After a tree falls on Tom Riordan’s house, landing him in the hospital, the police discover a mountain of junk piled high in his home. Locals in Excelsior, Minnesota—including Betsy Devonshire and her Crewel World Monday Bunch—offer to help with the cleanup while Tom recuperates.
But when Tom is found murdered in his hospital bed, the sole heir to his property—his cousin Valentina—becomes the number one suspect. Betsy believes there’s more to the case than meets the eye, but finding clues to the killer’s identity in the clutter Tom left behind will be like looking for a needle in a haystack…
About the Author
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TOM Riordan often had trouble falling asleep, but once there, he slept like the dead. So he snored on, unaware, as a violent autumn thunderstorm roared down Highway 7, dumping three inches of rain onto the streets and lawns of the little town of Excelsior in less than an hour. Lightning lashed the clouds to greater effort, thunder cracked and banged and rolled. Trees, their leaves heavy with rain, swayed, bent, and danced under the onslaught of powerful winds. Now and again a branch would wrench loose to tumble through the air. When a bigger limb struck an electrical wire, snapping it, the dazzle of sparks was an echo of the lightning higher in the sky. Power all over town started going out.
Riordan, oblivious, slept on.
Then an ancient elm, its inside long rotted and its roots’ grip weakened by rain, groaned under the wind’s blast, twisted, and fell. It had given welcome shade to Riordan’s house for many summers, but now it slammed into the roof, breaking through the shingles to thrust sopping leaves and wet and broken limbs into Riordan’s bedroom, waking him at last.
* * *
MARIANNE Schultz, seventy-eight, was a retired schoolteacher. A spinster, she was tall and thin, active and self-reliant. Now, at four in the morning, she stood in the wet, dark front yard of her house, using a powerful flashlight to look at the damage the storm had done. Power was out all up and down the block, she noted, and probably all over town. Several trees along the avenue were down, one blocking the street. Worst of all, the noble elm that had stood in her backyard for as long as she could remember—longer, probably, to judge by its great height—had fallen onto her neighbor’s roof. It had broken through; shingles and boards littered the ground along with leaves and branches.
Marianne walked to the front of the damaged house, a brick structure two stories high, painted an unlikely rose pink that glowed under her flashlight’s beam. All was silent within, blinds and curtains drawn—but that was generally the case. Mr. Riordan was a very private person, though not a recluse. He was seen everywhere but never invited anyone into his home. She wondered if he was in there.
She went up on the small porch, which felt a trifle insecure under her feet. A pillar missing at one corner had been replaced with a long board. She rapped hard on the front door.
“Mr. Riordan? Are you inside?”
“Mr. Riordan? Are you all right?”
She leaned toward the covered glass insert in the door and cocked her head to listen. Was that a cry for help?
She rapped again. “Mr. Riordan?”
More loudly came the cry. “Help! Help me! There’s a tree, a broken tree on me!”
She backed off the porch and looked up at a shattered window on the second floor. The voice clearly was coming from there.
“Are you hurt, Thomas?” she called.
“Yes, yes! I think my leg is broken! Ow, ow, I can’t move! And my . . . arm . . . head . . . my head . . . Owwwww . . .” His voice faded, and soon all she could hear were incomprehensible sounds.
“Stay where you are! I’m going to get help!”
Marianne hurried back to her own house to call for assistance, but her landline was dead, and the impossibly complicated cell phone her niece had bought her had long since lost its charge.
So she pulled on a jacket—the post-storm air had turned chilly after a week of unseasonably warm weather—and started out on a swift walk toward the police station, six blocks away.
It was a trip complicated by downed trees and flooded streets. She met the occasional resident standing stunned in the ruins of his property or commiserating with a neighbor. She asked if anyone could use his cell phone to call emergency services, but nobody’s cell was working—the cell towers had lost power, too.
In the distance she could hear sirens, and once she caught a whiff of bad-smelling smoke, which meant a house was on fire, though she could not tell where it was coming from. She soaked her feet when she stepped into a gutter full of running water as she crossed the last street to the police station.
She walked into the low brick and stone building to find no one behind the thick glass window that separated the small lobby from the rest of the station. Next to the window there was a black wall phone without a dial, and beside it was a sign: TO TALK WITH A POLICE OFFICER, LIFT THE RECEIVER. Marianne lifted the receiver and heard a woman’s voice say, “May I help you?”
“Yes, please, this is an emergency. A tree has fallen on my neighbor’s house, and he’s trapped inside, upstairs, and he’s hurt.”
“Where are you?” asked the woman.
