Beaches, Bungalows, & Burglaries
Book 1 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Welcome to Normal, Kentucky~ where nothing is normal. A Campers and Criminal Mystery Series is another brainchild of USA Today Bestselling Author Tonya Kappes. If you love her quirky southern characters and small town charm with a mystery to solve, you’re going to love her new cozy mystery series!
Mae West, a far cry from the Hollywood actress, has been thrown for a loop. Her plush lifestyle in the big city of New York comes to a screeching halt after the FBI raids her mansion and arrests her husband, Paul West, for a Ponzi scheme that rips people out of millions of dollars.
Mae finds herself homeless, friendless, and penniless. All hope isn’t lost. . .the only thing Mae got to keep that the government didn’t seize is a tourist camp ground, Happy Trails, in Normal, Kentucky and an RV to live in. One problem, Mae’s idea of camping has room service.
By the look of the brochure, Happy Trails has plush Kentucky Bluegrass, a crystal clear lake, a beach chair with her name on it and thoughts of how much money it could bring her after she sells it. Mae figures she’ll take a couple weeks vacation with her toes dipped in the lake. Things aren’t always as they appear. The Kentucky Bluegrass is nothing but dirt and the crystal clue lake is murky with green slime on top.
Mae quickly find out that Happy Trails and the citizens of Normal were also victims of Paul’s schemes, making her lower than tha lake scum in the residents’ eyes. Mae doesn’t think things could get much worse, but as luck would have it, Paul West has escaped from prison and is found dead, murdered, floating in the Happy Trails mucky green lake.
Mae is the number one suspect on Detective Hank Sharp’s short list. After all, Mae has the perfect motive as a kept wife who has been scorned to ashes, embarrassed to death, and seeking revenge.
Time is running out for Mae to prove that she’s innocent and nothing like her husband. If only she could get someone to believe her and talk Detective Sharp into looking at other residents who’ve lost all their savings to Paul’s Ponzie scheme before the curtain is closed on this Hollywood namesake.
Beaches, Bungalows, & Burglaries
Book 1 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Beaches, Bungalows, & Burglaries
“A campground?” I gulped back a good hissy fit because one could never underestimate the power of a good hissy fit, something I’ve tried really hard not to do in years. “As in, tiny little metal houses and porta potties?”
“Well, I think they have a toilet in them,” said Stanley Shelton, my lawyer.
He eased back in his big fancy wingback leather chair with his elbows resting on the wooden arms and his fingers drumming against each other. The grey pinstriped suit was made of the finest materials, and the nice crystal cufflinks were the touch it needed that screamed successful lawyer.
“I think the toilet is small, but you’re small.” He rubbed his hand over his bald head and then proceeded to draw his hand over his mustache and beard.
I tried as hard as I could to keep it together, but my composure was under attack.
“What about my house in the Hamptons? I’ll just go there.” I let out a sigh of relief. It was a perfect plan. “I’m desperately going to miss the New York City apartment, but I need a break.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to change the fact that my now ex-husband was in jail for a Ponzi scheme. He kept me busy by sending me to the spa, salon, and shopping for most of our two-year marriage. Not to mention, I’d cashed out my 401(k) to help him start a side business where he said we’d be partners. Little did I realize it was partners in crime.
“And the house is gone.” Stanley’s jaw set. “I’m going to need the keys to your car and trade you for these.” He dangled a very small key from a flamingo key chain in the air.
“What’s that? A moped key?” I joked.
“It’s to your house and your new car.” He glanced out the window of his fancy office that was filled with plaques and certificates that boasted of his high education.
“You can’t even look at me? Because I clearly remember that when we were donating to your son-in-law’s election fund and visiting our friends in the community who ended up being big donors, you had no issue looking at me. And now that my bank account has taken a hit, you won’t even look at me?” I questioned, with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth.
“It didn’t take a hit. There’s no bank account. The FBI seized it all.” Stanley made no effort to make me feel the slightest bit better about my situation.
“Where is my new house? The Upper East Side? Not that that’s a bad place to live, but not like where we live now.”
“Ummm”—he licked his lips—“out there.” He pointed to the window.
I sat up a little straighter in my chair and leaned on the arm of the leather chair.
“There’s nothing out there but an RV; a small one at that.” I laughed and eased back into the chair. “Wait, you mean that…” My voice trailed off when I noticed he didn’t find amusement in my teasing about the camper.
“I’m afraid that there’s no money to give you. The only thing free and clear are the camper and the campground.” He stood up and walked around the desk. He eased down on the edge. “I’m sorry, Mae. You don’t deserve this.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
I mean, I was having a real bad day before I got here, but this just made it almost unbearable. I rested my elbow on the arm of the chair and covered my mouth with my hand. I twisted my head to the side so Stanley couldn’t see my tearing up. There was a glimpse of my silhouette in the door of the mini refrigerator.
My hazel eyes were sunken with half-moon dark circles under them. I’d not taken time to straighten my long brown curly hair, and the humidity in the air wasn’t making it any better.
“Mae?” Stanley said my name. I blinked a few times. I didn’t recognize the image staring back at me.
“Sorry,” I apologized and forced a demure smile.
