The sign welcoming travelers to Maggody, Arkansas, reads “Pop. 755,” and don’t expect Hizzoner Jim Bob to repaint it just because there’s someone new in town. The mayor won’t go out of his way for anyone, especially someone wicked—and a woman who would open a pawnshop in Maggody must be very wicked indeed. Kayleen Smeltner decided to open the shop after her husband was killed during a burglary. She came to Maggody expecting peace and quiet, but she’ll find this quaint little patch of nowhere isn’t as peaceful as it seems.
When a right-wing militia takes up residence in the pasture behind the pawnshop, police chief Arly Hanks knows it’s only a matter of time before the bullets start to fly. The strange citizens of Maggody are on the verge of civil war, and it will only take one spark to set the town ablaze.
There’s no politics like small-town politics, and there’s no town on earth like Maggody. This madcap take on right-wing militias is one of Joan Hess’s most topical—and outrageous—mysteries yet.
The Maggody Militia is the 10th book in the Arly Hanks Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Maggody Militia
An Arly Hanks Mystery
By Joan Hess
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1997 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
"You didn't say anything about the sale on beauty accessories," Estelle said as she tucked the Star Shopper into her purse. "I just got in three dozen bottles of fingernail polish in an exciting variety of colors." She held out her fingers. "This is Pumpkin Patch Pizazz. I think it'll be my best seller."
Ruby Bee finished wiping the bar and dropped the dishrag into the sink, where the water was as dingy as the sky outside. Her face, normally pink and plump as a baby's bottom, was puckered with some unexpressed worry. "I'm not supposed to be giving folks free advertising," she said with a shrug. "I'd end up with a whole column of nothing but used pickup trucks for sale. Raz would expect me to announce his moonshine prices, and Jim Bob'd start telling me about his two-for-one specials on paper towels."
"Well, excuse me, Miss Lois Lane." Estelle finished her sherry and picked up her purse, but put it back down. It didn't seem neighborly to leave Ruby Bee all by herself in the gloomy barroom, especially when anyone with eyeballs in the front of their head could see how blue she was. "Maybe I'll have another piece of apple pie," she said, just so Ruby Bee would have something to do.
Ruby Bee gave her a sharp look, but obliged without commenting on certain people's gluttony. After all, Estelle was as skinny as a fence post, although darn few fence posts had bright red hair in a beehive teased a good eight inches high. You didn't see many with violet eyeshadow and cherry-colored lipstick, for that matter. Imagining Estelle out at the edge of a field, holding a strand of barbed wire, brought a flicker of a smile to Ruby Bee's face.
Estelle mentally congratulated herself on the success of her ploy. "So who's this mysterious suitor sniffing around Kayleen?" she asked. "I'd have thought you might have told me right away instead of leaving me to read it in the newspaper. Didn't I tell you when Millicent McIlhaney let it slip that Darla Jean came home drunk and threw up in her pa's boot?"
"I don't want to be accused of spreading gossip. The woman's only been in town for a week, and she might get her feelings hurt if she finds out everybody's talking about her behind her back."
"So who is it?"
Ruby Bee leaned forward like she thought a tabloid reporter was hunkered down in the booth in the corner, taking notes. "I just happened to be setting out the garbage when I saw Brother Verber come sneaking around the corner like a schoolboy with a toad in his pocket. He liked to drop the box of candy when he saw me standing there. He stammered out some foolishness about how he was calling on Kayleen to invite her to go to the Assembly Hall this Sunday. Maybe he thinks I'm as near-sighted as Lottie Estes."
"Brother Verber?" said Estelle, stunned.
"I was a little surprised," admitted Ruby Bee, "but if you think about it, why shouldn't he come courting? He's a bachelor, after all, and it could get a mite lonely over there in the rectory. Kayleen's been widowed for more than a year now. There's nothing unseemly about her entertaining callers."
"But he's so ..."
"I'll be the first to say nobody's gonna confuse him with Rudolph Valentino, not with his red nose and squinty eyes and flabby lips. It's not hard to guess who's first in line for dessert at the Wednesday night potlucks, either."
Estelle took a sip of sherry while she considered all this. "I suppose there could be another side to him, although he sure keeps it hidden behind his blustery, self-righteous sermons and unhealthy interest in exposing depravity. What's Mrs. Jim Bob got to say?"
"Nothing as of yet, but you can bet the farm we'll hear something before too long."
"Amen," said Estelle with a snort.
"The woman is nothing but a common tramp," Mrs. Jim Bob (aka Barbara Ann Buchanon Buchanon) told her husband as he came through the back door. "Did you wipe your feet? The last thing I need right now is mud tracked all over the house. Edwina and Millicent are coming over in the morning for coffee, and Perkins's eldest hasn't been here to clean in a week. She says she hurt her back, but it's more likely she's pretending to be poorly so she can collect welfare checks and sit around all day in her bathrobe."
Jim Bob froze in the full wattage of her glare, even though he was carrying two hefty bags of groceries. "Is that why she's a common tramp?"
"I was not referring to Perkins's eldest." Mrs. Jim Bob opened the oven door to check on the pork chops, then slammed it closed and resumed glaring. "It's that woman staying in the motel out behind Ruby Bee's Bar and Grill. A good Christian would never open a pawnshop."
