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Mall Santa Murder: A Cozy Christmas Mystery (Gemma Stone Cozy Mystery Book 1), page 1


Mall Santa Murder: A Cozy Christmas Mystery (Gemma Stone Cozy Mystery Book 1)

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Mall Santa Murder: A Cozy Christmas Mystery (Gemma Stone Cozy Mystery Book 1)

  Mall Santa Murder: A Cozy Christmas Mystery

  Willow Monroe

  Published by ButtonFly Books, 2014.

  This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.


  First edition. November 25, 2014.

  Copyright © 2014 Willow Monroe.

  Written by Willow Monroe.

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  Mall Santa Murder: A Cozy Christmas Mystery

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen


  Sneak Peek: Mansions Can Be Murder

  About Willow Monroe

  Mall Santa Murder

  Chapter One

  “Come on, come on. Dang it, Rosie,” Gemma Stone muttered to her car as she shifted it into drive one more time, praying for the transmission to finally lurch into gear. “You can do it, girl. I know you can.”

  Nothing. The fourteen year old Subaru she’d inherited from her mother simply refused to obey. Giving up temporarily, she sank back into the seat and huddled down in her winter coat, looking at her headlights shining in the darkness of four a.m. Usually, if she gave it ten minutes or so, the stubborn car would cooperate.

  On a normal day, she was able to just back out of the driveway and give the old girl a running start, so to speak. Then the transmission would reluctantly kick in and she would be on her way. Once or twice she’d had to back all the way to the end of the street before she could coax the old car into gear. The neighbors, the crossing guard and one or two surprised pedestrians were not impressed.

  Backing into the driveway the night before was a dumb idea. She'd thought it was going to snow and figured if the car was pointing down the driveway, she wouldn't have to spend so much time clearing her windshield. Well, it didn't snow, but this morning the ice on the windshield was so thick that it had taken her twenty minutes (and one broken ice scraper) to make a hole big enough for her to see through.

  That's what she got for thinking...

  Shaking off those thoughts, she bent to the task at hand. It was cold and dark and she really needed to get going or she was going to be late. Holly hated it when she was late, but especially when it was because her transportation had other plans.

  Not one to admit defeat easily, Gemma tried one more time.

  Nothing. The car refused to budge.

  “Okay, you win this time, Rosie,” she conceded and dug into her purse for her cell. She punched in Holly’s number.

  “You need a ride, right?” Holly asked, answering on the first ring. She sounded amused.

  “Yeah, I’m sorry,” Gemma said.

  “I told you that you just should have stayed here last night,” Holly reminded her.

  “I know. You were right,” Gemma grumbled. “Again.”

  I’m on my way,” Holly said with a chuckle. “And I have coffee.”

  “Bless your heart,” Gemma drawled. Holly always came to her rescue.

  Grabbing her purse off the seat, Gemma climbed out of the car and buttoned her coat up tight around her neck. At the last minute, she turned to look at the car squatting in her driveway like a big, fat contented cat. "Keep this up and I'll trade you in," she threatened. She really, really wanted to give Rosie a good kick in the tire, but then remembered that she was wearing her favorite high-heeled boots.

  And then she remembered that she had to make it down her icy driveway - in the dark - in those beautiful high-heeled boots. She muttered threats under her breath as she slowly and very, very carefully picked her way through the icy patches down to the street.

  "I'll get you for this, Rosie," she shouted back at the car when she made it safely to the sidewalk. Her voice echoed in the early morning air and it dawned on her that she really needed to stop talking to inanimate objects.

  She wasn't surprised when several cars whizzed past even though it was only four in the morning. The blast of cold air that followed in their wake ruffled her hair and nearly took her breath away. It was Black Friday morning and everyone was headed to the stores to grab the Christmas deals.

  Gemma looked upward and took a deep breath of the crisp air. When she let it out, her breath fogged in front of her. “Hope you had a good Thanksgiving up in heaven,” she said to the black, star studded sky, tears prickling the back of her eyelids. Somehow she had made it through this Thanksgiving, and the entire past year really, with the help of her friends. She would make it through Christmas as well.

  Before she could think much further than that, Holly’s SUV slid smoothly to a stop in front of her. She heard the door unlock and climbed inside. It was blessedly warm and she immediately reached for the tall coffee in the cup holder.

  “You’re the best,” she said, saluting Holly with her cup.

  “I know,” Holly said with a smile. “Are you ready for this?”

  “I think so,”

  “I hope so,” Holly added. “We’ve put every dime we have into this experiment.”

  “The internet sales are doing great. A successful sales season at the mall will give us a solid local presence,” Gemma said, hoping if she repeated her thinking long enough it would be true. "Then we'll be all set."

  Holly expertly maneuvered her big vehicle onto the main highway and into the flow of traffic. Gemma couldn’t believe her eyes. This was more like the five o’clock rush hour than Friday morning before dawn. The mall, however, was relatively quiet. There were lots of cars parked at either end where the two big department stores anchored the place but the middle was practically empty.

