On her morning jog, Portia Paltrow comes upon the dead body of antiques store owner and college professor Owen Hill, sprawled across the back doorstep of Selma Parker's fabric and quilt shop on Elderberry Road. The site of their Saturday morning quilting bee just became a crime scene. Violent crime is rare in the charming village of Crestwood, Kansas, and rumors are soon circulating of a burglary gone wrong. But who would rob a quilt shop? No, Owen Hill has been murdered.
Selma and her assistant manager Susan are understandably at loose ends over the crime. So while the tightly knit covey of quilters-who range from a new mother to a wise octogenarian-work together on a Crystal Pattern quilt for Selma's store's anniversary, they also get busy stitching together a patchwork of clues. But they'd better work fast-before a crafty killer bolts . . .
Previously titled Murders on Elderberry Road
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Sunshine and Shadow
Portia Paltrow stood at the kitchen door and looked out into the early morning light. The autumn sun was beginning its climb into the sky, and in the distance Po heard the yawning, muted sounds of a town waking up: the bark of the Sterlings' dog, the chug of a car engine, the sharp slap of the morning paper against the steps.
In spite of a busy week — two article deadlines and several talks over at the college — Po needed the run even more than sleeping in. So she'd compete with the co-eds jogging along the river, sleek and colorful in their bright Spandex, ignore the rounded contours of her own sixty-something body, and start the Saturday off right.
She smoothed a dab of sunscreen across her cheekbones and down her nose, pressed a baseball cap onto her salt-and-pepper hair, and grabbed a plastic water bottle. Go, Po, go, she whispered to herself.
Po closed the door softly behind her — a habit born of living with Scott Paltrow for all those years. Her husband had been a light sleeper, waking at the brush of a branch against the window screen or the sound of distant thunder, and for thirty-plus years Po had tiptoed through her precious early morning hours while her husband slept away the sunrise in snoring bliss.
Wrapping her fingers around the side porch railing, Po stretched the sleep from her arms and legs, smiling into the early morning thoughts of Scott Paltrow. It was a good way to begin her run — with memories as alive today as they ever were. He had loved that she jogged, loved that she returned sweaty and flushed and planted wet wakeup kisses on his sleeping forehead. Scott had loved everything about her, and she him.
Po straightened up, tucked her memories back into her heart, and headed down the brick driveway and into the day.
"Hey, Po, don't you go outrunning those college gals, now, you hear?" old Mr. Garner shouted from across the street, shaking his newspaper at her and following it with a loud guffaw.
Po laughed and waved back, then headed down the street at a slow pace. She relished the solitude that her morning jog afforded her, that quiet as soft as a baby's breath. She loved the smells, too, powerful in the early morning — sweet flowers in the spring, and the crisp, earthy aroma of fallen leaves and northern air in the fall. The quiet neighborhoods seemed to open up to her at this hour, and remind her why she'd never leave this small college town, not after Scott died and her sister tried to lure her to Florida; not now and probably not ever, although her older and wise quilting friend Eleanor Canterbury cautioned her never to think in finalities.
It wasn't just that she and Scott had shared a full life here, bringing their three children to the small town, raising them and making lifelong friends while Scott guided Canterbury College to new heights. Somehow the town had grown around her and into her in ways she couldn't explain nor completely understand. And she loved being in its embrace.
Po headed east, following the sun as it crept above the aging pines lining the horizon. A short mile into her run, she slowed slightly and turned onto the gravel alley that ran behind one row of the Elderberry shops, a collection of small neighborhood stores that lined both sides of Elderberry Road. Scott had often joked that someday when their bones started to creak and they couldn't drive anymore, they'd just hobble down to Elderberry for everything they needed — their books, their wine and cheese, and that extravagantly strong coffee that Marla had started making in her bakery café.
Like many streets in the town and the Emerald River that ran through it, the alley curved like a slithering snake, this way and that. Every year the shopkeepers argued about paving it, but it remained a plain, old gravel alleyway, and, Po suspected, it would remain that forever.
She stayed close to the entrance edge of the alley, out of the way of early morning delivery trucks that sometimes came barreling through the narrow way, spitting gravel from beneath their wheels. The trucks didn't stop for love nor money — and especially not for a sixty-year-old woman whose jog was more of a lope, whose short ponytail was streaked with gray, and whose mind was often on other things than alley traffic.
But today the alley seemed to be all her own, strangely quiet with only the occasional squirrel darting out in front of her, staring her down, then scampering away as if he'd won some game he was playing with her.
On one side of the alley, a long row of tall evergreens, euonymus bushes and spireas hid the neighboring houses and large, toy-strewn yards. On the other, a quiet bank of store backs, as familiar to her as her jogging route, stood dark and still.
Po slowed down to a walk as an uncomfortable prickling came over her. She rubbed the back of her neck, then turned, looking behind her, half expecting to see someone there.
It was the quiet, she thought. The alley off Elderberry Road was too quiet.
