A Murderous Yarn

A Murderous Yarn Book CoverChapter Two

A few weeks later, Betsy was preparing to close Crewel World. It was a little after five, the last customer had just left. She ran the cash register, made sure there were no sales slips loose on the desk, took forty dollars out of the register to keep as opening-up money for tomorrow, signed the deposit slip Godwin had made out and sent him off with it and the day’s profits.

Then she hurried upstairs to give Sophie her evening meal, put the money into a locked drawer, and change into wool slacks and a heavy sweater. She grabbed her raincoat and a knit hat, dashed back down the stairs and out the back way to her car.

Lars had called in the afternoon to say the Stanley had arrived, and did she want a ride? She’d been so excited she nearly forgot to ask him for directions to his new place.

It turned out to be less than five minutes away, out St. Alban’s Bay Road a mile and a half, turn left on Weekend Street, a narrow lane about three houses long. Lars, having concluded the sale of his hobby farm, had rented a very modest cottage at the bottom of the lane. It was surrounded by middle size trees and a lot of brush, but it had a big yard, and a driveway led behind the house to a small red barn.

Beside the barn was a long, low, white trailer, shaped something like a multi-horse trailer, except this one had no windows. It was hooked to Lars’s dirty blue pickup truck, which apparently hadn’t gone to the buyer of his farm.

Betsy steered her car onto the weedy lawn, got out, and went

Old Car Pattern

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through the open double doors of the barn. Close up, the barn was relatively new, sided vertically with aluminum “boards” and floored with cement. The oil stains on the floor and the big electric winch that ran on an overhead rail announced that this shed was no stranger to people who worked on engines. A work bench along one wall had a vise on it and a pegboard above it with the outline of numerous tools, though the tools presently on it didn’t always match the outlines.

Lars and Jill were both there. Jill, in jeans and windbreaker, had her hands in her back pockets and a worried look in her eye. Lars was all grin.

Higher than their heads was the backside of the old car, gleaming forest green. There was no rear bumper, and the single tail light, near the left fender, was a brass oil lamp with a round red eye.

The tires seemed tall, perhaps because they were narrow. Betsy asked, “What if you get a flat? Do you have a spare?”

Lars said, “No, the spare’s on it. I’m going to have to order a new tire. But I hope it never gets a flat. They have inner tubes and they’re harder than hell to change. But these are fine, and they last a long time,” he added hastily, not wanting to discourage his patron.

He went to wheel a long, narrow, many-drawered steel chest out of the way so Betsy could walk around the car. “He sold me the tool chest, too.”

Jill muttered, “Takes lots of tools, I see.”

“No, it don’t,” retorted Lars. “No more than most old cars, anyhow. It’s just that some of them are … different.”

“How did he come to wreck it?” asked Betsy, coming to the damaged fender and noting that the big brass headlight was smashed as well. She thought the bulb had been torn out until she noticed the other headlight didn’t have a bulb, either. They must not make the kind of bulbs it took anymore.

“Last time he had it out, he was run off the road by a gawker. You got to watch for them gawkers, he told me. Anyhow, the wreck triggered a heart attack, so he figured he’d better sell.”

“Can you get new headlights, too? I see there aren’t any bulbs in these.”

“They don’t come with bulbs, they’re acetylene. But they aren’t very bright, so we don’t run at night.”

“Can you start it?” asked Betsy, coming the rest of the way around it. “I mean, right now? Or is there something wrong with the motor, too?”

“It runs fine,” Lars said firmly, glancing at Jill. “Dr. Fine and me had it running about an hour ago. It’s not hard to start, but you can’t do it fast. His personal record for getting it powered up was seventeen and a half minutes.”

Lars got out the owner’s manual and consulted it, then checked to make sure there was water and the two kinds of fuel in adequate amounts. The car had several gauges, but not, apparently, a fuel gauge. Lars used a kind of wooden ruler dipped into the tanks to determine fuel levels. “It holds twenty-five gallons of water, seventeen gallons of unleaded gas, and two gallons of Coleman gas, plus a gallon of steam oil, which is a blend of four hundred weight oil and tallow.”

