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TOM Riordan often had trouble falling asleep, but once there, he slept like the dead. So he snored on, unaware, as a violent autumn thunderstorm roared down Highway 7, dumping three inches of rain onto the streets and lawns of the little town of Excelsior in less than an hour. Lightning lashed the clouds to greater effort, thunder cracked and banged and rolled. Trees, their leaves heavy with rain, swayed, bent, and danced under the onslaught of powerful winds. Now and again a branch would wrench loose to tumble through the air. When a bigger limb struck an electrical wire, snapping it, the dazzle of sparks was an echo of the lightning higher in the sky. Power all over town started going out.
Riordan, oblivious, slept on.
Then an ancient elm, its inside long rotted and its roots’ grip weakened by rain, groaned under the wind’s blast, twisted, and fell. It had given welcome shade to Riordan’s house for many summers, but now it slammed into the roof, breaking through the shingles to thrust sopping leaves and wet and broken limbs into Riordan’s bedroom, waking him at last.
MARIANNE Schultz, seventy-eight, was a retired schoolteacher. A spinster, she was tall and thin, active and self-reliant. Now, at four in the morning, she stood in the wet, dark front yard of her house, using a powerful flashlight to look at the damage the storm had done. Power was out all up and down the block, she noted, and probably all over town. Several trees along the avenue were down, one blocking the street. Worst of all, the noble elm that had stood in her backyard for as long as she could remember— longer, probably, to judge by its great height—had fallen onto her neighbor’s roof. It had broken through; shingles and boards littered the ground along with leaves and branches.
Marianne walked to the front of the damaged house, a brick structure two stories high, painted an unlikely rose pink that glowed under her fl ashlight’s beam. All was silent within, blinds and curtains drawn—but that was generally the case. Mr. Riordan was a very private person, though not a recluse. He was seen everywhere but never invited anyone into his home. She wondered if he was in there.
She went up on the small porch, which felt a trifle insecure under her feet. A pillar missing at one corner had been replaced with a long board. She rapped hard on the front door.
“Mr. Riordan? Are you inside?”
“Mr. Riordan? Are you all right?”
She leaned toward the covered glass insert in the door and cocked her head to listen. Was that a cry for help?
She rapped again. “Mr. Riordan?”
More loudly came the cry. “Help! Help me! There’s a tree, a broken tree on me!”
She backed off the porch and looked up at a shattered window on the second floor. The voice clearly was coming from there.
“Are you hurt, Thomas?” she called.
“Yes, yes! I think my leg is broken! Ow, ow, I can’t move! And my . . . arm . . . head . . . my head . . . Owwwww . . .” His voice faded, and soon all she could hear were incomprehensible sounds.
“Stay where you are! I’m going to get help!”
Marianne hurried back to her own house to call for assistance, but her landline was dead, and the impossibly complicated cell phone her niece had bought her had long since lost its charge.
So she pulled on a jacket—the post-storm air had turned chilly after a week of unseasonably warm weather—and started out on a swift walk toward the police station, six blocks away.
It was a trip complicated by downed trees and flooded streets. She met the occasional resident standing stunned in the ruins of his property or commiserating with a neighbor. She asked if anyone could use his cell phone to call emergency services, but nobody’s cell was working—the cell towers had lost power, too.
In the distance she could hear sirens, and once she caught a whiff of bad-smelling smoke, which meant a house was on fi re, though she could not tell where it was coming from. She soaked her feet when she stepped into a gutter full of water running as she crossed the last street to the police station.
She walked into the low brick and stone building to find no one behind the thick glass window that separated the small lobby from the rest of the station. Next to the window there was a black wall phone without a dial, and beside it was a sign: TO TALK WITH A POLICE OFFICER, LIFT THE RECEIVER. Marianne lifted the receiver and a heard a woman’s voice say, “May I help you?”
“Yes, please, this is an emergency. A tree has fallen on my neighbor’s house, and he’s trapped inside, upstairs, and he’s hurt.”
“Where are you?” asked the woman.
“Inside the police station,” replied Marianne.
“No, dear, where are you calling from? What city?”
“Oh. Excelsior. Where are you?”
