“Cooked Goose”

Cooked Goose book cover

Family is everything. Unless they kill you.

 

Cooked Goose is the first book in the quirky Motorhome Murder Mysteries series. Read Chapter One, below, and go to the Motorhome Murder Mysteries page to learn more about the series.

Chapter One

 

The barbecue bounced like a rowboat on rough seas as the truck hauling it rounded the last turn into the campground. This particular grill housed not a porcine dinner but Lucy’s ex-husband, Charles Gosling. He was neither seasoned nor glazed but was most assuredly dead.

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Franklin Becker missed his former life. Slobber on his shoes, puddles on the playroom floor, and barking so loud the windows rattled. But most of all, he missed the homeless dogs. The plaintive brown eyes that looked up at him, grateful for a soft word or pat on the head. The quivering bodies that leaned into him when he sat down beside them. Sure, his Puss and Pooch Pamper Parlors had catered to the well-to-do along the California coast, but his heart was with the dozens of neglected dogs and cats the Parlors had taken in. He thought selling the business and retiring at age forty-four to travel would be a dream come true, but instead he came to realize he’d lost his true friends, the underdogs.

 

As had become his late afternoon routine, Franklin sat on the small couch in his tan and white motorhome, watching for campers entering Grand Pines State Park outside Elk Rump, Idaho. Over the past three days, he’d seen only four guests venture into the park, and each stayed but one night. Admittedly, at first glance, the campground had little to recommend it. Its campsites were scattered haphazardly among thorny bushes and dried grass along a narrow gravel lane. It sported no lake for swimmers and fishermen or groomed trails to attract hikers. But the park’s ponderosa pines stood resplendent in the afternoon sun, giving shelter to jabbering chipmunks and sweet-singing birds that hopped along outstretched branches. However, the solitude, so pleasant at first, had begun to dampen Franklin’s usual upbeat spirit.

 

“Here comes someone,” he said to his wife, waving his wineglass at an approaching mud-covered pickup. “But I don’t see any camping gear—just a big barbecue. Maybe he’s never been camping before. I should go over there and see if I can put him straight.”

 

“Don’t even think about bothering him,” Wendy said without looking up from the lines of computer code filling her laptop screen. “If he needs help, he can ask someone who knows what they’re doing.”

 

The barb passed unnoticed as Franklin strained to watch the activity. The pickup skidded headfirst onto a gravel pad, the second of three closely spaced campsites across the narrow road. With the barbecue swaying perilously in its bed, the truck squealed to a stop inches from a worn picnic table.

 

“Judging by the size of that grill, he’s expecting a pretty big crowd. I should introduce myself, you know, just to be sociable.”

 

Wendy’s eyebrows pinched together above her blue eyes—eyes that matched, in color and intensity, those of Estancia, the white Persian cat sitting in her lap. “I thought you were using this RV trip to plan a new business. You know, an occupation. You said the freedom of the road would stimulate your creativity, open your mind in a way residing in California couldn’t. But you can’t go through the rest of your life driving around the country like a nomad.”

 

A valid point, Franklin had to admit. But what could replace the Pamper Parlors? If only he’d not been so successful—then he’d still be playing with dogs, cuddling cats, and of course, talking for hours about pets with their owners. But the Parlors were successful, hugely so, and soon reams of government forms and endless staff problems gobbled up his time. The day he realized he’d not seen a single dog or cat client in more than two months was the day he put the business on the market. It sold in twenty-four hours.

 

“Maybe they’ll invite us for dinner,” he said, clipping his smartphone to the belt of his crisp new jeans and straightening the yellow bandana tied around his neck. He frowned at the gray hairs sneaking among the brown ones at his temples. “I should get a cowboy hat. Everybody in the Idaho outdoors wears one. I need a hat if I’m going to fit in.”

 

Wendy’s eyes took in Franklin’s dude ranch attire and rolled before dropping back to the computer screen. “Take Mad Dog. A grossly overweight basset hound would certainly convince folks that food over here is in short supply.”

