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Hitches, Hideouts, & Homicide

Book 7 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series

Welcome to Normal, Kentucky~ where nothing is normal.

Everyone in Normal is excited for the Hoe Down to celebrate the opening of the new Old Train Station motel grand opening.

The evening comes to an abrupt end when a lightning storm knocks out all the power. At least, that’s what appears to have knocked out the electricity. But things aren’t always as they appear.

Mae West has a way of sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong and finds herself in a dangerous situation when she finds a treasure map that leads to more than just treasure. . . a dead body!

Hitches, Hideouts, & Homicide

Excerpt

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Chapter One

Why is it that my big mouth always gets me in a little bit of a pickle? Sitting in the passenger seat of Betts Hager’s cleaning van at five a.m. was definitely not how I intended to spend my morning. Leave it to my big mouth.

The cleaning supplies and tools rattled in the back of Betts’s van, not giving me a moment of silence to close my eyes for a little more sleep. The van hugged the side of the asphalt along the curvy road on our way through the Daniel Boone National Park in Normal, Kentucky, to the north side of town off Fawn Road where the Old Train Station Motel was located.

“You know we wouldn’t be in this situation if you hadn’t opened your big mouth down at Cute-icles.” Betts reminded me of the conversation I’d had with Coke Ogden while I was getting my manicure at Cute-icles, the only salon in Normal.

“She said she needed a cleaning service.” I groaned. “At the time, you were looking for more work, and I referred my friend. How was I to know she meant the old train station?”

Recently, Coke had bought the rundown place and had renovated it into a motel.

“I appreciate you telling her about me, but you don’t know Coke Ogden yet. She can be a pill.” Betts was right. “Besides, I only clean houses. Not motels.”

I was still new to the area, like almost two years now, and I did know most of the citizens. Just not Coke. It wasn’t like Normal was a big city, like New York City, where I’d moved from.

“Just drop me off, and I’ll do the cleaning.” I wasn’t in the mood to hear Betts fussing at me all day. “Or you can just think of it as a mansion.” It sounded like a good reasoning tactic.

“Ten rooms? Ten bathrooms? Ten toilets?” Betts questioned. “There’s no way you can get that many rooms ready in time for tomorrow night’s big hoedown. And the rest of the motel. I’m not mad. I’m just saying you could’ve been sleeping in if it weren’t for Coke.”

There was a tone in Betts’s voice that made me push myself up in the seat and glance over at her. “What’s the deal with you and Coke?” I reached over and grabbed my coffee thermos full of liquid life and took a sip. Followed up by a gulp.

“She’s just so gossipy, and I’m still a little raw from you know what.” Betts shrugged, hands gripping the steering wheel as she stared straight ahead.

Betts had just gone through a terrible divorce that we didn’t talk about much. At the time, she was left with one income and devastated. That was why I suggested Coke use Betts’s cleaning service. Only I thought it was going to be that week not a few months later.

“Don’t give her anything to gossip about.” It seemed like a good suggestion on my part. “We will keep our heads down, clean, and get out.”

“That all sounds good, but you don’t know Coke.” Betts turned off Fawn Road. To the right was the entrance of the only motel in Normal. “If you don’t watch it, she’ll be gunning for your customers.” Betts looked over and raised a brow.

My heart jumped. I never thought a motel in Normal would take away the tourists that rent my renovated mini campers and bungalows at the Happy Trails Campground.

My campground.

“We just have to make sure Abby Fawn does more of her social media marketing for me.” I winked over the steam coming out of the mouth of the thermos. “Fawn Road.” I laughed. “Abby Fawn.”

Abby Fawn was a good friend and the librarian of Normal County Library. She was a whiz at social media and had been instrumental in helping put Normal back on the map for one of the best tourist towns in Kentucky.

“Her family actually owned a lot of this land before their big bankruptcy,” Betts told me.

I knew nothing about that. “What?” I asked and took another drink of hot coffee from the thermos.

“I guess you don’t know all the history of Normal since you didn’t grow up here.” Betts pulled the van up to the front of the old train station and parked.

The massive concrete station was beautiful, framed by the dramatic backdrop of the mountains of the national park. I would say Coke Ogden had a hit on her hands. From what I remember reading about when I first moved here, there was a set of beginning trails on the back of her property that were some of the hardest trails and climbs of the area. Those were the most appealing to tourists who came to Normal for the hiking.

