The new campground comes with a body.
Sassy Letteroux is not normally an impulsive woman, but when the campground that held so many childhood memories comes up for sale, she throws caution to the wind and buys it—sight unseen.
Arriving with her 85 year old mother and her bloodhound, Elvis, Sassy realizes there’s a lot to do before the campground will be ready for the spring rush of guests.
And first on the to-do list is find out who murdered her handyman.
Release date: January 10, 2022
Publisher: Debra Dunbar
Print pages: 197
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The Handyman Homicide
“You might want to change the name.” Mom pointed up at the wooden sign as we drove under it. “Reckless Camper Campground. It doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the safety of the encampment. It implies there are inherent dangers in staying here.”
“Reckless is the name of the town,” I reminded her. She was right, though. Reckless Camper Campground conjured up images of sinking boats, marauding bears, and tent fires—the sorts of accidents that would get an insurance liability policy cancelled.
Maybe I should change the name. But not now. I had way too much to do now just getting our new purchase spruced up for the fast-approaching camping season. A name change would mean new signs, and a new website URL at the very least. Who knew what other stuff would require replacing. I didn’t have a whole lot in the bank account after writing that big down-payment check this morning, which meant I’d have to carefully prioritize our spending.
I continued on down the drive, past the overgrown brown grass of the tent and RV lots to the rows of cabins that flanked a log home, the glistening blue lake in the background.
“What have I done?” I breathed as I parked the Explorer and climbed out.
It was a rhetorical question. I knew exactly what I’d done. I had sold my home and sunk every penny I had in this place. Sight unseen—at least unseen for the last thirty years. I’d uprooted my eighty-five-year-old mother, who’d been comfortably living with me since my father’s death ten years ago, to spend the rest of her golden years at a campground. Admittedly, Mom seemed ridiculously enthusiastic about this new adventure, but I still worried how she’d fare in our new home.
Anxiety gnawed at my stomach. I took a deep breath, blew it out, and felt myself relax. I’d loved this campground as a child. I’d loved it the times I’d brought my son here on vacation. In my darkest moments, I’d dreamed of owning a place like this. I’d swim in the lake, hike on the trails, watch the sun set over the mountains. I’d provide the same amazing vacation experiences for others that I’d had both as a child and as an adult.
I’d never wear a suit again.
Not quite two years ago, I’d feared those dreams would be gone forever. But I had a second chance at life—a chance to do all the things I’d dreamed of but put off. Life was short and precious, and I didn’t want to go to my maker with my dreams unfulfilled.
I’d vowed to take more risks, to live every day as if it were a gift—because it was. Maybe I should have started small, like learning Swedish or taking up fly-fishing, not liquidating my assets and purchasing the campground of my happy childhood vacations. But this campground meant something to me. It meant peace, beauty, joy, and family—all the things I wanted to prioritize going forward.
If I didn’t start living my dreams now, I might not have time to do so in the future.
I heard a low growly-bark from the SUV and turned. My dog, Elvis, decided I wasn’t fast enough in opening the rear door for him and took matters into his own paws, clambering over the center console to the driver’s seat, then hopping out to land beside me. After a full-body shake that sent his long ears flopping around his head and drool flying, the dog dropped his snout to the ground and began to explore.
Bloodhounds. To them the most important things in the world were at the end of their noses. I sniffed the fresh air and thought that Elvis might be right.
“Oh, Sassy!” My mother rounded the front of the Explorer and spun around with her arms wide, like an elderly Maria from The Sound of Music. “It’s exactly like it was when you and Quint were little and your dad and I brought you here. Beautiful. So very beautiful.”
My idealistic visions of this place moved to the side so the pragmatic Corporate America me could take a good hard look around.
Beautiful wasn’t exactly the adjective Corporate Me would use to describe Reckless Camper Campground right at this moment. It could be beautiful. With some hard work and creativity, this could be the place of my dreams. But now…
Mom and I were glass-always-full people. Just being here, inhaling the crisp scent of cold lake water, the early spring flowers, and pine needles brought back a flood of memories. My brother, Quint, and I had loved our family camping trips. And the times when I’d brought my son Colton here had been magic. I’d always loved this place, and looking around I could still see the bones of the place of my dreams. It was right there, under a layer of dust and neglect, waiting for me to bring it back to glorious life.
