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One Body Short            of a Picnic

Cedar Fish Campground: Book 3

Fourth of July should have been a blast at Cedar Fish Campground, but another murder has sent Thea’s plans up in smoke.

Thea Pagoni is ready to move on from a difficult start to the summer with a huge bash planned for the Fourth of July. But a giant turtle gets in the way—literally—and the closer they get to the event, the grumpier Nolan acts. After Thea’s argument with a fireworks vendor leads to threats and tension, having Jerry Bishop, famous purse designer, stay at the campground seems like it could bring some good press… Until he’s found face-down and unresponsive in the goat pen.

Another unsolved mystery could ruin the event, and Thea isn’t convinced that Jerry’s fans and their memorial are good for business. With Nolan and Hennie to help sleuth, along with the rest of the crew at Cedar Fish, Thea sets out to find the latest killer before things blow up in her face.

ONE BODY SHORT OF A PICNIC is the third 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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One Body Short

of a Picnic


Chapter 1

My stomach grumbled, making me feel sick in the sticky heat. I checked my watch again—12:20. Gar, my large Newfoundland puppy, looked up at me with a pleading expression. When I didn’t get up, he stretched out on the cool cement floor of the vacant rec hall and sighed. My vendor meeting that was supposed to start at 12 should have ended by now, and I should be eating my lunch. I’d started having my meetings in the rec hall, rather than cramming into my tiny office, but sitting here bored and hungry in the heat made me reconsider.

The rec room contained only a few folding tables and chairs. I’d propped both doors open, but there wasn’t much of a breeze. My eyes trailed the edges of the room. So much potential. I sighed. We were still in the fixing phase of things at Cedar Fish Campground. But the day would come when I could start remodeling and really do something with the huge, wasted space of the rec hall. I pictured game nights to balance out the bingo, and maybe some crafting events for kids. I could put some pool or ping-pong tables at one end, and it’d be great to add a snack bar. On my most ambitious days, I even saw myself leading a group of campers stretched out on mats, all of us doing yoga in the early morning. But I’d have to learn yoga first.

I picked up my walkie talkie and called to my employee, Sally, in the office. “Hey, have you seen Mr. Dorsey yet?” When no response came after several seconds, I called back. “Sally? Hello?”

Still nothing. I tried Curtis’s channel next. He should be on security patrol and could check on the front of the campground for me. “Curtis, you there?”

When I got no response from him either, my heart rate spiked. I stood and looked out toward the office building next door. Gar jumped up as well, tongue lolling out and ready to play.

“Miss Thea?” Curtis’s voice crackled over the airwaves.

I snatched my walkie to my mouth. “Yes, Curtis? I’m here.”

“Seems we have a… situation near the front gate.”

I gulped. With two recent murders in the campground, that could mean almost anything. “What sort of situation?”

“Maybe you could step out here a moment?”

I grabbed my travel mug of ice from the table and cautiously approached the rec hall door. Gar leapt through it ahead of me and ignored my command to come back. The bright noon sun beat down as I rounded the building.

Curtis, dashing as always in his old military uniform, stood with hands on hips in his usual hunch, inspecting an object on the ground. Sally stood beside him, her wavy red-brown hair almost glowing in the sunlight. They blocked my view of whatever our “situation” was. Since it didn’t seem big enough to be a body, I relaxed and walked closer.

From under a nearby bush, three kitten heads peeked out in a row, also watching with intensity. Gar seemed oblivious to what was going on as he bounded in circles several feet away, batting at flowers and growling at anything that moved. 

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Curtis and Sally parted and gave me full view of the massive turtle sitting in the middle of the front drive. 

I tilted my head at it. “Is that Rollie’s turtle?” Rollie’s General Store was a mile down the road, but giant turtles didn’t seem all too common to me.

Curtis shook his head. “Smaller.”

“It’s definitely not Rollie’s,” Sally said. “My boys love to play with that turtle and they find shapes in his shell designs. You know, like how kids do with clouds?” She paused to make sure we followed.

“Cute,” I said.

“Well, I know all of their favorite shapes, and this turtle does not have the charging bear or the UFO. Also, this turtle is much… scarier.”

