Welcome to Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story

A little girl’s body has been 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? 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.

This novel was written online by nine authors of Second Wind Publishing. You can find the first chapter here: Chapter 1: Melanie Gray — by Pat Bertram and the rest of the chapters  here: Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story.


Riley Peterson, 9, mischievous and somewhat of a brat, she was definitely Daddy’s girl.  When she was found in the desert, murdered, there were no marks on her body, no overt violence, so perhaps she was suffocated. The Sheriff won’t know until after the autopsy. Who could have killed this innocent (or perhaps not so innocent) child? And why?

Seth Bryan, 41, is the county sheriff. Until 18 months before, he was a captain on the Greentree (think Pasadena), California, police department.  A local boy who married his cheerleader high school sweetheart, he was the rising star of the department and destined to be the chief.  A rival on the department, knowing he could not exceed Seth, plotted with Seth’s lover–an administrator in the department, to accuse him of sexual harassment.  The charges fell apart and the rival was dismissed, as was the administrator.  Seth, however, went from golden boy to pariah.  When the sheriff’s job (appointed by county commissioners, not elected) came open, he took it.  His wife, who hated the desert and even more hated that he embarrassed her and lost his chance at prestige, has separated from him; she refuses to sign the divorce paper.

Rubicon Ranch is a pain in the neck for him because it is so exclusive, high-profile and full of eccentrics—even before the death of Riley.  He tends to be bitter, cynical and untrusting.  Underneath it he is a good lawman and disarmingly sly.

Melanie Gray, 43, has traveled the world with her husband, a world-renowned photographer. Together they authored many coffee-table books (she did the writing, he the photographs). One of the books told about mountains of the world, one about rivers, one about oceans, one about forests, and now they have a contract to do deserts. After they rented a house in Rubicon Ranch to begin their in-depth study of the southwestern deserts, he died in a car accident.

Now, not only does she have to deal with the pain of losing her husband and figuring out what she’s going to do for the rest of her life, she needs to fulfill the publishing contract or she’ll have to reimburse the publishers, which she cannot do because the advance is all but spent. Since she is not a photographer, she roams the desert bordering on Rubicon Ranch, taking hundreds of photos, hoping that a few of them will accidentally end up being as brilliant as her husband’s photos always were. She finds the child’s body and takes photos of the scene after calling 911. At first she is a suspect but once the Sheriff has ruled her out, he requests her help in reading the desert and desert-related clues. Still, the sheriff does not trust her completely, thinking she is hiding something.

Kourtney Peterson, 38, is the mother of the murdered girl. She had an incredibly difficult time conceiving. After going into debt and all the emotional trauma associated with infertility, she finally got pregnant. Then there were all those complications surrounding the birth. Initially, she loved the baby and was maternally satisfied. Over time, however, the little girl and her father grew closer and Kourtney became jealous. She and her daughter had a strained relationship and it transfers to her marriage.

Jeff Peterson, 38, the father of the murdered child, does not wear the pants in the relationship and he knows it. He got married before he wanted to, Honeymooned where he didn’t want to go and started trying for a baby before he was ready. When they had trouble getting pregnant Kourtney starting blaming him even though the doctors said he had perfectly good swimmers. He isn’t happy with his marriage, but he is devoted to his daughter, Riley. He overcompensates, spoils her, gives her anything she wants (kind of like he does with his wife) but it has only driven a deeper wedge between he and Kourtney.

Even worse, their secret, an eight-year-old secret they will do anything to protect, is starting to unravel. Now that the girl is dead, his reasons for staying loyal to Kourtney are evaporating. He’s even starting to suspect she may have had something to do with his daughter’s death. Could she have killed the girl to protect their secret? To keep them from going to jail?

Dylan McKenzie, 15, is a straight A, honor student. His mother named him after Bob Dylan and spent countless hours playing his music and explaining the lyrics to her son. As far as his mom is concerned, Bob Dylan is a great prophet of all time and Dylan, her son has cultivated a few unique ways to view his world. His views are coping mechanisms that help him understand and accept the fact that his mother divorced his father and is now living in Europe. Her abandonment of him has caused an inner rage because she left him unprotected and at the mercy of a demanding and punishing father.

