Sunsets, Sabbatical, & Scandal
Book 10 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Welcome to Normal, Kentucky~ where nothing is normal.
Who served up the murder at the Normal Diner?
A beloved resident of Normal, Kentucky is found dead on the floor of the Normal Diner, leaving the entire town on high alert. Faster than the short order cook can say order up… the laundry ladies are in the scene.
News spreads fast about the murder and Detective Hank Sharp is hungry for answers.
Mae West along with the Laundry Club ladies come up with a list of suspects and the evidence is piling up faster than a juicy double cheeseburger.
Who murdered the beloved citizen?
Was it a hit to score some extra lunch money?
Sunsets, Sabbatical, & Scandal
Book 10 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Sunsets, Sabbatical, & Scandal
I should’ve stayed in bed.
Really, if I’d known how today was going to end… I would’ve stayed at the campground.
I looked up from my phone when I heard Ty Randal’s voice.
He stood across the counter at the Normal Diner, looking at me with his arms crossed. “You look like you need a coffee this morning.”
“I’m on it, boss.” Trudy Bull had the pot of coffee in her grip and moved around Ty to get to my coffee cup that she’d already refilled umpteen times. “It’s her third refill.”
“And you still look like that?” Ty’s blue eyes danced with question, his shaggy blond curls hanging down his forehead.
I ignored his comment. “This.” I shook my phone and put it down on the counter, replacing it in my hand with the coffee cup. “My phone won’t keep a charge for nothing,” I said. “I’m waiting on a call from Betts because I told her I could help her with one of her house cleaning jobs, and I swear it was on charge all night.”
With my free hand, I waved down the counter at Buck, the owner of the Tough Nickel thrift store just a few doors down. He looked like he’d just eaten a big breakfast in preparation to open his store for the day. Buck waved bye, and off he went, but not before stopping to talk to Ethel Biddle and Otis Gullett, the fiddle player in her band, Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys.
I looked around the diner to see who else I’d recognize. One was Joel Grassel, owner of the local garage. Otherwise, pretty much all the regulars and a few tourists.
“We’ve got the solution for you,” Trudy said and nudged Ty. “We got fancy new charging stations.”
“What? Ty Randal has decided to bring the diner’s technology up to date?” I asked. He still kept a landline for the diner as well as one of those old cash registers instead of a newer one where customers could swipe their cards. Honestly, most people around here used cash.
“Mm-hmm.” Ty winked. “Look right under the bar.”
I twirled my stool to the side and bent down. Sure enough, there was a USB port for a cell charger.
“My, my. Ty Randal, you do amaze me.” I pulled my phone charger out of my bag and plugged it into the charging station and then into my phone. “Thank you, Trudy,” I called after her as she made her way down the counter to top off the other customers’ coffees.
“I had to do something,” Ty replied. He glanced over my shoulder and did a slight chin-raise toward a group of tourists who were probably in their early twenties. “They all have cell phones, and if I want to make sure they come here to spend any sort of cash on food, then I’ve got to start catering to them.”
I grinned and nodded.
Normal, Kentucky was set in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest. We were located right outside of the Daniel Boone National Park, which was great for business. It was the last place tourists could stop and get anything they needed before setting out into the park.
If they wanted a great meal, they’d stop here at the diner. If they needed their clothes washed after they left their camping or RV trip, they could head across the street to the town’s laundromat. Most likely, they were coming from Happy Trails, the campground I owned and also lived on. It was right at the base of several trails leading into the park, which, just like for the Normal Diner, made it a great spot for business.
Each trail was marked for a different skill level, so I was fortunate to have the perfect setup for people of all abilities looking to vacation. But today, I was helping out my good friend Betts Hager, who not only owned the laundromat but also did side cleaning jobs.
That’s the way it was in Normal. We all did what we could to help each other out. I wasn’t the best housekeeper—nor did I particularly like getting my nails chipped from cleaning someone else’s toilet when I had a hard enough time cleaning my own—but I set my needs aside to help out Betts.
“You’ve got a full plate at the campground,” Ty said, turning around when he heard his short-order cook ding the bell, indicating that an order was up. “What’s up with Betts?” he asked as he grabbed a hot plate of delicious biscuits and gravy in one hand and a Daniel Boone breakfast platter in the other.
