It’s time for Handmade Blue Plum, an annual arts and crafts fair, and Kath and her knitting group TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Fiber) plan to kick off the festivities with a yarn bombing. But they’re not the only ones needling Blue Plum. Bagpiper and former resident Hugh McPhee had just returned after a long absence, yet his reception is anything but cozy. The morning after his arrival, he’s found dead in full piper’s regalia.
Although shaken, Kath and her knitting group go forward with their yarn installation—only to hit a deadly snag. Now, with the help of Geneva, the ghost who haunts her shop, Kath and TGIF need to unravel the mystery before someone else gets kilt!
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CAST OF CHARACTERS
At the Weaver’s Cat
Kath Rutledge: Textile preservation specialist formerly of Springfield, Illinois, now owner of the Weaver’s Cat, a fiber-and-fabric shop in Blue Plum, Tennessee
Ardis Buchanan: Longtime manager of the Weaver’s Cat
Geneva: The ghost who lives at the Weaver’s Cat, Ardis Buchanan’s great-great-aunt
Debbie Keith: Part-time staff at the Weaver’s Cat, full-time sheep farmer
Abby Netherton: Teenager working part-time at the Weaver’s Cat
Argyle: The shop’s cat
Members of TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Fiber) and the Yarn Bomb Squad
Joe Dunbar (Tennyson Yeats Dunbar): Kath’s significant other, fly fisherman, watercolorist, sometimes called “Ten”
Ernestine O’Dell: Septuagenarian, retired secretary
Melody (Mel) Gresham: Café owner, calls Kath “Red”
Thea Green: Town librarian who came up with the idea to yarn-bomb Blue Plum
John Berry: Octogenarian, retired naval officer
Zach Aikens: Teenager
Rachel Meeks: Banker
Tammie Fain: Energetic grandmother
Wanda Vance: Retired nurse
Shirley and Mercy Spivey: Twins, Kath’s cousins (several times removed)
Hugh McPhee: Bagpipe player, former Blue Plum citizen
Gladys Weems: The mayor’s mother
Olive Weems: Organizer of the arts and crafts fair Handmade Blue Plum, the mayor’s wife
Palmer (Pokey) Weems: Mayor of Blue Plum
Al Rogalla: Accountant, volunteer fireman
Ellen: A knitter in town for Handmade Blue Plum
Janet: A knitter in town for Handmade Blue Plum
Aaron Carlin: Odd-jobs man, significant other of Angie Spivey
Hank Buchanan: Ardis’ daddy
Ambrose Berry: John’s older brother
Angie Spivey: Mercy Spivey’s daughter
Cole (Clod) Dunbar (Coleridge Blake Dunbar): Deputy, Joe’s brother
Darla Dye: Deputy
Shorty Munroe: Deputy
Leonard Haynes (Lonnie): Sheriff
Waiting for twilight would have been a good idea. Waiting for full dark even better. A sunny Tuesday morning was hardly the best time for scuttling up the courthouse steps and sliding behind one of the massive columns—not if I wanted to call myself “sneaky.”
I hesitated at the bottom of the steps. My friends and former colleagues back in Springfield, Illinois, might not think so, but from where I stood Blue Plum, Tennessee, bustled. Crowds didn’t jostle me, but in the way of small towns, as long as anyone was around, there was a chance that someone would see something and mention it to two or three others. The problem was partly my own fault. If I’d completed this measuring assignment for TGIF sooner, I wouldn’t have to worry about being surreptitious in broad daylight now. Then again, if we’d included the courthouse in our original plan, I would have had weeks, not days, to get it done. The occasional criminal investigation aside, TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Fiber—the needle arts group that met at the Weaver’s Cat) was not an organization ordinarily dedicated to furtive operations, though, so I didn’t want to let the others down now, as we prepared for our first-ever clandestine fiber installation event.
The way to sneak successfully, I decided, was to act normal. Eyes open, not casting shifty glances left and right. Shoulders square, not hunched as though ready to creep. Air of confidence. Relaxed smile.
A familiar-looking woman came down the stairs toward me. Her face didn’t jog a name from my memory, but I liked the popcorn stitch cardigan she wore and I smiled as she passed.
“It’s Kathy, isn’t it?” she asked, turning back to me.
“Close,” I said. “Just Kath.”
“I hope you know how lucky you are.”
“Lucky to have the Weaver’s Cat. Your grandmother made the right decision in leaving the shop to you.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
“I keep meaning to stop in. Later this week, though. Not today—must rush.”
“Great—” Before I could say anything more, her rush carried her away.
I walked up the dozen worn limestone steps, looking for all the world like anyone else on her way to renew car tags, attend a trial, or probate a will. But at the top, rather than follow an older couple across the portico and through the doors, I stopped, turned around, and pretended to enjoy my elevated view of Main Street.