Right in the middle of the structure was a domed, circular open courtyard area with six massive concrete pillars holding up a dramatic patina metal roof with a rooster weather vane. The one-level covered structure jutted equally out on both sides of the dome with five doors on each side with those same big concrete pillars standing tall and ornate.

“Those must be the rooms.” Betts pointed toward some doors with brass numbers on them. “I’m glad I brought the brass cleaner because those really need to be shined up.” She let out a long sigh. “It’s going to be a long day.”

Betts and I jumped out. I followed her lead and met her at the back of the van, where she already had the double doors open. I dragged two buckets of cleaning supplies to the edge.

“Good morning!” Coke Ogden stood underneath the spotlight that hung from one of the pillars. “Glad to see you’re here to get an early start.”

I peeked around the back van door and waved to her. Coke was an odd bird. She looked as though she’d stepped right off the Mary Tyler Moore set with her colored blond hair parted down the middle and flipped up around the edges. It was hard not to stare. I just wanted to know how it stayed perfectly in place. She wore a black headband that kept the shoulder length hairdo off her face. She had petite bird-like features and a tiny frame to match. Bermuda shorts swallowed her legs. Her long-sleeved, mint-green cardigan was buttoned to the top and a matching silk scarf was knotted around her neck.

“The outside looks great,” I noted of what I could see in the van headlights when we drove up. I grabbed the bucket with one hand and the vacuum with the other.

“Thanks.” Coke walked to the back of the van. “Do you need help?”

“I think we have it,” Betts said as she pulled her shoulder-length, wavy hair in a low ponytail using the black band she took from around her wrist.

We turned around when an old pickup truck pulled in next to us. The inside light popped on when a man in a cowboy hat opened the door. He held it open with one booted foot and grabbed a rope hanging on his gun rack on the back window.

“Howdy.” He looked at us from underneath his hat.

“Jay Russel, this is Mae West and Betts Hager. They’re here to make sure everything is all tidy before the big day.” The tone in her voice caught my attention. It seemed like she was giving him more of a warning than a casual introduction.

“Is that right?” He slid his eyes between me and Betts. “Hmm, I know Betts.” He gave her the sympathetic smile I noticed a lot of people gave her. “Down at the church functions and all.”

“Yes,” Betts said in a low voice. “Nice to see you.”

We stood there waiting for Jay to say something more, but he simply walked away and around the motel.

“Don’t mind him. He’s not really happy with me.” Coke laughed. “This was his family’s property and had been for sale for years.”

“Yeah.” Betts shook her head. “I remember seeing the broken-down realtor sign in the front acre.”

“I’m talking twenty years or more.” Coke led the way through the courtyard of the motel with us following her. “Jay has his business in the stables. He teaches competition riding. You know, rodeo, barrel roping, and things of that nature. After I bought the place, I told him he was going to have find another stable and riding ring because I’m turning the stables into a wedding venue.”

“Wedding venue. That’d be nice.” Betts stopped in the middle of the courtyard and looked up, causing me to look up.

The courtyard was open to the sky, exposing the variations of blue in anticipation of the sunrise that would wake up the tourist town around seven a.m.

The crescent moon and stars were visible, and the view was breathtaking.

“Wow. This is amazing.” I twirled around while I looked up. “It’s like we are in one of those planetariums.”

Memories of Paul, my con-ex-now-dead husband, had taken me to Hayden Planetarium in New York City for a romantic dinner under the stars. He’d actually rented out the entire building just for us. Even though he was in the middle of conning people out of their retirement, which I didn’t know about, it was actually very romantic. Even for a crook.

The city lights were too bright to ever see stars or even the moon. I’d told him so many stories about me growing up in Kentucky and how the stars were the only light I had needed at night. It was one thing I had missed about Kentucky. He had been eager to give it back to me.

“I’m very excited about the guests using this area. I’ve got some very expensive telescopes being installed today just for the guests to enjoy such magnificent views.” Coke broke the memories in my head and brought me back to the conversation. “Anyways, I’ve done a pretty good cleaning over the past few months while the contractors worked on all the structures. I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty or anything.”