“Dottie is holding down the fort at the campground so I can help Betts clean Mayor Mackenzie’s house,” I told him as he moved around the counter to deliver the food to a booth of customers.
Courtney Mackenzie was the female—and single—mayor of Normal.
Dottie Swaggert was the manager of my campground. She and Ty both lived there full time. Ty knew that by this time of year, winter was long gone, and Mother Nature had painted the entire Daniel Boone National Forest with beautiful pops of wildflowers among the famous Kentucky bluegrass. It was a hiker’s and camper’s dream to come visit.
The weather was a nice, even sixty degrees during the day, and the nights were chilly enough for sitting around a campfire while telling stories or just enjoying the great outdoors. It was a popular destination for both the young and the old.
“Oh, yeah. The big wedding.” Ty walked back by me to his post behind the counter to cash out a customer. “It’s tonight, right?”
“Yep.” My phone chirped. I looked down. “The house has to be ready for out-of-town guests, and Courtney didn’t want Betts to come until today because she was sure it would have gotten all messed up again if we’d cleaned yesterday. So she needs all hands on deck.”
“I didn’t get an invite to the wedding. Did you?” he asked, leaning his hip up against the counter.
“No. Which means we didn’t have to buy a gift.” I smacked the counter. “I’m still trying to pay off all the people who donate to the campground. And Ava Cox.”
“It means we didn’t have to turn down the wedding invitation so we could watch the big fight on DirecTV.” Ty rubbed his hands together.
“Oh, yeah. You and Hank are watching it at your camper.” I had totally forgotten about the big boxing match. It was a big deal around here to get together and pay the premium fee to watch two grown men beat the heck out of each other.
“Ridiculous if you ask me,” Trudy said as she hustled past me. “You can go down to the bar and see all the fights you want for free.”
“You know…” Ty looked over and smiled. “You could get a big-screen theater-type addition to the campground.”
“What part of me saying ‘I’m working extra jobs to pay Ava Cox’ do you not understand?” Ava Cox was the lawyer who had helped me out of many situations when she really hadn’t needed to. Her life had been completely altered by my ex-, and now dead ex-, husband.
It’s no big secret how I came to be the proud owner of Happy Trails. My now-dead ex-husband, Paul West, and I had lived a fabulous and luxurious life in Manhattan. We’d even had us a house on the water in Hampton. It was a life I’d loved so much that I didn’t pay attention to what Paul was up to. In fact, he was a passenger on an airplane where I was a flight attendant when we first met, and it was is if he’d charmed me right off that plane and into the Justice of the Peace office.
I’d loved him even though he was much older than me. We’d had a happy life, or so I thought… until the FBI had raided our Manhattan apartment, taking him to jail for a Ponzi scheme that stole millions if not billions of dollars from our friends and community members.
It was only then, when our lawyer took the keys to my Maserati in exchange for a small rusty key dangling from a miniature plastic flamingo that belonged to a drivable camper in much need of a makeover, that I learned I was the owner of a campground in Kentucky. Ironically, it was the place I’d desperately tried to escape my whole life and finally had as soon as the clock struck midnight on my eighteenth birthday.
Regardless, that’s how I ended right back in Kentucky, where I was now the proud owner of a run-down campground.
“I’m sure everyone is fine with how you’re paying them back.” Ty smiled. It brought back a lot of memories of how kind he had been to me when everyone in Normal was not so accepting, most of them having been scammed by Paul.
“It’s taken me the better part of almost two years.” I exhaled. “And my family moving here to help me pay everyone off.”
“I got an invite to the wedding,” Trudy butted in, wiggling her brows as she grabbed a tray of food from the pass-through window.
“You did?” I questioned.
“Mm-hmmm.” She smiled so big when she passed by. “Plus-one.”
“You got you a date?” I teased. “Why, I can’t wait to hear all about it.”
“We won’t hear anything else but that tomorrow,” Ty hollered across the diner so Trudy could hear. “And you open!” Then he looked at me with a straight face. “She better be here to open. We are busy. And she better put that phone away. Geez, get off that dating app.”
“Dating app?” I questioned.
