Out on a Limb (Claire Malloy Series #14)by Joan Hess
"Farberville, Arkansas, is normally a quiet college town, where bookseller Claire Malloy tends her small store and raises her somewhat dramatic teenage daughter, Caron. But this week it's gone a bit out of control. A local group of activists, calling themselves the Farberville Green Party, is protesting a developer's plan to remove a copse of trees by having retired… See more details below
"Farberville, Arkansas, is normally a quiet college town, where bookseller Claire Malloy tends her small store and raises her somewhat dramatic teenage daughter, Caron. But this week it's gone a bit out of control. A local group of activists, calling themselves the Farberville Green Party, is protesting a developer's plan to remove a copse of trees by having retired schoolteacher Miss Emily Parchester camp out in one of them while chained to it by the ankle. Although concerned about the aged Miss Parchester's vigil in the tree, Claire isn't able to talk her down. And if that wasn't turmoil enough, a baby is left on Claire's doorstep with a note from his mother asking her to care for him for a few days." "While attempting to track down the mother, Claire tries to avoid alerting either the authorities or the local gossips, but both efforts are doomed to failure. When Claire is sighted buying diapers, the unlikely rumor that her daughter has an illegitimate child runs rampant in Caron's high school. And when Claire finally does track down the mother of the child, it is because the teenaged mother has been arrested for the murder of her own father - who just happens to be the local developer at the center of the tree controversy." Unconvinced that the baby's mother is really responsible, and juggling feedings and diaperings for the first time in fifteen-some years, Claire decides that the only way to rescue Caron's reputation and the baby's mother - not to mention coaxing Miss Parchester down out of the tree - is to uncover the truth behind the murder.
“Joan Hess is one of the best mystery writers in the world.” Elizabeth Peters, author of Lord of the Silent
“I love Joan Hess. She's hilarious, of course-one of the few writers who can crack me up both on the page and in person. If you've never spent time with Claire and her crew, I feel sorry for you. Stop reading this nonsense and hop to it. You'll see wit and humanity all wrapped up in a nifty murder mystery.” Harlan Coben, author of Tell No One
Read an Excerpt
Out on a Limb
"So all is forgiven and you'll be moving into the castle with Prince Perfectly Charming?" asked Luanne Bradshaw, my best friend and toughest critic. She took a slice of pizza from the box on the coffee table, studied it as though it were a slide from a lab, and cautiously took a bite. She does not suffer pepperoni gladly.
We were sitting in my living room in the top half of a modest duplex, which has two small bedrooms and a cramped and often cranky bathroom but redeems itself with a view of the campus lawn undulating gently down the slope from Old Main. Undergraduate classes had been dismissed for the day, and only a few students were cutting across the grass or lingering on the marble benches meant to inspire thoughts of Plato and Aristotle. The sky was blue, with a cloud here and there to break the monotony. Luanne and I had closed our respective businesses for the dayhers a vintage clothing store, mine a bookstore down the hill from Farber College. Both of us clip coupons.
"I don't know," I said. "Peter swore he was never interested in his ex-wife, and pulled all that nonsensejust to make me jealous. I suppose P. T. Barnum had me in mind when he delivered the line about a sucker born every minute. I think I showed maturity and restraint, however."
"Oh, yes, you had all of us fooled. It never occurred to me when you called at least once a day to rant that you were the tiniest bit perturbed. I just assumed it was an extended bout of PMS." She picked up her beer and took a sip. "So Lovely Leslie, as you called her, has scuttled back to Manhattan and you and Peter are back to whining and dining?"
"He's coming by later."
"He's coming by laterthat's all." I picked up the clicker and turned on the local news. "Unless, of course, a disgruntled Kappa Theta Eta goes ballistic and takes out the housemother, thus demanding the attention of the CID. It never seems to happen between nine and five."
"There ought to be a law," Luanne murmured.
I was going to point out that there was a law when the image on the TV screen caught my attention. "Oh, my gawd! Is that who I think it is?"
"Unless we're under the influence of errant microwaves," she said, as stunned as I. "What on earth is she doing in that treeor any tree, for that matter?"
