Read an Excerpt
The Mossy Creek Gazette
215 Main Street * Mossy Creek, Georgia
From the Desk of Katie Bell, Business Manager
Lady Victoria Salter Stanhope
The Cliffs, Seaward Road
St. Ives, Cornwall TR37PJ
Have you ever heard the saying, "Still waters run deep?"
No? Well, maybe it's an American "thang." We say it a lot in Mossy Creek, though most of our waters aren't still. Right now, considering it's wintertime and cold enough to freeze an Eskimo, our waters--still or not--have a rim of ice. You know, Vick, it's strange how we get ice and cold weather, but not much snow. Even here in the north Georgia mountains, we're lucky to have one big snow day per winter--meaning enough white on the ground to grab a make-do sled and head for the nearest steep hill.
So it's cold and dry here, with bright blue skies and frost on the windows. Snuggling weather. Frisky weather. Bored-indoors-and-looking-for-excitement weather.
You know what that means. In Mossy Creek, it means Trouble.
I swear. One Saturday in mid-January the temperature went down, and the calls to the police went up.
What a day!
Your chilly gossip correspondent,
A New Year's resolution is meant to be broken.
It seemed like just another Saturday in Mossy Creek, but I knew different. Trouble whirled through the cold winter air. My Creekite intuition went on high alert.
I had been punked.
That's how my granddaughter, Little Ida, put it. Last fall, Nana, you got punked at the Sitting Tree. Meaning I was had. Thisis what I deserve for buying Little Ida a rap-music version of Mother Goose's fairy tales for her birthday. An eight-year-old who talks like Eminem.
But it's true. Last fall yours truly, the smart and wily Ida Hamilton Walker, got punked. Bamboozled. Conned. By my own police chief. Amos Royden threatened to take our relationship public, that is, to court me, to pursue me, to put some moves on me. To make our invisible romance a real one.
As mayor of Mossy Creek I can stand my ground on any threat except being openly seduced by my own police chief. So last fall I turned tail and ran, to my shame. But I didn't desert The Sitting Tree. Oh, no. I just went underground with my civil disobedience, on the tree's behalf.
I marshaled the Foo Club and the rest of my loyal troops, and discreetly directed their protests. We managed to stir up plenty of public outrage and get the TV news cameras turned on us, a tactic we've perfected several times since we kidnapped the new welcome sign a while back. As a bonus, we antagonized my pompous nephew, Governor Ham Bigelow, who, as it turned out, has a big-money family connection to the scheme to bulldoze the tree. As usual.
Best of all, we got a temporary restraining order against Whoopee Arcades, Inc., the cheesy, underhanded, Bigelow-cronyism-connected amusement park developer who was planning to destroy the Sitting Tree and flatten the foothill ridges of Rose Top, the historic mountain where the tree stands in a lower meadow.
Since then I've kept the restraining order alive while feverishly searching for evidence I need to save the tree and its mountain meadow permanently. I know I'll win that battle, but it'll be a tainted victory. I can't forgive myself for my cowardice in the face of Amos's oh-so-not-subtle romantic threat. No way. I've been kicking my own svelte behind for the past four months.
"It must be menopause," I told my cousin and best gal pal, Ingrid Beechum. "Amos gives me one indiscreet look and I lose the ability to think straight. How about you and I call a meeting of the garden club, including Eula Mae and every other wise old woman we can think of in Mossy Creek, drink some martinis, then perform one of those 'Embrace Your Inner Crone' rituals? Maybe then I'll accept my middle-agedness and stop wishing for ... stop wishing. I'm a grandmother, for godssake!"
Ingrid snorted. "Menopause? You just had your hormones checked. If your estrogen level were any higher you'd qualify as a fertility goddess. Admit it, cousin. Damn the controversy. This is the twenty-first century. Fifty is the new thirty. Older women aren't old. They run corporations, they wear thong underwear, they sleep with younger men. You want to be with Amos. Until you come to terms with that, your Inner Crone won't be any match for your Outer Hottie."
Ingrid has spewed wisdom like that ever since she squelched her personal demons and became a surrogate grandmother to Jayne Reynold's little boy. Ingrid not only embraces her Inner Crone, she's put thong panties on it.
All right, I admit it: I'm not a crone yet, and I don't want to become one. Ever. I'm proud of my sexy body and proud of being the outrageously sexy mayor of Mossy Creek, the town my family helped create and I'm charged with protecting. If I can keep Mossy Creek safe and secure from the ravages of a world too eager to bulldoze everything sacred, I'll grow old happily. Some day. But not right now.
Right now I've got to decide what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. Make hay while the sun shines. Get wild or get mild. Choose.
Oh, god, but I don't want to choose. In the past few years, retired Colonel Del Jackson has romanced my socks off--and other articles of clothing--and I've had a great time with him. How can I seriously think about Amos when I've got Del? Del's a brindle-haired hunk of mature man, he's confident, sexy, fun, romantic, and he's my age. So why was there always this pestering little voice in my head, this Peggy Lee voice, softly caterwauling, Is that all there is?
Peggy Lee? My mother listened to Peggy Lee, for godssake. My uptight older sister, Ardaleen, listens to Peggy Lee. But not me. I'm a free spirit, a child of the Sixties, I still have my tie-dyed peasant skirt from college. I'm a Stevie Nicks gal. I own every Fleetwood Mac album and every single song Stevie Nicks recorded after the group broke up. I also own the eight-tracks of those albums, and the cassettes, and the CDs, and when they come out with an electrode that allows me to plug an iPod into my head and pump the music straight to my brain, I'll probably own that, too. I channel Stevie Nicks like a psychic channels a spirit. Not Peggy Lee.
Is that all there is? What? All what is? What am I wishing for?