“Honey, men around here are slim pickins’. I’ve been known to go out with some men on the dating app.” Trudy giggled and tapped on her phone while she walked back toward us before slipping it into the front pocket of her apron. Her bright-yellow fingernail polish always made me smile.
I couldn’t help but laugh, but I stopped when I heard the familiar voice of my foster brother, Bobby Ray Bonds. He was standing and talking to someone in a booth, who I bet had to be traveling through for work. He didn’t have on any hiking gear and instead wore a nice short-sleeved shirt and khakis, but it was the open laptop in front of him that told me he was a businessman.
Tourists rarely brought a computer or tablet when they came to Normal. It was a place to get away and relax. Plus, there was very little cell or data service around.
“Do you remember May-bell-ine?”
I rolled my eyes when I heard Bobby Ray call me by my full name, but I turned around and waved. I had no idea who the guy was, but apparently, he was from the past I’d spent years trying to outrun.
“Yep. May-bell-ine West,” I heard Bobby Ray confirm. Unfortunately, he was acknowledging my legally married name, which was tainted with Paul’s illegal ways and the one thing that ultimately got him murdered.
“It seems like you’ve got someone here who knows you.” Ty offered a heartwarming smile. He knew how much I had struggled with what Paul did and how hard I’d worked to bring the economy back to life in Normal.
“I got to get going anyways.” I gathered my things, and as soon as I pulled the cord out from the charging station, a hiker hurried over and plugged in. “Thanks for the charge,” I said.
“No problem. I’ll see you tonight.” Ty grabbed the rag behind the counter and wiped my spot clean for the hiker.
Instead of heading right out to the laundromat parking lot where Betts was waiting for me, I ventured over to Bobby Ray so I could say hello to whoever he’d recognized.
“May-bell-ine, do you remember Gidean Ratimer?” Bobby Ray and I both moved out of Trudy’s way while she refilled Gidean’s ice water and sat down his ticket. “He was a grade ahead of you and behind me in school.”
“Hi there. How are you?” I had no idea who this guy was, but I tried not to stay too involved with anyone we’d gone to high school with.
“Mae.” Gidean had a nice head of hair. It was thick and brown. Even his side part was perfect and made me a little envious.
Heck, anyone with hair different than mine made me envious. I loved the color of my brown hair, but the curly part wasn’t so lovable. That’s one reason why I grew it long. The longer my hair was, the looser the curls. Today, it was pulled back in a ponytail so as not to fall down into Courtney’s toilet water when I scrubbed the toilets.
“You have turned out to be one beautiful woman.” Gidean eased back into the vinyl of the booth. “You can imagine my surprise when I heard Bobby Ray here call out my name.”
“Yeah.” Bobby Ray laughed and elbowed me. “Gidean is a travel blogger. Makes money at it on the internet.”
“Is that right?” Now that got my attention. I’d worked really hard not only to redo the campground to help the economy but to help other businesses in Normal revamp themselves as well. I even got a key to the city for an economic plan I used to stimulate a booming economy year-round rather than just seasonally. “Did you know I own Happy Trails Campground?”
“I’ve read all about it. And that’s you?” he questioned with amazement on his face. “Huh. Wow. I’d love to get a tour since it’s a one-of-a-kind place.”
“It was one of a kind back a couple years ago, but I think a lot of areas have started to embrace the glamping life.” I did bring a little sophistication to camping. “I’d love to show you around.”
“Now?” Gidean shut the computer like we were heading there.
“I can’t right now, but later.” I pointed to Bobby Ray. “You exchange numbers with Bobby Ray, and I’ll give you a text. Right now, I have to meet my friend.” I moved my finger to the window and pointed to Betts’s van she used for her cleaning jobs. “How long are you in town?”
“I was just passing through, but I’ll stay a few days. I can work from anywhere.” He smiled and nodded. “Gosh. Bobby Ray and Mae. I never would’ve guessed I’d run into either of you here, but both?”
It was funny how life turned out. I sure knew that, but I was going to have to look this guy up in my yearbook when I had time to go see Mary Elizabeth Moberly, my foster mother, at The Milkery. I was positive Mary Elizabeth would remember Gidean Ratimer. She never forgot anyone, even if she did only meet them once.