She had a point there. Three ridges of spiked shell ran the length of the turtle. The spikes weren’t sharp enough to cut or stab, but they made for an intimidating show. The turtle that lived at Rollie’s bore similar spiked ridges, but less pronounced.

“So, if it’s not the same turtle, do we have any idea where it came from?” I asked.

“Must’ve come down the river and landed in the lake,” Curtis said.

“Will it go back?”

He shrugged.

“Can we move it from the road at least?”

He shook his head slowly. “Would you get near that thing? Don’t want to lose a hand.”

I imagined that, in a showdown between Curtis and the turtle, the turtle would come out faster.

Gar had finished his game of chase with a chipmunk and dashed back to me. When he neared, he must’ve smelled the turtle. He snarled and approached cautiously until he pressed his side against my legs.

I rubbed his head. “Just stay back, boy.”

I stepped closer and bent down, reaching my hand hesitantly toward the middle of the turtle’s shell.

“Bad idea,” Nolan said.

I jumped at the sudden appearance of my handyman/security guard and fell on my butt. The turtle stuck its head out and hissed at me, its jaws stretching wide before snapping shut again. I scrambled to my feet and backed away. Gar barked, and that made the kittens bolt from their hiding spot. Gar took that as an invitation to chase after them.

Nolan laughed. “That thing could take your finger off in one bite. Were you trying to pet it?”

“No. I was trying to move it out of the way.” I kept my eyes on the turtle that looked even more devilish with its pointy head visible.

“That’s an alligator snapping turtle and probably weighs 60 pounds,” Nolan said.

“If you know so much about it, why don’t you go ahead and take care of it?” I patted his shoulder and gave him a curt smile.

“Yes, dear.”

A car pulled in and stopped a few feet from us.

“My meeting is finally here anyway,” I said. “Can you take Gar?”

Nolan glanced a few feet away where the puppy circled the kittens. He saluted to me and turned to the turtle.

Sally walked back to the office, muttering, “Wait until I tell my boys about this.”

Curtis shuffled toward the wildlife pen.

Nolan inspected the turtle, scratching his beard in deep thought. I let my eyes linger a moment on the way his tan Cedar Fish Campground t-shirt stretched tight over his chest and biceps.

With a pleased sigh, I approached the car as the driver’s window lowered.

“Hey Mark.” I waved. “Sorry, we have a turtle situation. You can just cut through here to get to the parking lot in front of the office.”

He nodded and drove where I pointed to the grass between the main entrance drive and the front parking lot.

Mark stepped out of his car wearing a short-sleeved button down and khakis. His blue tie was embroidered with two exploding fireworks in sparkling, metallic thread. The best part was the tiny LED lights that lit from the center of each starburst and blinked their way to the ends of the blast before starting over.

“We’ll meet in the rec hall again.”

He nodded and followed me past the turtle, Nolan, and Gar. 

“You guys all ready for the big holiday?” he asked.

“Getting there,” I said. “Lots of little details to finalize. Like this contract.”

“Well, this won’t take long, and I’ll be out of your hair.”

I gestured to the rec hall door, and he entered. We sat at the table where my copy of the final contract waited. “I checked everything over, and it all looks good to me.”

“Great. And we’re set on the initial and final payment amount?”

I slid a check out from under the contract. “I have the first payment right here.”

It was more than I should probably spend on one event, but I hoped that the Fourth of July could keep business going. Things had picked up in the last month, but I worried that the second murder would lead to another crash in reservations. We still weren’t very profitable, but we’d been slowly increasing. I’d decided to splurge on something huge to draw attention—a live fireworks display, set off right from our very own Dogwood Lake.

“Thank you.” Mark took the check, folded it, and slid it into his shirt pocket. “All we need to do is sign.”

We signed two copies of the contract, and he shook my hand. “I look forward to your event. It’s going to be just as spectacular as you imagined.”

“I’m counting on it.” I followed him back outside.

Mark walked toward his car, and I returned to Nolan. Gar sat by his side, eyes trained on the turtle.