“Inside the police station,” replied Marianne.
“No, dear, where are you calling from? What city?”
“Oh. Excelsior. Where are you?”
“I’m a 911 operator in Minneapolis. What’s the address of the house where the injured party is located?”
“Let’s see, I’m 712, so he must be 710 Mitchell Avenue. A brick two-story, painted pink, with a big tree mashed into the roof. You can’t miss it. And please hurry, it sounds like his injuries may be serious.”
“You didn’t go in to check on him?”
“I couldn’t, his door is locked. I heard him calling for help through a broken upstairs window.”
“All right, I’m sending help right now. Go back to the house to direct emergency personnel.”
“Yes, all right,” Marianne said. “Thank you.”
* * *
THE whole area around the south end of Lake Minnetonka was a nightmare. The storm had been a big one, sweeping across northern Iowa and halfway up the state of Minnesota, and had formed small pockets of fury. One of those pockets roared up from Saint Bonifacius through Excelsior and Shorewood and on across Lake Minnetonka to Wayzata. Power was out, trees were down, flash floods abounded, houses were damaged—two of them set on fire by lightning strikes.
Every member of the small Excelsior Police Department was out on the street—even the chief. The volunteer fire department was working hard; one of the houses on fire was in Excelsior.
Marianne, of course, didn’t know any of this and had no way of finding out. She went back to her neighborhood and found others out on the street, some talking, some starting to clean up, some just standing and staring at the wreckage. Someone had set four camping lanterns in the middle of the street. They hissed faintly and gave off a brilliant light but also cast dark shadows into corners and behind bushes.
“Did any of you go in to help Mr. Riordan?” she called as she approached his house.
The three who heard her question turned to look at her. They all shook their heads.
“He never answers his door, you know that,” said a balding stout man in robe and slippers.
“Yeah, so how do you know he’s in there?” asked the equally stout woman standing beside him—Mr. and Mrs. Bond, retired grocers. They lived across the street.
“Because I heard him calling for help out that window,” said Marianne, gesturing at the upper story of the pink brick house. “He said he had a broken leg and maybe a head injury and he’s trapped up in his bedroom.”
The couple stared up at the open window.
“I ain’t heard nuthin’,” declared the third person, a truculent man in his middle thirties, with the broad shoulders, big hands, and solid paunch of a truck driver. He was Paul Winston, the Bonds’ neighbor, whose wife had walked out with their three children two months ago. Paul had not been completely sober since.
“We haven’t, either,” said Mr. Bond, “and we’ve been out here longer than Paul.”
Mrs. Bond nodded. She would have said something, but a siren interrupted her. The quartet, and other people farther up the street, turned to face the flashing lights of a squad car headed their way.
Marianne lifted her arm to signal the driver and pointed to the Riordan house. The squad car’s siren cut off, but the flashing lights stayed on as it pulled to the curb. A very large policeman in a dark blue uniform climbed out. He was about six four, very fit, with blond hair, gray eyes, and a lot of chin.
“What seems to be the problem here?” he called.
“Oh, Sergeant Larson, I’m glad you’ve come,” said Marianne, hurrying to him. “It’s Tom Riordan. My elm tree fell over in the storm and landed right on the roof of his house, breaking through. I came for a look and heard Tom calling for help. He’s upstairs, probably in his bedroom.”
“Did you go in to see if he’s hurt?” asked Larson, looking thoughtfully up at the smashed roof and broken window.
“The door’s locked,” said Marianne.
“He always keeps his doors locked,” contributed Mrs. Bond.
“I don’t think nobody’s ever been in his house,” added Winston.
“Well, let’s have a look,” said Larson. He walked up onto the little porch and tried the door. It didn’t open. He pushed on it, then stepped back and pounded on it with a mighty fist.
“Yo! Riordan! This is the police! You in there?” he shouted.
There was a pause, then, faintly, they all heard a voice wafting from the upstairs window. “Help me . . . Please, help me.”
“Oh, dear God,” said Mrs. Bond. “He is in there. Do something, Lars!”
Larson went back up on the porch, grabbed the doorknob, and slammed a big shoulder into the door. It trembled, but held. He hit it again. The third time, there was a loud crack and the door opened a few inches. Larson shoved it, hard, with both hands, and it opened the rest of the way.
He turned to the people standing on the sidewalk and said, “Wait here,” in a voice that brooked no disobedience. Everyone took a step back to indicate compliance, and the big man went into the house.