“I’m a 911 operator in Minneapolis. What’s the address of the house where the injured party is located?”
“Let’s see, I’m 712, so he must be 710 Mitchell Avenue. A brick two-story, painted pink, with a big tree mashed into the roof. You can’t miss it. And please hurry, it sounds like his injuries may be serious.”
For Betsy, it started in January, when the Courage Center’s Olympic-size pool needed repairs. It was announced at her early-morning water aerobics class that the pool would be closed for twelve weeks, starting next week, and everyone was going to have to take a hiatus or find a new place to go during that period.
There was grumbling in the locker room after class. Twelve weeks! That was far too long to go without exercising. But where were they going to find another pool heated to ninety-three degrees? And one that offered a water aerobics class beginning at six thirty in the morning?
A woman changing for the Individual Therapy class that followed aerobics said, “I know a place that has a water aerobics class starting at seven.”
“Well . . . Heated pool?” asked Betsy.
“Around ninety degrees or a little more. The pool’s nice, although not nearly as big as this one here.”
But Betsy didn’t need a big pool to stand and do jumping jacks in. “Where is this place?”
“It’s a new addition to a senior-living complex in Hopkins. It cost them so much to add the pool that they’re offering classes to the fifty-five-plus members of the public to make some money. My mother lives at the complex—it’s called Watered Silk—and she told me about it.”
Hopkins was a suburb farther west of Minneapolis than Golden Valley, where the Courage Center was located—which put it closer to far-west Excelsior, where Betsy lived. So there would be a shorter drive to Hopkins for six weeks. Nice.
“Why is it called ‘Watered Silk’”? asked Betsy.
“The building that houses the complex was once a silk factory, back in the eighteen-hundreds. One of the varieties they produced there is called watered silk. They actually found a piece of it inside a wall, or maybe it was under a floor, when they were remodeling. I guess they liked the term. It does have kind of a smooth, luxurious feel to it, which describes the complex itself. Everything first-class over there, the residents really like it.”
So when Betsy called their office, she should not have been surprised when she was quoted a price for three months’ worth of thrice-a-week classes that was fully half again what the Courage Center charged. Not so nice.
With some dismay over the cost, she searched on her computer for alternatives. But all the other water aerobics classes in the area were held in pools far cooler than Watered Silk’s, or were farther away, or didn’t start as early; and none were less costly. So Betsy sighed and signed up.
Around twenty to seven on the first day, Betsy was guided by her GPS to a street on the west side of downtown Hopkins. The building was big, of dark red brick, old and plain. It had obviously once been a factory, perhaps built in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Four stories tall, it took up most of a city block, with a narrow alley separating it from a smaller, newer commercial building next door.
It was set far enough back from the street to accommodate a new stone and cement portico with a curved driveway leading underneath it to the main entrance.
The surface of the library table in the Crewel World needlework shop was thickly layered with newspaper over a sturdy plastic sheet. A big kettle and a large, long-handled stainless-steel pot were simmering on a hot plate in the middle of the table, and there was a smell in the moist air as of some kind of unpopular green vegetable cooking.
All eight seats at the table were taken and two women and a man were standing, all attentive to a handsome dark-haired woman in her middle fifties enveloped in a white smock generously spattered with soft colors, some faded almost to invisibility.
“In dyeing there are two kinds of fibers,” she was saying, waving an arm over the pot, “protein fibers and plant fibers. Protein fibers come from animals: wool, silk, alpaca, dog and cat, yak, etcetera.”
A standing woman’s hand went up. “I beg your pardon,” she said. “Silk is animal protein?”
“Certainly. It comes from the silkworm. And worms – they’re moth larvae, actually – are animals.”
“Oh, the silkworm. Well, yes, I guess they are.” But her nose was wrinkled in distaste.
“Cotton, linen, soy, bamboo, and corn are some of the plant fibers.” She paused, waiting for someone to question that, but no one did.
Betsy Devonshire, one of the standees and owner of Crewel World, thought that might be because the speaker was Hailey Brent, whose hand-spun and -dyed yarns, made of all the aforementioned fibers, and more, were familiar to these people, who were customers of Betsy’s shop.
