Tag Archives: Rubicon Ranch

A Gift from Rubicon Ranch

From now until December 5, you can download the first two books in the Rubicon Ranch trilogy for free. In case you’re not familiar with Rubicon Ranch, it was a collaborative and innovative crime series set in the desert community of Rubicon Ranch and was written online by the authors of Second Wind Publishing. No one knew the outcome of the novels before they were written — the authors just wrote their characters’ stories trying to prove simultaneously that they were the killer and that they were innocent. A real challenge, but according to Sheila Deeth, writer and reviewer extraordinaire, the authors succeeded.

Sheila wrote: I thoroughly enjoyed it. Different authors pen chapters from the points of view of different characters. But the end of each tale meshes perfectly with the next, and the story progresses, through twists and turns (and death), to its mysterious, perfectly logical conclusion, while the reader is left to guess, imagine, wonder, and reflect.

Rubicon Ranch

In the first book, Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story, a little girl’s body was found in the wilderness near the desert community of Rubicon Ranch. Was it an accident? Or . . . murder! But who would want to kill a child?

Click here to download a free ecopy of Rubicon Ranch Book One: Riley’s Story (no code necessary) in the ebook format of your choice from Smashwords.

In the second book, Rubicon Ranch: Necropieces, residents of Rubicon Ranch are finding body parts scattered all over the desert. Who was the victim and why did someone want him so very dead? Everyone in this upscale housing development is hiding something. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone’s life will be different after they have encountered the Rubicon. Rubicon Ranch, that is.

Click here to download Rubicon Ranch Book Two: Necropieces in the ebook format of your choice from Smashwords. Be sure to use Code LT25A when ordering to get your free download. Offer expires December 5, 2014

These ebooks will make a great stocking stuffer. Just click on “Give as a gift” on the Smashwords page before proceeding to check out.

Once you’ve entered Rubicon Ranch, nothing will remain the same!

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Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story — Review by Sheila Deeth

Rubicon Ranch is a collaborative trilogy that was written online by me and several other authors from Second Wind Publishing. We started out with the murder of a little girl, and though we never knew where we were going (the murderer wasn’t chosen until the very end) or what the other writers were doing, we actually ended up with a book that seemed as if it had been planned from the beginning.

Sheila Deeth, inveterate reviewer (she’s rapidly becoming one of Amazon’s top reviewers) and author in her own right (Divide by Zero, Infinite Sum, and Imaginary Numbers, are all coming soon from Second Wind Publishing) had this to say about Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story:

Rubicon Ranch: Riley's StoryI read occasional chapters of this novel online while it was being written. But now, at last, I’ve been able to read the whole thing in one setting, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Different authors pen chapters from the points of view of different characters. But the end of each tale meshes perfectly with the next, and the story progresses, through twists and turns (and death), to its mysterious, perfectly logical conclusion, while the reader is left to guess, imagine, wonder, and reflect.

The inhabitants of Rubicon Ranch are a mixed bunch, with accidental killers, accused pedophile, angry son, angry widow, and singularly dubious strangers staying at the local B&B. In classic Agatha Christie style, they might all have reasons to kill, and to hide, in a desert development where even the sheriff has his secrets. But which one, or ones, did the deed?

Feisty widow Melanie teams up, reluctantly, with the handsome sheriff. Seeing the world through a camera’s eye, and describing it with a writer’s sense of detail, she’s either the best at hiding her motives, or else she just hasn’t looked in the right place yet. Their tense relationship is fun, filled with promise for future books in a series that’s most un-traditionally written, but classically cool and enticing.

The desert’s pretty cool too—seriously hot, beautifully described, thoroughly genuine, and with snakes in the grass. I really enjoyed this delightfully traditional, thoroughly modern mystery.

Disclosure: I bought this when it was free and can hardly believe it took me so long to get around to reading it. —Sheila Deeth

You too can download a copy of Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story. Just click here: Rubicon Ranch on Smashwords to download in the ebook in the format of your choice. Or you can read it online here: Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story.

Or you can sample the first chapter here: Melanie Gray.

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Rubicon Ranch: Secrets — The Story Continues!

RRBookThreemidsizeRubicon 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.

“Ms. Gray?”

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.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

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.

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Rubicon Ranch Continues

RRBookThreemidsizeRubicon 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, Rubicon Ranch: Secrets, 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.

(If the Christmas theme seems unseasonal, well . . . considering how long it takes to write a book at the rate of a chapter a week, in a few months, the season will catch up to us!)

Chapter 17: Melanie Gray
by Pat Bertram

Sunday, December 23, 2:45pm

A sharp rap broke Melanie’s concentration. She pushed herself away from the computer where she was working on the rewrites her editor had emailed—the last ones, thank heavens—went to the front door, and opened it.

A round little woman gazed anxiously up at her. “A lady is being held prisoner. You have to call the sheriff,” she said all in a rush.

Melanie gave her head a shake to clear it. Was this someone’s idea of a joke? The woman’s purple wig and the colorful chiffon scarves that fluttered around her body made her look like one of Cinderella’s fairy godmothers. The only things lacking were a wand and a sprinkling of fairy dust. But maybe the fairy dust filled the woman’s head?

“You don’t believe me.” The woman sighed. “There’s no reason you should. She is tied up, though. The sheriff won’t listen to me, but he’ll listen to you.”

“Who’s tied up? Where?”

The woman waved a hand toward the desert, her many rings flashing in the winter sun. “On this street somewhere.”

“And that’s what you want me to tell the sheriff? That a lady is tied up on this street somewhere? If that’s all the information you have for him, no wonder he won’t listen to you. And he certainly won’t listen to me.”

