Tents, Trails, & Turmoil
Book 11 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Welcome to Normal, Kentucky~ where nothing is normal.
Mae West knows tourism and nothing stops tourists like a dead body found in the Daniel Boone National Park.
Unfortunately, Yaley Woodard, a local tour guide, is found dead at Happy Trails Campground. Mae is determined to put her amateur sleuth skills to investigate along with the help of the Laundry Club gals.
But when Yaley’s past ends up being tied to forest trails and local Joel Grassel, Mae realizes Yaley’s death has caused much more turmoil than she’d originally thought – and the killer might want to close the tourism in the Daniel Boone National Park for good.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Come spend some time in the small southern town setting with quirky lovable characters to help solve an intriguing mystery with twists and surprises around every corner.
Tents, Trails, & Turmoil
Book 11 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Tents, Trails, & Turmoil
The sun was shining brightly over my old Kentucky home.
I stood with my coffee from Trails Coffee Shop in my hands as I looked out over the grassy median that divided Main Street of downtown Normal, Kentucky.
“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” Violet Rhinehammer had walked up behind me, also admiring the tinted blue of the grass, rightly naming Kentucky the Bluegrass state. There was a vivid blue with a hint of green. “Who would ever think that in such a lovely town someone could be snatched up?”
Slowly I turned my chin to the side and looked at Violet. My eyes went wide-open as the word she chose to use, snatched, sent a shiver down my spine.
“Maybe right from the very spot you are standing in.” Her brow took a jump, arching up into her forehead, minus any wrinkles from the Botox injections she regularly got. “How does that make you feel?”
“Three, two, one,” I heard a man call from behind her.
Violet turned on a dime, and before I knew what was going on, Violet had dragged me into her situation.
“Coming to you live from downtown Normal, Kentucky in the heart of the Daniel Boone National Forest, where it is believed that thirty-one-year-old Yaley Woodard was snatched.” Violet spoke with clear and concise words. She stared into the lens of the camera the cameraman was holding as if she weren’t just talking to me.
This was why so many people loved and watched Violet on her news broadcasts. It was as if she were standing in your living room and talking directly to you. Honestly, it was a gift she had, and I tried to slip out of the shot. She grabbed me, not batting an eye once my way or taking her gaze off the camera. She held me in her grip, like prey.
“Right here, on this very spot, is the last time that video camera spotted Yaley with two cups of coffee in her hand. Two.” Violet’s tone turned eerie. “One for her and perhaps one for her abductor?”
The cameraman panned the camera up toward the newly placed security cameras that were an upgrade from the previous ones. We’d also just gotten an upgrade in the internet and wireless service all across the national park with the extra park state funding. A much-needed improvement.
“I’m standing here with Maybelline West, the owner of the Happy Trails Campground.” Violet turned to me for the first time since the camera started to roll. Her long blond hair swept across her shoulder. It looked like it came out of one of those shampoo commercials. All dramatic-like. “Maybelline,” she called me by my full name.
“Mae,” I corrected her.
“Mae, tell me, how do you think this abduction is going to influence your business as the owner of a very popular campground for tourists who come to the national park?” She shoved the microphone up to my mouth, her eyes twinkling as they danced around my face.
“This is the first I’m hearing about the abduction, so there’s no need to interview me, Violet.” I gave her a smile and took a sip of my coffee, trying not to get lost in her drama, which she was at getting me to do.
“We are live.” Violet batted her long eyelashes with a big smile as the words “We are live” put more fear in me than when she mentioned the word “snatched.”
I glared at her and took a gulp of coffee, nervously tucking a strand of my curly hair behind my ear. It was out of control because I didn’t try to tame it when I got out of bed just about an hour ago.
“I’m sorry. I’m not familiar with the abduction, so I honestly have no comment on how this news will affect my campground, Happy Trails Campground, here in Normal, Kentucky.” I took the opportunity for a shameless plug since Violet decided to spring this impromptu interview on me, which I’m sure was not by coincidence, by the way.
“Yaley Woodard, a thirty-one-year-old female, had taken a lunch break. It is believed she was coming here to meet up with her boyfriend, Joel Grassle. She didn’t return to work.” Violet spoke in that on-air personality voice. “As you can see by the flyer put out by her brother, Ted Woodard, the family is worried. It’s been seventy-two hours since someone last spoke to Yaley. This is not common behavior. This is not good for the tourism in Normal. What are your thoughts on that?”
She held the microphone back up to my face and handed me the missing person flyer she was talking about. It was the first one I’d seen.
“My prayers are with the family in the recovery effort,” I started to say.
