With a frown of disappointment, Egypt clicked out of the latest file recorded by her hidden camera. The monitor automatically reverted to real-time, showing a useless and unchanging view of the Peterson house in its cul-de-sac. Her hopes had skyrocketed a few days earlier when the secretive actress had discovered the ring box. Egypt had been expecting some action, even after Tara, a.k.a Leia Menendez, left the tooth where she’d found it. Surely, the woman would tell someone? Yet the camera had captured nothing new except a lonely lizard’s sunrise wanderings and the routine passage of hikers heading for the desert.
She leaned back in her executive chair and gazed out the sliding doors toward the steeply inclined hill and the Peterson house that lay out of sight, just beyond. Jeez, what did you have to do to get the wackos here to reveal their true selves, hang a dead body from a street sign? Ironically, with the news going around about fresh body parts up in the desert, who’d notice?
A three-peat buzzing noise ended her speculation, but it took several repetitions before Egypt realized someone was at her door. Curious about the unexpected situation, she decided to respond, but cautiously shut off the monitor to hide her activity in the unlikely event someone would be entering her workspace. She stopped to check her appearance in one of the floor to ceiling mirrors left over from the previous tenant and felt satisfied no one would take her for anything but an overworked executive assistant.
A pair of cops stood nicely centered on the home security screen to the left of the front door. She’d have known their occupation even if the big male half of the duo hadn’t waved his ID like an exorcist warding evil spirits. The opulence of the estate must have discomforted the man, who looked like his regular hangout might be the Arroyo Bowling Lanes down the highway. He half eclipsed the slender woman standing in his shadow. Aside from her rather masculine stance, she gave Egypt no further impression.
The two cops stepped in without being invited when she opened the door. A blast of afternoon heat accompanied them along with body odor barely masked by the giant’s cologne. The female cop took a deep breath of the chilled air and sighed. The hint of a smile played on her lips as she began, “Good afternoon, Ms. Saleh. My name is Lt. Frio and this is Deputy Midget. Can we take a few minutes of your time?”
Hearing the cop use her real name shocked Egypt, but she caught herself before showing it. The good part was they’d defined their game, which didn’t show too much intelligence. Even though she’d have to stay a step ahead of them, she didn’t feel threatened, not by these two.
She led them into the game room located in an area segregated from her living space. The long narrow room with its highly polished wood floors reminded Egypt of a bowling alley, which, given the room’s purpose, seemed fitting. The main piece of furniture was a shrouded pool table centered beneath two pendant lights which lacked light bulbs. The cue racks were empty. Noticing the curious expressions on the faces of her guests, she said, “I know it looks sparse in here, but my assistants are bringing all the furniture next week.” Her explanation resembled the truth in so far as the film crew would be arriving soon with a truckload of equipment. She gestured toward the far corner. “We can sit at the banquette.”
Egypt waited for Frio to slide in behind the marble slab table before seating herself on the bench across from Midget who managed to squeeze only half his butt behind the table. He perched, half sidewise, looking more uncomfortable by the minute. Repressing a laugh, she said, “So, what can I do for you officers?”
Lt. Frio squirmed to pull some folded papers from her pants pocket, holding up one of the brochures Egypt had salted around the neighborhood. “We were wondering what sort of security arrangements you’re planning, seeing as how you’re advertising this as a celebrity retreat. Our police force is already stretched to the limit up here. We can’t provide any manpower, but we don’t want this community turning into a three ring circus.”
“This is a quiet town,” said Midget with a tone of admonishment. Egypt thought he came off like Gabby Hayes desperately trying to emulate Batman.
“No worries, Spiritual Synergy provides our own security. In fact, one reason I’ve arrived in advance is to evaluate possible trouble spots in the area. You might have seen me out with my camera?” Egypt wanted to know how much these officers knew about her activities since they seemed to have done research on her identity.
“We’re aware of your encounters with some of your neighbors,” said Frio. “Things get around here pretty fast. Have you known Mr. Preminger long?” The officer presented this more as a challenge than a question. Apparently, Ward was a person of interest as well. Egypt filed that away for later.
“Actually, I can’t say I even know him now. He needed medical attention and I just happened to be nearby, along with that elderly neighbor on Delano Road. We took him home and I only stayed long enough to make sure he was going to be all right. Is there something wrong with him?”
Midget broke in, ignoring the glare he got from his partner. “You tell us, Ms. Hayes, or Saleh—whichever name you’re using today. You must know some very ugly things have been happening in Rubicon Ranch, starting right after you got here. Using a false identity.”
Egypt shook her head dismissively. “Come on, you can’t be suggesting I’ve been dumping body parts in the desert? And if I’m not mistaken, you have a number of long-time residents who really do deserve your attention. Rubicon Ranch made a name for itself as a vortex of murder long before I arrived. In any case, why pick on me? I’m not the only new arrival here, Deputy.”
Lt. Frio held up both hands to lessen the level of hostility. “I could use a cold drink, if you don’t mind, Ms. Hayes.” As Egypt got up, Frio quickly added, “Just point Midget in the right direction, he can get something for us.”
After listening to Egypt’s directions, the deputy walked away with an expression that showed he understood his partner wanted to get him out of the way. As soon as he passed into the hall, Lt. Frio resumed where Midget had left off, although with more finesse. “I apologize for the Deputy’s accusative tone, but we’d like to know why a filmmaker and media professor is running a celebrity retreat in the middle of a desert under an assumed name.”
