Campfires, Courage, & Convicts
Book 27 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY WITH A SMIDGEN OF HOMICIDE
USA Today Bestselling author Tonya Kappes brings you southern and quirky characters in her mystery series. Her stories are charged with humor, friendship, family and life in small southern towns.
It is fall in Normal, KY, and the town is celebrating the season with a Bourbon Festival.
Mae West is trying to enjoy the festival and a night out with Hank. While trying to dodge the one question every keep asking (When is the wedding?) Mae overhears an argument between the bourbon king’s son and another man and woman. So, when she stumbles over a body with ties to the Bourbon King, her hackles are raised.
Mae, Dottie, and the rest of the Laundry Club Ladies start poking around into the Bourbon King’s complicated life and soon find out there’s more than bourbon underneath the lid of a bourbon barrel.
Campfires, Courage, & Convicts
Book 27 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Campfires, Courage, & Convicts
“You better watch it.” Mary Elizabeth eyeballed me as I scooped a big handful of candy corn out of the bowl sitting on the lid of the empty bourbon barrel.
Betts Hager, Abby Fawn Bonds, and Queenie French glanced up from under their brows. We were all gathered around the barrel near the front of the amphitheater, enjoying the bluegrass band Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys.
Until Mary Elizabeth put a big damper on it.
“You’ve got a wedding dress to fit into.” She shrugged and brought the steaming maple latte she’d gotten from Trails Coffee to her lips.
I rolled my eyes and turned away from her to pop the sugary triangles into my mouth.
“I guess that means I’ll have to think about getting married next year,” I muttered with a mouthful of candy, low enough for her not to hear but loudly enough for Abby to hear because she was standing next to me. If Mary Elizabeth heard me even mention putting the wedding off for another year, she’d go straight into a hissy fit of epic proportions. I didn’t need that right now.
Abby’s foot slid across the grass to touch mine, giving me a bit of extra support. She knew all too well how Mary Elizabeth liked things just so, as Abby was married to Bobby Ray Bonds, my foster brother. Mary Elizabeth had fostered me and Bobby Ray but ended up adopting me due to the fact that Bobby Ray had a mother while I didn’t.
Abby and Bobby Ray had made Mary Elizabeth so proud when they got married, and now that I was engaged, Mary Elizabeth was bound and determined to make my wedding an event like no one in Normal, Kentucky, had ever seen.
“I’m just sayin’.” Her voice trilled upward in an “I hate to say I told you so” kind of tone that ran right through me. “Once you reach a certain age, it’s harder to get the weight off.” She wagged her finger at me then took the edges of her scarf and knotted it in a pretty little way around her neck to make it more fashionable instead of using it to keep the chill off her. “Isn’t that right, Queenie?”
“Don’t be dragging me into this.” Queenie busted out in a little shimmy-shake of her shoulders to the beat of the band’s tune. “I do know you can eat as many of those as you want and stay fit with Jazzercise.” She shook her fanny with her arms straight out in front of her, dipping down to touch the ground before she wiggled her way back up and ran her fingers through her short blond hair as she danced and swayed.
It was nice not only to see Queenie enjoy the festival she and the Historical Society had planned, but also to see she wasn’t wearing her usual workout clothes. Tonight, she wore a fitted long-sleeved sweater that hung past the waistband of her ankle-length skirt. She’d even traded in her tennis shoes for some cowboy boots.
“You do look like a million bucks.” Mary Elizabeth took a hint from Queenie, and both of them started to dance.
“Don’t worry about her.” Abby curled her hand around my arm and snuggled close. “You and Hank will tie the knot when you two want to.” She glanced down at the emerald ring Hank had given me. “You know if you need any help planning anything, I’m here.”
“Yes. You’ve offered a few times.” I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful, but everyone wanted to help, and truth be told, Hank and I hadn’t even discussed a date, much less any other plans. “You’ll be the first I call,” I said and sucked in a deep breath, smelling the smoke from one of the firepits the Historical Society put out just for the festival.
While Mary Elizabeth wasn’t looking, I took the opportunity to go find Hank. That way, if she did start in on the whole wedding thing, I’d have him for backup.
The Bourbon Fall Festival was well underway for the second night, and Mother Nature had really shown up to give a couple days of great weather to not only the citizens of Normal, but also the tourists. The crackle of lit fires intermingled with the chatter, laughter, and good time everyone appeared to be having.
