Authors: K.J. Emrick
First published in Australia by South Coast Publishing, April 2015.
Copyright K.J. Emrick (2015)
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and locations portrayed in this book and the names herein are fictitious. Any similarity to or identification with the locations, names, characters or history of any person, product or entity is entirely coincidental and unintentional.
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Cambria was beginning to feel a lot smaller than it ever had before. It used to be a comfortable place, a good fit like an old glove. Now Rysen Morris couldn’t help but look at the quaint shops and pretty homes and wonder if she hadn’t outgrown her home town.
Sales at her sister’s wine shop were up this month. The summer heat was driving the tourists in. Good thing, too, considering the luck Christina had been having. Stolen shipments. Missing money. Being poisoned. Somehow, Christina had made herself a target.
Things had quieted down over the last few weeks, and life in Cambria went on. It was almost easy to forget that there had been any kind of trouble at all. For everyone except Rysen, that was. She was still expecting trouble around every corner, and seeing danger where no one else did.
Someone had targeted her sister and this wine shop, intentionally. Thanks in no small part to Rysen herself, the police had been able to arrest at least some of the people responsible. Just not all of them. That was what concerned Rysen the most. Whatever hand had been moving things around in the background was still a mystery.
A mystery Rysen planned on solving.
Only three months ago that would have sounded crazy. Now, as she stocked the large display window at the front of the Spirit of the Soul wine store, Rysen didn’t think it sounded crazy at all. She sat down at one of the round customer tables and thought about that. Back then, she was working her way up the corporate ladder at a design firm in San Francisco. Nothing was standing between her and the future she wanted.
Then she’d lost her job, her boyfriend, and her apartment all at once, and had been forced to come back home. If that hadn’t been humiliating enough, she’d had to take a job with her sister just to make some money.
It had been rock bottom for her. At the time, it had felt like the end of the world. Now Rysen saw it for what it was. A stepping stone that had allowed her to create a new dream. She’d learned more about human nature back here in Cambria than she had ever seen in the big city. Good, bad, and in between. She was a whole new person, suddenly comfortable in her own skin again.
She had a new purpose. Solving the crimes against her sister had sparked a desire to become a private investigator. A bizarre notion, to be sure, but one she felt was right for her. Not that her current, sort-of boyfriend Josh agreed with her. He thought the whole thing was foolish. That was part of the trouble in their relationship.
Brandon was the rest of it.
The two men were as different as night and day. Josh Keats, dependable and stable. Brandon Dennicort, here one day and gone the next. Josh was a physician’s assistant at the hospital over in Thornsburg. Brandon, on the other hand, led an exotic life as a security consultant, travelling to all sorts of places and meeting all sorts of new people.
That’s how he and Rysen had met, after all.
But she had known Josh all of her life, and there was a lot to be said for knowing someone that well. It wasn’t just the way she could picture his sandy hair and pale brown eyes or his smile or the way his muscles were sculpted when he took his shirt off. It was knowing his moods and his likes and his dislikes.
Brandon was still a mystery to her. Dark hair that fell across his forehead like a male model in Cosmo magazine. Crystal blue eyes. That coy Australian accent. The way his shirt hung tightly across his broad shoulders and the way the back of his pants cupped that tight ass of his. Ahem. Anyway. He was a mystery.
If there was one thing Rysen had figured out about herself after coming back to her hometown, it was that she loved to solve a good mystery.
Now if only the rest of her life could be figured out so easily.
Rysen checked her watch. It was only midmorning. There hadn’t been a single customer in so far and she was fine handling things here by herself. Still, Christina should be here by now. She’d left the house they shared early, before Rysen had even gotten out of bed, leaving a note stuck to the refrigerator that simply said she had errands to run. Rysen couldn’t imagine what sort of errands would take her sister out of the house that early, but she was the owner of the shop, after all. If she wanted to be late for work then that was her choice.
The shopkeeper’s bell over the door rang and Rysen quickly sprang to her feet. Two tourists, a man and a woman, smiled at her and glanced around the shop. They were both dressed in khaki shorts and t-shirts that no self-respecting local resident would wear. No matter. Rysen wasn’t here to critique their fashion sense. She was here to sell them wine and make her sister’s shop lots of money.
“Hello,” she greeted them. “Welcome to the Spirit of the Soul. I’m Rysen Morris. Can I help you find anything?”
“We’re just looking,” the man said automatically. He brushed a finger along his mustache with a grimace.
His companion—probably his wife, judging by the diamond on her left ring finger—stared at him with gentle patience. Her lovely brown hair had streaks of gray in it. “We’re looking for a cabernet to bring home to our friends in Reno. We’ve heard so many good things about your shop. Can you suggest something for us?”
Rysen managed a smile, but she knew what sort of things the couple had probably heard about the shop. Between the thefts of wine shipments they had endured, and then the murder up the street at Beatrice’s flower shop, the lazy town of Cambria had been in the news a lot lately. Not in the good way. Strangely enough, tragedy had been good for business.
“We have a few selections for cabernet,” she told them. “Right over here.”
The shop was laid out with low shelves in rows, bottles of wines organized by variety and color and a host of other little details. It was a testament to how methodical Christina could be when she put her mind to something. Racks displayed the cheaper varieties that a lot of tourists preferred for a quick purchase. Murals covered the walls, beautiful paintings of the nearby vineyards and people enjoying glasses of wine. Christina had done a lot of the work herself. She loved this business she had created.
There were a lot of other wine shops in the area, and even a few others right here in Cambria. Christina’s shop had grown in reputation among both its customers and the homegrown wine makers. It was nice to see things finally working out. For both of them. For a while, when Rysen had first moved back to town, it had looked like Christina’s shop was going under. Rysen still wasn’t sure if all of their debt had been paid off. Probably not, but that was something they would work at together.