  “I’ve got the last of our jewelry in the back,” Holly said, pulling up to the curb next to a service door that was painted with yellow bars.

  The two women climbed out and Holly handed Gemma a stack of medium-sized boxes that came up to the tip of her nose. Gemma scurried with them toward that door. They were told there was a doorbell to the right which would alert security to come and let them in. Holding them in place with her chin, Gemma reached around her boxes, pushed the button and stood there shivering in the dark while she waited.

  In just a few moments, the door opened and she was face to face with a tall man in a khaki uniform. The name stitched on the pocket said Grady Jackson and the ball cap that shaded his face said SECURITY across the front.

  “Hi, my name is Gemma Stone. I have a kiosk here at the mall - HealthGems,” she explained.

  He stood there glaring down at her over the top of the boxes, as if she was supposed to salute him or something.

  “Do you need to see some ID?” she asked, praying that he didn’t. Her purse was still with Holly.

  Finally he shook his head, stepped back and allowed her in to a dimly lit, short narrow hallway that led out into the main concourse. Holly was right behind her with a shorter stack of boxes, which she dropped to the sidewalk and slid across the threshold with a toe.

  “Hi, my name is Holly Blake. I’m the other half of HealthGems,” Holly said, extending her gloved hand as she introduced herself to the security guard.

Grady Jackson, head of security here at the mall,” he said. He shook hands with Holly and then nodded at the two women.

  “I’ll go park in a proper spot and then be right back,” Holly said. Gemma watched her trot off toward the still running vehicle. Then she simply stood there in the small space with the security guard, neither of them saying a word. She wondered why he made her feel so uncomfortable.

  “HealthGems,” Grady Jackson said, startling her.

  Gemma caught him looking carefully at their logo which adorned the side of one of the boxes.

  “Oh, you’re in that big kiosk near the center of the mall,” he said. “Right beside Santa Land.”

  Gemma nodded. She’d seen lots of people the including security guards, working diligently the day before putting Santa Land together. It was the hub of the mall this time of year, complete with a plastic picket fence, plastic reindeer and plastic poinsettias. Most of the crew, which was made up of young men, looked like they would rather be anyplace else than working at the mall.

  Part of her Thanksgiving Day had been spent there as well, stocking the kiosk, but she was excited about the month ahead. She and Holly had worked hard to get their merchandise shined up and ready for today.

  Panicking for a split second, she patted her coat pocket and then pushed her hand inside to make sure she had the key that opened the metal doors on the kiosk. This kiosk had been very expensive, but protecting their jewelry - their investment - was of utmost importance. At least, that was Holly’s thinking. Gemma felt as if their location was pretty safe but she was outvoted by both Holly and her fiancé, attorney Mitch Ward.

  "What’s that?”

  “What’s what?” She twisted her head to stare at Grady.

  Grady Jackson pointed to one of the boxes. “HealthGems.”

  “Oh, it’s a line of jewelry that provides physical and physiological information about its wearer for promoting better health,” Gemma explained.

  Grady Jackson cocked his head, listening.

  “For example, we have a watch that is a heart monitor,” she continued.

  “That’s nothing new.”

  “It’s small and elegant and very beautiful. My friend, Holly, designs the jewelry.”


  “We have pendants that give a constant read out of pulse rate and one that provides biorhythm feedback, which you can access through an app on your Stone phone. We even have a line for diabetics.”

  It was obvious Grady was interested. “How much?”

  “How much?”

  “Is it expensive?” he asked, staring hard at the logo.

  Gemma shrugged and fought the urge to turn away from him. “No more expensive than other gadgets, which don’t provide half the value.”

  The doorknob turned and Holly entered the small space looking like an Eskimo, carrying a cup of coffee in each hand and a purse on each arm.

  “You forgot these,” she said, sliding a cup into one of Gemma’s hands and hanging her purse onto the fingers of her other one.

  “Is that it?” Jackson asked.

  “I think so. At least for now,” Holly answered happily. She didn't seem to feel weird about Grady at all.

  “If you ladies need anything, you be sure and let me know,” he told them.

  “We will,” Holly assured him, picking up her stack of boxes.

  “Here, let me help with that,” he said, taking them from her.

  “Why, thank you,” Holly said and followed him down the hall.

  Still clutching her own stack of boxes, Gemma trailed along behind them, teetering on her high-heeled boots. Probably not a good choice to wear on this day in particular, but she loved these boots and wore them every chance she could.

  Their kiosk was, indeed, right beside Santa Land and Gemma figured it could go either way. Either the parents bringing their children to see Santa would be interested in their jewelry or they would be so busy with the children, they didn’t even notice it. Christmas carols playing over the PA system seemed louder than usual. They had already been playing for over a month. Some days Gemma found the music fun and uplifting. Some days it depressed her beyond words.

  “You have to admit, it looks great,” Gemma said to Holly as they approached their retail space.

  “It does,” Holly agreed.

  Gemma slid the boxes she carried onto the glass counter and unlocked the sliding door that allowed them inside.

