Santa, Sunrises, & Suspicions
Book 23 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
’Tis the season for murder in the small town of Normal, Kentucky. When the town gossip is found strangled to death in a church, there’s no shortage of suspects.
Around here we say BLESS HER HEART and sometimes it’s just not in a good way.
Take Neva Hudson for instance, bless her heart, she’s the town gossip, not to mention someone who likes to toot her own horn.
Two toots too many ’cause bless her heart, someone has strangled Neva and left her for dead in of all places…the church’s Christmas play.
Trust me when I say there’s no shortage of suspects since her tongue lashed a few too many lies about people.
More importantly, my dear friend Dottie Swaggert has been on the tall tale end of Neva’s lies and she’s got the most motive. Thank goodness me, Mae West, and our group of friends, the Laundry Club Ladies have traded our Christmas play elf hats into sleuthing caps because Santa’s bringing Dottie a big ole present of FREEDOM when we find the real killer.
Santa, Sunrises, & Suspicions
Book 23 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Santa, Sunrises, & Suspicions
The Winter Festival was one of my favorite festivals in the small southern town of Normal, Kentucky.
At that time of year, everything just seemed right with the world. Or did this time of year just make me all warm and fuzzy? Who didn’t like warm and fuzzy?
The grassy median of downtown Normal was always a great gathering spot for any festival. This year, the Historical Society didn’t disappoint.
Queenie French had gone above and beyond with this year’s co-host, Neva Hudson, to create the best experience, at least to the naked eye.
Every large oak tree had been dressed with twinkling lights from root to branch, barely showing any bark. There were small white tents with food vendors and local artisan shops for the tourists to enjoy, as well as a miniature train ride for children.
The walkway leading up to the big guy, Santa, was dotted with tall candy canes and fake wrapped-up pieces of candy. The décor gave off a real Santa’s-workshop vibe, which I knew Queenie was going for when she was planning it.
“What do you think of this one?” I asked my co-judge and sister-in-law, Abby Fawn Bonds. I pointed at the small four-foot Christmas tree to judge it as a possible winner of this year’s tree competition. The tree that won that contest would be put in the manger scene at the theatrical production of the Christmas story, which would take place at Normal Baptist Church as the Winter Festival’s final hooray until next year.
Abby was the head librarian at the Normal Public Library as well as the local Tupperware consultant. She was a bit on the plain side but full of joy and happiness. She bounced to the next Christmas tree, her long brown ponytail swaying back and forth.
I pulled the clipboard away from my chest and read the subject for this entry in this year’s Christmas Tree Pageant.
“I like the elements of the real Christmas story decoupaged as the ornaments, but the flickering lights will distract people from actually watching the scene play out as the wise men visit baby Jesus.” Abby was right.
“Too bad.” I sighed and moved down the table to the next tree. “This is cute. The entry is ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’” I snickered at the take on the holiday song.
The creator had used the song’s lyrics to create the ornaments.
“I’ll be home for Christmas was the song the woman belted out.
Abby’s ponytail whipped around, slapping me in the face, nearly missing my eye.
“Pft, pft.” I spat her hair away from my face.
“Hazel Lynn! I knew it was you!” Abby squealed, throwing her arms around the woman. “I knew you’d be here. I asked your mom, and she said that she couldn’t get a straight answer out of you.”
“I know, I know.” Hazel Lynn rolled her eyes. “If I did tell her, she’d give me a job to do, and all I want to do this Christmas is to visit with my old high school friends.”
“And that was why I planned it around the holiday. It’s so much easier for everyone to come in town during this time.” Abby grabbed Hazel Lynn’s hand. “Mae, this is Hazel Lynn Hudson. My very best friend at Normal High School.”
“You’re the infamous Mae West.” Hazel Lynn had a round face with large brown eyes. She was on the plump side. The square-lensed glasses took up more of her face, which made me wonder if she used them as more of a fashion statement than their real purpose. “I’ve been very entertained by all of Abby’s hashtags and social media posts from all the crime you and the other women have been doing.”
