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Fireworks, Freedom, & Felonies Chapter One


“Mae?” I heard Mayor Courtney Mackenzie calling my name.

I turned around to look up at her as she was calling Bingo numbers from the amphitheater stage. Her long red hair framed her face, her brows cocked.

Right behind her Dottie Swaggert, another red head, was glaring at the Mayor. Dottie wasn’t too fond of the mayor. She said the mayor was so crooked you couldn’t tell from her tracks if she was coming or going. Whatever that meant. I’d given up trying to figure out some of the things Dottie said.

“Over there,” Mayor Mackenzie’s response was crisp, and to the point, almost on edge.

Her slender finger pointed towards Carol Wise, a local.

“Bingo!” Carol’s jubilant declaration of “Bingo!” got more groans out of the other players than cheers.

Bingo was serious around these parts. Well, around these ladies who were playing.

The sparkly blue stars on her headband wobbled back and forth, giving the springs they were attached to a good run for the money and her eyes twinkled like the stringy lights dangling from the big Oak above her bingo table.

“I said,” Carol’s mouth exaggerated, “B-I-N-G-O! Full card!”

Her beady black eyes matched her dark hair, both short and snappy.

“I hate to bother you,” Courtney’s pinched smile was covering up her words, “but you said you’d help and that means go check Carol’s card and take her a basket.”

I nodded and pushed back a strand of my natural brown curly hair that was in much need of a cut and color, which was usually a honey color, but with all busy summer season, I had little to no time to worry about my hair.

I continued to smile and bite back anything smart Alec since I was really there to help Betts Hager, who’s bible thumper Jesus group had sponsored this little bingo game before the star of the show appeared.

The fireworks.

It was the Fourth of July and the last night of the big celebration here in the downtown area of Normal, Kentucky.

“Well, what are you waiting for? An invitation? Go on,” Mayor Mackenzie flung her finger.

Dottie inched closer, words teetering on the edge of her lips, but a subtle shake of my head told her I didn’t want her to say anything. It was best to keep your mouth shut sometimes and this was one of those times that I really didn’t mind helping out, even though I was on water duty because the last thing we wanted was someone fainting from heat. And by the looks of the bingo players, they were the demographic that would get heat exhaustion quickly.

It was a hot one this year. And the fact we were able to have fireworks right here in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest to celebrate the fourth was a treat.

Off to the side of the amphitheater was the gift table. The table was filled with baskets donated by area business and full of really great things. This was sponsored by the Normal Public Library and my sister-in-law, Abby Fawn Bonds, who was the local librarian was standing behind the table.

“What about this one?” Abby pointed to one of the several baskets with different items donated from various local businesses. “She will love this one.”

“You’re right,” I said after I looked inside and noticed most of the items were fresh produce and eggs along with some milk from The Milkery.

Carol was a baker and from what Mary Elizabeth, my foster-adoptive mother who owns the dairy farm, told me, in this basket were some of the weekly items Carol would pop over and purchase from her.

“Wait,” Abby said, stopping me. “Say Happy Fourth of July!” She squealed from behind phone to snap a photo.

“Happy Fourth,” I said and held the basket a little to my side so she could get a nice photo of my shirt with a bedazzled vintage camper on it along with the arched words Happy Trails Campground. “Be sure to hashtag Happy Trails.”

“You know it,” Abby muttered. Her voice was light up by the blue light of the phone as it glowed in the dusk as it started to lay over the Daniel Boone National Forest. “Hashtag Bingo hashtag winner hashtag the Milkery dairy farm hashtag fourth of July hashtag Happy Trails Campground,” she said out loud as she typed.

Abby was so good at social media and at being a sister-in-law. I was lucky my foster brother, Bobby Ray, fell in love with her. He was downright smitten with her and it was so cute to watch them solidify their romance. Both still happy.

Moving in and out of the tables as I wormed my way over to Carol and took in my surroundings, careful not to get hit by one of the many sparklers the little children were waving around.

“Watch out!” One of the kids shrieked when I almost stepped on a rock with one of those smelly, ugly snakes that creeped along as it burnt down.

I stood there for a second to watch it expand, where the black disc would tattooed on the rock.

Ribbons of orange and pink entwined in the sky and over the mountains backdrop of downtown Normal. The towering, large Oak trees were hugged with red, blue and white twinkle lights only adding to the festive celebration.