“He will. The two of you have a bond that even distance and distaste can’t break.”

Melanie peered at her. Perhaps the woman did know something. She’d summed up Melanie’s relationship—or rather non-relationship—with the sheriff perfectly. Distance and distaste. He was distant, and she had developed a distaste for him, though months ago, when they had met over the body of little Riley Peterson, it had seemed as if there were some sort of bond between them. Of course, she’d been vulnerable then, still so new to this thing called grief.

The woman gazed steadily back at her, and a feeling of unease crept over Melanie. “A lady is tied up. For real?”

“Yes.”

“Can you find her?”

“Maybe. The feeling is strongest toward the desert. That’s why I know she’s up the street somewhere.”

“Are you . . .” Melanie hesitated. Would the woman be insulted at being asked if she were psychic?

“Yes. I am psychic,” the woman said. “I’m sorry. I forgot to introduce myself. Celeste Boudreau. I live on Tehachapi Road. The house with the pyramid. And I know you, of course. You’re Melanie Gray. Your husband was killed by . . .” Celeste’s eyes clouded and then cleared after a second or two. “I’m sorry. I thought I saw who did it, but couldn’t catch the vision. It’s the way my powers work, you see.”

Melanie nodded. “Clairvoyance” meant clear seeing, but so often the seeing was hazy and not at all clear, which made it an easy con. In her travels with Alexander, she had met many truth seekers and true psychics, many fakirs and fakers, and though she didn’t know what powers, if any, Celeste might have, she could tell that the self-styled psychic believed in them.

Melanie grabbed a coat, and locked the door behind her. “Let’s just walk. Maybe you’ll get a sense of where she is.”

Celeste stood still, spread out her arms, took a deep breath, and brought her hands to her chest as if praying. Then her praying hands slowly moved downward until they were parallel to the ground. She started moving up Delano Road, pausing every dozen yards or so to repeat the procedure. They walked the whole length of the street that way, until finally they stood before the second to the last house.

“Here,” Celeste said, a quiet note of triumph in her voice. “I see her. Upstairs. Older woman. Pretty. Big eyes. Tied to a chair. Gagged. Rope burns.”

Melanie didn’t even have to ask if Celeste were sure. Sincerity had accompanied every word. She walked up the curving driveway and rang the doorbell.

Celeste scurried to catch up to her. “What are you doing? What if the guy who did this to her comes to the door?”

“Then I’ll ask him if I can see the lady of the house.”

“And if he gets rough?”

“I’ll take care of him. Maybe grab him by the throat and lift up his larynx a bit. That’s enough to make a grown man cry.”

But no one answered the door.

Now what? Call the sheriff? Break in?

Melanie looked at Celeste and held a finger to her lips. From deep within the house, she thought she’d heard a clank, but even though she strained her ears, she didn’t hear a repetition of the sound. She rang the bell again. And again. And again.

Finally, the door swung open. An attractive lady in her late fifties or early sixties wearing heavy makeup and long sleeves stood framed in the entryway. Her large hazel eyes opened wide in the guileless manner of someone with nothing to hide—or someone who wanted others to believe she had nothing to hide. She said pleasantly, if a bit hoarsely, “Yes?”

Melanie shot a puzzled glance at Celeste, but Celeste kept her gaze on the woman standing stiff-shouldered before them.

“Are you the lady of the house?” Melanie asked. The question sounded foolish, even to her own ears, as if the line were straight out of a bad nineteen-fifties film, but for the moment, it was all she could think to say.

“Yes?” the woman said again.

“We’re starting up a neighborhood watch.” Melanie forced a small laugh, and gestured to the vampire-wannabe that had crept close to the house. “We’re a bit late, but it’s time we reclaimed the neighborhood from the ghouls.”

“Sorry, not now. Late for an appointment.” The woman’s hoarseness grew more pronounced, and it seemed to Melanie as if she could see red marks around her mouth beneath the heavy makeup.

“May we speak with your husband?” Melanie asked.

“No husband. Live alone.” The woman shut the door.

“It’s her,” Celeste said. “I know it is. I saw her.”

“Well, she’s free now. So that’s good, right?”

“But she’s lying.”

Melanie shrugged. Maybe the woman had been tied up. Maybe she’d been involved in some sort of sex game. Maybe she’d even been held prisoner as Celeste had claimed. But if the woman didn’t want help, there was nothing they could do about it.

She trudged back down the driveway and after a moment, Celeste followed.

“There’s something strange going on,” Celeste said.

A pack of goth girls stood giggling in the middle of the street while two zombie boys circled them, making leering remarks.

Melanie took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “There’s a lot of something strange going on.”

***

Melanie had just returned home and settled herself at the computer when her phone rang. “Yes?” she said, not at all graciously.

“I know you killed your husband.”

“Who is this?” Melanie demanded. “What do you want?”

“Money. I’ll let you know where and how much.”

The line disconnected. Still clutching her cell phone, Melanie ran out of the house, cut across the yard to the Sinclair house, and rang the bell.

Moody didn’t answer, so Melanie banged on the door. Finally, the door opened, and Moody stood there, giving her a wide-eyed innocent look. “Yes?” she said.

Feeling as if she were in a nightmare, forever doomed to repeat the same scenario of knocking on doors and being greeted by seemingly guileless women, Melanie glared at Moody.

“Are you okay?” Moody asked

“What do you know about my husband’s death?” Melanie demanded.

“I don’t know anything. Before she died, little Riley Peterson told me that she’d seen someone messing with your car, but that’s all I know. And I don’t really even know that. I always assumed it was another of her stories until you mentioned once that the sheriff thought the accident looked suspicious.”