"Why not?" he asked curiously.
"Because it is not the Christian thing to do." She shifted her attention to a saucepan on the stove while she searched her mind for a more insightful explanation. She knew perfectly well that there was something sinful about pawnshops. She finally thought of an old movie she'd watched a few weeks ago when Jim Bob had claimed he was working late at the supermarket. "Pawnshops lure in criminals who want to get rid of stolen property. We've had more than our share of wickedness here in Maggody since Arly Hanks took over as chief of police. I told you when you hired her that it was not a suitable job for a woman, especially one that struts around in pants and has a smart mouth."
Jim Bob set down the bags on the dinette and ran a hand through his stubbly gray hair. As far as Buchanons went, he was on the more perceptive end of the continuum. "Did you and Arly have another run-in today?"
"No, and I don't have any more time to waste trying to help her get back on the right path. I can't count the number of times I've prayed for her, tried to counsel her, and invited her to attend church and join the Missionary Society. Living in New York City swelled her head and corrupted her soul. If she doesn't mend her ways, she and that Smeltner woman will be on the same express train to eternal damnation."
"If you say so," he murmured, wondering if there was any way he could slip back out to his truck and sneak a swallow of bourbon from the pint bottle in the glove compartment. Probably not, he concluded. Mrs. Jim Bob's piety had given her a keener sense of smell than a bloodhound's. He didn't have any idea why she was so fired up, but he sure as hell wasn't going to give her another reason to lecture him. Not when he and the other boys on the town council were planning to play poker Saturday night.
"I may have to work late this weekend," he said as he started for the living room. "I was gonna have Kevin do it, but the boy's just too stupid to trust with the receipts. I caught him this morning on the loading dock, staring into space like one of those department store dummies. I had to whack him upside the head with a broomstick to get his attention. You'd think he was pregnant instead of that cow he's married to."
"I will not have that kind of language in this house, Jim Bob. What would someone walking by think if he heard that coming from the mayor's house? We have an obligation to the community to maintain the highest standards." She came to the doorway, her beady eyes narrowed and her mouth pursed. After a moment, she said, "I assume you'll be working late this weekend in Jim Bob's SuperSaver Buy 4 Less instead of in the backroom of Roy Stiver's antiques store."
He snatched up the remote control and aimed it at the TV set. "You get the craziest ideas of any woman I've ever met. What would I be doing at Roy's on a Saturday night?"
Kevin was no longer on the loading dock, but he was far from being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He'd been mopping the same square yard of linoleum for the best part of ten minutes while he dreamed about fatherhood. Back when Dahlia had first told him she was in the family way, it had seemed so far-fetched that it hadn't sunk in. Now, with less than a month to go, with the crib in the room next to theirs, with the stacks of nighties and diapers and cotton blankets on the dresser, with the smell of baby powder in the air, he was beginning to realize that he, Kevin Fitzgerald Buchanon, was gonna be a father. He was gonna be presented with a warm little bundle to love and protect.
Without thinking (which he rarely did, being on the opposite end of the aforementioned continuum), Kevin dropped the mop and cradled a four-pack of toilet paper in his arms. Babies were soft and squeezable. They arrived all pink so you'd want to kiss their tiny toes and tickle their little noses.
"Excuse me," said an old lady with a cane, "but could you tell me where you keep the toothpicks? I've been up and down all the aisles."
Kevin replaced the pack and gallantly escorted her to the right spot. Rather than return to the mop, however, he dug a dime out of his pocket and went to use the pay phone in the employees' lounge.
He waited patiently for a dozen rings, imagining his beloved heaving herself off the couch and moving majestically across the room. A stranger peering through the window might not guess she was within weeks of having a baby. What weight she'd gained blended right in with the three hundred odd pounds there'd been of her to begin with, and she'd refused to wear outfits with storks and cute messages about the current location of the baby. Kevin's ma had found one that might have fit, but Dahlia'd turned up her nose and kept on wearing her regular clothes.
"What?" she growled into the receiver.
Kevin realized he might have interrupted her in the middle of one of her soap operas. "Nothing, my sweetums. I just wanted to call and ask how you was doing. Is there anything I can bring home this evening?"
"You know darn well I'm on this awful diet. What are you gonna do if I ask you to bring home two gallons of ice cream and a carton of Twinkies?"
He gulped unhappily. "I was thinking more of crunchy celery and that real tasty low-fat yogurt." His beetlish brow, common in varying degrees to all members of the Buchanon clan, crinkled as he struggled to make amends for setting her off again. "Or a magazine! The new issues just came in this morning. I don't recollect exactly, but I think there's one with ideas to decorate a nursery."
"When am I supposed to sew curtains and paint stencils on the wall?" she said with a drawn-out sigh of pure misery. "I have to poke my poor finger four times a day on account of this diabetes. The sight of my blood bubbling up makes me sick to my stomach, so I have to get a sugar-free soda pop and lie down until I stop feeling queasy. Then I haft to listen to that tape they gave us and make silly noises. When I'm not doing that, your ma's hauling me to the clinic so I can put on a paper dress and wait until that weasel of a doctor finds time to pull on plastic gloves and smear petroleum jelly on —"
"I gotta get back to work," Kevin said as his knees buckled and sweat flooded his armpits. "Why don't you have yourself a nice nap on the sofa? After all, you're sleeping for two."
