“Good morning!” I greeted Betts Hager, Abby Fawn Bonds, Queenie French, and Hank Sharp as they all boarded my little camper with a level of excitement due to our new adventure. “Dottie is in Trails Coffee, grabbing us some much-needed caffeine.”
Hank gave me a quick kiss before he climbed over the middle console into the passenger captain chair to ride shotgun. He had an armful of file folders that he put on the floorboard until he got his seatbelt on.
I had a clear view of the coffee shop since I’d parked the small RV in the Laundry Club Laundromat parking lot across the street.
“How long has she been in there?” Betts Hager blew her bangs out of her eyes as she stooped down and peered out the windshield. Her shoulder-length wavy brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a pair of pink yoga pants and sweatshirt to match. “Aren’t we going to be cutting it close if we don’t get on the road soon?”
“According to the schedule Robin Michaels sent, I’ve given us a little cushion in case we need to make some pit stops.” Hank searched through files and grabbed a stack of brochures from one of them. “Here’s a schedule for everyone.”
Abby was closest to Hank’s reach, and she took them, giving one each to Betts and Queenie.
“I like that outfit.” Queenie made mention of Betts’s outfit.
“I got it from the Tough Nickel.” Betts brushed down the sweatshirt.
“Great score.” I loved the Tough Nickel Thrift Shop.
Last weekend when I was window shopping downtown, Buck, the owner of the Tough Nickel Thrift Shop, had made the best seasonal display of any of the downtown shops. He had used spring activities going on and around the Daniel Boone National Park, where we lived, with a display of mannequins in hiking gear sitting in a kayak, along with a small tent scene.
“I wish I’d seen it first.” Queenie really liked Betts’s outfit.
Queenie lived in sweats. There were only a handful of times I’d seen her dressed in anything else.
Today she was dressed in her usual going-out outfit, which to her was dressing up. It was one of those silky eighties jumpsuit that swished with every move and a matching headband that kept her short blond hair pushed off of her face.
“Are you driving?” Hank Sharp’s green eyes sent a bolt of lightning to my heart when he looked at me.
“Nope.” Anything I could do to get a little shut-eye, before we started our big investigation into the missing person Hank was hired to look into, was fine with me. I closed my eyes and snorted out a few fake snores.
“I figured.” He opened the door, carefully stepping out of the camper so he didn’t accidentally hit the stack of files on the floorboard.
I got out of the driver’s side and waited for him with the door wide open.
“You’re so smart, Hank Sharp.” I winked as he came around the front of the RV. “Here comes Dottie,” I said when I noticed her walking away from Trails Coffee, balancing one of those cardboard coffee trays with one hand and a cigarette in the other. “Looks like she was talking to Violet Rhinehammer,” I pointed out after I’d gotten into the passenger seat.
“And she’s smoking.” Abby had turned herself around, leaning on the back of the couch to see out the small RV windows behind them. When she swung back around, she hit Queenie in the face with her high-swingin’ brown ponytail.
“Pft. Pfft.” Queenie spat, smacking it away from her face.
“When she smokes that early, it means Violet stressed her out.” Abby sighed and put her hand out when she noticed I was passing the missing-person file back to her.
“I sure hope she didn’t tell Violet what we were up to.” Hank adjusted his seatbelt.
“No kidding.” I reached over my shoulder to get my seatbelt. “Or she’d have it plastered all over the Normal Gazette and Channel Two news.”
Violet Rhinehammer would probably turn out to be a decent human being if I’d gotten to know her outside of her journalist personality. We’d become well acquainted over the years since I moved to Normal, Kentucky, and worked on a few things together, but we weren’t a pair to call each other up and hang out.
Not like I did with the Laundry Club Ladies. Those were the ladies right here in my camper. My tried-and-true girlfriends along with my amazing boyfriend, Hank. Of course I couldn’t forget Fifi, my little white poodle, who was still sleeping on my bed in the back.
Yep. I lived in a drivable RV and owned Happy Trails Campground in the heart of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Normal, Kentucky. Literally, this was my home on wheels, which I had been forced to live in, but it took the better part of a year to remodel it into the cute little RV it was today. I’d made it as cozy as a rabbit’s den.
It was small, but it was all mine and without a mortgage. It was perfect for me and Fifi.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the RV stayed parked at Happy Trails Campground—but not this week.
Hank’s private investigating services had been hired by Laura and Steve Tenney. Their daughter Kyra had gone missing while at Forest Bathing Therapy Retreat, and no one at the retreat would give them any answers.
The retreat was in a different part of the Daniel Boone National Forest, which was the reason we’d piled into my RV, but once we were there we had accommodations.
“I enrolled us as employees.” Hank looked down at the GPS system to make sure we were going in the right direction. “Robin is under the assumption we are all there to become certified Forest Bathing Therapists.”
“I have always wanted to be a therapist.” Betts took the undercover gig very seriously. Nothing I wouldn’t expect from her. She was the sensible and moral one of all of us.
“According to her file, Kyra Tenney went missing two weeks ago. Her cell phone’s last ping was—” Abby rattled off the location while Betts put the address in her phone.
“The exact place we are going.” The muscles in Betts’s face tightened.