“Who?” Mary Elizabeth Moberly questioned when I asked about Gidean Ratimer at The Milkery. I’d stopped by on my way back to the campground after Betts and I had finished cleaning Mayor Mackenzie’s house. “Never heard of him.”
Mary Elizabeth’s southern accent made me smile. She dug out a handful of her special udder cream she made for milking cows and rubbed it into each one of my hands.
“Is he single?” Dawn Gentry, co-owner of The Milkery with Mary Elizabeth, had set down freshly baked blueberry muffins, made with freshly picked blueberries right here off The Milkery farm.
“I have no idea.” My mouth watered at the golden-brown muffins with their glistening buttery tops that I knew were for dessert for the couple of people they already had staying at the bed-and-breakfast. The fluted cast-iron muffin pan used to bake them made them look so pretty. It was small touches like these from Mary Elizabeth and Dawn that made The Milkery a nice bed-and-breakfast for people like Gidean who were just passing through.
“Well, you’re gonna have to go fetch one of mine or Bobby Ray’s yearbooks to look him up because I got a text from him saying he suggests Gidean stay here a few days.”
“Huh.” Mary Elizabeth continued to rub the udder cream on my hands until she finally said, “If this works good on the cow’s tit, it should work on your cleaning hands. But if it don’t, we can melt equal parts beeswax and coconut oil. It’d have to set up in a jar overnight, but I don’t think we’ll have to concoct that.”
“These look great.” I picked up a muffin and took a bite before they could take it back. “And delicious,” I mumbled on account of the mouthful.
“Use a fork.” Mary Elizabeth scolded me for using my udder-creamed-up fingers. “You were raised better than that. I declare.” She huffed. “Anyways.” Mary Elizabeth liked to use one-word sentences. “How was cleaning the Mayor’s house?” she asked. “I can’t believe how I could never get you to clean your room, much less a toilet.”
She was right. After my entire family had died in our house fire, I was sent off to the Kentucky Foster Care system and straight into Mary Elizabeth’s house, where she figured I needed to learn some manners. She’d enrolled me in manners school as well as etiquette classes.
At the time, I gave her a hard way to go. What young girl who’d just lost her family wanted to go and learn which fork to eat with, not to mention how to properly fold sheets or make a bed? I wanted to get out of that life and leave it behind.
If I acted out and skipped the classes she paid good money for, I thought she’d give up. She hadn’t. Not even after I skipped town one midnight hour and didn’t see her until a couple of years later, after she and Bobby Ray saw the interview I did with the National Parks Magazine.
Bobby Ray had shown up on the metal steps of my camper and ended up staying and inviting Mary Elizabeth for Christmas. It just so happened The Milkery had been up for sale, and she thought it was a good buy and ended up moving here.
Here we all were. Again. And she was still correcting my manners and etiquette.
“It was fine.” I ignored her comment about toilets. “They are very excited about her cousin’s wedding over at the Barn. You know it’s all the rage to rent it out now?”
“I’ve seen so many barn weddings on Instagram. And this time of the year too.” Dawn stood about five foot six and in her late thirties. She had a pixie haircut that matched her biker skinny-jean style. She’d been involved in the book publishing world when she first came to Normal.
She, too, ended up loving the small-southern-town life, which made her and Mary Elizabeth perfect business partners. Dawn was savvy in the social media and marketing department while Mary Elizabeth was amazing at the cozy touches and southern-cooking aspect of their joint venture.
“So, let’s get back to this Gidean.” Dawn wasn’t very subtle in her quest to find a man.
It was slim pickings around here. I was lucky enough I’d not only gone out with Ty Randal a few times before we realized we weren’t made for each other, but now had my hooks in Hank Sharp, the ex-forest ranger who’d turned full-time detective with the Normal Sheriff’s Department.
“There’s nothing to say.” I shrugged and drummed my oily fingers on the farm table while I watched Mary Elizabeth stir the homemade soup she had on the stove as the appetizer for the night’s menu.
She always served up a full-course meal at suppertime. For dinner, which some people might refer to as lunch, there was always some sort of delicious homemade spread—like pimento cheese, chicken salad, egg salad, Kentucky sin dip—you name it, Mary Elizabeth made it into a spread. And they were good.
