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ARETHUSA MONK, REIGNING QUEEN of the roguish regency romance, writhed in the grip of ultimate tragedy. She'd just got her heroine, Lady Ermintrude, tied up with strips ruthlessly torn from her own silken petticoat, gagged with her own rich and delicate but not very tasty lace handkerchief, packed neatly inside the evil-smelling gunnysack, and tossed quite unfeelingly into the sinister black closed carriage drawn by four savage walleyed stallions. Burning with the fires of inspiration, Arethusa had reached for another sheet of paper and discovered there was not one single scrap left in the box.
After a moment's desperation and a fruitless effort to thread a roll of pink paper toweling with a design of frolicking hamsters on it into her typewriter before she forgot what she'd meant to write next, she bowed to the inevitable and started out to remedy her lack. Pausing on the doorstep to reassure herself that paper—plain white paper—was indeed what she needed, she happened to notice that she was wearing only bedroom slippers, a nightgown, and a bathrobe.
The bathrobe was, to be sure, a particularly thick, voluminous one that blanketed her from head to toes in the same deep pink fuzz with which her nephew Osbert deemed her brain to be stuffed. As far as modesty went, Arethusa was more than decently covered. Still, she couldn't help feeling some slight hesitation as to whether a pink bathrobe was quite the thing for a woman of serious purpose to wear downtown to the stationery shop.
The right garb for the occasion was important to Arethusa. She prowled through her closets, summarily rejecting sequined evening gowns, flowing caftans, her billowing purple cloak, even her cartwheel hat with the night-blooming cereus on it. Somewhere among the depths, she came at last upon a tailored coat and skirt in sensible lilac tweed.
Arethusa supposed she must have bought the suit sometime or other. She couldn't recall when, where, why, or whether she'd ever worn it before; but there was nothing remarkable about that. Not remembering things was rather a specialty of hers. As she donned the skirt and buttoned the matching lilac silk blouse, she made a ferocious effort to concentrate on remembering the tiny jeweled dagger she'd secreted in Lady Ermintrude's garter before she'd sent her heroine alone on her parlous mission to the old mill at midnight. She also concentrated on that ream of plain white typing paper she must perforce obtain from Mr. Gumpert at Ye Village Stationer before she could do whatever she'd meant to be done with the dagger. What that was, Arethusa couldn't remember.
No matter, the action would come to her just so long as she didn't lose her mental grip on the dagger itself. Muttering over and over "A jeweled dagger and a ream of plain white paper," Arethusa exchanged her slippers for gray kid walking shoes, swirled her flowing mane of glossy black hair into a businesslike chignon, and crowned it with a severe helmet of dark green suede that had long gray goose quills shooting out in various directions. Granting her reflection in the mirror a purposeful nod while still chanting "A jeweled dagger and a ream of plain white paper," she set forth.
Arethusa didn't have far to go; it would have taken some ingenuity or a lot of walking in circles to go far in Lobelia Falls. From her ancestral dwelling to the town's main and indeed only thoroughfare was a matter of but thirty-seven brisk strides for a tall, vigorous woman in the prime of life. From her corner to Mr. Gumpert's shop called for rather more in the way of striding, however. Arethusa had to pass the public library, the local branch of the Royal Bank of Canada, and the police station which was also the residence of Sergeant Donald MacVicar and his wife, Margaret. She then crossed over and made a smart left turn at Miss Jane Fuzzywuzzy's Yarnery.
The yarn shop was a recent addition to Lobelia Falls's amenities. Miss Jane Fuzzywuzzy's lease having run out at the shopping mall in Scottsbeck, the proprietor had decided to flee the urban sprawl and emigrate to where the real knitters grew thickest. She was now getting nicely settled into a shop that had stood empty since Sergeant MacVicar had shipped the former occupant off to jail for malfeasance and a few other things.
Miss Jane, who was in fact Mrs. Prudence Derbyshire (though long widowed), was even now out sweeping her sidewalk as was her cleanly habit. She evinced no surprise when Arethusa hove into sight talking to herself. She did, however, exhibit a certain degree of perturbation when a smallish middle-aged man, wearing a trench coat with the collar turned up and a felt hat with the brim turned far down, pulled up to the curb in a bullet- riddled car of Japanese make, leaped past her, and rushed into the Yarnery through the door she'd left open to air the place out.
Wise in the ways of yarn buyers, however, Miss Jane did not rush after him. He might better be left to browse at will among the yarn bins while she remained to capture the last scarlet leaf from the huge maple tree that was shedding all over her share of the public walkway, for autumn had come to Ontario. She also wished to greet Miss Monk. She did this with some empressement, not because Miss Arethusa Monk was a particularly good customer, or indeed a customer at all; and not because Miss Monk was a celebrity. It was because Arethusa was the aunt of Osbert Monk, another celebrity better known to his vast reading public as Lex Laramie, but best known among natives of Lobelia Falls as husband to the former Dittany Henbit.
