It wasn’t even Halloween, but autumn was over. Betsy sat at the little round table in the dining nook of her apartment and gazed out the back window. There was a small parking lot, with the ground beyond rising steeply through mature trees. Only yesterday the trees were ablaze with orange, red and yellow leaves. She had planned to drive around Lake Minnetonka this weekend and take in the colors. But there had been a hard freeze last night, and now, in a light breeze, there was a technicolor blizzard on the slope that would leave the branches bare by nightfall. Already she could see a gas station and a white clapboard house that had been hidden by foliage yesterday. The sky was clear, the sun was bright, but the weatherman on the radio had said that perhaps the temperature would break fifty by early afternoon.
Betsy, fresh from San Diego, didn’t have much of a winter wardrobe. She had planned to buy winter woolens locally — Minnesota was heavily Scandinavian, and Betsy just loved their sweaters — but hadn’t realized she’d need them so soon. Today she was wearing her warmest work outfit: a federal-blue cotton skirt, a bell-sleeved white blouse, and a brown felt vest with carved wooden buttons.
She looked at her watch and hastily drank the last of her tea. She put the empty cup and the plate that had held a fried egg sandwich into the sink. Sophie was already at the door of the apartment, ready to accompany her to work. The cat had a better sense of time than she did — not surprising, really. Sophie had been her sister’s cat, and therefore in the business longer than Betsy had.
Like the Queen of England, Betsy “lived above the shop.” She went out the door, down the stairs, and to the obscure door into a back hallway that led to the back door of Crewel World. Sophie trundled along beside her.
It was just nine-forty, and the store opened at ten, but the back door was unlocked. Betsy froze with her hand on the knob, key in the lock. Last time she had gone through a door that should have been locked, she had found her sister’s body.
Sophie made an inquiring noise, and Betsy waved a shushing hand at her while she leaned forward to listen at the door. Faint conversation. One voice, a light tenor, rose to understandability: “And I’m just so fond of magenta, it’s a warm, clear color without being quite so simple as red.”
There was a murmur as another voice replied; but Betsy couldn’t understand the words.
“That’s right! You know, it’s just great dealing with a customer who has a decent sense of color.”
While Betsy hadn’t understood the reply, she heard the pleased note in the voice; she smiled and opened the door into the back room. Sophie scooted through, and she closed it behind her firmly enough to be heard in the shop.
“Oh, good, now I won’t have to make change out of my own pocket,” said the tenor. “Good morning, Betsy!”
“Good morning, Godwin,” replied Betsy, coming into the shop and pausing automatically. Spuriously warm sunlight poured between the front-window displays of counted cross stitch patterns and needlepoint projects. It lit up the counters and tables with their baskets of wool, cotton, and silk. On one wall, the big swinging doors that held painted canvases stood open just enough to call attention to themselves. Near the front door was an old dresser painted white, its dim mirror holding advertisements for conventions and classes on knitting and needlepoint. All looked in perfect order.
The customer was a medium size woman in a long tweed coat, and in her hands hung a sky blue drawstring plastic bag. It had Crewel World printed on it in little Xs, as if worked in cross stitch.
“Good morning, Mrs. Schuster,” said Betsy.
“Good morning, Betsy. I was on my way to the Waterfront Cafe for breakfast when I saw lights in your shop, and stopped to see if I could pick up my order of magenta silk, and Godwin was kind enough to unlock the door.”
“How’s the project coming?” asked Betsy, going behind the big desk that served as a checkout counter.
“Very, very well,” said Mrs. Schuster. Encouraged by the question
and still pleased at Godwin’s compliments, she pulled a needlepoint canvas from the bag. It was a square canvas of grapes and grape leaves, not quite abstract. The stitching was an appropriate and very competent basketweave. When finished and framed, it would hang in the office of a friend of Mrs. Schuster’s, who vinted wines as a hobby. The grapes were being done in silk, the leaves were already stitched in various green wools.
