A Taste of Death (Maggie Olenski Series) (3 page)

"That's the mayor, Tom Larson,

Dyna whispered as a white-haired man in a grey cardigan sweater stepped up to the podium.

"Everyone find a seat?" he asked, looking around the room with a smile. He waited as the last of the talking quieted down. "Well, we have a pretty good turn-out tonight. Since I'm sure you didn't show up to hear me talk about the town hall's new snow-blower, we'll get right down to the matters at hand. All of you probab
ly know who Mr. Jack Warwick is." H
e indicated the navy-blue suited man seated at the front table. "Why don't we just let him say what he's got to say. Mr. Warwick?"

There was a smattering of applause, and Jack Warwick stepped up to the podium, nodding and smiling to the mayor and to the gathered townspeople. He was a man, Maggie judged, of about fifty, but a young, vibrant fifty. Average height with broad shoulders, Jack Warwick emanated an energy and magnetism that kept everyone's eyes glued to him, waiting for his first words. He leaned towards them, his ruggedly handsome face smiling under black and white speckled hair, and said, "Good people, I propose to save Cedar Hill."

"You propose to destroy it," a female voice came from the back, and Maggie wondered if it was Regina's. Jack Warwick ignored the comment.

"I know your problems. I know your hardships. There have been fewer and fewer jobs. Young people are having to move away from their families, from the town they grew up in and love, to find means to support themselves." He paused, and Maggie saw a few heads nodding. "This town has depended greatly on tourists, skiers drawn to Big Bear ski resort. But as we all know, their numbers have decreased in the last few years because of the competition from newer, bigger resorts. This has hurt your economy, badly, to the point of death. I can save that economy by buying Big Bear and turning it into a thriving mining operation."

Jack Warwick went on to enumerate the jobs that his company would bring to the area, to talk glowingly of the changes - all positive - that would come to Cedar Hill. He ended with a promise to personally donate, once the contracts were signed, as a symbol of his lasting interest in the town, a substantial amount of money for renovation of their school.

Maggie glanced around the room and realized that the building did need repairs. Some ceiling tiles hung loosely, there were signs of water damage, and the very chairs on which they sat looked to be on their last legs. What better way to win the parents over than to promise such enticements - a new and improved situation for their children?

"Mr. Warwick, I don't agree that your mining operation would be good for our town." Maggie looked over as a middle-aged woman, more elegantly dressed than most others there, stood to speak. "I own 'Ski Lady Boutique', an upscale women's clothing store which has designer clothing and the prices that go with them. My business would not survive if Big Bear were changed to a mining operation, nor would several others' businesses, such as Mr. Morgan's fine restaurant." She gestured to a man seated a couple rows behind her, and all heads, including Maggie's, turned to look. 'Mr. Morgan' was a slim, dark haired man in his mid thirties, who sat dourly with arms crossed tightly across his chest. To Maggie's surprise he did not rise to add his voice to the dress store owner's, but stayed silently in his seat.

Another man jumped up to voice his opinion in favor of the zoning change. He managed the supermarket in town, and he obviously knew an influx of new jobs and new people would be good for his business. Others rose to have their say - the manager of the ski shop against, the coffee shop owner for, and so on - and as far as Maggie could tell the townspeople were evenly divided.

Dyna pointed out Paul Dekens, Alexander's brother
and part-owner of Big Bear
, who listened tensely but said nothing. Maggie saw that Paul was in much better shape than his older brother, looking as though he often used the ski slopes he cared about so much. A grim look marred his even features as he listened to the arguments, but Maggie saw his expression soften when Elizabeth caught his eye, as she moved near the refreshments table. Elizabeth, with her quiet ways, seemed to be distancing herself from the debate.

Suddenly Regina White jumped out of her seat in the back. "You talk of wanting to help this town," she shouted. "I don't believe it for a minute! It's greed! You want all the money you can pull from that mountain." She waved her arm, vigorously jabbing it to the left, in the direction, Maggie assumed, of Big Bear. "You don't care about us. You don't care what you will do to the environment. It's all greed. Money in your pocket. And you think you'll get your way, because you have your friends in high places. You've greased a few palms. You say you want our approval, our vote. You just want us to keep quiet and not get in the way! Well, we won't. Listen
to me, Cedar Hill, and vote ‘No’
to keep Warwick from destroying us."

Jack Warwick tried to respond but she drowned him out, hurling more accusations, her voice rising with each one. Tom Larson stepped up, trying to calm things down, but Regina kept the floor, causing many uncomfortable looks and some angry ones. Finally two of her companions managed to pull her down to her seat.

One or two more people added their opinions, more quietly than Regina, then Mayor Larson brought the meeting to an uneasy end, saying that the town would vote on the issue in three weeks time.

"I've got to run to the girl

room," Dyna said, popping up. "I'll be right back."

Maggie stayed in her seat and watched people as they moved around. She saw Alexander go up to Jack Warwick with an agreeable, eager-to-please look. He kept nodding and smiling as they spoke. His brother
Paul scowled in their direction
but passed by and went over to talk to Elizabeth
who was now serving punch.

Leslie wobbled over to Jack and Alexander on her high-heeled boots and interrupted them, speaking in a too-loud voice. Her husband's face turned dark
and he hissed something to her. Leslie colored, an
d she responded in kind
, then backed away, turning towards the refreshment table.

Maggie could hear Regina in the back, arguing with one of her picketers. He was urging her to leave with him, but she insisted she would stay, that she hadn't finished with Jack Warwick yet.