LARS paused inside the door. The place smelled strongly of mold and seemed impossibly filled with stuff. He swept the room with his heavy steel flashlight and saw a narrow path marked on either side by metal barrels and rusty bicycles. A couch on the left was almost entirely obscured by cardboard boxes overflowing with all manner of objects: action figures, alarm clocks, teakettles, magazines, posters, and a stop sign whose letters were marked with faceted stones. On the wall over a wood-burning stove was a gigantic red Pegasus, the emblem of a certain brand of gasoline. There was much, much more, but Lars, remembering that there was an injured man upstairs, followed a narrow path through the heaps of stuff to a staircase toward the back of the living room.
The steps had been turned into bookshelves, with a narrow space in the middle for someone to climb them. The stairwell was, of course, completely dark, and smelled of dust and old paper.
At the top, the hallway was again piled nearly to the ceiling with just a slim passage down the middle. There was a crooked heap of elaborate birdcages, some without floors or doors. There were two cardboard cases of canned pineapple, and a stack of dinner china that looked like it might have been a complete service for twelve. Its gold trim glinted in the light from his flashlight, but only two of the cups had handles. There was a wheelbarrow full of boxes of tissue that had apparently been rescued from someplace wet. Two chest-high stacks of comic books leaned against each other in the corridor. Four antique steamer chests stood balanced on one another—precariously, because they all had humped lids.
“Riordan?” called Lars. “Are you up here?”
“Help . . . help . . . help,” came a faint call from behind a door at the front of the house.
Lars went to the door and opened it carefully. This room, like the rest of the house, was packed floor to ceiling, in this case with mostly broken glass jars, several pickle crocks, myriad winter coats and boots, and magazines, all in wild disorder.
And then there was the wet, broken tree. Pieces of it—every size, from twigs to branches as thick as his arm—made a kind of sideways forest in the room. Back in a corner stood a narrow bed, and on the bed was a man in his sixties, long and thin, his eyes huge in the blaze of Lars’s Kel-Lite. Blood covered half his face, and his blanket was soaked with it. He lay on his side, his lower legs trapped under a massive branch.
“Good gravy, man, are you all right?” A foolish question.
“Uh, no, I . . . I’m kinda . . . stuck. But, can . . . can you help me . . . up?” asked the man feebly.
“I dunno, Tom, you seem pretty well caught over there. Can you tell me how you’ve been injured?”
“My . . . my leg’s broke.” The man began a feeble struggle to rise.
“Here, lay still,” ordered Lars. “You’re only gonna hurt yourself more if you try to move. Listen, listen to me, you’ll be all right if you hold still. I’ll call for some backup, and we’ll get you out of here real soon. Just hold on till I get more people up here.”
“No, no, no . . . I think . . . I think I can get out of bed . . . if you’ll lift up that end,” Tom said, sounding alarmed. He began to struggle harder.
“Hold on, that’s not possible. We got half a big tree in here with us. Have a little patience, man.”
“No, please. I don’t want . . . no people in my house.” The man’s voice was weak, but his desperate plea was clear.
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have any choice. We’ve got to call for help.” Lars reached for the mike attached to his shoulder. “Forty, this is one-three, we have an injured adult male trapped in a bed on the second floor. Lots of debris from a fallen tree. The house is very cluttered.”
“Ten-four,” replied a voice. “Sending a rescue squad.”
“This is . . . wrong. Bad. I . . . can’t . . .” The man struggled to a sitting position to push futilely against the massive limb imprisoning his legs, groaning with pain.
“Hold it, Tom! Listen to me!” Lars went to press gently on the man’s shoulder. Tom was wearing a thin white T-shirt that had seen better days, and his bones were prominent under Lars’s hand. “Lay down, you hear me? That’s an order, lay back down.”
Reluctantly, the man fell back. “You can . . . you can lift that tree, Sergeant Larson. You . . . you’re big . . . strong,” he said. “Please, lift it . . . so I can . . . get out. Then . . . you . . . help me down . . . stairs.”
“Nothing doing. You’re hurt too bad to be dragged off that bed and manhandled down a flight of stairs. If I try, it’ll only hurt you more. So just take it easy.”
Tom lifted a thin arm in a pleading gesture. “Please.”
“I’ve called for an ambulance, they’ll be here in a couple minutes.”
“I don’t . . . need no . . . amb’lance.”
Lars, bemused and amused in equal parts, said, “Sure you do.”
He squatted by the bed and took the man’s big, calloused hand in his own. It was cold and clammy. Lars set his flashlight upright on the floor, and chafed the hand gently. “You’re gonna be all right, but we need some help in here to get you freed up. Just hang on, okay?”