“So then, why did you call me and tell me you know I killed my husband?”

Again that oh-so-innocent look. “Call?”

“Oh, for cripes sake. When you deepened your voice to disguise it, you sounded just like your father. And I happen to know for a fact Morris is dead—I found his foot, remember?”

Moody tilted her head. “Hmm. I sounded like my father? This has possibilities.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.” And then all at once, Melanie knew. “You have Nancy’s book of secrets, don’t you? What did she write about me?”

Moody didn’t even have the grace to look sheepish at being caught out. She simply smiled. “Nothing that I can read yet. The book is in code, though Nancy did jot down a few notes in her own version of shorthand. I saw the initials MG and a few words in quotation marks, ‘I know you killed your husband,’ as if it she were reminding herself to say that to you. She did, didn’t she?”

Melanie’s shoulders slumped. Every time she thought she’d found a clue to unraveling the mystery of her husband’s death, the clue dissolved into nothingness. Turning to leave, she caught a glimpse of a figure on the porch next door.

The house belonged to Eloy Franklin, an old man who had spent his days sitting on the porch in his rocking chair, watching everyone in the neighborhood. He had given Melanie the creeps at first, the way he had just brooded there like some baleful landlocked amphibian, but after a while, she had gotten the sense that he was more than he seemed. A protector of the neighborhood, perhaps. Eloy had moved away, and now the neighborhood had become overrun with even creepier characters than the old man.

Melanie turned to Moody. “Is Eloy back?”

Moody shook her head. “No. He’s gone for good. I heard that Nancy bought his house. Why?”

“Maybe nothing.”

Melanie picked her way across the fifteen-foot no man’s land that separated the Sinclair house from the Franklin house, and crept close to the porch. A figure sat sprawled against the white porch railing, a Santa hat on his head and a Santa beard on his chin.

No! Not again. Please. No.

Last night she had found Nancy’s body. This morning the crime scene had gone up in flames. Just a while ago she had gone to rescue a damsel not in distress. And now another body.

She couldn’t call the sheriff again. She just couldn’t.

Moody came and stood beside her. “You do have a talent for death, don’t you? I should make you an honorary Sinclair.” She bent over the figure. “He looks like he could be about six feet. Thin. Silver hair with a bit of black running through it. Maybe in his fifties or sixties. Does that sound like anyone you know?”

Melanie backed away.

“You want me to call the sheriff?” Moody asked, an unexpected note of sympathy in her voice.

Melanie couldn’t bring herself to respond. She took one last look at the ersatz Santa, and fled back to her house.

***

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.

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Rubicon Ranch: Secrets — And More Secrets!

RRBookThreemidsizeRubicon 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.

(If the Christmas theme seems unseasonal, well . . . considering how long it takes to write a book at the rate of a chapter a week, in a few months, the season will catch up to us!)

Chapter 15: Lydia Gavin
by Pat Bertram

Sunday, December 23, 2:20pm

Lydia sat by Zazzi’s pool, soaking up what rays she could. She had helped Zazzi open the umbrella over the patio table, but since it was too cold to sit in the shade, she’d moved a chair out into the sunlight.

Sun.

Fire.

Lydia stared up at the pale blue winter sky and shivered with delight at the thought of that burning ball overhead. Did the Goddess love fire as much as she did? Is that why she had created so many suns?

Lydia smiled, remembering the flames curling around the hideous living room furniture. She had lied to Zazzi about not being in the house when the fire had started, but she saw no reason to tell the truth. Zazzi sure as hell wasn’t being honest with her. Lydia might not be a cop any more, but she still had her cop’s nose, and that nose told her whatever business Zazzi operated didn’t bear scrutiny. Still, the woman had made her welcome and offered her a room for the night, which made Lydia think kindly of her. And anyway, Lydia had to admit her own life no longer could hold up under a close examination.

With Nancy and her prying eyes and magpie mentality out of the way, though, she was safe, at least for a while.

How much had Nancy known? In her mind, Lydia went over every detail of her husband’s death, and couldn’t see where she had slipped up. No one knew of her husband’s abuse, not even Seth. When she and Seth were naked together, she’d kept the lights dimmed so any welts and bruises wouldn’t show, and if he’d inadvertently aggravated the injuries, he’d mistaken her groans of pain as moans of pleasure.

She’d vowed that the beating her husband gave her for having the affair would be the last time he’d ever hurt her. Things were okay at first after she got kicked off the job—he’d liked the idea of a slave wife—but then came the day he’d lost a big case. He’d blamed her, of course, saying that she’d never be a proper lawyer’s wife. He’d raised a hand to her. She dashed away. He caught her at the top of the stairs. She pushed. He fell down the marble steps. Cracked his head. She stared at him for a moment, wondering if she should call an ambulance—he’d probably be okay with immediate care. Instead, she sneaked out the back door, went for a run, and left him to die.

Dozens of people had seen her jogging in her fuchsia shorts and lime green top, and though she’d been questioned, the cops never suspected her. Why should they? She had an alibi and she’d always played the loving wife in public.

But Nancy had found out. Or had she? When the realtor said in that oh, so ominous voice, “I know you killed your husband,” could she have been merely fishing?

It didn’t matter now. Nothing mattered but those lovely dancing flames. Even Seth’s love had never ignited her the way the heat of the fire had.

As she’d watched the flames devour the furniture, the stone Lydia had seemed to melt and flow like lava, and suddenly she’d been awash in a volcano of molten tears. She’d never known such life. Love. Ecstasy.