“Oh, I like how it’s turning out,” said Godwin, coming to look. “You were so clever to do the grapes in silk to make them shimmer.” He cocked his head. “Chalk white wool for the background, of course.”
“Yes — of course,” said Mrs. Schuster, and Betsy shot him a grateful look. Mrs. Schuster had taken up a lot of Betsy’s time discussing colors and fibers for this project, and had changed her mind three times about the background.
But Betsy wasn’t surprised that Mrs. Schuster was quick to take Godwin’s suggestion. The young man had developed a serious talent for needlework during the two years he’d worked for Betsy’s sister and now for Betsy. That he was gay only added to his reputation for selecting the right color and texture for any project.
Whereas Betsy was new in town, and not knowledgeable. The shop had been her sister’s, and for her sister’s sake its customers were giving her every chance to climb the steep learning curve into the intricate world of needlework.
Mrs. Schuster left with her magenta silk and enough white wool to do the background of her project. As she went up Lake Street, her breath streamed out behind her. Brrr, thought Betsy. And it’s not even Halloween yet.
She looked around again. The track lights were on, the front door unlocked, the needlepoint sign turned so that OPEN faced the street. When Mrs. Schuster had paid her bill Betsy had put the forty dollars of starting money in the old-fashioned cash register. The hot-dust smell in the air meant Godwin had turned up the heat. Even as she turned to remind him, he was stooping to turn on the Bose radio, tuned to a classical music station. Sophie clambered up onto “her” chair, the one with a powder blue cushion that set off her white fur with the tan and gray patches perfectly. They were ready for business.
“What brought you in early?” asked Betsy.
“Oh, John was being a piss ant last night, so I just went to bed early; and so I got up early, and so here I am.” John was the wealthy lawyer Godwin lived with, whose support enabled Godwin to work for slave wages in Crewel World.
“Trouble?” asked Betsy.
“Oh, nothing we haven’t had before. He’s so jealous, and really, right now I’m not giving him the least reason to be jealous.” Godwin tossed his head. He was a slender man, a little under medium height, and his wardrobe tended toward Calvin Klein Slim Fit jeans and silk knit shirts, though today, in honor of the season’s change, he was wearing a brown-plaid shirt under a fine-woven Perry Ellis sweater with textured pinstripes. His short hair was an enhanced blond color, his eyes a guileless blue, his nose almost too perfect. He looked eighteen, though Betsy knew he would be twenty-six in December.
Betsy smiled at him even as she hoped there wasn’t a breakup in Godwin’s future. He was her best employee, knowledgeable, loyal and reliable. He could be charming, gossipy, witty and sympathetic in turn with customers, all in an exaggerated, self-deprecating way designed to make them remember him, talk about him, and come back for more. Betsy sometimes wondered if there was a deeper, more reflective Godwin — though she had no intention of doing an archaeological dig on his personality. He suited her, and the shop, just fine as he was.
He smiled back, and they moved with one accord to the library table in the middle of the floor. They sat down opposite one another. Betsy reached into the basket under the table, he unzipped his canvas sport-club bag, and each pulled out a project. Godwin was knitting a pair of white cotton socks. Betsy was trying to learn knitting in the round by making a pair of mittens.
Betsy found where she’d left off and, after a brief struggle, got her needles under control. Knitting with alpaca wool onto three double-pointed needles is a definite step up from stretchy polyester yarn on two single-point needles. She glanced across at Godwin who was knitting with tiny, swift gestures while looking out the window. He had turned the heel of his sock and was heading for the toe.
“Why do you knit your own socks when they’re so cheap to buy?” asked Betsy after a few minutes. “And why white? I should think you’d be into argyle or at least magenta.”
He laughed. “I’d love to wear magenta socks! But my feet are so sensitive, they break out in ugly red welts when I put colors or anything but one hundred percent cotton socks on them. And advertisers will say anything to get you to buy their products.”
“Uh-huh,” said Betsy, who had never been plagued with allergies.
