Ropes, Riddles, & Robberies
Book 15 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Welcome to Normal, Kentucky~ where nothing is normal.
Solving murders come easy for Mae West and the Laundry Club Ladies. Trying to solve a cold case is proving a bit challenging.
Mae has been having memories about the house fire that killed her family, leaving her orphaned.
As a child she couldn’t do much to prove the fire wasn’t an accident, but as an adult and with a group of friends to help, Mae is on the case to put the clues of the past together to bring out the truth.
Their investigation heats up making this cold case come to a rolling boil!
Read an Excerpt
Ropes, Riddles, & Robberies
Book 15 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Ropes, Riddles, & Robberies
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It was always a good feeling when the calendar turned to a new year. There was renewal, hope, change, and just a do-over. For me, Mae West, this year was going to be a sort of rebirth—a rebirth of who I had become and why I had become that person.
Not that I didn’t know who I was. I certainly knew that, and I didn’t have any control over the fact that my entire family had died in a house fire and I was clearly the one left to be spared.
Yes—I believed that I was spared.
How it’d happened or why I believed that was a whole nother way of thinking, and there was no harm done in trying to figure out if my recently unfolding memories of the house fire meant that it was deliberate and not an accident as the fire marshal had claimed. I was on a mission this year to find out.
I didn’t live there, and it was over fifteen years ago that the fire took place. I had no idea if the people who had lived in my hometown of Perrysburg, Kentucky, were around or even still alive.
There was one person in particular that I did know was around, and that was Jami Burkfield Mackenzie, my grade-school best friend. We’d been friends for a long time. It wasn’t by chance we happened to pick each other as friends—my father made me be friends with her. At the coal mine company picnic to be exact.
I remembered that day like it was yesterday. My mom had taken me and my sister to the local secondhand store. She had thumbed through those racks with me hanging on her leg and my sister stuck on her hip. The sound of those steel-hook hangers screeched as she shoved them aside to look at the next piece of clothing on the rack.
“This will be pretty for the picnic.” I watched her pluck the red-and-white-checkered dress off the rack. “Look up, Maybelline.” She shoved the clothes hanger up under my chin as she held the dress up to me. “Step back, Maybelline. Why do you always have to be right on my leg, honey?”
Maybe because I was a little girl and wanted the comfort of being next to my mom? Was that really such a hard concept for her? Probably not, and I never sassed back to her. I just stepped back and took the hanger so she could get a look for herself.
“Do you like it?” Her eyes glowed. “It makes your curls stand out and your beautiful skin.” My mom sighed. “You’re the best thing I ever made.”
“No.” My baby sister would giggle. “Sugar cookies are the best thing, mama.”
Mom and I would laugh. Her laugh was so amazing. My mom was beautiful. She reminded me of a movie star with her long black eyelashes, her straight black hair, and her olive skin. When she laughed, her mouth would open wide and end up in a bright smile. My baby sister looked just like her.
But not me. I looked just like my dad. He had nice and thick curly brown hair. He had deep hazel eyes that always looked like they were studying something or thinking on an important project. After all, he was the foreman of the local coal mine company—which brings me right back to Jami Burkfield Mackenzie.
The Burkfields owned the coal mine. Heck, they practically owned everything in and around Perrysburg, so it was only natural that half the town worked for them.
“Maybelline, you be nice to Jami Burkfield.” My dad always made sure my little sister and I minded our p’s and q’s when we were around any of the Burkfields. That applied to the yearly company picnic in particular. “She’s my boss’s granddaughter, and she’s your age. I’m sure you two would get along,” I remember him saying one year as I looked out the window when we pulled up to their big fancy house on the outskirts of town. I’d never seen the likes.
They had an entire compound like the famous Kennedy family I’d seen my mom gawk at in those magazines while we were in line at the local grocery store—that was another fond memory I had of her. Mom would quickly thumb through them and read as much of the celebrity gossip she could.
