Sunday, December 24, 12:15pm
Lydia sat at the table in Zazzi’s kitchen, nibbling on a croissant stuffed with ham and cheese while Zazzi talked on the telephone. The woman had treated her kindly, and Lydia felt bad for having misled her. She hadn’t checked into a hotel last night. She’d parked in the desert and slept in her car so that she’d be out of touch if Seth sent his deputies to look for her. And she wasn’t homeless. She had a home—well, a house, the house in Greentree where her husband had lived and died. She’d never lived there, not really. She’d merely existed in a state of torment. But the house now belonged to her alone, and she could make it a home if she wished.
Or burn it and all the memories it contained.
She smiled, remembering the fire that brought her to life. Yesterday she’d been lying on the bed in the furnished house she’d rented from Nancy, staring at the ceiling, thinking nothing, being stone, when she heard a window break and smelled gasoline. She leapt off the bed and went running to the front room in time to see a broken bottle with a burning wick lying midst the shards of window glass. In an instant, the flames from the makeshift bomb spread and the fire raged.
She stood mesmerized. She knew she had to escape, but she didn’t want to miss the wonder of it all. An errant ember burned her hand, reminding her that this new love, like her old one, had the power to destroy. She finally managed to tear herself away, and now, imaginary flames danced in her head.
That had been her third untruth. She’d told Zazzi, “I’d like to smash that pig’s conceited face into some cell bars.” The truth was that she’d like to see him consumed by flames, but she didn’t think Zazzi would understand that particular passion, so she’d used other words to describe her feelings for Seth.
But even seeing him consumed by flames wasn’t the truth. Seth had been her true love, the first—and only—man who touched her softly in tender places and made her feel like a woman. She’d never known that the relationship between a man and a woman didn’t have to involve pain. From the time her father had first entered her room when she turned twelve until she’d met Seth just after her thirtieth birthday, she’d known only pain at the hands of men.
No matter how badly things had turned out, no matter how betrayed she felt, she could never forget the softness of his lips upon hers. Could never forget the heat he had generated in her. Could never forget the flames of passion.
She patted the pocket of her slacks and felt reassured by the heavy metal of her snub-nosed revolver. Despite what he once meant to her, she knew him well enough not to trust him. Knew how he thought.
Seth first and always. No one else seemed real to him. He’d arrest her for Nancy’s murder and make it stick if it served his purposes, either personal or professional. He might even believe that she’d killed Nancy, might even think her crazy enough to do get rid of the realtor out of jealousy, but she had nothing against Nancy. Well, nothing except for the part where Nancy seemed to know about Lydia killing her husband, but that had to have been a guess. No one had been around when her husband had fallen down the stairs, and no one knew she’d run off and left her almost dead husband lying there until he become completely dead.
Whatever Seth believed or pretended to believe, Nancy had been dead when she’d found her lying in the middle of the street. The bloodless breaks in the woman’s skin indicated the possibility that Nancy had already been dead before the vehicular trauma. In a fit of macabre humor and the hope that Seth would rush to the scene so she could see him up close, Lydia had dragged Nancy’s body under the motorcycle wheels of the inflatable biker Santa.
And now Seth acted as if she—who knew every inch of his body as if it were her own—had killed his girlfriend.
Zazzi hung up the phone. “No go. The girl went to Seth’s office and told him she had information about the murder, but Seth never even looked twice at her. She flirted and tried to get him to ask her for a date so we could get the two of them on tape, but he just took down the information we fed her, and then dismissed her. Are you sure you picked the right type for him?”
“All girls are his type.” The girl Lydia chose looked like a younger version of Melanie Gray, and perhaps she’d made a wrong assumption as to Seth’s interest in the writer, but the girl had been pretty and curvaceous and should have piqued his interest anyway. “Maybe he’s changed.”
Zazzi laughed. “Men don’t change.”
“I guess you’re right.” Lydia pinched off a piece of her sandwich and dropped the morsel onto the plate without eating it. “But he has had a lot to contend with lately. His wife crashed back into his life. His girlfriend is dead. His ex-lover is skulking around. This is a guy who doesn’t like messes. Well, doesn’t like messes in his own life. He doesn’t mind the messes he causes in other people’s lives. I wonder if he tried breaking up with Nancy, and when she threatened to cause trouble, he killed her to clean up the mess.”
“You think he could have done it?”
A strange note in Zazzi’s voice roused the cop in Lydia. Could Zazzi have had something to do with Nancy’s murder? Zazzi probably had plenty of secrets she wouldn’t want to come to light.
Remembering the look in Seth’s eyes when he’d told her, “I’m still licensed to carry a sidearm in California and if you come near me again I’m going to shoot you between the eyes,” Lydia nodded to Zazzi. “Oh, yes. He could have. It’s Seth’s way or no way.”
“What now?” Zazzi asked.
“I don’t know.” That, at least, was the truth. For almost two years, she had been in Seth’s thrall, held first by love then anger, but now she felt free of him. Had her idea about ruining him been a last ditch effort to keep him tied to her? Well, whatever happened in the future, he had no more part in her life. And if she had problems with him, well, she too was licensed to carry a sidearm in California.