“You get it figured out?” The turtle stared back at me from the same position it was in before.

Nolan held up his phone, showing several photos of turtles. “I think it’s a female.”

“Okay, but how do we get her to move?”

“Either wait it out or try to lure her with some fish.”

I poured a piece of ice into my mouth and chomped it. “Maybe we can call Enid and see if she has any ideas.” I wasn’t sure how Rollie’s came to have a resident pet turtle, but the store’s owner, Enid, was the only person I knew with giant-turtle experience.

Nolan nodded. “Was that the fireworks guy?”

“Yeah. I just signed the final contract.”

“You went through with it?” Nolan put his phone in his pocket.

“Uhh, we decided this weeks ago when I gave him the deposit.” I crossed my arms. Every time the Fourth of July event came up, Nolan took on some level of grumpiness about it. I’d ignored it, but his attitude grew worse the closer we got to July.

Nolan pressed his lips into a line and shook his head.

“What?” I asked.

“Told you this was a bad idea.”

“Having a huge event to draw people to the campground? Why would that be a bad idea?”

“I mean the fireworks part,” he explained. “Think about all that could go wrong. Did Mark even look into the ordinances for the area? I haven’t seen a permit.”

I put my hand on my hip. “That’s because the permit stays with the person setting off the fireworks. And a fire crew will be on site. They even agreed to let kids climb on the truck earlier in the day.”

Nolan’s jaw tightened and he looked away.

“What’s the real problem with the fireworks?” I asked.

“With all that’s happened this summer, do you really want to risk more campers’ safety with something like this? What if there’s a fire or an explosion? What if debris falls on someone? I don’t think this is a smart idea.”

Heat flared up my neck and I took a step back. “Where is all this coming from? Mark is a professional. You were there when he looked at the lake a month ago to make sure there was enough room and that nothing would be in the way. If there is high wind or lightning, he won’t do it. It’s all in the contract, if you want to read it.”

“Forget it.” Nolan stalked off.

“What about this turtle?” I called after him. 

He didn’t turn back around.

I was distracted for a moment by the way his jeans cradled his butt, but my confusion and irritation over his crankiness quickly ruined it. Gar looked up at me as if to ask what Nolan’s problem was.

I glanced back at the turtle, and she snapped her jaw in defiance. 

“Do you have a problem with fireworks, too?”

She pulled her head into her shell.

“I guess everyone is grumpy today.”

If Nolan wouldn’t help, I knew I could count on my friend and local honey supplier, Hennie, and her skills with various wild creatures. I took my phone from my pocket and called, then left a message in her voicemail saying, “I need your help. We have a giant turtle and can’t move it. Stop down when you finish your honey deliveries.”

I then called Enid at Rollie’s and explained, “I have a massive turtle in my driveway, and I’m not sure what to do about it.”

“Well, dear, I can tell you, they are stubborn things. I couldn’t get rid of old Speedy once he showed up. That diaper is the only concession I could get him to make.”

“You didn’t bring the turtle to the store?”

She laughed. “Goodness, no. He just got in one day and refused to leave. Pooped all over and made a dreadful mess. I was so glad when the diaper worked out. Though, it’s not fun changing him. Worse than a baby.”

I wrinkled my nose in disgust. “Do you think the turtle on my road will move on her own?”

“Well, she has to eat sometime, doesn’t she?”

“Right.” I sighed. “I guess I can put up a sign or something until she moves so she doesn’t get run over. Thanks, Enid.”

“Anytime, Thea. You and that cute boyfriend of yours stop by and see me soon.”

“I told you, he’s not my boyfriend. We’re just keeping things casual.”

“Sure, dear. Bye, bye now.”

When I ended the call, I checked online to see how often alligator snapping turtles ate. Once every other day. Hopefully it’d been a while since her last meal.

Nolan was quiet most of the day, which still frustrated me. I didn’t have time to do much about it because I was deep into Fourth of July planning. So many little things left to order or confirm: food, drinks, games, contests, crowd control. Every element needed to be perfect. And I still had to come in under budget somehow. The afternoon flew by without me taking a break from planning.