“He seems fine. He travels for work and is passing through. Ate at the diner and Bobby Ray knew him.” I got up. “I’ve got to get going. I’ve got to grab Fifi and Dottie. We’ve got book club tonight.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Dawn looked at Mary Elizabeth then back at me and groaned. “I hate missing. But you and the girls know this is our busiest time.”
“We do.” I walked over to the pot on the stove and took a big whiff of what Mary Elizabeth had in there. “Burgoo?” I asked when the combination of pork, chicken, mutton, and all sorts of yummy vegetables wafted up, bringing my smeller alive.
“I’ll save you some.” Mary Elizabeth hugged me goodbye. “I’ll drop it off on my way into town tomorrow.”
“I’ll be at Happy Trails all day since it’s my day to work the office.” I hugged her again. It was actually nice how we’d reconnected after all the years I’d spent running away. It also made me realize how lucky I really was to have gotten her for a foster mom. She truly had taken over the mother role without erasing my own mom’s memory. “Be on the lookout for Gidean Ratimer since he’ll be here soon,” I teased Dawn.
“Don’t let her fool you. She didn’t care about book club.” Mary Elizabeth called it like she saw it. “Heaven help her if the good Lord don’t strike her dead right here in front of us for lying.”
Dawn tried to talk over Mary Elizabeth, but I clearly heard Mary Elizabeth say something about a date.
“Date?” My jaw dropped. “Who?”
Dead silence. Dawn glared at Mary Elizabeth, but Mary Elizabeth kept stirring the burgoo.
“I joined a dating app, and I didn’t want to say anything until I checked it out.” Dawn Gentry of all people joining a dating app really shocked me. “See,” she said to me. “Your face says it all.”
“I’m fine.” I waved my hands in front of me. “But we can talk about this later. I hope it goes well.”
“Mama! We’re here!” Bobby Ray called from the front of the bed-and-breakfast.
Before I could hightail it out of there, he and Gidean were standing in the kitchen with us.
“You remember Gidean Ratimer, don’t you?” Bobby Ray asked Mary Elizabeth, who he always considered his mama.
“Hi do,” she greeted him with the best possible lying smile and up-toned voice I’d ever heard from her. She didn’t remember Gidean any more than I did. Only she was so much better at covering it up. “How’s your mama and them?”
“They are doing so good. Everyone is happy and healthy.” He nodded before his eyes slid over to Dawn. “Who might you be?”
Dawn turned all shades of red before she settled on a blush.
“I’m Dawn Gentry. Co-owner of The Milkery with Mary Elizabeth.” She grabbed the basket of blueberry muffins. “Muffin? Homemade.”
While Dawn and Gidean got better acquainted, Mary Elizabeth dragged me and Bobby Ray clear to the other side of the kitchen.
“Who on God’s green earth is that?” She gave Bobby Ray the look. “I know everyone you grew up with, but I don’t recall no Ratimers.”
“You know. They lived off Knob Creek Road down by them Seven Day Adventist.” Bobby Ray talked about a church we’d never stepped foot into. Of course we knew where it was, but Mary Elizabeth had me in the Baptist church before the ink could dry on the adoption certificate. That very day did she have me down in the baptizing pool before I could protest.
“That’s why you don’t remember him.” Bobby Ray looked between us. “He didn’t go to our church.”
“I need to study on this one.” Mary Elizabeth rubbed her chin.
“You do that,” I told her and took my phone out of my pocket. The charge was in the red. “I’ve got to go.”
“Tonight, me and Gidean are going to watch the fight with Hank and Ty, so I’ll see you later.” Bobby Ray hugged me.
I didn’t tell him he probably wouldn’t see me later since I had the book club meeting, but he didn’t really care. He was just being polite.
I gave them both hugs and headed out the door without Dawn or Gidean even taking notice.
It was so nice how bright it was at this time of night. That’s the way it was with daylight savings time. The winter days started to get dark around five thirty p.m. where the spring and summer days got dark around eight p.m. We could always tell that spring had sprung not only by the amazing foliage coming to life but by the sunlight.