One time, the cashier had gotten on Mom for bending the pages of the magazine and putting it back. Told mom not to pick them up if she wasn’t going to buy it. “They aren’t there for you to look through and put back.” The cashier glared at my mom. It was one of those glares that she shifted onto me and my little sister with a snarled nose. Like she was better than us and we were just dirty kids from the wrong side of the track.
We weren’t. We were clean, and my mom made sure of it every time she took us to town.
“One day, Maybelline,” my mom told me when we got back in the car after the cashier got mad, “you’re gonna be famous and on the front of these magazines.” She pinched my chin and smiled. “Then we won’t have to read about famous people, because we will be the famous people.”
That was my mom. She always had big dreams and big hopes.
After that day, when we’d go to the grocery, she’d look for that cashier and get in a different line. She still thumbed through the magazines.
I did remember one story when my face was plastered on a few magazines at the checkout—granted, they were mostly copies of the National Enquirer after my now-dead ex-husband Paul West got caught trying to pull off the biggest Ponzie scheme in the United States.
All this to say the fire that killed my family haunted me to this day. I’d really run from my childhood by climbing out the window of my foster mom’s house in the middle of the night the exact minute I turned eighteen. I had climbed on a greyhound bus, and I turned around to look back at the Welcome To Perrysburg sign at the county line as we rolled out of town, I swore to myself I’d never be back in that town again.
Years later, and after remembering a few key details about the night of the house fire that killed my family, I was planning my trip back to Perrysburg because I didn’t believe the fire was an accident.
My family was murdered. I was going to prove it.
“You’re going to do what?” Dottie Swaggert sat on the couch in the Laundry Club laundromat located in downtown Normal, Kentucky, during our monthly book club meeting. Her red hair was tightly curled to her head. One arm was wrapped around her waist while the other was propped up by her elbow on the arm of the couch as she gnawed on her fingernail.
“I’m going to drive back and forth or maybe stay.” I was a bit wishy-washy on the details. “I don’t really know what I’m going to do. But I need to find out the truth behind the fire that killed my parents and two sisters.”
My parents had just had my second sister a few month earlier. She was just a baby when she died in the fire. The Reiki sessions I’d been having with a local chiropractor by the name of Tex had been bringing all sorts of memories up.
“I know you’ve been listening to all that hocus-pocus voodoo crap from Texas.” Dottie waved her hands in the air like she was doing magic or something. “But honey, people like that can put crap in our heads, and we don’t know what’s the truth. The truth of the matter is that you are a grown adult with a life here.”
“The past is the past.” Abby Fawn, another one of our friends, readjusted herself as she pulled her leg up under herself. “And from what Bobby Ray says, the officials called it a wood-burning-stove fire.”
“Bobby Ray this, Bobby Ray that.” Dottie rolled her eyes and only said what the rest of us were thinking.
I looked around and could see it on all their faces. Betts Hager, Queenie French, and I—we all tried to keep our composure when Abby talked about Bobby Ray Bonds, my foster brother who she was now involved with.
“What?” Abby give a little smile and a shrug. She circled her long brown ponytail around her finger and blushed. “Can’t a girl be happy?”
“Of course, but what about Mae?” Betts asked. She ran her fingers through her wavy brown hair. “If Mae wants to figure out what happened, I’m going to help.” She shook her head to the left to get her bangs out of her eyes.
“You are?” My head jerked to look at Betts, the owner of the laundromat we actually used as a get-together for the five of us—the Laundry Club Ladies, as the local folks affectionately referred to us. Or maybe the nosey girls. Either way, we were all best friends, and it’d happened over the course of the last few years after I’d come to check out the campground Paul had put in my name. I had no idea he’d done that until Stanley, his lawyer, had given me a flamingo key chain with an RV key on it in exchange for the keys to my Maserati, which the government seized.
You’d think they’d want the campground too. But when I drove up and saw the campground was in worse shape than the RV I’d driven to Kentucky, I could see why they didn’t seize it, even if it was in my name.
The story had a beautiful outcome. I’d taken the bull by the horns and turned Happy Trails Campground into a thriving and lucrative business, not only for myself but for the entire town of Normal, Kentucky. I even had a key to the city to show for it from Mayor Mackenzie.