Through a thick lock of light-colored hair, Riordan searched the big cop’s face. “All right,” he muttered after a few moments, defeated. The room fell silent.
But it wasn’t long before Lars said, “There now, hear that?” as a siren was heard coming up the street. “Help is here.”
As the rescuers started arriving—firemen in big black coats and hats, emergency medics in white raincoats—their flashlights and lanterns made dizzying patterns in the clutter and destruction.
Lars, having done his part, left the house to go on other calls.
* * *
EMERGENCY medical workers and a public works crew filled the space in the little bedroom. An IV line was slipped painlessly into Riordan’s arm, and a thick bandage was applied to his head wound. No one said a word about the shocking amount of clutter in the house or the weirdness of finding a whole lot of broken tree in the bedroom.
Riordan was grateful for that, though his eyes flashed from face to face as he looked at the people assembled there to rescue him. What must they think? He was as ashamed as he was hurting.
But the men and women around him were kind and kept reassuring him that all would be well. It took a long while, but eventually a crane was summoned to drop cables into his bedroom from outside, and lift and support the broken tree while chain saws filled the room with a hideous racket as they cut through the tangle of branches. Tom was given a pair of ear protectors, which helped to muffle the noise.
It took over an hour to free him from his wooden prison after the crane arrived, and he was unconscious by the time they brought him down the steep and narrowed staircase and into an ambulance.
IT was the quiet that woke Betsy. Not merely the quiet after the violent storm—which had brought both cats into the bed with her and Connor—but another kind of quiet.
As in dead silence.
The modern American home is full of a constant murmur of electric devices going about their business of chilling food, cooling or heating or refreshing the air, heating the water, washing the dishes or clothes, marking the passage of time.
When all that stops, the silence can be disturbing. So Betsy, who had awakened briefly when the storm was at its crashing, booming, flashing height, woke again when true quiet fell.
She lay still for a little while, wondering what had woken her up. Turning her head to look at the bedside clock radio, she saw nothing. The red numbers on its face had vanished.
Ah, she thought. Power’s out. That sometimes happened during a violent storm. The outage usually didn’t last long; in fact, power might be back before daylight.
Betsy rolled onto her back and lifted her left arm to press the little button on her Indiglo watch. Its cool green face lit up: 4:30 a.m. She sighed and dropped her wrist, letting it drift over to Connor’s side of the bed—where it found empty space. Where could he have gone? she wondered.
Her live-in boyfriend, Connor Sullivan, was a retired sea captain. Betsy, an ex-WAVE, liked to jest that she had a weakness for anything nautical. For years he had been in charge of enormous cargo and even more enormous oil-carrying vessels as they crossed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, responsible for both the cargo and the crew. A habit of responsibility, powerfully instilled, lingered in him. Doubtless his sleep had also been disturbed and now he had gotten up to see how extensive the outage was and if there was other damage to the building or in the immediate area.
Betsy waited for a few minutes, drifting on the edge of sleep. But he didn’t return. Had he dressed and gone out?
She tried to decide not to worry about it, but the effort only made her concern grow until she was wide awake and now fully concerned. Annoyed at herself, she threw the blankets back and sat up. The red numbers on her bedside clock were flashing 7:12, 7:12, 7:12. That wasn’t the right time, of course; the flashing indicated a break in the power source and the clock had made a random guess at the time.
Wait a minute.
She sat still and listened. Now she heard the tiny whir of the refrigerator in the kitchen, and the faint gush of the furnace pouring heated air into the bedroom.
The power was back on. Must’ve been a glitch, not a line down. Whew! She checked her watch again and adjusted the bedside clock to the correct hour, then lay back down.
But still Connor didn’t return.
What was he up to? Maybe he really had gone outdoors. There had been a terrible storm earlier—she remembered waking briefly during the night as it raged outside. Maybe he had gone out to see if there had been any damage.
With an exasperated sigh—as much at herself for being foolish as at him for his too-strong sense of responsibility—she climbed out of bed. Sophie, the fat senior cat, voiced her displeasure with a high-pitched mew, but Thai, the young Siamese, said, “Yow!” in his deep voice and jumped down to come eagerly with her to the window. He stood up on his hind legs, forepaws on the sill, looking out just as if there were something to see.
But there wasn’t. There wasn’t a single light on out there. The big condo across the street was barely discernible as a darker blackness against the dark sky. Even the streetlights were out.
So why did their apartment have power?
She went into the living room and snapped on the lights, then went to the window in the dining nook. The little parking lot behind the building was very dimly lit by a single lamp over the back door, but the steep slope it faced was a featureless blackness. At the top of the slope were, she knew, several houses and a gas station. But had she not known that, she would never have guessed, because nothing of them could be seen. The lights were out all over the neighborhood—maybe all over town.
