Moonlight Ridge – Vickie McKeehan

Awash in spring-like temperatures, March arrived in Coyote Wells like a baby lamb, snuggled and wrapped in a soft pink blanket. That wasn’t the case the day before. The last day of February went out like a roaring lion, packing a punch with a series of powerful storms that raged up and down the coast. High winds bashed and battered the shoreline for twentyfour solid hours, sending floodwaters thundering through the streets and spilling over the curb into the downtown businesses. By morning, most of the water had receded. But the downtown area faced a daunting cleanup. As business owners greeted Monday morning, they cleared away their sandbags and began mopping up the damage. One woman had been up all night. Gemma Channing Bonner, owner of Coyote Chocolate Company, had opted to spend the night in her shop, doing her best to keep the water from seeping in and ruining the floors. With mop in hand, her dark caramel-colored hair slipping out of its ponytail, Gemma surveyed the mess. It stretched from the counter to where she’d stacked the tables, one on top of the other. She’d brought in huge fans to dry up the water. But the whole store still had that musty odor that lingered long after the rain had stopped. To keep everything else dry, she’d stored away expensive supplies back in the pantry. Now, one by one, she brought everything back out, ready to start her day, ready to begin making chocolate again.

It was the one bright spot she looked forward to in an otherwise depressing, stressful twenty-four hours. After protecting and guarding what she owned from Mother Nature’s wrath, she felt exhausted. Bringing her arm up to mop her brow, she noticed the rip in her new mint green sweater where a tear had frayed the sleeve. Letting out a low groan, she looked down at her stone-washed jeans only to see that she’d ripped the knee on her right leg. Little drops of blood had seeped out into the fabric. She’d probably need to rub antiseptic cream on her kneecap. Later. For now, it would have to wait until the big fans completely dried the wet floors. Everything would have to wait until business got back to normal. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Lianne Whittaker, her friend and now a business owner, standing inside the doorway that joined the chocolate shop to Lianne’s new venture— Collette’s Collectibles.

With Gemma’s help and advice, Lianne had hired Billy Gafford to transform the old pizza place into a homage to Collette, Lianne’s murdered sister. Collette had made plans before her death to turn the old pizzeria into a winetasting slash bookstore but never got the project off the ground. Lianne meant to change that. At the very least, turn the space into a viable retail outlet. It hadn’t been easy. The winetasting slash bookstore idea had fizzled for a variety of reasons. After two years of changing her mind, Lianne had finally settled on what she hoped would work. This early in March, she had one goal in mind—the grand opening of the shop planned for Memorial Day weekend. By then, tourists would be flocking to the little coastal town in numbers that would double the population. There was still a lot to get done.

Lianne had crates to unpack and shelves to stock, which is why she worked at the chocolate store part-time. Helping Gemma balance mayoral duties while maintaining a brisk candy business kept Lianne on her toes. “Hey, when did you get here?” Gemma called out. “Just came in through the alleyway. Had to wait for the water to recede before my little Civic could make it downtown. Is it okay to come inside?” Lianne asked, looking out at the still-damp hardwood, then testing her foot on the slick floor. “How come this place got harder hit than…” She thumbed her fist back over her shoulder and pointed to the store behind her. “There’s hardly any water at all in the shop. None of the inventory seems to have suffered damage. Although a few boxes got wet.

But all the rest, especially those containing the books I got in on Friday, are dry.” “Maybe that’s because you still have them in crates. Good call, by the way. I didn’t understand at the time why you didn’t get everything unpacked. You look like the genius now.” Lianne lifted a shoulder and studied the dining area and the counter, then sniffed the air. “Still smells like stale rainwater in here, but it’ll dry out. We’ll open both doors and let the breeze air it out. Everything will be okay. You’ll see.

But what a way to start the week, huh?” “Tell me about it.” “Did you know there was a fire in the old mercantile building two doors down?” “No, but I thought I smelled smoke earlier. And I heard sirens. But then I also thought I had all the water mopped up. How’d it catch on fire anyway? Lightning strike last night?” “Don’t know. But I saw Lando and Tully Beacham head into the building a few minutes ago. So, I would assume the fire had nothing to do with lightning.” “Lando was so busy answering calls he hasn’t been to bed all night.” “I’d say the same could be said about you,” Lianne decided, staring at the dark circles under Gemma’s eyes. “How long have you been on your feet anyway?” “Mopping up? I’d say practically all night.

