Melanie sat cross-legged on the double bed in a puddle of pale blue sheets, her laptop between her knees. A wave of disapproval seemed to come from Alexander’s ashes in the urn atop the dresser, but she could not tell if the censure was directed at her, the unmade bed, or the so very ordinary photos sliding by on her computer screen.
The image of the Mohave green rattler looked like the sort of snapshot any amateur could take. And the photos from the top of the hill? Uninspired. Her subterfuge with the memory card that morning had been unnecessary after all. Even worse, offering the card to the sheriff had been a mistake, the act of someone with a guilty conscience. Would the sheriff believe her guile came from such a flimsy motive as wanting to safeguard her photos? Who knew what the sheriff thought. He’d kept his own counsel, and his eyes, even when he’d set aside his mirrored sunglasses during lunch, hadn’t given her a clue.
What color were his eyes? Light brown. Or hazel. The kind that could darken with disapproval as Alexander’s had done so often during the past couple of years. But she hadn’t detected any disregard from the sheriff. He’d seemed . . . intrigued.
She smiled at the silliness of her thoughts—why would Seth be intrigued by someone as unmysterious as she?—and turned her attention back to the photos. The slide show had started over. There were the images of the abandoned sofa, the dogs racing beside the SUV, the joggers’ shoe prints, the expanse of the desert. Wait! What was that flare? She paused the slide show, clicked on the arrow to bring back a panoramic view of the desert she’d shot from the top of the knoll, and zoomed in to get a closer look at the flaw in the image. Oh, just the morning sun glinting off a distant car. If she decided to use the photo, she could use the smudge feature of Alexander’s photo editing program to remove the vehicle. Or not—the car did offer a human perspective to the alien landscape.
Maybe the photos were good after all.
Crap! When had she become so wishy-washy? Could her indecisiveness be a side effect of her grief? Or had it started before Alexander’s death, a result of her efforts to stave off Alexander’s winces? She loved Alexander and thought he’d love her. Thought that his increasing impatience with her had been because of something she’d done, but maybe it had nothing to do with her. Maybe it had to do with his need to keep on the move—new places, new experiences. New loves.
He’d strayed before, and when she’d threatened to leave, he promised to be faithful. He needed her as a collaborator, a partner, a traveling companion if not as a lover. She couldn’t even remember the last time they had sex.
The woman he’d been texting when he died—what was her name? Annabeth?—had called her in hysterics when she learned of the crash, thinking Melanie would be sympathetic. “I have no one else to talk to,” Annabeth had wailed. Despite a twinge of empathy for the woman’s grief, Melanie had hung up on her. Annabeth had called once more to find out when the funeral would be, and hadn’t believed Melanie’s declaration that there would be no funeral, no memorial service. “You’re as self-centered as Alexander said you were,” Annabeth screamed.
Was she self-centered? Could she have unwittingly pushed Alexander away?
Sick of the direction her thoughts were taking, Melanie set aside the laptop and scrambled off the bed. She paced the room, but the ice blue walls, the blond furniture, and frilly eyelet curtains—so not her taste—made her long for open spaces. She yanked off her brown shorts and beige tank top, pulled on her just-washed desert clothes, gathered her cell phone, camera, extra memory card, canteen, and stepped outside.
Heat scorched her lungs. Seven o’clock in the evening, and the temperature still hovered in the hundreds. Music from the song “Sounds of Silence” drifted toward her from the house next door. Silence. She’d had too much of that lately. Could that be why she hadn’t raised more of an objection when the sheriff had hijacked her this morning—she couldn’t bear being alone any longer? There had to be someone better to talk to than Seth Bryan, but who? Her parents were dead, she had no siblings, and because of her nomadic life with Alexander, she knew people all over the world, but hadn’t made any lasting friends.
When she fulfilled the contract for the book, she’d be free. But free to do what? Go where? And how would she get there without any money?
“Damn you, Alexander! How could you do this to me?” She whispered the words, but they echoed in her mind like a scream. Sweat and tears dampened her face. At least when she’d been with the sheriff, she hadn’t thought of herself as a widow. She’d almost felt like the mysterious woman Seth seemed to think she was.
She straightened her shoulders. Maybe she should go talk to Riley’s parents. By now, they probably had questions about how she’d found their little girl.
A silver SUV sped past. Melanie caught a glimpse of a stone-faced woman driving, and a man sitting next to her, his face in his hands as if crying. The Petersons. Heading home. Had they just come back from identifying their daughter’s body? So, not a good time to visit them.
