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Paddlers, Promises, & Poison

Book 16 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series

Welcome to Normal, Kentucky~ where nothing is normal.USA TODAY Bestselling Author Tonya Kappes is leading the camping craze with her southern cozy mystery series, A Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery. Be sure you join Tonya’s newsletter for all of her adventures on and off the page while she writes and travels in her own camper, her readers have lovingly named Tonya’s Shamper (she camper). Don’t miss out on her very informative CAMPING CHIT CHAT blog where she gives you tips, tricks, hacks and delicious campfire recipes:

REALTOR Chelsea O’Connell is found dead in a model home of the new development in Normal. She was not popular in the small tourist town located in the Daniel Boone National Park because the last thing this town wants is for more development to come in to take away anymore of the forest.


Detective Hank Sharp has his own hands full instead of worrying about his girlfriend Mae West and her nosey set of friend, The Laundry Club Ladies, now that he found out cuts are coming the Normal Sheriff’s department.


Rumors are swirling around about the Sheriff’s department doing some outsourcing and Hank’s job is one of them. Mae finds herself at a crossroads, does she put on her sleuthing cap to help out a friend who is the number one suspect on Hank’s list, or does she let Hank solve the murder by himself so he can prove how valuable his position is to the department?


Paddlers, Promises, & Poison


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Chapter One

“These houses are going up quicker than lighten’.” Dottie Swaggert normally stood about five foot nine, but today her hair made her about five foot ten.

The effect was directly related to the fact that she’d left the pink foam curlers in her hair too long, making her head full of red curls stand up even more—with the help of some very strong hairspray.

She took a long draw on her cigarette and slowly let out the puff of smoke in a streamline before she looked at the rest of us.

“What do y’all think?” She asked, bringing the cigarette back up to her lips, her gaze never leaving the model home across the street from Ava Cox’s house.

Betts Hager, Ava Cox, Abby Fawn, Queenie French, and I stood next to Dottie on the edge of Ava’s driveway looking over at the beginning of what was going to be a newly developed subdivision on some very rare land in the Daniel Boone National Park in our small tourist town of Normal, Kentucky.

“I mean, y’all’ve got to be pullin’ my leg when we sit here and look yonder at what they’re doin’ to our park.” Dottie didn’t wait long enough for us to answer her question. “I can’t believe my eyes. I never figured the day.” Slowly she shook her head.

All of us shifted at the same time to take in a better perspective. Not that any of us disagreed with Dottie. We all had concerns about hurting the integrity of the land, especially when most of the land was mountains, hills, caves, and cliffs.

“Honestly.” Dottie kept in putting in her two cents, which according to her would be worth a million dollars. And unless you did have a million dollars, there was nothing we could do with the development but voice our opinion, and even then it was only amongst ourselves like we were doing now.

“I’m gonna blame it on you two.” Dottie shook a finger at me and then at Abby Fawn.

“Now wait a minute here.” Abby, in her late twenties, was the youngest of the group. She was the local librarian and Tupperware consultant for Normal who just so happened to be a wiz at all things social media. “If it weren’t for us,” Abby turned her head to look at me, as she referred to me being part of the us. Her long brown ponytail swept side to side. “Then our economy wouldn’t be doing so well and maybe your job would’ve been in jeopardy.”

“I don’t think it’s too bad.” Betts, the voice of reason in our group, always looked at the bright side of things. “The houses already here are super nice.” She shrugged and looked around her with her big round brown eyes. She pushed her blunt brown bangs from her eyes and tucked a strand of her wavy chin-length hair behind her ear. “From what I understand from overhearing Lloyd Hornbuckle, the National Park Committee has taken extra precautions to make sure the land isn’t compromised. And they are making sure there’s plenty of land for the animals and their inhabitants.”

“I’m not so sure about that.” Ava, the local attorney who had just moved to Normal, crossed her arms across her baggy top that hung off one shoulder. She looked very sophisticated with her long black curly hair pulled to one side even though she had on a pair of leggings. She had the prettiest olive skin. “When I first moved in, I had a few deer that would show up every day to eat the clover near the stream. When they started all this new construction, I don’t see them as regularly.”