High overhead a half moon swam in fast-moving clouds, disappearing behind them even as Betsy watched, making the darkness complete.
How weird that her building had power but nobody else did.
And where was Connor?
Sophie came to stand beside Betsy’s left ankle. So long as she was up, Sophie seemed to be asking, how about some breakfast?
Betsy looked down at the big, fluffy animal with an exasperated sigh. Sophie, who was morbidly obese, had been found in a starving condition by Betsy’s sister years ago and nursed back to health. But the cat retained a conviction that privation might suddenly reappear, and was in permanent preparation for that occasion. She spent her days down in the needlework shop curled picturesquely on a cushioned chair, cadging treats from the customers. Despite Betsy’s efforts—which included a needlepoint sign hung on the back of the chair—NO THANKS, I’M ON A DIET—customers loved to slip the cat the occasional corner of a sandwich or half a potato chip or the tail end of a cookie. Betsy’s veterinarian said that, despite the animal’s weight, which varied from nineteen to twenty-three pounds, Sophie was healthy for a cat her age, which was probably close to fourteen years. So each morning and evening, Betsy fed her a little scoop of the healthiest dry cat food she could buy and let the chips fall where they may, including into Sophie’s fat paws.
“No,” she told the cat now, “because we’re not really up, and you get fed when we get up.”
“Meeeeeow!” argued Sophie. Her thin, high, plaintive cry sounded ridiculous coming from a cat her size.
“Ow-rah!” agreed Thai. His cry sounded eerily like that of a human baby.
“No,” said Betsy firmly. She did not care to establish a precedent that any time a human in the house got out of bed, the cats got fed.
She heard the door to the apartment open and a baritone voice call, “Machree? What are you doing up?”
“Connor! Where did you go?” He must have noticed that the lights were on. She went to greet him with a hug. He was in a thick, sky blue terry robe and black leather slippers. So he hadn’t gone outdoors.
“Down in the basement, starting the generator.”
“You mean it actually works? It did all this?” She gestured around the warm, well-lit apartment with its humming mechanicals.
“Of course,” he replied, his gentle tone belying the hurt in his eyes.
“Oh, Connor, I’m sorry! It was wrong of me to doubt you!”
The generator had become a point of contention when Betsy and Connor had attended a farm auction—Connor loved auctions—and he had raised his hand once too often while bidding on a big, old, dusty generator and found himself in possession of it. He had had to hire someone to truck the thing to the building Betsy owned and help him wrestle it into the basement. Then, after cleaning it of dust, dirt, and worse, he’d had to construct exhaust piping for it. It had taken him a week of tinkering to get its diesel engine to run in more than fits and starts, and when he did, it was noisy, and the piping leaked and filled the basement with noxious fumes. It had taken all Betsy’s reserve not to declare the thing a failure and order it removed.
Why didn’t she? Because he was so proud of having acquired, at a bargain price, a machine that he hoped never to need but would be priceless if he did.
Connor had the soul of a survivalist. In the basement he also kept a big, padlocked, waterproof chest filled with water treatment pills, a serious first aid kit, and enough canned goods and dried food to keep them both fed and watered for at least a month. He kept his car in top condition and rarely let the gas gauge go lower than half empty. He was a more-than-adequate plumber and electrician, and good—no, great—at first aid.
Betsy had found his pessimistic attitude toward civilization’s durability aggravating at times. But now that awful old generator was chugging away at so great a distance its racket could not be heard, its leak long corrected, and she was warm and able to operate her well-lit kitchen, and even open her shop for business later—much later—that morning. And the same was true of her entire building, with two other tenants in the upstairs apartments and two other businesses on the ground floor.
“I think we’re the only point of light at this end of the lake,” Connor said now.
“You mean you did go outside?”
“Indeed not,” he said, raising both hands, amused. “I got out my crank-powered radio and listened to the news. This whole end of the lake is without power, trees are blocking roads, and there is flash flooding all over the county. They’re asking people to stay at home. My cell phone can’t get a signal, since there’s no power to feed to the towers out here.”
“Wow,” she said. Connor was not saying I told you so even with the expression on his face.
She laughed at his courteous reserve and embraced him again. “I love you,” she said. “You are amazing. And thank you for buying that horrible, noisy, smelly, wonderful machine.”
“You are welcome. Now can we go back to bed?” he said. “I could use another couple hours of sleep.”
