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Dead End Donation - Chapter 1

By Kirsten Weiss



There are myriad benefits to owning a paranormal museum.


I can take EMF meters home to check how much radiation I’m getting from my microwave. I can sleep in, since the museum doesn’t open until ten AM. And I can work in jeans and a t-shirt.


Tonight was an exception.


Shifting my weight on the mansion’s marble floor, I tugged up the V-neck of my little black dress. It had been ages since I’d had to break out something halfway sophisticated. Tonight I was in a cocktail dress five years out of style and a little baggy in the hips and chest. Which I guess beat the alternative.


I touched the back of my brown hair, done up in a chignon. Comfortable chatter flowed through the crowd of small-town sophisticates. Across the high-ceilinged room, my mother, chic in a sequined white dress, shot me the stink eye. I adjusted my V-neck higher.


“Better watch it,” a man rumbled warningly. “I’m keeping an eye on you, Maddie Kosloski.”


“Only one eye?” I turned and smiled.


My boyfriend, Jason Slate, grinned rakishly back, his brown eyes, flecked with gold, gleaming. He looked outstanding in his charcoal suit. But he always looked outstanding, even in his more utilitarian detective-wear.


I laid a hand on his muscular arm. “I didn’t think you were coming.”


As I’d hoped, he edged closer. I had to angle my head upward to meet his gaze. Catching the scent of his spicy cologne, my heart beat faster.


“The chief wanted me to represent the PD’s mud-run team,” Jason said.


You’re running?” Shame on me for griping about my mother roping the museum into being one of the run’s sponsors. At least I didn’t have to dig out my jogging shoes. They hadn’t seen any action since I’d bought them two years back—an overly optimistic New Year’s purchase.

In fairness, they’d been on sale.


He laughed. “Not a chance. I’m just representing the department tonight.”


“I take it the chief had better things to do than mingle?”


“Maybe so, but he wasn’t going to tell a lowly detective his excuse.” Jason glanced around the swank affair.


People in suits and dresses drank champagne and made small talk beneath the private mansion’s glittering chandeliers. Faux-Greek columns, their Corinthian capitals shimmering with gilt, made a show of holding up the white-painted walls. Guests carefully avoided sitting on the antique, white and gold furniture. The atmosphere was elegant and oppressive—a nouveau riche mausoleum.


We were in San Benedetto’s version of the White House. I’d have felt more at ease in the actual White House. The Secret Service had nothing on my mother.


She eyed me beadily from beside a hovering waiter. Palms damp, I turned the champagne flute in my hand.


“Why is your mother looking at you like that?” Jason asked, twin lines appearing between his dark brows.


“Maybe she thinks if she stares hard enough, I won’t spill anything on the carpet.”


He choked back a laugh. Fear of spillage and sinking necklines aside, I was enjoying being a medium-sized fish in the small pond of San Benedetto.


It had taken me a while to get used to it, especially since my mother was constantly bragging about my more successful siblings. But I liked my small-town life. I had a great boyfriend, wonderful friends, and a fun and fulfilling job. I couldn’t imagine changing a thing.


Jason bent his head closer. “Where do you think our hostess is?” His breath tickled my neck, and I shivered.


My mother materialized at his side. “Preparing for her grand entrance.” She nodded toward the balcony at the top of the stairs. “Nell always did have flare.” She turned to Jason with a gleeful smile. “Has Maddie told you? Her sister Melanie’s decided to get married at her fiancé’s villa in Sicily.”


I bit back a groan. My siblings were big fish in rarified international ponds. I was trying not to feel insecure about my comedown from my previous, high-flying international career. Or at least not to act insecure.


A balding man in a rumpled blue suit slouched toward us. Relieved by the potential interruption, I waved. “Clayton?” He owned a local auto parts store, which put him in the mid-upper echelons of our social scene.


Clayton Clarke straightened his shoulders. “Maddie, I’m glad you’re here.”


“Why?” I blurted. My face heated. “I mean, it’s good to see you too.”

I’d last seen him at the police station. His father, a paranormal collector, had died under suspicious circumstances. And then a woman had been killed at his father’s estate auction. And while the murders had been resolved, none of it had been easy on Clayton.


The effect of murder on the survivors was different than of a loved one’s natural death, or even of an accident. Murder was evil, and evil left a mark.


