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Insects, Ivy, & Investigations

Book 17 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series

Welcome to Normal, Kentucky where NOTHING is normal.

Alicia Becker shows up at the screen door of The Milkery beaten, bruised, and claims to be one of Mary Elizabeth Moberly’s foster children.

Mae West’s suspicion of why Alicia is there turns to an investigation after Alicia is found on a nearby hiking trail standing over the lifeless body of Craig Sutton. Who is Craig Sutton?

Craig Sutton is Alicia Becker’s con-ex-boyfriend.

Mae and the Laundry Club Ladies can’t help but wonder if Craig’s death was self-defense, though Alicia swears she didn’t kill him. Or was Alicia set up?

Grab your bug spray and camping equipment. Mae West and Laundry Club Ladies are ’bout to put their sleuthing skills back to the test.

 

Insects, Ivy, & Investigations

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Chapter One

There were times when I had wished Mary Elizabeth Moberly had another foster girl when I was living with her. Living with her was the key. Not after I had grown up, gotten married, gotten divorced, almost went to jail, and inherited a run-down campground. Not only had I got the campground up and running with the income in the black, I also helped the economy in Normal, Kentucky thrive with the help of some friends. This was twelve years after I’d left Mary Elizabeth.

So when a woman with stringy, greasy, black hair and matching black-and-blue bruises around both eyes stood in the doorway of the Milkery, the bed-and-breakfast Mary Elizabeth owned in Normal, claiming to be Mary Elizabeth’s other foster daughter, call me a little leery.

That’s what a life of uncertainty did to me. It made me leery of everyone who crossed my path, and I wasn’t claiming that to be a good trait. It wasn’t. In fact, it was an awful one.

Many times at night, I begged to wake up the next day with an attitude of everyone was kindhearted until they proved me wrong. But life had not done that to me, making me a wee-bit hard-hearted, as they say in Kentucky, and people had to prove they were kind and good.

After my ex-now-dead-husband, Paul West, had proved to me that words were just words and actions did speak louder than those words, it put my guard up on just why someone, after all of these years, would try to come back into someone’s life.

Let’s take Alicia Becker, for instance. Yep, she was the skinny chick that had waltzed right on into the screen door of the Milkery with a face that someone had had the pleasure of knocking around on and who proclaimed she was Mary Elizabeth’s long-lost foster daughter.

“Really, Mae?” I questioned myself and beat the steering wheel with the palm of my hand on my way back to Happy Trails Campground. “You are questioning what Mary Elizabeth did when you up and climbed out the bedroom window as soon as the clock struck the actual time you were born on your eighteenth birthday?”

So I talked to myself. I did that a lot growing up, hence the no other girls in Mary Elizabeth’s home. It was also due to the fact that my pride got in my way a lot, and I never really wanted to dump my problems on anyone. I was a fix-it girl. Today, I was bound and determined to fix this Alicia character and find out what she wanted.

I snorted and gripped the wheel, glancing over at Fifi, my miniature poodle and constant companion.

“What do you think?” I asked her. She wagged her tail before she got up and looked out the window as I took the right turn to head up the long drive to the campground where we lived and that I owned, located deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Fifi propped herself up on her hind legs and pawed at the passenger-side window, her way of telling me to roll it down so she could stick her nose out for some fresh air.

“We could use some fresh air.” I hit the automatic window buttons on the side of my door handle to make all four windows in the old Ford Focus roll down,

I sucked in a few deep breaths and slowly drove up toward the campground. The warm sunny day had dried out the gravel drive, making the gravel spit up under the tires and ping off the bottom of my car, a common sound around these parts. It was expensive to get blacktop, and with the campground so far off the main road, it wasn’t cost-effective. But that was the least of my problems.

“Alicia Becker,” I groaned under my breath and drove straight past the campground office with my eyes set on Bobby Ray Bond’s bungalow that was on the far side of the huge lake that was located in the middle of Happy Trails Campground.

“Where you goin’?” Dottie Swaggert was sitting in one of the chairs located outside of the office with it reclined back on its two hind legs, her skinny legs dangling and smoke billowing out of her mouth like a freight train. “May-bell-ine!” she hollered again and wobbled the chair down to all fours. “Hey!”