I didn’t really have to pretend. The streetscape, a mix of mostly Federal and Victorian architecture, looked and felt exactly right to me. Pink and purple petunias spilled from half-barrel planters along the brick sidewalks. Window boxes with red geraniums and sweet potato vines brightened storefronts. Looking right, I saw the bank and half a dozen office buildings and shops and, down at the end of the next block, the sign for the public library. To the left, along past Mel’s café, my own shop, the Weaver’s Cat, basked in the morning sun. This view, this town, had been part of my life through all my childhood summers when I’d come to visit my grandmother in her hometown. Now, thanks to her generosity in leaving me her house and the Weaver’s Cat, Blue Plum was my hometown, too.
I watched Rachel Meeks, the banker, deadhead a couple of geraniums in the planters at the bank’s door. Somewhere in her mid- to late fifties, Rachel’s business suit mirrored her straightforward business sense. Apparently so did her sense of gardening decorum. She carried the withered flowers inside with her. I strolled to the end of the portico, still looking out over the street and assuming I looked casual, then sidled around behind the last column where I’d be in its shadow and couldn’t be seen from the steps or the door. There I took a coil of string from a pocket in my shoulder bag.
A second pair of hands to hold one end of the string would have helped. Unfortunately my favorite second pair of hands had other business that morning. Joe—the Renaissance odd-job-man-about-town who’d worked his way into my heart—had gone over the mountains early to deliver half a dozen fly rods he’d built for an outfitter in Asheville. That was just as well; two of us fiddling around a column would draw more attention. I took a roll of painter’s tape from my bag, tore off an inch-long piece, and pressed it over the end of the string, sticking it to the column at about waist height.
The plan was to circle the column with the string and mark the string where it met itself again, then remove the tape, recoil the string, return string and tape to my bag, and retreat to the Weaver’s Cat. I’d barely started around the column, though, when a familiar voice made me pull back out of sight.
“Ms. Weems, ma’am—oof—now, that was uncalled for.”
“You’re a quack, and I’ll tell anyone who asks.”
“Let’s step on inside, then, ma’am, and you can tell the sheriff.”
I inched around the column in time to see Joe’s uniformed and starched brother, Deputy Cole Dunbar, ushering a tiny, elderly woman through the courthouse doors. The woman, Mayor Palmer “Pokey” Weems’ mother, wore tennis shoes, and it was a good thing. As she passed Joe’s brother, she hauled off and kicked his shin. He winced, but there was no second “oof.” That led me to believe the first “oof” had been a reaction to a different kind of assault—maybe a swift connection between Ms. Weems’ pocketbook and his midsection.
Snickering at someone else’s pain isn’t nice, even if that person is a clod. And even though Cole Dunbar would always be “Clod” to me, I was fairly sure I hadn’t snickered. But before the door closed on him, something made Clod turn toward me and my column. I immediately knelt and retied my shoe, pretending not to notice him noticing me.
“I’m not sure he fell for that,” a voice from farther around the column said.
At one time in my life an unknown and unexpected voice addressing me out of the blue might have startled me. Not anymore. Now I practically yawned to show how blasé I was about such surprises. I also flicked an inconsequential speck of dust from the toe of my shoe to show I wasn’t worried about whether or not Clod fell for my pretense. Then I stood up to see who’d spoken. That I could see a living, breathing human standing there was a plus, even if I hadn’t ever seen him before and had no idea who he was. Judging by the light gray overtaking the dark gray in his beard, I guessed he was in his fifties—older than Clod by at least ten years and Joe by more than a dozen.
“That was one of the Dunbar brothers, wasn’t it?” he asked. “Weren’t they named after composers?” The camera around the stranger’s neck made him look like a tourist. The soft twang in his question sounded local.
“Poets. That was Coleridge,” I said.
“And the other one’s name . . .” He tried to tease it from his memory by tipping his head and waving his hand by his ear.
“Tennyson,” I said.
“Coleridge Blake Dunbar and Tennyson Yeats Dunbar,” I said, “except the deputy there goes by Cole and his brother is Joe.”
“Smart move.” The stranger nodded. “Better than Cold Fridge and Tennis Shoe, both of which I remember hearing when the boys would have been at a tender age. Huh. I haven’t thought about them in years. But even back then I wondered how they’d turn out, weighed down with those names.” His tone was mild rather than judgmental. It had a reminiscent, storytelling sound to it.
“You’re from Blue Plum?”
“Not for a few years, anyway,” he said.
Not for a few decades, if he hadn’t known Clod was a sheriff’s deputy and that Joe was, well, Joe.
“Can I give you a hand with your string there?” he asked.
“Oh.” I’d let go of the string when I pretended to tie my shoe. The end was still stuck to the column with the painter’s tape.
“Measuring it for a school project, right? You hold it there and I’ll—” He picked up the dangling end and walked around the column to meet me. “One of my proudest moments in the fourth grade was when I made my cardboard model of the courthouse. Of course, a flexible metal tape measure would be the best way to do this, but your string works, too.”
I took a felt-tip pen out of my shoulder bag and marked the string. He pulled the tape off the column, coiled the string, and handed it to me. “Thanks,” I said, tucking the string and pen back in my bag. “It was nice of you to help.” I turned to go.
