Sunday, December 23, 3:10pm
Two women faced off on a rocky cliff. The wind screamed as Zazzi reached for the phone in Nancy’s hand, but Nancy stepped aside and Zazzi felt herself falling, spinning down, down toward the sharp rocks beneath. Instead, when she hit the ground she registered only a faint bump. Her palms felt something scratchy but soft. Where did the rocks go? And she was blind. No, her eyes, she had to open her eyes and run to safety…
Blinking against the sun, Zazzi realized she’d fallen asleep on her couch, but was now sprawled on the rug. And her head was pounding like a bass drum at a rock concert, complete with a saxophone accompaniment. No, the wailing wasn’t coming from inside her head…was that a siren she heard? Sure sounded like one. Sirens on her street again?
She half walked, half crawled to the window where she knelt to watch a group of tourists jump excitedly from a van. As they trotted up the street, Zazzi reflected that anyone who moved to Rubicon Ranch expecting a restful, secluded environment would be sorely disappointed. She wasn’t thrilled either, but the action did have the advantage of making her business less interesting.
Zazzi threw on an oversized man’s shirt and topped it off with a Giants’ baseball cap pulled to meet the frame of her sunglasses. The sun was killing her eyes and she hadn’t even gone outside yet. After plying Lydia with liquor, she’d learned a lot more about the residents of Rubicon Ranch, if not much about Lydia herself except, damn, that woman could drink. Lydia had confirmed her suspicion that these people weren’t the vapid suburbanites she’d counted on having for neighbors. What that meant for Zazzi remained to be seen.
Exiting through the back, she sneaked behind the neighboring houses. At first she thought the fuss was coming from the famous Sinclair residence, but when she got closer, she realized it was the next one down. Warily, she edged past the Sinclair house into an untended area, picking her way through the trash and weeds toward a lattice built to screen a picture window. Zazzi knew if she had had the misfortune to live next to Morris Sinclair, she’d have built a ten-foot wall.
From her hideout, Zazzi had a somewhat limited view of the front walk, where a patrolman tried his best to hold back the gawkers. She pulled back just as a female cop, who she recognized as the delectable Lt. Frio, stepped down from the porch, followed by another woman whose back was turned. The two women seemed to be arguing, but Zazzi only caught a few words before they moved out of ear shot.
Although Zazzi couldn’t see the second woman’s face, the voice sent a chill up her spine. The voice was a match with the anonymous caller who’d called the day before. Zazzi needed a face to go with that voice, but couldn’t risk being seen stalking someone. Taking note of the woman’s outfit, she backed out of her hideout and circled around to stroll along the fringes of the crowd, looking for a likely target. From overheard snippets of conversation she learned another body had been found. Although she wanted to find out more, she needed to track down the mystery woman first.
A small group had approached a TV news van where they vied for a chance to be interviewed. Finally, she spied a kid with chains hanging from both earlobes. The prominence of adolescent pimples on his cheeks assured her he’d be putty in the hands of any friendly female. He stood off to one side, panning the entire scene with his cellphone camera. Zazzi undid the top four buttons of her shirt and walked up to him.
“Hey,” she said, employing the all-purpose greeting.
The kid grunted with disinterest, but rewarded her with a sideways glance, his eyes coming to rest exactly where she’d planned. Not bothering to smile, as it would have gone unseen, she continued cheerily, “Lots of action around here today.”
Another grunt. She tried again. “You must be good with cameras; I can never get that wide angle shot to work.”
She took the third grunt to be acknowledgment of her praise, wondering what emoticon or symbols the kid used in text messages to represent what seemed to be his only vocalization. He stood fast, gaze riveted to the screen of his phone although the crime scene aficionados had closed in and were starting to obstruct his view; one even tried to shove him out of the way. Working quickly while they still had some privacy, Zazzi leaned in and said softly, “As long as you’re taking pictures, how’d you like to earn a few bucks?”
“Eh?” he replied, breaking from his grunt marathon. His eyes dipped again to her cleavage and then went back to his camera screen.
If someone asked him to identify me, she thought with satisfaction, the only thing he’d have to go on would be bra size. She took out a fifty dollar bill and held it up in front of the phone. This made him lower it to verify what he was seeing. Good, she had his full attention. Finally.
