Diablo Canyon Descent

by Calla Gold

        Dani’s chest clenched as she looked down the sheer drop to Diablo Creek. The cliff fell away, punctuated by random fridge-sized boulders, suspended partially birthed as if décor at a climbing-wall attraction in Las Vegas. It was fifty, dusty, sunbaked feet down, before the canopy of sycamore, bay, and alder jostled to fill the space between the walls of the gorge. She crawled gasping, back from the edge. Hot sun baked down, filling her nose with the smell of sage and dust. There was no way she could climb down from here to see the spot where Sean died. The nearby rustle of some animal in the underbrush and the call and reply of birds down in the trees below, told her that even though she was stuck, life went on.

        Dani moved along the trail and sank down in the shade and looked at pictures on her cell phone. Images of dirt, dust, and treetops told her nothing about the last place Sean breathed, before an eighty-foot drop onto the invisible rocks below broke him.

        With stinging eyes, she pulled the clever black Timberbell off her mountain bike handlebar. Its sweet clear ting warned hikers, horseback riders, and other mountain bikers, she was near. Sean had given it to her months ago. She shook it and was transported by the high sweet note to memories of speedy descents and giddy squeals.

        “Sean, if you can hear me, I love you and I miss you so bad.” She stood, walked back to the cliff edge and laid it down. She thought of impromptu lonely shrines by the highway with photos, flowers, and stuffed animals, marking the sudden death of strangers.

        Dani picked a handful of crispy-dry pearly everlasting blooms and buried her nose in their familiar maple on pancakes scent. It had been their favorite wildflower. Sean had insisted that the scent changed depending on the soil, altitude, and rainfall. And probably some other factors that he cared more deeply about than anyone else. Since his death, Dani found herself stopping whenever she saw the blooms and inhaling the memory. She set the bundle on the dirt cliff edge and weighted it down with the tiny cowbell.

        Dani wondered if riders would add to the impromptu memorial once the trail opened up again. Or if the mysterious ranch owner would remove it, not wanting the reminder that mountain biking was dangerous. The tears she’d suppressed in the weeks following Sean’s death fell hot down her cheeks. She sobbed into her red bandana. Her eyes were swollen by the time her tears stopped.

        A cool blast of wind chilled her. She saw the sun had fallen behind the steep hill across canyon. Time to ride. Her bike wobbled as she bounced over rocks on the narrow single track, riding her brakes, the way she had those first days of descents with Sean.

        “Feather the brakes babe, don’t choke ‘em, or you’ll eat your handlebars,” he’d said.

        The lighting, too dim for comfort, failed to warn her of the pale rock that stalled her bike. With bloody scraps and future bruises, she picked herself up. Her mouth twisted in amusement, relieved Sean hadn’t seen her inviting the fall. She step-slid down the next steep, rocky patches after that and wished she’d brought a headlamp. By the time she approached the trailhead with its “Trail Closed” signs plastered on sawhorses, she was beat. She broke German-ivy vines with her helmet as she shoved past the barrier. Sensing something odd she looked up and jerked to a stop. A rider in silhouette stood statue still beside his mountain bike.

        Dani was boxed in, trapped between brush and sawhorses, with her bike. A wave of heat rolled through her chest.

        She tried twice to speak, her voice caught in her chest, “hello?”

        “Can you not read English, Ms. Bustamante?” A deep voice spoke too loud for the quiet place, with a nasal overtone.

        “I didn’t hurt anything, I just wanted to say goodbye to Sean.” Dani gathered flicks of anger to fight her fear.

        “You broke the number one rule at Tappen Ranch; you rode a closed trail.” The sneer had left his voice, and burst out in a higher register, like an aggrieved child.

        “I’m sorry.”

        “Perhaps you are under the misapprehension that this is some sort of liberal conservationist preserve. Or that you’re on Los Padres National Forest land.” His voice returned to the original slow cadence. He stepped closer. She felt his warm breath on her cheek.

        “Who are you?” Her bike stopped her from stepping back.

        “You’re trespassing.”

        “I’m a dues-paying member of this ranch. But since you know my name, you already know that.” Dani heard her nervous breaths. An adrenaline burst sang through her veins. “You’re blocking my way. I need to get to my car.”

         “Those dues paid your access to a private mountain-bike trail system Ms. Bustamante.” Her stomach knotted at his sneering pronunciation of her last name. “You’re off the mountain as of now. If you trespass again, you’ll be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” He didn’t move. The birdcalls that had followed her down the trail, silenced.

        “Fine, I’m banned. Let me pass,” she said. He didn’t move, his nearness became menace.

        She fumbled her phone out of her pocket and dropped her bike with a disturbing clunk. She turned away from him and reached toward her bike and managed to dial 911. One-handed, she pulled her bike back up, with slow, mock difficulty. She heard the tinny voice from her phone, “911. What is the nature of your emergency?”

        She shouted out, “I’m being impeded at Tappen Ranch by a—”

        “What are you doing?” He yelled. He stepped forward, forcing her to back up. She wobbled, then she and her bike crashed back to the ground. She yelped when the pedal spiked her thigh. Dani’s lungs gasped in convulsive gulps. Her thigh burned as she moved herself off the pedal. She pictured the bloody gouge and glared up at the looming man, “I called 911.”

        “Ma’am, ma’am, are you able to speak? A unit is being dispatched.” Though it was faint, the silence of the darkening night amplified the sound.

        “There’s no problem here,” the man shouted.

        He stepped back, clicked his headlamp on and shined it full in Dani’s face, blinding her. She heard the crisp snick of bike shoes clipping one after the other onto pedals. She blinked to clear the spots from her eyes. Sounds from his receding bike helped her lungs find room to breathe again. She extricated herself from her fallen bike. Post-adrenaline dizziness met her when she stood. Silence returned.

        “Ma’am, ma’am?” She reached down and grabbed her dusty cellphone.

        “I’m here. I’m okay. I think.”

*  *  *

        “He wouldn’t tell you his name?” The officer asked.

        “No. But it had to be someone who runs the ranch.”

        “Well since he didn’t threaten you with bodily harm, we can’t really take this any farther.”

        “I understand. I’m sorry to waste your time.”

        “If you hear from him again or get any more information on who he is, we’ll add it to the report. You shouldn’t be riding alone, even on private land.” He glanced back toward his partner, backlit like a coach at a night game.

*  *  *

        Dani woke, light streaming in, sheets tangled, sweaty from a bad dream. She reached for her phone. And texted, “JoJo, can you come over?”

*  *  *

        A half an hour later, JoJo rolled down Dani’s driveway on her Miami Green Trek Remedy 9.8 mountain bike. She dismounted in a neat advertisement for grace in motion. She stood watching Dani clean her bright orange Trek hardtail.

        “If I’d known you were on a cleaning binge, I’d have left the dust on.”

        “I cry bullshit, you wouldn’t let me touch Gamora,” Dani huffed a laugh.

        “That’s fair.” JoJo took her helmet off and pulled the pony tail band to release her wavy dark brown mop of hair.

        Dani ran a rag over the derailer and picked up the can of chain lube.

        “I had an interesting day yesterday,” Dani said.

        “Spill,” JoJo said.

        “I rode the ranch yesterday. I wanted to see the spot where Sean died. Of course, the trail was closed. Fifteen trails and the one I want is closed. I sort of got to say goodbye to Sean. But the weird thing I can’t get over is, where Sean went over. And that creep who banned me. He gave me the hot-breath, no-personal-space invasion.” Dani flicked her hands to dispel the invisible memory.