Clayton’s brows drew together. “There’s something I should—”


A glass clinked. We looked toward the sound.


A fit, white-haired woman in a silvery dress and pearls stood upon the interior balcony with a raised champagne glass. “Welcome to my gala honoring our Mud Run sponsors. Proceeds from the run will benefit the San Benedetto Historical Association.” Our hostess, Nell Grandall, motioned to an older woman in the crowd below.


Harriet, director of the Historical Association, smiled up at Mrs. Grandall and awkwardly adjusted her ruby-red dress. She looked like she felt even more out of place than me.

“Change is inevitable,” Mrs. Grandall continued.


I bit back a sigh. California was changing at a record pace, and I was sick of it. I was sick of the growing buildings, blotting out the sky. I was sick of the thickening traffic. I was sick of seeing the past bulldozed for a soulless vision of the future. But there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.


“Nevertheless,” the older woman continued with a nod to the woman in red, “we are products of our past. The San Benedetto Historical Association is helping to preserve that past. Understanding our history helps us understand how our current town came to be and how to manage the changes. When my ancestor, Vincenzo Benedetto, founded San Benedetto, he could not have imagined what it would one day become.” Her mouth trembled. She blinked rapidly and coughed. “But you know why you’re here. So let’s get on to our surprise. Clayton?”


Clayton adjusted his glasses and climbed the curving stairs. The rest of us applauded politely.

“Of course, you all knew Clayton’s father.” The older woman tittered. “We were all both a little jealous and—may I say—a little worried about that lovely, haunted house of his.”


Clayton grimaced, and I shot him a sympathetic smile. Unlike his eccentric father, he was no fan of the paranormal. And as a paranormal agnostic myself, I had a soft spot for skeptics.


Clayton came to stand beside Mrs. Grandall on the landing. He straightened his navy tie. “So most of you know my father had a, er, remarkable collection from the American spiritualist movement, which he kept at his house.” He cleared his throat. “What, uh, I didn’t know until recently, was he also had a second, private collection.”


I frowned. More private than the stuff he’d kept at his house? Viewing that collection had been invitation-only, and I’d never gotten an invitation. I also hadn’t been able to afford much at the estate sale. Mr. Clarke’s collection had been light years out of my price range.


“I’d like the town to benefit,” Clayton said. “So… Well… Why draw out the suspense? I’m donating the entire collection to the San Benedetto Paranormal Museum.”


I gaped. What? The paranormal…? My paranormal museum? More polite applause washed through the room. I raised my hands to clap as well, then paused, embarrassed. Was I clapping for myself?


I was dying for more exhibits to rotate through the museum, but I never had the money. Rotating exhibits meant repeat customers. This donation could be a game changer.


Or it could all be junk. It was unlikely Clayton’s father had kept any good stuff in storage. He’d have kept it at the house, where he could gloat over his treasures.


Jason rubbed my back. “Congratulations.”


“Yeah,” I said faintly. “Thanks.” I shook myself. It was probably just a few pieces, but that could be a good thing too. The museum was short on space. Whatever it was, this was a win.

I smiled, warmth flooding my body. Clayton had already given me one special piece from his father’s collection—a Zoltar fortune telling machine. It was amazing he was giving us more.


“How nice,” my mother said in a neutral tone.


I shot her a sharp look. Had she known about this? As co-president of Ladies Aid, our local charity, she had her ear to all the important San Benedetto doings.


Not that my museum qualified as important. The real tourist attractions in San Benedetto were the wineries and the annual Christmas cow display.


Granted, the straw cow usually went up in flames every year, moving my museum up in the pecking order. People took bets on whether it would survive each holiday season. Still, being lower ranked than a giant cow stung my pride.


Clayton descended the curving staircase. Mrs. Grandall made a few more remarks which I didn’t really pay attention to. I was too busy mentally rearranging my museum for the new exhibits.


Clayton made his way to me through the crowd.


“Clayton,” I said, grasping his hand. “This is so thoughtful. Thank you.”


“Uh...” He ran his hand over his thinning hair. “You’re welcome. But it’s a little more complicated than you might expect.”


“How so?” my mother asked.


“There’s quite a bit to go through,” he said. “Perhaps we could meet at my father’s storage facility tomorrow? Say ten o’clock?”


I nodded. “Sure, if that’s convenient for you.” Because it was also convenient for me. Tomorrow was Monday. The museum would be closed, and I could take the time to check out the donation.


