Melanie Gray dressed all in white—loose cotton pants, billowing long-sleeved top, wide-brimmed straw hat, flowing scarf. She checked her pockets to make sure she had her cell phone, camera, and extra memory card, then grabbed a canteen of water, slung the strap over her shoulder like a bandolier, and stepped outside. Heat scorched her lungs and the glare of the desert sun burned her tear-sore eyes.
She hesitated. Maybe she should stay inside today. Seven o’clock in the morning, and the temperature had already climbed into the hundreds. She was more of a mountain girl—though at forty-three she could hardly be called a girl—and preferred the cool of higher elevations. To be fair, Rubicon Ranch lay three thousand feet above sea level, and the harsh weather and bleak desert vistas suited her present mood, but she hadn’t slept well lately, hadn’t slept much at all since Alexander died, and she had little strength to deal with the present heat wave.
Damn Alexander anyway. Why did he have to wreck the car and get himself killed? Didn’t he know better than to text while driving? And how could he have already spent their advance? Had he squandered it on the woman he’d been texting?
Melanie strode down the driveway to Delano Road, wishing their publisher wasn’t holding her to the contract for this final coffee table book. If she still had the advance, she could return the money, find somewhere to burrow, and heal in privacy, but now she had to finish the book of desert scenes by herself, and she knew nothing about photography—Alexander always took the pictures, she wrote the blurbs. Her only option was to shoot as many photos as possible using her small digital camera, and hope that by lucky accident some would be publishable.
When she reached the road, she hesitated again. Right or left? Odd how she couldn’t seem to make up her mind about anything since Alexander’s death. Not that it mattered which way she went. Most roads in Rubicon Ranch eventually wound to the desert.
Turning left on Delano Road was the shorter route—the desert lay a scant two hundred yards from her rented house—but she seldom went that way. Cut off from the vast stretches of wilderness by rocky knolls, the region had become a cross between a town park and a city dump. She’d have to dodge bicyclists, skirt discarded furniture, and climb over the steep knolls to get to the wilds. Turning right, as she usually did, she could amble through pleasant suburban streets before reaching the trails that would take her to the remote wilderness areas.
The heat radiating off the blacktop made up her mind for her. It would be cooler in the desert, if only by a couple of degrees, so the sooner she got there the better. She turned left.
As she neared the house two doors down, she felt the disturbing sensation of being scrutinized. She didn’t need to search for those observant eyes. She knew exactly who was watching. An old man always sat on the porch, like a land-locked amphibian, staring at everyone going by. Another reason she preferred the long way—she hated anyone knowing her business, especially now when her emotions were so raw.
“Damn you, Alexander,” she whispered fiercely. “How could you have done this to me?”
Alexander didn’t answer. He never did, which was just as well. If she ever saw him again, she’d kill him herself.
When Melanie reached the end of the pavement and stepped onto the rutted desert track, she slipped the camera out of her pocket, and took photos at random while she walked.
“There is nothing new under the sun or the moon,” Alexander used to say. “The only thing that makes one photo different from any other is the artist’s eye.” He always referred to himself as an artist, and though it annoyed her, she knew he was right. Each of his photos, even those he dismissed as being postcard-pretty, was brilliant, showing a vision of the world uniquely his. Besides being artistically brilliant, they were physically brilliant, capturing light in such a way it seemed to reflect the viewer’s soul.
Melanie stopped by an overturned sofa, pointed the camera, and clicked the shutter. How could she ever fool the publisher? He’d know immediately that these photos came from someone without artistic vision.
A horn beeping in the distance caught her attention. A white SUV slowly traveled along a narrow road, following two massive dogs. Whenever the dogs strayed too far afield, the horn sounded, and the dogs loped back to the vehicle. She snapped a photo of the scene, then headed for the rocky trail that would take her to the other side of the knolls. A man and woman jogged by in tandem, he running heel to toe, she running toe to heel. Melanie photographed their footprints so she wouldn’t have to look at the couple. Is this the way the rest of her life would be? Alone, trying to avoid the pain of seeing people in pairs?
Keeping her gaze on the trail, she climbed the knoll. When she reached the top, a faint breeze stirred her clothes, and she could feel the coolness of her drying sweat. She lifted her head and jutted out her chin. I can do this.
She’d never understood the lure of photography, but now, snapping image after image of the desert and the distant knolls, she could appreciate how much simpler and cleaner the world appeared when seen on the screen of a camera. Some of the photos actually seemed passable. She really could do this.