Rescue. There's that word, again, the horrible word. Rescue me. Rescue me. Rescue me. I've never asked to be rescued in my entire life. Even with Jeb, my husband, my soulmate, the father of my son--I never asked Jeb to rescue me. So why do I keep thinking this way?
Rescue me from myself, Amos.
This is why I've been having nightmares since last fall.
It's the same dream, over and over. I cling helplessly to a high branch of the Sitting Tree, and beneath me stands Amos, looking up at me with his quiet, intensely complex dark eyes.
"Rescue me," I call down, despite the fact that I should feel maternal or something, since he's fifteen years younger than I. Despite the fact that I'm his boss, as mayor of Mossy Creek. Talk about a violation of ethics. Talk about the potential for sexual harassment. Talk about an episode of Desperate Housewives. But in my dream I don't care. I have no ethics. And no shame.
"Rescue me," I whisper.
And he nods, and his face relaxes, and he holds up both strong, capable arms. Whenever I'm close to him, he smells like fresh cotton sheets dried in the summer sun. I've never told anyone that, before. Especially not him. But he seems to know my secrets. "Take a chance on me, Ida," he says. "I'm clean. Let go. Jump."
I push myself off the high limb, and I fall happily toward his arms.
And then I wake up. Terrified. No menopausal hot flash could possibly be worse than the flop sweat of my Amos dream. I can't bear to find out whether Amos catches me. I can't bear to find out if he lets me hit the ground, hard. I don't want to dream about wanting Amos. I don't want to remember our torrid conversation at the Sitting Tree last fall. That's sacrilege. I kissed Jeb under that tree, when we were young.
But after he died, I kissed Amos under that tree, too.
I wince every time I think about that fact. Amos was sixteen, but serious and mature for his age, and I was 31, a grieving widow. It was just a kiss. For comfort, I told myself. And just once. But still. Twenty years have passed since our kiss, but the infamy of it, and the allure, have never faded. Neither Amos nor I mentioned it again. Never even hinted at it.
Until he punked me at the tree, last fall.
I have to get Amos out of my dreams, my memories, my mind. I have to get him out of the Sitting Tree.
Let me rescue you, Ida.
No, Amos. I've got to rescue myself.
Dawn had just broken. I got up earlier than usual at Hamilton Farm, after another bad dream about Amos and the Tree. Plus I expected an early phone call from Hope Bailey Settles, my other favorite cousin and co-conspirator, who I'd sent on a mission that was probably a longshot. At the moment she and her husband, Marle, were up in Asheville, North Carolina, a good three hours' drive from Mossy Creek. Hope had spent the past two days ripping old paneling off the attic walls of a historic house that had once belonged to our mutual great aunt, Belinda Hamilton Bailey. With any luck, she'd found the evidence we needed to save the Tree once and for all.
I paced and watched the sunrise from Jeb's favorite window in his study. The day was blue and crisp, a perfect winter morning in January, the kind where the sunlight feels like golden crystals on your skin. A mere trickle of freezing, blue-golden air seeping under a window sash was usually enough to erase my worries and boost my mood like a whiff of pure oxygen. My husband had loved weather like this. Hibernation time, he liked to call it, looking at me with a gleam in his eye. We'd dive back into bed. Naked, under warm heirloom quilts, we did everything but hibernate. And so I cherished the memories.
But on this day I stood frowning, a steaming cup of gourmet coffee in hand, Stevie Nicks on my CD player, my silk robe bound around me. A human tourniquet of impatience. Rose Top Mountain loomed in the distance, gray-green and majestic. More than a thousand acres of woodland flow from its lower ridges to the edge of the farm's property. I couldn't see the Sitting Tree at its base. But the tree was there, nevertheless. A spectral monument, always in my thoughts.
I clenched my coffee mug, debated adding a slug of bourbon to it, then stiffened my spine and refused. Keep staring out this window as penance, you punked mayor. Look at the view, and don't flinch from the past, the present, or the future.
From Jeb's favorite window I could see the entire lovely expanse of the farm's red barns, weathered sheds, and rolling pastures. My herd of caramel-colored Jersey milk cows ambled toward the main dairy barn, called by the lure of sweet grain for breakfast and a friendly pat on the rump, not to mention a pleasant massage from the milking machines. The dairy at Hamilton Farm is run by old Ben Howell, a flatlander from Florida who, along with his wife, Sadie, managed the farm's dairy operation since I was a girl. When I look out my windows, I see my family's history. And my own.
Beyond the cow pasture the rolling land climbs in a broad, gentle swell of brown winter grass covered in glittering frost. For over 150 years my forebears had grown high-protein wheat on that acreage, for hay to feed the cows. I'd kept up the tradition faithfully.
Until now. Now rows of baby grape plants twined their naked winter vines along the wires of sturdy trellises on that land. I've cultivated a good ten acres in vineyard over the past few years. With any luck I'll get the vines' first big harvest by summer. Mom-and-pop wineries are springing up all over north Georgia, and I've contracted with one to distill the debut batch of wine from my grapes. Next year I'll make the wine myself. I've had plans drawn up for a woodsy, Craftsman-style lodge to house the equipment, a wine cellar, and a tasting room. Wolfman Washington, my fellow Foo Clubber and bulldozer operator, just finished clearing and grading a site on a ridge nearby. When the winery building is finished, my guests--and eventually, my customers--will be able to stand on the winery's veranda, sipping a Jeb Walker chardonnay or a Jeb Walker merlot while they look out over the vineyards, toward Rose Top Mountain and the Sitting Tree.
You heard right. Jeb Walker wine. From the Walker Winery at Hamilton Farm. I've already had a logo drawn up. I've already got stationary and business cards. The logo will be an outline of the farm's famous grain silo in rich hunter green with Jeb's initials stamped over the silo in gold. It's classic but friendly. Unforgettable. Like the man who inspired it.