I was having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I had nothing. No family. No marriage. No place to live. No car. Nothing. “I mean, Paul is a jerk, and I’d like to kill him, but he left me with nothing?” I hugged my designer bag to my chest.
That scum, I couldn’t believe that I was so dumb that I put everything in his name.
“He owed a lot of people money, and some still don’t have their retirement back. You’re lucky I could salvage this in the settlements since he did have it in your name alone.” He sounded as if I needed to thank Paul. Stanley picked up the flamingo key chain and once again stuck it in my face. “The campground is in Normal, Kentucky.”
“Kentucky?” My jaw dropped. “You mean I have to go there?”
My mind rolled back to the last time I was in Kentucky. It was 2:04 a.m. I knew the exact time because it was the time I was born and also my eighteenth birthday. It was the day I grew up and knew that no one was going to give me a free ride. Somehow, Paul made me feel safe and secure, until now.
“You have to go there and be the manager if you want to have some sort of income, or we can look at selling the place.” He didn’t move those darn keys.
“I didn’t even know about this campground.” I shook my head, refusing to take the keys. “I’ve certainly never been a manager of a campground.”
“When Paul was in college, he somehow ended up at this campground and won some silly bet. After the two of you were married, he had me put the deed in your name and your name alone. The FBI couldn’t seize it.” Stanley thumbed through some papers on his desk.
“Lucky me,” I groaned.
“You have a camper to live in and a way to acquire some income.” He pushed himself up off the desk and put a hand on my shoulder. “I suggest you take a trip. Make it an adventure. Check the place out and save up a couple of months before you decide if you want to sell it or not.” He held out a brochure that had Happy Trails written in big letters across the top.
There was a beautiful, bright, and vibrant photo on the front that looked more like a vacation spot than a campground.
“Adventure?” I cocked a brow and looked back out the window at the camper. “Yellow?” I questioned the color of my home on wheels. “I don’t even like yellow.”
“It’s a pop-up. The top lifts to make more space. There’s a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and you can drive it. It’s perfect,” he said with an upbeat tone. “Be sure you read the manual in the glove box on how to work all the equipment. It can be tricky.”
“Are you really trying to sell me on this camping idea? I lived in a ten-thousand-square-foot home with a house cleaner. I drive a Maserati. Drove.” I gripped the keys of my little car in my hand. I looked down and opened my palm. “Did drive a Maserati.” I gulped back the tears and practically ripped the flamingo key chain out of his hand.
“I’m sorry to cut this short, but I’ve got to get to court.” He took his hand off my shoulder and put it in his pants pocket, pulling out a hundred-dollar bill. “Here. This is for gas and food. I can feel the bones in your shoulder. Eat.”
“No.” I shook my head and stood up, a bit wobbly. “I’m fine. I don’t need a handout.”
He didn’t take no for an answer. He stuck the money in my palm and curled my fingers around it.
“Let me know when you get to Kentucky.” He smiled and patted my hand before he dropped it. His eyes softened. “Mae, I’m sorry. Out of all my clients’ wives, you’ve always been so kind and nice. I know this whole process has made you bitter and hard-hearted. But I know you’re strong and will figure this all out.”
“Thanks, Stanley.” I sucked in a deep breath. “You’ve been great. I know I sound like some spoiled brat, but I think I’m still in shock, despite having been in this nightmare for only three months.”
“I sent some of your things to the campground. There’s even a storage facility on the grounds. The current manager knows you’re coming. I put a file in the camper with her name on it and some information about the campsite.” He patted my back. “I suggest you not even look at it until you get there so you can focus on your new adventure the next couple of days.”
“Couple of days? That’s how long it’ll take to drive to Kentucky?” I questioned, clearly not remembering how long it took the Greyhound to drive here years ago.
“In a camper, yes.” He walked over to the door and opened it. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
“You’ve done enough, keeping me out of jail.” I started to tear up, my voice cracking. “I can’t thank you enough.”
I walked out the door knowing that I’d never see Stanley again. The past few months, I’d seen him practically every day. When the FBI had shown up at our house that morning of the raid, I’d never forget. Stanley came right to the jail and bailed me out. We left Paul in there. He deserved it. It took a lot for Stanley to prove that I’d not signed any of the paperwork and Paul had forged my name, but Stanley did it. I’m forever grateful.
The long walk down the hall of his office was a blur. I was numb. I remember pushing open the door of his office building and stepping out into the bright sunshine. I pulled my sunglasses down onto my nose and pushed them up. My eyes slid over to the cute little black convertible that was my birthday gift last year when I turned thirty. Little did I realize it was bought with other people’s money Paul had schemed them out of from our fake partnership.
I slid my eyes over to the bright yellow camper and then down at the flamingo key chain.
“I guess it could be much worse,” I grumbled and took my first steps towards my new reality as I tried to keep an upbeat attitude.
The day I drove out of my lawyer’s parking lot and into the small southern town of Normal, I should’ve known then that nothing was going to be… normal. Never ever again was anything going to be normal.
Before Paul, I was what you’d call a pretty normal person with a regular job as a flight attendant. I worked every shift at the airport I could and had a roof over my head. When I met Paul five years ago, I was twenty-five. That’s when I began to live his life with all of his lavish things. I’d gotten used to it pretty quickly and the finer things just became part of my identity. Everyone thought I was a gold digger since Paul was a sixty-one-year-old bachelor that’d never been married. I wasn’t. I truly fell in love with the Paul that I knew.
