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Elves, Evergreens, & Evidence

Book 34 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series

Snow’s falling and sleigh bells are ringing in the town of Normal, but there’s nothing ‘normal’ about this festive season.

Mae West’s first Christmas as a married woman at Happy Trails Campground should’ve been merry and bright. But when a Winter Festival turns deadly and one of their own lands on the suspect list, Mae and the Laundry Club ladies know there’s more to unwrap than just presents.

With a mischievous reindeer, a friend in jeopardy, and the campground’s reputation at stake, Mae and the Laundry Club Ladies are dashing through clues and untangling Christmas mysteries.

Dive into a world of holiday in the campground, Southern charm, and yuletide twists, where tinsel, traditions, and murder collide. Grab a cup of cocoa and join the holiday hunt with Mae and the gang, as they jingle all the way to justice

Elves, Evergreens, & Evidence


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Chapter One

“Merrier than Christmas mornin’ with a biscuit in your hand” was how Dottie had described Happy Trails Campground’s booth for this year’s Winter Festival.

Boy, was she right.

I stood and took a moment to drink in the sights of the Winter Festival in full swing. Dottie’s description had nailed the feeling; it was an event filled with joy, wonder, and the spirit of the season. I sucked in a deep breath, and my stomach gurgled as the warm scent of freshly baked biscuits wafted over from the Normal Diner on the wintery day’s light breeze.

Everywhere I looked, twinkly fairy lights adorned booths, trees, and lampposts throughout the park, casting a soft, ethereal glow on the proceedings. The delicate luminescence made the light snowflakes descending from the heavens shimmer like millions of diamonds against the night sky.

The snow gathered in gentle drifts, painting the town in shades of silver and white. It added a touch of magic, muffling the festival sounds slightly and making everything seem just a tad softer, a tad more otherworldly.

At the far end of park, the amphitheater was slowly filling up, its stone seats covered with blankets and eager spectators. They were all bundled up in colorful scarves and mittens, their breath misting in the cold air, waiting in anticipation for the evening’s performances.

But the big show tonight was the annual tree lighting.

The towering Christmas tree stood proudly in the center of the grassy median. It was unlit for now, but even in the gathering dusk, it was a sight to behold.

The majestic fir was adorned with red and gold baubles, silver tinsel, and what looked like hundreds of handcrafted ornaments, each reflecting the heritage and traditions of Normal, Kentucky, and the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Near the tree, a platform had been erected for Santa.

It was so darn cute to see all the children lined up, eyes wide with a mix of nervousness and excitement, their tiny voices raised in awe or in whispered conversations with their parents. Their laughter and innocent chatter were heartwarming, and my feeing while witnessing it all was one I’d love to bottle up to have on hand.

I still couldn’t believe what a year we’d had, and it was about to come to a close after Christmas with the New Year approaching.

I felt an overwhelming sense of community when I looked around at the other vendors, local business owners with whom I had become very close friends.

Here, at this one celebration in the heart of the Daniel Boone National Park, beneath a canopy of stars and amid the ancient trees, we were all connected, and everyone smiling and having a good time truly brought about the spirit of the season.

“Are you standin’ there daydreamin’ again, May-bell-ine?” Dottie Swaggert asked as she walked back over to the small table we had placed between two camping chairs in order to get some of the brochures we had put together as sponsors of this year’s Red Birds Winter Festival Charity. The Red Birds were an arm of the Daniel Boone National Forest Advisory Committee made up of a group of women from the forest’s surrounding counties that actually enjoyed doing fundraisers and volunteer work.

Cheryl Paisley, a knitter, was the first person to rent the camper van I lived in on my campground while she found her footing in Kentucky. She and Tilly, her cat, had come into town ahead of a terrible tornado, and it was the first week I’d rented my very own camper to a tourist. When Cheryl had asked how she could get involved in Normal, the Red Birds had come to mind as an option until she could decide where in our bluegrass state she wanted to permanently land. She wanted to be part of our community, and though her stay might be brief, there was no better way to get involved than to join the Red Birds.

It seemed Cheryl’s specialty was helping raise funds for various causes, so when she heard we needed someone to volunteer for the Winter Festival fundraiser for our children’s summer camps, she was all over it.

“It’s a short-term commitment,” she had said. “I’ll rent your camper van through the winter months, and then I’ll explore Kentucky more to see where I want to make a home.”

