Stella Crown rarely takes a break from managing her Pennsylvania dairy farm unless it's to take a spin on her Harley, but in the midst of the Christmas season she treats herself to a new tattoo. Halfway through the sitting at Wolf Ink, her tattoo artist and his wife, Mandy, disappear into the back room. Stella, whipped, dozes off and, when she awakes and they've not come back, she drives home. Before long, the police arrive to inform her that Mandy has been discovered dead behind the tattoo parlor, while Wolf is nowhere to be found.
Angry and guilt-stricken that she hasn't protected her friends, Stella--something of a suspect herself--sets out to assist the cops and rescue the missing Wolf. And to ask, where is their young son, also missing?
With the help of another tattoo artist and an old flame who's arrived at the farm, Stella dives into the world of tattooing, where she finds not only a close-knit and knowledgeable community, but also an underworld of back alley hacks, stolen designs, and violent patrons, plus some looming and controversial state legislation.
Stella, stymied by more suspects than answers, is dragged yet again into a realm full of greed and danger when all she wants is to be left alone to run her farm and figure out the rest of her life. But first she must do everything in her power to get Wolf back where he belongs.
About the Author
Judy Clemens was born and raised a Mennonite, and is still involved with the church. She lives in rural Ohio, where she is pleased to see women in leadership in every aspect of the community. Dairy farming is not a part of her daily life, for which she is grateful, since itA[a�a[s such a difficult job. She lives in an old farmhouse with her family, and their livestock consists of four housecats.
Read an Excerpt
To Thine Own Self Be True
By Judy Clemens
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2006 Judy Clemens
All right reserved.
Chapter One"So I said to him, 'You know what could happen if I pierced you there?' The stooge went white so fast I thought he was gonna do a face plant right there on the Linoleum. Never seen anybody change his mind so fast."
I laughed at Mandy's detailed storytelling, and Wolf clamped an iron hand on my arm. "Quit shaking, Stella."
"Then tell your wife to stop telling funny stories."
"You want this tattoo all over crooked, you keep on laughing. You want it straight, you control yourself."
"Yessir." I would've saluted, but for the grip he had on my forearm. "You just know too many crazy people."
Mandy Moore plopped down in the dentist's chair across from me, the chair where she poked holes through people's body parts. "Talk about crazy. Remember that lady, Wolf? The huge-ass Nordic woman with the scrunchy 'round her forehead?" She looked at me. "Comes in here one day, says she was in an airplane over the Bermuda Triangle and her tattoo disappeared. Fell off right there and evaporated into the sky. So she's demanding her money back. I tell her she can take a flying leap right back into the Triangle, and she vanishes into our bathroom. Stays there for a half hour. We finally pound on the door enough she opens up. Turns out she's cleaned our bathroom and washed our lunch dishes in the back of the toilet!"
"No laughing," Wolf muttered. "Still as stone," I said.
The phone rang and Mandy pushed a button on the cordless in her hand. "Wolf Ink. Yes, ma'am, I'm in here all day piercing. She's how old? Twelve? Can't do it. Sorry. State law. That's right, you do that." She punched the button again. "Idiot woman. You know she's going to take her daughter to some hack down an alley. Land her in the hospital. Shit. All for a ring in her belly button." She lurched out of the chair and stomped to the front desk.
"Weren't you having trouble with one of those guys?" I asked. "What's his name?"
"Asshole," Mandy said.
Wolf grunted. "Which one? There's too many to count. But you're probably thinking of Gentleman John—John Greene. He's one of the worst."
"Asshole," Mandy said again.
I twisted my head around so I could see Mandy. "I thought he got sued last year."
She snorted. "Three times. And there's more this year. Jerkoff. Makes the rest of us look like scum, too."
I laid my head back down. "You can't look bad. I mean, who could come in here and complain?"
The place was spotless. Detergents everywhere. In fact, that's the first smell that hit me when I walked in the door. The green soap surgeons use, antiseptic, alcohol. You name a cleaning solution, they probably used it.