I should’ve known something was wrong the night before the FBI showed up at our house. Paul had said something funny, like if something were to happen to him, he had a special present in the sock drawer for me. I didn’t know what that had meant. The FBI raided the house, and there was literally nothing in the sock drawer. But there was something in the secret sock drawer compartment that the FBI didn’t find. It was one hundred thousand dollars in cash with a note from Paul that said the money was from my 401(k) that we’d cashed in. Little did I realize that he’d cashed it in to help fund his little crime.
You can bet that I didn’t turn that money in, though I probably should’ve. I convinced myself it was my 401(k) that he took from me.
When it quickly dawned on me that my world was no longer in existence, I knew I had to make that money last. And this RV… what was I going to do with that?
First off, I had no idea how to drive it. I didn’t realize the toilet was just a hole that had to be cleaned out, and I couldn’t believe there’d not been an invention improving upon this. Regardless, I made it to Normal, Kentucky in a couple of days like Stanley had predicted. I did what Stanley suggested and focused on getting to Kentucky while the other things worked their way out in my head.
In fact, after taking a look at the brochure of the campground, I got a little excited. It was actually a little paradise with a big fishing lake where there appeared to be a beach to lie out. I could stand to use a little color, and with summer fast approaching, this was exactly what I needed.
Now, there was no denying that I was definitely going to sell it, but like Stanley said, while he found a buyer, I could just go check it out and see what I thought. From the photos, it was an upscale campsite. The latest craze for people in their twenties was to live with less and explore more, which could be a good thing for business. The brochure also showed a little tiki bar near a lake and a lot of people mingling around with smiles on their faces. It was a perfect place for me to go relax for a couple of months. Like Stanley said, it was easy income with everyone paying me a lot fee each month. It appeared to be run like a well-oiled machine. The financial reports showed that there wasn’t much money in the account and only two employees, but it looked like I could cut back on a few things because the place looked perfect.
I’m sure Dottie Swaggert, the property manager, was going to be very helpful in getting my feet wet. So many things rolled around in my head and firing Dottie was one of them. But why would I do that when I was going to sell it anyways? It didn’t appear that her salary was that much. I’d decided that any big decisions that needed to be made would be after I’d been there and taken in a few rays by the sparkling lake.
“This is way out here,” I said to myself after I’d driven out of town and into the country, hugging a few of the curvy roads that tickled my stomach. “The entrance should be here somewhere.”
I leaned over the big steering wheel and looked out of the windshield.
“Happy Trails Campground.” I read the faded words on a piece of propped up wood that looked as if it’d once arched over the entrance like the one in the brochure.
Pushing back the notions that this was a sign of what the campground looked like in person, I forged ahead, figuring they were in the process of having a brand-new sign installed. If not, it’d be the first thing on my list. The folder Stanley had given me was in the middle console between me and the passenger seat. I grabbed it. I wrote down a to-do list and repainting or buying a new sign was the first thing that went on that list.
“And pavement,” I murmured to myself as I wrote down a second to do after the ticking sound of the gravel spitting up underneath the tires of the camper caught my attention. “No one likes gravel.”
It was just a minor detail I wasn’t going to let spoil my much-needed vacation in my fancy campground. At least Paul had done something right by me.
The sun was shining, and the backdrop of the Daniel Boone National Forest made up for any ugly sign. I couldn’t wait to park this thing and plop down into a lawn chair next to the lake and let the bright sun warm my face. That’d make me feel a little better. I was sure of it.
Pulling onto the grounds itself, I could see that there were plenty of trees for shade. There were storage units on the right like Stanley had said. The brochure did say that campers who were here an extended time were able to rent those, which probably brought in more income for me. There was a small building in front of the storage units with peeling letters on the glass door that read: OFFICE.
“That just needs a little cleaning,” I said, stopping the RV in front of it before I wrote that on the list.
A little further down was a community recreation room, exactly like the brochure had said, though it needed a good coat of paint, or a bulldozing down. Either way, it too had to be a minor detail.
A detail that I didn’t think was so minor was the lush green Kentucky bluegrass that I’d read about and seen in the photos in the brochure that was in reality brown and burnt looking.
“Am I at the right place?” I questioned and picked up my phone to make sure the GPS had taken me to the right place. “I guess so.” I shrugged and wrote down that I might need to get some sod.
Driving a little further and around what was supposed to be the lake and tiki bar, there was a cluster of run-down cabins.
I brought the camper to an abrupt halt after I’d made a complete loop around the grounds. My jaw dropped. I picked up the brochure from the passenger seat and looked back and forth.
“Nooooo.” I just couldn’t believe my eyes. I shoved the gear shift into Park. The entire Happy Trails campground was nothing like the brochure.
The tiki bar consisted of two posts and a wood plank across them with a caved in roof, not the plush and vibrant bar with stools and little lights and people smiling. I gulped. My eyes slid across the lake and the beach. Again, I referred back to the brochure.