        “Only person who could ban you would be Lee Tappen, the owner. And he’s legit one eccentric dude. So, what about where Sean, you know caught his final air?”


        “Sorry,” JoJo said. “And how do you even know where he went over?”

        “The rescue folk left footprints and scrapes over bike tracks. It was dead easy. I started at the bottom of the trail. That turn where Sean died was already pretty wide, but they tore it up some more with their equipment.” Dani’s chest tightened. “JoJo, here’s the thing, we know Sean was a supernatural on a bike, it’s hard to imagine he’d lose it on like the easiest turn on the trail.”

        “Could of lost it trying to PR,” JoJo said.


        “Personal record. No offense, but dude was a speed demon, he loved to wind me up taking the lead and doing stupid, reckless, shit,” JoJo said.

        Dani shrugged.

        “Just sayin’ Sean could get insane,” JoJo said.

        “Isn’t that kind of the pot calling the kettle black?” Dani’s lips quirked up.

        “I do not court death and dismemberment, merely badges of courage,” JoJo said.


        “I’m down for the blood, scabs, and scars, but leave the cracked cartilage and casts for the boneheads,” JoJo laughed.

        “JoJo, could he have gone up there to die?” Dani’s throat felt thick and her breath came shallow.

        “What, were you two broken up, again? I can’t keep track,” JoJo said.

        “I said stuff,” Dani said. “With his depression and all, maybe I shouldn’t have called him on his shit.”

        “Let me catch up here a sec, he’s too good of a rider to blow the turn, so you think something you said made him dive?” JoJo asked.

        “Or something happened to him,” Dani said.

        “Someone’s streaming too much CSI.”

        “No seriously, like I need to see where he died. But I can’t get back up the hill. I’m full-out banned,” Dani said. “My head’s just not right.”

        “Gimme a sec, eh?” JoJo pulled out her phone and started texting.

        Dani turned back to the bike stand and wiped the excess oil off her chain. She heard an unfamiliar cell ring tone and heard JoJo answer. JoJo walked out to the street, so Dani couldn’t make out more than a few words. She grimaced. She gathered up her rags and stuffed them with too much force into the bucket. She strode to the shed, threw it in, watched it fall over, didn’t pick it up and slammed the door.

        “Would you stop trying to destroy shit? We’re going for a ride. Shota got banned from the ranch a few weeks ago and he’s all ears. We’re meeting up on the Edison Road. Don’t go putting on lipstick, I’m outclassed as it is and I don’t need you looking like tragic frickin’ Jennifer Lopez.”

*  *  *

        Dani panted on the incline. “Who’s Shota?” Keeping up with JoJo took all the air. JoJo shouted back, “Shota rode the ranch and his getting kicked is like telling Serena Williams she’s off the tennis team. Just nutballs.”

         “Tell,” shouted Dani, knowing talking slowed JoJo down.

        “He’s like one of the best riders on the mountain. He and Lee, the guy that owns the ranch, were trading King of the Mountain on the Wipeout Trail. Dude I talked to told Shota to knock that shit off, if he wanted to keep his membership. Lee was KOM before Shota beat his time. And Lee banned some other guy for breaking a couple of his PRs.”

        Dani yelled forward, “Okay, boss-dude’s an asshat, why exactly are we riding with Shota?”

        “Sean was going for KOM on the Diablo Canyon trail,” JoJo said. “Lee’s KOM. You got me to thinking.”

        “I didn’t know,” Dani said. Or care, she thought.

        “Of course, you didn’t, you’re all, let’s stop and hug that tree, or ooh, look at the light coming through that cobweb, I need to take a picture. They need a category just for you. SOM, slug of the mountain,” Jojo punched her fist in the air.

        Dani downshifted and eased back her pace. The trail narrowed and curved around to reveal a broader view. Her thighs burned. She watched JoJo’s neat control as the path degraded and last winter’s rain revealed imbedded rocks that popped up like mushrooms after a full moon. JoJo receded up trail and disappeared around the next bend.

        Dani got off and walked. She pictured the over-arching oak canopy on the Diablo Canyon trail; sun dappling the trail ahead with gold coin spots of light. She remembered her favorite boulder with the holes in it that looked like a face.

        “Earth to Dani. Hello, are you still back there?” JoJo yelled. She’d stopped in the shade of a ceanothus bush. Dani caught up and plopped down to catch her breath.

        “I was thinking about Diablo Canyon. It’s so pretty. I can’t believe I’ll never ride it again.”

        “I can’t believe you’d want to,” JoJo said. Dani shrugged and they fell into an easy panting silence.

        JoJo had grown up next door to Sean and she’d gotten him onto the trails. Soon he was bombing along the singletracks, pumping the downslope banks, and catching air on the jumps. His natural ability left most kids in the dust, but JoJo had hung on, followed his lead, sessioning over drops, switchbacks, and features, till she nailed the technique. When Sean and Dani got together, JoJo was the one to teach her how to ride the trails safely. After Sean scared the crap out of Dani and abandoned her to speed down the rocky, erosion challenged, El Morro trail, she’d limped in, bloody legged. JoJo liked that Dani didn’t let the crash stop her from learning to ride dirt. She coaxed Dani to let Sean fly ahead and not try to keep up. She’d told Sean, she’d loosen his wheel nuts if he said anything to Dani about being slow. Somewhere along the line Dani and JoJo became best friends.

        “If it was just an accident, then I’m being a mental case right? But if Sean killed himself, how do I live with that, JoJo?”

        “Look, if you’re gonna blame yourself for his death, pick a number and get in line. His mom was over at my folk’s place the other night blubbering her eyes out about being too hard on him. My brother regrets lending him his old beater bike and I suppose my constant calls for ‘what’s next’ didn’t help either. Sean could be compulsive. Let’s not add your name to the guilt fest.”

        Dani nodded. She grasped JoJo’s arm and squeezed hard. JoJo tilted her head and clacked her helmet against Dani’s and gave her a half smile. Dani grabbed her faded green bike bottle and aimed a perfect stream of lukewarm water into her mouth. She handed it to JoJo who did the same.

        “Let’s ride,” JoJo said.

*  *  *

        The Edison Road baked in the late morning sun.

        “Why are we meeting this guy at the Death Valley Trailhead?” Dani complained.

        “I forget how unfit you are,” JoJo smirked at her.

        “I’m not unfit, you’re a masochist.”

        “Busted. Hey, I see him.”

        A few minutes later Shota climbed a last turn on the sunbaked fire road and stopped, panting, in front of them. Dani noted his short stature and wiry build. His deep tan spoke of serious outdoor time.

        “There’s shade in a half mile,” he said.

        He took off, and rode faster than JoJo, even though she’d had a chance to catch her breath. Dani rode at her own pace, alone, grumpy, and hot.

        Minutes later Dani rolled into the shade and leaned her bike against the trunk of a stubby oak tree. With his helmet off, Shota’s shoulder length black hair was shiny and straight, like hers. His unsmiling face made Dani shy. She listened as Shota shared his plans to race in Santa Cruz with JoJo. At a break in the conversation JoJo said, “You know about Sean, right?”

        “Yeah, that so sucks. He was a righteous rider, wouldn’t crowd you, stay back if you popped a tube, and he didn’t crow about his times.”

        “You know Dani? She was his girlfriend,” JoJo said.

        He bobbed his head at Dani, “Sorry ‘bout that.”

        “She got kicked from the Ranch for checking his last trail. It was closed,” JoJo said.