“Y’all ain’t gonna believe this crap.” Dottie Swaggert had swung open the door. Smoke rolled out of her mouth with each word before she took one last drag.
Queenie got up and took the coffee holder with all of our coffees in it so Dottie could snuff the cigarette out before she got in the RV.
“I don’t know if it’s a lie or not, and keep in mind you’ve got to consider the source.” She got in and slammed the small door behind her, locking it so Hank could start driving. “But Violet Rhinehammer claims she’s quit the Normal Gazette and Channel Two news to go off to Calee-fornia for some big hotshot job out there. Somethin’ ‘bout making it big time. Career startin’ off.” Dottie shrugged.
“You mean to tell me she finally got the call?” I asked with a slack jaw.
“I reckon. I don’t know.” Dottie fluttered her hand in the air just before she adjusted one of the pink sponge curlers in her hair and took a seat in one of the chairs at my little café table.
Dottie apparently wasn’t ready for the day, or should I say her hair wasn’t ready for the day.
“You know Violet. Sometimes she’s all hat and no cattle.” A lot of Dottie’s vernacular was Southern phrases. Most of them I understood, and to say that she kept me entertained all the time was an understatement.
She kept me entertained practically all the time since we were neighbors. She not only lived in a camper in Happy Trails but she was also the longtime manager and she did a really great job.
Even with all her grumbling she was one of my dearest friends.
“I don’t think she’d lie about such a big thing.” Abby looked around for some agreement. “Would she?”
“Do you still follow her on social media?” Queenie asked Abby, who was the social media expert of our group.
“I’m sure she put something on there.” Queenie made a really good point.
“Ladies, we’ve got to hustle. Violet Rhinehammer has made us late.” Hank was so smart not to blame Dottie’s being nosey because I was sure Dottie was questioning Violet in the coffee shop better than any litigator would do, making us get a later start than Hank wanted.
Betts rattled off some alternative directions for Hank. Though he’d already started to drive, he must’ve decided to use her directions. We all hung on while he did a U-turn when he got to the end of the grassy median so he could drive in the other direction, since downtown was one way on each side.
We passed Trails Coffee on my side, and I couldn’t help but try to see in to check out Violet Rhinehammer. I was curious because she’d tried so hard to find the next big story that would get her national attention with the Associated Press. I racked my brain for what stories she’d done lately but came up short.
The conversation moved back to why we were all here in the first place.
“Kyra Tenney is twenty-three years old.” Betts had dropped the Violet chatter and focused on the file Abby handed off to her so Abby could take notes in the spiral notebook we used for times such as this.
It was those times that led Hank to ask for our help. It was no secret I had enlisted the Laundry Club Ladies to help prove I was innocent when my ex-husband’s body had turned up floating in the campground lake. I was Hank’s number-one suspect.
At the time, Hank was involved in law enforcement, and of course I looked guilty. The spouse was always the prime suspect. Only I didn’t do it.
I had found these ladies a great group of women to lean on, and, well, we just had a knack for snooping around, listening to gossip, and narrowing down the clues that led to real criminals. This wasn’t our first rodeo.
“According to the file, her mom said she was trying to get her life back on track since Kyra’s relationship had broken up. Also, her mom reports Kyra had started therapy at Forest Bathing Therapy.” Betts read the information one more time before she laid the file in her lap. “Hank, you’re making us do therapy?”
Betts asked a question that seemed to be on all of our minds. When he mentioned a few minutes ago how we were going in as trainees, it was the first time we’d heard of it.
“I’m not making you do anything.” He glanced back in the rearview mirror at the ladies. “I asked if you wanted to help me, and each one of you jumped at it.”
“What is forest therapy?” Dottie rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over the bedazzled shirt she’d made for just this occasion. “Now, I ain’t gonna hug no trees and talk to the plants like you see them tree-huggin’ hippies do. If I wanted to do that, I’d join Tex’s commune out by the Old Train Station Motel,” she grumbled.
I snickered, just thinking about Dottie out in the woods with Tex, the bare-chested chiropractor who had a successful business doing his work among the trees in the woods.
“You want me to let you out?” Hank wasn’t about to take Dottie’s orneriness impede the investigation.
She shook her head, which was half rolled up in curlers, and continued to take the rest out.
“Keep reading.” I looked at Betts.
“Forest therapy is sometimes referred to as ecotherapy, forest therapy, forest bathing, grounding, or earthing, where one gets in touch with their feelings through techniques or treatments to use nature to improve mental or physical health,” Betts read off of her phone. She must’ve used the internet to look up forest therapy just now.
“Hellfire.” Dottie jerked up. “We all should have no problems because we live in the forest.” She shook her head, her lips pinched. “Whoever heard of such things as forest bathing? Heck. I’m a teacher of that stuff and didn’t even know it.”
“That’s right,” I agreed. “We do sit outside in the chairs with our face to the woods while we bathe in the sun.”
“You’re dang right we do.” Dottie liked that. She snorted a few times.
“Seriously.” Betts had a wide-eyed look. Her finger kept scrolling on her phone. “It’s honest to God a real thing.”
“Tree therapy or forest bathing has been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, not to mention reduce stress and boost the immune system.” She continued to read. “The idea is to relax in nature away from the stress in your life. Even five minutes a day helps.”