I was here at midnight to put sandbags out around the doors.” She stretched her back. “What time is it anyway?” “Almost seven-thirty. How did this side of the business get the worst of it? That’s my question.” “We might be right next door to each other, but the chocolate shop is probably a foot lower and on a tilt. Be grateful Collette’s is almost completely dry in there. You should be able to open on schedule.” “We,” Lianne corrected. “Thanks to you, we were able to finally nail down an idea that works for the entire town, especially all the local artists, crafters, and writers. I’m excited to finally get this place up and running.

It’ll be an awesome shop to sell and showcase all kinds of arts and crafts created by a wide range of artisans from Crescent City to the Oregon border.” Amused at the enthusiasm in Lianne’s voice, Gemma stoked the anticipation. “And featuring books from local writers who will stop in and do book signings now and then should boost our book club membership. It’s all finally coming together, Lianne. A lot of hard work and tough decisions went into it. And I have to say Billy Gafford did a fantastic job.” “Well, he still has to finish painting the storeroom and put together the shelves for display. But yeah, I’m no longer worried about him completing the job on time. Told you so.” “Yes, you did.

I had my doubts, but the guy came through like a workhorse.” When Gemma swayed on her feet, Lianne took notice. “Here, let me do that.” She took out a white, starched apron from a drawer and tied it around her waist. “Sit down, get off your feet. You’ve got most of it already. One more swipe around the dining room, and the floor should be fine, especially with the fans. After we open both doors, front and back, the place will air dry, and in a few hours will be good as new. You’ll see, we’ll be ready when customers make their way downtown.” For the third time in as many hours, Gemma attempted to pull back her messy hair into a tight ponytail.

“I’m not sure we’ll get too many customers today. But just so they know we’re here, I’ll make us some coffee. I’ll make it strong so that the aroma will waft out into the street. Let’s hope it hides the musty smell.” “I wouldn’t say no to an espresso. You look like you could use one, too. I’ve never seen so much rainfall in a twenty-four-hour period. Luke said it doesn’t happen around here that often.” “The weatherman called it a one in a million freakish storm. Last time I heard, his forecast was for fifteen inches to fall within a few hours.

” She handed off her phone to Lianne. “Look at these pictures I took at two-thirty this morning. You can see how fast the water rose, moving up through the square from the ocean. Within twenty minutes, it became a deluge with high tide right outside the doorway. You couldn’t even see the sidewalks. There was so much water I thought I might need a boat to get out of here. But then the rain stopped around five. I’m not afraid to admit, until then, I got plenty scared.” When she’d finished looking at all the photos, Lianne handed the phone back. “You should’ve called me.

I would’ve come to help.” “And get you out of the house during a typhoon? Luke would’ve put his foot down.” Gemma laughed at her own joke. “We should have named our typhoon. You know, like they do hurricanes. Last night with the wind, it felt like one. Hurricane Adam, first of its kind along the West Coast.” “I like that. Even though Luke reminded me why hurricanes don’t happen here, something about warm water and ocean currents.” “That sounds like an opportunity to bring up Pacific hurricanes over a happy hour one day this week and argue about who’s right.

Over the years, there have been a few.” “No kidding? I can’t wait to tell Luke that. Sometimes the doctor can be a real know-it-all.” “Uh-oh. I’m sensing trouble in paradise.” “Sometimes, that man can be so infuriating,” Lianne confessed. “Just because Luke Bonner is a doctor doesn’t make him smarter than me about everything.” Gemma thought of her brother-in-law and how much alike Luke was to Lando. “I agree. They are brothers, triplets at that, who shared a womb.

It makes them more alike than they care to admit. What’s my brother-in-law done now?” “We got into an argument about, of all things, how to run the washer.” “You’re fighting over laundry. That’s never a good sign.” Lianne sputtered out a laugh. “Luke has this annoying habit of trying to tell me how to do stuff better, more efficiently.” “Like we don’t know how to do laundry,” Gemma grumbled with a roll of her eyes. “Men can be infuriating when they try to butt in and correct the way we’ve been doing something for years. All on our own. As if they willingly take our help when they’re lost and need directions.