She’d managed to wrest herself away from the flames and rush outside before her new love could hurt her as much as her past loves, and although she wanted to continue her enthrallment with the blaze, she couldn’t bear to be around the gawkers. What could they know of the love that now burned in her heart? Only the paltry excitement of destruction kept them riveted to the scene.

Lydia had wandered off in a daze, and hadn’t come back to herself until Zazzi had confronted her. She’d managed to hide her rapture behind cop’s eye—that cold calculating look was not something you ever forgot how to give—keeping her secret safe in her heart.

Lydia stared up at the sun, and took a deep breath. The air smelled deliciously of smoke and ashes and charcoal and burnt offerings. Is this what the Goddess smelled every day of creation? Lydia stretched, like a cat on a warm hearth, and wondered where to go from here.

Home, probably. She could no longer remember why she’d come to Rubicon Ranch. Had she come just to be near Seth? To try to get back together with him? To get even? To remove her competition? To warn his new love of his philandering ways?

It hadn’t been hard to find out about his affair with Nancy. She’d simply followed him one day when he left the sheriff’s department and seen him meet with the realtor. She’d only made an appointment with Nancy to see what Seth preferred over her, but had stayed to watch the fun when she realized Seth had met his match.

Were all men so blind they couldn’t see what was in front of their very eyes? She had deeply loved Seth, wanting only the best for him, and he had thrown her away, calling her a vituperative bitch. Yet Nancy, who didn’t love him, and who truly was a vituperative bitch, he had kept.

But now she was through with men and their incomprehensible needs. She had found something better. Something that would never let her down. Something that would forever burn in her heart.

Fire!

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Rubcion Ranch: Necropieces has now been published!

RRBookTwo -- NecropiecesRubicon Ranch is a mystery series being written online by authors of Second Wind Publishing. Rubcion Ranch: Book Two – Necropieces has now been published! It is available on Smashwords in all available ebook formats for just 99 cents! Or you can read it free online.

Residents of Rubicon Ranch are finding body parts scattered all over the desert. Who was the victim and why did someone want him so very dead? Everyone in this upscale housing development is hiding something.

Leia Menendez has a plan: get to Rubicon Ranch, get in, get what was hers, get out. But does her plan include murder?

Egypt Hayes knows there are secrets hidden in Rubicon Ranch and she intends to use them in her next film. And maybe even use them to get revenge.

Moody Sinclair once killed an eight-year-old boy. Has she killed again?

Her brother Jake is searching for redemption. Did he find it in the death of another?

Eighty-two-year-old Eloy Franklin sits on his porch and watches. But does he do more than watch?

Ward Preminger was electrified by his encounter with the victim. Did find a way to get even?

Forty-three-year-old Melanie Gray stumbled on the first necropiece. But is she as innocent as she seems?

Sheriff Seth Bryan is bitter and cynical at having lost everything he values. Is he manufacturing crimes to bring him the notoriety he craves?

***

We are now in the midst of writing our third book. Click here to: read online as six Second Wind authors write Rubicon Ranch: Secrets!

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Rubicon Ranch: Secrets — The Story Continues!

RRBookThreemidsizeRubicon 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.

(If the Christmas theme seems unseasonal, well . . . considering how long it takes to write a book at the rate of a chapter a week, in a few months, the season will catch up to us!)

Chapter 9: Melanie Gray
by Pat Bertram

Monday, December 23, 9:15am

Melanie stood in the center of her living room and tried to empty her mind of all thoughts. She lunged forward with her right leg, bent her right knee, arched her back, reached high with her hands, and breathed slowly and deeply. Usually this yoga warrior pose made her feel strong and invincible, as if the power of the universe were coursing down her arms and throughout her body, but today she felt only disbelief.

Could I have killed Nancy Garcetti?

Yesterday morning, she’d gone outside to do a few stretches in the bitter pre-dawn air to wake her sluggish mind and prepare for her last marathon day of writing. Shivering from the cold and still groggy from a mere three hours of sleep, she made the unforgivable mistake of not paying attention to her surroundings.

A hand touched her shoulder, and a woman’s voice whispered in her ear. “I know you killed your husband.” Without thinking, Melanie spun around, leading with her elbow, and caught the woman beneath her chin. The woman’s head snapped back. She staggered. Fell.

Melanie stood over her, breathing hard and trembling from the adrenaline rush. When she got control of herself, she held out a hand to help the woman up. The woman ignored the offer of assistance, staggered to her feet, and hissed, “You’ll be sorry.” By then Melanie’s eyes had adjusted to the gloom, and she recognized the real estate agent.

Melanie took another breath and tried to focus on her warrior pose, but she couldn’t get Nancy out of her mind.

The last time she had seen Nancy alive, the woman had been tottering up the street. Could she have managed to get as far as the house with the Santa, then crawled against the blow-up figure for protection against the quickening winds, and died there?

Melanie hadn’t struck the woman with the full force of her strength, so that jab couldn’t have killed her. But perhaps Nancy hit her head on one of the rocks lining the driveway and bled into her brain. She wished Alexander were there so she could ask him about the possible effects from such an injury, but he if were still alive, she wouldn’t have had the brief and possibly deadly altercation with Nancy.

Oddly, last night when she found the body, she hadn’t made the connection to her tussle with Nancy, but had assumed the real estate agent’s death had been outright murder. It wasn’t until she woke at three o’clock after a short fitful sleep that the horrible thought took hold. Could I have killed Nancy Garcetti?