“See there. Proves my point. All these people moving into Normal just can’t be right. We are going to be so congested in our little community,” Dottie snarled.  “I knew it, I knew it when you come up with the grand scheme of building up the campground and giving all this attention to our little town that people just couldn’t stand it. They came to vacation, hike, and God knows whatever they’re doing in the woods, and now they want their piece of the pie.”

“Most people who come here to do all the nature things don’t want to harm the park. And most don’t have the money.” I had been privy to a lot of the National Park Committee’s concerns since most of them were brought up in the meetings.

I knew because I was on the committee.

“Betts”—I glanced her way knowing I just couldn’t let what she’d mentioned pass without getting the full details—“who told you the committee is taking extra steps to insure everything is done properly? I’ve not missed a meeting or heard anything come through.”

I made myself a mental note to look into it. The National Park Committee had already had this month’s meeting, and I would clearly remember if there was some sort of discussion with this property.

“Really?” Betts’s eyebrows arched. She gave a hesitant shrug. “Oh gosh. I guess I better stop eavesdropping.” She grimaced in a joking way. “I was cleaning Judge Hemmer’s house, and his wife was on the phone talking about a development and how they’d gotten some big-time Geotech firms here from Lexington to assess the land. By the way she was talking, I thought she was talking about here.” Betts shook her head. “See what assuming gets us.”

“Y’all are always up to somethin’.” Beck Greer, Ava’s ten-year-old neighbor, stopped his bike in front of us. “Y’all are lined up. What’s goin’ on?”

“Did your mama send you over here to be nosey, Beck?” Dottie’s mouth had zero filter on it.

“Dottie.” I scolded her even though she was much older than me.

“What?” She didn’t make no bones about it. “You and I both know he repeats. Besides, don’t you got some lawns to mow or weeds to pull?”

Beck was very entrepreneurial for his age. When the Laundry Club Ladies first met him when Ava moved into her new home, he handed us a business card with his name and title, The Mow Monster, telling us about his gig around the neighborhood of helping the homeowners with various tasks around the yard.

His eyes lowered as he glared at Dottie.

“Hey, Beck.” Ava smiled at the young boy and sucked in a deep breath as she interrupted the standoff between Dottie and the young boy. “We are looking at the model home. Isn’t it pretty?”

“Pretty? I think it’s an eyesore and everyone is going to regret letting all this construction go up. And they are expensive too. They have all this fancy marble and hardwood floors. Two ovens in most of the kitchens. Two.” He held up two fingers while he used the other hand to steady his bike. “Who doesn’t like sweet tea?” Beck frowned. “Especially my mama’s sweet tea.”

“I’ll bite.” Abby was amused by Darby Greer’s little mini-me. “Who doesn’t like your mama’s sweet tea?”

“Chelsea O’Connell.” He referred to the realtor for Blair Builders, the construction outfit putting up this big development. “She told Mama too many calories. Mama asked Daddy how many calories were in rat poison.” He snickered. “Gotta go!”

Beck peddled off down the street.

“Rat poison?” Ava’s eyes grew big. “That’s a little harsh for someone who likes to look after her own health.”

“Around here we drink sweet tea, eat sweet pickles, and like our sweet banana pudding. And if Darby Greer didn’t want to people to know how she feels, then she shouldn’t speak with her mouth full especially when it’s full of bull.” Dottie was full of all the southern sayings we had in Kentucky, but some were funnier than others.

This one made Abby hashtag what she’d started to call Dottie-isms.

“That’s a good one.” Abby laughed as she typed away on her phone.

“Dottie, you should be ashamed of arguing with a ten-year-old boy,” I told her.

“It’s true. He hears his mama carryin’ on with the rest of these snooty people in this neighborhood.” She pinched a glance at Ava. “Not you, Ava. You are just a smidgen snooty.”