Plus, I really loved seeing my guests at Happy Trails Campground enjoying the amenities we provided.
When I drove up the gravel road that dumped out into the parking lot of Happy Trails, I noticed the light was on in the entertainment room where a few children were playing video games. There were some people fishing around the lake and a few out on the water in paddleboats.
Even a few campfires had been started. The mingling always brought a smile to my face.
“Where’s my baby?” I called out to Dottie Swaggert when I drove past her camper, which was the first camper on the right side, right across from the campground office.
“She’s running around here somewhere.” Dottie took a long drag of her cigarette. “Fifi!” she called as the puff of smoke circled her red hair she’d tied up in a handkerchief. She pointed off into the distance with the cigarette nestled between her middle and pointer fingers. “In the lake with Chester.”
“Aw, Dottie,” I grumbled and brought the car to a slow stop. “I don’t have time to wash her up before our book club.”
My eyes fixed upon my little white poodle, Fifi, and Hank’s dog, Chester. They were in the lake swimming around, only Fifi was going after the geese. Not Chester. He didn’t care too much about the geese. He just followed Fifi around.
“Then don’t.” Dottie seemed to have an answer to everything. “Did you get a call from the bank?”
“Yeah. Said something about your business account being compromised or you spent some money that was unusual. You know Ann Doherty and how she talks so fast. Well, it was her that called.” Dottie leaned over the picnic table and put her cigarette in the ashtray, snuffing it out. She meandered over like she didn’t have a care in the world.
“When did she call?” I asked and grabbed my bag from the passenger seat. I reached in and pulled out my phone. “Dead.”
“She’s dead?” Dottie’s head jerked up. She picked up the giddy-up in her step, peeping through my window.
“My phone is dead.” I threw it in the seat.
Dottie laid her forearms across the open window and crouched down to look in. “My goodness. It looks like the Mayor’s house did a number on your hands.”
“Tell me about it.” I held them out for her to see. “I’d gone over to The Milkery to get some of Mary Elizabeth’s udder cream, so it should all be good by the morning.”
“She’s got the best remedies.” Dottie turned to look over her shoulder, and I glanced past her when I heard Fifi barking. “Looks like she knows mama’s home.”
“She knows it’s feeding time.” When I opened the door, Dottie took a few steps back so the wet dog could jump in, Chester following a few seconds later. “Ann say anything else?”
“Nah. I told her you were working all day in the office tomorrow. She said the bank put the transactions on hold and would get in touch with you tomorrow.” Dottie had been the property manager long before me. She’d lived in Normal all her life, and it was just natural for me to keep her on as staff when I took over.
“All right.” I sighed. “If I still lived in Manhattan, the bank would’ve never called if there was a transaction out of the ordinary.”
“I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. The way I see it”—Dottie tugged the old pleather cigarette case from the waist of her jeans, opened the snap closure, and batted out a new cigarette—“around here, they are really just being nosy about what you’re buying when the alert goes off.” She’d stuck the cigarette in the corner of her mouth, and it bounced up and down as she talked. “I don’t want Ann Doherty knowing a thing ’bout me.”
I was sure Ann didn’t care what we did, and though she wasn’t above gossip, I was glad that something had caught her eye. I put it in the back of my mind because there was nothing I could do about it now. The bank was closed, Fifi was dirty, and both dogs were hungry.
“I dunno. I’ll be back down to pick you up in about fifteen for book club,” I said and waved out the window when I drove off. I gave slight waves to some familiar walkers and people gathered around the lake as I drove past them to my camper about midway down.
“Look at you, Fifi.” I spoke to her through a gritted-teeth smile. “You’re a mess, and you’re a purebred poodle with accreditation.”
The campground concept I’d brought to Normal was unlike anyone had seen at the time. Of course, the office and such were at the top of the campground, but I also had a storage unit on the property since some of the campers’ owners had yearly leases on the spaces. Most of the storage was rented out by them for outdoor furniture and the like.
The recreational room had the usual video games, Ping-Pong table, TVs, and a concession stand. There was a big lake in the center of the main campground area with a circle drive around it. Around the perimeter of the lake were concrete camping pads with various hookups that were included in the price of the rental space.
