Sunday, December 24, 1:15pm
It was only after he had slipped out of the Navigator and was part way to the half-burned house that the sheriff realized the front door was blocked both by Lieutenant Frio and Deputy Midget. Each wore an expression—ominous and sad—he had never seen on either face. Instantly a strange dread welled within him. He stopped before them.
“I can’t let you go in there, Seth,” Frio said.
He stared at her. She never called him by his first name.
She sighed. “There are two more bodies in there. . . . I don’t know any easy way to tell you this. It’s Lydia. And Nic.”
He rocked back and forth, his mouth filled with the taste of brass. Suddenly dizzy and staggering, he felt Midget’s great arm slide under his to steady him.
“You need to sit down, boss?”
Slowly the sheriff settled onto a concrete porch step. He looked up at Frio and asked, “Are you saying they’re dead?”
He looked down at the blank, cold cement. “Rosaria, this is not some sick, sad joke you’re playing, is it?”
“No, Seth. Nic and Lydia are gone.”
The sheriff managed to draw a long, ragged breath. “How?”
“Well. They died of gunshots. Each a single gunshot.”
“. . . You mean they were executed?”
“No. I mean they apparently shot each other.”
He stared at Frio, trying to take in and understand what she was saying. “You’re telling me that my estranged wife and my former mistress died in a gunfight?”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “That’s pretty much what I’m saying. People all up and down the street heard the reports and called it in. It happened about an hour ago. While you were sitting at your desk.”
“And you don’t think it would be good for me to go in there and see them?”
“Oh, there’s a little more to it than that.” Frio pursed her lips. “Nic was wearing latex gloves, like she intended to discharge the weapon without getting any GSR on her hands. Plus, she had a little packet of—I guess you’d call it ‘evidence’—as if she were planting things in the house, on the body of the other woman. Apparently she thought Lydia was deceased and, as she was spreading the fibers and so forth, Lydia shot her. Nic fell across Lydia’s body.”
He put his hand on his forehead. “This evidence . . .”
She nodded. “We’re guessing it’s stuff with your DNA on it.”
“. . . So she was going to murder Lydia and make it look like I did it?”
“That’s what we’re thinking,” Midget said. “That’s the other reason you can’t go in there. We have to let the forensic folks rule you out as a suspect—even though we know you didn’t do it.”
As if on cue, the tall, black-suited figure of the coroner, Sweetum, walked up the steps and paused. Nodding at the sheriff, he asked, “Has he been in there?”
“No,” Frio responded. “We’ve retained him out here. We haven’t even let him look inside.”
“Just as well.” Sweetum disappeared into the shell of the house.
Midget patted the sheriff on the shoulder. “Good thing you were in courthouse when this went down, boss.”
“I killed ‘em.”
The deputy started. “What? You couldn’t have.”
“I didn’t shoot anybody, but they’re dead because of me. . . . I’m not guilty of anything but chasing skirts, but—” He looked up at his colleagues. “—can you honestly say that either of those women would be dead if it weren’t for me. I brought this on them. And I brought it on myself.”
“It’s completely understandable that you’d feel that way, just having learned what’s happened,” Frio said. “However our understanding of relationships and of other people’s decisions changes over time. And you have a whole lifetime to figure out why Lydia stalked you here and why Nic . . . made her decision. It’s important for you to remember that what they did was illogical. It was downright crazy, Seth. That may not resonate with you right now, but like I say, it will make a lot more sense over time. And you’ve got time.”
Seth considered her words. “Time is all I’ve got. Lieutenant, I am placing myself on administrative leave immediately. I’m naming you Acting Sheriff. You are now in charge of all ongoing criminal investigations.” He put a hand on the cement to steady himself and got to his feet. “When you get back to office, please call the Chief County Commissioner and inform her of what’s happened. Please tell her that, just as soon as I am cleared of any direct involvement in the death of these two women, I’m going to tender my resignation.”
Midget caught his breath. “You can’t mean it, boss.”
Bryan smiled. “I’m so toxic, Deputy. They can’t afford to let me stay.”
“But you’re so good at your job. You’re the best at investigating. You’ve closed every big case.”
“The eyes of the entire state of California are focused on this backwater little county, Midget. It’s bad enough that we have murder victims dropping like flies, that we’re infested with horror groupies at Christmas time. Now, thanks to me and my little harem, the soap opera that forced me out of the big city has followed me to the burbs as well. The county commissioners can’t allow that. In time, getting rid of me will seem to be the one thing that set Rubicon Ranch right again.” He looked at Frio. “You up with this?”
Her jaw tight, she replied, “I need your shield and your piece.”
Without hesitation he unclasped his badge and handed it to her. He unclasped the Glock on his hip and handed it over butt first.
“So, Kelvin,” he said. “Would you be willing to take the sheriff’s unit and drive me home? Then you can park it at the courthouse until it’s reassigned to the lieutenant.”
Without waiting for a response, he walked to the passenger’s side of the Navigator and got in. The great SUV sagged a bit to the left when the deputy climbed into the driver’s seat. As they pulled away from the crime scene and down the street, Bryan exchanged glances with Frio, who stood emotionless on the porch.
“She’ll do very well,” Bryan said absently. “If they’re smart, they’ll just elevate her to the position permanently. She can already do the job better than I can. She’s a good cop.” He gazed at Midget. “And so are you, Kelvin. You’re a fine peace officer. Now that you don’t work for me, I can tell you that without hesitation.”
Bryan took two quick breaths. Tears began to course down his cheeks. He shivered, his face down.
“I know what you’re feeling, boss. . . . I know what it is to lose your wife.”
Bryan shook his head. “It’s not the same, Kelvin. You had a real marriage and a real wife. I’m not sure Nic and I ever really loved one another. Each of us saw the other as . . . an opportunity, I guess. . . . And the weird, ironic thing is—if I understand it—the woman I despised for ruining my career and for stalking me actually did me a good turn. She killed the woman who was trying to frame me.”
As they drove through the streets of Rubicon Ranch, a strange peace descended on Seth Bryan. For the first time in his memory, he had been released; released from the responsibilities of a peace officer; released from the encumbrance of any fused relationship with a person from the opposite sex. He had instantly, strangely become a man with no profession and no relationship. And more than anything, he felt tranquility.
A smile flickering briefly, he said, “At least Melanie Gray wasn’t there to discover the bodies.”