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Authors: Susan Wittig Albert

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Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09 (10 page)

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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I tackled the vacuuming and dusting and
straightening with enthusiasm. While I was working, I thought briefly about the
bad old days, when I was still at the law firm. On Monday morning, I'd slap on
my makeup, squeeze myself into a dress-for-success uniform, and tackle the
Houston freeway system with all the aggressiveness of the Oilers right
offense. At the office, still juiced from battling I-10, I'd bully the
secretary into typing my brief ahead of anybody else's, then charge off for
the rest of the day's confrontations before the bench or behind the desk. At
the end of twelve hours, I'd still be at max warp. I rarely wound down, even on
weekends. But I don't recall those litigious times with any nostalgia, believe
me. I am physically and psychologically healthier now that I no longer have to
torque myself up for my job as if I were heading into Desert Storm. I'd much
prefer to be running the vacuum in stained yellow sweats and dirty sneakers
than standing up before a jury in a power suit and high heels to defend a
client who was probably guilty as sin. Household dirt is a whole lot cleaner
than the other kind.

After the downstairs
was as respectable as it was going to get, I took the vacuum and worked my way
up the stairs and down the upstairs hallway. But when I got as far as Brian's
bathroom, I found something that needed doing more than the carpet. There were
at least three loads of laundry heaped on the floor, including (my nose told
me) several moldy towels and maybe a dozen filthy socks. Take it from me—when
you marry a man with a thirteen-year-old boy, the deal had better include a
reliable washer and dryer and an ample supply of detergent and hot water.

I was starting the
second load when the phone rang. I went into the bedroom, picked up the
cordless, and started back to the laundry room.

"Mornin',
China," Blackie said. "I've got a problem."

"Haven't we all?" I asked,
thinking that when I finished Brian's laundry, I'd better go over to Ruby's
house. There was still no answer to my persistent calls, and I was getting a
little worried.

There was a click on
the line. "Hello," my husband said cheerfully. "McQuaid
here."

"Ah,
both of you," Blackie said. "That's good."

"Excuse me,
China," McQuaid said. "I didn't know you'd picked up the phone."

"That's
okay," I said, cradling the phone with my shoulder as I dredged one of
Brian's muddy towels out of the laundry basket. "I'll get off the line and
let you guys talk. I'm pretty busy just now." I shook out the towel and
discovered one of Brian's large lizards. "Yikes!" I said, startled,
and then, "Damn," because the silly thing had dived into the washing
machine, which was half full of dirty clothes and soapy water. And then
"Damn" again, louder this time, because there wasn't just one lizard,
there were two, and the second was paddling around with his buddy in the
soapsuds.

"Excuse
me?" Blackie asked.

"What's
going on?" McQuaid asked.

"I'm doing the
laundry, that's what's going on," I said
disgustedly.
I
hit
the
washer
's
Off
button and
began
to
fish around in the water.
"And Brian is going to lose his Internet privileges if he doesn't keep
better tabs on his lizards. Last week, I found one curled up inside my bath
mitt. Now there's a pair going for a swim in the washer."

"Better fish them out," McQuaid said
urgently. "They're not amphibians. They'll drown."

"Serve 'em
right," I gritted. I grabbed one by the tail and tossed it into the
laundry sink.

"I realize that you two have
other things on your mind," Blackie said mildly, "but I need China's
help. This is an official problem."

I retrieved the
second lizard and sent it after the first. "You'll have to get in
line," I said. "After I've finished the laundry and the vacuuming, I
have to go check on Ruby." "Then there's the grocery shopping.
Then—"

"The mail
carrier found Carl Swenson in the ditch in front of his place about an hour
ago," Blackie said. "Dead."

"Dead!"
McQuaid blew out his breath.

I said, cautiously,
"I don't suppose the sheriff would be involved if Swenson had died of
natural causes. A heart attack, say." I thought of Terry's shotgun, and
shivered.

"Right the first
time," Blackie replied. "I'm at the scene now."

"So how
did
he
die?" McQuaid asked. "Hit and run," Blackie replied.

I felt an intense relief. Not a shotgun, after
all. And the last time I'd seen the Fletcher sisters' van, the engine had been
in pieces all over the ground.

"When did it
happen?" I asked. In the laundry sink, the two lizards were scrabbling
over one another, trying to climb up the slick sides.

"Sometime yesterday," Blackie replied.
"It rained about ten o'clock last night. Swenson's clothes are wet. The
ground under him is dry."

"What
do you want China for?" McQuaid asked.

Blackie grunted.
"Isn't it obvious? The Fletcher sisters live less than a mile away. They
had a couple of dozen good reasons to want this guy dead. I need to hear their
story, and I thought the conversation might be more comfortable for them if
China was there. If she can spare the time from her laundry." His voice
became dry. "And her lizards."

"Wait a
minute," I said. "I hope you're not asking me because I'm a member of
the bar." But that didn't make sense. A sheriff doesn't take a lawyer with
him to question a suspect. It's up to the suspect to get a lawyer.

"Lord help us," Blackie
said. "No. I'm asking you because you're their friend, and they've
already talked to you about their problems with Swenson."

I was silent for a moment, thinking.
I've never known Blackie to lie, but I couldn't help thinking there was more to
it than that. "Do you have any particular reason to suspect that Donna
and Terry are involved in Swenson's death?" I asked warily.

"Other than your
graphic description of Terry and her shotgun?" Blackie countered.
"And the fact that they're the nearest neighbors?"

