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Hidden Moon (Chapter 14)

I meant to go straight to the office, but I became sidetracked.

As mayor I needed to make an appearance at the sidewalk sale, so I walked up and down each street, peering at every table, speaking with the merchants, being complimentary while managing to refrain from buying a single item lest I show favoritism to anyone.

Politics.

Returning to Center Street, I discovered a line trailed out of the cafe, blocking the sidewalk so that people had to divert into the street to pass. This caused a backup of traffic that had ruckus written all over it. I hurried over and suggested another place to eat to those at the end of the line, then wound up getting yelled at by Bobby Turnbaugh.

Talk about a ruckus.

I was only able to mollify him by promising to hold the next four town council meetings at the cafe.

A trio of kids had set up a lemonade stand at the corner of Center and Bailiwick. They were cute as puppies, so eager to please they became downright wiggly when I gave them a dollar instead of a quarter for a glass. I took a sip and sprayed it onto the pavement.

The three stared at me with wide blue eyes. "We just made the lemonade the way our granny does."

"What's your name?"

"McGinty."

Great. Their granny ran the biggest moonshine operation in the county. No wonder my teeth felt like the enamel had been eaten off.

"How much of this have you sold?" I eyed the industrial-sized cooler from which they'd dispatched my share.

"Only one jug." The kid pulled out an equally mammoth cooler from beneath the table.

"You're going to have to pack this in," I said.

"What?" they shouted. "Why?"

I didn't want to explain that their granny was a moonshiner and their lemonade about 150 proof, but I couldn't let them keep selling the stuff.

"Did you sell more than one glass to a single person?"

Solemnly they shook their heads. Well, that was good news. I doubted anyone would get sick from one glass. The way it tasted, I doubted anyone but a local would be able to finish the stuff. And locals were used to the effects.

"It's getting too crowded out here for you to take up the corner," I improvised.

"Aw, what're you givin' them a rough time for?" said a man with a thick Boston accent. "They're cute."

"Yeah, that's local color," added a woman whose hands were full of shopping bags with logos from nearly every store in town.

The kids beamed. "Want a glass, mister?" one asked.

"No!" I exclaimed. "I – uh – I'm buying the whole jug. I mean cooler. I need it for… the police."

Three little faces went white.

"They're thirsty," I continued. "Been out in the sun all day directing traffic."

"Good idea," the man said. "Gotta keep our men and women on the force hydrated."

The tourists moved on – thank God – and I pulled a twenty out of my pocket. The kids snatched the cash and began to pack their stuff. I took the cooler and poured it down a storm drain in a nearby alley. The scent that wafted up could have peeled paint from a barn.

When I returned, they were gone. I should tell Grace what had happened, but I figured by the time she got out to the McGinty place, Granny would have moved her still. Again.

This might be the twenty-first century, but in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the southernmost section of Appalachia, old habits died hard.

The Scotch-Irish were double immigrants who'd traveled from their native Scotland in the 1600s to settle Ulster in Northern Ireland. When things began to suck there, long before the potato famine, they'd traveled across the sea. At the time of the Revolution 10 to 15 percent of the population of the Colonies had been Scotch-Irish, which had contributed in no small amount to the uprising against the English.

"Mayor Kennedy." Balthazar's cool, slick voice made me tense. I was tempted to just keep walking and pretend I hadn't heard him in the noise of the crowd. Unfortunately, he'd just follow me back to the office and then I'd never get rid of him.

I plastered on a smile, turned, and nearly got a faceful of camera. I reared back as he clicked the shutter.

Asshole.

"That'll make a lovely shot for our front page." He smirked.

I could imagine how lovely I'd look this close. "Knock it off."

"Sorry," he said, not sounding sorry at all. "A public figure like yourself is fair game."

He hit the button again, and the camera fired like a machine gun. I was tempted to hold my hand in front of my face or shove my fist into his nose. Instead, I spun on my heel and headed for town hall.

"What do you think of this caption?" he called. " 'Mayor Kennedy allows moonshine lemonade to be sold on Center Street.'"

I stopped, turned, and stared him down. "I don't plan to give up, Balthazar. I will fight for this job."

He covered the few feet separating us, crowding too close as usual. "Why? You didn't want it in the first place. You should quit."

My hands curled into fists. "I'm done quitting."

