Camping in the Colorado Rockies, Franklin and Wendy Becker find the poisoned body of a local birder. When a bedeviled park ranger is arrested, Franklin tries to help her by performing an exorcism. After that, it all goes to hell.
Anger Management is the third 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.
Bert Crappert thought he knew everything about birdwatching. Migration patterns of woodland ducks and hummingbirds. Mating calls of robins and
the danger cry of the thrush. Even the average length, to the nearest millimeter, of seagull bills. It was thus fitting that Bert’s last sighting was Red-breasted Sapsucker droppings, landing on his nose as the poison took effect.
Franklin Becker sucked in a deep breath of the fragrant Colorado air. Everything smelled wonderful compared to San Diego and Los Angeles, where he grew up. Pines and spruce trees dominated the scents at Millet State Park, and despite the cloudless August sky, a pungent earthy smell lingered from earlier rain. Occasional chirps sounded among the green Douglas-firs and silvery Rocky Mountain junipers, which blanketed the vast, sloping terrain. Franklin had no formal training in birding—or, if truth be known, any special knowledge of birds whatsoever. Nevertheless, he swore he heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s tapping in the distance.
“This is a perfect campground,” he said to his wife as they stood in front of the park’s administration building.
Wendy looked up from her smartphone. “The cell signal here is too spotty to use the online birding app. We’ll need a password for the park’s Wi-Fi. What’s the park supervisor’s name, again?”
“Harry Braun. On the phone, he said he’d picked out a great campsite for us. We’re lucky to have influential friends.”
“He’s not a friend. He’s an acquaintance of the attorney who was an acquaintance of the crazy park ranger who kidnapped me in New Mexico last month.”
“But she let you go and even saved your life.”
Wendy slipped her phone into the back pocket of her blue jeans. “I’m trying to erase that incident in Roswell from my memory. Maybe this is Harry coming in the truck.”
A black pickup truck with a circular Colorado Parks and Wildlife logo pulled up to the administration building. From the driver’s side leapt a tanned, middle-aged man, lanky, with a thatch of prematurely white hair. He stood at least six foot five, a good five inches taller than Franklin. He grinned and offered a hand to Franklin and then to Wendy.
“Harry Braun,” he said, pumping Wendy’s arm. “We talked on the phone. I’m always happy to help out a friend of Bill Case. How is that old shyster doing, anyway? We call him Billable Case. Did he mention that? Because lawyers bill for every fifteen minutes.”
Franklin grinned back at Harry. This was his kind of guy. Friendly, talkative, enthusiastic. The frown on Wendy’s face indicated she’d taken an immediate dislike to him. It would be an interesting afternoon if Harry didn’t let go of Wendy’s hand soon.
“The nickname must have slipped Mr. Case’s mind,” Franklin said. “Should we follow you to our campsite in our motorhome? She’s our pride-and-joy—we call her Grizelda.” He motioned to the tan and white motorhome parked at the side of the gravel road. Two pairs of eyes stared from the dashboard.
“I see you brought your dog and cat,” Harry said. “Be sure to keep a close eye on them. Bears around here would swallow that cat whole.”
Wendy took a step toward Grizelda, shaking her head. “Any bear that pesters a cat like Estancia would rue the day.”
Although trees had been cleared here and there, and large rocks moved to make room for campsites, the campground was an untamed, coniferous wonderland. The Beckers and Harry Braun made their way from the administration building single file a short distance down a gravel road. Harry’s truck danced over the ruts and holes with ease; Grizelda lurched from side to side and shuddered. In the minute it took to reach campsite thirteen, Estancia had buried herself between the pillows on the bed. Mad Dog, the basset hound, had shifted his terrified baying up an octave.
“I’ll back Grizelda into the site,” Wendy shouted over the dog’s howling and unbuckled her passenger seatbelt. “You go outside and tell me if I get too close to the trees on the right.”
Franklin patted Mad Dog’s quivering head, pulled a pink Puss and Pooch Pamper Parlors baseball cap over his graying brown hair, and slid out the driver’s side door. He avoided backing up the motorhome whenever possible. Wendy had installed several backup cameras in the dashboard, and the bizarre assortment of camera angles felt like a carnival house of mirrors. Besides, he wanted to ask Harry for birdwatching tips and about the great birding club Bill, the attorney, said frequented the park.
While the motorhome slowly backed onto a gravel pad behind them, Franklin and Harry stood in the center of the road, facing a small rustic amphitheater about fifty feet away and across the road from Grizelda. The tiered benches of the amphitheater were hewn from logs and faced a dirt stage crowned with a slatted, unpainted wood roof. Just beyond the theater, clustered in a clearing among the Ponderosa pines, sat a half dozen brightly colored tents and a dozen campers, also brightly clothed. The lettering on the campers’ matching hats read Beers and Bears. Music blared as the young people lounged in low-slung chairs and drank from aluminum cans.
