The Widow's Strike (Pike Logan Series #4)by Brad Taylor
Invented by nature and genetically manipulated by man, a highly lethal virus has just fallen into the wrong hands. Angered by sanctions placed against its nuclear program, a rogue state is determined to release the virus. The only thing standing in its way is the extralegal counterterrorist unit known as the Taskforce.
Racing against time to stop a global… See more details below
Invented by nature and genetically manipulated by man, a highly lethal virus has just fallen into the wrong hands. Angered by sanctions placed against its nuclear program, a rogue state is determined to release the virus. The only thing standing in its way is the extralegal counterterrorist unit known as the Taskforce.
Racing against time to stop a global pandemic, Taskforce operators Pike Logan and Jennifer Cahill follow the trail across Southeast Asia to the United States. But they soon learn that the enemy they face may not be the enemy they should fear....
“Taylor clearly knows what he is writing about.”—#1 New York Times Bestselling Author Vince Flynn
“[An] exciting thriller that the covert-ops crowd will relish.”—Booklist
“Don your hazmat suit, prop up your feet, and enjoy a good yarn.”—Kirkus Reviews
Meet the Author
Brad Taylor, Lieutenant Colonel (ret.), is a twenty-one-year veteran of the U.S. Army Infantry and Special Forces. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife and two daughters.
More from this Author
Read an Excerpt
“Gord?” A woman’s heartfelt plea fluted through the misty night.
Who was calling Threadville’s favorite doctor in that flirtatious tone? In less than a week, Gord was marrying Edna.
That voice was not Edna’s.
Dropping to a crouch behind the branches of a weeping willow, I put my arms around my two dogs, a brother-and-sister pair who were part border collie. Taking their cues from me, they remained silent, but they tensed against me.
“Gord!” The second plea was still bell-like, but now it was a command.
Mist drifted away, and the fairy lights in the gazebo-like bandstand on the hill above us were bright enough for me to see the woman on the riverbank.
I had never met her, but I knew who she was. She called herself Isis. Like many others, she was in Elderberry Bay for the Threadville Get Ready for Halloween Craft Fair. Halloween was just over four weeks away, and Threadville tourists and customers were keen to create costumes and decorations.
Isis bound books by hand, books she titled The New Book of the Dead, which, she claimed, tied her craft to Halloween. To me, it seemed like a bit of a stretch.
Was Isis in costume? Despite the evening’s foggy chill, she wore a sleeveless white gown with a gold cord tied around the empire waistline. She raised both hands, palms up, toward the sky. I squinted, but the fog kept me from figuring out what those small objects on her palms were.
I could have gone closer and introduced myself as Willow, one of the craft fair organizers, and also the owner of In Stitches, Threadville’s machine embroidery boutique. However, I was curious about Isis’s weird behavior. Okay, maybe I was just plain snoopy. I stayed hidden with my dogs, where we could watch without being seen.
Isis glided down the concrete boat launch ramp until water had to be lapping at the toes of her sandals. She stooped, placed the object from her right hand on the surface of the river, and intoned, “When your time comes, you will go to the afterlife I have chosen for you. I will join you there, eventually.” Then she raised her voice and called out in raspy, doom-filled tones, “Edna!”
As far as I could tell in the wispy mist, Edna was nowhere near. I held my breath. Quivering in my embrace, my dogs stared toward Isis.
She thrust the object from her left hand onto the water, pushed it down, and held it underwater. “Go,” she ordered, “to the deepest, darkest river! Go to the bowels of the Earth. Fall apart. Scatter. Go where you will never rise!”
The fog thickened, hiding Isis and enveloping the dogs and me in a cold gray cocoon that would keep Isis from seeing us. I shuddered. The little scene had turned nasty.
Hanging on to their leashes, I let the dogs pull me away from Isis and toward the dark trail that would take us along the river to our hillside apartment underneath In Stitches.
Isis’s voice rang out again. “Who’s there?”
I thought Sally-Forth and Tally-Ho might bark and give us away, but they only lowered their plume-like tails and increased their pace. No one answered Isis, but I heard footsteps, as if someone were running up the wooden access ramp leading to the bandstand, up the hill from me. I stopped the dogs and turned around. Distorted in the foggy glow, an elongated shadow flew through the mist in the bandstand. Isis, or someone else?
Farther away, down toward the beach, the fog parted, revealing a figure walking with a jerky gait, his arms held stiffly in front of his body, wrists bent, and palms down. He shambled up the hill toward where I’d seen Isis. He wore a dark suit with a 1930s silhouette, broad at the shoulders, narrow at the waist and hips, and lots of fabric in the pant legs. I couldn’t make out details of his black hair or whiter-than-white face, other than he appeared to have a large wound near his chin.
For the past couple of days, zombies had been booking into the Elderberry Bay Lodge for what they called a zombie retreat.
The zombies were . . . unusual.
They weren’t half as creepy as Isis.
Seeming totally freaked out, Sally-Forth and Tally-Ho tugged me to our apartment underneath my shop. The building was on a steep slope, so the apartment was mostly aboveground.
I gave the dogs extra treats, praised them, and, with Sally’s help, gave my half-grown black-and-white tuxedo kittens, Mustache and Bow-Tie, an outing in the backyard. Sally had taught the kittens from an early age to stay close to her when outside. She supervised them while they did their duties, and then herded them to the patio door.