“Not to mention the big wedding to your…” Hazel Lynn’s head tilted as though she were trying to piece the relationship between Bobby Ray Bonds and me together.
“My foster slash adoptive brother.” I grinned. “It’s confusing to me too.”
“Aw. Good. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who was confused by it.” She put her arm around Abby. “If Abby is happy, I’m happy.”
“Bobby Ray sure does make her happy.” I held the clipboard close to my chest and watched as the two old friends continued to huddle up and giggle while Hazel Lynn grabbed Abby’s hand to get a better look at her wedding rings.
“You are glowing.” Hazel Lynn’s obvious happiness for Abby showed all over her face. “I can’t wait to hear all about it. First, I have to go find my mother.”
“Who’s your mom?” I asked.
“Neva Hudson.” She threw her head back with laughter. “I can see by the look on your face you know her.”
“Know of her.” I made the correction.
I thought everyone knew of Neva. Let’s just say Neva Hudson was one of those women who loved themselves dearly. So much so that she’d tell the smallest of lies to make herself seem important. My only dealing with Neva Hudson was the time I’d heard she told the ladies of the Sunday school that Mary Elizabeth had fallen on one of our hikes and had emergency surgery.
Really, it only took a little chiropractic touch from our good friend Tex to get Mary Elizabeth back on her feet. I wondered if Neva Hudson had gotten it wrong, and I gave her a pass. Of course Dottie Swaggert, my good friend and the manager of my campground, had a different tale to tell about Neva Hudson.
Who didn’t Dottie have a tale about? So I simply shrugged it off and didn’t really think of Neva again until just a couple of weeks ago when Queenie brought her up.
To put it nicely, Queenie and Neva didn’t see things quite the same when it came to the festival. From the looks of it, they’d agreed because it looked like a winter wonderland around here, even though Mother Nature had decided to give us some unseasonably warm weather for this time of the year.
“You’re too kind.” Hazel Lynn’s right eyebrow rose. “Speaking of my mom, I have to go find her.”
“I think she’s over at the igloos. A couple of boys there thought it would be funny to pee on one of them. You know, fake snow.” Abby giggled.
“Oh dear. I better go find her before she loses her temper.” Hazel Lynn gave Abby another hug. “I can’t wait to meet Bobby Ray at the reunion.”
I moved down to the next tree, giving Hazel Lynn and Abby some time to make quick plans before Hazel Lynn darted off in the direction of the igloos.
“If you hear someone screaming, don’t worry. It’s Neva Hudson,” Abby warned. “Hazel Lynn made me swear to keep my lips shut about her coming into town for our high school reunion because she didn’t want to get Neva’s hopes up if she couldn’t get off work for it.”
“What does she do?” I hit the button on the base of the next Christmas tree to see what it was for. “Wow.” I jerked back just in time as the tree started to spin.
“I love all of these added touches. I just think they will distract from the actual play.” Abby was right. “Now, this one.”
We stopped in front of the last tree to be judged. It was flocked and bedecked with simple white lights and silver, gold, and white ornaments. There was nothing fancy on it, but the tree looked so peaceful. On top sat a gold star with stained-glass kaleidoscope panels and a tiny bulb inside lighting up the glass.
“This one is perfect.” I pulled back my clipboard and read the name. “Darby Greer.”
“She’s going to be so happy.” Abby clicked the top of the ballpoint pen and wrote something on the paper. “Can I announce it?”
“Yes.” This was the moment Abby had lived for.
She took her phone out of her pocket. Her finger scrolled along the phone’s surface until she held it out, pointing it at the tree, clicking a photo.
“Nice,” she said and showed me the photo for my approval. “Congratulations to Darby Greer for winning this year’s hashtag Christmas tree pageant, where her Christmas tree will be displayed at this year’s hashtag Christmas story theatrical play at hashtag Normal Baptist Church.”
