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Words on Wheels
About the Author: Michael Bracken is the Edgar and Shamus Award-nominated, Derringer-winning author of eleven books and more than twelve hundred short stories, including crime fiction published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best Mystery Stories of the Year.

Victoria Huptmann and her Border collie Maximillian—known by everyone as Vicky and Max—spent winters driving Words on Wheels from RV park to RV park along the Texas coast, selling new and used books to Snowbirds escaping Midwestern winters.

A large white cargo van with her bookstore’s logo painted on each side, lined with overcrowded bookshelves and lit by white fairy lights, Words on Wheels was the culmination of Vicky’s life-long dream to own a bookstore. Her dream became reality when her husband of thirty-seven years died peacefully from a heart ailment they did not realize he had. After an estate sale and relocation from their four-bedroom Colonial to a one-bedroom apartment, Vicky invested in the van, had it customized to her specifications, and purchased a teardrop-shaped camper to tow behind it. Then she stocked the van with books, adopted Max from a local shelter, and hit the road.

After six years, she had become well known to the regulars in the various RV parks she visited during Snowbird season, and she had barely finished setting up at Gulf Coast Getaway RV Park when Ethel Anderson visited with news.

“You should have been here yesterday,” Ethel told her. A diminutive woman well past retirement age who wore her henna-rinsed hair in a tight bun. “You missed all the excitement.”

Vicky was standing inside, adjusting a string of fairy lights that had come loose during the drive, and wasn’t giving Ethel her complete attention. “Why?” she asked. “What happened?”

“Somebody murdered Spencer Wright.”

Surprised, Vicky stopped what she was doing and turned. “Murdered?”

“Hit in the head with a blunt instrument. Cathy Gillis found him behind the laundry room.”

Spencer had been a retired Chicago police officer, bald but with a neatly trimmed beard that nearly covered the scar on his left cheek. He had been one of Vicky’s suitors, one of a handful of widowers she met at the various RV parks who took it upon themselves to suggest she needed a man in her life. The truth, in fact, is that the widowers were all of an age that they were more in need of her companionship—provided she could cook, clean, and attend to their desires—than she was in need of theirs. For thirty-seven years she had suppressed her needs and desires in order to please her husband, and she had no desire to ever do that again.

“Any idea who did it?”

“Not a clue,” Ethel said. “At least, nothing official. The police wouldn’t tell us anything.”

Vicky stepped down from the Words on Wheels van and stared across the park to where Spencer’s Winnebago Adventurer occupied space twenty-seven. Only then did she notice the yellow caution tape wrapped around it. She pointed it out to Ethel and said, “I thought he was killed behind the laundry room.”

“There’s caution tape there too.”

“So, who do the police think did him in?”

“They didn’t say, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of the widows he was always trying to seduce.” Ethel squinted. “Where were you two nights ago?”

“I was at Happy Campers RV Park, a good fifty miles from here,” Vicky said.

“Any witnesses?”

Vicky looked down at her Border collie. “Max will vouch for me. Won’t you, boy?”

After word circulated among the RV park’s winter residents that Words on Wheels had arrived and was open for business, Vicky welcomed a steady stream of customers and heard a steady stream of gossip about the previous day’s events.

Gladys McDaniel, owner and manager of the RV park, was the last customer that evening. Tall and broad shouldered, with skin the color and texture of worn leather from years in the Texas sun, she wore coveralls and steel-toed work boots. With her closely cropped gray hair and stocky build, she could, when seen from behind, be mistaken for a man. She purchased two used Agatha Christie paperbacks and then asked, ”Coming to the potluck tomorrow night?”

Many of the RV parks along the Texas coast held weekly potlucks, game nights, and other social events. Gulf Coast Getaway only hosted potluck nights and relied on residents to organize their own unofficial social events. Mostly, they involved drinking.

This story appears in our JUN 2023 Issue
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