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
. 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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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
December 22; 7:05pm
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.
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.
you, Alexander! How could you do this to me?
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.
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
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
had always loved Christmas, and no matter where in the world they happened to
be living, he always 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
woman being run over by the cheery Santa looked stiff in the way of death, not
stiff like a mannequin.
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.
caught a faint whiff of death—like meat just beginning to go bad—and her heart
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?
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.
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.
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.
Ranch. Rojo Duro County. Mojave Desert. California. USA. Ah, yes. 911.
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
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.
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.
seems to be the trouble, Ms. Gray?”
Melanie pointed to the body.
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.
you see what happened?”
Just found her lying here is all. Checked her pulse. Called it in.”
walked around to the other side of the body, scanning the ground, his dark brow
furrowed. “Did you find her purse?”
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.
don’t think so. I don’t know many people in the neighborhood.”
Bryan—thinks you notice everything.”
the sheriff thinks a lot of things that aren’t true.”
made a small sound that might have been a chuckle. “Hit a nerve, did I?”
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.
backed away from the body. “I think she might be a real estate agent. I’ve seen
her around the neighborhood.”
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
the person who murdered her took it.”
makes you think she was murdered?”
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.
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.”
tan Navigator parked behind Midget’s SUV, and Lieutenant Rosaria Frio stepped
out of the vehicle.
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
greeted Deputy Midget with a nod. “You got here fast.”
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.
I go?” she asked.
questioned Ms. Gray,” Deputy Midget said. “If we need her again, we know where
to find her.”
Frio turned her implacable gaze toward Melanie. “Don’t leave the county.”
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.
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.
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.