In a remote camp outside Roswell, New Mexico, bumbling, big-hearted Franklin Becker sets out alone at midnight to find an alien spacecraft. When he comes up missing, and his ufologist friend is found dead, Franklin’s wife, Wendy, battles other UFO-seeking campers to save her husband. At least the spaceman is friendly—at first
Spacemen Don’t Camp is the second installment in the hilarious Motorhome Murder Mystery series, which follow odd couple Franklin and Wendy Becker as they take their mid-life crisis on a cross-country RV trip.
Stars filled the night sky above the old Civilian Conservation Corps camp, twinkling and winking at the dark tents and silent motorhomes below. Few campers lasted long in this patch of no-man’s-land east of Roswell, New Mexico, but those who did stay had starlit nights they would remember for the rest of their lives. For camper Melvin Potkin, the memory would last only a few hours before he drew his last breath under an eerie blue light.
“We’re lost,” Wendy Becker said. The steering wheel shuddered in her white-knuckled grip as the thirty-foot motorhome bumped along dusty ruts, past patches of bluish grass and an occasional scraggly bush. Behind them, billows of dust obliterated the view—miles of the rugged New Mexico landscape they had traveled for the last hour.
“I know exactly where we’re at,” Franklin replied. “Melvin said the terrain would be a bit rough once we crossed the Pecos River.” He waved a map and beamed at his wife. Even after twenty years of marriage, they rarely agreed on anything. To him, though, they made the best team imaginable. She was the brains, and he was, well, not the brains.
“You’re trusting some guy you met two days ago at a wine connoisseurs’ conference? He could be a serial killer for all we know—luring us to our death out here where our bleached bones will never be found.”
“Melvin Potkin isn’t a serial killer. He’s a serial entrepreneur. I think he used to be an engineer, but now his company installs air conditioners and furnaces. He wants to sell it and start a new business promoting wines. Just like me. We discussed being partners in a new venture.”
Franklin watched Wendy’s face. When she didn’t react to the partnership suggestion but instead kept her focus on the road ahead, he continued, “I didn’t turn into a serial killer because I sold the Puss and Pooch Pamper Parlors, did I?”
“Not yet, but there’s still time. You’re only forty-four.”
Franklin grinned. Wendy was kidding; he was almost sure of that. “Melvin’s really smart. He knows all about the history of Roswell. Who the important people were, how the CCC camp got turned over to the state, and, um, you know.”
“About what really happened here. The spaceships, the aliens, the government coverup.”
“You don’t believe all that, do you?” Wendy glanced into Grizelda’s rearview mirror, apprehension in her normally cool blue eyes. “I can’t even see our back end with all this dirt. How much farther before we reach that super special campsite you claim, or perhaps I should say, Melvin Potkin claims, we absolutely must visit?”
Franklin consulted his hand-drawn map. Melvin’s family had lived in and around Roswell for three generations, and the man’s enthusiasm for this old CCC camp had infected Franklin. Not only the Depression-era project’s history but the prospect of seeing something, literally, out of this world—a UFO. Melvin had promised a close-up view of a spaceship, one that had been sequestered in the area for decades. He’d said he’d learned about it from an obscure journal article, which no one had taken seriously—no one except Melvin.
Franklin spoke loudly to be heard above the noise in the motorhome. “The map shows a row of barracks foundations on the right where we should turn. They’ll probably be hard to see because of the grass, but if we look for a flagpole, the foundations will be just past that.”
Together the couple stared through Grizelda’s grimy windshield at the dreary landscape ahead. Wendy sighed. “This isn’t what I had in mind when you suggested we sell our San Diego home and take a cross-country trip to launch a new business. I thought you’d be writing business plans and drafting budgets.”
“I need to mull things over.”
“Didn’t you do that before you sold the Pamper Parlor franchises? You should at least research the wine industry if that’s the direction you want to go.”
“I’ve researched all kinds of wine.”
“You’ve swallowed all kinds of wine, you mean.”
Franklin studied Wendy’s face for several seconds. Brown hair tucked behind her ears, no makeup, a determined angle to her chin—the latter a feature of her British ancestry. Finally, he saw it, the trace of a smile creeping onto her lips. “You helped study the wines, too, you know.”
Wendy laughed. “But I have a degree in the hard sciences. Yours is in business, and I think you minored in drinking.”
With a sheepish shrug, Franklin grinned. “Back in the nineties, the students in the B School called it ethanolic products research. But I must’ve learned something—I made a whopping amount of money over twenty years with my Pamper Parlors.”
“That you did. And you’ll probably do the same with your next business—that is, if you ever get it started. Did you learn anything at the wine conference other than Melvin Potkin’s crazy UFO scheme?”