 

Franklin hooked Mad Dog’s collar to a bright pink leash, embossed along its length with Puss and Pooch Pamper Parlors. He must have fastened ten thousand pink leashes to dogs over the last twenty years, and now it seemed odd to have only one leash to attach to a single dog, his own. Surely, there existed for him an occupation as rewarding as the Parlors. In fact, he’d recently germinated the seed of a career idea: wine connoisseur. An enthusiastic imbiber since his college days, he now studied bouquet and varietal and those other terms wine specialists seem to know all about. Their motorhome could be a mobile marketing unit. He already had a name in mind: The Wandering Winery.

 

At first, Mad Dog resisted being led, but as they approached the adjacent campsite, the dog pulled forward. “Hey neighbor,” Franklin called to the young man leaning against the muddy truck. “That’s a very impressive barbecue you have there. Bet it could cook enough meat for a small army.”

 

The man stood about six feet tall, a couple of inches taller than Franklin. In a nondescript gray T-shirt and faded jeans, he was unremarkable but for his full chestnut-brown beard and wild head of hair—and the look of rage that covered his face like a shroud. He glanced for a moment in Franklin’s direction before resuming his silent stare at the carved boulder that marked the park’s entrance.

 

Within seconds, a metallic blue sedan arrived and squeezed into the campsite behind the truck. Out of the car stepped an attractive woman, about thirty years old, with auburn hair that flowed over her shoulders in voluminous waves. Her off-the-shoulder white dress fell in satiny folds, the lace-trimmed hem dancing above a stack of silver ankle bracelets. She smiled tentatively at Franklin.

 

“I hope we’re not disturbing you,” she said. “We’re having a family reunion here in the state park…uh, like we do every year.”

 

“No problem at all,” Franklin said. “We were just talking about what a nice grill you have.”

 

“We?” The woman in white glanced at Mad Dog, who stared transfixed at the grill.

 

“My wife, Wendy—she’s over there, just coming out of Grizelda. That’s what we call our motorhome. Bet you’ll have quite a feast. What will you roast? Maybe you’d like a nice wine to go with it. I have a collection of bottles—”

 

“We don’t want any damn wine,” the bearded man said. He reached into the truck’s bed and lugged out a ramp, which he positioned next to the black-and-silver barbecue. After wrestling with the spider web of frayed cords binding the grill to the truck, he heaved his weight against the equipment, nudging the barbecue forward a couple of inches. “Goddam heavy piece of junk.”

 

“Bob, watch your mouth,” the woman said. “I apologize for my brother. And where are my manners? I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Lucretia—everyone calls me Lucy—and you’ve met Bob.”

 

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Franklin, and this is our dog, Mogen David 20/20. We named him after the fortified wine, but call him Mad Dog for short.”

 

Mad Dog glanced up at the mention of his name but then returned his focus to the grill. His nose twitched with spastic enthusiasm, and with unblinking eyes, he stretched his neck forward to follow the apparatus Bob muscled down the ramp. The grill moved at a velocity of one inch per profanity.

 

Lucy turned toward Franklin and smiled. “I’d love to meet your wife. I do hope she’ll stop by for a visit. Do you have children, too?”

 

“No kids. Neither of us really wanted any. If you knew Wendy’s overbearing parents and my self-absorbed father you’d understand why—” Franklin pressed his lips together. He was doing it again, what Wendy called oversharing.

 

“But you have this darling basset hound.” Lucy reached down and patted the oblivious dog on this head. “He’s simply delightful.”

 

To Franklin, Lucy’s voice sounded like the purr of a contented cat. “I’ll go get Wendy,” he said, draping Mad Dog’s leash over a wispy shrub. The dog inched forward on his belly, drawing closer to the grill.

 

At their own campsite twenty yards away, Wendy pushed up the sleeves of her oversized plaid blouse and slammed Grizelda’s entry door shut. The aluminum door shuddered in its frame and popped open. Wendy slammed it again—and again. Finally, wordlessly, she propped it closed with a folded lawn chair and crammed her hands into the pockets of her faded jeans.

 

“Our new neighbors are wonderful people,” Franklin said, picking up a stray screw that had fallen onto the ground below the doorframe. “You’ve got to come meet them.”

 

Wendy stared at Bob, who stood in front of the barbecue, arms folded across his chest, feet spread apart. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to bother people like this?” she said. “This guy seems way too possessive of a roasting pan.”