“See that woman with the blue shirt talking to the lady cop? If you get me a few shots of her face, you can party with General Grant.”
A slight hesitation. Then, “Yeah, all right.”
“I’ll wait up there.” Zazzi pointed to where Don Carlos Road intersected Delano, which would place her in the opposite direction from the disturbance.
Ten minutes later, her mission accomplished, Zazzi sat in the cool of her study. Taking care not to splash her computer, she poured herself a shot of tequila, and reviewed the newest file in her archive of taped phone calls.
Ms. Monet, I assume?
Who is this?
You don’t need to know that. What you should know is, I have possession of some historical information.
Well, I’m not a librarian, so if you got a point, get to it or I’m hanging up.
The history concerns a certain beauty salon in Arbor City. The one with the locked back rooms.
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Let’s just say, I can see how someone might wish to keep this history a secret. I’ll be in touch.
The caller cut the line. Zazzi went back and played it a few more times. There could be no doubt. The anonymous caller and the woman she’d just heard speaking to Lt. Frio were one and the same. Fortunately, she now had a face to put to the voice.
She decided to have a proper drink to celebrate her own little triumph. Kicking off her shoes, she went to the poolside wet bar and made herself a double margarita. The sun was low in the sky but still strong, so she sat under the umbrella. The cushion still smelled faintly of Lydia’s perfume. Zazzi smiled and wondered if she’d be back. Perhaps they could even become friends.
Lydia had quickly polished off two bottles of expensive wine while she rambled half-incoherently about her burned house and the perfidy of the male sex. Something in her tone led Zazzi to believe the Sheriff and Lydia were more intimately acquainted than Lydia was willing to divulge. Thank you, Lydia, for that and for the other useful tidbits you unwittingly blurted out. Zazzi had recorded that conversation as well, knowing it might come in handy in the future. In the meantime, wherever Lydia had gone, she wished her safe travels.
Putting the empty margarita glass to one side, Zazzi pulled out a cheap, burner cell phone and sent the photos the kid had emailed to her laptop. He’d done well: two good shots of Moody’s face. She guessed he would have preferred his payment in drugs or maybe a piece of ass, either of which she could have supplied, but he could go and get them for himself.
Looking at the photos, she had to admire the Sinclair woman’s audacity. In the wake of all the scandal attached to her family, instead of retreating from danger, she charged right toward it. So, Moody Sinclair must have allied herself with Nancy or taken some information from her. Did that include the data Nancy had stolen from Zazzi’s cell phone back in Arbor City? Or was Moody just fishing because she’d seen that Nancy had referred to Zazzi somehow?
What was Moody’s game? She didn’t need money; by all accounts her father had left a huge estate. What did she expect to gain aside from the rush of enjoyment she got from making her telephone threats? Pretty mild behavior, really, for a Sinclair. You’d think she’d at least be leaving a dead animal in Zazzi’s mailbox. Or was that the Mafia? Whatever.
With a bottle, a glass of ice and a fresh pack of cigarettes at her side, she went to work on her computer, skillfully importing one of the head shots into her favorite photo application. Next, she clicked through her archive of current and former employees, looking for one whose body size, skin tone and pose would best suit her purpose. Settling on a photo of a naked woman posing on a bed, she exchanged the woman’s head with that of Moody Sinclair. After that, she combined it with a full body shot of Nancy taken when the girl had posed for a “modeling portfolio” at Zazzi’s salon.
Zazzi sighed. She’d never had a chance to make any decent money off Nancy. Soon after those shots were taken, Nancy proclaimed she’d been duped into taking off her clothes by “bottom-feeder” Zazzi. Sure, it seemed that after leaving Arbor City, Nancy had lifted herself up a few rungs, but in the end it had been conclusively proven that Nancy had been too uppity for her own good.
Zazzi pushed back from the monitor and eyed the final product with satisfaction. A touching scene. Moody and Nancy, intimately together. She prepared the file to send to a tech genius in southern California who owed her a few favors after an embarrassing little incident involving an underage girl. She also sent along the original photos in case he wanted to start over from scratch. After he worked his magic, no one would be able to the scene had been altered. The only thing left was to decide whether she’d show this to Moody first or just send it straight to the Sheriff.