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Authors: Susan Wittig Albert

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BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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"But Bozo's
goats ain't got no water," the old woman said cheerily. She took a small
wooden box from the pocket of her jacket and put it on the table. "D'ja
ever meet Louie?" Louie had been Velda's brother.

"Not now, Aunt
Velda," Donna said hastily, but it was too late. The old lady lifted the
lid and the box began to play the first few bars of "The Eyes of Texas Are
Upon You."

Aunt Velda gazed
fondly into the box. "There he is," she said. "Ain't he
fine?" She sifted the gray grit through her fingers. "O' course,
there wuz more of him once, but I left some here and there. On Mars and
Jupiter. Venus too. He alius liked Venus."

"I'm sure,"
I said, smiling. "Thank you for letting me have a look."

Satisfied, Aunt Velda put the lid back
on Louie's box and the tune stopped abruptly.

"If Swenson
needs the water for his livestock," I said to Donna, "you could sell
him some."

"We told him we'd be glad to let
him run a pipe from Mistletoe Spring to his stock tank. All we wanted was a
nominal fee—a dollar a year, say—that would acknowledge our ownership. But
that only seemed to make him angrier." Donna made a face. "Anyway,
the water isn't the only issue. It's the pecan trees, too. Apparently, his
father grafted those pecans back in the twenties, with some sort of special
stock. And of course, he's always gathered the mistletoe there. I guess he
figures we're going to cut it and sell it ourselves."

"You bet we are," Aunt Velda
said with satisfaction. She gave me a commanding look. "Next year, you're
gonna buy ever' last bit of your mistletoe from us, y'hear?"

"Sounds like a
complicated situation," I said. "I wonder how Swenson managed to
misplace the boundary line."

"The surveyor
said it was because the land is so broken and hilly along that ridge,"
Donna replied. "I wish we could negotiate some sort of deal," she
added unhappily, "but Carl won't listen to reason. He swore he was going
to make our lives so miserable that we'd be glad to turn the place back over to
him. And now we think he's resorting to vandalism. First there were the goats,
which practically destroyed our new peach trees, and the possum trap that Max
got into, which was set on our property. Then there was the sugar in Lizzie's
gas tank, which has caused no end of trouble. And last week, somebody slashed
the plastic covering on the small greenhouse, where we had some plug trays
filled with campanula seedlings. We can repair the greenhouse, but it's way too
late in the year to reseed those plants. They were a big investment—the seed
isn't cheap." She rubbed her forehead with her fingers. "Terry and I
have been standing watch at night, but we can't keep that up forever. You're a
lawyer, China—we were hoping that you could tell us how to put an end to
this."

It's true that I'm still a lawyer.
I've been careful to keep my options open by maintaining my membership in the
Texas Bar. But I haven't been in a courtroom since I came to Pecan Springs, and
I'm not ready to start now. Still, I could see that the Fletcher sisters had a
problem and I wanted to help them if I could. I admire women for whom the
impossible is all in a day's work.

Aunt Velda leaned
over and stroked Donna's blue-jeaned thigh. "I keep tellin' you,
dear," she said comfortingly, "Carlos Swansong is history. You'll
see—they're gonna take care of him. Next thing he knows, he'll be up there
cleaning out them Klingon latrines."

"It doesn't sound as if you have
the evidence to get Swenson charged with vandalism," I said, "but you
might be able to make a stalking charge stick. You'd have to testify that on at
least one occasion he threatened, either by his actions or his words, to
inflict injury on you, your family, or your property. Were there any witnesses
to his temper tantrum?"

"Just Aunt Velda
and me," Donna said. She hesitated. "Would Aunt Velda have to testify
in court?"

I frowned. The case
would stand a better chance if the old lady could testify, but she'd make a
terrible witness. Anyway, stalking was only a Class B misdemeanor, which at
best would get Swenson a two-thousand-dollar fine, maybe a few weeks in jail.
Or maybe not, depending on the judge.