When Sally stuck her head in my office to say goodbye for the day, I rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock.

“Guess it’s a good time for me to quit, too,” I said.

Sally scrunched her face and played with her fingers. “Could I ask one little teensy favor?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“Well, if you could just not mention the turtle? Or not advertise it anywhere?”

I raised an eyebrow. “I hope she’s gone when I walk outside. I don’t want her sticking around, either. I thought your boys would be excited, though.”

“Well, that’s the thing. I’ve been thinking about it, and if they know there’s a turtle here, they’ll want to come with me to work to see it. And then they’ll see the puppy and the kittens and remember the pool and the playground, and they won’t ever want to leave. And I just… can’t have that. They’ll be running crazy while I’m trying to work and have a little quiet.” She laughed nervously.

I thought for a moment, then got an idea. “The thing is, I can’t really have kids running around while you’re working, so you just tell them that your boss is mean and won’t let them come with you.”

Her face lit up. “That’s perfect! Thank you!” She hugged her purse tight to her chest. “Maybe I can take some photos and that will be good enough.”

“And hopefully the turtle will be long gone by the Fourth.”

“Oh, right.” Sally’s face fell. “They’ll be here for that, won’t they?”

“That doesn’t change the fact that you’re not allowed to have them here while you’re working.” I made a fake stern face.

She nodded once, hard. “Right. That’s all I have to say. Mommy’s not allowed, and that’s that.” The grin returned, and she waved her fingers before walking out of sight.

Hearing stories about her four-year-old twin boys made me feel a rare moment of relief that I didn’t have any kids of my own. Sally seemed to enjoy her job as registration person mostly because it got her out of the house and away from the chaos of her home life.

I stood to stretch and walked outside into the evening light. To my great relief, no turtle sat on the driveway. I moved the Stop sign back into its proper place in front of the gate.

I called to Nolan on the walkie, “I’m done for the night. Do you have my dog?”

“Yes. I also have burgers ready to grill. Want to eat?”

My late lunch had been rushed and was hours ago. “Be right there.”

I walked past several occupied tent sites on my way to the seasonal section, where Nolan’s site was. Many campers were cooking over fires, enjoying a quiet evening. I waved as I walked by, grateful for each one of them.

I reached Curtis’s site, and his camper was bright inside with music pouring through the walls. For a moment, Curtis and his girlfriend, Rose, were visible through the window. Curtis held her close, and they danced in a slow, stiff shuffle. I smiled and chuckled to myself. Ever since Curtis had laid eyes on the widowed cornhole champion last month, he’d been smitten. And I suspected Rose was the reason Curtis continued to wear his decades-old Navy uniform to work, though it wasn’t a requirement for his job surveilling the campground. It was nice to think that even at 82, love could be found.

When I neared Nolan’s site, the farthest back from the rest of the campground, the smell of charcoal and cooking meat wafted from behind his camper. He’d built a small deck out back so he could sit facing the woods. I circled the camper, and Gar bounded over to me, licking my hand in greeting.

“Smells good,” I said.

Nolan stood behind the grill, arms crossed, watching the burgers sizzle. I barely received a glance and a head nod for a hello.

I sat in one of his padded folding chairs and leaned back, looking up into the darkening sky as the stars blinked into view. Crickets sang as the grill popped and hissed. I took in several long breaths and tried to figure out what I failed to see in the situation. What bothered Nolan so deeply?

By the time the burgers were ready, he still hadn’t said a word. He handed me a plate and sat in the chair beside mine, then stuffed his burger into his mouth. I did the same. He wouldn’t be much good for talking while he ate, anyhow.

We finished the burgers—one for me, three for him—and he sat up in his chair, tapping his fingertips together.

“What are you waiting for?” My voice sounded thunderous as it broke the silent tension between us.

“What do you mean?” He didn’t look at me.

“There’s obviously something going on with you, but you haven’t said what.”

He growled and rubbed his forehead.

I watched him for several long minutes. “Nolan, please.”

He huffed. “Look. If there will be fireworks on the Fourth, I can’t be here.”

“I don’t get it. What’s the big deal?”

