Forests, Fishing, & Forgery
Book 3 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
It’s Labor Day weekend in Normal, and if you know anything about camping and RVing, you know it’s one of the busiest times of the year. Unfortunately, Daniel Boone National Park is in danger of being closed due to a drought and local businesses are scrambling for ideas to survive a possible shutdown.
Happy Trails Campground is at the center of a murder in which campers as well locals are suspects. It looks likely that a local resident is responsible for the dastardly deed since the victim is the one person who had the power to shut down the national park, which would be devastating to Normal’s small businesses.
Follow Mae West as she searches for clues to get to the bottom of this Labor Day campground caper!
Read an Excerpt
Forests, Fishing, & Forgery
Book 3 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Forests, Fishing, & Forgery
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“Welcome to Happy Trails Campground and to our party.” If I’d said it once, I’d said it a million times today. “Here is our brochure. We cater to campers with tents, pop-ups, fifth wheels, and vans.” I smiled and shrugged. “We cater to all. Even the ones who need a place to sleep.” I flipped open the brochure to show the young couple who’d come to the monthly party we hosted. “We have cute bungalows that range in size and need. Are you here for the long Labor Day weekend?”
“We’ve been wanting to do the whole Appalachian Trail, but figured we’d better do some smaller hiking first.” There was an eager look on the young woman’s face that I’d seen before. “We have a couple of days off and thought we’d drive down and check it all out.”
“I’m the hiker. Beth here, well. . .” The young man’s eyes squinted at her as he smiled. “She’s more along the lines of a glamper.”
“Oh, silly.” Beth rolled her eyes and put her hand on his chest. “Chuck doesn’t give me much credit. Don’t get me wrong. I love room service and a good spa, but if we are going to get married, I’d better start doing something he likes.”
“Then Happy Trails is for you.” I looked between them. “The Appalachian Plateau goes right through the Daniel Boone National Forest.” I pointed towards the lake. “I know you can’t see it now because of all the people gathered around the band, but right beyond the tree line is the start of a beautiful five-mile hike. It’s maybe one step above a beginner, but it will bring you to an amazing waterfall.”
“Beth?” Chuck put his hands out. “It’s up to you. A bungalow or the bed and breakfast downtown?”
The door of the office swung open. Dottie Swaggert’s unlit cigarette bounced between her dry lips. She pushed her hands up in her short red hair, fluffing it out a little.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Mae. Someone’s on the phone about the last bungalow for rent. I told them the fee and they insisted on talking to the owner.” Her brows cocked. “I told them that you was busy with the party, but they insisted and if I know you…” She looked between Chuck and Beth. “Trust me, I know her. You’d want me to come get you.”
Dottie held the portable phone.
“You only have one bungalow left for rent?” Chuck asked, his brows knitted together with worry.
“I do. We were totally booked, but due to some unforeseen circumstances, someone cancelled at the last minute.” I took a few steps closer to Dottie to get the phone. “Thanks to social media and all those hashtags, we usually fill a vacancy within minutes of a cancellation.”
It was true. For years I’d said I’d never get on social media. That was before I became the owner of Happy Trails Campground in Normal, Kentucky, sight unseen. Once I did see it. . . Boy howdy. It’d needed a redo more than I needed a life do-over. That’s why me and Happy Trails were perfect for each other. I had discovered not only myself, but that social media could help a business better than any other type of marketing.
Just as I extended my arm to grab the phone, Beth began to stutter and mumble something.
“What?” I asked and leaned in an ear.
“We’ll take it.” Beth bounced on her toes and clasped her hands together. She looked at Chuck. “Right?” The tone in her voice didn’t seem so sure.
“Right!” Chuck jumped at the chance. Beth threw her arms around Chuck.
“Dottie, can you please tell the person on the phone the bungalow is no longer available?” I asked her, knowing that she’d set this whole thing up. It wasn’t the first time someone was on the fence about renting either a lot or a bungalow and Dottie pulled the old someone wants to rent now trick, making it a tad more urgent for Chuck and Beth to say yes.
All of us turned around when we heard quick toots of a car horn followed by a couple of long beeps from a fast-paced carload of people driving up from the entrance of the campground.