        “At least you know why you were kicked. I did hours of trail maintenance just this year and it’s not like I was one of the guys on the probation list,” he said. “My getting banned is just so wrong.”

        “I heard you were killing Lee’s King of the Mountain times,” Dani said.

        “It wasn’t like I was doing it on purpose. I want to compete, I was just training,” Shota said.

        “I hear Lee’s got an ego on him and that’s why you got kicked,” JoJo said.

        “I was a fucking ambassador, I got him like fourteen sign ups. Dude’s a dick,” Shota frowned. “But I have a plan to get back in.” He grinned. It was like watching the sun come out from behind a cloud.

        “Can you get me in too?” Dani said.

        “It’s not exactly legal. At least it’s probably not,” Shota said.

        “Well?” JoJo said.

        “My roommate is strictly roadie, but he’s had a ride app for a year or so. He’ll let me sign up for membership in his name and use his cell and app when I ride. I’ll get one of the guys I know to come with at the same time and I’ll hand the cell off to him and it’ll look we’re riding the same segment. He can stash it in my car when he’s done, and I’ll ghost around the trails and work on my skills and Lee can keep his crown.”

        “Couldn’t you get caught? Or arrested for trespassing?” Dani said.

        “Lee’s not exactly a social guy. He probably doesn’t even know what I look like. I know there’s cameras, by the gate, I’ll use my old blue helmet. But the camera’s probably there to make sure no one sneaks in. I’ll be a paying member, but he can forget volunteer maintenance hours.”

        “I don’t mind paying, but I don’t have a roomie with the app,” Dani said.

        “Use my phone, hell we look alike,” JoJo slapped her thigh and honked a laugh.

        Shota looked at the tall pretty Dani and short stocky JoJo. They did not look anything alike. His grin made him look younger.

        “Maybe if you squint,” Dani ducked her head. “Can I ride with you? And we can hand JoJo’s phone off to your buddy?” Dani said,

        “That works,” Shota said.

*  *  *

Photo by Calla Gold
Photo by Calla Gold

        Shota let Dani take the lead down the Diablo Canyon trail. The back of her neck itched. She knew she was slower than most other members at the ranch. Hiding at the back of the pack and falling way behind was fine with her. Less dusty too. Her attention went to her arms. Was her form awful? Was he dying of her slow pace? Was he wondering how someone who’d been riding the ranch for over a year could be this laggy? A quarter mile down she dismounted. The trail dropped steeply ahead. No way she was riding that with a witness. Her flat-soled shoes slid on the steep rubbly shale while her bike bounced down the boulders next to her. She stifled a scream.

        Once she cleared the erosion riddled section, she turned to watch Shota. His bent body and bike moved like a single creature. He hopped his bike down from rock to rock and somehow did a little wheelie on the last and biggest boulder before he bounced down to the flat in a spray of pebbles.

        “Show off,” Dani said.

        “Just practicing my skills,” his grin burst into a laugh.

        Ten minutes later they stared ahead at a wider dirt area where a turn in the trail overlooked a steep drop-off into the canyon.

        “I don’t know what I expected to see,” Dani said.

        “My roommate’s half-blind dog couldn’t fall off the route there. I don’t get it, was Sean trippin’or something?” Shota pursed his lips.

        “He smoked weed,” Dani said, “but he never rode high. In what universe does a rider like Sean go off at a spot like this?” She leaned forward to look over the edge.

        “Easy there, you’re a bit close,” Shota said.

        Her stomach did a little flip as she stepped back.

        “Hey, someone’s coming, grab your bike,” Shota hissed.

        Dead branches scratched her legs, as she crackled through the thigh-high chaparral after Shota. The tings of twigs against spokes seemed as loud as gunshots to her. They ditched their bikes in speckled shade from the oak canopy above. Dani hoped the natural camouflage would conceal them. One shiny metal component, seen through the imperfect screen of gappy brush could torpedo their cover. She laid stiff by her bike, the skin on her calves hot and itchy from scrapes. Something poked her in the stomach and an insect buzzed at the moist corner of her closed eye.

        Dani heard the squeal of brakes, the crunk of a bike dropped to its side with careless disregard. It sounded too close to them. Against her possum-urge to play dead, her eyes flew open, her hand swiped away the fly and she stared through a dusty cobweb at a guy in a yellow helmet. His back was to them as he stood at the cliff edge and looked down. He kicked crusty dirt chunks off the end, yanked his bike up, looked around, then rode away.

*  *  *

        “Did you see the way he treated his bike?” Shota hissed.

        “It’s not like it’s his dog,” Dani whispered.

        “How a person treats their bike, tells you all you need to know about them. It’s better than one of those stupid personality tests,” Shota murmured.

        “Psychology major?”

        “Neuroscience.” Shota said as he stood up.

        “Communications for me,” Dani said, inspecting her bloody scratches. “Looks like I have some badges of courage to show JoJo.”


        “She’s down for badges of courage. You know, blood, scabs, and scars, but not broken bones,” Dani smiled.

        “I knew I liked her,” Shota smiled past her.

        They approached the cliff edge in inches and saw Lee’s footprints. Dani took pictures that probably captured nothing in the overhead blast of sunlight. Lee had chunked a couple inches off the edge. The scar of freshly exposed dirt was darker than the trail above. Dani took more pictures.

        “Guess we’re not the only curious ones,” Dani whispered. She couldn’t seem to catch her breath.

        “That was close. I wonder if Lee knew riders came down here,” Shota said.

        “How do you know it was him?” Dani asked.

        “Everyone knows he wears a yellow helmet and Pit Viper shades,” he said.

        “Mr. Subtle, eh?”

        “Oh, he wants you to know that he’s one bad-ass KOM,” Shota said.

        Dani followed Shota on foot back up to the rocky eroded part of the trail. She climbed over the edge into the canyon after him, finding plenty of hand and foot holds. Dani’s stomach lurched when she looked down at him and saw how far below the first massive boulder lay.

        After the bright sun of Sean’s final corner, the narrow gorge that led to it was a shadowy, steep challenge. Once below the sycamore, alder, and bay canopy, the air tinted green. Raucous bird calls broke the solitude. Down in the creek bed, she gawked at the impossibly ginormous boulders. They were half the size of her bedroom, tumbled like dumpsters between the gorge’s steep walls. Creek water burbled, a cool counterpoint to the parched chapparal, baking in the sun above. The vertical fern wall across from them, bobbed as droplets fell from frond to frond.

        “What a magical place. Did you know about this?” Dani asked.

        “No. I always wanted to climb down here. But the app would have shown me stopped and someone might have thought I’d fallen, so I just never did. Mind blown.”

        They boulder hopped downstream until they came to the sharp bend where one hill shouldered into the other, forcing the creek’s turn. Twenty feet beyond, moss was disturbed, sticks broken and a bright orange bungee cord lay forgotten. Without words they crouched, inspecting every rock, bush and tangle. Dani took pictures all around.

        “Shota?” Her voice squeaked.

        He came to her side and took the friendship bracelet she held out.

        “Was that his?”

        “He never took it off. JoJo made it for him. Shota, that didn’t fall off him, he took it off and shoved it under there.”

        “Then he was alive when he hit.”

        Dani nodded. She clenched her arms to her sides to stop her tear-hot eyes from spilling.

        “Are you allergic to poison oak?” Shota asked.

        “I don’t care, I saw some mugwart upstream, I’ll rub it on later. I think I see something dark farther in,” Shota stopped her arm.