Caron, my not-so-mild-mannered daughter, came through the front door in time to hear the question. Chronologically speaking, she's sixteen years old, but she swings back and forth between toddlerhood and jaded savoir faire. The latter was the mode of the moment as she dropped her backpack on the floor. "I was Absolutely Humiliated. After school, everybody went out to see what was going on with this tree business, and Rhonda could barely contain herself when she sawwho it was. You really ought to pick your friends more carefully, Mother. I have to live in this town, too."
"Not necessarily. I'm sure I can find you a job in a hospital in Guatemala or Sri Lanka. You'll have to start with bedpans, but after a few years you'll be allowed to clean gangrenous sores."
Caron grabbed a slice of pizza and slouched into a chair. "You are so not funny."
I turned up the volume on the TV. The reporter, her hair shellacked and her pert nose powdered to prevent even a glimmer of shininess, stared earnestly into the camera. "For those of you just joining us," she began, her tone making it clear that those of us who had failed to join her earlier might well be residing in a swamp, "this is the situation thus far. Local environmentalists calling themselves the Farberville Green Party are staging a demonstration to stop developer Anthony Armstrong from cutting down a stand of oak trees in order to begin construction of the second phase of Oakland Heights. The demonstrators arrived during the early hours of the morning and built the platform you see behind me." Her voice grew huskier, as though she were describing some sort of catastrophe in which scores of innocent victims had perished due to the cruel caprices of nature. "Its occupant, retired high school teacher Emily Parchester, has chained herself to the tree and vowed not to come down until the city council takes action. Other members of the Green Party say they will hold a vigil around the clock. And now the clock is ticking. The bulldozers are scheduled to arrive in the morning. Will Miss Parchester be able to defend this beloved tree?"
The camera shifted to a group of a dozen or so people holding posterboard signs that claimed the developer tobe an "herbicidal maniac" and other less-savory designations. The reporter approached them but remained prudently out of range should they descend into whackery.
"Would you like to explain your position to the viewers at home?" she asked.
Their designated spokesman, a man in his thirties with a neatly trimmed beard and wire-rimmed glasses, stepped forward. His tweedy jacket, turtleneck shirt, and corduroy trousers did not suggest he was a dedicated ecoterrorist, and I was not surprised when he said, "My name is Finnigan Baybergen, and I'm an assistant professor of botany at Farber College. I am also a concerned citizen who feels that the city council and, more specifically, the planning commission, failed to follow the city landscape ordinance designed to protect the environment from those who would make a profit from the destruction of our precious ecosystem. Drive by the mall and look at the acres of pavement, with only a few sickly saplings to replace trees that were here when Farberville was nothing but a sleepy little market town. Those apartment complexes across the road were built on what used to be peach and apple orchards planted by families that endured hardship to find a better way of life. Must we sacrifice hundred-year-old trees so that developers like Anthony Armstrong can make a few dollars? The members of the city council were elected to preserve and protect the unique ambience of Farberville, not to sell it to the highest bidder."
"Disgraceful!" snorted a stout woman behind him. Beside her, a rotund man with a shock of white hair bobbled his head emphatically, as did the rest of the protesters.
"Bunch of damn tree-huggers!" shouted someone beyond the range of the camera.
"Kiss my oak!" shouted another.
Unwilling to be upstaged by amateurs, the reporter gestured for the camera to follow her as she moved toward the tree. "Let's see if we can get a statement from the demonstrator on the platform. Miss Parchester, are you confident you can remain there indefinitely? Have preparations been made for your comfort and safety?"
Caron took another slice of pizza. "When we saw who it was, Rhonda began to laugh so convulsively that Louis had to steady her. How fortunate for her that he was conveniently nearby. It would have been such a tragedy if she'd plopped into a puddle. I would have been underwhelmed with grief."
"Miss Parchester is hardly a close friend of yours," said Luanne. "Considering your mother's epic reign of ineptitude and meddling in murder investigations, I should think your classmates would understand."
"You are so not funny," I muttered, meriting a dirty look from Caron. I leaned forward as Miss Parchester peered down from her perch some ten feet above the ground.