AT midafternoon, the power was still out in Excelsior. Clouds had thickened again, and though the violent storms had passed, there was occasional heavy rain and a chill wind. Between that and some of the trees having been largely stripped of their leaves, suddenly it looked, and felt, like November, though it was not yet October; not a pleasant situation when houses and stores were without heat and light.
People had begun cleaning up their yards, whether just picking up debris by hand, raking up leaves and twigs, or, sick at heart, bringing out or borrowing chain saws to cut apart a favorite tree downed by the storm. Some had to borrow or rent pumps to empty flooded basements.
Word began to spread around town that the building that housed Crewel World, ISBNs Bookstore, and Sol’s Deli over on West Lake Street had lights and power. And in that building you could get warm things to eat and drink. So now and again people would put down their tools and come to the needlework shop for a cup of hot coffee or tea, or drop into Sol’s Deli for a hot bowl of soup and a sandwich. Even the two proprietors of ISBNs, who normally did not allow food or drink in their bookstore, bought some croissants from Sol’s and borrowed a coffeemaker from Betsy’s kitchen and offered rolls and coffee to browsers seeking a literary escape from their problems.
The talk in Betsy’s shop was not only about whose favorite tree was down, whose roof was damaged, and whose basement was flooded, but about the strange accident that had befallen Tom Riordan. The top third of a big tree had fallen into his bedroom—while he was in bed! He had a broken leg, went one rumor. He had a concussion, went another. And a severely broken arm, plus broken ribs, and a bruised liver went a third. It was awful, they all agreed in shocked voices, and sad, and everyone hoped he would make a full recovery.
An ad hoc Monday Bunch meeting took place at around three o’clock that afternoon.
Everyone around the table—Alice, Bershada, Cherie, Phil, Doris, and Emily—expressed sympathy for Tom Riordan and exchanged rumors.
Listening curiously, but contributing nothing, sat a new member, Grace Pickering. She and her sister, Georgine, had come to Excelsior in the middle of August and rented a house on a month-to-month basis. They were from Jacksonville, Florida, experienced travelers, enjoying the novelty of living in the far north. Grace liked to crochet and was pleased to find the Monday Bunch. At thirty-five, she was the older of the two sisters, attractive, with sparkling green eyes and lots of dark auburn hair that fell in an artless tumble over her shoulders. She declared that she and her sister wanted to experience a white Christmas before they moved on, probably to Santa Fe. Betsy’s store manager, Godwin, was sure there was something tragic in their background, because the two were so closemouthed about their past. All he knew about them was that they claimed to make a living buying antiques and collectibles and selling them on eBay. But Betsy told him not to be silly. No one who could crochet joyous fine lace like Gracie Pickering could have a secret sorrow.
“It’s just too bad Jill isn’t here with us today,” said Bershada. “She could tell us the real facts about poor Tom.”
“Why’s that?” asked Grace. She was wearing thick magnifying glasses and using a fine pale blue thread to crochet a microscopic doily fit for a doll’s house.
“Her husband was first on the scene in Tom Riordan’s house,” said Emily. Seeing Grace’s puzzlement, she continued, “Oh, don’t you know Lars is a police officer?”
“She used to be a cop herself,” said Phil. He was nearly finished with a needlepoint canvas of a fat old witch riding a bicycle.
“No, really?” Grace looked up from her work, eyebrows raised in surprise. She’d met tall, fair-haired, quiet Jill.
Alice said in her usual blunt way, “She could’ve told us if it’s true that his house is filled with garbage.”
“Well, it’s not,” said Bershada. “There’s no garbage in it, just . . . things. It’s mostly old things, a lot of them not exactly useful, but it’s not garbage.”
Emily said, “I hear there are books stacked all up and down the stairs. I don’t know how those ambulance people got Tom down from the second floor.”
Bershada said, “Books, you say? I’d love a chance to sort those books.” Bershada was a retired librarian.
“There’s boxes of toys, too,” contributed Phil in his loud, deaf-man’s voice. “Oil cans. Birdcages. Cases of canned cat food. Sets of china. Audiotapes. Auto parts.”
Grace asked, “So you’ve been in there?”
“No, but someone has, and he opened the curtains and lifted the blinds, so you can look through the dirty windows.”
“I told him not to go over there,” said Doris, his wife. “But he wanted to see.”
“Why not?” said Phil. “And I wasn’t the only one. I practically had to stand in line.”
“I think it’s rude to stare into people’s windows,” said Alice without looking at Phil, who snorted.
“There’s a great big flying red horse on the living room wall,” he added, unrepentant.