All those hashtags and mentions of tagging people made my head spin. Luckily, Abby was a wiz and loved doing all the social media tasks that needed to be done for marketing purposes. Without her, I wasn’t sure Happy Trails Campground, my campground, would be as popular as it had become.
My phone’s alarm sounded.
“Done just in time.” I showed my phone’s reminder to Abby.
“We make a great team,” Abby confirmed as we weaved our way through the tourists and locals to make our way down to the Normal Baptist Church for, of all things… choir practice.
“Who told her she could sing?” Dottie Swaggert took a deep breath before letting it out into a long and loud sigh. She curled her arms across her chest and draped one of her lanky legs over the other, swinging her foot and glaring at Neva Hudson. “Honestly.”
Dottie uncurled her arm and leaned back, tossing her fingertips in her short and curly red hair, fluffing it up high to the sky.
“She’s all we got.” Betts Hager’s eyes squinted when Neva’s shrill voice tried to hit the high note in O Holy Night. Betts turned her head away from the stage, using her bangs to cover up her eyes and hid her honest reaction behind her wavy brown hair.
I put my finger in my ear and shook it quickly to get the ringing out. I also opened my mouth to help out the popping process.
“Well, she sure can gossip, and she sure can’t sing,” Dottie grumbled, giving Neva the eye.
“Now, Dottie.” Betts shifted her weight to the side to look directly at Dottie. “I let it slide when you bemoan down at the laundromat, but it’s not fittin’ here in the house of the Lord.”
I gulped, keeping my eyes looking straight at Neva on the pulpit giving the song a good college try. Betts was on edge, since she’d spent over six months working on the Christmas story theatrical play, and it was falling apart day by day.
The church was still in limbo with the new preacher. Members of the church weren’t happy with the deacon’s decision to hire Andy. He was too young for some and too handsome to be a preacher for others. And the last few didn’t like that he wasn’t married. Seemed odd, they’d said.
Good ol’ Betts. She was left holding the bag and, as always, did the best she could with what she had. That was us. The Laundry Club Ladies, who consisted of Dottie Swaggert, Queenie French, Abby, and me.
“I don’t see why not.” Dottie was getting all wound up. She was like one of those children’s stuffed animals with the pully string in the back. Once you pulled her chain, she wasn’t going to stop until she was done. “I’m no Bible scholar, but I do believe when I was knee-high to a June bug that I learned the Ten Commandments right back there in that very room.”
Dottie jutted her finger toward the door that led from the auditorium of the church and opened into the hallway that contained the Sunday school classrooms.
“Now, I can’t tell you what number it was, but I swear there’s one about not lying, and I’m not lying when I say Neva can’t sing.” Her finger swung from the door’s direction to Neva’s. “Now, Neva on the other hand—she’s the liar.”
Yep. There we sat on the first pew of the Normal Baptist Church. The Laundry Club Ladies, the newest recruits in the church choir. Or should I say the newest fill-ins for the choir when none of us could sing a lick.
“Thank God.” Queenie tapped me on the leg. “I’m so glad I don’t have to hear this.” Her eyes shifted between Dottie and Betts. She stood up, facing the back of the church. She gave a slight nod, and her red headband fell down on her forehead. Queenie pushed her headband up and said, “I’ve got to interview all the Santas.”
I twisted around in the pew and looked over my right shoulder. There were three fully dressed Santas in the back of the church.
Queenie threw her hand in the air, catching the Santas’ eyes, gesturing them to follow her out of the auditorium.
“Lucky,” Abby said with a groan, giving me a hard look.
“It still doesn’t give you a pass to be mean right here at Christmas.” Betts was still carrying on with Dottie about Neva.
“Mean? I think I’m stating the facts.” Dottie jerked her head to the side, slamming her eyes closed when Neva’s voice squeaked out the last note. “If she shatters one of them fancy glass windows, I’m telling you I’m not going to donate no more money to the fund. I don’t care if you bat those pretty little eyes when you beg.” She shook a finger at Betts.