Let it not be thought that Miss Jane was a snob. Granted, Henbits had been among the first settlers of Lobelia Falls. Granted, Dittany's great-grandmother had been a founding member of the Grub-and-Stakers Gardening and Roving Club of which Dittany herself was now Honorable Secretary. Granted, Dittany was on the governing board of the Aralia Polyphema Architrave Memorial Museum. What counted with Miss Jane Fuzzywuzzy was that Dittany Henbit Monk was, and had been for the past several months, great with child.
Or so her friends and relatives had assumed when they'd started flocking to Miss Jane's for yarn to knit tiny garments. Once it had been definitely established that young Mrs. Monk was expecting not one but actually two bundles of joy, news of the impending double-header had sent the knitters stampeding back for the wherewithal to fashion duplicates. It was really young Mrs. Monk who'd got the Yarnery off to a rousing start in its new location. Therefore, whereas she had ignored the man, Miss Jane could hardly be faulted for feeling that a Monk in the hand was worth a good deal more than a stranger in a trench coat. She paused in her sweeping and made her manners to the lady.
"Lovely morning, Miss Monk."
"Hello, Miss Wuzzy. A jeweled dagger and a ream of plain white paper," Arethusa replied courteously.
Finding nothing remarkable in this reply, Miss Jane offered a comment on the weather to which Arethusa vouchsafed a gracious nod. To the passerby, had there been one at the moment, the two women would have offered an interesting contrast: the handsome, statuesque Arethusa in her businesslike tweeds and purposeful quills; the long-faced, rawboned Miss Jane in the frilly white apron and mobcap she affected during business hours.
Nobody had ever been mean enough to tell Miss Jane how ill these whimsies became her. It was perhaps not surprising, however, that when the man in the trench coat came stumbling out of the Yarnery in obvious distress of both mind and body and leaving a trail of little red splashes on the sidewalk, clearly visible now that Miss Jane had swept away the red leaves which might now be realized to have hidden the splashes he'd left on the way in, he turned not to the woman in the silly ruffled cap but to the one in the efficient green cloche.
Grabbing Arethusa frantically by her left arm, he gasped out, "The raveled sleeve!" Then his breath failed, his knees gave way, he crumpled into a pathetic heap of mackintosh at her gray-clad feet. Now that the two women had a clear view of his back, it was easy enough to spot the bullet hole with the dark red stain around it.
"Will you look at that?" said Miss Jane in understandable annoyance. "And to think I just finished washing my shop floor about two minutes ago!"
"Inconsiderate," Arethusa agreed absently. "What do you suppose he meant by 'the raveled sleeve'?"
"Must have been having trouble with his knitting," Miss Jane replied. "Lots of men knit, you know. Sergeant MacVicar tells me knitting used to be quite the thing among the Highland shepherds when he was a boy in Lochtrackenchie. Oh dear, what a way to start the day! My cousins from England are coming this afternoon and I did so want to have everything nice for them. Would you mind stepping across the street and giving the police station doorbell a punch?"
"Not at all. A jeweled dagger and a ream of plain white paper."
Arethusa was about to step off the curb when a second bullet-riddled automobile screeched to a halt in front of her. Two more men wearing trench coats with the collars turned up and felt hats with the brims turned down hurtled from the car, crouched beside the supine form on the sidewalk, and feverishly rifled its pockets while the two women watched in understandable bewilderment.
Their search appeared unavailing, for one of the men leaped to his feet, grabbed Arethusa by the same arm the first man had grabbed her by, and demanded savagely, "Where is it? What did he tell you?"
"A jeweled dagger and a ream of plain white paper," Arethusa replied automatically.
This was clearly not the reply the man had expected. "Are you sure that's what he—"
"Cheese it, the cops!" shouted the other.
True enough, the police station door had opened. Sergeant MacVicar was descending its front steps with as much haste as the dignity of his position would allow. Hastily grabbing their fallen colleague or adversary as the case might have been, one by the feet and one by the shoulders, the two dumped his body into their car. Just the way Lady Ermimtude's fell captors had bundled her into the coach, Arethusa noted. It was reassuring to see that she'd been accurate in her description.
She might have enjoyed and even benefited from a moment's professional chat with the dumpers, but this was not to be. One of them leaped into the car they'd both arrived in. The other leaped into the car which the dead man, for he was surely that, had been driving. By the time Sergeant MacVicar reached the spot where the red splashes lay thickest on the sidewalk, the two cars had roared off. The sergeant vouchsafed the two women a courteous nod and opened the investigation.
"Noo then, ladies, can you tell me what that was all about?"
"A jeweled dagger and a ream of plain white paper," said Arethusa.
"That wasn't it at all." Miss Jane was too exasperated by now to be diplomatic, even toward a Monk. "This first man—the one who bled all over everything—was knitting a sweater."