        “I’ll get it.” He laid on his stomach, reached into the tangle of poison oak branches, felt around, and came out with a crack-screened cell phone. He scrubbed moss along his arm and shoved the phone into a pocket.

*  *  *

        Dani sped around the small front room of her cottage, picking up the little things that had homes elsewhere. The shower ran with Shota bumping around in the miniscule fiberglass stall. Sean had hated that tiny enclosure, its shower head spraying at his chest, and his tall frame never able to stay within. Dani remembered having to use one or two towels to soak up the water that covered the floor after one of his quick showers.

        “Hey,” JoJo said, pushing open the front door. “What’s up?”

        JoJo still wore the Binty’s apron over khakis and a food spotted white shirt. She dropped her car keys on the end table.

        “Shota’s in the shower,” Dani answered JoJo’s head quirk. JoJo’s eyebrows rose up.

        Dani shook her head. “It’s not like that. We have news. Let’s wait for him.”

        JoJo looked down at herself and grimaced. She yanked off the apron and tossed it to the couch, coins jingling.

        “Good tips today?”

        “God, I hate Gen Z. I had this ten-top, over $200 bill, and they left me ten bucks. Ten bucks! I was rushed off my feet, had a six-table station, one busser short, a freakin’ nightmare. Luckily, a couple who were quite drunk came in and ordered like it was a tasting menu. I could hardly fit everything on the table, but they were having fun. They left me a fifty. Maybe there is a god.”

        Dani raised her eyebrows at her, “Did you get in trouble for leaving?”

        “I was only on the schedule to work breakfast shift, but Simone called in sick for lunch. If sick in love is a thing. Thanks for getting me out of there. I was considering changing my shirt and picking up the dinner shift,” JoJo laughed.

        Dani pulled a ZZ Top shirt out of the dirty laundry basket by the door and handed it over.

        “Great, your granny’s fan shirt,” JoJo grimaced.

        “They’re cool,” Dani grinned.

        “I hope you never shared your pathetic taste in music with Sean,” JoJo laughed.

        The shower turned off and JoJo yanked on the Tee.

        Steamy air came out with Shota, along with a jungle-y botanical scent. With his hair slick to his head, he looked like a stranger for a moment.

        Shota looked at Dani, then JoJo, eyebrows drawn together. “Uh, hi JoJo.” They stood like a waxwork scene for a few moments. Dani bobbed her head and turned to the small fridge and pulled out three Island Brews.

        A moment later, Shota pulled the friendship bracelet out of his pocket and handed it to JoJo. She dropped her head and stroked the fraying threads of tightly woven reds, oranges, and blacks. Her eyes were red-rimmed when she looked up. Shota stepped closer and put his arm around her. Dani nodded at Shota when he looked at her. He told JoJo about their ride. At the end, he grabbed his pack and pulled out the phone and handed it to her.

        JoJo rotated it, stared at it, like it could tell her something. “This is a message. Like Sean’s talking to us from the grave. Let’s see what he says.” When it wouldn’t turn on, JoJo pulled a charging brick out of her bag and plugged it in. Sean’s cracked cell screen lit up.

        “You know his password?” Shota asked Dani.

        “Bikejones8,” JoJo said.

        “What about his ride app?” Shota asked.

        “Seandog,” JoJo said.

        “How do you know his passwords?” Dani asked.

        “I was his personal password manager, you know how he was,” JoJo said.

        A wafting scent of jasmine came in the open door.

        “Here we go. His last ride.” The screen showed ‘Sean Thatcher rode with Potter Rider.’

        “His ride ends here,” JoJo said. The map segment where the ride ended showed a small curve.

        “Who’s Potter Rider?” Shota’s head leaned close to JoJo’s. “Is that a Harry Potter reference?”

        “Who cares?” JoJo’s voice hitched. “Potter dude was there when Sean had his accident. Probably called 911.”

        “Maybe he’d know what happened, we should find out who it is.” Dani said. “How easy is it to find out who’s behind the Potter name?”

        “Lee would know,” JoJo shook her head, “but we’re not asking him. That’s for sure. Shota, what do you think about the spot Sean, um, left the trail at? It seem likely to you?”

        “No.” He told JoJo about Lee’s visit to the spot while he and Dani hid.

        JoJo cocked her head sideways. “My brother knows a guy on the force. What say I reach out?”

*  *  *

        Officer Garza hunched his large frame on the kitchen chair in Dani’s cottage, making it look like a child’s toy. His uniform and utility belt squeaked when he shifted.

        “I’m sorry you lost your friend, but I’ve looked at the accident report. It’s a closed case, bike accident, end of story,” Garza said. “Some of these mountain bike riders are fucking nuts. They ride out of control down the no-bike trails and freak out the hikers. There’s a suit against a local rider who broke a hiker-woman’s leg.”

        “Sean was riding the Ranch, it’s a members-only, bikes-only, private-trail property. He didn’t bomb around the front-country trails. He had no respect for jerks like that,” JoJo defended.

        Shota, JoJo, and Dani were squished together on the sofa, facing the officer. Garza lifted his hands up.

        “Did police investigate the scene?” Dani asked.

        “It was more of a retrieval, from what I read,” Garza said.

        “Sean was alive when he hit. And conscious too,” Dani said.

        “You don’t know that. This bracelet thing could have fallen off. It would have been quite an impact,” Garza said.

        “I made that bracelet. It’s not broken. He took it off on purpose,” JoJo insisted.

        “Why would he do that? And so what if he did?” Garza stood. “No offense JoJo, but I gotta clock in soon.”

        “Look, he shoved his cell into a poison oak bush,” Dani said, her voice rising.

        Garza looked at her like she was having a mental breakdown.

        “He’s crazy allergic to the stuff. He was saying something’s wrong,” Dani insisted.

        “Yeah, I’m not seein’ it. I’m really sorry your friend died, but why am I here?” Garza said.

        “We need to know who Potter Rider is on Sean’s ride app.” Dani said. She scribbled passwords on a scrap of paper, rubber banded it around the cell, and held it out to Garza.

        “I don’t know…” He started.

        “Just try, okay? Please?” JoJo wheedled.

        Garza took the phone like a prickly pine cone. He frowned as he showed himself out. His car door slammed harder than necessary. They listened as the engine noise receded. Quiet filled the room.

        “Let me make you guys something to eat,” Dani said. In spite of the lackluster response from JoJo’s law enforcement friend, Dani found herself hopeful. Shota and JoJo still sat close together on the couch. Dani made a point of keeping her back to the two of them while she reached into the fridge and pulled veggies, leftover rice, and miso paste onto her micro-counter.

        She hummed while lighting the burners with a match. She tried to catch their low murmured conversation. Their closeness provided an electric buzz to her movements.

        A few minutes later Shota was deep into his story of finding mountain biking while bored out of his gourd at his grandparent’s place in Pittsfield, Vermont. JoJo told about getting Sean into dirt and Dani found that she could hear Sean stories without reacting like a telenovela Emmy-winning cry baby.

        Sean had never been much of a bare-your-soul type guy. The first time he ghosted her, she was hurt and pissed. JoJo had been the one to let her know that he was ‘going through something,’ and it wasn’t about her. It was nice to find out more about Sean as she listened to JoJo and Shota grinning and laughing about the man she’d loved and known would never be her forever guy.

*  *  *

        Two evenings later, Dani heard footsteps outside. She hit save on her essay. Officer Garza stood in the doorway of the cottage, fingers fiddling with the loose bits of sun blasted paint. “Look this whole thing just wasn’t my thing. I’m not a detective, I barely get out of the station house. I gave that cellphone to a woman on the force I like and told her your story. She’ll either do something or she won’t, but I’m done,” he handed her a card, squinted at her for a second, then walked away.

