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Goodness Gracious Green - The Green Series #2
By Judy Christie
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA free puppy has turned into a costly venture for Alice Procell. Miss Alice, 84, adopted Rowdy from Animal Rescue. "I chose him because he was hopping all over his pen and asking me to take him home," she said. In the car, Rowdy continued his enthusiastic ways, crawling onto her lap. "I tried to concentrate on my driving, but that little feller wouldn't take no for an answer." As she pulled into her driveway, Rowdy put himself between our friend and the brake pedal. Not wanting to harm her puppy, she drove through the back of her garage. "All that I hurt was my pride. I've been driving for 70 years and this is my first accident." —The Green News-Item
Don't be fooled by the sweater vests.
I looked out the window and saw the Big Boys standing on my porch. They looked like social studies teachers, except for the grimaces ... and the briefcase.
Of course, in my sweat pants, Mammoth Cave T-shirt, and ponytail, I looked like a high school gym teacher who had fallen on hard times. Maybe I should have chosen the shower over the extra cup of coffee.
I opened the door, loath to start my second year in Green with these men.
"Good morning, Chuck, Dub," I said. "What brings you out to Route 2 so early?" I shivered as a chilly wind blew, and stepped aside for them to enter.
They exchanged a brief look, walked into the warm room, and glanced around the old cottage I happily call home, filled with antiques and a sprinkling of modern art. "Haven't been in here in a while," Dub said. "Aunt Helen loved this place. Lots of memories. You've done a nice job with it."
Chuck frowned at his brother and interrupted in a harsh tone. "Sorry to bother you on New Year's Day, but this isn't a social call. We need to talk to you right away."
"Newspaper business, family matters," Dub said, almost apologetically. "We want to straighten this out before it goes any further."
I motioned to the slip-covered couch and was relieved when they took a seat, giving me a moment to collect my thoughts.
"We've heard some disturbing things around town, Miss Barker. We need to talk to you," Chuck said.
"So you mentioned," I murmured. "I assume you're not here to tell me Happy New Year."
Chuck, the extra-bossy brother, started to stand up, reconsidered, and sat back down. Overweight and red-faced, he breathed loudly, almost with a wheeze. He must have put on forty pounds in the past six months. "We're here to buy back The News-Item," he said. "We're prepared to make you a good offer."
"A real good offer," Dub said. A fairly trim man, he was aging better than his older brother. He looked fit today and seemed almost cheerful. He wore his standard khakis and a crisp long-sleeved lilac shirt under a purple-and-gold plaid vest. Dressed like that, he left no doubt he rooted for his beloved LSU Tigers.
"The paperwork's all drawn up, and we'll give you a check today." Chuck clicked open the leather satchel and pulled out files. His brother fished in the shirt pocket under his vest and produced an expensive fountain pen.
"But ... but ..." I shook my head. "The Item isn't for sale. I own the newspaper. The staff and I own it."
"Of course it's for sale," Chuck said. "Everything's for sale. We heard about that ridiculous little profit-sharing ploy of yours, letting employees have a piece of the action. Won't work." He held out a check and waved it in my face. "This is a generous offer. Take it. Take it."
I stepped back, nearly falling over the ottoman in front of my favorite chair. Like the water moccasins that lived in the pond across the road, Chuck looked ready to strike at any moment. Neighbors who lived closer would be nice right about now.
"I'm not sure what this is all about, but let me emphasize that The Green News-Item is not for sale. I have established a partnership with the employees, and we have big plans for this year. End of story."
I walked to the door, as dignified as I could be in my saggy fleece pants. My heart pounded and my hand trembled as I opened the door an inch or two, still facing the men.
"Green means too much to me to even listen to you two," I said. "I'm staying here. You're going."
Before Chuck and Dub could stand, a light knock sounded, and the door swung open further. In walked Mayor Eva Hillburn, carrying her spoiled Yorkie terrier, Sugar Marie.
"Happy New Year, Lois," Eva said. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at the McCuller men, a rare show of what she was feeling. She nodded and stroked her dog's back. "Dub. Chuck. I thought that was your truck out front. Have I come at a bad time?"
"This is a great time, Mayor," I said. I reached around the dog to give her a half hug.
At the same time I leaned toward Eva, Dub moved off the couch, an odd mix of delight and dismay on his face. His jerky motion in the direction of the mayor seemed to startle the little dog, who barked and tried to get out of Eva's arms. Chuck clapped his hands loudly and said, "Hush, you little mutt."
I stepped closer to the mayor, and that seemed to be it for Sugar Marie. She barked again and jumped at me, biting me on the face. For good measure, she nipped my hand. The living room, already tense, became frenzied. Dub hurried forward. Eva turned, hugging the whimpering dog. I reached my hand to my cheek and felt blood.