The cabernet section had varieties from three different local growers, as well as two nationally known labels. Rysen hadn’t sampled all of them but she had tasted the two newest acquisitions. Christina insisted on knowing their stock firsthand. So she was able to suggest the one over the other to the couple, a minty aftertaste in this one verses a black currant and vanilla with that one.
The two of them seemed very impressed by Rysen’s knowledge. She laughed and told them she only started learning about wine a few months ago. “You need to talk to my sister if you want a real wine expert.”
“Oh,” the woman said to her, “is she here?”
Rysen handed her the bottle they had decided on. “No, I’m sorry. I’m not sure where she is, to tell you the truth. She’s almost always here right when we open. Was there anything else I can show you today?”
There wasn’t, so she rang up their purchase and placed it into a paper bag with the store’s name and logo on it, little handles made from loops of twine, making small talk with them the whole time. They were here from Nevada, leaving soon, enjoying the sights, and yes they would love some brochures to take home with them. Their friends simply must come to Cambria.
Rysen waved to them as they left. Such a nice couple.
Maybe someday that would be her and Josh, taking vacations together for no reason other than to be with each other, not worried about anything but seeing where life might take them.
She was supposed to meet Josh for lunch, actually. They had taken their time about getting back together after their last argument. He said that he had forgiven her for kissing another man, but she wasn’t so sure. He had every reason to be upset at her. That other man had been Brandon. No matter how much she tried to convince Josh that it hadn’t meant anything, she could see the look in his eyes that told her he knew better.
So did she, actually. Those few stolen kisses with Brandon had been, well, amazing. Sparks. Fireworks. Butterflies in her stomach. The whole thing. She’d made up her mind to be with Josh, though, and that was exactly what she was going to do.
Did she smell smoke?
The store was oddly silent. That was when she knew something was wrong. Standing there at the cash register, listening to the silence of the space around her, she could feel something wasn’t right.
And that was definitely smoke she was smelling.
“What the hell…?”
She turned around in a slow circle. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong. Maybe she should call 911? Have someone come and check things out? No. There was no reason to bother the local fire department just because she thought she smelled something. Maybe she was having a stroke. No reason to bother anyone over that.
Heh. There. That put it into perspective. Nothing wrong, just Rysen being silly. She figured she should check the rest of the store anyway. Just to be safe. Behind the sales counter a door led to a little office space. There was a downstairs, too, a cellar where they stored the wine stock and other things. A quick walkthrough, and then she could get back to dusting the back shelves like Christina had asked her to do today.
The door to the office opened to a nightmare of flames and smoke and heat.
The store was on fire.
Panic set in quickly. Thick, black smoke rolled out of the back room as she stood there and her only thought was that she should have cleaned those shelves first because there was no way she was going to get it done now.
Flames licked at the walls, and the furniture, and all of Christina’s carefully organized files were burning. Was this what Hell looked like, she wondered? Something you loved, truly loved, being devoured by fire?
The jarring buzz of the smoke alarm finally going off snapped her out of her daze. There were two smoke alarms. Both of them were out here in the sales area. There was one downstairs in the cellar, too, but the walls and the floor were stone and cement and the chances of the fire spreading down there were slim but if she didn’t—
Something in the office crashed to the floor, engulfed in red and orange flames. She jumped back, smashing hard into the sales counter, and scrambled for the exit.
It was when she was out on the street that she realized she did need to call the fire department after all. Staring stupidly at the front of the shop, she patted her pockets over and over. It wasn’t there. Her cell phone. It wasn’t there.
She’d left it back in the store.
By now the smoke was filling the front room. She could see it clearly through the front windows. All that wine, she thought suddenly. All of Christina’s hard work! Even as she stared in disbelief the fire ate its way up the interior walls, burning away the scenes of ripe grapes on the vine. The smiling face of a woman with a glass of deep red wine was slowly engulfed, her white teeth turning yellow and then black as the devastation spread.
“Rysen?” a man walking by on the sidewalk said to her. It was Anton, the man who ran the small bakery two doors down from her sister’s place. “What’s the matter? Is anything—oh good Lord!”
He saw the fire, and ran shouting down the street.
Rysen realized the shops to either side of the Spirit of the Soul were in danger from the fire as well. There were people in those buildings. Friends. Neighbors. She couldn’t just stand here while the whole town burned down!
There was a fire extinguisher in the shop. Under the front counter. Maybe if she got to it she could at least knock the flames back a bit…
The sound scared her half to death. It was immediately followed by another, and another. Loud explosions like gunfire, mixed with the sound of shattered glass. The wine bottles. Oh, no. The heat was bursting all of the wine bottles. It was too late to save anything.
All she could do was help her neighbors. She ran to the building on the right of the wine shop, banging on the door stupidly and then going in anyway and shouting that there was a fire and everyone needed to get out and away from here and someone needed to call the fire department. She said it twice, after seeing the shop owner and the customers stare at her like they didn’t understand. They got the message the second time.
Rysen ran door to door screaming the same thing, until the street was full of people and she figured she had done everything she could. The sirens of the fire trucks were already screaming down the street in her direction. There was nothing else she could do.
Someone was shouting her name, pushing through the crowd that had settled back on the opposite side of the street from the burning wine shop. It took Rysen a moment to even hear her own name, let alone recognize that the person calling her was her sister. Christina’s eyes were wide with shock. She kept running her hands into the short black curls of her hair, over and over, staring at the wine shop, like she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.