--By Kirsten Weiss
The second spookiest place in San Benedetto is the Ladies Aid Lodge. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who feels this way.
Butterflies churning in my stomach, I scanned the wide meeting hall, filled with chattering guests. Silken banners with cryptic symbols hung from the walls. Those belonged to Ladies Aid. Everything else was from my museum.
A terminal optimist, I’d planned on holding our soft opening inside the actual Paranormal History Museum. But getting a permit for pretty much anything in California was a long, random, and expensive process. A hiccup with the town’s building inspectors had made a soft opening in the museum impossible.
And there was no point in dwelling on what I couldn’t control. So I’d moved on to holding the soft opening for my new, expanded museum at the Ladies Aid Lodge.
Herb, my new curator, expounded to a group of reporters beside the Debunking Mediums Exhibit. The little man adjusted his coke bottle glasses and motioned expansively toward a vintage Houdini poster. A reporter ducked to avoid Herb’s arm.
But the Egyptian magic exhibit that had the most gawkers. No surprise there—who didn’t love a mummy? Not that I had an actual mummy—just the sarcophagus.
Naturally, it was cursed. If an object wasn’t haunted, accursed, or unholy, it had no place in my museum.
I’d recently received a donation of such mind-boggling size I’d had to upgrade. Gone was the adorable little paranormal museum beside my friend’s tearoom. Now we were a non-profit.
We’d snatched the local bowling alley out from under some developers to turn it into the new Paranormal History Museum. My mother had suggested the addition of “history.” As much as I hated to admit it, the word did add a certain gravity to the place, even if we had kept the creepy dolls.
We’d also kept one of the bowling lanes—urban legend claimed it was haunted. I might not be able to stop change, but I was going to preserve what I could.
The transition to non-profit museum had forced me to step up my game in all sorts of unsettling ways. More staff, more professionalism. Many of the new objects in the museum were valuable and needed special care.
“Excuse me, Miss,” a masculine voice rumbled. “Do you have a permit for this event?”
I flinched before recognizing the voice. “You’re hilarious as a heart attack,” I said dryly.
My tall, dark and handsome boyfriend, Detective Jason Slate, grinned down at me. “Too soon?”
I laughed and tugged the lapels of his charcoal suit jacket, drawing him closer. “Not in your case.”
My gaze softened, my heart expanding at his presence. It was impossible not to. Jason was tall and solid and here.
He bent to kiss me, and I inhaled the scent of his spicy cologne. It was nice, calm, predictable, just like our relationship. Our lips touched, and a camera flashed. I pulled away, my face heating. “Ah…”
My newest employee, Chelsea, stalked toward us in a fitted little black dress. Her eyes narrowed, accentuating her thick, Cleopatra-style liner. The ode to Liz Taylor was not in honor of our new exhibit. She’d been wearing it at least since her job interview.
“Maddie, someone’s spilled liquid at the base of the sarcophagus.” The young woman flipped back her sleek, brown hair. “I told you we shouldn’t have brought it here. It’s too fragile.”
My stomach tightened. The sarcophagus wasn’t that fragile. But it was old. Regretfully, I stepped away from Jason. “I’d better take care of this.”
“I’ll manage the crowd,” he said somberly. But his eyes, toffee flecked with gold, twinkled.
On tiptoe, I kissed his cheek. Then I hurried toward the Egyptian display, grabbing a stack of napkins off the food table along the way.
A folding wall painted like an Egyptian tomb formed a backdrop for the closed, upright sarcophagus. Dusty wooden crates, with straw and pottery spilling from them, lay scattered as if a tomb raider had just blown through. A black basalt Anubis statue as tall as Jason (six-foot-two) loomed over the display. The only modern element was a pedestal with a QR code for the audio tour.
The sarcophagus stood on a metal stand that tilted the wooden case back and off the floor. A muddy painting of a grim-looking ancient Egyptian with long, black braids glowered from the sarcophagus’s lid.
I blotted the cool water puddling beneath the case. It was Chelsea who’d recommended keeping the sarcophagus off the floor. I’d been skeptical, but now I was glad the younger woman had been so insistent. Our new registrar—responsible for the care and upkeep of the collection—knew her business. Her youthful expertise was more than a little intimidating.
