The house has sat empty for fifteen years, taking up prime real estate along the picturesque coastline. Its last known owner, Maryanne Demerit, vanished without a trace. Now her home will be demolished for a condo development, but until then, it’s the perfect spot for a Halloween haunted house.
Jill Gardner, owner of South Cove, California’s Coffee, Books, and More; her boyfriend; and three other couples are spending the weekend in the Demerit home. But what begins as an all-in-good-fun fright fest turns into a mystery begging to be solved as Jill is contacted by the ghost of Maryanne . . .
Praise for The Tourist Trap Mysteries
“Murder, dirty politics, pirate lore, and a hot police detective…A cozy lover’s dream come true.”—Susan McBride, author of The Debutante Dropout Mysteries
“An absorbing, good fun mystery.”—Fresh Fiction
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Brightly colored paper fall leaves and gauze ghosts hung in the air on thin wires all around Coffee, Books, and More. I'd hit my head on more than one low-hanging happy ghoul since Sasha and Aunt Jackie had decorated for tomorrow's Halloween party. Of course, we'd had some seasonal decorations up since the calendar had turned from September to October, but now my bookstore/coffee shop looked like the Great Pumpkin had arrived a few days too early.
I'm Jill Gardner and I'm the owner of the only bookstore in South Cove, California. I'd say the only coffee shop too, but some of the old-timers and farmers still go to Diamond Lille's to drink her coffee and gossip. Which is fine with me. I don't need a group hanging around in the morning asking for free refills and interrupting my time. You see, the morning shift is mine, and after the commuters leave, I get a lot of reading done. I call it research. My aunt calls it being lazy.
I had the weekend off — as soon as I could finish up the list of tasks my aunt had given me to help prepare for the kids' party we were hosting on Saturday. All the stores were having all-day trick or treating, but the day ended at our bookstore where we had several spooky readings scheduled along with other fun activities for the local children.
"And you're sure we have enough apples for the bobbing tub?" My aunt glanced at the bags of groceries I'd brought in from my trip to Bakerstown. I'd almost emptied their candy shelves and had bought as many small apples as I could find. Sasha was still bringing in gallons of apple cider for the party.
"If we don't, it's too late now." I moved the bags closer to the tile floor where we'd set up the station. "Besides, we didn't have that many kids come by last year. We should be good."
"All of Olivia's classmates are coming with their parents. The day care sent home Darla's promotional flyer with the kids. They think it's a great alternative for trick or treating. Olivia's so looking forward to wearing her fairy princess costume. You're going to miss a great party." Sasha set four gallons of cider on the counter. "Your car is empty. I'm leaving these here for a bit because I have to make room in the walk-in. It's full."
"Sadie already dropped off the treats?" I felt disappointed. I'd hoped to see my friend when she stopped in. Between her baking schedule for Pies on the Fly and my work schedule, we hadn't even seen each other, much less had time for coffee and chat, for over a month.
"About an hour ago. She said for you to give her a call on Monday." Aunt Jackie grabbed the list of to-dos from my hand. "Looks like you're done. And just in time too."
I started to ask her what she'd meant, but then I saw Greg coming into the shop. Greg King was the police detective for South Cove and my boyfriend. A smile curved his full and totally kissable lips as he saw me watching his approach.
"You have got to be ready by now." He gave me a quick kiss, then leaned over to kiss my aunt on the cheek. "Good afternoon, Jackie. Please tell me that Jill can come play with me? We have dinner plans with the group before we head over to the lock-in."
"You make it sound so romantic." I swatted his arm. "Besides, I just got done."
Greg looked up at the ghost swaying in the air-conditioned breeze. "I should hope so. I don't think you could cram any more Halloween decorations in the shop if you tried."
Sasha grinned at him. "Aren't those great? My daughter's preschool has them all over the lobby too. That way the kids get decorations, but they are totally out of reach. Childproof ghosts."
I wasn't sure that Greg agreed with Sasha's evaluation of the décor, but he wouldn't be here for the party. Aunt Jackie, Sasha, and Toby were in charge for the weekend. Greg and I'd be locked up with three other couples in South Cove's version of a real haunted house. The mansion was a few miles out of town on the coastline and overlooked the ocean. In a few weeks, the city was tearing the house down and selling the land to a condo developer. With what they charged for those types of places, this was the only time I'd be able to sleep that close to the waves unless I took a sleeping bag out to the beach. I watched as Greg formulated his response. Ever the politician, even though he swore he wouldn't go into politics even on a dare.
"It's very thoughtful. I don't think I've ever considered the childproofing aspect of a Halloween party," Greg said, which was totally true. The only child he'd ever had to take care of was his brat of an ex-wife, Sherry. And she only acted like she was a child. "Are we ready then?"
I grabbed a couple of books off the counter where I'd set them and tucked them into my purse. "I'm ready to be scared."
"You're planning on having time to read?" Greg took my arm and led me out to the front where his truck was parked. He'd stopped by that morning to get my duffel for the weekend and pick up the key for Toby. Toby was babysitting Emma while we were gone. Emma liked Toby. He took her for runs on the beach just as often as I did. When you have a golden retriever, you have to keep them busy so they don't eat the couch pillows. Which was my dog's favorite pastime when I was out of the house.