For once, I was too worried to relax, wind down, and play with my four pets.
Isis had just threatened Edna, who was one of my favorite people.
And Isis was Edna’s houseguest.
Maybe I was being irrational, but for my own peace of mind, I needed to warn Edna about possible threats from her guest. I forced myself outside again, into the sinister, foggy night, and ran up through my sloping side yard.
My friends’ Threadville shops and apartments were in a row of stores on the ground floor of a Victorian building on the other side of Lake Street. Under the streetlights, the building’s red bricks looked almost black.
Like the other shops, Edna’s notions boutique had large front windows. Edna’s lights were on, and I could see her inside Buttons and Bows. Gord was there, also, on a ladder, apparently helping his fiancée arrange reels of trims on upper shelves, packing them together upright like books in a library. I ran across the street and opened the door, setting off Edna’s Buttons and Beaux tune, an old vaudeville one that had, I’d been told, slightly risqué lyrics. As always, Edna’s shop dazzled, with buttons totally covering one wall, ribbons, braids, lace, and fringe covering the other, and an aisle down the middle between glass display cases.
From high on his ladder, Gord waved a bolt of purple ball fringe at me. “Hi, Willow! I’m having a ball up here.”
Edna hugged me. She was a cute little birdlike person, short compared to my height of almost six feet. She was barely over fifty, and though her hair was still naturally brown, she had colored it silver for her wedding. Not the silver of graying hair, but metallic silver. She’d grown it to a shoulder-length bob. At the moment, she’d added nothing sparkly to it besides the color, but I was sure that on the day itself, she would be a vision of crystal, an ice princess in October. She asked. “Did you come to help us, Willow?”
“In a way.” I felt my forehead crease. “I just saw something disturbing.”
Gord took a step down the ladder toward me. “What’s wrong, Willow?” I half expected him to whip out a stethoscope and rush the rest of the way down the ladder to check my heartbeat.
In Edna’s cheerful shop, my story sounded a little silly, and I couldn’t blame Edna and Gord for their skepticism.
Still on his ladder, Gord peered toward Edna’s front windows. “Fog?”
Our section of Lake Street was high and free of fog at the moment. I mumbled, “There’s plenty of it down by the river.”
He felt his way down another step. “Yes, some evenings are like that. Romantic, right, my little chickadee?”
Edna beamed up at him. “Right. And I’m not worried.”
Gord inched down to the next step. “I’m not, either, but thanks for your concern, Willow.”
Edna’s Buttons and Beaux tune played again. Isis dashed into the store, pulled the door shut faster than it wanted to go, and stood panting, her back to us and her palms on the door frame as if she were trying to prevent a wild animal from coming inside with her.
I couldn’t see anything on the other side of the door.
She turned around. She was older than I’d first believed, in her late fifties. Maybe she only looked older because the corners of her mouth were turned down and her pupils were dilated. “Gord!” she shrieked. “I just had the most unspeakable fright!” Her gown was made from a light nylon knit, as if she’d taken a nightgown and dressed it up with a scratchy gold cord tied around the empire waistline.
Again the picture of concern, Gord took another step down the ladder. “What happened?”
Isis took a deep shuddering breath and clutched at her throat. “A zombie attacked me.” Apparently, the fright hadn’t been entirely unspeakable.
Gord put his left hand up to his ear and hung on to the ladder with only his right, which, considering that I was standing below him, was about to give mean unspeakable fright. Not that Isis’s sinister curses on the riverbank hadn’t already scared me enough.
Gord asked her, “Did you say a zombie? Attacked you? Want us to call the police?”
She trilled a little laugh that seemed incongruous after her unspeakable fright. “He didn’t attack me physically, but he had some notion that I might be casting a spell on him, and he told me to stop it or he would . . . I’m not sure what, but he looked violent.”
I should find this zombie as a possible ally to help me convince Gord and Edna to be wary of Isis. Maybe the zombie was the big-shouldered one I’d seen in the dark suit. Or had zombies been all over the park while Isis was shouting into the fog, and I hadn’t seen the others? While the dogs and I were fleeing Isis and her curses, someone else, apparently not the zombie in the 1930s suit, had run through the bandstand and away from the park.
Gord reassured Isis, “The zombies visiting Elderberry Bay aren’t real.”
“I know that,” she said seriously. “But this guy’s threat was.”
Gord asked her again if he should call the police.
“No, I guess I was just being a big silly-pie.” Her coy smile showed off a dimple in her cheek. “What are you doing up there on that ladder, Gord?”
She cooed, “That ladder doesn’t look safe.” I could have sworn she batted her eyelashes at him.
He patted his belly. “You mean I’m too portly.”
Her “silly-pie” laughter put my teeth on edge. “I mean that ladder looks flimsy.” The woman was an accomplished simperer.
I felt ill.
Edna was obviously miffed. “It’s a perfectly good ladder.”
Isis shaded her eyes against the shop’s sparkling beads, buttons, sequins, and crystals. “Oh, hullo.”
Maybe Isis hadn’t seen me, either, beside Edna on the other side of Gord’s ladder. I stepped into the center of the aisle. “Hi, I’m Willow. I own the machine embroidery boutique across the street, In Stitches.”