“Then we should all have perfect lives.” Dottie just couldn’t stop with the comments.
“You should be able to be a model client.” Hank wasn’t about to let Dottie’s sour attitude about the concept get the group down.
“Client?” Dottie released a huge sigh. “You mean to tell me you’re gonna make me hug a tree?”
“Yep. You will become one with the tree,” Hank joked.
“You missed Hank telling us how he told the lady in charge we were therapists in training.” Abby fueled Dottie’s fire, and she knew it. The smile on her face grew so big.
“Anyways, Kyra’s mom also said they knew she was going to this retreat. Kyra called her mom every day even before she went to the retreat. Laura, her mom, said in this statement she knew the calls were not going to be daily since Kyra was busy in training, but Kyra’s calls had completely stopped a couple of weeks ago. She called the retreat, and they said Kyra had left and not come back. Her things were still there, but she’s not.” Everything Betts was saying sounded a bit fishy to me on the end of the retreat.
Betts continued, “The owner, Robin Michaels, who Hank said he’d talked to, had told Kyra’s mom it wasn’t unusual for clients to pack a bag and hike for a couple of days. Going off the grid is what she called it.” Betts looked at Abby to make sure Abby had gotten a lot of the major bullet points.
“Off the grid for two weeks?” Dottie wore a bird-thin scowl. “Somethin’ is fishy.”
Abby picked up her phone, typed and then used her finger to scroll.
“Seriously, though, the cabins at this retreat place are cute.” She leaned forward and propped up her elbows on the little café table with the screen showing to us.
I turned around in my seat to take a look at her screen.
What she showed us weren’t cabins. They were yurts. I kept my mouth shut. Dottie would have a dying duck fit if she knew we were staying in what appeared to be pretty authentic tent-type dwellings that didn’t look to have running water, toilet or television. It wasn’t the no running water and bathroom that would throw it. It would be the no television where she couldn’t see her crime TV shows.
“That is really cute.” I did love how the photo she was showing was decorated. There was a really neat owl photo on the wall with a cool wooden frame that stood out. The bed was dressed in what I’d consider that boho style with all the browns and cream-colored designs.
A rug lay at the foot of the bed, and a small cloth couch stood up against the round structure.
“Here’s what I’ve got so far.” Abby put her phone down in exchange for our clue notebook.
We had a certain way of doing things, and even though we could refer to the file, it was much easier for Abby to put it all in the grid so we could just glance.
“I have Kyra’s name in the big circle.” Abby turned the notebook around. The diagram looked like a sun. Kyra’s name was in the circle of the sun, and the sun’s rays bore names like Robin Michaels and boyfriend. “Do we have the boyfriend’s name?”
“I don’t think so, but I can get it from Laura.” Hank mentioned Kyra’s mom.
By this time, Hank had driven to the entrance of the interstate, which would get us to the retreat much faster than if we’d taken the back forest roads.
The Daniel Boone National Park was over seven hundred thousand acres, spanning several towns. Though we lived in the area, most of it was woods, and using the forest roads would’ve taken hours but been a much prettier drive.
The extra hour taking the directions Betts had given Hank would give us some time before we had to be at the first session and let us start our little snooping brains in the right direction. This way we could all go our different ways and see what we could find out on our own before we came back together so we could put what we found out in our notebook and see exactly what was similar and what looked a bit fishy.
From what Kyra’s mom had reported, it did seem unusual how Kyra called daily to not calling at all. Was she taking a solitude hike for days, as Robin suggested to Laura? Or was something more sinister going on?
Either way, I knew we would find her.
“Welcome to Forest Bathing Retreat.” A woman with wavy red hair greeted us. A strand on each side was pinned to the back of her head. She wore a black tank top with a flower-pattern skirt that flowed to her ankles. No shoes. “I’m Robin Michaels, and we are so glad to host your group.”
“I’m Hank Sharp.” Hank greeted Robin and introduced each one of us to her as we filed out
one by one. “And that’s Fifi.”
Fifi darted out of the RV, taking full advantage of the grassy field next to the parking lot. She darted around, giving each little blade of grass a quick sniff.
“You’re the CEO of Hank’s Laundry Club?” Robin asked.
All of our heads jerked to look at him. He’d left out that little part of our undercover investigation.
“Yep. That’s right. Own a lot of laundromats, and these ladies are my managers.” He had really taken us undercover.
“That’s right. Fresh as a daisy.” Dottie spouted off some sort of motto before she lifted up her arms and smelled underneath her pits. “That’s why we are so happy to be here in the fresh air. Fresh air is hard to bottle up in a de-ter-gent.” Dottie walked over to the nearest tree and wrapped her arms around it. “Yep. Feelin’ good already.” She dragged her cigarette case out of her back pocket and snapped it open to take a cigarette out.
My stomach knotted. Dottie was going to get us kicked out before we could get our knapsacks out of the RV.
Robin had a nervous smile resting on her lips before it turned to a very disapproving look. She clapped her hands together loudly. A guttural gasp came from her.
Fifi ran back over to see what she was missing out on and stopped in front of Robin like she was wondering what all the fuss was about.
“What on earth?” A look of terror covered Robin’s face.
“Earth.” The cigarette hung immobile in Dottie’s mouth. “We love Earth.”