Maybe year two in Green was not going to be so great after all.
"Sugar Marie, bad girl, bad girl," Eva said, stroking her.
"Oh my word," Dub said, handing me the white handkerchief he always carried. "Use this. Apply pressure."
"Good gosh," Chuck said, snapping the briefcase shut and rising. "It's only a scratch. That obnoxious little fur ball couldn't hurt a fly. She's not a Rottweiler. Come on, Dub."
They moved toward the door, and Chuck turned to look at me as the brothers stepped onto the porch. "This conversation is not over. We'll be in touch."
Stunned, I didn't say a word. I started to offer Dub his handkerchief, but it had blood on it. I held it back to my face, my mouth ajar, as though I had a bad cold and couldn't breathe through my nose. Eva began to examine the bite while I watched the McCullers slam the gigantic black pickup doors, spin gravel on the driveway, and head toward Green.
"I have no idea what that was about," I said and dabbed at my eye, noting more blood.
"Goodness gracious! What a way to start the year," Eva said. "I'm so sorry." The mayor, a normally calm woman with a personality as controlled as her hairdo, shook her head and steered me inside. She apologized again and scolded Sugar Marie.
"I'm thrilled you're staying in Green, and now look at what's happened. We have to get you to the doctor.... Sugar Marie, whatever came over you?"
Eva was more flustered than I had ever seen her, even during the final days of the tight mayoral race. "Did she get your eye? Here, let me take another look." She buzzed around me like a hummingbird going for a feeder, her hum of anxiety almost audible.
Sugar Marie, now out of Eva's arms, sniffed around the room. I wondered if the dog would insult me further by peeing on the floor, but she settled for picking up one of my slippers and tossing it about violently. I headed into the bedroom to assess the damage to my face, and the animal growled at me—growled at me—in my own home ... after biting me on the first anniversary of my arrival in Green.
But Sugar Marie had broken up a very unexpected meeting with the Big Boys. Maybe that was worth a small facial scar. Probably even a doggie treat.
"This needs medical attention," Eva said, back to her take-charge self and only a step behind me as I peered into the mirror. "Face wounds always bleed more. I insist on taking you to see Dr. Kevin. I know she'll meet her best buddy at the clinic, even if it is a holiday."
"I think it'll be okay," I said. "It probably looks worse than it is."
"I've got to take good care of my local newspaper owner," Eva said. "I hear she intends to stay in town for years." She smiled and smoothed her khaki skirt.
"I came over, by the way, to congratulate you on your last-minute decision. Never seen anything like it in all my life. I thought for sure you had sold that newspaper. I had even forgiven you for not selling it to me."
I sank onto the sofa and watched the mayor pace around the room, straightening a stack of magazines, fluffing a throw pillow, and adjusting the shade on a lamp. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sugar Marie return to the house shoe and pull at the fleece lining with her pointy teeth.
"Eva, you don't know how happy I am to be in Green today ... how thankful. I'd hug you again if it weren't for Sugar Marie."
"Green needs you, and I'm among the many who know you made the right choice," she said.
"Obviously Chuck and Dub aren't in that group." I reached up to wipe more blood off my face.
"Those two? Ignore them. If they're not stirring up trouble, they're not happy. Come on. I'm taking you to the doctor." She scrolled through her phone. "I know I have Kevin's number in here somewhere." The dog jumped up onto the back of the couch when Eva dialed the phone, and the mayor patted Sugar Marie and fussed at her in a baby voice, which sounded odd coming from the straightforward, distinguished woman.
"Sugar's never bitten anyone before," Eva kept saying on the drive to the clinic. I tried to keep a little distance between myself and the dog, who curled up in the mayor's lap and whimpered as though I had wronged her.
Kevin pulled into the parking lot in her blue sports car just ahead of us. Dressed like a model in a Ralph Lauren ad, she opened my door and enfolded me with a hug as I stepped out of the mayor's monstrosity of a car. "Lois Barker, you scared the living daylights out of me."
I put my hand to my face. Was the bite that bad?
"I thought you were actually going to leave us." She turned to the mayor. "Can you believe this woman? Acting like she was selling that paper and moving back north. She knew good and well Green couldn't do without her." She hugged me again. "And didn't even call her girlfriend till it was all said and done."
"I wasn't sure till the last minute," I said. "I was afraid I would change my mind ... and afraid I wouldn't change my mind. It was crazy."
Unlocking the door to the small, nondescript clinic, she flipped on the fluorescent lights and focused on my face. "Let's see what we've got here." She reached over and scratched Sugar Marie under the chin. "What came over you, sweet girl?"
"I'm the patient here," I snapped. "She doesn't like me for some reason."
"She was startled," Eva said. "She can tell when you're nervous."
