Breath of fatal air
Cedar Fish Campground: Book 2
The Regional Cornhole Semi-Finals are all fun and games… until the head official is ruled dead.
Thea Pagoni has her hands full trying to please the very particular Hugo Menendez, head official of the Regional Cornhole Semi-Finals. After the bad press from a recent murder at the campground, Thea is counting on this event to turn things around. When security guard/handyman Nolan finds Hugo dead—then finds himself named the prime suspect—Thea doesn’t know what to believe. The campground cat falls ill, and Thea turns to her loyal friend, Hennie, to help her sort out the truth and make a tough decision about an employee.
With a campground full of potential suspects, witnesses, and evidence, Thea scrambles to find something that will clear Nolan and bring justice for Hugo. She must decipher the murderer’s clues, while still managing the event and all of its participants, before Nolan is arrested and the campground suffers more bad press and cancellations.
BREATH OF FATAL AIR is the second 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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Breath of fatal air
A rumble crept into the stillness of the early morning quiet. A loud muffler. The car making the racket appeared out of the wisps of fog blanketing the road. Gar, my Newfoundland puppy, lifted his head, and I reached down from my seat on the campground’s office porch swing to pet him. “This should be interesting,” I muttered.
An old silver Dodge Dart, painted with a thick, checkered wave along its body, pulled into the campground entrance. At the back of the car, a bright red and a bright blue corn bag were featured as the dominant art. The front of the car boasted two flags, one on each side like a government official’s car, displaying the red, blue, and white logo of the Worldwide Cornhole Organization—the WCO.
Rather than turn into the parking lot, the car stopped in the entrance road, just past the large sign that read “Cedar Fish Campground.” A man in a long-sleeved button-down shirt and sharp pants approached. His tie boasted an image of a cornhole platform and bean bag. I stood and Gar got to his feet beside me.
I got a good view of the man’s face and froze in shock. A photo jumped into my mind. Grandad, in his late thirties like I was now, sitting on a picnic table, smiling like he was holding back a secret. When I saw the man approaching, it was like that captured image of Grandad had walked out of the photo. I couldn’t shake the eerie feeling, and it made my knees wobbly.
“Hello there, fine woman.” The man dipped his head and held out a hand to me, palm up. “Hugo Menendez. Who might you be, divine creature?”
I had to remember that this was more than a camper. Hugo was responsible for bringing a huge event to my campground—business I very much wanted to repeat year after year. But he was particular. He’d been hard to work with in the weeks of planning, so I needed to make sure every detail of the event was flawless. That pressure, combined with the bizarre hollow, haunted feeling, made me shaky and scattered.
I blinked at him, then put my hand in his. “Thea Pagoni.”
“Exactly who I was looking for and hoped you’d be. That is my vehicle there.” He turned to point, as if there were any question. “I don’t see your preferred parking, however. Or a valet?”
“Oh, we don’t…” I looked around, frantic. Had there been a request for that? Had we missed something?
“No trouble. I’ll just leave it there until you’ve got me checked in.”
“We’ll get it taken care of right away.” I turned and entered the office with Gar.
Hugo was right on my heels and leaned on the counter as I looked up his reservation. “Must be nice living in a place like this,” he said. “Quiet and peaceful. You look quite healthy and well rested.”
I wasn’t sure what to think of the compliment or his tone. Was he… flirting? “Thanks. It’s been mostly good.”
Hugo pulled a thick book from his messenger bag. “This is the rule book we’ll need to go over to make sure everything is up to regulation.”
“I’ve had my handyman working on the things you mentioned in your email.”
“Working on?” Hugo straightened up and looked around. “Surely, things are completed and ready for the competition, are they not?”
I gulped. Crap. Were we behind schedule? “Oh, yeah. I just meant… He wants to show you the field and make sure it’s all right.”
“Field? Darling, it’s called a court.” Hugo flipped the book open. “Now, I sent very specific schematics for how the court is to be set up. Surely, your man has read it?”
I recalled handing the thick book to Nolan, my security guard and campground handyman, shortly after we’d booked the Regional Cornhole Semi-Final Competition. He’d glanced at it, but said he knew how to make a cornhole field. I had trusted him. I’d figured that we had the wooden boxes and corn bags, so what else was there? But now, looking at Hugo’s frantic turning of pages, it was clear we’d missed it.