You see, Jeb always wanted to plant a vineyard. Back then, everyone pooh-poohed his daydream, myself included. We chortled at his idea of growing decent wine grapes in Mossy Creek. We thought good wine only came from two places: France and California. Jeb, however, never wavered. "One day," he always said, "I'm going to cover the hill outside my study in grape vines, and I'm going to pick the grapes and stomp them with my own feet and age the juice in oak barrels, and when Ida and I are old we'll sit on the back veranda and drink that vintage wine. We'll have the last laugh."
He never got to plant those grapes. He never got to grow old. I'll never get to have that glass of wine on the veranda with him beside me. But Jeb will get the last laugh. I'll make sure of that.
I curled my fist around my morning coffee mug and raised the mug in a salute to Rose Top Mountain and the Sitting Tree. "Nobody's going to build an amusement park over there," I swore aloud. "Nobody's going to ruin the view from Jeb's vineyard." I took a deep swig of coffee.
When my cell phone rang (it plays the opening bars of Stevie Nicks' Dreams) I nearly spit French roast on Jeb's mahogany desk. I hurriedly fished around in my robe's pockets until I found the tiny phone. There's something ignoble about trying to field an important call on a phone the size of a matchbox.
"Hope?" I yelled into thin air as I slapped the entire phone to one ear. "What did you find--besides hundred-year-old cockroach skeletons and dirty drawings of women in corsets."
Hope hooted. "It's here! Just like Cousin Farley wrote in that ancient diary you found! Behind the wallboard in the attic, right where he said he put it for safekeeping after Great Aunt Belinda died--stuffed between the pages of the ladies' lingerie section of a 1902 Sears and Roebuck catalog!"
I hooted in return. God bless our great aunt's son--our long-dead mutual cousin, Farley--and his fetish for busty Victorian babes wearing whalebone. "Hurry home," I told Hope. "I'm calling Ingrid. We'll pick you up at Bailey Mill in a few hours."
"Where are we going?"
I chuckled fiendishly. My New Year's resolution--to stay out of trouble--floated past like a small, resigned angel, waving goodbye. "We're driving down to Atlanta to visit the governor. He's got a meeting scheduled with the Whoopee Arcade people this afternoon. Perfect timing." I paused, relishing the image of my pompous nephew roasting on a slow spit of defeat. "Ham's about to get punked."
Good morning, Mossy Creek! This is Bert Lyman, as always, of WMOS-FM and its sister station, WMOS-TV, local cable access channel 22, bringing you breaking news. Flash! The streets of downtown Mossy Creek are finally safe again. The notorious Miss Irene, age 93, has been captured. No word yet on whether police chief Amos Royden ended her wild spree by running her off the sidewalk, or whether he resorted to shooting the tires off her scooter. More news as we get it. Stay tuned!
There was something about that Saturday that promised trouble. You know, like the feeling you get that makes you want to brush off the centipede crawling up your backbone. For months I had feared it would come to this, starting way back when Melvin called me to tell me that he was "taking Miss Irene to Wal-Mart."
My name is Casey Blackshear. I'm married to Hank, the local veterinarian and Mossy Creek town councilman. Miss Irene is Hank's great aunt, three times widowed, with no children. In all fairness, I have to say that all three of her husbands adored her. Unfortunately, being a wife was the only thing she excelled at.
Husband number three died twenty years ago. Now she's ninety-three and a diva, as much as a diva can be, who, except for a church-organized tour to Niagara Falls, hasn't been out of Bigelow County since she turned seventy-five. Until two years ago, she and her three cousins, all widows, lived in the same trailer court down in Bigelow--in separate trailers, of course.
They got up each morning promptly at 7:15, made their beds, brushed their teeth, combed their tightly-curled perms and dressed, always with ear bobs (clip-ons of course) and lipstick. Each ate a bowl of cereal--fiber for their systems--and drank one-half cup of prune juice and one cup of decaffeinated coffee. Then they washed the dishes and waited for someone to come by or call.
Most days someone did. Of course the cousins went to prayer meeting on Wednesday night, shopped at the Bigelow Ingles on Friday, went out to eat on Saturday night, and went to Sunday School and church on Sunday, with the youngest cousin driving. Then Aunt Irene fell and broke her good hip; she'd already done a job on the other one. That's when the Bigelow cousins pronounced with greatly exaggerated regret that they could no longer care for Irene since they were in their eighties and needed looking after themselves. Against her wishes, and Hank's, we brought her to the assisted living section of Magnolia Manor, here in Mossy Creek.
I should now explain about Melvin. He was Hank's best boyhood friend, becoming even closer after he was wounded in Desert Storm and sent home. Melvin's parents had died by then, and he had no other family. Hank offered him a job, and Melvin took it. Then Melvin built himself a one-room apartment at the end of the clinic, where he lives now.
Since then he's been our self-appointed keeper, handyman, kennel man, and veterinary assistant when Hank has to make house calls. And every Saturday he looks in on Ed Brady, a local senior citizen. Ed is a crusty old-timer who is just as set in his ways as Aunt Irene. Doesn't seem to bother Melvin, who just ignores their preferences and makes them do what they need to do, when nobody else can.
Since I'm in a wheelchair, Melvin thinks he has to make sure that my daughter, Li, and I are always safe. He doesn't need to, but we humor him by agreeing. When Aunt Irene came to Mossy Creek, Melvin just extended his bodyguarding services to her, whether she wanted them or not.
Melvin shaves his head. The color of warm cocoa, he looks like a dark-chocolate Mr. Clean. He's a handsome man, a good man. Everybody loves Melvin, except Aunt Irene. At first, she didn't consider it proper to ride around Mossy Creek with a black man driving her car. No amount of discussion changed her mind. Her racism embarrassed us, but we were stuck.
