Moon Lake Sleuths
He’s come in search of treasure...
...Sydney hates him.
Grace loves him...
Will he rip mother and daughter apart?
Welcome to Moon Lake, where ghosts and spirits meddle, and psychic magic and mayhem grow.
Sydney had it all. She owned a successful dance studio in Chicago and did what she loved. What she was born to do, and then her ex stole her business. Now, in her second act of life, she’s come back to where it all started to begin again. All she wants is peace and smooth sailing. Her opening is in two weeks, and her plan is simple. No men. No drama. No heartache.
Good plan, but there’s a problem. She walks in to find her old sleazeball, grab hands slimy professor kissing her mother in Grace’s bookstore. Grams’s ghost wants him gone. Her father’s ghost wants the jerk dead, and he’s threatening to do the deed. Are there ghost police? Can she stop her father in time? Can a ghost kill a human?
That’s not all. The professor is on a treasure hunt, and it’s turning the Village of Moon Lake upside down, bringing undesirables into town, pitting neighbor against neighbor. Add to that three handsome men vying for Sydney’s attention, and the omens spell one word in capital letters. That word is TROUBLE!
If you love ghost mysteries, senior and midlife sleuths, and offbeat characters, download this Midlife Paranormal Women’s Fiction set in the rural community of Moon Lake, Indiana.
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Release date: January 31, 2021
Print pages: 227
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Moon Lake Sleuths
Well, it wasn't Dodge. It was Chicago. Nevertheless, she'd gotten the heck out of there on the last day of the year. Chicago, that is. Sydney Hovan's red Jeep towed a rented trailer jammed with the contents from her Chicago condo. Five more miles, and she'd exit I-90, pay her toll, and take the bypass around South Bend, Indiana, to her old and new home in Moon Lake. She intended to leave the horror, disappointment, and loss that invaded her life the last few months and start over with No Drama. No Men. And No Heartache. She left that behind when she crossed into Indiana from Illinois. She was twenty-five minutes from her new old home.
Old home because she'd purchased her childhood home from her mother, who had moved in next door with Sydney's Great-Aunt Lois. Even though at ninety, Lois was the sharpest tack in the whole family, the old farmhouse was getting a little big for her to handle confined to a wheelchair or scooter. New home because Sydney planned to stay there forever, safely tucked away in rural peace. No Drama. No Men. No Heartache. That phrase was her new mantra. One she intended to repeat until it became ingrained in her brain.
At least, the year was forecasted to end on a high note with clear skies and highs in the upper 50s. That was a good omen, right? Three months ago, when her life started to go sideways, she'd given up on logic and started reading the omens. They'd guided her through the horror.
This morning at 4 am, she slipped her keys through the managed community's office slot and left. Traffic had been light most of the drive, but it had been slowing for the last mile or two. Please God, let there not be an accident, and if there is, please no fatalities or serious injuries. Losing a loved one was awful any time but losing a loved one on a holiday seemed to double the pain.
She was now parked behind a semi. GPS indicated they were still a half-mile from the toll booth. Not what she had hoped for, but a half-mile was better than five. Keeping traffic moving was a priority for the troopers who patrolled the roadway. She was confident they were doing everything they could to move the line along. Gathering her long brunette hair in the black hair tie she had wrapped around her ring finger, she arranged it into a ponytail and stretched. Every muscle in her 5'10” frame ached from packing. Twenty minutes after she cleared the toll booth, the unpacking would start. Her muscles wouldn't mind a slight reprieve.
One big decision loomed ahead. She needed to make it and make it soon before the special zoning provision ran out. She'd told herself she was coming home to start a dance and music studio in the old schoolhouse on her family's property. But opening would violate two of her three new rules. She was a Ballroom Dance Teacher, which meant men and women dancing together—thus violating her No Men and No Drama rules. What to do? She was waiting for an omen to guide her. The omen was taking its sweet time to find her, or maybe, she'd missed it.
Right now, all she wanted was peace and the chance to hide away and wrap her energy around herself. Probably, the word was cocoon.