"She senses your fear, Lois," Kevin said, washing her hands and poking around my cheek. "Awfully close to the eye. You need a couple of stitches, to be on the safe side. You OK with that?"
I shrugged, my stomach churning, and sat quietly while one of my best friends and the only African American physician in town went into her professional mode. She pulled out a little package of supplies and gave me a painful shot. "Has your dog had her vaccinations?" Kevin asked, glancing at the mayor. "Sure don't want this to get infected."
The mayor acted insulted and squinted at the tag on Sugar Marie's pink collar, nodding and stroking the dog's head again. The dog gave a short, sharp bark.
"I woke up so excited this morning," I said. "Now I don't know whether to worry more about my wound or that scary visit from the McCullers, the files they had, that check."
"Eva ..." I tried to turn to her.
"Sit still," Kevin said. "It's not that smart to move when I'm working near your eye with a needle."
"Eva," I said again, staring straight ahead. "What were Chuck and Dub up to?"
"No good, no doubt," Kevin said. "What visit are you talking about?"
She tied up her needlework as she spoke, pulling a little tighter than seemed necessary. Her opinion of most of the power brokers in town was pretty low.
"Two of your three least favorite good old boys came to see me," I said.
"This morning, bright and early," Eva said. "The McCullers."
"They sold the paper to me, right?" I asked, confused, my face hurting.
"Yes," Kevin said, clearly not following. "You didn't hit your head, did you?"
"No, but my brain feels muddled. Weren't Chuck and Dub happy to unload the Item?"
"Yes," she said again, finishing with my face.
"Things have fallen into place for me here," I said. "Chuck and Dub aren't in the picture anymore. What would pull these two men away from home on a holiday devoted to televised football, their favorite activity in the world?"
"Maybe they miss the power of owning the paper," Eva said. "Or they hope to run you out of town. Could be they're trying to cook up a scheme to make lots of money. That's what Chuck does, him and my brother. Sometimes Dub, too. They look for schemes to make money and don't care who they mow over."
The two men and Major Wilson, Eva's brother, had plagued me since I stumbled into Green as the not-so-proud new owner of The News-Item. "They certainly don't approve of how I run the paper. But they've never acted like they wanted it back."
"Don't fret about it," Kevin said. "They can't hurt you. Wanting to do something and doing it are two different things." She straightened up the cubicle. "Why don't y'all come over to Mama and Daddy's for black-eyed peas and cornbread ... see if we can salvage some good luck for you on New Year's Day?"
"I'd just as soon start this year over," I said. "But I'm not exactly dressed for a party."
"You'll get more sympathy in that outfit," she said and shared what I was sure was a can-you-believe-those-pants look with Eva.
I touched the small bandage and picked up my purse. "I guess there's no point in trying to pay you for this, is there?"
"First patient of the year is on the house," Kevin said.
At that instant Eva's cell phone rang, and I jerked my head in surprise, feeling the stitches pull slightly. As the new mayor of Green, Eva insisted the paper publicize her phone numbers. Her phone rang steadily, despite the lack of decent service in most of the area, but had been quiet today.
She frowned as she took the call. "You're sure? Speak louder. You're breaking up. Downtown?" Eva inhaled deeply. "I'll be right there."
She snapped her phone shut, dropped it into her small, square purse and grabbed her keys. "There's lots of smoke downtown," she said. "Looks like one of the buildings is on fire."
"Is it the paper? Your store?" I jumped up and grabbed my coat.
"You know as much as I do. Fire downtown," she said. "Let's go."
"I'm coming too," Kevin said and flung an array of medical supplies into a black canvas satchel. "They may need me."
As we stepped outside, smoke rose in the distance. Kevin's clinic was at least ten minutes from the paper, and my heart pounded hard for about the sixth time today. My newspaper building sat right in the middle of downtown. So did Eva's department store. And the antique mall owned by my good friends Rose and Linda. And the Cotton Boll Café.
Before we got out of Kevin's parking lot, my cell phone rang.
"Lois, the paper's on fire...." Iris Jo, my business manager and neighbor on Route 2, sounded breathless. "Looks pretty bad. They're calling for help from out in the parish." She was a gentle woman and hearing her rushed tone unnerved me almost as much as her words.
"Slow down," I said. "Tell me everything. Where are you?"
"On my way. I got the call from Stan. The Fire Department notified him. Looks like it's in the press area. Not sure how long it's been burning. Tammy discovered it when she went to handle the obituaries. She says it was smoking then. Now there are flames, through the roof."
"Is Tammy OK? She didn't go in the building, did she?"
"She tried, but the smoke was beginning to seep out. She turned around and called the Fire Department. Stan said she's sitting on the curb across the street, crying."
Excerpted from Goodness Gracious Green - The Green Series #2 by Judy Christie Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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