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From A History of Murder, Jericho Falls Cozy Mysteries Book 1

 Prologue

It all started with a corn dog. It was the reason my stomach began to rumble at mile marker 247 and cramp by number 258. It was the reason I kept speeding up little by little until my speedometer dial flirted with 80. How long had that deep-fried excuse for lunch been sitting underneath the red lamp? And was there a bit of vegetation on this godforsaken desert highway large enough to hide behind? Nope. Not a chance.


So it really was because of that darned gas-station corndog that I started to see the red and blue flashing lights appear and grow in my rearview mirror. 


“That cop probably isn’t coming for me,” I soothed myself. “Don’t get nervous—it’ll only make things worse.” I inhaled and exhaled slowly, practicing the breathing technique I knew to quiet my anxiety. I let off the accelerator and said a little prayer for mercy. Please, God, if you let this police car drive past me, I shalt not eat junk food just to pass the time of a boring drive ever again.


The cruiser was right behind me now, sirens and lights blazing. The cop wasn’t going to pass me. My pulse raced as I eased my old Toyota pickup onto the gravelly shoulder and prayed this would not take long. I rolled down my window and waited for the inevitable. 


Glancing at my reflection in the rearview mirror, I hoped I had some trace of a hairdo and makeup left. Cops let cute girls off the hook, right? Sadly, the warm desert climate had deflated my hair and melted what little makeup I started with that morning. I refocused and watched the policeman take his own sweet time to open his car door and slowly meander up to mine. Come on, buddy, I’m getting desperate here!


As soon as he was within earshot, I blurted, “The answers are ‘yes’ and ‘the corndog.’”


“Excuse me?” the officer said, leaning down and doing the stereotypical two-second car interior scan.


“You were going to ask me if I knew I was speeding—yes—and what the hurry was all about—and it’s the corndog.”


“The corndog,” he repeated flatly.


“From the Conoco station about fifty miles back.” I pointed in the direction I had come from and made a face meant to say, ‘yikes.’


“Miss, I’m beginning to wonder about your sobriety,” the officer said, “and you’re sweating pretty heavily.”


“I’m not drunk, sir,” I told him, “but I need a ladies’ room in the worst way. I’d settle for a porta-potty, or steep embankment out of traffic’s view, if you know of one.” 


A longish moment of silence followed my confession. It gave me just enough time to notice how incredibly cute this man, who was presently deciding my fate, truly was. His arms were folded across his chest, displaying an attractive amount of blond hair on his forearms. The navy blue of his uniform set off his tan skin, and I suspected it would enhance blue eyes nicely as well. That is, if those eyes hidden behind his aviator shades proved to be blue. 


At that moment, a stomach cramp averted my attention. I clenched my teeth and squeezed my eyes shut. I felt a bead of sweat trickle down my temple.


“You’re serious, aren’t you?” he said. 


I nodded. 


He sighed.


“Follow me,” he said. With that, he jogged back to his cruiser and gave what I like to think is history’s first-ever police escort to the bathroom.


Three miles down the road, we came to a junction where we made a slight right toward a sign that read, ‘Historic Jericho Falls—2 miles ahead.’ My heart skipped a beat, and I breathed a sigh of relief. 


In minutes, the officer guided me to the town’s Visitor’s Center complete with ‘Clean Restrooms.’ I jumped out and headed inside without even shutting off the engine of my truck. I mean, it was under surveillance after all.


When I returned, my hero was chatting with two other travelers. He saw me, politely waved goodbye to them, and came my way.


“I don’t know how to thank you,” I said. “What you did was very kind.”


“You can thank me by promptly paying this speeding ticket.” He handed me a form he’d completed in even, all-cap penmanship. “I took the liberty of running your plates while you were, uh...busy in there.” He motioned toward the small building I had visited and cleared his throat. Then, without another word, he turned to go.