To all outside appearances, Dylan is a geek, an obedient son and in every way an obedient dream child. Everyone thinks he is happy and well adjusted. However, Dylan hates the desert, hates the heat and the cactus and everything about Rubicon Ranch. His father works construction and due to a building boom they have moved to the southwest so he can earn a living.

Dylan has his own dream world which consists of playing video fantasy games. He thinks his father is a loser and with every punishment and criticism he goes deeper and deeper into his dream world until he decides to bring his games into reality.

Now he has a secret life that gives him a feeling of empowerment. Riley discovers his secret and threatens to tell.

When he’s in his secret life, he’s in his black leather, skull and crossbones jacket, black hair slicked back, no glasses, has contacts, black leather boots and levi’s.  When he’s in school and during the day he wears white shirts, khaki pants, tan blazer, shined shoes, wire rimmed glasses and his hair is combed forward in soft curls. He’s five foot nine and weighs one ten, very slim.

Psychologist Mary “Moody” Sinclair, 36, has already killed one child. Petite with gray-peppered brown hair and watchful brown eyes, Mary does not look like a stereotypical killer. Though she was acquitted of the charge of murder, she was found guilty of child endangerment. The unorthodox binding treatment she participated in for eight-year old Chad Monroe cured him of his ADHD. It suffocated the disorder right out of him.

Still stinging and ashamed after losing her medical license while serving three months at Fendleton Women’s Prison, Moody moves to Rubicon Ranch and trades her power suits for jeans and t-shirts. Settling into the home of her father, famous reclusive horror writer Morris Sinclair, Moody looks forward to peace and anonymity.

While Moody cannot legally practice her specialty, she sees no harm in sharing her knowledge of behavioral treatments for difficult children. It would be just her luck she was one of the last people to see the murdered child alive.

After the dead child is discovered, Moody begins observing the strange behaviors of the people around her with a clinical eye. But, the strangest behavior comes from her own father as signs of early senile dementia begin to appear. Moody had grown up with her father’s refusal to wear shoes and dressing only in black and white, but these eccentricities were nothing in comparison to his present mental state. In a moment of absolute honesty, her father confesses the true inspiration for his famous horror stories and shows Moody the “muse” secrets he keeps locked in his safe.

Some secrets are better buried and never uncovered. When her father’s muse triggers memories from her own life, the gaps from her childhood begin exploding open into the present. Life becomes dangerous when Moody discovers her own connection to the murdered child. As pieces of her past start fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle, the finished picture contains more horror than any of her father’s novels.

Cooper Dahlsing, 45, is frightened. He moved to the desert from Northern Wisconsin for self-protection, for personal safety. Now he wonders if he caused harm to another. And a young child, no less. Is she his first victim, his second or third? Could there be more? If only he could remember.

Dahling is a loner, more by circumstances than by choice. He began experiencing episodes of somnambulism–sleepwalking–during graduate school. After several frustrating years seeking medical answers, he found a neurologist who diagnosed him with a rare form of epilepsy. The problem was, they never landed on the right medication cocktail Cooper was able to tolerate.

He woke up in an assortment of places. One time he was staring into a dark shop window at three in the morning. His car was parked and running behind him. Another time he was in a bar having a beer with some guys. Strangers who all seemed to know him. Still another, he was a ways from home in below zero weather, clad only in pajamas and slippers.

But the worst was the morning he woke with blood on his pajamas. It appeared he had wiped bloody hands on them. When he turned on the television, he learned a woman had been killed by a hit and run driver, and left to die on the side of the road. Terror weakened him, and he began to suspect he was the driver. There had been other unsolved hit and runs, but it was the first time he suspected he may be the culprit. The one responsible. There was no dent in his car, but would there be one if the hard bumper hit a soft target?

Cooper’s unconscious nighttime activities increased after that. He was even more afraid to fall asleep. He sold his car so he couldn’t drive in his sleep. His confidence, and work as a college professor, suffered and exhaustion became normal. He considered hiring a night attendant, but who was completely trustworthy? He contemplated taking his life. Instead, while searching for a home in a warmer climate, he found an ad for one in Rubicon Valley.

He felt he had no choice when he moved to Rubicon Valley. It might get cold at night, but he wouldn’t get frostbite, or freeze to death. And he couldn’t run over anyone without a car. He was relaxing a bit when the little girl was found dead.