Didn't bother Melvin. He went out and rented Driving Miss Daisy, and we had movie night. After the movie, he brought out his new chauffeur's cap and announced that he'd drive and Irene could sit in the back. Nobody else in Mossy Creek had a chauffeur.
That appealed to her, but there was another problem. Aunt Irene didn't want anybody driving her car except herself or me. The obvious problem here was that, as drivers, neither of us could use our legs--she of the broken hips and me of the auto accident that left me in a wheelchair. Hank and I tried to get her to sell the car, but she refused. She fully intended to drive the car herself--after her hip healed. We realized that dream was important and stopped nagging her.
The state of Georgia didn't help our "Ground Miss Irene" cause. When it came time to renew her driver's license, the license bureau gave her a new one--good for another five years--without so much as a question, despite her tottering along on a walker.
She can no longer read street signs, but the bureau never even tested her eyes. To make matters worse, she forgets how to get where she is going in Bigelow and she's never learned the streets in Mossy Creek. At least she's confined to Magnolia Manor unless someone takes her out--which is more than you could say about Ed before he had his cataract surgery. You remember? After Chief Royden took his license, Ed drove his tractor into town and directly into Mossy Creek--the actual creek--thanks to an encounter with Ham Bigelow's limo.
Still, Aunt Irene managed to move about enough to keep her own battery charged; her Pontiac wasn't so lucky. Finally, Hank told her that the car needed to be driven to keep its battery charged and its parts working. He didn't have time to drive it, and I couldn't. Reluctantly, she agreed to let Melvin drive the Pontiac at least once a month.
Dutifully, he drove it over to Magnolia Manor every week. She'd walk out to the car and sit in the back seat while Melvin cranked the engine. But she continued to refuse his offer to take her for a ride.
Until one weekday.
I was at the clinic. Melvin called on his cell phone to tell me that he wouldn't be back for a while. He and Miss Irene were going to Wal-Mart.
Now you understand, there is no Wal-Mart in Mossy Creek. They had to go down to Bigelow. I didn't ask what they were shopping for. I just told him to drive carefully, glad that I didn't have to accompany them. Taking Aunt Irene anywhere means we park in a handicap area, Hank goes into the establishment and finds a store wheelchair, and he pushes her around while I drive my motorized scooter.
On that day, I expected Aunt Irene and Melvin to be back in a couple of hours. That estimate gave them thirty minutes to Bigelow and thirty minutes back, and an hour to do whatever they were doing. Two hours turned into three, and I began to worry. Finally Melvin drove into the clinic parking area at three o'clock. He parked and locked the car and came into the house, beaming from ear to ear.
"You're not gonna believe it, Casey, but Miss Irene drove one of those electric scooters all over Wal-Mart."
I was stunned. We'd tried to get her into one of the electric chairs for months. She'd refused. She always said firmly that she was too old to learn how to drive one of those things.
"How'd you manage that?' I asked.
"Well, they were out of regular wheelchairs and I just told her she was going to learn how. If she could drive a car, she could drive a scooter. I told her she could even get her own scooter and drive it on the sidewalks from Magnolia Manor to church. The idea of being able to go to church by herself did the trick."
"Melvin, I'm amazed."
"Me, too. We turned the scooter on, and I walked beside her and cleared the way until she got the hang of it." He smiled. "She didn't run over but one lady. That lady saw us coming and just stood there. Miss Irene panicked and pinned her to the cashier's counter before I could pry her fingers off the accelerator."
"Oh, Melvin, was the woman hurt?"
"Heck, no. Besides, wouldn't have mattered. We were in the pharmacy."
"So what did Irene buy?"
"Nothing. The other ladies at the home have started going to Wal-Mart every week, but Miss Irene doesn't want to ride on that little bus with them. She just wasn't gonna let those other ladies have anything on her. So we not only went to Wal-Mart, we went them one better."
"I'm afraid to ask. What did you do?"
"We went to lunch at the Bigelow Cafeteria. That's what took so long. I got the cafeteria wheelchair for her, and rolled her up and down the line first to see what her choices were, then we had to go back and fill up her plate. Do you know how many different things they offer there? I counted thirty dishes, not including the salad bar, the pizza bar and the dessert bar. She had to have one little spoonful of everything. Apple season in Mossy Creek doesn't create a traffic jam like we did in the Bigelow Cafeteria. Good thing it wasn't on the weekend."
I was stunned. For six months, Hank's great-aunt had refused to allow Melvin to drive her around. Now they were having lunch together. I couldn't wait to tell Hank. He rolled on the floor laughing. That was before we realized that Melvin had created a monster.
If an electric scooter worked at Wal-Mart, it would work in Mossy Creek. Aunt Irene and Melvin put their heads together and ordered a scooter advertised in the AARP magazine. It would go anywhere, and it did.
Last summer, Aunt Irene became the terror of Mossy Creek, beeping her horn and zipping along the sidewalks, sending both residents and tourists fleeing into the street. She was a pinball gone amuck. Mossy Creek Drugs and Sundries sent her flowers in appreciation of the business her collisions sent to them.
Melvin and the maintenance man at Magnolia Manor, Bunkin Brown, concocted an umbrella stand on the back of the seat, which shielded Aunt Irene from the rain and the sun. So on a cool morning in autumn, Aunt Irene was out and about, enjoying her hobby: hot-rodding.
And Amos busted her.
"Miss Irene," our police chief said politely, "Can you slow that thing down enough that I can walk along with you?"
"Well, I can, but I was heading for the Hamilton Inn to have lunch. If I hurry I can get there before Millicent Hart Lavender and her group of old harpies."