“Ho, ho, holy smokes!” One of the Santas burst out laughing. “That’s a humdinger!”
Not even Betts could hide her frightened look.
“Even Santa can’t stand it.” Dottie’s lip ticked up a little. “Remind me to get his name and number from Queenie.” Dottie wiggled her brows.
“How do you know he’s not married?” Betts asked.
“I don’t, but heavens to Betsy, wouldn’t it be funny if I met my soul mate right here in the house of the Lord?” Dottie wiggled her shoulders, the bedazzled Christmas tree on her sweater sending sparkly dots all over the church’s ceiling.
“What chy’all think?” Neva stood in front of us. Her chest heaved up and down. “It takes a lot out of me to reach those high notes.” Neva grabbed a bottle of water from the basket Betts had brought and some sweet treats from the Cookie Crumble Bakery for the choir. “Honestly, I think I did a better job than Evelyn Fisk. I mean, Evelyn is getting up there in age, and thank goodness she can’t stand Preacher Andy enough to be stubborn and not participate. Regardless of my lack of approval for the man, I’m willing to put my differences aside so everyone can enjoy a little Christmas cheer as I share my talent.”
“It takes more out of us just listening to it,” Dottie murmured and excused herself. She didn’t say where she was going, but she already had her leather cigarette case in her hand and headed down the aisle toward the outside.
“What she say?” Neva’s large nose curled, eyes hooded.
“You’ve touched her so much, she needs a smoke.” Betts always tried to keep the peace. I wasn’t sure whether it was because she used to be a pastor’s wife or if it was just in her nature. She’d always been that way since I met her a few years ago.
Then, she was married to Lester, the former preacher of Normal Baptist Church, the same church we were currently sitting in.
“I’m so touched.” Neva’s lips curled in as she took a big sigh, slightly lifting her chin in the air before she dropped it theatrically to touch the top of her shoulder. Her eyes squeezed shut as if she were trying to dam up any tears that might be forming. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity to bless someone with my God-given talent. And to think I get to do it with my sweet Hazel Lynn in the audience.”
“Mmm,” Betts hummed with a closed mouth. “Oh, there’s the Greer family.”
Betts jumped up.
“Yes. I’m in charge of the kids.” Abby hopped to her feet. “And I’m super excited to let Darby know she won the Christmas Tree Pageant.”
Darby, Cabot, and Beck, their ten-year-old son, stood in the back of the auditorium.
“What did you think about the performance?” Neva stood a little less than six feet tall. Her short, unruly brown hair hung in loose curls around her head. Her nose was long and wide, taking up half of her face.
After laying eyes on Hazel Lynn, I’d venture to say that Hazel Lynn had to look like her daddy.
“Oh goodness, I think I just heard Abby calling for me to help with Beck.” I pointed behind me and stood up. “You know he works for me.” I excused myself, not wanting to be caught telling a little white lie in church or even give anyone an idea I was at all like Neva Hudson.
“I heard Darby and Cabot were having troubles. Cabot’s been going down to the gambling joint while Darby has been raising that poor boy all alone. No wonder he’s back there throwing a fit, Mae. He doesn’t have any sort of father figure.” Neva started in on what was her best asset.
Gossip or lying. You could take your pick.
Betts Hager was the most honest person I knew, and when Neva had started a rumor about Betts and the new preacher, Betts got into a little scuffle with her—and had to put a stop to it.
Neva, on the other hand, apologized and simply moved on to another subject. She had no remorse whatsoever. It was unbelievable, honestly. Like a true talent this woman had perfected. And I was seeing it firsthand.
“It was good to see you.” I tried not to glare at her, but just being nice was hard knowing what I knew.
I took a detour down a pew behind me on my way back to the vestibule where Abby was talking to Beck. That way, I could avoid the man pushing the dolly full of poinsettias that would soon fill in the entire altar.
