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Read this 11-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! 

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ONE

 

The sun was shining brightly over my old Kentucky home.

I stood with my coffee from Trails Coffee Shop in my hands as I looked out over the grassy median that divided Main Street of downtown Normal, Kentucky.

“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” Violet Rhinehammer had walked up behind me, also admiring the tinted blue of the grass, rightly naming Kentucky the Bluegrass state. There was a vivid blue with a hint of green. “Who would ever think that in such a lovely town someone could be snatched up?”

Slowly I turned my chin to the side and looked at Violet. My eyes went wide open as the word she chose to use, snatched, sent a shiver down my spine.

“Maybe right from the very spot you are standing in.” Her brow took a jump, arching up into her forehead, minus any wrinkles from the Botox injections she regularly got. “How does that make you feel?”

“Three, two, one,” I heard a man call from behind her.

Violet turned on a dime, and before I knew what was going on, Violet had dragged me into her situation.

“Coming to you live from downtown Normal, Kentucky in the heart of the Daniel Boone National Forest, where it is believed that thirty-four-year-old Yaley Woodard was snatched.” Violet spoke with clear and concise words. She stared into the lens of the camera the cameraman was holding as if she weren’t just talking to me.

This was why so many people loved and watched Violet on her news broadcasts. It was as if she were standing in your living room and talking directly to you. Honestly, it was a gift she had, and I tried to slip out of the shot. She grabbed me, not batting an eye once my way or taking her gaze off the camera. She held me in her grip, like prey.

“Right here, on this very spot, is the last time that video camera spotted Yaley with two cups of coffee in her hand. Two.” Violet’s tone turned eerie. “One for her and perhaps one for her abductor?”

The cameraman panned the camera up toward the newly placed security cameras that were an upgrade from the previous ones. We’d also just got an upgrade in the internet and wireless service all across the national park with the extra park state funding. A much-needed improvement.

“I’m standing here with Maybelline West, the owner of the Happy Trails Campground.” Violet turned to me to for the first time since the camera started to roll. Her long blond hair swept across her shoulder. It looked like it came out of one of those shampoo commercials. All dramatic-like. “Maybelline,” she called me by my full name.

“Mae,” I corrected her.

“Mae, tell me, how do you think this abduction is going to influence your business as the owner of a very popular campground for tourists who come to the national park?” She shoved the microphone in my face, her eyes twinkling as they danced around my face.

“This is the first I’m hearing about the abduction, so there’s no need to interview me, Violet.” I gave her a smile and took a sip of my coffee, trying not to get lost in her drama, which she was good at doing.

“We are live.” Violet batted her long eyelashes with a big smile as the words, we are live, put more fear in me than when she mentioned the word, snatched.

I glared at her and took a gulp of coffee, nervously tucking a strand of my curly hair behind my ear. It was out of control because I didn’t try to tame it when I got out of bed just about an hour ago.

“I’m sorry. I’m not familiar with the abduction, so I honestly have no comment on how this news will affect my campground, Happy Trails Campground, here in Normal, Kentucky.” I took the opportunity for a shameless plug since Violet decided to spring this impromptu interview on me, which I’m sure was not by coincidence, by the way.

“Yaley Woodard, a thirty-one-year-old female, had taken a lunch break. It is believed she was coming here to meet up with her boyfriend, Joel Grassle . She didn’t return to work.” Violet spoke in that on-air personality voice. “As you can see by the flyer put out by her brother, Ted Woodard, the family is worried. It’s been seventy-two hours since someone last spoke to Yaley. This is not common behavior. This is not good for the tourism in Normal. What are your thoughts on that?”

She held the microphone back up to my face and handed me the missing person flyer she was talking about. It was the first one I’d seen.

“My prayers are with the family in the recovery effort,” I started to say.

“Recovery effort? Do you know something we don’t know since you are the girlfriend of Detective Hank Sharp.” If she shoved that microphone in my face one more time, I was going to club her with it.

Of course Violet had to bring that up. It was no secret and probably the reason for the tension always between us.

Although we’d come together on a couple of occasions when one needed something from the other, she had tried to get her claws into Hank a few times to make him her own. When it became apparent that he and I were a strong couple, she’d retracted those claws but used every opportunity she could to get information out of me for her newscast and her newspaper articles, not to mention the various other magazines she contributed to.

“I-I didn’t mean recovery...” I stammered to find the right words, which I was never good at when put on the spot.

“And as you can see, Ted Woodard is working tirelessly to get the word out.” Violet lost interest in me and hurried off down the sidewalk past the downtown shops toward a man who was taping flyers on the carriage lights lining the median.

My focus went from the amazing sunny day we were having to the looming cloud over the top of Violet’s head with the news of the abduction. I looked down at the flyer.