"That's the problem," Mandy said. She came back and leaned against her chair, arms crossed. "The people who think badly of us don't come in. They think all tattoo artists are drug-addicted dirtbags."
"I guess they don't see the commendation from the Chamber of Commerce on your front window."
The plaque declaring the business a "non-smoking establishment" enjoyed a place of pride next to the door.
She snorted again, and leaned over to look at the tattoo Wolf was inking into my skin, her mane of brown hair brushing my face. "Looking good. It's your old farmhand's name, you said?"
I nodded and glanced down at my wrist. The image of a leather-banded ID bracelet was taking shape, with just Howie's name left to go. A little something to honor his memory.
"You going to have Wolf fix this sometime?" Mandy pulled up my sleeve to see my arm. The skin grafts had healed nicely over the past five months since my motorcycle accident, but it still left my "To thine own self be true" tattoo illegible and ugly.
"Sometime," I said. "When the scars heal a bit more."
Scars. Physical and emotional. The wreck had happened the same week I'd lost Howie, and it was still hard to face. Getting the tattoo on my wrist was a small step in the healing process.
"So where's Billy?" I asked Mandy.
She smiled, knowing I'd changed the subject on purpose. "My mom's house. Wolf and I have a meeting tonight that'll probably go late, assuming it's still on with this weather, so we thought it'd be better if he crashed with her. If school's not canceled, the bus will pick him up there in the morning."
"Handy," I said.
The door swung open, blasting in a frigid draft tinged with sleet.
"Shut the goddamn door," Wolf said. "I'm gettin' frostbite back here."
"Sorry." The man shut the door firmly, clicking it into place.
"So what's up, Tank?" Mandy said.
He looked like his name. Huge and solid.
"Wanted to see when I could get this guy filled in."
His arm was covered with a black and greywash dragon, the red flames shooting out its mouth the only spark of color.
Wolf paused in his work and looked up. "Uh, Tank—"
"You pay up from last time, we'll talk," Mandy said. "We aren't running a permanent tab for you."
Tank's face darkened. "I paid you."
"With what? A word of thanks?"
Wolf watched calmly while his wife stepped up belly to belly—more like chest to belly—with the would-be customer. "You were supposed to put some time in on our truck, Tank. Remember? Work out those dents Billy put in with his bike? Seems to me when I got in the driver's side this morning the door still looked like it had been attacked."
"I haven't had time," Tank said.
"Oh, I'm sorry. What is this, December? I would've thought you might've had half a day since July."
He shifted his weight awkwardly. "I've been busy."
"As have we. Come back when you're ready to do some body work. And I mean on our truck, not your arm."
Tank huffed and jutted out his chin. "Wolf?"
Wolf picked up the needle and got a fresh hold on my wrist. "You heard her, man. I ain't no charity. Gotta feed my family."
Tank clenched his hands into huge fists, made an animal-like snarl, and spun on his heel. He left the door flung wide open.
Mandy stalked to the door and slammed it shut. "Cheapskate. I heard through the grapevine he's been out of work. If he would've come in and told us he had money problems, we could've worked with him. But to act like he wasn't stiffing us..."
"So we turn him away," Wolf said. "No biggie."
Mandy tapped her finger on her teeth and peered out the front window. "Yeah. I guess."
The phone rang and Mandy plucked it off the counter, where she'd left it when Tank had come in. "Wolf Ink. Yeah, we're here. You want to reschedule? Not a problem. Can't blame you for not wanting to come from way out there. It's not supposed to let up by tomorrow, either. How 'bout the next day? We can get you in if you don't mind late evening. Say eight? You're in the book. Okay. Thanks for calling."
She hung up and turned to Wolf. "Angel's not coming. His wife said she wouldn't be pulling him from some ditch if he came out in this weather to get his body inked."
Wolf smiled. "Sounds a lot like our family, don't it, honey?"
She cheerfully gave him the finger while looking at their appointment book. "Stella's it, then. You get her done, we're closing up. No reason to hang out here if we can go home. Want to be sure we make it there."