“Recovery effort? Do you know something we don’t know since you are the girlfriend of Detective Hank Sharp?” If she shoved that microphone in my face one more time, I was going to club her with it.
Of course Violet had to bring that up. It was no secret and probably the reason for the tension always between us. Although we’d come together on a couple of occasions when one needed something from the other, she had tried to get her claws into Hank a few times to make him her own. When it became apparent that he and I were a strong couple, she’d retracted those claws but used every opportunity she could to get information out of me for her newscast and her newspaper articles, not to mention the various other magazines she contributed to.
“I-I didn’t mean recovery…” I stammered to find the right words, which I was never good at when put on the spot.
“And as you can see, Ted Woodard is working tirelessly to get the word out.” Violet lost interest in me and hurried off down the sidewalk past the downtown shops toward a man who was taping flyers on the carriage lights lining the median.
My focus went from the amazing sunny day we were having to the looming cloud over the top of Violet’s head with the news of the abduction. I looked down at the flyer.
The woman staring back at me had a nice, warm smile. One of her front teeth slightly overlapped the other. Her face was thin, and though the photo was black and white, she appeared to have nice dark eyes and dark hair. There was a small heart-shaped charm dangling from a necklace around her neck. At closer look, the heart appeared to be outlined in small diamonds, and the chain was not simple. It was small hearts linked together to form the gold chain. The flyer even stated how Yaley would have on the heart necklace as an identifier. Apparently, she never took it off. I smiled at the license plate number. It read Tours and was one of those fancy license plates you had to pay extra for.
Immediately, I wondered who gave her the necklace and if, by chance, it was Joel Grassle.
The flyer said she worked at the Sierra Club as a tour guide. She had gone on a tour the day she disappeared. She had gone to lunch but only had an hour because they were having a meeting on the upcoming season tour schedule. The paper also claimed Yaley’s car was missing. There was a five-thousand-dollar reward for any information, along with the Normal Police Department’s phone number printed at the bottom.
I looked up when I heard some footsteps.
“Mornin’.” Alvin Deters stood outside of his shop, Deters Feed-N-Seed.
He gave me the good ole Baptist nod and fumbled with his key ring until he found the key to open the door. His cowboy hat was pulled down over his eyes, creating a shadow down his face. “Sad news. I heard it on the radio on my way into town.”
Alvin had on his usual outfit, even in the warm weather. A plaid shirt tucked into dark-blue jeans with his big silver belt buckle shined to a sparkle.
“Yeah.” I gave one last glance toward Violet before I turned my attention back to Alvin, following him into the shop. “I hope she’s okay.”
“Me too.” He flipped the sign on the door to Open and flipped on the lights. “What brings you out so early this morning?”
“I have a whole new group of campers coming in for the weekend, and I need to get some supplies. I’ve got to get the bungalows all cleaned up since I’d closed them down for the winter.” I looked around the shop to see what direction I wanted to go first. “Mainly the necessities.”
The necessities being batteries of all varieties, a couple of new flashlights, night-light bulbs, coffeepot filters, cleaning supplies to restock all the bungalows’ linen closets, shampoos, along with some toothbrushes, toothpaste, and all the accouterments. Not that I was obligated to provide those—we sold baskets of such items in the office—but it was the kindness and added touch that made staying at Happy Trails Campground a memorable experience.
My shoulders tensed, my teeth bore down together, and I could feel my shoulders rising toward my ears. A sure sign of stress.
“You okay?” Alvin called from the counter. He’d taken his cowboy hat off and exposed his light-brown hair, which was pretty full for an older man like Alvin. Well… older than me.
If I recalled correctly, when I moved to Normal, I’d heard he was in his fifties. I guessed every one of us was getting older as the years ticked by, and that’s exactly what time had done for me in the past couple of years since I’d made Normal my home.
“I’m good.” I bent my head down to study the variety pack of batteries to make sure they were all ones I could use. I had scads of these packs where I didn’t need all the C batteries, but the flashlights I had picked up appeared to need C batteries. “Did you happen to know Joel was dating the missing girl?”
I was having a hard time concentrating on what I had come into the Feed-N-Seed to purchase. Yaley’s dark eyes haunted me, and I couldn’t help but wonder where she had gone, if she’d gone. Maybe Joel was a good source to ask. Maybe Yaley had some sort of dark secret or needed to get away from town for a little bit.
Hank and I, and the dogs of course, had just returned from a nice little beach vacation because we needed to get away. The same could be said for Yaley.
“He’d mentioned he’d gone out on a few dates with a new girl, but he didn’t mention who. Who told you he was dating her?” Alvin asked.
