Read the first chapter of TENTS, TRAILS, & TURMOIL right now!
Read this 10-book in the A CAMPER & CRIMINALS COZY MYSTERY SERIES, set in Normal, Kentucky where nothing is normal! Put on your sleuthing cap and become a member of the Laundry Club ladies today!
I should’ve stayed in bed.
Really, if I’d known how today was going to end… I would’ve stayed at the campground.
I looked up from my phone when I heard Ty Randal’s voice.
He stood across the counter at the Normal Diner, looking at me with his arms crossed. “You look like you need a coffee this morning.”
“I’m on it, boss.” Trudy Bull had the pot of coffee in her grip and moved around Ty to get to my coffee cup that she’d already refilled umpteen times. “It’s her third refill.”
“And you still look like that?” Ty’s blue eyes danced with question, his shaggy blond curls hanging down his forehead.
I ignored his comment.
“This.” I shook my phone and put it down on the counter, replacing it in my hand with the coffee cup. “My phone won’t keep a charge for nothing,” I said. “I’m waiting on a call from Betts because I told her I could help her with one of her house cleaning jobs, and I swear it was on charge all night.”
With my free hand, I waved down the counter at Buck, the owner of the Tough Nickel thrift store just a few doors down. He looked like he’d just eaten a big breakfast in preparation to open his store for the day. Buck waved bye, and off he went, but not before stopping to talk to Ethel Biddle and Otis Gullett, the fiddle player in her band, Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys.
I looked around the diner to see who else I’d recognize. One was Joel Grassel, owner of the local garage. Otherwise, pretty much all the regulars and a few tourists.
“We’ve got the solution for you,” Trudy said and nudged Ty. “We got fancy new charging stations.”
“What? Ty Randal has decided to bring the diner’s technology up to date?” I asked. He still kept a landline for the diner as well as one of those old cash registers instead of a newer one where customers could swipe their cards. Honestly, most people around here used cash.
“Mm-hmm.” Ty winked. “Look right under the bar.”
I twirled my stool to the side and bent down. Sure enough, there was a USB port for a cell charger.
“My, my. Ty Randal, you do amaze me.” I pulled my phone charger out of my bag and plugged it into the charging station and then into my phone. “Thank you, Trudy,” I called after her as she made her way down the counter to top off the other customers’ coffees.
“I had to do something,” Ty replied. He glanced over my shoulder and did a slight chin-raise toward a group of tourists who were probably in their early twenties. “They all have cell phones, and if I want to make sure they come here to spend any sort of cash on food, then I’ve got to start catering to them.”
I grinned and nodded.
Normal, Kentucky was set in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest. We were located right outside of the Daniel Boone National Park, which was great for business. It was the last place tourists could stop and get anything they needed before setting out into the park.
If they wanted a great meal, they’d stop here at the diner. If they needed their clothes washed after they left their camping or RV trip, they could head across the street to the town’s laundromat. Most likely, they were coming from Happy Trails, the campground I owned and also lived on. It was right at the base of several trails leading into the park, which, just like for the Normal Diner, made it a great spot for business.
Each trail was marked for a different skill level, so I was fortunate to have the perfect setup for people of all abilities looking to vacation. But today, I was helping out my good friend Betts Hager, who not only owned the laundromat but also did side cleaning jobs.
That’s the way it was in Normal. We all did what we could to help each other out. I wasn’t the best housekeeper—nor did I particularly like getting my nails chipped from cleaning someone else’s toilet when I had a hard enough time cleaning my own—but I set my needs aside to help out Betts.
“You’ve got a full plate at the campground,” Ty said, turning around when he heard his short-order cook ding the bell, indicating that an order was up. “What’s up with Betts?” he asked as he grabbed a hot plate of delicious biscuits and gravy in one hand and a Daniel Boone breakfast platter in the other.
“Dottie is holding down the fort at the campground so I can help Betts clean Mayor Mackenzie’s house,” I told him as he moved around the counter to deliver the food to a booth of customers.
Courtney Mackenzie was the female—and single—mayor of Normal.