“I’d love for you to help me,” I said to Betts. “And it’s perfect timing too.” I referred to the winter season we were in.
There was very little camping going on during the winter months, but I’d made a great deal of changes to Happy Trails Campground so I could have guests. Very few trails were currently open in the Daniel Boone National Park, where we were located, but some die-hards did come to vacation. I’d made sure some of the campers were equipped for cold and even freezing temperatures. It hadn’t been too expensive, but I’d worked to make it happen.
“There’s not a lot of tourists, so the cleaners can run itself.” Betts agreed, even though she offered a service where she did drop-off laundry for people. “If Dottie’s not on board, she can watch the office at Happy Trails.”
“Now, you wait a minute.” Dottie straightened up and shook a finger at Betts. “I never said I didn’t want to be part of this. And Henry Bryant can look after the campground.”
I couldn’t stop from smiling as Dottie and Betts came up with a plan for my campground. Dottie Swaggert was the manager at Happy Trails Campground and had been so for years, even before I knew about the place. She worked for Paul, and when I say “worked,” I mean she didn’t get paid. He was kind enough to let her live in a camper there, and I say “kind” very loosely because her camper was less than stellar when I first moved here. Since, I’ve had Henry, the handyman, help fix up her place.
“You didn’t seem like you really wanted to go, and no one is going to force you.” Betts shrugged and eased back into the chair. She sighed and brought her coffee mug to her lips and took a sip.
Dottie’s mouth flew open then snapped closed.
“I think anyone who wants to go can come.” Abby scrolled through her phone with her thumb while holding her mug in her other hand. “It says here that Perrysburg has some really neat things to see.”
“I don’t know what you’re looking at, but I don’t recall a thing in Perrysburg.” The only thing I remembered was the old railroad bridge I used to hide under.
“The old coal mine is open for tours. That sounds fun.” That got my attention.
“Really?” I asked and got up to go sit down next to her to check out her phone. “That’s the place my dad worked.” I recognized it right off from the photo Abby had pulled up. “We definitely need to go there.”
“And do what?” Dottie asked.
“I want to talk to people who worked with my dad. I remember the night of the fire, my mom had made some chicken nuggets. She said dad had to work late. She’d made him some stew and told us that she’d be back after Dad called. She needed to take Dad his food because he was on a break.”
I used to smile at memories of my parents together, but now that I got a real intuitive feeling someone had deliberately set our house on fire, those memories were wrought with revenge.
“It was that night that the house caught fire. I was asleep when my dad came home, but I’d heard him and my mom arguing. They rarely argued, so I thought it was strange.” I blinked a few times to see if I could remember more.
I cursed under my breath when I struggled to recall.
“It’s okay if you can’t remember.” Queenie French interrupted my thoughts. She pulled her headband down past her chin before she pushed it back into position it on top of her short blond hair. “You were a kid. Who knows what happened, but if you want to find out”—she pointed to each one of the Laundry Club Ladies—“we are going to figure it out. Life is too short.”
Queenie always had lived by the “life is too short” mantra due to the fact that she was in her sixties with the title of widow hanging over her head.
“That settles it.” Betts’s voice turned sharp. “When are we leaving?”
I felt myself getting teary-eyed from all the support my friends were giving me.
“I say we leave tomorrow.” Abby smiled.
“What about Bobby Ray?” I asked.
“He’s got to work the rest of the week, and I’m off until the middle of the month. How long will we be gone?” she asked, her brows dipping.
“I can’t leave tomorrow.” I looked at them. “I need to tell Hank and go see Mary Elizabeth. Let them know what I’m doing.”
“And we need to get a camper ready.” Dottie was right. “What about the blue one?”
“Yeah. We could take that RV, but I’d like for Bobby Ray to take a look at the engine, the oil, and make sure all the bags are good. I’ll need to go by Deter’s Feed-N-Seed to pick up a propane tank.” All the things I needed to get the RV ready to go were running through my head.