“Woo hoo!” said a young man with a big smile, dangling his arm out the window. There was a beer in the grip of his hand and a flashy watch on his wrist. The car came to an abrupt stop.
I sucked in a deep breath and let out a slight moan. This wasn’t the impression I wanted Beth and Chuck to have on their first camping experience.
“Guys. Settle down,” said the driver, who was also a young man, as he tried to calm down the others after they all started to celebrate their arrival. He got out of the car and stuck his head back through the driver’s side window to give the group one last scolding.
“Why don’t we go ahead and get you registered.” I gestured for Beth and Chuck to follow me into the office. I glanced at Dottie. “Why don’t you see what they want,” I suggested, knowing she didn’t take a whole lot of bull and would send them on their way.
“I’ll be more than happy to do that.” The look of satisfaction on her face made me smile.
“Sorry about that.” I wanted to make sure Chuck and Beth knew Happy Trails was a nice, relaxing place with fun, not rowdy, guests. There was an immediate need for me to apologize.
The office space wasn’t big. It was just a small, open space with metal files and two desks. There was a big window on each wall, which made it easy for us to see all sides of the campground while we were in there.
“Here are some papers I need you to fill out.” I handed them a clipboard with all the papers and a pen tied around the metal clip with a piece of yarn. “This one is for the rental agreement. It has all the particulars about trash and how you need to leave things after you check out.” I flipped through each page as I pointed out what they were. “I’ll need a copy of your license for safety purposes if you are going to be going hiking. Not that we’ve lost a hiker,” I assured them.
My eyes glanced over their shoulders and I could see that the car of boys had emptied out. All of them were standing with their arms crossed, arguing with Dottie.
“While you fill those out, I’m going to go check on Dottie.” I didn’t want those boys to bring any undue attention to the campground, especially since they were here during our monthly themed party. I shut the door behind me. “Is everything okay out here?”
“I want to see the owner and she won’t let us,” the one I recognized as the driver told me. “I’ve had a reservation for me and my friends for months. It’s my bachelor weekend.”
“They don’t have their reservation number.” Dottie’s eyes lowered. She wasn’t too trusting of people and it made her a great office manager.
“William Hinson.” I stuck my arm out for him to shake.
“Yes, that’s me,” he said with a calm voice and straightened his shoulders a little more. “Do you have our reservation?”
“I do. Remember the reservation that was booked for two weeks because we don’t do middle of the week reservations for the bungalows?” I looked over at Dottie. Whoever had booked the bachelor party had reserved the bungalow way in advance. “Mr. Hinson’s bride sent a few items for you and your friends ahead of time.”
A couple of days ago we’d gotten a big package in the mail from William’s bride-to-be. It was filled with snacks, movies, and gear for hiking and fishing.
“She did?” He grinned.
The other four boys patted his back.
“He’s got a good one.” I recognized the one that was flailing his arm out the car window earlier. “Jamison.” He nodded at me. “My name is Jamison Todd Downey.”
“I get that. I’m Mae.” I wasn’t about to give my full name, which was Maybelline Grant West. It wasn’t uncommon for southerners to give you their full names upon introduction. The more we talked, the less rowdy they were, just excited.
“You’ve got these yahoos?” Dottie wasn’t very forgiving when a first impression made her cringe. I could feel the tension coming off her shoulders as they hugged her ears.
“I will take them to their bungalow while you finish up with Beth and Chuck,” I said to Dottie.
It was nice to be able to team up with Dottie. She’d been the manager at Happy Trails way before I’d gotten there. I’d come to rely on her for a lot of things, but hospitality to everyone wasn’t her specialty. She was fabulous at putting together parties and keeping the campground running like a well-oiled machine, but she didn’t take any nonsense, which these boys seemed to have plenty of.
“Hold on a second.” I told the boys and went back into the office with Dottie. “Beth and Chuck, this is Dottie. She’s going to finish up getting y’all settled. You’re in great hands.”
They nodded eagerly and went back to filling out the paperwork. I walked over to the filing cabinet and opened the H drawer for Hinson to find William’s reservation. There was a lot of paperwork and computer work to be done. It was best to get him to fill out the paperwork at the bungalow he’d rented instead of bringing him in the office with the couple.