“‘Flying red horse’?” echoed Betsy, who was working with Godwin on their Christmas window design.
Godwin smiled at her. “You know, the gasoline sign. Mobil used it years and years ago, and then stopped, but now they’re using that old Pegasus again.”
Grace said, “The old ones are very collectible. Some of them fetch hundreds even thousands of dollars.”
“Really?” said Godwin. “And there’s one on Tom Take’s wall! I wonder where he got it?”
“Collectible!” barked Phil, snapping his fingers. “That’s what Tom is, he’s a collector. There’s a TV show on cable about these two guys who drive all over the country looking for barns and sheds full of stuff these collectors have, er, collected. They’d purely love to visit old Tom.”
“Are there dead birds in the cages?” asked Emily in a small, worried voice.
“No, of course not,” said Phil. He grinned broadly. “But I saw a live mouse in the kitchen. He was bold as brass, sitting up on the edge of the sink, sniffing the air.”
“Oh, ugh!” said Emily. “I hate mice!”
“Maybe he’s Tom’s pet,” suggested Cherie.
“Naw, pet mice are white, this one’s gray.”
Alice asked, “Did you see anything of yours?”
“What kind of a question is that?” asked Grace.
“Didn’t you hear me? His nickname is Tom Take,” Godwin said to her. “Because he finds things, sometimes before people have lost them.”
“Tom Take,” said Cherie, frowning. “I’ve heard him called that, but isn’t that also the name of a character in a children’s book?”
“No, a character in a comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, from back in the thirties.” For reasons that no one, not even he, understood, Godwin was a fan of old radio shows, old cartoons, old movies, and old comic strips.
Phil said, “I talked to some other people looking in the window. Morty Hanover said he recognized a rake he lost a couple months ago. Said his boy painted the handle with house paint and the rake in Tom’s house had a handle painted the very same color.”
Emily said, “Why don’t they just unlock the doors and let people in to look for their stuff?”
Doris laughed. “And how would you keep people from just taking anything they want?”
Emily looked a little shocked at this jaundiced view of Excelsior’s citizens, but then she nodded. “Well, I guess maybe you’re right. But Morty should be able to get his rake back, at least.”
Phil said, “Maybe he can buy it back at the garage sale.”
Grace, interested, asked, “Who told you they’re going to hold a garage sale?”
Phil snorted. “Well, they got to do something. That house is an epidemic waiting to start, the way it is.”
Bershada asked, “Who is ‘they’?”
“I don’t know. Whoever winds up in charge,” said Phil.
Betsy said, “The city will likely order Tom to clean it out.”
Bershada said, “Since when is Tom one to take orders from anyone but his own self?”
That brought a chorus of agreement from everyone who had ever had anything to do with Thomas “Take” Riordan.
* * *
“SO when do you think the power will come back on out here?” Godwin asked, bringing a fresh cup of coffee to Bershada, a handsome African American woman with dark skin, shapely lips, and a narrow, low-bridged nose. Her hair was covered with a deep red hat shaped like a turban.
The rest of the Monday Bunch had departed, but she was still seated at the library table in Crewel World, doing some hand stitching. Betsy was in the back, brewing a new urn of coffee.
Bershada was working on hemming a thick square of fabric about eleven inches on a side but with a deep, round indentation in the middle. “And what is that thing, anyway, a quilt square? And are you going to be able to make it flat, or is it ruined?”
“It’s supposed to be shaped like this,” said Bershada, holding it up with both hands cupped underneath. “When you heat up soup or stew in the microwave, you put the bowl in this, so you don’t have to use pot holders to take it out. Plus, it keeps the soup warm while you eat it. Plus, if the soup runs over, it doesn’t get all over the inside of the microwave. My friend Karen showed me how to make one, but I don’t know where she got the pattern.”
“Say, that’s clever!” said Godwin, putting the mug of coffee in front of Bershada. He was a slim, handsome fellow, his blond hair a little enhanced, his skin a little smoother and fresher than nature intended at his age, which was coming up on thirty. “May I have a closer look?”
“Of course.” Bershada tucked the needle across a corner and handed him the fabric square. He felt its thickness, about that of a pot holder, between his thumb and forefinger. She was using brightly colored material in a printed pattern of turtles and hedgehogs on the top side, and a deep, solid blue on the underside. Darts going from the corners toward the middle made it dished.
“What’s the material?” he asked.
“A hundred percent cotton,” she replied. “With the thinnest cotton batting available in between. You have to use cotton because artificial fabrics melt in the microwave.”
“Could you make me one? I’m not all that fond of handwork, and we don’t have a sewing machine.”
