Rubicon Ranch is a collaborative and innovative crime series set in the desert community of Rubicon Ranch and is being written online by the authors of Second Wind Publishing. Seven authors, including me, are involved in the current story — 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.
Although some of the characters were introduced in Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story, a previous collaboration, Rubicon Ranch: Necropieces is a stand-alone novel.
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!
Chapter 9: Melanie Gray
by Pat Bertram
Melanie locked the front door of the house and turned around to face the day. It was clear and warm with a platinum sun shining in an azure sky. She felt her spirits rise. With such lovely weather, things couldn’t be as bad as they seemed. She marched down the driveway, and her spirits plummeted as fast as they had risen. The sheriff’s tan Navigator, like a brooding predator, loomed in the driveway of the Sinclair house next door.
Melanie had tried to forget Sheriff Seth Bryan and the conflicted feelings he had aroused in her, but apparently she hadn’t succeeded. She could feel the emotions rushing back to fill the emptiness inside her. She still couldn’t tell if she’d felt more drawn to him or more repelled by him. With any luck, she’d never have to explore those feelings. As soon as he finished his business and left the area, she could forget him again.
She heard the sound of his voice, though not his words, and for a moment she considered dashing back into the house to avoid any encounter with him, but then she realized the truth. The sheriff had no interest in her. It had been almost three months since she’d last seen him, and in all that time, he had made no effort to contact her.
She lifted her chin. She didn’t need him or any man. They were all worthless creatures who had no regard for anyone but themselves.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to see what he was up to.
She took a few steps forward so she could see the front door of the Sinclair house. The sheriff looked the same as he always had. Jeans and a white shirt with a badge on the shoulder clothed his lean, flat-bellied body, and a navy blue ball cap with a yellow “Sheriff” embroidered on it covered most of his dark brown hair. And he still wore those ridiculous mirrored sunglasses.
The sheriff and Moody seemed to be standing closer together than politeness dictated. Could something be going on between the two of them? Movement in the passenger seat of the Navigator caught her attention. Deputy Midget. If the sheriff intended anything shady, surely he wouldn’t bring a deputy along to witness his behavior? Then this must be an official visit.
Moody looked okay — happy, even. It had been very quiet the last week or so without “The Sounds of Silence” blaring at all hours, and she’d probably been enjoying herself in Morris’s absence.
The sheriff starting walking toward his vehicle. Melanie squatted to retie a shoelace, hoping he wouldn’t catch sight of her. She might have the courage not to seek refuge in the house, but she had nothing to say to him.
When she heard the sheriff’s Navigator slowly moving down the street, she squelched a pang of disappointment. As annoying as his attentions were, at least they had reminded her she was alive. She’d been living with the dead — or rather memories of the dead—for way too long.
She arose with only the slight aid of one hand to push her erect, and angled her steps to the right of her driveway, intending to head up Delano Road to the desert. She paused, took two steps to the left.
The Daily Indecision is how she’d come to think of this inability to act. “Sounds like a newspaper,” she said aloud. “They’d print both sides of every story since the editor would be unable to decide which view to stand behind. Or maybe the paper would be blank because they’d never be able to decide which stories were newsworthy. And since when do you talk to yourself?”
Since Alexander died. She often wandered in the desert, trying to understand her husband’s death and her grief, and she’d gotten in the habit of talking aloud to him, hoping he could help make sense of her chaotic thoughts. He never responded. But then, he’d seldom replied even before he died.
When had their relationship become all about him? And why hadn’t she noticed the change? She sighed. Probably because she’d spent so much time online doing research for the coffee table books she and Alexander wrote. Well, she wrote. He took the photos. After his death, she discovered he’d somehow squandered the advance for the book about the Mojave Desert they’d contracted for, so now she needed to take the photographs in addition to writing the text. She thought she’d become good at shooting photos, but just this morning she’d received an email from her publisher:
“Some of your photos are usable, but most are uninspired. You take photographs, but the great photographers, like Alexander, make photographs. And when they make photographs, they make love. We feel the empathy between the external and internal events.”
Whatever that meant.
“What it means,” she said aloud, “is that you have work to do.” She took five resolute steps up Delano Road, then stopped. She could see Eloy Franklin hunched on his porch like a land-locked amphibian, watching everything that went on in his vicinity.
After all the turmoil the neighborhood had gone through recently, after all the deaths, she thought that things would have changed, but there Eloy sat, as unapproachable and forbidding as always. She’d smiled at him a couple of times when she passed in front of his house, but he’d never acknowledged her efforts at friendliness by so much as a nod.