I picked Fifi up, prepared to get right back in the RV, sure Robin was going to send us home before we even got started.
“We do not allow smoking here at the center.” I felt her anger as much as I saw it.
“I thought you said I could smoke, and by the end of our therapy I’d be healed and not want to smoke.” She used her fingers to take the cigarette out of her mouth and pointed them at Hank. “All this fresh air was going to replace this nasty habit.”
“Dottie could be more productive as a manager if she didn’t spend so much time outside of the laundromat she runs, smoking.” Hank’s brows lifted. “We are hoping therapy and her wanting to become a Forest Bathing Therapist will change her actions as soon as she walks out the door, which is grab a cigarette.”
“I see.” Robin’s forehead puckered. “You’ve sorta put me in a hard situation. You see, we don’t allow smoking of any kind. If you know what I mean. And, well, I guess you can smoke outside of your yurt. One a day, but I don’t believe you’ll do it every day because forest bathing will heal your need.”
“I’ll take that one time a day right now.” Dottie grabbed the lighter from the pocket on the outside of the cigarette case and brought it to life. She puffed the cigarette to life, creating several smoke rings that were much more exaggerated than usual.
Oh yeah. Dottie took pride in the smoke rings she could make.
“As you can see, we have the large white tent with a few chairs under it for our group meetings.” As Robin talked to us, she kept a good side eye on Dottie.
My friends and I looked around to see just what we were dealing with. I was sure we were all trying to decide where we’d wisely spend our free hour.
There were at least a hundred people milling about barefoot on the bluegrass. Most of them were dressed like Robin. The men were in loose linen-style pants. Some had their shirts off, and some wore white tees. All were barefoot as they eased up to a tree and stroked it as though they were stroking a cat or even my little Fifi.
Some of them were sitting with their backs against the tree trunks, eyes closed, legs tented as if they were napping.
“We have an all-vegan menu.” She waved us to follow her.
On our way to the large white tent she’d pointed out, I looked up into a tree and noticed someone was sitting on a large limb, caressing the leaves.
“We here at the center are a collective soul, gathering heart and mind to connect to the truer root of our being.” Her passion for her job was apparent in the love with which she spoke of it. “We have many guests who are so talented in their daily lives as CEOs, such as yourself.” She offered a gentle nod at Hank. “But their true spirit is here among the trees, where their hobbies really outshine any sort of work life.” She made air quotes around “work.”
Once we reached the edge, she pointed at the far back corner of the tent. There, a group of people sat in a circle around a man who had a black bowler hat on his head, his grey hair sticking out. He wore a green shirt unbuttoned loosely over a white T-shirt and a long black braided leather bolo necklace ending in a nice piece of turquoise around his neck. He was strumming a guitar and singing low as the others in the group swayed. Their eyes were closed.
“That man’s milk is expired, and ain’t no way am I going to go do some Kumbaya. Now I’ve got me some limits, and that is one of them.” She was getting all sorts of stares from the therapy clients with her puffing on her cig.
“What if Robin lets you smoke two cigarettes a day?” I joked.
“It’ll take a whole pack for me to join in that.” Dottie snuffed out her smoke on the bottom of her shoe and put the butt in her palm. She reached over and took Fifi from me.
“If you want to follow me, I’ll take you to your yurt.” Robin seemed to hit another one of Dottie’s nerves. “We call our yurt the lodge.”
“I heard her say yurt earlier, and thought she was saying ‘you’re,’ but I had not realized she meant a yurt yurt.” Dottie shuffled sideways next to me. “Now I can’t stay on no ground. I’ve seen how these hippy tree-huggers live in the television, and I have sciatica. Not to mention my new hip.”
She tucked Fifi up under her arm and stuck her hand out to touch her hip.
“What? I want to sleep in your bed in the RV.” Dottie gave me a long, level look.
“I will let you stay in the RV on one condition.” I thought it would be a good idea to keep Fifi in the camper instead of the yurt.
“What is it?” She glared, giving me the side-eye.
“You can enjoy the RV if you let Fifi stay in there with you.” I gave Fifi a scratch on her head.
“Done. I love this little girl.” She hurried ahead of me. Happy as a lark. “See ya at supper!” she hollered, heading off to the parking lot.
I watched her snuggle Fifi up to her neck and say something. If only Fifi could talk, I’m sure she’d have a million stories about Dottie. Fifi did love her, that was for sure.
“Are you sure Dottie really is wanting to do the therapy? Stop smoking? She seems awfully resistant.” Robin asked Hank, but her eyes were on Dottie and Fifi. “I did tell you that everyone had to be on board with the program to make it effectively work, but I didn’t realize we were dealing with a very big case with that one.”
“She’ll be fine,” Hank assured her. “Now, whose yurt is whose?”
Robin continued walking ahead, talking about the sessions they were offering us. She also mentioned that we would be joining the current group of students this afternoon and told us not to wear shoes we couldn’t slip off easily.
“If you don’t have slippers, which we prefer you to wear all the time if you must wear something on your feet, we do have some for sale in the conference center.” She nodded and stopped in front of one of the yurts. “Other than that, we believe the more you are one with the earth and grounded, the more you will learn.”
