Chapter 42: Melanie Gray — by Pat Bertram

The sound of her name hit Melanie with such force she staggered backward. Deputy Midget grasped her upper arm. At first she thought he meant only to steady her, but then he propelled her toward the sheriff. What next? Handcuffs? This can’t be happening. “I’m innocent,” she wanted to scream like a bimbo in a bad movie. “You’ve got to believe me!” But she kept her mouth shut. Sheriff Bryan didn’t have to believe her, and saying the words would make her appear guilty. And she was guilty—guilty of believing that lying, no-good sheriff when he said she wasn’t a suspect. Not only did he consider her a suspect, apparently he considered her the only suspect.

Feeling sick to her stomach at his betrayal, she put her free hand over her mouth to stay the nausea.

“Melanie?” the sheriff said again.

Pointedly ignoring him, she glanced at the small crowd of people gathered on the rocky hillside under the glaringly bright sun. Most were studying her with various degrees of interest, though a few seemed more enthralled by their own personal dramas than in her plight. Moody Sinclair stared with undisguised hatred at the suddenly rational Morris Sinclair. Ms. Westbrook with her waist-length brown hair and the muscle-bound Mr. Westbrook exchanged smug looks as if each had somehow gotten the better of the other. The sullen kid tried to kick his downed father, but Lieutenant Frio pulled him away.

“I didn’t do it.” Hating the echo of pleading Melanie heard in her soft-spoken words, she raised her voice. “I didn’t kill Herman Neuhaus.”

“I know you didn’t,” Bryan said

“What?” Melanie gaped the sheriff. “Then why—”

“But you know who did,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken.

Melanie wrenched her arm from Midget’s grasp. For a second, she considered running off. Bryan had just admitted publicly that he didn’t consider her a suspect, so he had no reason to hold her.

“What’s going on?” she heard someone whisper.

“This is bullshit,” someone else muttered.

“It’s like we’re in one of those stupid movies from Masterpiece Theater,” said a third in a mock British accent.

The sheriff held up a hand, and the patter stopped, though people still moved restively.

Poised to bolt, Melanie glanced at the spot where the television had been, and her resistance faded. Poor little girl. Riley deserved better than Sheriff Bryan’s feeble efforts to discover the truth of her death. And Melanie had promised to cooperate with the man.

She blew out a breath. “I wish I could help you, Sheriff, but I don’t know who killed Riley’s father.”

Unable to meet his gaze, she ducked her head and focused on the ground. The prolonged heat wave had turned the normally hard-packed earth to dust. Shoe prints stood out as if embossed on the desert floor. So many different sole treads—the paisley-like print of her own shoes, the intricate crosshatch tread of Midget’s shoes, the waffle-like print . . .

“Oh.” The single word burst out of her like a gasp, and for one startling moment, she understood the sheriff’s strategy. Bryan knew as well as she did what the killer’s shoe prints looked like, but if he didn’t have probable cause to get search warrants for all the suspects, he’d have a difficult time finding the shoes that matched the prints, and even if he could get the warrants, it would take time. Here, in the open, he didn’t need a search warrant—the prints were visible for anyone to study. And by having her point out the killer, he’d have a witness at a trial.

“These prints are the same as those I saw by the abandoned car,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Bryan asked. “That’s a common shoe tread.”

“I’m positive. The wear pattern is identical, and there’s a jagged circle on the left heel, as if he’d stepped on a sharp rock.”

The sheriff grinned at her. “That’s my girl.”

Melanie clenched her hands and said through gritted teeth, “I’m not your girl.”

But the sheriff, now grim-faced, was already heading toward the silver-haired man Midget had handcuffed.

“Cooper Dahlsing, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say . . .”

Cooper stood still, as if shocked into immobility, while Bryan read him his rights, and Melanie felt an unexpected pang of sympathy for the professor. He seemed both bewildered by the announcement that he’d killed a man, and resigned, as if he’d been expecting the terrible news. Bryan had mentioned the man’s sleepwalking. Was it possible the professor had killed without even being aware of taking another life?

“Let’s go,” Midget said. Cooper remained standing, staring straight ahead. Midget tugged on his prisoner’s arm, but Cooper still didn’t move. Midget shot a furrowed-brow look at the sheriff. “Is he sleepwalking?”

“Considering that he’s not walking,” the sheriff said, “my guess is no.”

Melanie’s neighbor stepped forward, and Melanie remembered that Moody had once been a psychologist.

“He could be having a seizure,” Moody said. “He told me that his sleepwalking episodes were the result of a rare form of epilepsy.”

“Epilepsy?” Midget jumped away from Cooper.

“Seizures are caused by abnormal electricity in the brain,” Moody said. “It’s not catching.”

“Can you snap him out of it?” Bryan asked.

“Without drugs? No. But seizures sometimes last only a few seconds.”

“It’s been more than a few seconds.”

“Sometimes they last longer, Sheriff.” Moody took a couple of steps closer to the handcuffed man and spoke in a soothing voice. “Hi, Cooper. When we talked before, I said you’d have to trust me, but you couldn’t then. Do you trust me now? I promise you have nothing to fear from me.”

