Sunday, December 24, 9:35am
Zazzi halted, one foot in the front hall and one foot on the porch, scrutinizing the creature she’d named “Our Lady of Rubicon Rainbow” who’d just swooped up today’s newspaper from the driveway. Multicolored scarves fluttering, she called out, “Let me get this for you. Oh, I see you take the L.A. Times.”
With a stifled growl at the woman’s nosiness, Zazzi took one step outside and shut the door firmly behind her. She hoped this gave a clear message she wouldn’t be having a coffee klatch with this addled neighbor. She wanted her gone before she noticed Zazzi already had company this morning.
“Oh, so now middle-aged gypsies are delivering newspapers?” asked Zazzi, who’d heard about the crazy woman who claimed to be a psychic. “I hate to tell you, but I’m a lousy tipper.” Hopefully, a strong dose of disrespect would prompt the woman to leave before she went into her routine.
But instead of answering, Celeste closed her eyes and began to sway on her feet—if she really did have feet hidden somewhere under those voluminous long skirts. Was this the start of a fainting fit? Fortunately, Celeste remained upright, but nonresponsive. Zazzi decided to count to five before she ended this fiasco and went back inside. At three, Zazzi found a pair of sharp eyes now looking straight at her with an unexpectedly venomous penetration. Startled, she took a step back. “What?”
Celeste took a breath and let it out slowly. “I saw locked rooms . . . And one who comes, she has an aura of fire. I sense a judgment, of fire and smoke.”
“Fire? Oh my god, I forgot! I have waffles in the waffle iron! Sorry, got to run!” Two strides later, Zazzi had shut the whack job out. Making sure her door was double locked, she went back to her breakfast preparation, which didn’t include waffle making.
Zazzi glanced toward the bedroom wing to see if Lydia had emerged from the bathroom where she was taking a shower. When she didn’t see her, she crept down the hall and entered the bedroom where Lydia had left her clothes. But apparently Lydia had taken her clothes and her large carryall with her into the bathroom.
Another missed opportunity to learn more about her guest. And further proof Lydia had secrets.
This was turning out to be quite an eventful morning. Zazzi didn’t believe in the occult, but Celeste’s reference to locked rooms made an impression. A psychic vision was out of the question, which left two explanations. Either Celeste knew about Zazzi’s past involvement with a human trafficking ring, or she’d coincidentally pulled words out of thin air in an effort to sound dramatic. But Zazzi didn’t believe in coincidence any more than she believed in psychic powers. According to the local gossips, Celeste had been seen speaking with the sheriff on several occasions. She’d have to nip that relationship before it flowered.
The reference to fire was less puzzling. When she’d first met Lydia there was no mistaking the strong smoky smell that clung to her, too strong for someone who’d merely been standing nearby, watching a house go up in flames. If Zazzi realized this, anyone else could have come to the same conclusion. If it was Lydia’s house that had burned down, why didn’t she want anyone to know? Unless . . .
The coffee maker beeped to announce the brewing had finished. Zazzi pounced on the carafe and poured a mug for herself, black and straight. The only thing she ever added to coffee was bourbon. After the surprise encounter outside she felt going for something strong, but she needed to keep her wits. She gulped down half the mug and refilled it before taking a seat at the table.
The strong, hot drink went a long way toward clearing her brain. She’d only been fishing for information when she’d offered Lydia assistance yesterday, so when she left without notice, Zazzi didn’t expect her to come back. What did Lydia want? Well, she’d find out soon enough because she was now entering the kitchen. Sunlight streaming in from the patio doors shone on the still damp hair framing her lovely face. Aura indeed.
“Thanks. I feel a thousand percent better now,” said Lydia.
“I hope you eat this stuff,” said Zazzi, pointing to a serving plate. She took a deep fried apple tart for herself before Lydia could claim it. “Help yourself to coffee. Got no milk or cream, but there’s Coffeemate and sugar in the cabinet.”
Lydia helped herself to coffee, then took a chair across from Zazzi. For a few minutes the two women sat in a rather awkward silence, each devouring two pastries. When Lydia eyed a third one hungrily, Zazzi said, “Go ahead. No one’s counting. You’re eating like you just got out of jail, as the saying goes.”
