A savage, unexpected murder; a fragile, attractive ""socialite""; a suave, homicidal con man--and another true-crime pageturner by the author of A Death in Canaan. It all began at an isolated California ranch one mellow Saturday in 1973. The characters: Hope Masters, impoverished heiress, twice married (""most of her friends were men""), and a study in the split California psyche straight out of Joan Didion; Bill Ashlock, Hope's current lover; and ""Taylor Wright,"" a self-styled photo-journalist supposedly profiling Bill as an eligible bachelor. After retiring that Saturday night at the ranch, Hope awoke to find Bill shot dead in the living room and Taylor brutally raping her. Then things got very strange. Taylor spun a story about a contract hit arranged by Hope's estranged second husband, with Hope the intended victim and Bill an unfortunate bystander. He convinced Hope that she and her children were still threatened, though not by him; he would protect her. He took her back to her house in L.A. and hid out there briefly (Hope gave him back rubs, no longer at gunpoint). Then he vanished, apparently willing to let Bill's murder be pinned on Hope, who was promptly jailed. Meanwhile, police as far away as Chicago were tracking escaped convict G. Daniel Walker, a classy con man whom one investigator called ""truly evil"" (""he could shoot you, then sit down and have lunch right beside your body"") and who turned out to be . . . who else? For reasons never totally clear, Walker didn't abandon Hope to be railroaded, but stayed in hiding around L.A., taunting the police in tape-recorded messages to Hope that fabricated even odder tales (he was the agent of a foreign government) but showed a strange, maybe even real, concern for Hope. The finale: the cops finally found Walker and charged him with murder; Hope grudgingly traded a dismissal of charges for her testimony against him; and, after a two-month trial (highlight--Hope being cross-examined by Walker himself), he got life. Five years later, Hope was writing letters to him at San Quentin. ""Maybe Walker let me live because he thought I was . . . a valuable human being."" A very strange story indeed, and a first-rate piece of reporting.