We offered a bunch of amenities, including waste disposal, and each concrete pad, where the camper sat, had its very own gravel parking spot instead of a grassy area like most campgrounds.
Behind those were marked trails by the national park services that led into the Daniel Boone National Forest, which was the main attraction for our little town.
In the part of the woods that I owned, I built little one-, two-, and three-bedroom bungalows to accommodate guests who liked the outdoors but not quite enough to sleep there. That way, they could enjoy the finer amenities of a home.
Those were also a lot of fun for hosting bridal parties and honeymooners. I also offered customized baskets that would wait for them in the campers or bungalows upon arrival. But what I loved most about being the owner of Happy Trails was seeing a community of people who had never met sit around a campfire or fish off the dock, coming together to enjoy a little bit of life—of the slow-paced life we had to offer in our slice of Kentucky.
I pulled into my parking space next to my camper and opened the door but not without giving Fifi and Chester the look.
Do you think they cared? Not in the least bit. Both of them leaped over my lap, out of the car, and up the metal steps of my camper. They looked back at me like they were telling me to hurry up.
But they knew me better. As soon as I unlocked the camper door, both of them ran to their bowls and stood over them, waiting.
“I should get ready and make you two wait,” I told them. They both danced around, wagging their tails. “Too bad you’re both so cute.”
Of course I gave in and opened the cabinet to get some scoops of food out for them. While they ate, I got my shower and tugged on a pair of yoga pants that’d never even seen a yoga pose, but they were comfy. They felt much better than they looked, but it was all fine since I wasn’t going to be with guests, just the Laundry Club ladies.
The Laundry Club was my group of gal pals and the heart of the book club. It included me, Dottie, Betts, Queenie French, and Abby Fawn. All of us had different jobs and were of different ages, but we found a common bond. Without them, I’m not sure where I’d be today. Probably most definitely not in Normal.
Mary Elizabeth Moberly, my adoptive mother, and Dawn Gentry were honorary members of the Laundry Club, but they couldn’t make book club this month since the spring was a busy time at The Milkery, the dairy farm they co-owned.
They didn’t care what I wore, so yoga pants and my oversized Normal sweatshirt along with my hair wadded up in a topknot with no makeup was my choice of style for this month’s book club.
“Since you two had a long day of ripping and running, I’m leaving you here,” I told the two pups now curled up on the seat of the couch. With their bellies full, I knew they’d sleep until Hank got off work and was able to get them.
I grabbed my phone off the charger and sat down next to Fifi on the sliver of couch available. It was nice to know I had someone who truly cared and loved me like Hank. I loved him too and made sure I checked in to let him know that I didn’t take the dogs with me.
While I waited for him to text me back, I looked around the camper I’d made my home. I even laughed out loud when I looked down at what I was wearing. Happiness spread through me. My life now was a far cry from the Manhattan socialite, Gucci-wearing woman I once was.
Pride swelled up inside me when I looked around at the changes I’d made to my camper.
I’d used every bit of space possible since space was limited when you lived in a mini-RV. I’d turned it into an open-concept plan by removing walls to combine the kitchen and family room into one large space. I’d put up shiplap walls and painted them white. I’d found a cute café table with two chairs from the Tough Nickel, the local thrift shop, as well as the small leather couch that I was currently sharing with two dogs.
Throughout the camper, I’d laid a prefabricated gray wood floor and painted the kitchen cabinets and storage cabinets white. I’d transformed the little camper into a country farmhouse that I found adorable.
Twinkle lights strung everywhere, making it feel like the stars from outside had been brought in. The single bathroom was redone with a tile shower and upgraded toilet.
My bedroom was located in the far back of the camper, which I’d opted to buy a new mattress for and place that in front of a headboard fashioned of some wooden pallets painted pink and nailed together. The four-drawer dresser was also from the Tough Nickel, and it went perfectly with the farmhouse look I was going for. More twinkle lights added a bit of romance, and along with the fuzzy rugs and milk-glass vases full of in-season wildflowers that grew in the Daniel Boone National Forest, completed the cozy bedroom.
My phone chirped a message.
In true Hank manly man style, unlike Ty’s southern-gentleman style, he sent a thumbs-up emoji followed by a heart emoji.
