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 RanchI 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. Melanie Gray is my character, and is the character who connects all the books.

Excerpt from LIGHT BRINGER by Pat Bertram

Description of Light Bringer:

Becka Johnson had been abandoned on the doorstep of a remote cabin in Chalcedony, Colorado when she was a baby. Now, thirty-seven years later, she has returned to Chalcedony to discover her identity, but she only finds more questions. Who has been looking for her all those years? Why are those same people interested in fellow newcomer Philip Hansen? Who is Philip, and why does her body sing in harmony with his? And what do either of them have to do with a shadow corporation that once operated a secret underground installation in the area?

Excerpt from Light Bringer:

Philip woke in the dark of early morning, forehead damp with perspiration, heart pounding from unremembered nightmares. When calm settled over him, he listened for the sound of Rena’s even breathing on the other side of the thin wall. Hearing only an indigo silence, he rose and went to check on her. Because he didn’t take the time to put on his braces, he made sure to plant one foot on the floor before swinging the other forward.

Rena’s bed was empty.

He found her on the porch, sitting on the single step, her strange cat beside her.

She turned a smile on him, as bright as the starshine.

He sat next to her. “What are you doing out here?”

“Listening to the music of the spheres.” As one, she and the cat tilted their faces to the sky. “Can you hear it?”

He angled his head. He heard crickets chirping nearby, dogs barking in the distance, and farther away a train clattering on its tracks. As he isolated each sound, he set it aside until there were no more noises. Then, as if from some vast remoteness, he heard a faint silvery tone that seemed to swell, bursting into a thousand jewel-bright notes. Every note sounded clean and sharp, a thing unto itself, but melodized into an aural patchwork quilt of intricate design.

After a timeless interval—minutes or hours, he had no way of knowing—heavy clouds rolled in, turning off the sky.

He shivered in the cooling air. Rena inched closer, put an arm around his waist, and nestled against him.

Warmth and sweet harmony enveloped them as if that aural quilt had settled on their shoulders.

***

Where to buy Light Bringer:

Second Wind Publishing

Amazon

Barnes & Noble Nook

iStore (on iTunes)

Palm Doc (PDB) (for Palm reading devices)

Epub (Apple iPad/iBooks, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo)

Excerpt from LIGHT BRINGER by Pat Bertram

Description of Light Bringer:

Becka Johnson had been abandoned on the doorstep of a remote cabin in Chalcedony, Colorado when she was a baby. Now, thirty-seven years later, she has returned to Chalcedony to discover her identity, but she only finds more questions. Who has been looking for her all those years? Why are those same people interested in fellow newcomer Philip Hansen? Who is Philip, and why does her body sing in harmony with his? And what do either of them have to do with a shadow corporation that once operated a secret underground installation in the area?

Excerpt from Light Bringer:

The trail was a gentle decline, hard-packed, and free of rocks, as if it had been well traveled since time out of mind. It ended at a stream so clear its cobbled bed looked like a mosaic of semi-precious stones. On the other side of the stream, the tall meadow grasses, lavender in the mountain’s shadow, whispered softly among themselves.

Laughing, Rena caught Philip’s hand. “They’re inviting us to come play.” She ran the last few steps toward the edge of the water.

He pulled his hand away, hearing in his mind the sickening sound of ripping ligaments and tendons, and feeling the pain.

Walking carefully, he joined her by the stream.

“Too bad there’s not a bridge,” she said, “but the water isn’t deep. We can wade across.”

He put out a foot, drew it back. “You go. I’ll wait here.”

She nodded in understanding, and took his hand again. “That’s okay. I can go another time.”

They sat on the forested slope, listening to the whispering of the grasses increase in pitch as the day came to an end. After the sun set, they headed home in a rich, warm alpenglow that turned the world to gold.

***

Where to buy Light Bringer:

Second Wind Publishing

Amazon

Barnes & Noble Nook

iStore (on iTunes)

Palm Doc (PDB) (for Palm reading devices)

Epub (Apple iPad/iBooks, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo)

End of the Trail

Poor old Santa looks like he hit the end of the trail.