Dancing was all she knew, and she'd been self-employed for most of her life. So, if she didn't teach, what would she do? That question had kept her up at night for weeks. What did she want to do? Teaching dance was in her DNA. Every time they drew blood, a little sparkly dance shoe dropped out of her arm, passed through the needle, and into the vial. Okay, so perhaps that was a little over the top, but it was true. Teaching was more than what she did. It was who she was. If she went to work for someone else, she'd have to follow their rules—following rules, not her thing. She couldn't even follow her own rules. That's what started this mess. She had a rule against fraternization. She'd broken it. It broke her.
Ah, the lights of the toll booth were in sight. Men with flashlights walked around. Please tell me this is not a scene from some movie. The dude who starred in the TV movie about living under a bubble was from South Bend. Maybe life had imitated art, and alien terrorists had erected a bubble over the city. Or an army of Mutant Ninja Turtles had taken over. Boy, she needed food. The late nights packing and the early morning breakfast had taken their toll on her brain.
One more car ahead, and she'd be free. Beams of light bobbed and wiggled. State Police Officers examined cars and opened trunks inspecting the inside with flashlights.
“Please, God, don't let them ask me to unpack this trailer. If they ask, they are doing the unpacking and repacking. The car in front of her pulled forward, and she moved into the space the officer indicated.
“Ma'am, I need you to open your trailer for me.”
“Of course, you do. I'll do it on one condition,” she said with a huge smile. “If you promise to repack whatever falls out.”
A slight grin crossed his face. “It's that jammed, huh!”
“You'll see.” She opened the Jeep's door and walked to the rear of the trailer. “What's going on?”
“We have a report of a fugitive headed to the area.”
“Oh, wow, what did he or she do?” She asked as she unlocked the door and slowly swung it open.
“I'm not at liberty to say.” He lurched forward and grabbed two lampshades as they fell from above. He laughed.
“You were telling the truth. Not a spare inch in here. Where are you headed?” he asked, shining his light around.
“I'm moving back home to Moon Lake.”
“Well, I'm convinced no living soul could be hiding in there. Welcome home. Lock your doors. Don't pick up any strangers.”
He helped her push the door shut.
“Thank you, Officer. May peace and protection surround you. Happy New Year.” He held the door of her Jeep as she climbed in and drove forward to pay her toll.
He was nice. That was a good omen. A fugitive on the loose, not so much.
The longing to get home fought with the growl in Sydney's stomach. Swinging by Candy's Café and Bakery, which was actually a truck stop, Sydney grabbed a box of the best donuts in the world and took the winding and rutted backroad into Moon Lake. Not the best choice pulling the trailer, but the sweet treats were worth it. Two delicious chocolate yeast donuts with heaping chocolate frosting later, she pulled into her drive. Not Mom’s drive, she realized. But hers. All these years, it had been Mom’s. The commitment was real. A small knot created by fear, hope, and uncertainty tightened in her gut. She was still getting used to the idea. It was so quiet. Horses whinnied nearby. Cows responded. Life was slower here. As if the landscape was in constant meditation.
Unhooking the trailer hitch and hopping into the jeep, she headed next door to Great-Aunt Lois's farmhouse to pick up the keys.
The sight of Lois's old farmhouse always made Sydney feel grounded. Its twisting gravel drive wound around a couple of barns before looping in front of the house and crossed Moon Lake Road to zigzag towards another barn and the pasture. The front of the house, like Sydney's, faced Moon Lake. Closing the donut box and licking her lips to clear away the evidence, she parked outside the two-story white farmhouse with green shutters.
Before Syd was halfway to the door, the elderly white-haired matriarch of the Collins Family barrelled out of the kitchen's side Dutch doors and down the walk on her red scooter.
“Sydney, my dear,” Lois said, wrapping her arms around Sydney. “Glad you are home. Get yourself in here.”
Lois looked at the box. “You've been to Candy's.”
“Yes, I have.” Syd rubbed her stomach. “My stomach was growling, so I made a detour. I got your peanut butter donuts.”
Lois held the door.
“Ah, you remembered. Move along inside, dear. My mouth started watering when I saw the box.”
Syd walked through the door and braced for the force to hit her. How did one explain the essence of all those ancestors' thoughts, personalities, and legacies gelled into one presence? Couldn't be described—only experienced. This house had been in the family for over a century. Countless problems had been solved around the old oak table in the kitchen. Tiny fragments of all those who had lived in this house remained and mixed to form a strong family aura.