Isis covered her mouth and tittered. Where had she learned these old-fashioned mannerisms? “Willow! What an apt name for such a beanpole. Do you weep, too?”
I was about to . . . Or hurl.
Edna stepped closer to me. “Willow is lovely and slender.”
Isis eyed me up and down. “Yes. I see. Is she another of your ‘daughters’?” She made air quotes with her fingers.
Edna smiled. “She does look a bit like Haylee, doesn’t she—tall, slender, and beautiful? But no, my girlfriends and I didn’t raise Willow, though we’d gladly take credit for her.”
I flashed Edna a smile.
Gord said, “In Threadville, they’re all like family.”
Edna’s chin came up. “They?”
He let out his warm boom of a laugh. “We. I guess we’re done here, Edna, and we should let you and your guest get some sleep. C’mon, Willow, I’ll walk you home.”
His message was clear. I wasn’t supposed to confront Isis about what the zombie, whoever he was, and I had seen. I wasn’t sure what it meant, anyway, and I wasn’t about to embarrass Gord and Edna by starting an argument. In a way, Isis was the guest of all of Threadville, and as the owner of one of Threadville’s shops, I should be hospitable.
But I still wanted to hurl.
The little tune started when Gord opened the door for me. I thought I heard Isis ask something like, Didn’t she say her shop was only across the street?
After the door closed and we were in the middle of Lake Street, I turned to Gord. “She was flirting with you!”
He stopped walking. Luckily, no traffic was around. “Was she?”
“You didn’t notice? Being flirted with must be an occupational hazard for doctors.”
“I suppose so.”
It had to be a hazard for Gord, anyway. He was genuinely thoughtful, and couldn’t help being charming. And almost grandfatherly toward both Haylee and me. He was considerably older than Edna.
“She was,” I insisted.
“The woman barely knows me. She had dinner with us last night. She was in Edna’s apartment when I picked Edna up, so I invited her, and she came. The woman spent one entire evening in my company—hardly enough time for anyone to work up a proper crush.”
I teased, “You’re fishing for compliments.”
He staggered playfully, hand over heart. “You’ve wounded me.”
Laughing, I pulled him to the safety of the sidewalk in front of my shop. “You’ll be responsible for all of your injuries if your dramatics get you run over.”
“Good thing I’m a doctor.”
He pointed. “Your shop looks great.” Trying to distract me, no doubt.
He succeeded, at least for a moment. I loved In Stitches. Night-lights inside the shop drew my gaze away from the building’s classic Arts and Crafts architecture and through the windows to the merchandise inside—sewing machines and their embroidery attachments, natural fabrics, racks of embroidery thread, and all the other supplies and accessories needed for machine embroidery. Still, I made one last attempt to sway Gord. “I’m worried about Edna alone with that woman.”
He patted my shoulder. “My little chickadee is one of the strongest people I know.”
“Yes, but . . .” I spoke the rest of the sentence in a rush. “What if that woman thinks she can harm Edna and have you for herself?”
“She may not know that.”
“Willow.” The kindness in his voice softened the rebuke I suspected was coming. “Isis, or whatever her name is, can go to the river in the fog and mutter all the curses she wants. None of them can harm Edna or anyone else. Besides, some zombie obviously thought that Isis was casting a spell on him, not on Edna or me.”
So much for the zombie, whoever he was, helping me convince Gord that he and Edna could be in danger from Isis and her incantations. “I suppose you’re right. But I’ll be glad when you’re married and that woman is gone from town.”
His smile outshined the streetlight above us. “I’ll be glad when Edna and I are married, too. You have a good night, now.”
He strode down the street. As he passed Edna’s shop, he raised his head and sang toward the windows of her second-floor apartment. Gord loved opera and had an amazing voice.
I hoped that Isis didn’t think his love song was aimed at her.
If it hadn’t been late, I might have let myself into my shop and spent a few hours playing with software, thread, and fabric. Instead, I opened the gate and walked down the hill toward my apartment door.
Below my apartment, Blueberry Cottage, a curlicued Victorian gem painted dusty teal, brooded in the darkness. The cottage had been moved up the hill from its original 1890s position, which had been too close to the river. Now that it was finally safe from possible floods, I could rent it to tourists as soon as the renovations were done. The interior had been taken down to the bare studs.
Farther down the slope, my yard disappeared in low-lying mist. I couldn’t see my back gate, or the riverside trail leading to the park where Isis and an unknown number of zombies had been, or the Elderberry River, or the backdrop of the state forest rising on the opposite bank.
My pets greeted me with their usual zeal. Settling the two dogs for the night was easy. They’d spent the day upstairs in their pen in the rear section of In Stitches, where they’d watched everyone browsing and learning. The two kittens, however, must have snoozed most of the day in my apartment. After I got into bed, they tussled with each other and pounced on my head.
But that wasn’t all that kept me from falling asleep. Unease drifted through my mind like the swathes of fog down by the river. What was Isis up to? How could anyone dislike Edna or want to harm her? And why had a zombie taken Isis’s curses personally? Had the zombie really threatened her, or had she only been flirting with Gord?