This area was closer to early morning activity than the neighborhood in which she lived. Coffee shops would be opening up, occasional cars and bikes moving along Elderberry Road. But today the alley behind the shops seemed impervious to morning noises, as if some bubble were covering it from the rest of the world.
A silly thought, she scolded herself, and tried to shake it away. But the feeling refused to budge.
Maybe she should have checked her horoscope that morning. Something was askew in the planets. But it certainly had nothing to do with a morning run.
She took a deep breath and looked at the back of the Windsor House Antique Shop. The elegant red brick building, filled with priceless antiques, was the oldest on the block. And its owners, Mary and Owen Hill, kept it in impeccable shape, redoing the tucking periodically and painting the white trim around the windows and doors.
Po frowned as her gaze settled on the back door, its brass fixtures always polished, its address as shiny on the back door as it was in the front. But it looked different today. The brass lacking luster, the door looking neglected somehow. And around the door, the molding lacked its usual fresh coat of paint.
She made a mental note to mention it to Owen. Although he helped his wife run the shop, he was also on the board of the Elderberry Shop Owners Corporation and a generous and kind town benefactor. Not to mention being the best damn Canterbury College department chair Scott Paltrow had ever hired — a phrase Scott had used often when talking about his good friend and chair of the art history department.
Po often wondered how the couple — and Owen especially — managed everything they had on their schedules. But in spite of being busy, they were fastidious in keeping Windsor House looking grand, holding it up as an example, some thought, to the other shop owners.
She turned away from the door, then glanced back once more and wondered what was the matter with her, noticing peeling paint on a morning jog. It was the alley, she thought, the unfriendly vibe it was casting her way.
She began to jog slowly down the alley again. Anxious, somehow, to reach its end and move on to the peaceful river path a few blocks away.
She glanced at several chattering blue jays cleaning yesterday's crumbs from the small patio beside Marla's Bakery and Café.
Next door, Flowers by Daisy was dark and quiet, too. And that made her slow again.
"Now that is strange," Po said aloud, nearly colliding with an old metal dumpster parked near the back door of Daisy's shop. The trash bin was an ugly beast with a heavy lid that could kill a person, a complaint Po often heard from the shopkeepers. Next to it, the double doors that led into Daisy's workroom were tightly closed, no light sneaking through the thick, smudged windows at the top.
She glanced at her watch. Daisy should be pulling up blinds about now. Her shop was always the first on Elderberry Road to show signs of life on Saturday morning. Rising at dawn, Daisy was first in line at the Kansas City Farmers' Market to make sure she got the best of the fresh flower pickings. The owner's battered pickup would be parked beside the back door, and Daisy herself would be hoisting baskets filled with fresh flowers and plants from the truck bed and carrying them into the shop.
The middle-aged florist was a puzzle to Po; she found the most beautiful plants and cut flowers in a one-hundred-mile radius and brought them back to Crestwood to sell in her store; she arranged them in buckets and vases that rivaled arrangements Po had seen in fancy hotels and at elegant events. But beyond the flowers, Daisy's shop was a lesson in bad taste, with rotting window boxes holding plastic flowers, and a clutter of objects that caused some of the shop owners to compare it to a miniature golf course.
Rumors at the hair salon Po frequented, a modest place on the other side of the road, insinuated that Owen Hill and two other directors of the Elderberry Shop Owners Corporation had come down hard on Daisy, telling her to shape up and fix up the front of her shop or face fines. In a rage, Daisy had thrown a pot of mums at Owen's fancy sports car.
An anger management course was definitely in order, some said. Po considered it a reasonable suggestion. But eccentricities and angry outbursts aside, Daisy never let her Saturday morning customers down. She promised them the finest flowers and plants in Crestwood for weekend parties and weddings and special events, and she always came through for them.
Po walked up to the back door, then checked a small parking area to see if Daisy's truck was hidden by the trash container. Nothing. She felt a slight twinge, then dismissed it immediately.
How had she allowed a peaceful run to turn into irrational worries about things that were none of her business?
But as foolish as her thoughts were, they remained lodged in her head, niggling at her as she jogged on, beyond the wine and cheese shop, the bookstore.
Even the site of her dear friend Selma Parker's fabric and quilt shop, a roomy old store that anchored the far end of the block, didn't dismiss the sense that something wasn't right on Elderberry Road.
Po wiped one hand across her forehead, banishing the moisture that had no right being there, considering it had taken her ten minutes to travel the length of a short alley block. Not exactly cardiac-worthy.
A shrill cat cry pierced through the air and Po stopped abruptly, her sneakers sending gravel spewing in all directions. She pulled off her sunglasses, searching for the source of the plaintive sound.
An injured animal?
Walking back a few steps, then forward again, she took in a lungful of air and peered into shadows between the shops.
She walked a few steps across the alley and leaned down low, peering beneath the thick, tangled branches of the spirea bushes that had long lost their flowers.
"Here, kitty, kitty," she coaxed.