Dottie Swaggert was the manager of my campground. She and Ty both lived there full time. Ty knew that by this time of year, winter was long gone, and Mother Nature had painted the entire Daniel Boone National Forest with beautiful pops of wildflowers among the famous Kentucky bluegrass. It was a hiker’s and camper’s dream to come visit.
The weather was a nice, even sixty degrees during the day, and the nights were chilly enough for sitting around a campfire while telling stories or just enjoying the great outdoors. It was a popular destination for both the young and the old.
“Oh, yeah. The big wedding.” Ty walked back by me to his post behind the counter to cash out a customer. “It’s tonight, right?”
“Yep.” My phone chirped. I looked down. “The house has to be ready for out-of-town guests, and Courtney didn’t want Betts to come until today because she was sure it would have gotten all messed up again if we’d cleaned yesterday. So she needs all hands on deck.”
“I didn’t get an invite to the wedding. Did you?” he asked, leaning his hip up against the counter.
“No. Which means we didn’t have to buy a gift.” I smacked the counter. “I’m still trying to pay off all the people who donate to the campground. And Ava Cox.”
“It means we didn’t have to turn down the wedding invitation so we could watch the big fight on DirecTV.” Ty rubbed his hands together.
“Oh, yeah. You and Hank are watching it at your camper.” I had totally forgotten about the big boxing match. It was a big deal around here to get together and pay the premium fee to watch two grown men beat the heck out of each other.
“Ridiculous if you ask me,” Trudy said as she hustled past me. “You can go down to the bar and see all the fights you want for free.”
“You know…” Ty looked over and smiled. “You could get a big-screen theater-type addition to the campground.”
“What part of me saying ‘I’m working extra jobs to pay Ava Cox’ do you not understand?” Ava Cox was the lawyer who had helped me out of many situations when she really hadn’t needed to. Her life had been completely altered by my ex-, and now dead ex-, husband.
It’s no big secret how I came to be the proud owner of Happy Trails. My now-dead ex-husband, Paul West, and I had lived a fabulous and luxurious life in Manhattan. We’d even had us a house on the water in Hampton. It was a life I’d loved so much that I didn’t pay attention to what Paul was up to. In fact, he was a passenger on an airplane where I was a flight attendant when we first met, and it was is if he’d charmed me right off that plane and into the Justice of the Peace office.
I’d loved him even though he was much older than me. We’d had a happy life, or so I thought… until the FBI had raided our Manhattan apartment, taking him to jail for a Ponzi scheme that stole millions if not billions of dollars from our friends and community members.
It was only then, when our lawyer took the keys to my Maserati in exchange for a small rusty key dangling from a miniature plastic flamingo that belonged to a drivable camper in much need of a makeover, that I learned I was the owner of a campground in Kentucky. Ironically, it was the place I’d desperately tried to escape my whole life and finally had as soon as the clock struck midnight on my eighteenth birthday.
Regardless, that’s how I ended right back in Kentucky, where I was now the proud owner of a run-down campground.
“I’m sure everyone is fine with how you’re paying them back.” Ty smiled. It brought back a lot of memories of how kind he had been to me when everyone in Normal was not so accepting, most of them having been scammed by Paul.
“It’s taken me the better part of almost two years.” I exhaled. “And my family moving here to help me pay everyone off.”
“I got an invite to the wedding,” Trudy butted in, wiggling her brows as she grabbed a tray of food from the pass-through window.
“You did?” I questioned.
“Mm-hmmm.” She smiled so big when she passed by. “Plus-one.”
“You got you a date?” I teased. “Why, I can’t wait to hear all about it.”
“We won’t hear anything else but that tomorrow,” Ty hollered across the diner so Trudy could hear. “And you open!” Then he looked at me with a straight face. “She better be here to open. We are busy. And she better put that phone away. Geez, get off that dating app.”
“Dating app?” I questioned.
“Honey, men around here are slim pickins’. I’ve been known to go out with some men on the dating app.” Trudy giggled and tapped on her phone while she walked back toward us before slipping it into the front pocket of her apron. Her bright-yellow fingernail polish always made me smile.