Eventually, I managed to sleep. And then the sharp ringing of my phone startled me. A phone call in the early morning usually meant I needed to respond to an emergency with the village’s other volunteer firefighters. But the siren on the fire station’s roof was silent.
Who was calling me? The clock beside the bed said six thirty. I could have slept another hour and still had plenty of time to shower, dress, walk the dogs, have breakfast, and open In Stitches for the day. Mentally muttering, I fumbled for the phone.
“Willow?” My mother. Why was she phoning me at this hour?
Was something wrong? My breath caught. Was my dad okay? He was quiet and uncomplaining, but I always feared he would hurt himself in his workshop way out in their woods, and no one would realize for hours that he was missing.
My mother purred, “I need a favor.”
I’d learned not to grant my mother a favor before asking questions. Whenever she was in the midst of a political campaign, she seemed to forget that I couldn’t abandon In Stitches and run home to arrange a dinner party or fund-raiser.
“What?” Between my caution and grogginess, my question undoubtedly came out sounding surly or peeved.
“I need you to let someone stay with you this week.”
“Where else?” She sounded amused.
“This week is, um, kind of busy. Our village is putting on a pre-Halloween craft show, and helping friends with their wedding.”
My mother’s Southern accent became as thick and sweet as corn syrup. “I don’t ask much of you, Willow, honey, now do I?”
Well, she did, but I’d had to decline, again and again. I clutched the phone tighter and gulped. “No.”
“And you’ve often told me that you have a guest room where you could put your father and me up.”
“I do, but—”
“Brianna Shrevedale is coming to see you, and she needs a place to stay, so you’ll want to be her hostess,” my mother said.
“Who is Brianna Shrevedale and why is she coming to see me?”
My mother was good at patient encouragement. “Brianna’s a thread distributor.”
I pointed out, “Sales representatives aren’t usually the houseguests of shopkeepers.” In my early years, my mother had drilled Southern hospitality into me, so of course I felt guilty. Apparently, I’d lost some of those old Southern attitudes, along with most of my accent, while living in New York City, and I hadn’t regained them up here in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“Don’t you follow my career even the itsy-bitsiest bit?”
I could tell she was trying to hide her disappointment in her only child, which made me feel worse, but I managed to defend myself, more or less. “I know you’re in the South Carolina House of Representatives and that you’re running for the state senate.”
“And can you guess who has been instrumental in my success so far and, with luck, will help me get into the senate, and possibly beyond?”
Not me, I feared. “Brianna Shrevedale?”
“Her father. Todd Shrevedale is my biggest financial supporter. He’s done so much for me! We can pay some of that back now by giving his daughter a hand up. She can start her business by selling her threads to you and your customers. You’ll want to buy lots to help her out.”
I repeated, “It’s busy here right now. The Threadville Get Ready for Halloween Craft Fair starts Saturday, and—”
“How perfect is that? Brianna can have a table at your fair and sell her threads for people up there to use in their costumes. You’ll like her. She’s a nice kid.”
I could tell that as far as my mother was concerned, the matter was settled, but I went on with my fruitless objections. “And Edna’s wedding is Monday, and—”
“A friend. All of us in Threadville are helping with her wedding.”
“Threadville? That’s not really the name of the village where you’ve set up shop, is it?” I heard her mouse click. “Aha. Found it. Your address is Elderberry Bay.”
“Threadville is a nickname because of all the textile arts shops here.” I was sure I’d already mentioned this in e-mails and phone calls.
“How adorable. And it’s so perfect! Brianna would probably love to help you with the wedding. It will be a good way for you two girls to bond.”
Girls? I was over thirty. However, I didn’t exactly come across as mature when I tried one more time to avoid hosting a guest during this extra-busy week. “The wedding’s being held at the Elderberry Bay Lodge. It’s a wonderful hotel. Brianna could stay there.”
“It’s full. They’re having some sort of weird convention—werewolves or something.”
“A zombie retreat.”
“Whatever. It’s solidly booked.”
That wasn’t surprising. The restored Victorian lodge was beautiful inside and out, but it wasn’t huge, and in addition to the zombie in the park the night before, I’d already encountered lots of zombies wandering the streets and beaches. Some of them had even rented tables at the craft fair. I wasn’t certain that I looked forward to finding out what their crafts might be, but I’d been assured that it was all harmless fun.
Because the lodge was small, many of the Threadville shopkeepers besides Edna had opened their homes to people renting tables at the craft fair, but no one had been keen on staying in a two-bedroom apartment with two largish dogs and a pair of adolescent kittens.
I relented, not that I had a choice. “If Brianna’s not allergic to dogs or cats, I suppose she can stay with me.” I added in somewhat warmer tones, “When’s she coming?” Surely, she wouldn’t stay long and wouldn’t expect me to entertain her. My co-conspirators and I had a lot to do to finish Edna’s wedding gown—the one that Edna didn’t know about.
My mother gave her politician’s tinkle of a laugh. “She’s parked outside your store as we speak.”
The guest my mother wanted me to host was outside In Stitches this very minute? Couldn’t my mother have warned me sooner?
She asked, “Your store is called In Stitches, right?”
“Right.” The way I drew the word out, I almost sounded like I was reverting to my Southern accent.
“Go outside, Willow, honey. She could use your help unpacking and moving in.”
Before I could say anything else, my mother, State Congresswoman Wanda Vanderling, MD, disconnected the call.