Mark  Westbrook, 34,  and JamieWestbrook, 28,  (not their real names) are the owners of Westbrook Investigations, a phony private investigation agency.  They show up to “help” solve the crime, for the slight charge of $200 a day, plus expenses, 10 days up front.It’s a scam they’ve perfected as they’ve moved around the country.  With outstanding warrants that include defrauding an innkeeper, minor theft, theft by deception, and fraud (to name a few), they have as many aliases as they do warrants.  Their family motto is “Make a quick buck, and don’t get caught.”

Mark was a computer programmer before he became disenchanted with the 9-to-5 and went for the easy money.  His computer skills come in handy for researching their marks, as well as creating phony documents needed for each new identity.

Jamie was a teenage runaway who won’t say any more about her past.  Both of them are good looking, which has helped them scam older widows and widowers in the past. Neither of them believes they’re doing any harm, just trying to make a living.

When they first approach Kourtney and Jeff, they make sure to stress that the police shouldn’t know about their involvement.  They will be following up on “other leads.”

Yes, they’re willing to take money from a grieving family, but would they hurt a child for a chance at the big score?

Eloy Franklin, 82, a fixture of Rubicon Ranch, sits on his porch day in day out, dawn to dusk, leaving his cane rocking chair only to replenish his glass of iced tea, grab a snack, relieve his bladder.

Virtually invisible to the residents of the neighborhood, he stands watch over them all. A force really if anything were to happen there within his eyeshot. Two bum knees and riddled with rheumatoid arthritis in his hands it’d be a miracle to even be able to punch 911 on the cordless sitting on the table beside him, let alone chase after any offender who dared to endanger his Rubicon Ranch.

No one had assigned him the duty . . . and yet, still, he watches.

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7 Responses to Welcome to Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story

  1. Found you through Marian Allen. I’ll try to make each installment.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  2. Sheila Deeth says:

    I’m looking forward to following this.

  3. Toni says:

    Great idea for a novel! I enjoyed the first installment & am looking forward to more. Thanks for doing this!

    BTW… I am a brand new, wet-behind-the-ears fiction writer & I was hoping you might tell me how you came up with the names for your characters? This is something I have been struggling with for some time and would appreciate any thoughts on the subject.

    Thanks much!
    Keep the good writing coming.


    • Pat Bertram says:

      Toni, I don’t know how the others named their characters, but since my character is mourning, I named her Melanie (meaning black) Gray to remind me not to make her a sunny character.

    • jjdare says:

      Hi, Toni. I love playing with words, so I usually have fun with my characters’ names. In Rubicon Ranch, my character’s name is based on phonetics. “Mary” sounds innocent and bright, while “Sinclair” has a darker, sinister tone. Her nickname, “Moody,” is a direct reference to her profession: psychology. While writing, I’ve come up with names based on how I visualize a character’s looks, their personalities, or sometimes, out of the blue, a name and a character just fit. Good luck with your writing!

    • Hello, Toni–I’m so pleased you’re enjoying our Rubicon Ranch collaborative novel. It has been a blast to create something so innovative.

      As for naming of characters, I spend endless hours searching for proper names for my characters. For my character in RR I wanted something stringent as he’s ex-military and a pretty old guy. Colonel Eloy Templeton Franklin is what I came up with.

      Keep in mind where your character comes from, what they are going through (as Pat mentioned). Here’s a great site for that: http://www.behindthename.com/
      This site is great for finding regional names: http://legitbabenames.wordpress.com/category/bavarian-names/
      (look at the left side bar for different countries or origin).

      Best of luck finding the perfect names!

    • christinehusom says:

      Toni, I always struggle with names of my bad guys (or in this case, a potential bad guy). I don’t like to use names of people I know. My parents had 23 siblings between them and I had 60 first cousins, not to mention their kids, spouses, my siblings, nieces, nephews, their kids, friends. Right there, I have a LONG list of names I can’t use.

      So I look through lists of names according to their ages on the internet. I go though phone books and, get this–I find a lot of names in the obituaries of the Sunday edition of the Minneapolis paper. Since I base my mystery series in Minnesota, it gives me local names to consider.

      My character, Cooper Dahlsing, is originally from Wisconsin. I only know of one Cooper–a brother of a classmate who would be about that age. And Dahlsing was one of my greatgrandmother’s last name.

      I agree, names are a challenge! I had to change three of my main character’s names in my first book when I was writing it because of two babies born and one marriage in the family 🙂

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