“The Rosicrucians will be so jealous,” my mother purred. She studied the back of the sarcophagus and its painting of Maat, the Egyptian goddess of justice.
I straightened, crumpling the napkins in my hand. “The paranormal museum’s not exactly in competition with them.” Good thing, too. The collection of Egyptian artifacts at the Rosicrucian museum in nearby San Jose put ours to shame.
“Paranormal History Museum,” she corrected, and I grimaced.
My mother’s mouth quirked. She wore white slacks and a blue denim shirt. Her favorite squash-blossom necklace, the same color as the silvery threads in her cropped hair, encircled her throat. “I know for a fact the Rosicrucians offered to buy your Egyptian collection.”
I rolled my eyes. Of course my mother knew about that. She was the co-president of Ladies Aid. That cabal knew everything that happened in our small central-California town.
She plucked a stuffed mushroom off her gold paper plate and nodded toward the long table in front of the dais. “The new caterer is amazing. I’m glad you’re supporting local businesses.”
The red-haired caterer, Alex, sliced ham off the bone. He scooped warmed peppers from a chafing dish and assembled a mini sandwich.
My stomach rumbled. I loved ham sandwiches. They reminded me of lunches with my father, who’d died years ago. But I’d been so busy, I hadn’t had a chance to sample the food.
“Of course,” my mother continued, “Melanie’s catering will be considerably more upscale.”
I bit back a sigh. My sister’s wedding plans had gone light years over-the-top. Melanie overachieved at overachieving, and that included in her romantic life.
She was marrying a glamorous Italian count next month. And if my internal monologue was sounding a teeny bit like sour grapes… I’m ashamed to admit I was jealous. But at least I’d be getting a Sicilian vacation out of the affair.
A commotion near the Debunking Mediums exhibit caught my attention.
“What is Herb doing?” my mother asked.
His slight figure hopped sideways in a clumsy jig, his arms flailing spastically.
Good question. “Ah… Summoning a spirit?” He didn’t seem to be in physical distress, but…
Herb stilled and dropped his arms. His head bowed as if the performance was complete.
I shifted. So he wasn’t having some sort of attack. But he didn’t look happy. He’d made a big transition recently too, shifting from paranormal collector to curator. I took a step toward him. “Mom, maybe I should…?” I trailed off.
Tall, muscular and blond, my former boyfriend and now former neighbor moved through the crowd. Mason’s son, Jordan, trailed behind him. He was his father in miniature, right down to the black jeans and leather motorcycle jacket, though Mason’s hair was pulled back in a ponytail. The pre-teen’s shoulders hunched, his hands in the pockets of his jeans.
I stopped in my tracks, my heart pinching. We hadn’t spoken much since things had gone so badly with Belle, his fiancée and the mother of his child. She’d broken off the engagement and abandoned both Mason and their son. But if he was here—
Arctic eyes serious, Mason caught my gaze. He smiled, then bent and said something to his son. Jordan darted toward the food table. Mason strode toward us, and my breath caught.
Mason’s motorcycle shop stood next door to my old museum. He and Jordan and Jordan’s mother had lived above it. And I’d sort of been responsible for Jordan’s mother no longer being in the picture.
My friend Harper Caldarelli stepped between us. “There you are.” She brushed a length of dark hair off her shoulder. “The museum’s killing it tonight. All of Town Hall is here.”
Harper was dressed professionally in a sleek forest-green business suit that set off all her curves. But as a town councilwoman and financial advisor, she always dressed to impress.
“Thanks to you.” I glanced past her. Mason had stopped to talk to an elderly woman in a blue knit suit.
“And that includes the inspection department,” Harper added pointedly.
I growled and refocused on Harper. If it wasn’t for the inspectors, we’d be in the actual museum.
My mother nudged my arm. “It wouldn’t hurt to make nice.”
My scowl deepened. Make nice?
In my old career, I’d worked in developing countries. Getting things approved by government agencies was a matter of who you knew or who you paid. The corruption was a large part of the reason these countries were euphemistically called “developing” rather than “developed.”
Harper blew out a noisy breath, her olive skin darkening. “It’s not entirely the inspection team’s fault things got delayed. The head inspector quit without a word to anyone.”
