Wendy Becker believes the Black Hills Outdoor Club’s healthy diet and exercise will help her husband, Franklin, focus on a new career. More importantly, she wants to fit into her now-too-tight jeans. As guests, Wendy and Franklin embark on a club backpacking trip, but when another guest is murdered, club members are concerned only about their upcoming dinner. Soon, the Beckers find themselves up to their bootlaces in trouble.
The South Dakota Beech Diet is the fourth 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.
Sheila Astor Gould loved to mingle with the rich and famous. She savored tweets of their lavish lifestyles and drooled over posts of their Botox-filled faces. Rarely did she deign to spend time with the little people, everyone else on the planet. But when she learned a movie star had rented a remote cabin from the leader of the Black Hills Outdoor Club, Sheila wheedled an invitation from the club to travel to his cabin. It was a fatal mistake she, unfortunately, would not live to regret.
Deadwood, South Dakota, looked every inch a tourist trap. Saloons beckoned the hapless to see where outlaws drank hooch, played poker, or groped another man’s favorite wench, the latter typically a prelude to another activity, dying. Yet, to Franklin Becker’s way of thinking, this was the ideal town to learn the history of the Wild West. Wendy, his wife, told him it wasn’t an accurate chronicle or even a credible yarn, but Franklin liked to believe the unbelievable.
“Have you thought more about the new business you’ll start?” Wendy asked, peering through a shop window. Naughti wines and Sick-N-Twisted beer lined the shelves. “Still considering being a wine connoisseur?”
“Yeah. Or maybe something else.”
“You deserved a good long rest after you sold the Puss and Pooch Pamper Parlors, but isn’t it time to commit to a new venture?”
“I don’t want to hurry a decision.” Honestly, Franklin didn’t know what career to choose; besides, they were doing okay financially. He’d made a lot of money selling the Pamper Parlors, and Wendy had a great income as a software engineer.
His wife sighed. “Maybe our outing with the Black Hills Outdoors Club will clear your head. The club website says healthy eating and exercise help to bring everything into focus.”
Franklin nodded. In truth, he’d agreed to a week of hiking and eating leafy stuff for only one reason: to please his wife. He’d do anything for her.
As they sauntered past another bar, he pulled his cowboy hat low onto his forehead to cover his gray-tinged brown hair. It was the way Wild Bill Hickok would have worn his hat before he groped the wrong wench or shot the wrong guy and got a belly full of lead. Unquestionably, Franklin was better dressed than the outlaws of old, in his new mother-of-pearl-colored cowboy shirt with fringe on the shoulders and shiny brass buttons. He regretted not buying the color-coordinated chaps, but Wendy had vetoed the purchase—even though he’d offered to model them buck naked. At least that gave her a good laugh. She hadn’t laughed much recently. Not since he sold his company and they embarked on their cross-country motorhome trip.
Another sigh from Wendy. “What else did you buy besides the hat and shirt?” she asked.
“An authentic—the saleswoman said—Lakota Indian beaded collar for Mad Dog and a tanned leather harness for Estancia.”
“The cat won’t wear the harness.”
“It didn’t seem right to favor one pet over another. That’s a Pamper Parlor tenet: Every animal has value.”
“Well, don’t let our fussy Persian see it. She’ll have a fit.” Wendy pointed to a renovated railroad station. “There’s the History and Information Center. They might know where we can get a motorhome permit for the national forest.”
“Don’t forget to ask where the Donner Trailhead is.”
“We’ll pick up some maps.”
“Maps? As in, pieces of paper you try to fold up but never fit the same creases twice?”
“Yes, paper maps. I’ve downloaded maps to use off-line with GPS, but paper maps might come in handy for forest service roads.”
Franklin couldn’t hide his grin; Wendy, the queen of everything technological, reading a paper map. The woman who bought a Bluetooth-enabled coffeepot for Grizelda, their curmudgeonly old motorhome, so she could start the morning brew from bed while reading computer engineering journals on her phone.
In the Information Center, Franklin browsed through the brochures while Wendy approached a young woman behind a counter. Her name tag read Lilibeth.
“Good morning,” Wendy said. “We’d like a permit to take a motorhome into the Black Hills National Forest. Also, will you direct us to the Donner Trailhead?”
“Welcome to Deadwood, South Dakota,” Lilibeth droned from a memorized script. “We’re the real Sin City. The Brothel is open for tours at the top of the hour. Only fifteen dollars per person. How many tickets do you need?”
“Just the permit.”
Lilibeth pointed to a printed page under the glass on the counter. “Deadwood Outdoor Rentals sells permits. Go two miles south on Highway 85, then turn onto 385. The place is on the left. You can’t miss it.”
“And the Donner Trailhead? The Black Hills Outdoor Club has an event starting there.”
The woman sighed and pulled a smartphone from the waistband of her teensy running shorts while her eyes grazed Wendy’s baggy checked shirt and faded blue jeans. “Are you here for the club’s diet and backpack trip?” she asked.
Wendy’s cheeks bloomed red. “Yes, we’re here for the club’s outing. All we need are directions to the trailhead.”
Lilibeth stuck her smartphone in Wendy’s face. “Just google BHOC annual backpack trip. Their website will pop up. Do you know how to use your phone?”
“I’ve already looked at their—”
The young woman pointed to the side of her phone. “There’s usually a button here. Press it to turn it on.” She stuck the phone closer to Wendy’s face.