And I saw Clod. He’d come back out of the courthouse and stood beside the door in his police-issue posture, arms crossed, watching me and whoever the guy was who’d just helped me with my string-and-column project.
“Hey, Cole,” I called, with a wave as wide and insincere as my smile. “Here’s an old friend of yours.” I pointed over my shoulder, then turned back to my new friend to reintroduce him to his old acquaintance. But no one was there.
Clod started to say something—possibly Good morning, Ms. Rutledge. Why are you lurking?—but the radio at his shoulder burped static. He listened and responded with a curt, clear “Ten-four” that I imagined spitting out the other end in another eruption of static, intelligible only to the starched and initiated. Without a wave or a nod, he put on his sunglasses and went down the steps and around the corner to where he parked behind the courthouse. I looked around again for the helpful stranger, didn’t see him, and headed for the Weaver’s Cat.
When I’d decided to stay in Blue Plum (due to one thing or another—one thing being the loss of my job as a textile conservator at the Illinois State Museum and the other being the lucky inheritance of Granny’s house and business), Ardis Buchanan told me her secret for getting anywhere fast in our small town. No matter how short the distance, she got in her car and drove. If I walk, she’d said, I’ll run into someone I know, and you and I both know that I am incapable of walking past the opportunity for a good chin-wag. Ardis, longtime manager of the Weaver’s Cat, wise in the ways and means of Blue Plum, was always worth listening to. I’d adapted her solution for bypassing unavoidable chin-wags, taking it in a more ecological and heart-healthy direction. I walked, but I took the less traveled driveways that threaded between some of the businesses on Main Street and the service alleys running behind them.
The electronic chime on the back door of the Weaver’s Cat was another reason I liked taking the alley way to work. The chime—courtesy of my creative friend Joe, né Tennyson, brother of the lamentable Clod—said “Baaaa” every time the door opened. I loved it. Argyle, the cat in residence, liked the chime, too, and he came to greet me in the kitchen, his tail up like a signal flag that read feed me.
“Hasn’t Ardis already given you breakfast this morning, sweet pea?” I asked.
Argyle twined his yellow-striped body between my ankles. I stepped over him, he followed and twined, I stepped, he twined. Together, we moved toward the cupboard that held the dry cat food, doing what I’d come to think of as the “Paw de Deux.” I tipped a few kibbles in his dish, and he thanked me with one last circuit of my ankles.
“She never gives him enough,” a voice grumped from somewhere near the ceiling. I looked up and saw Geneva, the ghost in residence, do a fade-in on top of the refrigerator. “In my experience, young gentlemen require and enjoy unbelievable amounts of what’s good for them.”
I sidestepped Argyle’s thank-you maneuver and looked down the hall toward the front of the shop. Talking to Geneva had gotten somewhat easier in the past couple of months. When she and I had first met, I was the only one who saw or heard her, and communicating openly—without looking or sounding crazy—had presented problems. But now that I’d found a way for Ardis to see and hear her, I only needed to be careful around everyone else in the world. I saw no one in the hall and went back to the refrigerator. Geneva sat with her knees drawn up so that she looked like a wispy gray lump.
“He’s not a young cat, Geneva. The vet says he might be as old as fifteen.”
“When you are one hundred and fifty-nine years old, then you come back and tell me if you still think fifteen isn’t young.”
“But for a cat, especially one who had a rough early life, fifteen is old. The shop is Argyle’s retirement home, and we need to take good care of him.”
She pulled her knees closer and rested her chin on them, a pose that said “hmph” as clearly as words.
“Anything going on this morning?” I asked, watching her body language for further clues about her attitude in general and the current state of affairs between her and Ardis in particular. Watching her “mist” would be more accurate. She rarely appeared more substantial than a film of rainwater on a dark window, or more solid than an Orenburg lace shawl—garments made of lace so fine they can be gathered and passed through the hole in a wedding ring. “How’s Ardis this morning?”
“Give her time, Geneva.”
She said nothing and shifted like an annoyed hen ruffling its feathers.
“Would you like me to talk to her?”
“I certainly do not want to talk to her,” she said. “Her happy prattle is like the yapping of a small dog. I find it enervating.”
Oh, brother. Now that Ardis did know about her, communicating with Geneva might be somewhat easier, but dealing with her doleful whims was somewhat less so.
“‘Enervating’ is a very good word, which you can substitute for ‘exhausting,’” Geneva said. “So is ‘depleting.’” With her chin on her knees, she wasn’t easy to understand; I thought she’d said defeating. I was beginning to feel defeated myself. “‘Wearying’ is another one,” she said. “And ‘paralyzing.’”
“Okay. Thanks. I’ve got it.” I spoke louder and sharper than I meant to.
“You’ve got what, hon?” Ardis called as she came down the hall.
“Also ‘dispiriting,’” said Geneva, and she disappeared as Ardis came through the door.
Ardis blinked. “Was that Great-great-aunt Geneva?”
“Hmm, I don’t see her. Maybe she’s up in the study.” I was glad I could sound genuinely unsure.