“I’m going to make a batch of them to sell at our church’s Christmas fair. This is my practice piece.”
“Great, put me down for one—no, two—and bring them to me here.” Godwin didn’t go to church except for weddings. “Now, back to my original question: When do you think they’re going to get busy here in town now? How long are we going to be kept freezing in the dark?” He looked around. “Well, in every other place but here. Rafael and I may bring our favorite blankies over tonight if the power’s still out in town.”
“I talked to the mayor, and he says it’s possible we won’t get electricity back in Excelsior until late tomorrow or even the day after. There’s power out all over the county—in several counties, in fact. They’re working day and night, but they’ll bring the most densely populated areas back on line first, so that must mean people in Minneapolis are first in line and people out in the country are going to be without power for a week.”
“Well, that’s sucky,” said Godwin. “Fair, but sucky for farmers. Especially the one who put his generator up for auction.”
“They may call in people from upstate or even down in Iowa to help get it done sooner,” said Betsy, coming out to the front. “Though there was similar damage down around Des Moines as a result of a storm like ours.”
“How do you know that?” asked Bershada.
“Connor’s paying attention to the radio news.”
“That man of yours has been a real blessing, and not just to you!” declared Bershada. She checked her watch. “Uh-oh, I have to get on home. My grandson’s got the grill fired up and we’re cooking a lot of our meat from the freezer and having the neighbors in for a late picnic.”
Godwin watched her go out the door and said to Betsy, “There’s a great case of making lemonade when you’re handed a whole bushel of lemons!”
TOM Riordan figured that in a couple of days he’d be up and around. He was strong, still pretty young. If they’d just stop filling him up with those painkillers, he’d be all right.
Right now he was swimming in a dark sea of oxycodone. He knew he had a broken leg, but he’d seen people with broken legs walking around in a kind of boot. Why couldn’t they give him a boot?
He was in a real mess, that he knew. He remembered a tree falling into his bedroom—he was pretty sure that hadn’t been a dream—trapping him in his bed, and someone refusing to lift the tree off him—and he thought maybe that someone was Sergeant Lars Larson. But maybe not, maybe that part was a dream. Lars Larson was normally a good man, less inclined than many to pick on him.
He needed to get back home, to lock his doors and keep people out.
Excerpted from "Darned if You Do"
Copyright © 2016 Monica Ferris.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Monica Ferris’s Needlecraft Mysteries “A comfortable fit for mystery readers who want to spend an enjoyable time with interesting characters.”—St. Paul Pioneer Press
“Good stories, top-notch characters, and solid and seemingly effortless writing.”—Cozy Library
“Filled with great small-town characters...A great time...Fans of Jessica Fletcher will devour this.”—Rendezvous
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This eighteenth installment of the Needlecraft Mystery series starts out with a bang! No, really. It starts with a raging storm, and a tree falling on someone’s home. And that’s just the beginning of the excitement. Ms. Ferris has managed yet again to add a fresh take on a long running series. I don’t know how she does it, but the author always finds something new to get into for her protagonist, Betsy Devonshire and Betsy’s Crewel World Monday Bunch. As with her past books, DARNED IF YOU DO is very descriptive, ensuring that you “see” things as they happen while you’re reading. You can’t help but visualize the scenes. The mystery was filled with plenty of twists and turns, keeping me guessing. And once again, as with the book before this one, book seventeen in this series, THE DROWNING SPOOL, I had no idea who the killer was until Ms. Ferris spelled it out for me. The needlecraft project in this installment is for a crochet pattern for Classic Lace. You do not have to know any sort of needlework to read this book, but it sure makes you wish you did.
I just love these characters! Having gone to school in the Twin Cities, I even get the jokes! Tom Riordon is trapped in his house full of "things" after a tremendous storm topples the neighbors' tree into his upstairs and breaks his leg and concusses him. However badly he is hurt, it takes a lot to get him out, get him fixed up, and decide that he can't go back into it until its habitable, which considering Tom is a third generation hoarder, means clearing, sorting and repairing the house so it won't be condemned by the County. He protests when they reach out to his only living relative, who's almost as strange as he is! And then, he's found dead in his hospital room and it is assumed his only living relative killed him..... In the meantime...not all the "things" are junk, and while this is being sorted out, Betsy Devonshire is asked yet again to clear Tom's cousin of the presumed she did it murder. I want to have Betsy, Goddy, and Connor over for tea....I love these books
Another fun read from Monica Ferris. I enjoy her books, she gives you people you would want to welcome into your friend group. I've read them all, Betsy is an old friend.