It told tales of pioneer women and men who fought the land, weather, disease, poverty, and the government to build a home and a place that stood proud. They were strong but compassionate, loving people who stood up for the rights of others. The bitterness that invaded so many had never stood for long inside these walls. That was the real reason Sydney had come home. She feared if she stayed in Chicago, bitterness would invade her soul.
Lois put her hand on Sydney's arm.
“I know, Dear, whenever I'm gone from here for a few days, the presence overpowers me when I return.” She rolled to the cookie jar and grabbed the keys from behind it.
“Before I forget.” She dropped the keyring in Syd's hand.
“Thanks!” Lois was an amazing woman. She was ninety years old and, aside from the wheelchair, didn't look a day over sixty. Her white hair was always perfectly styled, and no matter what, she always wore earrings and a necklace. Her necklaces had become a little longer over the years. Sydney guessed Lois chose necklaces she could slip over her head because clasps were hard for aging fingers.
Lois lifted a peanut butter donut from the box.
“So, how was your trip? And. How are you?”
That was an excellent question.
“I'm fine. I think. As for my trip, it was good until I hit the toll booth. The State Troopers were looking for a fugitive believed to be in or headed to the area. They stopped every vehicle, which slowed progress.”
“Oh, that's exciting. Do they need any help?”
Sydney laughed. So like Lois.
“It looked like they had things under control. Given your reputation, maybe they'll call you in for the takedown.”
“We'll see,” Lois chuckled.
She'd known Lois forever. Granted, she'd been in Chicago these last twenty years, but she'd come home for visits, and they'd stayed in touch. Lois's chuckle wasn't as enthusiastic as usual. Lois wasn't telling her something. She looked as vibrant as always. So, probably not her health. Something about the family, the farm, or Moon Lake? Hmm.
“So, what's been happening around here?”
“Oh, we'll get to that another day.” Lois leaned in. “Have you made a decision about the old school and your dance studio?”
That was another good question.
“Sort of?” Not really, but she didn't want to admit that. She'd had more than enough time to decide. That darn omen was tardy.
“I checked. If I'm going to do it, I have to be open in two weeks or lose the zoning. I could refile, but I know Diane Clark would fight me every step of the way. Funny the timing of all of this. I'm leaning towards opening the studio.”
Lois looked her in the eye.
“But something is stopping you.”
“Yeah. I made these new rules. ‘No Men, No Drama. No heartache.’ It’s hard to have a dance studio with no men. And men plus women equal drama.”
Lois rolled to the counter and returned with the coffee pot.
“Sydney, I don't want to push you into something you don't want to do.”
“See, that's the thing. I can't see myself not doing it. I just don't know if I have the emotional energy or can harness the enthusiasm.”
Lois reached across the table and touched Sydney's hand.
“Dear, you've been through a rough patch. Your heart and soul have been beaten and broken. It's natural for you to feel as you do. I've been around a while. I have found refurbishing the old and making it new heals our souls at the same time.”
She hoped Lois was right. Her heart and soul needed healing. Major healing.
“Well, your wisdom is seldom wrong.”
Lois's eyes grew wide.
“Seldom. My wisdom is always spot on.”
Laughter rang from Syd's gut.
“It's your story.”
“You were taught to never disagree with your elders,” Lois said, smiling.
“Okay, well, then I guess I'm opening a dance studio in Moon Lake.”
Lois breathed a sigh of relief.
“That's good because Able Heinz will be here any minute. I contacted him to give us a quote on some landscaping for the building.”
Syd shook her head.
“Somehow I knew, this was going to be a family affair.”
“What can I say, Dear? I love progress. Our family built this town. It's our duty to continue the tradition.”
One of the things Syd learned early growing up as part of the Collins Family, the prosperity and aura of Moon Lake, was almost as important as The Collins Family's abundance and happiness.
“If you say so, Lois. Who is Able Heinz?”
“He's new in town. I wanted to help him get established.”
As if on cue, a tan truck pulled into the driveway. The words were too far away to read, but the logo included trees. Probably a good indication, Able Heinz was here.