“But Argyle is down here.”
“Cats and ghosts are a lot alike, Ardis. As soon as you think you see a pattern to their behavior, and you think you can count on it, they figure out that you know, and then off they go and start doing something else completely different. Argyle’s just here having a second breakfast and adding another layer of fur to my ankles. Geneva’s probably off having her morning alone time.”
“The morning alone time—is that a pattern you’ve noticed?” Ardis asked.
“Not so much a pattern as . . .”
“As what? I keep feeling as though I should be taking notes.” She patted her pockets for the pencil she’d stuck behind her ear.
“Alone time isn’t so much a pattern as something she seems to need a lot of.”
“Ah.” Ardis nodded, looking solemn. “It’s what she’s used to, isn’t it. She hasn’t known much else for the last hundred and twenty or thirty years and it might be hard to adjust.”
“Alone time punctuated by a regrettable decade or two of nonstop television.”
“But that wasn’t in any way her fault,” Ardis said, “and her addiction is understandable. And under control, too, wouldn’t you say?”
I held my hand out and tipped it back and forth.
“Well. I’ll let her have her privacy.” She stooped to rub Argyle between his ears, making it look as though that required all her concentration. Then, sounding wistful, she asked, “Have you seen her today?”
“For a minute or two. She seemed tired.”
“Is letting her have alone time enough, then? Is there anything else I can do for her? I mean, after all these years, to find each other, it’s nothing short of miraculous. Odd, too, what with me, the great-great-niece, pushing seventy and her, the great-great-aunt, stuck in her early twenties. But the whole situation is miraculous. You see that, don’t you?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve been making a list of questions to ask her. After she gets better used to me, of course. That’s the best plan, don’t you think?” She was entering into the small-dog phase Geneva objected to.
“Give her time, Ardis. And space.”
“It’s all pent up, though. The questions and . . . everything.” Her eyebrows inched up her forehead, as though illustrating the increasing level of things pent up. “And it’s been weeks since she and I met each other on that wonderful, amazing day. More than a month. Closer to two. And I still don’t always see her, if you know what I mean. I can’t always bring her into focus, which is so frustrating.”
Ardis fiddled with the braided bracelet on her wrist. I’d made it for her, using cotton warping thread I’d dyed with one of Granny’s recipes. The bracelet wasn’t anything fancy or stylish, although it was a lovely grayish green and I’d done my best not to make it look like a summer camp arts and crafts project. But the bracelet did have an interesting quality. Thanks to following the recipe my grandmother had called “Juniper for Long Lasting and Friendship”—which came from dye journals she’d kept secret and then left to me—the bracelet somehow let Ardis see and hear Geneva. Whether it would let anyone who wore it see her, or if the bracelet only enhanced a connection between Ardis and Geneva, I didn’t know. That it worked at all was astounding and weird and messed with my science-oriented mind. But, for better or worse (and lately for grumpy and disheartened), it brought my two odd friends together.
“I’ve never asked you how the bracelet is involved—”
I held a hand up and she stopped.
“I understand,” she said. “Don’t ask, don’t tell. I just wondered if something is, I don’t know, wearing off?”
That was a possibility, I guessed, but because I didn’t really understand it, either . . . “Do you hear her or see her any less clearly than when you first wore the bracelet?”
“No, and that’s why I keep hoping that if I can talk to her, engage with her more, then the focusing problem might improve. Was that your experience with her?” She stopped and looked at me and gave a frustrated cluck. “It wasn’t, was it. Do you wear something?”
I shook my head.
“You must have a natural talent for this, then. For ghosts. You and Ivy.”
My “talent” for ghosts was something else I’d inherited from Granny—Ivy McClellan—along with the shop, her house, the secret dye journals, and another “talent.” The other “talent”—more a “glitch” to my mind—let me feel a person’s emotions if I touched a piece of clothing. It didn’t always happen, I didn’t understand it, and the jolts I received when it did happen made me think twice about casually patting strangers on the back. The dye journals and “talents” had come as an unexpected bonus after Granny died. Or, as Geneva might say, “unexpected” and “bonus” were words that, when combined, made a good substitute for “wow, I did not see that coming.”
“What should I do?” Ardis asked. “You know Geneva so much better.”
“Please believe me when I say I still have a lot to learn, Ardis. Beyond time and space, I don’t really know. But time and space can’t hurt.”
“I know. You’re right.” She folded her hands, holding them tightly in front of her, keeping pent-up things in check. “I’m trying.”
“She’s dealing with so many different emotions and her situation has changed so drastically in the last seven or eight months.”
“I know. And more so recently. She’s like some of the kiddos I had in my classes. The ones from ‘complicated home situations.’ That’s how we described those situations when we wanted to be polite. There was so much you wanted to do for the little buttons and so much that no end of doing would ever fix.”
“That’s a good analogy, Ardis. Geneva’s pretty resilient, though.”
“Most of the kiddos were, too.”