“That’s your dad.” I rubbed Chester on the head and got up. Fifi stretched out, taking my little sliver of couch before I could stand upright. “You are a princess.”
Fifi had been a pedigreed show dog with a spotless lineage. She was destined to be a wonderful moneymaker from her previous owner… until I’d taken the odd job of babysitting her while her owner couldn’t, and Fifi just so happened to get taken up with a dog from the wrong side of the tracks while in my care. She ended up pregnant and of no count to her owner. Fifi was marked for life. Of course, the owner no longer wanted Fifi, so I took her. For never having cared for a dog before, I’ve made it work. We’re not perfect, but we try.
“See y’all later.” I grabbed my bag and threw my phone in, retrieving the keys to my car, locked the camper door, and off I went.
Downtown Normal was too far from the campground for my taste. The drive was all winding and unlit roads with deep forest on each side. Once you got to town, the road split into a one-way on each side.
In the middle of the split Main Street was a median with a combination of grass and stepping-stones with scattered picnic tables among large oak trees. There was an amphitheater with a covered seating area held up by thick white pillars. Real gas lanterns hung off each pillar, along with ceramic planters filled with overflowing wildflowers.
Cozy, locally owned shops ran along each side of Main Street. They ranged from the Smelly Dog, which was a pet groomer, the Normal Diner, the Tough Nickel, and Deter’s Feed-N-Seed to more boutique-type shops. Each shop’s display windows were decorated for the spring camper season. When it turned summer, they’d change their displays to cater to those needs.
The shops weren’t connected. They were free-standing cottage-style homes with small courtyards between them. Sometimes the shops used the grassy courtyards to house their various events. Trails Coffee was great at hosting coffee tastings or even just monthly gatherings.
Normal was a wonderful town, and I was proud to live there.
I parked in the laundromat’s parking lot and noticed the diner’s light was still on. That was unusual because it was past time for the diner to close, and I could’ve sworn I’d seen Ty’s car at his camper when I left the campground. I knew Trudy was at the big wedding with most of the town folks.
Shrugging it off, I headed into the laundromat, where Queenie had put her latest Jazzercise tape on the TV and cleared out the furniture to make space to practice.
“Whoa.” I ducked when she pushed toward me in some sort of move.
“No one gets in the way of a grapevine.” She huffed, continuing to shuffle the other way. “Jazzercise corporate sent me new routines to teach, and I have to learn them before my class tomorrow.” Queenie was in her sixties and fit as a fiddle.
She taught Jazzercise in the undercroft of the Normal Baptist Church and served as the Historic Society president.
I tried not to laugh when she started to skip forward, making her headband fall over her eyes and nearly taking a tumble. But she recovered and skipped backwards, only to continue her moves.
“I wish I was as passionate about something as she is,” Betts Hager said from the back of the laundromat, making coffee at the coffee station she’d put in for customers.
“Right?” I questioned and did my best impersonation of the Jazzercise move Queenie was doing.
“Y’all make fun of me, but it’ll be this old lady pushing you in a wheelchair.” She grunted out the words.
“You know, she’s probably right.” Betts shoved her wavy, shoulder-length brown hair out of the way. She tried to push her bangs to the side, but they fell right back over her eyes. “Here.” She picked up a tray of cookies.
“That’s not going to help us either.” I laughed but took a cookie.
I nearly choked when I heard a bloodcurdling scream come from outside.
“What was that?” Queenie scrambled for the TV’s remote control.
“Help!” a voice screamed. “Mae! Betts!”
Betts, Queenie, and I bolted out the door to find Abby Fawn in front of the Normal Diner, pointing at it with her mouth flung open.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I ran across the street with Queenie and Betts on my heels. “Abby?”
“I-I—” She blinked a few times before finally spitting it out. “I think Trudy Bull is dead.”
“What?” I jerked my head to the side to look into the diner widows.
“I do.” Abby shook her head frantically. “Behind the counter.”
I hurried around Abby and into the diner.
“Trudy?” I cautiously called out to see if she would answer from inside. My eyes scanned all the booths for anything strange on my way to the back of the counter. “It’s me, Mae.”
When I walked around the counter, I found Trudy Bull laying in a pool of her own blood.