A breeze skittered across the park, causing the American flag inspired plastic triangle garland strewn from carriage light to carriage light on both sides of the grassy median to snap, sending a chill down my spine.

“Get on over here, girly!” Carol clapped, bouncing up and down, her eyes fixated on the basket. “See,” she point the white bingo card with a red star border. “See right there.”

She held up the card and had used the blue dobber so hard, the ink was too thick to even see if she had the numbers called to make the bingo, but who was I to burst her bubble.

“This is a good bingo!” My voice carried across all the tables between us and the stage of the amphitheater.

The dislike of the rest of the players was like a wave before Otis Gullett dragged his bow across the strings of his fiddle that lead the celebration song signaling his fellow band members of Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys to join in on the bluegrass tunes while everyone reset their bingo cards.

Which was really just getting a new one from the middle of the table. Queenie and Betts were walking around with trash bags so everyone could throw away their used bingo cards instead of leaving them for us to clean up later.

It was Betts who had gotten us all caught up into working the Fourth of July fireworks since the Normal Baptist Church was sponsoring the event and she was the leader.

I wasn’t sure why the members were playing bingo and not helping, but it gave me something to do until the real show started.

“Okay, this is the last bingo game of the night,” Mayor Mackenzie’s voice carried through the microphone from the stage. She looked around with a large smile on her face, flipping her hair behind her shoulder. “Then we will turn our attention to the sky and watch the fireworks safely.”

She made sure she exaggerated safely.

There were so many laws in national forests when it came to fireworks or the display of fireworks. During the heat of the summer was not a good time for willy nilly firecrackers or any fire good for the dry brush. This year had been drier than normal in the region which put no burn bans in most places.

Since we were on such high alert, local Rangers, including my husband Hank Sharp, had been on extra patrol on horse and foot along the deep trails to make sure hikers, campers and other tourists abided by the no fire rules.

Even though we provided many fire rings around the park, some people just didn’t abide by rules and it was the only way to keep the forest safe by having so many Rangers on patrol, making it long days for them and even longer for me to see my husband.

As a member of the National Parks Committee, we took deep, deep dives into the state of the ecological system with various mandates that keep our forests alive and well. Of course there was no way we could stop natural fires due to lightening but we sure could have one place for people, tourists to gather to watch and partake in fireworks in an area where it was fine to do so and this year our little cozy town of Normal was the place and Mayor Mackenzie had a week long blow out for it.

Tonight was her night. The last night and the big fireworks display where tourists have come from all over to view.

I had to admit, I’d been excited to see them myself. I loved fireworks and watching them with Hank was going to be so romantic.

In my head anyways.

When Betts had mentioned the bible thumpers wanted to do something during the last night of the festival, Mayor Mackenzie had come up with the grand idea of a bingo game where all ages could participate.

You’d think everyone would be on their best behavior and really it was the children you’d expect to fight and fuss…guess what?

It wasn’t.

“And the last prize is the best of all,” Mayor Mackenzie’s words made the table of women I was walking by ohh and awe over the knitted blanket she was holding up for all to see. “Our very own Cheryl Paisley from the Stitchin’ Post has made this and y’all want to win it so you can keep cozy on our chilly forest nights around the campfire or just inside your camper or home.”

“She’s really selling it, ain’t she?” Dottie had found her way off the stage and over to me. “I’s been hotter than donut grease all month and no one wants to snuggle up at night with a blanket.”

The air was electric and hummed with anticipation, all eyes fixed on the soft, patchwork creation that held not just threads.

“No but it’s really pretty,” I said, keeping my eyes on the ladies at the table. I recognized a couple of them.

Marla Mitchell and Nancy Newberry, both bible thumpers as well as members our knitting group at The Stitchin’ Post.

The two woman were known to have some competition between them.

Tonight they sat elbow to elbow. Their eyes gleamed, reflecting the warm glow of community pride… and the spark of competition, but their hands were busy crafting their own knitting projects.

Rarely did I ever see either of them without a needle in their hands.

Even though they had friendly competition when they were together, it was rare to see them separately without needles in their hands.

