Monday, December 23, 10:45am
Zazzi walked swiftly past the minivan filled with gawking tourists, then slowed to light a cigarette. The sun felt so hot on her shoulders she wondered if she even needed to use her lighter. She bet she could wave the cig around for a few seconds and it would ignite spontaneously. Maybe the firemen would decide the burning house up the street had self-ignited as well. Funny how the smoke had made her cough, but she was lighting up anyway.
Down the road here, things felt normal. Her house wouldn’t be damaged, but the ones behind her might need some work. Well, those people could still rejoice, because didn’t the fire get rid of those stupid Christmas decorations? Who ever heard of a blow-up Santa on a motorcycle? Especially one with a corpse underneath. In her line of work, Zazzi had seen plenty of blow-up dolls, but why feel bias against the innocent and now deceased Santa? To each his own. . . . Which reminded her, she had an interview to conduct and if she didn’t get a move on it, she’d miss the applicant.
And sure enough, Zazzi saw a woman standing on the sidewalk in front of her house. The woman’s back was toward her, giving the opportunity to carefully size her up. Well-proportioned, clothing straight out of a fashion magazine, shoes that screamed Beverly Hills. So far, so good. The woman turned when she heard Zazzi’s footsteps and seemed to rouse herself out of a daze.
“You’re early,” said Zazzi. “Sorry I wasn’t home. There’s a bit of a scene up the street, maybe you saw the fire trucks? Well, come on in and we can get started.”
The woman took a step back and stammered, “No. I mean, I think you have me confused with someone else. I’m just . . . it’s my house, the one that’s on fire.
That would explain the lines of streaked mascara lining her cheeks, but perhaps not the look of cold calculation in the woman’s eyes. Zazzi could tell from the conflict between the incipient crow’s feet and wardrobe, she obviously took great pains to appear younger. Zazzi wondered if she’d ever been in the game, or still was. After all, some men preferred women in their 30s who had more “experience” and poise. Might not hurt to ask, although she’d broach the subject carefully. Speaking of that, where the hell was her scheduled appointment anyway? Must be another no-show.
The woman teetered on her spike heels and Zazzi quickly steadied her. “Oh, you poor dear. We’re neighbors, or we were
. . . .never mind. This is my house and you’re welcome to come in. You look like you could use a place to rest and get out of the heat. My name’s Zazzi, by the way.”
The woman hardly seemed to notice when Zazzi took her by the arm and guided her into the house. It wasn’t until Zazzi settled her on a sofa and pressed a glass of ice water into her hands that she finally focused her eyes on her hostess and smiled. “I’m being rude, forgive me. My name’s Lydia. I don’t think I said. I guess I’m not really sure what I’ve been doing, not since I got home and found my house burning.”
“Be thankful you weren’t home,” said Zazzi. “I hope your car isn’t in the garage either.”
Lydia’s eyes fixed on the bare wall behind Zazzi’s shoulder as if she was reliving the scene. “I was coming home from a shopping trip up the highway. I saw the smoke from far away, and then as I got close, fire trucks and police cars blocked me from going further. I pulled over and ran toward my house. When I saw my house on fire, I just panicked. I’m not sure what I did after that. I probably left the car unlocked with all my bags in it.” Lydia started to get up, swayed and sat down heavily again. “I have to go check.”
“Whoa, I don’t think you’re in shape to do that right now. Nobody’s gonna steal anything with all those cops around. Rest a few and I’ll go back with you, okay?”
Lydia gulped down the rest of the water and Zazzi took the empty glass over to the wet bar to refill it. Glancing at Lydia from the corner of her eye, she asked, “So that’s your house where they found the body.”
Lydia’s only reaction was a shrug. So she takes dead bodies in stride. That’s interesting. Let’s see how she plays this. Zazzi sat on an ottoman in front of Lydia and continued in a conversational tone, “I hear the dead woman owned your house. Did you know her?”
Lydia stared at into her topped up glass of water. “I met her a few times. She bought me lunch after I signed the rental agreement. From what I’ve heard since, I guess she owns—I mean owned— several properties around here. Did she rent you this house?”
“No, I got this from a listing on line. I prefer to do my business that way. As a matter of fact, I run an internet business myself.”
The woman appeared disinterested, but apparently felt obligated to ask, “Oh, what line of work are you in, then?”
“Don’t laugh, but you’ve heard of the ‘Avon Lady’ of days gone by? Well, I don’t sell Avon, but I represent a line of beauty products and I sign up women to go out and sell them. It’s really quite a lucrative business. I’d arranged to interview someone this afternoon and when I saw you in front of the house, I assumed you’d come for a job. I hope you’re not offended.”
Lydia almost preened herself. “Not at all. I did some modeling in my late teens. I talked about that with Nancy. She said she’d been trained in cosmetology. That’s your business, did you know her?
Zazzi felt the reins loosening on her grip of the conversation. Lydia had obviously recovered her senses and now seemed to be pursuing a path of her own. “No, I didn’t, but I wonder, then, how she got into the real estate business. I guess it pays better than cosmetology; Nancy must have had money or she couldn’t have bought property in Rubicon Ranch.”
Lydia leaned forward. “I guess it doesn’t hurt to say this, now that she’s dead, but I think she might have been involved in some illegal stuff.”
Zazzi affected a look of cautious skepticism. “Really? How so?”
“We were having lunch that time, and we were on our second or third margaritas when she excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. Both of our cell phones were lying on the table and when one of them did that vibratey buzz thing I thought it was mine and so I picked it up.” Lydia hesitated, running a well-manicured finger around the rim of her drinking glass. Zazzi waited, unwilling to show her interest.
“There was a new text message and, you know, I thought it was my phone, so I opened it.”
Unable to control herself any longer, Zazzi bit the hook. “Of course, I understand. So what did it say?”
“It said, “YOUR GIFT IS READY, BUT THIS IS THE LAST TIME. OR YOU’LL BE SORRY.” Lydia paused for dramatic emphasis. “I realized it wasn’t my phone and I dropped it so fast it almost fell into the dish of guacamole. Nancy came back then and I didn’t mention it. In fact, I really didn’t think about it anymore until after they found her dead… Oh god, first it looks suspicious that her body was found in front of my house. And now, to make things worse, my house is on fire!”
Lydia’s hid her face in her hands. Zazzi let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Was this woman for real? Why was Lydia sharing this with her? She could just be a gossipmonger, or she could be trying to learn more about Nancy. Maybe she suspected Zazzi had a hidden connection to Nancy, perhaps even as the sender of that text message. Or she could even be assessing Zazzi to make some sort of alliance with her. Zazzi vowed to keep a close eye on Lydia.