Melanie lifted one foot to unroot it, then the other, and headed down Delano Road. At the first intersection she turned left onto Tehachapi Road, which wound through the subdivision and far into the desert. Usually she enjoyed the scenery—the houses on Tehachapi had front gardens lush with tropical flowers, which made the desert seem more austere—but in her mind’s eye, all she could see was the image of Riley’s crumpled body.
Who had killed the child, and why? And why stuff her in the old television console? If she—Melanie—hadn’t been so wrapped in her own misery, could she somehow have prevented the tragedy?
It’s not your fault, and neither was Alexander’s death. She knew that—of course she did—but still, a vague guilt lingered.
Several cars were parked on Tehachapi where the pavement ended, and a couple others jounced along the rutted dirt road. Dogs ran loose, and bicyclists peddled slowly up the steep incline of a path that bisected the road.
Melanie quickened her steps. A half-mile up the road, traffic would thin to almost nothing, and a mile beyond that she’d be completely alone. Away from the problems of humankind. Away from her own problems.
She kept her eyes on the rutted road as she walked—the last thing she needed was to trip and strain her ankle. The dirt had desiccated in the dry heat, and footprints and tire tracks stood out like hieroglyphics if only she could read them. She caught sight of a familiar print off to the side—her own from yesterday. Or perhaps the day before. With so much traffic, it couldn’t have been there long.
The tracks grew sparse—just a few tire tracks and joggers’ treads, along with lots of her own shoe prints—and twenty minutes later, she’d left civilization behind. No people. No cars. She blew out a breath to clean her lungs of city air, then drew in a fresh breath. Just as she started to relax, she caught a glimpse of a black car parked perhaps a tenth of a mile down a side pate. A city car. Usually the only people who ventured so far off the road were those driving sports or recreational vehicles, like SUVs or ATVs.
Should she stop to offer help? She couldn’t see anyone near the car. Besides, if the vehicle had broken down, the driver could have walked out of the desert. She snapped a photo of the car—it looked so out of place among the creosote bushes and jutting boulders that it made a compelling picture, especially with that distant knoll as a backdrop.
Wait! Wasn’t that the same knoll she’d climbed that morning and taken panoramic views of the desert? Could this be the same car?
She picked her way across the desert, staying off the path to keep from obscuring tire prints. It’s just a parked car, she told herself, but she didn’t believe it. The city car felt out of place. Sinister, somehow. Even desperate.
She came toward the car from the side. The sedan was in the middle of the path, which she could now see was no road but a natural formation, a sandy course carved out by rainstorm the run-offs. The tires were sunk deep in the sand as if someone had spun the wheels, trying to get unstuck. Shoe prints—a waffle tread—ran from the driver’s side to the passenger side, then disappeared. Had someone dragged something to obliterate the prints? She took photos of the car and the ground, moved closer to the car and shot the interior. Maps, empty coffee cups, and food wrappers littered the floor. Keys dangled from the ingnition. Were the doors locked? Hard to tell nowadays with electronic locks, and she didn’t want to fudge any fingerprints by trying to open the door.
She circled to the back of the car. No license plates.
Earlier, when Seth had pulled up in front of her rented house, he’d asked to see her cell phone. She’d handed it over, resigned by then to his strange behavior, and he’d programmed a number into it. “My office number,” he’d said. “Call me any time.” She’d presumed he was still playing games with her, but maybe he’d expected her to find other strangenesses. This might not be another dead body, but it was strange.
She called Seth’s number and got his voice mail. She left a brief message saying she’d found an abandoned car, gave the location, then headed back to the road so she could warn the sheriff about the sand trap.
Her heart gave a strange leap when she saw the tan Navigator drawing near. Trepidation? Excitement? Best not even to think of it.
She flagged down the vehicle, pointed to the abandoned car, then swept a hand indicating he should drive on the hard packed surface of the desert rather than the path. The vehicle stopped, and the passenger door opened. She ducked her head inside and gave a start when she saw Deputy Midget.
Midget’s lips twitched. “I get that a lot.” He touched the brim of his hat. “I was in the area. Sheriff Bryan sent me. He said to tell you he got your message and will be here as soon as he can. You want a ride?”
“I’ll walk. Had enough of cop cars for a while.”
When she returned to the black sedan, Midget was sitting in his vehicle, talking on the radio. He clipped it back on the dashboard and climbed out of the vehicle.
Melanie showed him the disappearing footprints, the empty license plate holder, the keys in the ignition. “It might be nothing,” she said, “but after this morning . . .”