End of the Trail

If he conked out before he brought you one of my novels, you can download 20-30% free at Smashwords.com in the ebook format of your choice. Or you can read the first chapter online before deciding which one you’d like to buy.

***

More Deaths Than OneBob Stark returns to Denver after 18 years in SE Asia to discover that the mother he buried before he left is dead again. At her new funeral, he sees . . . himself. Is his other self a hoaxer, or is something more sinister going on?

Click here to read the first chapter: More Deaths Than One

***

A Spark of Heavenly FireIn quarantined Colorado, where hundreds of thousands of people are dying from an unstoppable, bio-engineered disease, investigative reporter Greg Pullman risks everything to discover the truth: Who unleashed the deadly organism? And why?

Click here to read the first chapter of: A Spark of Heavenly Fire

***

DAIWhen twenty-five-year-old Mary Stuart learns she inherited a farm from her recently murdered grandparents — grandparents her father claimed had died before she was born — she becomes obsessed with finding out who they were and why someone wanted them dead.

Click here to read the first chapter of: Daughter Am I

***

Thirty-seven years after being abandoned on the doorstep of a remote cabin in Colorado, Becka Johnson  returns to try to discover her identity, but she only finds more questions. Who has been looking for her all those years? And why are those same people interested in fellow newcomer Philip Hansen? And what do they have to do with a secret underground laboratory?

Click here to read the first chapter of: Light Bringer

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I.All Bertram’s books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords.  At Smashwords, the books are available in all ebook formats including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free!

Excerpt From More Deaths Than One

More Deaths Than OneYesterday, while searching More Deaths Than One for references to the scent of frangipani for my post Justifying Our Sex Scenes, I happened to find the passage below. It’s been so long since I’ve looked at the book, the story seemed fresh and new, and something I’d be interested in reading. (Which, actually, is why I wrote the book — to write something I’d like to read.) Note: ISI is Information Services, Incorporated, a corporation with ties to US intelligence agencies.

Description: Bob Stark returns to Denver after 18 years in SE Asia to discover that the mother he buried before he left is dead again. At her new funeral, he sees . . . himself. Is his other self a hoaxer, or is something more sinister going on?

Excerpt:

“Here, put this on.” Bob held out a brown two-inch-wide belt.

Kerry lifted her shirt and showed him the waistband of her dark cotton slacks. “It’s elastic, see? I don’t need a belt.”

“It’s a money-belt. I got two of them yesterday, one for me and one for you. There’s ninety-five hundred dollars in each of them—”

“Ninety-five hundred dollars?” Her eyes grew round. “In cash?”

“Yes. I would have liked to get more, but that’s all we’re allowed to bring into the United States without having to fill out forms, and in our situation, that can get sticky.”

“What would happen if we brought in more than that and didn’t declare it?”

“Maybe nothing unless we got caught, but since we’re traveling with fake IDs, I’d prefer not to complicate matters. When the problem with ISI goes away, I can have some of my money wired to an account in Colorado or wherever.”

“Just some? Not all?”

“It’s safe where it is.” When she gave him a narrow-eyed look, he laughed. “I don’t seem to be able to keep anything from you. It’s in a private bank in Chinatown. Hsiang-li sponsored me, otherwise I’d have to use the same banks as everyone else, and ISI would probably have found my account by now.”

“Wouldn’t ISI have already traced the bank through your traveler’s checks?”

“My bank doesn’t offer that service. I paid cash for them at another bank that does, and since they don’t know me, that’s a dead end for ISI.”

Becoming aware he still held out the money-belt, he said, “Well, are you going to put it on?”

She took it from him, fastened it around her waist, and smoothed her shirt over it. Turning sideways to look in the mirror, she asked, “Does it make me look fat?”

“I don’t even notice it.”

She gave him a laughing glance. “Aren’t you afraid I’m going to run off with your money?”

“No. In fact, you can have it.”