I threw my hand out the window to let her know that I saw her and that I’d be back since it was time for me to relieve her from work. Dottie was my office manager, and she had worked the early shift at the campground office this morning while I went to visit Mary Elizabeth.

We were having a good time too. We were baking and laughing, like a mother and daughter liked to do together. It was going great. I cherished those times, probably because I had spent the better part of the past two years making up to her for being such a pill when I was a teenager and she actually took me in after my family had died in a horrific house fire.

I liked to use the excuse that my attitude was teenage angst, but in reality, I was mad and confused and just plain angry.

Today was a good day. Until Alicia Becker had showed up.

“Come on.” I pulled right behind Bobby Ray’s truck in the concrete pad next to the bungalow where I let him live for free, and threw the car in park. “You can run around.”

Fifi jumped over the console and waited on my lap for me to open my door. She bolted out of the car and headed straight for the lake, where the ducks where minding their own business. That just ticked Fifi off to no end, and she had to ruin it by jumping in.

I liked to think, for the poor ducks, Fifi thought she was one of them or they were her friends. But that wasn’t the truth. The truth of the matter was Fifi took pleasure in swimming toward them, chasing them while her yippy bark caused them to scatter in all directions.

“That’s gonna cost me a bath.” My eyes narrowed when I noticed the dog’s white fur was already taking on a little bit of the moss that looked to have formed on top of the lake.

I made a mental note to see Henry Bryant, Happy Trails’s handyman, about the irrigation in the lake and to make sure it was working properly. I’d spent too much money on it for it to be messed up, and it was only a few years old. Besides, the campground was full now that spring had sprung, and the guests sure didn’t pay for a mucky lake to laze around in.

Seeing Henry was going to have to wait.

I slammed the car door and stalked up to the door, giving it a hard knock before I turned the knob and walked in.

Something I normally did.

“Bobby Ray, who is—” My mouth closed and my eyes grew big when I saw Bobby Ray bent down on one knee with a little box opened in front of Abby Fawn. Abby’s shoulders dropped, and Bobby Ray hung his head. I gulped. “Alicia Becker?”

 

Chapter Two

I closed my eyes and took a step backward, easing out of the bungalow and slowly closing the door.

I squeezed my eyes shut harder when I heard heavy, angry-sounding footsteps making their way toward the door before it flung open. Bobby Ray, my foster brother and Mary Elizabeth’s foster son, stood like a big bear, equipped with a snarl on his face.

“You’ve done gone and ruined the moment for both of us now, so you might’s well come on in.” His twangy accent held a smidgen of anger. He swung the door open, and Abby Fawn, who just so happened to be one of my best friends, stood behind him, admiring the big fat diamond on her finger.

The diamond I’d given him to make into a ring because Bobby Ray didn’t have two cents to rub together, but I loved him and Abby to death. Both of them were hardworking and in love, so it didn’t matter that they didn’t have a dime to their name. I knew they’d make it.

“I’m sorry. I should’ve knocked.” Not that we ever knocked on each other’s doors—we didn’t. He even had a key to my camper, so he darn well came in whenever he wanted to. I was fine with it.

“Can you believe it?” Abby squealed and ran over to me to show me the ring he’d gone and had a jeweler set the diamond in. “He said it’s a perfect diamond. Those are rare,” Abby gushed.

“I love it. Congratulations.” I smiled and hugged her, knowing that they were already engaged but without a ring, though she didn’t know I knew because Bobby Ray was the one who actually had told me a week or so ago.

I couldn’t recall the exact day, but I had had that loose diamond in my storage container that was sent here by Stanley, Paul’s lawyer after Paul had gone to jail. I had not packed it, but after going through some of the boxes Stanley had sent, I had come to realize Stanley had planted a few things in there, no doubt making it a little more comfortable for me. It appeared to have been one of the diamonds Paul had gotten me when we’d gone on a trip to the Swiss Alps. I had thought it was seized by the government after Paul was hauled off to federal prison after he’d taken the entire country for a wild ride on a little Ponzi scheme.

Needless to say, Paul was no longer among the living, and I had no problem getting rid of that part of my history, diamond included.

Plus, seeing how happy it made Bobby Ray, since he did help me escape out of the bedroom window on my birthday, made all the difference in the world to me.

Only, I’d ruined the big moment. Yeah, they might’ve been engaged, but not with a ring and a gorgeous diamond.

