Daria has come up with a brilliant new plan to expand her seamstress business beyond stitching wedding gowns-historical sewing. And with Civil War re-enactors setting up camp in her hometown of Laurel Springs, Pennsylvania, she has plenty of opportunities, including one client playing a Confederate colonel who's a particular stickler for authenticity.
But soon the small-town peace starts coming apart at the seams as an antique doll is stolen from a Civil War exhibit and the cranky colonel is found impaled by his own bayonet. When Daria's brother is suspected of the theft and a bridal client's fiancé is accused of the murder, Daria is determined to untangle the clues to prove their innocence. She needs to get this case sewn up fast, though, before the murderer re-enacts the crime and makes her history.
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A Stitch in Time Mystery
By Greta McKennan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Greta McKennan
All rights reserved.
My first meeting with Colonel Windstrom was a disaster. He marched into my fitting room — previously the formal dining room of my Federal-style house — as if it were a military headquarters. A hefty man, his tread shook the floorboards, jiggling the bolts of cloth leaning on the built-in shelf along the inside wall and toppling a rag doll on the mantel. He narrowly missed knocking into my antique spinning wheel. He took no notice of the books on the Civil War I'd carefully selected from the library, or the framed portrait of a Union soldier that I'd borrowed from an old lady at church. His bluster disrupted the cozy atmosphere I tried to create with my ruffled white organdy curtains and the hot cider simmering on the sideboard.
"I'll need coat and breeches from the gray wool," he instructed me, without even a hello. "The shirt of white cotton broadcloth. Mind the stitches now. Anything that shows has got to look authentic." He pulled on his long, "authentic" moustache and scowled. "General Eberhart won't tolerate any Farbs in his outfit."
"Yessir, no Farbs," I repeated, wondering if a Farb was some new kind of Velcro. "You can count on me." I brandished my measuring tape to reassure him of my competence.
Colonel Windstrom glared. "Ms. Dembrowski, you don't even know what a Farb is, do you?"
I drew myself up to my full five feet three inches. It was the first time I'd ever faced down a colonel, of any description. "Actually, no," I said. "But you can be sure I won't be using any Farbs on your uniform."
Colonel Windstrom's laugh startled me. His pudgy face turned bright red and he snorted through his nose. "Do you know a thing about reenacting?" he barked. "A Farb is someone who doesn't care about history or an accurate portrayal of the period. He just wants to go out on a sunny day and shoot off some cannons. He'll make his uniform out of polyester if he feels like it." Colonel Windstrom wiped his face with a grimy handkerchief. "You obviously need to learn a thing or two about Civil War reenacting," he admonished me, as if I were seventeen instead of twenty-nine. He strode out the door without a backward glance.
I rolled my eyes at my cherished silhouette of Betsy Ross that hung above the mantel. Betsy Ross had been my hero ever since I did a project on her life in the fifth grade. I sewed a miniature felt flag and a mobcap for my presentation and pretended to be the illustrious seamstress. Even if no one could prove that she designed the first flag of the United States, she continued to inspire me as I focused more on historical projects in my sewing business, A Stitch in Time. I wondered how many belligerent patrons Betsy had to put up with in her day.
I hated to admit it, but Colonel Windstrom was right when he said I should learn more about reenacting. I got my first lesson later that very evening.
* * *
I didn't often do house calls, unless I was working on drapes or upholstery, but this time I made an exception. I'd never seen a Civil War reenactors' encampment before, and I wasn't going to miss this one. If I was lucky, I might get a few more uniform orders before the mock battle at the end of the week. I'd be well on my way to establishing myself as the premier historical seamstress of Laurel Springs, Pennsylvania.