Sucking in his breath, Franklin wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulder and spun her toward the door.
“Thanks for all your help,” Franklin said over his shoulder as he herded Wendy toward the exit. He stuffed the brochures into his pants pocket.
The young woman shrugged, commenting loudly, “I wouldn’t go hiking out there. Not with those people.”
Once on the sidewalk, Wendy shook off Franklin’s grip.
“I wouldn’t have injured her too seriously, you know.”
“Yeah, but I thought you might bite her, and she probably hasn’t had her rabies shots.” Franklin pulled one of the brochures from his pocket. “This one has locations of trailheads in the Black Hills National Forest.”
When Wendy took the brochure from his hand, Franklin glanced down the street. “How about a snack before we go to the trailhead? There’s a bakery on the next corner. I could go for a cheese Danish.”
“I cut up some carrots and celery. They’re in a baggie in Grizelda’s refrigerator.”
Franklin sighed as they headed toward the motorhome. He was hungry already, and they hadn’t even started calorie restrictions. Sure, the outdoor club’s diet plan sounded unique—touted as “back to nature” on the club’s website—and it might be fun to explore another national forest. Still, Lilibeth called it a backpacking trip. He wasn’t too familiar with outdoorsy stuff, but driving a thirty-foot Class A motorhome in the woods didn’t sound like the usual way one did backpacking.
Wendy transferred her focus from the brochure to her cell phone. “There’s a new post on the outdoor club’s website. A planning meeting tonight at six o’clock at the Donner Campground. It gives directions from Lead.” She looked up from the screen. “Lead is the site of a deep underground physics lab. Maybe we could stop for a lab tour. We’ve got plenty of time.”
“How deep, what?”
“How far underground is the lab?”
Wendy scrolled through a few screens. “About a mile.”
Franklin shook his head. “No way. I can’t stand being underground since that nice wildlife biologist we met in Colorado got trapped in a cave.”
“He was buried alive on purpose by a bad guy.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Franklin unlocked the motorhome. “Hey there, Mad Dog.” Inside, a basset hound lounging on the carpet greeted him with a yawn. A foot away, a cat hissed. The plume of the cat’s white tail heralded her exit as she slipped between the window and the small couch.
“Estancia’s hiding under the couch again,” he said, heading for the refrigerator.
“I’ll get her out. She’ll come to me.”
It was true; Wendy had a unique relationship with the cat. Of course, Estancia had the upper paw, but she recognized Wendy as a kindred spirit. In the rare moments the cat sat on Franklin’s lap, she’d sink her claws into his thighs as a reminder she was armed. If he had bought those chaps, he’d be protected.
Fingering the bag of veggies, Franklin mused aloud, “I think the celery would taste better with peanut butter or cream cheese.”
“Everything tastes better with peanut butter and cream cheese. Okay, we’ll skip the lab—they probably don’t do spontaneous public tours, anyway. We’ll set up camp and, if we’re lucky, someone from the outdoor club might be there early too. We need help figuring out logistics for Grizelda and the pets when we backpack overnight. The club holds a special ceremony after backpacking to a remote site.”
Franklin bit into a withered celery stick. It didn’t crunch; it squished. “Ceremony? Like a campfire and s’mores?”
“A campfire, anyway. According to the club’s email, this is the fifth annual trip with their current leader. They’re celebrating the anniversary with a special healthy meal.”
“Probably not a supreme meat pizza.”
Franklin took a couple of carrots from the baggie. They, too, felt squishy. “The girl in the Information Center said she wouldn’t go on the club’s trip.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t. It’s by invitation only.”
“Then how are we going?” For a moment, Franklin hoped they would give up on dieting, see Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse statue, and Wall Drugs, and then drive across the state to the national music museum in Vermillion. A museum brochure he’d picked up in the Information Center gave him an idea for a new career: museum director. Probably not a music museum since he couldn’t sing or play musical instruments. Or an art museum. His only foray into visual arts was a paint-by-number picture of Elvis on velvet. Unfortunately, he’d mixed up a few numbers. But a history museum would be fun. Or a pet museum. Or a pet history museum.
Wendy lifted the couch seat, and Estancia hopped out with a triumphant glance at Franklin. “I applied online for us to go on this outing,” Wendy said. “Millie—you remember her from Colorado—said she’d hiked with this club years ago. They have a new club leader, and it’s more exclusive now. I wasn’t sure they’d take guests on this annual outing, so I may have slightly inflated our physical fitness. If anyone asks, every man in your family has won a bodybuilding contest at least once, and all my female relatives are prima ballerinas. Anyway, the little white lies—”
“They sound like whopping big ones.”
“Okay, whatever. We made the grade. I received their invitation by email a few days ago. They’re only taking three guests on the trip this year, so we’re pretty lucky.”
Franklin nodded, but he didn’t feel very lucky. He wasn’t enthusiastic about backpacking—sleeping on the cold, hard ground while Estancia hogged the warm, soft bed in the motorhome. And eating nothing but healthy vegetables, knowing a package of chocolate hazelnut Oreos sat unopened in Grizelda’s cabinet. There was another thing nagging at him: the expression on Lilibeth’s face when she said she wouldn’t go on a trip with this club. The odd look could have been caused by the hoop piercing her eyebrow, the one in her nose, or the stud stuck in her tongue, but Franklin didn’t think so. He had a bad feeling in his gut, and it wasn’t due entirely to the squishy veggies.