Sheriff Bryan turned off the highway onto Tehachapi Road and wound through Rubicon Ranch. Melanie gazed out the Navigator’s window at the beautiful houses. Although the buildings were typical California housing development architecture—stucco with tile roofs—many of the dwellings were custom-built, so none of the houses looked exactly like any other. Spanish, Moorish, and Mediterranean styles dominated, but Cape Cod designs, Greek revival porticos, and ranch-style houses were also prevalent.
It seemed strange, Melanie thought, that the lovely facades hid such horror—death, murder, dismemberment.
“When I took this job,” the sheriff said, “I figured Rubicon Ranch would be the least of my troubles. It seemed such a quiet place.” He shot a glance at her. “You find that funny?”
It had been so long since Melanie had smiled that it took a moment for her to realize her lips had quirked up in acknowledgment of their synchronized thoughts.
“Not funny, no. It’s just that the area does seem quiet and innocent, as if nothing bad could happen here. And from what I can tell, nothing bad happened until I came. First Alexander was killed, then Riley, then her father and her kidnappers, and now Morris. I know it’s foolish, but I can’t help feeling as if it’s all my fault.”
“Is it?” Bryan asked without a trace of friendliness.
“Note to self,” Melanie muttered. “Never confide in a cop.”
“What about if the cop confides in you? All hell is breaking loose in Rubicon Ranch, and I’d like to tell you what’s going on if that’s okay.”
“Ah, back to the nice cop. It’s amazing how you can do the good cop/bad cop routine all by yourself.”
“Bad cop?” He flashed a smile that could only be called a leer, but then he seemed to think better of it, and straightened his mouth into its normally stern lines. “Have you met Eyana Saleh? Egypt Hayes?”
“Haven’t met either of them.”
“It’s the same person. Petit woman, mixed heritage, new to Rubicon Ranch.”
“Oh! I’ve seen her. She’s always wandering around taking photos of the neighborhood. She’s beautiful and has such lovely skin. Eyana Saleh? That’s her name? It fits her. What has she done?”
“Right at the moment she’s in the hospital. Been beaten pretty bad. She’s not saying much, but one of her assistants found her and described the man she saw running from the house, and the description fits Jake Sinclair.”
“Have you arrested him yet?”
“He’s not going anywhere. He’s in the hospital too, just down the hall from Eyana. His arm was chewed almost to the bone.”
Melanie gaped at the sheriff. “Eyana ate him?”
“A coyote did, or so he says. Apparently, after he beat up Eyana, he ran off to the desert. That’s where the medivac helicopter picked him up. He’s not saying anything, either, though maybe when he finds out how unpleasant those rabies shots are, he’ll come clean. The doctor says it’s definitely a canine bite though he guesses it’s a domesticated creature. The only dog in the area that I know of that’s big enough to do so much damage so quickly is the bull mastiff Tara Windsor owns, but she’s keeping mum, too.”
“Tara Windsor is in Cabo with her pool boy.”
“What? How do you know?”
“My agent. She’s a celebrity hound.”
Sheriff Bryan tapped a long, well-shaped finger on the steering wheel. “So, a woman comes to town looking like Tara, telling everyone her name is Leia Menendez, wink, wink, leading everyone to believe that she’s the actress but is really Leia? Whoa. If Tara could act that good, she’d be a shoo-in for an Oscar. Playing Lizzy Borden, maybe. An axe was found in the Sinclair house under Jake’s bed. We think Leia put it there, but our witness is a bit unreliable since she was having hysterics at the time.”
“And here I thought the life of a cop was boring,” Melanie said. “All routine and paperwork.”
“Not boring enough. The witness is Nancy Garcetti, a real estate agent. She found Morris’s head in the Peterson house and went flying down the street, screaming all the way. She says while she waited for my deputies to arrive, she saw Tara Windsor sneaking around the side of the Sinclair’s house, and Tara was carrying something that looked like an axe. We can’t find any other witnesses, and Tara or Leia or whatever her name is, isn’t admitting anything.”
“Is it the axe that killed Morris?”
Bryan shook his head. “The ME says not. He says it’s animal blood, thin blood, like from a roast. Then, as if this isn’t enough of a circus, we have electric boy. Ward Preminger.”
“I know who you mean,” Melanie said. “He’s also new to the neighborhood. Seems to crackle with static electricity. Has a fixation with the Morris house.”
The sheriff turned onto Delano Road. “As near as we can figure it, Ward blamed Morris for his condition, though apparently his brain got rewired when he was zapped by lightning while trapped in a tornado. He—” The chirping of a cell phone interrupted him. Bryan pulled the device out of a sheath on his belt and held it up to his ear. “Yes,” he said. “Yes . . . Okay . . . Sure . . . Thanks . . . Be right there.”
He sheathed his phone. “I have to go. We got the preliminary autopsy reports.” He made a quick u-turn and pulled up in front of Melanie’s rented house.
Melanie climbed out of the vehicle and stood on the curb until the Navigator sped out of sight, then she trudged to her front door, unlocked it, and entered the silent house.