Abby reached over and grabbed the notebook off the table that we’d used in the past to keep track of clues for various crimes that happened in the Daniel Boone National Park. Not that we were detectives or anything, but we did have a knack for being nosey and actually finding real clues that did help my boyfriend, Detective Hank Sharp, and the Normal Sheriff’s Department solve a few cases.
Granted, they didn’t like it, but we had a good time trying to follow various leads that did sometimes place us in front of a killer’s weapon.
But none of us had gotten killed yet.
“Yet” being the key word.
“I told Mae that sometimes, the juice just ain’t worth the squeeze,” Dottie told Hank while the three of us were in the blue camper. “Honestly, I have no business whatsoever lookin’ into it, but I reckon I gotta go and keep her safe.”
We’d made the decision last night to meet here in the morning and have Bobby Ray look at the RV before he went to work at Grassel’s Garage. My day was full. After we got finished here, I was going to The Milkery to visit with Mary Elizabeth. I told her I’d help her make a couple of pies to serve to her bed-and-breakfast guests in hopes I’d get a big slice.
After that, I’d pack my clothes, check my itinerary, touch base with Jami, and then have a romantic dinner with Hank, which was rare. He was always called out to do something for the sheriff or the park rangers, so getting a night off was uncommon. I would love to say Hank was very supportive of me traveling back to Perrysburg with the intent of doing a little snooping around, but…
“Safe?” Hank’s eyes swiveled to me. “Are you planning on not being safe? I thought you said you were going to get the fire inspection report from…” Hank’s voice trailed off as he tried to recall the name of the fire marshal in Normal.
“Judd Tripoly,” I reminded him. “He sure made it seem like there was something bothersome about the fire.”
I clearly remembered when Hank came back to Perrysburg with me and Mary Elizabeth over the summer, where he’d met a few people from my past, Judd Tripoly being one of them.
I didn’t remind Hank, but Hank had commented on how Judd had implied that my parents’ house fire was suspicious. Of course, those words from the fire marshal never made it to the back of my mind, and they played over and over in Judd’s slow Southern drawl.
“That’s right.” Hank pointed to me. “Honestly, you don’t have to go. I can put out a call and get the records sent up here by fax or email.”
“No.” I’d not told anyone, not even the Laundry Club Ladies, that I’d been in contact with a few people from my past already and had a list of people to see once I got there. “We don’t have anything to do anyways.”
The door of the camper opened, and a rush of cold air swept in along with Bobby Ray and Abby right behind him.
“Brrr.” Abby had on a burnt-orange knit cap pulled down past her ears. Her long brown hair hung down in two braids. She was just the cutest, and her smile was even bigger when she was with Bobby Ray. “It’s so cold. I have no idea how he works in this weather,” she gushed and rubbed her hands up and down Bobby Ray’s arms.
They kinda reminded me of my mom and dad. As Bobby Ray told Hank and me about the engine and the other things I’d asked him to look at before we took the blue RV to Perrysburg, my mind drifted right back to when I was a child.
My parents hadn’t had a lot of money. Tonight reminded me of our one and only trip we took to Florida in our beat-up station wagon. Literally, there were mushrooms that grew in the floorboard because it was so moldy. But we didn’t care. We even slept in the old wagon once we got to Florida when my parents tried to get a motel room but it was too much money. That’s when my mom got creative and made everything an adventure.
Even taking showers every morning in the public restrooms at the public beach was fun.
Looking back now, my heart hurt at how hard they tried to give us the same experiences as other families in and around Perrysburg.
That vacation was fun until I’d overheard them having a pretty intense conversation in which my dad was upset because he felt like he’d not been a good provider for our family even though Mom insisted he was a great one.
“We’ve got a roof over our heads and food on the table.” I could still hear her twangy voice trying to make him feel better. Still, he’d come back with some sort of put-down on himself, to which Mama argued back. She was so good at making everyone feel as if they had a purpose in life.
It wasn’t too long after the vacation that the house fire happened. I remembered being so jealous they’d all died. Jealous. Could you imagine being jealous when you should’ve been grateful to have survived?