He made it back to the mop and bucket, but it was a long while before he started sloshing dirty water down the aisle.
"Am I disturbing you?" asked Kayleen Smeltner as she came into the PD and paused, her expression cautious.
I put aside my pocketknife and the block of balsa wood I was trying to coerce into resembling a marshland mallard. I keep it in a bottom desk drawer for those stretches of time when the rigors of upholding the law in Maggody are less than burdensome. Some peculiar things have happened since the day I arrived home to pull myself back together after the divorce, but mostly I run a speed trap out at the edge of town, pull teenagers over for reckless driving, beg the miserly town council for money, and try to stay in my mother's good graces by pretending that my only goal in life is to acquire another husband, a vine-covered cottage, and a lifetime subscription to TV Guide.
In her dreams, not mine.
"Have a seat," I said to Kayleen. "The bank robbery's not scheduled until five o'clock, and the extraterrestrial invasion won't start until midnight."
She sat down on the edge of the chair across from my desk and unbuttoned her coat. "Maggody doesn't have a bank."
"I know," I said. "It doesn't have a landing pad, either." I'd met Kayleen at the bar, of course, in that I was in there two or three times a day, sometimes four if I made happy hour. She appeared to be in her early forties, maybe ten or twelve years older than me. Her makeup might have been a tad heavy-handed, but it went well with her long, wavy blond hair and slightly masculine features. She was nearly six feet tall and carried a few extra pounds beneath well-tailored silk and linen dresses. The leers and wolf-whistles that greeted her in the barroom implied the overall effect was that of a 1940s Hollywood sex goddess.
She finally gave up trying to figure out what I'd said and relaxed. "I want to give you a copy of my license to buy and sell firearms, just so you'll know everything's legal. I applied for it a few months after Maurice was killed."
"Maurice?" I echoed.
"Everybody called him Mo, but I always called him Maurice on account of how sexy it sounded, like he was from France instead of Neosho, Missouri." She took a tissue out of her purse and dabbed the corner of her eye. "He left me his gun collection. I had to sell it, and I found out real quick that dealers end up with most of the profit. Pretty soon I had a brisk business going, some mail-order but most of it out of my home. When I got tired of haying strangers tromp through my living room, I decided to open a pawnshop. This way I can keep my private life separate from my business one."
I leaned back in the worn cane-bottomed chair and asked the question that had been buzzing around town like a deranged hornet. "Why Maggody? Wouldn't you do better in a larger town? The only walk-in trade you'll get here is from the drunks across the street at the pool hall, and I doubt any of them owns anything of value. Traffic consists of tourists heading north for the country music halls of Branson, or heading south for the self-conscious quaintness of Eureka Springs. The only reason anyone slows down going through here is to throw litter out the car window. If anyone actually stopped, we'd all go outside to stare."
"I stopped here once upon a time," she said in a dreamy voice. "I was on my honeymoon. Jodie and I were fresh out of high school, driving an old car his grandfather had given us, down to our last few dollars. We didn't care, though. We were heading for Texas when we had a flat tire four or five miles down the road from here. It turned out the spare tire was flat, too, and Jodie was setting off to walk back to Maggody when this man pulled up. He drove Jodie to a gas station to get the tire fixed, then brought him back and insisted we stay for supper. It was the kindest thing anyone's done in my whole life. I guess I've thought about coming back here ever since then."
"What happened to Jodie?"
This time she put the tissue to serious use. "We scraped together enough money to put a down payment on a little farm west of Texarkana. Less than a year later, Jodie was killed when the truck he was working on slipped off the jack and crushed his chest. I was pregnant at the time, and miscarried the next day. I couldn't stand living in the house filled with his memories, so I sold the property and moved to Dallas. Sometimes I pull out my old high school yearbooks and look at his picture, wondering what my life would have been like if ..."
I was touched, although not to the point of asking to borrow her soggy tissue. "I still think you may regret opening a business here," I said to change the subject before she whipped out wedding pictures (or an urn filled with ashes). "And you may regret buying the Wockermann property, too. The reason the house is in such disrepair is that it's been empty for a couple of years. The real estate market's not booming in this neck of the woods. It's not even pinging."
"Maurice left me enough to get by on," Kayleen said with a small smile. "I'll have my mail-order business, although I guess I'll have to drive into Farberville to use the post office there. Besides, big cities are frightening these days. You don't know your neighbors. If you need something fixed, you have to let a stranger come inside your house. He could be a rapist, or a psychotic, or even a government agent."
"A government agent?"
"You never can tell. These are dangerous times we live in, Arly. Don't think for a minute that the government doesn't know how much money you make and how you spend it down to the last penny — and I'm not talking just about taxes. They know who you talk to on the telephone and get mail from, and which organizations you belong to."
Excerpted from The Maggody Militia by Joan Hess. Copyright © 1997 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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