I picked up my new walkie talkie and pressed the button to call Nolan. “Hey, I need you in the office. The cornhole official is here.”
I smiled at Hugo. “He’s on his way.”
Hennie, my friend, sidekick, and honey provider, burst through the door in her muddy galoshes, carrying a large box of various honey products. Her long, silver braid looked frizzy and wild today from the humidity in the June air. “Hey, some jackass is blocking your entrance.”
I pressed my lips into a line and widened my eyes at her while nodding subtly toward Hugo.
Hennie set the box down and gave Gar’s head a tussle before saying to Hugo, “Well, there. I shoulda guessed that was your car based on all the cornholing.” She pointed to his tie.
Hugo turned to raise an eyebrow at her. “And you are?”
Hennie stuck out a hand. “Henrietta Schrute. Proud cornhole fan for a lifetime.”
Hugo turned back to me with a smirk. “So glad that some of our fans are as lovely as you.”
My cheeks warmed, and I glanced at Hennie, who rocked back on her heels.
I gave her an awkward, sympathetic smile. “Thanks for bringing the order,” I said. “You know where to put it.”
Nolan stepped into the office. Gar bolted to him, tail wagging so hard that it shook his body. Nolan petted Gar and took Hugo in before approaching.
“Hey there. Nolan Cade.” Nolan stuck his hand out and shook Hugo’s, hard. “Want to take a look at things?”
“He needs to get to his site first,” I said. “So his car isn’t in the way.”
Hugo waved me off. “It can sit there a while. I need to make sure the courts have been properly designed. It sounds like things have not been up to par around here, and it’s very distressing.”
Nolan blew out a breath and looked at me.
I gave them both a nervous, apologetic smile. “I’m sure that Nolan will have everything exactly as it needs to be.”
Hugo pulled his mouth into another charming grin. “If you tell him what to do, I have no doubt, darling.”
I gulped and dared to look at Nolan. His face slid into a glare that mirrored Hennie’s. Hugo pushed his way out the door, calling behind him, “Come now, Mr. Cade. Let’s get things going as they should be.”
Nolan growled in his throat before following Hugo.
“Now, there’s a real piece of work,” Hennie said.
“Yeah,” I agreed, but my stomach tightened. We had to make sure Hugo was happy if this event was going to go well. The way he looked so much like Grandad warmed me to him in a way that played against the repulsion I felt at his smarminess and demanding attitude. Just being in his presence felt like a tug of war on my soul, not helped by the way he’d been over-flattering toward me.
A moment later, my walkie crackled. “Get out here,” Nolan said.
Hennie and I hurried out the door, Gar at our feet, as Curtis, my much older employee, shuffled toward us.
“Hey, Curtis.” I waved.
He jerked a thumb at the entrance, where his old Buick now sat behind Hugo’s Dodge. “Ran out to get milk. Can’t get back in.”
I said back into the walkie, “We need to get Hugo’s car out of the entry.”
“Get over here,” Nolan responded.
Our shoes made squeaking sounds in the wet grass as Hennie and I hurried to the field we’d designated to be the cornhole court. We’d had a lot of rain recently, which had softened the ground. I worried it would cause problems. At the court, Hugo’s hands were in the air, and he waved his rule book at Nolan.
“Oh, boy,” Hennie said, staying close to my side. “This’ll be good.”
Nolan ran his hand through his dark hair and scowled at me.
“Nothing here meets regulation,” Hugo announced. “This is a disaster! My entire career is on the line, you know!”
“Your… career as a cornhole official?” Nolan asked.
Hugo put his hands on his hips. “In two days, we will have twenty-three contestants and hundreds of spectators here for this competition. If it’s not perfect, you will hear from my lawyers.”
I jumped on that one. “You’ve already heard from ours.” I forced a chuckle. “I happen to be a corporate lawyer.” Hopefully that would keep him from making lawsuit threats.
Hugo tilted his head toward me. “Don’t you just get better by the minute.”
My face flushed and I looked down. Not the response I’d wanted. “It was another life.”
“You’ve got to tell me more about it sometime,” Hugo said.
“I hate to break up this little… whatever”—Nolan flicked his hand in the air—“but if we have so much to do, let’s get on with it already.”