"Aloud, maybe. I picked out three of the scariest books I know. I have King's classic The Shining, another by the master, Salem's Lot, and one from Peter Straub, appropriately called Ghost Story. They might be old, but they're darn scary." I climbed into the truck and waited for him to close the door and come around the other side. This being treated like a princess had its advantages. "I didn't order enough of The Haunting of Hill House and the store was sold out by the time I started grabbing."
"Shirley Jackson. Now that's a classic horror story." Greg started the engine and moved into traffic. "I hear, though, you should have put some witchcraft books in your tote. Toby said the old woman who lived there before was a witch."
"I think that's a legend. Besides, witches aren't that scary." I pawed through the grocery sack that held our junk food for the weekend. "Didn't you buy Reese's Pumpkins? I swear they're the best."
We spent the rest of the short ride to the house debating which Halloween candy was superior. I knew I would win this round mostly because Greg was a big candy corn fan. Like that was even a real candy. Amy and Justin had already parked and were standing outside Justin's SUV, drinking bottled water and watching the house.
Amy Newman was my best friend. She'd been dating Justin, who was a professor from the local college, for the last few years. They fit each other's personality to a T. They both loved surfing, staying in shape, and, for some strange reason, international soccer. Amy had made noises that there was going to be some sort of big game on Sunday, but Justin had promised he'd record the game so they wouldn't miss it.
As we got out of the truck, the men greeted each other with that half handshake, half hug with a backslap thing they did. "They're doing the bro thing," I whispered to Amy as she gave me a real hug. Like a real friend.
"Men. At least they're not going around marking their territory."
That got me giggling and Greg and Justin stared at me.
"I think we're being judged." Greg glanced at Justin, who had picked up a piece of machinery from the roof of the SUV. "Hey, what's that you have?"
"The electronics department let me borrow an EMF electromagnetic field detector that's been set at safe range. This baby won't bleed off on power lines. It will only register real live ghosts." He started explaining the different gauges and gadgets.
"Real live ghosts?" Amy stood next to Justin and watched him play with the meter. "Isn't that a misnomer?"
"Well, if there is anything going on in that house, this will pick it up." Greg grinned at me. "Can I have one of these for my birthday?" "Sure, why not. I'll get it ordered off Ghosthunters.com." I glanced out to the road. "Esmeralda's late. I expected Darla to come flying in right before we're locked in, but I guess I thought Esmeralda would be anxious to hang out in the haunted house."
"Actually, she's pretty hesitant about coming. If her boyfriend hadn't insisted, I don't think she would have joined us." Amy opened a bag of salt-and-vinegar potato chips and held it toward me. "Want one?"
I grabbed a handful, then paused. Amy's words had finally sunk in. "Wait, Esmeralda has a boyfriend? I thought she was just bringing one of her fortune-telling friends."
"I thought you knew. He's been visiting for a week. Tall, dark, handsome." She saw Justin looking at her. "What? He's come into city hall several times to get her for lunch."
"I thought that was her brother." Greg frowned. "I'm pretty sure that's what she said."
Amy cocked her head, watching me. "Maybe I misunderstood. But Jake has been in town for a week and you haven't even noticed someone staying at your neighbor's house?"
I was starting to feel uncomfortable with the questions. "She has people over there all the time. How do I know who goes and who stays?"
Two cars pulled onto the narrow dirt driveway, one after the other. "Anyway, I guess we'll find out more this weekend. There they are."
I watched as Matt Randall parked Darla's car next to Greg's truck. The other driver, who must have been Jake, pulled what looked like a brand-new Land Rover next to Justin's car. Esmeralda came out of the passenger side and paused by the driver's door as Jake climbed out. I saw her whisper something to him and squeeze his arm.
As they walked toward the group, Greg made the first move. "Greg King. I'm Esmeralda's boss and this is my girlfriend, Jill Gardner."
"Jake Gold." He reached out his hand and shook first with Greg, then me. "I'm happy to be included in your little adventure."
"Amy Newman and this is my boy toy, Justin." Amy laughed as Justin blushed. "So nice to meet you, Jake."
Darla and Matt came around the truck and finished up the introductions. Then Jake stepped closer to Justin. "Is that an EMF meter?"
The men all gathered around Justin and his new toy. Jill glanced at the still locked door. "Who has the key?"
Darla glanced at her watch. "The caretaker is supposed to meet us here right at six. We better take off for the restaurant soon."
"Thanks for setting this up. I'm excited to go exploring." I moved over to where Greg and the boys were talking. "Do we want to squeeze into a couple of cars and leave the rest of them here?"
"Sounds good." Jake nodded to the Land Rover. "I have a second back seat, so we could all fit in mine. If you don't mind squeezing together."
"Jill, Esmeralda, and I will climb in the back." Amy started directing people to the SUV. "Darla, you sit up front with Jake so he knows where to go. Boys, you get the middle seats."