“Well, yeah, sure. Sort of.” Turning toward the windshield, Franklin let his gaze wander into the distance, to a hint of green edging the horizon. “Trees up ahead! There must be water nearby. It’s got to be the camp.”
With Wendy’s foot heavy on the accelerator, Grizelda stuttered over the washboard masquerading as a road. A screw fell into Wendy’s lap, and she snuck a peek above her head. It had come from the frame holding an old television monitor against the ceiling. A second screw shot out and bounced off Mad Dog as the basset hound clung to the carpeting behind the seats. The clatter echoing throughout the coach drowned out the canine’s frantic baying.
A third screw grazed Franklin’s forehead and embedded in his graying brown hair. He slammed both hands against the TV monitor to keep it in the frame and cast an amused glance at Wendy. She sat hunched over the wheel, her eyes focused on the trees ahead. “I don’t think you need to go so fast,” he yelled.
With a momentary squint toward the passenger seat, Wendy shouted back, “You want me to go faster?”
“No, no. Slower.”
“I don’t care what you say. I’m going to slow down.”
As the motorhome decelerated, the din inside dwindled and Mad Dog’s plaintive howl subsided. Franklin twisted two of the screws back into the monitor’s frame. “I think we should buy a new TV. This one is more than fifteen years old.”
“Okay, I suppose—if you insist. How about an LED widescreen HDTV flat screen with an HDMI input, USB port, MHL link, and DVD player built into the display? It’s got 1080p—progressive scan—1,920 by 1,080 pixels.” It was Wendy’s turn to flash an embarrassed grin.
“Sounds like you’ve been busy with your own research—into electronics, of course.”
At that moment, Wendy spotted the flagpole remnants, a concrete base extending a few feet above the waving grass. Beyond it, two rows of grassy mounds lined the landscape, each mound about twenty feet across and one hundred feet long. “Shall I turn here?” She nodded toward two lines of tire tracks where the densely packed soil denied anything else a chance to grow. The tracks extended to the east, past the foundations, and up an enormous berm.
Franklin cupped his hand across his forehead to shade his eyes. “Yep, this is the entrance road into the camp. Melvin said we should set up camp as far away from the recreation hall as we can.”
“Recreation hall? How are we supposed to know which of these grassy mounds is the recreation hall?” Wendy turned the white and tan motorhome onto the entrance road, grinding slowly past the foundations. As Grizelda’s motor complained bitterly, Wendy pressed the pedal to the floor and accelerated up the berm. With one last gasp and spin of tires, the vehicle crested the berm and began a skid down the other side. Looming in front of them was a large, grayish-green building. Wendy pushed her foot on the brake pedal and locked her elbows as she forced Grizelda’s steering wheel into a ninety-degree left turn. The vehicle tipped onto the edges of its right-side tires and continued its downhill slide. All Wendy could see through the side window was a rapidly approaching wall of dull wooden planks. Franklin grabbed Mad Dog as the howling basset hound slid butt-first into the base of the passenger seat. In a voluminous cloud of dust and grass, the motorhome skidded several more yards and came to rest less than a foot from the building’s front entrance.
“Who said you could bring that hunk of junk in here?” The woman stood in the building’s doorway, below the cracked and faded sign that read Recreation Hall Camp BR-13. Her gray hair, tied in a knot at the nape of her neck, matched in color—and texture—her weathered face, worn shirt and trousers, and the rec hall’s wizened wooden slats. The frayed threads above her shirt pocket spelled out in barely discernable letters: Blanche McNutt, National Park Service.
“He did,” Franklin replied, jumping from the motorhome. He pointed to the middle-aged man scurrying toward them from a tree-ringed waterhole and called out, “Hiya, Melvin.”
Though jauntily dressed in a khaki shirt and shorts, Melvin resembled nothing so much as the Pillsbury Doughboy. “Glad to see you made it, Franklin,” he said, removing his straw cowboy hat and mopping the sweat from his bald head. “Don’t let old Blanche here scare you. There’s plenty of good places for you to park your motorhome. Whaddya say you named her? Ah, yes, Grizelda. Have your wife—I assume that good-looking filly behind the wheel is Wendy—pull your RV up to those creosote bushes over there. We’re camped yonder by those screwbean mesquite trees near the waterhole. As soon as you’ve made camp, come on over. My missus is fixing an early lunch so we have the afternoon to go exploring. And I gotta tell you, she’s a great cook. She has the trunk full of food and won’t let me touch a thing in there.”
“Don’t you go starting a campfire and setting the place ablaze,” Blanche said, still standing in the doorway, arms crossed. “We’re too darned far from Roswell for firefighters to get here in time if you city fools light up the wheatgrass.”