I threw on a bathrobe, slid my feet into slippers, and took the stairs two at a time. All four of my pets rumbled up the stairs as fast as their legs could take them, and they all, except Bow-Tie, who stopped to bat at something that only he could see, reached the top before I did.
The mischievous kittens would have to mellow a little before I could give them the run of my boutique. Undoubtedly, they would view spools of embroidery thread as rows of kitty toys that should be removed from their racks and chased all over my vintage walnut floor. I managed to let the dogs into the shop and close the door before the kittens could join us.
I shut the dogs into their large pen in the back of the store, then trotted past sewing machines with samples of embroidery displayed in hoops in their embroidery attachments. I rounded my cutting table without bumping into a corner, rushed between bolts of beautiful fabrics, unlocked the front door, and stepped out onto my porch.
Out on Lake Street, a small blonde dragged a heavy sales case out of the trunk of an old, dull red sedan. The October morning sun must have been in the woman’s eyes. She squinted toward me as if at a loss about what to say.
Who could blame her?
My mother, who tried to be kind but often came across as overbearing, may have forced the woman to barge in on me at this peculiar time of the morning. Taking pity on the obviously embarrassed woman and hoping that none of my friends would look out their windows or drive past and see me wandering around in my fuzzy pink robe and slippers, I ran down the porch steps.
Up close, I understood why my mother had referred to Brianna Shrevedale as a “girl.” Brianna must have been barely out of college. She had that pulled-an-all-nighter look, with her makeup flaking, her lipstick mostly chewed-off, and her single braid losing wisps of hair.
I asked her, “Are you Brianna?”
“Can I help you carry anything?”
She pointed at the sales case at her feet. “Your mother said you’d like to see my thread samples.”
“She was right. Come on in. My guest room is ready for you.” Fortunately, I kept it neat most of the time, unless I was working on a sewing project. At the moment, I was, but not in my apartment. I couldn’t help a fleeting grin at the thought of how Edna would react when she saw the surprise wedding gown we were creating for her.
Brianna hesitated. “Is there a place to park near your apartment?”
I offered her an apologetic smile. “I’m afraid this is as close as you can get. My apartment is beneath In Stitches.”
I followed her glance to the front of my shop. I loved the deep, wide front porch, invitingly sheltered under a roof. These early October days were still warm, and I had not yet put away my rocking chairs, tables, books, magazines, and potted flowers. I’d chosen deep red mums for autumn and had added cornstalks, pumpkins, and strangely shaped gourds to the décor.
I picked up the case. “I’ll show you how to go downstairs from my shop to my apartment, and then you can settle in while I get ready for work.”
Usually, when sales reps first saw the inside of In Stitches, they made appreciative comments. Brianna didn’t say anything until we got to the racks of embroidery threads—almost every color imaginable in silk, rayon, cotton, nylon, and polyester. “You already have thread.” Her voice was so flat that I couldn’t tell if she was disappointed or happy. She could have even been angry. Or scared.
I turned to look at her. The top of her head barely came past my elbow. “I should hope so! But I love thread and trying new kinds and colors.” I set her sample case beside my racks of threads and headed for the dogs’ pen. “I hope you don’t mind dogs.”
“Do they bite?”
Who could look at Sally’s and Tally’s sweet faces and possibly think the little charmers would bite? At the moment they were whimpering and clamoring for attention, and their tails were wagging at about a hundred miles an hour. “No. The black-and-white one is Sally-Forth and the brindle-and- white one is Tally-Ho. They’re brother and sister. I adopted them from a rescue organization when they were about a year old. They’re very friendly.” I opened the gate and told the dogs to sit. They did, but their tails swished across the floor, and their mouths hung open in happy grins.
Brianna hunched her shoulders and pulled her fists to her collar. “They have a lot of teeth.”
I showed her how to let the dogs sniff the backs of her hands, but she wouldn’t try.
Sally closed her mouth, leaving the tip of her tongue out, a particularly endearing pose. She tilted her head, obviously bewildered. Usually, people wanted to stroke her glossy fur. I rubbed both dogs behind their ears so they’d know that I still loved them, even if Brianna was less than impressed.
Yowling and scratching erupted from the stairs leading down to my apartment.
Brianna jerked her head around to stare at the apartment’s closed door. “What’s that?”
“My kittens. They’re almost full-grown.”
“How many cats?” She sounded wary.
No wonder. They were making a terrible ruckus. “Only two.”
“Two dogs and two cats for one apartment?”
I wondered what, if anything, Brianna actually liked. Her threads, I hoped. “The apartment has two bedroom and bathroom suites,” I countered. “You get your own. The pets will stay out of it.”
She didn’t look convinced.
“Tell you what,” I said. “I need to shower, dress for work, and have breakfast. How about if I show you the outside way to the apartment? I’ll shut my pets into the master suite with me, and you can carry your stuff inside without tripping over animals.”
She yawned. “Okay.”
Leaving the dogs where they were for the moment, I led her out through the shop’s front door. She yawned again.
I asked, “Where did you stay last night? You got here very early.” It had to be somewhere nearby. Maybe the Elderberry Bay Lodge wasn’t quite overflowing with zombies yet.
She mumbled, “I drove all night.”