The woman staring back at me had a nice, warm smile. One of her front teeth slightly overlapped the other. Her face was thin, and though the photo was black and white, she appeared to have nice dark eyes and dark hair. There was a small heart-shaped charm dangling from a necklace around her neck. At closer look, the heart appeared to be outlined in small diamonds, and the chain was not simple. It was small hearts linked together to form the gold chain. The flyer even stated how Yaley would have on the heart necklace as an identifier. Apparently, she never took it off. I smiled at the license plate number. It read tours and was one of those fancy license plates you had to pay extra for.

Immediately, I wondered who gave her the necklace and if, by chance, it was Joel Grassle .

The flyer said she worked at the Sierra Club as a tour guide. She had gone on a tour the day she disappeared. She had gone to lunch but only had an hour because they were having a meeting on the upcoming season tour schedule. The paper also claimed Yaley’s car was missing. There was a five-thousand-dollar reward for any information along with the Normal Police Department’s phone number printed at the bottom.

I looked up when I heard some footsteps.

“Mornin’.” Alvin Deters stood outside of his shop, Deters Feed-N-Seed.

He gave me the good ole Baptist nod and fumbled with his key ring until he found the key to open the door. His cowboy hat was pulled down over his eyes, creating a shadow down his face. “Sad news. I heard it on the radio on my way into town.”

Alvin had on his usual outfit, even in the warm weather. A plaid shirt tucked into dark blue jeans with his big silver belt buckle shined to a sparkle.

“Yeah.” I gave one last glance toward Violet before I turned my attention back to Alvin, following him into the shop. “I hope she’s okay.”

“Me too.” He flipped the sign on the door to open and flipped on the lights. “What brings you out so early this morning?”

“I have a whole new group of campers coming in for the weekend, and I need to get some supplies. I’ve got to get the bungalows all cleaned up since I’d closed them down for the winter.” I looked around the shop to see what direction I wanted to go first. “Mainly the necessities.”

The necessities being batteries of all varieties, a couple of new flashlights, night-light bulbs, coffeepot filters, cleaning supplies to restock all the bungalows’ linen closets, shampoos, along with some toothbrushes, toothpaste, and all the accouterments. Not that I was obligated to provide those—we sold baskets of such items in the office—but it was the kindness and added touch that made staying at Happy Trails Campground a memorable experience.

My shoulders tensed, my teeth bared down together and I could feel my shoulders rising toward my ears. A sure sign of stress.

“You okay?” Alvin called from the counter. He’d taken his cowboy hat off and exposed his light brown hair, which was pretty full for an older man like Alvin. Well… older than me.

If I recalled correctly, when I moved to Normal, I’d heard he was in his fifties. I guessed every one of us was getting older as the years ticked by, and that’s exactly what time had done for me in the past couple of years since I’d made Normal my home.

“I’m good.” I bent my head down to study the variety pack of batteries to make sure they were all ones I could use. I had scads of these packs where I didn’t need all the C batteries, but the flashlights I had picked up appeared to need C batteries. “Did you happen to know Joel was dating the missing girl?”

I was having a hard time concentrating on what I had come into the Feed-N-Seed to purchase. Yaley’s dark eyes haunted me, and I couldn’t help but wonder where she had gone, if she’d gone. Maybe Joel was a good source to ask. Maybe Yaley had some sort of dark secret or needed to get away from town for a little bit.

Hank and I, and the dogs of course, had just returned from a nice little beach vacation because we needed to get away. The same could be said for Yaley.

“He’d mentioned he’d gone out on a few dates with a new girl, but he didn’t mention who. Who told you he was dating her?” Alvin asked.

“Violet.” I peered over my shoulder and out the window of the shop to see if Violet was still doing her live segment for the news.

“She should know. She’s pretty good at getting to the source.” Alvin walked out from behind the counter, headed back to the two swinging doors, and disappeared behind them.

He was right about Violet. She did have a way to get to the sources, and if her source about Joel was right, I’m sure Hank already knew and had questioned Joel.

I walked around the different aisles, hoping my eyes would catch something I’d placed on my mental list, but really the only things that stuck out were batteries and flashlights.

Alvin came back, pushing a cart filled with sacks of seed and refilled the gardening area while I continued to mosey around.

“You ready?” he called out when I walked up to the counter and put the items down. 

“I guess so,” I said and strolled about looking at the various items he had in the bins underneath the counter. “Bug spray.” I clapped my hands in delight with the fact I recalled one more item on my mental list.

“Huh?” Alvin wiped his hands down his shirt to get off any loose seeds from the bags.

“I really need to write things down. I had a slew of things I wanted to buy and completely forgot.” I shrugged and took out my wallet from my crossbody bag.

“If you remember, call me, and I’ll set them aside.” Alvin had been so good to me over the past couple of years. Even when he didn’t need to be.

My now dead ex-husband, Paul West, had taken half of the American population’s money during a Ponzi scheme. Maybe not half, but it sure did seem like it, and it was millions. In fact, it was how I’d ended up in Normal and owning a campground while living in the RV. The only thing Paul had in my name and the government couldn’t seize. A run-down campground. The RV was even worse.