Ardis wouldn’t have liked the comparison, but she and Clod adopted similar poses when they had serious matters to think over—pursed lips, drawn brows, gaze fixed on the floor. They were also both six feet tall—a height not unusual for a man, but imposing in a seventy-year-old woman with the steely nerve of a former elementary school teacher. Especially such a woman who also relished standing toe-to-toe or nose-to-nose with stubborn authority. And Clod was born to be upright and mulish.
“Maybe if I run upstairs and let her know I’m here for her,” Ardis said. She looked up the back stairs, in a way that could only be described as longingly. The study was in the attic, two flights up, and Geneva and Argyle spent at least part of each day hanging out up there. “So she knows she can come to me anytime.” She put a hand on the banister and a foot on the bottom step, her instinct to mother giving a strong tug.
“That’s a nice thought—” I was going to add a “but” to that statement when the string of camel bells jingled at the front door, doing it for me.
“I’ll go,” Ardis said, her business instinct and dedication to customer service winning out.
“Thanks, Ardis. I’ll put my purse away and be with you in two shakes.”
“But before I forget, and at the risk of being a nag, did you get the last measurements?”
I clicked my heels and snapped a salute. “Yes, ma’am. We are all set to bomb the Blue Plum Courthouse.”
“Excellent.” Ardis rubbed her hands. “We shall continue to keep mum while the knitting public can overhear us, but, may I just say, I can hardly wait for Thursday night?”
“It’s going to be a blast.”
“Utter,” Ardis said, “and absolute.”
She trotted down the hall to the front room and Argyle joined me for the trek up the back stairs. Despite what I’d told Ardis about the ever-changing habits of cats, Argyle’s nap schedule didn’t have much room for variation. Nap time called frequently and often, and the window seat in the attic dormer was a favorite place. He leapt onto the cushion now and curled into a skein of snoring yellow fur. I took the coil of marked string out of my shoulder bag and tucked it in a pocket. The bag went in the bottom drawer of the oak teacher’s desk.
The study had been Granny’s snug and private space. Now it was mine. Except that I shared it with Argyle and Geneva, and that made the snug space . . . snugger. Granddaddy, as creative in woodworking as Granny had been with fibers and fabrics, finished the wide-plank floor, fitted bookcases and cupboards under the eaves, and built the window seat in the dormer. He’d also hidden a tall, narrow cupboard behind one wall. He’d painted the inside of the cupboard Granny’s favorite deep indigo blue and printed MY DEAREST, DARLING IVY along the edge of the shelf he’d put in the cupboard. Granny had kept her private dye journals on that shelf. Geneva claimed the cupboard as her own “room.”
“Geneva?” I called.
I turned around. She was floating behind me.
“You do not jump as much as you used to when I sneak up on you.”
“Have you been up here since you disappeared in the kitchen?”
“I sat on the stairs while you talked to Ardent. That is what her name means. Did you know that? And that is what she is, too. Putting up with Ardent is arduous.”
“I asked her to give you time and space,” I said. “Do you think you can be more patient with her? This is a new situation for both of you. And you’re right; she is ardent. But she’s tickled pink that you’re here and that you’re her great-great-aunt.”
“Her great-great-aunt who has never liked the color pink.”
“Come on, Geneva. It really would help me out if you two could meet each other halfway.”
“On the stairs? I do not think her creaky old bones will be comfortable sitting on the stairs. I did not get where I am today by having creaky old bones.”
I was feeling enervated and didn’t say anything.
“That was haunted humor, in case you did not notice.”
“I’ll come back when you’re ready to take this seriously,” Geneva said.
“But you cannot tell me you did not cringe when she started prattling.”
“She’s excited. You get the same way when you’re excited. You two are a lot alike. I’m kind of surprised I didn’t notice that sooner. Come on, Geneva. You heard her say she’s willing to give you time and space. There needs to be some give-and-take here. That’s how friends and family work things out and how they help each other out.”
“Shall I tell you what will help me out?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger before answering. It didn’t help me out much. “Sure. What?”
“Go back downstairs and let me have my very valuable alone time.”
* * *
The shop stayed busy all morning. That kept us from discussing our plans for Thursday night, but it was good for the till. It was also good for ignoring the difficulties Ardis and Geneva were experiencing. I loved them both, but I didn’t love my new role as counselor and mediator for the suddenly and hauntingly related. It was so much easier helping the shop’s customers develop relationships with the comforting textures and colors of fibers and fabrics. Thank goodness Ardis was willing to be patient with Geneva, though, and that we shared the fiber and fabric passion.
“I get a particular joy from watching neophytes cradling their first tools and materials,” she said after two young women left with bulging bags. “I feel as though I should follow them to the door and hold it open, blessing them as they go.”
“Telling them to fly free and come back to us when they’ve learned to soar?”
“Exactly,” Ardis said. “In reality, they’ll be back tomorrow for help with a problem, but getting them back on track will bring its own kind of joy. Didn’t I tell you we’d be run off our feet this week?”
“Like sap rising in the New England sugar bush,” she said, “the creative juices in Blue Plum awaken, they stir, and now they’re in full spate.”