“Violet.” I peered over my shoulder and out the window of the shop to see if Violet was still doing her live segment for the news.
“She should know. She’s pretty good at getting to the source.” Alvin walked out from behind the counter, headed back to the two swinging doors, and disappeared behind them.
He was right about Violet. She did have a way to get to the sources, and if her source about Joel was right, I’m sure Hank already knew and had questioned Joel.
I walked around the different aisles, hoping my eyes would catch something I’d placed on my mental list, but really the only things that stuck out were batteries and flashlights.
Alvin came back, pushing a cart filled with sacks of seed, and refilled the gardening area while I continued to mosey around.
“You ready?” he called out when I walked up to the counter and put the items down.
“I guess so,” I said and strolled about looking at the various items he had in the bins underneath the counter. “Bug spray.” I clapped my hands in delight with the fact I recalled one more item on my mental list.
“Huh?” Alvin wiped his hands down his shirt to get off any loose seeds from the bags.
“I really need to write things down. I had a slew of things I wanted to buy and completely forgot.” I shrugged and took out my wallet from my crossbody bag.
“If you remember, call me, and I’ll set them aside.” Alvin had been so good to me over the past couple of years. Even when he didn’t need to be.
My now-dead ex-husband, Paul West, had taken half of the American population’s money during a Ponzi scheme. Maybe not half, but it sure did seem like it, and it was millions. In fact, it was how I’d ended up in Normal and owning a campground while living in the RV. The only thing Paul had in my name and the government couldn’t seize. A run-down campground. The RV was even worse.
Alvin Deters was one of the men Paul had conned. When I first came to town, most of the people in Normal had trusted Paul, and all of them ended up with nothing. That’s when I decided not to sell the campground for a quick buck and fixed it up with the help of Alvin Deters, who generously loaned me items until I paid him back. And through a lot of social media work, advertising, and smart business, I brought the tourism industry back to Normal.
“Thank you, Alvin.” I gave him the cash in exchange for the bag. “You’ve always been so good to me.”
“You’re easy to be good to.” He winked. “Be careful, she might get you again.” He pointed out the front window of the shop.
Violet and her cameraman were walking through the median and looked to be coming back.
In the distance, Ted Woodard was using a staple gun to hang the missing person flyers up on the large oak trees that stood on each side of an amphitheater and covered seating area.
The thick white pillars, like the ones you’d see on the front porch of a plantation home, that held up the amphitheater already had the flyers posted on them. It looked like he’d strategically placed the flyers under the gas lanterns as though they were spotlights. The twinkly lights danced around the poles.
My eyes drifted to the large ferns that the beautification committee had planted in the ceramic planters.
I walked out of Deters Feed-N-Seed, stood out on the sidewalk, and tossed my empty coffee cup in the trash can. I watched Violet to see what her next move was going to be. The cameraman pointed down Main Street toward the Smelly Dog, which was a pet groomer, and the Normal Diner. When he said something to Violet, it must’ve agreed with her because she nodded her head, and they nearly sprinted across the street.
Out of curiosity, I followed them down to the Normal Diner, where they’d already found seats at the counter.
I plopped down on the stool next to Violet.
“Well?” I questioned. “What did he say?”
“What did who say?” She swiveled the stool seat around to look at me.
“Ted, Yaley’s brother. Don’t act like I didn’t see you.” I gave Ty Randal a short nod when he walked by with the coffeepot in his hand and lifted it to me, his way of asking if I wanted some coffee.
“You didn’t seem too interested earlier.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why the change of heart?”
“Maybe I wasn’t interested because look at me.” I gestured down my body. “What part of this outfit did you think was great for television?”
The bleached, blotted Normal, Kentucky sweatshirt that I’d purchased when I first rolled into Normal a couple of years ago had seen better days. Not to mention how I destroyed it when I washed it at the Laundry Club Laundromat because I put too much bleach in the washer.
I was trying to kill off any sort of germs the RV had on my drive from New York City to Normal. The RV was so gross that it looked like a petri dish of illness.
“Mae, someone is missing. Do you honestly think the viewing public is going to look at your outfit?” Her shoulders slumped, and her eyes softened. “Okay, yeah. I do recall a few people I’ve interviewed who didn’t have their teeth in or were dressed in pajama pants, but you’re gorgeous.”
“Don’t butter me up.” I picked up the hot cup of steaming coffee. After a nice long whiff of the fresh brew, I said, “Does he really think someone took her?”