Abby, Betts, Queenie, and I nearly fell over each other as we craned our necks to see what was going on around us as we followed Robin in silence.
“This one is for you and you.” She pointed at Queenie and me.
“Thanks.” Queenie headed in first.
“All right. I’ll see the rest of you in a few,” I said with a secret smile, knowing we were all officially undercover and we’d fooled Robin.
I walked into the yurt and threw my little duffle bag down on my way to the window. I wanted to see where Robin was taking Abby, Betts, and Hank.
“This isn’t so bad.” Queenie sat on the bed. “I guess we have to share the bed.”
“I can lie on the little couch.” I turned away from the window once the three of them were out of sight.
I recognized the couch from the photo Abby had showed us in the RV on the way here. “It looks like they have the same furniture in the yurts.”
I noticed the framed owl image in Abby’s photo was in here too. I really liked the photo, and it would be nice to look at while I was cramped up on the couch as Queenie slept in the bed.
“Kyra could be anywhere here. It looks like a big place.” Queenie unzipped her duffle and took out her clothes to put in the small brown chest of drawers.
I picked mine up off the ground and tossed it towards the couch’s leg.
I didn’t bring anything to wear but the yoga pants and a few tops to go with it, since I thought we’d be hiking. From the looks of it, though, hiking or any physical activity appeared to be the last thing the people here were doing, which told me if Kyra was here, we’d find her pretty quickly.
“Did you think anything was strange from Hank’s file?” I asked Queenie and walked over to the little kitchen area, where a clear glass milk jar with water in it sat on a counter.
The yurt had little signs all over with information on how friendly all the products were to Mother Earth, and the water wasn’t in plastic bottles.
I filled two glasses with the water and took one over to Queenie.
“The boyfriend breakup did make me pause.” Queenie took a sip. “I think we need more information on him if we don’t find her here.”
“That’s a good idea.” I walked over to the door when I heard a knock.
Betts, Abby, and Hank stood on the other side.
“Welcome to our yurt.” I opened the door fully to let them in.
“We thought we’d go to the convention center to get some slippers. Take the opportunity to look around and see if we see her.” Abby walked over to the coffee table near the couch and sat on the floor. She laid the file on top and flipped it open.
She pulled out the photo of Kyra her mom had given Hank and handed it to Betts.
Betts pulled out a roll of tape from her pocket and taped Kyra’s photo on the owl photo since it was the only thing hanging.
“I don’t think tape will stick to the yurt walls.” She ran her finger over the piece of tape holding the photo for good measure to stick. “This will have to be our board while we are here or until we find her.”
Kyra Tenney’s first immediately apparent attribute was her teeth. Very straight and bright. She had blond hair parted on the side with a little wave to it. She had brown eyes decorated with eyeliner and some heavy fake lashes. Her brows were thick. She had on a pair of larger hoop earrings.
“I’m ready to go get those slippers and look for her. Time’s wasting.” I tapped my wrist like I had on a watch before I twisted around to look at Queenie. “Queenie?” I slipped my shoes off my feet.
“Let me untie my shoes.” She sat back down on the bed and untied the double knot she wore in her laces.
After we all took a closer look at Kyra’s photo on our way out, Abby handed me the file and the notebook. I put it one of Queenie’s clothes drawers for safe keeping just in case someone did walk in. I couldn’t imagine anyone would, but you could never be too careful.
There were several more people rubbing on the tree trunks, sitting against the trees, or simply walking along the path we had to take to the center.
The center was a large wooden structure, like the yurt, open-air with several wooden benches facing a stage. On the stage were two long banquet tables, each with five chairs. Sitting on the table in front of each chair was a name placeholder and a microphone.
“Those must be the professionals doing the talks,” Hank pointed out.
“If something did happen to Kyra, maybe one of them would know. Grab me some slippers, will ya?” I asked Hank and left the group to get a closer look at the names.
I’d left the brochure with the schedule and the speakers back at the yurt, but I still took my phone out, walked down the tables, and snapped photos of all the nameplates so I could look them up later.
A long gong noise came from outside the conference center. I looked back at Hank and the Laundry Club Ladies.
Hank waved a pair of slippers in the air at me while the others were bent over and slipping theirs on their feet. I was glad to see Dottie had joined us and we didn’t have to go get her.
“How’s Fifi?” I asked and took the shoes from Hank and put them on.
“She’s doing what we all should be doing. Taking a nap in front of the television.” Dottie tapped her wrist as if she had on a watch. “It’s Matlock time.”
“You and those shows.” I tsked.
“He has some good tips on how to catch people. I’m going to use those today and find Kyra,” she said a little too loudly on our way out of the convention center. “So we can go home.”
“Did you say Kyra?” a man asked on our way out to the communal grassy area.
I recognized him as the man who played the guitar.
“Yes. Our friend Kyra Tenney is here,” Abby said. “We just got here and haven’t seen her yet. Do you know where we can find her?”
“We’ve been looking for her too. She left on a hike, and she’s not come back. I’m Chad Baldwin.” He clasped his hands behind his back and did a slight bow. “When was the last time you spoke to Kyra?” He had the tired eyes of a middle-aged man, the opposite of the reaction I thought all this fresh air juju should be giving him.