I laughed. "You have a hard time walking upstairs to your apartment?"
"Hey, those steps can get icy." She started tossing Wolf's ink tubes into an ultrasonic tray. "I'm gonna load the autoclave. You got anything else to sterilize?"
Wolf shook his head. "Not yet. Can you put on some Stray Cats or something?"
"Sure, hon." She searched through a stack of CDs and slid one into the player, turning the volume up before heading toward the back. "Could just stick this dirty stuff outside and it would freeze off all the germs."
Wolf grunted a laugh, and Mandy disappeared into the back room. Wolf hummed under his breath, keeping time with the tattooed lead singer of the band, and I sneaked a peek at my wrist, where Wolf was finishing up the "w" of Howie's name. I also sneaked a peek at Wolf himself. Living up to his nickname, Wolf kept his beard full and his hair long. Dark chest hair curled out from the open V of his shirt, his wolf tattoo almost obscured by his hide. A wild man, in an attractive, alternative kind of way.
A crash from the back startled us both, and I bit my lip when Wolf poked me with the needle. "Sorry, Stella."
I shook it off.
"Hey, Wolf!" Mandy called from the back room. "Can you come here, please?"
He sighed deeply and sat back, putting aside the machine and pulling off his gloves. "Gimme a minute."
He left and I turned to see what it was looking like out the front window. Crap. I hoped he really would be back in a minute, or next thing I knew I'd be getting snowed in there. I didn't want to spend the night on Wolf and Mandy's floor. I laid my head back down to wait.
Twenty minutes later I jerked myself out of a catnap, groggy and cold. Late afternoon was a bad time to be reclining in a comfortable dentist's chair, and I was amazed the phone hadn't interrupted my doze. Must've been the weather. Folks weren't thinking about getting a tattoo when they were worried about blizzard conditions. But where the hell was Wolf? And why was I freezing?
"Wolf?" I struggled out of the seat, rubbing my eyes. "Mandy?"
I stuck my head through the doorway to the back room, and immediately saw why I'd been feeling a draft. The exit door at the far end of the room was wide open, snow and sleet pelting against it.
I stepped around the tray Mandy had been carrying. It was now on the floor, the equipment scattered across the vinyl. That must've been the crash we'd heard, right before Mandy had called Wolf to come back.
I looked outside briefly to make sure Wolf and Mandy weren't standing there, and saw no sign of them. The blowing snow had obliterated any footprints they may have made on the sidewalk or the steps up to their apartment.
"Wolf? Mandy?" My voice evaporated in the wind. I shut the door and stomped my feet off on the snowy mat.
A glance at the clock on the wall told me I had to be heading home if I had any thoughts of doing the evening milking.
I went back into the store and called Wolf and Mandy's apartment. No answer, except their machine. Well, crud. I looked down at my new tattoo —"How"—and tried to push down my irritation. There must be a good reason Wolf had deserted me mid-sitting. I guessed I needed to take care of myself and go home.
The A & D ointment lay on Wolf's counter, and I smeared some over the tattoo. I found the non-stick pads and unwrapped a sterile piece large enough to surround my wrist, taped it on, and pulled my sleeve gently over it.
A cube of Post-its sat on the desk, and I peeled one off, scribbling a message for Wolf to call me. I stuck it on the computer monitor, where he and Mandy would be sure to see it when they got back. I didn't leave any money. There would be plenty of time for that once Wolf finished the job.
Chapter TwoIt took me forty-five minutes to get home, a trip usually done in twenty. My truck plowed through the snow okay, but visibility wasn't worth crap. I finally pulled into a cleared-out space in my tractor barn and sat for a moment to close my eyes and rub my temples. I'd be seeing snowflakes that night in my sleep.
I hunched my head down toward my chest to make the trek to the house. Icy shards spat into my face, and I jogged through the snow drifting across the driveway. I flung the door open and scooted inside, slamming the door behind me.
"Glad to see you home." My farmhand's eyes were shadowed with concern, but she was smiling.
