Melanie trudged along the left side of the highway, facing traffic, the blister on her heel burning with every step. The sun had come out, and the road was now dry, but her shoes and socks remained wet from slogging through the flooded gutters back in Rojo Duro.
After Sheriff Bryan dropped his bombshell—Why did you do it, Melanie?—he had been called away, leaving the question hanging in the air. Two hours later, he still hadn’t returned, but a kid who looked as if he were straight out of the police academy brought her coffee. She had demanded the use of a toilet, and the young deputy ushered her to the lavatory. He wasn’t waiting for her when she finished, so she had simply walked out of the sheriff’s department. No one stopped her.
She’d now been walking for hours, but was still far from Rubicon Ranch. Maybe she should have returned to the interrogation room and waited for the sheriff, but if he still wanted her, he knew where to find her—at home in about seven more hours.
“See what you’ve done to me, Alexander,” she murmured, tears stinging her eyes. “Not only have you left me alone with only a ghost to talk to, you’ve turned me into an escaped prisoner.” Wearily, she scrubbed away the tears. She was sick of crying, sick of Alexander being gone, sick of the way her life was turning out. Once she’d felt strong, like a warrior, capable of anything. And now? Just a tired widow, at the mercy of her emotions.
A vehicle veered off the right lane, and pulled up alongside her.
“Get in,” Sheriff Bryan commanded.
Melanie wanted to refuse, but oncoming traffic gave her little opportunity to assess the matter, and besides, her blistered heel was throbbing with pain.
She scurried around the tan Navigator and slipped into the front seat. The sheriff stomped on the accelerator. The vehicle shot back into the right lane, narrowly averting a head-on collision with a white Subaru.
“Are you always so reckless?” Melanie asked.
“Are you always so reckless? What do you think you’re doing, walking along the highway like that?”
“Going home, where I would have been all day if your thugs hadn’t arrested me.”
“You weren’t under arrest. I just needed to talk to you, and I couldn’t get away.”
She gave him a narrow-eyed look. “So I’m not a suspect? Then why did you tell my publisher I was?”
He grinned. “It got you a bigger advance, didn’t it?”
She slumped in the seat as much as she could against the restraints of the seat belt, and folded her arms across her chest.
“You have to admit,” Sheriff Bryan said in a softer tone than any she had yet heard issuing from his mouth, “you need help.”
Melanie sat up straight and glared at him. “Help? Help? Who says I need help? Is that why you arrested me? To help me?”
“Now that’s the Melanie I know and love.” He must have sensed the indignant response she was about to hurl at him, because he added quickly, “It’s just an expression.”
Melanie dropped her head into her hands. Why did this man keep her so off balance? Was it that her grief made her vulnerable and any attention would send her reeling, or was there something more going on? Either way, she had to get a grip on her emotions. Warrior, she reminded herself.
She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “Why did I do . . . what?”
As cryptic as her comment sounded, he didn’t pretend to misunderstand her reference to the question he had asked in the interrogation room.
He sighed as he had done then. “Why did you shut me out when I poured out my heart to you? I was more open to you than I’ve ever been to any other woman. You could have at least told me you understood, even if you weren’t interested.”
She stared at him in total non-comprehension, and though he glanced at her, she couldn’t pick up any clues as to what he was thinking. She could only see herself in the mirrors of his sunglasses. And then all at once she understood.
During the investigation into little Riley’s murder, the sheriff had taken her to lunch and told her his story. How he’d been the fair-haired boy. President of his class in high school. Pledged the best fraternity in college. Dated a cheerleader and married her after graduation. Went into law enforcement. Hired on at the Greene City Police Department. Became a detective. Got his masters. Went up through the ranks like a shot. Became the youngest captain in the history of the force. Was on the fast track to becoming Chief of Police when he had an affair with a junior officer on the force.
He’d said that his wife knew about the other woman, that she stayed with him because he was the favorite son of Greene City, but when the affair came to light, he lost his job, his status, and his wife—at least temporarily. He claimed that though he was through with her, she wouldn’t give him a divorce because she still believed that one day he was going to be a major police chief, maybe in LA, and she was waiting to get a piece of that large salary in alimony payments.