“You poor thing!” That could explain her lack of enthusiasm. “Let’s get you settled. Maybe you’d like a nap before you show me your threads.”
“Okay.” Still no sign of interest.
At her car, I couldn’t help staring in concern. She had brought a surprising amount of luggage. Her trunk and her backseat were crammed to the top.
Moving in, my mother had said . . .
Carrying a garment bag and an overnight case, I led the way down the sidewalk to my gate. Behind me, Brianna rolled a large wheeled suitcase. She grunted when she had to pick it up on the grassy hill outside my bedroom windows. My guest suite, the one that would be hers, looked out on the other side yard, but I didn’t have a gate on that side, and the sliding glass patio door was in the middle of the rear of the building, anyway.
My serene backyard should help my young guest feel refreshed after her all-night drive. Below Blueberry Cottage, my newly seeded lawn and flower gardens sloped down to my back fence and the riverside trail beyond it. Tall cedars on both sides of my yard had bushed out, and almost hid the chain links. Maples above us were turning gold and red. A puffy blanket of early-morning fog on the river gave the entire vista a dramatic and mysterious feel. I took a deep breath of contentment. Autumn even smelled good.
I led her to my patio. The wheels of her suitcase rattled across the flagstones. At the sliding glass door, Mustache and Bow-Tie stood on their hind feet and pawed at the glass. I made certain the garment bag and overnight bag wouldn’t fall over. “I’ll imprison the cats,” I told Brianna, “so we won’t have to worry about them escaping if you want to bring in more.” Between the two of us, we’d hauled enough luggage from her car in one trip for at least a two-week stay.
Brianna didn’t exclaim over my kittens’ cuteness as I scooped up the warm little squirmers. I shut them inside the master suite, returned to the patio, and brought Brianna and her luggage into my great room.
My kitchen and dining area took up the left half of the great room, and a comfy seating area was on the right. Behind us, the patio door was centered in a wall of glass that made the room bright and airy. Again, most people told me the apartment was lovely with its white walls and upholstery and its touches of colorful machine embroidery.
Brianna didn’t say a thing, maybe because of the racket the kittens were making on the other side of my bedroom door.
My suite was ahead and to the right. The laundry room door was straight ahead. The door to the left of the laundry room opened to the hallway leading into the guest suite. Brianna would have her own bedroom, bathroom, and a large walk-in closet, but most of the guest closet was taken up with sewing supplies. I tried not to let my stash grow too much, but although I sewed a lot, I always seemed to purchase ahead of what I could finish that week. Or that month. Or that season . . .
The stairway to In Stitches was to the left of my guest suite, between it and the kitchen area. I thought my apartment was perfect for one person and the occasional guest.
Brianna must have been really tired. She didn’t speak when I ushered her into the guest suite with its white furnishings, including a duvet cover I’d embroidered. Maybe Brianna didn’t care for ruffles, even the restrained, tailored ones I’d added to the bedding and curtains.
As we left her suite, I pointed to the stairway. “When you feel like showing off your thread samples, go up to In Stitches. People come to Threadville every day by bus, car, and on foot. All of the Threadville store owners give workshops. I’ll have one this morning and another after lunch. Besides, other customers come and go all day. I’m sure the women attending my workshops would love to see your samples.”
“Okay.” How could a thread distributor sound so bored about thread? “I’ll go out for another load,” she said in her monotone, “then crash for a while.”
“Want breakfast? I can scramble eggs and make toast and coffee. Or there’s cereal.”
“Maybe when I wake up.”
“I don’t have much food on hand.” I would have, though, if my mother had told me in time that Brianna was coming. “For lunch, I usually grab a peanut butter or grilled cheese sandwich and some carrots and an apple, and there’s plenty of that for you, too. If that’s not enough, go north on Lake Street—that’s down the hill toward the beach—and you’ll find a couple of restaurants. The Threadville tour ladies who don’t bring their lunches usually eat at Pier 42.”
“Okay.” She yawned, turned around, headed into her suite, and closed the door. Maybe she’d be more companionable after her nap.
I collected the dogs from upstairs, showered, and dressed in jeans, an orange T-shirt, and a jean jacket I’d embellished with machine-embroidered pumpkins and fall leaves.
Brianna didn’t come out of her bedroom or join me for breakfast. After a brief outing, the kittens went back into my suite and the dogs and I trotted upstairs to In Stitches.
We’d left one of Brianna’s heavy cases in the shop. I carried it to the storeroom, turned the embroidered Come Back Later sign in my glass front door toWelcome, filled the dogs’ water dishes, and petted the dogs until the Threadville tour buses arrived and my morning students crowded into In Stitches.
I wasn’t actually teaching classes that day. I was helping with a project that Rosemary, who drove the bus from Erie, had suggested. “Everyone loves Edna,” she had said, “so why don’t we make a wedding quilt for her?”
Naturally, everybody associated with Threadville, except Edna, who didn’t know about it, loved the idea. At In Stitches, we had embroidered blocks for the quilt.
The women in my shop helped themselves to cider and cookies and then commandeered embroidery machines.
I glanced out my big front windows. Other Threadville tourists were inside Buttons and Bows, learning how to decorate everything they made with every possible trim. Little did Edna know that some of the decorations she’d sold to my students had been brought to In Stitches to be added to a quilt for her.