She had chosen a cardigan sweater and a dress with a lace collar and cuffs as the appropriate garb for tree-sitting. Her bifocals glinted as sunlight found paths through the foliage. "Oh, yes, I'm quite nicely equipped. My friends have provided me with a sleeping bag and an air mattress. I have a small duffel bag with clothes and personal items, as well as a transistor radio and a flashlight to read by at night. A box contains provisions and several jugs of water. I have a tarp in case it rains. I shall be quite comfy up here in my leafy bower with the birds, butterflies, and squirrels."
The reporter gestured at those who had gathered at the edge of the parking lot. "Do any of you have an opinionthat differs from that of the Farberville Green Party? Does Phase Two reflect economic progress or"
"You got a potty up there?" jeered a thick-necked man in a grimy T-shirt that did little to hide his protuberant belly. His companions, one with the pinched features of a weasel and the other with the flattened nose of a bulldog, guffawed at his witticism.
Miss Parchester's lips tightened briefly. "There are some questions a gentleman doesn't ask and a lady doesn't answer. This is not to imply I'm confident that you are a gentleman, but perhaps you might pretend to be one in order not to embarrass yourself on television."
"Why don't you head on home to your outhouse?" added Finnigan Baybergen. The rest of his supporters inched forward, although they were less than menacing. With the exception of their leader, they appeared to qualify for Medicare and senior discounts at movie theaters. The yardsticks stapled to their signs would not fare well against the tire irons and monkey wrenches that the trio of troglodytes were likely to have in their pickup trucks.
The reporter hastily moved away from the tree, wondering, perhaps, if Miss Parchester had a chamber pot at her disposal. "This is Jessica Princeton, on location for KFAR. Let's go back to the studio for more local news." She smiled brightly until the image faded and her twin, albeit a male, began to drone on about revised costs for renovations to the football stadium.
"Goodness," I said as I turned down the volume, "Miss Parchester does seem to create awkward situations, doesn't she? Were there any police officers there?"
Caron shook her head. "A private security cop was trying to keep people from parking in the spaces in front of the condos, but nobody paid any attention to him."
"How large was the crowd?" asked Luanne.
"Maybe twenty-five, not counting the television crew and the protesters. Most of them probably heard about it on the radio and stopped by on their way home. Do you think Miss Parchester is really going to stay in that tree night after night?"
"She might," I said. "She may appear to be scatterbrained, but she has a great deal of determination to fight whatever miscarriages of justice she perceives. After all, as she is so fond of telling us, her dear papa was on the state supreme court."
"While her dear mama stayed home and made elderberry wine," Luanne said through a mouthful of mozzarella. "I hope the designated martyr doesn't have any alcohol with her. Stubbing one's toe in the living room is momentarily uncomfortable; falling off a high platform is a bit more grievous."
I wasn't pleased at the idea of again becoming embroiled in Miss Parchester's affairs, having once aided and abetted her when she'd been charged with a murder in the teachers' lounge, and on another occasion having retrieved her beloved basset hounds when they'd been stolen by a repulsive dealer. But despite all that, she'd offered me tea, cookies, and her trustand I doubted Finnigan Baybergen had her best interests in mind when he allowed her to take the stage, so to speak, in this current drama.
"I'll drive," I said to Luanne as I put down my glass. "Caron, you'll have to come along and show us how to find this place."
Caron picked up her backpack. "I have already endured enough mortification for one day, thank you very much. Besides, I have a test tomorrow in algebra. Inez is coming over after dinner so we can study together."She looked at the remains of the pizza. "Her mother fixes things like pot roast and baked halibut."
"You wouldn't know a halibut if it bit you on the" I stopped and took a breath. "Just give me directions. If Peter shows up, tell him I'll be back shortly."
Luanne fiddled with the radio as we drove up Thurber Street, passing not only our businesses, but also the bars and pool halls that lured in Farber College students on weekends. If I believed a neon Budweiser sign in the window of the Book Depot might do the same, I'd have purchased one years ago. Caron and I skimp by without resorting to thrift shops and soup kitchens, although my gloomy accountant implies the possibility is not remote. I could easily imagine him perched atop a doorway, pointing at the pizza box and rumbling "Nevermore." It was unfortunate that my deceased husband had met his demise without the benefit of a life insurance policy, but he'd found coeds more worthy of his attention than his family's welfare. Then again, he hadn't anticipated a chicken truck careening down an icy mountain road.