It would take a lot of work, but I was ready for that—eager even.
The campground had been closed since the owner’s death this fall, so I should have expected the weed-choked grounds and the dirty walkways. I hadn’t expected the gutter hanging off the corner of the owner’s house, or the fallen tree that was resting on the roof on what I assumed was cabin number six.
Some premonition shivered up my back. Not about the fallen tree or the gutter. I frowned, looking over at the three cabins to the right of the owner’s house. Something felt…wrong.
I shook it off, chalking the feeling up to a mixture of excitement over my purchase, nerves over the move, and a lack of breakfast.
“It needs some work,” Mom said, echoing my thoughts. “But it’s beautiful.”
It was, and I was ready to get started cleaning, organizing, and planning for this year’s camping season. I knew going into this that the campground of my dreams would need a lot of TLC and sweat equity. That was the only reason I’d even been able to afford this place.
The current deferred maintenance issues shouldn’t be a problem. After all, it was only April 1st. I could do this and be ready for the early spring campers that should be arriving in the next week.
Correction—Mom and I could do this. As she’d reminded me over the last week, we were partners, and she was just as emotionally invested in this new venture as I was.
Leonard Trout had owned and managed this campground for sixty-three years. He’d kept the business going after his kids had grown and gone. He’d kept it going after the death of his wife, running the place single handedly with the help of a part-time handyman. If Len Trout could operate this campground well into his eighties, then Mom and I shouldn’t have any problem.
“Yes. It’s beautiful.” It would be beautiful. When I was done with this place, it would shine. We’d be booked a year in advance. People would talk for decades about how much fun they’d had that summer they stayed at Reckless Camper Campground.
Just as I’d done.
My mother smiled serenely, taking it all in with a sweeping glance. “How about you start unloading the car while I go check out the cabins.”
We hadn’t packed much. The movers would be here tomorrow, and the place had been sold along with all the business equipment and furnishings. We hadn’t been sure what would fit in the owner’s house, or what we’d want to toss, so we’d had movers throw everything from our old house onto the truck, figuring we’d sort it all out when they got here.
Mom headed toward the first cabin with a pace that belied her age. Elvis’s sniffing was leading him on a path toward the owner’s house. I grabbed my keys and pushed the button to open the back lift, then walked around to grab our bags. That’s when I saw her.
A woman with a poofy blonde mullet that belonged back in 1983 was speed walking up the packed-dirt driveway. She wore a bright coral jacket paired with jade green pants and was carrying something that looked like one of those giant Edible Arrangement baskets.
“Yoohoo! Yooooo-hoooooo!” She took one hand off the basket to wave at me and increased her speed. I had no idea a person could walk that fast. She reminded me of those Standardbred horses who looked like they were trotting sixty miles an hour around a racetrack.
I put down the box I’d picked up and waited for her. I was tired from the long drive and emotionally exhausted after an incredibly busy morning. I needed to unpack the SUV, get the essentials organized, and begin figuring out where we were going to put our furnishings. But I was new here and I welcomed any overtures of friendship.
Especially when they were speed walking up the driveway carrying a basket of food.
“Halooooo!” The woman came to an abrupt stop in front of me and breathlessly extended the basket. In addition to the fruit arrangement, I realized the basket contained muffins, mini loaves, and chocolates.
Chocolates. Whoever this woman was, she was my new best friend.
“I’m Lottie Sinclair from next door,” she panted at me. “I saw your car pull in and just had to be the first to welcome you to the neighborhood.”
She said it as if welcoming newcomers to the neighborhood was a competitive event here in Reckless.
“I’m Sassafras Letouroux,” I juggled the basket so I could shake her hand. “Everyone calls me Sassy. My mother, Ellie Mae Letouroux is…somewhere.”
Mom was nowhere to be seen. She’d probably ducked into one of the cabins to check it out. Glancing around, I saw Elvis sniffing along the front porch of the owner’s house. Bloodhounds could vanish with an instant of inattention, following their nose clear across the darned country if they were on a scent, so I needed to keep an eye on him.