Egypt almost admired how succinctly the Lieutenant summarized the reason for this intrusion. The transparency of the attack made it even sweeter. “It’s quite simple, really,” she answered. “My mother runs the Synergy Seminars and since I’m on sabbatical, I agreed to help her out. Because my name is well known in the film world, we thought it might make prospective clients nervous to have me connected to the project. After all, they come here precisely to get away from the camera. So, you see, there’s nothing nefarious behind the name change.”
Frio looked around slowly and said, “This New Age retreat stuff must pay well. Property like this costs a big chunk of change. I’m in the wrong line of work, for sure.”
Egypt spotted an opening. “You’d be surprised how cheap this rents for. Seems property values here took a dive after that little girl’s murder. I’ve seen dozens of For Sale signs, especially going up Delano Road toward the hills. That sort of thing must put off the sort of people who usually settle up here. But for our type of client, well, it adds just enough spice to make a week of contemplation in the desert a novel experience. One worth paying top dollar to enjoy.”
Frio turned the brochure over in her hand, appearing to give it serious thought, perhaps for the first time. The silence was broken by Midget’s return. He set down three cans of ginger ale. “This is all I could find, Rosario. I figured you’d like it better than tap water.” He glanced meaningfully at Egypt. “Not exactly set up for entertaining, are you?”
“I’ll invite you back when we’re open for business, officers. Why don’t you choose one of our spa services and I’ll give you both a nice discount. How’s that? In the meantime, I hate to take up your valuable time. I’m sure you’re busy trying to police the desert, unless you’ve already tied up the investigation?”
Midget exchanged a look with Frio, who answered before he could comment. “You don’t sound concerned, Ms. Hayes. Most of the residents we’ve interviewed so far have been quite fearful. You almost sound . . . disinterested.”
“On that point, ma’am,” said Midget, butting in again, “we’re looking for whatever assistance we can get from the locals. Have you seen any suspicious activity in the area while making the rounds on your ‘security’ patrols?”
“Well, I’m not sure what counts as suspicious out here in the desert. Half of my neighbors seemed to be armed to the teeth and where I come from, that, in itself, would be cause for concern.” She sat back, enjoying the way Midget’s eyes narrowed at her anti-gun rhetoric. “If you’re asking if I’ve seen anyone chopping up and throwing bodies around, the answer is a definite no. This house is a bit up from Delano Road and many of the windows here face the road, but aside from neighbors’ cars coming and going, the only thing you might call odd is a woman who walks up toward the desert even on the hottest days.”
Frio took a last sip from her can and stood. “All right, thanks. If you think of anything else please contact us.
Egypt took the offered business card and showed the officers out, watching them as they drove away. A pair of incompetents, but she’d expected nothing else. They seemed to accept what she told them. In fact, they didn’t seem all that interested in her. Perhaps she didn’t look like someone who’d dismember a human body. She didn’t know how she felt about that. A bit disappointed, maybe.
Returning to her makeshift office, she switched her monitor back on. The camera feed showed a lot of nothing, as usual. Nevertheless, she prepared for a new recording session. Suddenly, a familiar car came into camera range, pulling to the curb in front of the Peterson house. Egypt sat up straight and watched realtor Nancy step out of the Mercedes SUV, unaccountably dressed to the nines in a suit and six inch heels. Squinting in the sun, Nancy quickly shed her suit jacket, carefully folding it and placing it to cover her purse on the seat. She locked the car, carrying only her phone and a set of keys. Using the phone’s camera, she walked back and forth taking shots of the exterior. She must have gotten a contract to sell the house, thought Egypt. Good luck with that, Ms. Nancy.
Nancy mounted the steps to the porch and stuck her key into the door, abruptly froze in place as she noticed the ring box at her feet. She looked around as if worried someone might be watching. Seeing no one, she picked up the box and opened it. Something finally happening!
Unfortunately, Egypt couldn’t see her face but the realtor’s body language telegraphed surprise. Nancy tilted the open box in her hand, as if to view the contents from several vantage points, then closed the lid and tucked it into her shirt pocket. She opened the door, leaving it ajar behind her. Clearly, Nancy had been to realtor safety course 101 and was giving herself an escape route. The dark rectangle of the opening swallowed her lithe form.
Seconds later, Nancy came flying out of the house, her mouth open in a scream Egypt could not hear. As Nancy heedlessly fled down Delano Road, Egypt grabbed a camera and ran to her car. She drove the block to where Don Carlos met Delano Road and leapt out of her car in time to see Nancy, now staggering, pass by the intersection and come to a breathless halt. Grabbing the camera, Egypt began to film the spectacle.
Nancy bent way over, hands on knees, gasping for breath. As she did so, the ring box fell from her shirt pocket. The semi-hysterical woman grabbed it off the pavement and forcefully, but blindly hurled the box away like she didn’t care where it landed as long as it wasn’t near. Then she seemed to realize she held a phone in her other hand. She let out a cry, slumped to the curb and dialed.
Egypt panned the sidewalk. The camera shook in her hands as she fixed on a spot across the road and zoomed in. The ring box now lay on the walkway leading to Morris Sinclair’s house.