        “Thanks,” Dani called after him. He didn’t respond. She flopped down on the sofa.

        She texted JoJo, “Can you let Shota know the officer handed off Sean’s cell to a detective and gave me her card? But it doesn’t sound promising.”

        “He’s here,” JoJo whispered down the line.

        “Shota’s there?” Dani’s lips curled up. Her phone lit up with a smiley face.

*  *  *

        A week later a short woman, with red hair shot through with gray, stood at the cottage door. “Detective O’Donnal,” she said. Dani offered her a chair and scooched onto the couch with Shota and JoJo. “Did Officer Garza hear you correctly in saying that Sean was alive after he came off his bike?”

        “Yes,” Dani said.

        After many questions, Detective O’Donnal said, “When the paramedics climbed down into the creek, the victim was deceased. I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m saying, if he was alive when he landed, and dead when they arrived, it opens a window of time to question, between accident and death.”

        “Is Sean’s death an ongoing investigation now?” Dani asked.

        “No.” The detective said.

        “Could you tell us who Potter Rider is when you find out?” JoJo asked.

        The detective gave a small head shake. “I’ll let you know if there’s any change in the case status. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Evidently the Ranch can be a dangerous place.”

        “What do you mean?” Dani asked.

        The detective tilted her head to the side and stood. “Thank you for your time.”

        Once she was gone, Shota had his phone out. “There’s a bunch of stories from years ago about the ranch.”

        Dani pulled out her own cell, not willing to squint at Shota’s, though JoJo didn’t seem to mind.

        Patriarch’s Mysterious Death Baffles Officials, Tappen Ranch Patriarch Dies – Heirs Jockey for Advantage, Fire Roars Through Tappen Ranch Barn, Heirs Take Case of Tappen Ranch to Appeal, Two Tappen Ranch Heirs Die in Fiery Car Crash. Lee Tappen Prevails in Probate War over Tappen Ranch Lands.

        “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m thinking it’s not healthy to be a member of that family, eh?” Dani said.

        “Indeed,” JoJo said.

        “Hey, check this out,” Dani held her phone up. Tappen Heir in Paternity Suit. Shota found the article and they all read in silence.

        “I think I need to talk to this Marleena person,” Dani said.

*  *  *

        The cement-gray cellblock of an apartment building squatted mid-block between two taller and newer buildings. Dani was late to the bent-screen-doored apartment because the on-street parking was garbage. She heard a crying child within and didn’t hear the doorbell ring when she pressed the cracked button. She knocked on the screen door frame and waited.

        “Just a sec,” came a voice from within.

        The crying stopped and she waited some more. The door opened and a blue jeans and spotty t-shirt clad young woman ushered her into the front room. It was a dichotomy of matched black leather furniture and toddler toy clutter. The toddler in question hid behind the legs of his mother.

        “Hi Marleena, I’m Dani. Thanks for seeing me.”

        “What’s this about?”

        “I read about your paternity suit against Lee Tappen. I rode on his ranch and had an unpleasant run-in with him. I figure he wouldn’t appreciate your talking to me, but I’d like to know more about him. It’s a personal interest.”

        Marleena’s face pinched inward. “How do I know you’re not from one of his lawyers? This has been so exhausting.”

        “I promise you, I have nothing to do with Lee or his lawyers.” Dani pulled out her City College ID.

        Marleena’s toddler came out from behind her legs and stared up at Dani with interest. Marleena’s face still showed distrust. Dani crouched down, grabbed a nearby stuffed reindeer and asked the little boy if it had a name. In a few minutes Dani challenged him to draw a picture of Rufus and turned back to Marleena.

        “You’re good with him.”

        “Younger sibs, and boatloads of cousins.”

        Marleena smiled.

*  *  *

        Shota and JoJo lounged on Dani’s couch while she leaned against the counter. “They met at some bar. Marleena thought Lee was nice, but kinda quiet. He took her to dinners at nice places. You know the routine, she was wowed by the flowers and the fancy restaurants and didn’t notice what a dick he was. The minute she got pregnant he ghosted her.” Dani dipped her head down.

        “Dude’s evil,” Shota raked fingers through his long hair.

        “Did she know he was made of money?” JoJo asked.

        “Not at that point. Even though he was the source of all that stupid black leather furniture in her apartment. She said he didn’t like her garage sale hodgepodge decorating style and surprised her with that truckload of manly décor. It’s so not her. She strikes me as a more eclectic furnishings kind of a person.” Dani twisted her hair around her finger.

        “So not a gold digger?” Shota asked.

        “Nah, just young and stupid,” Dani shook her head, “I mean, I like her. I don’t think she was trying to trap him and I believe her about not knowing who he was.”

        “What’s the suit about?” Shota asked. “Money?”

        Dani nodded, “she had to quit her job and go in to sign up for welfare or whatever they call it these days. She told them who the father was and they ordered him to get a paternity test and he refused. Someone told her he was like crazy rich and she found a lawyer to take her case. For more money, cuz why not?”

        “It’s official, he’s just a terrible person,” Shota said.

        “Maybe he’s not all bad. She was hoping he’d come talk to her and they could work things out. She thought he’s just not good with people. Oh, and she believed he loved her and was just freaked out about the kid.” Dani walked to the front door and gazed out into the garden.

        “The trouble with getting to know assholes better is it’s harder to hate ‘em,” JoJo said.

        “You’re not allowed to hate your brother no matter what,” Dani said with a smirk.

        “You hate your brother?” Shota took his arm from around JoJo.

        “No,” she pulled his arm back around her, “he’s just way too ‘honest.’”

        “Will I regret asking how you can be too honest?” Shota’s mouth quirked up.

        “If you can survive a meet-the-family dinner with Rigo at the table, you deserve a medal,” Dani grinned.

        Shota’s eyebrows shot up, “ooh, a challenge.”

        JoJo jumped up. “No way.” She strode out the door.

        “Hold on JoJo,” Shota called. Dani stood and stretched, then followed them out the door.

        Ten minutes later, they rode single file up Mission Canyon Road toward the trailhead. Dani wondered if they’d circle back to whether Lee might have anything to do with his family’s bad run of accidents and early deaths. Or if he had anything to do with Sean’s death.

        Nah, just a great ride.

*  *  *

        The vintage bureau stood in the driveway on old newspapers, freshly coated with varnish. Dani stood up; a fine layer of sanding dust covered her. She crouched to organize brushes, cans and rags. Footsteps behind her announced a visitor. They sounded too heavy to be JoJo. She twisted around, holding an armload of supplies to her chest.

        “Hello Dani Bustamante.” A strange middle-aged man, wiry arms and pecs on full display in a too-small Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt, stood in front of her. His shaved head and face were deeply tanned.

        “Who are you?” She wobbled from her crouch and ended up on her butt. He stepped forward to help her up, but unless she wanted to drop her stuff, that wouldn’t work. She got to her knees and stood up her own. Goosebumps rose on the back of her neck. He hadn’t moved back and stood a foot and a half in front of her. Her chest of drawers stood too wet to touch right behind her. He was too close. The angled driveway was framed by a tall hedge on either side. This meant she was only visible from the street for a few feet. The man stared at her, unsmiling. Dani clutched her brushes and cans till her chest hurt.

        “What’s your name?” she asked.

        “No need to be pissy,” he said.

        “I don’t want to buy anything, sign anything, or change my religion,” she said.