“I’m so glad you bought the campground. Len was a wonderful man, God rest his soul.” She made the sign of the cross on her chest. “It’s not healthy for a place to be vacant for long. And this campground needs someone to love it—someone who really cares, someone whose aura is aligned with the spirit of this place.”
That was a bit on the woo-woo side for me, but I did really care about this campground. It had seemed like fate that in the exact moment when I’d been wanting to change my life and take a chance on something new, the very place I’d adored as a child had come up for sale—and at a price I could actually afford.
“I came here quite a few times when I was a kid and always loved it here,” I told Lottie, envisioning how the campground had looked back then. “And I brought my son when he was little as well.”
“Then you’re practically a Reckless native,” she proclaimed.
I laughed. “Ten visits over the course of fifty-eight years hardly makes me a native.”
“Close enough.” She waved her hand. “We were all so worried some developer was going to snatch it up and slap a bunch of condos here, or someone would buy it, raze everything, and put up a million-dollar mansion with locked gates and butlers.” She eyed me. “You’re not planning to do that, are you?”
“No. I intend to live in the owner’s cabin with my mom and my dog, and manage the campground.” She should be able to tell from my clothes and my old model SUV that I wasn’t the million-dollar home type, but maybe the millionaires around Reckless didn’t flaunt their wealth.
“Oh, good.” Lottie continued to talk, naming off everyone on either side of the street for a mile or so, and telling me what they did for a living as well as if they were married and had children or pets. I stood there, half listening to her, half keeping an eye on Elvis who I didn’t trust not to vanish into the mountains following the scent of a rabbit or a fox or a dog in heat. The rescue had him neutered before I’d adopted him, but Elvis clearly hadn’t gotten the memo. Any female dog within a mile would have him courting her favor with his baritone hound-song.
I put the bags down and set the goodie basket in the rear of the SUV, because Lottie didn’t seem to be letting up her monologue anytime soon, and my arms were getting tired. My mom was making her way back up the path from the cabins. Elvis had moved on from the porch of the house to the door of what might be a freestanding garage.
“…bridge every Tuesday, then there’s Cocktail Chicks Thursdays, and Knit-O-Rama ever Saturday…”
“Bridge sounds lovely. It’s been ages since I’ve played, though.” Mom put her hand out to shake Lottie’s. “I’m Ellie Mae Letouroux.”
I’d never played bridge, but mom and dad had when I was back in high school. I vaguely remembered coming home from the roller rink or football games and finding a dozen people in our living room, all seated at those fold-up card tables. I’d never been sure if my parents had truly loved the card game, or had just used it as an excuse to get together with friends, drink martinis, and eat those little hot dogs rolled up in Crescent rolls that Mom used to bake for parties.
“Lottie Sinclair. I live right next door.” Lottie shook mom’s hand and pointed over her shoulder in the direction of the woods. The campground was twenty acres, so next door wasn’t exactly spitting distance, but I could vaguely see a roofline just over the tops of the trees.
Lottie threw her hands upward. “Goodness sakes, here I am chatting your ear off and you haven’t even unpacked yet.”
I expected Lottie to say goodbye, but instead she reached in and grabbed a bag with each hand. The last few years I’d learned to accept help when offered, so I grabbed another two bags while Mom took the goodie basket and we walked to the owner’s house. It took me a few seconds of fumbling with the janitor-sized ring of keys the real estate agent had given me before I found the correct one and got the door unlocked. The door creaked open, and I wrinkled my nose, thinking that the place could use a good airing out and a going-over with some Febreze.
The owner’s house was a one-story log cabin with an open floor plan. There was a floral-print sofa in front of a stone fireplace. The previous owners clearly hadn’t wanted it enough to keep and hadn’t bothered to haul it off. I grimaced, my fingers itching to grab the tags that would mark this sofa as something that should be hauled away for donation. Heck, I wasn’t even sure Goodwill would take it. It wasn’t ratty or faded, just old, with that heavy dark-wood structure and dated upholstery. I was nostalgic, but my love of things past didn’t extend to mid-century Early Americana furnishings.
On either side of the fireplace were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed two deep with books.