“It’s not so much the fireworks themselves as the sounds they make.”

I considered his words, but things weren’t adding up. “Do you have sensitive ears?”

He shook his head. “You know it’s common for soldiers to get PTSD, right?”

“I don’t see how you couldn’t.”

He shrugged. “Some things are more common triggers than others.”

“And the fireworks… remind you of war?”

“They sound like gunfire and bombs. It’s worse when it’s unexpected. So, if you’re going to allow campers to set them off, even those little snapping ones…”

I hadn’t considered something like that. I suffered from PTSD myself, so I understood how triggers worked, but mine were very different from what Nolan experienced. Loud, sudden noises rarely bothered me.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize,” I said. “We don’t have to allow campers to have them. That sounds dangerous, anyhow.”

“I usually retreat into the woods for several days this time of year to escape it. Don’t know what I’ll do this year.”

“I didn’t mean to create a difficult situation for you.”

“It’s fine. I’ll figure something out. But you might need extra security if I have to be gone.”

“Sure.” I nodded. “I certainly won’t make you stay somewhere that might upset you or make you feel unsafe.”

He looked at me sideways. “Don’t do that.”

“What am I doing?”

“Acting like I’m some kind of pansy for not wanting to be around fireworks.”

“I didn’t say anything like that,” I snapped.

He rubbed the back of his neck and chugged a beer that had been sitting by his foot. He crumpled the can and threw it across the deck. “People who haven’t been there don’t understand. It’s not like I’m afraid of loud noises.”

 I pulled in a slow breath and tried to decide how to respond. His anger spiked my anxiety. “Nolan, you’re the toughest, strongest, manliest man I’ve ever known. I doubt you’re afraid of anything. But I can understand a little. I mean, when goofing around almost gives you a panic attack, it’s not much fun, either.”

It had been a day not long after I hired Nolan that we’d been playing around with the hose and he’d grabbed me in a bear hug. It still made my heart pound to think of the feeling of being held against my will, unable to break free. I reached over and put my hand on his.

“If I thought you were any kind of pansy,” I continued, “I wouldn’t pay you to do security, and I definitely wouldn’t call you every time something scary happens.”

After several minutes, he turned to me. “Want to go for a walk?”

I nodded and stood. He held my hand as we circled around the looping roads of the campground with Gar in tow. Nolan didn’t say much and neither did I. The few times I’d seen him rattled by something, he tended to be quiet. Lost in his own thoughts, hopefully not beating himself up too much.

We strolled along every road, not in any hurry. By the time we ended up near the path to my cabin, it had been an hour. The kittens ran in front of us as we turned down the trail. Three sets of black paw prints dotted the path. “I can only imagine what those three get up to all day.”

Nolan walked me to my door and gave me a long kiss goodnight. The relief from his affection melted over me and filled my chest with warmth. He squeezed my hands before turning away.

“Hey,” I said.

He paused and looked over his shoulder.

“Don’t stress over this.”

He nodded and walked off.

I let Gar inside and poured food into his bowl. While he chomped it down, I leaned my elbows on the kitchen counter and thought through what Nolan had said and not said.

How many others were like him, dreading this holiday? What if somehow I could make Cedar Fish safe for Nolan, but also for anyone who might want to escape the noise and still enjoy the Fourth? Nolan never talked about being a soldier or the aftereffects of it. I wished I knew more about his time in the military and as a cop and what things still haunted him from those days. I also still didn’t know why he’d been fired from the force, and anytime I asked, he changed the subject. Something deep in my soul worried it might be so bad that if I knew, I’d change my mind about him.

I considered Nolan’s pained expression, his hesitation at even admitting something was bothering him. My chest ached for him. There was only one thing to do. I’d have to cancel the fireworks display. The deposit money would be gone, but I’d get back my first payment, according to the contract. The idea of losing that money sat like a rock in my stomach, but what choice did I have? I just hoped I had time to rebrand the event and bring in enough reservations to make up for the money I’d lose on the fireworks.

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Book 3 available now! Fourth of July should have been a blast at Cedar Fish Campground, but another murder has sent Thea's plans up in smoke.