Between a Rock and a Deadly Place
Cedar Fish Campground: Book 1
Cedar Fish Campground was supposed to be a peaceful refuge, not grounds for murder.
Thea Pagoni is desperate to flee her stress-filled city life for the quiet of the woods after a painful divorce. When her grandmother passes away and leaves her the family campground, it seems like the perfect opportunity to find peace. But not everything is crickets and campfires.
The handyman she was promised is less than handy, the campground has fallen into severe disrepair, and with a dwindling reservation list, there’s no money to make improvements. Things are looking grim, and then a dead hiker makes everything worse. Can Thea find the killer before Cedar Fish Campground is forced to close forever and she loses everything… again?
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A DEADLY PLACE is the first novella in Zoey Chase’s Cedar Fish Campground cozy mystery series. For lovers of the outdoors and clean mysteries with a side of romance.
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Between a Rock and a Deadly Place: Chapter 1
The demanding voice from my phone sounded warbled through the monsoon pounding my car’s roof. I blinked at the road ahead, but the fog from my panicked breath had crept up the windshield. I flicked on my turn signal—not that anyone would be stupid enough to be driving out there to see it—and eased onto the shoulder.
I stared at my phone. It chimed, “Rerouting…” and with the percussive storm, it came out like a chorus. “Rerouting… Rerouting…”
I shoved my phone into the console space, smashing a collection of metallic chip bags and gum wrappers. The drive had felt long, and I’d been over it two hours and a hundred miles ago. Somewhere on the random crap pile beside me, I had a map. I moved a desk lamp, a Crockpot lid, and my purse so I could grab a corner and yank the map into view.
The amber light of my fuel gauge glared back at me. Since I’d hit the outer limits of Branson, gas stations had become scarce. That should have been an indication that people in this part of Missouri didn’t drive as much as they did back in St. Louis, but judging from the sheer size of this county, people would have to drive ages to get anywhere.
The map was little help. The lines all looked wrong and didn’t match the image in my mind. I tried to shake free ten years of memory dust to get back to my twenty-six-year-old self—the last self that had been to the campground. I looked again at the road lines and my pencil markings.
I adjusted my heat and mirrors, waited for the fog to clear from my windows, and crept back onto the road. After a few more miles, I saw a familiar site, and my heart skipped. A glowing sign boasted, “Rollie’s.” The general store was just a mile from the campground.
Memories poured over me as I passed the log-cabin style building. I’d gone in there with my grandad and grandma too many times to count. The pang hit my chest again, and I swallowed hard. No, I reminded myself. I’m not doing grief on this drive—I am saving that for later.
I had to get to the campground, and as soon as possible. My dashboard clock flickered as the time bumped up. Another minute gone. But what was one more on top of the forty minutes I was already late?
I pressed on the gas as I rounded the bend, but quickly shifted to the brake when I saw the debris. I clenched my teeth as the car jolted to a stop. Fine line between slamming the brake hard enough to slide and not hard enough to keep me from smashing into the tree that blocked the road.
This had to be the beginning of a horror story: lone woman in a storm is trapped when a tree blocks her path, and she can’t escape because she’s out of gas and has no cell service. I stared the tree down through the rain. There would be no getting around it. No getting through it. Definitely no moving it. Any sort of power saw I might have access to waited beyond the blockade. I’d have no clue how to use it anyhow. Sorry, Grandad. Never did get into power tools.
Fallen trees weren’t all that uncommon in the Ozarks. Once, when I was just six or seven, I’d been with Grandad, talking to old Rollie himself. We’d hopped into Grandad’s old pickup to head back to the campground and had come upon a fallen tree, much like I faced now. We’d backed right up, turned around, and had taken the long way to the campground. Of course, Grandad had then taken his chainsaw down to the tree and cut it up to clear the road. We’d had a nice bonfire once the wood dried.
After my three-point-turn, I made two lefts, followed the curving road for an extra three miles, and finally saw the sign.
An arc of words reading, “Cedar Fish Campground,” stretched over a carved, wooden fish. My throat tightened as I recalled watching Grandad carve that fish. I still found it hard to believe the campground belonged to me now. The weight of the honor and the responsibility sat heavily on my heart.