“This is beautiful.” I held Abby’s hand in mine and noticed the setting was simple and exactly what Abby would love. “You did good, Bobby Ray. Welcome to the family, sis.”

“Oh, I’ve always wanted a sister.” Abby threw her arms around me, and we hugged tighter.

“Me, too, until Alicia Becker strolled through Mary Elizabeth’s door with what appears to be a two-for-one black eye.” I shot my stare at Bobby Ray from over top of Abby’s shoulder as she rocked back and forth with me still in her arms.

“Alicia Becker is here?” Bobby Ray’s reaction was one of shock and awe. He ran his hand long the top of his increasing bald spot and shook his head in disbelief. “I’m shocked she’s still alive.”

“Wait.” I uncurled myself from my future sister-in-law’s grip. “Are you telling me that she is a real person that Mary Elizabeth took in? And not some yee-who that saw Mary Elizabeth is doing well and is here to mooch off of her?” I marched over to him. “She’s pretty beat up, and she refused to call for Jerry Truman,” I said, mentioning the sheriff by name. “And she didn’t want me to call Hank.” I threw my hands up in the air and twirled around to look at Abby, realizing I’d totally and completely ruined the moment yet again by rambling on about Alicia Becker.

“But don’t worry about that. You two kids have fun! Celebrate!” I threw my hands up to my mouth. “I have to throw an engagement party. Here. At the campground. It will be so great. The weather is wonderful. It’s a perfect time of the year. We have to. Everyone in Normal will be invited.”

The more I talked, the more I could see Abby’s face getting brighter and brighter with the idea.

“And we can have Violet Rhinehammer do a piece in the Normal Gazette on the society page.” My jaw dropped at the fun ideas coming my way. “And a swan. I can rent a swan for the lake.”

“Umm.” Bobby Ray stepped in. “Aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourself here? We just got engaged.”

“Don’t give me that bull malarkey.” My head jerked toward him. “This is something Abby and every girl has planned as soon as they come out of their mama’s womb, so don’t sit there and say it’s a little early.”

“I’d love it,” Abby squealed and bounced on the tips of her toes. “I have to get started now.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket and rushed over to Bobby Ray. “Selfie time.”

Abby Fawn was quicker than a teenager with her phone. Before I could even take my next breath, she’d already taken their engagement selfie, put it on social media, and hash-tagged the heck out of it.

“It’s out there now that Bobby Ray is no longer the most eligible bachelor in Normal, Kentucky.” Abby went back to admiring her ring before she started to take photos of it.

In the meantime, while she was occupied, Bobby Ray came back over to me.

“Tell me exactly what Alicia said.” His tone set off my natural instincts, which were pretty good. In fact, I felt like my intuition was one of my better qualities. “Don’t leave out anything.”

Mmmkay, I thought to myself before I really questioned him, I’ll play along. After all, if this Alicia was here to scam Mary Elizabeth, I was going to be the one to stop her in her tracks before she got started.

“What is it you have on her?” I asked Bobby Ray after I gave him a general recap of what had happened.

“Nothing. She was just always trouble. I mean, more-than-you trouble. Mary Elizabeth had spent a lot of money getting her out of jail, sending her to rehab. She stole things. I mean you just raised holy hell. This girl, well,” he shuffled his feet, “she was just bad news all the way around. And she was already hooked up with the wrong crowd before she got placed in Mary Elizabeth’s home. But how did she find Mary Elizabeth?”

There were so many questions I had about this whole situation, but Bobby Ray’s question trumped mine.

“I have no idea.” I sucked in a deep breath. My heart started to beat a little faster at the thought of this woman showing up and taking Mary Elizabeth to the bank if she was here to get money. “But you telling me that she was always in and out of major trouble really does make me mad. Do you think she’s here for money?”

“If she didn’t want to call the cops, why else is she here? Unless she really does want to get away from Craig.”

“Who’s Craig?” I asked with a vested interest. “She never mentioned a Craig.”

Bobby Ray looked back to see who was calling Abby.

“It’s Betts.” She smiled so big before she answered it. “Can you believe it?” she screamed into the phone. “Mmhmmm, and Mae is going to throw us an engagement party.”

Bobby Ray turned to look at me.

“I’ll deal with that in a minute. Right now I need to know exactly who Alicia is and what she could possibly be doing here.” I shifted my weight and put my hands on my hips.