“The weatherman says snow flurries tomorrow, did you hear?” said Godwin. “Say, did I ever tell you about our Halloween blizzard?”
“Yes, you did, at the same time you told me that I really should get going on my mittens.” She had thought the famous Halloween blizzard a serious anomaly in the Minnesota weather until she, too, had heard the forecast. Snow flurries in October were apparently standard: the weatherman had been blasé about his prediction. Minnesota children must wear snowsuits under their costumes when they go trick or treating, thought Betsy.
She had been raised in Milwaukee, and thought she had a good grasp of winter weather in the upper midwest. But she couldn’t remember snow of any sort in October in Milwaukee. Good thing she was going to the Mall of America tomorrow on her day off, Wednesday. She would buy sweaters. And a winter coat and hat. And mittens. She was only halfway up the cuff of her first mitten and at the rate she was going, she wouldn’t have this pair finished until January. The only thing she didn’t need by way of winter wear was a scarf; she had learned to knit by making herself a beautiful bright red scarf.
Betsy had come to Excelsior from San Diego at the end of August for an extended visit, planning to work her way through a mid-life crisis. She’d been here barely a week when her sister was murdered. The police thought Margot had interrupted a burglar in her shop, but Betsy was convinced there was a more sinister connection between the shop and her sister’s murder. She was proved right; because of her efforts a murderer was in jail awaiting trial.
Shortly before her death, Margot had incorporated Crewel World, naming Betsy as vice president. Now, as sole surviving officer, Betsy could do as she liked with the shop. She had thought to close or sell it, but since she had to remain in town anyway until her sister’s estate was settled, and because Crewel World’s customers were both friendly and insistent she not do anything hasty, Betsy was still here and Crewel World was still open. And, perhaps, dealing every day with people who had known Margot well was a way of holding onto her just a little while longer.
Betsy Devonshire was fifty-five, with graying brown hair and big blue eyes surrounded by lots of laugh lines, plump but not unattractively so. The loss of her sister was too recent to do other than weigh heavily on her heart, and the mid-life crisis that had brought her to Minnesota had been triggered by an angry divorce, so the fact that at times she could smile and even laugh was proof of a resilient soul.
There was something else that helped. Margot had been the childless widow of a self-made millionaire. Betsy was Margot’s only sibling; the estate would come entirely to her. The prospect of wealth made Betsy more of a gambler than she might otherwise have been.
At ten-thirty, the knitting became an aggravation and she put it away. “Coffee?” she asked Godwin.
“Thanks,” he said. “You know, you can work on more than one thing at a time.”
“I know. I’m going to try one of those little Christmas ornaments I ordered. I hope counted cross stitch isn’t as confusing to learn as needlepoint was.” Betsy had long ago mastered embroidery, but only recently picked up the basics of needlepoint; to round out her understanding of her customers, she needed to venture into counted cross stitch.
She paused on her way to the back room to stroke Sophie, who, after a hard morning of getting Betsy out of bed, wolfing down her pittance of Iams Light, and making the long, difficult journey down the stairs and along to the back entrance, was ready for her morning nap. Perhaps it was a difficult journey; Sophie had broken her hind leg a few weeks ago and still wore the cast, which she now arranged in what Betsy was sure was an obvious display. Sophie had quickly learned that seeing the cast excited customers to sympathy and even small treats.
I believe she’ll be sorry when that leg heals, thought Betsy, bending to search in the tiny refrigerator for a bottle of V8 Extra Spicy for herself before pouring Godwin’s coffee into the pretty porcelain cup.
She had barely brought them back to the table when a shadow darkened the doorway. There was an electronic bing as the door opened to admit police officer Jill Cross. An expert needlepointer, she was a tall woman who looked even bigger in her dark uniform jacket, hat, and utility belt. But her face below the cap was the sweet oval of a Gibson girl, and her figure, while sturdily built, was definitely female.
“Hi, Jill,” said Godwin, getting to his feet. “How may I help you?”
“Trade jobs with me,” said Jill in her best deadpan.