“They might need a starter camping kit,” I said to Dottie about the couple. I grabbed the key to the bungalow with four bedrooms where we’d stuck William and his friends plus a clipboard full of paperwork. “I’m not sure if they’ve got towels and things either.”
When I finally got settled into being owner of Happy Trails, I realized many campers forget everyday things like toothbrushes, towels, and other personal hygiene items. That’s when I came up with the idea to put together camper packs. We offered them at several different prices, depending on what was included. We also rented fishing and hiking supplies, including poles, backpacks, and picnic baskets.
I partnered with a few of the local shops in Normal, offering their items in different baskets. The Cookie Crumble Bakery’s delicious chocolate chip cookies that were the size of my head were a hit along with coffee from the new coffeehouse in town.
Gert Hobson, owner of The Trails Coffee Shop, put together packages of coffee and filters for the rental campers and the bungalows. She also supplies the complimentary coffee I offer in the morning at the recreation center on the campground. Anytime I could help a local store, I did.
“Are you good?” I asked Dottie before I left to get the boys settled into their bungalow. I could see there was still some tension about the Hinson bachelor party.
“I’m fine.” She didn’t sound fine, but there wasn’t any way to question her in front of customers, so I left and decided I’d take it up with her later.
“Why don’t you head on down to Bungalow Five. I’ll be right behind you.” I put the items in the golf cart. The bungalows were located at the farthest end of the campground and more nestled into the woods while the concrete pads for the campers were out in the open, with a few lots that had tree coverage.
“Thank you.” William took the keys. “Boys, back in the car.” He lifted his arm in the air and twirled his finger around. They all piled in.
“Y’all sure do have some fancy watches.” I noticed they all looked alike.
“I got them for all the groomsmen as their present for being in my wedding. They even have their initials engraved on the back.” He flipped his off and showed me.
Southerners loved to put their initials on everything. Including shower curtains.
“Be sure you adhere to the fifteen mile an hour speed limit,” I warned him. That was something I’d definitely kick them out of the campground for. We had many families with children and pets, including my Fifi. “I’ll be right behind you. First I have to stop by my own camper.”
They took off in their car and I got into the golf cart. Fall in Love with Kentucky was the theme of the month and honored Labor Day. Dottie loved how she incorporated the fall season in the name. It was one of the most popular seasons at the Daniel Boone National Park. She’d used different camping items to decorate. Canoes, a couple of tents decorated with bobbers and plastic fish, checkered tablecloths, bourbon barrels, and campfires going with a s’more station.
The recreation center had games for everyone including cornhole, horseshoes, and ladder golf, just to name a few. Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys were on the stage singing their hearts out while they played the banjo, guitar, harmonica, and the jug. It was a true bluegrass band that went nicely with the theme.
There were cornstalks with bales of hay all over the place for extra seating. Pumpkins, gourds, and colorful mums filled old tobacco baskets and planters of different sizes.
I pushed down the gas pedal on the golf cart to head on down to my camper. The fresh air filled my lungs and spread a happiness through my body. A few months ago, I’d never imagined myself here, much less the owner. When I found out I was the owner, I’d decided I was going to sell it as fast as I could find a buyer. As I started to get to know the small, southern town of Normal, the more I began to enjoy the slow-paced life surrounded by nature. It was food for the soul and when a buyer did come along, there was no way I could even imagine letting it go. Dottie Swaggert and I, along with many members of the community, had brought Happy Trails back to what it used to be.
For me. . .it was home.
“Hey there, little mama,” I bent down to pet Fifi, my pregnant poodle, when I walked into my camper. “I thought you might need to go potty.”
My eyes dipped down on the corners when I had to help her up. She was so big with the three little ones that she had a hard time holding her tinkle and waddled when she walked. There were times when I didn’t let her out fast enough and she’d pottied on the floor. I never cussed her, but I did call Ethel Biddle’s brown and white pug, Rosco, a few colorful words.
Fifi nudged me with her nose. I picked her up and took her outside to do her business.
“There you are.” Ty Randal was walking in front of the camper. He had on a pair of khaki shorts and a pinstriped blue button up. It was the strange time of day when the sun was setting and the campground was blanketed with a cool breeze. “I’ve not seen you all day. Nice evening we are having.”