Able Heinz was a peacock, thought Sydney as she watched him exit his truck in his exquisitely tailored black leather jacket. It was zipped to mid-chest to reveal his grey scarf accented by micro suede grey gloves peeking out of his pockets. He finger-combed his hair in the side mirror and brushed his tailored khakis to show off his round buns—a major peacock. It wasn't a thought, more like a gut reaction. She could spot them one hundred yards away. She knew their stories. They were Mama's boys who could do no wrong. They were pretty babies who grew into pretty men, and they expected the world to bow at their feet.
Okay, so the family aura had some work to do on her. She was already bitter.
Able knocked on the front door. How long could she reasonably take to cross the living room and open it? Not as long as she'd like. Darn it. She'd reached her destination. Oh well. She reached for the knob.
He greeted her with a huge smile and a firm handshake.
She had to give it to him. He was pretty.
“Hi Able, I'm Sydney. Lois is waiting for us in the kitchen. Right this way.”
“Lois hadn't told me you'd be joining us,” Able said as he followed her through the foyer and living room into the kitchen.”
“I got an earlier start than I had planned.” Had I known, I would have taken my time, Syd thought, and then instantly regretted it when a book fell off the shelf, almost hitting her head. Collins Family Code for “be nice.”
Lois smirked at the near miss and greeted Able with a huge smile indicating for him to sit.
“Sydney picked these donuts up from Candy's on the way here. What kind would you like, Able?”
Somehow Sydney guessed Able wouldn't put sugary, unhealthy donuts in that body of his.
“Jelly filled, please.” He took a bite. “Wow, these are good. Where did you say they came from?”
Sydney poured him a cup of coffee and placed it on the table next to his donut.
“Candy's in Abracadabra,” Lois said. “It's the truck stop on the two-lane highway.”
His eyes moved back and forth for a few seconds.
“Around the corner and down a couple miles from Nothing Fancy Garden Center,” Lois said.
He laughed a fake laugh.
“Ah, now you are speaking my language.” Turning to Sydney, he said. “I'm new here. I'm finding there is a great deal to learn.”
That remark, at least, sounded genuine.
“Lois says you're a landscape designer. Are you working with a garden center in the area?”
He wiped his chin slowly as if trying to figure out what she wanted to hear.
“No, I only do design. I'll give you recommendations as to where to find the best plants. I also give you planting instructions. I find this works well for clients who have a relationship with a favorite garden center.”
“Also, I find I can be more objective and give you the best possible design based on the condition of your property versus the inventory I have to sell.”
“That does make sense.” She had to give him credit for that.
“Sydney just arrived home. She hasn't had an opportunity to think about all of this.” Lois unfolded a piece of paper. This is a drawing Grace did based on her thoughts and mine. Perhaps you could give us a rough estimate of the price for you to design it and what we should pay for someone to install it. Once Syd gets settled, you two can work together to create the final plan.”
So, Mom had already done a design—didn't surprise her one bit. Lois slid the design across the table to Able and handed a copy to Sydney. It had been a while since she'd looked at the landscaping outside the old school. Sydney was sure that except for the creek that ran down to the lake, there were no ponds on the property or a bridge. Definitely, no bridge existed as of now. However, there was a bridge and a couple ponds on the drawing. They weren’t going to materialize out of thin air.
Able narrowed his eyes as he picked up the drawing. Was he studying it or upset that someone besides himself had an original idea? Sydney just wanted simple but seeing the expression on his face almost made it worth going all out. Of course, going all out would include a hefty price tag. After she bought the house, she was broke. But it was only money, right? She'd made it and lost it. She could make it again. But this time, she would not lose it to a man.
“This looks great.” He opened his leather portfolio case and placed Grace’s drawing on top. “With your permission, I'll go over to the property in the next day or two and take some pictures and measurements.”
“That would be fine,” Lois said.
“Sydney, would you allow me to take you to lunch this afternoon to talk about this in a little more detail after I've had the chance to study it?”
Whoa. He was slick and fast. She hadn't expected that.
“Able, that's thoughtful of you, but I have a trailer waiting at home for me to unpack. So, I'm afraid I'll have to decline for another day.”
“How about later in the week?”
“That would be fine,” Lois answered for her. “It will be good for you two to get out and see people. We need our town's businesspeople talking, meeting, and conversing. Helps build commerce.”
Remind me to shoot Lois, Syd said to herself.