She looked at him aghast. “I can’t take your money.” Reaching under her shirt, she started to remove the belt.

He put a hand on her arm. “Keep it for now. If we get separated, or if anything happens to me, you’ll need it to get back home.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to you,” she said fiercely.

He nodded as if he agreed and did not mention the sense of foreboding that made his shoulder blades itch.

***

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.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

“Ordinary People Becoming Extraordinary”

Sometimes we have to laugh at ourselves and our conceits. Yesterday I wrote a blog post Whose Book Is It? about readers who saw something different in my books than I intended. I wrote:

A Spark of Heavenly FireA reader once pointed out that A Spark of Heavenly Fire was about love in all its guises. He was right, that is a major theme, though that hadn’t been my intention. I wanted to write a big book, an important book with ordinary people becoming extraordinary in perilous times. Since I didn’t want to do a war story, I did the next best thing — created an epidemic so deadly that the entire state of Colorado had to be quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease. To “personalize” the catastrophe, I told the story from several points of view, not just character POV, but the various ways the characters viewed the epidemic. And what shone through, by the time all the stories were told, was the theme of love in all its guises.

It wasn’t until this morning that I remembered that I hadn’t intended to write an important book with ordinary people becoming extraordinary in perilous times. Well, the important book part is right — I wanted to write a classic story that most people would be able to identify with. But I never used the phrase about ordinary people becoming ordinary until I received a rejection letter from an agent, in which the agent thanked me for sending them my excerpt since they “were always looking for such stories about ordinary people becoming extraordinary, but . . .”

Oddly, I don’t remember what followed the “but.” There was always a “but.” “We liked the concept of your story but we didn’t fall in love with your characters as we had hoped.” “Your book is excellent, but we only publish literary books and yours is more commercial.” “We loved your book, but we don’t know how to sell it. It has too many science fiction elements to be mainstream fiction and not enough to be science fiction.”

But I digress. The point is, that is where I got the idea of A Spark of Heavenly Fire being a story of ordinary people becoming extraordinary. I figured if I got a personalized rejection letter rather than a badly Xeroxed form letter or even just a “no thanks” scribbled on my query, that maybe I was on to something. So I started using the phrase “ordinary people becoming extraordinary” to describe the book in subsequent query letters. I did it so often that it stuck even after I learned the truth — the rejection letter that had so impressed me had been a form letter after all. (I thought that since they had expressed an interest in my writing, I’d query them about another book and got the exact response as I did the first time.)

The truth of why I wrote A Spark of Heavenly Fire is that I wanted to write about society turned upside down. I wanted to create conditions where the successful folk didn’t have the skills to be successful in the new world, but the unhappy, the failures, and the outcasts were able to find happiness, success, and fulfillment. I mostly achieved that, but one character — a beautiful young woman — turned out to have good coping skills, which gave the book more of a dimension than if she’d ended up in the gutter.

***

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. Connect with Pat on Google+

Whose Book Is It?

We writers do the best we can to tell an engaging story, hoping readers will like what we have written, but often readers see something in the story that we didn’t purposely put there.

Sometimes this “extra” is good. A reader once pointed out that A Spark of Heavenly Fire was about love in all its guises. He was right, that is a major theme, though that hadn’t been my intention. I wanted to write a big book, an important book with ordinary people becoming extraordinary in perilous times. Since I didn’t want to do a war story, I did the next best thing — created an epidemic so deadly that the entire state of Colorado had to be quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease. To “personalize” the catastrophe, I told the story from several points of view, not just character POV, but the various ways the characters viewed the epidemic. And what shone through, by the time all the stories were told, was the theme of love in all its guises.

DAIsmallBut sometimes the “extra” that readers find is not so good. Daughter Am I is the story of old time gangsters. A young woman inherits a farm from murdered grandparents she didn’t know she had — her father had claimed they died before she was born. When she confronts her father with his lie, he merely responds, “They were dead to me.” She becomes obsessed by the mysteries of why her grandparents had been murdered and what they had done that was so terrible their only son cut them out of his life.

