Rubicon Ranch is a collaborative and innovative crime series set in the fictional desert community of Rubicon Ranch and is being written online by the authors of Second Wind Publishing.
In the current story, the body of a local realtor is found beneath the wheels of an inflatable figure of a Santa on a motorcycle. The realtor took great delight in ferreting out secrets, and everyone in this upscale housing development is hiding something. Could she have discovered a secret someone would kill to protect? There will be suspects galore, including a psychic, a con man, a woman trying to set up an online call-girl service, and the philandering sheriff himself. Not only is the victim someone he had an affair with, but he will also have to contend with an ex-wife who has moved back in with him and a jilted lover, both with their own reasons for wanting the realtor dead.
We hope you will enjoy seeing the story develop as we write it. Let the mystery begin! Whodunit? No one knows, not even the writers, and we won’t know until the very end! If you don’t want to miss further chapters, please go to the blog and click on “sign me up” on the right sidebar to get notifications of new chapters.
Chapter 25: Melanie Gray
by Pat Bertram
Sunday, December 24, 9:00am
Melanie stayed up most of the night sending emails to people on Alexander’s and her contact lists, asking what they knew about her husband. She told them—untruthfully—that she planned to write his biography, and so needed to know anything that could help explain his life and especially his death
She didn’t really expect to discover his secrets this easily, but she hoped that she could at least find a place to start looking for answers. The immediate responses were condolences from those who hadn’t known about his death and from those who hadn’t taken the time to write five months ago when he’d died in what had seemed to be a car accident. A few responses included an anecdote about Alexander, but no one dropped a hint about what he could have done to trigger an assassination.
Only one response surprised her. She’d expected their agent to gush with delight at the prospect of the book, but Dottie wrote: Are you sure this is a wise idea, darling? You might not like what you find out. And isn’t it better to remember him as a real man rather than a character in a book, even one as brilliant as I’m sure yours would be?
Too tired to think of a response to her agent’s message, Melanie dragged herself to bed. She dozed off but jerked herself awake to escape the shadowy creatures who chased her into a building with no windows and no way out.
She thought she’d been asleep for only a few minutes, but the brightness of the room told her she’d slept far into the new morning. She lay in bed, unwilling to face another day in the horror that Rubicon Ranch had become, when she realized she heard something strange for this neighborhood — silence.
She jumped out of bed, ran upstairs to her loft office, and glanced out the window. No tour buses, no streams of cars with gawking passengers, no young people (or old people for that matter) dressed as Halloween ghouls. The only things out of the ordinary were the sheriff’s department vehicles cruising the street—at least four of them. One of the tan vehicles pulled up to the curb in front of her rented house, and Sheriff Seth Bryan climbed out.
Melanie dashed down the stairs to the bathroom, splashed water on her face, ran a brush through her hair, and grabbed a dress from the closet. The off-shoulder peasant dress wouldn’t have been her choice for the first encounter with the sheriff in two months, but she didn’t have time to rummage in her closet for something more appropriate.
The doorbell rang. Barefoot, she went to answer it.
The sheriff’s jeans and white shirt still fit his lean, flat-bellied body as if they’d been tailored for him. As when they first met, he wore a blue ball cap with “Sheriff” embroidered in yellow, but his hair curled around the cap as if it had been awhile since he’d taken the time to get it cut. For once he’d left off the mirrored sunglasses, and he looked as if he’d aged two years since she’d seen him last. Apparently, his attempt to make his marriage work hadn’t succeeded. Or maybe the marriage was succeeding, and his haggard expression and weary dark eyes came from too much time in bed with his wife.
Why do you care?
“Good morning, Ms. Gray,” Sheriff Bryan said, his tone as formal as his words.
“Good morning, sheriff.” Melanie stepped outside, put a hand above her eyes to shade them, and made a show of peering up and down the street. “What happened?”
“The people’s right to free expression and lawful assembly destroyed our crime scenes and impeded our investigation, so we cleared the area of anyone who didn’t live here.”
The chill of the concrete crept up Melanie’s bare legs, but she held herself in place. “You call that lawful assembly? So, if there hadn’t been a murder, you’d have just let all those necrophiliacs continue overrunning the neighborhood?”
“Not murder, Ms. Gray. Murders—two of them. And arson.”
“How did you get rid of all the ghouls and gawkers?”
“We have a deputy stationed on Delano Road and Tehachapi, checking to make sure only people who belong here enter the street. And those who were already here—well, we told them we’d arrest them as accessories to murder. When that didn’t work, we reminded them that tomorrow was Christmas, and that Santa didn’t deliver presents to bad little boys and girls in jail.”
“So, you’re the UnSanta Claus?”
