The scrape of Theodora’s voice snapped her to attention. The fringe on the old woman’s cowhide jacket whipped through the air like rust-colored snakes. Beneath a cowboy hat trimmed with red and green lights she screwed up her face with palpable displeasure.
One of the hat’s green lights stuttered out. Birdie tapped it and the bright flashing resumed. “Where’s your tinsel?” Tipping her head, she took in Theodora’s brown and white leather boots. Obviously the pint-sized retiree was itching for a cowboy Christmas. “Nice. If we find you a mask, you can hand out presents dressed like the Lone Ranger.”
“Are you casting aspersions on my clothes?”
“Why not?” She flicked at Theodora’s satchel. “You can’t shoot me in public. It’d ruin the parade.”
“Or start it off with a bang.” Theodora stuck out her chin. “Why are you hiding over here by yourself?” She bounced a thumb at Finney, creating all sorts of mayhem further down the street. “Why aren’t you helping her?”
Evidently the volunteer fire department was trying to raise money. Their members flanked a bent Christmas tree with cheery smiles. They’d stuffed the trunk of the tree inside a garbage can and dotted a few branches with tinsel. Finney stood in the center of the men, clanging a bell in front of a red lacquer bucket. Whenever someone approached, she charged with her bell singing and her face tilted at a bullish angle.
“She doesn’t need my help.” What Finney did need was a sedative.
Furtively, Birdie’s gaze drifted back to Natasha. Taking the baker’s money wasn’t merely stupid. It was mean. Cruel. What had she been thinking? Natasha’s coat looked ten years old. True, her purse had been polished to a nice luster but there were spidery cracks in the fake leather.
Theodora poked her in the stomach. “Pay attention!” Then she barked at Delia, who was flirting with a biker. The girl trotted over and she added, “If you lazy asses don’t have anything better to do, come and help with the parade.”
Delia’s nose crinkled. “Oh, man. What’s wrong this time?”
This time? Birdie looked at them with confusion. “Are you talking about the floats for the parade?” Surely they were ready to go.
Delia chortled. “This is a small town, Birdie. We rig up vans and trucks for the Festival of Lights. There aren’t any floats. We have enough problems convincing the farmers not to dress up their chickens and add them to the convoy.”
“And how’s that my problem?”
Theodora thwacked her arm. “You’re in a beastly mood. Now, get moving. The trucks are behind the courthouse. There aren’t enough folks getting them fancied up. Where’s Hugh?”
Delia popped a stick of gum into her mouth. “He’s laid claim to one of the tables at the library. He’s got a homemade ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.”
Theodora did the angry-shimmy thing with her shoulders. “What does he think he is? North Korea? Delia, trot over there and haul him out. There’s work to be done.”
After Delia trudged off, Theodora latched onto Birdie’s wrist and dragged her forward. The old woman was an angry bee zipping through the crowd. Even as her hat blinked holiday cheer, the scowl on her face sent the swarm of parade-goers scattering.
Breaking free, Birdie set herself a mulish gait. She nodded in greeting to Finney, busy emptying the pockets of anyone unlucky enough to pass within earshot of her clanging bell. The pail was already full of bills. Tens, twenties, a Ben Franklin—no, two. The citizens of Liberty weren’t rich, but they were certainly generous.
Still, there must be limits. If there was a parade committee, they operated on a budget of fifty dollars…or less. The trucks idling bumper to bumper behind the courthouse sported plastic poinsettias stuffed into rust spots and cheap tinsel taped on greasy windshields. A silver Ford was pathetically adorned with cardboard bells a five-year-old must have cut out. Behind it, a pockmarked Chevy revved beneath a twisted clump of twinkle lights. Half of the lights were dead.
“Give them your hat, Theodora.” Birdie nodded toward the men heaping greenery on the Chevy. “They need all the help they can get.”
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