“Where do you want us to start today?” Betts was done with the chitchat and ready to get started.

“Move it!” Out of the darkness of the opposite side of the courtyard, a  guy appeared, barreling through us, knocking me off balance. He ran so fast, the only thing I could see was a round compass bouncing up and down on the backpack strapped on the person’s back.

Luckily it didn’t hurt when I fell down because I had enough padding on my backside. There was a second-long glimpse of the guy when he turned to look at me as if he wanted to see if I was okay. There was a little trickle of blood from the corner of his left eye.

Betts and Coke stood with their mouths open, watching the man run past them.

“I told you that if I caught you here again, you’d regret it!” Jay quickly followed with his shotgun in hand. “You’re mine now!”

He stopped, shouldered the shotgun, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The shot rang out so loud that on instinct I threw my arms over my head in fear a stray bullet would hit me even though he wasn’t aiming at me.

“What on earth is going on?” Coke screamed. Her voice carried in the courtyard. “Jay! Stop that right now,” she cried out after Jay had fired off a few more shots.

“Don’t you get in the middle of this, Coke,” he warned with a fiery look in his eyes. “If I don’t stop them right now, you’ll be the one doing it.”

He dropped the gun and looked over at me.

“You alright?” he asked. A pool of blood, not yet congealed, trickled from his head. He walked over and stuck his hand out to help me up.

“I’m fine.” I pushed my long, curly, brown hair out of my face and reached out to take his hand.

“You sure don’t look like Mae West or even resemble her.” He used his other hand to motion around my hair. “You got brown hair, and it’s all wiry and stuff.”

“I’m not sure if you’re trying to compliment me or insult me, but I choose to keep my mouth shut while you’ve got that gun in your hand.” My eyes focused on the gun.

“Call Hank,” Betts told me to call my boyfriend, who just so happens to be a detective with the Normal Sheriff’s Department.

“Hank Sharp?” Jay used the tip of his gun to push up the edge of his hat. “I’ve known Hank since he was an itty-bitty boy. He can’t do nothing here.”

We all jerked around at the sound of footsteps coming from the direction where the other person had run. Surely, the person hadn’t come back. Jay drew his shotgun back to his shoulder and stared down the barrel.

“Geez, Lee.” Jay put the shotgun down. “You about had a hole put through you.”

“What on earth is going on?” Lee asked.

I didn’t recognize the older man. He had a long goatee but was bald as could be on top. He wore a pair of overalls and work boots. “You better get those glasses checked because you can’t see a thing if you didn’t know it was me.”

“I recognized you just fine when you walked in here. I just had to scare off one of them free loaders. You know them kind that come around here strumming their guitars and smoking that weed.”

I couldn’t help but smile, listening to the other man’s thick accent.

“Enough of this chatty business.” Coke looked nervous and clearly wanted us off the subject. “Jay, get into the kitchen, and I’ll get you cleaned up.” She gestured to the blood that had dripped on the marble floor of the courtyard where Jay was standing. “You two can start by cleaning this mess up. And you—” Coke pointed to Lee. “You go on down to the stables and wait for him. In fact, you can help him pack up.”

Coke jerked Jay by the sleeve and dragged him off to the right side of the courtyard and into a door with a red caboose on it.

“Ladies,” Lee nodded, turning back to where he’d come from.

Betts and I stood there in silence, both of us still a smidgen stunned at what took place.

“I’m going to need more coffee,” I joked after I heard a car door slam and drive off since I figured Lee was heading to the stables like Coke had told him.

“Caboose Diner. Cute.” Betts shrugged and picked a spray bottle out of her cleaning bucket.

“That’s all you have to say?” I gave her a wry look. “I mean Jay was just shooting at someone. He has a gash in his head.”

“I told you to call Hank, and you just stood there, so I’m guessing we let those two handle it.” She nodded toward the diner where we could see Coke and Jay having a knock-down drag-out fight of their own.

 

 

TWO
Betts took the rooms on the right side of the courtyard, and I took the rooms on the left side to clean. The rooms were pretty much decorated all the same and in a unique fashion. The three globe-shaped pole lights that had been used in the old train station had been rebuilt and were now used as the lighting in the rooms.