Randy Untweiler, seventeen, a tall, skinny kid with dark blond hair, was the one who found her. He came out of the movie theater by the back door. He’d stayed after the last show to sweep up, and was carrying a bag of trash to be put into the huge green Dumpster near the door. He wouldn’t have seen her, because it was dark and had been snowing heavily—in fact, it was still snowing. All he knew was that he tripped over something big and hard, and fell. The trash bag split open when he landed on it, and he began swearing as he picked up the candy wrappers and empty popcorn and soft drink containers by the glow of a distant streetlamp.
It occurred to him to wonder what had tripped him, and he went over to kick at the object, whatever it was. Using his cell phone to weakly light the area, he dislodged enough snow to disclose the blank cold face of an old woman with hair the same color as the snow.
Buttons and Bones (fourteenth book)
Minnesotans refer to any lake in the state as the lake. Since there are actually more than the advertised ten thousand, this can be confusing.
“Say, I heard the Larsons went and bought that cabin up on the lake they were looking at,” Phil said during the crochet class at Crewel World. He was referring to a cabin on Thunder Lake in Cass County.
Claudia’s mother said, “Yes, they did. They’re going to love it. A cabin up at the lake is the greatest place on earth to take kids during the summer.” She was thinking of her own happy childhood at her parents’ cabin on Long Lake near Litchfield.
Meryl’s mother said, “We’re going up to the lake this weekend,” meaning Lake Hubert up near Brainerd.
Betsy, owner of the shop, said nothing, although Jill had kept her abreast of the purchase, as well as the first couple of visits to the cabin.
Leona Cunningham hovered over a medium-size black cauldron suspended from a tripod above a fire in her back yard. She was a slim woman, a little taller than average. Her long dark hair, well streaked with silver, was pulled back in a careless knot. She was dressed all in black: black sweater, black jeans, black boots. It was early evening, the sun so low its beams came through the trunks of a thick stand of trees at the back of her lot. In the low sunlight, the flames of her fire were more felt than seen, casting a warm aura across the beaten earth that surrounded the fire pit. The warmth was welcome; it had been a chilly fall day, with deeply gray skies which had broken open only a few minutes ago.
It had been a very mild winter so far – it was barely February – which in Minnesota meant that anything heavier than an automobile was forbidden to drive on the lakes’ icy surfaces. Even snowmobiles had a distressing tendency to fall through on occasion. There hadn’t been much snow, either, so cross country skiing was curtailed. Gardeners worried that without deep snow cover, any severely cold weather might damage their spring bulbs. There wasn’t even the simple pleasure of looking out at the snow-covered beauty of a more typical winter.
Fall’s brilliant colors had faded; threadbare Halloween was standing tall, waving gnarled fingers from every tree in Excelsior. Betsy Devonshire loved autumn, but business had kept her from a leaf excursion this year. She couldn’t even enjoy its brilliant colors in her shop much longer. The needlework patterns of bright-colored leaves, jack-o’-lanterns and witches would make way for the Christmas displays the day after Halloween.
Such was the way of the commerce world. The fall stuff had been picked back around the Fourth of July, the Christmas offerings had been planned before school started. One of the sad parts of owning a retail business was that the owner was always thinking a season or two ahead.
It was mid-June, and the sun was at its northernmost position in the sky. That meant its beams filled the big front window of Betsy Devonshire’s needlework shop, Crewel World, drowning the careful effects of the lighting inside, especially near the front.
Betsy was sitting behind her checkout desk shielding her eyes from the glare with one hand while going down a list of customers signed up for a knitting class. Most were beginners who had knitted all the simple scarves in exotic yarns they could possibly use, and wanted something more challenging.
It was a glorious spring morning in Excelsior. Trees were showing off their bright new leaves, and while tulips were dropping their petals, lilacs and lily of the valley were sweetening air already throbbing with the call of robins. Betsy would have left the door of her shop open if her shop manager Godwin had been there.
