Authors: Marjory Sorrell Rockwell
Marjory Sorrell Rockwell
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To Michele who didn’t buy it.
To Bob who couldn’t sell it.
To Hollis who had faith in it.
Quilter’s Club Mysteries
By Marjory Sorrell Rockwell
The Underhanded Stitch
The Patchwork Puzzler
Sewed Up Tight
addy Madison was jubilant that her husband Beau had been elected mayor of Caruthers Corners. It was a landslide victory, with him running unopposed after the former mayor resigned in disgrace – a little matter of stealing a historic ruby ring. Retrieved, the ring was now on display at the local Historical Society.
“Good thing Beau got the mayor’s job,” Maddy admitted to her friends at the Quilter’s Club. They met every Tuesday at the Community Center. “He would’ve had to close down the hardware store anyway, what with that big Home Depot opening up on the far side of town.”
“The point is, he’ll make a good mayor,” her friend Lizzie Ridenour said. Lizzie’s husband was a retired bank president and wielded a lot of political clout hereabouts.
“I think it was smart of him to run on an ‘honesty’ campaign,” commented Bootsie Purdue, whose hubby was the police chief. The former mayor had left a taint on the office. “Honesty’s a good theme, considering the last mayor had to resign due to financial shenanigans.”
“Beau could’ve run on any ol’ campaign promise, don’t matter what,” asserted Cookie Bentley (now having a new last name due to her recent marriage). “His great-great grandpa being a town founder is pedigree enough for local voters.”
As testament, a marble statue of Colonel Beauregard Hollingsworth Madison – one of the original patriarchs of the tiny Indiana town – stood proudly in the center of the grassy town square. Maddy’s husband of nearly forty years was the Colonel’s direct descendent. Beau Madison IV was proud of his distinguished family tree.
Caruthers Corners (population 2,577) was indeed a community that placed great value on its heritage. The town’s early days as an Indian territory was acted out in a pageant every year during Watermelon Days. A popular festival hereabouts, you could always count on having a traveling carnival with a Ferris wheel, a watermelon-eating contest in front of the courthouse, and a big patchwork quilt display. People dressed in old-timey costumes ranging from coonskin caps and fringed leather shirts to bonnets and hoop skirts.
The Quilter’s Club – these days consisting of Maddy, her friends Lizzie, Bootsie, and Cookie, as well as Maddy’s granddaughter Agnes – was in charge of the quilt display each year. Made up of local entries, a premium was placed on the relevance of each design to some facet of Caruthers Corners history. However, this year there was a twist: they had arranged for a special showing of works by a legendary quilt-maker, Sarah Connors Pennington.
Sarah Pennington was a turn-of-the-century Amish woman whose handmade quilts were considered masterpieces of the needlecraft art. Thirty-seven were known to exist, discovered by her grandniece while cleaning out the attic of the Pennington homeplace in Pennsylvania.
She had donated them to the Smithsonian with the condition they be placed on a traveling exhibit. As secretary of the Caruthers Corners Historical Society, Cookie Bentley had made arrangements for the display. Surprisingly, given Indiana’s large Amish population, the Pennington quilts had never before been shown in this part of the state.
Little did the Quilter’s Club suspect that these famous needlework designs included a counterfeit that would threaten Beau’s position as town mayor.
The Madisons were all a-dither over the news that daughter Tillie was pregnant, a little sister for Agnes. After a troubled patch in their marriage, Tillie and her lawyer husband – “Mark the Shark,” Maddy called him – had relocated back home to Caruthers Corners and set about adding to their family.
In addition to expecting a new baby (due any day now), they had adopted Tige, a dog of undetermined heritage. “Heinz 57,” was the description applied by Mark Tidemore. He was pleased to see his daughter take responsibility for grooming and feeding the family pet. Tige rarely left his young mistress’ side.
Aggie could be seen walking her shaggy little pooch in the town square across from the big Victorian house where she now lived. At 10, she was in Mrs. Shelton’s fourth-grade class at Madison Elementary.
