Authors: Monica Ferris
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
A Murderous Yarn
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2002 by Mary Monica Kuhfeld
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Electronic Edition: August, 2002
Needlecraft Mysteries by Monica Ferris
FRAMED IN LACE
A STITCH IN TIME
A MURDEROUS YARN
There really is an Antique Car Run from New London to New Brighton in Minnesota every summer, except it’s held in August, not June. The members of the club, especially Jim and Dorothy Vergin and Ed Walhof, were incredibly helpful to me, patient with my ignorance, generous with information—even letting me ride in their cars. So if there’s an error in this novel, it’s my own fault for not listening more carefully. I would also like to thank Gene Grengs for letting me see how to start a Stanley Steamer, Pat Farrel out in Washington State for telling me how to use a Stanley to run down an SUV, and Fred Abbott out in Washington State for letting me “borrow” his magnificent 1912 Renault Sport Touring Car.
The shops Stitchville USA and Needlework Unlimited helped me keep on track with the details of Betsy’s Crewel World, and the Internet news group RCTN again proved reliable when I had questions or problems or needed a good idea.
pring came early to Excelsior that year. Everyone remarked that there had been no hard freezes since the fifth of March. The ice on Lake Minnetonka was rotten and great puddles gleamed like quicksilver on it. It was not yet St. Patrick’s Day but the robins were back, mourning doves were sobbing, and daffodils budded in south-facing flower beds. Only yesterday, Betsy had been delighted to find a great wash of purple crocuses pushing through the flat layers of dead leaves on the steep, tree-strewn slope behind her apartment building.
She had noticed the rich purple color while taking out the trash. It had been the one good thing about the task. On that same trip, her vision downward blocked by boxes and black plastic bags, she had nearly fallen into one of the yawning potholes that menaced traffic
in her small parking lot. And she’d had to put everything down while she struggled with the Dumpster’s creaking lid, so rusted around the hinges it resisted being lifted.
How wonderful it would be, she had thought, to bring the trash out to the front sidewalk on Wednesdays for someone else to pick up and carry away. Even better, to dig up the crumbled blacktop parking lot, put in some topsoil, and plant tulips and bleeding hearts and old-fashioned varieties of roses, the kind whose scent lay heavy on the air in summer. And at the back, a row of benches under trellises covered alternately with honeysuckle and morning glories, to draw butterflies and hummingbirds. She’d stood beside the homely Dumpster for a minute, inhaling imaginary sweet-smelling air.
But her tenants’ leases promised each a parking space and a container to put their refuse in any day of the week. She had been dismayed to discover how expensive it was to rent the Dumpster, and to have it emptied weekly. And by the estimate for resurfacing the parking lot. Being a landlord wasn’t solely about collecting rents.
Now, the next morning, she sighed over her abysmal willingness to leap into things without first learning the consequences. She should have let Joe keep this moldy old building with its leaky roof, potholed parking lot, and rusty Dumpster. It was enough trouble keeping her small needlework shop from bankruptcy.
Her cat interrupted her musings by asking “A-row?” from a place between Betsy and the door. Was it time to go to work? the cat wanted to know. Sophie liked the needlework shop and yearned to spend even more hours in it. Up here, she got a little scoop of Iams Less
Active twice a day. Down in the shop, ah, in the shop were potato chips and fragments of chocolate bars and who knew what other treats. Only this last Saturday, she’d garnered a paw-size hunk of bagel spread with strawberry cream cheese, which she’d sneaked into the back room and eaten to the last crumb—a pleasant victory, since her mistress had a distressing habit of snatching delicacies away before the cat got more than one tooth into them. Sophie weighed twenty-two pounds and was as determined to hang on to every ounce as her mistress was to make her svelte.
Yesterday, Sunday, the shop had been closed. Sophie had not had so much as a corner of dry toast. Now, when Betsy put her empty tea mug into the sink, Sophie hurried ahead to the door.
They went down the stairs to the ground floor, around to an obscure door near the back wall, through it, and down a narrow hallway to the back door into the shop. Sophie waited impatiently for her mistress to unlock the door.
Godwin was already in the shop. To Sophie’s delight, he had a greasy, cholesterol-laden bacon and egg McMuffin. He was seated at the library table with it and a mug of coffee. While Betsy put the startup cash in the register, Sophie quietly went to touch him on the left shin to let him know where she was. As quietly, Godwin dropped a small piece of buttered muffin with a bit of egg clinging to it, confident it would never touch the carpet.