I got off the bus on the outskirts of Turner Run Park. The reenactors had taken over. Normally the serene river valley, nestled between two wooded bluffs, hosted a few dog walkers or the Laurel High School cross-country team on a training run. Today rows of canvas tents filled the valley floor. Laid out in straight lines as if on a grid, they illustrated the kind of military discipline required from a commander who would not tolerate any Farbs in his outfit. Men squatted around campfires scattered among the tents. The smell of wood smoke mingled with the unmistakable odor of gunpowder. The scent reminded me of the Fourth of July — an ironic association for a camp filled with Confederate soldiers bent on dissolving the Union. The men all had beards and long moustaches, and wore homespun shirts or tattered uniform coats, with muskets and rifles propped carelessly by their sides. My heart beat a little faster as I approached these mock Civil War soldiers. I felt like I was taking a step back in time.
I glanced around the groups, wondering how I would find Colonel Windstrom, when all of a sudden I heard my name.
I peered through the campfire smoke to see a beefy soldier waving at me.
"Hey, Chris." I knew Chris Porter through my work on his fiancée's wedding gown. With the wedding coming up next week, I needed all the time I could get.
Chris lumbered to his feet and came over to me. He held out his arms and pivoted slowly around. "What do you think — Confederate soldier extraordinaire?"
My lips twitched, but I didn't laugh. Obviously General Eberhart wasn't paying enough attention because Chris was a Farb if there ever was one. His coat looked more like a Halloween costume than a period piece. I didn't even need to feel the fabric — I could see the unmistakable sheen of polyester. His cheerful face was bare of beard or moustache — not because he was too young, but evidently he just chose not to grow one.
"This is such a rush, Daria! I get to march with rifles with real bayonets and everything. How cool is that?" Chris plopped down on a log. "You wanna come sit by the fire?"
"Just for a minute." I sat down carefully beside him. "I'm here to see Colonel Windstrom." I blinked smoke out of my eyes. "I didn't know you were a reenactor."
"A buddy told me about it — he said they needed more soldiers. People keep quitting or something. So I snagged a coat and here I am. I'm taking a whole week off work to get the full experience."
"A whole week, with a wedding just around the corner? What does Marsha have to say about that?"
He shrugged. "She's got all the wedding preparations in hand, between herself and her mom. There's nothing for me to do." He tossed another log on the fire, dodging a spray of sparks. "So you're making a coat for Colonel Windstrom, eh?" Chris didn't even try to suppress his smirk. "What do you think of our fearless leader?"
"Fear-inspiring, more like. I'm not sure I'd want to hang around here all day listening to him criticize everyone."
Chris nodded. "True, he can be kind of a downer. Yesterday he pulled all the infantry aside for a lecture. He told us that if we weren't shopping at YeOldeReenactors.com, then we were Farbs and not worthy to be in this outfit."
I laughed. "YeOldeReenactors.com? Sounds like a cross between a New England sweet shop and eBay for history buffs. So are you shopping there?"
Chris gave me a sidelong glance. "Course I am — what do you think? Wouldn't want to stand out as a Farb, now would I?" He smoothed his shiny polyester coat with a wicked grin.
"Got it." I indicated the less-than-authentic coat. "Where did you get this, anyway?"
He leaned in close to whisper behind his hand. "There's a little costume shop on Baker Street, right next to the Keystone Playhouse. They sell leftover costumes from past shows. The Keystone did the musical The Civil War two years ago, and they wanted to get rid of the old costumes. I lucked out."
I mentally filed this information, ever on the lookout for leads for my sewing business. Maybe the Keystone would need a seamstress with historical expertise someday.
"There's a lot of interest in the Civil War these days," I said. "You know there's a Civil War movie filming in town right now. Do you guys have any interaction with them?"
"I dunno, they might want to film some of our skirmishes for background shots or something." He shrugged. "I just go with the flow."
A line of gray-clad soldiers marched past us, muskets held at the ready. I scanned their uniforms, looking for reassurance that I was on the right track with Colonel Windstrom's. Their coats came in a wide variety of colors: gray, butternut, and even some faded Union blue. "I don't get it, Chris. How come you guys are Confederate soldiers? There weren't any Southern troops in Laurel Springs, were there?"