“Four hund — ” began Jill, but was interrupted by Betsy’s exclamation: “Tallow?”

“Uh-huh.” Lars, having produced a hand-held propane torch from the tool box, was twisting the knob. The torch began to hiss and he lit it with a cigarette lighter. “Y’see, this isn’t an internal combustion engine, it’s a steam engine, so the rules are different. She runs real hot, so you need a lubricant that can take it. He says you get used to the new rules, and they’re good ones, and real safe, only different. Dr. Fine says there’s people in Wisconsin who own Stanleys, and they can help me. Plus there’s a big club I’m gonna join, it’s international, so there’s a good support group.”

Jill remarked to the ceiling, “Unlike AA, these people help you stay with the machine, not get clean.”

“What?” said Lars. Adjusting the flame of his torch, he hadn’t been paying attention.

“Nothing, nothing,” said Betsy, waving a shushing hand at Jill. “Go on, Lars.”

“Anyhow, this club can tell me all the places I can get the stuff I need to keep her running.” He put a big, caressing hand on the intact front fender, then went to the back of the car and turned a flat steel knob on a copper tank. Then he went to the front — Betsy and Jill following — and began playing the torch through a pair of silver-dollar-size holes at the base of the hood, which, Betsy suddenly noticed, was shaped like a fat oval, not flat on the sides like ordinary cars.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Getting the pilot light started.”

Betsy laughed uncertainly, but Lars said, “I have to get it hot before I can turn on the gasoline.”

After a few minutes, satisfied that the pilot light was operating properly, Lars got into the car. He opened another valve, then began to pump a long handle back and forth. “Getting the gasoline started,” he explained.

He got out again and showed Betsy the two small, recurved nozzles that came from under the car and ran into the holes he’d been playing the torch into. “Feel,” he said, running a finger across one of the nozzles.

Betsy complied, but yanked her hand away from the strong, fine spray. “What’s that, water?”

“No, gasoline.”

Betsy sniffed her fingertip and was shocked to realize Lars was right. “You mean it just sprays out in the open like that?”

“Sure. It has to mix with the air as it goes into those two holes.”

“That can’t be safe!” exclaimed Jill. “Spraying gasoline like that, you’ll get a vapor that will explode.”

“No, you get a vapor that will burn,” said Lars.

“Why doesn’t it mix in the cylinder — ” Betsy stopped.

“Because then it would be an internal combustion engine,” Lars confirmed with a grin.

Suddenly a low, eerie “whooooooooooo” began to sound from the car. Jill grabbed Betsy by the arm and ran her out of the barn. When they looked around and Lars wasn’t behind them, Jill shouted, “Get out! Get out! It’s going to blow!”

“No, it isn’t!” called Lars, his voice filled with laughter. “It’s called singing! She sings when she’s building a head of steam!”

“Cool!” said Betsy, shrugging her elbow loose from Jill’s grip. She would have gone back, but Jill took her by the arm again.

Lars came out to the doorway. “Soon as we get to four hunderd and fifty pounds of pressure, we can head on down the road.”

“Four hundred and fifty pounds — ” Jill exclaimed, then murmured in Betsy’s ear, “Don’t go, don’t go.”

But Betsy again shrugged free and this time did go back inside to watch as Lars continued the process of starting up, tapping a gauge on the dashboard, pumping up the gasoline, nodding as he checked his owner’s manual; and was reassured by the big man’s happy confidence. After all, he’d gone through all this just a couple of hours ago, and surely he’d notice if things were going differently. Right?

It didn’t take long. The “song” of the boiler slowly rose in tone, then stopped. Lars opened the passenger side door and clambered over into the driver’s seat, and said, “All aboard!”

Jill warned, “You are crazy, Betsy, if you get into that contraption with him.”