“Hey, Goddy!” said Betsy, slamming the drawer shut.
“Hmmm?” he said, startled into a too-perfect look of innocence.
“Remind me to call that blacktop company again this morning, will you?”
“Certainly,” he said, and when she began to check an order he’d made out, he dropped another morsel.
An hour later, Betsy was putting together a display of small kits consisting of a square of tan or pale green linen; lengths of green, pink, yellow, wine, dark gold, and brown floss; a pattern of tulips in a basket; and a needle. She had made up the kits herself, putting each into a clear plastic bag with daffodils printed on it, tied shut with curly yellow ribbon. She was arranging the kits, priced at seven dollars, in a pretty white basket beside a pot of real tulips and a finished model of the pattern, still in its little Q-snap holder. A stack of little Q-snaps, which had been selling poorly, waited suggestively close to the basket.
Godwin, meanwhile, had clamped a Dazor magnifying light to the library table in the middle of the shop, and was fastening the electric cord to the carpet with long strips of duct tape.
At home on Sunday, Betsy had put together another little basket with illustrations of various stitches, threaded needles, and an assortment of fabrics, so that customers could try these things before buying, or get Godwin’s help in doing an elaborate needlepoint stitch. The Dazor was there to help them see more clearly—and if the customer was delighted at how bright and clear things appeared under the Dazor, Betsy had several of the lights all boxed up in the back room.
Betsy had recently visited Zandy’s in Burnsville, where the owner had a similar setup. Zandy had told Betsy that she sold at least one Dazor a month. Betsy had sold two Dazors since she took over Crewel World
nine months ago. Even at wholesale, the lights were expensive and a burden on the shop’s inventory.
Godwin stood up with a grunt, and brushed a fragment of dust from his beautiful lightweight khaki trousers. “That should keep people from tripping,” he said. “What’s next?”
“Pat Ingle brought a model to me in church on Sunday,” said Betsy. “Here it is. We’ll need to find space for it on the wall in back.”
“Oh, it’s The Finery of Nature!” said Godwin, going to look. “Gosh, look at it! Seeing it for real makes me wish I did counted cross stitch myself!”
And that was the purpose of models. Crewel World sold all kinds of needlework, but counted cross stitch patterns needed, more than any other, the impact of the finished product to inspire needleworkers to buy. Betsy had devoted the entire back of her shop to cross-stitch, and the walls there were covered with framed models. But as new patterns arrived and old ones went out of print, a steady trickle of new models was needed.
Betsy used a variety of methods to keep the walls up to date. One was to stitch them herself, but Betsy was still learning the craft and so had to lean heavily on her customers, borrowing finished patterns from them. Sometimes she offered a particularly talented customer free finishing—washing, stretching, and framing, an expensive service—in exchange for the right to display it for a time, or to giving the model maker the materials for a project, plus deep discounts on other patterns and materials, in exchange for doing a particular project.
She had also gained some recent models by a sadder method: Wayzata’s Needle Nest had gone out of business, and Pat had sold Betsy some of her models to
hang on Crewel World’s walls. Fineries of Nature was the last of them.
It was a little after noon when Betsy, looking over a new and complex Terrance Nolan pattern, said, “I wonder if we could get Irene to make a model of this for us.”
And as if on cue, the front door went
and Irene came in. Irene Potter was one of Betsy’s most loyal customers. She was also rude, opinionated, passionate, difficult—and an extraordinarily talented needleworker. A short, thin woman with angry black curls standing up all over her head, she had a narrow face set with very shiny dark eyes. Her clothing came from a Salvation Army store. She wasn’t poor, but she put every possible nickel of her income into needlework supplies.
She had a project rolled up under the arm of her shabby winter coat, a faux leopard skin probably thirty years old. “I need your opinion on this,” she said without preamble.
“What, on how to finish it?” asked Betsy from behind the big desk that served as a checkout counter.
“No, just an opinion. Yours too,” she added over her shoulder, not quite looking at Godwin. This was unusual. Irene had a very accurate notion of Betsy’s lack of proficiency but her fear and loathing of Godwin as a gay man normally kept her from acknowledging his expertise in needlework. That most other Crewel World customers thought he had a heightened sense of color and design
he was gay cut no ice with Irene.