"Miss Irene," Amos said, "we have to talk."
"Well, make it fast," she said, blowing her horn as she swerved to miss Win Allen, who jumped out of the way so quickly he dropped the five-gallon container of stew he was about to load in his Bubba Rice Catering van. Dwight Truman, on his newest racing bike, hit the stew head-on.
Dwight and his bike landed in the arms of some big azaleas. Win's stew seeped from the broken plastic container, making a steaming, gumbo-ish puddle on the street.
Miss Irene never even slowed down.
Amos jogged along beside her. "Tell me the truth. During World War Two, you were trained to drive a tank."
"Don't be sassy to your elders! It's about time you did something about these rude pedestrians. They can see my handicapped tag hanging from my handlebars."
"Miss Irene," Amos explained patiently, still jogging, "it's not the pedestrians. It's your driving that's causing concern."
"I'm a very good driver, Amos. I haven't hit anyone since my trial run at Wal-Mart. And that woman had plenty of time to get out of the way."
"You haven't hit anyone because everybody in Mossy Creek knows to get out of your way. You drive too fast and you expect your horn and your handicapped sticker to clear a path for you."
"I certainly do. I've done a little research. The handicapped vehicles have the right away."
"Only when you're parking. And that's what I'm going to have to do with your scooter. Park it. Permanently. Unless you slow down and show your fellow citizens some courtesy, I'm going to have to impound your vehicle."
Miss Irene came to a stop. "On what grounds?"
"Speeding and reckless driving."
"Young man, this isn't an automobile. Now, get out of my way."
Amos blocked her. "Sorry, Miss Irene, I can't do that."
She stared firmly at him. He stared firmly back. It was a stare-off.
A crowd gathered. Half the onlookers sided with Amos and the other half egged Miss Irene on.
"Stand up for your rights, Granny," one yelled.
Another yelled, "Chief, call Hank and tell him to get over here and take his senior delinquent in hand."
"Aw, come on, cut her some slack. She's crippled," a man with a cane yelled.
"Somebody call Bert Lyman over at WMOS and tell him to get over here with his video camera."
Aunt Irene's eyes lit up when she heard that. The only thing that Aunt Irene liked better than dressing up was to be the center of attention. The two things were mutually compatible. And she wasn't above using her age as a tool for getting her way. She was having the most fun she'd had in years.
Lifting her chin, she tilted her head and adjusted her sun hat. "Please do call Bert. I think Mossy Creek's mistreatment of the elderly should be shown everywhere. I bet it even gets on CNN. Now, down in Bigelow, this would never happen. Only Mossy Creek would persecute a ninety-three-year-old woman."
Amos realized he'd opened a can of worms. Aunt Irene wasn't going down without a fight. Melvin arrived on the scene. Melvin came to the rescue.
"Miss Irene, Casey needs you at the clinic right away."
"Needs me? What for?"
"Hank's on a call and one of the patients he's boarding is going into labor. She needs your help."
It was obvious that Aunt Irene was torn between being needed by her great nephew's wife and being persecuted. Obligation and family need took precedence. She pointed her finger at Amos and gave him one last parting shot. "Amos Royden, whether or not I want to be, I'm a tax-paying citizen of Mossy Creek, (well, she paid sales tax) and I have rights. We'll talk about this after I've handled Casey's emergency."
With that, she beeped her horn, backed up and with Melvin running along beside her clearing traffic, drove quickly back to Magnolia Manor. There, Aunt Irene traded her scooter for her Pontiac and, with Melvin wearing his chauffeur's cap, she ignored the cool autumn air and let down her window, waving as if she were Miss America on parade as they drove out of town.
When they reached the clinic, I sheepishly admitted to getting her there under false pretenses. There was no labor and delivery problem. But there was trouble of a different kind. Dwight Truman had just called Hank on his cell phone. As chairman of the town council, Dwight was calling an emergency council meeting for that very same night, to declare Aunt Irene a menace.
Dwight wanted her banned from the sidewalks of Mossy Creek.
A few nights later, Creekites packed the courtroom where town council meetings are held. Bert Lyman was present, his WMOS-TV camera in hand. Ingrid Beechum, Jane Reynolds, Hope Bailey Settles, and most of the other shop owners were there, and all the residents of Magnolia Manor. Irene's friends held up signs. Irene is Innocent. Seniors Will Overcome. Go, Irene!
Dwight Truman called the meeting to order. "Good evening, fellow Creekites. I'm filling in for Mayor Walker, who will be here any minute. She called to say she's conferring with a lawyer about protecting the Sitting Tree, and the meeting's running a little late." He rapped the gavel. "You all know that we're here tonight because we seem to have a little problem: Miss Irene is terrorizing the citizens on her scooter."
"And the tourists," somebody called out.
Dwight put a serious expression on his face. "With our apologies to Dr. Blackshear, we have to decide what we need to do about his great aunt."
"I'm sure we'll do what's fair," Hank said stiffly. He doesn't like Dwight. Very few people in Mossy Creek like Dwight. Look up "pompous" in the dictionary, and you'll see Dwight's picture.
Dwight nodded. "The citizens love Miss Irene, and we have made every effort to accommodate her new means of transportation. However, we can't have our town's commerce threatened by her. I say that not only as head of the town council, but also as head of the chamber of commerce. Commerce is clearly my responsibility. And she does threaten it. Chief Royden, what do you have to say about the situation?"
Amos stood. "I've handled a lot of dilemmas in my career as a law officer, but a ninety-three-year-old menace on a scooter is a first. I've had Teresa Walker research the legal aspect of this case, and she tells me that we have no regulations to cover this."
"Thank goodness," a female voice said. "Unlike our council chair, other lawmakers have better things to do than regulate handicapped citizens."