A rather alarmed look flashed across Lydia’s face, giving Zazzi the opening she sought. “Sorry, just joking. My way of dealing with being treated like a murder suspect is to laugh it off, although the way the creepy sheriff’s hounding everyone, anyone could end up behind bars, guilty or not. He doesn’t care who he fingers for murder as long as he gets the credit.”
“You got that right,” said Lydia. “I’d like to smash that pig’s conceited face into some cell bars.”
Whoa, thought Zazzi. There’s some history there!
“I don’t much care for his female sidekick either,” said Zazzi. “Who does she think she is, anyway, wiggling her pert little butt in front of me, then pretending she’s a high and mighty representative of the justice system and I’m dirt. I won’t be played like that. I’m a business woman and I probably make twice her yearly salary in one month.”
Lydia sat back and smiled slowly. “You know, you don’t really have to pretend with me. I don’t care what kind of ‘beauty supplies you’re really selling. In fact, I think your business gives us a common interest.”
Zazzi got up and turned her back to make a fresh pot of coffee so Lydia couldn’t pick up on her mood. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not spying on you or anything. I was having a drink the other night in a hotel bar and saw the same woman I’d seen earlier coming out of your house. She had a male companion who wore a wedding ring, and from their body language, I don’t figure he was buying lipstick for his wife.”
“That so? Well, it’s not for me to tell my employees who to date.” Zazzi carefully filled the reservoir with bottled water and pushed the START button. “Would that be the same hotel you checked into after sneaked out of here, still smelling like a book of used matches? You didn’t need to do that. There’s no shame in being homeless, you know.”
Lydia’s eyes widened before she regained her composure. Taking a sip of coffee, eyes fastened to the mug, she said, “I regret renting that house. Luckily, I hadn’t lived there long and the deal was strictly under the table.”
Zazzi had expected this to be the case and figured the landlord had been none other than realtor extraordinaire, Nancy. Lydia apparently wanted to hide that fact, which made it all the more interesting.
“Is that why you’re unhappy with the sheriff? A corpse first and then a fire. Bad timing, I have to say, But your rental situation isn’t his business. I can see how you’d like to keep that quiet.”
“The way you earn a living isn’t something you want him to find out either. Don’t get me wrong, as far as I’m concerned, an escort service is a legitimate way to cater to the oldest urge known to mankind. If all the parties are willing, then who does it hurt? At least both sides know what they’re getting out of it, which is more than most women can say after the fact.”
Zazzi strongly agreed, if from a strictly practical standpoint, but Lydia seemed to have a deep-seated animus toward men. Where was the woman going with this? She didn’t seem to be fashioning a threat. Could she be asking for a job? Zazzi went back to her seat and gave Lydia a long look. “You said we have a common interest. What might that be?”
“Sheriff Seth Bryan.”
Zazzi raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”
Lydia put her forearms on the table and leaned closer. “I have an idea how we can put him out of commission.”
“Whoa, wait a minute. If you’re talking violence, stop now.” Zazzi now wondered if Celeste’s locked room might refer to one in a mental hospital that Lydia had broken out of.
Lydia smiled. “No, no, nothing like that. We just let Seth Bryan do what he loves doing the most.”
“And that would be?”
“He’s never seen a nice piece of tail he could refuse. But this time, it can be one of your young ladies. We’ll tape the whole thing and send it to the local media. We’ll send a copy to his wife as well.” Lydia laughed. “Our fine sheriff will be finished after that.”
Zazzi considered the options. Lydia already knew about her escort service. If she went along with this, Lydia was less likely to reveal Zazzi’s dealings because she’d be a participant. And she wanted to get the sheriff off her trail. They’d just have to make sure nothing could be traced back here. When he was out of the way she’d worry about Lady Rainbow.”
“Ok, Lydia, let’s do it. Come into my office and we’ll look through the files. I’ll let you choose the lady. You seem to know exactly what the sheriff wants.”