Melanie Gray woke with tears on her face. She sat up in the bed she’d shared with her husband Alexander, put her elbows on crossed knees, and cradled her face in her hands. The pain she tried to hide even from herself erupted, filling her chest with such agony she could only breathe in shuddering gasps.
She’d been doing so well, concentrating on shooting the photographs to finish their coffee table book on desert life, photos that Alexander should have taken, would have taken if he hadn’t died. So why the upsurge in grief? Then it came to her — today marked the third month since Alexander’s death.
Three months! Melanie saw the months marching on, one by one, each carefully counted while she grew old alone. She was only forty-three, which meant a lifetime of loneliness ahead of her.
I can’t do this.
But she’d already been doing it — living each shocking day as it came.
First, she’d found out that Alexander had died in a one-car crash under suspicious circumstances — maybe an accident, or maybe something worse, something she couldn’t bear to think about. Then she had discovered that he’d been texting a woman when he died, a woman who claimed to be his mistress. Finally, she learned that somehow he’d managed to spend the considerable advance they’d received for their book, leaving her with a six-month paid lease on this house, barely enough cash for groceries, and a book contract she needed to fulfill. No savings. And no car.
At least the desert was close, so she didn’t need a car to do her job. Rubicon Ranch, the bedroom community where they’d rented the house, bordered on the high desert of inland California, and offered gorgeous vistas, wildlife . . . and death.
“Damn you, Alexander! Why did you have to die? You were the one who was supposed to shoot the photos. I only wrote the words. If you’d paid attention to your driving, you’d still be alive, and I’d never have found that little girl’s body.”
Poor little Riley Peterson. Kidnapped as a baby, dead at age nine without ever knowing that her biological parents had spent her whole life searching for her.
Melanie let her tears fall for a few more minutes, took one more shuddering breath, and hauled herself to her feet. As bleak as her life seemed, as sad and as lonely as she felt, she was still alive. And she had work to do.
As always, she dressed 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 she grabbed a canteen of water, slung the strap over her shoulder like a bandolier, and stepped outside.
A perfect early fall day. Clear blue skies, the deepest blue she’d seen since she’d moved to Rubicon Ranch. A hint of a sweet-scented breeze wafting up Delano Road. Temperatures in the high seventies, though they would probably rise to the mid-eighties by noon.
The grizzled homeowner across the street picked up a newspaper from his driveway, waved it at Melanie, turned, and stood still. Wondering what had caught his attention, Melanie followed his gaze.
A tan bullmastiff towed a pretty woman up the street. The woman’s dark hair, drawn into a ponytail, swished jauntily as she ran to keep up with her exuberant dog. What should have looked like a carefree moment seemed one of desperation to Melanie, as if the woman were running from demons only she could see.
“Funny how art often imitates life, eh?” came a deep voice from behind Melanie.
She jerked her head in the direction of the voice, and gaped at Morris Sinclair, her next-door neighbor, who had managed to sneak up on her without her noticing.
Morris, an international bestselling horror novelist had been a suspect in Riley Peterson’s death. The sheriff had declared the author innocent of the murder but guilty of buying stolen crime scene photos. And guilty of feigning Alzheimer’s. Melanie didn’t know how the sheriff had come to that conclusion. As far as she could see, if Morris had been feigning Alzheimer’s, he must have been trying to hide the truth—that he was insanely evil. Or evilly insane.
“Or maybe, in her case, life is imitating art,” Morris said.
“What are you doing here,” Melanie demanded. “Does Moody know you’re on the loose?” Moody, Morris’s daughter, had spent time in prison for the accidental death of a child. You’d think a man as perverse as Morris would be proud of her for that accomplishment, but he treated his daughter with even less regard than he treated everyone else.
“Am I my daughter’s keeper?” Morris intoned.
Melanie backed away from him. “I’m sorry. I don’t have time for this.”
“I know. You have to go out into the desert to shoot more of your little photos.” He bared his long, old-ivory-colored teeth at her in what might have been meant as a smile but came across as a predatory leer. Pointing a bony finger at her camera, he added, “You know how to use that thing, right?”
Melanie lifted her chin. “I do.”
“I’ll offer you the same arrangement I had with your husband.”
“You had an arrangement with Alexander?”
“Yeah. Alexander. Did you have more than one husband?”
Melanie stared at him in confusion, but when his dark opaque eyes met her gaze, she ducked her head.
“Alexander used to take certain . . . photos for me.” Morris raised his voice. “Photos of body parts.”
“Body parts?” Melanie asked. “You mean like arms and legs? You can find photos of those anywhere.”
“But I need amputated body parts. Dead parts. Lots of blood and gore. Necropieces.”
Melanie recognized the name of Morris’s most famous horror series — Necropieces — but none of his other words made sense. “You’re telling me Alexander took photos of amputated limbs for you?”
“And entrails. And organs. He loved shooting the images. Had a nicely developed sense of the macabre.”
“No,” Melanie said in a normal tone of voice. Then, all at once, the agony of the past few months gathered itself and launched a scream. “Nooooo.”
The word seemed to echo up and down the quiet street. She caught a glimpse of movement on the porch a couple of houses away, and she realized the old man who lived there, Eloy Franklin, had heard her shriek, but she didn’t care. She had enough of insanity and things that didn’t make sense.
“You leave me alone, Sinclair,” she shouted as loud as she could so that Morris would get the message, “or I’ll be shooting your dead body parts.”
“Every one of you bastards wants me dead!” Morris screamed, matching her decibel for decibel. He threw his arms wide as if to address the neighborhood. “Kill me! Kill me! Kill me. Cowards, every one of you! None of you have the guts to do anything but sit in your dark little caves and try to wish me away. Cowards! And
you —” He turned to face Melanie. “I dare you. Kill me like you killed Alexander.”
Melanie gasped. “Alexander died in an accident.”
“An accident you created,” Morris said calmly, as if he’d never raised his voice. “Before that little girl died, she told Moody you’d messed with your car.”
“You’re lying.” Melanie’s words barely squeaked through her clenched teeth.
“Ask Moody.” Morris put a finger to his chin and cocked his head to one side. “So, will you take the photos for me? I’ll pay you well.”