We all turned to look as Ida strode up the center isle. She was wearing snug jeans, cowboy boots, and a quilted windbreaker over a white turtleneck. Her red hair spilled from a casual twist. I snuck a peek at Amos's expression. He watched Ida with the quiet, intense focus of a man who knew what--and who--was important to him. Everyone in town saw how he looked at Ida whenever Ida wasn't looking back.
Dwight turned red and looked annoyed--his usual look around Ida. She took the gavel from him and sat down behind the "Mayor Ida H. Walker" sign on the council table. She settled her firm, green eyes on Amos. "Chief," she said, making it sound like a caress, whether she realized that or not, "Chief, Miss Irene wasn't exceeding any speed limit, was she?"
Amos smiled slightly. He never let Ida get the upper hand, if he could help it. "It's hard to say. What is the speed limit on the sidewalk, these days?"
People laughed. Ida thumped the gavel, giving Amos a slit-eyed smile that promised repercussions. She was always touchy around him now. The controversy over the Sitting Tree wasn't helping. "Very funny, Chief. The city ordinance clearly says any handicapped person can park their vehicle in wheelchair-marked spaces."
Dwight piped up. "It doesn't say she can drive like a demon on the sidewalk! Because of her, I bent the front wheel of my new bike!"
Someone called out, "You're always bent, Dwight."
Ida rapped the gavel.
In the back of the courtroom, old Ed Brady cupped a hand around his mouth. "Good manners and a Christian attitude demand that we show consideration for those less physically fortunate than the rest of us. Let Miss Irene run free!"
Applause. Mr. Brady had a crowd of supporters who celebrated his rebellions against authority. Especially when it came to driving vehicles, like Miss Irene's scooter and his farm tractor, in hair-raising ways.
Melvin walked into the courtroom. "Here comes the freedom fighter now!" he announced loudly. He stood at attention. In came Aunt Irene, puttering along on her scooter. She was dressed in a World War II helmet and a flight jacket. "Don't pussyfoot around and lose your Constitutional rights," she said to the audience. "I can tell you from experience, the streets are a war zone. It's every man for himself."
People applauded again. Dwight slapped a hand on the council table. "Not when one man, er, woman puts others in danger."
Ida rapped her gavel. "Chill out, Dwight. You're dissing a veteran."
Miss Irene beamed. With her pale, Max Factor face powder and her Revlon Red lipstick, she looked like a gray mouse with pink cheeks and squinched-up lips. But my toddler, little Li Ha Quh Blackshear, took one look at Irene's strange get-up and began to cry with fear.
Miss Irene stopped her scooter. Tears welled up in her eyes. "See what you've done," she said to the council, accusingly. "You've scared my great-great niece. She thinks you're persecuting me. Have you no shame?" If she'd been auditioning for the part of a dying swan, she'd have won, wings down.
She was ninety-three and being persecuted. Melvin had definitely created a monster when he got her a scooter.
The courtroom went silent. I hugged Li and shushed her. She quieted, but kept staring at Irene as if Irene were stranger than usual.
Amos cleared his throat. "Where'd you get the war gear, Miss Irene?"
"From Ed Brady. In that he's had some experience with the law suspending driver's licenses, he's been advising me. Ain't this a kick in the pants? Me, and my tank, at war with Mossy Creek. And I don't even have a gun."
"Miss Irene, until we can figure this out, you're free to go, but I'm arresting your scooter."
"You can't do that." She looked at Hank, sitting on the dais behind the council table. "Speak up, Hank. You're supposed to be looking after me, aren't you?"
Hank grinned. "Sorry Aunt Irene, but you're on your own."
Aunt Irene drove her scooter as close to Amos's toes as she could manage. "I've not broken any law, Chief. You said so yourself."
"Well, you have, now. You're blocking the aisle with your vehicle. I'm within the law to impound your scooter as a ... hazard to the public right-of-way."
Aunt Irene looked around helplessly. Then she caught sight of Dwight Truman's racing bike, parked in one corner. "Well, are you impounding Dwight's vehicle, too? It's blocking that corner."
Dwight came to his feet. "That's outrageous!"
"Arrest Dwight's bike!" someone yelled.
People began to chant. Dwight's bike. Dwight's bike. Dwight's bike.
Ida silenced them with her gavel. She cut her eyes at Amos. "Chief? I think Miss Irene's got a point."
Amos nodded, barely holding back a smile. "I believe she does. Melvin, if you'll accompany Miss Irene back to Magnolia Manor and then bring the scooter over to the jail, I'll take care of impounding Dwight's bike."
Dwight exploded. "This is absurd! Chief Royden, you can't just stick my expensive racing bike in the jail parking lot. Someone will steal it."
"Oh, I'm not putting in the parking lot. I'm going to lock it and the scooter in a cell. Visiting hours are on Sunday afternoon, one to three."
The audience applauded.
Hank and Ida hid smiles behind their hands.
Irene raised a fist. Victory, even a symbolic one, was sweet.
Ida rapped her gavel. "I declare this issue resolved. Good night."
Irene's admirers leapt up and surrounded her, patting her shoulders and offering congratulations. With Li seated in a car seat attached to the side of my own scooter, I backed up. That was when I discovered that Melvin had put an automatic back-up horn on my vehicle. Beep, beep, beep it went, as if I were driving a fork lift through a warehouse. Already spooked by Aunt Irene, the Creekites gathered in the courtroom scattered, giving me a wide berth.
"Beep, beep, beep," Li said, imitating the horn. I waved to Hank, who waved back. Li beeped us outdoors to my handicapped van. Ed followed us.