Melanie lowered her arms to her side, straightened her knee, and pulled her left leg even with her right. She stood still, feeling lost. Alexander was dead. She’d finished her book about Morris Sinclair’s ignoble life and gruesome death. She’d even finished the book about the Mojave Desert Alexander and she had been working on when he was killed. Now the only thing left for her to do was to find out who had assassinated him. And she didn’t know where to start.

The sound of a distant voice caught her attention. The voice sounded tinny, as if from a cheap radio. As it grew louder, she could make out the words. “We are coming up on the house of Morris Sinclair, but first you will see where Melanie Gray lives.” By then the voice was blaring, sounding as if it were right outside her door. Melanie ran upstairs to look out her office window. A bus idled in the middle of the street, a banner draped across its side—DESERT DEATH TOUR. Bland faces peered through the windows.

The tour guide continued, “Melanie Gray has a talent for finding dead bodies, and maybe even for making them dead. As you know, Melanie was married to Alexander Gray, the award-winning photographer. It is alleged that this Black Widow murdered her husband for his wealth. They say she is so deadly, she could have killed him with a single blow.”

Melanie gasped. Black Widow? Is that what they were calling her? Did people really believe she killed Alexander for his wealth? What wealth? He had no money. In fact, after he was gone, their publisher had insisted she finish the desert book by herself since Alexander had spent their advance. And he hadn’t died by her hand. Someone skilled in the ways of death had cut all four metal brake lines in his car so that when Alexander slammed on the brakes, he instantly lost hydraulic pressure in both the front and rear brakes at the same time. The sheriff had told her that with today’s vehicles, cutting the brakes that way is almost impossible for a professional to do, and completely impossible for an amateur. She certainly couldn’t have done it.

But she could have killed Nancy.

Her gaze followed the road to the house where she’d found Nancy’s body, and she saw a wisp of smoke. She wondered if the people who lived there had made a fire to cozy up to. If she had a fireplace, that’s what she would do today. This was a perfect weather for sitting in front of a fire, watching flames dancing, thinking of nothing.

Then she realized the smoke was coming not from the chimney, but from the house itself. And flames glowed in the windows.

She ran down the stairs, fumbled for her cell phone, and tried to call 911, but she had no signal. She dashed outside. The tour bus was idling in front of the Sinclair house and the guide was giving a surprisingly ungarbled version of Morris’s death. Of course, the truth—that the horror writer had been killed and dismembered in a way that mimicked his stories—was hard to top.

“Call 911,” she screamed, trying to make herself heard over the guide’s recitation.”

A little boy pressed his face against the window, mouth open, tongue out, and stared at her.

“Where’s your mother?” Melanie shouted.

The youthful gargoyle crossed his eyes and disappeared beneath the window.

The bus let out a belch, then moved on down the road. It stopped in front of the burning house, and the occupants craned their necks toward the spectacle.

A few minutes later, a woman wearing a pink lace-trimmed top tucked into fitted jeans jogged up to Melanie, and said breathlessly, “I called 911. What’s going on?”

It took Melanie a moment to recognize her neighbor. Moody Sinclair had cut her long dark hair and dyed the shorn locks a strawberry blonde. Chandelier earrings dangled from her ears and eyeglasses perched on her nose. She looked pretty and normal and very young.

“Fire.” Melanie said absently, listening to the siren in the distance.

“Stucco houses with tile roofs don’t burn.” Moody walked silently besides Melanie for a moment. “Arson maybe?”

The siren grew louder as the fire truck turned onto Delano Road. The driver honked the horn as it sped up the street. All the dogs in the neighborhood added their howls to the cacophony. Melanie scrambled to the side of the road, losing track of Moody, who had dashed to the other side of the street.

Now that the firefighters had arrived, there was no reason for Melanie to continue toward the scene, but she found herself drawn to the action.

As Moody had said, the structure of the house wasn’t burning, but flames bursting through the windows made it seem as if the place were wrapped in fire. Even standing apart from the crowd, Melanie could feel the heat.

The blow up figure of Santa on the motorcycle slowly melted, then dissolved into a puddle of red, white, and black. Whatever remained of the crime scene after the sheriff’s department had finished with it was now gone. Could the house have been torched for that very reason—to destroy evidence? But in that case, why not just burn the Santa and his environs?

Melanie backed away from the inferno. This really didn’t have anything to do with her. If she had killed Nancy, the real crime scene lay several houses down Delano Road.

She headed back to her rental house, wishing she could leave this benighted area.

Then suddenly she stopped short. She could leave. She had money enough to go anywhere. The real problem was figuring out where to go. If her reputation as a Black Widow followed her, then what difference did it make where she lived? At least in Rubicon Ranch, she was just one of many stops on a desert death tour. Besides, Alexander had been killed not far from here, so this is where she needed to begin her investigation into his murder.

She trudged up her driveway, and stopped to see where Nancy had fallen. She saw no blood on the rocks, but that didn’t prove her innocence. It only meant no one could find any evidence against her.

Unless someone had seen her hit Nancy?

She looked around. Everyone in the neighborhood—residents and squatters alike—seemed to have congregated up by the fire. Only one woman trudged past her house, looking as if she could handle anything or anyone. Hefty, with biceps like hams poking out of a sleeveless top. Bleached blonde hair that looked heavily permed. Cigarette dangling from a bright red mouth.

Melanie smiled to herself. Compared to all the necr0philiacs and vampire-wannabes on the loose in the neighborhood, this woman seemed almost elegant.

But then, perhaps she really was a fine lady on the downward swing of life. Who knew what lay behind anyone’s façade? Everyone had secrets. Everyone had things they wanted to hide from view.

Even me.

But still, if Nancy had died because of her, who had stolen the real estate agent’s purse, and who had set the fire?