The sheriff quirked one eyebrow as if surprised to discover she had a sense of humor, but Melanie had to admit to herself that in their relationship—if a few meetings and a couple of meals could be called a relationship—there’d been no room for humor. There’d been too much death, too much pressure, too many unanswered questions.
“Have you found out anything more about Alexander’s assassination?” Melanie asked.
“We’re doing what we can, Ms. Gray, but there’s nothing to go on. Just skid marks on an open road.”
“What about Alexander’s missing cameras? If someone stole them from the car right after the accident, there might be a witness.”
“We haven’t found a witness, but if a bystander took the opportunity to steal what you said were expensive cameras, I’m sure he or she wouldn’t be interested in informing us of that fact. Have you looked for the cameras? Maybe they’re inside the house somewhere.”
Melanie wanted to stamp her foot, but she refrained. She didn’t want the sheriff to see her acting so childishly, especially since he was being so damned formal. Besides, it would hurt her bare foot. “I told you. I put the cameras in the car myself.”
“Did he drive off immediately?”
Melanie gazed at the driveway where the car had been parked that morning. She’d put the cameras in the trunk. Alexander had yelled at her from inside the house that she had a phone call. She’d slammed the trunk shut and hurried inside.
The call had been from Dottie, their agent, wanting to know if they’d get the book done by the deadline. Melanie had been annoyed with Alexander for not talking to their agent himself because it would have taken him less time to assure Dottie than to shout for Melanie.
When she hung up the phone and went outside, she found that Alexander had left. She never saw him again, never got to say good-bye.
The sheriff’s voice, smooth as melted chocolate, startled her.
“Stop calling me that,” she snapped.
“What would you like me to call you?” he asked.
“Nothing. Stop using my name every sentence as if you’re some kind of used car salesman with a lemon you want to get off your hands.”
Melanie clamped her mouth shut, refusing to rise to the bait.
The sheriff smirked, and the haggardness disappeared from his face. “I need you to tell me what you know about Nancy Garcetti, Clark Bailey, and the fire.”
Melanie glanced back at the door of the house, wondering if she could slip inside for shoes to warm her icy feet, but she didn’t want to have to invite the sheriff into the house. It would feel too much like a fly inviting a spider to visit.
“Go put your shoes on, I’ll wait out here.”
Melanie ran inside, put on socks and shoes, and then sedately ambled back outside. The sheriff hadn’t moved.
“I wish I could help you, sheriff,” she said. “But I don’t know much.”
“I asked you once to call me Seth.”
Melanie shook her head. “Not exactly appropriate.”
“Ah, yes, I’d forgotten how very ‘appropriate’ you always were.”
Melanie narrowed her eyes, wondering if that had been a dig, but he continued as if unaware of her reaction.
“Had you ever met Nancy?”
Melanie tried to remain as still as the sheriff. Or was that the wrong way to act? Did her stillness indicate guilt? Crap, being a maybe murderer was hard.
“I met her once, but we only exchanged a few words.” I know you killed your husband.
“And what about Clark Bailey?”
Melanie relaxed, knowing she had nothing to do with anyone by that name. “Never met him.”
“Oh, but you did. You met him last night. After the fact, so to speak. He’s the man you found wearing the Santa hat.”
“I guess maybe I should have called it in—”
“Ya think?” the sheriff interjected.
Melanie winced at his sarcastic tone. “But I just could not face being known once again as the cadaver dog. I suppose Moody had no choice but to tell you.”
Sheriff Bryan gave her an avuncular smile. “Moody didn’t tell us. She left you out of it. Be careful. She has her own agenda, and she eats innocent women like you for breakfast.”
Melanie straightened her shoulders. “I can take care of myself.”
“Perhaps. Be careful, anyway.” The sheriff turned to leave, then glanced back. “What do you know about Lydia Galvin?”
“Lydia Galvin?” Melanie frowned. “Your Lydia?”
“It’s not how I’d put it, but yes, that Lydia.”
“I don’t know anything about her. Why, is she here?” Melanie laughed, feeling suddenly lighthearted. “She is, isn’t she? Oh, poor Seth. All his chickens coming home to roost. Your wife. Now Lydia. Maybe you’re the one who needs to be careful.”
When Seth cut across her property to the Sinclair house, Melanie realized he hadn’t asked her about the arson. He didn’t forget such matters. Like Moody, he had his own agenda, kept his own counsel.
Melanie went inside, locked the door behind her, and climbed the stairs to the office to see if she’d received any new emails. There was just one from an unfamiliar Gmail address:
You never know when to leave well enough alone, do you? Alexander Gray is dead. Let him rest in peace.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing.