A small crowd had gathered down the block and across the street from my house when I came outside that afternoon with Eddie, my two-and-a-half-year-old. I knew before I got there what it was about, a situation I had shaken my head over more than once during the spring months, wondering at the things that people found to argue over. It would be better not to walk in that direction and get caught in the fracas but Eddie spotted my friend watching from her driveway and said, "Mel. Wanna see Mel," as he took off toward his chief cookie-baker-and-giver and the small angry crowd nearby.
They were actually shouting when we got there.
"Chris, hi," Mel said, scooping up Eddie. "I know what you want."
"A cookie." He said it with the kind of smile Mel found irresistible.
"We'll get you a cookie soon," she said, nuzzling him so that he giggled.
"They're going to kill each other over this," she said to me. "Can you believe it's gone this far?"
"Only when I see it."
"Yes, you will," the man at the center of the group was saying in too loud a voice. "And you'll pay for it. You've had ten years to take care of this and you haven't done a damn thing."
"You have no heart," the woman standing nearest him called back. "That's all I can say. You probably drown stray cats, too."
"Enough," Mel said. "Let's go inside and find the cookies and get away from this horror. I hate seeing reasonable people become monsters." She looked around. "Sari? Noah? Come on. We're going in."
The five of us trooped into the house, the children grabbing their cookies and going upstairs, Mel and I hanging around the kitchen until the tea was made and then carrying our snack into the family room.
"Hal talked about moving last night," Mel said after she poured.
"Mel, don't say that. What will I do without you?"
"What will I do? But this is getting crazy. That man has lost his mind and the Greiners won't give an inch. He's probably got the law on his side and I understand his point of view, but it's hard to like him. The Greiners are nice people but they've got to acknowledge they've caused a problem for him. Did you get the flyer in your mailbox?"
"Two flyers. One for and one against. Jack checked with the police, just on a hunch. Do you know Mr. Kovak owns a handgun?"
"A pistol. It's all licensed and legal. He doesn't have a permit to carry, just to keep it on the premises."
"That's very scary."
"Lots of people own guns, Mel. It's the world we live in."
"Well, he better not use it over a tree."
It was a tree, in fact, that was the center of the discord on Pine Brook Road, a tree that had turned neighbor against neighbor. However many years ago, a seed from a silver maple had blown from the mother tree and settled on the edge of the Greiners' property, eventually planting itself and becoming a small sapling. I had not lived in Oakwood when that happened, although I had visited my aunt frequently in the house that I inherited from her a few years ago. When the seed rooted, I was a Franciscan nun living upstate in St. Stephen's Convent, not far from the Hudson River. By the time Aunt Meg had died, bequeathing the house to me, and I had been released from my vows and taken up residence on Pine Brook Road, the once tiny and fragile sapling was already a tree. Today, four years later, it was a good-sized tree with pretty, silvery leaves that moved gracefully in the wind and shaded the area beneath, and unfortunately wreaked havoc with Mr. Kovak's driveway only a few feet away from the trunk and just above the most aggressive of the roots.
The upshot of this natural phenomenon was that the Kovaks' driveway, an expensive concrete job, was being raised by the thickening roots. During the winter he had quite a problem getting over the icy hump and he was not happy. His anger had blossomed with the first green leaves of spring. I couldn't blame him. What he wanted from the Greiners was the removal of the tree, the removal of all the roots, and the replacement of the damaged piece of his driveway. The Greiners would have none of it.
"The Greiners could have mowed it down ten years ago when it was a flexible stick with a leaf," I said. "I hate to tell you what Jack mows down by accident."
"He's not the only one." Mel sipped her tea. "You're right. They could have. I'm sure they went to some trouble to preserve it when they saw it. And they should have known it wouldn't stay tiny for long. I mean, if you plant things, you know they're going to grow."
"How did the Kovaks' driveway come to be so close to the property line?" I asked. "The law says you have to leave so many feet between the boundary and whatever you build."
"I heard they got a variance when they built the house because the property was a little smaller than the usual minimum. It just worked out that way and the town gave them the variance because if they didn't, they wouldn't build a house there and the town wouldn't get the taxes and--you see the way they were thinking. The Kovaks have the law on their side."
Excerpted from The Mother's Day Murder by Lee Harris. Copyright © 2000 by Lee Harris. Excerpted by permission of Fawcett, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.