She tracks down her grandfather’s friends, most of whom had lived nefarious lives, and she gradually learns who her grandfather was. At the end of the book, her actions mirror what she has learned about her grandfather, and so she learns the truth of him.

This is the book I had written — a young woman searches for her grandfather, and finds him in herself, in her outlook on life, in her dealings with others.

One friend who read the book was reticent to tell me what she thought. She admitted she loved the characters and the writing, but then she finally said, in a hesitant voice, “But the ending isn’t exactly moral, is it?”

In thinking about it, I had to admit it wasn’t strictly moral, but the ending was inevitable since it fit the search-for-identity story I’d written. I didn’t really think anything more about it until I saw a review where someone liked the book and the characters, but didn’t like cynicism of the book — that anything is justifiable as long as you treat your friends right.

These two comments made me wonder about the truth of the story. Was it really cynical? Really immoral? I wasn’t trying to make such points. I merely wanted to tell a “hero’s journey” story about gangsters. And gangsters, by definition are immoral. If they weren’t, if they were law-abiding citizens, they wouldn’t be gangsters, they’d be corporate executives. (Well, maybe that’s a bad example, considering how many stories of larcenous corporative executives end up in the newspaper.)

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what story they read, at least not from my perspective. The truth of any story is in the minds of readers. We writers can only write the story we know how to write, then send them out into the world to make whatever they can of themselves.

***

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. Connect with Pat on Google+

Rubicon Ranch: Secrets — The Mystery 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 continue! 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 22: Lydia Gavin
by Pat Bertram

Sunday, December 23, 5:25pm

Seth sat tall behind the desk in his tidy office, like a king receiving a subject. “What are you doing here?”

Lydia Galvin leaned back in the uncomfortable metal chair and gave the sheriff a serene smile, surprised to find that she felt no fear at facing him. “Your deputies brought me here.”

Seth glowered. “You know that’s not what I meant.”

“You want the whole story? I needed to get some groceries, so I walked up Delano Road to where I’d parked my car, and apparently your deputies found it and staked it out, because even before I could unlock the door, they jumped out of their vehicle, arrested me, and brought me here.”

“They didn’t arrest you. They just offered you a ride. I wanted to talk to you.” Seth gave Lydia one of his oh-so-familiar looks, the one that said she meant no more to him than an annoying insect.

“How did you know I was in the area?” Lydia kept her voice neutral, not wanting to seem confrontational. No point in arousing the beast in him until absolutely necessary.

“We checked out the bystanders’ videos of the burning crime scene, and there you were.” He drew in a quick breath as if upset with himself for responding. “But you’re supposed to be answering my questions. What are you doing in Rubicon Ranch?”

“Having fun. It’s quite a spectacle out there, you know.” Lydia crossed her legs, and felt a flash of satisfaction when he cut a glance at her thighs. All that running since she’d been fired had paid off—she now had the body she’d always wished for.

He remained calm, but his thinned lips and tensed shoulders told her how much that unruffled air cost him. “Why did you come to Rubicon Ranch?”

“Why do you think I came? To see what other lives you were ruining, of course. I had no intention of staying, I just wanted to check out Melanie Gray—according to the newspapers you two were quite a team—but then I met Nancy and when she let slip that you and she were sleeping together, I thought I’d hang around to see how you got out of that affair when it turned against you.” Lydia made a show of inspecting a fingernail. “I guess I’m lucky. You only ruined my career. Poor Nancy ended up in the morgue.”

“You think I killed Nancy?” Seth cocked his head like an eagle and stared at Lydia for a moment. Then he nodded. “I see. You think that by accusing me, I will assume that you’re innocent, because if you believed I killed her, then you couldn’t have.”

“Did you kill her?” Lydia waited for an answer that didn’t come. “She would have ruined you. She loved nothing but herself and power and money. She loved secrets, too, of course, but only because the secrets gave her power over people and were a source of great income. She said she used to be an actress and a model, but once when we had a few drinks, she admitted that was a front. She’d really worked as a call girl. I figured she gave up the life when she realized how much more lucrative secrets were than her body.”