Many times I’d have to listen to Mary Elizabeth complain about both of them about how it was rude to God that they couldn’t stop long enough to hear the good word. Take who said it with a grain of sale, after all, every Sunday my nose was itchin’ because Mary Elizabeth talked about me like a dog to anyone who would listen about me not even showing up to church. At least Nancy and Marla were there.

Dottie and I walked past them on our way back to the front of the amphitheater while Mayor Mackenzie started to call out the numbers.

“And don’t forget to head over to Trails Coffee tomorrow and use the coupon in this week’s Normal Gazette.” Mayor Mackenzie was making all the announcements between calling the numbers.

I saw Gert Hobson on the sidewalk, leaning against the carriage light in front of Trails Coffee. I was sure she was making sure her donation to the fireworks fund in exchange for a shout out for her coffee shop was what she was waiting on before she turned to go into the shop.

“And you can grab a sweet treat from Christine Watson at the Cookie Crumble to go with that coffee,” Mayor Mackenzie was trying to get in all the donations which was what paid for the fireworks.

Dottie Swaggert leaned close enough that I caught the scent of her drugstore perfume mixed with mischief. Her cigarette, wedged at the corner of her mouth, bobbed up and down as she spoke, a dance of defiance against the laws of gravity.

“That Mayor,” Dottie’s light cigarette wobbled with each syllable, ash threatening to tumble with the laughter I could feel bubbling in her. “she’s as full of winds as a corn-eating horse.”

I bit back a laugh, a sound that threatened to break the silence of the intense last bingo game. Only Dottie could conjure up such a vivid image with her words were a gift that made her sayings as much a staple of Normal as the blue plate special at the Normal Diner.

“That’s twice you’ve said something about her tonight,” my eyes narrowed, wondering what got caught up in Dottie’s crawl.

She wasn’t telling me but the Mayor had made Dottie mad and I wasn’t sure why.

“She just thinks she’s fancy and all and she ain’t.” Dottie took the cigarette out of her mouth, her fingers, waved in the air, leaving a trail of smoke from the cigarette between them.

“Lord help you, Dottie,” I chuckled, shaking my head at her colorful expression, when a triumphant holler cut through the twangy serenade of Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys, “Bingo!”

The word ricocheted off the wooden stage of the amphitheater and through the grassy median. I started to hurry over, but Dottie stopped me saying she’d take care of it that she couldn’t be in the Mayor’s presences any more than she had to.

I watched as she weaved through the picnic blankets and lawn chairs, the tables dotted with townsfolk, all craning their necks to see the commotion.

Nancy Newberry stood, her bingo card held high like a trophy, a look of giddy conquest lighting up her face. Opposite her, Marla’s expression curdled like milk left out on a hot Southern day—a look of pure, unadulterated disgust.

“Dottie, don’t you forget my blanket!” Nancy’s voice cut through the hum of the crowd and the now-muted music, her demand loaded with the sort of imperious certainty that comes from years of undisputed bake-off wins and garden club triumphs.

“I did it! I beat you!” Nancy jabbed her finger towards Marla, whose lips were pursed in a tight line, her gaze fixed on Nancy with the intensity of a hawk eyeing its next meal. “I beat you!”

The band, sensing the shift in the crowd’s focus, picked up their instruments. The fiddle cried out, quick and sharp, trying to reel back the night’s festivities. But all eyes remained on Nancy, a woman who suddenly seemed to wear her victory like a crown that was just a tad too tight.

Nancy basked in the attention, her earlier jolly demeanor giving way to something that bordered on triumph. It was as if winning the quilt was a strategic move on a chessboard between her and Marla’s, and the look in her eye said she was always two moves ahead.

Marla jumped up from the table, her silhouette etched against the soft glow of twinkle lights strung across the grassy median. Knitting needles clicked at her side, a subtle rhythm barely audible over the murmur of the gathering. She made a brief stop by Cheryl Paisley, exchanging words that, by the tightening of Marla’s jaw, didn’t seem to sit well with her. It was obvious by how she’d grasped her needles and pointed them into Cheryl’s face, saying God knows what to her.

Cheryl got up without appearing to say anything. Her going one way and Marla going the other.

“Where ya going?” Nancy’s voice carried over the crowd, tinged with a mix of curiosity and a note of challenge. “Oh, Marla!”