“Oh, look,” Hank interrupted, “they’ve started. Excuse us. Chad Baldwin?” Hank asked.
It was his way of making sure we had the right name without being obvious.
“Yes indeed.” The man smiled with pride. “ Chad Baldwin.”
Chad Baldwin. I said his name in my head because I believed it was one of the names on the nameplate. There was no time to look at my phone, but that name was definitely something I’d look up when I was out of sight of everyone.
“Do you think that was weird he asked us about her? It was like he knew something and wanted to see what we knew.” Betts stood beside me once we reached the group.
“Possibly,” I whispered back. “If Kyra is missing, we’d definitely want to talk to him to see how she interacted here because he obviously took notice of her. There is a large group of people here.”
“Sometimes you need to just sit and be.” Robin spouted off some sort of wisdom to the group.
“I’m an expert at being.” Dottie hooted.
“Sometimes you just need to be with a tree. To help find the answers within. To clear the mind and hear your soul. To know you are never alone.” Robin’s voice rose with the reddening of her face as she tried her best to ignore Dottie.
Dramatically Robin closed her eyes, lifted her hand in the air before she curled into a tight fist, swiftly bringing it to her chest.
“The answers lie within, clearing the distortion, lifting the pain. You are freed to feel the real you again. The trees are there again and again, loving you when you are in pain. Thank you, trees, for helping me.” Her hand ejected from her chest like a rocket with her fingers spread wide apart.
“That’s somethin’.” Dottie clapped in delight.
I looked at Hank, and he rolled his eyes.
“Thank you, trees, for helping me,” the group in a therapy session repeated over and over.
“Thank you, trees, for loving me.” Robin lifted her hand in the air again. She looked directly at me.
“Thank you, trees, for loving me,” I mouthed because it sure seemed like she was calling me out.
“Yes! Thank you, trees!” Dottie exaggerated as she lifted her arms up in a V shape, tilting her head back.
Robin heard Dottie’s loud echo. Robin zeroed in on Dottie.
“To warm up your bodies, you are going to be touching the heels of your feet. Take your right hand and twist right. Lunge your left leg behind you and use your eyes to guide your right hand to gently touch your left heel behind you in your twist.” Robin gave directions as she twisted the way opposite to her back leg. Fluidly, she moved to the opposite side, doing the same motion. “Now with your eyes, your right hand will come to your left foot. Look over your shoulder to see them touch. Repeat. Arms and eyes the opposite side of your heel.”
Robin continued to give instructions while the group did the movements.
“We are embodying our senses into the Mother Earth.” Robin moved back and forth with ease.
“I’m not that limber.” Dottie groaned, nearly falling backward. “And I just had me a new hip.”
“I told you that you should be coming to Jazzercise, and you’d not have had this problem.” Queenie loved that she was in great shape after all these years being a Jazzercise instructor. Something she did take pride in, and she should. She wasn’t having any problems doing the exercise while the rest of us were losing our balance.
Robin led the group in a few more exercises before she had us move into groups of three.
Of course I picked Chad Baldwin, since he seemed a little odd and had mentioned Kyra. Not that the two had anything to do with each other, but my gut pinged when he spoke to us. It was the whole woman’s-intuition thingy that moved my feet right on over to him.
Hank and the Laundry Club Ladies all did the same thing and ended up in different groups except for Dottie. I got stuck with her.
Little did I realize Chad was the leader of our group.
“Ahhh.” He sucked in a deep breath. “Fill your lungs with Mother Earth.” He let go of the breath with an audible sigh. “Again.” He exaggerated so much we could hear the breath enter his nostrils, flaring as his chest puffed up.
Everyone was so into it. No one looked around but me. That was when I knew I had to be all in to get some answers because when I looked around at the group, I saw no one who looked like Kyra.
“When was the last time you were fully in nature with all of your senses?” He took deliberate steps, guiding us toward a grass-beaten trail. His hand lifted to his right in the air, his fingertips grazing the tree leaves.
Everyone followed, including me as I brought up the tail end of the trio.
“Forest therapy invites you to do just that. It’s a different way to feel, act, love.” His voice took on a softer tone. “I’m inviting you to slow down while you are here this week. Notice everything that is moving. Even the dancing leaves.” His words made everyone, including me, lift our hands and run them down the canopy of leaves. “Forest therapy invites us to spend more time with more than worldly human beings.”
He stopped and pointed at a little bee on a yellow wildflower. Something I did see all the time but not really stopped to watch. Half the time, I would shoo bees away.
Chad stopped talking for a hot minute and walked us down along a creek bed. A small bit of water bubbled over the rocks. We followed in silence, and after the path curved, it opened into an area where everyone else had gathered. All the paths must’ve led right here to this amazing waterfall.
“Beautiful, right?” Chad knotted his hand into a fist and placed it on his gut. “When you turned the curve of the path and your eyes feasted on this waterfall, how did it make you feel to see the water moving?”
Everyone in my group looked at one another, shifty eyes and all as we tried to read our companions’ expressions or wonder if we were supposed to answer him.
“It made my water drop.” Dottie patted her stomach. “I told the doc I needed my bladder tacked up.”
Chad was perturbed. He tried to ignore the snickering from the others in our small group by continuing.