She turned around to get shots of the trail she’d just climbed and saw a glint of metal reflecting the sun. She squinted. What was that? A television? She found herself smiling—her first smile since Alexander died. She scrambled back down the trail. The television had been dumped a long time ago judging by the creosote bushes that had grown up around it, but footprints leading to the box suggested it had been visited recently. She took several shots from the trail, about fifteen yards from the television, then moved closer. The television had no screen, and she could see that something had been stuffed inside. A doll? She crept closer. Ten feet away, she stopped to take another photo, and the truth washed over her. Not a doll. Crammed inside the console was a child, a girl, her eyes half-eaten by some desert predator.
A scream of rage gathered in her chest, but the only sound she made was a whimper. No! Not more death! Feeling tears gathering behind her eyes, she sucked in air and blew it out. It would be hard enough dealing with the cops without blubbering like a fool.
When she got control of herself, she called 911, told the dispatcher where she was, who she was, and why she was calling. After stowing the cell phone in her pocket, she took another photo of the dead girl, then stepped back to get a wider view of the same scene.
An ominous hiss and rattle startled her. Heart pounding, she slowly turned around. In the sun beneath a creosote bush lay an avocado-hued rattlesnake, its head raised and curled in her direction. Carefully, she moved a few feet away. The snake relaxed back into a heap. Heart pounding with excitement, she focused her camera on the creature and clicked the shutter. As she was snapping a second photo, the snake raised its head and rattled at her again.
She retreated to the relative safety of the path. A quick check of the stored images told her the photos were stunning, both menacing and beautiful. A feeling of exultation washed over her. She’d managed to shoot a Mojave green rattler, something even Alexander hadn’t done!
As suddenly as it came, the feeling of exultation evaporated. The cops would be here any moment. Would they confiscate her camera? Demand the memory card?
Fumbling in her haste, she replaced the memory card in the camera with the spare, then, standing in place and slowly pivoting, shot images of the desert floor, the knolls, footprints on the path, the bushes where she’d seen the rattlesnake, and finally the television. She even found the courage to return to where she’d been standing when she first saw the body so she could get images of the footprints around the television. By the time the sheriff’s department vehicle raced up Delano Road, she’d taken several dozen photos, enough to keep anyone from wondering if there were more.
The tan SUV pulled to a stop at the bottom of the trail. Two people climbed out— a dark-skinned man who looked like a walking mountain, and a woman who looked liked a Barbie doll and appeared as indestructible. An Hispanic Barbie doll, Melanie amended when the woman drew close.
“I’m Lieutenant Rosaria Frio and this is Deputy Kelvin Midget. Don’t joke with him about his name.” This was said without an inflection of humor and seemed so inappropriate that Melanie had no response.
She gestured toward the television. As the pair moved away from her, she said, “Watch out for rattlesnakes.” Deputy Midget started and gave a furtive look around, but Lieutenant Frio reacted not at all.
For no reason she could fathom, Melanie started shaking and the energy drained out of her. She toddled to a hassock-size rock and crumpled onto it in a sitting heap. Elbows on knees, face in hands, she tried to control herself, but the shaking didn’t stop.
A few minutes later, she heard approaching footsteps
“Is she crying, Kelvin?” Lieutenant Frio asked.
“Probably adrenaline shakes,” came Deputy Midget’s unexpectedly high-pitched response.
“What is she doing out here?”
“Not a jogger. Not in that outfit. Why is she dressed like that?”
“Why don’t you ask her?” This last was spoken in a voice as smooth as melted chocolate.
Melanie jerked up her head. A second man had joined the deputies. This man was tall, several inches taller than Melanie—perhaps 5’11”—but he seemed short standing next to Frio and Midget. 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. He wore mirrored sunglasses, the kind she’d only seen on vintage cop shows.
“I’m Sheriff Seth Bryan,” he said with a long, slow smile that went beyond charming and stopped short of a leer.
Melanie tensed at the subtle hint of sexuality. The sheriff tilted his head like a bird about to peck, and she realized he was trying to intimidate her in his own peculiar way. The silly exchange between the deputies had probably also been an attempt to intimidate her. She jutted out her chin, and the sheriff’s grin softened.
“Come sit in my vehicle,” he said. He held out an arm as if to usher her down the trail.
She stood her ground, glancing from him to his immobile deputies. “Do you think I had something to do with the little girl’s death? Am I under arrest?”
The sheriff’s eyebrows rose above his sunglasses. “Should you be?”
