Jane Jeffry and Shelly Nowack set off for some relaxation in the Wisconsin woods while scouting summer camp sites for suburban high-school students. Jane isn't exactly thrilled at the idea: any form of camping is an anathema at the best of times, and in damp midwinter it seems especially grim. Matters do not improve when this pair of amateur detectives discover one of their fellow campers smacked with a frying pan-seemingly with fatal consequences. But they suspect their own eyes (and everyone else suspects their sanity) when the body disappears along with any evidence of foul play. To make matters worse (or better) a surprisingly healthy victim resurfaces. With a mix of resentment at not being believed and amazement at the turn of events, the would-be campers are determined to discover what is really going on at their apparently secure haven in the wilderness.
Fear of Frying
“Horse blinders," Jane Jeffry said. "That's what I need when you're driving. Horse blinders. With a flap that comes down in front, too. So all I can see is my lap.”
Jane's best friend, Shelley Nowack, eased her foot off the gas pedal. The van slowed slightly. "I've never had an accident," Shelley said. "Not even one that wasn't my fault."
“I don't find that encouraging. It only means all your bad luck is being saved for a really big one. And as dear as you are to me, I don't want to be with you when you have it."
“Just play with your computer and don't look outside," Shelley said, swinging out around an eighteen-wheeler as if it were no more of an obstacle than a Honda.
Jane patted the top of the screen of her laptop. It was a recent gift from her parents. Her father was with the State Department, and they moved from country to country as frequently and easily as Jane went to the grocery store — and a lot more cheerfully.
Her father had called from Finland to tell her it was coming. "E-mail, Jane," he'd said. "I figure I'll save the cost of the computers in long-distance bills in a year."
“Computers, plural?" Jane had asked.
“Mike's getting one, too," he'd said.
Mike was Jane's son, in his freshman year at college. Since Jane was widowed several years earlier, Mike — who was one of the rarest elements in the universe, a relatively sensible teenager — had been a great support to her. Now that he was away, she was missing him like mad. But Mike didn't want to have his dorm-mates overhear him talking to his mother on the phone, and except for the obligatory thank-you notes and college applications she'd forced him to produce, he'd never spontaneously written a letter in his life. But E-mail, in the two weeks they'd had their laptops, had provided the solution. And Jane had also enjoyed more correspondence with her parents in that time than they'd had for years.
Just now, however, she and the laptop were engaged in a hot game of gin rummy. And even though she was losing badly, it was better than watching the scenery flash by at a terrifying rate.
“You brought your new boots, didn't you?" Shelley said, almost accusingly.
“The ones you called 'shit-kickers'? Of course. They're actually pretty comfortable, but if you think I'm going to kick shit or anything else with them, you're mistaken. You promised me this trip wasn't anything like. . camping." She pronounced the last word with a shudder. "I went camping once. I was fourteen and I got ticks in my hair. I'm still trying to get over it. Humankind has spent hundreds of generations developing indoor plumbing. I think it's flying in the face of progress to pee in the woods."
“Jane, I've told you this isn't a 'pee in the woods' kind of camp. We'll have our own little cabin with a bathroom. There's even a fireplace. It's more like a somewhat rustic resort."
“But no kitchen, right? You promised me there wouldn't be a kitchen."
“No kitchen. This is a camp for kids, and nobody wants them to do any cooking."
“There aren't going to be kids there with us, are there?" Jane asked, turning off the laptop and wondering if the computer cheated or whether she just stunk at card games.
“No kids. I don't think you've paid attention to anything I've told you."
“Shelley, I was just glad to get a little vacation. And I didn't know there was going to be a test. So tell me again.”
Shelley sighed. "The town council and the school district got together to sponsor a summer-school camp for kids and have researched a ton of them. This one in Wisconsin looks like the best bet, was easy to get to from Chicago, and the best deal for the town financially. Plus, this resort is the one that put the idea in their heads by proposing the plan in the first place. But the council and school board wanted some parents to come check it out firsthand and make a report. I managed to get us in as one of the 'couples.' "
“So what are we supposed to do?"
“Whatever we want," Shelley said. "Or as little as we want. The camp has all sorts of activities — craft stuff, hiking trails, even one of those tough `boot camp' type programs where you crawl through swamps and climb cliffs."
“There are swamps in Wisconsin?"
“I don't know. Maybe they built one. I think there are bogs, whatever they are. But we don't have to do that."
“You bet we don't!" Jane said. "You'd have to hold a gun to my head to get me to crawl through a swamp or a bog — for fun!"
“I think they've adapted it a bit for adults. Just as a demonstration, we're all going to a campfire cooking class tomorrow night, I'm told."
“Oh, no! Shelley, cooking was one of the things I thought I was getting a vacation
We don't have to cook. At least I don't think so. Just listen to someone telling us about cooking. And then we get to taste the samples when it's over. You like tasting stuff, Jane. It'll be fun.”
They were approaching an interchange. Shelley glanced up at the directions she'd stuck on her sun visor and zipped into the right lane, nearly running a tour bus off the road. "It's not far now. We can stop here, get some coffee, go to the bathroom—"
“Why do we need to go to the bathroom here?" Jane asked suspiciously. "Can't we go when we get to the camp? Shelley, are you hiding something from me? We
going to have to pee in the woods, aren't we!”