To the left of Edna’s shop was Tell a Yarn, where quilt blocks were being knit and crocheted for Edna.
Many of the fabrics and some of the embellishing techniques and yet more quilt blocks came from Haylee’s fabric shop, The Stash, at the far left end of the row of Threadville shops.
To the right of Edna’s shop was Batty About Quilts, where the blocks would be sewn together, the quilt top would be stitched to the batting and the backing, and the entire quilt would be bound.
Threadville was a wonderful place. Everyone gave everyone else moral support. Besides, if I ran out of anything, one of my friends in the other stores was sure to have what I needed, or know who did.
Edna loved bright colors, sparkle, and glitter, and all the women in my shop were going wild.
Using water-soluble stabilizer and my embroidery software and machines, I had made 3-D lace bride and groom dolls, like wedding cake toppers, to attach to my block. I had even used silver metallic embroidery thread for the bride’s hair.
For the 3-D effect, I had made an almost-circular skirt for the bride, which would fasten in back with loops and tabs that I’d built into the embroidery design. The groom, with his cylindrical pant legs and tuxedo, was a little more complex.
I’d soaked the figures in warm water to dissolve the stabilizer, then, without rinsing all the dissolved stabilizer out because I wanted it to remain as starch in the lace, I’d assembled both the bride and groom, complete with a tab on his hand and a loop on hers so they could hold hands, and had hung them to dry on a doll-sized clothesline I’d set up on the low wall surrounding my front porch. By now they should be dry enough to take apart, iron, and put back together. I crossed my fingers that by letting them dry while assembled, I’d kept the loops and tabs in the right places, and her skirt wouldn’t be hiked up, and his legs would be close to the same length.
Eager to see how the cute couple had fared, I went out to the front porch to get them.
The little clothesline was where I’d left it, tucked behind one of my rocking chairs.
The bride and groom dolls were gone.
The tiny clothespins were still clipped to the line. Could the miniature bride and groom have blown away? I hadn’t noticed anything resembling a strong wind since the afternoon before, when I’d hung my freestanding lace creations. I ran down the porch steps and around to the side.
The bride and groom weren’t among the hostas and mums in the flower bed below the porch, either.
Trudging up the steps, I shivered, even though it was a warm morning for October.
Last night, Isis had put a couple of objects into the river and called out Edna’s and Gord’s names. Surely, she wouldn’t have stolen the lace dolls as part of a curse against Threadville’s favorite bride and groom.
However, there was a bright side to missing crafts—the need to make replacements. I could show a different group how to make 3-D lace with machine embroidery.
I went inside and invited all who were interested—which turned out to be everyone in the shop—to gather around my computer monitor to see how I’d drawn the original design. “Basically,” I told them, “you have to make certain that each element of the design is attached to other elements with enough stitches that the design won’t change shape after you rinse out the stabilizer.” If I hadn’t done that, my bride and groom could have stretched to long, thin, unrecognizable shapes.
Two women who had already finished their quilt blocks volunteered to make the new bride and groom dolls. They transferred my designs to sewing machines with embroidery attachments, stitched new bride and groom dolls, and soaked them in a basin of hot water to partially dissolve the stabilizer. We hung the cute little bridal pair up to dry—in the restroom, this time.
We were so busy that I forgot I had a houseguest until Rosemary took over for me at lunchtime.
Sally-Forth, Tally-Ho, and I clattered downstairs to our apartment. Discordant music reverberated from the guest suite through the closed door. Not to be outdone, Mustache and Bow-Tie created their own clashing harmonies from my bedroom. An opened jar of grape jelly with a knife sticking out of it, a plate of toast crumbs, and a glass containing about an inch of orange juice were on the counter near the sink.
I let the kittens into the great room. They rubbed against me and the dogs while Sally-Forth sniffed them all over. She looked up at me, then pointedly at the glass door, her signal that it was time for all four animals to go out. As usual, Sally curtailed any exploring tendencies the kittens showed, and wasn’t ready to play with Tally until after I took the kittens inside again. I tidied away the remains of Brianna’s breakfast, made my lunch, shut the kittens into my suite, and ate at the picnic table on the patio while the dogs wrestled and explored.
After my lunch, music still blasted from Brianna’s room, but she didn’t emerge. I took my hair dryer and the dogs upstairs to the shop.
While I blow-dried and pressed the lace dolls my students had made in the morning, the after-lunch group completed their quilt blocks. It was late in the afternoon when, with lots of admiring noises, we arranged the blocks on the cutting table. The 3-D lace bride and groom, standing and holding hands in a machine-embroidered garden, made everyone smile.
Resembling a lost soul, Brianna straggled into the shop through the front door. I introduced her to everyone. Rosemary proudly showed her the quilt blocks we’d made for Edna’s quilt.
“Won’t it be small?” Brianna asked.
Rosemary gave her a once-over, like a mother checking to see if a child had washed her face and combed her hair before school. “They’re making blocks in the fabric store, the yarn store, and the quilt store, too. It may end up humongous.”
“Nice,” Brianna said in her flat voice.
I brought her case out of the storeroom. She opened it and showed us the thread she could sell us. She still didn’t become enthused.