Her volunteering also meant she needed to recruit people to help her.

That’s why we had a booth. The Laundry Club Ladies and I, with the help of Cheryl’s teaching skills, had spent many a night around a campfire, inside my camper van, and in the recreational center over the past couple of months, crafting little gnome- and elf-looking dolls in Christmas-themed yarn patterns.

“I ain’t never seen so many people who love these little gnomes.” Dottie picked up a handful of the small knitted creatures.

“Elves,” I corrected her, though I felt like she was right. “Cheryl says they are elves.”

“Whatever they are, they sure are ugly little thangs.” Dottie’s nose wrinkled as she looked down at the small pile of handcrafted creatures with exaggerated features. “But folks seem to love ’em.”

I chuckled softly. “Well, it’s the spirit of the season. Maybe they see a bit of the festival’s magic in these little… elves.”

Dottie rolled her eyes dramatically but smiled, revealing the warmth she tried so hard to keep hidden under her tough exterior. “I reckon they make good stocking stuffers.”

I glanced over at the Red Birds’ booth, where Cheryl was enthusiastically explaining to a couple the significance of the unique pattern.

The hum of conversations, gentle melodies of carolers in the distance, and occasional ring of a bell from the nearby Salvation Army booth blended to create a harmonious soundtrack to the evening. The air was cool and crisp, and every so often, a gust of wind would send a flurry of snowflakes dancing around us.

Dottie suddenly leaned closer to me, her tone turning conspiratorial. “You reckon Cheryl has any idea about the surprise the Red Birds are planning for her later tonight?”

I shook my head, a grin tugging at my lips. “Not a clue. And it’s going to be such a heartwarming sight. I think she’s going to love it.”

“This here’s what it’s all about, ain’t it? Community, giving back, and just… being together.” Dottie nodded, her gaze sweeping over the festivities.

“Exactly. It’s these moments that make everything worthwhile.” I smiled, touched by her sentiment.

From the corner of my eye, I noticed movement near the back corner of the amphitheater, where the behind-the-scenes staging was located. Two men were engaged in what looked like a heated argument, their aggressive body language making that clear even from a distance.

One of the men tightly gripped the reins of a reindeer, who seemed uneasy with the tension in the air. I could see his other hand gripping a paper cup.

“Well now,” Dottie mused, her voice dripping with curiosity. She set down one of the elves she’d been examining. “What’s all this about?”

Without waiting for an answer, she pulled out her pleather cigarette case, swiftly lighting one up as she made her way toward the scene.

With her cigarette in hand, she looked like a freight train barreling down the tracks, unstoppable and intent on getting to the heart of the matter.

Dottie picked up speed after the situation between the men suddenly escalated.

The one holding the reindeer’s reins slowly bent down and put his drink on the ground next to his feet before he used his free hand to shove the other guy with such force that he stumbled backward, landing on the cold, snowy ground. Their voices were drowned out by the festive sounds around us, but their anger was palpable.

The man with the rein had a face as stormy as a winter night when he gave the man on the ground one last look as he picked up his drink.

As he walked past our booth, leading the clearly agitated reindeer, and took a sip, our eyes locked for a split second. His gaze was icy, and a shiver ran down my spine, unrelated to the cold weather. He crumpled up his cup and threw it in the trash can we had put beside our booth for the festivalgoers.

“You won’t get away with this!” the man still on the ground called out.

But just as suddenly as the tension peaked, it was punctuated by a robust “Ho ho ho!” and the merry jingle of bells.

Santa Claus, in all his jolly glory, appeared from around the amphitheater. The sight of him—his rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes—was such a contrast to the altercation I’d just witnessed. The children nearby squealed in delight, their attention instantly drawn to Santa, effectively shifting the public’s focus from the two quarreling men.

I glanced at Dottie, who had stopped midway to the scene, a puzzled expression on her face as she took a drag from her cigarette.

She raised an eyebrow at me, and I could tell we were both thinking the same thing.

There was a story behind that argument, and it was one we were both eager to “uncover,” as we’d call it, a cover-up for what we were really going to do: gossip.

But for now, with Santa’s arrival and the festivities in full swing, it would have to wait.

end of excerpt

Elves, Evergreens, & Evidence

is available in the following formats:

Tonya Kappes Books

Nov 26, 2023


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