“Finding a corpse can make one jumpy.”
Melanie bristled, thinking he was disparaging her concern, but the intent way he studied the scene made her realize he took her seriously.
A horn honked, and he look around. “Where is that coming from?”
Melanie pointed to a distant pickup on a side road. “Sound travels.”
The horn blared again and again.
“Someone in trouble?” Midget asked.
“No. Someone’s just honking their dog. Hear it barking?”
Midget gave her a sidelong look. “Honking their dog? That some sort of local saying?”
“I made it up. A lot of people come here to let their dogs run free. They follow behind in their cars, and when the dogs stray too far, they honk to bring them back.”
“That bothers you?”
Melanie hesitated, then blurted out the truth. “It seems sacrilegious. For me, the desert is a mystical place. Somewhere I can be at peace to think things over.”
“It’s hard, isn’t it?”
She glanced up at Midget. His eyes seemed sad, and she knew he hadn’t been referring to intrusive noises in the desert.
“I lost my wife three years ago,” he said quietly. “Pancreatic cancer. ’Bout killed me. Came out west to start over. It’s a good place for healing. Except for rattlesnakes. Can’t get used to them.”
Something in his voice—a hint of glibness—made Melanie give him a second look. He was so massive, he probably intimidated people even when he didn’t want to. Could his professed fear of snake be a bit of theater to make himself seem vulnerable so people would underestimate him?
A vehicle speeding toward them kicked up a cloud of dust. Seth . . . Sheriff Bryan.
He hopped out of his vehicle and grinned at Melanie. “Just can’t get enough of me, can you?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Melanie said, but she could feel the smile tugging at her lips. “Now that you’re here, I’m going to head back home.”
Seth turned his head, his eyes scanning left to right. “Where’s your car?”
“You have it. At least I think you do.”
“You don’t have another car?” he asked, sounding surprised
“No. We just had the one. Rented. It’s too hard to maintain a vehicle when you spend half your time outside the country.”
“So how do you get around?”
Melanie stepped back. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Serious as a heart attack.”
“Even to get groceries?”
Seth angled his head toward Midget and said in a loud aside, “So now we understand how she could have eaten so much this morning. Probably the only real meal she’s eaten in days.”
Melanie’s face grew hotter than it already was, and she hoped the sheriff couldn’t tell she was blushing. She hadn’t eaten a real meal in days, but it wasn’t any of his business. “Speaking of my car,” she said, “when are you going to return Alexander’s cameras?”
Seth looked at Midget. Midget shrugged his linebacker shoulders.
“I took a quick look at the report,” Seth said. “There was no mention of cameras in the vehicle.”
“They have to be. They aren’t in the house, and Alexander was on his way to a photo shoot.”
“We’ll look into it. I have something for you.” Seth reached into a pocket and pulled out a small item using a thumb and forefinger. A camera memory card. “You can have this back on one condition.”
Melanie bit her lower lip. “What?”
“You give me the other memory card.”
Her face grew unbearably hot. “You knew?”
“I didn’t know for sure until you admitted it just now, but I thought it had to be something like that. Couldn’t figure out why you’d offer up the card without being asked, but when I looked at your crime scene photos and saw what a good photographer you are, I figured you didn’t want to take a chance on losing your best work.”
“I erased the card when I downloaded the images, but I can transfer them to a thumb drive for you.”
“Good. Now will you tell us the truth about finding this vehicle?”
Melanie took a deep breath, then told about seeing this same car in a photo she took that morning. “If I hadn’t known the car had been here that long, I might have found it curious, but not . . .”
“Not?” Seth prompted.
“Sinister. It just seemed wrong.”
A parade of county vehicles closed in on them.
“Can I go?” Melanie asked.
“Just don’t leave town,” Seth responded.
“Very funny.” Even as Melanie muttered the words, she wondered if the sheriff had spoken facetiously or if, despite his seeming candor, he still considered her a suspect.
“Melanie!” the sheriff called after her.
She turned around. “What?”
“I kept a copy of all the photos, but the first one didn’t go in official files. I kept it for myself.”
Melanie hadn’t a clue what he was talking about until she got home and inserted the card into her computer. She stared aghast at the photo, one Alexander had taken when they first moved to Rubicon Ranch. Apparently it remained on the card when the rest of the images had been erased. She dropped her head in her hands. Of all the people in the world, Seth was the last one she’d want to see that photo of herself in gauzy desert clothes, silhouetted against a sunny window, leaving nothing to the imagination.