The glass blue lake with the people hanging out on the dock with their toes dipped in and a smile on their face, a fruity drink next to them and lawn chairs along the beach were nowhere in sight. I was looking at a green film floating on top of a mucky brown piece of water with a small dock that had missing planks. There wasn’t a single lawn chair on the dry dirt.
I looked up and around. In the distance and off a couple of different roads, there were concrete pads with some grass between them. Some of the lots were filled with campers, and some were empty. According to the brochure, all the lots were filled with happy campers, twinkling lights, and smiling people. Where were my people? I gulped. Where were the crazy designed twinkly lights people hung outside of their campers? My heart dropped into my gut. I should’ve known this wasn’t going to pan out and Paul screwed me again.
Just as I was about to jerk the gear shift into drive and get out of dodge, someone banged on the RV door.
My nerves were shot. I fumbled to unbuckle the seatbelt, hopped over the console into the living part of the camper, and pushed the door open.
“What do you want?” The voice was hidden by a puff of smoke.
“You almost gave me a heart attack on top of the one I’m currently having!” I yelled, trying to see through the smoke.
There was a fairly older woman standing about five feet nine with pink foam curlers clipped all over her red hair. Her green satin pajamas matched her fuzzy slippers.
“I’m Dottie Swaggert. What’ll I do you for?” she asked and took a long slow drag from the cigarette in her right hand, while her left hand rested on her jutted-out hip.
“Is this Happy Trails Campground?” I asked.
The sun beat down on me when I stepped out of the camper.
“Mmmhmmm.” She drew in a big breath. The coals at the end of her cig light up bright red like her hair color as she sucked in. “One and only.” She stared at me from behind a puff of smoke.
“In Normal, Kentucky?” I fanned my hand in front of me so she didn’t get her smoke in my face or my house on wheels.
“Mmhhhh. One and only.” She chomped on a piece of gum and smoked at the same time. She put her fingers with her cig stuck between them up to her temple. She closed her eyes. “Let me think.” She tapped her head. “You must be Mae West.”
“Oh gosh.” My stomach knotted. My go-get ‘em attitude was wavering. I reached over the back of the passenger seat and grabbed the brochure. “Where is this Happy Trails?” I shook the brochure at her.
“Honey, you look as confused as a cow on Astroturf,” she cackled.
“What?” I questioned. “What does a cow and Astroturf have to do with anything?”
“They are gonna eat you alive,” she said in smug delight. “Paradise awaits.” Dottie’s lip cocked up on the right side as she smacked her gum and swept her hands out in front of her. “It’s all yours.”
She turned around and laughed like a madwoman on her way to a small trailer that didn’t have a way to drive. It looked like it was just plopped down, and the trailer hookup was casually resting on two cinder blocks.
“Dottie! Wait!” I hollered, kicking dust up under my feet as I chased her. “This isn’t right. This isn’t what the brochure shows.”
I let the part about being eaten alive just wash over me. Dottie Swaggert was someone I needed at this moment and fussing with her wouldn’t do me any good.
“Honey, that brochure was printed well over twenty years ago when it was booming around here. The national park is still going strong, and when tourists come to town, they take one look at Happy Trails and hightail it on out of Normal, finding a campground in another town.” She dropped her cigarette on the ground and used the toe of her shoe to snuff it out. She turned back around, walking to the camper.
“Where’s the Kentucky bluegrass? We are in Kentucky.” I looked around with the brochure in my grip and hurried towards her. When I was a kid growing up in Kentucky, I never paid attention to the grass; I just wanted to get out of there. “Shouldn’t there be the famous bluegrass?”
“What we got here is fine Kentucky dirt.” She bent down and picked up a handful of the driest soil. “We like to sprinkle it around like fairy dust and make wishes.” She threw it in the air, letting out a big cackle.
“You’re teasing me, right?” I wasn’t sure how to take Dottie.
“You are a city girl,” she said to herself like she was confirming her immediate perception of me. She continued in a fast-paced walk towards her camper.
“We can fix it back up in a couple of weeks.” I waved the brochure in the air, running after her, feeling somewhat helpless.
“Listen here, Mae West.” She turned to face me, stopping shy of her metal door. “You don’t look like Mae West from the Wild West.”
“Mae is a family name and West is my married name.” If I had a dollar for everyone who’d said that to me in the last few years, I’d not be standing in a run-down campground hoping to make a living, which was obviously on hold.
“May I call you Mae?” she asked. I nodded. “There are a lot more things around here to fix than making it all prettied up like that there brochure.” She grabbed it from me and flipped it over, pointing out the copyright date from decades before. “We need to fix the washers and dryers, vending machine, clean up the lake—and did you see the dock?”
“I have all the financial statements.” I bit my lip, my brows furrowed. “All the reports show that the campground is doing good.”
That obviously wasn’t the case.
“Mae, I figure you to be a smart girl. After what happened to you, I’d think you’d know that sometimes things that are on paper aren’t as they really appear.” She was talking about Paul and his scheme. “Here.” She pulled a set of keys out of her pocket. “She’s all yours. I’ve been dying to get out of this place. Plus, you had some things shipped here. I put them in the storage building over there. Number four.”
“What are these?” My heart beat rapidly and my palms sweat. “Dottie?”
She patted her dirty old camper.