They left the interstate, took a nice four-lane highway for thirty miles, then turned off on a two-lane for another twenty. They missed the turnoff for the county road and had to backtrack a mile or two. This led them into a lushly wooded area. The road curved, dipped, and occasionally crested a rise, revealing tantalizing views of hills brilliant with autumn coloring and the fleeting impression of sun on sparkling little lakes. Out of deference to both Jane's nerves and the beauty of the landscape, Shelley actually slowed down to a normal driving speed.
“About another mile," Shelley finally said. "Watch for a sign on the right.”
Jane was encouraged by the sign. It said CAMP SUNSHINE and was large and freshly painted. She'd imagined it would be an old wooden plank with the words scribbled in charcoal and leading to something that looked like the Bates Motel.
They crossed over a picturesque wood-slatted bridge and onto a road, freshly graveled and recently traveled, judging by the haze of white dust drifting above the surface. "Who else is coming?" she asked.
“I'm not sure," Shelley said. "There were a couple of last-minute changes. The Wilsons, who run the bakery, were signed up, but she had to have emergency gall bladder surgery last week, so somebody will have replaced them. And the Youngbloods had to cancel because he's changing jobs and they had to go look at houses in Buffalo. The Claypool brothers and their wives are coming, I think."
“Who are they?"
“Oh, Jane. You know them. They have that huge car dealership."
“I recognize the name, but I don't think I've ever met them. They're not going to try to sell us cars, are they?"
“It wouldn't be a bad thing if somebody sold you a car," Shelley said. "That station wagon of yours is starting to sound like a blender with a walnut inside when you start it."
“True, but it still starts. Most of the time.”
Shelley just shook her head. "You should know Marge Claypool. She does a lot of volunteer work. She was on the committee for the Well Baby clinic."
“I wasn't involved in that as much as you were. I don't remember her."
“Well, you wouldn't, I guess. She's a worker bee. Never speaks up, never has any fresh ideas, but will do anything she's assigned and do it well and without seeming to want any recognition."
“What a paragon!"
“Yes, but she's very nice. I ran into her last week in the grocery store and she was all bubbly about this vacation. Apparently neither family has had any sort of vacation for years. The brothers have very difficult, demanding, elderly parents who should be in a retirement home, but refuse to go. The parents have an old house, both need constant medical care and a housekeeper and cook. According to Marge, they treat everybody she and Sam hire for them like medieval serfs and can't keep anyone more than a month or two. She didn't put it in those words, but it was easy to read between the lines. So her husband and his brother — and of course, their wives — are constantly on duty, having to replace people. I guess one of them finally put his foot down and decided they'd take some time off — no matter what.""So who are the brothers?"
“Marge's husband is Sam. I think he's the older one. He seems more like a college professor than a car dealer. Kind of prissy. The other is John, who's a glad-hander. I've only met him once and wasn't crazy about him. Cheerful, but real brash and loud."
“Who else?" Jane asked.
“I'm not sure. Somebody from the school board and somebody from the city council. Ah, here we are.”
They turned at another freshly painted sign. The drive was narrow and wound through a thick stand of pines. Autumn wildflowers bloomed at the side of the road. As they rounded the last curve, they saw a large building that resembled an overgrown log cabin. It was two stories high and had a porch across the front with some ancient rocking chairs set about in companionable groupings. The building looked old — as if it had been part of the landscape for decades. The logs from which it was constructed were covered with bark. Lichen and moss grew on the logs, and tender-looking ferns clustered close to the building.
“Golly!" Jane said as Shelley pulled the van up in front of the entrance. "What a neat place." As they stepped out of the car, Jane breathed deeply. "Real pine scent! And there's a campfire somewhere. Can you smell it?"
“Take a look around," Shelley said, rummaging in her purse for her paperwork. "I'll get us checked in.”
Jane strolled along the porch, testing a couple of the rocking chairs. "I could sit here for hours just drinking this air," she said out loud, startling a woodpecker who'd been tapping furiously on the building. This struck her as appropriately rustic, even though a woodpecker at her own house had once driven her nearly to frenzy.
Shelley was back in a minute. "Nobody at the desk," she said, "but I found this on the bulletin board." She'd removed two keys and a map from an envelope. "Hop in the van."
“We're not staying here?"
“No, there are cabins down the road. We're looking for Happy Memories."
“Sure we are. Isn't everybody?"
“Jane, don't be a smart aleck. That's the name of the cabin."
“The name of the cabin? Happy Memories? That's so horribly cute I don't think I can stand it!"
“It's on the right, but not for a bit," Shelley said, putting the van in gear and heading down a narrow, pine-shaded drive that ran at right angles to the road they'd come in on. Little rustic signposts identified the driveways to cabins, some of which weren't even visible from the road. SUMMER'S END, HOME AGAIN, DEER RUN VIEW, and finally HAPPY MEMORIES.
“Oh, Shelley!" Jane sighed at the sight of the cabin. It was a tiny version of the main lodge building — neatly fitted logs with rough bark, a beautifully mossy wood-shake roof hugged by overhanging branches, spots of bright fall wildflowers in the surrounding woods.