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"No!" Liza Henderson's life flashed before her eyes as she prepared to meet her maker.
"Damn! Damn! Damn!" Screeching expletives probably wasn't a good way to make it through the pearly gates, but hey, she was about to get flattened by a tire careening off a chicken hauler.
Liza gripped the wheel of her ancient F-250. Lurching off the road, she bounced across a gravel verge and came to rest in a tangle of kudzu vines.
She felt as if time hiccuped when the chicken haulersans one tiresideswiped a truck pulling a double-wide trailer, sending both vehicles sliding, blocking the westbound lanes. That was bad enough, but the comedy of errors wasn't quite over. When a molasses truck joined the melee, it turned into a sticky wicket.
Not only had State Highway 441 north of Magnolia Bluffs, Georgia, been transformed into a gooey, feathery chicken hell, the three truck drivers had abandoned their mangled rigs and were about to come to blows.
The good news was that no one appeared to be hurt. The bad news was that Liza was trapped in a sea of greenery.
She was prying her fingers from the steering wheel when a state trooper tapped on the passenger-side window.
"Ma'am, are you okay?"
If Liza discounted the fact that her heart was trying to beat its way out of her chest, she supposed she was just dandy. She scooted over to roll down the window, mentally taking inventory of her body parts.
"I think so. Everything seems to be in working order."
"That's good. I'll mosey over there and see if I can round up some guys to help you get back on the road." The trooper indicated the long line of cars and pickups that had stacked up on the highway.
"Ya know, if you sit too long in that kudzu, it'll cover you right up," he said with a grin. "If that happens, they'll never find you."
Imported from Japan in the nineteenth century and used during the Depression for erosion control, kudzu was capable of growing almost a foot a day. It also had the annoying habit of covering everything in its wayup to and including derelict cars, sheds, abandoned washing machines and, on occasion, a slow-moving granny.
"Amen to that," Liza agreed. Everyone knew about the scourge of the South.
The trooper stepped back and did a double take when he glanced in the bed of her pickup. "Ma'am, not to be nosy, but is that a purple bathtub you have back there?"
"Unfortunately it is." Not to mention a sink and a toilet.
"I've never seen anything quite like it before. Didn't realize they made 'em that color."
Neither had Liza. Not until her daughter Cassie had conned her into returning the fixtures to the Designer's Mart in Atlanta.
The trooper shook his head in a "what next" gesture. "Let me go get some fellas to help ya."
True to his word, the patrolman returned with a crew of able-bodied menready, willing and able to extricate Liza's Ford from the all-consuming vegetation. It took some grunting, cussing and a few snickers before the gang of good old boys managed to get her back on the road.
Liza breathed a sigh of relief. At least she hadn't been whooshed off to the white light, but still, this was turning out to be a day straight out of Dante's Inferno. It had started with a predawn call from Kara, her youngest. Since Kara had left for her freshman year at Emory University, her communication skills had deteriorated, so a phone call before dawn was not a good sign.
Liza loved her daughter like crazy, but Kara was a drama queen. Normally that wasn't a problem. This time, however, her college tuition and rent were due, and she'd maxed out her credit card at a Rich's department-store sale.
Step onediscuss fiscal responsibility. Step twoassure her hysterical daughter that money was forthcoming. Step three ask what Rich's had in size-six shoes. And step fourhang up and reach for the bottle of aspirin and a cup of coffee. That had helped until her other daughter, Cassie, called.
An incredibly mature twenty-three-year-old, Cassie had married a widowed dentist with two sons, Josh and Jason, ages seven and eight. It didn't seem to bother Cassie that Jim McGuire was almost twelve years her seniorthey were madly in love. And what more could Liza want for her daughter? So almost overnight, Cassie had assumed the role of mom and Liza had acquired a new nameGrammy.
The girl could sell plasma TVs to nomads, so Liza had given in to the inevitable. She'd reluctantly agreed to return the auberginea fancy word for purpletoilet. Was she a sucker, or what? Of courseshe was a mom.
The longer Liza sat in the traffic jam, the crankier she became. It was foggy. It was hot. It was humid. And to make matters worse, she had a raging case of PMS.
Get a grip! In a situation like this, her best option was to loosen up with a Tim McGraw CD, a bag of Cheetos and an RC Cola. Her mama didn't think Cheetos and an RC were a proper snack for a lady, but then, she'd also rather die than wear white shoes after Labor Day. And as for having a daughter who wore a hard hat to workneedless to say, that was a subject to be avoided.
Liza slipped off her sandals, planted her feet on the dash and contemplated her near-death experience. She'd been cooling her heels for almost an hour when some guy in a beer truck started making eyes at her. The postpubescent lech would have diddled his drawers if he'd realized he was making kissy faces at a forty-four-year-old grandmother. Technically, she was a stepgrandma, but that was irrelevant.
When he pressed his face to the glass for another round of wet, blubbery lips, Liza decided it was time to give him a one-fingered salute. She'd just folded her hand in the proper fist when her cell phone chirped. Bubba had been saved by the bell.
"This is Liza."
"How's my best girl?" The voice was male, familiar and most certainly trouble.
