Llama, dating, waterfall
The house looked like half of a bleached orange, placed juicy side down in the shadow of a long, sloping hill. Detective Elleanor Sharpe slammed the door of her rental car, leaned against its hot metal, and kept staring. A geodesic dome, the guy at the gas station had called it as he’d given her directions, his chest thrust out as if proud he’d mastered the term. She’d caught him reading a Scooby Doo comic book, so he hadn’t mastered much else.
Grasslands and cacti faded into the distance in all directions, sliced through by the state road and caliche driveway, punctuated by lazy pump jacks, and weathered, leaning shacks. To the west, looming mesas shimmered in the heat haze. Behind the dome, a flock of sheep hid in the fold of a ravine, the hillside shading them from the afternoon sun. The sky was too dry and washed-out for even the wispiest of clouds.
Well, this Dallas detective might not be from flyover country. But she knew enough to wear a light cotton shirt with heavy trousers and boots against the cacti and scorpions, a cowboy hat and Maui Jims against the sun. Even so, as she climbed the cut-out steps from the parking area, sweeping across a broad swathe of the south-facing slope, she could feel sweat pooling between her breasts and sliding down her spine.
If this wasn’t a murder investigation, she’d never be caught in such a place. It seemed so barren, so naked—no garden, no handrail, no trees, and no shade, unless you were willing to argue with the sheep. And the smell wafting from the ravine was enough to convince her against that.
One animal, on the edge of the flock, suddenly rose, staring at her. Ellea slowed on the steps, staring back. That thing was far too tall to be a sheep. Besides, it was the wrong color—spotted black and white, more like a long-necked, awkward horse with flat feet and a hippie haircut. And it stared as if she had a run in her stockings or a pimple on her nose.
Suddenly it screamed, an angry, braying honk, and charged down the slope toward the stairs. Ellea jumped, tripped over the next step, and sat down hard. Her hat slid down over her eyes. But she didn’t need to see that thing, because she could hear it, braying like a burro on steroids, big feet galumphing across the hillside. At this range, she could feel and smell it.
What was it? Would it kick her? step on her? bite her? Forget it, these were new clothes, and she didn’t want to know. Ellea scrabbled to her feet and raced up the last few steps—straight into the chest of a real cowboy.
Strong arms closed about her, took her weight, guided her scrambling steps in a half-circle, and parked her behind his Wranglers. “Satan!” he yelled over his shoulder. “You stop right where you are, you devil!”
Panting, Ellea made sure her Walther PPK was secure in her hidden front holster, and then peered around one soft denim shirtsleeve; she didn’t have a hope of seeing over that six-foot-plus shoulder.
A long, narrow, camel-like head peered back, just peeking over the last step, atop a long, narrow, shaggy neck. The animal’s face was white with a black nose, naked as a rat’s pelt but with a wild shag of rough hair sprouting over its eyes. Fluffy ears waggled, flipped back.
“Guard llama.” The cowboy shrugged. “Takes his job seriously.”
Satan gargled at her, like a camel, lips drawing back from big yellow teeth.
“What does he do with those teeth?” Ellea asked.
“Whatever he wants.” The cowboy waved one arm. “Go on, get back to work.”
With one last forlorn gargle, Satan lumbered down the steps to the slope and returned to the sheep. None of them had budged from the shade.
Crikey, what an entrance. If this tall tale made it back to Dallas, she’d never hear the end of it. Besides, she’d sat on those dusty steps and had to be a mess. Ellea brushed at her behind. But the cowboy’s eyes, steel-colored and sharp as barbed wire, followed her swiping hands with a gleam. Not good. She stopped and straightened before she made herself look even sillier.
“Mr. Carmichael?” she said. “Thaddeus Carmichael?”
He winced. A fan of brown hair, shades darker than the sandstone caliche of his roadway, drifted down over his high forehead. Carmichael combed it back with a long-fingered hand that was surprisingly gentle and precise. “That’s me. You the detective?”
“Elleanor Sharpe, Dallas Police.” She dragged the ID wallet from her hip pocket and flashed it. His eyes followed the motion, squinted at the badge and photo, flickered to her face, and then relaxed as he nodded. Ellea felt her shoulders loosen, too; the guilty ones usually tensed at sight of the badge. It was a good sign. “Can we talk inside?”
The door was plain, steel with a kickplate at the bottom, and painted the same shade of eggshell as the pebbled concrete of the geodesic dome. But on either side, narrow inset panels of stained glass sparkled with leaded glitter. They seemed an oddly decorative touch on an otherwise plain residence—there wasn’t even a knocker on the door, nor a pot plant on the flagstoned stoop—but the doorknob was matte brass. Maybe it was civilized inside, at least air-conditioned. She followed him through the door, watching his broad shoulders for possible wrong moves.