“She came to live with us after Mary Elizabeth had given up on you coming back or even getting into contact with us. They had drove Kenny Jolly’s mama crazy about where you went because they’d gotten word someone had seen him coming back from the bus stop after letting you out.” Bobby Ray mentioned Kenny, who was a young man from high school who was in my past, who gave me a lift to the bus station after Bobby Ray wouldn’t.

I was grateful to Bobby Ray because he was the one who gave me the money for the ticket and a little extra. I couldn’t be mad at him when he had told me he was going to have no part of the shenanigans of leaving on a bus and never coming back.

“Keep going.” I hurried him along.

“She had parents, but I think they were drinkers. Maybe her mama got into some trouble and put in the local jail. If I recall, her daddy didn’t want her, so she came to Mary Elizabeth in a bad way. You know.” He tapped his temple. “Kinda messed up in the head.”

“What ever happened to her?” I asked.

“She was a fistful of trouble for Mary Elizabeth, but she was also like a stray. Mary Elizabeth of course helped.” I smiled at Bobby Ray’s compliment of Mary Elizabeth. Mary Elizabeth never turned anyone or any animal away. Not even a fly. She would say that everything and everyone had a mama.

“Alicia was around fifteen, and she wouldn’t bother sneaking out. She’d just walk out the front door with Mary Elizabeth barking after her. She would simply give Mary Elizabeth the finger and keep walking.” A big sigh escaped him. “Mary Elizabeth almost had her fill after Alicia had come home from school one day, though she didn’t go to school much. Ended up the nurse had called Mary Elizabeth because Alicia was five months pregnant and sick or something.”

My eyes rounded. I obviously was a little shocked because I’d not been privy to this gossip.

“Don’t look so shocked. She wasn’t the first kid in Mary Elizabeth’s care that got pregnant.” He shrugged. “I just had to work extra hours to cover all the mouths.”

“So did Alicia have the baby? I guess the baby would be like eleven years old.” I quickly calculated the math in my head.

“She sure is.” Bobby Ray nodded. “Mary Elizabeth went to see her when you were in Perrysburg to investigate your family’s death. Barbara? Doris Jean’s daughter is Alicia’s baby.”

“Wait.” I shook my head like I was trying to sort through all the memories and thoughts so they’d fall into place. “What?”

“Yeah. Mary Elizabeth drove down there, remember?” He gave me a hard look.

I was having trouble concentrating.

“She never mentioned anything about seeing anyone or a child.” I gulped.

“She did. Apparently, Alicia’s daughter went in foster care. Mary Elizabeth sent money to the foster mother every month to pay for things like grammar school, etiquette lessons, and—” He rattled off a litany of classes that I was familiar with because Mary Elizabeth had had me go to them too. “Doris Jean had been volunteering for community service at the time. She was of legal age, so she wanted to adopt the baby. You know Mary Elizabeth. She told the case worker she’d sponsor Doris Jean.”

“I guess she is going to save one lost child at a time and beat the southern manners book in them,” he teased, but in truth it was not false.

“Alicia never cleaned up and got her daughter back?” I asked. “Even after the adoption?”

“Nope. Alicia never asked and didn’t want the baby. She ran off. In the middle of the night.” His words made my legs go spongy.

Alicia sounded exactly like me. My heart fell. Poor Mary Elizabeth. She didn’t deserve that at all.

“Craig gave Mary Elizabeth a lot of trouble. After Mary Elizabeth had tracked Alicia down at some scummy drug house in the woods, Craig drew a gun on Mary Elizabeth.” I put my hand up to stop him from talking, but he continued. “That’s when I tracked down Craig, because he was a regular at the shop, always looking for cars to fix up and that sort of stuff.”

Bobby Ray was the world’s best mechanic, in my opinion. He’d gone to trade school for it and had worked in a local garage when I was growing up. He was always so kind to everyone, and it sounded like he was kind to this Craig fellow.

Bobby Ray gnawed on his lip. I could tell he was getting angry at remembering the story. He was taking deep breaths and looking away as he finished telling me what happened. “I told him I had a free muffler for that beat-up piece-of-junk car he drove, and he came to pick it up. I beat the living snot out of him. Whipped him good.”