I turned in and parked in front of the office. With my rain jacket yanked over my head, I dashed to the door where a note had been taped. Unfortunately, the office’s front overhang had not protected the door in the storm. The note was wet and its words badly smudged. I made out my name—Thea—above “ome” and “ollie’s” and eventually figured out that the small smudge between the words was “to.”
Normally, it would be a quick drive down the road to Rollie’s, but I’d have to take the long way again—twice in order to get back. Irritation slithered up my neck. Yes, I was late. I couldn’t blame Enid for not waiting, especially in this storm. But now I’d spend at least another half hour in the car when I just wanted to eat, stretch my legs, and get dry. Had I known she wasn’t here, I would have stopped at Rollie’s the first time I passed it.
I slammed my car into reverse and squeezed the gas. Rather than go around the gate to get to the exit, I drove the wrong way out of the entrance. I heard the loud hiss as my car halted. Right. The tire spikes.
I reached for my cup of ice and threw my head back to receive its contents, but only a few drops of water hit my tongue. A low growl rumbled in my throat as I jammed the cup back into the holder.
Well. At least now I could take the shorter route. I dug under my seat for my umbrella and yanked my purse up my arm. I hadn’t thought to keep a flashlight handy. I paused before getting out. Maybe it would be better to stay in one of the cabins tonight. Except all the keys would be inside the locked office. It was either sleep in the car and eat chips for dinner or brave the storm.
With my jacket zipped and hood up, I pushed out of the car, clutching my umbrella as I hurried through the rain in the dark. Fear churned in my stomach. Alone like this, anything could happen. I took in long, deep breaths, trying to keep myself calm. What had my therapist said? Not every place is dangerous. And that’s why I’d come. To find a safer place. To find a Russell-free place.
I shivered and picked up my pace. When I reached the downed tree, I found a spot low enough to step over. My fingers were numb and my clothes were damp by the time I saw the light of Rollie’s welcoming me. I trudged up three stairs and pushed open the creaking door, nearly tripping over the large dog lying just inside.
The old golden retriever didn’t move as I stepped over him. I folded my umbrella and set it by the door where it quickly formed a puddle. I looked around nervously.
“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” a voice called to me. “Come on over here, dear, my goodness.”
I turned, searching for the person who spoke. “Hello?”
I took a few steps forward. In front of me stood tall, wooden shelves filled with boxed food and goods. On the wall to the left, a sign read, “Post Office.” On the other side of the building it said, “Bank.” The far wall, which sat in shadow, said, “Bar.” Strange but convenient collection.
I moved toward a shuffling sound in the next aisle, passing a row of muffin mixes and baking supplies until I saw the source of the sound. A very large turtle made its way down the aisle. It might’ve come inside to seek shelter from the storm, but the diaper around its back legs told me otherwise.
“There you are.”
I let out a squeal as I jumped and spun. “Oh. Hi.” I stuck out my hand.
The woman ignored my hand and pulled me into a crushing hug.
“I’m all wet,” I protested.
“No bother when it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” She patted my cheeks with soft, wrinkled hands and squinted a smile at me. “Oh, little Thea, returned at last.”
I blinked at the woman who had to be in her 90s. She had a well-weathered face with deep laugh lines, framed by wisps of white hair that had fallen from her messy bun. She wore a long, navy skirt and a cardigan sweater covered in purple and yellow triangles—a pattern only my carefree, spirited grandma could have pulled off. Well, they had been best friends for something like fifty years. Must’ve rubbed off on each other.
“Enid.” I took her hands in mine, and my smile was genuine. “It’s good to see you, too.”
“Let’s get you warmed up while you tell me all about that big city of yours.”
I laughed. “It’s not mine anymore.”
“Of course not, dear. You’re a Fisher at heart, even if you’re a Pagoni by name.”
“Blame my mother for that one,” I said.
She took my hand and led me to a back room. The little space smelled dusty with age. Boxes of toilet paper and paper towels lined one wall, and a small table with two folding chairs sat against the other. A refrigerator hummed in the corner. A Crockpot sat on the cluttered counter near the sink. My mouth watered at the warm, spicy scent of chili.
“It’s been here all day, but it’ll still be good, I promise.” Enid scooped some into a bowl and set it on the table, then dug a plastic spoon from a box.