"Miss Casey, I'm sorry. I didn't intend to get the town in an uproar. Melvin and I just thought Irene needed some help making her point. She ought to be able to navigate around town on her own, even if she is a mite reckless."
"Well, I think you were certainly right. She's having a ball. So, what do we do now, Ed?"
"Been thinking about that. Don't suppose we could talk the mayor into reactivatin' the Foo Club and get some civil disobedience going, do you? Maybe Wolfman Washington could bulldoze a hole in the jail. Spring Miss Irene's law-breaking scooter."
I laughed. Ida and her Foo Club escapades had become legendary. "I think we've had enough civil disobedience already," I told Ed. "Melvin and you started this. Now you need to put on your thinking cap and get Irene out of it."
He tipped his head to me. "We'll figure something out."
Amos released his wheeled captives with a stern warning to Aunt Irene and Dwight about the proper use of their vehicles. Neither person was receptive to the chief's suggestion that they take a taxi.
Everything calmed down through the rest of the year. Aunt Irene lay in wait during the holidays. She let the new year begin peacefully. She, Ed and Melvin debated ways to make Mossy Creek scooter-friendly, but didn't appear to be up to any mischief. But then this cold, clear morning in January arrived, the day I should have seen coming for months.
Aunt Irene and her army of cohorts took to the streets in a protest march.
Mt. Gilead Methodist Church was having their winter fundraiser on the square. Yes, it takes tough, faithful people to schedule an outdoor event in mid-January, but that was part of the appeal. Kind of showing off to the other churches in town. See? No ice storm, no snow, not even a drizzle of cold, winter rain to mar our event. A perfect winter day. God obviously likes us best.
They set up nice tents with propane heaters to keep everyone comfortable. The creative church women sell the crafts they've made all year long. They also sell pickles, canned tomatoes and anything else that can be put up in jars. For two days before the event, they assemble and cook their famous homemade chicken stew. They bake dozens of cakes and pies and cookies. Since the new minister, Mark Phillips came, the parsonage has been completely refurbished from money raised through such events.
As usual, people from all over our end of Bigelow County came to town to buy stew and other goodies. I held Li on my lap as I drove my scooter among the tents, hugging her close to me, loving her laughter and wondering how anyone could be as lucky as Hank and I. Hank managed to get away from the clinic for an hour that morning to accompany us to the event. Li picked out a rag doll we bought it, and then she preceded to throw it to the ground with regularity.
She giggled. She threw the doll. Hank fetched it. She had him trained.
About eleven o'clock there was a humming sound, faint at first, then louder. Gradually the murmur caught the attention of the crowd, and they turned toward it. That was when I recognized the lyrics--We Shall Overcome. Around the square came a slow-moving line of scooters--there were at least a hundred--headed straight for the church fundraiser. Aunt Irene was leading the charge.
"Casey," my husband said, "what do you know about this?"
"Not a thing, I swear."
I drove my scooter over to Sandy Crane. Mossy Creek's short, curly-blonde police officer was bent so far over a big trash can that her top half disappeared inside. Her gun belt clanked on the basket's metal rim.
"Gotcha, you little mooch," she said, and straightened. She held Ingrid Beechum's Chihuahua, Bob. He had a french fry in his mouth.
"Sandy," I called. "Look what's coming."
You know, lots of towns say they have a town square, but Mossy Creek's town square was a true square, with sidewalks and parking spaces built all around it. The difference, unlike most small towns, was that our courthouse wasn't in the center of the square. Instead we have a park with a Confederate statue, a gazebo, picnic tables, big shade trees, little sidewalks and lots of brown winter grass. That day, tents and booths selling the church's goods and chicken stew dotted the area.
You could stand in the square and, turning, see the panorama of downtown Mossy Creek, including Aunt Irene's "Charge of the Scooters," which headed towards us from the north, where Magnolia Manor was located. Sandy and I stared. "Oh, lord," she said slowly. "And here comes Amos."
A police car arrived from the south.
"Did you know about this scheme of Irene's?" I asked. Sandy, like our gossip columnist, Katie Bell, knows almost everything before it happens.
Sandy shook her head. "Not this. Oh, lord. This isn't gonna make the Methodists or the chief happy. On top of which, I gotta go tell him the rumors I've heard about Ida's plan to--"
She clamped her lips shut. I stared at her hard. "Ida's plan to do what?"
"Never mind. It's police business." Sandy hurried away, handing Bob off to someone else.
I drove quickly toward the intersection of Aunt Irene and Amos.
He stepped out of his patrol car, blocking her advance. They met in the middle of the street, eye-to-eye, again.
"Good morning, Miss Irene," Amos said. "Does this mean we're being invaded?"
"Do you realize you don't have a parade permit, and you're impeding the flow of traffic around the square?"
"Absolutely. Do you realize how many of your senior citizens are coming to this fundraiser for the first time in years? Senior citizens who expect to spend a great deal of money here and everywhere else in Mossy Creek, now that they can get around the square as easily as anybody with two good legs?"
Amos looked at the hundred faces behind her in the scooter line, all nodding at him beneath yarn caps and mufflers. He sighed. I felt sorry for Amos sometimes. He'd come home from a successful stint as a big-city cop, but still had to prove he was as good a law officer as his daddy, Mossy Creek's legendary police chief, Battle Royden. So Amos dutifully judged beauty contests, looked for lost cats, solved disputes between neighbors, and put up with being the most-watched bachelor to ever secretly court our mayor.
And now he had to face down Aunt Irene.
Her group of protesters started singing a hymn titled Walking With Jesus, only they changed the words to Driving With Jesus. This time, other Creekites joined in, and even some tourists. Near the front of the line, ancient Eula Mae Whit began beeping her scooter's horn. "I'm a hundred-and-one," she called, looking like a wizened brown fairy in a kinte-cloth coat. "Do I look like I got time to waste on this argument?"