That week before the annual Watermelon Days festival Aggie helped the Quilter’s Club unpack the Sarah Connors Pennington exhibit: 12 of the 37 known originals. The colors were dazzling, fire-engine reds and canary yellows and cobalt blues. The designs were abstract, yet reminiscent of log cabins and cornfields and sunflowers. “A genius of the needlecraft art,”
had termed Sarah Pennington’s unique motifs.
“Oh my,” said Maddy as she unfurled a quilt that practically vibrated with yellow-and-brown dome shapes. “Isn’t this truly magnificent!”
“Is that supposed to be a beehive?” asked Aggie, face squinched as she studied the colorful design.
“Here’s a clue,” teased Lizzie, pointing to a tiny image sewed into the upper left-hand corner: a honeybee in flight.
Aggie squealed with delight, her enthusiasm setting Tige to barking like a fur-covered maniac.
Yip! Yip! Yip!
“Shush,” said Maddy, but it took a word from her granddaughter to actually calm the dog down.
Following instructions from the Smithsonian, the members of the Quilter’s Club were wearing white latex gloves like a surgeon might don. A precaution against oily skin and dirty hands damaging the fabrics. Sarah Pennington’s quilts had been appraised at $40,000 each.
Any one of these quilts exceeded Beau Madison’s annual salary as mayor.
Maddy was a pleasant-looking woman who at first glance might remind you of that actress Ellen Burstyn, her light brown hair furled around her face in a short efficient bouffant. Maybe she could have done without a pound or two, but no one would dare ca
ll her overweight. She maintained a steady-as-you-go 140 pounds – this, despite her habit of cooking three square meals a day for her family.
No matter how much he ate, her husband Beau remained thin as a rail, a tallish man who looked like James Cromwell, the actor who starred in that pig movie called
If you continued to cast the Madison family as movie stars, daughter Tillie could have been played by pretty Diane Lane, and her hubby Mark was a Dylan McDermott type. And Agnes might have been accurately portrayed by Dakota Fanning’s younger sister.
As for members of the Quilter’s Club, this movie-star game got a bit more difficult. Bootsie would’ve been a great role for, say, Tyne Daly. Cookie was a Patricia Clarkson wannabe. And Lizzie – well, Rita Moreno could have nailed the role in younger days.
You take it from there. Maddy thought this fantasy casting was a silly exercise, for she knew nobody was going to make a movie about four middle-aged women who solved crimes – the Quilter’s Club at your service.
Still she couldn’t help but play this game as she watched that new Jack Nicholson comedy at the Majestic in Burpyville.
An 80-mile roundtrip, the Majestic was the closest movie theater to Caruthers Corners, so a night at the cinema was a special treat for the Madisons.
This trip, it was just Beau, Maddy, and their granddaughter Aggie – providing Tillie and Mark a rare evening to themselves. Not that the couple would be out painting the town, what with Tillie pushing the last trimester of her pregnancy. This would likely be one of the last peaceful evenings at home they would enjoy for the next year or two, because Tillie Tidemore believed in hands-on mothering, something she had in common with her own mom.
“Popcorn?” Maddy whispered, offering the bag to her husband. But Beau was caught up in the comedy up there on the silver screen, ol’ Jack at his driest wit, as a man unaware of his own shortcomings.
Her husband was a bit like that, thought Maddy with a certain fondness. Not that his faults were large. It’s just that he bumbled through life, on a straight course, never glancing right or left, intent on reaching a destination that no one else could see.
He would make a good mayor, for he loved Caruthers Corners, its people, and its heritage. A do-gooder at heart, he was a perfect visage of Christmas Future for their son Bill, himself a man intent on saving the world. So much alike that they had always been slightly at odds.
Their other children – Tillie and Fred – were more like their mother. Clever, daring, imbued with an insatiable curiosity. But not Bill and his dad, two guys who knew all the answers, even if these answers were somewhat simple and moralistic.
