smaller for Neuhaus.”

Frio nodded. “Just the way it happened rules out a bunch of people. According to Sweetum’s initial report, somebody choked Herman down. He wasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it takes a lot of strength to strangle a grown man.”

“Since he was Riley’s birth father, I think we pretty much have to assume their deaths are connected. So the suspect pool should pretty much line up—otherwise his murder is the all-time most ironic death in the history of homicide. Who on our list could have done this?”

“A fit, younger male,” Midget said. “That rules out the women and the Alzheimer’s guy and the teenager.”

“So that leaves—” He studied the board. “—Dr. Dahlsing the sleepwalker, Mark Westbrook our con man, anger management McKenzie, and Jeff Peterson.”

“What about Eloy Franklin?” Frio asked. “Trained in hand-to-hand combat? He might have pulled it off.”

Bryan sighed. “So five guys. Are we supposed to assume that the person who killed Riley also killed Neuhaus? Please, somebody give me a scenario involving these people that makes sense and explains how this double homicide happened.”

Midget put his hands in his pockets. “Well, I have an idea.”

They looked at him.

“Mr. Neuhaus comes down from Minnesota to steal back his daughter. He comes into the house at night with chloroform to knock her out so she won’t scream and wake the Petersons. Somehow they catch him and Jeff puts him in the sleeper hold for a little too long. Corpse number one. Jeff takes Mr. Neuhaus out to the rental car and drives out into the desert. He conceals the body as best he can. Meanwhile Riley has seen all this and she’s terribly upset—not to mention very talkative. So Kourtney smothers her and hurries out to the desert. Corpse number two. She stuffs the child in the TV to get home before Jeff. So the next morning, before she has a chance to explain to him what she’s done, we show up. That explains why he was so upset and she wasn’t.”

Bryan considered his words. He stretched slowly. “I hate to admit it, deputy, but that’s the only scenario that makes any sense to me. Therefore we know it must be wrong. You’re right about you not being California weird. There is something we’re missing here.”

There was a hint of frustration in Frio’s voice. “How do you suggest we rule out the people who aren’t responsible and focus on the real suspects?”

Bryan nodded slowly, weighing their options. “Here’s what we’re going to do. In addition to the search warrant for Moody’s house, I want one for the Peterson’s. I want to see if there were any signs of a struggle. If two men fought to the death, something got broken and they won’t have been able to conceal everything. Then we’re going to have a party. What do they call it—a memorial. We’re going to bring all these people out to the desert. We’re going to take them all out to where we found Riley’s body and confront them all.”

Frio shook her head. “You really think the guilty ones are going to crack and confess?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary. I think in all this talk about suspects, there is someone we’ve underestimated. I bet I’ll get the answer I need from Melanie Gray.”

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About Lazarus Barnhill

Lazarus Barnhill is a native of Oklahoma who has lived all over the south. He holds three degrees, including a Doctorate in Spiritual Development. He has been obsessed with writing since he was a boy. A father of three and grandfather of three, he resides in North Carolina with his wife of 34 years and an irritating cat, Jessie, who is for sale cheap. Lazarus Barnhill at Second Wind Publishing, LLC: http://secondwindpublishing.com/LazarusBarnhill.html
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One Response to Chapter 33: Seth Bryan — by Lazarus Barnhill

  1. dellanioakes says:

    Excellent chapter, Laz!

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