“I heard he ran off with his new girlfriend,” my mother said.
“The point is,” Harper continued doggedly, “we’re short staffed.”
“We?” I still found it mildly hilarious that my friend was now a town bigwig. In high school, Harper had slipped a carp into a classroom’s A/C vent over spring break. The result had shut down the room for days.
The corners of her mouth tipped upward. “Okay, they. But sort of we. And I got them to agree to send someone out tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday,” I said, shocked. The inspectors never worked Sundays.
Harper’s grin broadened. “Like your mom said, it doesn’t hurt to make nice.”
“I’ll say hi,” I grumbled.
“You owe me.” A woman’s voice rose angrily above the crowd.
The caterer hurried around the long table and touched a slender woman’s elbow. She was about his age, in her mid-fifties, with curling brown hair. Beside the big man, she seemed small and fragile.
Head bent, the caterer said something to her. She stiffened and strode into the crowd. Mouth compressing, the caterer returned to his station.
My mother tsked. “Marital troubles.”
“You know her?” I asked.
“Wynnona Cookson,” my mother said, “your caterer’s wife.”
I hadn’t even known he had a wife. Trying not to look impressed at my mom’s intel-gathering powers, I moved toward the Debunking exhibit.
A man in his forties, his hair prematurely white, stepped in front of me. “Nice crowd,” Frank Frost said.
I extended my hand, and we shook. “Thanks again for sponsoring the event,” I said.
Frank threw back his head and laughed, a great, rolling chuckle. “Are you kidding? A cryogenics-slash-cryotherapy company sponsoring a paranormal museum is a natural fit. Most people think what Frostova does is creepy.”
I thought it was creepy. Cryonics froze the body after death. Cryotherapy was a cold therapy that was supposed to offer health benefits. Neither appealed. But I appreciated the sponsorship.
“Any word on those permits?” he asked.
I grimaced. “I was just going to go make nice with the inspection team.” I nodded toward a cluster of bureaucrats beside the catering table.
“You wouldn’t believe the grief they gave me when I was setting up.” He shook his head. “But Frostova got through it. Your museum will too.”
A woman’s scream split the air. People muttered, the crowd shifting.
“Oh my God,” a woman cried. “He’s real.”
At the Egyptian exhibit, young Jordan held the sarcophagus lid awkwardly against him. The top of the lid angled above his head, its base resting against the floor. A mummy stood stiffly inside the open case.
I frowned. I hadn’t put a mummy in there. Who’d added the mummy?
“Put that back,” Chelsea snapped, striding toward the boy. “You’ll damage the lid.”
The mummy’s knees buckled. Loops of damp, white fabric sagged downward, exposing a man’s gray face and staring eyes. The mummy tumbled onto the linoleum floor and rolled onto his back. More fabric pulled loose across his chest, exposing an SF Giants logo tee.
I stopped breathing. I think my heart stopped beating too.
That was no mummy.
“I just wanted to see inside,” Jordan said weakly. He shifted the lid against his body.
Jason appeared at my side. Gently, he edged me sideways and knelt by the mummy. He pulled out his phone. “Maddie, get everyone back.”
“But that’s not—” I pointed shakily.
“Get everyone back,” he repeated. “This is a crime scene.”
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Sins of the Sarcophagus
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt…
Maddie Kosloski is about to unveil her new, expanded museum. But when the corpse of a local building inspector is discovered inside her prized Egyptian sarcophagus, Maddie's plans are thrown into disarray.
A modern mummy isn’t all she’s got on her hands. Running a non-profit paranormal museum is no get-rich-quick pyramid scheme. Maddie has stakeholders, more employees, and now donors to placate. Can she balance their demands and an off-the-books murder investigation?
Maddie must race against the clock to unearth a criminal more cunning than the Sphynx. But will the cost of unveiling this killer be more than she’s willing to pay?
If you love laugh-out-loud mysteries with heart and a touch of the paranormal, you’ll love Sins of the Sarcophagus, book 9 in the Perfectly Proper Paranormal Museum series of novels. (Written by a naturally flawed semi-intelligent human and not by AI).
Get cozy with this puzzling mystery today!