The rooms were big enough for a queen bed along with a dresser and desk as well as an en suite sitting room. The tubs were claw footed, and the sinks were pedestals with hardware to match the era in which the train station had been used.

After I read the inscribed gold plates with the station history Coke had made and screwed into the wall, I glanced out one of the two windows out at the national park. My thoughts had me wondering how safe it was for a train to go in and out of the mountainous area of the park before I noticed Jay in the ring, whistling a horse to go in and out of barrels with what appeared to be a child sitting on top.

I watched in awe as he circled the lasso on the sideline while he gave directions to the rider. It was fascinating to see such a majestic creature, the horse, perform such tricks with the single flick of the rider’s heel or a gentle tug on the reins.

I’d never been around horses. They intimidated me. I was sure I could probably blame it on Mary Elizabeth always telling me at the local county fair: “Don’t walk behind that horse. It’ll throw a buck and hit you in the face.” That image of my face having a hoofprint on it for the rest of my life was not an image I ever wanted to dwell on. So I made sure I steered clear of any horse. If that wasn’t enough to put the fear of a horse in me, I had no idea what was.

All the rooms on my side of the courtyard appeared to have been thoroughly cleaned, down to the bed skirt that was tugged with no wrinkles left to pull out.

Like we told Coke we would do, I ran the dust rag over the baseboards and the tops of the furniture, ran the vacuum, and re-bleached the entire bathroom.

Coke had put a mason jar of fresh sunflowers and fillers on each bedside table, and I made sure to fill them with water before I finished cleaning. They’d still be nice and perky for the guests arriving later today or even tomorrow before the hoedown she was hosting for the grand opening.

Betts was finishing up the last room on her side as I put my cleaning supplies in the back of the van.

“I’m going to go watch Jay work with one of his clients at the stables.” I peeked my head in the guest room and told Betts, “Yell for me when you’re ready to go.”

She waved the feather duster at me to go on.

The sun was dipping in and out of the low-lying clouds. Long gone were the stars and moon. Off in the distance, the clouds were a little darker and were pushing toward us. I pulled out my cell and checked the weather. The app showed partly cloudy and lightning bolts with rain drops later in the day.

There were men unloading bales of hay and bourbon barrels from the back end of a flatbed. They hauled them into the barn located right behind the motel where Coke had designated the location for the hoedown. The barn doors were open, inviting me to take a gander around the place. I kept out of the way of the workers who were placing all the tables around the perimeter and putting the empty bourbon barrels in the middle of the barn to use as bar top tables. The inside of the barn had been brought back to life, but I could tell the integrity of the place was left.

In back of the barn there was a dance floor and a stage. There were already microphone stands and big speakers in place. A big American flag hung from the rafters at the far end of the barn. Red and white buffalo-checked tablecloths were lain over the long banquet tables. Fold out chairs were placed on each side of them. There was plenty of seating, which made me believe Coke was expecting a big crowd.

Each table had a mason jar in the middle, where I was sure Coke was going to put flowers in them like she’d done in all the rooms. Coke was sparing no expense, and it made my heart soar to think of the pride she’d taken in the old train station like I’d done with the run-down campground.

The sound of whistling followed up by some hooting and hollering from outside the barn caught my attention and put me back in the frame of mind of why I was back here: to watch Jay in action with that horse.

The stable wasn’t too far from the barn but a good enough distance away that I couldn’t smell the natural scent of the horses and what they left in their stalls. When I walked into the barn, there were at least five stables on each side with a horse sticking its head out of the bars. All their big brown eyes stared at me, making me a bit uncomfortable.

The doors at the far end of the barn were open, and I could see Jay out there with the rider I’d seen from the guest room window. Images of a horse kicking me in the face forced me to rethink my way to the ring where I wanted to watch Jay give the lesson, so I headed back out of the barn and walked around instead of going through.

“Can I help you?” Lee asked.

“I don’t think we were formally introduced earlier this morning.” I put my hand out. He took it, and I gave him a solid handshake. “I’m Mae West. I own Happy Trails Campground.”

“I recognize you from the newspaper and how you received the key to the city a few months back.” He looked me over. “What are you doing out here with Betts?”