“Now I invite you to sit here and ponder the answers inside of each of you. We will come back to our little group later and revisit your answer.” He clasped his hands in front of him and titled his head at a slight angle. The corners of his lips curled before he took a couple of steps backward, excusing himself from the group.
“That was weird,” I blurted out to my group. Two of them shuffled away from me like I was a plague, but one lady stayed there. Even Dottie left me.
“It’s just the beginning,” the one lady said. “By next week you’ll be able to answer a lot of your own inner demon questions. It just takes time.” She smiled. “I’m Fay. I’m from Asia.”
“I’m Mae, and I’m from Normal.” I smiled back. “All the way from Asia?”
“Yes. It’s a great thing to be one with nature, and I can see you do have some of that in you.” She gestured for us to walk back up the path from where we’d come.
“I do live in an RV. You can’t get too much closer.” I left out that I owned a campground and why I was really there. “My friend Kyra Tenney told me about this place.”
“In fact, she was supposed to be here when me and our friends pulled up. I can’t get her on her phone, and I don’t see her here.” I caught how Fay’s body stiffened.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mae.” She took a slight bow, which each person also seemed to do as they left a group and hurried off.
“Who was that?” Hank asked.
I hadn’t noticed he had come up behind me.
I continued to stare at Fay. She’d walked up to Chad. They both turned back to look at me.
“Fay. I think she knows Kyra, but it seems like all of these people are guarding a little secret.” I gnawed on my bottom lip. “I think Kyra’s mom is right. Kyra Tenney is missing.”
Hank, me and the Laundry Club Ladies had pretty much stuck together the rest of the evening. We hadn’t made any sort of formal plans, but it was very well-known that everyone was to be in the communal area and not holed up in their yurt.
Dottie, Abby, Betts, Queenie, and I sat outside of my yurt, where I’d started a campfire. It was a regular activity for us.
The fire ring wasn’t nearly as nice as the ones we provided for all the lots at the campground. Nor was there a stack of firewood at the ready like Henry Bryant pridefully kept in stock at the campground, a job he took very seriously as the handyman.
“I sure wish I had a s’more.” Abby was thumbing through her phone in the dark light mode. If Robin had noticed Abby with her phone, I had no idea what she’d do. We’d already put her at her brink with Dottie’s shenanigans.
“That would be nice.” I eased back on my haunches on the log I was sitting on. I stretched my legs out in front of me and crossed them at the ankles with my hands tucked in between my thighs.
Hank was going through the deadfall wood we were able to use for the fire, throwing one on here and there.
There was something magical about the red, orange and purple flames as they married their individual dances in the air.
I closed my eyes and transported myself back to Happy Trails Campground as the snapping tree branches from someone walking the path behind the yurt popped and the slight breeze rustled a few dried leaves were familiar sounds.
“Oh my gosh!” Abby’s voice carried. My eyes darted open as I shot up to plant my feet back up underneath me.
“Violet Rhinehammer found a dead body on her airplane.” She turned her phone around and showed us Violet’s social media, where Violet had appeared live.
Of course I couldn’t see it, and apparently none of the others could either. All of us hurried over to Abby to take a look at what she’d found.
“Watch.” Abby hit the screen and played the video.
“Are you sure that’s her?” Dottie leaned a little closer. “She’s got black eyes, and her hair is all mucked up.”
“She just found a dead body. I bet she was crying because it looks like her mascara.” Abby made an excellent observation. “And I’m sure her hair is just out of place.”
“We find dead bodies all the time, and surely to goodness we don’t look like that.” Dottie snickered, but Abby shushed her so we could hear what Violet was saying.
“Did she say she was an international reporter?” I asked after the live feed abruptly cut off from what looked like a security guard taking Violet’s phone. “I thought you said she had a job interview?” I questioned what Dottie had heard Violet say.
“She did say it was an interview,” Dottie confirmed.
An hour later, after we’d watched all the social media memes Violet had been turned into, we finally decided to all go our separate ways and get into bed. We would convene next morning in my yurt to talk about our next plan of action.
Dottie said she had a migraine. She lied. She wasn’t fooling me. She and Fifi were probably all snuggled up in my bed, watching TV and eating something really good out of my refrigerator while the rest of us dined on greens and sprouts.
There was no electricity, and the only other sound we heard outside of the usual nighttime sounds we were accustomed to at the campground was the RV’s generator, so Dottie was living large.
The inside of the yurt was hot, and the couch was lumpy. Queenie snored away in the bed with the covers tucked clear up to her chin. The more I stared at the owl photo frame with Kyra’s picture taped to it, the more my mind took on all sorts of theories on why I needed to look into Chad and Fay. If nothing else, their odd behavior when Kyra’s name was brought up.
I got up and looked outside the yurt window and toward the parking lot. There was a faint glow that I was sure came from my television. But when I noticed the glow was much larger than one little drivable RV, I slipped on the slippers and walked outside.
The smell of smoke and ash flew up my nose, and the crackling sound of a large fire pinged my ears.
“Forest fire,” I gasped, knowing exactly what that was. I’d been appointed to the National Parks Committee, where we performed controlled forest fires.
But this time of the year, forest fires were very prominent, and no matter what type of forest therapy there was that had to do with Mother Earth, she made a mess all on her own sometimes.