Godwin, making a comedy of his surprise behind Irene’s back, smoothed his face to impassivity as he came to stand beside Betsy. Irene took a deep breath, held it, and unrolled the fabric onto the desk.
Betsy stared; Godwin inhaled sharply. It was an impressionistic painting of a city in a blizzard. The snow blew thickly around the buildings and people, blurring their outlines and the shape of a tall plinth in the center of a square.
But the picture wasn’t a painting. It was a highly detailed piece of cross-stitching. “Why, it’s wonderful!” exclaimed Betsy. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Where did you get the pattern, Irene?”
“It’s not from a pattern,” said Irene. “Martha took me to see the exhibit of American Impressionists at the Art Museum last year. I never could see what was so great about Impressionists; those posters and pictures in magazines look like a mess. But prints are nothing like seeing Impressionist paintings for real.”
Betsy nodded. “That’s absolutely true, Irene. I didn’t get Impressionism either, when all I’d seen were prints. Then I saw my first van Gogh in person and I fell in love. Did you see the Art Museum’s exhibit, Goddy?”
“M-hmm.” He seemed very absorbed in Irene’s piece, moving a step sideways and back, cocking his head at various angles.
Betsy continued, “I don’t know why photographs can’t tell the truth about Impressionist paintings. Do you, Godwin?”
“It’s because they use layers of paint, or lay it on thickly, and use lots of texture, so the light moves across it as you approach. Photographs flatten all that out.”
“Yes, I think that’s right. This moves with the light, too. It is truly beautiful. Where did you get it, Irene?” Betsy knew she hadn’t sold a pattern like this to Irene—
she had never seen a pattern like this, in her shop or anywhere.
“I did it myself,” Irene said quietly.
Godwin said, “You did? But your work isn’t anything like this!”
Irene gave him a freezing glance and said, “I got to thinking about those paintings, and I went back a second time by myself and I borrowed Martha’s copy of the exhibit catalog, and I thought some more, and I did this. Is it any good?”
“It’s amazing, it’s fantastic,” said Betsy.
Godwin said, “It really is wonderful, Irene. How did you get those swirls of snow?” They weren’t smooth lines, but lumpish streaks, an effect an oil painter gets by using the edge of his palette knife.
“Caron cotton floss,” said Irene. “It’s got those slubs in it, and I just kept working it over the top until it looked right.” A figure in the foreground, walking with the snow pushing her back into a curve, was done in shades of charcoal and light gray, with a touch of wine at the throat and on a package she was struggling not to lose. The curve of her back, done in broken rows of straight stitches, made the viewer feel her strain against the harsh wind.
Betsy leaned closer. It looked to her as if all the figures and images in the work were done with blended stitches. The overall effect was of solid objects seen through a blur of snow.
Godwin, cocking his head at yet a different angle, frowned and said, “I don’t think this is an exact copy of the painting in the exhibit, is it?”
“No,” said Irene, as if admitting to a fault. “Mr. Wiggins’s painting was old; it had old-fashioned cars and
wagons pulled by horses. I used modern cars, except for one of those carriages I’ve seen in movies that get pulled by a horse through the park. I liked the way Mr. Wiggins’s horses looked, so that’s why I put one in, too. And I found a photograph in the library of Columbus Circle, so I knew what that tall thing really looks like.”
“Plinth,” said Godwin. “It’s called a plinth.”
Irene ignored that. She said to Betsy, “I was afraid it was too . . . messy.”
Godwin said, “I think all the overstitching is brilliant.”
Betsy said, “Yes, that gives it an especially wonderful effect. What are you going to do with it?”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Irene. “I wanted to know first if it was any good.”
“This is beyond good,” said Godwin. “This is . . . this is
This time Irene glanced at him with respect. “You think so?”
“I agree,” said Betsy. “Any art gallery would be proud to offer this. Of course, I’d like you to turn it into a pattern. This would be a real challenge for an advanced stitcher, but I’m sure I could sell it. But maybe you should enter it in a competition first. Is there a competition for work like this, Godwin?”
“There are all sorts of needlework competitions,” he said. “It would do well in any of them, I think.”
Irene said, “Then I’ll put it in the State Fair, I guess.” Irene had lots of blue ribbons from the Minnesota State Fair’s needlework competitions.