“We’ll be careful, I promise,” Melvin said, tipping his hat and rounding his pudgy cheeks into a wide smile. “You’ll hardly know we’re here.”
“I’ll be checking on you later.” Blanche tapped the letters embroidered above her pocket. “It’s my job, and I do my job.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Melvin touched the brim of his hat again and took Franklin by the arm. Out of Blanche’s earshot, he continued, “This location isn’t part of the National Park Service anymore. But Blanche won’t go away, even though she’s got to be close to retirement age. The feds gave up on the place years ago. Or so they’d like you to believe.”
Franklin perked up at his new friend’s last sentence. “You think the federal government is still operating around here? Not as a national park?”
“That’s something I wanted to talk to you about.” Melvin dropped his voice to a whisper. “But we’ll need to keep it confidential.”
“Is it about the UFO?”
“Shh.” Melvin glanced at Grizelda. Wendy sat behind the wheel, holding a quivering Mad Dog to her chest. Estancia lounged on the dashboard in Persian cat elegance, her long white fur unruffled and her sapphire-blue eyes cool.
“My wife can keep yours company after lunch,” Melvin said. “We’ll talk then.”
Franklin rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “Can’t you give me a hint?”
Melvin looked over his shoulder at Blanche, who maintained an eagle-like watch on the two men. “I checked with my, um, sources, and they say tonight’s the night.”
“July second. When we’ll see the blue light.”
“Wow—the blue light.” Franklin stopped for a moment. He had no idea what Melvin was talking about. “Is that a good thing? Seeing the blue light?”
“Of course. At midnight, the blue light will lead us north to the spacecraft. And I mean, an entire spacecraft.”
“Wow!” This time Franklin meant it.
Melvin smiled and began walking toward his camp, calling back loudly enough for Wendy to hear, “You folks come on over as soon as you can. We’ve got all the fixin’s for lunch—ham and sweet potatoes in marshmallow sauce with cheese-filled biscuits on the side. And my wife’s desserts—they’re so good, you’ll wanna die.”
“This is a terrible idea.” Wendy stood next to the creosote bushes, surveying the dirt patch on which she’d parked Grizelda. On the other three sides of the motorhome, tufts of bunchgrass and wheatgrass provided sparse groundcover and no shade. “No running water, no electricity, no facilities of any sort except the recreation hall guarded by the wicked witch of the NPS.”
“I filled the tank with water in Roswell,” Franklin said, “and Grizelda’s batteries will last for a couple of days if we conserve power. Besides, we’ll have plenty of starlight to enjoy.”
Wendy pursed her lips into a stubborn line. “And the only other campers are your weird friend Melvin and his wife. There’s usually a reason why there aren’t a lot of people at a campground.”
“The aliens got them?” Franklin giggled at his own joke and unhooked the pink leash from Mad Dog’s collar. “You’re free to run and jump and be a wild dog here,” he said to the basset hound, who slunk to the door of the motorhome and plopped on the dirt.
Wendy checked the time. “If we start now, we could get back to Roswell by afternoon and camp where there are services and real restrooms.”
“We’re more than fifteen miles from town. Maybe ten, the way the UFO flies.” He chuckled once more. “Do you really want to drive through those ruts again without checking all the bolts?” When Wendy heaved a sigh, Franklin continued, “I didn’t think so. We’d better hurry. Melvin’s waiting lunch on us.”
As she followed her husband to the next camp, Wendy surveyed the odd scene before her. The woman standing next to Melvin at the campfire was tall, slender, and tanned. Perhaps mid- to late-twenties in age, she looked at least fifteen years younger than her husband. The Sahara pants rode low on her hips, and her snug-fitting olive T-shirt revealed toned muscular arms. As Wendy and Franklin approached, she looped her arm around her husband’s elbow. “C’mon, Honey Pie,” she said. “Introduce me to this nice couple.”
Melvin beamed at the attractive woman. “Rainy, this is Franklin Becker, the man I met at the wine conference, and his wife, Wendy.”
Franklin clasped the hand Rainy offered and smothered his surprise as she pumped his arm with beefy gusto. “Rainy . . . is that short for Lorraine?” he asked.
“No, it’s short of snow.” The woman giggled and released Franklin’s hand. When Wendy kept her hands firmly in her jeans pockets, Rainy looped her arm once again around her husband’s and gave it a hug. “That’s your little joke, isn’t it, Honey Pie. Rain is just short of snow.”
Franklin laughed. “Melvin, it’s great to have a friend who likes a good joke.”