"Wasn't there something in the news last year about Oakland Heights?" I asked. "A fire, maybe?"
Luanne found a country music station to her liking and sat back. "A fire caused by a gas leak, I seem to think. Nothing worthy of Jessica's breathless coverage."
I shrugged, then turned my attention to the increasing amount of traffic as we approached the scene of the demonstration. Oakland Heights was on the east side of Farberville, within the city limits but in an area that still had a few farmhouses, pastures, and stretches of woods. Several sprawling apartment complexes had sprung up since I'd last driven that way. I wondered if Anthony Armstrong was responsible.
A car pulled out, allowing us to find a space near theentrance to the condos. The lot itself was packed with vehicles parked haphazardly, including a van from the TV station. Jessica Princeton was likely to be inside it, making sure her lip gloss would still glisten if she had to emerge to provide live coverage of Farberville's first brawl that did not involve fraternity boys, alcohol, and football. As we walked toward the back of the lot, where we presumed Phase Two was in the works, a very irate young man shouted, "Do something, damn it!"
I stopped, hoping he was not addressing me since I had no idea what he had in mind. Haul Miss Parchester off the platform? Bulldoze the oak tree? Tie a yellow ribbon around it?
"Over there," Luanne whispered.
In front of one of the units were two young men. Neither was smiling. The one with the more ferocious expression had shaggy black hair that flopped over his forehead, thin lips, and the angular jaw of a pugilist begging for a right hook. He wore a gray sweatshirt and jeans, standard campus attire for all but the dedicated preppies who aspired to become partners in their daddies' law firms. The other man, his face round and flushed, wore a blue uniform with a patch on his shoulder, leading me to deduce à la Miss Marple that he was the security officer Caron had mentioned.
The latter began to sputter. "Why doncha give me a break? I already told you I can't do anything. I warned them they was trespassing when they parked here, but nobody listened. Even the folks from the TV station ignored me. You want I should shoot them all?"
"I have a seminar in thirty minutes. How am I supposed to get therehitchhike?"
"Beats me," the officer said, then walked toward the back of the parking lot, where the crowd had gathered.
"This is insane!" howled the floppy-haired man. "There's no way I can get my car out! What's happened to my rights as a private citizen? What about my seminar?"
I decided to intervene before he went berserk and attacked Miss Parchester and the other Farberville Greens. "Excuse me," I said, "but we can give you a ride to the campus in a few minutes. I just need to speak to someone, and then I can drop you off in front of whichever building you prefer."
"Who are you?" he demanded, huffing and puffing as only a graduate student can.
Luanne, whose Yankee blood comes to a boil every now and then, nudged me aside. "She is someone who has offered you a ride. If you are concerned that this is a ploy to take you to a remote county road, steal your wallet, and leave your battered body beside a scummy pond where your bodily fluids will be sucked by mosquitoes and leeches, then by all means start hitching a ride. I suggest you do so briskly."
He gaped at her, then pushed back his hair. "No, I'd appreciate a ride. It's just beenwell, a bad day, and now this. I'll get my backpack and wait here for you." We watched him walk over to his condo and enter it.
Luanne and I resumed walking. A few people were heading in the same direction, but an equal number were coming the opposite way, now more interested in getting home than in staring at an elderly woman on a platform in a tree. The rednecks were milling around at the edge of the pavement, mumbling among themselves and, I hoped, tiring of the situation. The Farberville Green Party postured near the tree, clearly prepared to bash anyone who might dare to approach. The security officer had managed to evaporate for the time being. Wherehe'd found refuge was hard to determine, but I doubted his presence would do anything to help.
"Miss Parchester?" I called as we arrived at the now-infamous tree. "It's Claire Malloy."
Her pink face, ringed with fluffy white hair, appeared at the edge of the platform. "How delightful of you to drop by, Claire. I'd offer you a cup of tea, but I cannot allow anyone to join me up here. You would, I think, enjoy the view, especially now. I can see the towers of Old Main as they are silhouetted in the rosy hues of the sunset. I wish I'd thought to bring my watercolors and a pad."