The festival was held downtown on the grassy median that ran down the middle of Main Street. It was literally a huge park-style area with large oak trees, several picnic tables, and a sprawling amphitheater, so to say it was just a median separating traffic didn’t convey just how substantial the area was.
Bourbon was big in Kentucky, and when the Historical Society wanted to host a festival, we knew it was going to draw a lot of tourists. The park looked like a fairy tale with all the twinkling lights they’d hung from tree to tree, the solar-powered chandeliers that dangled from low branches, and the small café tables beneath so that folks could enjoy some of the amazing food from local shops. Included in these shops was the T. Elliott Distillery, whose tent I could see Hank standing in front of with Bobby Ray, Alvin Deters, Henry Bryant, and Tucker Pyle.
My head bobbed as I weaved in and out of the crowd, keeping my eye on Hank just in case he decided to leave before I could get to him.
It was so crowded, and I bet the Historical Society was pleased with the turnout for the three-day festival. Tourism in the Daniel Boone National Park had nearly tripled over the last few years. There was something about getting out in nature that put happy smiles on people’s faces. So many statistics were coming out of studies about being in nature and how it helped lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and relieve muscle tension, as well as providing the aesthetic bonus of helping you get in shape.
But it wasn’t all that that I’d found to be the best for me. To me, it was the group of ladies I’d met at the Laundry Club Laundromat when I first rolled into Normal, Kentucky, in a run-down campervan that I’d called home for some time now. Thankfully, with the help of DIY videos and the good-hearted people who not only lived in Normal, but also owned shops here, I was able to get the campground back into running order and afford myself some money to fix up my home on wheels.
“Howdy, boys.” I’d meandered up to the group of men. Each of them had a little shot glass in his hand and was listening to a man talk about the bourbon-making process before the man went down the line of shot glasses and filled them with the particular bourbon he was talking about.
Hank gave me a kiss before he took his shot. His lips smacked together as he looked at the empty glass as if he were studying the taste as it went down.
“Pretty smooth for the process,” he noted, and the other men made some comments.
I glanced back over at the festival crowd. Everyone there seemed to be enjoying something different, yet they were enjoying themselves all the same.
“Earth to Mae.” Hank waved his hand in front of me. He looked out over the park from underneath the T. Elliott Bourbon tent to see what I was looking at. “Who are you spying on?”
“I’m not spying on anyone,” I snorted. “I was just taking in all of our friends. Our community.” There were games for children and vendor tents that sold items from locals that you’d normally see at the farmers markets full of people. “They are all having a really good time.”
I had to admit I had been a little leery as a member of the National Park Committee when the Historical Society had pitched the idea. Anytime alcohol was involved, you had to be extra careful.
Alex Elliott, son of the famous bourbon maker T. Elliott, was a slick one, and I wasn’t just referring to his snappy dress style, combed-back black hair, and model-like features. I meant he was a sly talker. He had a way of capturing you and drawing you into believing what he was selling. By the way he was gabbing with some folks on the far side of the tent, they were buying it. Literally. They each had a T. Elliott Bourbon bottle in hand.
“I guess he knows what he’s doing,” I said to Hank and glanced toward where Alex Elliott and his sister Nicole were standing, happily taking money in exchange for the bottles of booze.
“Not so bad either.” Hank put the shot glass back down on the small bar the distillery had erected for the occasion.
Hank had been looking for some items to hand out to his groomsmen, and in these parts, bourbon was a big thing, which would make anything he bought from the T. Elliott brand a hit among the groomsmen he’d yet to choose.
There were so many party favors made with bourbon or associated with bourbon, from tables fashioned from bourbon barrels to the lazy Susan sitting on a counter made from a bourbon-barrel lid. Then there were the specially labeled bourbon bottles you could get with just about anything printed on them.
“I could get the set of six minis with everyone’s name printed on them.” Hank pointed at the trial-size bottles on display. It was funny how we’d gone from attending these types of things as a fun time to now searching for things for our wedding.
“You look around, and I’m going to go get a cup of coffee.” I pointed over to Trails Coffee.
The shops downtown had really gone all in on the festival too. Winter was coming, and that meant low tourism time, but we all still had bills to pay. When a festival was planned, we made sure we stepped up our game in order to make more for our winter nest egg. Downtown wasn’t like most American downtowns. Normal was literally plopped down in the middle of a national forest and that meant any sort of living had to be centered around the natural habitats and environment.