I wasn’t. I was jealous they’d all gone together, leaving me here to fend for myself. That was exactly how I’d felt too—like I had to fend for myself.
Going into the foster care system wasn’t high on a teenager’s priority list, and bouncing from foster family to foster family was also hard. I should’ve been very thankful Mary Elizabeth wanted to adopt me, but I’d had a family. A great family, and I couldn’t see past my anger to appreciate anything at that time.
Now, I couldn’t be more grateful for Mary Elizabeth. The only way I knew to really honor her for raising me and Bobby Ray was to call her Mom and take care of her the way I would’ve my mom and dad if they were living.
When I looked at Bobby Ray and Abby, I could see a deep love that was unbreakable, like that of my parents. She looked at Bobby Ray like he could do nothing wrong, and he treated her like she was the only one in the room when he talked to her.
“Other than that, I think it looks great. Survived all the snow we got a few weeks ago, and looking ahead the next few days, it’s gonna be cold and dry. Oh, the window latch near the dinette is broken, so you can’t lock that big window.” Bobby Ray’s voice brought me out of my memories.
“That’s fine. We won’t need to open it, and I’m sure we’ll be fine.” I watched him curl his arms around Abby. “I’m glad the heater is working fine.”
“I can’t let my little lady get cold, so I’d get at least two propane tanks and store one. You’ll be good for a couple of days.” He snuggled her closer.
“I’ve got all the paper plates, napkins, plastic utensils, and pots and pans we need for eating. I even stuck that Instapot thingy you gave me for Christmas in there. I’m figuring on making some soup on the way down so when we get there and get hooked up, we don’t have to worry about finding supper.” Dottie really did like to go camping in the RV.
We’d gone a couple of times, and she was always in her element. It was best to just sit back and let her do what she wanted to.
“Betts is bringing some meals she prepped beforehand.” Abby snuggled up to Bobby Ray. “The key to a successful camping trip is to have some prepared meals ahead of time so we don’t have to worry about cooking.”
“We aren’t camping. We are going to be busy clue-finding.” I looked around the main quarters of the RV.
Hank and Dottie were sitting on the couch that was located in the bump-out of the RV. There was a kitchen along the one side and a small electric fireplace with a television above it. Currently, Fifi and Chester were laying in front of the glowing fire. They looked so cute with their winter sweaters on and snuggled up together.
This camper was a very popular one for tourists who liked to stay in Happy Trails Campground but didn’t have their own camper. They wanted the camper experience.
There’d even been some of my guests who rented first and then, the next year, showed up in a camper they’d bought because they’d loved it so much.
The two captain’s chairs in the front did swivel around like the chairs in my RV, only this RV was larger than mine and had bunk beds in the hallway leading to the bedroom and a bunk overtop the cab.
I figured Abby could sleep up there so Dottie and Queenie could have the two hall bunks, and me and Betts could share the queen bed in the bedroom.
“Baby.” Bobby Ray wrapped his arms around Abby and clasped his hands behind her back. “I’m gonna miss you so much,” he whined as they swayed side to side, looking into each other’s eyes.
“Gag me.” Dottie snarled and got up. “I need a cigarette.”
“You’re going to catch pneumonia,” I warned in hopes she was at least going to give quitting a good effort like she was trying to do last fall but couldn’t.
“Mm-hmm.” Dottie already had a cigarette stuck in between her lips and was out the door before she even answered me.
“What exactly is your plan?” Hank wanted me to give him a detailed play-by-play.
“I don’t know. You’ve been there. I’ll take the girls to the Three Sons Bistro for lunch or supper. I’ll visit with Sheila and see if she remembers anything.” Sheila Bistro was the owner of the local diner in Perrysburg.
She had three boys, which was how she’d come up with the clever name of the restaurant.
“Are you going to show off your part of the Hall of Fame wall?” Hank teased and reached up to pull me down by my hand onto the couch next to him.
“That’s right. I’m a local celebrity.” I squinched my nose in a playful manner once I was situated next to Hank.