“The courts need to be reconfigured immediately to fix the dimensions.” Hugo turned, pointed his nose in the air, and stormed off.
“Where did you find this guy?” Nolan asked me.
I lifted one shoulder and Nolan huffed in response before charging off after Hugo.
I asked Hennie, “Any chance you can help Nolan today?”
She nodded and followed the men.
Another voice called out from the front of the campground, and I looked over to see a chubby man in dress pants and a bright-orange satin shirt hurrying for us, flittering his hands frantically. “Hello! Hello! Help!”
I walked over to meet him. “What can I do for you?”
“There’s some sort of backup.” He waved toward the campground entrance, where three cars now filled the short space before the gate. “I’m Ray Kline, assistant official. I need to be checked in immediately and taken to my cabin. Hugo Menendez is expecting me.”
“You go on then.” I pointed in Hugo’s direction. “I wouldn’t keep him waiting if I were you.”
“Oh no, certainly not.” Ray hurried off, stepping daintily over the grass.
I went into the office to get Ray’s cabin key and check-in form. I’d have to get him to complete it later. I walked outside to inspect the line of cars. Sally, my final employee to arrive at work, sat in her white minivan in the main road, her turn signal on, waiting to turn in. She must not have noticed that no one sat in the three cars ahead of her in line.
Luckily, Hugo had left his keys in his car. For the valet, of course. I hopped in and parked his car in the office lot. I retrieved Curtis’s keys from him, then moved his and Ray’s cars as well. Sally turned in behind me and rushed out of her van.
“I am so sorry I’m late. I don’t know what the holdup was there.”
“They left their cars in the entrance,” I explained. “Don’t worry about it.”
She blinked at me in confusion.
“The officials are already here, and Nolan and Hennie are trying to get things set up. I’ll be in to help you at the desk as much as I can. It’ll be busy today.”
Sally nodded confidently. She took out a small glass vial. “I brought my lavender essential oil, so I’ll be nice and calm all day.” She grinned and tucked the oil back into her pocket.
Too bad she didn’t have her oil last week, when she encountered an older camper who wasn’t unhappy, but had a lot of questions and took a lot of time. Sally had been tired and frazzled that morning—her twin boys had had her up late, fighting over who got to sleep with the special blanket. The woman camper had been surprised at Sally’s angry outburst, but hadn’t held a grudge when I took her aside to explain. The woman must’ve been a mom, too.
I left Sally in the office, sniffing her oil, and Gar and I returned to the scene at the cornhole court. Nolan and Hennie held stakes and a thin rope while Hugo and Ray held measuring tapes and barked orders over one another.
“Anything I can do to help?” I asked.
Hugo came over to me with an armful of corn bags. “None of these are regulation. I will have to tap into my personal equipment. We’ll never get WCO approved bags in time. I cannot believe this—is happening.”
“There are regulation corn bags?” I asked.
“Well, of course,” Ray snapped.
Gar gave a warning rumble from his chest and pressed his body against me in defense.
“How dare you speak to a woman like that?” Hugo said to Ray. Then to me, “Darling, I know you don’t understand the rules of cornhole—it is a rather complicated sport, after all. I’d love to sit down over dinner and explain all the regulations I’m responsible for.” He adjusted his armload of corn bags and pulled his mouth into a sneering smile.
I had to look away. When he talked to me like that and looked at me like that—while he resembled my grandad so much—it made my skin crawl.
“Let’s get these courts set before you worry about your dinner plans,” Nolan said.
Hugo wiggled his eyebrows at me. “It would be my honor to spend the evening with you rather than this imbecile.” He jerked a thumb at Ray. “I’m sure you can understand my preference.”
I didn’t know how to respond. If I turned him down, it might upset him and make him even more difficult to deal with, which would be bad for everyone. But going out with him would be very bad for me. I caught Nolan’s disgusted glare and decided to be safe and sidestep. “What’s the problem with the courts, exactly?”
“The pitcher boxes are the wrong sizes and the foul lines are off,” Nolan snapped. “And the platforms aren’t made of thick enough wood and don’t have the right paint.”
I sucked in a breath. “Give me a list and I’ll get whatever we need.”
Nolan scribbled down a list of items, then thrust the paper at me. “Be fast.”