Quickly, I made it across half of Main Street and stood on the sidewalk that ran in front of the shops on this side of the park. There was the Normal Diner, Tough Nickel Thrift Shop, Deter’s Feed-N-Seed, and Trails Coffee, in no particular order.
Each shop was located in a freestanding cottage-style home from when the town was founded. They all had little grassy courtyards between them. I loved how each shop did something different with their courtyard.
Gert Hobson had strung twinkly lights over top of several café tables alongside stand-up heating lamps, which would allow the coffee shop to stay open through the upcoming winter months. The coffee shop was particularly busy in the chilly mornings when people were either coming from or going for their hikes and when the afternoon sun settled behind the mountains and temperatures were dropping again.
“Hello, hello.” I greeted people I recognized as I walked down the sidewalk. I pulled the hem of my Happy Trails Campground sweatshirt up around my neck briefly before stopping at the booth sponsored by the Normal School Board, which had a few arts and crafts for the kids right next to a line for the hayrides.
The hayrides literally just ran along the two one-way sides of Main Street, circling around the grassy median. They were free to ride and sponsored by Coke Ogden. Coke owned the Old Train Station Motel located on Fawn Road. She also gave trail rides on horseback and provided fun things to do at all the festivals.
At the school booth, they were making scarecrows fastened to popsicle sticks. The owl was my favorite, with its fluffy feathers and perched at the top of the stick. Too cute, I thought as I turned to look at the hayride coming to a halt. I waved at Coke, who had the reins.
“We was just talking about you.” Dottie Swaggert, the manager of Happy Trails Campground and my neighbor and my friend, jumped out of the back of the hayride. “What if you had a hayride at the weddin’? Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Her smile was almost as bright as the bedazzled pumpkin on the front of her shirt, which matched the short red hair on top of her head.
“We can discuss it over coffee,” I suggested, knowing that between here and there, Dottie would move on to some other gossip and forget all about her crazy hayride suggestion. Mary Elizabeth would never go for that idea.
“Can I get a smile?” Waldo Willy caught us just as we were about to step inside the Trails Coffee courtyard.
“My goodness.” Dottie’s chin drew slowly from her chest up to the sky as she took in Waldo’s appearance from head to toe. “You’re so tall that if you were to cut a backflip, you’d knee Jesus in the mouth.”
Waldo snorted and motioned for us to get together while he crouched down to get us in the shot.
“I’ve never seen you up close like this.” Dottie pulled a cigarette case from her pocket and batted out a smoke. “I’ve heard all ’bout you, though.”
Waldo was the new journalist for the Normal Gazette. He’d stirred up a bit of controversy since he’d been here. He was more of a pot-stirrer than a peacemaker, so I was always a tad leery when I was around him.
Luckily for me, that had only been a handful of times, and even then, I was nervous to talk around him. He had a way of manipulating the conversation to create a story that would sell more papers.
Around that time, Betts Hager and Queenie French joined us.
“I’ll grab a table,” Betts called over her shoulder and pointed to one of the café tables in the courtyard with enough seats for all of us.
I looked around to see if Abby or Mary Elizabeth had come, but when I didn’t see them, I went ahead and joined Betts and Queenie since Dottie was still talking Waldo’s ear off.
“I was telling Queenie how Lester has stopped taking my visits.” Betts Hager, the owner of the Laundry Club Laundromat who also cleaned houses, was talking about her ex-husband, who had gone to prison a few years back. Lester Hager had been the preacher of the Normal Baptist Church but traded in the pulpit for a prison cell.
“The last time I saw him was when you went in to ask him some questions a few months back.” Betts’s eyes watered, and she bit her lip as though she were trying to hold back tears. Being at these festivals was hard for Betts. She’d been so involved for so many years as the preacher’s wife and a community leader.
“I’m not sure what I did, but even when the church group goes, he’s stopped coming. Have you heard from him?” She directed her question at me—a question I’d tried to skirt for a few months. Betts had stayed involved in the church after Lester went to prison. Good for her because I’m not sure I’d have been able to show my face with all the rumors and gossip swirling around town like a swarm of mayflies.
“Oh, there’s Abby.” I had to dodge the question and any conversation when it came to Lester. “Abby! Abby!”
“Mae, I asked you a question.” Betts put her hand on my forearm.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you,” I lied, but I had to—for good reason. I jumped up from the seat and hugged Bobby Ray and Abby. “Hey. I’ve been looking for y’all.”