  The two long-time friends entered what looked like a high-end jewelry store. The glass shelves were already lined with various shades of red, turquoise and black velvet, designed to display their beautiful jewelry perfectly. Protected by locked doors on the inside, the birthstones embedded in gold and silver settings sparkled under the special lighting.

  They talked softly as they set about putting out the remainder of their jewelry on turning wire racks and various other displays and then trying to decide where to arrange them on the glass counter.

  “How beautiful!”

  Holly and Gemma turned to see an elderly couple standing at one end of the kiosk. The woman looked thin and frail, with her silver hair pulled back into a tight little bun and wire-rimmed glasses perched on her nose.

  “It’s Mrs. Claus,” Gemma whispered.

  Holly jabbed her with an elbow and approached the couple. “Hello. I’m Holly Blake,” she said extending her hand.

  “Edna Chambers,” the woman said.

  “And this is my friend, Gemma Stone,” Holly told her.

  “How do you do, Gemma? What an unusual name.”

  “Yes, ma’am, I was named after my great-grandmother,” Gemma explained.

  The man with Edna introduced himself as her husband Bill, and then explained that they had a kiosk on the other side of Santa Land. Holly and Gemma showed off their jewelry and then followed the Chambers over to their kiosk to admire the beautiful stained glass sun-catchers in every color and shape imaginable.

  “You do beautiful work,” Gemma told the couple.

  “It’s a team effort,” Edna said, linking her arm through her husband’s.

  He beamed down at his wife, love shining in his eyes, and Gemma thought he was going to cry for a moment. It reminded her of her parents and she looked away quickly.

  Several other kiosk and shop owners came by, joining in the conversation. It was obvious all of these artisans had been here for years and were old friends, and HealthGems was definitely the new kid on the block. Everyone gave them a warm welcome and seemed friendly enough, although Gemma knew she'd have a hard time remembering all of these names.

  “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

  Gemma looked up to see Santa sauntering toward them. The temperature dropped about ten degrees and everyone’s mood suddenly changed.

  “Not him again,” Bill muttered.

  Gemma thought he was the real Santa there for a moment. Carrying his hat in one hand, he filled out that red suit perfectly and his black boots looked shiny and new. As he drew closer she saw that his cheeks were red, his eyes sparkling and that beautiful, white flowing beard looked like the real deal. He swayed slightly on his feet while introductions were being made. She wondered if he was sick.

  “My, my, my, the scenery around Santa Land is going to be much nicer this year,” he said, sliding his arm around Gemma and pulling her against him.

  Forcing a smile, Gemma eased out of his grip. She caught a whiff of cigarette smoke and alcohol, and held her breath. Now she knew why his cheeks were rosy and his eyes were twinkling.

  “The crowd will be heading our way a little after five,” Edna Chambers said, her face wrinkling into a grin. Suddenly, everyone was interested in returning to their own retail space in the mall.

  “Santa’s drunk,” Gemma announced when she and Holly were locked safely back inside their own sales area.

  “You think?” Holly said, watching the old man stagger around Santa Land.

  Gemma watched him warily, wondering if he was going to knock everything over before the children
began to arrive. Santa’s elves appeared and one in particular seemed to be really upset with his antics. He was shorter and thin and it seemed to Gemma that he even had sort of pointy ears like an elf.

  “Is that a real elf?” Gemma asked.

  “There’s no such thing as elves,” Holly said in her no nonsense way and continued to arrange some rings inside one of the shelves.

  Gemma watched as the elf followed close behind Santa, standing the reindeer back up on their plastic hooves and maneuvering the poinsettias so that Santa missed them altogether.

  “McLear,” the elf finally snapped. “What do you think you’re doing? Put your hat on - Santa should never, ever be seen out of uniform.”

  “Shaddup, Ralph,” Santa muttered, falling into a large overstuffed chair in front of what was obviously a picture of a Christmas tree.

  “Looks like the mall owners spared no expense,” Holly sniffed.

  “I’m sure they’re doing the best they can,” Gemma said. “Besides, Santa is the real star. The kids won’t even notice.”

  “If you say so,” Holly said.

  Gemma looked up to see Santa staring straight at her from where he sat. She couldn't explain it, but a little shiver ran down her spine.

  Chapter Two

  By six o'clock, the shoppers were out in full force and the mall was packed with so many people that the building was getting hot. Gemma’s idea about setting up a laptop that played their promo video running in a continuous loop that told the story of HealthGems helped tremendously. Instead of explaining the functionality of their products over and over, she and Holly were able to give their full attention to customers. They began ringing up sales pretty quickly.

  By the time the children began arriving, Santa seemed to be a little more sober and had finally put on the remainder of his costume - with Ralph’s help. Between customers, Gemma watched his performance, and to her surprise found that he was wonderful with the children. They all laughed and squealed with delight while sitting on his lap, especially when he leaned in close ad tickled their faces with his beard. Not one of them cried. He even led a sing along for the ones who waited in the line, which seemed to be growing longer by the minute.

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