        “I’m not selling anything,” his weak smile didn’t reach his eyes.

        “That’s nice, but I’m just wrapping up here,” she said. He did not step back.

        “I understand you were Sean’s girlfriend,” he said.

        “And I understand you haven’t identified yourself. You’re standing too close to me, and I’d like you to leave. You’re on private property,” she said.

        He inched forward. She sidestepped him and took a step toward the street. He stepped to block her. “Hey there, I just want to talk to you,” he said.

        “I don’t want to talk to you,” she said. She heard her voice squeak at the end.

        “You’re very pretty,” he said.

        “That just sounds creepy, please leave,” she said.

        “Look, I knew Sean, and I just wanted to say I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.

        “We weren’t together anymore. And I don’t need your sympathy,” she said. He made no move to leave. “Is there a reason you won’t identify yourself?”

        “I’m a private person,” he said.

        “I’m not shopping for a new boyfriend,” she said. She took a deep breath, dropped her brushes, cans and rags in a clatter, pushed him as hard as she could in the chest and ran past him into the street. A mother and daughter were a half a block down walking her way. She saw a late model Mercedes parked by her driveway and memorized the plate number.

        She called out, “Hi Hanna,” as he came out of the driveway. He hesitated and she gestured him toward the car. “Next time, send a card.”

        She watched him drive away and found herself breathing hard. The woman and girl came near. With a shy head tilt the woman said, “I think you mistook me for someone else.”

        “No, I wanted that man to leave, so I pretended we knew each other,” Dani said.

*  *  *

        “Detective O’Donnal please,” Dani said into her cell. She twisted her hair around her finger and yanked on it a few times while waiting for the obnoxious hold music to end. She considered just hanging up. The more seconds elapsed, the stupider this call seemed. At last, she heard a faint “Detective O’Donnal.”

        Dani explained her odd encounter and gave the detective the plate number. The detective told her she didn’t do harassment and would pass it on. Slouched down on her couch, Dani looked over her shoulder at her front door. It was shut and locked. The center multi-paned glass section that usually hung open to let in the breeze was clamped shut. As she looked at it, she could see that one swift kick would be all it took to smash it open. Great.

        JoJo was chasing tips, Shota was working at the nursery, and her Granny in the front house was off on a cruise. She missed Sean. When he was alive, it was hard to feel alone when he might just show up. Even if they were broken up. He’d just roll up and flop down on the couch, or rummage in the fridge without so much as a hello. Well, she could be spontaneous too. All she wanted to do was barricade the door. Instead, she pulled out her bike.

*  *  *

        The loud rap on her door made her jump. It was dark outside. Dani kicked herself for not putting the outside light on. With a huff of held breath she saw it was Officer Garza. “You want I should help you carry that chest of drawers inside, Dani? If there’s any dew tonight, it could muck up the finish.”

        “Do we even get dew anymore? It’s been like nine months since we got any rain,” Dani said, “but, yeah, I’d love to move it.”

        They hauled the bureau into the shed, so she wouldn’t have to smell it out-gas in the cottage.

        “You got a place you can go?” he asked.

        “Huh? It’s nine at night, what are you talking about?” she asked.

        “Check your texts. When you didn’t answer, O’Donnal made me promise to come by when I got off.”

        “The detective?” She asked. She pulled out her cell. It was still on mute from yoga class. And there was the missed text. “Plan a few days away from your place. That was Lee Tappen’s car.” A tightness in her chest made her wrap her arms around herself. Of course it was him, she thought.

        “You saw?” He asked.

        Dani nodded, “I got a bad vibe off him. I can bunk at JoJo’s.”

*  *  *

        “He came to your cottage?” JoJo asked. “Dang. Guess he really doesn’t like it when you ride his closed trails.” Her laugh was hollow.

        “Sorry to cramp your style, you and Shota’s I mean,” Dani said.

        “S’okay. I’m not sure what our thing is and since I’m the last person to know how to do whatever it is we’re doing, maybe a break is a good idea,” JoJo said.

        “Don’t jump off that train on my account, I could always go to my dad’s,” Dani said.

        “Yeah, no,” JoJo pressed her lips together.

        Dani wrapped her arms around JoJo. She wished for a minute she could curl up in JoJo’s lap. They wrestled over control of the clicker, then Dani thumped to the floor on her back; JoJo’s weight crushing her for a moment. She laughed with the little air she had left, and the shock of it knocked her out of her crap mood.

        Dani grinned. “I need ice cream!”

*  *  *

        JoJo handed three cell phones to a chubby-faced teen leaning against a rusty mini pick-up in the Tappen Ranch parking area. He stuffed the phones into different pockets. In silence, he led the way through the Tappen Ranch gate. With heads down they whooshed by the security camera. The young man peeled off with a wave.

        Dani gulped air after the long climb when she caught up with JoJo and Shota. She looked at the crime tape tied to trees in addition to the trail-closed sawhorses at the head of the Diablo Canyon trail. “That yellow keep-out tape is new since me and Shota rode down last time. Someone’s serious about us staying out.”

        “Could be the cops are actually doing some investigating,” JoJo said.

        “Could be Lee’s a paranoid loony tune and put it up himself,” Shota said. “Look we’re here and Armando’s only on trail till three. We need to hurry it up.”

        Dani lifted the yellow tape and rolled her bike onto the trail. She watched Shota fly down the trail, JoJo close behind. The shoosh of Dani’s bike on dry dirt with the occasional pup-pup over rocks gave her time to gaze at the fall-away views she remembered. A gentle breeze moved Shota and JoJo’s veil of dust off the trail.

        Twenty minutes later, a cool breeze and bird song welcomed them into the creek bed. Dani pointed out that the orange bungee cord was gone and they argued in whispers about whether that was law enforcement, or Lee. Shota pointed out the signs of disturbed earth and fresh cuts on the poison oak bush.

        “I think we should get out of here,” Dani said. “If any detectives came down since we were here, then we’re not just trespassing, but maybe messing with a crime scene.”

        After scrambling back up to the top of the gorge, they pulled their bikes out of hiding. Dani couldn’t keep up as JoJo led a fast pace with Shota on her tail. Dani let them streak away. Late afternoon sunbeams illuminated the dust motes stirred by their passing. The beauty of the oak canopy looked like a painting in a museum; the kind with angels, shafts of heaven light, and fruit that you could taste just by looking at it.

        Dani’s handlebars bucked in the loose cage of her grip as she stood off her saddle, soft wind in her face. Inhaling hummingbird sage and the granny soap smell of Matilija poppies, Dani rode the curves from shadow to glow like a ride at Disneyland. In the radiance of waving golden grasses flashing by, she felt Sean’s presence. It was like just this once, he rolled behind her, in no hurry to pass, smiling at her unspoken desire to pause for the beauty.

        A week later, Dani set her old backpack on the table by the washing machine she shared with her grandma. She pulled out her wrinkled clothes. A deep sigh escaped her lips. She was home. JoJo’s place was just not made for guests. She was showering after her last housecleaning job of the day. A faint knock on the door sounded. Shutting off the water she listened and it came again. Goosebumps rose on her arms. She dripped and wondered if the shower sounds could be heard by the front door. She yanked the towel off the hook and rubbed her body too hard and quick. She suppressed a groan and remembered where she’d left her cellphone. It was on the couch arm in full view of the glass paned door. She darted into her cramped bedroom, and hid in her closet. She pulled a blouse off a hanger in the dark, holding the hanger so it wouldn’t twang. Yanking jeans on damp legs, she tried to control her breathing.