I shook the snow from my hat and slid my jacket off, pounding the snow off my boots. "Glad to be here."
A flannel shirt hung warm and cozy over Lucy's jeans, and she held out her foot to show me her wool socks, an early Christmas gift I'd given her to ward against the cold wooden floors of my house.
"Let me see! Let me see!" Tess flew out of the kitchen, her nose, chin, and shirt dusted with flour.
"Cookies?" I said.
Lucy made a face. "Just don't look in the kitchen. Eight-year-olds aren't exactly the neatest chefs."
"As long as I get to eat whatever you made, I don't care how messy she is."
"Where is it?" Tess asked, hopping on one foot.
"Well, it didn't exactly get finished. Give me a second and I'll take the bandage off. Then you can see it better."
"What happened?" Lucy asked.
"Not sure. Wolf and Mandy disappeared right in the middle of the sitting. Couldn't find 'em anywhere."
"That's strange." Lucy frowned.
"I know. But then, they're not exactly your run-of the-mill folks."
"But to take off in the middle of your tattoo ..."
I slipped off my boots and walked to the bathroom, Tess hopping along behind. At the sink, I gently pulled off the tape and tossed it and the gauze into the trash can. I held out my wrist so Tess could see it.
"How?" she said. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's going to say 'Howie,' for the man who was my farmhand before your mom."
"I didn't know him," Tess said.
I regarded her sadly. "No. You didn't know him."
We rejoined Lucy in the living room just as the timer on the stove hummed. Lucy padded back into the kitchen. "Oh," she hollered out. "Abe called."
"What did he want?"
"Said he's coming home for Christmas. Wants to know if you'll be around this week."
"Where would I go?"
"That's what I told him. Anyway, he said you can call him or let Ma know. Either way."
I thought about my once-upon-a-time-could-be-boyfriend, Abe Granger, now back in the regular-best-of-friends category, and realized how much I'd missed him since he'd returned to New York in August. I'd for sure make time for him this Christmas.
"Take a load off," Lucy said from the kitchen. "I'll bring you some milk and cookies."
"Sounds great." I dropped onto the sofa and set my feet on the coffee table. I had a few minutes till I needed to get out to the cows and freeze my ass off again. I was running a bit late, but it wouldn't take long to set up the cows in the milking parlor since they'd been there all day. Icy barnyards make for broken legs, so we weren't chancing it with the herd.
"Did the tattoo hurt?" Tess sat beside me, stretching her legs like mine; but she could only reach the coffee table with her toes.
"A little. When he's got the needle against my skin it stings, but as soon as he lets up the pain goes away."
She wrinkled her nose. "Was there lots of blood?"
"None at all. The needle doesn't actually poke through to my insides. It just goes through the top two layers of skin, so I don't bleed, just kinda ooze a little, like if I get cut."
Tess glanced over her shoulder toward the kitchen, then leaned toward me. "Can I get one for my birthday?"
I hid a smile, not wanting to dash her hopes too harshly.
"You know, that would be great, but you have to wait a few more birthdays."
She pouted. "How come?"
"It's the law. You have to be sixteen before the artist is allowed to give you a tattoo. And then only if your mom says yes."
"Says yes to what?" Lucy set a plate of candy cane cookies on the table between Tess' and my feet, along with three mugs of milk, her fingers hooked through the handles.
"For me to get a tattoo," Tess said.
I laughed at Lucy's expression. "When she turns sixteen. No sooner."
Lucy raised her eyebrows. "And even then we'll see."
I grabbed a cookie and licked buttery crumbs off my fingers. "Wow, these smell great."
Lucy sat across from us, a cookie in her hand. "I don't know. Tattoos aren't the safest thing."
"If you go to the guy breaking the laws," I said. "Come with me to Wolf Ink sometime, and you'll see another side. He's a pro all the way. And Mandy could pierce you anywhere you like."
"Oh, gross," Tess said.
I laughed again and picked up a couple more cookies. "I'm heading out."
Lucy stood. "I'll be there in a minute. I have to put a few more things in the crockpot."