Alvin Deters was one of the men Paul had conned. When I first came to town, most of the people in Normal had trusted Paul and all of them ended up with nothing. That’s when I decided not to sell the campground for a quick buck and fixed it up with the help of Alvin Deters, who generously loaned me items until I paid him back. And through a lot of social media work, advertising, and smart business, I brought the tourism industry back to Normal.

“Thank you, Alvin.” I gave him the cash in exchange for the bag. “You’ve always been so good to me.”

“You’re easy to be good to.” He winked. “Be careful, she might get you again.” He pointed out the front window of the shop.

Violet and her cameraman were walking through the median and looked to be coming back.

In the distance, Ted Woodard was using a staple gun to hang the missing person flyers up on the large oak trees that stood on each side of an amphitheater and covered seating area. 

The thick white pillars, like the ones you’d see on the front porch of a plantation home, that held up the amphitheater already had the flyers posted on them. It looked like he’d strategically placed the flyers under the gas lanterns as though they were spotlights. The twinkly lights danced around the poles.

My eyes drifted to the large ferns that the beautification committee had planted in the ceramic planters.

I walked out of Deters Feed-N-Seed and stood out on the sidewalk and tossed my empty coffee cup in the trash can. I watched Violet to see what her next move was going to be. The cameraman pointed down Main Street toward the Smelly Dog, which was a pet groomer, and the Normal Diner. When he said something to Violet, it must’ve agreed with her because she nodded her head, and they nearly sprinted across the street.

Out of curiosity, I followed them down to the Normal Diner, where they’d already found a seat at the counter.

I plopped down on the stool next to Violet.

“Well?” I questioned. “What did he say?”

“What did who say?” She swiveled the stool seat around to look at me.

“Ted, Yaley’s brother. Don’t act like I didn’t see you.” I gave Ty Randal a short nod when he walked by with the coffeepot in his hand and lifted it to me, his way of asking if I wanted some coffee.

“You didn’t seem too interested earlier.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why the change of heart?”

“Maybe I wasn’t interested because look at me.” I gestured down my body. “What part of this outfit did you think was great for television?”

The bleached, blotted Normal, Kentucky sweatshirt that I’d purchased when I first rolled into Normal a couple of years ago had seen better days. Not to mention how I destroyed it when I washed it at the Laundry Club Laundromat because I put too much bleach in the washer.

I was trying to kill off any sort of germs the RV had on my drive from New York City to Normal. The RV was so gross that it looked like a petri dish of illness.

“Mae, someone is missing. Do you honestly think the viewing public is going to look at your outfit?” Her shoulders slumped, her eyes softened. “Okay, yeah. I do recall a few people I’ve interviewed who didn’t have their teeth in or were dressed in pajama pants, but you’re gorgeous.”

“Don’t butter me up.” I picked up the hot cup of steaming coffee. After a nice long whiff of the fresh brew, I said, “Does he really think someone took her?”

“He said she’s never called in for work. Never missed a day. She’s always been early for meetings.” Violet looked at me like I had some plausible explanation.

“What?” I asked with some hesitation.

“I don’t know. You left Perrysburg when you were eighteen with no trace. Middle of the night, jumped on a Greyhound bus, only to be seen back in Kentucky twelve years later.” She had a point. “You tell me, what is in Yaley’s mind to have wanted to skip town, if she did?”

“I guess it would be different for everybody.” I took a couple more sips and placed the cup back down on the counter.

“For me, I was trying to escape my past. Every time I looked around Perrysburg, I was reminded of my family or how awful high school was. I knew I could do whatever I wanted when I became an adult. So at eighteen, stroke of midnight, I became the adult and took action to make my life better.”

“But Yaley, why would she leave? I mean, there are no signs of her car. So she could’ve, but why?” Violet had put on her investigative reporter’s thinking cap.

“Her brother said she was always reliable, right?” I wanted to make sure I had the facts right. Violet confirmed with a hard nod and a raised brow, encouraging me to go on with my theory. “Maybe she was tired of that life. Maybe she wanted to live a little more freeing life.”

“But she didn’t tell anyone?” Violet was having a hard time wrapping her brain around the concept I had about why Yaley left.

“Trust me.” I let out a long sigh. “When you want to leave the life you are living, you’ll do whatever it takes to get out of town. You never know,” I muttered and picked the cup back up. “She might show up in a few days or a few weeks. Maybe she’ll call someone tonight if she sees your broadcast.”

“That’s what Ted is hoping.” Violet twisted her stool back around and looked out into the distance like she was thinking about what I’d said. “I just wonder who was close enough to her to know what she was thinking?”

Violet wasn’t being too good of an investigative reporter. There was one person that immediately came to my mind.

Joel Grassle .