But Betsy stepped up onto the running board, feeling the springiness of the suspension, then up again into the passenger seat of tufted black leather. “This is high!” she said. She automatically began feeling around for a seat belt, then laughed at herself. “Let’s go, Lars!”

“You sure you’re not coming?” Lars asked Jill, who in reply backed onto the grass and waved them off.

The car had not made a sound since it left off “singing,” and there was not the faintest vibration to show that a motor was running. As Betsy watched, Lars depressed two small pedals crowded together on the floor, and then slowly moved a silver lever up a slice-of-pie metal holder on the steering column.

With a quiet chuff, chuff the car moved smoothly backwards. Lars steered it to the left, moved the lever downward, and pushed on the third pedal on the floor. The car stopped.

“Yay!” he cheered softly, and Betsy realized he was a little nervous after all. He grinned and waved at Jill, then moved the lever up the pie slice and the car, this time in absolute silence, went down the driveway to Weekend Lane, and up it to St. Alban’s Bay Road. Lars braked nearly to a stop at the road, then turned left. As they moved out, he became bolder and moved the throttle lever up a little more. The car, still making no noise at all, began to gain speed.

“Wow!” cheered Betsy. “Wow!” There was no vibration, no chuff-chuffing, just smooth acceleration.

Lars, his grin broadening, winked at her and pulled a lever under the steering wheel. A very loud whistley racket let loose. Steam roiled up all around them. Betsy would have jumped out of the car, but Lars grabbed her by the shoulder. “Ha, ha!” he cheered, and blew the whistle again.

This time Betsy yelled in delight. It was safe, this was great! Coming to a stop sign, Lars braked, but the car didn’t slow. He slammed the throttle down, and tramped hard on the brake, but they were only slowing as they entered the intersection. He pulled the wheel hard right and they leaned very dangerously going around the corner. Despite the narrow tires, the car didn’t slide or skid and Betsy grabbed the gasoline pump lever to keep from being thrown out. Once onto the even narrower road, the car righted itself.

“Wow!” exclaimed Betsy yet again, and Lars laughed and opened the throttle again.

There were trees crowding close on either side, the sun twinkling through the branches. The upright windshield blocked the wind, rapidly cooling as the sun went down, so she felt quite comfortable.

“Yah-hooo!” Lars cheered and blew the whistle as he pushed the lever up a little more. In a smooth, continuing silence, the car answered the call, speeding up effortlessly. It was weird, it was surprising, it was wonderful.

Betsy began to laugh, she couldn’t help it. It was like the first time she’d gone sailing.

Lars began to experiment with the car, slowing to a crawl, accelerating to about forty — there was no speedometer — slowing again. As he came nearly to a stop, he stomped suddenly on the pair of pedals, and the car jumped instantly backwards with a little squeal of rubber. He lifted his foot and the car jumped right into forward again. “Look, Ma!” he said, “no transmission!”

“What — You didn’t break something, did you?” asked Betsy.

“No, no, no. The Stanley brothers invented a steam car with a transmission, but sold the rights, so when they wanted to try steam again, they had to figure a way around the patents. They couldn’t get around the transmission patent, so they invented a car without a transmission. The motor turns the axle directly, no gears. The engine turns over once, the wheels go around once.”

“Wow,” said Betsy, not sure if this was brilliant or troublesome.

A hill, not high but fairly steep, was ahead, but the car forged up it with no hesitation. “See? Torque to burn!” cheered Lars.

And Betsy, who happened to know a little about engineering because her father had been an engineer, realized that the lack of gearing was the reason for the torque. Brilliant, she decided.

Around another corner, they were on Excelsior Boulevard, which ran parallel to Highway Seven. The highway was crowded with commuters on their way home from work, but several dared to slow down when they saw the Stanley, and two or three honked.

Betsy waved happily at them, and Lars showed off a little bit by blowing the whistle, causing an unaware driver to swerve dangerously. The road was flat and clear along here. They came to Christmas Lake Road, which crossed Highway Seven and joined Excelsior Boulevard. Commuters who lived in Excelsior were backed up on the highway, waiting to make the turn. They crowded onto Excelsior when the light changed. There was only a stop sign for Lars, and he seemed in no hurry to bully his way into the stream of traffic. Waiting for the traffic to clear, he checked his gauges.