” “Exactly. Like Luke trying to tell me how to load the dishwasher properly.” Running on fumes from the last several hours and stressed, a worn-out Gemma found that funny. She let out a string of giggles and didn’t seem to be able to stop. For the first time in hours, she slid down into a chair and put her head on the table. “I’m not sure you’re laughing or crying,” Lianne pointed out. “It wasn’t that hilarious.” “I’m so tired I’m not sure either,” Gemma said, turning her head to look at Lianne. “You and Luke aren’t about to call off the wedding next month, are you?” “No, it’s not that bad. I don’t think so anyway.

But we are still wading through some personal issues. Day to day stuff that drives us both crazy and invariably leads to heated discussions, which, in turn, leads to little puddles of quicksand if we let them.” “I hate to tell you this, but minefields like quicksand are always gonna crop up no matter what you do about them.” “It’s like whack-a-mole, isn’t it? You knock down one issue, and another pops up.” “Exactly. A perfect analogy of married life. Whack-a-mole.” That got Lianne laughing. At the back of the shop, the Westie named Rolo popped his head up out of a storage bin. Rolo whined as he nudged Rufus, the chocolate Labrador, into a standing position.

The bigger dog stretched and yawned. With his nose, the Lab pushed Rolo toward the main room. Still roaring with senseless laughter, Lianne turned her focus on the dogs. “They don’t look too worse for wear. Did the thunder scare them?” “Like two little babies, they were. Those two hid in the cupboards when the thunder and lightning showed up. To be honest, I would’ve crawled in there with them, but somebody had to stay out here and assess the water situation so we all wouldn’t drown.” “Was it really that bad?” “Felt like it,” Gemma noted as she got to her feet again. She went over and scooped out dog food from a small emergency bag she kept under the back counter. “Now I know why our main street is named for water.

Sometime during the last century, it had to overflow through downtown, and some genius decided to memorialize the event by naming it Water Street. We lost power around midnight. Telephones were still working, though, because people kept calling me to do something about it. I called the power company and they gave me a timeline as to how long the outage would last. Imagine my surprise when the electricity came back on about thirty minutes ago.” “It pays to be mayor.” Gemma grinned. “I guess it does.” After feeding the dogs and putting out fresh water, Gemma turned to load the coffeemaker with freshly ground beans. Instincts had her touching the pendant she wore around her neck.

The silver chain held her four energy stones—turquoise, moonstone, lapis, and a smaller carnelian marble— joined together in an ornate, wire-encased amulet. Turquoise for protection. Moonstone for truth. Lapis for power. Carnelian for knowledge. Still clutching her necklace with one hand, she used her other one to hit the brew button. As the coffee began its cycle, an odd feeling came over Gemma. Over the past year, she’d learned to listen to that little voice inside her head that often indicated something was wrong. “Oh, my God. I wonder if the electricity coming back on had anything to do with the fire three doors down.

I better go check on Lando.” “Go on,” Lianne urged, shooing the owner from behind the counter. “Do what you need to do. I’ve got this covered. Want me to start making the candy, too?” “You know, we have cherry creams leftover from Friday, probably two dozen or so. When the rain hit, I started to toss them out. Glad I didn’t. Why don’t we see if those are still any good? I kept them in the commercial fridge. But the power did go out for almost five hours. If the candy is still okay, hand them out to the customers for free as a gesture to come back tomorrow.

It’ll probably take us that long to get back to normal. Then we’ll pick up making the regular flavors Tuesday morning, use today to build our stock back up. That sound like a plan?” “Perfect. That’s why I came in to check and see how things were going. Monday’s flavor is always hazelnut. Is it okay to go with that, or do you want something else?” “Nope, hazelnut works for now. I am working on a new creation but I haven’t finished it yet. We’ll make a batch of those truffles with the strawberry filling and glaze on top. People seem to like those after stormy weather. I’ll be back in twenty minutes to finish setting up.