“He said she’s never called in for work. Never missed a day. She’s always been early for meetings.” Violet looked at me like I had some plausible explanation.
“What?” I asked with some hesitation.
“I don’t know. You left Perrysburg when you were eighteen with no trace. Middle of the night, jumped on a Greyhound bus, only to be seen back in Kentucky twelve years later.” She had a point. “You tell me, what is in Yaley’s mind to have wanted to skip town, if she did?”
“I guess it would be different for everybody.” I took a couple more sips and placed the cup back down on the counter. “For me, I was trying to escape my past. Every time I looked around Perrysburg, I was reminded of my family or how awful high school was. I knew I could do whatever I wanted when I became an adult. So at eighteen, stroke of midnight, I became the adult and took action to make my life better.”
“But Yaley, why would she leave? I mean, there are no signs of her car. So she could’ve, but why?” Violet had put on her investigative reporter’s thinking cap.
“Her brother said she was always reliable, right?” I wanted to make sure I had the facts right. Violet confirmed with a hard nod and a raised brow, encouraging me to go on with my theory. “Maybe she was tired of that life. Maybe she wanted to live a little more freeing life.”
“But she didn’t tell anyone?” Violet was having a hard time wrapping her brain around the concept I had about why Yaley left.
“Trust me.” I let out a long sigh. “When you want to leave the life you are living, you’ll do whatever it takes to get out of town. You never know,” I muttered and picked the cup back up. “She might show up in a few days or a few weeks. Maybe she’ll call someone tonight if she sees your broadcast.”
“That’s what Ted is hoping.” Violet twisted her stool back around and looked out into the distance like she was thinking about what I’d said. “I just wonder who was close enough to her to know what she was thinking.”
Violet wasn’t being too good of an investigative reporter. There was one person that immediately came to my mind.
There wasn’t a telephone pole that I could see on my drive back to Happy Trails Campground that didn’t have one of Yaley’s missing person flyers stapled to it. Ted Woodard had covered each one with missing person flyers, including the big wooden electrical poles on the curvy forest road.
The bright sun burst through the windshield of my little car, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Yaley was enjoying the sunshine while everyone who loved her was desperately trying to find her.
I turned right into the campground and drove underneath the wooden sign with HAPPY TRAILS CAMPGROUND neatly scrolled across it. The stress of thinking about Yaley seemed to melt as I took in the scenery of my beautiful campground.
The spattering of the sun’s rays danced along the pavement through the trees, and the backdrop of the Daniel Boone National Forest mountains was laid out like a painting. All the bluegrass stood nice and thick, giving way to the various patches of Kentucky wildflowers that gave a little color to the vast pastures.
I’d pretty much kept all of the campground’s buildings when I revitalized the place. The storage units were located on the right and were mainly used by the seasonal campers, who had rented year-round lots from me. The small building located in front of the storage units with the glass door that read OFFICE was where I spent most of my time.
Dottie Swaggert sat outside of the office in one of the folding chairs with a plastic crisscross seat that’d seen better days. A couple of the straps were broken with frayed edges. Her heinie pressed between the remaining bulging straps.
She raised her hand in the air to wave at me. Smoke swirled up around her as she blew out smoke from the cigarette nestled in between her lips. I waved back and pulled into one of the office parking spaces.
“Good mornin’! You’re out awfully early.” She drew in a big breath. The tip of her cig lit up bright red like her hair color as she sucked in.
She took another long draw before she butted it out on the ground and placed it in the ashtray by her feet.
“I wanted to get a jump on supplies for the bungalows,” I said through the open window and grabbed the bag from the passenger seat. “Anything going on?” I asked.
Dottie Swaggert was the property manager long before I knew I was the owner. She literally knew everything and taught me about campers, campgrounds, the Daniel Boone National Forest, and all the people who lived in and around us.
“Glad to see you dressed for work.” My brow twitched as I looked at the satin blue pajamas and furry slippers, not to mention her pink sponge curlers knotted all over her short red hair.
“I’ve still got fifteen minutes until I have to clock in. I came over to get my pot of coffee started, so it’d be good, hot, and ready when I came into work.” She stood up and straightened up to her five-foot-nine frame. She stretched her arms above her head and twisted her shoulders left and then right. Her nose wrinkled and she took a few whiffs of air. “Do you smell that?”
A look of disgust crossed her face.
“Cigarettes. That’s all I smell,” I noted when I walked past her.
“Something got ahold of something out there. I smell it. Dead.”
I followed her eyes as they looked into the woods.
“Well, we do live in the middle of the forest. There are bears, coyotes, skunks, squirrels, deer…” I could’ve gone on and on. I opened the door to the office. Dottie followed me in.