"How about an
alarm system?" I asked. "Or maybe you could hire somebody to keep an
eye on the place at night."

"We've already thought of an alarm,"
Donna said, "but we don't have that kind of money. And both of us agree
that even if we could afford a security guard, we don't want one. We value our
privacy. And who wants to live in an armed camp?"

I could understand that. "Well, my best
advice is to document everything," I said. "Every event that
happens, every word he says to you. Take your flash camera when you stand watch
at night. If you could get a picture of him doing his dirty work, he could be
charged with criminal mischief. That could be a first-degree felony, depending
on the amount of the damage. It would put him out of circulation for a
while."

Donna looked crestfallen, and I knew
she hoped I'd come up with something more sure-fire. "I'll talk it over
with Sheriff Blackwell," I added. "He's a good friend of my
husband's, and it happens that he's coming over for dinner tonight."
My
husband.
Like
"Mom," the words had the power to jolt me into the sudden awareness
that my life had radically changed.

"Is Mike still the Pecan Springs police
chief?" Donna asked.

I shook my head. "He was just filling in
until the City Council hired a new chief." McQuaid had left Houston
Homicide some years before, earned a Ph.D., and joined the CTSU faculty. He was
a natural for the job of interim police chief, and had been the Council's first
choice for the permanent position. But he took himself out of the running when
our friend Sheila Dawson applied for the job, and was as glad as I was when she
got it—or at least, that's what he told me. "Chief Dawson will be there
tonight too," I added. McQuaid and I tried to get together with Sheila and
Blackie at least one Saturday night a month. "Maybe the four of us will be
able to come up with an answer to your problem."

"I keep tellin'
you," Aunt Velda said jovially. She had taken off her Klingon badge and
was polishing it on her sleeve. "Carlos ain't no problem. My friends
upstairs'll take care of him."

 

Chapter
Three

 

The ancient Italian opinion that mistletoe extinguishes
fire appears to be shared by Swedish peasants, who hang up bunches of
oak-mistletoe on the ceilings of their rooms as a protection against harm in
general and conflagration in particular.

Sir James George
Frazer
The Golden Bough

Sitting under the mistletoe (Pale green, fairy
mistletoe) One last candle burning low, All the sleepy dancers gone, Just one
candle burning on. Shadows lurking everywhere: Someone came and kissed me
there.

Walter de la Mare

 

 

 

Twilight was falling and Donna and I
had just finished loading the wreath boxes into the truck when Terry drove in.
She climbed out of the borrowed car and came toward us.

"Hello,
China," she said, hardly smiling.

If you didn't already know, you'd never guess that
Donna and Terry are sisters. Donna is slender and decorative, while Terry
looks as if she'd be more at home behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer rig.
If this had been summer, the blue heart tattoo on her right bicep would've been
visible, but she was wearing a corduroy jacket zipped to her chin, and a black
cowboy hat, cocked at a combative angle. She has a tough face, and she doesn't
smile easily. She's not a woman you'd want to cross.

"Donna told me that you've got a problem with
Lizzie," I said, gesturing toward the old brown van, which was parked
alongside a red Ford pickup that sagged in the right rear. The truck's
passenger-side door was slightly concave and the broken window was covered with
a taped-on piece of cardboard.

Terry's strong mouth
tightened. "Yeah. Swenson dumped sugar in the tank, and it gummed up
everything. Looks like I'll have to pull the head and replace the valves. Maybe
the carburetor, too. We'd get a new van if we weren't trying to pay off the
note on this place."

"We don't
know
it
was Swenson," Donna said in a nervous tone.

"Don't be a
fool, Donna," Terry said sharply. "Who else would it be? Auntie's
Klingons?" She slanted a glance at me. "Donna give you a rundown on
the situation?"

I nodded. "I
suggested taking a flash camera with you when you go on watch at night. You might
get enough evidence to stick him with felony criminal mischief. Another
alternative is to try for a restraining order. That way, if he comes around you
can call—"

"Call who?"
Terry asked curtly. "The county mounties don't cruise out here. By the
time the sheriff shows up, the damage will be done. Anyway, we don't want
people messing around. This is our place, and it's private." She grinned
mirthlessly. "But I've got a shotgun. That'll take care of the bastard,
and we won't have to wait for the law to get around to it."