"They're not the
nearest neighbors," I retorted. "Somebody named Tuttle lives on the
other side of the road, around the curve. I've seen the name on the mailbox.
And there's a house trailer just past the Tuttle place, on the other side of
the road. The Fletcher farm is further on. Anyway, their van isn't drivable,
remember? Somebody put sugar in the gas tank."

"Yeah, I
remember," Blackie said. "And thanks for the information about the
neighbors. We'll check out these other folks." He paused. "But I
really would like you to be there when I talk to the ladies, China. It'd be
easier for them, and for me. What do you say?"

"She says yes," McQuaid put in promptly.
"Right, hon? You don't have much to do this morning, do you?"

I gritted my teeth. Being called "hon"
is my biggest peeve, next to lizards in the laundry, having words put into my
mouth, and hearing that I don't have much to do. But the Fletcher sisters were
my friends, or at least Donna was. She'd probably feel better if the sheriff
showed up in my company. Anyway, who was I trying to kid? I wanted to know what
had happened to Swenson and I wasn't going to learn it hanging out here,
chasing lizards and waiting for bulletins from the sheriff's office.

And there was an added incentive, albeit a trivial
one that I am slightly embarrassed to mention in the face of death. It was
obvious that Carl Swenson wouldn't be delivering any more mistletoe. If I
wanted some for the shop,

I was going to have to harvest it
myself—and there was a very nice batch of it growing along the right-of-way not
far from where the man had been killed.

"Okay,"
I said. "I'll be there as soon as I can, Blackie."

"Thanks,"
Blackie said. "I appreciate this, China."

"I don't have
anything very important to do this morning," McQuaid said promptly.
"I'll drive you, China."

"If you've got
some time, that would be great, Mike," Blackie said. "I'm short a
deputy today. You can lend a pair of hands."

"Another pair of eyes never hurts,
either," McQuaid said. To me, he added: "I hope you got those lizards
out of the wash."

"They're in the
sink," I said. I leaned over to look in. One lizard was in the sink. The
other was missing, and so was the drain cover. The absent lizard had probably
gone down the drain.

Chapter
Five

 

In Wales, a sprig of
mistletoe gathered on Midsummer Eve is placed under the pillow to induce prophetic
dreams.

Welsh folklore

 

European mistletoe
has long been known as "allheal, " a plant with many medicinal
applications. It has a long tradition of use as a remedy for epilepsy and other
convulsive disorders, and as a heart tonic, in place of foxglove (digitalis).
American mistletoe was used by Indians to treat toothache, measles, and dog
bites.

China Bayles
"Mistletoe Magic"

 

 

 

 

When we got to the crime scene a
half-hour later, Swenson's body still lay on the ground, probably because the
local Justice of the Peace had arrived only a few minutes before we did. In
Texas, when death by foul play is suspected, a JP is supposed to inspect the
scene and file a report—an archaic requirement that sometimes causes a fair
amount of confusion and delay. This particular JP was a man named Bull Arnold,
who is not known for his high intellectual achievements or his skills in
diplomacy. He's coming up for reelection next year, and there's going to be
some stiff competition for the post. I know that Blackie, for one, will be just
as glad if Bull loses.

Bull is a
loud-talking, barrel-chested man who moves as slow as molasses on a cold
December morning. This morning was plenty cold too, with the temperature
hovering around 35 degrees and a chill drizzle misting through the air. Blackie
and his deputy, who was holding a camera, were standing beside the sheriff's
car, talking to Bull. They were wearing hooded yellow slickers, and McQuaid and
I pulled on our own slickers as we got out of the truck. McQuaid left his cane
in the truck. Macho pride, I thought. But I was glad to see him getting around
without it.

Bull squinted at us through rain-spotted glasses.
He took the damp cigar out of his mouth. "Well, if it ain't McQuaid,"
he bellowed. "Thought they booted you outta the chief's job a coupla
months ago and put that goldanged woman in your place. What the hail you doin'
out here?"

McQuaid smiled.
"Oh, just keeping my hand in. Don't want to get rusty, you know." He
turned to Blackie. "How's that goldanged woman of yours, Sheriff?"

"The chief? Hey, she's doing
great." Blackie's eyes lightened. He shot a sidelong glance at Bull.
"She stopped a guy for running a light yesterday and found a quarter-pound
of crack stashed in his trunk."

"Sheila's one
tough cookie," McQuaid said. He looked directly at Bull, who colored.
"Smart, too. Got the makings of a goldanged good chief." He turned
toward Swenson's body, which was covered with a yellow tarp.

Bull jammed his cigar back in his
mouth. "Seems like it was a hit and run," he barked importantly, to
show that this was his precinct and he was still boss. "That's how I'm
gonna write it up. Somebody came along, accidently clipped him a good 'un, and
got scairt. Fled the scene."

"Any
idea what time it happened?" I asked.

Bull gave me a look which suggested that I
shouldn't have been allowed to leave my laundry. "Sometime 'fore dark
yestiddy," he said, gesturing toward an aluminum ladder that was leaning
against a hackberry tree. "It looks like he wuz out here trimmin' trees.
Which don't make a hail of a lotta sense." He frowned, and I could see him
wondering why anybody would go to the trouble of trimming hackberries along a
county road.

Blackie pursed his
lips. "Hey, Bull, I sure hate for you to stand around out here all morning
and get wet. Why don't you go on back to your office? We'll wrap it up here,
and you can fax me your paperwork."

An EMS ambulance came around the corner and pulled
onto the grass. They weren't running the siren, and they didn't seem in a big
hurry. They'd probably been told that their patient wasn't going to suffer a
relapse.

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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