I scanned quickly to the bottom of the ticket. “Hey,” I called, “have a good day, Officer Garner.” He paused and slowly turned back. He flashed a quick smile. I was hoping that his teeth would be yellow and gnarly—something to stop the little crush I was forming for this guy. But no, they were perfect. And when he took off his sunglasses, green eyes, not blue ones, met mine. 


“You too, Miss Martin,” he said. “Welcome to Jericho Falls.”


Welcome indeed.


But Officer Garner was wrong. How could he have known that what he should have said to me was… welcome back.


Chapter 1, Many Happy Summers

It was eerily quiet as I entered the mansion. I needed to find my grandma. Hurrying through the foyer, past the library, and into the parlour, I saw a fire blazing in the massive brick fireplace. In June? She must be really out of it. The room looked lived in, but there was no sign of my grandma here.


I caught sight of myself in the etched antique mirror hanging above the mantel. I looked as worn out as I felt. I had driven from Boise, Idaho to Jericho Falls, Nevada in just seven and a half hours—stopping only once for gas and that dreaded corndog. My eyes burned and I felt grimy. My long golden-brown hair was tied in what was supposed to be a bun, but closely resembled a fraying knot at the top of my head.


A cat meowed loudly, slinking in from the hallway. I jumped, startled by this noise in the otherwise muted room. The large black cat with tuxedo markings sat and stared at me with yellow eyes. It yawned, revealing large sharp teeth as if to warn me. Then it meowed again.


I sidestepped the cat, but it followed me. Together, we checked the library. It looked pristine and held no sign of my grandma. Suddenly, a banging sound erupted from the back of the house. I hurried down the long hallway, past the dining room and the grand staircase, into the kitchen. 


My grandmother stood there, balancing a grocery bag on each hip, attempting to open the refrigerator with the fingertips of one hand. She was singing to whatever was playing on her wireless earphones. She wore jeans and an open chambray shirt over a fitted black T-shirt. Her shoulder-length gray hair was tied with a sky-blue ribbon in a high ponytail. She looked closer to fifty than her actual seventy-odd years. This woman, shaking her hips and whistling happily, certainly didn’t look terminally ill.


I shook my head in disbelief. “Grandma?”


She startled, and a package of pre-made cookie dough dropped from one of the shopping bags. “Chloe, you made it!”


“Of course I made it! You called saying you got some frightening test results!”


The black cat was now circling my ankles, winding his fluffy tail around my legs. Was he comforting me or laughing at my gullibility?


“Oh, silly me,” Grandma cooed.


“Silly?” I said. “Why would you do such a thing? I dropped everything for you. I don’t even know if I’ll have a job when I get back. And thank goodness I wasn’t able to get through to my parents. They may have caught the redeye back from Rome.”


Grandma covered her mouth and smiled weakly as if the gravity of her wrongdoing was finally sinking in.


“Look at you! You are the bill of health. Dancing around without a care in the world, while I thought you had cancer or something!”


Grandma broke into the weak, sad voice she had used on the phone with me the night before. “It doesn’t look good,” she whimpered and then gave a little cough.


I clenched my fists. I hadn’t been this angry since the last time I was in town. When I vowed to never set foot here again. And for thirteen years, I hadn’t. But here I was, at my grandma’s beck and call. A fake beck and call as it were. 


My ears felt hot, and my eyes were burning again, but this time from the angry tears that surfaced.


The cat meowed.


“Come here, Elliot,” said Grandma. 

Wait. I thought she hated cats. She was a dog person, wasn’t she? And she hadn’t mentioned getting a cat. What else was she lying to me about?


Grandma came closer to me, cuddling the feline. “I fibbed to you. But won’t you please forgive me? I missed you.” She fluttered her lashes over amber eyes, just like mine. 


I spun around and stomped down the hall, through the foyer, and out the front door. My footsteps reverberated across the expansive covered porch and down the wide front steps. How dare she? 