He stopped, licked his lips, and ran his hand over his nose and mouth before he looked down it at me.

“Oh. My. Gosh.” I felt like I was going to be sick. The thought of someone doing that terrified me, but the idea that Alicia put Mary Elizabeth in danger didn’t sit well either. “What if she’s putting Mary Elizabeth in danger right now?”

“I don’t know. I’ll go over there before I go to the garage. I’m sure Joel will understand.” He was talking about the owner of Grassel’s Garage, where he worked, Joel Grassel.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Nothing. I hadn’t even thought about him because they never came back. So when Alicia turned up here, I think we were so shocked. She always brings trouble.” The edges of his lips turned down along with the corner of his eyes.

“But you said Mary Elizabeth still funds the child.” I had no idea she did this.

“Mary Elizabeth funds all the kids she’s had. Don’t you know that?” he questioned me.

“No. I had no idea.” I sucked in a deep breath. “So she’d seen Barbara when we were in Perrysburg. No wonder she talked with Doris Jean so much while we were there.”

“Yep.” Bobby Ray rocked back on the heels of his shoes. “Most of the money she makes at the Milkery goes to Barbara now.”

“Bobby Ray?” My jaw dropped in disbelief. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“How quickly do you think you can get the party together?” Abby sneaked up behind us and hooked her arm around Bobby Ray’s arm.

“You’ve stepped in it now.” He shook his head, making me wonder if he meant agreeing to throw an engagement party for Abby or the whole mess Mary Elizabeth seemed to have created.

“Stop it,” Abby teased and playfully smacked his arm. “We want to get married as soon as possible.”

“It appears that I’ve got an engagement party to plan with my soon-to-be sister-in-law, and you’ve got someone to go question.” I left I unsaid that it was his job to go see why Alicia was here.

“Why me?” He shrugged. “She’s the long-lost sister you always bemoaned about all those years. You go get to know her. I’ve got to get to work.”

Famous last words. I was good at that, and great at letting them come back and bite me in the you-know-what.

 

Chapter Three

Going to see Bobby Ray, technically bolting through the bungalow door to confront him, actually didn’t do anything for me. I had walked away with more questions about Alicia Becker than I had before.

“So this is why you didn’t stop at the office?” Dottie asked with her lit cigarette dangling from her mouth. The smoke curled up around her nose and shot past her eyes, making her squint so she didn’t get it in them.

She’d been walking down to the bungalows when I met her halfway.

I looked at her phone with Abby’s social media pulled up and the photo of her and Bobby Ray’s engagement announcement.

“Nope. Not at all,” I told her. “But the love birds are in there saying goodbye before Bobby Ray has to get to the garage, so you can hurry on up and go congratulate them. I’ll be at the office. Come find me.”

It wasn’t like Dottie would be going anywhere. She, too, lived in the campground full-time, and even when she wasn’t working the office, she was still always up there.

Instead of bolting back up to the office where it was more than likely going to bore me to tears because the usual weekdays were nothing but sitting there in case someone needed something, I decided to walk around the lake to make sure all the high-dollar-paying customers were happy and situated for the week ahead.

Sunday was our check-in day. We did get some campers who’d come on various weekdays, but mainly they pulled in on Sundays, towing their big rigs, small campers, or even overland vehicles or tents to enjoy a week at the park.

Happy Trails Campground offered a full-service hookup, making it a rare find while camping and something we loved to promote. It helped keep us busy practically year-round, even in the cold weather.

The lake was a nice draw, and the camping lots around it were gobbled up fast. In fact, with the help of Abby’s amazing marketing and social media skills, we had a year-long wait list for these spots, so it was very important for me to make sure they were happy and left a raving review.

“Good afternoon,” I greeted one family who had a huge C-class camper that held a small army of kids. “I hope you take advantage of Red Fox Trail.” I pointed over to the trailhead that led down to the waterway. “Our local kayaking champion, Alvin Deters, is giving kayak lessons in about two hours. You can sign up in the hospitality center, and be sure to grab a sweet treat from our local Cookie Crumble Bakery.”

I made sure to include local small businesses in my marketing campaign when I had brought the run-down campground back to life. Not only did using local products and featuring their businesses help them; it helped me. They responded by promoting the campground, bringing business to Happy Trails and life back into me.