The kitchen had what looked like the same autumn gold appliances from my childhood in the early ’70s. As much as I wanted those to go out the door with the sofa, I didn’t really have the budget to replace perfectly good, albeit ugly, appliances. They’d need to stay, and I’d just have to put up with Harvest Gold.
To the left of the kitchen was a heavy, oak farmhouse-style dining table with two chairs that had been repaired with duct tape. I eyed the table, noting that it had survived all sorts of gouges and broken chunks of wood. It looked sturdy enough to tap dance on. Even if I decided not to keep it in the main house, I could repurpose it in the campground office, or possibly in the activities center.
Off to the side of the table was a desk with a computer on it. Now that was supposed to be here. All the rest of these furnishings were not. I took a deep breath, annoyed that Len Trout’s sons had abandoned all this junk for us to deal with and that our real estate agent hadn’t given us a heads-up.
I set the bags on the kitchen island, mentally adding “arrange for a junk hauler to pick this all up and haul it away” to my to-do list as I continued to inspect the place that Mom and I would now be calling home.
I knew there were two bedrooms in the back with one full bath. There was also a nice enclosed porch off the dining area. Everything else was in the one big room. The cabin was cozy, but it was just Mom and me who’d be living here. And Elvis. We hadn’t exactly lived in fancy digs before this adventure, but the owner’s house was a whole lot more rustic than either of us was used to. Nothing that couldn’t be spruced up a bit with some bright accents, though. It wasn’t like we’d be roughing it. The whole campground had electricity, well water, and a septic system. There was indoor plumbing, heat, and hot water in our new home. I hadn’t bought this place expecting a glitzy house. It was a campground, after all, and I’d known it wouldn’t be luxurious.
It was home. We could always remodel if we wanted, but that would have to be a year or two down the road. I got the feeling there would be a whole lot more important stuff for us to handle getting this place up and running and earning money before we worried about whether to buy new appliances or add a half-bath.
“Where should I put these bags?” Lottie wheeled them down the hallway without waiting for direction.
It wouldn’t really matter which bedroom she put them in. Mom and I would figure out who got which one later. Right now my priority was getting the luncheon meat and drinks from the coolers into the house and into the refrigerator, inventorying essentials like toilet paper and cleaning supplies, then firing up that ancient computer over in the corner to see when our first reservation of the season was.
The cabins would require cleaning and to be stocked with amenities and linens. I should also figure out what needed to be done to prep the RV sites. The tent spots shouldn’t be a problem, but I still wanted to check and make sure they were neat and tidy. Mow. Power wash the walkways. And there were four shower-and-restroom buildings that would need cleaning. The docks. The canoes and kayaks. Make sure there were no old wasp nests in the campsite grills. Have someone come in to cut up and haul away that downed tree and fix the roof in Cabin six. And reattach the gutter.
My chest tightened, and I felt light-headed at the overwhelming number of tasks ahead of me. Mom’s responsibilities would be more on the organization and reservations side of our business venture. I was the one who was supposed to be coming up with creative events, doing the marketing and promotion, and coordinating campground activities with the town.
In all my daydreams, I’d never once thought about who would be cleaning, landscaping, and unclogging toilets. Was that the job of the part-time maintenance man? Daryl Butts, I think his name was. If so, then why hadn’t any of this been done prior to our arrival? Had Len’s sons fired the maintenance guy or reduced his hours to save money? Did Daryl just start slacking off once Len had died?
Or maybe none of this was in his job description, so Daryl had just ignored the cleaning, the tree on top of cabin six, and the sagging gutter on the owner’s house. I moved “having a meeting with the maintenance man” to the top of my list, vowing to call him first thing in the morning and figure out what exactly he was supposed to do around here, and what I’d need to hire someone else to handle. Or to do myself.
Lottie came back from the bedrooms, dusting her hands off and looking around. “Do you have more to unload?” she asked cheerfully.
“I’m very grateful for your help,” I told her. “There are some coolers, a few other bags, and a couple more suitcases, if you don’t mind giving us a hand.”
“It’s not a problem at all. I’m happy to help.” She smiled, and we followed her outside, Lottie quickly outpacing us with her speedy walk.
Our neighbor grabbed one of the coolers and another bag. I picked up a box with paper goods and a bag of dog food, and suddenly realized I hadn’t been keeping an eye on my bloodhound.