Though I suspected Clayton was trying to pawn off a bunch of junk. Not that I was offended. The better part of my exhibits were junk. But sorting through it all could be a project.


I might be able to talk Herb, a paranormal collector who found artifacts for the museum, into helping. For a price. I gnawed my bottom lip. Herb wouldn’t be happy I’d scored an exhibit or two without him.


“Excellent,” Clayton said. “I’ll text you the address.” He strode into the crowd.


“Why do you look worried?” Jason asked me.


“An inherent lack of faith in human nature,” I said. “I’d better call Herb.” I nodded toward the open French doors to a porch.


“Good thinking,” my mother said. “He’ll be hurt if you don’t. But I’d like to come tomorrow too, if you don’t mind.”


I refrained from comment. Where my mother was concerned, it didn’t really matter if I minded or not.


“I’ll meet you back here.” Jason kissed my cheek.


“PDAs while on duty?” I teased. “What’s gotten into you?” I strolled outside.


A couple murmured in one corner of the wide porch. I moved around the corner of the Victorian to a more private spot. Setting my champagne glass on the wooden railing, I called Herb.


“This might be Herb Linden’s voicemail,” he said. “Or it might not. Leave a message and find out.” BEEP.


“Hi, Herb. This is Maddie. Clayton Clarke found a few more of his father’s paranormal objects and wants to give them to the museum. I thought you might be interested in checking them out with me. I’ll—”


BEEP.


Text you the address, I completed silently. But Herb had gotten the gist of it. If he was interested, he’d call. I dropped my phone into my black clutch. And though Jason was waiting inside, I lingered on the porch.


The April night was warm, the breeze a caress on my bare arms. I stood there for a few moments, enjoying the fresh air and solitude.


Oaks stood like gnarled sentries on the lawn inside the circular driveway. No cars were so crass as to clutter the gravel drive. Mrs. Grandall had hired a valet service for the night. They hadn’t thought much of my old pickup.


A female figure in jeans and a t-shirt hurried from the house carrying a plastic toolkit. She crossed beneath a grouping of spot-lit oak trees, a backpack slung over her shoulder. Long, auburn hair cascaded down her back and glinted in the lights from the house.


I squinted, bracing my hands on the white porch rail. “Belle?” I called out.


The woman glanced over her shoulder. It was Belle, my ex-boyfriend’s fiancée. I waved.


She turned and hurried across the dark expanse of lawn. Belle vanished beneath an oak.


My mouth compressed. I’d thought we were on better terms than that. My relationship with Mason was far in the rear view mirror. Besides, Belle and Mason were getting married in a month.


But maybe Belle hadn’t meant to diss me. The porch wasn’t well lit. It was possible she hadn’t recognized me.


Grabbing my champagne flute, I returned to the party inside. My mother stood beside a potted fern and spoke to Jason, her expression animated.


My boyfriend looked a little cornered, and I repressed a smile. I hoped she wasn’t bending his ear about my sister’s plans for an Italian wedding. He might think she was hinting at something.


I strode through the crowd to rescue him. “I don’t know if Herb will make it,” I told my mother. “But I’ll text you the address when I—”


A woman’s scream split the air, and I started, slopping champagne over the sides of my glass and onto the thick white carpet. The flow of conversation splashed to a halt.


Mrs. Grandall staggered onto the mezzanine and clutched the white railing. “Dead,” she gasped. “He’s dead.”


Pre-order Dead End Donation now!



Maddie has finally found her groove as curator of the San Benedetto Paranormal Museum. The museum’s fun. It’s quirky. And it’s all hers. But a murder and a surprise donation—an entire paranormal collection—could change the course of her small-town museum forever.


When a valuable object from the collection is stolen, Maddie suspects it may be connected to the murder of a local PhD student. Will this creeptastic collection be more trouble than it's worth? Maddie’s friends and family have all sorts of ideas to expand the museum—whether she wants to or not. And as the body count rises, she must race against time to catch a killer.

If you love witty heroines, twisty mysteries, and a touch of the paranormal, you’ll love this hilarious whodunit. Get it now!


Praise for The Perfectly Proper Paranormal Museum Mysteries:


"Well-drawn characters and tantalizing wine talk help balance the quirky aspects of this paranormal mystery."—Publishers Weekly




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