“It is gorgeous. We had a few late arrivals. I thought Dottie needed some help.” My heart did a pitter-patter when his blue eyes looked at me. I took advantage of the effects of a nice deep breath of cool air to get me refocused.
“The rowdy boys.” He looked towards the bungalows.
“You heard already?” It was no secret gossip traveled fast around here, but within a couple of minutes?
“The deaf could hear them hooting and hollering all the way down the road.” He ran his hand through his hair. “I hope they don’t cause trouble.”
“Me too.” Although I didn’t think the group was terrible, it was a bachelor party and there was a nigglin’ feeling in my gut they were going to be a little rowdier than our normal group. “They are only here for three days.”
“It’s going to be a beautiful three days for the holiday weekend.” He flashed that gorgeous white smile. “Do you think babies will make it even better?”
“She’s about to pop.” I looked over at Fifi. She was struggling to make it over to a grassy area. “She’s about sixty-three days, which means any day now.”
The veterinarian told me Fifi’s pregnancy would last around 9 weeks. She was already a few days’ pregnant when Tammy Jo Bentley had surrendered the pregnant four-year-old to me. Long story short, I’d done some cleaning for Tammy Jo as a side hustle. When she was held in jail under suspicion of murder, she picked me of all people to take care of Fifi. I didn’t know a thing about dogs – barely did now – but she was in my care. I couldn’t watch her every move so I let Ty’s little brother, Timmy, take her for walks and play with her while I did things around the campground.
It just so happened Ethel and her band were here for another monthly party and she brought Rosco. Timmy thought the two dogs were playing – they obviously weren’t. The problem was that Fifi was insured due to a long line of prestige breeding and one night at Happy Trails had changed that. Tammy Jo was beside herself and since Fifi could no longer carry on the bloodline, she was no use to Tammy. Tammy Jo dropped her off at my camper and left me no room to protest.
Long gone were the days Fifi spent at the spa; she was too busy running around the campground to worry about staying clean. The gourmet meals were long ago replaced with campfire leftovers and whatever dog food was on sale at the grocery store. But she seemed to be doing just fine. She was a happy little stinker who found a place in my entire heart, leaving just a smidge for Ty.
“I guess we better get a date in before you become a grandmother and all your time is taken.” Ty’s smile reached up to his eyes.
“I’d love that.” This would make the fourth date we’ve had, but who was counting? The word date was being used very loosely here. “What were you thinking?”
“How about a nice hike to get in some fall colors before you get too busy to enjoy it?” He was always taking my needs into consideration. It was one of the things that I just adored about him.
“I think it’s perfect. I have tomorrow off. How about tomorrow?” I asked.
“I’ve got to get through the lunch crowd at the diner first,” he said.
Ty had grown up in Normal. His dad, Ron, owned the Normal Diner located downtown. Ty and his dad were chefs. Ty’s mom had died of cancer, leaving Ron to care for Ty’s two younger brothers. Ty was living in San Francisco, working as a head chef in a farm to table restaurant until his father’s last illness, a severe burn to his hands from the fryers at the diner.
He’d always rented a yearly lot from Happy Trails and used it as a vacation spot until he recently moved back full time. Since then, we’d been dancing around the chemistry between us by having a cocktail here, bumping into each other there, and taking a couple of walks. Nothing really big like driving in a car somewhere and that’s what I meant by loosely.
“What if we make it around one p.m.? That way, dad can just do the cleanup,” he suggested.
“It’s perfect. Fifi will be ready to nap and I’ll have my walking shoes on. I’m looking forward to enjoying a little bit of nature.” Something else that took me by surprise after I moved here. I used to hate camping and nature, but now that I’d grown up a little, in my thirties, I’d grown fond of the peacefulness and time spent with myself it offered me.
There was a loud bang coming from the direction of the Bungalow Five.
“I better get them all settled in,” I said to Ty as we said our goodbyes.
I got Fifi settled back into the camper and made sure all her bowls were filled before I left. We didn’t need little mama hungry or thirsty. At this point, I’d fallen in love with the little rascal and I just want her to be safe during this pregnancy.
