The Moonshine Shack Murder
Read the Excerpt
The machinery sloshed, whirred, jangled, and clinked as I stood in breathless anticipation at the end of the conveyer belt on the factory floor. Where is it? Come on! After another jangle and clink, the rubber safety strips that hung over the machine’s exit hatch swung outward, and there it was—the first bottle of my Firefly brand moonshine, the mason jar’s aluminum lid sparkling in the light from the fixtures overhead.
“Woo-hoo!” I threw my fists in the air and snatched the bottle from the belt, planting a big kiss on the label before hugging it to my chest. Melodramatic maybe, but this bottle had been years in the making. I’d invested my heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into my new moonshine business, not to mention every last cent I’d saved and then some. The first payment on my bank loan would be due in two short weeks. Good thing my Moonshine Shack would be ready to open for business first thing Monday morning, only three days from now.
I slipped the inaugural jar of shine in my tote bag and readied a cardboard box. Another jar exited the hatch and began its journey down the metal rollers, shimmying like one of Beyoncé’s backup dancers. I grabbed the jar and tucked it into a corner of the box, adding eleven more as they jiggled their way toward me over the next two minutes. The ancient bottling machine wasn’t fast, but it was efficient enough for my small-batch operation and the factory manager had charged me a fair price to use it.
A quick zip-zip with the strapping tape dispenser and the box was sealed and ready to be loaded into my secondhand cargo van for transport to my shop. I’d had the van painted day-glow green and affixed magnetic signs with my Firefly Moonshine logo to both sides. Might as well advertise my wares while I drove around town, right? My good friend Kiki, a freelance artist, had designed the whimsical logo for me. The graphic featured two flirty cartoon fireflies writing in fluorescent green against a midnight blue background. The first firefly used his bright behind to spell FIREFLY. The other used her dazzling derriere to spell MOONSHINE. The image was cute and eye-catching, perfect for my products.
The floor supervisor circled around to check on things. “Everything all right over here, Miss Hayes?”
My dark curls bobbed as I turned to him. “Looking good!” I pointed to the carton at my feet. “My first case. Isn’t it marvelous?”
He chuckled. “Never seen anyone get so excited about their products.”
I shrugged. “What can I say? Moonshine’s in my blood.”
It was true, figuratively and, sometimes, literally. Back in the days of prohibition, my great-granddaddy was the number-one bootlegger in the region, the primary supplier of hooch all the way from his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee south to the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. He’d made a small fortune before the sheriff arrested him. While my great-grandfather lost the fortune to revenuers, homestead laws allowed him to hang on to his rustic cabin in the Smoky Mountains and the rusty still hidden among the pine trees at the back of his property. He’d passed the cabin, the still, and the secrets of making shine along to my granddaddy, who’d passed them down to me when he’d moved into the Singing River Retirement Home a few years ago.
Yep, making moonshine was a family tradition, and it was high time the Hayes family started making money at it again.
With money-making in mind, I drove my van to the Moonshine Shack late Friday afternoon. The place was adorable, if I do say so myself. I’d hired a carpenter to create a front façade that resembled a hillbilly house. He’d fashioned an awning of spare boards that appeared haphazardly nailed together for effect, but which was completely up to code and had easily passed inspection. The words MOONSHINE SHACK were spelled out in neon-green glow-in-the-dark letters over the awning. I’d situated a couple of wooden rockers and a porch swing out front to entice tourists to sit a spell. Shamelessly stealing an idea from the Cracker Barrel restaurants, I’d also set out a small table and two stools so customers could challenge each other to a game of checkers, chess, or cards. I wanted the ‘Shine Shack to be a comfortable, inviting place with a casual country charm. But, even more, I wanted it to be a smashing success. I’d left a secure job with Chattanooga Bakery, Inc., maker of the world-famous MoonPie, and sacrificed a regular paycheck and the promise of a pension. I’d hate for it to have been for naught.
I circled around to the alley, parked, and hopped out to unlock the back door that led to the storeroom. My gray cat Smoky, named for the nearby mountains, lay atop the wooden desk in the corner, watching me with his firefly-green eyes as he lazily licked a paw. The cat weighed upwards of sixteen pounds and, unless food was in the offing, rarely moved, more cinder block than companion. I greeted him, as always, with an affectionate scratch under the chin and a “Hey, boy. Did you miss me?” His yawn told me that my absence had not affected him in the least. Hurtful, sure, but I’d long since accepted that ours would be a one-sided relationship.
Even with help from a dolly, moving the cases from the van to the storeroom proved to be backbreaking work. The muscles in my arms strained and shook, unused to being punished so severely. Smoky cast me a look of disdain each time I groaned or grunted. Next batch, I’d box the moonshine in smaller cases of six bottles rather than twelve.
As I rolled the dolly outside to round up more moonshine, my ears picked up an unexpected sound. Clop-clop-clop. I turned to discover a mounted police officer riding up the alleyway on a beautiful chestnut mare. The horse’s reddish-brown coat gleamed in the sunshine as she tossed her flaxen mane. The officer wore his uniform with black riding boots, a helmet, and mirrored sunglasses. Despite being built like a sculpted boulder, he rode with a graceful athleticism, at one with his steed.