Since Betts was in charge of this year’s Christmas theater for the annual Winter Festival, she made sure to host it inside this year because you never could predict the weather in Kentucky around this time.
Though it was supposed to be winter, sometimes Mother Nature loved to play tricks. It wasn’t unusual to have a blizzard with twenty-degree temperatures, only to see that turn off like a light switch with the next day being sunny and seventy.
Just to make sure things went smoothly and saw no last-minute changes, Betts had gotten the new preacher, Brother Andy, to agree to move the pageant inside the church instead keeping it on the church steps.
That was why they were bringing in the poinsettias. She was going to re-create a huge Christmas tree design with them and have choir members stand in between the potted plants.
“What are you laughing at?” Dottie’s voice carried, echoing through the church.
“Shhh.” I waved my hand in front of me, letting her know she smelled like an ashtray. “I was thinking Neva probably believes she’s going to be the star on top of the poinsettia tree.”
“I’m gonna tell you one thing.” Dottie was about to give me one of her pearls of wisdom. I could see it formulating in her little sarcastic head. “There ain’t enough makeup to hide crazy. Not even a Christmas star perched up on top of her head is gonna work.”
“I’m ten. I want to know the truth.” Beck Greer stomped his little foot.
“I won’t take you actin’ up in church like this.” Darby clearly had had enough of how Beck was acting.
“Hi, Beck.” I wasn’t sure what was going on with him. I’d never seen him act that way. “What’s going on?” I asked, looking between him and his mom.
“There’s three Santas over there.” Beck threw his hand, gesturing to where Queenie had brought the Santas back out.
She lined them up in the back pew and went over what she sought in a perfect pageant Santa. The pageant commemorated the birth of Jesus, but Santa was the big surprise at the end.
All the kiddos really looked forward to his arrival, even though it wasn’t the real reason for the season, and apparently Beck was having a difficult time.
“What ’bout them?” Dottie asked Beck.
She and Beck had gotten close over the last few months since I’d hired Beck to work at Happy Trails Campground, the campground I owned in the Daniel Boone National Park. Dottie was the manager, and Beck did various odd jobs like pulling weeds, stacking up wood for the campsites, and anything Dottie or Hank, my handyman, needed completed.
“Beck”—Darby exaggerated his name and put a hand on top of his head. He jerked away and smacked her hand—“is questioning whether there’s a real Santa or not.”
“Ohhhhh.” The wrinkles around Dottie’s mouth were already deep from her smoking habit. As she held the word, the lines deepened. “And why is that?”
“A kid at school told us while we were having recess inside because it was too cold to go outside on the playground.” Beck crossed his arms and slumped. “I told him he was wrong, and he made a good point saying how could Santa be in all of these places. There are five over there.”
Dottie heaved a breath in and out.
“Beck, honestly. Do you think Santa is going to be here able to rehearse for a Christmas pageant?” Dottie grabbed our attention. Even a Santa looked back. “See, he’s an elf, and he’s listening to you to talk back to Santa.”
Beck straightened up.
“Your friend is right about one thing. Santa can’t be in many places at one time. That’s why there are so many Santas doing so many things.” Dottie made me smile. She tried to act like she was a tough ol’ broad, but she was all mush on the inside.
“Really, Dottie?” Beck asked.
“Of course.” She gestured to the church. “Why do you think we have all these preacher people? God or Jesus can’t be here all the time, so he uses preachers to get the skinny on the people.”
Beck looked at Dottie for a brief minute, considering what she was saying before he nodded a few times.
“And another little secret,” Abby spoke up. “Don’t believe, and see if you get anything under your Christmas tree on Christmas morning from Santa.”
Beck’s eyes grew really big. No way could he wrap his ten-year-old brain around not getting presents.
“Santa doesn’t deliver if you don’t believe,” Cabot followed up.
Beck glanced around and looked at each of us. We all gave a little nod.