Dan Morgan, the restaurateur who had stayed silent during the public debate, stood talking to Karin Dekens. He looked a little less dour than he had appeared back in his seat, and she smiled as she spoke, touching his arm. Her husband, Alexander, left Jack Warwick and passed near them. Maggie was surprised to see a bitter smirk turn up the corners of his mouth as he looked at them. Karin seemed aware of it, glancing u
p at him briefly, but ignored it
and turned slightly away.

"Hello! You must be the writer who is moving into the Hall's place."

Maggie looked over with a start to see a plump, white-haired woman in practical L.L. Bean skirt, blouse, and vest beaming at her. She introduced herself as Susan Larson, wife of the mayor. Maggie rose and shook her hand, and disclaimed the title of writer as having been unearned yet.

"I'll be working on a book, but it's a math book, full of math games and puzzles for kids to play around with."

"Oh, math! How clever you must be. Numbers, I'm afraid, have always escaped me. I never could balance my own checkbook." Maggie smiled a polite smile, having heard that kind of comment many times before, particularly from women of Mrs. Larson's age group. She suspected it was more an attitude drummed into them from childhood than an actual math disability, and sometimes wished she could gather them all into some kind of remedial support group. A "You Really Can Do Math" group. Her own mother, who kept the books for the family bakery but still claimed she had no head for figures, would be her first member.

"I'm just so glad to be talking about something besides mountains and mining," Mrs. Larson said confidentially. "Since you're a newcomer, you won't have formed your opinion yet. I thought I'd better get to you before you started talking to others and choosing sides." The older woman's blue eyes twinkled, and she looked around with mock concern, as if one of Regina's picketers or o
ne of Jack Warwick's people was
likely to rush up and grab Maggie's ear any minute now.

"A mayor's wife, and you don't like politics?" Maggie asked with a smile.

"Isn't that always the way?" Mrs. Larson laughed. "But Tom doesn't mind, and I don't expect him to join me at my Garden Club meetings. I hope you like our little town, as much as you've seen of it, that is?"

"I love it," Maggie enthused honestly, and Mrs. Larson's round face beamed. "Coming from a big city like Baltimore..." Maggie began, but never got to finish. A scream from the other side of the room snapped her attention from Mrs. Larson to the group at the refreshments table.

Jack Warwick leaned heavily against the table. He clutched at his chest as he gasped for breath. His coffee mug still spun where it had landed on the floor.

"He's having a heart attack! Call an ambulance!" someone shouted.

"Oh my Lord," Mrs. Larson said, and left Maggie as she rushed over to help. Magg
ie saw the mayor pull out his cell
phone, and several people helped Jack to the floor, loosening his tie and shirt, and generally doing what they could. Having no medical skills, no idea whatsoever of anything to do that would help, Maggie decided to stay back and out of the way.

Dyna soon joined her, her eyes round with concern. "Wow, poor guy." She watched in silence for several moments, then couldn't help adding, "but I'll bet he smoked, and ate a lot of fatty foods." Maggie looked over at her health-conscious friend in surprise, but nodded, too overwhelmed for the moment to do anything else.

The ambulance arrived amid wailing sirens, and
within minutes
they watched paramedics wheel Warwick out on the stretcher, oxygen mask over a grey face, an IV line attached to an arm. Maggie silently wished him good luck, then looked around at the faces of the people she had just begun to know that night. They were universally solemn, many looking as stunned as she felt. But something was missing. It took her a moment to realize what it was.

She saw concern, but a distant concern, detached, the kind you would see on the faces of strangers watching a televised news report of an accident. But these were people who knew this man. One was even his wife. What Maggie realized she did not see was any sign of sorrow.



he next morning, Maggie woke in her puffy yellow bed
and stretched. Bright sun streamed
through the window, telling her she had slept much later than her habitual 5:45 A.M. workday rising. Must remember to pull that shade at night, she thought with a smile, as she lifted her head enough to see the travel clock she had set up on the dresser. Nine-oh-five. A gust of wind blew snow from a nearby branch against the window panes, and Maggie snuggled deeper into the soft warmth of her flannel sheets and luxuriated in her leisure. 

She had called Rob in Florida last night before turning in, and she wriggled
contentedly as she reran some of
he conversation
. Much of it was in the highly intellectual vein of:

"Miss you."

"Miss you more."



But Maggie had also shared her delight over Dyna's family "cabin
and the beauty of New Hampshire and Cedar Hill. Eventually she got around
to the town meeting, giving Rob
a condensed version of the debates and arguments, finishing with Jack Warwick's sudden illness. She had tried to sound as neutr
al as she could, but
picked up something in her voice that concerned him.

"I hope you can keep yourself out of the town's troubles, Maggie," he had said. "You don't need the distraction. You're up there to work on your book."

"Oh, I know, I know. And I want to spend nearly every waking minute on it. The town will just have to solve its own problems without me," she had said, laughing.

Thinking of this now, though, Maggie squirmed. She was reminded of another phone conversation
, this one with her brother Joe,
telling her,
her to keep out of a murder investigation at her summer vacation. The perverse side of her had instantly resolved to ignore him. Which got her into a pile of trouble.

Rob certainly wasn't ordering her to mind her own business, simply pointing out something with which she already agreed. Why then did she feel her interest in the town and its troubles immediately escalate? Did she unconsciously hope to somehow intervene in this zoning debate, to solve in some way their economic and environmental problems? Not likely. She was going to do only what she had come up here to do and nothing more. End of squirm.

Sounds of activity from the kitchen below broke into her thoughts. She flipped back the comforter with sudden energy and jumped out of bed, scrambled to locate her robe and slippers among her still unorganized clothing, and trotted down the winding stairway to join Dyna.

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