“You’re full of good analogies this morning, Ardis, except this is October and I think maple sap might rise in February.”
She waved the quibble away. “It’s a natural phenomenon like any other, and you can count on it happening every year when the kiddos go back to school. It’s that whiff of school paste in the air.”
“It’s probably all glue sticks these days.”
Another dismissive wave. “Crafty-minded folks aren’t so particular. They’re in tune. They catch whatever whiff it is, and they see visions of handmade gifts dancing in their heads—hats, scarves, ornaments.”
“Table runners, afghans, stockings, and tree skirts?”
“Yes, oh yes.” Ardis put a hand on my shoulder. “And sweaters. Close your eyes, Kath. Can’t you picture those glorious projects?”
I closed my eyes, though I didn’t need to; we had samples of sweaters and hats and all the rest displayed everywhere in the shop.
“And although we know an awful lot of those embroidered, quilted, crocheted, and knitted visions are unrealistic,” Ardis said, “there’s nothing wrong with embellished dreams and hopes. We all have them. I have them. And I need them. They give me respite—from reality, from the world, from Daddy’s increasing infirmity. They give me strength.”
“That’s really nice, Ardis.”
“I can’t lay claim to the analogy or the philosophy. They were Ivy’s. Your grandmother knew human nature as well as she knew knitting or any other needle art. I’m sure creativity bubbles up and burgeons all over the country in the fall, but you watch, the local flow will turn into a flood—beautiful and abundant. This was Ivy’s favorite time of year, and especially the weeks before and after Handmade Blue Plum.”
“I haven’t been here in the fall for years. I should’ve come to visit her more often.”
“She didn’t expect you to run down here every few months. She couldn’t have been more proud of you, or more proud of your career.”
I closed my eyes again, this time picturing Granny—gray braid and blue jeans, blue eyes with crow’s-feet to prove her good humor, and a tilt to her head to show she saw and heard more than some. “I’ll take a walk around, Ardis. See if anyone needs help.” I moved away before she could reach over and squeeze my shoulder, and a few tears from my own blue eyes. As I started up the front stairs to check on shoppers on the second floor, I heard the smile in her voice as she greeted the next customer at the counter.
“Good morning. You’ve made an excellent choice with that turquoise bouclé. Soft and cozy, yet carrying with it underlying hints of daring and whimsy. I think you’ll be very happy.”
I paused on the stairs to listen for an answer and wasn’t disappointed.
“I picked it up,” an almost breathless voice said, “and I couldn’t put it back down. A scarf, don’t you think? Or no! A cropped vest!”
I went on up the stairs, missing the rest of their discussion. Ardis was right about the upwelling of creativity in and around Blue Plum in the past month or so. And Handmade Blue Plum, the arts and crafts fair held the second weekend in October each year, was perfectly timed—either to feed the flow of creative energy, or to take advantage of it. The fair, opening Friday at noon in the school gym, was also perfectly timed to take advantage of the three-week fall break in Blue Plum’s year-round school calendar. Having the fair at the school was a win-win. The crafters were under a roof with classrooms for demonstrations and workshops, and the school received ten percent of the crafters’ booth registration fees.
The Weaver’s Cat couldn’t be an official part of the fair, because commercially produced goods and materials were prohibited, but some of the more prolific crocheters, crafters, knitters, knotters, weavers, and whatnot who belonged to TGIF would be selling their handmade wares. In the meantime, we stayed busy in the shop ringing up all manner of needles, hooks, hoops, patterns, and the manipulable fibers and fabrics that dreams and finished projects were made of. We were busy enough that Debbie Keith, who worked part-time for us and full-time raising sheep on her farm outside town, was coming in for a couple of extra afternoons during the week, and we’d hired a fiber-smitten high school student for weekend hours. The student, Abby Netherton, dressed goth and worked a drop spindle like a pro.
Ardis was also right that fall might have been Granny’s favorite time of year, although I seemed to remember Granny saying that about every season at one point or another. She would definitely have loved the unofficial part TGIF and her beloved Weaver’s Cat intended to play in Handmade Blue Plum. The project—the clandestine fiber installation project I’d been measuring for, concocted and devised by a select splinter group of TGIF—would have blown her away.
A whiff of conversation and the scent of coffee led me to one of the front rooms on the second floor. We encouraged drop-in needlework, and a couple of women sat knitting in the comfy chairs near the windows that looked down on Main Street, one working on a blue baby sock, the other something voluminous and raspberry. Their project bags, a thermos, and two steaming mugs sat on the low table between them. The baby sock woman raised a mug when she saw me.
“It’s okay that we brought our own brew, isn’t it?” She held the mug under her nose and steamed her glasses before taking a sip.
“We’re in town a few days early for the craft show,” the raspberry woman said. “I’m Ellen and she’s Janet. We came last year and found this shop and decided it was a perfect spot. We promised ourselves the perfect morning in these chairs.”
“It’s what they’re here for,” I said, “and we’re glad to have you, coffee and all. I’m Kath. Ardis is downstairs. Let us know if there’s anything we can find for you.”