“Okay. I’ll play Joseph.” He turned to Betts. “But I want to talk to all of them Santas.”
“Good. Now, why don’t we take you back to the Sunday school room where they are.” She clasped her hands together before she grabbed a handful of her wavy brown hair and tossed it out of her way, sighing with relief. “Then, after you talk to the Santas, we will go to your Sunday school room so we can rehearse.”
Beck headed that way, leaving the adults alone.
“I can’t thank you enough, Dottie.” Darby laid her hand on Dottie’s arm and turned to Cabot. “Ready to go shopping?”
“Shopping?” My ears perked up.
“We haven’t even started Christmas shopping yet.” Darby shook her head. “We’ve been so up in arms about this whole not believing in Santa that my Christmas spirit has shot right out of the door.”
“Yes, it has.” Cabot smiled and ran a hand along his wife’s back. “But now Beck’s here, rehearsing, and Dottie got him set on the right track.”
“What time is rehearsal over?” Darby asked Betts.
“At noon, then we have pizza coming, so be back around one, one thirty.” Betts gave an approximate time.
“Before I go, I just have to tell you thank you for judging my tree the winner. I know it’s a little basic, but I didn’t want to overshadow the reason for the season. It’s clichéd, but it holds so much truth.” Darby had really shown a different side to her than when I first met her.
She gossiped like most of the citizens in a small town. Some people might consider her and Neva Hudson along the same lines, but Neva flat-out lied. Not Darby.
We all said goodbye to the Greers.
“You do have a kind heart in there,” Betts teased Dottie.
“Don’t get used to it.” Dottie’s lip curled. She busied herself by taking the cigarette case out of her pocket and tapping out a cigarette to hold in her mouth.
If I had to guess, I would say she used her smokes as a comforting tool, like a little kid who loved their blanket. Dottie reminded me of that as she let the cigarette dangle while carrying on with her day.
“Are you having to babysit the Greers’ young ’un?” Neva had found her way into our conversation.
“We like Beck, don’t we?” Dottie threw her question to Abby, Betts, and me.
“I wasn’t saying he wasn’t a good kid. I was saying how they were notorious for pawning their only child off to people. At least that was what Marilyn Sue told me.” Neva mentioned her best friend, who I’d not had the honor of meeting.
When anyone mentioned Neva Hudson, Marilyn Sue’s name would come in shortly thereafter.
“Marilyn Sue has no idea what she’s talking about.” Abby shook her head and took out her phone.
“I think she sure would. She lives right next door.” Neva was just in a mood to start something.
“I live right across the street.” Abby clicked away on her phone, no doubt posting something fabulous to social media to spread the word about the Christmas play.
“Neva, you go on and get out of here. None of us want to hear the local gossip that’s all lies.” Dottie’s words garnered an audible gasp from Neva. “You heard me. Git!”
“You know what, Dottie Swaggert?” Neva jutted her size-eleven feet out when she threw her hands on her hips and thrust her hip out. “I don’t dare tell lies, and that offends me.”
“Neva, don’t forget we have practice tonight at seven p.m.” Betts stepped in to stop what appeared to be the beginnings of a quarrel.
Neva shifted her gaze to Betts.
“I’ll be here.” She glared at Dottie before she asked, “Where did my daughter go?” Neva turned to Abby as though Abby was Hazel Lynn’s keeper. “She was outside smokin’ with me.” Dottie’s face showed pure satisfaction like she’d just taken a big puff of a cigarette after a hard day. “We lit right up after she bummed one off me.”
Neva’s mouth twisted, contorted, and snarled. Her self-pity gave way to anger before she stormed off.
“You’re awful.” Part of me felt bad for Neva. She wasn’t going to catch a break with this group.
“What? She deserves it. Thinking we want to hear what bull malarkey she’s spewing about Darby and Cabot. I’ve never seen a finer couple.” Dottie corrected herself. “Well, other than you and Hank and Abby and Bobby Ray.”