***

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.

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Excerpt From RUBICON RANCH: SECRETS by JJ Dare

RRBookThreemidsizeThe 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.

A new chapter will be posted every Monday on the Rubicon Ranch blog. 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.

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!

Excerpt from Chapter 2 by by J J Dare

Moody turned to see where everyone was staring and saw a police photographer taking pictures of a figure under a giant Santa decoration. How fitting for this place, Moody thought. A typical Rubicon Ranch gift—death.

In the light of the camera flash, she recognized Nancy Garcetti. The real estate agent looked as cold as she had in life. Moody stared at the clever handiwork of a realtor assassin. Out in the open and trampled by the crowds, what evidence was left to uncover the killer? Since the police department had been inept at running the Morris fans out of Rubicon Ranch, how in the world would they solve this crime?

Moody smiled as she thought of Sheriff Bryan interviewing the plastic Santa. Of course, with his wife in town, the sheriff was being kept on a tight leash. One of the deputies would probably end up taking the Christmas decorations downtown for a talk. The bulbs and wreaths would have to come in, too, as material witnesses.

Moody sighed. Sinclairs didn’t have feelings like normal people. Moody knew this and her smile faded. No matter what she did, no matter what she had to do, no matter what candy coating she put on, she would never fit in with the rest of the world.

She’d visited Jake regularly and, though she detested her brother, he was all that was left. Only he knew what it was like to be a Sinclair. There was no one else she could talk to. Well, the groupies, but they were worshippers, not compatriots.

“Morris did it,” she heard someone whisper behind her.

“Yeah, he did. Looks like something he’d do,” another voice answered.

“Dead don’t stop Morris,” the first voice said with a laugh.

“All he’d need is an arm and hand. Is that one of the pieces still missing?”

Seriously, these people were complete and utter morons. Sinclairs were special, but not that special.

However, wouldn’t it be something if this murder could be pinned on Morris? Although he’d been identified, Morris had been an anomaly during his lifetime. What if he really could come back? His books suggested it was possible.

***

Click here to read more:
Rubicon Ranch: Secrets ~ Chapter 2: Mary “Moody” Sinclair — by JJ Dare
Rubicon Ranch: Secrets ~ Chapter 1: Melanie Gray — by Pat Bertram

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Rubicon Ranch: Secrets — The Story Begins!

RRBookThreemidsizeRubicon 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. The very first chapter of the very first book (Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story) was posted on October 24, 2010, and we are still going strong! In fact, we are getting better and better. Seven authors, including me, are involved in the current story — Rubicon Ranch: Secrets, which is shaping up to be a psychological thriller.

The body of a local realtor is found beneath the wheels of a blow-up 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.

Although some of the characters were introduced in Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story, the first collaboration in the series, and further developed in Rubicon Ranch: Necropieces, Rubicon Ranch: Secrets is a stand-alone novel, so don’t worry if you are new to Rubicon Ranch. A new chapter will be posted every Monday on the Rubicon Ranch blog. I’m posting the first chapter here, but 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.

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 the Christmas theme seems unseasonal, well . . . considering how long it takes to write a book at the rate of a chapter a week, in a few months, the season will catch up to us!)

Chapter 1: Melanie Gray
by Pat Bertram

Sunday, December 22; 7:05pm

Melanie Gray typed THE END, then sat back and studied the words on the computer screen. She’d found no satisfaction in telling the story of famed horror writer Morris Sinclair’s macabre life and death, and she felt no elation now that she’d finished the task. The evil man should have been buried in unhallowed ground and left to rot rather than be immortalized in a book, but she’d needed the money her publisher had offered. With the generous advance, she would be able to devote herself to finding out who killed her husband five months previously and, more importantly, why the murderer wanted Alexander dead. Morris had wooed death his whole life, so it was no surprise that death had come for him, but Alexander’s murder could not be so easily dismissed.

Tears stung Melanie’s eyes. She scrubbed the tears away, furious at herself for still grieving. She’d always considered herself a strong woman, up to any task, and yet she couldn’t write “the end” to her grief.

Damn you, Alexander! How could you do this to me?

She rose stiffly, stretched to get the worst of the kinks from her body, and tottered to the front closet for her coat. Except for a few hours of fitful sleep each night during the past nine weeks, she’d spent all her time at the computer, and she was sick of it. Sick of Morris Sinclair. Sick of death. Sick of Rubicon Ranch.

She opened the front door and blinked at the shadowy figures gliding through the darkness. Morris’s fans had descended on the neighborhood when news of his demise had hit the airwaves, and they had stayed when they learned that not all of Morris’s body pieces had been recovered. Dressed as vampires and zombies and ghouls of every imaginable—and unimaginable—ilk, they roamed the neighborhood and the nearby desert looking for necropieces in some sort of grisly treasure hunt.

Melanie hesitated, wondering at the wisdom of going out so late in the evening, but the twinkle of Christmas lights adorning a nearby desert willow made her set aside her caution.

Alexander had always loved Christmas, and no matter where in the world they happened to be living, he managed to find a tree and decorate it. If Alexander still lived in her memory, he’d want her to wander through the neighborhood so he could see the lights.

Smiling at the whimsical thought, she locked the door behind her and strolled down the driveway to Delano Road. Even with half the houses lit up with holiday decorations, the neighborhood seemed dark. Too many people had left the area, temporarily abandoning their homes, though the flickering of candlelight through closed curtains hinted that squatters had taken up residence in some of the empty houses.