What Melanie had taken to be a come-on—his letting her know that even though he was married, he was available—he’d apparently meant as a way of opening up to her. And she had run out on him.
But not because of the supposed come-on. Because of Alexander.
“You lied to me,” she said. “You told me you went to the scene where my husband died and came to the conclusion that it had not been an accident. The cops told me it was a hit and run, that someone had rear-ended the car with such force that Alexander crashed head-on into a concrete abutment, but when I went out the scene right afterwards, I didn’t see anything to indicate that another car was involved, so how could you have seen anything weeks later? It’s possible someone had tampered with the car as Riley said, but the only way to find that out was to investigate the vehicle itself. And you didn’t care enough to check it out.”
“You lied to me,” Melanie said.
The sheriff held up a hand. “Not that. Riley.”
“This isn’t a court of law. Just tell me.”
“Supposedly, Riley told Moody that she’d seen someone messing with our car.”
“Did she say who?”
“No. Morris accused me of killing Alexander. He said that Riley told Moody she’d seen me messing with our car. When I asked Moody about it, she told me Riley hadn’t mentioned any name, just that she had seen someone. Moody said she didn’t believe that Riley really saw anyone. But she believed it enough to mention it to her father.”
Melanie waited for the sheriff to say, “Aha! So you’re the one who murdered Morris!” But he didn’t say anything. Just rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“And since we’re talking about Alexander,” Melanie said, “You never returned his cameras to me. I want them back.”
The sheriff turned his mirrored stare toward Melanie. “Cameras?”
“Yes. All of his cameras were in the car. Six of them. I want them back.”
“There were no cameras.”
“Where are they? They were in the car when he left that day. I put them there myself.”
“Ms. Gray, no matter what else you might think of me, I am a great law officer. I know my job. There was no indication in the report of any officers seeing cameras in the vehicle. And the report does not state that Alexander was rear-ended. It was a merely a surmise by one of the state troopers, and he had no business telling you that. Riley was right. Someone did tamper with your car. Someone very knowledgeable and very skillful. The brake lines were cut and the steering wheel loosened. I suspected that when I checked out the scene of the accident and found no skid marks. The car simply plowed into the abutment at a high speed.”
“Maybe the flex lines were worn through. That happened to me once.”
“The car was new. We sent the vehicle to a lab down the hill since we don’t have an automotive lab up here in the high desert, and I just got the results, which is why I wanted to talk to you today. All four metal brake lines were cut so precisely that when Alexander slammed on the brakes, he instantly lost hydraulic pressure in both the front and rear brakes at the same time. With today’s vehicles, cutting the brakes like that is almost impossible for a professional to do, and completely impossible for an amateur.
Melanie clutched her stomach, feeling the same sort of visceral grief as when she heard that Alexander was dead. Alexander . . . murdered? By a professional killer? An assassin?
“It’s not possible,” she said aloud.
“Alexander must have traveled a long way after his brakes failed—the closest brake fluid stain I found was about a mile and a half from where Alexander went off the road.”
“But supposedly when he died, he was texting a woman he was having an affair with. How could he have been texting her if his brakes broke more than a mile away from where he crashed? Wouldn’t he have dropped the phone and tried to control the car?”
“Yeah. I’m having a problem with that scenario, too. We need to talk to the woman, but the number Alexander was texting is out of service. It feels to me as if the phone with the texts was a plant to make everyone think exactly what the official report said—that Alexander lost control because he was texting while driving.”
Melanie put her hands on her head, trying to still the roiling thoughts. “I can’t deal with this right now. Take me home. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” the sheriff said in a soothing tone that might have been practiced but still managed to sound sincere.
For just a second Melanie wished he would stop the vehicle, put his arms around her, and hold her. “There’s just so much death. Alexander. Riley. Riley’s father. The Petersons. Morris.”
“That’s the other thing I need to talk to you about,” Sheriff Bryan said in his official voice. “Morris.”