"Nah, Laurel Springs was straight Union. But you can't have a battle with just one side, now, can you?" He lowered his voice to a dramatic whisper. "In actual fact, Daria, we're the bad guys."
Chris could never be the bad guy. He was one of the nicest people I had ever met. He worked in construction and remodeling — always a lucrative business in a town full of homes dating back to the early nineteen hundreds. The recession had slowed business a bit, Chris had told me, but he didn't think he'd get laid off. "I'm not worried," he'd said — three words that seemed to sum up his cheerful personality.
"So how come you're not wearing a hoop skirt?" Chris said. "I'll bet you could whip up a ball gown in no time."
I waved a persistent wisp of smoke away from my eyes. "I wouldn't need a ball dress to hang out with you soldiers, unless I just wanted to watch." I remembered a picture I'd come across in my research that showed women in long dresses and parasols standing on a hill watching the Civil War soldiers skirmishing down below. "If I wanted to fight for the glorious cause, I'd dress as a man, and you'd never know as long as I didn't get wounded or captured."
Chris slapped his knee in delight. "You got that right! In fact —"
Suddenly shouts and curses erupted from a tent about fifty yards away. I jumped and scooched a little closer to Chris.
"Who the hell has been messing with my stuff?" A stocky soldier stomped out of the tent, clutching a haversack in one hand and a small wooden box in the other. "You guys may think you're funny," he shouted, waving both arms for emphasis. "If I find out who did this, I'm taking him straight to the general!"
I leaned forward to look at the haversack dangling by its strap from the soldier's hand. A splash of red paint marred the flap of the small canvas bag. Dripping red letters spelled out the word FARB. The box bore the same message. I looked anxiously at Chris.
He shrugged. "Some guys want everyone to believe that they're really Civil War soldiers. I guess you could call them fanatics. They're messing with the guys who don't live up to their standard of perfection."
I reached out to touch Chris's polyester coat. "Are they messing with you?"
"Nah." He shrugged. "What can they do to me? I'm not worried."
I looked again at those red letters, paint dripping like blood, and shivered.
The commotion didn't faze Chris. He merely stood up, brushed some dirt off the seat of his pants, and led me to a cluster of larger, more imposing tents. "I think Colonel Windstrom's in a briefing with the general, but I'm not sure."
A smooth-faced sentry stood in front of the colonel's tent, musket held at the ready.
"Are these things loaded?" I said to Chris, waving a hand at the gleaming musket.
He looked me straight in the eye. "Of course, ma'am. You never know when the enemy might strike."
I shot him a sharp glance. "Are you trying to be funny?"
"We're supposed to stay in character at all times," he whispered with a grin. "I try to keep up appearances when the brass are looking."
I shook my head as Chris spoke to the sentry. The sentry was short, clearly a teenager. He wore a gray kepi pulled low over his eyes, so I couldn't see much of his face. No beard or moustache covered his strong jaw. Sandy curls peeked out from the back of his cap — he wore his hair long like boys did in the 1860s.
Chris turned to me. "Colonel Windstrom is busy, Daria. Private Rawlings is going to talk to the sergeant."
I was about to protest, when the sergeant stepped out of the tent. A tall man with a dark brown beard and moustache, he wore a tidy gray uniform coat over dark gray trousers and shiny black boots. He moved with a quiet military grace that came straight out of Gone with the Wind. When I held out my hand to introduce myself, he took it gently and bowed down to lightly kiss the back of my hand. No one had ever kissed my hand before, not even in jest. It didn't matter that I wasn't dressed in silk and petticoats — he saw me as a Southern belle. I could feel a sappy grin creep over my face as he lifted his eyes to mine. He had deep brown eyes, so dark you could barely see the pupils. They were eyes to get lost in.
The sergeant smiled, his whole face lighting up. "I'm Sergeant Jim Merrick," he said. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma'am."