“Queenie! Get up.” I shook her out of bed. She was dazed and confused until I yelled, ”Forest fire!”
Her sleeping eyes popped right open.
“I’m going to get Hank and the girls,” I told her and ran out of the yurt.
Frantically knocking on the doors, I went from Betts and Abby’s yurt to Hank’s.
“Fire! Fire!” I screamed, taking in the acidic, toxic smell.
Hank’s “Oh my gosh” and the look on his face were the last things that I expected. We both stood there watching the dark sky glow orange with a halo of burnt yellow lingering above it and dark smoke plumes floating on top of that.
Abby, Queenie, Betts, and I hurried around the yurt lodge and beat on every single door while yelling “Fire!” Hank took off toward the area where the employees stayed so he could get Robin.
Though it looked a little off into the distance, and there didn’t seem to be any sort of immediate evacuation, the wind whipped the stench toward us. From what I knew, the fire could get one good blow and engulf every bit of where we were standing.
“Dottie. Fifi.” My brain stopped. I stopped. My heart stopped when I heard the familiar rattle of my little RV.
I jerked around and looked off into the parking lot. Barreling toward the yurt lodge was the little yellow RV with Dottie at the wheel, smoke in her mouth and Fifi in the passenger seat.
I waved my arms for people to get out of the way. The last things we needed were Dottie bowling everyone over, a missing girl, and a forest fire. The latter two were bad enough, but Dottie running someone over and leaving a dead body on our hands was something I just couldn’t take.
Luckily, she skidded to an abrupt stop. She rolled down the passenger window.
“I thought this was going to be a good idea when Hank told us about it, but when I saw all them people rubbing and lovin’ up on them trees, I knew somethin’ was off, and now that!” Her head swiveled to look back at the fire. “That will kill us. Gather up everyone. We are outta here!”
Off in the distance and much closer to the fire, the sounds of fire engines and their boisterous honks made the glowing fire even eerier. The darkness of the smoke had taken a hold in the sky above us.
“Everyone.” The crackle of a bullhorn came to life. “Please, everyone.” The soft voice trying to penetrate the chatter among us came from one of the therapists I’d seen earlier with a group of attendees.
Dottie snarled and threw the RV in park. She slammed the door shut, stalked over to the therapist, and took the bullhorn.
“Shut up! Shut up!” Dottie dragged her shoulders right and left so her voice could be heard over them. “This woman wants to say something.” She took the bullhorn from her mouth and handed it back to the therapist. “Here you go, honey.”
“Thank you.” She nodded and proceeded. “The authorities have been called about the fire. We will all gather at the tent and wait to see what they want us to do. As employees of the practice, we will do as the authorities tell us to do. We will keep our trees, forest animals, as well as all of nature in our prayers as we meet.”
By the time the therapist was done talking, the Laundry Club Ladies and Hank had all found their way back to one another. Our silence was a sign we were all noodling what was going on.
“Where’s Robin?” Hank wondered. “I went to her quarters, and when she didn’t answer, I opened the door, and she was gone.”
“Really?” I looked around for Chad. “And Chad?”
They both seemed to be the main people in charge. First Robin, then Chad.
“Maybe they are.” Dottie wiggled her brows.
“Now is not the time, Dottie.” Hank walked away.
By the way he was looking around, I couldn’t help but think he was trying to find someone in charge.
“Now is not the time for such things.” Betts rubbed her hand vigorously on her arms. “I’ve got a chill. Do you think it’s okay to go back to the yurt and grab a sweater?”
“I would think so,” Queenie said. “The fire is pretty far away. Do you remember that awful fire about twenty years ago?”
Sometimes Queenie forgot that she and Dottie were much older than the rest of us. Plus Betts didn’t grow up in Normal. Neither did I.
“Of course you don’t.” She laughed. “But when you were wee little”—she pointed at Abby—“there was a huge fire about forty miles as the crow flies, and it was a doozy. They thought it was going to get to us, but it took a while for them to contain it. By the sound of all them fire trucks in the distance, I’m sure they will get a good handle on it by going around the perimeter to contain it.”
“Mae,” Hank said, calling me over to him with a head gesture. “I think me and you need to go to the scene.”
“Why?” I asked. “Do you think this was deliberate?”
“You never know. Last night after everyone went to bed, I went to see Robin.” He ran his hand through his hair. “I started to ask her all sorts of questions about Kyra, and I even told her the truth about who we really are. I also asked for her cooperation, and she said she’d need to think on it.”
“By thinking on it, do you think she really knows what happened to Kyra?” I wondered. “You don’t think she set a fire?” I asked in disbelief again. “Maybe covered up some evidence?”
“I told you that I don’t know, but when I was a forest ranger, people did set a lot of fires to try and cover up a crime.” His phone chimed in a text. “It’s Tucker Pyle. I put in a call to him a little while ago, and he said he’d check on it.”
Hank walked away, and I kept an eye on him to see his response. It was too dark, and he was looking down at his feet while he shuffled in the grass.
“Well?” I asked about the quick chat.
“He said he called the local ranger station here, and they found a body. A charred body.”
I’ve heard of having a chill so deep in your bones that it took days to recover. I’d never known exactly what that meant until just now.