“Them there are the keys to all the locks on the outbuilding and storage units.” She gestured to them. “That sweet husband of yours didn’t pay me the last couple of years. He said that I could live in this junker for free. I’m happy to give you the keys and make you in charge.” She opened the door. “I’ll only be a second to grab my underwear and you can move right on in.”
She reopened the door and went inside.
“Wait. No. That’s not what I mean.” My mouth dried because all my saliva had apparently flooded my eyes. “I can’t do this anymore. I hate you, Paul West!”
I dropped to the ground, not worried if I’d fallen into one of Dottie’s cigarettes or whatever else was on the dirt ground, but I’d had enough. I was broken, and nothing was going to fix me. I buried my head in my hands and sobbed.
“Did you say you hate Paul West?” She popped her head out the door.
“Yes. I hate him. I hate this place.” I sobbed.
“Well, you just might fit right on in here after all. We all hate Paul West around here.” Dottie held the door open and waved me in. “You know he’s a liar.”
“Oh, I’m aware. Look at me.” I pointed to my curls that’d gotten worse since I stepped out of the RV. The humidity wasn’t doing me any favors. “I’m so overdue for a highlight, and look at my nails.” I wiggled them in front of my face and showed her the chipped-up mess that was at least two weeks overdue.
“I’ve got someone that can fix you right up.” She picked up a strand of my hair. “This is the least of your problems. Coffee?”
“Yes. That’d be great.” I nodded. The door slammed shut, making me jump.
“Get on in here.” She held the camper’s screen door open.
“Do you live here?” I asked and looked around as I took a seat at one of the kitchen chairs.
The inside was what I’d expected to see. Fun pineapple party lights strung up all over the back of the couch along the back wall. The kitchen flowed from there. She had a small café table and two chairs right across from the kitchenette, where she was filling up two white coffee cups.
She set a cup in front of me.
“Creamer? Sugar?” she asked.
“No. This is good.” I brought the cup up to my mouth and took a sip, feeling instant relief. “I really like your camper.”
“There’s more to Dottie than meets the eye.” She referred to herself in third person and made me smile. “Looky there, you’re smiling. Now, if you put on some lipstick, you’d be downright pretty and find you a man to take care of you and your problems here, Mae West.”
She fiddled in one of the cabinets, snapped a paper towel off the roll, and put the fingernail polish remover on the table.
“That’s the last thing I need.” I took another sip. “I’ve got to figure out how to get this place looking presentable because my lawyer is looking for a buyer. No one in their right mind is going to buy this dump.”
“No one in their right minds parks their RV in this dump,” she said, reading my mind.
“Cheers.” We knocked cups and laughed. We talked while I took the chipped polish off my nails.
“Well, we got Henry down the road. He’s down yonder in the fifth wheel camper, and he’s the handyman. Literally, he only maintains what we’ve got here. I’ve tried to get ahold of your husband, but he’d never return our calls. I’d have gotten a lawyer if we had money, but we don’t got nothin’ but a roof over our heads.” She got up from the chair and grabbed the carafe, refilling our mugs. “I’m all ears if you’ve got ideas, but I guess you’re gonna make me pay rent now that you’re here.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I need you Dottie Swaggert, and I’m new to all this. I need you Dottie,” I said again so I could get my point across.
There was no reason to even bring up my past life. That was far behind me now. So was Paul West. I was going to just keep my chin up and get this place cleaned up, even if I had to do it myself. I looked down at the brochure I’d put down on the kitchen table. If it was the last thing I ever did on this earth and it killed me, I was going to make this place look just like the brochure, and I had a few weeks to do it. I needed all the help I could get.
“Just what are you thinking?” She eyeballed me.
“You said something about a national park. Tell me about it.” I knew that families were big on traveling in campers during the warmer months.
“Mae West, you’re smack-dab in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest. We’ve got two big lakes in this park along with lots of biking, hiking, camping, horseback riding, and zip lining,” she boasted. “In the day, Happy Trails was booked for months and even had a waiting list. Then one thing broke after the other, and Paul West never fixed it.”
“You’re telling me that Daniel Boone National Forest is something people come to see?” I asked. She nodded. “And that this is seasonal?”
“The state park is open all year round. Normal is a charming city that visitors love to come to and check out the little shops, but not so much Happy Trails.”
“Dottie, me and you are going to change that.” I brought the cup up to my lips and stared through the steam as the wheels in my head started to turn and the dollars in profit started to add up.
I might be able to sell this thing quicker than I’d anticipated once I got it cleaned up and tourists back in here.
If only Happy Trails was as charming as the town of Normal itself, I’d be in the selling business. There were parallel roads going down Main Street, one way each. In the middle of the two lanes was a median with a combination of grass and stepping stones. There were picnic tables among the large oak trees on each side of an amphitheater and covered seating area. Thick white pillars you’d see on the front porch of a plantation home held up the structure. Each post had a real gas lantern hanging off them. Large ferns toppled over several ceramic planters. There were twinkling lights around each pole, giving it such a romantic feel.
There were little shops that ran along each side of Main Street. They ranged from the Smelly Dog, which was a pet groomer, to Normal Diner, as well as the Tough Nickel Thrift Shop and Deter’s Feed-N-Seed, along with more boutique type shops that I couldn’t wait to check out. The display windows of each shop even had visions of families camping and summers in Normal.