Before I shut the door behind me, I stuck my nose out the door and did get a little whiff of something.
“If I have time today, I’ll take Fifi on a walking trail and see if we can find it,” I told her and took the batteries and flashlights over to the supply closet. “First, I want to get the bungalows all aired out, fresh linens on the bed, make sure the dishes are ready to go.”
Dottie grabbed the dry-erase marker off her desk and started to make a list on the hanging dry-erase board. Normally, the board had guests’ names on it to welcome them when they came into the office to sign their rental agreement or had a listing of activities going on around the campground. Since we were in the late spring season heading right on into summer, the board would soon be filled with festivals, tour discounts, and the monthly party we hosted here at Happy Trails for the guests and members of the community.
But today, we were going to get that list of chores done.
The office door opened. Henry Bryan, my campground handyman, meandered in. No hurry whatsoever. Henry was a little scragglier in his appearance, but he was clean and a good worker. He had a big nose and wide smile that exposed the missing top two front teeth.
“Shooweee dawg.” His country accent was an octave higher with him pinching his nose. “Something has died out there.” He let go of his nose, shut the door, and fanned his face.
He had on his typical work uniform—one-piece blue zip-up overalls and the metal pole he used for stabbing trash he’d find as he walked around the campground.
“I told Mae that,” Dottie said, taking credit.
“And I told Dottie I’d take Fifi on a hike this afternoon and see if we spot something.” Though nature pretty much took care of itself, I did like to take advantage of the various hiking trails located around the campground, and going for a nice hike with my dog would be a way to find the odor.
“You better hope no one is checking in today because it’s nasty out there,” Henry continued before he noticed the coffeepot. “Who else wants a cup?”
“I do.” Dottie was writing other things that needed to get done today before the new guests arrived. Neither of them even noticed or mentioned Dottie’s dress attire. “Henry, I need you to look at the bottom of the paddleboats to make sure there’s no pond scum on them. There’s a loose board on the pier, so be sure to either replace it or nail it down good.”
“What about the games in the recreation room?” I asked since summer brought a lot of families to the campground. With families, there were kids.
I’d found that kids most often got bored with sitting around a campfire and often got cranky from long hikes, so the arcade-style recreation room was great. It was loaded with video games, a ping pong table, dart boards, board games galore, and puzzles, along with vending machines loaded up with sugary treats.
The recreation room was also where I put out treats from local small businesses. The Cookie Crumble Bakery donated freshly made donuts, and Trails Coffee Shop supplied the coffee. It was also a great place for Mary Elizabeth, my foster mom, and Dawn Gentry, her business partner, to let the guests sample various goodies from the Milkery, their dairy farm, which was much more than just a dairy farm.
After I’d seen the devastation to the people of Normal that Paul had created, I set myself on a mission for the community to give back to one another. Love up on one another. My way of doing that was to bring as much of their business to the campground as I could.
“The recreation room is good to go.” Henry took a gulp of his coffee. “I can get all the windows of the bungalows open, so when you get around to fixin’ up them fancy beds and bathrooms, you can shut them.”
“Sounds good.” I couldn’t help but smile, remembering the first time Henry and Dottie had walked into one of the bungalows after I’d finished redecorating them. The only reason I didn’t rent them during the winter and early spring was because they didn’t have heat.
They were little cabin-type structures that were nestled in the back of the campground and away from all the campers and lots that lined the lake that was located in the middle of the campground. We also had wooded lots for the guests who really wanted to be secluded.
The bungalows were a hit for the guests who wanted to think they were camping, but I’d call it more glamping. They were mostly rented for honeymooners, family reunions, and bridal parties. The bungalows varied from two to three bedrooms. Each had kitchens fully stocked with utensils. I did put little extras in them like coffee, a welcome pack with fresh fruit, and a bottle of wine. I also made sure each bathroom had neat little homemade hand soaps from the small boutiques around the Daniel Boone National Forest as well as various pieces of furniture made by artists from the area.
The bedding was actually bought and shipped from different places around the states. I was a stickler for a good bed and comfortable bedding, so I made sure my guests loved it too.
It was the little touches of southern hospitality and comfort that made Happy Trails Campground stick out from the hundreds of other campgrounds in the park and made guests come back over and over again.
If it were up to Dottie and Henry, they’d throw a pack of hot dogs in the refrigerator and a sleeping bag on the bed and call it good.
“I’ve got to run back into town later to pick up the bedding from Betts, so it’ll be much later in the day.” I wanted to give Henry a timeline so he could do his other jobs. There was never a lack of jobs to do around here.