"Nope," she said, although she'd never been able to say no to Charlie Taylor and mean it. He was her business partner and one of her oldest friends. During the darkest period of Liza's life, he'd been her rock. "Whatever it is, forget it," she teased.
"Why do you think I want something?"
"Because I have your number. Remember, I've known you since you were blowing milk out your nose in junior high."
Charlie laughed. "I suppose I'll never live that down." He paused before getting to the nitty-gritty. "We have a problem, and I need you to do me a favor."
Liza sighed, knowing she'd capitulate. "Give me the details. But if it has to be accomplished in the next hour or two, you're out of luck."
"Where are you?"
"I'm on 441 in a terrible traffic jam."
Charlie burst into laughter. "They've been talking about that on the radio."
"Stuff it, Taylor. What's the deal?"
When he cleared his throat, Liza knew it was bad. "I hate to tell you this, but I just heard from Zack Maynard. He'll be here in a couple of hours."
Damn it! Norton Development, a California company, had purchased a huge tract of land on which to build an upscale community appealing to Atlanta commuters. Savvy businessmen that they were, they realized a local presence was necessary, so they'd contracted Taylor and Henderson Land Planning Consultants to manage the project.
"Are you kidding?" Of course he wasn't. For months, the Norton head honcho had been threatening to sic Zack Maynard on them. Sure, they'd had some accidentsokay, a shooting on the job site. That didn't mean Liza needed a buttinski investigator looking over her shoulder.
"Nope, he's definitely on his way. According to my voice mail, his plane was diverted to Birmingham because of fog. He had to take a bus from there to Atlanta." Charlie didn't bother to conceal his chuckle. "He tried to rent a car, but there wasn't anything available, so he's coming in on another coach."
"Buses?" Liza almost choked on her cola. "Mr. Hotshot is taking buses?"
Ever the diplomat, Charlie ignored her. "I was planning to pick him up, but I've had an emergency."
Understanding finally dawned. "No way!"
"Come on," he cajoled. "You'll have to meet him eventually. I'll betcha he looks around, gets bored and heads back to San Francisco."
"What part of 'no'don't you understand? You promised you'd deal with him if he showed up. What happened to that?"
"Liza, sweetie, I wouldn't ask unless I was in a real bind." Despite being irritated with Charlie, Liza couldn't suppress a giggle. "I'll bet he's not a happy camper."
"You're probably right. But you can charm him, I know you can."
"Flattery won't get you anywhere." Talk about a big fat lie. the back of my truck. And I'm not exactly dressed for business. I'm wearing a ratty pair of shorts and a T-shirt. All I need to pull off the Grapes of Wrath look is a mattress and some livestock." Liza giggled again. "We have plenty of fowl out here, but I'm not about to grab a couple of them." She either had to go with levity or resort to profanity.
"Maynard is not going to be impressed," she said.
"My only other choice is Yvonne, and she hasn't renewed her driver's license."
Liza sighed. "All right, all right. I'll pick him up, but you owe me."
"You're a sweetheart. I'll call him and let him know."
"Mr. Big's gonna have to wait until I can get out of this mess." Liza winced, glancing at the interior of her ancient pickup. "I hope he has a sense of humor. This has all the makings of an Ellie Mae Clampett moment."
"He works for a real-estate developer. I'm sure he's seen it all." Charlie laughed at his own wit. "You're a real sport. And I'm dying of curiosity. What are you doing with bathroom fixtures in your truck?"
"Cassie's redecorating, and after she bought this stuff she decided it wasn't in tune with her aura," Liza said. "Against my better judgment I agreed to return it."
"Let me get this straight." Liza could picture him smacking his head. "My dingbat goddaughter thinks she has to coordinate her toilet with her aura?"
"Yep," Liza said. "And seeing how you've always indulged her, it's partly your fault. By the way, what's your emergency?" She figured he had some unexpected problem on a construction site, or a public hearing that had been changed.
There was a pause, and when he spoke his voice assumed a sober quality she'd never heard from Charlie before. "It has to do with the murders."
"The murders!" she squeaked.
The talk of the county was the abduction and murder of several people involved in the real-estate industry. Most people suspected environmentalists protesting recent development were behind it, although no one had claimed responsibility. Regardless of the motivation, the crime wave had sent everyone skittering for cover.
"I got a threatening letter," Charlie said. "It rambled on about how I had to pay for past misdeeds. Jeez! I'm a nice guywhat have I done to make someone that mad?"
"Do you suppose it could be a sick joke?" Liza knew that wasn't the case, but she had to ask.
"Your uncle Dave doesn't think so." Uncle Dave was also known as Sheriff Dave Madison. "He's coming by to talk to me. That's why I can't pick up Maynard. But I'm going to be optimistic and assume it's a prank."
From the tone of his voice, Liza knew Charlie didn't believe that any more than she did, but she'd play along. "Sure, it's probably a practical joke."
"Call me when traffic loosens up. In the meantime, I'll make sure Maynard knows we haven't forgotten him. After you pick him up, why don't you bring him to the office? That way I can meet him. Besides, I'm dying to see the bathtub."
"You're pushing your luck, Taylor."
He responded with another laugh.
It took another hour for the troopers to divert traffic around the accident. If Liza hurried, she might be able to beat Mr. Maynard's bus. If not, he could sit and wait.
No skin off her nose.