The shops were freestanding cottage-style homes with a small courtyard between them.
The sidewalk was filled with people milling around, which meant that there were people in the town and possible customers for the campground. My mind was swirling with marketing ideas I had no idea I’d had. Downtown Normal seemed to cater to campers.
I pulled the RV into a parking lot that was clearly marked for campers. Dottie Swaggert had told me there was a laundromat in town after I’d asked her where the residents of the campground did their laundry since I had a few pieces of clothing that needed to be cleaned. Stanley had mentioned he’d sent my boxes of things to the campground and those were filled with my clothes. Those were clothes that I probably wouldn’t be wearing in Normal, so I picked up a few T-shirts at the rest stops along the way, and those were in desperate need of cleaning.
When Dottie told me the washers and dryers at the campground were all broken, I ended up moving the sign down to number three on the to-do list and moving the repairs to the laundry machines up to number one.
The Laundry Club laundromat was a short walk from the parking lot, which was a smart business plan. It allowed campers to park and do some washing. I pushed the door open of the laundromat and flung the pillowcase full of the clothes I’d salvaged on my own, plus the tees I’d picked up along the way, over my shoulder.
“That one in the far-right corner in the back is the best one.” There was a woman sitting at a card table right as you walked in the door.
Her short blond hair was held back with a headband that matched her hot-pink bodysuit, purple leg warmers, and bright white shoes. She tapped the glass globe on one of those plasma spheres that looked like electricity was running to your fingers that were so popular a few years ago. She had a lazy laughter in her eyes.
Her dark eyes circled around my body.
“Thanks,” I muttered and headed in the direction of her pointing.
“Don’t pay Queenie much attention. She lied.” Another woman stood up from a leather chair, which I found sort of odd in a laundromat. She held a book in her hand. She appeared to be in her late twenties, if I had to guess. She had her brown hair pulled up into a ponytail. “I’m Abby Fawn, Normal County Public Library librarian and part-time Tupperware sales associate.”
“I’m Mae West.” I stuck my hand out. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Mae West, huh?” She reached into her back pocket and pulled out her phone. She said as she typed, “Hashtag Mae West is in hashtag Normal, Kentucky. Is this hashtag normal?”
“What are you doing?” I tried to peer over the top of her phone to see what she was typing. Was she one of those people who was going to inform the news that I was now in Normal? They’d been trying to score an interview with me since the FBI raid.
“I use social media to get the word out about things happening in Normal since tourism has been down. You don’t hear about Mae West coming around here much.” There was some sarcasm in her voice.
Queenie let out a fit of laugher. “Mae West, I’m Queenie French. Nice to make your acquaintance.”
My hand was still stuck out in front of me to shake Abby’s hand.
As if in slow motion, Abby took a step into my personal space, and her arms began to open really wide, curling them around me and pulling me towards her in a bear hug. My face flattened against her shoulder, my arms plastered to my side.
“Honey, we don’t shake here. We hug.” She squeezed extra hard. “That means you hug me back.”
I lifted one arm and patted her on the back.
“Two arms,” she instructed me. “We do real two-armed hugs.” I lifted my other arm. “Mmmhmmm, now squeeze,” she insisted. “Tighter.” I pushed my arms together a tiny bit more. “Tighter.”
“Leave her alone.” Dottie Swaggert walked into the Laundry Club. This time with a pair of short khakis, white shirt tucked tight, a pair of flip-flops, and her bright red hair curled all around her head. “This here is Mae West, and she’s one of us now. I’m glad you found the place.”
Our eyes caught each other’s, and after a couple of seconds, our eyes softened as we both gave each other a gentle smile.
“Why didn’t you say you was one of us?” Queenie jumped up and hurried over to a table in the back corner of the laundromat. “This calls for a round of coffee.”
“You go on and use those laundry machines on the side wall.” Abby pointed the way. “They are pretty fast, and I’m sure you don’t want to hang around the club too long.” She winked.
“You better get used to it because the Laundry Club is the closest thing you’re going to get to a country club in Normal.” Queenie walked back over with a tray of Styrofoam cups filled to the rim with coffee and a couple of cookies. “We have fresh coffee every day, a TV, and a monthly book club meeting. If you need just to chitchat, you can come on by and someone is always here.”
“I’ve never been to a laundromat, and it’s really nice.” I looked around and noticed a bookshelf with books. There was a poster hanging over the top of it that mentioned a book club meeting. “There really is a book club?” I asked, not that I’d ever been in one, but I’d better get to know these ladies if I was going to get Happy Trails up and running. They might be some sort of help.
“Yes. Do you like to read?” Abby asked with wide eyes.
“Mmmhmmm,” I agreed. It was easier, though I’d not picked up a book in years.
“Great! I bring the really torn up books from the library here instead of us throwing them out.” She smiled. “Every time someone wants to throw away a book, a little bit of my soul dies.”
“We duct-tape them because we don’t want Abby’s soul to die.” Queenie went back over to her table and sat down. “Nothing duct tape can’t fix.” She grabbed a bag off the floor and dragged it onto her lap, pulling out a big roll of duct tape.
“Can it fix a campground?” I was half-joking and half-serious.