We usually took turns with the milking—me in the morning, Lucy in the evening—but during this frigid weather neither of us wanted to be outside any longer than we had to, so we made it a joint effort. I went out to the foyer, where I pulled on my warm coveralls, dry boots, and a different stocking cap. I shoved another cookie in my mouth before pulling on my gloves. My remaining cookie I stuck in my pocket wrapped in a napkin for a mid-milking snack.
Excerpted from To Thine Own Self Be True by Judy Clemens Copyright © 2006 by Judy Clemens. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
First Line: "So I said to him, 'You know what could happen if I pierced you there?' The stooge went white so fast I thought he was gonna do a face plant right there on the linoleum!"Stella Crown lives in a Mennonite area of Pennsylvania and is a hard-working dairy farmer. She is also tattooed and rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle. She's used to be looked at with raised eyebrows; she's used to being treated as though she's from another planet.Shortly before Christmas, Stella decides to treat herself to a new tattoo and stops in at Wolf Ink to have it done. Halfway through the tattoo, Wolf's wife Mandy calls him to the back of the shop, and while he's gone the hard-working Stella falls asleep in the chair. When she wakes up, Wolf and Mandy have disappeared. Although she's not happy about the interrupted tattoo, she's also very uneasy about the disappearance of her friends. When Stella discovers that Mandy has been found frozen to death behind a dumpster outside Wolf Ink and that Wolf has vanished, her overwhelming sense of guilt has her helping the police with their investigation. The investigation soon starts looking into fringe tattooists (who ink underage kids and "forget" to change needles) and a legislator who wants to close down the entire industry. Between milking times and blizzards, will Stella have a chance to find out who killed Mandy and what happened to Wolf?I enjoy this series because Clemens has such a marvelous character in Stella and such an unusual setting. You may have sleuths who are tattooed and ride motorcycles, but chances are that they don't have to keep a dairy farm running. Many times amateur sleuths who are supposedly gainfully employed have time to gallivant over hill and dale day after day in pursuit of the bad guys. Stella doesn't. When those cows need milking, she has to be there. When the truck comes to pick up the milk, it has to be taken care of. This means that the mystery has to take a backseat from time to time for the daily work on a dairy farm. I like that realism.I also like the fact that Clemens lets me take a peek into worlds that are very unfamiliar to me: the worlds of the Mennonites, of dairy farmers, of tattoo parlors, and of motorcycles. With a down-to-earth character like Stella showing me the way, it's a pleasure to ride along while she solves mysteries.
Deciding to treat herself for the holidays, Pennsylvania dairy farmer Stella Crown drives to Wolf Ink to have artist Wolf etch her a new tattoo. While Wolf lectures Stella to stop moving, his wife Mandy tells her droll stories that keep her laughing. Mandy leaves for the back room, but soon asks Wolf to join her for a minute Stella dozes for twenty minutes. When she awakens from her catnap, she finds herself alone with only half the tattoo finished and the weather turning ugly. She goes home though the ride takes over twice as long as normal due to the falling snow. --- Soon afterward Lansdale Police Detective Shisler and Officer Beane arrive to question Stella about when she last seen Scott (Wolf) and Mandy Moore. After answering specific questions from the two cops, Shisler informs Stella that just outside the tattoo parlor Mrs. Moore froze to death after being hit on the head Wolf vanished. Feeling guilty because Mandy may have died while she left in a tizzy, Stella investigates an angry client and illegal tattooists working the under sixteen trade in back allies while never changing needles. --- The third Stella Crown amateur sleuth mystery is an entreating and educational tale that will have the audience appreciating the heroine¿s efforts as well as reconsidering the stereotyping of bikers and tattoo artists. The story line is driven by the Harley riding tattooed Stella who feels a sense of responsibly for Mandy¿s death though she knows she did not cause the tragedy. Her inquiry enables the audience to understand the damage caused by the back alley criminal tattooists (sounds like abortion before Roe vs. Wade) and the holier than thou legislators who condemn an entire industry due to these few miscreants. --- Harriet Klausner