“I need you to come with me,” Bryan said when Melanie answered her door.
Instead of her usual tart, slightly defiant look, this time Melanie gave the sheriff an expression of weary resignation. “Is this going to be dinner or a dead body?”
“Neither. I just need you to cooperate one more time. Or maybe I should say, I need you to cooperate for the first time.”
“And if I don’t, you’re going to arrest me, right?”
“Not yet. First we have to join the party.”
“Party?” She stepped back into the entry and picked up the broad brimmed hat she wore beneath the full sun. “What’s the occasion?”
He escorted her to the passenger’s side of the Navigator and opened the door for her. “It’s kind of a memorial service. For little Riley. You heard, by the way, about—”
“Her parents. Yes. It’s horrible.”
Bryan slid into the driver’s seat. “Well, I’ve seen this kind of cascade of deaths before. But usually it has to do with gangs. Not middle class folks in the suburbs.”
They drove swiftly up the street and then into the desert. He could tell he was going just a little too fast for Melanie’s comfort.
“So who’s coming to this memorial? Where is it and why do you need me there?”
He smiled. “You’re my new favorite escort. You knew that, right?”
“Oh my God.” She buried her face in her hands. “Not just an escort, but your escort. What a put down.”
“Yeah, it’s my specialty. Anyway, the whole Rubicon gang is going to be there—everyone who was a ‘person of interest’ in this investigation.”
“Everyone who’s not dead. And it’s not really a memorial service. You remember where you found the TV set with Riley’s body in it?”
“That’s where we’re meeting.”
He glanced at her as if she had asked a foolish question. “To solve two killings, of course.”
“But, her parents killed themselves. Or it was a murder-suicide. Doesn’t that sort of imply—”
“Wouldn’t that be lovely? Riley’s parents kill the child they kidnapped at birth and the birth father who comes to steal her back and then, in a fit of remorse, they do themselves. That would solve everything, wouldn’t it?”
“Why doesn’t it solve everything?”
He shrugged. “Maybe it does.”
She clenched her teeth and looked out the passenger’s window, frustration and confusion lining her face. “Why are you dragging me into this, Sheriff? You must know I had nothing to do with anybody’s death.”
“Really? You had nothing to do with anyone’s death? . . . This from a woman whose husband died in a mysterious one-car accident. And when a peace officer reviewed the circumstances and told her there needed to be further investigation because there was some indication of foul play, she vehemently denied it was anything but an accident?”
“I didn’t deny it was an accident. I merely said you lied to me. And you did lie. You were lying to get to me.”
He pulled up to a ring of four or five official cars, shut off the Navigator and turned to her. “I don’t have to lie to get to you. Something strange did happen to your husband in his car. But that’s not why we’re here.” He spoke slowly. “I know you dislike me intensely and want me out of your life. So make that happen. Cooperate with this investigation.”
“And just how do I do that?”
He nodded toward the group of deputies and Rubicon Ranch residents that were standing halfway up the knoll. “You’ll know when it’s time. Let’s go. You can open your own door, can’t you?”
He seemed oblivious to Melanie’s presence as he walked up to the silent group of citizens facing him, flanked by the equally silent deputies. It was only when he came to a stop alongside Frio and Midget that he glanced over his shoulder at Melanie. He watched as she took her place at the farthest edge of the group.
“Are all my interesting persons here, Deputy?”
Midget nodded. “All who are still breathing. Present and accounted for, Sheriff. We found Dylan halfway to Arizona. A truck driver picked him up and gave us a call. Since he picked up the kid in our county, he thought we should know about it.”
Bryan projected his voice through the dry desert air. “I want to thank you all for your cooperation in coming here.”
“It’s not like I had a choice.” The voice was feminine and flirtatious, and cynical.
The eyes of the crowd turned to Jamie Westbrook. She lifted her manacled hands and tilted her head.
“Well, it’s true,” Bryan continued. “Some of you needed a little inducement to cooperate. As for you Ms. Westbrook, we look forward to your continued cooperation.”
“She’s a goddamn liar.”
“Then there’s you, Mr. Westbrook. I notice you are shackled as well. Otherwise I fear you would have flown the coop, with or without your lady friend here. There are important lessons to be learned here, Mark. First, the best way to raise quick cash is not to sell drugs in a community full of deputies watching every move you make. And second, when you have a partner in crime, make sure you rat her out before she drops the dime on you.”
“You got nothing on me but her word.”
Bryan took a step toward him and Westbrook straightened. The sheriff smiled.
“I encourage you to work on that attitude before you see Judge Solis tomorrow. She has a particular dislike of lowlifes who pedal drugs to our schoolchildren. It will be interesting to see whether she’ll want you to serve your entire sentence here before sending you back to Minnesota to face extortion and fraud charges. If I don’t miss my guess, there are law enforcement officers all over this country who want you to come spend a little time with them.”
He gazed out over the silent observers. “Now where was I? Oh yes. I’m grateful for your cooperation as we try to determine exactly who perpetrated the deaths of Riley Peterson and Herman Neuhaus.”
“Isn’t it, like, obvious?” This time the voice was sullen and adolescent.
“Ah, Dylan McKenzie. Not in handcuffs, but still under arrest for a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood. What’s supposed to be so obvious?”
“Her parents. They killed her. And they killed that other dude.”
“Then they killed themselves? Hmm. I suppose a murder-suicide should make us suspect them. On the other hand, suppose you’re a teenager sneaking around and breaking into people’s houses. Suppose little Riley Peterson catches you and you don’t want to get, like, busted. So now you also have a reason to—”
“I never did anything to Riley!”
“Besides giving her drugs, you mean?” When the kid looked down, the sheriff said, “And then you ran away. To a cop like me, that sounds a little suspicious, Dylan.”