Once Fifi had laid back down, I walked down to the bungalows. There wasn’t anything going on. The bachelor party and the couple weren’t there and it appeared all was right with the world. I had some hope the initial excitement of the bachelor party had calmed down.
The party was in full swing. By the looks of it, the party was going to go well into the night. Even Dottie Swaggert had joined Ron Randal on the makeshift dance floor in front of the band. On the walk back over to the lake, I noticed campers were taking advantage of the pedal boats, the games near the recreation center and the food.
From a distance, I saw Dottie give a little high five to Mayor Courtney Mackenzie. 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.
At the end of the dock, my friends from The Laundry Club were sitting on the edge with their toes dangling in the water.
Abby Fawn, the Normal County Library librarian and local Tupperware consultant, pushed her long brown hair behind her shoulder and wildly waved me over. She nudged Betts Hager and pointed towards me. Betts brushed her bangs out of her eye. She and Abby were both waving at me. Queenie French smiled when she noticed me.
Betts wore many hats. As if it wasn’t hard enough to be the local preacher’s wife with all the duties that came along with that job, she also cleaned houses and owned The Laundry Club.
The Laundry Club was the laundromat located downtown, but it was much more than just a bunch of washer and dryers. It’d become a place for us to hang out and visit. Betts had made it very cozy and welcoming by adding a coffee station, book club meetings, puzzles, and TVs.
They took me in when I came to town and didn’t deserve the kindness they extended. They truly have been instrumental in my staying in Normal and in the success of Happy Trails.
“Your monthly parties keep getting bigger and bigger.” Betts stood up and pulled the rubber hairband from around her wrist, tugging her long wavy brown hair into a low ponytail.
“I can’t take the credit.” I nodded towards Abby. “If it weren’t for Abby’s genius marketing skills, I’d never been able to get the word out.”
“Oh!” Abby leaned on one side of her hip and took her phone out. She pointed it towards me and Betts. “Smile.”
Betts and I laughed and put our heads together with big smiles on both of our faces.
“Hashtag Happy Trails Campground is a place for hashtag family hashtag vacation with hashtag fun.” Abby tapped away. “I’ve got all my social media accounts tied together so this photo will go everywhere.”
“Wait! Stay there!” There was a familiar voice behind me yelling, followed by heavy footsteps. When I turned around, I saw it was Alison Gilbert.
Alison was the local reporter who wrote for the National Parks of America Magazine and the Normal Gazette. Her heavy 35mm camera hung around her neck and a big bag was strapped across her body. She was in work mode.
“Let me grab a picture for the paper.” She motioned for me and Betts to stick our heads together again. “Say s’mores.”
Betts and I laughed as we did what she told us to do. Slowly, she pulled the camera from her eye and left it near her cheek. I followed her eye that was looking over my shoulder. She was staring at Ranger Corbin Ashbrook, who was standing at the beginning of one of the trails along with Mayor Courtney MacKenzie.
Corbin was one of three forest rangers we had in our area of the Daniel Boone National Forest. During the campground parties, a ranger came around to make sure no one got on the trails and did crazy things after they’d been drinking. There were a lot of dangerous cliffs, drop offs, and ledges in the park. Unfortunately, each hiking season brought unexpected deaths. Luckily, we had good rangers to help keep everyone safe.
I didn’t know a whole lot about Courtney, but I was happy to see her here at the party. We’d extended an invitation every month only to be met with a decline.
“Wonder what’s going on over there?” Betts looked toward the trails. “Shocker.” Betts’s nose curled. “Looks like the Mayor has her nose in it too.”
“Eeee-lection year coming up,” Queenie’s southern drawl pulled out the letters in her word. She pushed the red headband off her brows and up to her forehead. “She knows how to work it.”
“Ugh,” I groaned. “Corbin has a hold on William Hinson. He’s having his bachelor party here.”
“Looks like you’ve got your hands full.” Abby lifted a brow.
“Yeah, I better get over there,” I said after I noticed Alison had already high-tailed it over there, snapping photos.
Betts Hager was a true friend and hurried next to me to help. Or maybe she was there for the gossip. Either way, from the sound of the escalating voices, I could use the backup.
We rushed over as fast as our legs would go. The argument was getting louder and louder, starting to bring attention to themselves and make a scene.