“Not bloody likely,” Godwin said sincerely, then added, “Tough day already?”
“No worse than usual,” she sighed, then brightened. “But I think things are improving. Betsy, can I offer you a change in plans? They’re raising the Hopkins this morning; Lars and I are assigned to boat duty. Want to come along?”
“How long will it take?”
“They only asked for police patrol till noon, so Godwin’s right that you could do this this morning and still go shopping tomorrow afternoon.”
“Then I think I’d like to see it. When do we leave?”
“I’m supposed to meet Lars down at the wharf in fifteen minutes. Better go change into slacks and a sweater. And bring your jacket, it’s chilly. Though not as cold as it could be — Say, did I ever tell you about the Halloween blizzard?”
“Yes, you did, but why don’t you compare notes with Godwin while I go upstairs and change?”
Betsy reappeared six minutes later in an old pair of jeans and her heaviest sweater. She had a long-sleeved t-shirt on under that, and her only jacket over one arm. She hoped the boat wasn’t fishy.
It wasn’t. It was an immaculate flat-bottomed, flat- topped four-seater, fiberglass, with a windshield and a steering wheel. It reminded Betsy of an 70s compact car; it was even two-toned, raspberry and cream, and its motor was hidden under a hood at the back. It being Lars’ boat, he got to drive.
Lars was Jill’s boyfriend, a big blond Norwegian who looked like a poster telling schoolchildren The Policeman is Your Friend. His huge hands were callused, which surprised Betsy when she shook hands until she remembered Jill had told her he was buying a five-acre hobby farm — the notion that someone might take on the labor of farming as a hobby amazed Betsy, but Lars had done it, and worked as hard on it as he did at being a policeman.
The boat’s motor burbled deeply as they pulled away from the dock, then Lars pushed a lever and it roared, stood up on its stern, and went flying over the blue water.
Betsy shouted to Jill, “Where are we going?”
Jill shouted back, “Other side of the Big Island!” She pointed to what looked like part of the shoreline on the north side of Excelsior Bay. But as the boat went by it, Betsy saw that it was indeed an island.
As they came around to the other side, Betsy could see two barges sitting broadside to one another, each with a crane on it. Near the barges were eight or ten motor boats and a couple of sailboats, their sails furled. Lars slowed as they approached, and when the roar of his motors fell to a guttural murmur, Jill picked up a small bullhorn.
“Move back from the barges!” she ordered. “You are in danger of being struck from below! Move back from the barges!” Heads swiveled, but nobody moved.
“Is that true?” asked Betsy. “Being struck from below?”
“There’s a seventy-foot boat down there,” Jill replied. “It’s gonna need some room when it comes up.” She spoke into the bullhorn again. “This is the police! Move back from the cranes!”
That worked: boats started moving. Betsy looked at the slowly widening area around the barges. She could see cables running from the cranes into the water, which was otherwise undisturbed. Huge engines in the cranes whined deeply. “Is it happening now?”
“Beats me,” Jill shrugged. “Our job is to keep the gawkers away until after it does.”
“And then to keep them from bumping into the thing, or climbing on it, or trying to steal hunks of it for souvenirs,” added Lars.
Betsy chuckled uncertainly. “People wouldn’t actually do that, would they?”
Lars said over his shoulder, “Civilians do things you wouldn’t believe. I was sitting in a Shop and Go parking lot so near the door the guy in the ski mask had to walk around me to get in and hold up the place. I actually sat there and watched him do it, I couldn’t believe it. And guess what he said when I busted him?”
When Betsy shrugged, Jill said, “What they always say.” She and Lars drawled in unison, “‘I didn’t dooo nuthin’!” Then she and Lars laughed wicked, evil laughs.
The whining of the cranes went on long enough that Betsy began to realize that was the sound of their engines in neutral. Lars and Jill realized it, too, and, once they had established a perimeter, they relaxed and took turns telling Betsy stupid-crook stories. The stories were so hilarious Betsy forgot this was taking a lot longer than she thought it would.