As the others chatted, Wendy’s gaze wandered to a stash of shovels, picks, and surveying equipment piled next to Melvin and Rainy’s tent. “It looks like you’re ready for an archeological dig. Is all that stuff for chasing extraterrestrials?” she asked Melvin.
Melvin tensed a bit and fingered the small key attached to a chain around his neck. He then relaxed into a full-cheeked grin. “Guilty as charged. I came here to look for more evidence of UFOs. Back in Texas, I’m part of a club that collects alien artifacts. We have a website. You should look at it sometime.”
“What artifacts have you found?” Wendy snuck a peek at Rainy as she spoke. The woman looked bored. Beyond bored, even. Fossilized.
“Not much around Houston where we live, but in Lubbock, pieces of metal that could be part of a navigation system. Or maybe weaponry. Here in New Mexico, if you really look hard, you can find all kinds of alien materials that the U.S. government doesn’t want you to know about. I know exactly what I’m looking for, though.”
“What’s that?” the three voices asked in unison. Franklin sounded excited; Wendy, curious; Rainy, indifferent.
Melvin twisted one plump hand in the other. “I don’t know how much I should tell you—for your own safety, of course.”
Wendy’s eyes narrowed. “Why would we be in danger?”
“Alien artifacts are not only valuable, money-wise, but federal agencies want to keep the existence of extraterrestrials a secret.”
Before Wendy could reply that not everything was a government conspiracy, Franklin leaned forward and whispered, “We won’t tell a soul.” He started rubbing his hands, too. “You’re talking about the intact spaceship, right?”
Melvin’s eyes flew open wide and then settled into a squint as he frowned and shook his head at Franklin. “No, no. I meant debris from the spaceship that crashed northwest of Roswell in 1947. This tract of land around the CCC camp was in the ship’s flight path, and debris would’ve landed here as the craft fell apart during descent.”
The three pairs of eyes stayed focused on Melvin, wordlessly prodding him to continue.
“You see,” Melvin said, “my granddaddy worked in Roswell back then, and he kept a piece of the debris from the actual crash site. My guess is, the piece is from the ship’s outer layer. The artifact’s been in my family for generations. Until this trip, I kept it hidden in a safe deposit . . . um, a safe place.”
Franklin stopped rubbing his hands and clenched them together tightly. “So, you brought it with you? Can I see it now?”
“Maybe later.” Melvin glanced around. “When we’re sure she’s not watching.”
Wendy tried to ask, “By ‘she,’ do you mean Blanche?” but her question was drowned out by Franklin.
“This is so exciting,” he said. “We’re going to find a real spacecraft—well, what’s left of it, anyway. Let’s start right now.”
Melvin checked his watch. “We’ll start after lunch.” He cast a wary eye on Wendy. “Will you be coming too?”
“Heck, no,” Wendy said. “I’m staying inside the motorhome where I’m safe from alien abduction.”
“I don’t think a motorhome will protect you.” Melvin glanced across the grassy range at Grizelda. “A lot of those shells are fiberglass. You’d need a thick wall, preferably lead, and—”
Rainy, who to this point had been mostly silent, finally spoke. “Honey Pie, will you tend the fire so I can serve the ham and yams.”
While Melvin and Franklin poked at the burning logs with wrought-iron pokers, Wendy helped Rainy assemble enough food for ten people. After several minutes of the tall woman’s non-stop chatter about cooking, Wendy interrupted to ask, “How did you choose Honey Pie as a nickname for Melvin?”
“Oh, you’ll just love this story. I had made Melvin a sweet potato pie just like my mama and nana here in New Mexico used to make. He liked it fine, he said, but he thought I should make it my signature pie. That’s what he called it, a signature pie, like I would write my name in it or something. He suggested drizzling honey on top of it. Well, the recipe calls for corn syrup, molasses, and white sugar—and sometimes I sneak in a little brown sugar, too—but I never thought of using honey. Melvin was so clever to think of it, so I started calling him Honey Pie.”
“And also, because he’s so sweet.” Wendy turned away to make her eye roll less conspicuous.
“Exactly!” Rainy wedged a dish of yams smothered in melted marshmallows onto a food-laden teakwood tray. Biceps tensed, she carried the tray over to the campfire and placed it on a flat rock next to four campstools. “I’ve got extra marshmallows to roast over the fire after dinner,” she said in a singsong voice.
Melvin looked up from the flames. “I promised them one of your famous desserts.”
Rainy kissed her husband on his smooth, broad forehead. “I’m afraid you finished the last of the peanut butter and sweet potato pies for your morning snack. But I brought graham crackers and chocolate candy, so we’ll have s’mores. There’s enough for fifty people.”
Melvin looked around, eyes narrowed. “No, we don’t want anyone else to show up here.”