Donna gave me an anxious glance. "She doesn't
mean that," she said, in a half-whisper. "She's just talking big. She
does that when she gets angry."

"The hell I
don't!" Terry exploded angrily. "Crissakes, Donna, wake up and face
facts! Swenson wants us off the place, and he's willing to do whatever it takes
to make that happen. If we let him get away with this, we're in for a lot
worse. How would you like to wake up one night and find the barn on fire? Or
the house? If that bastard comes on our land and starts damaging our property,
I've got a right to shoot him. Isn't that so, China?"

"Under certain
conditions," I said carefully, wishing she hadn't put me on the spot. When
it comes to using deadly force to protect yourself and your property, Texas is
more permissive than most other states, and juries often give defendants the
benefit of the doubt. I cleared my throat. "If Swenson came into your
house with the intent of harming you or vandalizing your property, the court
would probably hold that you were justified in shooting him, especially if he
were armed." I gave her a warning glance. "But if you shoot an
unarmed trespasser who presents no threat—"

"Oh, he presents
a threat, all right," Terry growled. She shook her head. "You can forget
that camera shit. I'll take care of Carl Swenson."

And with that, she
turned on her heel and strode off.

 

 

"So what did you say after she
said that?" McQuaid asked, leaning his elbows on the kitchen table. He
held out his dessert plate. "I'll have another piece of your great cheesecake."

I pushed back my chair and stood up. "It's
not my cheesecake," I said. "Mrs. Kendall made it. We didn't sell all
of it today, so I brought home what was left. Pretty good, huh?"

"Don't change the subject, China," Blackie
Blackwell said. "I want to hear what an officer of the court said when
this jolly green giant threatened to use her shotgun on Carl Swenson."

"Terry isn't a giant," I retorted, going
to the kitchen counter. "She's just
...
well, strong. And full of righteous indignation."

"I guess I'm not
surprised to hear that they're having trouble with Carl Swenson," Sheila
Dawson said. "He's a weirdo. I ran into him at Bean's a couple of weeks
ago, where he was selling some goats to Bob." Bob Godwin, the owner of
Bean's Bar & Grill, raises goats for a hobby. "He and Bob got into a
major disagreement over who owed what, and Bob ordered him out of the place.
Swenson almost slammed the door off the hinges." She looked up at me.
"If you're cutting more cheesecake, I'll take a slice."

"While you're up, I'll have some
too," Blackie said. "That cook of yours can make cheesecake for me
any day of the week."

"Swenson's not
all that weird," McQuaid said, as I handed out second helpings. "The
Hill Country is full of loners like him. They build themselves a cabin or get a
little house trailer, buy a few goats and a four-wheel drive, and come to town
when they're low on supplies."

"Or crave female
company," Blackie said.

Sheila made a face. "That might not be easy
for Swenson. He smells. Essence of goat."

"There you go, Sheriff,"
McQuaid said. "You've got nothing to worry about."

We all laughed comfortably. Sheila and Blackie,
who are both in law enforcement, seem to be a perfect match. Blackie is a
third-generation lawman—a square-shouldered, square-jawed, laconic man with a
lot of savvy, the kind of guy you wouldn't mind having around if you found yourself
in a jam. Sheila spent several years as a street cop before she took the job of
chief of security at CTSU. Now she's the chief of police for Pecan Springs, a
job she took over from McQuaid a couple of months ago, after she solved Edgar
Coleman's murder (with a little help from Ruby and me). Sheila—her friends call
her Smart Cookie— has got to be the most striking police chief in the entire
United States. She's tall and blond, with a delicate, willowy grace that would
make her look at home in an evening gown at the Junior League Ball. But looks
are deceiving. She's tough and she don't take no sass, as we say around here.

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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