Read the first chapter of KICKBACKS, KAYAKS, & KIDNAPPING right now!
Read this 12-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 mentally read the word I’d written on a piece of paper in the notebook the Laundry Club gals and I kept handy for when we’d put on our amateur sleuth hats. We’d use it to write down clues that helped us put two and two together.
“Entrepreneur.” I read the word out loud, smiling a little. I tucked a strand of my long curly brown hair behind my ear as I let out a long sigh.
Fifi, my toy poodle, jumped up on the small couch in our RV and wedged her head up under my arm.
“How do you think ‘Mae West, entrepreneur’ sounds?” I asked her.
She jumped up and swiped her tongue along my cheek.
“I knew you’d love it.” I sighed and picked up the copy of National Park Magazine I’d been reading a few minutes earlier when I saw the ad Abby Fawn, a good friend of mine and librarian at Normal Library, had placed as my social media guru for Happy Trails Campground.
The ad was for the new water activities I’d added to the campground activities: kayaking, canoeing, white-water rafting, and fishing. Until recently, I had been able to let my guests know about a company that provided these activities, but that company folded. It left me the opportunity to literally dip my toe into the water of extra outdoor activities, which led to more money on the bottom dollar for the campground.
Since the company had folded due to the owner going to prison, the price was pretty cheap. One problem: I knew nothing about kayaking or canoeing, much less white-water rafting. That’s when I decided it would be fun to host a weeklong summer festival called Paddle Fest.
Since Abby knew all things about the Daniel Boone National Forest, where Normal, Kentucky and Happy Trails Campground were located, she’d told me about how years ago, the forest hosted an actual kayak competition. Who knew there was such a thing?
In fact, there was even a kayaking team at the local high school. It would be perfect for kickstarting my new adventure. . .which made me, Maybelline Grant West, an entrepreneur.
“Right here.” I pointed at the ad to show Fifi. “It’s in fine print at the bottom, but it says Mae West, entrepreneur.” I squinted to look at the fine print Abby had put in the ad.
Fifi seemed to like it. Her stubby tail wagged so fast. She did a few twirls that completely warranted praise.
After all, she had been a pedigreed show poodle until she crossed to the wrong side of the campground where Ethel kept Rosco, her male bulldog, off leash. Most dogs weren’t on leashes in the campground—at the owners’ own risk since we did have some coyotes and some brown bears—so I, too, was as fault for letting Fifi run around when I had only been babysitting her. It was only at night that I would put her on a leash.
To say it nicely, Fifi had gotten pregnant, and it was her ticket to freedom from performing all those tricks. Plus, her owner had only used Fifi for the pedigree and saw to it that I take responsibility for the chaos I’d caused by taking Fifi off her hands—life changing for me and Fifi. Keeping her had been the best decision I’d ever made. Well, that and the decision I’d made not sell the campground, making Normal my new home and living in an RV.
Talk about life changing. All my adult life, I’d lived in New York City after I escaped the foster care system in Kentucky. It wasn’t until I met and married one of the wealthiest, and oldest, businessmen in the stock market—who just so happened to go to federal prison, causing me to lose my Manhattan apartment and our Hamptons home—did I find out I was the owner of Happy Trails Campground. I’d spent the last few years bringing it and the tourism of Normal back to life, making me the entrepreneur.
“ I think. . .” The creak of the metal camper step up to my door told me someone was about to knock before their fist made contact with the metal around the screen door.
“ Mae, you in there?” Dottie Swaggert’s face was barely visible through the screen, but her hot-pink hair curlers practically glowed in the darkness of the night. It was her deep Southern drawl that told me it was her.
“Come on in.” I slid the magazine over the notebook just as she swung open the door. Fifi jumped off the couch and happily greeted one of her favorite people.
“What are you doing up so late?” Her eyes zeroed in on the small dinette table. She put her hand down to pat Fifi. “Are you moonlighting on the gals?”
She moved her hand from Fifi to one of the curlers that’d come unsnapped around a piece of her thick red hair. Within a second, she’d rolled the hair right back around the sponge and made sure it was snapped close to her head.
“Moonlighting? Are you kidding? I’m already exhausted from running this place.” I showed her the magazine. “Abby’s ad came out for the locals to enter the kayak competition this week, and I can’t wait.”
“The ad she ran a couple of months ago pretty much filled it up. Do you know we have people coming from all over the country to compete?” She shook her head and made herself comfortable on the couch.
Fifi took it as an opportunity to score more loving by lying next to Dottie.
I’d never even known camping was so popular or everything that went with it. When I’d first shown up in Normal to check out this new ownership of mine, the place was so run-down, it took every bit of anything I could pawn, sell, and barter to get it cleaned up enough to open.
