Clay pointed at a squarish, rusty thing sticking out of the sand near the bottom of the excavation. “Do you know what that is, Willow?”
“A box?” At noon on the first day of summer, the sun was hot and directly overhead, but I shivered. How long had this mysterious box been hiding underneath my backyard?
Clay grinned down at me. I loved having to look up into a man’s face. I was nearly six feet tall, and Clay was taller. He asked, “Shall we find out?”
“Sure.” Another of the many things I liked about Clay was the way he was willing to include me in his schemes. And to play along with mine.
He threw a shovel into the hole and offered me a hand. “Will you be okay in those sandals? There could be nails and glass down there.”
His grip was firm, his hand warm and callused. Fortunately, I’d worn jeans, not a skirt, to work at my machine embroidery boutique, In Stitches, that morning. We skied, scooted, and leaped down the slope into the excavation where Blueberry Cottage used to be.
The cottage was now on a sturdy new foundation higher in my backyard, finally safe from floods. Clay had been burying the old foundation stones when his front-end loader had scraped against metal, and he’d fetched me from my apartment underneath In Stitches. I’d been about to fix lunch.
He picked up the shovel and eased it into the earth. The muscles in his bare arms bulged. Could he have found the long-lost Elderberry Bay Lodge treasure?
Yesterday, one of his employees had unearthed skeletal remains on the grounds of the newly renovated lodge. This morning, the women in my machine embroidery workshop had discussed almost nothing besides that skeleton. They said it had been found with a silver belt buckle engraved with Zs. Everyone guessed that the remains were Snoozy Gallagher’s.
Snoozy had owned the Elderberry Bay Lodge. About thirty years ago, when he’d been in his sixties, Snoozy had disappeared along with the contents of the lodge’s safe—a substantial amount of cash along with several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry belonging to the lodge’s patrons.
The heist had occurred during the afternoon before the final banquet at a jewelers’ convention, and each of those jewelers’ wives had arrived at the lodge prepared to outshine all the others.
It must have been an interesting evening.
For years afterward, everyone assumed that Snoozy had fled the area, but yesterday’s dreary discovery showed that he’d been buried on his own property, instead. Could his treasure have remained in Elderberry Bay, also, underneath the cottage that I’d bought, along with my shop and apartment, only a couple of miles from Snoozy’s lodge and final resting place?
Clay gently brushed sand off the box. It was almost big enough to hold one of the sewing and embroidery machines I sold in my shop. He stood back and leaned on the shovel. “I found the chest on your property,” he said. “It’s yours. You open it.”
The sun beat into the sandy pit. I knelt beside the box. Above us, Clay’s front-end loader stood silent, its bucket high and filled with soil. Without the gallant hero by my side, I might not have tried to budge the warped lid off the chest—I was afraid of finding someone’s bones.
I was even more afraid when I saw the wadded-up black plastic garbage bag inside the box. Swallowing hard as if gulping could give me courage, I touched the twist tie. It broke and fell away.
Barely breathing, I eased the top edges of the bag apart. I smelled the mildew before my eyes adjusted to the gloom inside the bag, and then I couldn’t believe what I saw.
The bag seemed to be full of small leather and velvet pouches, discolored and thinned by damp. Carefully, I lifted out a black velvet bag. It was heavy considering its size. I unlooped a fraying silken cord and peeked inside.
One thing about platinum and diamonds—they don’t tarnish or disintegrate, even after thirty years of being tied in a plastic bag and buried in a steel box in the sand.
First, Felicity banished my dogs.
Naturally, I objected. “When In Stitches is open, Sally-Forth and Tally-Ho always stay in their pen.” They could wag their plumelike tails at shoppers or trot downstairs to the apartment whenever they wanted a nap, snack, or drink.
Felicity glanced at my name tag, embroidered in willowy green script on white. “Willow—” She scrunched up her nose as if my name smelled. “Our guests may have allergies.”
Most of our guests would be my usual customers, ladies who came on the Threadville tour bus four days a week to shop and take classes in all of the crafty stores. Threadville tourists loved my dogs and had never complained about allergies.
However, Felicity was my guest—sort of—and I would have to put up with her only during the first part of the morning. Hiding my annoyance, I gave in and herded my two active dogs, a brother and sister, one of whose parents must have been a border collie, into the stairway to the apartment and closed the door.
That’s when the real reason for their banishment became clear. Felicity informed me that their vacant pen would be a perfect stage for our speeches.
Speeches? - page 1
Years ago, during the gawkiest of my teen years, well-meaning women gushed, “Willow,you’re so tall, you could be a model!” I knew they meant it as a compliment, but I’d had no interest in becoming a model. And now I was thirty-four, and I still didn’t want to be one.
So why was I stripping down to my undies and about to wear a series of peculiar outfits on a fashion show runway?
It was for a good cause, I reminded myself. The proceeds from the fashion show were going toward a scholarship fund for the Threadville Academy of Design and Modeling, TADAM for short, rhyming with madam. Scholarships at the school, which had opened only weeks before after amazingly speedy renovations during the summer, would mean that additional fashion design and modeling students would live in and visit Elderberry Bay, also known as Threadville. Our textile arts shops were thriving, but more customers were always welcome.
Besides, Ashley, the part-time assistant in my embroidery boutique, In Stitches, was a senior in high school. She wanted to learn fashion design here in Threadville where she could continue to live at home and work in my shop. Ashley’s talent should guarantee her a TADAM scholarship.
The shiny red polyester curtains surrounding our temporary dressing cubicles did not seem to belong in the luxurious conservatory where we were holding the fashion show, but at least we had some privacy.