“Look at us.” Abby glanced around. “We can go on double dates and vacations.” Abby rattled off a few things couples did together.
“Why the sore look?” Abby kicked my foot with her foot.
“Nothing.” I planted a smile on my face and realized I liked my relationship with Hank the way it was, and getting married again wasn’t high on my priority list. Not that Abby was even mentioning getting married, but with all the couple talk, it was the kinda the thing married couples did. “I’m thinking how jealous you’re going to be after you see my wall of fame,” I said to gloss over my actual feelings.
“My girl here was prom queen, though she stuffed the ballot box.” Hank giggled and pulled me closer to him.
“That’s a secret, buddy.” I jabbed my finger in his chest.
“There’s more secrets than you know,” Bobby Ray chimed in. I gave him a hard stare. “Your secrets are safe with me.” He put his hands in the air, letting go of Abby.
There were a lot of secrets that I wanted to be kept under the rug, and Bobby Ray was involved in many of those. For now, I was only able to focus on one secret at a time.
The house fire. That was a big secret that needed to come out. And I was on a mission to reveal it, even if my intuition was wrong and it was a simple house fire like everyone had seemed to accept. But at least I’d know the truth.
“What if all the memories you’re having aren’t real?” Bobby Ray asked.
“I feel like they are real. Deep down here.” I put my hand on my stomach where I felt my gut. Dottie had come back in the camper. “There is just so much detail in my memories.”
“I can’t believe you’ve let some hippie, shirtless chiropractor that goes by one name tell you that you’ve got pent-up memories in there.” Dottie roosted on the edge of the counter like a cock on a henhouse roof and crossed her arms.
“I’m not going to have to worry about you one bit.” Hank looked at me and smiled. His green eyes sent chills right to my heart, catching my breath. “Dottie is going to be watching over you so close, you won’t be able to catch a breath.”
“Well, who ever heard alike. Listenin’ to the kinds of a man called Tex?” Dottie said his name in her Southern-speak as she rolled her eyes skyward.
“Tex is a nice man. He is a good chiropractor. He’s helped Mary Elizabeth’s back and now me with memories.” I looked past Dottie’s shoulder and out the kitchen dinette windows to where Tex was currently living, in a bungalow with a few of his followers.
Dottie was right. Tex was a chiropractor who lived in a yurt-style tent during the warmer months. He also was a Reiki specialist who I let unlock a few details to my memory after I’d had a terrible car wreck that had me unconscious for a few hours. I’d needed to remember a few things and took a chance on letting him do the Reiki.
He’d unlocked things from my past that I’d not sought out answers for, but here we were today. And those answers I needed were in Perrysburg.
“Whatever. I’m goin’, ain’t I?” she questioned.
“I reckon you are.” I pushed up to stand. “I’m going over my lists of to-dos, and one of the to-dos is to go see Mary Elizabeth this morning.”
“I’ve got to get down to the station.” Hank got up and kissed me. “I’ll take these kids on back to the camper. I’ll see you tonight.” Hank took Chester and Fifi with him.
“I’ve got to get going too.” Bobby Ray’s words were met with a frown from Abby. “You stop by and see me on your way to the library.” He tapped Abby’s nose.
“I thought you were off?” I asked.
“I am, but I wanted to grab a couple of books to take with me to read.” She was always either on her phone or nose stuck in a book. “If you think of anything else we need, just text me.”
“Will do,” I said and started to turn off the lights, the fireplace, and unplug things in the camper. “You ready?” I asked Dottie.
“Yep. I need to go see Henry and give him the rundown. There’s not any check-ins, so he should be good for that.” Dottie zipped up her coat and pushed her hands in her pockets. “Gonna be a cold one today.”
“It sure is.” I put on my coat and flung my purse across my body. “Be sure you bring some long johns on the trip.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She waved me off, her going one way, me going the other.
On the way to my camper where I needed to get my car, I looked back at the blue RV, exactly where it sat all the time in Happy Trails Campground.
Something told me that after we drove out of here in the morning, I’d never look at that camper the same way again.