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, 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?”
“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?”
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.