“See the winker?” he said, pointing to a small red button light blinking rapidly. “If that stops winking, it means we’re running low on oil.” Betsy watched it for awhile, but it never stopped winking.

Cars coming off the highway slowed for a look, causing others to honk impatiently. One, steering where he looked, swayed toward them, and Lars blew his whistle angrily, nearly hiding the Stanley in the steam and setting off a chorus of honks. Betsy stood and waved her fist at the driver, but was laughing too hard to make her threat worth anything.

Then there came a gap and they went on down the road, past the sudden steep hill of the cemetery, around a curve and past the police station, then Adele’s Ice Cream and the McDonald’s. At the next stop sign they turned right and were back on St. Alban’s. The circuit, about three miles, had taken less than fifteen minutes.

The view along St. Alban’s Road was more open but no less pleasant, with Excelsior Bay on their left and St. Alban’s Bay on their right. They went onto a two-lane bridge over the narrow link between them. Some people had already put their boats in the water, though it was a little early for pleasure sailing. Over the bridge were a yacht and boat sales and repair company, then a row of mixed small cottages and bigger houses, some fronted by hedges, others open, with grass showing green and tulips budding. The trees on either side had leaves almost big enough to hide their branches. Betsy sniffed, testing the spring air, but the car had a strong aroma of its own, an unpleasant combination of gasoline, kerosene, and hot oil. But now, quite suddenly, the scent of gasoline was overwhelming. She turned to ask Lars about it and saw the look of alarm forming on his face.

He shut the throttle down and began to brake. “I hope this isn’t what I think it is,” he muttered. He reached for a valve knob, pulling onto the narrow, sloping shoulder, fighting the wheel one handed as the tires gripped loose gravel.

As they slowed nearly to a stop, he turned to say, “Get — ” but was interrupted by an enormous fiery explosion. Betsy flung her arms up and screamed. Smoke and gas fumes filled the air.

The fat oval hood was standing up, and black smoke was pouring out. Betsy was standing in the middle of the road looking at the car, with no memory of climbing down.

And then there were people running toward them.

A car going by swerved sharply to miss Betsy. It pulled onto the shoulder and the man driving it got out and ran toward them, his face alarmed. A passenger got out, cell phone to his ear, gesturing as he spoke.

Betsy suddenly realized she was deaf.

But she felt no pain. She was not scattered in small pieces over the surrounding area. She was not on fire or even burned. Or bleeding.

Lars was standing behind the Stanley cranking down a valve. He was calm, intact, and not on fire.

In fact, the car seemed to be intact, the smoke almost cleared away.

“What the hell happened?” shouted the driver of the stopped car as he came up to them, sounding to Betsy as if he were speaking from under a thick blanket. Lars said something back, which Betsy could not hear at all.

The man repeated his question, and Lars came out from behind the Stanley. “The pilot light went out!” he shouted.

Betsy began to laugh. It was a sick, hysterical laugh, and Lars hurried over to take her by the shoulders and shake her. “Hey!” he said. “Hey! Stop it!”

Betsy managed to stop, and put her hands on Lars’s arms to make him quit shaking her. “I — I’m oh-okay,” Betsy managed between teeth that were suddenly chattering. Her touch on Lars turned to a grasp, as her knees began to give way.

Several people came close, and one said, “Shall I call 911?”

Everyone’s voice was becoming audible, if muffled. Betsy touched one ear with the palm of her hand.

The man with the cell phone said, “I already did!”

“What did you do that for?” demanded Lars angrily.

Betsy heard a sound and turned back toward town. Was that the volunteer fire department siren? By the way the others were looking toward it, it was. She moved her jaw in a kind of yawn, trying to get her hearing the rest of the way back.

Lars said angrily, “Call and cancel! The car’s fine, and we’re fine!”