I didn’t even thank her or bother to sit before shoving a steaming spoonful into my mouth. The burn was evidence that heat existed in the world, and it was mine for the taking. The heat traveled down my throat and through my chest, warming me. I took two more bites before looking up at her.
“You’re an angel.”
She waved me off. “Soon enough, dear. Soon enough.” She sat in the other chair, facing me. “Tell me all about this big city life you’ve been living.”
I let out a long breath. “Not much to tell. After everything that happened with Russell, I couldn’t stand St. Louis anymore. Grandma’s passing was terrible timing in some ways—one more tragedy on top of everything else. But, weirdly, it was also perfect. Cedar Fish was always a quiet escape for me. I was looking for a way to leave the law firm, and this was the perfect opportunity.”
Enid patted my hand. “That husband of yours…” She shook her head. “Your grandmother told me horrible things.”
“Ex-husband. And they’re probably all true.”
She leaned in conspiratorially. “I hope your lawyer made him pay you good for all he did to you.”
“Yeah…” I gritted my teeth hard enough to make my jaw ache.
The last thing I wanted to discuss was how my ex had ruined me financially and all the ways my divorce lawyer had failed me.
My fist tightened and I forced it to release as I took another bite of chili.
“So… is business good?” I hadn’t seen any cars or customers, but with the weather, that didn’t tell me much.
“I get by.” Enid handed me a steaming mug. “Thea, your grandmother would flip if she knew I gave you hot cocoa from a packet.”
I chuckled as I wrapped my hands around the mug. Tears filled my eyes. “Yeah. She would.”
We exchanged sorrowful gazes and then she forced a smile. “Well, she’ll never know.”
We chuckled, and the sadness melted along with the iciness from my fingers.
“You’ll have your work cut out for you, I’m afraid,” Enid said. “We did our best, ole Bettie and me, but we just couldn’t keep up with everything.”
I nodded. “The lawyer said the campground needed some TLC.”
Enid’s eyes widened. “Some.” She tsked then pulled an envelope from her cardigan pocket. “This is for you.”
Inside, I found a collection of keys and index cards filled with various codes, passwords, and combinations.
“Of course, you can ask me anything,” Enid said. “And you’ll have Curtis. He’s been there a long time. He’s pretty handy.”
“Thanks. I hope you’re right, because my car is blocking the entrance.” I took my final sip of cocoa and set the mug down. “And my front tires are flat.”
She nodded in understanding. “I’ll have our bartender drive you and move it. He’s not doing anything over there anyhow in this weather.”
“That would be fabulous.”
I followed Enid to the bar and hugged her goodbye before walking outside with a tall man who she introduced as Arlo. He took me in his SUV around the long way to the campground. He wasn’t bad looking, seemed friendly, and was probably in his late thirties like me, but my heart did not react to him. With a recent and painful divorce, romance wasn’t something I could consider.
Arlo pulled his hood up to avoid the rain as he pushed my car into a parking spot while I steered. I thanked him and saw him off before walking to my cabin—my new home.
I dug through the keys for the correct one and opened the door. My heart stuck in my throat when I saw that the place looked exactly as I remembered. The small living room where Grandma would read us stories was off to the right, across from the kitchen where I’d eaten countless meals. A staircase I’d thundered up and down with my sister separated the rooms, leading upstairs, where two bedrooms were located. I’d spent the night in the smaller room many times with my sister, parents, and various cousins and other family members, crammed into one of many bunk beds or in a sleeping bag on the floor. On occasion, there were so many of us that we spilled into the living room.
The sofa was still the faded green with tiny dots of cream that I remember tracing my fingertips over endlessly on rainy days. I touched the fabric, feeling the familiar bumps of soft white. The smell was the same. Lingering garlic and fried onions—the smell of my grandmother’s divine cooking. On the round table at the edge of the kitchen sat the old crystal vase that had been a wedding gift to my grandad and grandma more than seventy years ago. How did such a vase last so long in a place like this?
I took my overnight bag upstairs into the forbidden larger bedroom. We’d been told over and over—do not go into Grandad and Grandma’s room. Ever. Now it was my room, but I still felt a thrill of defiance as I entered it.
I set my bag on the white-ruffled bedspread and the tears ran down my face. I sat down and listened to the rain on the roof as I allowed myself a moment of grief for my grandparents.