Uncharacteristically, he was late, so she had to keep it closed so its bing! would warn her of a customer’s entrance – she was busily re-arranging the back of the shop. The idea came from Susan Greening Davis, whose newsletter had become Betsy’s Great Guide. The layout of a shop should be changed at intervals of, say, six months, suggested Ms. Davis. Regular customers typically went to the same spot to look at familiar stock, and moving merchandize to a new spot would make them hunt around, and perhaps happily discover a new designer or even a new skill. One of the happiest things a shopowner can hear is a customer crying “I didn’t know you had these!”
Godwin, a slender, handsome young man in jeans and white cotton sweater, sipped his tea and looked around the atrium with happy interest. This was not his first trip to Nashville, but his first to the Nashville Needlework Market. As usual, it was being held at The Consulate Hotel; not at all as usual, it was being held in December.
Godwin didn’t care, he adored shopping in any season – and here was shopping squared: shopping for a shop. Namely, Crewel World, a sweet little needlework store in Minnesota, owned by his favorite boss, Betsy Devonshire.
It started Sunday morning, during a thunderstorm. The town of Excelsior had only two investigators in its little police department, so in addition to normal working hours, Malloy and his partner had twenty-four on/twenty-four off standby duty. Today Malloy was on, and so had to restrict his fishing to Lake Minnetonka. Which was fine, Minnetonka was the finest bass lake in the state, one of the finest in the country, probably. Plus, the weatherman Malloy had come most nearly to trust said it would clear before eleven.
It was just after one on a dreary late-October day. Betsy had enjoyed September with its crisp, apple-scented air, and early October when the trees formed immense bouquets of bright autumn colors. She even liked it now, when her little town of Excelsior was seen through a waving crosshatch of bare tree limbs, as a strong wind ripped low-hanging clouds to tatters.
Though Halloween was still a week away, last night it had snowed. The snow had turned to sleet and then rain. Autumn, stripped of its gaudy garments, was being hustled off the stage as Puritan winter entered stage north…
I do believe I had more fun researching this novel than any other to date. I feel total delight when I see a really old car. I’m talking 1907 here, or 1902, or even 1898. It’s better than Saturday at the fair, it’s better than Christmas. I don’t mean seeing them in a museum — one expects to see old things in a museum — but out on the street, with the engine running, and people riding in it. It’s like time travel. And I not only got to see these wonderful machines, I got to ride in them! I even got to start one of them, using a crank. I listened to the people who own and drive them, heard them bragging, complaining, joking, telling stories. I took photographs, I exchanged emails. It was bliss, start to finish. I hope you share my delight, and that you enjoy reading A Murderous Yarn. And check out the Adventure I had doing the research!
Betsy thinks it might help to get away for a while. With her friend Jill, she heads north for a “stitch-in” at a remote and rustic Northwoods lodge. There, half-asleep, she sees a woman nobody else sees, and finds a corpse that’s gone when she returns with help. Are her nightmares seeping into real life?
Or is something else going on? There’ll be no rest for Betsy until she unravels this ….
Betsy is settling into Excelsior, MN, and so is winter. But duty calls: an old tapestry has been found in the Episcopal Church, and it needs restoration. This is a job for Crewel World – and a pleasant one, after that poor skeleton. Better an old tapestry than an old body!
Since this is Minnesota, when Betsy is beset, her friends bring hot-dish.
When the historic Hopkins ferry was raised from the bottom of the lake, who would have thought they were literally raising the dead! But there it was – a skeleton – right before their eyes. Unfortunately, the evidence is slim and soggy: The boat sank in 1949, the victim on board was a woman, and near the body is a piece of unidentified lacelike fabric. Sounds like a job for Betsy Devonshire! Betsy knows there’s more to this story than what’s on the surface. And once she and patrons of her needlecraft shop start lending a hand, they’re sure to stitch together the details … For this book, I accidentally ended up taking a tour around a good portion of the continent. I hadn’t really intended to …
When Betsy Devonshire arrived in Excelsior, Minnesota, all she wanted was to visit her sister Margot and to get her life in order. She never dreamed her sister would give her a place to stay and a job at her needlecraft shop. In fact, things had never looked so good – until Margot was murdered… The art of needlecraft requires patience, discipline, and creativity. So, too, does the art of detection. Just ask Betsy – who’s learning that life in a small-town needlecraft shop can reveal an unexpected knack for knitting … and a hidden talent for unraveling crime.