The rest of us did. She had exciting new threads to show us, in many different colors, weights, and sheens.
I picked up a box marked Glow-in-the-Dark Thread. The thread was white. “What color is this when it glows in the dark?” I asked her.
“Kind of a yellowish-greenish white, like fireflies. They’re designing different colors every day.” She showed us a card with pictures of brighter green, blue, yellow, orange, and pink spools of thread. “These are the ones I can order now, but there will be more.”
I didn’t need the oohs and aahs of my students to tell me to order some of each color available now, and others later.
Luckily, Brianna had lots of the whitish glow-in-the-dark thread. Customers wanted to buy them from her, but she pointed at me. “It’s her store. She can buy them and sell them to you.”
I bought lots of thread, including three dozen spools of glow-in-the-dark thread, many of which I sold to Threadville tourists who wanted to help make trick-or-treaters safer.
Brianna stayed in the shop, fiddling with her threads and answering questions in a very offhand fashion while Rosemary and some of her friends carefully carried the quilt blocks off to Batty About Quilts.
They returned with a pair of zombies.
In a stiff-legged walk with their arms angled ahead of them, the zombies stumbled toward the cash desk.
Some of the women gasped and a few backed away, but most of us smiled. No one ran outside screaming, or even not screaming. In their pen, Sally and Tally stood up, stretched, sniffed, and wagged their tails.
Both zombies were tall, with whiter-than-white skin—quite a makeup feat for the one wearing nothing besides wildly flowered surfer shorts, flip-flops, and a beach towel. He was about my age, and the clothing, or lack of it, showed off a physique that any man, undead or alive, might want to achieve. His white-blond hair lay flat against his head. I wanted to touch it to see if it was wet or merely heavily gelled.
The other zombie’s ultra-white face was marred by a red gash running from one corner of his mouth to his chin. Red dribbled down the jacket of his disheveled black 1930s suit and smeared the tops of his black leather dress shoes. All of the “blood” looked fresh and wet. The man could have been in his early forties, but it was hard to be sure. Was he the zombie I’d seen in the park the night before, the one who had allegedly confronted Isis? Maybe lots of the zombies in the retreat resembled this one. I wasn’t about to interrogate him in my crowded shop, however. I’d watch for a chance to talk to him alone.
Actually, I wasn’t very fond of that idea, either.
I asked, “How can I help you two?”
Rosemary nudged me and murmured, “Maybe you shouldn’t ask.”
Disheveled suit displayed his teeth.
Surfer shorts tramped closer. A rope with a sliced-off end trailed from a loop tied around one ankle. “Any fresh meat?”
I managed not to laugh. “Sorry, no, but would you like supplies for machine embroidery? A top-of-the-line embroidery machine, perhaps?” I could always hope.
Surfer shorts said, “We hear you have glow-in-the-dark thread. We live underground with only glowworms for light. Sell us some of your glow-in-the-dark thread and we won’t insist on raw meat.”
The guy could probably see in the dark by the twinkles in his eyes. Zombies wandering around Threadville could be fun.
He pulled a wallet from a pocket sewn to the underside of his beach towel.
Disheveled suit made a derogatory sound in his throat. “You should check the expiry date on his credit card. Surfer boy here drowned off the coast of California in 1975.”
The surfer was a man, not a boy. The first name on his credit card was Lenny. The expiry date was in the future. Grinning at him, I ran the card through my reader.
Disheveled suit handed me a ball of crumpled bills. Straightening them, I hid a shudder. Surely, those weren’t blood stains on the bills . . .
“Floyd’s the name, liquor’s the game,” he told me.
I stared pointedly at the red-rimmed “bullet” holes in the front of his jacket. “I can introduce you guys to a good tailor.”
Lenny cracked a smile. Floyd stared at me coldly. Lenny handed me a stack of flyers. The two zombies stowed their wallets and spools of thread in their pockets, turned, and walked, if I could call it that, outside.
The door closed behind them. My beach glass chimes were still jingling when everyone in the store except Brianna burst out laughing. Brianna bent over her display case, shut it, snapped the latch, and carried it out the front door.
Rosemary picked up one of the flyers Lenny had left us. “This could be fun.” She read in a doleful voice, “Haunted Graveyard. Come to the Elderberry Bay Lodge Graveyard on Saturday night for an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your short life.”
We all agreed that a convention of zombies might put on quite a show at a haunted graveyard.
I pointed out, “There’s no such thing as the Elderberry Bay Lodge Graveyard.”
Rosemary asked, “Wasn’t someone buried on the grounds, though?”
I hid a shudder. “A former owner of the lodge. But he wasn’t supposed to be there, and his remains have been placed elsewhere.” Not keen on reliving the events surrounding the discovery of the former innkeeper’s remains, I changed the subject back to 3-D lace machine embroidery.
After Rosemary and her group left for the evening, I closed the shop, followed Sally and Tally downstairs, took all four animals outside, and made one of my favorite bare-cupboard suppers, macaroni and cheese.
Music boomed from my guest room. The aroma of melting cheddar filled the apartment. Rubbing her eyes as if she’d had another nap, Brianna emerged from my guest suite. I offered her macaroni and cheese.
“Okay.” We sat on stools at my kitchen island. Staring out the back windows, she asked, “Why is there a house in your backyard?”
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