From the circle drive, I turned to look at the house where I had spent so many happy summers. The impressive mansion was three stories high with gingerbread in every cornice. A turret graced the left side, which added a final, grand touch. How could some place so beautiful create such mixed emotions in me? On the one hand, it held all my best childhood memories. But that wasn’t all. It held terrible memories, too. 


The flood of emotions was too much. I wanted to scream. How could Grandma Lily coax me back here when she knew what I had been through? I yanked the rubber band from the top of my head and shook out my hair. It fell down over my shoulders like a wild mane. Wild like my anger.


Grandma’s mansion was one of many on D Street. This part of town, situated high above the rest, was nicknamed Gold Mountain because, in the old days, women who married successful miners were called gold mountain wives. Every residence on our street was more impressive than the last. Still, none were as stunning as my grandma’s, dubbed Jericho House because of its roots with the original settlers of Jericho Falls. 


I turned to take a look down D Street toward Main. The vintage buildings flanked by authentic boardwalks were just visible from here. It was like looking back in time. Named after the majestic waterfalls a few miles upriver, historic Jericho Falls was once a booming gold mining town in the 1800s. But like other once-bustling cities such as Tombstone, Arizona, or Bodie, California, the town’s economy now ran on tourism, not precious metals.


Visitors came each summer to experience this charming ghost town with many original buildings still standing. Old homes, including my grandma’s, helped visitors experience the sophisticated and lush lifestyle from the days of yore. Some of them had become bed-and-breakfasts, others were now museums or shops. My family had opted to keep it simple, giving a few home tours each week and offering space to hold bridal and baby showers or book clubs.


My chest tightened with the pain I’d been carrying for over a decade. Jericho Falls was a special place. It was famous. It was important to maintain for posterity’s sake with a rich history and lovely sights. It had been my summertime home for years. And I was leaving it as soon as possible, once and for all! 


I went to my truck to straighten the cab for my return trip. I folded a sweatshirt and gathered up trash with angry energy. Unfortunately, that energy didn’t last long. I clicked the door shut and rested my head against the truck. I wished I had the strength of body and spirit to get back in and return to Boise. Once there, I would ask forgiveness for walking out of my shift at the Coffee Stop and settle back into my studio apartment. 


But speaking of coffee, no amount of caffeine was going to enliven me enough to make the long trip right now. I rubbed circles on my temples and took several slow, deep breaths. Although I hated it, I couldn’t leave town without spending at least a little time with Grandma Lily. A liar or not, she deserved that much.


The front door of the spacious house slowly opened. Its stained glass caught the afternoon light like a prism. There stood my grandma with Elliot still in her arms. 


“It wasn’t right,” she called out to me. “I’m sorry.” 


Slowly, I walked back to the house, climbed the stairs, and stood with my arms folded across my chest. I shook my head at her. I was trying to stay mad, but my exhaustion was winning out.


“It wasn’t the right way,” she repeated, “but it was the only way I could think of to get you back here.”


She was right, of course. Several things had come up over the years, but nothing significant enough for me to consider coming back. Not when a fire burned through downtown, ruining several important landmarks, not even when Aunt Shirley died. But Grandma knew I’d never leave her alone if she really needed me.


“Honestly? I want you to come back for good,” she said. “And now that your mom and dad have gone off on their retirement world-tour, why not?”


Was she joking? She, better than anyone else in the world, knew why I hated this town; what had happened to me here. And she also knew that I had promised myself to stay away.


“You know why, Grandma.”


She put down the cat, unfolded my arms, and took my hands in hers. “Okay, then at least stay for a visit?”


I felt like I might cry again. Not only because I was still fighting mad, but because I had missed her so very much. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to.


“One night,” I said. Grandma Lily hugged me, ignoring my refusal to hug her back. 


She smelled like fresh-cut grass and roses.


A HISTORY OF MURDER

First Edition, December 18, 2020.

Updated April 2021

Updated October 2022

Copyright © 2020 Brook Peterson/S.E. Mordhorst

Written By Brook Peterson