“You’re in luck,” Harry said. “There’s a birdwatching lecture scheduled for four o’clock in the amphitheater. Jabar Trudeau, a BLM wildlife biologist and an officer in one of our local birding clubs, is giving a bird call demonstration.”
“The speaker is from the Federal Bureau of Land Management? Not a park ranger?” Franklin glanced over his shoulder. Wendy was lowering the hydraulic jacks to level the motorhome. He’d completely forgotten about helping her back up Grizelda. Apparently, his help wasn’t essential after all—a lesson repeatedly learned over twenty years of marriage. Twenty happy years, in his opinion; he’d never asked Wendy hers.
“We at CPW need to cultivate partnerships to keep our programs afloat,” Harry said. “Federal, state, county. Hell, we even have partnerships with the Denver city council and the university’s extension office. If any of that support dried up, I don’t know what we’d do—lay off staff and drop programs, I guess.” Harry hitched up the trousers that had slipped down his narrow hips. “But why am I chewing your ear off about all this administrative stuff? After you settle in, head over to the amphitheater for the lecture. I think there’ll be cookies and—”
A screech of tires and spray of gravel sent Franklin and Harry scurrying out of the road to a huddle in front of the motorhome. A black SUV zoomed past and skidded to a stop by the colorful tents. The round logo on the vehicle’s side matched Harry’s truck.
Popping out of Grizelda, Wendy yelled, “Who’s the maniac driving that SUV? They’re going hit someone!”
“Susie,” Harry said, his voice barely above a whisper. Franklin sensed a tinge of dread in the man’s voice.
The young woman who exploded from the SUV wore the tan shirt and blue cap of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Unlike Harry, whose shirt was ironed and neatly tucked into clean, pressed blue jeans, Susie’s uniform flapped like a witch’s cape over ripped and mud-laden pants. Her carrot-colored hair sprouted at various angles from a ponytail, and the whites of her wild eyes encircled neon green irises. She marched up to an orange, dome-shaped tent and kicked the aluminum frame. One of the campers, a burly guy with a full beard, ran over to her.
“Hey, lady, I don’t know what your problem is, but that’s my tent, and I paid to camp here.”
Susie didn’t speak, but her eyes rolled in their sockets, giving her face an eerie, shark-like appearance. The bearded man met her stare with arms crossed and feet wide apart. Gradually, however, he drew back, stepping close to the other campers who had gathered behind him. Susie’s irises rolled back into view, and her stare remained riveted on the man.
“You’re being a real a-hole,” one of the campers shouted.
Susie’s body quivered and then rippled from head to toe in undulating waves, ending with jerks of her head that sent her red ponytail whipping in circles. As suddenly as the display started, it ended, and Susie stomped to the rear of her SUV.
“Is she okay?” Franklin whispered to Harry.
Harry hesitated, cleared his throat, and whispered back, “Well, of course, that’s not typical ranger protocol.”
Wendy snorted. “Typical if your body and soul have been seized by the devil.”
Harry turned sharply and stared at Wendy. His eyes and mouth formed three identical O shapes. “Why did you say that?”
Before Wendy could reply, Franklin jumped in. “I’m really interested in demonic possession. I wrote a term paper about it in eighth grade. Scared the crap out of my teacher. Me, too, at the time.”
Wendy shook her head. “These cases of possession are more likely mental illness or epilepsy, not the supernatural work of devils.”
Franklin stroked his chin, a gesture he hoped signified deep thought. “I don’t know. I read an article about demonic possession when I was waiting in the dentist’s office. They interviewed experts who said it was a real thing, that we’ve probably seen a possessed person but didn’t know it.”
The skin between Harry’s eyebrows pinched into worried folds. “Jabar did mention his parents had seen bewitched people in Haiti,” he said.
“How did they act? Did they quack like a duck or speak in tongues?” Franklin snuck a peek at Wendy; her cheeks quivered with a repressed smirk.
The sound of Harry’s response landed somewhere between “tsk” and “pshaw.”
Undeterred, Franklin continued. “One of my clients at the Puss and Pooch Pamper Parlors had an exorcism performed on her two-year-old Yorkie. It cured the dog of its penchant for biting off human toes.” He donned his most sincere expression. “The article said people suffer needlessly because of the stigma associated with satanic, um, infection.”