As I walked along the lake, I noticed a few of the guests had already used up most of the firewood we provided for them for their fire rings. I picked up a few pieces of stray trash along the shore and the beach of the lake before I walked down the small pier, where I stood at the edge and whistled for Fifi.

She paddled over and to the shore and met me near the tiki hut where I found Henry Bryant, the handyman, filling up the ice chest with ice.

“Hey there, Mae,” he greeted me with a wide-open grin, his two front teeth missing. “It’s gonna be a gorgeous week. Record-breaking temperatures.”

“That’s great. Much welcomed after the awful winter we had.” I didn’t want to even remember the snowfall and ice we’d gotten over the last few months. That type of weather wasn’t great on campers. I’d had to make sure the water lines in my camper stayed nice and insulated, or I’d have been in heck of a trouble. Fixing busted lines wasn’t cheap. “I’ll make a list of campsites that need a refill on wood if you want to come by the office later.”

“Will do.” He took off his hat, exposing his scraggly hair, and used the sleeve of his dirty plaid shirt to wipe the sweat that’d formed on his brow.

My phone rang on my way up to the office.

“Hey, Betts,” I greeted Betts Hager, another one of my and Abby’s good friends. “I heard you called Abby. Isn’t it great?”

“Are you sure it’s great? I mean, they’ve not been dating that long, and I don’t know. I really wish they get to couples counseling at the church before they get married.” Betts just couldn’t turn off the preacher’s-wife part that she’d played so long before her ex-husband, ex-preacher had turned convict and now spent his nights in a local federal prison.

“I guess it’s true, what Mary Elizabeth says about love.” I hated to repeat it because Hank and I had been dating much longer than Abby and Bobby Ray, like a year longer, and we were no closer to getting married than Dottie Swaggert and Henry Bryant. “She says you know when you know, so why wait?”

“I’m not saying they wait. I’m just saying it was fast, and why hurry?” There was some concern in her voice, but I didn’t give it any more thought.

“There is a hurry to get this engagement party planned.” I did love a good campground party.

So much that I hosted one every month, and this months could be about spring and love. Why not?

Even though it wasn’t my engagement, I couldn’t help but be filled and overcome with joy for the two of them.

I stopped at the front door of the office and looked around me. Betts was chirping in my ear, but the birds were singing the song of sunshine and happiness, telling me the warmer weather was much welcome.

The trees that surrounded the campground were in full bloom with their vibrant, almost lime-green shades mixed in with yellow tones. They would become a nice deep green for the summer months, which would lead into the gorgeous burnt oranges and reds that would take us into fall. But for now, I enjoyed the fresh budded trees and the tulips around the circumference of the campground.

They stood next to each other all around, so pleasing to the eyes. The blue, pink, purple, yellow, and orange tulips stood out and swayed in the light spring breeze that flittered along the ground of the campground, bringing a fresh smell with it.

I loved all four seasons that came to Kentucky, and each one brought a different look and feel to the Daniel Boone National Forest. Every season I would say it was my favorite, and this year was no different.

“I’d like for everyone to help out with the party. I think Abby deserves the best.” I didn’t want Betts to play the good-Bible-girl card right, now even though she was the one who always brought a sense of calm to our friend group of five.

“I think she deserves the best, too, but I think they need to get to know each other a little better.” Betts sighed. “Like kids. Do they want kids? What about money? Do they even know what the other makes?”

Like kids… That hung in my head, and I zoned out on what she was saying after that. Kids. That was an issue. Just recently I’d found out that Hank didn’t entertain the idea of having children. Not with me anyways. Or so it seemed.

I hadn’t even figured I’d have kids and really did write them off, but once again, Mary Elizabeth’s words haunted me.

When you find the right man, Maybelline, you’ll forget all about that feeling of not wanting children, and you’ll want a messful.

Messful? Maybe not a messful, but maybe one. With Hank.

“Earth to Mae.” Dottie was standing in front of me, waving her skinny arms. Her bright-red hair was curled tight up to her head. “What on earth are you daydreaming ’bout now? Your own wedding as Mrs. Hank Sharp?”

“Not by a long shot.” I twisted around and looked at the wipe-off board Hank had recently used to solve a murder case. He had used the campground office because there was some instability with his current office situation. It was nice having him here with me and watching his process, though I did think Dottie and my sleuthing skills were so much better.

