Read Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09 Online

Authors: Susan Wittig Albert

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Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09 (7 page)

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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"I'm afraid you guys aren't taking this very
seriously," I said, going back to the subject. I looked across the table
at McQuaid and Blackie. "We're talking about two women and their elderly
aunt being harassed by a man who told them he intends to run them off their
land. You don't want Terry to ventilate Swenson's backside with a load of
double-O buckshot, do you?"

"I suppose you
advised them to document all their interactions with this guy," McQuaid
said.

"You
bet," I said emphatically.

"How about an alarm system?" Sheila
suggested. She frowned. "Although that won't work if they've got livestock.
Any movement triggers the alarm."

"Do
they have a dog?" Blackie asked.

"Didn't I tell you about
that?" I replied. "Somebody set a trap that nearly took off his leg.
On
their
property."

"Burglar's rule number one," Sheila
said. "Disable the dog."

"Tell them they
need to file for a peace bond," McQuaid advised. "They might not get
it, but it'll put the situation on record. Then all they have to do is get
evidence that Swenson is behind the vandalism."

"Easier said
than done," I replied. "I just hope the first piece of evidence isn't
a dead body."

 

While the guys did
the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen, Sheila and I went into the living room
to settle down in front of the fire with a glass of apple brandy, Fannie
Couch's annual holiday gift to all her friends. Fannie starts making it in
October, as soon as she can find Granny Smith apples at the grocery, and by
Christmas, it's tasty and mildly alcoholic.

"You don't think
Terry would actually shoot Swenson, do you?" Sheila asked. She sat down on
the sofa and propped her boots up on the old pine carpenter's chest we use for
a coffee table. Not just any boots, either, but trim suede boots that were the
perfect complement to her fawn-colored stirrup pants and matching bulky knit
sweater.

"I doubt
it," I said, poking the fire. "But they've been harassed for weeks,
they're probably not getting enough sleep, and their nerves are raw. You can't
tell what might happen in a situation like that, especially if Swenson goes
poking around there after dark." I took a split oak log out of the copper
wash boiler that serves as our woodbox and put it on the fire. "It's too
bad the law can't intervene before something happens, rather than waiting until
somebody turns up dead. If you ask me, Blackie has probable cause to talk to
Swenson about the vandalism at the farm."

"What
about evidence?" Sheila asked dryly.

I
straightened. "What about articulable suspicion?"

Sheila arched both
eyebrows. "China, I'm surprised at you. You're the one who's always
talking about the need to preserve privacy and to keep the government out of
people's business."

I sat down in McQuaid's
big leather chair and took a sip of brandy. "I know," I said,
"but—"

"But what? You
really don't want Blackie to bang on Swenson's door and order him to stay away
from the farm—which he still owns, by the way, until the sisters pay off the
note. And you certainly don't want him to send one of his deputies out there to
confiscate Terry's shotgun. You'd be the first to start yelling police
harassment." She grinned. "Why, you'd probably be standing in line to
offer your legal services in a lawsuit against the sheriff's office."

"That's the old
me," I said. "I'm a little more mellow these days. But you're right—I
don't like the idea of the cops interfering. And Terry isn't keen on getting
the law involved either." I paused. "It strikes me that this is a lot
like a stalking case, Smart Cookie. As a law-enforcement officer, what do you
do when a woman comes to you and accuses her former boyfriend of harassing her?
You know, the usual little things." I gave her an ironic look.
"Cutting her phone line, slashing her tires, entering her house when she's
at work. Do you tell her to be cool, be calm, and come back to see you after
he's taken a shot at her? Or do you tell her to go out and get herself a hungry
rottweiler and a 9mm handgun?"

"Well
..."
Sheila shifted uncomfortably. "It's a problem.
You may see something coming but you don't always have the power to stop it.
The ex-boyfriend is innocent until he's proven guilty. The Fletcher sisters
don't have any proof that Swenson is their vandal. And everybody's got a right
to privacy."

"Seems like
privacy is the issue of the week." I laughed shortly. "Ruby brought
it up this morning when I tried to get her to tell me what was on her
mind."

Sheila drained her
glass and put it down on the end table, her brow furrowed. "I'm glad you
mentioned that, China. I'm really worried about Ruby. We were supposed to have
lunch together last Monday, but she didn't show up. I called her, but she
wasn't at home or at the shop."

"She's
closed on Mondays," I said.

"Right. It
turned out that she'd gone to Austin and forgotten all about our lunch. We
rescheduled for a couple of days later, but she called and canceled. And then,
when I went over to the shop this afternoon to ask her if she'd like to spend
Christmas Eve together, she said she wasn't making any plans for the holiday.
She said she might not be here."

I sat up straight. "Might not be
here? But Christmas is her favorite holiday!" Ruby usually hosts an early
December tree-decorating party for her friends, organizes a carol-sing for the
kids on her block, and roasts a couple of Christmas Day turkeys for her entire
family (two grownup daughters, three sisters, mother, and a startling assortment
of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins). "I've been at her house
when she cooked for twenty-seven people and we had to eat in shifts," I
added. "She may be a flake who reads the stars and consults the spirits,
but she's passionate about the holidays. She looks forward to Christmas all
year long. There's no way she'd miss it."

Sheila nodded.
"That's what I thought. I pushed her a little, but her last word on the
subject was 'Bug off,' so I did. She seemed awfully jittery, as if she was
under a lot of stress." Sheila chewed on her upper lip. "Which isn't
like Ruby at all, you know. She's usually very laid-back."

"I know," I
said. "It's a big mystery. But thanks for telling me. Now I know it isn't
something I've done."

"She's been acting weird to you, too?"
Sheila asked, surprised.