Clop-clop. When they reached me, the officer pulled back on the reins and spoke to his horse. “Whoa, Charlotte. Let’s find out what this little filly is up to.”
It took me a moment to realize I was the “little filly” he spoke of. Standing a mere five feet, I was undeniably small. But I made up for my stature in tenacity and sass. I looked up at the officer to see a set of broad shoulders, a strong jaw, and myself looking back, reflected in his sunglasses. I angled my head to indicate his horse. “I see you’ve got a thing for leggy blondes.”
He sat silent and unmoving for a few beats before his lips spread in a slow smile. He ducked his chin and reached up to ease his sunglasses down, gazing at me over the rims, his amber eyes lit up like lightning bugs in amusement. His focus shifted to the logo on my van and the cartons of liquor before returning to my face. “A bootlegger, huh? I suspect you’ll cause me no end of trouble.”
“I can’t make any promises, officer.”
In a swift, smooth move, he slid down from his horse to stand directly in front of me. He towered over me by at least a foot, putting him around six-feet-two-inches tall and putting me on eye level with his rock-hard pecs and his name badge. M. LANDERS. Why does that name sound vaguely familiar?
Officer Landers removed his glasses and tucked them into the collar of his uniform. “I’ll give you a hand. Charlotte needs a rest, anyway.”
With my back and biceps screaming for mercy, I wasn’t about to turn him down. “Thanks.”
He tied his horse’s reins to a water pipe before reaching up to remove his helmet. When he did, he released a cascade of loose, short curls the color of buckskin. He ran his hand through his hair and it settled into a contemporary pompadour, short on the sides, longer on top. He resembled a rockabilly artist, or a blond version of Elvis from his early years. I felt the heat of a blush warm my cheeks.
He grabbed a case from the back of the van and tucked it under one arm before grabbing another. As he turned to carry them through the back door of my shop, he spotted Smoky standing sentinel in the doorway. “Is your guard cat going to attack?”
“Smoky?” I stepped over and scooped my precious pet up in my arms. “He’s harmless.” Smoky stiff-armed me, pushing his paw against my chest, playing hard to get. Three years into our relationship and I was still trying to win the furry guy over. Maybe someday.
The cop eyed my cat and shook his head. “That there is why I prefer horses. They show some affection now and then.”
Smoky issued a hiss, as if he understood he’d been insulted. As if she’d understood she’d been praised, Charlotte issued a nicker.
The officer stepped past me and my cat and into my storeroom, glancing around. “Where should I put these boxes?”
Returning Smoky to the floor, I gestured to an empty shelf. “Right there is fine.”
After he’d placed the cases of moonshine, the guy crouched and reached out to run a hand over Smoky’s head. “No hard feelings, buddy. I’ll forgive you that hiss.”
Smoky responded with a guttural growl. The cop countered with a chuckle.
With the brawny officer’s help, my van was unloaded in no time. As he set the last case in the storeroom, I fished a jar out of a box. “Here. Take some moonshine on the house.” I held the bottle out to him, an expression of my gratitude.
He raised his palms. “Can’t. If the captain catches me on duty with liquor in my saddlebags, Charlotte and I will end up on the unemployment line.”
“Oh. Okay.” Though his reason for refusing my moonshine was valid, I couldn’t help but feel rejected.
My feelings must have been written on my face, because he tilted his head and said, “I’ll come back to collect some time when I’m off the clock. How’s that sound?”
“How about Sunday evening?” I asked, hoping I didn’t appear overeager. “You free then?”
I set the jar of moonshine on my desk and picked up an envelope, holding it out to him. “Take this. It’s an invitation to my private pre-grand-opening celebration.”
“A private party? Well, now. This makes me feel special.” He took the envelope, removed the invitation, and read it over before returning his gaze to my face. “Count me in.”
“You can bring a plus-one if you’d like.” Okay, so I was fishing to find out whether this attractive officer was attached. But unless you counted movie nights on the sofa with Smoky, I hadn’t had a date in months. Could you really blame me?
Much to my delight, he said, “It’ll just be yours truly. Charlotte’s the only girl for me.”
Good to know.
I followed him back into the alley, where he donned his helmet, untied his horse, and murmured sweet nothings to her, giving her a soft peck on the muzzle before remounting. He looked down at me a final time. “Be extra careful when you’re out here and keep your back door locked,” he warned. “Thieves sometimes come down these alleys looking for stuff to steal. A tiny thing like you would look like an easy target.”
“I’m tougher than I look.” I raised two fists and shadow-boxed the air before lowering my arms to my sides.
Judging from the quirk of his upper lip, Officer Landers was not impressed. “If anybody gives you trouble, sic Smoky on them and call 9-1-1 right away. You hear me?”
“Loud and clear, sir.”
With that, he tipped his helmet in goodbye, gave his horse a light squeeze with his muscular thighs, and headed off.