“Dottie, I think I have us a case.” I got up from the office chair, walked over to the whiteboard, and picked up the eraser to clean it off.

“There’s been a murder?” She jerked back.

My stomach lurched at the thought of this Alicia Becker putting Mary Elizabeth at risk.

“Not yet.” I didn’t even think of the immediate danger she might be in. I did think about this Craig guy and if he did this to her.

“Then what you’ve got circulating up in that curly head of hair of yours?” She walked over and picked up one of the dry-erase markers. “’Cause I’m game. It gets boring ’round here when there’s nothing to do but watch the Kentucky bluegrass grow.”

“It seems someone from Mary Elizabeth’s past has cropped up, and not in a good way either.” I told Dottie about Alicia Becker showing up in all her bruised glory as well as what Bobby Ray had told me about her past. “I want to find out everything about this Alicia, Craig, and where the child is, plus how much money Mary Elizabeth is giving to the child.”

“I reckon the bride-to-be is a little too preoccupied to even think of helping.” Dottie was talking about Abby Fawn, since Abby was the best at getting access to people’s past history and digging up dirt on them.

Other than Abby being my soon-to-be foster-sister-in-law and one of my best friends, she was the head librarian at the Normal Library, where she had access to all sorts of databases that weren’t searchable for the common person such as me.

“Right.” I bit my lip. “And I’m not sure how we are going to find any dirt, but I can call Jami Mackenzie.” I honestly thought that the last time I saw Jami, when I helped her deliver her twins, was going to be the last time I ever talked to her.

Not that it was over the babies or my ability to deliver, but the fact I’d exposed her nanny and husband as murderers, sending Jami ’s life into a full spiral as she became a new mother.

“Oh gawd, not that girl. And what is goin’ on with the mayor’s race? I’m not sure she’ll even take your call.” Dottie was right.

Long story short, Jami was married to the mayor of Perrysburg, who was the brother of Courtney Mackenzie, the mayor of Normal, who was in the process of reelection in the fall. I wasn’t so sure I was backing her to be mayor again, since it’d been recently brought to my attention that she was the mastermind behind moving the sheriff’s department from the courthouse so she could make room for more offices that were needed because the population for Normal was growing at a rapid speed.

It was that she didn’t consider or care about what had to be cut that made me mad. Her little plan meant that the sheriff’s department had to find a new home, which wasn’t in the budget unless something was cut. That something, or rather someone, was Detective Hank Sharp’s salary. Since he was the only detective in the department and we used park rangers for a lot of the activity in and around the Daniel Boone National Park, it would be easy to eliminate his position and give one of the already-on-salary sheriff’s deputies Hank’s salary.

This was why Hank had been working out of Happy Trails Campground’s offices.

“Well.” Dottie popped the lid off the marker and wrote down Alicia’s name. Under it she made bullet points with something different written by each one. “We need background information. We need child’s information.” She turned and pointed the marker at me. “What was that childcare worker’s name that you got in contact with in Perrysburg?”

“Oh!” I snapped my fingers at her amazing idea. “Inez Marsh, the social worker. I can call her to see what ever happened to the little girl.”

“Then, since you have a conscience and all, I can call the foster mom and check up on the little girl and ask about the money Mary Elizabeth sends.” Dottie was a sneaky one.

“Dottie Swaggert, I think this is a start, and I’m so glad you are on my side.”

“The very idea of someone taking advantage of people I care about, don’t sit well with my insides.” Dottie circled Alicia’s name. “And right now, this here girl isn’t sitting well with my insides. But first I need to call all the gals to come to the Laundry Club to plan out this big engagement party you promised Abby.”

I took a step back and folded my arms as I reread Alicia’s name a couple of times. Dottie was in the background saying out loud what she was texting our girlfriends, but I’d blocked it out of my mind. I was too focused on Alicia.

You’re not going to get away with whatever it is you’re here for, I said to myself and vowed to get this cleared up quickly so Bobby Ray and Abby could have their dream wedding without the likes of Alicia Becker and her baggage ruining it. I had a few things up my sleeve, and I was going to have to call in those favors.

I was a grudge holder when it came to the people I loved. And I loved Mary Elizabeth, Bobby Ray, and Abby Fawn.

end of excerpt

Insects, Ivy, & Investigations

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Apr 23, 2021

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