I couldn’t help but laugh, but I stopped when I heard the familiar voice of my foster brother, Bobby Ray Bonds. He was standing and talking to someone in a booth, who I bet had to be traveling through for work. He didn’t have on any hiking gear and instead wore a nice short-sleeved shirt and khakis, but it was the open laptop in front of him that told me he was a businessman.
Tourists rarely brought a computer or tablet when they came to Normal. It was a place to get away and relax. Plus, there was very little cell or data service around.
“Do you remember May-bell-ine?”I rolled my eyes when I heard Bobby Ray call me by my full name, but I turned around and waved. I had no idea who the guy was, but apparently, he was from the past I’d spent years trying to outrun.
“Yep. May-bell-ine West,” I heard Bobby Ray confirm. Unfortunately, he was acknowledging my legally married name, which was tainted with Paul’s illegal ways and the one thing that ultimately got him murdered.
“It seems like you’ve got someone here who knows you.” Ty offered a heartwarming smile. He knew how much I had struggled with what Paul did and how hard I’d worked to bring the economy back to life in Normal.
“I got to get going anyways.” I gathered my things, and as soon as I pulled the cord out from the charging station, a hiker hurried over and plugged in. “Thanks for the charge,” I said.
“No problem. I’ll see you tonight.” Ty grabbed the rag behind the counter and wiped my spot clean for the hiker.
Instead of heading right out to the laundromat parking lot where Betts was waiting for me, I ventured over to Bobby Ray so I could say hello to whoever he’d recognized.
“May-bell-ine, do you remember Gidean Ratimer?” Bobby Ray and I both moved out of Trudy’s way while she refilled Gidean’s ice water and sat down his ticket. “He was a grade ahead of you and behind me in school.”
“Hi there. How are you?” I had no idea who this guy was, but I tried not to stay too involved with anyone we’d gone to high school with.
“Mae.” Gidean had a nice head of hair. It was thick and brown. Even his side part was perfect and made me a little envious.
Heck, anyone with hair different than mine made me envious. I loved the color of my brown hair, but the curly part wasn’t so lovable. That’s one reason why I grew it long. The longer my hair was, the looser the curls. Today, it was pulled back in a ponytail so as not to fall down into Courtney’s toilet water when I scrubbed the toilets.
“You have turned out to be one beautiful woman.” Gidean eased back into the vinyl of the booth. “You can imagine my surprise when I heard Bobby Ray here call out my name.”
“Yeah.” Bobby Ray laughed and elbowed me. “Gidean is a travel blogger. Makes money at it on the internet.”
“Is that right?” Now that got my attention. I’d worked really hard not only to redo the campground to help the economy but to help other businesses in Normal revamp themselves as well. I even got a key to the city for an economic plan I used to stimulate a booming economy year-round rather than just seasonally. “Did you know I own Happy Trails Campground?”
“I’ve read all about it. And that’s you?” he questioned with amazement on his face. “Huh. Wow. I’d love to get a tour since it’s a one-of-a-kind place.”
“It was one of a kind back a couple years ago, but I think a lot of areas have started to embrace the glamping life.” I did bring a little sophistication to camping. “I’d love to show you around.”
“Now?” Gidean shut the computer like we were heading there.
“I can’t right now, but later.” I pointed to Bobby Ray. “You exchange numbers with Bobby Ray, and I’ll give you a text. Right now, I have to meet my friend.” I moved my finger to the window and pointed to Betts’s van she used for her cleaning jobs. “How long are you in town?”
“I was just passing through, but I’ll stay a few days. I can work from anywhere.” He smiled and nodded.
“Gosh. Bobby Ray and Mae. I never would’ve guessed I’d run into either of you here, but both?”
It was funny how life turned out. I sure knew that, but I was going to have to look this guy up in my yearbook when I had time to go see Mary Elizabeth Moberly, my foster mother, at The Milkery. I was positive Mary Elizabeth would remember Gidean Ratimer. She never forgot anyone, even if she did only meet them once.