Maddy had grown up reading Nancy Drew mysteries – perhaps that’s where she got her penchant for crime-solving. A good talent to have, as she was about to find out in these hot summer days preceding
the annual Watermelon festival.
en Bentley was as short and wide as a hay-bailing machine. Even in his late fifties, his physique was mindful of that high-school boy who had twice won the state wrestling championship. He was Cookie’s second husband, her first having died in a bizarre tractor accident. With that in mind, Ben foreswore ever wearing a scarf while plowing his fields on chilly mornings. Wasn’t this how that famous dancer Isadora Duncan met her fate? Well, not on a tractor, but the result was the same.
Ben’s sister Becky had happily taken over Cookie’s historic home in the heart of town, while Cookie moved into the Bentley farmhouse. Kind of like an exchange program, with both sides thinking themselves the winner.
To add her personal touch to the old farmhouse, Cookie had been busily shopping for antiques. Daniel Sokolowski – local proprietor of Dan’s Den of Antiquity – was enjoying a windfall increase in business as a result.
It was Sokolowski who first raised the alarm about the authenticity of the treasured Pennington quilts.
Dan’s Den of Antiquities had been located on Main Street as long as anyone could remember. Dan, a wizen little man in his 80s, was said to be a Polish refugee who had come over from Europe with his parents just before World War II – one step ahead of t
hose Storm Troopers who were rounding up Jews, Gypsies, the infirm, and anyone else they didn’t particularly like. Dan never talked about his family’s past.
The antique shop was a repository for both trash and treasures: Plain glass milk jugs sat next to rare carnival glass in pinks and greens. Lone Ranger silver bullet pencil sharpeners resided on shelves beside six-piece sterling silver tea services. Handmade Amish furniture sat next to genuine Chippendale chairs. Queen Anne imitations resided alongside Louis XIV originals.
Pathways wandered throughout the tiny shop, 33
record albums stacked on one side, old
magazines on the other. Oval mirrors with gilt frames stared back at you. Paintings of long-forgotten ancestors crowded the store’s rose-colored walls.
Other than an outlet store at the chair factory, and these dusty items at Dan’s Den of Antiquity, the closest furniture store was over in Burpyville.
Burpyville was a slightly larger town just down the Wabash River on the way to Indianapolis. Indy being the state capital, a city of some 800,000 residents – pretty big compared to Caruthers Corners’ 2,000-plus souls.
Cookie Bentley had been boasting about the Quilter’s Club snagging a big national exhibit like the Pennington quilts. It was the buzz of the town, anticipation building for the exhibit’s opening during Watermelon Days. Caruthers Corners had always been a community that valued needlecrafts such as knitting, crocheting, embroidery, and quilt-making.
“How ’bout giving me a sneak peek?” Daniel suggested one day while Cookie browsed his shop for a Tiffany lamp.
They were in the process of dickering over the price of a cut-glass fixture that was perfect for her new kitchen, so she wasn’t about to refuse. Yes, she knew the Quilter’s Club had voted against any advance showings, but this
exactly the Tiffany she’d been looking for.
“About this price – ?” she hesitated.
“Give me that peek and I’ll knock twenty percent off the tag price,” he countered with a sly smile.
“It’s a deal,” she said, regretting her words.
“Here you go, a dozen Sarah Connors Pennington quilts. Never before seen in this part of the country.”
“Amazing,” the antique dealer said, leaning close to inspect the fine stitching and interesting textures of the fabrics.
Cookie glanced over her sho
ulder, giving her fellow Quilter’s Club members a weak smile. She knew they were irked with her for breaking the no-show rule. “Yes, like
said, Sarah Pennington’s a genius.”
Cookie added, “She’s even better than Holly Eberhard.” That being the state’s Quilting Bee champion. Eberhard had won this year’s contest with her ingenious Indiana state flag design.
“Holly’s good,” admitted Maddy, “but nowhere near the talent that’s exhibited in the work of this long-dead Amish quilter.”