"I need to come up there," I said flatly.
Finnigan Baybergen moved in as though I'd brandished a chain saw. "Miss Parchester has chosen to hold a solitary vigil. No one will be allowed to join her."
Luanne poked him so hard he nearly fell backward. "Listen here, buddy, if you don't back off, I'll back you off the bluff. Miss Parchester is not a poster child for your movement. She is more than capable of deciding for herself if she does or does not wish to entertain guests on this thing you've built."
"We had a meeting last night," he said as he rubbed his shoulder.
"I don't care if your meeting was in Yalta."
"Actually, it was at the Unitarian Center."
Luanne advanced again on him. "And you drew straws to determine who would risk his or her life to sit in a tree? What about you, Assistant Professor Baybergen? Afraid of heights?"
I ignored both of them. "Why can't I join you, Miss Parchester?"
"I really don't see why not," she said, looking a bitconfused. "It's not as if you're going to drag me down, is it?"
"No, I promise I won't do that. I'd just like to make sure you're safe up there. Why don't you drop the ladder and allow me to join you for a few minutes?"
A dubious contraption of rope and wooden crosspieces tumbled off the platform. I reminded myself that Miss Parchester, who was at least thirty years older than I, had used it to scramble up.
I may have been breathing heavily when I reached the platform, but I was reasonably calm. Miss Parchester helped me crawl away from the edge, then hauled up the ladder, squeezed my hand, and said, "This is so very kind of you, Claire. I must admit this is a bit stressful. Finnigan has done everything he can to assure my comfort and safety, but ..."
"Are you sure this is what you want to do, Miss Parchester? Perhaps Finnigan or one of the other Green Party brigade ought to be here. Why did you agree to do this?"
"How about a nice cup of tea? I have this darling little propane stove. It won't take a minute to heat a kettle of water."
"Why you?" I persisted.
"Because I believe in the cause, my dear. We must pass along a proud heritage to the next generation, and the generations to come. How would you feel if you knew your grandchildren would spend their lives surrounded by asphalt? The Earth is precious, and we must fight to preserve ittrees, fields, birds, rivers free of pollutants that cause diseases, expanses of clover and black-eyed Susans, deer and foxes coexisting with domesticated animals. How can we sit at home and allow this to be destroyed by greedy men who would eradicatethe intrinsic essence of nature in order to build tacky condominiums?"
I refused to be distracted by her utopian manifesto. "Miss Parchester, your heart may be righteous, but it's going to be cold tonight. At best, you can delay the bulldozers by a few days. The deer and the antelope are going to have to play somewhere else sooner or later."
"Then it shall be later. Lemon and sugar?"
"You'll be arrested for trespassing."
"So be it. Papa always admired those who availed themselves of civil disobedience when no other options were left. If I am physically removed, I shall be kicking and screaming. Finnigan has assured me that legal assistance will be available." She glanced down at the protesters. "He has also assured me that should this developer choose to have me forcibly removed, national media will be on hand to record the brutality. It's quite likely I shall have a heart attack."
"Miss Parchester" I gurgled.
"Or perhaps a stroke," she added. "I haven't decided which might be more effective. In either case, the film clip of an old woman being dragged to the ground will be the lead story on every channel. Finnigan has been in touch with the major cable news channels. CNN has promised to send a crew in the next few days, as have its competitors."
I accepted a cup of tea from the Mad Hatter. "So you volunteered because of the potential publicity factor?"
"I've never underestimated you, dear."
She began to stir her tea as if she and I were sitting in her parlor, surrounded by piles of ancient yearbooks and yellowed newspaper clippings trumpeting her papa's accomplishments in the courtroom. Below us, voices were belligerent as opposing parties debated the issue.Luanne and Finnigan Baybergen were in each other's faces; I couldn't hear the exchange, but I could see it was not amicable. The rednecks were no longer present, although I was not at all confident they were gone for the night.