“There was an older woman here last year,” Janet said. She’d put her mug back on the table and picked up her needles. “She talked me into the extravagance of handspun, hand-dyed wool.”
Her friend looked over the tops of her glasses at her. “It didn’t take much talking.”
“Well, no, it didn’t. But I think she had me sized up. Somehow she knew I wouldn’t be able to resist it—it was a gorgeous indigo and knitted up into a shawl that I’ll treasure forever. And I’ve been wondering what she can show me this year that I won’t be able to live without.”
It didn’t happen often anymore, that someone came in the shop who didn’t know Granny had died in the spring. Still, I should have had a response at hand—something less distressing to customers, anyway, than silence and what must have been the stricken look on my face. It was the woman’s mention of the indigo wool that threw me. That would have been wool Granny had spun and dyed. Indigo was her favorite and her specialty.
The women stopped knitting.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “She had the amazing knack for remembering everyone who bought her wool, and she would have loved seeing you again.”
“You were related?” Janet asked.
She nodded. “You favor her. She must have had your dark red hair when she was younger. We’re sorry for your loss. And the store’s.”
“Thank you.” I backed out of the room, hoping I hadn’t made their perfect morning too awkward, leaving them to their socks and the raspberry cloud.
The other two upstairs rooms were quiet, and I took a few quiet minutes to straighten them. Tidying the shop had been my “job” during my childhood visits to Granny. I’d liked doing it, liked pleasing Granny by putting things in order. I liked tidying now, too, because I found her in each room. In every skein I returned to its bin and every pattern or notion that went back where it belonged, I found her love for everything to do with fibers.
* * *
During the next lull in business, when we were both behind the sales counter, Ardis slid closer to me, casting glances left and right. “Yours is the last piece of intel we need,” she said. “So, how does it look? Are all systems go? What do you think?”
“That you’re mixing spies and astronauts in your jargon.”
“Pshaw. Mission accomplished? Can we move forward?”
Ardent Ardis—Geneva had her pegged perfectly. Ardis was fired up and raring to bomb the courthouse and the entire town—with knitting and crochet work. With tatting, macramé, braiding, weaving, and coiling, too, for that matter.
Ardis hadn’t come up with the idea that we should yarn-bomb the town on the eve of Handmade Blue Plum. But as soon as she’d heard the suggestion, she was behind the project one hundred percent. She was primed and ready to be pointed in the right direction as soon as darkness fell Thursday night. She was gung ho to leave her mark on Blue Plum with yarn graffiti.
I copied her left-right glances. No customers were in sight. I pulled the coil of string from my pocket, put it on the counter, and held out my hand. “Measuring tape,” I whispered.
Ardis slapped a measuring tape in my hand and whispered back, “Measuring tape, Dr. Rutledge. This is very exciting.”
I uncoiled the string and measured from the end to the point I’d marked with the felt tip. “Twelve feet, Dr. Buchanan, plus seven and one half inches. Congratulations, you have four strapping courthouse columns.”
“Quadruplets,” Ardis said. “And I thank my stars they aren’t real babies. But who would have thought the columns were so big around?” She entered the number in a notebook, under a long list of other measurements. “It’s kind of fun sneaking around like that, isn’t it? I had no idea I’d get such a kick out of it. When did you go?”
“Um . . .”
She looked up from the notebook. “You didn’t have any trouble, did you?”
She put the pencil down. “Exactly how not exactly?”
“It’s possible I might have been seen.”
“Was. Sorry, Ardis. I was seen.”
She studied that problem, and the countertop, drumming her fingers on compressed lips. “Okay,” she said, dropping her hands to her hips. “Being seen is the risk we’ll be taking Thursday night anyway, so it’s good to see how we’ll handle that kind of pressure. Besides, in the dark, in the shadows, and as small as you are, you probably weren’t recognized, so it might not be so bad.”
“Um . . .”
Ardis stepped closer, looming much the way her great-great-aunt occasionally did. Really, their similarities were much more uncanny—although completely natural—than the superficial similarities between Ardis and Clod. I moved down the counter and smiled, going for the same confidence and nonchalance I’d used while accomplishing my column-measuring mission.
“You,” Ardis said, moving down the counter after me, “look guilty. Because you didn’t go after dark, did you. That’s not a question, so don’t bother to answer.”
I didn’t bother and I moved farther down the counter.
Ardis was ardently relentless. “Mel, who is busier than any two of us combined, finished her assignment last week.”
“This was a last-minute assignment. A rush job.”
“Which you’ve known about for three days. You should have been able to find time not in the middle of the day to complete this paltry part of the preplanning for this project.”
“All those p words are making you spit, Ardis.”
“You slacked, Kath Rutledge. And you went out in daylight? Who saw you?”
Thank goodness she couldn’t billow and swirl the way Geneva did. Humor and a confident smile weren’t soothing her, so I tried for calm and matter-of-fact. “It’s okay, Ardis. Everything’s fine. I got the measurement with no harm done. Two people saw me and neither one will be a problem. One was basically a tourist who thought I was working on a school project for my kids. And the other was Cole Dunbar.”