“You’re the new owner. I thought I recognized that name, West.” Abby snapped her finger and looked over at Dottie for confirmation. “Welcome to Normal. I didn’t think you looked like you were from around these parts.” She scrunched up her nose and brought her cup of coffee up to take a drink.
There was an awkward silence between me and the three women. They were all staring at me like it was show-and-tell and it was my turn. I bent down and grabbed a handful of clothes, throwing them into the washer. I shut the door and looked at the keypad. There were so many choices, so I just picked the top one.
“I can see it,” Queenie gasped. Her hands flew up and over her head. They formed a claw before they swooped down and touched the glass ball. The electricity roared towards the touch of her fingers. “You are a rich girl who has fallen on hard times. You’ve had someone to take care of you for a long time.” She threw her head back and sucked in a deep, dramatic breath, sending her head forward. She lifted her hands and dropped them back on the ball. “I predict your future is bleak. Poorer than you’ve ever been.”
I looked at Queenie. Was she some sort of weirdo psychic?
“Didn’t you tell Mae not to pay attention to her?” Dottie rushed over to the table and jerked out the cord that ran from Queenie’s ball to the electrical outlet.
“I did.” Abby glared at Queenie.
“What?” Queenie shrugged. “First off, she didn’t separate out her clothes between darks and whites. She mixed linen with cotton. Then she didn’t put detergent in. She pushed the first button she saw.” Queenie crossed her arms in a huff.
“So, you can’t read my mind or any of that other voodoo stuff?” I questioned, being let down a little bit because I was going to ask her how long it was going to take to sell the campground.
“Heck no.” Abby rolled her eyes. “She likes to pretend to but look at her. She’s a sixty-year-old, widowed Jazzercise instructor that spends every waking moment here at the Laundry Club when she’s not doing jazz hands or jazz squares or whatever other jazz they’re doing in the undercroft of the Normal Baptist Church.”
“Free coffee and TV.” Queenie smiled. “Can’t beat it.” She eased herself up out of her chair. “Now you look like you need a mama to take care of you while you’re here.”
I looked up at the TV, and there was Paul’s big mug shot on one of those news programs. I turned away. There was no sense in looking at it. The media loved plastering his face on a daily basis when there wasn’t any more news to tell.
Queenie hit another button on the washing machine and opened the door. Abby had rolled over a basket on wheels. Dottie started to take out my wet clothes.
“What do you mean while I’m here?” I asked while I watched them closely so I wouldn’t have to ask anyone again if I had to come back. But I was hoping to get the machines at the park fixed. Was I that transparent?
“From what Dottie told us,” Queenie started.
“I didn’t tell them nothin’,” Dottie snarled.
“Why you liar. You big liar. You called us up as soon as she pulled into her lot at the Happy Trails.” Queenie shook a finger at Dottie. Dottie’s face reddened. “Anyways, she said that you had some sort of brochure and something about fixin’ up the place to sell.”
“Like you’re better than us.” Abby offered a kind smile when I didn’t deserve it. “We understand. We don’t get many people that actually move to Normal. Soon we probably won’t even be a town.”
“I did hear that business was down in the shops.” Queenie nodded. “Poor Daniel Boone is probably rolling over in his grave.”
“I-I…” I stuttered for words, actually embarrassed by my actions.
“Don’t you worry that little head of yours.” Abby rolled her eyes. “Daniel Boone ain’t rolling over in his grave. He died before they named all the wooded land after him.”
“I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression. It’s just that the past few months of my life haven’t been the greatest for me, and I’m not sure how to maneuver this new life of mine.”
“Don’t you worry. We’re all here for you no matter what you decide.” Abby gave another wink.
“Let me show you how to do laundry.” Queenie pulled a couple of quarters out of her fanny pack.
I stood there and watched as she fed the machine the quarters, then pushed all sorts of buttons while Dottie brought over detergent. I can’t say that I heard every word; all I could hear was the sound of my heart beating to the tune of joy. It was something I’d not felt in a long time.
“Let’s talk about Happy Trails.” Dottie had a puzzle piece in her hand and was leaning over the table where there were the beginnings of a puzzle. She patted a chair next to her. “Bring your coffee over here.”
Abby put her book down and walked over. Not long after that, Queenie came over. Before I knew it, we all had a puzzle piece in our hand, trying to fit them together.
“Get to the nitty gritty.” Queenie was a spitfire. I could only imagine what her Jazzercise class looked like. “What do you plan to do with the Happy Trails?”
“I’m not sure how much you know about my ex-husband, Paul.” I tried to fit the puzzle piece a couple of times in two different spots, but my hands were shaky, so I just put it back on the table with the other loose pieces and decided to just enjoy the coffee. “He did a lot of people wrong and that included me.”
“We watched it all right here on that TV.” Abby nodded. “If I remember, they were trying to pin it on you too.”
“Right. But he forged my signature on a lot of the documents and that was proven by a handwriting analysis.” I took a sip of coffee.
I wasn’t sure why I was opening up to these women; I’d not even opened up to my own family. Not that I’ve talked to them in years, but still. These women were complete strangers. Maybe that was why. They didn’t know anything about me and my real story could come out. Not what was in the tabloids and news.
“Go on.” Queenie patted a piece in place and grabbed another one.