In no time at all we were at the restaurant, unloading as quickly as Amy had us loaded. The steakhouse was a favorite of Greg's and I knew exactly what I was going to order. I went over to meet him as we walked into the place. We held back and let the rest of the couples go ahead.
When we were alone, he put his arm around me. "Having fun?" "I like this group. Honestly, I wasn't quite sure I wanted to spend our weekend with such a large group. And for almost three days? I'm still not sure about that." I paused at the door. "Jake seems nice."
"He does. But he has a handgun tucked under the driver's seat. I'm not sure why he's carrying." Greg held his hand on the door handle. "I'm planning on talking to him before we go in and making sure it stays locked in the car."
"That would be a good thing." I started to pull the door open, but Greg held it tight. I turned and waited. "You want something, Ace?"
"I can't believe I'm going to ask this, but yes." He ran a hand through his sandy blond hair. "Would you talk to Esmeralda and find out what you can about our new friend? I don't want to be sideswiped if there's trouble."
I felt my smile curve my lips. I probably looked like an idiot. Or a happy-face clown. I kissed him quickly on the lips. "Of course, dear. Anything for you."
Greg didn't like me snooping, but he knew I was good at it. By the time we left the house on Sunday afternoon, I'd know everything about Jake Gold, including his shoe size and who he took to the senior prom. This investigating thing was a piece of cake.
I didn't get the chance to even talk to Esmeralda during dinner. She and Jake were telling stories of growing up together in New Orleans. Since I hadn't known anything about Esmeralda's past, I was fascinated with Jake's stories. However, even I could tell that there were bits and pieces that had been wiped out or changed to be, what, more generic? One thing was clear; they'd been good friends during their childhoods. And it sounded like their childhood hadn't been so rosy.
"I didn't know you grew up in New Orleans." Amy cut a bite off her porterhouse. "I always stay in the French Quarter. It's so alive down there, no matter what the time. Although I did feel like I'd just missed the most amazing party when I walked through the streets."
"It is an active place." Esmeralda shot a glance at Jake and he nodded. I saw the exchange and knew that story time was over. "It's hard to be a kid there though. So let's change the subject. How'd you get us into the house, Darla? I thought it was condemned."
"Actually, no. It's been taken over by the city, not condemned. The place is well built so even after sitting empty so many years, it's in great shape. It's a shame they're tearing it down." Darla piled more sour cream on her baked potato. "I talked the mayor into selling nights at the haunted house to support the school supply fund. Your money is going to help kids in our district whose families can't afford to buy their supplies."
"Are we the first to stay here?" Halloween was two weeks away but on a Tuesday. Aunt Jackie had wanted to hold the party next weekend, but the council had set up the date so as not to conflict with Bakerstown's party.
"No. It's been rented out since September 30. We got two nights because the mayor owed me a favor. And I finally got him to pay up." Darla made a face and I wondered if this favor had been when Darla saved the town from the mayor's wife messing up the holiday festival last year. "Anyway, when the former owner disappeared, the house went into receivership and some bank made the tax payments until a few years ago when the trust ran out of money."
"Then one of the mayor's buddies picked the property up for a song," Amy added to the story. "But one of the council requirements to sign off on the sale was that the builder allow for this charity fund-raising event. If not for Bill Sullivan, the house would already be gone and the school wouldn't have the supply money. I know it's not much, but it's something to a kid who needs a backpackor notebooks."
Justin held up his beer. "Here's to supporting education. Smarter kids make smarter adults and we all benefit."
By the time we got back to the house, the group had accepted Jake as one of our own. I knew Greg still had his doubts and as we stood with our bags, waiting for the caretaker to let us in, I saw him pull Jake to the side. Relief filled me when I saw Jake nod, apparently agreeing to keep the weapon in his car. Our Halloween party didn't need a weapon brought into the lockdown.
Darla looked at her watch for the third or fourth time. I'd lost count. "He should have been here by now. It's ten after. Maybe I should call him."
"Give the guy a break. Maybe he's stuck in traffic. You know how the highway can get this time of day." Matt rubbed Darla's shoulders. "Besides, I'm not really looking forward to being locked in. Greg, the fire department does know we're here, just in case something happens like the zombie apocalypse, right?"
"You think the fire department is going to save you from zombies?" Justin shook his head. "I've got my own supply kit in my car, just in case. And besides, the only thing that might happen to us this weekend is we run out of beer too early."
Greg let down his tailgate. "If we run out of beer, you all need to quit drinking. I've got enough in the truck for a small football stadium."
"Now that's what I'm talking about." Jake slapped Greg on the back. "And who says cops don't have a sense of volume."
"Um, no one?" Esmeralda shook her head. "Jake, that doesn't even make sense."
"I don't really care as long as there's enough beer." Matt moved toward the truck. "Let's get this unloaded and stacked near the opening. Darla's got a couple of coolers filled with food in our car. We can get everything unloaded, and by the time we're done, the caretaker will probably have shown up."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Deadly Brew"
Copyright © 2018 Lynn Cahoon.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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