"Well, it had to be a sweater, didn't it? Why else would he have had to unravel the sleeve? I didn't know the man was bleeding, of course, or I wouldn't have kept him waiting. Goodness knows what he's done to my nice clean floor. I can't imagine what my cousins are going to think. It's their first visit to Canada and I did so want them to carry a good impression back home. And I have to tell you, Miss Monk, that if you say 'a jeweled dagger and a ream of plain white paper' one more time, I really do believe I'll take after you with this broomstick."
"This is no time for hysterics," Arethusa replied severely. "Pull yourself together, Miss Wuzzy."
"My name is not Miss Wuzzy!"
"Noo, noo," said Sergeant MacVicar.
"Well, she keeps calling me Miss Monk," Arethusa pouted. "I'm just trying to remember what it is I have to buy at Mr. Gumpert's. I realize there's a worldwide conspiracy afoot to keep writers from getting any work done, but I did think I might be allowed to accomplish a simple errand without being subjected to threats of physical attack by a woman dressed up as a sheep."
"I am not dressed up as a sheep," cried Miss Jane. "I dress up like Miss Jane Fuzzywuzzy in order to advertise my shop."
"Forsooth?" scoffed Arethusa. "Then you'd have done better to name the place Uncle Wiggly's. Now if you two will excuse me, I'll get on with my business."
"One moment, Miss Monk, if I may so address you without giving offense," said Sergeant MacVicar. "Can you give me further particulars concerning yon puzzling incident?"
"What is there to tell? This international spy came whizzing up and jumped out of his car—the one with the most bullet holes in it—and ran into the Yarnery. Then he came running out and grabbed me by the arm and started to talk about the sleeve to which the lady at my right has already alluded. He evidently inferred that I was the proprietor of the shop, though I cannot imagine why. Anyway, before I could correct his misapprehension, he dropped dead. At least one may assume he was dead, since he raised no protest when the other two spies came along and took him away."
"Er—h'mph. How do you know the men were spies, Miss Monk?"
"Because they were all wearing trench coats with the collars turned up and felt hats with the brims turned down over their eyes. They have to, it's in the international spy code. The first man may well have been a counterspy, which would explain his interest in Miss Wuzzy's shop. Or perhaps he was only confused. Judging from the memoirs one reads in the newspapers, assuming one does, spies customarily exist in a perpetual state of bewilderment as to whose side they're on at any given moment. It's possible, I suppose, that Miss Wuzzy here is a spy also, which would account for the sheep disguise. Would you care to confirm or deny the hypothesis, Miss Wuzzy?"
"I couldn't be bothered." Miss Jane did look a bit like Uncle Wiggly when she sniffed. "I'm merely a victim of circumstance and you're talking through that silly hat as usual. Those were no international spies, they were just a pack of hoodlums messing up my nice, clean sidewalk, not to mention the floor I'd just finished mopping."
Miss Jane shook her broom in total exasperation. "Sergeant MacVicar, you'll have to excuse me. I must see what's happened inside the Yarnery. It's tough enough getting established in a new location without the customers having to wade through puddles of gore to get to the yarn bins. Speaking of which, would you mind mentioning to Mrs. MacVicar that the blue shetland she wanted for your grandson's birthday cap and mittens came in late yesterday afternoon? I meant to pop over and tell her myself, but it slipped my mind. I was busy getting ready for my cousins, you know. Actually, they're putting up at the inn, but of course I'll have them over to the house for meals and—"
"Mrs. MacVicar will understand," said the sergeant. "Shall we go in together?"
They did. Arethusa remained outside, frowning down at the spots on the sidewalk and wondering why she wasn't at home writing. As she thus pondered, she heard herself being hailed by a familiar and well-loved voice.
"Clorinda!" Arethusa whirled to embrace the petite figure in the scarlet cartwheel hat and the elegant gold-and-silver eyeglasses who hurtled toward her on three-inch heels regardless of slippery fallen leaves and possible cracks in the sidewalk.
Back when she'd been first the wife, then the widow of Dittany's father, Clorinda Henbit had been not only the star of the Traveling Thespians and two-time winner of the Grand Free-for-All gold medal in archery but also the bosom friend of Arethusa Monk. Now married to Bert Pusey, a jovial salesman who traveled successfully in fashion eyewear, Clorinda was living a life far better suited to her ebullient personality and loving every minute of it. However, the lure of impending grandmotherhood and the chance of spending some time with her old friend had brought her flying back to Lobelia Falls.
Never one to tackle a situation by halves, Clorinda had been knitting up a storm ever since Dittany had managed to track her down at an optometrists' convention in Saskatoon and break the joyful tidings. Starting with booties, she'd worked her way up via bonnets and sacques to carriage robes and buntings. Even as she emoted her rapture at being able to walk down the street and bump into her favorite female in all the world, not counting her daughter and whichever twin turned out to be a girl, she was fishing in her pocketbook for a twist of yarn.
Excerpted from The Grub-And-Stakers Spin A Yarn by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1990 Alisa Craig. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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