“Elvis!” I shouted, before turning to Mom and Lottie. “Have either of you seen Elvis?”
“He went around back when we were bringing in that last load,” Lottie said.
“Elvis!” I shouted again, a wave of relief washing over me as the hound bounded around the house toward us. Hounds liked to follow their nose, and who knows what Elvis’s nose would lead to around here. I really needed to keep a better eye on him. It wouldn’t be a great first day if I had to spend it searching the mountains for my bloodhound, worried that he might have gotten himself into trouble.
Elvis followed us back and forth as we carried our things into the house. Lottie continued to chat about the neighbors and various events in the town. I made a mental note to write them down later, thinking the events would be good things to add to our website to entice campers to come. The previous owner’s sons had given Mom and me the database of previous customers, the current year’s upcoming reservations, all the finances for the business, and both the website and online booking system logins. Thankfully there were people who seemed to stay every summer because the new reservations had shown a steady decline over the last five years. I hoped I could reverse that trend.
“Would you stay and have a cup of coffee?” Mom asked Lottie as we made our final trip. “We only have instant—unless the previous owners left a coffee maker as well as that hideous couch.”
“Not a chance,” I said as I went through the empty cupboards.
“At least we brought a kettle to heat up water,” Mom commented.
I nodded. “Looks like it’s instant coffee in Styrofoam cups, but we’ve got real cream and little packets of sugar.”
“And the fruit and muffins you brought,” Mom said to Lottie.
“Please stay.” I smiled at our new neighbor, grateful for her help and the gift basket.
She beamed back at me and smoothed a hand over her capris. “Oh, I’d love to!”
Lottie immediately bustled about, helping mom with the coffee and the muffins. Elvis explored the cabin, his nose to the floor as he inhaled all the scents this new place exuded. I sat down at the computer and fired it up, checking e-mails and looking at the booking system.
“We’ve got guests arriving next week for some of the cabins,” I announced.
My chest tightened with a flash of panic. Were the cabins guest-ready? I was going to go out on a limb and say no. While I wanted to spend my first week here getting settled in, meeting the neighbors, exploring the town, and putting together a marketing plan, I was probably going to be cleaning, washing linens, and prepping the cabins for the early-spring guests.
“Didn’t Len Trout have a handyman on the payroll?” Mom asked. “Surely that man didn’t climb up on roofs and repair plumbing at his age.”
“Yes, he did,” I replied. “But I don’t know if roof and plumbing repair was something the handyman did or not.”
“Daryl Butts,” Lottie confirmed what I’d been told at signing. “Len’s had him working here part-time for the last ten years. He felt sorry for Daryl after he got let go at the cannery in Bixby and offered him a job. Daryl’s responsible for repairs on the cabins and docks, and groundskeeping. After Len died, the boys were paying him to look after the place.”
I thought of the tree on cabin six’s porch roof and wondered what Daryl’s idea of “looking after the place” included.
“Of course, Daryl has to be in a working kind of mood, if you know what I mean,” Lottie added, making a tippling motion with her hand.
“Is there another handyman in town?” I wasn’t going to outright fire someone just because the place needed work and the neighbor I’d only met an hour ago implied the current handyman was a drinker. For all I knew, Len’s estate hadn’t paid the guy in months, or the sons had told him not to bother doing anything but a quick drive-through once a week. And Lottie’s idea of a drinker could be a beer on Sunday after mowing the lawn. Still, it would be good to have a backup, just in case my fears about Daryl were proven true.
Lottie shrugged. “Not really. You could post on Reckless Neighbors and see if anyone’s got a recommendation.”
“Reckless Neighbors?” I typed the name into the search bar and saw it was some sort of messaging service for the town and outlying areas.
“That’s the easiest way to know what’s going on around here.” Lottie laughed. “That and sitting around The Coffee Dog listening to the locals chat.”
Sadly, I wasn’t going to have the time to hang around a coffee shop all day.
I signed up to the app, and by the time Mom and Lottie had set out muffins and cups of instant coffee at the battered dining room table, I’d already learned that the farmer’s market was Thursdays from three to seven and ran all year long, rain or shine, and that pickleball teams were now forming with enrollment forms at the community center.