“Gee, I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not, but thank you. Even though I fear Beck might be right about not being able to sell them.” She’d told us several times how Beck would stop and chat with her while she’d be outside doing yard work. “The neighborhood Women’s Club asked me if I could come sit in on last month’s meeting to discuss their concerns with a lawyer. I went, and they are concerned about the integrity of the land. Just like I was saying, the deer and such.”

“I think we need to get on over there and take a look at all the marble.” Dottie threw her cigarette on the ground and snuffed it out with the toe of her shoe before she bent down to pick it up.

“That’s a great idea.” Queenie French bounced on the toes of her tennis shoes. She was the owner of the local Jazzercise franchise. She was also the only instructor, which made sense when you looked at her entire wardrobe of slick leggings, bright colors, and headbands for every outfit.

Today was no different. She wore a hot-pink head band in her short blond hair, a  hot-pink bodysuit, and white leg warmers.

“We can’t go in there. Chelsea’s car isn’t there.” Ava turned to us. “Let’s just go inside and eat our supper so we can get on the paddleboards before sunset.”

The five of us shifted our focus when we heard a car coming down the street. “There she is now.”

Chelsea drove a gold SUV BMW.

“She must be doing pretty good for herself,” Abby said as Chelsea drove by slowly.

She stared out her driver’s side window at us before she turned into the drive.

From the opposite end, Beck was peddling as fast as he could, having to put his foot down so he wouldn’t fall as he took a sharp turn into his driveway.

“She’s here all the time, and so are others. I’m not sure how many buyers they have for the lots, but she’s always got someone coming in there.” Ava lifted her chin when a small RV drove up, parking in front of the house.

“Uh-oh.” Dottie elbowed me with a grin on her face and nodded toward Beck’s house. “Looks like someone’s got somethin’ to say.”

“Chelsea! Chelsea O’Connell!” Darby Greer came running out of her house with Beck on her heels. She had an apron tied around her waist with a dish towel tucked in the top of it. She held up a big glass of what appeared to be ice-cold tea.

“Tattletale,” Dottie mumbled under her breath about Beck running inside to get his mother when he noticed Chelsea’s car coming down the street.

Dottie unsnapped her cigarette case to bat out another smoke before she stuck it in the corner of her lip to let it dangle while we watched.

“You think it’s sweet tea?” Betts asked. “She does make some good sweet tea.”

I gave Betts a perplexed look, wondering how on earth she knew Darby’s sweet tea was good.

“Church.” It was all she had to say. Betts really did know everyone in Normal. She should. As the preacher’s wife, she attended births, birthday parties, funerals, and any other event she could fit into her schedule. Everyone around here loved to invite the preacher and his family to anything and everything. If the preacher went to the event, it moved them up on the social ladder.

Strange but true.

“I have something to tell you! And I’ve got you some sweet tea! I hear mine is the best around!” Chelsea screamed, causing me to turn back to watch.

“I sure would like some of that sweet tea.” Abby licked her lips.

“You can run in there and lock the door, but the Women’s Club has something to say to you so you can take it back to your boss!” Darby Greer wasn’t letting up. She’d picked up speed, and with her free hand, she jerked the dish towel from the apron, twirling it like she was at a sporting event and rooting for her team. Only her scowl told me she and Chelsea were on opposite sides.

“Ladies,” Darby greeted us on her run-by, still flailing that towel above her head and carefully steadying the sweet tea so as not to spill it.

We all greeted her with a smile and a nod but didn’t turn away because we all wanted to watch what was going to happen.

“Listen to me. And I want you to listen good, because I’m only going to say it once.” Chelsea O’Connell had on a gray pencil skirt with a tucked-in cream short-sleeved blouse that showed off her svelte figure, reminding me of my old days when I wore fancy clothes instead of a baggy sweatshirt with the Happy Trails Campground logo and bleach stains on it.

Chelsea took the tall glass of tea from Darby.

“What’s she sayin’?” Dottie’s head wiggled around like a bobble head, almost as if she were trying to read their lips. “I can’t hear them.”