Melanie stood at the curb, trying to decide whether to go right or left. “It’s your fault, Alexander,” she murmured. “Until you died, I never had a problem making decisions.” But now, it didn’t make any difference whether she went north or south, whether she left Rubicon Ranch or stayed. Without Alexander, everything seemed uniformly bleak.

A house across the street all at once came ablaze with thousands of small white lights. Melanie cut across the road and headed for the brightness, wishing Alexander could see the decorations for real. Lights outlined the driveway, every bush, every rock, and dripped from the eaves like dazzling falls of lace.

She walked leisurely, savoring the radiant display on Alexander’s behalf, then hurried past the next dwelling, which was dark, and slowed again at the following house to look at the whimsical blow-up figure of Santa on a motorcycle.

After the brilliance of the lights at the first domicile, she had to wait a moment to let her eyes adjust to the relative dimness of this scene. And then she wished she hadn’t hung around to get a better look. Santa, with a wide grin and an upraised hand, seemed to be gleefully running over the prone body of a woman. A mannequin, it looked like.

Melanie drew in a sharp breath. Who would create such a morbid tableau for Christmas? But then, seeing a vampire with glowing teeth run past her, she sighed. Anyone in this insane neighborhood could have done it. After Morris Sinclair’s demise, Rubicon Ranch had become a bacchanalia of death, a celebration of the worst in humanity.

A car moved along the street behind her. The headlights illuminated the scene as clearly as if it were day, and suddenly something seemed wrong. So very wrong.

The woman being run over by the cheery Santa looked stiff in the way of death, not stiff like a mannequin.

Melanie told herself to continue on, to forget the gruesome sight and enjoy the rest of the decorations, but her leaden feet refused to do her bidding. Finally, wishing she were anywhere but here, she crept closer to the scene.

She caught a faint whiff of death—like meat just beginning to go bad—and her heart beat faster.

No. No. She’d had enough of death. Alexander. Poor kidnapped little Riley Peterson. Morris Sinclair. How could so much death be associated with a community as small as Rubicon Ranch?

Melanie bent over the body and touched a finger to the side of the woman’s neck to check for a pulse, though she already knew the truth.

She fumbled in her coat pocket for her cell phone and wondered if the sheriff would continue to believe in her innocence. Hell, she didn’t believe it herself. Maybe she was some sort of Typhoid Mary when it came to death. She’d been the one who found Riley Peterson’s body out in the desert, stuffed in a television console. She’d been the one to lead the sheriff to the desert where they’d found the body of Riley’s birth father. She’d been the first one to come across a necropiece—a dismembered foot—after Morris was killed. And now once again she had found death.

She punched in 999, but when the call didn’t connect, she realized she’d used the emergency number for Britain. She cleared the number, then punched 119. Crap. Wrong again. That was the emergency number for Mozambique. Where was she? She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

Rubicon Ranch. Rojo Duro County. Mojave Desert. California. USA. Ah, yes. 911.

Melanie made the call, gave the information to the dispatcher, then pulled her coat more firmly around her to protect her from the chill of the high desert winter night.

She’d expected to wait a half an hour or more until the sheriff or his deputies could make the thirty-mile trip from Rojo Duro, but only ten minutes had gone by when a dark SUV pulled up to the curb, and Deputy Kelvin Midget slid out from behind the wheel more nimbly than seemed possible for such a massive man.

The SUV didn’t have official county plates, so Melanie supposed the vehicle was the deputy’s private ride. She felt a spasm of guilt at cutting into the man’s personal time, but then she remembered what Deputy Midget had once told her—that he’d lost his wife to pancreatic cancer about three year and a half years ago, and had come out west to start over so he could heal. Maybe, like Melanie, he had no real life but was just going through the motions of living.

“What seems to be the trouble, Ms. Gray?”

Shivering, Melanie pointed to the body.

Midget picked his way through the xeriscaping, got down on his haunches to check the woman’s neck as Melanie had, then rose to his feet without using his hands to shove himself upright.

“Did you see what happened?”

“No. Just found her lying here is all. Checked her pulse. Called it in.”

Midget walked around to the other side of the body, scanning the ground, his dark brow furrowed. “Did you find her purse?”

“No, but I didn’t look for it.” Melanie wondered about the deputy’s concern for the woman. It seemed more than simply a law enforcement officer’s professional interest in a crime scene. “Did you know her?” she asked.

“Didn’t you?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t know many people in the neighborhood.”

“Seth—Sheriff Bryan—thinks you notice everything.”

“Well, the sheriff thinks a lot of things that aren’t true.”

Midget made a small sound that might have been a chuckle. “Hit a nerve, did I?”

More to get away from the uncomfortable topic of the Sheriff than because she wanted to identify the woman, Melanie circled the body so she could get a better look. The woman did appear familiar at that. Aquiline nose, close set eyes, coiffed hair, manicured fingernails with a shimmering design painted atop the polish, high heels, tailored business suit.

Melanie backed away from the body. “I think she might be a real estate agent. I’ve seen her around the neighborhood.”

“Nancy Garcetti,” Deputy Midget said. “She sold me my house. Poor woman. She was such a terrible judge of character. Looked at the superficial and assumed she knew what the person was about. Kept notes of everything. You sure you didn’t find her purse?”

“Maybe the person who murdered her took it.”

“What makes you think she was murdered?”

“What else could it be? Nancy got tired, so she decided to take a nap by the wheels of Santa’s motorcycle and froze to death?” Regretting her caustic tone, Melanie huddled deeper into her coat. Had she become so used to murder that all death seemed so unnatural? But death was unnatural. A deletion of life. A void.

“People die from many causes,” Deputy Midget said. “It’s possible she had a heart attack. A stroke. Some sort of accident. A mugging gone wrong. Could be anything. We won’t know until the ME gets here.”