“Leave him alone.”
Bryan gazed at the man beside the teenager. “Well, Cort McKenzie. How ironic, you telling us to leave your son alone. Are you the only one allowed to beat him?”
McKenzie started toward the sheriff. Lieutenant Frio immediately stepped in his path, her hands raised and opened toward him.
The father stopped, glaring at the lieutenant as he replied to Bryan. “I never laid a hand on that kid.”
“Then why didn’t you report whoever kept leaving all those bruises on him?” the sheriff asked. “And while we’re at it, why did your wife leave, Cort? Did you bruise her up too?”
He stepped toward Bryan again. “You can’t talk to me like—”
“Calm down and step back, sir.” Frio positioned herself directly between McKenzie and the sheriff.
“Don’t touch me and get out of my face, sweetheart!”
“I have not touched you, Mr. McKenzie. Step back and be quiet or go to jail.”
As if responding to a dare, Cort McKenzie took a half step forward and pointed his finger at Bryan. “I have my rights!”
The lieutenant pulled his hand down. Instantly a look of enraged indignation painted McKenzie’s face. He raised both hands to push Frio and as he did she effortlessly sidestepped him, captured one hand, put one foot behind his propped leg and slammed him to the ground.
There came a gasp from the throng, equaled by the sound of the wind bursting from McKenzie’s lungs. Frio rolled him to one side and smoothly secured handcuffs on his wrists so he was shackled behind his back.
She pushed his back onto the ground and hovered over him. “I’m so glad you did that. I’ve been waiting all week for you to do that.”
“Wow.” Bryan grinned broadly. “Just look at the bad boys we’re locking up here today. And we’re not through, are we, Moody?”
The psychologist’s expression darkened. “I had nothing to do with Riley’s death.”
“No, you didn’t. And neither did your dad.” The sheriff nodded at the stooped figure standing beside her. “Glad you could join us, Mr. Sinclair.”
“Drop the act, Morris. We know you aren’t suffering from dementia. And, no, your daughter didn’t tell us. Terry Sweetum told us. When we searched your house, we found all your gory autopsy photos. At first we thought it was the coroner providing them for you, until we determined that the pictures were all scans. Terry would go in at night and raid his dad’s files and make copies of the photos he found. He couldn’t make originals because he couldn’t bypass the security on his dad’s computer.”
Morris Sinclair stared at Bryan. At length he responded with complete clarity. “What law did I break, Sheriff?”
“Receiving stolen property for starters, Morris. We’ll let the D.A. figure out what else.” He shrugged. “I don’t think there’s a law against creeping out the whole subdivision. You may get some prize, though. Your real life is scarier than any of those spook books you write.”
“Whatever. We’re not going to cuff you, Morris. Just behave yourself.” He looked across the crowd again. “So I think that concludes the preliminaries. Now on to our main purpose for being here.”
“About time,” Mark Westbrook muttered.
“You see, I happen to know who killed Riley Peterson. It wasn’t Dylan. It wasn’t you, Moody. It wasn’t you, Eloy, despite your reputation. . . . I know you got caught with kiddy sex pics, but I also know they weren’t yours, were they? Professor Dahlsing, you may have gone walking in your sleep that night, but we know you didn’t kill the child either. Jamie and Mark Westbrook are career criminals, but they didn’t murder Riley. She was supposed to be their meal ticket. Jeff and Kourtney Peterson didn’t kill her either. The death of a child destroys a lot of marriages. It did that for the Peterson’s, even though Riley wasn’t even their child. And now the death toll has increased by two.”
Bryan looped his thumbs in his pistol belt. “Sounds as if I have eliminated all the suspects, doesn’t it? I suppose that’s proper because Riley Peterson was not murdered. Her death was an accident and it was at the hands of her true father, Herman Neuhaus.”
Jamie Westbrook shot an outraged look at Mark. Morris Sinclair smirked. Moody looked startled, then thoughtful, as if something that had puzzled her finally made sense.
“Two fathers?” Dylan said. “Shit. One is bad enough.”
“Mr. Neuhaus and his wife learned of Riley on the internet,” Bryan continued. “The Westbrooks were hired by the Neuhauses to find out some solid information about the girl. Unfortunately for all involved, our little con artists decided to play both sides of the fence. They tried to blackmail the Petersons—extort money from them to keep silent. Meanwhile Herman Neuhaus figured out on his own where his daughter was. He came from Minnesota to California to reclaim her.
“Herman decided to circumvent the courts. He knew the Petersons couldn’t challenge him legally if he just kidnapped his own daughter back. His problem was that Riley had no idea who he was. As friendly a child as she was, she would never get in the car with a stranger. So he decided to chloroform her. He got into her room and he put the chemical-soaked rag across her face. He took her out of the house and walked back to where he had hidden his rental car. And when he got there, he realized he had used too much. He had smothered the child he wanted to save.”
The sheriff waited until all the residents, their heads lowered as they reflected on his words, looked back up at him. “We know from the chemical reports that Riley died of chloroform poisoning. We know that Herman Neuhaus procured chloroform in Los Angeles before he drove here to Rubicon Ranch. Therefore we know that none of you killed Riley.”
“Good show, Sheriff,” Morris said. “Now can we leave?”
“Unfortunately, that still leaves us with one unexplained death. And, unlike Riley’s death, it is a murder. Herman Neuhaus did not kill himself. . . . One of you did.”
When he did not continue, they began to steal looks at one another. The murmuring among them grew until at last Moody spoke up.
“Who did, Sheriff? Do you know?”
He turned to the silent woman in the broad brimmed hat standing apart from the throng. He called her name.