“You don’t have kids.”
“See? So no problem.”
“And I didn’t catch the second person’s name,” Ardis said.
She wouldn’t have. I’d mumbled it, having failed at feeling matter-of-fact at the last minute.
I moved around to other side of the counter, so that it was between us, and tried another smile. Ardis closed the space—a mere counter being no barrier for a woman of towering height and piercing eye. My smile faltered.
The camel bells jingled as the front door opened. I hoped Ardis’ customer service ethic would kick in and give me a reprieve. It didn’t.
She leaned closer and said, with what would have been a threatening hiss if there’d been sibilants involved, “Cole Dunbar.”
At that point I stood up as tall as my five foot three let me, and I owned my mistakes. For the most part. “Ardis, I’m sorry I didn’t get it done sooner, and I’m sorry I didn’t do it after dark. But it doesn’t matter if Cole saw me. He was busy being a deputy and getting a kick in the shin from the mayor’s mother. He had no idea I was up to anything, much less anything secret, sneaky, or clandestine.”
“Until now,” the deputy himself said behind me.
I didn’t turn around and look at Clod Dunbar. Acknowledging him wasn’t going to add anything positive to the situation. Ardis didn’t add anything positive, either, when she crossed her arms at me and said, “Mm-hmm.” But choosing Clod’s side over mine was against her better nature.
“Good morning, Coleridge,” she said. “Hat off. Someone will be with you shortly.” He made a huffing noise behind me—a noise that ceased when Ardis gave him a sharp look, lowering her glasses to half-mast so he experienced the full power of that look. “Kath, hon,” she said, still holding Clod with her eyes, “come on back here and take a look at these figures for me. See if things are adding up to anything of significance.” She held up the notebook with her list of measurements, emphasizing the word “significance” in Clod’s direction.
“Of course, Ardis. Happy to.” I scooted around to the business side of the counter and took the notebook from her. For Clod’s sake, I whistled and said, “Wow.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” Ardis said. She glanced over when I picked up the pencil and made a note. When she broke eye contact with him, Clod harrumphed and reasserted himself.
“Until now,” he said, “no, I did not know you were up to anything. But I’ll hazard an informed guess. You think you’re up to something. Something secret and sneaking. And I imagine you think you’re good at that kind of thing. But our fair city isn’t engulfed in any major crime waves, so I’d say it’s unlikely that you’re really up to anything. Anything illegal. Or anything that will hinder the performance of my duties. Sad to say, but there hasn’t been much opportunity in the last month or so for you to dabble in detective work.”
Unpleasant noises threatened to erupt from his nose. Something in his long-winded and priggish speech must have struck him as funny. Either that or he had indigestion.
“Ms. Rutledge and Ms. Buchanan,” he said, after recomposing himself, “here’s something that might interest you—a bona fide case for you to work on that’s worthy of your deductive skills.” He didn’t say anything more, being the kind of irritating person who stands and looks pleased, waiting for other people to ask him what he’s talking about.
And I’m the kind of person who can’t stand that kind of suspense and always has to ask. “Is that why you came in, Deputy Dunbar? To ask for our help with a mystery that’s baffling you?” Unfortunately I’m also the kind of person who’s been failing with her latest sarcasm abatement program. “You know us. We’re always happy to lend a hand. Hang on a tick.” I turned to a blank page in Ardis’ notebook and licked the end of the pencil. “Shoot—not literally, of course. But what have you got for us?”
“I meant it as a joke.”
“I know. But my keen powers of observation told me that you really did think of something, just then. So even if it is a joke, why don’t you tell us? How can it hurt? And if our baffled bumbling gives you a few more laughs, then it’ll even be good for you. It’ll help loosen up your auras or chakras or something.”
“Do you know about auras and chakras, Kath?” Ardis asked with some surprise.
She turned back to Clod. “She’s right, though, Coleridge. Life is better with a few laughs, so lay it on us.”
On a personal level, Clod might be a clod, but as a policeman he was no slouch. He proved that by narrowing his eyes—in suspicion, no doubt—a good trait for someone in law enforcement.
“I do like a good laugh as much as anyone,” he said after a pause. “So I’ll give you a clue. Remember what I said about dabbling in detective work? That’s it. That’s your clue. So go ahead and knock yourselves out. But now that we’ve all had our fun, may I get down to the business I came in for?”
Ardis slid over next to me so that we stood shoulder to shoulder—solidarity.
“Ms. Rutledge, outside the courthouse earlier this morning,” he said, “was that Hugh McPhee you were talking to?”
“Beats me. We didn’t exchange names.”
“Never,” Ardis said at the same time. “I haven’t seen Hugh in years. Are you sure, Cole?”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the National Bestselling
Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries
“Full of loving crafting details and quirky, sassy characters.”
“Another terrific mystery…A rich fabric of murder [with] touches of romance.”
—Lesa’s Book Critiques
“A fun series…a fantastic whodunit.”
—Cozy Mystery Book Review