Wendy groaned and turned away, but Harry seemed genuinely interested. “I did laugh Jabar off at first. But if you knew Susie before all this started—well, you’d understand she just isn’t the same sweet, softspoken girl I hired two years ago. At first, I chalked it up to stress, to overwork—”
A clatter of metal and a deep-throated grunt cut short Harry’s comment. Susie pulled a half dozen chains with large metal hooks from her SUV and headed toward the tents. When she began threading the hooks around poles and through tent flaps, the bearded man stepped forward, warning her to stop. Another camper pulled him aside, pointed to a case on Susie’s belt, and made a gun shape with his hand. The remaining campers scurried behind trees.
“Susie totes a gun?” Wendy asked Harry.
“No. Well, I don’t think so. We don’t issue guns to rangers, but she might carry her own. She’s a damn good shot.” Harry blew out a shaky breath. “I’ll try to have a word with her.”
Harry edged toward Susie, his shoulders curled forward and chin tucked in. She had attached the sixth chain to a tent and headed to her vehicle when she stumbled, landing on one knee. Harry hurried to her aid, his hand outstretched.
The redheaded ranger looked up, a pained, dazed expression on her face. She took Harry’s hand and rose shakily to her feet. “Thank you. I’m not sure what—”
A series of explosions brought everyone’s attention to the tents. A camper stood grinning amidst smoking firecracker remnants. “They’re still good,” he said before swigging more beer.
“Out of my way, toad,” Susie said as she shoved Harry aside and lurched toward the tents. Her voice sounded barely human—a cross between Estancia’s growl and a volcanic eruption. Harry glanced in Franklin and Wendy’s direction.
“For a supervisor, he looks totally flummoxed,” Wendy said. “Susie’s too big of a problem for him to handle alone.”
Franklin nodded. “You’re right. I should help.”
Wendy grabbed his arm. “Not what I meant. Harry needs to call some authorities—mental health professionals and the police.”
As Harry and the campers looked on, dumbfounded, Susie fastened the chains to the back of her SUV, hopped into the driver’s seat, and gunned the motor. The truck squealed forward, dragging the six tents behind. “Too many tents in a campsite,” Susie shouted. “You’ll have to pay fines if you want your equipment back.”
The dust whipped up by the SUV finally settled, and the engine’s roar faded into the distance. Harry began a shaky walk to his truck.
“Hey, man,” the firecracker-wielding camper said. “Ain’t you gonna do something about her taking our stuff?”
Harry stopped, his eyes cold. “Aren’t you the group who put food on a picnic table overnight to bait the black bears?”
The camper smirked. “The all-you-can-eat bear buffet. That was my idea, man.”
“You were told to stay away from the park. So—get out!” Harry continued his march to his truck.
“You need help with Susie,” Wendy said to him. “Now. Before she really does some damage.”
Harry nodded absently. “It’s kind of you to care, but she’d never given me a moment’s grief before. Maybe I’ve loaded her with too many responsibilities.”
“Managing staff is a tough job,” Franklin said, his head bobbing in agreement. “It was my biggest headache when I owned the Puss and Pooch Pamper Parlors. What are Susie’s responsibilities?”
“Bird habitat mitigation. Educational programs, especially the popular birding program. Campground management—personnel and the grounds themselves.”
“That does seem like a lot for one person.”
Wendy frowned. “Not to discount the stress thing, but if her behavior changed suddenly, she should see a doctor. When did these problems begin?”
Harry checked his watch and ran a hand through his unruly hair. “Pardon me, but I should be getting back to work.”
Franklin slung an arm around the man’s shoulders, not an easy task considering the height difference. “I’ve always found it helps to talk out your problems.”
The stoic expression on Harry’s face slipped momentarily to one of concern. “I have wanted to speak to someone, but I didn’t want to put anything on Susie’s permanent record.”
With a squeeze of Harry’s shoulder, Franklin urged on the park supervisor. “You can trust us. I’m sure Bill Case told you that.” He hoped the man couldn’t see Wendy’s please stop expression.
Harry smiled cautiously. “Things were going really well up until a few weeks ago when her temper started getting short. She claimed to see or hear things that weren’t real. Two days ago, she began talking about devils and angels and human sacrifices to appease gods. This morning, she had satanic symbols scratched onto her forearm.”
Franklin emitted a low whistle. “Symbols appearing on the skin—classic sign of possession.”
With another glance at his watch, Harry wriggled from Franklin’s grip. “Thanks again for your kind words and all.”
Franklin patted the man on his back. “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.”
Harry started to shake his head but paused. “One thing would help. I’ll drive into Denver this evening and talk to a doctor friend in the hospital psych ward. Susie is supposed to host Jabar’s lecture tonight. If you’d just keep an eye on things. You seem to have a calming influence—” He looked at Franklin and then turned to Wendy. “And an iron will. If things get a little dicey, would you nudge the other campers to, uh—”
“Run for their lives,” Franklin and Wendy said in unison.
“If they can.”