Or did we?
A resounding slap came from the cubicle next to mine.
A man chuckled low in his throat. “If you think you’re going to be a model, you can’t be prudish about letting other people adjust your clothing.”
Curtains rustled. Shoes thwacked against the wood floor as someone strode away from the next cubicle.
I peeked out, but the man had disappeared. He must have walked down the narrow corridor between red-curtained cubicles and from there, out onto the stage.
The conservatory, a Victorian glass confection, was warm and humid, and smelled of damp earth and rich, green vegetation. High above, panes of glass glowed orange, tinted by one of mid-September’s spectacular sunsets.
To my right, in the direction the man had gone, a woman yelled, “Places, everyone!” She sounded angry.
It was going to be a long night.
“Gord?” A woman’s heartfelt plea fluted through the misty night.
Who was calling Threadville’s favorite doctor in that flirtatious tone? In less than a week, Gord was marrying Edna.
That voice was not Edna’s.
Dropping to a crouch behind the branches of a weeping willow, I put my arms around my two dogs, a brother-and-sister pair who were part border collie. Taking their cues from me, they remained silent, but they tensed against me.
“Gord!” The second plea was still bell-like, but now it was a command.
Mist drifted away, and the fairy lights in the gazebo-like bandstand on the hill above us were bright enough for me to see the woman on the riverbank.
I had never met her, but I knew who she was. She called herself Isis. Like many others, she was in Elderberry Bay for the Threadville Get Ready for Halloween Craft Fair. Halloween was just over four weeks away, and Threadville tourists and customers were keen to create costumes and decorations.
Isis bound books by hand, books she titled The New Book of the Dead, which, she claimed, tied her craft to Halloween. To me, it seemed like a bit of a stretch.
Was Isis in costume? Despite the evening’s foggy chill, she wore a sleeveless white gown with a gold cord tied around the empire waistline. She raised both hands, palms up, toward the sky. I squinted, but the fog kept me from figuring out what those small objects on her palms were.
I could have gone closer and introduced myself as Willow, one of the craft fair organizers, and also the owner of In Stitches, Threadville’s machine embroidery boutique. However, I was curious about Isis’s weird behavior. Okay, maybe I was just plain snoopy. I stayed hidden with my dogs, where we could watch without being seen.
Isis glided down the concrete boat launch ramp until water had to be lapping at the toes of her sandals. She stooped, placed the object from her right hand on the surface of the river, and intoned, “When your time comes, you will go to the afterlife I have chosen for you. I will join you there, eventually.” Then she raised her voice and called out in raspy, doom-filled tones, “Edna!”
As far as I could tell in the wispy mist, Edna was nowhere near. I held my breath. Quivering in my embrace, my dogs stared toward Isis.
She thrust the object from her left hand onto the water, pushed it down, and held it underwater. “Go,” she ordered, “to the deepest, darkest river! Go to the bowels of the Earth. Fall apart. Scatter. Go where you will never rise!”
The fog thickened, hiding Isis and enveloping the dogs and me in a cold gray cocoon that would keep Isis from seeing us. I shuddered. The little scene had turned nasty.
Hanging on to their leashes, I let the dogs pull me away from Isis and toward the dark trail that would take us along the river to our hillside apartment underneath In Stitches.
Isis’s voice rang out again. “Who’s there?”
I thought Sally-Forth and Tally-Ho might bark and give us away, but they only lowered their plume-like tails and sped their pace. No one answered Isis, but I heard footsteps, as if someone were running up the wooden access ramp leading to the bandstand, up the hill from me. I stopped the dogs and turned around. Distorted in the foggy glow, an elongated shadow flew through the mist in the bandstand. Isis, or someone else?
Farther away, down toward the beach, the fog parted, revealing a figure walking in a jerky gait with his arms held stiffly in front of his body, wrists bent, and palms down. He shambled up the hill toward where I’d seen Isis. He wore a dark suit with a 1930s silhouette, broad at the shoulders, narrow at the waist and hips, and lots of fabric in the pant legs. I couldn’t make out details of his black hair or whiter-than-white face, other than he appeared to have a large wound near his chin.
For the past couple of days, zombies had been booking into the Elderberry Bay Lodge for what they called a zombie retreat.
The zombies were . . . unusual.
They weren’t half as creepy as Isis.
Seeming totally freaked out, Sally-Forth and Tally-Ho tugged me to our apartment underneath my shop. The building was on a steep slope, so the apartment was mostly above-ground.
I gave the dogs extra treats, praised them, and, with Sally’s help, gave my half-grown black and white tuxedo kittens, Mustache and Bow-Tie, an outing in the back yard. Sally had taught the kittens from an early age to stay close to her when outside. She supervised them while they did their duties, and then herded them to the patio door.
For once, I was too worried to relax, wind down, and play with my four pets.
Isis had just threatened Edna, who was one of my favorite people.
And Isis was Edna’s houseguest.
The sky in the south brightened from pale apricot to delicate azure. The road ran along bluffs above Lake Erie, covered with ice resembling a quilt stitched together from patches of peach, periwinkle, and lime. I parked again and got out. Some of the photos I took showed the lake as if no human had ever touched it, but when I aimed the camera in another direction, I captured images of ice fishing huts dotted over the frozen bay. Smoke swirled from the chimney of one. An ATV was parked beside it.
I dove to the ground beside the driver’s door. Had the murderer followed me out of the village to take potshots at me?
The noise rocketed out onto the lake, too prolonged for a gunshot. The thick lake ice must have developed a sudden, and very long, crack.
- page 53