” “No need to hurry. Take your time.” As soon as Gemma stepped outside into warm sunshine, she spotted the fire trucks lined up in front of the old general store. But she didn’t see anything on fire. Approaching the front door, she poked her head inside only to see Payce Davis wave her back. “Hey, what’s going on in here? Where’s the fire?” As the patrol officer in charge, Payce backed her out of the old building. “The fire was in the downstairs basement. Got us a murder on a Monday morning. A body. You know old Ben Zurcher?” “The old postmaster? Sure.

Everybody knows Ben.” Gemma’s eyes widened as the news began to sink in. “You’re kidding? What was old Ben doing here in an empty shell of a building in the middle of a rainstorm?” “Lando thinks maybe he was meeting someone, and they killed him, started a fire to cover their tracks, too.” “The killer tried to set him on fire. Ewww. What kind of person would do that to another human being? That’s disgusting. That’s insane. How? How did he die?” Payce pointed to the back of his head. “Gunshot wound to the head. Do you remember how old Ben was?” “I’d say probably around seventy-four or so.

Why?” A tired Lando appeared in the doorway. “Payce, go out front and see if you can locate the medical examiner. Find out what’s taking Tuttle so long to get to the crime scene. Drag him in here if you have to. That’s an order.” Payce gave a mock salute and started down the steps. “You want I should push him out of the interview he’s giving?” “What?” Lando muttered, storming outside and past Gemma. He spotted Jeff Tuttle across the street huddled with Tina Ashcomb, a staff reporter from the County newspaper. “How can he be giving an interview when he hasn’t even set eyes on the victim yet? Get him over here, Payce. Now!” Gemma found her lips curving into a smile.

Watching Lando Bonner in his element always made her realize how lucky she was. She studied his dark hair, his dark eyes, the stubble on his face—and fell in love all over again. He wore his hair longer these days, curling up just at the top of his leather bomber jacket. He wore his cowboy boots, a pair of dark indigo blue jeans, and a white button-down shirt that everyone called his Lando Bonner uniform. The outfit made him look delicious, good enough to eat for breakfast. Tamping down one urge, she leaned over and pressed a kiss to his lips. “Bad morning?” “Bad for Ben Zurcher. Someone shot him in the head, then rolled him up in a rug and tried to set it on fire. The carpeting didn’t burn much.” He lowered his voice and pulled her back into the building.

“I found a partially burned note underneath Ben’s body, though.” “And? You look upset. I’m guessing the note indicates it wasn’t a suicide?” “I am upset. The killer set fire to the note, hoping it would burn with the body.” “But it didn’t.” “No, it didn’t.” “Are you gonna tell me what the note said?” “Do you remember the Copeland murders twenty years back?” Lines formed across Gemma’s forehead. “That family who lived out by the old highway, the one who got murdered on Friday the thirteenth? Sure. Who doesn’t remember the County’s most horrific unsolved crime? A mom and dad beat to death with a baseball bat along with their two kids. What does it have to do with Ben?” “You’re right about the date.

Somebody murdered the Copelands on Friday, October 13, 2000. But the killer used a hammer, not a baseball bat. I already had Dale fact-check that. The note underneath Ben’s body was all about the Copeland family. Imagine him holding on to that piece of paper clutched in his hand. I figure he had it there for a reason, trying to hide it from the killer. He’d scribbled the note himself. I recognized Ben’s handwriting. It said he knew who killed the Copelands and why it happened.” “But if all this time Ben knew, why didn’t he say something to you before now?” “That’s the question on my mind, too.

Was old Ben involved in the murders? If so, what was his motive? Did the killer threaten him to keep his mouth shut? I mean, look where we are. Ben’s dead, and someone shot him in the head during one of the worst storms in a decade. A lot of questions yet to answer.” When Tuttle stepped in, Lando glared at the coroner. “Took you long enough to get here. I saw you flirting with Tina.” Jeff Tuttle handled criticism the same way he viewed his job. He used humor and sarcastic wit to survive the never-ending stream of bodies that ended up in his morgue. “What’s the rush? Has the victim got somewhere else to be?” “I’d like you to do whatever it is you do here so I can get the asshole who did this. Is that too much to ask from a taxpayer?” “Ah, so you’re the impatient one.