A whisper passed between Nancy and Dottie, their heads bent close. Then, with the abruptness of a startled rabbit, Nancy scooped up her belongings and scuttled after Marla, weaving through families and friends as if dodging unseen obstacles.

“Look at those two,” Betts shook her head, her bangs brushed to the side. “They are always trying to one up each other. Even at church,” she tsked.

“And now for the show!” Mayor Mackenzie, blissfully unaware of the undercurrents of tension, bellowed with the enthusiasm of a carnival barker.

Her call yanked Waldo Willy from his pursuit of the perfect photo opportunity with Nancy and her winning blanket, rerouting his attention to the preparations at hand.

The first firework burst into the sky, a peony of brilliant colors unfurling against the canvas of the night. The sound reverberated through the field, a drumbeat that quickened the pulse of the town. One after another, the fireworks painted the dark with splashes of reds, blues, and whites—dazzling chrysanthemums and willows that lingered like spirits of patriots past.

Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys struck up a medley of patriotic tunes, their music the heartbeat under the pyrotechnic symphony. Banjos twanged, and fiddles sang out while hoots, hollers, oh’s and aww’s as their accompaniment.

Children darted through the crowd, their sparklers casting a web of golden stars around them, laughter trailing in their wake like the comet tails above. The scents of grilled hot dogs and sweet apple pie mingled with the sulfuric perfume of the fireworks.

I nestled into the blanket alongside Mary Elizabeth, Dawn Gentry, Queenie French, and Betts with her boyfriend Ryan Rivera. We were all snugged down on the grass, our eyes skyward as the fireworks painted the night with bursts of color.

“Isn’t it gorgeous?” Hank’s voice, warm and familiar, flowed over me as he sat down and wrapped his arms around me from behind.

“It sure is,” I whispered back, allowing myself a moment of contentment.

“I mean you,” he murmured close to my ear, sparking a laughter that bubbled up from within.

“Stop it,” I playfully chided, bumping him with my shoulder. “I bet Fifi and Chester are scared.”

Our pets were no fans of fireworks; their four-legged anxiety was a worry every year.

“Actually, I turned on Animal Television for them, turned the volume way up. They’re probably lounging and watching TV.” Hank’s silhouette was etched against the pyrotechnics, his smile wide, the rugged lines of his jaw stretching up to cradle the sparkle in his green eyes.

The night was indeed magical—friends and family together, the air thrumming with celebration, and the promise of the busy summer months ahead.

At Happy Trails Campground, the natural beauty was as breathtaking as it was perilous. We were always mindful of our guests, ensuring they stayed on marked trails and respected the powerful currents when kayaking. Safety was paramount; the wilderness demanded respect, its beauty masking the threats lurking off the beaten path.

As I mused over the coming months and all the adventures our guests would embark upon, another firework burst above, its thunderous boom a stark contrast to the lighthearted laughter around me. And then, shattering the night’s peace, a scream sliced through the evening’s revelry, curdling the blood of everyone within earshot.

It came from the direction of The Stitchin’ Post, and as our heads turned, another firework illuminated the sidewalk in stark, horrific clarity.

There lay Marla, sprawled on the ground, her knitting needles protruding grotesquely from her neck.

“Hank?” I questioned but he’d already jumped up and halfway there.

Nancy and Cheryl stood over her, their figures cast in a gruesome picture by the fleeting light. The joy of the evening was snuffed out as quickly as Marla’s life seemingly had been, replaced by a chilling realization that among us walked a killer, and our tranquil corner of the world had just become the scene of what appeared to be… murder.

Get the book here:


Graphics for Fireworks, Freedom, & Felonies

I’m beyond excited to share something special with you all—my latest book, “Fireworks, Freedom, & Felonies” in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery series is ready for preorder! This isn’t just any book release; it’s a celebration of community, mystery, and the quirky charm of small-town life, all wrapped up in a Fourth of July theme.

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Celebrate With Us: I’m looking forward to seeing your posts and hearing what you’re most excited about. This book is a product of our shared passion for cozies, and I’m thrilled to bring it to you.

So, let’s get ready to dive back into the adventures that await in our favorite little quirky campground. Thank you for your amazing support—it means the world to me!

Happy reading and happy sharing!

—Tonya Kappes







Paula Jacobson
I love reading Tonya’s books because the stories are wonderful. They make me laugh and there is a hint of romance (in the mysteries).

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