        A female voice said something muffled.

        Dani poked her head out of the closet and yelled, “Who is it?”

        “Detective O’Donnal.”

        “Gimme a sec,” she yelled.

        Dani made it into the main room ready to get a lecture about the danger of returning to her cottage. She opened the front door for the detective and got a funny look. O’Donnal pointed to her hair. Dani walked into the bathroom, wiped the steam off the mirror and saw shampoo. Ugg. She rinsed her head in the sink and walked back out, rubbing it with a towel.

        “Do you mind if we record this?” the detective asked.

        Awesome, Dani thought, Sean’s death was turning into an actual open case. She gestured to the trunk that did double duty as a table. The detective set her phone down and looked up without expression.

        “Where were you on Tuesday?”

        Dani pulled out her appointment book and mumbled, “Fong, Lewandowski, Jimenez. I was working from 8:30 till about 4, then I came home. I mean back to JoJo’s.”

        “After that?”

        “Just hung out at JoJo’s.”

        “Can she verify that?”

        “What’s this all about?”

        “Just answer the question,” O’Donnal said.

        “No. JoJo was at Binty’s.”

        “So, you were alone?”

        “Not the whole time. Her very annoying brother came over,” Dani said.


        “From eight till about ten.”

        “His name?”

        “Rigo. Alejandro Rigoberto Ruiz.”

        “Will he verify your whereabouts that night?”

        “With lots of detail no doubt. He can’t watch a show without giving his opinion, can’t talk to me without advising me to smile more and fix myself up, and he’ll probably have some useless advice for you as well. He’s got a filter issue.”

        The detective nodded. She asked a few more questions. Dani started to wonder if she was an idiot for inviting the detective in. Once she was alone, she pulled out the key to the big house, grabbed her phone and locked the cottage door behind her.

        With the doors shut on both sides of the den and the only light from the TV, she felt like she was in a bomb shelter, except for the frilly Victorian fusspot furnishings. She texted JoJo about the visit and went over the questions in her mind. Something was up.

        Her eyes snapped open in the dark. Wood creaked, then groaned. Adrenaline hit her veins, hard and fast. She eased the door open and heard the trees scraping against the living room window. She let out a breath, then padded to the bathroom. She flipped the light switch. Nothing. Paranoia said someone was coming for her. Logic said the wind knocked out a transformer and not for the first time. She checked the security system. The green light was steady.

        Back in the den she picked up her cell and saw it was 4am. Her mind raced; her body tense. She laid awake till 6am before finally falling asleep. She woke up to the steady chirp of her alarm at seven. Five minutes later she was in the cottage foraging for breakfast. She texted JoJo about the visit from O’Donnal. She wondered, if the detective looked at her cellphone records some day in the future, if that text would make her look guilty. Guilty of what?

        At the end of the day, Dani was back in the cottage. JoJo laid along the couch, legs over Dani’s lap, reading. Dani slogged through an essay. Her attention-span-fail led her to close the lid on her laptop.

        “Has the detective asked you what you were doing on Tuesday?” Dani asked.

        “She might have checked with my boss, but I haven’t heard from her. Hey, breaking news, Rigo seems to think he has a chance with you,” JoJo laughed.

        “Day made,” Dani huffed a laugh.

        “Shota said, word on the hill is Lee hasn’t been seen on the trails for a week or so,” JoJo said.

        “That’s weird, I guess,” Dani shrugged. “But not as weird as being asked where I was on Tuesday. If this was some CSI episode, he’d be dead and I’d be the prime suspect,” Dani said. A chill ran through her body.

        “Welcome to Hollywood,” JoJo laughed.

        “Uh, no thank you, I like my pokey little town just fine,” Dani said.

        Hours later Dani’s cell vibrated.

        “O’Donnal wants me to come down to the station.”

        “Maybe you need a lawyer,” JoJo said.

        Dani bit her lip.

*  *  *

        Dani stepped into the interview room an hour later, she saw a closed cardboard box centered on the table. The room had no decoration, just spotty white acoustical tiles on the ceiling and solitary-confinement-gray walls. The officer who’d gestured her to sit, stood sentry by the door.

        Detective O’Donnal came in with a tall, skinny, guy in uniform. The detective sat down and glanced at the man, nodded and looked at Dani with a distant aloof look.

        “Do I need a lawyer?” Dani asked.

        “That’s entirely up to you,” said O’Donnal. “We only have a couple of questions for you.”

        Dani sat stiff. She reached up and twisted her hair around her finger and yanked. She stopped when her eyes started to tear up.

        O’Donnal pulled Dani’s pink gym sweatshirt out of the box.

        “I’ve been looking for that,” Dani said.

        Next, she pulled out a pair of jean shorts.

        “These yours?”

        “I’m not sure,” Dani said.

        “Ma’am, don’t play games here,” the skinny guy’s voice was deeper than she’d have guessed. He reminded her of her least favorite cousin, whose eyes would drill you to the spot, while he shared some useless conspiracy theory, like it was an FBI mission briefing or something. She pressed her body back into the metal chair, despite its protruding crossbars.

        “If I try them on, I’d know if they’re mine. They actually look like JoJo’s,” Dani said.

        O’Donnal pulled out a bandana. “This?”

        “It’s mine, but I leant it to JoJo,” Dani said. She saw the dark stain; JoJo had bled on it. That was two months ago. Seriously, she couldn’t wash it in all that time?

         O’Donnal pulled out a gold necklace with a flat pendant that looked like either a bike helmet or a failed circle. A gift from Sean. The chain had caught in the tiny hairs on the back of her neck and yanked them out when she’d least expect it. She’d put it on the mirror in her bedroom, along with a couple of pretty owl feathers she’d found. She’d never told Sean the chain hurt her, but she’d quit wearing it. She reached for it; O’Donnal pulled it back.

        “It’s mine,” Dani said.

        The last thing O’Donnal pulled out, was a small pillow with a two-inch square section of faded flannel sewn on it. Dani knew not to reach for it, but relief swamped her. She nodded.

        “It’s mine. May I have it back please?”

        That little scrap of baby-blanket on the pillow had gone with her on all her childhood sleepovers. Recently, it had disappeared from her bed. She’d torn up the tiny cottage searching for it. When she failed to find it, she thought it was a sign that her life was off the rails. She’d broken up with Sean the next day. Dani tilted her head and saw where the skinny guy had written, ‘ugly pillow – Bustamante.’

         O’Donnal glanced over at what he’d written and shoved the pillow at her. Dani set it in her lap, out of his sight, and resisted the urge to clutch it to her chest. Skinny guy wrote, ‘returned.’

        “Why do you have our stuff?” Dani asked.

        Skinny guy said, “We’ll ask the questions here.”

        Dani closed her eyes. She shifted in the hard chair, trying to find a position that didn’t annoy.

        “What were you doing in Lee Tappen’s residence?” Skinny guy sounded like he was a prosecutor, trying to catch out the accused.

        “I’ve never seen his house. I don’t even know where the dude lives,” Dani said.

        Skinny guy said, “So you deny that you were ever in his home?”

        Dani nodded.

        “Out loud,” he nodded toward the recording device.

        “I was never in Lee Tappen’s house,” Dani said.

        “Why were your belongings found in his residence?” Skinny guy asked.

        “That’s just creepy as hell.”

         O’Donnal allowed a tiny head nod.

        “Why were you in his house?” Dani said.

        “This is a homicide investigation,” O’Donnal said.

        “Are you talking about Sean’s death?” Hope lightened the dread in Dani’s chest.