“We’d been married a couple of years. I’m thirty and he’s sixty-one.” I looked to see their reaction.
All of their heads jerked up, and they looked at each other.
“You’re a gold digger?” Queenie was apparently the type of person who just said what she wanted.
“No. I actually fell in love with him. He has that silver hair which I think is really foxy.” The memories of how we met flooded my mind. “He was a successful and single businessman. I was a flight attendant. He hired me to be his personal attendant on his plane. He didn’t have children, and I actually signed a prenuptial agreement.”
“That was ignorant for such a smart girl. Well”—Queenie’s eyes drew up and down me—“you look smart anyways. They say looks can be deceiving.”
“Queenie,” Abby and Dottie scolded her.
“What?” Queenie’s lip curled up in the corner. “I call it as I see it.”
“I loved him. He was really kind, giving, and he took great care of me. Then one day the FBI showed up. I had no idea what was going on.” My throat suddenly dried, and I drank the rest of my coffee. “He did a lot of people wrong. Left me bankrupt, homeless, and embarrassed.”
“You got the Happy Trails,” Dottie said as if it were a prize.
“A couple of days ago, I traded in my house and car keys for the camper. Our lawyer said that it’d be a new start for me. I’m not going to lie, the brochure he gave me made it look like paradise, and I figured I’d take a little vacation here while I got my head screwed on right and then sell it.” I laughed through my nose. “I’m not a landlord and don’t even know how to do it. Someone else would be much better than me, especially now that I’ve seen it. I feel awful these people are living this way, and I’ve just got to do something about it.”
“Like what?” Abby asked.
“I don’t know.” I swallowed hard, trying to manage a feeble answer. “Something like a fundraiser. We could clean up the lake and maybe get some of the shops to donate some things since it’ll help benefit everyone in Normal.” I thought of the flamingo key chain. “Something with flamingos and palm trees.”
“We could go to the party supply store.” Queenie nodded.
“The Happy Trails really just needs a quick cleanup, and I can make everyone clean the outsides of the campers.” Dottie made a good point. “When they are cleaned, it’s all shiny.”
“And we can all make something or get Betts Hager and the Bible-thumpers to donate food and stuff.” Queenie’s voice rose an octave.
“Bible-thumpers?” I asked.
“Don’t listen to Queenie. How many times do I have to tell you that?” Abby joked. “Betts Hager is the owner of the Laundry Club, and she’s usually here, but today is her weekly Bible club meeting. She’s one of us. Actually, Betts does a lot of things around Normal.”
Hmmm… I remembered Paul used to tell me how he made sure when he first started out in business that he rubbed elbows with the community’s major players. In the end, he was a crook, but it did make sense to figure out who knew everything in Normal so I could get the fixes on the park, sell it, and get on with my new life. Not that I had something against Normal, Kentucky, it just wasn’t my home or even my life.
“She carries a Bible and might hit you with it, but yeah, she’s one of us,” Dottie followed up. “It’s the four of us together all the time. Her husband is the Normal Baptist Church preacher, and she’s in a group of women who love to cook and participate in anything.”
Beep, beep. The rattle of an old school bus slowly passed by the Laundry Club. A young woman was hanging out one of the small slide-down windows flailing her arms.
“Speak of the Bible-thumpers,” Queenie said under her breath with a smile on her face and waving back.
“They travel in a bus?” I asked.
“In packs.” Queenie winked and nudged Dottie.
“Queenie, you’re going to scare Mae off, and we don’t need that,” Dottie warned her. “Betts has to do all that church stuff. Today is the day they go witness at that cushy penitentiary in Lexington.”
“Cushy?” Without saying anything, I knew that was where Paul had been taken for his sentence.
“Yeah.” Queenie’s nose curled. “It’s a fancy one, like the one Martha Stewart was in. The criminals there didn’t kill anyone. They just broke the law.” She shrugged.
“Betts and her church friends go to minister to the men in prison each week. They even take some baked goods.” Dottie smiled. “You know, goodwill and all that stuff.”
“That’s why the Bible-thumpers will be perfect to bake the desserts for the fundraiser. Goodwill and stuff.” Queenie nodded a few times. “So, we’ve got the sweets covered, we can get everyone in the campground to cook some sort of camping food like we do once a week.” She nodded towards Dottie, who nodded back. Apparently, they knew what the other was talking about.
“Dottie is going to get the residents of the campground to clean up a little. Abby will go to the supply store and do all that social media hashtag thingy,” she continued.
“What am I going to do?” I looked between them to see if they had any sage advice before I got in front of Betts.
“You’re going to come up with a business plan on how you can get Happy Trails looking like that brochure. Research how much sod costs and getting the lake cleaned up.”
“The laundry machines fixed?” I nodded, but they all frowned.
“Nah, we got the Laundry Club.” They tsked, and we all broke out in laughter.
“Hashtag Happy Trails Campground in the Hashtag Daniel Boone National Forest in Hashtag Normal, Kentucky, will be ready for the hashtag summer season in a couple of weeks. Hashtag new campground. Hashtag beach party. Hashtag party,” Abby said as she typed. “Hashtag grand reopening.”
I couldn’t help but give a nervous laugh because this was going to go down.