"Then you'll be fired. Or at least voted out of office."

"Don't count on it."

"If the festival doesn't produce, or those filthy Gypsies cause trouble, you're finished."

He lifted the camera and took another picture. " 'Mayor Kennedy giving her concession speech.'" Another. " 'Mayor Kennedy cleaning out her desk.'" Another. "'Mayor Kennedy,' make that just plain 'Claire Kennedy,' 'what will she do now?'"

"Stop taking my picture."

He lowered the camera, fiddled with something, then hit the button again. The flash went off right in my face.

Luckily, I'd figured he was up to something and closed my eyes. I opened them just as Malachi Cartwright snatched the camera out of Balthazar's hands.

"You, sir, are a prick."

"What's your point?" Balthazar sneered.

Cartwright opened his fingers, and the camera tumbled toward the pavement. Balthazar surged forward, but he was too big and slow to catch it. I doubted anyone could have. It smashed into the cement with a sickening crunch.

"What a shame," Cartwright murmured.

A crowd had gathered. Everyone stared. No one moved. For an instant I don't think anyone breathed.

"That was my only camera," Balthazar roared.

"You should take better care of it."

"Me?" Balthazar's face reddened. "Me?"

He was so furious, I wondered if we'd need to call the rescue squad. He might just pop a blood vessel. One appeared to be pulsing quite close to the surface of his forehead.

The big man lunged at Cartwright, who sidestepped easily. Balthazar swung at the other man's head. Cartwright ducked.

People began to choose sides, shout encouragement. At the edge of the crowd, Sabina, sans snake, stared at Balthazar and Malachi with a tense, almost frightened expression. Poor kid.

"Don't do this," I said, but the men were past hearing me.

Balthazar had four or five inches and about a hundred pounds on Cartwright, but he wasn't quick enough. He couldn't catch the man. Sadly, that only seemed to make Balthazar madder and more determined. Sooner or later he'd land a punch, and from the size of him, one would be all it would take to do some serious damage.

I stepped forward, planning to put myself between them, and someone yanked me back.

"They'll kill you," Grace snapped.

As she finished speaking, Balthazar swiped at Cartwright, who narrowly missed getting his nose broken as he jerked his face out of the way of the flailing, ham-sized fist.

"We have to stop this."

"You think?" Grace muttered. "Where's a fire hose when you need one?"

She strode forward, putting herself between them, just as I'd planned to do. Cartwright backed off immediately. Balthazar came forward with a roar. She drew her gun and pointed it at his chest. "Stop."

He did, first staring at the gun, then lifting his gaze to her face. "Are you crazy?" he snarled.

"Are you?"

"I'll have your job for this."

"Oh no. I shake. I shudder." Grace gave an exaggerated wriggle of fear. "Now pick up your toy and go home."

"What about him?" Balthazar jerked his head toward Cartwright.

"What about him?"

"Aren't you going to make an arrest?"

"For what?"

"Assault."

"You took a swing at him."

"He broke my camera."

"Then I guess you're even."

Balthazar cursed, kicked the camera, and stalked away.

Grace holstered her weapon. "Nothing to see here, folks. Y'all move along now."

Leaning over, she scooped the ruined camera into her hands and tossed it into the trash, then turned to Cartwright. "You probably want to stay out of his way while you're here."

"Perhaps he should stay out of mine."

"I doubt that'll happen. He seems the kind of guy to hold a grudge."

Cartwright shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first."

"Well, watch your back." Grace's gaze met mine. "I'm off."

Time for her to head into the woods and look for our missing tourist. I only hoped she found him – alive and well and eager to begin treatment for rabies.

Sabina inched closer, in her hands a sheaf of papers. A quick glance revealed the Gypsies' showtimes for the week.

"You're putting those up?" She nodded. "Left your snake at home, I see. Good idea. Less trouble that way."

"It didn't seem like less trouble to me," Malachi murmured, his gaze on Balthazar as the other man skirted the offices of the Gazette, heading for the large warehouse at the back.

"You didn't have to get involved," I said.

"He needed a lesson in manners."

"I doubt he'll learn any from your breaking his camera."

"And I'm betting he will."

"He could have killed you."

"Me?" Cartwright's smile was far from friendly. "I dinna think I would have been the one who wound up dead."

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