Not to mention what it took to make the RV my home. When I looked around, I was pretty proud of all the elbow grease I’d put into the place.
I’d used every bit of space possible. I took down all the walls to create an open-concept plan with the kitchen and family room in one big room. I put up shiplap walls and painted them white. I’d gotten a cute café table with two chairs and a small leather couch from the Tough Nickel, the local thrift store. I’d even redone all the floors with luxurious vinyl that resembled grey wood flooring. The kitchen cabinets and all the storage cabinets were white. I’d transformed my little camper into a charming country farmhouse décor.
I’d strung twinkle lights everywhere I could. The bathroom had been updated with a tile shower and upgraded toilet, which was nice. My bedroom was located in the back. I’d opted to buy a new mattress, with some wooden pallets painted pink and nailed together as a headboard. I’d gotten a dresser from the Tough Nickel that went perfectly with my distressed look. The fuzzy rugs and milk glass vases that were currently filled with different floral arrangements from the Sweet Smell Flower Shop, the local florist, were the perfect romantic touch, especially now since I’d been dating Hank Sharp.
“I’m not sure why you keep spending money to put ads in all them papers and magazines since we ain’t got no place to put people.” Dottie snarled. “We’ve been booked for months.”
“Thanks to a great manager like you.” I knew a little praise went a long way with her. “Just because we are booked doesn’t mean other people from the other campgrounds can’t participate. They will see how awesome our campground is and want to go ahead and book for next year.”
It was crazy how the campground was booked up for months. Cancellations went out every Tuesday morning at eight a.m., and we’d book back up within a few minutes of the emails going out.
“I guess I’m not complaining. It’s good to have a steady job.” Dottie had recently had a bout of fainting issues that resulted in her falling down and breaking a hip.
She’d lived in a local rehab facility while she got back up on her feet, which made her none too happy. The Laundry Club gals, our small group of friends, and I took turns visiting her day in and day out so Dottie didn’t have to be alone.
The Laundry Club gals were a big reason I’d decided to stay in Normal and make it my home. The Laundry Club was the name of the laundromat in Normal, where I had to do laundry when I first moved there since the laundry room at the campground wasn’t working. There, I’d met the owner, Betts Hager, along with Queenie French and Abby Fawn. They were all friends with Dottie, and it just so happened to be the place where all four of them hung out.
Years later, we all still met there for book club, coffee, and social hour. Please, there was a police scanner there. Talk about hours of entertainment. The National Park Rangers along with the police department got several crazy calls every night. Campers got themselves into some crazy situations. We loved meeting up at the Laundry Club and gathering around the scanner to see what was going to happen next. Sometimes we’d jump into Betts’s old cleaning van and go see what all the commotion was about. Especially when there was a death.
It seemed a little morbid, but we did it anyway. That’s where the notebook came in handy. There’d been a few murders in these parts. Since it was a national forest and park, people figured they could just hide a body out here and it would never be found.
Somehow, one of the Laundry Club ladies or I would always discover or happen upon some sort of murder that put us in the thick of things, which was when we’d put clues in the notebook so we’d have them all in one place.
“I’ve been writing down ideas for the festival for next year in the notebook since we’ve not used it in a while.” I sat the magazine back down on the small café table and took a good look at Dottie. “Are you out doing your physical therapy?”
She grimaced when she moved, but she tried to hide it from me.
“I’m trying, but I still can’t get good sleep with this new hip,” she moaned and rubbed her side.
“You’re just a couple of months out.” I slipped on my flip-flops. “Come on. I’ll go a time or two around with you.”
I walked over to the couch and helped her up. It wasn’t too late. I figured it to be around ten or so since right before she’d gotten here, the night had turned completely dark. During the summer, it was still light out until nine thirty, which made the campground stay alive until around midnight.
The smell of the campfires was carried on the light breeze as it came through the open windows of the RV. It was a good time to walk around the campground and say hello to our guests.
I made sure we knew all of them by name when they arrived.
“I don’t need to bother you with walking me around like an old lady,” she grumbled and got to her feet.
“You are an old lady,” I teased, and she smacked me away. “We need to say goodnight to our guests. Remember, that’s why we are in for the Campground Hospitality Award.”
It was an honor to be in the running for the award with so many campgrounds in and around the national park. When I’d gotten word that we were up for it along with five other campgrounds, I knew we had it in the bag.
At least that’s what I told myself, determined to win. There was a competitive streak in me that I’d never been able to tame.
“Oh, they did put up the banner late this evening.” Dottie had told me the national park committee had called to let us know they were placing banners at each campground. “They had sent over the ballots for people too.”
“We need to make sure to distribute those tomorrow at the hospitality room.” I made a mental note to grab those in the morning from the office since it was my shift to open and take them to the recreational room, where there was complimentary coffee from Trails Coffee and donuts from the Cookie Crumble Bakery.