I took Gar with me so he wouldn’t be in the way and went to Rollie’s, the general store a mile down the road.
I left Gar in the car and hurried inside, making a small jump over the golden lab, Sunny Boy, sleeping in front of the door.
I looked around, but didn’t see Enid, the store’s owner.
“Thea, dear!” she called out to me.
I turned again as she appeared from the backroom. Today her long cardigan sweater was an outdoor scene. A baby blue sky with a bottom hem of green grass. Three dimensional clouds dotted the sky, and several flowers sprung up from the grass. It was a sweater my grandma would have adored.
“I have to make it fast,” I told her as I pulled the list from my jeans’ pocket. “Do you have any of these things?” I handed her the list.
She looked it over, shook her head, and handed it back. “Afraid not, dear.”
I sighed. “Thanks. This cornhole thing is already a nightmare.”
“I got my tickets!” She patted the pocket of her sweater. “I just love cornhole. You know, every year, Rollie and I would have a summer-long competition with your grandparents. Of course, Bettie and Jack always beat us.”
“They did live near the cornhole courts. I bet they snuck in late-night practices all the time.”
“Well, I never was that good at sports.” She shrugged.
“I better get going before Nolan strangles Hugo.”
I hugged her goodbye before bolting out the door.
I continued on the long trek into the main town of Branson, Missouri. The drive took over thirty minutes, and I had received four new text messages before I arrived, listing more items that Nolan needed to make things right for the competition.
I hurried through the building-supply store and sped all the way back, taking phone calls as I could to alleviate some of the chaos happening in the campground. When I returned in the early afternoon, it appeared as if a global disaster had broken out and hundreds of people had come to Cedar Fish Campground for refuge.
Cars, campers, and people spilled into every inch of the grounds. Inside the office, Sally struggled with the line while Curtis inched his way through the store aisles, helping people find things and answering questions. Nolan and Hennie were still with Hugo and Ray, but now more men had joined the gathering. One group stood directing the other.
Before I could talk to Nolan to get an update, Sally called on the walkie. “Umm, hello? Is anyone there? I need Thea?”
“You don’t have to say hello every time, Sally. You can just start talking,” I explained. Again.
“Sorry. I think there’s a problem?”
“Dill. The cat?”
“What’s wrong with her?”
The last few weeks Dill had seemed slower and had slept more. I planned to take her to the vet if she quit eating, but that was the one thing she’d been doing just fine. Now, I felt the worry in the pit of my stomach again.
“I’m not sure. She’s under your desk and she’s panting and meowing funny.”
“I’ll be right there.” I caught Hennie’s eye from a distance and motioned for her to walk over. “Can you come with me a minute? Sally said something is wrong with Dill. You’ll know better than me.”
“Anything to get me away from these creeps,” she said under her breath.
Gar bounded along with us. We found Sally in the back office, crying as she petted Dill. A long line of campers waited unhappily.
“Thanks, Sally. We’ll take care of Dill if you can just help these campers, please?”
Sally nodded and wiped her eyes before returning to the front counter.
Hennie and I squatted down under the folding table I used as a desk and she looked Dill over. The tortoise-shell cat lay on her side, breathing fast and heavy, and let out a pained mew.
Hennie chuckled and tickled Dill’s chin. “Old, rascally girl. Who knew you still had it? Oh, she’s fine.”
“I’d say within the next few hours, she’ll be feeling much better.”
Then Dill started to lick her back end fervently.
“I’d say she’ll give birth within a few hours,” Hennie said.
“Should I move her to my cabin?”
Hennie shook her head. “Better not disturb her like that. We’ll close the door to give her privacy and she’ll do just fine.”
I put my hand to my forehead and reached for the travel mug of ice I’d left by my laptop that morning. “Any chance you want some kittens?”
“You’ve seen my menagerie. I’m not adding to that chaos.”
Nolan crackled over the walkie, “I need help up here. What are you doing?”
“Checking on Dill. She’s about to give birth.”
There was a pause and then, “But she’s not giving birth right now?”
“Nope, we’re on our way. And we can add ‘Find homes for kittens’ to our task list because there’s no way I’m having a litter running around this place.”
“Fine. We have plenty of time to worry about that. Now get over here and get this moron off my back.”