A tan Navigator parked behind Midget’s SUV, and Lieutenant Rosaria Frio stepped out of the vehicle.

The lieutenant looked even more like an Hispanic Barbie doll than when Melanie first met her. No emotion showed on the law enforcement officer’s beautiful face, and the dim light made her skin look plastically perfect. Only the glitter of the lieutenant’s dark eyes and her easy stride confirmed her humanity.

She greeted Deputy Midget with a nod. “You got here fast.”

“I just bought a house here in Rubicon Ranch over on Adobe Pobre Court. I told you about it. Got an awesome deal from a couple who could hardly wait to get away from the area. They said there was too much crime.”

“Imagine that.” Lieutenant Frio turned to stare at Melanie. “And here is our one-woman crime spree herself. Or maybe cadaver dog would be a better description.”

Melanie returned the Lieutenant’s gaze, but refrained from answering in kind. Lieutenant Frio seemed to have taken her in dislike when they met after Riley’s murder and her manner had only grown colder with the passage of the months. Melanie didn’t entirely blame her. If their places were reversed, she’d probably be just as skeptical as the lieutenant about her penchant for finding corpses.

Lieutenant Frio walked to body and stood over it for a moment, then slanted a glance toward Melanie. “Sheriff Bryan will be here shortly. He and his wife were dining out, and he needs to take her home first.”

Melanie remained impassive. She already knew the sheriff and his wife were back together. Melanie had talked to him a couple of times to get details for her book, and he had told her his wife had decided the celebrity-ridden area might not be such a backwater after all. He’d sounded apologetic, but other than behavior that bordered on unprofessionalism, he had nothing to apologize for. They hadn’t had an affair, not even a fling. Just a little bit of flirtation and a lot of anger.

“Can I go?” she asked.

“I’ve questioned Ms. Gray,” Deputy Midget said. “If we need her again, we know where to find her.”

Lieutenant Frio turned her implacable gaze toward Melanie. “Don’t leave the county.”

If anyone else had deadpanned such a remark, Melanie would have assumed it was either a friendly suggestion or possibly a joke, but coming from the lieutenant, the command sounded like a jail cell slamming shut.

Melanie wanted to run back to her place, but she forced herself to walk since she was sure the lieutenant would see haste as a sign of guilt. She tried not to look at the houses she passed. The joyful decorations suddenly seemed obscene.

She didn’t believe Deputy Midget’s suggestion that Nancy had died of natural causes. The missing purse hinted that something grimmer was going on. What secrets Nancy had kept in her purse? Everyone in Rubicon Ranch seemed to have something to hide. And someone—perhaps someone in one of these very houses—might have a secret they would kill to protect.

***

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.

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Writing a Collaborative Mystery Serial — by Pat Bertram

I’m collaborating with several other Second Wind Publishing authors to write a series of mystery novels online. We are posting the chapters on a blog so everyone who wants to can follow the serial as we write it. Actually, collaboration is a bit of an over-statement. Rubicon Ranch is more of a cross between a role-playing game and round robin or campfire tale, with each of us authors taking turns adding to the story without knowing where we are going except toward the solution of the murder. We each create and control a POV character, show who s/he is, what relationship s/he has with the deceased, and why s/he might want the victim dead.

I have it easy — my character, Melanie Gray, is a photographer/writer who wanders the desert taking photos for the coffee table books she used to write with her dead husband. (He wasn’t dead when they were working together, of course.) He died in a one-car accident while texting his mistress, though there are suspicious circumstances leading investigators to think that perhaps he was killed. Melanie has a talent for finding strange things in the desert, such as the child’s body stuffed in an abandoned television console in the first book, Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story, and the scattered body parts that were found in the second book, Rubicon Ranch: Necropieces. Her presence at these crime scenes is all that leads the sheriff to suspect her, though I do try to add a bit of intrigue to make it seem as if she could be guilty.

The other authors, however, have to simultaneously prove that their characters are the murderer, yet also have a plausible explanation for why the characters acted guilty if they weren’t the murderer. (That’s because we don’t know whodunit until all the end of the book. So not only do readers of the ongoing story not know who the villain is, neither do we.)

In the first book, the authors solved the problem of simultaneously setting their characters up to be murderers while allowing for the possibility that they were innocent by giving their characters strange characteristics, such as sleepwalking, to keep the characters themselves from knowing if they were the killer.

In the second book, there was no way the killer could be unaware of having killed the victim. Even if by chance the character killed in some sort of fugue state, the character was still faced with a dead body, which he or she cut in small pieces and distributed around the area. The authors created some wonderfully devious characters with strong motives for killing the evil man who damaged them for no reason other than because he could. Any of them could be the murderer. And any of them could simply be innocent (or not so innocent) red herrings.

We are through with the second book and are in the process of organizing the third installment of the series. In this one, Melanie won’t find a body in the desert since understandably she’s a bit leery of walking in such a deadly place, so she will have to find it elsewhere, perhaps beneath the wheels of a blow up figure of a Santa Claus on a motorcycle.

We have a victim — a real estate agent, the same one who found the disembodied head of the victim of the second book inside the house where the victim of the first book once lived. Apparently she likes to snoop, and since so many residents of Rubicon Ranch have a secret they are willing to kill to protect, it sounds like the potential for a lot of mayhem!

I’m looking forward to seeing what the other authors come up with. I hope you will follow along with us as we continue this innovative crime serial.

Meantime, if you haven’t checked out Rubicon Ranch, and wish do so, click here: Rubicon Ranch.

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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.”

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