Zazzi gulped down her sandwich, but Lydia’s belly still felt tight from all the pastries she’d eaten three hours ago.
“Do you mind if I take my lunch with me in case I get hungry on the road?” Lydia asked
Zazzi’s brows drew together. “Where are you going?”
“Back to Greentree. I have no reason to be here any more.”
“What about the sheriff?”
“He knows where to find me.” Lydia wrapped her sandwich in a paper napkin, and rose. “It was a mistake coming to Rubicon Ranch.” She stuffed the sandwich in her purse, pulled out a scrap of paper and a pen, and jotted down her phone number. “I appreciate all you’ve done for me. I owe you. Call if I can ever do anything for you.”
Lydia could sense Zazzi’s frustration, and she didn’t blame her. The woman had been nice to her, and all Lydia had done was wander in and out of her life, taking her kindness for granted. Lydia had even come up with an idea for putting doing them both a favor and putting Seth out of commission, but then she’d given up at the first sign the idea might not work.
“Call me.” She walked out the front door then stopped and looked back at Zazzi framed in the entryway. “You can still follow the plan to get the sheriff, if you wish. You don’t need me.”
“I just might.” Zazzi lifted a hand in farewell, and shut the door.
Lydia walked up Delano Road, thinking of how wonderful it would be to torch her house and all her memories. It took a while for her to realize she was committing the worst error a cop—or an ex-cop—could make. She hadn’t been paying attention to her surroundings. She cut a glance from right to left. The only thing strange seemed to be the lack of strangeness. The carnival activity had ceased that morning, but she’d expected to see a return of the death seekers. She glanced behind her. A sheriff department vehicle angled out into road at the intersection of Delano and Tehachapi, forming an effective roadblock. Luckily, she’d parked one block over, so she could leave without the deputies seeing her.
She passed the alleyway next to the Sinclair house. She’d planned to cut through that open space to Ranch Court where she’d left her car, but the enticing scent of smoke drew her onward.
She paused outside the now boarded-up house she’d rented from Nancy. She heard a small sound like a soft footfall. She looked around but didn’t see anyone. She listened for a second or two, but did not hear anything except a few yips from a neighbor’s dog.
She ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and hurried around the back of the house. As eagerly as she had ever welcomed Seth’s embrace, she unlocked the patio door and slipped into the great room. The odor of charred fabrics and singed plastics greeted her. She drew in a deep breath, and found herself smiling as she remembered the joy of falling in love again.
Flames. Fire. Magic.
Life was good. And love was available at the flick of a match. She didn’t need Seth or Rubicon Ranch or her abusive husband. She didn’t need anyone. She could start fresh. Create herself from scratch.
She let out a laugh of pure joy.
“What’s so funny?”
She whirled toward the sound of the voice, but all she could see was the shadow of a woman against the glare of the open door. The woman seemed to have an elongated hand, and then the truth hit Lydia. The woman had a gun. And the voice. That familiar voice.
“Nic?” Lydia said hesitantly. “What do you want?”
“What do you think I want?”
“Seth, and you have him.”
Nic let out a harsh sound that could have been laughter or a suppressed shriek. “I’ll never have Seth. You and all the others stole him from me. He’ll never be satisfied with me now after all the things you did to him.”
“Things?” Lydia stared at her. “What things?”
“You mean oral sex?” When Nic didn’t answer, Lydia nodded to herself. If Nic was too fastidious to give Seth the type of sex he preferred, that could be why he looked for satisfaction from other woman. Or maybe he preferred oral sex to keep from having to be truly intimate. If Nic had been his only experience with intimacy, it was no wonder he had no interest in being close to a woman. He’d have been better off cuddling with a Mohave Green Rattlesnake.
Nic waved the gun, a .38 like the ones once issued by the police department in Greentree. “I want you dead.”
“It was you, wasn’t it? You killed Nancy.”
Nic cocked the gun. “You don’t know as much as you think you do, and I know a whole hell of a lot more than anyone thinks I do.”
Feeling stupid for not having realized how dangerous Nic was, or recognizing that Nic was wearing clear surgical gloves, Lydia put her hand in her pocket for her own weapon. Before she could pull the gun out, she heard the blast and at the same time felt as if someone had hit her in the chest with a baseball bat. She staggered a few steps, then crumpled onto the floor.
Nic stood over her, and for the first time ever, Lydia saw her mouth quirk up in a smile. She’s beautiful No wonder Seth married her. Realizing her thoughts were drifting from her mind as the blood was draining from her body, Lydia tried to concentrate.
“Well, that was easy,” Nic said. “Now for the fun part.” She took a plastic bag out of her pocket and shook the contents onto Lydia’s prone body. “Strands of Seth’s hair. A thread from his uniform. A few carpet samples from his bedroom. My dear devoted husband will fry, and I will be his grief-stricken widow.”
For a hazy moment, Lydia didn’t understand. But then the truth hit her almost as hard as the bullet had. No. Please, no. Not Seth. She couldn’t let him be arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Whatever he felt about her, she loved him enough to risk the fires of hell to save him.
With her last gasp of energy, she tightened her fingers around the gun in her pocket, and fired.
She saw the shocked expression on Nic’s face and felt the woman’s body fall across hers.