The cat answered almost immediately, but not from the bushes. Po straightened up and shifted her attention to the other side of the alley, back to the line of shops. She squinted, her eyes moving across the back of Selma's shop, around a bike rack and trash containers, then finally settled on what she was looking for. Looking proud and officious, the cat stared at her. It was sitting on the lid of one of the trash bins at the edge of Selma's store. The cat was coal-black, nearly invisible on the black bin. Its tail batted the air, then the bin, in rhythmic, deliberate swoops. It stared intently at Po, its green eyes like piercing lights in the shadows cast by the back of the store.
"Are you looking for food, you sweet thing?" Po asked. She walked slowly toward the cat, holding out one hand, her fingers coaxing it closer.
But the animal didn't move.
"I'd head back to Marla's bakery if I were you. I suspect you'll find much better pickings at her back door than you will here."
Seeming to heed Po's suggestion, the cat jumped off the dumpster. But instead of heading back down the alley, it ran directly to the back door of the quilt shop, pulling Po's gaze along with it.
And then, in an instant, Po saw it. What that lovely black cat had wanted her to see all along.
The back door of Selma Parker's quilt shop. It was open. Not all the way, but enough for the cat to slip in and out. And holding it open just as sure and steady as one of Daisy's stone garden urns was the still body — or, more precisely, the right foot — of dear Owen Hill, the best damn department chair Canterbury College had ever had.CHAPTER 2
Trail of Friendship
Kate Simpson had been back in Crestwood for eighteen months, and a member of the Crestwood Quilters for almost half that time. And in all those months, she had never been on time for a single Saturday quilting session. Today, unfortunately, would be no exception.
Kate ran down the back steps of her childhood home on Evergreen Street, slinging a worn backpack over one shoulder as she jumped on her bike. "Geesh," she muttered as she peeled down the drive, spewing gravel in all directions. A tangled mass of streaked hair fanned out behind her.
"You're late, little Katie," old Danny Halloran shouted. He was ambling up the driveway next door, his Saturday Kansas City Star tucked firmly between his loose-skinned arm and a plaid bathrobe flapping open and shut against his knobby knees.
Nearly five foot eight in her stocking feet — and at least three inches taller than her elderly neighbor — Kate wasn't called little by many people. But she'd always be that to old Danny, who'd lived next door to the Simpsons since before Kate was born.
"I'd be even later, Danny," she called back, "if those blasted sirens hadn't knocked me straight out of bed. What the heck is going on?"
Danny was always up at dawn, and at the first sound of the sirens, he'd have headed straight for his police scanner.
"Don't know yet, sweetheart. Doggone scanner wasn't working this morning; darn thing isn't worth a tinker's dam. But even with this confounded hearing aid" — he pointed with his free hand to his ear — "I sure heard 'em. I'm guessing it's a fire over near the college. Or maybe one of those crazy fraternity parties tearing the town apart." He shook his round, bare head. "Damn crazy kids. What's the world coming to?"
"Hard to say, Danny," Kate said. "But what I do know is that you're heading for a case of pneumonia if you don't get back in that house. Besides, that flapping robe is making me think I'll be seeing something I definitely don't want to if you don't cover up. You're godawful indecent."
"Bossy as my Ella," he shot back to her. "I told your ma she shouldn't let you go off to that hippie school in California. Get on with you now. And let me know what all that racket's about, you hear?" He swatted the air with the rolled-up newspaper and struggled up the steps to his door.
Kate waited to be sure he made it safely inside, then pedaled down the quiet street and around the corner toward the Elderberry shops. She'd promised Po she'd at least try to be on time this week, though she suspected her godmother would be happy enough if she just showed up.
The weekly meetings were important to Po, and Kate knew exactly why. And the reason reluctantly touched her, though being in a quilting group didn't. It was the last thing she wanted in her life right now. But it made it easier for Po to honor the request Kate's mom had made to her before she died last year.
"Keep in touch with her, Po. Be there for her. But she needs to move on, to live the life she was building in California." No one told her that's what her mom said. But she knew that's what she would have said to her closest friend. Or something close to it.
"Let her go, then call her often," her mother would have said.
Kate had abandoned that other life in the blink of an eye when her mother got sick. She knew the life was still out there — regular calls from friends and even her San Francisco employer who was still holding her editing job told her as much. She missed them terribly, missed the city vibe and the small towns down the coast. She missed visiting UC Santa Cruz and the Bohemian vibe she loved so when she was a student there. She missed the ocean, the high wild surf that sent her body soaring in the air as if defying gravity. And she missed Jake. Quiet and understanding and patient.
But for reasons even Kate herself didn't completely understand, she'd postponed going back to her Berkeley apartment after her mother died. "Not yet," she had told Po and anyone else who asked, "but soon," though Kate herself couldn't quite define what that meant. Somehow her mom's illness and the days Kate had spent caring for her, feeding her, holding a glass of water and straw for her to sip, had defied a concept of time.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Patchwork of Clues"
Copyright © 2019 Sally Goldenbaum.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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