        “Lee Tappen’s.” O’Donnal said. Skinny guy looked like he’d bitten a sour cherry.

        “Lee’s dead?” Dani felt dizzy. Sean would be so worried about the fate of the trails. Oh yeah, Sean was dead. Tears filled her eyes. “Can I tell JoJo?”

        “No,” O’Donnal said with the look of a school principal on a bad day.

        “Ms. Bustamante, this is privileged information.” Skinny Guy glared at Detective O’Donnal, “you are not allowed discuss this with anyone.”

        Detective O’Donnal and Skinny Guy stood. Dani stood. She walked through the door, and looked around the open room between her and the double glass entry doors to the parking lot. It looked old school; metal desks, cops on calls with black plastic actual telephones with cords, officers drinking coffee, and a naked flickering fluorescent tube above a copier.

        A couple minutes later, Dani leaned against Pearl, her ancient Prius. Well actually it was her Granny’s. She scrolled through local news on her phone. Nothing about Lee. Shit. No excuse to talk to JoJo about it.

*  *  *

        Dani pretended a sore throat while she avoided JoJo. The days dragged on. Her stomach hurt, as if holding the secret was burning a hole in her gut. She started taking her tote bag instead of her micro-purse, so she could keep the little pillow with her.

        On the sixth day since her visit to the station, she came home to the smell of chicken soup.

        “Hello?” Dani called.

        Shota and JoJo came out of her bedroom. Shota’s face blushed red. JoJo tried to pull her lips down to hide a smile. “We’re here to do an intervention,” JoJo said.

        “For my drinking, drugging, or what?” Dani laughed.

        “As if. You’re fucking avoiding us,” JoJo said.

        “So, you’re officially an, us?” Dani asked.

        Shota took JoJo’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re gonna have to get used to it,” Shota said.

        “I’ve seen better interventions on TikTok,” Dani laughed.

        “I told Shota, I’m not doing this thing if I lose you as a friend,” JoJo said.

        Shota twisted around to stare at JoJo.

        “Well, actually I told him I’m totally into him and shit at playing hard to get. But I meant that I don’t want to mess up our friendship.”

        “And the soup?” Dani asked.

        “Turns out Shota can cook,” JoJo said.

        “Does smell good,” Dani said.

        “We so suck at this intervention shit,” Shota said.

        “My bad. I’ve been avoiding you,” Dani looked down. The jokey atmosphere died in a hush. “I can’t talk about it, but I got called into the police station last week for questioning. You know I’m not a secret keeper, so please don’t ask.”

        “It’s about Lee, huh?” Shota asked.

        Dani’s face heated up. She pressed her lips together.

        “Guy I ride with’s a paramedic. They hauled Lee’s carcass up a cliff. He went off the Wipeout Trail,” Shota said. “No one was looking for him. The buzzards alerted some riders and they climbed down to see what died. Guess some thirteen-year-old lost his lunch. If that’s your secret, it’s all over the mountain,” Shota said.

        “Maybe since he went off a trail like Sean, they think you’re a serial-killing biker,” JoJo said. She cackled and gave Dani her mock-evil grin.

        “That must be it. Well, it was nice knowing you. See ya,” Shota took JoJo’s hand and started dragging her to the door.

        Dani stood, mouth open.

        They stopped in the doorway. “Just kidding,” Shota said. “I’m hungry.”

        “And since this might be your last supper, we might as well enjoy it,” JoJo cracked.

        “What say we all call in sick tomorrow and haul the bikes back to the Junction and ride Red Canyon?”

        “I don’t do black diamond trails,” Dani said.

        “It goes blue after the first section. You can walk down that first bit,” Shota said.

        “We’ll wait for you. We’re not in a rush,” JoJo said.

        “Speak for yourself,” Shota said.

        “Shota,” Jojo glared at him.

        “Kidding,” he said.

        Dani flopped onto the couch and watched Shota and JoJo get dinner ready to serve. She found her cheeks ached a bit from her unfamiliar smile. It seemed those muscles could atrophy a bit if you didn’t use them.

*  *  *

        Dani rubbed her eyes and sat up on the edge of her bed. Her phone had buzzed on and off for the last five minutes. “Check the Independent,” was the first JoJo text. Then one exclamation mark after another.

        “I hate mornings,” she shouted at the ceiling. She tapped the link.

        “Tappen Heir Dies in Bicycle Accident.” The article made it sound like he fell off his bike, not sailed seventy feet into a canyon. Or maybe stalked some of the men and women who rode on his trails, or broke into their homes and took their shit, or was obsessed with being the fastest one on the hill, or was possibly responsible for Sean’s death.

        No doubt the courts would choke once again with suits and counter-suits over who owned the ranch and had rights to tap the Tappen fortune. All Dani wanted, was to be reinstated on the Ranch trails.

*  *  *

        Officer Garza stood in the doorway of the cottage, a familiar cardboard box in his arms.

        “Sign here,” he said as he set the box down on her trunk table. Dani pulled out her pink gym sweatshirt.

        “Thanks for your help,” Dani said.

        He shook his head. “Not that anyone at the station house will tell you, but talk by the coffee machine votes Lee guilty for Sean’s death. O’Donnal found a note at the ranch house.”

        “Lee killed himself?”

        “Looks that way.”

        “Did he admit that he killed Sean?” Dani’s eyes brimmed with tears. Her knees bent and sat with a thump on the couch.

        “The note said he just meant to scare Sean.” Garza’s arm arced toward Dani, then dropped to his side. “I don’t know why, they had no connection other than Sean being a ranch rider.”

        Dani wiped her eyes and looked up. “I thought stuff I said when I broke up with Sean for the millionth time caused him to maybe kill himself. It was wrecking me.” She grabbed Garza’s hand and squeezed it. “I think it was all about competition. You know, who was fastest and just maybe that Lee wanted to be really good at something. Sean was better, but he didn’t even know he was in a race.”

        Garza heaved a sigh, “you see stuff like this on the force. It just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes I wish I didn’t know about all the ways people hurt each other for dumb reasons.”

        The room grew still. Garza’s quiet presence was like a warm blanket on a chill night.

        “What about Marleena and her little boy?”

        “Lee finally got his DNA test post-mortem. Two dimes’ll get you a quarter, she ends up living in the ranch house and running things.”

        “Hope she likes bikes,” Dani said. “Is all this, secret stuff?”

        “Nah, the paternity suit’s public knowledge. And not that our PR guy said anything, but The Independent ran an article this morning suggesting Lee’s implicated in Sean’s death. Someone on the force probably leaked Lee’s note. No worries, Dani, you can tell JoJo.”


        “See ya ‘round,” Garza walked out with a last wave.

        Dani leaned in her doorway until he was long gone, breathing in her relief, and starring at the oranges that hung like ornaments on a Christmas tree between the cottage and the main house. She grabbed her tote bag, dumped lipstick, keys, the small pillow and coins onto her kitchen counter. She folded the tote and shoved it back on a shelf in her closet. She found her micro purse, put her keys, lipstick, and ID inside it, and tossed the little pillow back onto her bed.

        “Hey Sean,” she looked up at the ceiling, “the case is closed. Go get reincarnated or something.”

        A gust blew the scent of jasmine through the open door; a crumpled paper rolled across the floor. She bent down and picked it up. She unwrinkled it and read the familiar hand. “Sorry I missed you babe, I took a couple hard boiled eggs, headed to the Ranch. XO — Sean”

Photo by Calla Gold
Photo by Calla Gold

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