Both businesses were locally owned. I made sure when I opened the campground that I would feature local products and businesses so if the guests liked them, they’d go visit the businesses and purchase. It was a foolproof business plan that’d brought Normal back as a thriving community and got me the key to the city. . .which brought me back to the title “entrepreneur.”
I couldn’t help but swell up with pride when we stepped out of the RV and looked out across the lake in the middle of the campground with all the campfires dancing under the dark night sky.
“We sure have come a long way,” I told Dottie as we walked around the lake on the far side, near the bungalow section of Happy Trails. “I guess I never figured we’d have all the bungalows filled as well as all the little campers.”
“It was all that fixin’ up you’ve been doing. Making them so popular with the young folks, old folks, and families.” She pointed to the largest of the bungalows, where we could see right into the large window.
The family who had rented it had planned their family vacation here. They were sitting inside around the large kitchen table playing a board game. During the day, they’d been busy hiking all the trails that started in the campground. Tomorrow, they were going to go explore some of the hidden waterfalls.
“This one is still my favorite camper.” I pointed to the small canned-ham red camper that was a single. It was the cutest. It was very popular and always had a waiting list.
“I know.” Dottie stopped and pulled out the cigarette case. She snapped it open and batted out one of her stogies.
I’d really hoped she was going to break that habit when she was in the rehab center, but I now thought rehab had made it worse. Every time I’d go see her, she was having herself a big time, sitting outside with other residents, laughing and talking and all of them smoking too.
“How y’all doin’?” Dottie asked a group of campers when we passed by another one of our campers they’d rented.
She meandered over to their fire while I waited for Fifi to catch up to me on her small walk. That’s mostly what we did at night when she was on the leash, but since there were so many people up and fires going, I knew it would be safe for her to walk around without worrying about a coyote snatching her up.
There were a few people sitting on the dock that jutted out on the lake. The paddleboats were pulled up in their places, and Henry was locking them up. Henry Bryan was the handyman who had already worked here, just like Dottie, so it was natural to keep them both on staff. They were the only employees I had, and they were worth their weight in gold.
“Mae, this here is the state kayak champ who is going to be trying out for next Olympic team.” Dottie’s accent got stronger as the excitement grew in her voice.
By the way the group of young people laughed, I could tell Dottie entertained them.
“Welcome to Happy Trails.” I wanted to make sure we gave a proper hello to our future Olympian. “Are you going to be participating in the kayak race?”
“Of course he is.” A young woman got up from the campfire and took her place next to him. “I’m Alli Shelton, Bryce Anderson’s agent.”
She had long straight brown hair, with all the pieces around her face pulled back into a clip that fastened at the back of her head. The big black-rimmed glasses took up a lot of her forehead and cheeks. From what I could see, she didn’t have on any makeup other than maybe a hint of lip balm—not exactly what I assumed for an agent.
Not that people got all dolled up when they went camping, but in her case, renting one of my fanciest campers, I’d say she was glamping it.
“Nice to meet you.” Hmm. . .I gave her a once-over as best I could, given it was dark out. By the way she held herself, I could tell she was also an entrepreneur, being an agent and all. “Bryce, we are honored to have you here.”
I made another mental note to be sure to look up kayaking, the Olympics, and Bryce when I made it into town tomorrow.
“You are the owner of the campground?” Alli asked me. I nodded. “And you’re the one putting on the kayak race, correct?”
“I am. If there’s anything you need, please just ask.” There was no doubt in my mind she would take me up on offer.
“Oh, don’t worry. Bryce gets whatever it is he wants.” She glanced his way, but he’d already gone back to the campfire, where he was doing a couple of shots with a few of the others. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go talk to him, but I do want to come visit you in the morning to discuss his training while we are here and what times we’d like you to shut down the water activities.”
“Shut down?” I questioned and looked at Dottie after Alli rushed off. “Does she expect me to shut down the waterway for him to practice?”
“I guess she thinks his you-know-what don’t stink and he gets what he wants.” Dottie’s lit cigarette bounced from the corner of her mouth as she talked.
Both of us stood there and watched as Bryce and Alli had a disagreement. Apparently, from what I’d overheard, she wasn’t happy with him drinking and thought he needed to get some sleep. After he told her to lighten up, she stormed off in the direction of one of the little red campers she’d rented while he casually made his way over to another set of campers filled with some college girls taking a summer girls’ trip, not caring one bit about the Paddle Fest.
“He don’t give one iota about kayaking.” Dottie nudged me when Bryce grabbed a girl by the hand. “That woman is right. That boy gets whatever it is he wants.”
They disappeared down the mouth of the closest trail.
“Mm-hmm,” I said, smiling, “and he’s gonna get some chiggers in places he don’t want too.”