The sun shone, the water rocked the boat. Lars and Jill removed their jackets. A couple of the motorboats went away, a new one joined the watchers. Several of the boats standing watch were of a size that looked capable of going to sea. Betsy wondered what kind of job it took to afford a cabin cruiser, and yet have time to come out on a Tuesday morning to watch volunteers raise an old boat.
Jill identified some of the boats, gossiped a little about their owners. “I thought Billy’d left for Florida by now,” she noted about The Waterhole.
“What, is there a river out of Lake Minnetonka that connects to the Mississippi?” asked Betsy.
“Yes, but it’s not deep enough for that boat,” said Jill.
“Not to mention the sudden forty-foot drop going over Minnehaha Falls,” said Lars with a grin.
“Then how does he get that boat down to Florida?” asked Betsy.
“He doesn’t,” said Jill. “He has an even bigger boat down there.”
“Is it called The Waterhole Two? And why Waterhole?”
Lars said, “People who own boats will tell you that a is a hole in the water into which you pour money.”
Jill added, “And a waterhole is a place where animals come to drink, which is why taverns are sometimes called waterholes. Billy’s a party animal, and you’d be surprised how many people he can haul in that boat.”
“You know something about just about every boat owner out here,” said Betsy. “Is that because you’re a police officer, or do you have a boat, too?”
Lars laughed. “Neither; it’s because she’s from Excelsior, gossip capitol of the state.”
“Have you lived here long, Jill?” asked Betsy.
“Third generation,” nodded Jill. “My grandfather used to run the ferris wheel at the Excelsior Amusement Park, and my mother put herself through nursing school by working at the Blue Ribbon Cafe at the Park.”
Betsy said, “That’s right, I’ve heard that there used to be an amusement park in Excelsior. This is a sweet little town; it doesn’t seem like the kind of town for that. I mean especially years ago, when amusement parks weren’t the high-class operations they are today.”
“Oh, it was pretty high class,” said Jill with something in her voice Betsy couldn’t read.
“Did your father work in it, too?”
“He was a highway patrolman. His uncle was a deputy sheriff, and my mother’s brother was an investigator on the St. Paul cops.”
“So you kind of went into the family business,” said Betsy with a smile.
“It does run in families,” agreed Jill. “What did your father do?”
“He worked in the engineering department of Poland and Harnischfeger in Milwaukee. They build cranes. I still catch myself looking for the P&H logo whenever I see a crane. It never occurred to me to follow in his footsteps, but when I was small I used to wish there were still cattle drives, because his dad was a cowboy in Utah and I thought that one of the great, romantic jobs. My dad used to tell some great stories about him.”
“Can you ride?”
“I used to be good at it. You?”
“Oh, I don’t fall off half as much as I used to.” Jill looked out toward a boat drifting close to the perimeter she and Lars had established, but it stopped before crossing it. “You know what I’ve always wanted to do?” she asked.
“Go on one of those cattle drives. They still have them in some places, and they allow paying guests to take part. You get your own horse to take care of and you help keep the steers in line.”
Betsy stared at her. “Really? Where does this happen, in Texas?”
“They run one in South Dakota, less than a day’s drive from here. Lars won’t go with me.”
“Gosh.” Betsy’s eyes became distant. The lowing of cattle, the dust of the trail, the campfire at night, sleeping under the stars … “Want me to find out the details? We can go next year, maybe.”
Betsy tried to make her acceptance as casual as the offer. “I’d like that very much. Thanks.”
They fell silent for awhile. The sun warmed the air, the boat rocked, the motor burbled and gave off noxious fumes. Betsy began to feel a curious combination of sick and sleepy. She regretted the fried-egg sandwich she’d had for breakfast, then the seafood salad she’d had for supper last night. She was beginning to be concerned about the lo mein noodles she’d had for lunch yesterday when Lars said suddenly, “I think we’re gonna see some action now. And look over there!” He pushed a lever that stirred up the motor, and steered the boat towards the nearer barge.