"I'm Daria Dembrowski." I could feel the blush rising on my cheeks. "I'm making a uniform for Colonel Windstrom. I just needed to take a few more measurements."
"I won't hear another word!" a voice thundered from inside the tent. I jumped with a slight gasp. Sergeant Merrick smiled apologetically. "The colonel is busy at the moment. May I show you around until he's ready?" He held out his arm and tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow. I said goodbye to Chris, who headed back to his fireside with a cheery wave.
Jim Merrick walked me slowly through the tents, pointing out the cook tent, the infirmary, and even the photographer's quarters. "We have a camp photographer traveling with us for a few weeks," he said. "All the men want to have formal portraits taken to send to their loved ones back home."
It took me a minute to realize that I was talking to a Civil War soldier, not a twenty-first century man playing dress-up. This reenacting stuff would take a bit of getting used to. But I could play along. "So, it's the middle of the Civil War, huh? Where's back home to you?"
Jim flashed me a brilliant smile, obviously delighted by my willingness to get into the spirit of the game. "I hail from Tift County, down in Georgia," he drawled in a southern accent worthy of Clark Gable. "I'm a wheelwright, by trade. When this war is over, I hope to take up that useful pursuit once more."
I nodded slowly, chewing the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. "A wheelwright? So what's that? You make wagon wheels or something?"
"Or something." Jim glanced down to see if I was really interested. "I work with wood, constructing the hub, spokes, and rim of the wheel, which is then reinforced with iron by the village blacksmith. Henry Fleisher and I work as a team, back home in Tifton."
"And the loved ones, back home in Tifton? Is there a Mrs. Merrick waiting at home for you?" I didn't usually ask such personal questions right off the bat, but the game seemed to allow it.
"Indeed yes," he replied. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a worn leather wallet. He fished through it to extract a tiny daguerreotype of a young woman, which he held out to me. "My dear Susannah, that is, Mrs. James Merrick."
I bent over the little picture, admiring the striking features under the modest ruffled bonnet. With her high cheekbones and dark, arching eyebrows, Mrs. James Merrick was a beautiful woman. A fitting partner for the attractive sergeant by my side. I caught myself feeling an absurd sense of disappointment, as if it mattered to me whether or not Jim Merrick had a gorgeous wife at home. I shook myself mentally. "She's very lovely."
He tucked the picture back into his wallet. "Yes, she is." He extended his arm to me again with a half bow. "Shall we continue our tour?"
Jim steered me away from a smoky campfire on our way back to the officers' tents. I noticed a small tent off by itself under some trees. I didn't see a campfire near it, like with all the others.
"What's that tent over there?"
"Hmm? Oh, that? It's the isolation tent." He gave me that apologetic smile again. "You need discipline in any army, you know."
"You're kidding. What, it's like the box in movies, where you lock up the guy for ..." My words faltered. I could tell by the look on his face that that's exactly what it was. "Wow," I said. "So is it pretend, or are you really disciplining guys in there?"
Jim gave just the hint of a small, mysterious smile.
We returned to Colonel Windstrom's tent, and Jim murmured to Private Rawlings, who nodded curtly.
"The Colonel will see you now," Jim said. He removed my hand from his arm and held it for a moment, his deep brown eyes fixed on mine. Then he bowed over my hand and once again kissed it ever so lightly.
My heart pounded. I dropped a little curtsy, wishing I had worn a ball gown, or at least a pretty sundress, instead of my faded blue jeans. Maybe another day ...
Jim turned and walked away, leaving me to enter the colonel's tent alone.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim light within. Colonel Windstrom's tent was crowded with a cot and chipped washstand in one corner, a trunk and traveling chest of drawers in another, and a large folding table surrounded by several camp chairs crammed into the middle. The stuffy smell of warm canvas intensified the claustrophobic feeling of the enclosed space.
Excerpted from Uniformly Dead by Greta McKennan. Copyright © 2017 Greta McKennan. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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