“That’ll give me time to get all the kindlin’ next to the lots.” He nodded and refilled his mug again. “I’ll stack a little wood up near the campfire sites too. We got a lot of down trees from the ice storm this winter.”
“Sounds like a plan.” I smiled and looked in the closet at the various baskets we offered for purchase. “Dottie, do we have a list of baskets ordered?”
“I do.” She exchanged the dry-erase marker for the file on her desk with the new guests’ contracts. She opened it. “Bungalow one is a honeymoon, and he ordered the spa package for his new wife.”
Henry took his coffee and walked out of the office but not without a groan and mentioning something about the awful smell.
I took out the spa gift basket that included a robe, slippers, massage oils, candles, facial masks, chocolates, and wine. All the items were from local businesses as well. By creating the baskets and selling them, it was another way to get local businesses into the minds of my guests. It worked too.
After this couple tasted this wine, I’m sure they’d go schedule a tour with the Sierra Club…Sierra Club…
“Say”—I held the basket in my arms—“who is the rep you use for the Sierra Club?” I asked Dottie.
Since she was the local expert in the office, I let her handle all the contact between the local events and tours.
“Yaley Woodard.” Her words made my jaw drop.
“I was afraid of that.” My brows furrowed. “I heard today that she’s been missing for a couple of days.”
“Missing?” Dottie’s head jerked back.
“Yeah. Apparently she was at work, did a tour, went to lunch, and never came back.” I shrugged and walked over to hand her the basket.
“Well, that’s not like her.” Dottie shuffled some papers around her desk before she finally found the desk calendar. “You know, she was supposed to come here yesterday with the new tour schedule. She never showed. I just remembered that. Where do they think she went?”
“I have no idea. Her brother was posting up flyers all over downtown this morning. And Violet Rhinehammer was doing a story on it.” I failed to mention how Violet had caught me off guard, on camera. Dottie would never let me live it down.
“Huh.” Dottie grabbed the TV remote and turned the TV on.
“I’m going to head on out to get ready and take Fifi for her walk,” I told Dottie, but she was glued to the TV just as Violet had come on to do the repeat segment. “Bye!”
The day was too pretty to drive the short distance to my parked RV, so instead of driving, I decided to walk. The breeze whipped up, sending a whiff of the dead animal straight up my nose. On a dime, the wind shifted, and the smell was gone. It was nasty, but the view of the campground made all that go away.
There was a road around the lake with concrete pads, a grassy area, a campfire setup, and all the hookups anyone needed for whatever recreational vehicle they parked at Happy Trails. We accepted all makes and models of RVs, which some campgrounds in the Daniel Boone National Forest didn’t. Believe it or not, there was snobbery in the RV world.
In fact, there were some parks that didn’t allow any recreational vehicles older than ten years old on their property. And not all RV campgrounds provided all the hookups like Happy Trails. I was happy to host anyone as a guest, and I hoped they felt that way too.
The feeling of community was something that I’d craved all my life, and owning the campground did that for me.
The sparkling blue water on the lake rippled underneath the ducks’ feet as they glided across the water. They looked like they were swimming with ease, but I knew their little feet under the water were paddling so fast. It made me think of Yaley.
On the surface, she was well organized, put together, and appeared to be happy. But like the ducks’ feet, how did she really feel underneath her skin where no one could see? Had she had her breaking point and simply took off, just like I did so many years ago?
The sounds of laughter and footsteps came from one of the many trails around the campground and brought me out of my thoughts. No one emerged from the trails, so they were just passing by and not guests of Happy Trails.
My RV was actually very adorable. My little yellow home on wheels was perfect for me and Fifi. It had a pop-up roof that made for extra space, and I’d completely redone the entire inside.
There was a kitchen, bathroom, and one bedroom, which made plenty of space for me. With the help of YouTube and DIY videos, along with some citizens in Normal, including Dottie and Henry, I had taken down all the walls and replaced them with the farmer-style shiplap, added chippy furniture I’d gotten from the Thrifty Nickle, a local thrift shop, and made it the cutest thing you’d ever seen.
I’d even strung twinkling lights around the bedroom to make it girly and romantic so that I didn’t miss my bedroom in my Manhattan apartment or Hamptons mansion.
Fifi, geesh, she fit right in with my feminine décor. She loved her fluffy bed, and even though she loved to run around the campground and get her pure, white-as-snow poodle curls all dingy and dirty, she loved going to the Smelly Dog Groomer to have a spa day.
“Hey there.” My voice took on a baby-talk tone like it always did when I greeted her.