 

“Oh, no, I’m sure they’re happy to have us visit. Lucy’s eager to meet you. Isn’t that a charming name—Lucy?”

 

Not waiting for Wendy’s reply, Franklin trotted back across the gravel lane to where Lucy stood. “So, you have a family reunion here every year? Do you always roast something?”

 

“No—”

 

“Yes.” Bob stepped forward, his arms still tensed across his chest. His eyes bored into Lucy’s startled face.

 

“Yes,” she said. “We roast meat every year.”

 

“I thought I got a whiff of something fleshy when I walked over. What are you going to barbecue?”

 

“Beef—”

 

“Pork,” Bob said, taking another step forward.

 

“Pork.” Lucy glanced at Bob, who now stood about a foot from her. “Yes, this year we’re roasting pork.”

 

With a scowl that tensed every scruffy hair on his face, Bob pivoted and stomped over to the grill. Sensing an opportunity, Mad Dog scuttled across the dirt, staying behind Bob’s heels as the man yanked on the front of the barbecue. His swearing resumed, more colorful than before.

 

“Just how many are coming to your reunion?” Franklin asked. “That grill looks like it could hold a hundred-pound pig.”

 

“Our aunt and uncle, sister and brother-in-law, and, of course, Bob and me. We’re all camping here.” Lucy drew her arm in a graceful arc along the three campsites. Silver bracelets danced from her wrist to her elbow as she motioned, setting off a cascade of tinkles.

 

As the volume of Bob’s cursing intensified and Lucy turned her attention to her brother, Wendy pulled Franklin aside. “Who wears that much jewelry and a semi-formal-length white dress to camp in the woods?” she whispered. “The answer is, no one does. We should get out of here.”

 

Franklin gave his head a slight shake and whispered back. “What’s wrong with dressing up for a family party? I think she looks just fine.” He moved away, drawing closer to Lucy, Bob, and the grill. “Just the six of you? That’s your entire family reunion?”

 

“Yes,” Lucy said, her daintily penciled eyebrows tilting upward. “Sadly, there are only six left in the family.”

 

Wendy slid her foot along the ground and tapped Franklin’s shoe. He didn’t notice.

 

“You don’t have a husband? I thought you’d be married,” Franklin continued. “I can understand Bob here being single, but you—”

 

Franklin drew his foot in and brought his hand over his mouth to hide his grimace after Wendy stepped squarely onto his toes. “Sorry,” he said to Lucy, who stood motionless, her eyes wide and glassy with tears. “I don’t mean to be nosy.”

 

“If you don’t want to be nosy, then shut up,” Bob said, giving the grill a shove. The barbecue moved an inch and settled once again into the sandy soil. Leaning backward for more momentum, Bob threw his full weight onto the grill. This time it tipped, and the lid opened a fraction of an inch. As the cover flapped back into place, Mad Dog charged forward, jumping and baying excitedly as he pawed at the lid.

 

“Down, boy!” Despite Franklin’s efforts, tugging on the leash and shouting at the dog, Mad Dog clawed at the handle with a wild look in his normally sleepy eyes. After pressing his nose against the cover and sucking in a full snoot of air, the dog heaved his rotund body against the grill. The lid opened, and a pinkish-purple sausage flopped out onto the grill’s rim.

 

“It probably isn’t a good idea to store meat in a barbecue without refrigeration. Not during the summer,” Franklin said. He reached for the handle but was blocked by Lucy as she stumbled forward, Bob close behind her.

 

Balancing on his stubby legs, Mad Dog snared the sausage in his teeth and yanked, bringing four other purplish sausages out of the barbecue. The cuff of a blue-and-white-checked sleeve followed, and then an entire arm protruded. A navy-blue watch face and tan wristband peeped out from under the cuff.

 

No one spoke. Wendy and Franklin shifted their eyes in unison from the stiff arm to Lucy and Bob, who froze in place. Only Mad Dog seemed oblivious. He steadied himself on the rung of the grill and ran his tongue up and down the fingers, saliva dripping from the edges of his abundant jowls. Lucy screamed, shrilly at first. She then settled into a full-throated wail. Clamping his hand over her mouth, Bob dragged her backward. “Shut up,” he said with a hiss.