“I’m not a suspect.”
Again that birdlike tilt of his head. “Oh?”
“I couldn’t have done it.” She gestured to the town below. “The killer came from there. You won’t find my tracks leading up here except for the ones I left today, and that old guy who always sits on the porch can tell you I haven’t passed his house in weeks.”
“You could have climbed over the knoll,” Frio said.
Melanie shook her head. “The killer didn’t come that way. The trail is narrow and steep, and he or she would have had to carry the body the whole way. Even though the poor girl probably didn’t weigh much, it still would have been a foolish waste of energy considering the hundreds of acres on the other side where she could have been buried, and no one would ever have found her.”
The sheriff put a hand to his mouth. Covering a yawn, or a grin? She wished he’d take of the dang sunglasses so she could read him. But of course, that’s why he wore them.
“Come sit in my vehicle,” he said again.
“Because it’s damn hot out here, that’s why.”
Head held high, she preceded him down the trail.
He opened the door of a second tan SUV parked next to the first, waited until she got comfortable, then ambled around to the driver’s side and hopped behind the steering wheel. Melanie expected him to turn on the computer attached to the dashboard to check her out; instead, he turned and focused stern-faced attention on her.
“So,” he said. “Why are you dressed like that?” Then he grinned.
Melanie gritted her teeth. Thumbscrews would be better than this man’s rapid change of manner. He seemed to be playing good cop/bad cop all by himself. Or rather, charming cop/aggravating cop.
“You don’t know much about the desert, do you?” She tried to sound severe, but the way he leaned toward her as if her comment was the most important thing in the world, disarmed her, and her words came out with a smile.
“I’ve only been here eighteen months,” he said.
“Long enough to learn that loose clothing is the best way to deal with extreme heat.” She gestured to a woman jogger wearing an exercise bra and miniscule shorts. “Sweat on naked skin evaporates quickly, making people hotter and more dehydrated than if the sweat were trapped in layers of clothes.” She caught a quick breath, wishing she had chosen her words more carefully. Not very bright of her to mention naked skin and set him up for a sexual innuendo.
“Shouldn’t you be wearing black?” he asked, without the trace of a leer.
She stared at him. Could he be referring to her mourning for Alexander? How did he know that? Had he already researched her? Then she realized he meant the black clothing of the Tuaregs and other desert peoples. Crap. Everything this man said or did knocked her off balance.
But she wasn’t crying. Was that his strategy? Keep her so addled she wouldn’t dissolve into tears? He probably had plenty of experience with weepy females. Maybe she would be crying for that little girl if she weren’t already filled to the brim with sadness. And anger.
Though she couldn’t see his eyes, she could feel the sharpness of his gaze piercing through his sunglasses. “You’re Melanie Gray, the woman who called nine-one-one.”
“I know that name . . . Melanie Gray. Oh! You do the coffee table books. My wife has your forest book. So you’re a photographer?”
Remembering the shot of the snake, Melanie straightened her shoulders. “Yes.”
He grinned again, and she realized he knew all along what she did for a living. She opened her mouth to explain, then closed it again. Two could play this game.
Suddenly it sunk in that she was sitting in a cop car with a sheriff who probably suspected her of murder. What the hell was she doing playing games with him? It was always the innocent who had most to fear from the authorities.
She stole a glance at the sheriff. He was looking at her with an expression of concern.
“Shouldn’t we be talking about the little girl?” she asked.
“We are talking about her.”
Melanie shook her head. “I don’t know anything anyway. Just what I said when I called it in—that I was taking photos and happened to see the television. I don’t think I know the girl, though I didn’t get a close look at her, so I can’t be sure.” She drew her camera from her pocket and made a show of removing the memory card. “Here. You can have this. It’s photos I took this morning.”
His fingers seemed to linger too long on her palm as he took the card. She cast him an appalled look. Was he coming on to her? Just what she didn’t need, another man who couldn’t keep his trousers zipped. Had she done something to give him the idea she was interested? Perhaps in trying to keep her misery private, she had gone too far in the other direction, coming across as flip, maybe even flirtatious.
She turned away from the sheriff’s disconcerting gaze and tried to remember what she’d said to him. From the tangle of emotions clouding her mind, a single comment surfaced—her glib announcement that the killer had come from town. When the meaning of those words crystallized, she jerked her head around to stare at the sheriff. He nodded as if he’d known what was going through her mind and had been waiting for her to make the connection.
One of her neighbors was a murderer.