“Aren’t you Tara Windsor?”
Leia Menendez placed the half gallon of milk on the checkout counter and smiled at the woman in line behind her. “The actress?” Leia’s cheeks warmed and she giggled. “No I’m not her but I get that a lot.”
The smartly dressed woman frowned and scrutinized Leia from head to toe. “Really? You look exactly like her.” She tapped her lips with a manicured nail.
Leia grinned her best sheepish coy smile with her eyes wide and mischievous, a look she’d perfected over the years. “I’ll have to ask my mom if she secretly gave birth to twins.”
Leia swiped her debit card through the machine and grabbed her milk. Before she could escape, she heard the cashier and customer continue the discussion about how much Leia looked like Tara Windsor and their favorite movies the actress starred in. Leia walked faster so she couldn’t hear them and they would have less time to inspect her.
In the solitude of her car, she inspected her face in the rearview mirror. She wore no makeup, her skin ruddy from the sun and dry desert winds. She’d wrapped her long dark hair haphazardly into a loose bun, tendrils hung limply around her face. She hadn’t bothered to wash it before she ran out to get milk and it was in desperate need of a deep conditioning treatment to remove the fine desert sands and dust. How could those women ever think she looked like the famous Tara Windsor? Big brown eyes blinked back at her. Damn those eyes. And that slender nose and pert lips. She smiled, showing teeth made perfect through relentless torture sessions with now wealthy dentists. She glared at the reflection.
Some well-known people could hide in public because their professional appearance looked vastly different from their normal appearance. She briefly toyed with the idea of wearing a bag over her head. Nah. It would be too hard to see to drive.
She started the car and a few minutes later pulled into the drive of her modest two-story stucco house at the corner of Delano and Tehachapi in Rubicon Ranch. At the door between the house and the garage, she jiggled her keys putting them in the lock. A quiet grumble and single scratch came from the other side.
Leia opened the door then bent forward slightly. Her voice rose several octaves. “Hi, Maisey Daisy!”
The fawn bullmastiff planted her paws out in front of her but failed to contain the excitement of her entire back half as her tail threatened to run off on its own.
“Okay, Maisey,” Leia said as she placed the milk in the fridge. “Are you ready?”
The dog moved gracefully through the living room on her massive paws, stopping at the front door to sit and wait for her master. Her tail never stopped.
Leia laughed. “That was a stupid question, wasn’t it?” She slipped the leash off the hook by the front door and latched it to Maisey’s collar. The protective companion would never leave Leia’s side but the community required animals to be on a leash.
Her feet were moving quickly and easily down the stairs and across the yard onto the sidewalk down Delano Street, Maisey’s gait matching Leia’s steady jogging.
Some neighbors were in their yards working, some were coming or going, and some she knew and some she didn’t, but she acknowledged all of them anyway with a smile or wave.
As she got closer to his house and farther from her own, her senses sharpened and the act of greeting neighbors became an automatic response instead of a conscious effort. No one watching her would know that she was surveying the house near the middle of the street. Years of training hid the rapid acceleration of her heartbeat and her shallower breathing. She schooled her face and body so no outward fear or emotion showed while her insides threatened to empty. She ran this route twice a day for the last few weeks.
She bought the house three years ago when she decided she’d had enough of Morris Sinclair. She had to bide her time and be patient before she carried out her plan so she rented the house out. After the Peterson girl was murdered, her tenants moved out suddenly. Since Leia had a break from work, she decided it was time to move into her house and carry out her plan. She refused to believe Morris didn’t have anything to do with that little girl’s death. After what he’d done to Leia, she knew he was the type to murder innocent children.
The rhythm of her feet pounding on the pavement matched the blood pounding in her ears. She fought to keep her pace steady as she ran closer to house where the demon lived. Her senses screamed to turn around or to run by as fast as she could to reach the safety of the desert. Once in the desert, she would let Maisey run free off the leash. They always ran through the desert and then back to Delano Street.
Every day, she fought the emotions to maintain her outward composure. As she drew closer, she imagined she was on set, everything around her created by designers to simulate a residential street. She was playing a part. None of this was real. Her real world was an oceanfront mansion on California’s northern coast. Her real world involved assistants and agents, a housekeeper and landscapers.
In this pretend world, she could see herself slipping into the house, sneaking into the old man’s room, slitting his throat while he slept, and stealing back what was hers.
The house loomed. Leia tried not to focus on it, but her heart stopped and she couldn’t breathe at all as the front door opened and someone stepped out.
Leia’s focus faltered. She lost control of her composure and concentration for the split second it took for her to drop Maisey’s leash, the leather strap tangling in her legs. In a flash, she realized her career may end quickly, but at least no one would recognize her anymore. Somehow, she managed to roll enough that her face didn’t slam into the ground.
She lay still on the street, her head throbbing at the temple, an enormous face inches from hers and drooling.
“Maisey,” she whispered. “Move.”
The dog whined.
There was someone else behind the dog but Leia couldn’t see them.
“Are you okay?”
Leia tried to smile. She wasn’t sure if her face worked or not. A faint giggle emerged and mortified Leia. The giggle was a sound of panic and relief, and completely foreign and unexpected to someone so in charge of every movement her body made.