After closing the bookstore, Mom had stopped by last night to see if Sydney needed help. Mom hadn’t taken more than two steps inside the house, which was an indication Grace was doing the “Mom Thing” but was hoping Sydney didn’t need her. Of that, Syd was sure. Truth be told, at this point in the chaos of boxes and furniture, a helper would have only made matters worse. Two of Lois's workers who helped her run the farm had come over about 4 PM and moved the big stuff into the house. Angels that they were, they placed it in the proper rooms. It was all the other stuff that was overwhelming. How did she ever fit all this stuff inside her condo? This house was three times the size, and it was already stuffed.
The feeling Lois was withholding information increased when Grace arrived. Something was up. This morning Sydney decided to return the trailer and pay a visit to Grace's Rare Books before she finished unpacking and putting things away.
She'd stopped at Melba's Munchies for breakfast and was now carrying a cup of Melba's special Activation Tea for Grace. A handsome man with dark, close-cropped hair in a brown leather jacket about thirty sat on a bench watching her across the street. Or maybe he was just watching the road. She knew her issues with men were clouding her judgment. She needed to deal with it, but right now, it was what it was.
Opening the door, the familiar smell of old book hit her. If they could bottle that, it was heaven. Almost as good as the smell of new-mown hay.
“Mom, I'm home,” she yelled. She stopped. What the heck? Before her was Grace wrapped in the arms of a man kissing her. Grace kissed him back. Whoa! So, this must be the thing they'd been hiding. The thing was a him. A good throat clearing might be the answer. Sydney did. It worked. They broke apart.
“Hi, Mo...”. Syd's mouth stopped working. No words would come out. Her eyeballs felt as if they would jump out of their sockets. “Professor Spencer,” Sydney said.
“Sydney. I never realized,” he said.
“What are you doing here?” Besides kissing my mother.
“You two know each other?” Grace asked, her hand pressing to her throat and her head tilting.
“He was my professor in college,” she said to Grace before turning to look at Edmund Spencer. “Did you move to Moon Lake?” If he had, she was packing back up and getting the heck out of here. This time, she was only taking her clothes.
“Is that cup of Melba's tea for me?” Grace asked, her eyes shifting from Professor Sleazeball to her daughter.
Sydney shook herself and handed it to her mother.
“Yeah. Sorry, I was just so shocked to see my old professor kissing my mother.”
Both of Grace's eyebrows arched at once. Grace code for 'don't be rude' and 'don't embarrass me.’ Two raised eyebrows were never a good thing.
“Edmund and I were engaged before I married your father. He's come to town to research buried Civil War treasure.”
Wow, the guy had game. Things ended with Grace. Then years later, he came on hot and heavy to Sydney. The scene of Syd fighting him off her during a 'required visit' to his office started looping in her brain the second she'd seen his sickening face. His cigarette smoke infested office, piled with files from floor to ceiling, mixed with the roughness of the worn and faded carpeting on his floor. It was all there—every horrifying detail.
A thump came from the corner. A grey head with round wire-rimmed glasses peeked between two books.
“Go ahead, Sydney. Tell them they shouldn't be making out in the middle of the bookstore. It upsets the patrons.” Howard Crane, the town's bookish hermit, said with his eyes and nose pressed between the books.
Sleazeball looked at his watch.
“Sydney, it was good to see you again. Grace, I'll pick you up at closing.” He dropped a quick kiss on her lips—Syd's stomach rolled in response—and he exited the bookstore.
In response, Howard clapped so loud a Tiffany lamp shook.
“Glad that blowfish is gone. Finally, I can get some real reading done.” He pushed the books he'd been peering through together. Howard’s footsteps retreated toward the back of the store. So much for no drama.
Grace shook her head and yelled. “Howard, Syd and I will be in my office if you need me.”
“I won't. Thanks, Sydney, for coming in and interrupting them. For a minute there, I thought they were going to do it on the counter. I didn't want the books and Bookie to be offended.”
Bookie meowed his agreement from his basket on the far end of the sales counter. The black and white cat always had a comment.
“Sydney, follow me,” Grace ordered. Talk about an embarrassing situation. Embarrassing fell squarely in the No Drama category. Great, she was breaking her own rules again.
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