A mass of humid, heavy-scented air flowed over her, as if she stepped, not into a high plains Texas ranch house, but into a languid tropical jungle. Water flowed, a steady fluid sound. Carmichael stepped aside to close the door behind her and as his big frame moved and exposed the view, Ellea gasped. The dome’s interior was huge; a big open shell lit by skylights, and down the center of it thundered a waterfall. It poured from a granite ledge, level with the balcony of the second floor, splashing over a pile of glistening white rocks into a shallow pool edged with quarried stones and dotted with water lilies. White and yellow Bourbon vanilla orchids bloomed on wooden trellises, brilliant in the sunlight.
“Wow.” Ellea paused for another deep breath. The air smelled good enough to bite. “Just wow.”
Carmichael’s narrow lips curved in a shy smile. “Like it?”
She wanted to gush like a teenager. But she stopped herself in time. Her years in college and the Academy hadn’t created a fool, and she was in Pecos on business, not the undeniable pleasure she felt relaxing the last tension from her shoulders. And this was a murder investigation, the most serious of her career.
But she couldn’t dam up all she felt. “It’s truly beautiful.”
“Thank you.” Carmichael crossed to a glass and metal table, nestled beneath the vanilla orchids. “We’ll sit here. Can I get you something cool? Iced tea?”
Through the shiny leaves, she saw a small and ordinary kitchen. “Sure.”
Ellea sat, drinking in the tropical languor and listening to the little clinks and rattles audible beneath the waterfall’s splashing. She’d expected—shoot, she didn’t know what she’d expected, a drab doublewide trailer huddled beneath an empty mesa, perhaps, or a hunting cabin with outdoor plumbing. This casual elegance had her so off-balance, she was forgetting the reason she’d come. And that wouldn’t do at all.
Especially if she wasn’t satisfied with his story. Thaddeus Carmichael, “Deuce” to his friends, was one of those casual Texas millionaires whose lifestyle, according to the press he routinely snubbed, didn’t reflect his resources. Two days ago, he’d met his ex-wife in Dallas at her attorney’s office. The notes typed that night by the efficient legal secretary, who’d stayed late for the task at the attorney’s request, had shown lingering anger as they wrangled over custody of their little boy, who’d been living with his mother until word leaked of her torrid and poorly hidden affair. Those notes showed no satisfactory arrangement had been reached at the meeting and Carmichael had left the area immediately after, according to the testimony of the valet parking lot attendant who’d driven out the F-150 SuperCrew and seen the cowboy off the upscale Galleria premises.
At midnight, the attorney’s live-in housekeeper had been awakened by a screaming fire alarm. When she stumbled into the Swiss Avenue front yard, choking on smoke, her Sponge Bob pajamas blackened with soot, she’d tried to tell the embattled firefighters in her mixture of broken English and vexed Tongan that her employer hadn’t made it out. Nor had his girlfriend.
The two bodies were pulled from the still-smoking debris hours later, to no one’s surprise; the fire had burned long and hot, and already the investigators were discussing accelerants and throwing about the other fiery “A” word. But the autopsies sealed it and guaranteed a charge of murder for someone, for both the attorney and Serena Carmichael had been double-tapped in the forehead with a small-caliber handgun.
The burned and twisted skeleton of a Smith & Wesson was pried from what was left of the attorney’s fingers, as if the police were supposed to believe he’d shot her, set the historic Mediterranean frame house ablaze, and then blew out his own brains—twice. But that just wouldn’t fly, even if it were physically possible.
Because little Brian Carmichael was missing.
Not only was it Ellea’s job to learn everything she could from the embittered ex-husband and yearning father. She also had to break the news of Brian’s disappearance.
And see if Carmichael was really surprised or faking it.
Ellea was the best judge of character, the best reader of emotions, in the police departments of East Dallas. How she managed those readings was her secret, and she’d promised her mother she’d never break it. No suspect had successfully lied to her during an interrogation, at least not that she or anyone else knew of. But she worked best alone, away from the station, in relaxed surroundings. She worked best with people, including suspects, in their natural environment.
Otherwise, she wouldn’t have braved an attack llama to beard a true Texas cowboy millionaire in his hideaway tropical den.
His long, gentle fingers, just a bit roughened at the tips, set an already damp glass of iced tea on the table before her. A touch of mint joined the vanilla, sharpening the air’s sweetness. That fan of hair was back over his forehead, the edges floating and falling in the breeze off the falling water. Steel-colored eyes darkened as he examined her face, and the little shy smile faded away. Nonsensically, she wanted to say something funny and bring that smile back.
But she wasn’t here to comfort him. And she most certainly wasn’t going to be dating him any time soon, so she could just get her interest under control.
She was here to decide if Deuce Carmichael was a double murderer.