Jill shouted through the bullhorn, “You in the blue boat, you’re in danger! Move back, away from the barge!” The passengers, a man and two women, turned to look at Jill. One woman waved to show she wasn’t concerned. “Move … away … from the … barge!” repeated Jill. “Now!”
The man shouted something at whoever was steering, and the boat began to shift around. The woman stopped waving and instead made a rude gesture.
Uh-oh, thought Betsy, and was surprised when Lars didn’t go after them, but only moved back himself. Then she heard a serious change in the sound of the cranes’ big engines, and her attention came back to the space between the cranes. The water roiled, as if about to boil. Smoothly, as if in time-lapse film, enormous black mushrooms bloomed onto the surface. They were floats, balloons, in three clusters of three. The cranes’ engines were straining now, and big drops of water drooled off the cables — Betsy realized belatedly the cables were moving.
Then, gently as dawn, a long, sleek object appeared under and then just on the surface. As it rose, water sluiced away, and Betsy could see the lines of curved boards appear, gleaming in the sun. More of the object appeared, and more, until it was a boat about seventy feet long, canted to one side, held in place by wrappings of cable. It didn’t look much like the restored streetcar boat; there were no railings, no cabin, no upper deck, just this long, narrow wooden boat.
Airhorns saluted the arrival of the Hopkins, and only when they stopped could Betsy hear the people cheering.
Waterfalls of various sizes cascaded off the boat, and the crane operators did something so that it mostly righted itself. Three men in black diver’s wetsuits appeared at the edge of the far barge and dived in. They swam to the boat and helped one another aboard. They began a quick, running inspection. One picked up a large rock and threw it over the side. Then he threw a hunk of what looked like concrete, and then another rock.
“They weighed the boat down with rubble before they sank it,” said Jill to Betsy. “The divers threw a lot of it overboard before it was raised, but I guess there’s more still in there.”
Betsy could see the divers to their waists as they moved along the boat and deduced a deck, because otherwise they’d be out of sight. As soon as she realized that, the rubble-tossing diver went out of sight. Betsy was deducing a ladder when he straightened — he’d only bent over. He shouted and gestured to the other two divers. They came running, and more rubble was tossed. Then one leaned against the side of the boat to shout, “Police! Police!”
Lars glanced at Jill, who nodded, and Lars ran his boat alongside the big boat.
“Got something here you should look at!” the diver shouted.
“You stay here,” Jill said to both Lars and Betsy. She raised her arms and was lifted over the side of the raised boat, which Betsy could now see had once been painted white. But there was lots of slime on the boards, and Jill had to scrabble for a foothold. Her light blue shirt and dark trousers were smeared by the time she vanished over the gunwales.
She reappeared less than a minute later. “Lars, there’s a human skeleton under the floorboards of this thing. Looks to be adult size. Call it in.” She went away again.
“Be damned,” said Lars, and reached for the radio microphone on the shoulder flap of his jacket.
Betsy rose to her feet, not sure if she did or did not want Jill to pick up the skull so she could see it. Wow, a skeleton! Had a diver from years ago been exploring the wreck and gotten trapped? Or was it a murder victim, the knife still stuck between the ribs? The boat had been filled with rubble, so the murderer must also have been a diver. Betsy had a sudden image of a man in a wet suit hauling a motionless victim down, down into the depths of the lake, finding the boat, moving hundreds of pounds of rubble — no, that was silly.
What it probably was, was a diver who found a hatch he could open and went in exploring. Then something in there ripped his air hose, and he panicked and couldn’t find the hatch to get out again. Poor fellow.
She sat down, the image shifting to what the skeleton might look like now. Sprawled and shining white, the ruins of his wet suit crumpled around him. Were there clues to his identity? A wedding ring perhaps, one with initials engraved inside it. Or an ID bracelet? She could imagine the metal, at first dimmed by algae, which would slowly yield to rubbing, and the letters would slowly appear. And an old mystery of a disappearance would be solved at last. How exceedingly interesting!