Abby had a confused look on her face since I’d already seen her today.
“Good to see you too.” Bobby Ray looked at me from underneath his ball cap with shifty eyes.
“Look at you.” I raked my fingers through the hair sticking out from underneath his cap in the back. “Getting a shorter cut these days?”
“I told Helen Pyle to start making the top and the bottom match.” Abby took credit for the shorter hair as a joke since Bobby Ray had started to thin out on top before he was even thirty. “No matter if he didn’t have no hair at all, he’s got my whole entire heart,” Abby gushed.
“We can’t all have gorgeous long brown locks like yours,” Dottie said about Abby’s long ponytail before she reached up and tugged on the ends of her short red hair, causing it to stand up even more.
“I’d like to have that in class.” Queenie French was our fitness guru who taught the local Jazzercise classes. “I’d swirl it all around.” Queenie began to roll her head around, but her short blond hair was held back in place by her headband. “Speaking of classes, what are we going to do about a new preacher?”
“I don’t know, but Mary Elizabeth is about to have a tizzy over it. She says it ain’t fittin’ to have the elders take turns each week to deliver the message.” I told them how my foster-slash-adoptive mom had pretty much taken to bed at the thought of the church not having a leader.
“We are working on it. We have a really good candidate, and if I see him, I’ll be sure to introduce you. But that shouldn’t have anything to do with your classes,” Betts noted.
“I overheard Pam Purcell talking in line at Deter’s Feed-N-Seed about how they were going to make people pay to use the undercroft. There goes my income. If I’ve got to pay for a space, I’ll never make ends meet.”
“I’ve not heard anything about that. You know how gossip goes around here.” Betts picked up her coffee cup and took a sip. “I was just saying to Mae how I need to talk to Lester, and if he’d see me, I could make sure the elders were doing the right thing when hiring a new pastor.”
Uneasy, I waved my hand when I saw Gert glance our way.
“Hey, y’all.” Gert pointed to the back of the courtyard. “Bobby Ray, you can go fetch a couple of more chairs if you want to sit down.”
“I don’t think we are staying. We just stopped to say hi.” He looked at Abby for confirmation. “But thank you anyways.”
“What about you, Mae?” she asked. “I’ve got a maple coffee you’re going to love.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll take a large.” Vigorously, I rubbed my hands over my thighs, warming my legs as well as my palms. “I think it’s colder than normal.” I was bringing up the weather since it was always a good source of conversation to make the topic of Lester go away.
We jerked around when I heard some yelling coming from the festival. “What on earth is going on?” Dottie asked as she blew out more smoke.
Our little group got to our feet just like everyone else had, making it hard for us to see clearly across to the grassy median.
“Someone’s had a drink too many.” Dottie tsked.
Our curiosity got the best of us, and we darted over to see what was going on.
“If you think you can do something like that to me, there will be a price to pay.” The threat had come from Alex Elliott. His finger was buried in the chest of the man whom I recognized as having served Hank and the guys their shots.
Both men were standing at the back of the T. Elliott Bourbon Distillery tent, a little away from the crowd as if they didn’t want anyone to see, but their loud voices were big enough for everyone to hear.
“I’m sorry, but it’s true, and I’m her backer.” The man’s brows were raised. “I’m the investor, and now we hold the majority share. We can do what we want with the company, and right now, the company isn’t doing well.” The man had pointed to the woman next to him. She stood about five-foot-two with bob-styled, bluntly cut black hair.
“I knew you were no good.” Alex spat at the woman’s feet. She didn’t move. “I swear I will kill you before you destroy my family and its legacy.”
“Why do you even care?” She asked Alex through clenched teeth. “You’ve never cared about this family’s business. You always looked down on the business until you decided you wanted a job here.” She had to be someone in the family.
“What’s going on?” Tucker Pyle walked up and confronted the two men. Hank, Alvin, and Henry had walked up behind Tucker as though he needed backup.
“Go mind your business.” Alex snarled.
“This town is my business. I’m the local ranger.” Tucker took a couple steps back from Alex. “So if you have an issue, I’d love to help solve it, or else we can just all walk away calmly.”
“You better watch your back,” Alex warned the man and gave Tucker one last look before he walked back to the front of the tent.
The Laundry Club Ladies and I just looked at each other with wide eyes before shrugging to head back to the Trails Coffee.