The voice didn’t belong to a man. Besides, Morris would never ask if she was okay. It wasn’t the old man who watched everything in the neighborhood either. Leia emitted another giggle, this one an intentional form of showing her embarrassment.
“I think so. I can’t believe I tripped over the leash.” She tried to get up, a supporting hand grasped her elbow.
“Oh dear,” the woman said. “Please don’t try to get up. You smacked your head pretty good. I think you were unconscious for a moment.”
“Maisey.” Leia forced a commanding voice despite the ache it caused. “Sit.”
The giant furry face retreated as the dog sat back on her haunches and the face of the woman came into view.
“I should have thought of saying that.” The woman eyed the dog before smiling at Leia. “I was afraid it might swallow me if I came too close. Maisey’s an amazing animal.”
With the woman’s help, Leia managed to sit up. “Thank you.” She squeezed the woman’s hand. “I’m Leia Menendez.”
“Nice to meet you, Leia.” The woman smiled. “I’m Moody Sinclair.”
“Moody. That’s an interesting name.” Leia managed to keep her voice calm and light and she controlled her words and tone, but inside her head she was screaming. Sinclair! Sinclair? His wife? Too young, not that the old bastard would think twice of being with someone younger. His daughter. Leia managed not to gag. In fact, her open face and genuine smile didn’t waver at all. She remained in complete control of every emotion and movement of her body despite the pain and fear. Moody didn’t live with the old man when Leia bought her house and started putting her plan in motion. This may complicate things.
“A nickname from my childhood. My real name is Mary.” Moody stood up straight. “Sit still for a minute. I’m going to go in and get you an ice pack.”
Leia protested but Moody turned and walked up the sidewalk and into the front door of the devil’s house. Leia thought she saw movement in a corner window and for just a moment, she thought she would pass out again.
Maisey lay down next to her.
“That dog better be on a leash!”
Leia panicked a moment for letting her guard down and nearly dropping character as she stared at the corner window. The old man’s voice didn’t come from the house she was watching, but instead it carried from the porch of the house next door.
She put her friendly face back on and smiled at the man sitting in the rocker. “Yes, sir. She’s on a leash.” She reached down and picked up the leash to show him.
He glared, his eagle eyes staring into her. She had the feeling he was as much into character as she was. She could sense no animosity or threat from the man. But there was something in the air, not from the neighboring house, but something emanating from the Sinclair house. Her smile dropped as a cold chill shook through her. Her gaze swung back to the corner window in time to see the curtains fluttering back into place.
The front door opened and Moody emerged, icepack in hand.
“Here you go.” Moody placed the ice on the side of Leia’s head.
Leia winced at the touch of the pack against the lump on her head. She would call her doctor as soon as she got home. This may be more serious than she first thought.
“Thank you again. I feel so silly.” Leia laughed lightly, her eyes on the house. “I don’t mean to keep you from your family. I think someone inside is anxious for you to return. They keep looking out the windows.”
Moody’s smile faltered as she extended her hand to help Leia stand. “I live with my father. I thought he was napping, but he may be awake now.” She looked back at the house wearily. “He’s somewhat senile.”
“I understand if you need to go back in,” Leia replied. She rose to her feet while holding Moody’s hand for support. “I’m sure I’m fine. Really.” She swayed as the blood rushed from her head. If it wasn’t for Moody holding her upright, Leia would have stumbled.
“He doesn’t need me. Let me drive you back home,” Moody suggested.
Leia glanced at the Sinclair house before looking back towards her own house. “I just live at the corner.”
Moody smiled. “Ah, I haven’t been out much. I’ve seen you jogging before but I didn’t realize we were neighbors. I’ll help you home.”
Maisey walked alongside the women, her leash trailing behind her. Leia glanced back at the Sinclair house again.
Morris stood in the doorway watching her. He looked the same as he did fifteen years ago when Leia was a struggling model and willing to do anything to be noticed by the right people in the right places. When she crossed Morris’ path, he was the wrong person at the wrong time, the only dark place in Leia’s career. The man was evil then and more evil now.
She could feel his eyes boring holes into her body and she felt naked and unclean. She needed a shower immediately. Her eyes met his before she turned away. There was no senility him. It was all insanity.
She became nauseated, gagging and unable to control the physical reaction to him.
“Oh my,” Moody’s concerned voice rang in Leia’s ears like she was speaking through a tunnel. “I’m afraid you might have a concussion, Leia.”
Leia took a deep breath, regaining control of her body. She stood straighter and sucked in deep gulps of air, focusing on her character and remembering this was all a set and everything in it was pretend. She patted Moody’s hand holding her arm. “I’m okay. I’ll get in to see my doctor to make sure, but I think I just need to relax a little bit.”
They continued walking with Maisey following and Moody glancing at Leia with concern. At Leia’s front door, she thanked Moody again for helping her.
Before Moody turned and walked home, she looked at Leia one more time. “Has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like that actress, Tara Windsor?”
Leia grinned. “I get that all the time. I wish I looked like her!”
With Moody gone, Leia stood in the shower with the hot water running over her until it ran cold and even then, the tears wouldn’t stop. She couldn’t wash away the memories of her encounter with pure evil.