Suddenly, two of the scooters pulled out and glided smoothly to stop on either side of Aunt Irene. Melvin drove one; Ed drove the other. Ed's late wife, Ellie, had been a resident at Magnolia Manor, and it had nearly broken his heart when she died. After that, Ed had almost given up playing Santa Claus for Mossy Creek's Christmas parade. The last few years had been hard on Ed. Now it was obvious he had a new mission in life. He and Aunt Irene had become friends.
He grinned. I looked at Hank. He looked at me and nodded. It had been a long time since anybody had seen Ed smile.
"Amos," Ed said, "I believe that Melvin and I have come up with a solution to our traffic and sidewalk problems."
"I'd be glad to hear it, Ed, but don't you think it could be better addressed at a town council meeting?"
"Why? We got pretty much everybody from the council right here."
Amos ran a hand over his hair. "The thing is, Ed--"
"Come on, Amos," Melvin put in. "Don't you want to at least hear the plan?"
"All right. I'm game. Tell me."
"Wasn't really our idea," Ed said, "it was Amelia's." This produced murmurs in the crowd, since Amelia was the wife of Pastor Phillips. Everyone turned to stare at her. She waved and smiled from a church booth. Ed grinned. "Smart woman, she is. She looks like my Ellie, when Ellie was young."
"I'm listening, Ed," Amos reminded him.
"Look around this square. Our founding families were pretty smart people. They made the streets extra-wide. There's enough room to move the parking lanes out four feet or so. That will give us space to make a bicycle and scooter lane between the parking spots and the sidewalk. Think of the publicity. We even got Dwight Truman on board with the idea. He says Mossy Creek will be the only town he knows that can welcome both the handicapped and the biking clubs."
"We'll put together a volunteer group to paint the new parking lines," Melvin interjected. "It won't cost the taxpayers anything. And think of the new business it will bring in. Buses full of retirees with their wheelchairs and scooters."
You didn't have to be a psychic to see that Amos was thinking this might work. "Sounds good to me, but you'll have to run this past the mayor. I don't know where she is today." Amos spotted Ingrid across the street, leaving her bakery in what appeared to be a hurry. "Ingrid," he called. "Where's Ida? I thought she'd be here by now."
"I don't know a thing," Ingrid said, looking guilty of something. She tucked Bob tail-first into her over-sized purse, then headed down a back alley, clearly rushing to her car. Sandy pivoted to watch Ingrid with the intensity of a curly-blonde hawk. Something was up, something involving Ingrid and Ida and who-knew-who-else.
Amos frowned, then turned his attention back to the scooter brigade. "Without the mayor on hand--"
"I'm right here," Ida said.
Well, she wasn't right there, exactly, but she was on the screen of Bert Lymon's laptop computer. He held it up for everyone to see. "She text-messaged me," Bert explained. "I told her to hold her cell phone up and look into its camera. Then I put her on-line. Wireless technology is wonderful."
Amos frowned at Ida's suspicious lack of bodily presence. "Mayor? Where are you? Why don't you hop in a car and just drive on up to the square? We'll wait."
"I've got cookies in the oven."
"You don't bake."
"I've taken it up. The Food Channel seduced me."
"Oh?" Amos studied her shrewdly. "Do you bake outdoors, dressed in a business suit, standing beside your Corvette? Because it looks like that's where you are."
"Are we here to discuss my baking habits? Or Irene's mission?"
"Hurry it up, Mayor, Chief," Bert interjected. "I'm on battery power."
Ida smiled sweetly. "Thank you, Bert. I hereby convene this impromptu meeting of the Mossy Creek town council. I like Ed and Melvin's suggestion about the scooter lane. I wasn't aware of how many of our citizens owned their own scooters."
"Mayor, they really aren't ours--yet," Ed admitted. "When the manufacturers heard about what we were planning, they loaned them to us. Ain't it wonderful? We get to keep them, too, if Mossy Creek puts in the scooter lane and we agree to be in a Medicare commercial."
Ida gave a thumbs-up. "Good work. Is Casey Blackshear there?"
"Right here, Mayor," I said.
"What do you think of a scooter lane, Casey?"
As the only person on a scooter who wasn't in the protest, I said, "Let's ask Aunt Irene."
Ed took Aunt Irene's hand. "You tell them, Rene."
"You know," Irene said, "Everybody always says that Mossy Creek is 'the town that ain't goin' nowhere and don't want to.' That's the town motto, even. I think what that means is that you all welcome the world to Mossy Creek, in person and in spirit. Including the ones of us who can't walk anymore."
A number of people began wiping their eyes and sniffling. She had them crying.
Ida winced. "Okay. That's enough of a discussion for me. Have we got a majority of the town council on hand?"
"Yes, Mayor," Hank answered.
"Then let's vote."
Hank said loudly, "I move to approve the new scooter lane."
"I second that," said councilman Egg Egbert, Ida's second cousin, from about tenth back in the line of scooters.
"All those in favor, say, 'Aye.'"
Other council members chimed in, and a resounding "Aye," rang out.
Cheers and applause filled the air.
Ida smiled. "Glad that's settled," she said, way too cheerfully. "Bye, now. I have to go check my cookies."
"Ida. Mayor," Amos said grimly. "I want to talk to you--"
"Catch you later, Chief."
The screen went dark.
So did Amos's expression.
I had watched that little exchange with great interest. Li wiggled in my lap. "Beep, beep, beep," she said, as if warning everybody we were backing up.
I had a feeling Ida was going to need a warning beeper, too. Catch you later, Chief? Not if he caught her first.
"Three cheers for Irene," Ed called.
The cheers went up.
To think it all came about because Melvin took her to Wal-Mart.