“I don’t know what she’s saying, but she sure does look mad,” Abby noted. “Look at her lips.”

“Which one?” Betts asked because they both looked like they had something to say.

“Both,” I said then looked away when I noticed Darby twisted around to come back. “Stop gawking.”

“How else are we s’posed to see what’s going on if we don’t watch?” Dottie asked, garnering a few snickers from the group.

Just about that time, a sheriff’s deputy car drove by and slowed as if he knew something was going on with Darby and Chelsea.

“Uh-oh…” Dottie dragged out the concern. All of us continued to watch. “Al Hemmer is just itching to get the gun out of his holster.”

Darby jerked her head back to get a look at the sheriff’s car. As soon as he passed, as though he figured nothing but friendly neighbor chitchat was happening, Darby turned right back to Chelsea and jabbed a finger at her.

“I heard Al made deputy.” Betts swiveled her head to keep the view of what was happening. “It’s a good thing.”

“If anyone on that force is a Barney Fife, it’s that lanky kid. And I reckon he got on because of Gab Hemmer.” Dottie was probably right about the judge having some influence on his nephew making the department, especially since I’d heard Gab had been more of a father figure to Al, but I kept it all to myself. There was only one conversation that needed be to taking place at a time for me to even keep up with.

These ladies could go from one subject to another as fluid as water ran and keep up. I would get lost because I never saw a transition between the stories they were telling, but they sure could understand each other.

“Thanks for the tea, hon,” Chelsea said loud enough for us to hear and held it up with a sly grin.

“You will regret talking to me like that!” Darby yelled one last time at Chelsea over her shoulder on her way back across the street like she had to get the last word in before she passed us on the way back to her house.

The couple in the RV got out of their camper and walked up to Chelsea. The woman had on a baseball cap, and the man had a nice head of curly thick blond hair.

“What are you gawking at?” Dottie poked me in the ribs.

“Her Gucci.” I sighed. “I used to have a lot of those bags.”

I knew it sounded so spoiled, but I did love a good handbag, and I’d snuck one with me in the camper when I lost everything. Well, I smuggled a bag and pair of socks where Paul had left me some cash that I believed was my 401(k) that he’d stolen from me.

After he floated up dead in my lake at the campground, I was Hank Sharp’s number one suspect. I needed a little information from the bank, and Ann Doherty, the bank teller, was more than happy to take a bribe. My Gucci bag for the information.

“I’m sorry about that. Let’s go in and look around,” Chelsea apologized to them, her eyes grazing their shoulders and focusing on us. She waved.

All of us waved back.

“That woman boils my blood.” Beck had returned.

“Boils your blood, huh?” Queenie laughed. “You mean she boils your mama’s blood.”

“And mine too.” He pointed to himself. “Violet Rhinehammer will be able to bring this whole thing to light and get some attention.”

“Violet Rhinehammer.” I rolled my eyes. “Let’s go eat. I’m starving.”

Violet Rhinehammer was the local news reporter. Not only was she on the television news but she also wrote for the local paper. She’d do anything for a scoop on a good story. Apparently, Darby Greer was figuring this was a good story.

It certainly had the makings for a good one. I could see the headlines now: Local Development Sends Neighbors into an Uproar. The chipper young woman with blond hair neatly parted to the side and layered in loose curls, perfect white teeth, and a big smile standing in front of the camera with the model home in the background to deliver the gossip for the day.

Made my stomach curl.

“You just don’t want to talk about Violet.” Betts winked and all of us turned to go inside.

“Who does?” Queenie was always doing some sort of movement to keep her blood pumping. This time she had her arms out at shoulder level doing arm circles.

Before we all walked into Ava’s house, I glanced over my shoulder where I noticed Chelsea was glaring over at Darby Greer’s house before she slid her gaze back to me.

Our eyes locked for a few seconds before she turned on those high heels of hers and trotted into the house, slipping her hair to her back.

end of excerpt

Paddlers, Promises, & Poison

is available in the following formats:

Mar 25, 2021

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