Melanie swayed, and she realized the woman’s hypnotic voice was making her drowsy. She pulled herself upright, and clenched her hands until they hurt. She could leave now; no one would notice—everyone, including the Westbrooks and the McKenzies, kept their attention focused on Moody—but after being dragged all over Rubicon Ranch by the sheriff, she felt she had a stake in finding out why such a gentle-looking man had turned to murder.

Cooper’s eyelids fluttered, and his lips smacked.

“Cooper?” Moody said. “You can talk to me. I’m your friend.”

His eyelids fluttered again, then he gave a small start and looked around as if he didn’t know where he was.

“It’s time to find out what happened,” Moody said soothingly. “Not knowing the truth has haunted you long enough. Do you remember that night? It was hot, almost as hot as it is now. You saw something. What did you see?”

After a few long seconds, during which not one of the bystanders seemed to take a breath, Cooper turned his head toward Moody. Two words drifted out of his mouth. “Man. Cissy.”

“Cissy, your sister?”

“Yes. Cecelia.”

“Who’s Cecelia,” Morris rasped. “I thought the dead kid’s name was Riley.”

Moody turned to her father, and brought her arm down twice in a gesture that obviously meant for him to shush. Watching the byplay, Melanie almost missed Cooper’s words.

“I gave her a ride to school that morning.”

“You gave your sister a ride to school.” Moody said in her hypnotic voice.

“She was just a kid. Eight years younger. I was supposed to watch her.”

“You were a kid, too,” Moody said. “Only seventeen.”

“I never saw her again. Not alive.”

“What happened to your sister?”

“I don’t know. Murdered.” Long silence. “I saw her with some man.”

“You saw Cissy?” Moody asked.

“He carried her out of the house, put her in the car. I couldn’t let him take her.”

“Of course you couldn’t let him take her. You loved her. What did you do?”

“Ran after him. Followed his car into the desert. When he stopped, I caught up to him. I tried to pull him out of the car. I tugged and tugged. Then he stopped moving.”

After a moment of confusion, wondering how Cooper could have seen his sister for the last time when he dropped her off at school but had also seen her being carried out of the house, the truth hit Melanie. Cooper had somehow mixed up the two little girls in his mind. Cooper had seen Herman Neuhaus carrying Riley out of the Peterson’s house and thought he’d finally be able to save his sister. What trauma the professor must have gone through as a teenager imagining the horrors of his sister’s last hours. And then to see his imaginings playing out for real here, in Rubicon Ranch.

“What did you do next?” Moody asked calmly, hypnotically.

“Cissy was dead. He killed her. I couldn’t take her home. I needed to protect her.”

“So you took her out of the car?”

“I put her in the old television.”

“To protect her from the snakes?”

“I wanted her to be happy. She loved to play there. Liked to pretend she was a star.”

“What did you do with the man?”

“I drove his car to a different part of the desert and hid him. I wanted to keep him away from her. I walked back through the desert, over the knolls, passed the old television where I hid Riley’s body.” Cooper shuddered and tried to yank his hands out of the cuffs.

Melanie gave herself a shake, feeling as if she, too, were coming out of a trance. She uncurled her hands, and rotated her tight shoulders.

“It’s okay, Cooper,” Moody said. “You’re fine.”

Cooper looked at the crowd, then fixed his gaze on Moody. “But I killed a man. And I didn’t save Riley.”

Moody seemed taken aback. “You remember?”

“Yes. Now I do. I couldn’t reach him through the open car door, so I grabbed the only thing I could—his neck. I didn’t mean to kill him. I only wanted to save Cissy. . . . I mean Riley. I thought I was doing so well. I haven’t had a sleepwalking episode since I moved here, and then I woke in the desert that night. I saw sand beneath my fingernails and felt as though something terrible had happened.”

“For cripes sake,” Morris bellowed. “That’s it? The father accidentally kills the girl and then this wimp accidentally kills the father? That’s not much of a crime. If I couldn’t come up with a better plot than a bunch of accidents, I’d give up writing.”

The Westbrooks laughed, Dylan took another shot at kicking his father, and the motionless tableau turned into a milling mass of humanity.

Melanie considered Morris’s words. Despite his lack of sensitivity, he was right about one thing—Cooper’s actions didn’t seem like much of a crime. Maybe the courts would go easy on the professor. He hadn’t intended to kill the man. He’d only tried to save a little girl.

Tears welled up in Melanie’s eyes. So much death. Riley, her birth father, her pseudo-parents. And Alexander. Maybe the sheriff would find out why Alexander died, just as he’d found out why all those other people had died. But it wouldn’t make any difference. Alexander would still be dead.

In small groups, the sheriff, his deputies, their prisoners, and the persons of interest all started down the hill. Turning her back on them, Melanie walked to the crest of the knoll and down the other side. She thought she heard Seth call her name, but she kept on walking.

About Pat Bertram

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Great Yearning and four novels -- More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, Daughter Am I, and Light Bringer. All are available from Amazon, Smashwords, and Second Wind Publishing, LLC.
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