"Miss Parchester," I said without much hope, "it's dangerous for you to sleep here. The temperature's going to drop to forty, maybe lower. If you should happen to wake up and not realize where you are, you might"
"I am linked to my tree," she said as she held out her ankle so I could see the cuff attached to a chain that wrapped around the trunk of the tree. "I suppose I might take a misstep and dangle, but I cannot fall all the way to the ground. It may well be uncomfortable, but Finnigan has the key."
The tea turned to acid in my mouth. "If you fall off the platform, only Finnigan can release you? You'll swing by your ankle until he rescues you?"
"Like a pendulum," she agreed with a giggle.
It took me a moment to respond. "And he will be here all night, right?"
"I shouldn't think so. He and the other members of the Green Party will stay until the media and sightseers leave. After that, I shall crawl into my sleeping bag and watch the moonlight through the branches. The whippoorwills will keep me company until dawn breaks."
"But what if ..." I said weakly. The platform was ten feet above the ground. The image of her taking a tumble and then swinging helplessly made my stomach churn. I wasn't sure exactly how old she was, but I had no doubt she was too old to take up this newly created gymnastic event. "If you should fall ..."
"Then I shall be a martyr, and Anthony Armstrong will never find the nerve to destroy this tree and thosearound it. The public outcry will be too much for him. I would rather have this vibrant stand of oak trees than a cold marble slab in a cemetery. A tasteful plaque would be nice, perhaps at the base of the tree. Bronze, I think."
She might be able to think, but I certainly wasn't. I finished my tea, then said, "Is there any chance I can talk you out of this? What about your dogs? Who'll look after them?"
"Nick and Nora are staying at my niece's house in the country. She doesn't appreciate their sensitive natures but has promised to see to them until I return. She's a fine girl, very solid and reliable. I shall miss them, but Papa always said that civic responsibility was more important than individual needs. Mahatma Gandhi sacrificed his life for the good of humanity; surely I can survive minor deprivation and discomfort to do what I can to protect our legacy."
"Just how long are you prepared to stay here?"
"Well, Mr. Constantinehe's the unfortunately flatulent gentleman behind Finniganis a retired lawyer. He's planning to file a suit tomorrow that claims this particular grove is an essential stopover for migratory hawks, which means there would be a violation of EPA regulations concerning protected species if the habitat was destroyed. We may not win the case, but we're hoping for an emergency restraining order. He hopes to get a hearing within a day or two."
"A day or two, Miss Parchester?" I said, trying not to sound exasperated. "Couldn't the Farberville Greens have chosen someone else?"
She gave me a look that must have quelled whispering in the back of her classroom. "What is it you're trying to say, Claire? Am I too old to protest injustice? Should I sit in a rocking chair on the porch and quietly wait for my eyesight to fade and my memory to diminish?"
I caught her hand. "Of course not, Miss Parchester. It's just that, well, it's going to be a hardship for you. You're in danger from the elements, as well as those unsavory men. I'd feel better if your supporters planned to stay the night."
"Finnigan has classes in the morning, and Mr. Constantine will be at the courthouse. I don't see how the others would fare much better than I. My sleeping bag is filled with down. Miss Whitbred gave me a lovely set of thermal underwear and woolen socks, and the Margolises contributed a thermos so that I can keep my tea hot all night. Eliza Peterson brought along several paperback books, although, I must admit, I question her taste. Some of the covers are quite racy. Louis Ferncliff baked his special almond coconut brownies. Would you like one?"
"You had a tree-sitting shower?"
Miss Parchester smiled sadly. "I'd always dreamed of a bridal shower. This will have to suffice."
I had run out of things to say that might persuade her to come down from the tree. The night would be chilly, but she seemed well equipped. Finnigan Baybergen had not struck me as someone capable of staring down a bulldozer. Miss Parchester, on the other hand, had survived forty years at Farberville High School. Thousands of teenagers, year after year, all with acne and shifty-eyed excuses, all presuming they could outwit her. Despite their youthful bravado, there had never been a level playing field.
"Do you have a cell phone?" I asked.
"Yes, Finnigan insisted I take his, although it's a peculiarlittle thing and I doubt I can operate it. So many buttons, you know." She brandished a rectangular object that very well might have been an almond coconut brownie, minus the crumbs. "He explained at very great length. I don't suppose you remember when one could merely pick up the receiver and wait for the operator to ask whom you wished to call. When I was a child, I could ask for Mama and the operator would track her down. These days there are so many numbers to be dialed or punched or even enteredwhatever that means. I've entered rooms and entered contests, but I've never entered numbers. It's all quite alien, I'm afraid."
I leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "If you're the least bit worried about this ..."
"Not at all, dear Claire. Anthony Armstrong will never risk the negative publicity that should arise if I, a gentlewoman of a certain age, were to be dragged from this platform. He knows well that the media will capture it all and he will find himself the object of outrage not only locally, but across the country. I shall protect the tree, and it shall protect me from harm's way." She dropped the ladder off the edge of the platform and gave me a twinkly smile. "Thank you for dropping by, Claire. Do come again when you're in the neighborhood."
I had been dismissed. I fumbled and swung until I reached the ground, then watched helplessly as she pulled the ladder back up and disappeared from view. I wondered if I should confront Finnigan Baybergen and try to convince him of the insanity of the scheme. It was, however, devious and well thought out. Construction workers might have been able to drag a squirmy, greasy-haired youth out of the tree, even breaking a few bones in the process, but the very idea of anyone causing harm to Miss Parchester, with her rosy cheeks, porcelaincomplexion, and faded blue eyes, would be reviled in the national spotlight.
"Let's go," I said to Luanne, who was glaring at the demonstrators as if she were a bull charging into an arena. The slightest flicker of red and bloodshed would ensue.
"These people are morons. Oh, yes, good cause and all, but the very idea of allowing"
I caught her arm. "It's as much Miss Parchester's scheme as theirs." I told her about the hoped-for injunction, then added, "This whole situation may be resolved by tomorrow. There's nothing we can do short of pitching a tent and toasting marshmallows over a candle."
Luanne shrugged. "I suppose not."
Finnigan Baybergen was hovering nearby, looking as though he was torn between punching me in the nose or scratching a bad grade on a midterm paper. I'd spent too many years in academia to feel threatened by either. I let go of Luanne and went over to talk to him. His lips receded, but he held his ground.
"Who are you to interfere?" he demanded.
"A friend of Miss Parchester," I said evenly. "I find it irresponsible that you and your merry band of mischief-makers are willing to go home and allow her to stay here alone tonight. What about those rednecks who were here earlier? They or others of the same subspecies could come back, you know. Your goals may be lofty, but you seem to be willing to put a woman of her age in danger while you watch yourselves on the late-night news."
"After you take a hot shower," Luanne said, looming over my shoulder, "and make yourself a toddy. You're half her age, for pity's sake. Have you been camping since you were a Boy Scout?"
Finnigan stiffened. "I happen to have spent three weeks in Alaska last summer. Conditions were quite primitive, and on two occasions we discovered evidence that a bear had been prowling outside the cabin. Nonetheless, that is irrelevant. The Farberville Green Party has its agenda. Miss Parchester was not coerced; she volunteered."
I nudged Luanne away and stared at Finnigan. "So you're going to allow her to sleep on the platform with no one but that inept security guard to make sure she's safe?"
He gave me a supercilious smile. "I don't understand why this is any of your concern. You insult Miss Parchester by implying that she is incapable of deciding to take a stand to protect these trees. You said you were her friend. Do you think she's feebleminded, a lamb to be sacrificed for our evil goals?"
"She's not that," I admitted, glancing at the platform.
"And she's armed," he said softly. "Despite her objections, Joseph Margolis insisted that she take his handgun. She argued vehemently, but we persuaded her to tuck it in the duffel bag. With the ladder pulled up, nobody should be able to disturb her. But if someone does ..."
If ever I had felt the blood drain from my face, this was the moment. "She's armed?"
I did not add that she was, therefore, dangerous.
Copyright © 2002 by Joan Hess.
Meet the Author
Joan Hess is a winner of the American Mystery Award and the author of the Claire Malloy mystery series, including Death by the Light of the Moon, Roll Over and Play Dead, A Diet to Die For, A Conventional Corpse, Dear Miss Demeanor, and Strangled Prose, as well as the Maggody mystery series. A member of Sisters in Crime and a former president of the American Crime Writers League, she lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
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