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.
Today was Monday, and the Monday Bunch was in session around the library table in the middle of the floor of the needlework shop, Crewel World. An informal club of stitchers and gossips, there were five present this afternoon: Alice Skoglund, Martha Winters, young Emily Hame, newcomer Bershada Reynolds, and Comfort Leckie.
Chief clerk Godwin was presiding and shamelessly encouraging the gossip. He was a slender, handsome young man with bright blond hair cropped short and a carefully-nurtured golden tan. “Arne Thorson should be ashamed of himself,” he said. “That girl is young enough to be his granddaughter!”
Comfort, a widow in her late seventies who didn’t look a day over sixty, said, “She seems happy enough.” She peered closer at her work, a cross stitch pattern of flowers. “Doggone, it takes me about three tries to get a really nice French knot.” She began picking apart the one she’d just done.
Bershada offered, “On high-count linen like what you’re using, I just put the needle through an adjoining space instead of back through the same hole.” Bershada was a slim black woman, a freshly-retired librarian, who wore magnifying glasses halfway down her nose.
Betsy yearned to join them; she had a very fancy needlepoint Christmas stocking underway that she hoped to have finished in time to display in the shop. But there was a shipment of the new DMC colors to sort and put out, a phone call to be made to her supplier to find out why her order of padded-board easels hadn’t come, and a reservation form to be filled out and check written for the Nashville Market next March.
She was nearly finished comparing the shipment of floss to the packing slip and her original order form when the front door went Bing! She looked up as it opened to admit a man in a yellow rain slicker. It was Fletcher Johns, her general contractor. He was tall and well built, in his late thirties, not handsome but with a pleasant face.
“Hello, Mr. Johns,” she said with a smile, and then noticed with surprise the chill silence that had fallen on the group around the table.
When the patch Joe Mickles had put on her building’s roof just before signing it over to her proved even less than temporary, she did what she should have done in the first place: hired an independent inspector. He told her she needed not a better patch, but a whole new roof. She had tried and failed to get Joe to share in the expense. “It’s your building now, kid,” he’d said.
It was then she discovered there were roofs and roofs. What kind of insulation, and how much? Tar or membrane sealer? Local roofer or national chain? She didn’t have time for all this!
So she got out her phone book and found a general contractor right here in Excelsior. She’d made an appointment and found a quiet man in an orderly office who had listened carefully to her description of her building and asked what sounded like intelligent questions. His last three clients spoke highly of his work. Relieved, she’d hired him to find the people it would take to get the work done.
And his early promise had been fulfilled; he’d been businesslike but not distant, knowledgeable without being overbearing, friendly but never familiar, always perfectly correct.
As the stink of tar finally faded from the neighborhood, he’d hired the same independent inspector to ensure the job was well finished before writing that final check. He said he’d bring him over sometime today.
Now she was surprised at the unfriendly silence that fell at his entry. The group at the table turned with almost military precision to follow his walk across the room. It was impossible he was unaware of the stony faces, but he ignored them. It was as if he were used to such a reception.
“The inspector is here to take a look at the roof, Ms. Devonshire,” he said in his usual polite voice, stopping at the desk. “I’m sure he’ll find everything in good order.”
“I sure hope so,” said Betsy. “How long will it take?”
“About an hour, unless he discovers a problem. I don’t think he will, I’ve never had trouble with this roofer before. But I assume you want to wait for his report before making that final payment?”
“I think I should, don’t you? Do you want to wait here while he does his thing?”
He turned briefly toward the people at the table. Alice Skoglund, her expression that of someone about to do something brave, nodded at him almost imperceptibly. He didn’t return her tiny sign of recognition, but turned back to Betsy. “No, I’ve got some errands to run.” He checked his watch. “I’ll be back in ninety minutes, all right?”
“I hope to have that check waiting for you.”
A look of pain crossed his face so swiftly it was gone almost before she recognized it. “Me, too.”
After he left, Betsy walked to the library table and asked, “Okay, what is it? I am about to give that man a large check. If you know of any reason why I shouldn’t, please say so now.”
Godwin said, “Oh, no, I’m sure he did a good job for you!” He glanced at the women. “We all are! But honestly, Betsy, I wish you’d told me you were thinking of hiring him before you did.”
“You know I ask you about anything to do with the shop, I didn’t think that extended all the way to the roof,” she said sharply. “Besides, you didn’t leave the phone number of your hotel in Cancun.”
Godwin blushed and said, “All the same, I wish you’d said something to me.”
“Or to any of us,” said Martha angrily. She was a short, plump woman in her middle seventies, normally laughing and pleasant. Seeing her indignant like this was a warning Betsy didn’t like.
Betsy frowned at her. “Why? If he isn’t a crook, what’s the problem?”
“Foster Johns is a murderer.”
“I don’t believe it!”
Godwin said, “It’s true. I’d have warned you, Betsy, if I’d known you were thinking of hiring him. I thought you hired the roofer yourself.”
“I told you I was having trouble deciding who to hire; that’s why I went to a general contractor. Mr. Johns seemed very competent.”
Martha said, “Competence has nothing to do with it. No one in town will have anything to do with Foster Johns since it happened five years ago.”
“The accusation was never proven,” said Alice in a low, firm voice. She was about Martha’s age, a tall woman with big hands, broad shoulders and a mannish jaw, currently set hard.
“Only because Mike Malloy is a stupid, incompetent investigator,” said Martha, still pink with indignation.
“Even so,” said Betsy, “if it was never proved, why are you all so sure he’s guilty?”
“Because he’s the only one who could have done it,” said Godwin.
Comfort added, “Certainly he was the only one with a motive.” She had a very pleasant, quiet voice.
“Who did he murder, his wife?” asked Betsy.
Comfort finished another French knot using Bershada’s suggestion and nodded with satisfaction. Without looking up, she said, “He murdered his mistress one night and a few nights later murdered her husband.”
“He killed two people?”
Young Emily, nodding, said, “I can’t believe no one warned you about him.”
Betsy said, “Maybe because it’s not a question that occurs to me when asking around about a contractor: ‘By the way, has he ever murdered anyone?’ I called him and he seemed to know his business, and his fee was reasonable. Not one of the references I called said don’t hire him, he’s a killer. And I liked working with him, he seems very competent.”
“No customers were from Excelsior, right?” said Godwin.
“Well, as a matter of fact, no,” said Betsy.
“He has to go out of town for customers,” said Martha. “No one from right around here will hire him, because we all know what he did.”
Alice unset her heavy jaw to say, “Because it’s everyone’s opinion that he murdered those people. There was never any proof.”
Godwin said, “All right, it’s true Malloy couldn’t find the kind of evidence it would take to convict him before a jury of his peers. That’s why he had to let him go. But it’s not because it wasn’t there, it’s because he didn’t look hard enough, or in the right places. I heard he nearly lost his job because he bungled the investigation.”
“I’ve often said he should be busted back to patrol,” offered Bershada, a trifle diffidently, as she was still feeling her way into this group.
Betsy nodded, she knew Investigator Malloy. “I’ll grant that Mike’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” she said. “Still, it must have taken a depressingly large amount of incompetence to allow a man who has murdered twice to walk free.” Free so that innocent shopowners could hire him to arrange repairs, restorations and/or renovations of commercial properties. Betsy looked out the rain-spattered front window, but Foster Johns was already out of sight. It was almost an equally shattering thought that she, with a talent for uncovering amateur criminals, had found this alleged murderer to be an honest, trustworthy sort, with an attractive personality. Betsy tended to trust her feelings about people. How could she be so wrong?