Unable to stand the thought of Eloy’s scrutiny, she turned left. The sheriff’s navigator hadn’t gotten far, only a few houses away. The vehicle still moved slowly, as if the sheriff were looking for something. Trying to see the neighborhood through his eyes, Melanie peered down Delano Road. A petit woman held a camera to her face, either taking photographs or hiding behind it. Did Sheriff Bryan think the woman was Melanie? Melanie smiled to herself. Whatever faults the man might have, mistaking one woman for another was not one of them. Melanie had seen the woman several times before; she was shorter, prettier, and younger than Melanie, and had the clear luminous complexion of someone with a mixed race heritage.
Beyond the woman, a skinny man lurched along the side of the road. Melanie had also seen him several times before, and he worried her. Anger seemed to crackle around him, like lightning right before it strikes.
The Navigator’s siren blared, and the vehicle shot down the street and tore around the corner onto Tehachapi Road, heading east.
A dark cloud seemed to lift from the neighborhood, and Melanie’s indecision disappeared. She turned right, past Moody’s house, past the strange no-man’s land that separated the Sinclair land from the Franklin land, past Eloy’s house.
The wilderness beckoned.
* * *
Melanie stood at the crest of knoll and surveyed the expanse of desert. Somewhere out there, midst the creosote bushes and cacti, a photograph she could make waited for her — an image so compelling, viewers would immediately sense her empathy with the subject.
But how did one get emotionally connected to something as vast and as alien as the Mojave Desert? Then she remembered Alexander saying he looked for a significant detail. By focusing on a single feature, by making it the heart of the photo, the rest of the scene came into focus.
Crap. I’ll never get the hang of photography. Damn you, Alexander, for putting me through this.
She heard a sound closing in on her from behind, a leisurely whup . . . whup . . . whup. She turned and froze, transfixed by the raven gliding by. It flew so close she could see the brown pupil of its bright black eye and the purple and blue sheen of its feathers. She’d never seen such a huge bird—the body looked bigger than a cat, and its wings spanned at least three feet, maybe four. For a moment, it seemed to hang motionless, then a graceful wing beat stirred the air and propelled it forward.
Melanie fumbled with her camera, almost in tears. She’d had a perfect opportunity to make a photograph, but she’d become so lost in the moment, she’d forgotten all about taking a picture. Alexander wouldn’t have forgotten. His camera had been an extension of his hands, his eyes. He never let anything get between him and an image he wanted to capture. Not even Melanie. Especially not Melanie.
Then she heard it behind her again, the whup . . . whup of wing beats. And this time she held her camera ready. As the second raven passed her, she caught the image. Joy burst inside her.
I did it!
Only then did it strike her as odd that the two ravens had been so focused on their goal that they hadn’t seemed to notice how close they’d been to her.
The first raven had already disappeared, but she watched the second one descend behind a rocky outcrop thirty feet away.
She followed a barely perceptible track through the scrub to where six or seven ravens pecked at what looked to be the carcass of a small animal. A rabbit, maybe. Thinking how wonderfully the image of this raw savagery would contrast with the majesty of the flying raven photo, she crept closer. And gagged.
The ravens weren’t feeding on a rabbit, but something oddly familiar and totally out of place.
* * *
Melanie waited for Sheriff Bryan and Deputy Midget to pick their way up the rock-strewn path to the top of the hill. The sun glinted off the sheriff’s mirrored sunglasses, making him appear soulless.
When he drew near, Sheriff Bryan grunted. “I wish you’d stop finding bodies in such out of the way locations.”
“I didn’t find a body. I found . . .” She swept out a hand, showing the track and which direction he should travel.
The sheriff furrowed his brow at her, then followed the track. Deputy Midget trailed after him. Melanie brought up the rear.
Sheriff Bryan stopped by the outcropping. “A boot? You called me here to see crows playing with an old bloody boot? You must really be desperate to talk to me.”
“Desperate?” Melanie stared at him, the heat of anger flushing through her body. “Are you really so self-absorbed that you think I called you here on a pretext? I didn’t call you. I called dispatch and told them exactly what I found. It’s not a pretext, and they’re not crows. They are ravens.”
The sheriff and his deputy exchanged shrugs, then proceeded forward. The ravens squawked, rose as one, and circled above them, as if protecting their treasure.
Sheriff Bryan squatted, then whipped his head around, lips drawn back in a rictus, and faced Melanie. “A foot? That’s what you found, a foot?”
Midget took a step back. “It looks like something out of Morris Sinclair’s books.”
“Necropieces,” Bryan said, turning back to the foot.
“So where’s the body?” Midget asked.
“Maybe there isn’t one. Someone could have been illegally dumping medical waste.” Bryan rose and loomed over Melanie. “What do you know about this?”
She studied him for a moment, wondering what was going on behind those sunglasses. “Are you accusing me of something?”
The sheriff cocked his head like a raven getting ready to peck at its prey. “The person who calls in a report is always suspect.”