"Very. I thought
it might have something to do with the partnership, or maybe it was McQuaid and
me." I sighed. "I certainly don't intend for her to feel left out,
but with the shop and the tearoom and Brian and McQuaid, there hasn't been much
time left over. I thought maybe she was feeling neglected."

"I know how that
is," Sheila said ruefully. "The chief's job is so demanding that I'm
ready to crawl into bed at nine o'clock. You and Ruby are the only friends I
have left—and I don't see you often enough." She paused. "Maybe
Ruby's feeling overworked and wants to take some time off. Are things going
okay with the new tearoom?"

"I think so. The
remodeling took longer and cost more than we thought. And we had to experiment
a good deal in the first month or so, trying to get the menus right and the
costs down. But then Mrs. Kendall showed up, just when we needed an experienced
cook, and she had a bushel of great ideas. When she took over the kitchen,
everything clicked into place." I lifted the brandy bottle inquiringly,
and Sheila held out her glass for a refill.

"I've been wondering if Ruby might be upset
about Hark," Sheila said, while I poured.

"That occurred to me, too," I said.
"But I don't know what the problem could be. They seem to get along together—which
has sort of surprised me. They're not at all alike."

"I can hazard a guess at the problem,"
Sheila said. "Hark's been seeing Lynn Hughes lately."

"Lynn
Hughes!" I squawked. "Why, she's hardly out of puberty!" Lynn
works in Charlie Lipman's law office. She's a sweet young thing, with the
accent on "young." She just finished her senior year at CTSU in June.

"Well, she's a little older than that,"
Sheila said with a smile. "She's smart, as well as pretty. And since Hark
lost all that weight, he's very nice-looking. I can see the attraction."

I poured another glass for myself. "How do
you know they're dating?"

"I've run into
them at lunch twice, and last weekend, Blackie and I saw them at CrandalPs.
They were, shall we say, tete a tete? Very cozy."

"Crandall's,"
I muttered. It's a fancy new restaurant with an elegant ambiance and a
big-ticket menu, the kind of place you take someone you want to impress.
"Poor Ruby."

"So you think that's Ruby's problem?"
Sheila asked worriedly. "She and Hark have broken up, and she's eating her
heart out?"

"It makes sense. She's dated Hark longer than
anybody else since her divorce." I frowned. "But why hasn't she told
us? Why is she making such a big deal about keeping it secret?"

"Maybe her pride
is hurt," Sheila said. "Lynn is
...
well, young. Even if Ruby's not that upset about losing Hark, it might be a
real blow to her self-esteem."

"You'd think the
guy would have better sense." I shook my head sadly. "Poor
Ruby," I said again. "She's always worked so hard to keep her own
balance and not let outside forces send her into a tailspin."

"She must love Hark more than we
guessed," Sheila said. "She probably sees his interest in Lynn as a
terrible betrayal. I can understand that."

I nodded, agreeing. Yes, I could understand that feeling,
too. I'd been there myself.

 

McQuaid, clad only in
T-shirt and jockey shorts, rinsed toothpaste out of his mouth and glanced at me
in the bathroom mirror. "What does Hark see in Lynn Hughes?" He
repeated my question with an amused smile and an arch of one black brow.
"I should think that would be obvious."

"But Hark is old
enough to be her father," I said, around my toothbrush.

He dried his hands on
a towel. "So what? Lots of older guys get their heads turned by young
women." He colored slightly and looked away.

Almost a year ago now, McQuaid had had a brief
affair with a younger woman, a Texas Ranger. It caused me enormous pain at the
time, but after all the trauma of the months following the affair—McQuaid's
getting shot, his difficult recovery, the unhappy accident in a barn that laid
me up for a couple of months—it has assumed a place of minor significance in
our relationship. You don't linger on something like that. You accept it and
get on with your life, and after a while you look up and see that what was once
a vast and ugly crater in the green landscape of your experience isn't even
visible any longer. Ruby would find that to be true, too—but in the meantime,
there was still the hurt.

McQuaid put a
still-wet hand on my shoulder. "What I mean is," he said in an
explanatory tone, "that maybe Ruby isn't
...
well, paying enough attention to him. After all, she's been pretty busy with
the new tearoom."

I rolled my eyes, not believing what I'd just
heard. "That's it," I said disgustedly. "Blame the victim."
I rinsed out my mouth and made a face at him in the mirror. "Are you going
to talk to Hark?"

McQuaid stepped back and leaned against the door,
playing dumb. "Talk to Hark? What about?" He had stripped off his
shirt, and I could see the jagged scars, reminders of the shooting.

"What
about!" I whirled. "About Ruby, that's what! She's so upset that she
can't even share her feelings with her best friend. Hark needs to know how much
pain and suffering he's causing."

McQuaid shook his head. "It's none of our
business, China," he said quietly. "Whatever's going on, it's a
private matter. Stay out of it."

"But
she's my best friend!"

"Ruby's an adult. She's a strong
woman. She can handle whatever comes her way."

"You haven't
seen her," I said grimly. "You don't know."

"I just know
that it's not our business. Anyway, Hark may not be the problem." McQuaid
paused. "Ruby could be upset about Wade coming back to Pecan
Springs."

"Wade? Wade
Wilcox?" He was Ruby's ex, whom she divorced nearly ten years ago. It had
been an acrimonious divorce, full of bitter arguments about money and property.
The last I'd heard, Wade was living it up in Denver with the young woman for
whom he'd left Ruby. That memory brought me up short. Hark Hibler wasn't the
first man who had betrayed Ruby for a younger woman—she had been

BOOK: Mistletoe Man - China Bayles 09
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