Seth rose to his feet and paced the office. “You say she would have ruined me. Like you ruined me?”

Lydia forced out a small laugh. “I ruined you? No. You manipulated me. You began by treating me as if I were the most important woman in the world. You flattered me, paid attention to me, offered me words of love and the endearments I hungered for. When I was hooked, you stepped back, left me feeling bereft. And every time I spoke of leaving you, you’d pay attention to me again.” She felt tears beginning to gather behind her eyes. He doesn’t matter. Think of fire. Flames. Heat.

She drew in a deep breath, surprised Seth didn’t jump in to defend himself. He kept pacing the office as if she weren’t even there, which made it easier for her to confess. “You were my grand passion. I know you don’t believe that, but it’s the truth. I never expected you to leave your wife. I just wanted you to notice me. To put me first once in a while.”

Seth stood over her, his eyes icy as they locked onto hers. “But you turned me into the department. Said I misused my authority.”

“You did abuse your authority. I never wanted an affair with you. I had enough trouble with my husband. I didn’t need another abusive man in my life. You never knew about my husband, did you?” Lydia didn’t even try to modulate her bitter tone. “The great detective never noticed that his girlfriend had a husband who beat her. I wouldn’t have told your wife about us. Even though I threatened to tell her, I couldn’t have made our affair public. My husband would have beat me when he found out. And after you dragged your wife to my house so she could confront me, my husband did beat me. I had to go to the emergency room that time. But oh, no, everything that happened was my fault.”

“Good story,” Seth said. “Too bad none of it is true.”

“The all-wise Seth Bryan says it isn’t true, so that means it isn’t true?” Lydia shook her head sadly. “The law might be about what you can prove, but life isn’t like that. Some things are true no matter how much we don’t want to believe them.” Things like her husband’s abuse. Things like Seth’s disregard. Things like death and fire. “You men are all so blind you can’t see what’s in front of your eyes. I loved you but you threw me away, calling me a vituperative bitch. Yet Nancy, who didn’t love you at all and who truly was a vituperative bitch, you kept. But I’m through with all of you now.”

Seth sneered. “Turning into a lesbian?”

“That’s beneath even you, Seth, my love.”

“True. Perhaps the only true thing you’ve said today.” The phone rang. Seth took two long strides to the desk, and grabbed the receiver. “Yes?” A pause, then, “She’s home now? Stay there. Make sure she doesn’t leave. I’ll be there in just a few minutes.”

He hung up the phone, and turned to face Lydia.

She quirked her lips in an unamused smile. “Still on your wife’s leash? I’m surprised you haven’t killed her, too.”

“Just go,” he said wearily. “Keep my office informed of your whereabouts. We still have lots to talk about.”

Lydia rose, straightened her skirt, and settled the strap of her purse firmly on her shoulder. “There’s nothing left to say but good-bye. I didn’t kill Nancy. You did. But don’t worry, I won’t testify against you.”

***

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. Connect with Pat on Google+

Season’s Creepings — A Halloween Story in Miniature

A drabble is a short story of exactly one hundred words with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I have been experimenting with this story form as a way of improving my writing, trying to get as strong an image as possible in just a few words. Here is a miniature story for Halloween:

       Cuddling her baby, Cassie went to answer the door.

       Anna, eyes bright beneath hooded lids, smiled at her. “I came to see my newest neighbor.” She bent forward and peered into the baby’s face. “Oooh, he’s so sweet I could just eat him up.” She held out her arms. “May I?”

       Pride welled up in Cassie’s chest. “Sure.”

       With a sudden sinuous motion, Anna took the baby, popped him in her mouth, and swallowed him whole.

       Unable even to scream, Cassie stared at the bulge in the woman’s midsection.

       “What?” Anna gave her a puzzled look. “You said I could.” 

***

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.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.   

Rubicon Ranch: Secrets — My Current Chapter

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 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. Connect with Pat on Google+

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