“Celeste Crenshaw lost her pig,” I commented as I joined them at the table and grabbed one of the muffins.
Lottie waved a hand. “Squeakers is down at the Bait and Beer. You’d think Celeste would know that by now. She posts every time that pig goes missing just to have something to say. There’s nothing else going on in her life.”
“Maybe that’s why Squeakers likes to hang out at the Bait and Beer,” Mom chimed in.
“Celeste should probably join Squeakers at the Bait and Beer. Maybe then she’d have more things to post about on Reckless Neighborhood,” I pointed out.
“That’s true.” Lottie sipped her coffee and looked off into the distance, her gaze pensive. “There’s a lot that goes on at Bait and Beer.”
I made a mental note to go check out Bait and Beer. Then I took a bite of the muffin and could have sworn I heard angels sing. “This is amazing. Lottie, did you make these? They’re incredible.”
Her face turned red and she waved my praise away. “Thank you. It’s the blueberries. Those hippy ladies who run the llama sanctuary off route 31 sell them at the farmer’s market the end of June. One week only. There’s practically a riot going on with people line busting and camping out so they can get them. I scored three pints last year and froze some.”
Hippy ladies. Llama sanctuary. The farmer’s market. Bait and Beer. A wandering pig. Pickleball teams. Knit-O-Rama, and bridge, and Cocktail Chick Thursdays. I thought about all the interesting people, places, and events in Reckless. All this just confirmed that I was going to love living here.
I sipped my instant coffee, ate my muffin, and thought happy llama sanctuary thoughts while Mom and I got to know our neighbor.
“My son’s in college,” Lottie told Mom. “My daughter Amanda lives in Atlanta. She’s a radiology technician. Aaron is majoring in history. I’m not sure what he’s going to do with that, but he’s a smart boy. He’ll figure it out.
“He could teach,” I pointed out. “Or do something completely different from history. My degree was in psychology and I ended up with a career in marketing.”
She brightened at that. “True. Do you have children?”
“A son. Colter.” I smiled just thinking of him. “He’s thirty-two, married, and lives in Dallas with his partner. He works in software development. No grandkids yet, but Colter and Greg have been talking about adoption lately.”
“No grandkids for me yet, either.” Lottie sighed. “It’s hard having an empty nest, isn’t it? I’m lucky if I see Amanda every other Christmas. Aaron always gets jobs during the summer and stays on campus. The last time he was home was New Year’s Day.”
It was hard. I missed Colter, but he was off living his life and it made me proud that I’d raised an independent son who’d found love and had a wonderful job. He seemed so happy in the pictures he and Greg texted that I wouldn’t change a thing, even if I did wish he’d found a job that wasn’t over halfway across the country.
“Goodness! Look at the time! I need to get a-moving.” Lottie jumped to her feet. “I’m sure you both want to unpack and get settled in. Are you going to the tourism board meeting tomorrow afternoon? They’re going over the themes for the summer festivals, and deciding which bands to book for the Apple Harvest Jubilee.”
Summer festivals? I really needed to be there so I could coordinate the campground activities around what the town was offering, and maybe even piggyback on the themes. I glanced over at Mom and she waved a hand at me.
“Go. I’ll finish any unpacking, wait for the movers, and make a list for the store,” she informed me.
I glanced at the computer.
She huffed out a breath. “Don’t you worry about that. I’m supposed to be handling the reservations—not you. Go.”
“But the moving truck—”
“For Pete’s sake, Sassy. I can tell movers where to put things and probably convince them to haul this ugly couch away. You go to this meeting tomorrow. It’s important.”
“I’ll drive,” Lottie offered. “That way I can introduce you to people and show you around town a bit. Pick you up at one?”
I smiled at her, grateful that fate had given me a friend literally minutes after I’d pulled down the driveway to my new home—my new life.
“Thank you. I really appreciate all of your help. And the gift basket.” I walked her to the door as Mom gathered up the coffee cups and paper towels.
Lottie speed walked down the driveway, her arms swinging in time with her steps. I watched her go, then realized two things as I turned around.
The back door was ajar. And Elvis was nowhere to be seen.
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