“Betts owns a little cleaning side hustle, and I was helping her. Coke hired her.” I didn’t get into the particulars. It wasn’t necessary. “Is Jay okay?” I tapped my forehead, referring to Jay’s forehead where the bandage was.

“He’s a tough old coot.” Lee lifted his chin. “He’ll be fine.”

Jay had moved to the opposite side of us near another horse that was tied up. The horse nudged Jay, and Jay nudged back in a playful way. He even took something out of his pocket and let the horse nibble on it. It was a beautiful spotted horse. Not like the others that were brown.

“Do you know what the problem was this morning?” I asked and put my foot up on the bottom rung of the fence. I followed Lee’s example and leaned my elbows on the top rung, leaning in. I wanted to know if the guy was really causing trouble by staying the night in the barn because Jay went to a lot of trouble to chase the guy and shoot at him. Though he did say to Coke that if he didn’t take care of it while he was there, she’d have to.

“I’m sure you get unwanted hikers at your campground,” he said but kept his eyes on what was going on in the ring with the horse. “No different anywhere else in Normal. We get it all the time at my barn.”

I’m sure there were some unwanted campers, but I was of the mindset that if they needed some shelter for a night or were just passing through and weren’t bothering anyone, it didn’t bother me. I decided to change the subject.

“Is that your granddaughter?” I asked about the young rider on the horse and why Lee was here watching.

“Granddaughter?” He laughed. “Mae West, you sure do ask a lot of questions.”

“Just being friendly. I have a few minutes to kill and decided to come back here and take a look at what Jay did for a living.” It was probably my time to go.

“Nope.” His one-word answer came out of his mouth with force.

“Nope, what?” I asked.

“Not my granddaughter. She’s a potential client.” He nodded toward the kid who had on a helmet, a short-sleeved brown shirt, a light pair of riding pants, and brown boots.

“Isn’t that Jay’s client?” I didn’t follow him, but he did have my curiosity up.

“Jay is going to be out of commission until he can get all his equipment moved. Parents have spent a lot of money entertaining their kids in summer fair contests. They can’t wait for Jay to decide what he’s doing and let any time pass.” He slid his glance toward me and smiled. “That’s not how it works around here, darling. Besides, Sarah is on track to win a lot of competitions that come with many rewards for the trainer. Her parents need to make a move fast and not rely on Jay.”

“Why didn’t he start making plans after Coke had bought the place?” I wondered and watched Sarah take off her riding helmet when Jay walked over to her and gave her some instructions. Immediately, I recognized her from when I’d done a little substitute teaching at the Normal High School.

“You obviously don’t know Coke’s relationship with Jay. They have never seen eye to eye on things. I wouldn’t doubt if she bought the place just to stick it to him.” There was a bit of a distasteful tone in his voice that caught my attention. Almost as if he were jealous of Jay and the talent Sarah appeared to have. “Coke told him about three weeks ago, and all the rentals have been taken up by others who want to get in on the summer fairs like I told you.”

I guess he saw the confusion on my face because he continued, “Kentucky has a lot of county fairs that have horse competitions. All kinds of them.” He rotated his wrists but kept his forearms on the wood rung. “The winner qualifies for national competitions over the rest of the summer months. But you have to start somewhere. Some parents hire big name trainers from around the United States. They rent them a stable and pay for a place to live.”

“That seems a little much.” I snickered but stopped when he looked at me as serious as could be.

Betts yelled for me. I turned around. She was standing at the side of the motel, waving me to come back.

“There’s big money in it and scholarships for the kids.” He used his hands to push off the rails. “I’m guessing you’ve got to be somewhere?”

“Back to the campground.” I smiled and shoved off. “Good luck.”

“Yeah.” He looked down at me. “Nice to meet you, Mae West.”

After I’d walked toward the motel a short distance away from the stable, I glanced over my shoulder to get one more look at the lesson Jay was giving. Jay held the reins of the horse he was petting, but Sarah and her horse were no longer in the ring.

Lee was still there. And by the intense look on Jay’s face as he approached Lee, I could tell something was brewing between them. When Lee coughed up a big spit ball and winged it toward Jay’s feet, I knew something had brewed.

 

end of excerpt

Hitches, Hideouts, & Homicide

is available in the following formats:

May 28, 2019

ISBN-13: 978-1799226567

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