Got it.” “Could I get a little less attitude and more work? What else do you have to do?” Lando fired back. “My crew and I have been up all night. So excuse me if I’m not in the mood to stand around cracking jokes.” “Testy, aren’t we? Fine. Show me what you’ve got.” Knowing there was a body in the basement—someone she had known—Gemma stiffened her spine and decided to tag along. After thumbing on his flashlight, Lando led them down into a cavernous basement, once used for storing inventory. But now, the shelves were long bare, and the wood appeared to be rotting in places. Gemma caught a whiff of decomposition.

The unmistakable odor blended with the stale, musty air and the damp conditions in the cellar. Tuttle went to the body, bent down over it for a few minutes, then straightened back up again. “He was shot right here. There’s blood splatter on the rug. See?” Lando nodded. “I figured that.” Tuttle pointed to a series of crimson red droplets still damp. Without waiting for anyone else’s comments, the coroner moved to the side. “What that means is this. The rug was already down on the floor.

The moment Ben got shot, he dropped right where he stood. That’s when the killer wrapped the rug around him and tried his hand at arson, probably using an ordinary lighter to set fire to the inside of the carpet. Some of it burned. Most of it didn’t. Not enough oxygen to fuel a little starter fire down here with all the damp floor conditions.” “Which means the killer was probably waiting down here for him, right? He already had the rug in place, and as soon as Ben was in position, he shoots him in the head.” “Sounds reasonable to me.” Since Lando had already bagged the note as evidence, he now handed it off to Tuttle to get his input. “I found this in Ben’s hand. Partially burned.

The best part, anyway.” Tuttle looked amused but read the letter before cutting his eyes back to Lando’s. “Why, Chief? I do believe you might need to open up a cold-case murder investigation now. The bottom half of that note was burned right off before Ben named the killer.” “Bite me,” Lando snapped. “Just give me the time of death, and you can get out of here.” “I’d say he’s been here less than five hours. That would make it between two and three o’clock this morning.” Gemma stepped closer while still maintaining a respectable six feet from the corpse. “Worst of the storm happened right about that time.

Just saying. Howling wind, rain gushing down in buckets. I remember the time because it was raining so hard that I thought the roof might blow off. Or at least the roof would start leaking. The dogs were going crazy.” “Did you hear a gunshot?” Lando wanted to know. “I didn’t hear anything but dogs making a fuss and the wind roaring and rain beating down so hard on the roof I thought it might give way.” Lando ran a free hand over his stubble. “Ben must’ve thought that meeting up with a killer was so important he had to do it during a bad storm. Weird.

” “Maybe the killer was blackmailing Ben, or vice versa,” she offered. “Maybe Ben’s killer brought him money. Lots of people would go out in bad weather if it means adding to their bank account.” “I don’t believe Ben would ever be involved in anything like that, though.” “Isn’t it always the last person you’d suspect?” “Maybe. Time to head over to Ben’s place and check it out,” Lando decided. “Jeff, you’ll let me know when you finish the autopsy.” “Sure. If I find any surprises, I’ll let you know that, too. But the GSW to the head is the reason he died.

” Lando rolled his eyes. “Maybe you should do standup.” “Hey, I’m just trying to start my day in an upbeat manner. Sue me.” Gemma had a thought as she turned to face Jeff Tuttle. “If you’re thinking of asking out Tina Ashcomb, you should really do it now before she decides to take that new job offer over in Crescent City.” Tuttle gave her a strange look before shaking his head. “I hate small towns. Does everybody have to know your business twenty-four-seven and then comment on it? Why don’t I just put that I’m interested in Tina on social media?” “Hey, it was a friendly tip, meant to give you a heads up if you’re in stall-mode,” Gemma explained. “If Tina has her sights set on moving somewhere else, you need to act now or be prepared to accept that you missed your chance when she moves away.

” Tuttle gave her a sheepish look. “Okay, maybe I will ask her out. Do you think she’ll take the job?” “Crescent City isn’t that much bigger than Coyote Wells. I think Tina will bide her time until something else even better comes along.”

.

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