That was met with disbelieving silence.

“No, really,” said Betsy, “I’m all right. I’m not injured.” She looked at the Stanley, which seemed innocent of all wrong-doing, though the hood still stood upright. “But my God, Lars, if that’s what happens when the pilot light goes out, what happens when you run out of steam?” And she started laughing again.

“Hey,” he began, but she stepped back out of his reach.

“I’m fine,” she repeated, and in fact her knees seemed to have regained their strength. “Better see to your car.”

“Oh, it’s okay, really, it’s in perfect condition. We’ll let the fumes air out and relight the pilot light, and we’re back on our way.” He walked over to the front of the car and began looking at the squat white round thing where the engine in an ordinary car would be.

“What the hell kind of a car is that?” asked a stocky young man near the front of the small crowd.

A skinny old man said, “I believe it’s a Stanley Steamer.”

Betsy said, surprised, “You’re absolutely right. How did you know that?”

“My grandfather had one. Kept it in an old shed back of the barn. He used to fire it up and let me drive it over the pastures. It could climb down out of the deepest ditch on the place. Ran her on diesel fuel and kerosene, if I remember rightly. But I burned the boiler dry a couple of times and it wouldn’t run after that.”

He was speaking to the crowd as well as Betsy. Lars had walked around to the side of the car to lift the front seat and rummage around among what sounded like heavy metal tools.

“What are you going to do?” the man with the cell phone asked him.

Lars came up with a flashlight and a length of stiff wire. “Gonna clean out the pilot light,” he said. “If all of you will give me some room!” He spoke with annoyance weighted by the unmistakable authority of a police officer, and everyone decided to give him all the room he wanted.

“I used to use a coat hanger,” the old man said, and he was immediately surrounded by people who wanted to hear more about coat hangers and Stanley Steamers.

Betsy went to stand behind Lars, trying to see without interfering in what he was doing. She heard a car horn honking and honking and turned to see a big old Buick roaring up the road. “Here comes Jill,” she said

Lars groaned, “She’s gonna make me sell it, I just know she is!” And then he groaned louder at the sound of a siren approaching. Several sirens.

The man who had waved the cell phone said, “I called and cancelled! Honest!” Then he hurried into the passenger seat of his car and was driven away.

The Buick slid to a stop across the road and Jill emerged, her face white. “What happened?” she demanded.

“The pilot light went out,” said Betsy, shrugging in further ignorance.

“Pilot light — ?”

Lars said, slamming down the hood, “When the pilot light goes out, gasoline fumes collect and if the boiler’s hot enough, it sets them off. You get a little bang, the hood flies up, the fumes escape, and you’re fine.”

Jill said, “I heard that ‘little bang’ three quarters of a mile from here. I imagine all of Excelsior, most of Shorewood and half of Deephaven heard it. The 911 switchboard must’ve lit up like a Christmas tree.” She gestured back up the road at the approaching emergency vehicles, their sirens drowning out anything further she might have said.

The firetruck crew listened while Lars explained what was going on, the ambulance crew gave Betsy a cursory examination — Lars refused to let them examine him, and at last they departed. Most of the neighbors by then had gone back into their houses, though the old man hung out at a safe distance to watch Lars work.

Lars spent fifteen minutes clearing the pilot light tube, then reopened the valve to let Coleman gas reach it, lit a long weed stem and squatted to poke it through one of the holes in the front of the hood. There was a whump that shot flame out both holes. Lars fell backwards, landing on his hands and bottom, but said, “See? It’s fine, she’s starting up for me!” He kept his head turned awkwardly away from Jill, and Betsy, in a pretense of going to see if her hat was in the car, saw the reason. The latest explosion had left a blister in place of Lars’s right eyebrow. But the burner was hissing happily, and Lars continued the process of rebuilding a head of steam, which took almost no time, as the boiler hadn’t cooled much during the breakdown.

Jill insisted Betsy ride with her, that Lars drive very slowly; and she followed behind him, emergency lights blinking, all the way home.