She was so loyal. Every time I opened the door, she was there, wagging her tail, dancing around on her little feet, her nails ticking against the wood floor.
“It looks like you ate everything.” I looked over at her bowl where not even a morsel of kibble was left. “Are you ready to go hike it off?”
I swear she knew what I was saying. She danced around and around next to the small basket near the door next to the passenger captain chair where I kept her leash. If we were going to the office, I generally never put a leash on her. But hiking in the woods was different. Especially during this season.
It was mating season for all the animals in the forest, and they would snatch up my little girl for a treat if I weren’t careful.
“Okay.” I laughed, trying to calm her down after she started to whine and scratch on the door. “Hold your horses. I’ve got to get my boots on.”
She sat down on my command, watching me with her sweet little round dark eyes as I put my shoes on. When I grabbed the walking stick, she lost her marbles.
Barking and carrying on, dancing and twirling, Fifi was a sight. I just loved her.
She darted out of the door quicker than I could get down the little metal steps. My arm jerked as she extended the fully retractable leash as far as she could go. Thank goodness for harnesses because she’d choke herself if the leash was clipped on her collar.
“Fine, we can go on that trail,” I told her once I caught up to her.
There were several trails around the campground. Each trail had a marking from the Wildlife and Forestry Association with the length of the trail, where they could go on the trail, and the level of difficulty.
As the owner of the campground, I’d done all the trails and knew them like the back of my hand. Of course Fifi would pick Red Fox Trail, which was aptly named because there were a lot of red foxes around these parts, and they seemed to love that trail in the park. If she weren’t on her leash, I’d have to have told her no and picked another trail. The stench I smelled every time the wind decided to change was probably due to one of those red foxes.
The trail was one of the longer trails, mainly winding downhill. It was going back up that was the killer on my thighs. I’d locked Fifi’s retractable leash into place so she couldn’t go off the trail too much. She darted from one new sniff to the next. Every few feet she’d stop and try to tinkle. Though nothing was coming out, I did take each time to get a smell of anything foul or dead. If I did find something, though I wasn’t responsible for it, I’d still have it cleaned up so the guests at Happy Trails didn’t have to wait for it to decompose and the odor to go away.
The sound of someone whistling brought a smile to my face. When Fifi stopped to pee for the umpteenth time, I could hear the distant trickle of water. I knew we were getting closer and closer to the treasure at the end of Red Fox Trail.
The river and the waterfall.
It was a very popular destination, with other trails in and around the park that led there.
Fifi must’ve heard the whistling. Her little body got antsy, and she started to whine as she continued to pull me to go faster and faster.
“Okay. I’ll let you off right here,” I told her since she and I both knew who was doing the happy whistles.
Fifi darted off down the trail with me jogging behind her, my stick held up in the air.
“Hey there, sweet girl.” I heard Skip Toliver greet Fifi before I’d seen him. “Where is your mama?”
“Right here.” My chest heaved up and down from being so out of shape and chasing after her. “Thank goodness the weather is good so I can get back to hiking and getting in shape.”
Who was I kidding? I always said I was going to get in shape by enjoying all of the outdoor activities and even taking Jazzercise from Queenie, but at the end of a long day, it never failed. Hank and I would grab something to eat and binge-watch something on TV, or he’d watch something he liked while I read.
“Business has started to pick up.” Skip was crouched down petting Fifi. He nodded and pointed to the empty racks of canoes. “I’ve got a lot of canoers out and a few white-water rafters on a tour.”
Skip Toliver had opened up his canoe and white-water rafting business a couple of seasons ago during the drought, which would be the worst time to open a water business in the park. But somehow he’d stayed afloat and made it through. I made sure I told all the guests at Happy Trails to go see him and gave them his business card.
“I’m so glad everything is great.” I looked out at the river. I closed my eyes and let the sound of the rushing water soothe me.
“You two just out for a hike?” he asked and continued to pet Fifi. She’d let him as long as he’d do it too.
“Actually, Fifi needed some outside time to wear her out because I have a lot of guests coming this weekend and need to get paperwork done and the bungalows ready. I’m hoping she’ll peter out and sleep the rest of the day.” I snapped my fingers for her to leave him alone.
Fifi had actually been a show dog before I’d babysat her for her real owner. I’d allowed Fifi to have full run of the campground while she was in my care, and she ended up taking full advantage of her freedom and discovered Buster, a bulldog who’d never been neutered. Nine weeks later, along came a few little puppies and the end of Fifi’s show dog career. Since she was no longer a moneymaker for her previous owner, I took her and her puppies.