“I just need a bandage,” William spat with a slur. An obvious sign he’d had too much to drink. William jerked away from Corbin. “What’s your problem? You can’t give me a bandage?”
“William.” I tried to get his attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my backup had disappeared.
“Ahem,” Courtney cleared her throat. We made eye contact.
“Mayor,” I said, since she obviously wanted me to note she was there. I’d never met the woman before.
William and Corbin were still in a little scuffle in front of us.
“I see we have a rowdy visitor to our town.” Mayor pinched a no-teeth grin.
“I’m a hardworking American that pays you to hike all day.” William was just getting plain nasty. “You should pay me for allowing you to work here.”
“Okay.” I stepped in. “Let’s get you back to your bungalow.” I grabbed William’s arm. “I’m sorry, Corbin.”
“I’ve done warned him and his friends.” Corbin gave Betts an odd look when she shoved a napkin with a cookie on it in his face. “Peanut butter?”
“Yes. One of the church ladies made it especially for today,” Betts spoke with pride.
“I’m allergic to peanuts,” Corbin said and his jaw loosened. He turned back to me. “I’m not going to haul him in, but you need to keep an eye on that bunch.”
I looked at Betts and mouthed “thank you” because I wasn’t sure if it was her that changed Corbin’s mind with the cookie or because she was the preacher’s wife. Either way, I truly appreciated it.
Alison continued to snap away.
“Seriously, Alison?” I asked. “Are you really wanting photos of this? It doesn’t look good for the community and if you print those, people might not want to come visit or vacation.”
“Mae, don’t be ridiculous,” the mayor said with a laughter. Her jaw tensed. Her eyes narrowed. “Corbin knows this is our busy season.”
“Yes, Mayor. I do, but I have a job to do and if I have to shut down this part of the Daniel Boone National Park, I will,” Corbin said.
I jerked my head up to look at him. Courtney sucked in a deep breath, gave her most perfect smile, and her chest slowly went down as I watched her regain her composure.
“It’s so much more than that.” Courtney and Corbin gave each other a look that told me he knew what she was talking about.
“I’m going back with my friends. I’m getting married.” William winced after he tried to jerk away from my grip where my nails were digging into him.
“No. You’re going to get some sleep.” It wasn’t negotiable.
“Code W.” Corbin said a little too loud, probably wanting to get the last word in since a crowd had gathered to see what all the excitement was about.
“Code W?” William’s head twisted around as I dragged him forward.
“Yeah! Code Wimp is what we call hikers like you.” Corbin laughed harder.
“This is going to happen all the time if you shut down the entire park.” I heard Alison say to Corbin. “Seriously? A drought?”
“Alison, leave it alone. Yep. There you go. Reporting on something that’s not taken place yet.” Corbin was in a bad mood and he wasn’t going to leave anyone alone that approached him, but the word shutdown did catch my attention.
If they shut down the park we’d be in a world of hurt.
“Come on,” William jerked away. “Let me go with my friends,” he whined.
I pointed to the bungalow.
“If you want to be kicked out and end your bachelor party right now, go ahead. But if you want a second chance, then you better go sleep it off,” I said.
He shuffled along side of me with his head hung.
“Listen,” I said after we’d finally made it to the door of the bungalow. “There are no more chances. We are a family campground. We don’t want rowdy and I told your fiancée that when she booked your stay. If you can’t behave like a grown man, I suggest you take your friends elsewhere.”
I wasn’t good at kicking people out, but it was for his own good.
“It can be dangerous up here if you can’t control your liquor intake.” I opened the door for him. “Now, you go in there and sleep this off. I’m going to grab you some food and bring it back.”
With his chin still hanging down, he finally went into the bungalow.
“Listen, don’t bring me any food. I think I just want to sleep like you said.” He shut the door.
On my way back to the party, I could see Dottie had now joined the conversation between Alison and Corbin. Alison wasn’t going to give up. She was relentless. I knew. She’d interviewed me for the National Parks Magazine one time and she dug into my past life where I’d gone through the Kentucky foster care system after a horrible home fire had taken the lives of my parents.
It was a life I had left behind the minute I turned eighteen years old. It was funny how I’d gotten back to Kentucky and no shutdown was going to destroy it. Especially because of a drought.