All the puppies were given to a good home, but Fifi still loved Buster.
“Have you smelled any dead animals around here?” I asked.
“Nothing. Just me and the great outdoors.” Skip stood back up and stretched his arms, taking a big, deep breath of fresh air. “’Tis the season.”
“Yeah. There’s a really foul odor up near the campground, so I thought I would hike a few of the trails to see if I could find the source.” I shrugged.
“If you see anyone from the Sierra Club on a trail, tell them their rep never showed up with the new tour schedule.” Skip seemed a bit irked.
“You aren’t talking about Yaley Woodard, are you?” I questioned.
“Ahh…” He groaned and moved toward the little shack he’d erected for himself for quick cover from the elements. He grabbed something off the wood shelf and brought it over to me. “Is that her?”
I took the brochure with the stapled business card and read her name.
“It sure is.” My brows furrowed. “She’s missing.”
“Missing?” Skip was the type of guy who probably never watched the news. It was probably safe to say that he didn’t even own a television.
“Yeah. Apparently, she went to lunch the other day and never came back.” I shook the brochure. “Can I keep this?”
“Yeah. I’ve gotta go.” He grabbed his backpack. “I was expecting some of their tours today, and now I have no idea what’s going on. I better go call them. See you later, Fifi,” he called out on his way over to the canoe that was already in the water and tied up to a tree.
Fifi stood at the water’s edge, watching Skip paddle off to wherever he was going. I waved bye.
“I guess we better hit it.” I clicked my tongue to get Fifi’s attention for her to come to me so I could clip the leash back on her harness.
The closer we got up the hill to the campground, the more whiffs of the rotting smell I would get.
I unclipped Fifi at the top of the trail and let her dart toward the office while I followed closely behind.
Dottie Swaggert was sitting behind her desk. This time she was dressed for the day, and her hair was free of pink sponge curlers.
“Where have you been, baby?” Dottie, too, had that baby voice when she spoke to Fifi. She unscrewed the lid off the jar of dog treats she kept on her desk and handed one to Fifi.
Happy as could be, Fifi ran to the dog bed next to my desk with the treat in her tiny little mouth.
“We hiked Red Fox Trail.” I headed to the minifridge and took out a bottle of water. “I’m so out of shape.” I walked over to her desk and tossed the brochure on it.
“What’s this?” She picked it up.
“A Sierra Club brochure with Yaley Woodard’s business card attached,” I said between gulps of water. “Skip told me Yaley was supposed to have come to his business with a list of tours they booked, and she never showed.” I downed what was left in the water bottle and tossed it into the trash. “I told him she went missing a few days ago.”
“No one tried to contact him?” Dottie questioned.
“You’d think they’d go through her client list and send someone out to check on them until she turns up.” I shook my head and went back to my desk to see what messages Dottie had taken for me. “I also asked him if he’d smelled anything dead. Of course he hadn’t, and I didn’t see or smell anything either, but as soon as we got back to the opening of the trail, I smelled it again. We’ve got to find that dead animal.”
I glanced over to see what all the noise Dottie was making was about. She was shuffling through her top desk drawer with a determined look on her face.
“Ah-ha!” She held up a box of matches with a big ole smile on her face. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Does your idea have to do with smoking?” I guessed.
“With smoke.” Her eyes grew. “Come on out here. I’m gonna show you an old hunter’s trick.”
“I can’t wait to see this,” I muttered and put the stack of messages back down on my desk.
We walked out of the office, and sure enough, that smell had wafted past us.
“Watch this.” Dottie struck the match. The smell of sulfur filled around us as the flame exploded from the small stick.
Dottie held it up in the air. The light breeze sent the smoke of the match to the left before blowing it out.
“Did you smell the dead animal?” she asked as she took out another match.
“No.” I took a couple of whiffs. “Oh gosh.” I fanned my hand in front of my nose. “I do now.”
Dottie quickly lit the next match, and the smoke blew the other way.
“Follow the smoke,” she said.
With a pinched nose, we followed it, and it led us right to our dumpster.
“Oh my gosh.” I couldn’t stop laughing. “It’s our dumpster. Didn’t they come and empty it this week?”
“They did, but we’ve got to get Henry to clean it with bleach and water.” Dottie waved her hand in front of her face. “Or better yet, get a new one.”
“Gross.” I took a deep breath through my mouth and gripped the handle of the small opening to peek inside just in case I could see exactly what the stink was. “Dottie,” I gulped when I looked inside and saw a pair of shoes attached to some legs. “We don’t need to call the garbage company. We need to call the police.”