“Sarah Pennington is nine on a scale of ten,” agreed Lizzie. “Holly’s a seven.”Quite an assertion, considering she was a huge Holly Eberhard fan.
Cookie pointed to a quilt on the wall. “This one is my favorite Pennington, the famous beehive design.”
“Yes, it is quite lovely,” agreed Daniel Sokolowski. “Too bad they didn’t allow you to display the originals.”
That got everyone’s attention. “What do you mean?” responded Maddy.
“Well, I assume you know this beehive quilt isn’t an original Pennington?”
“Not an original?” exploded Lizzie, her face practically matching her flaming red hair.
“That can’t be,” huffed Bootsie. Looking like she was about to have a stroke.
“Daniel, I’m sure there’s some mistake here,” gulped Cookie. “These are genuine Penningtons.”
Ten-year-old Aggie was taking this all in with saucer-like eyes.
“My dear ladies, the thread used on this particular quilt is a synthetic blend. It hadn’t been invented back in 1924 when Sarah Pennington made her patchwork quilts.”
“Oh my,” said Maddy. “What’s going on here?”
The Quilter’s Club gathered in the mayor’s office, a small suite in the Town Hall building, a brick edifice that dated back to the mid-1800s. It was the oldest standing public building in this part of the state.
“Calm down,” said Beau
Madison to his wife and her friends. “Don’t all talk at once.”
They were understandably excited. Had someone duped the Smithsonian? Or had the prestigious institution misrepresented the quilting exhibit? Or – worse yet – had someone actually stolen the original beehive quilt from the Quilter’s Club and left a counterfeit?
“This is a disaster!” moaned Bootsie. She’d already phoned her husband and he was on his way over from the police station.
“Our reputations will be ruined,” blathered Cookie, convinced she’d have to resign her position with the Historical Society.
“How could something like this have happened?” griped Lizzie. She was known for her tempestuous nature.
“You’re sure it’s a fake?” asked Beau, confused by all this carrying-on.
“I trust Daniel Sokolowski’s judgment,” said Maddy. “He’s been in the antiques business for more’n forty years. My mother used to take me to his shop when I was just a girl.”
“Let’s think this through,” suggested little Aggie, proving she’d inherited her grandmother’s sense of logic. “The Smithsonian’s a smart museum. It wouldn’t be that easily fooled. It has experts.”
“True,” Cookie allowed.
“And they wouldn’t send us a fake without telling us,” Aggie added.
“True,” Cookie repeated.
“That means someone pulled a switcheroo,” said Aggie. It was simple in her mind.
“But when, where?” responded Lizzie. The redhead was trying hard to hold her famous temper in check.
“Either on its way to us. Or after it got here,” said Maddy, matching her granddaughter’s logic. “One or the other.”
“Well, there’s not much we can do about what might’ve happened during shipping,” commented Beau Madison. “Best we make sure our house is in order, that it didn’t get snatched from under our very noses.”
“That’s impossible,” protested Cookie. “The Pennington quilts have been under lock and key in the conference room of the Town Hall. Just a few steps from here.”
“Only Beau has the key,” said Bootsie.
Perhaps it sounded too much like an accusation. His response was defensive. “Hey, that’s not true. My assistant has a set of all the keys to this building. And so does your husband, Bootsie. Jim keeps a master set down at the police department in case of emergencies.”
“Do you still have your key on you?” asked Maddy, eliminating suspects.
“Sure, right here.” He dangled a key ring on his index finger, the metal clanging as he wiggled it for effect.
Just then Jim Purdue burst into the office. He was wearing his blue uniform and a badge wit
engraved on it. At six-foot-two and 260 pounds, he took up much of the tiny office. “What’s this about a major art theft?” he demanded, glancing from his wife to the other women and back again. “Do I need to call in the FBI?”
“Oh, I hope not,” replied Bootsie to her husband. “That could be very embarrassing to the town.”
“I’ll say,” groaned Beau. As new mayor, the responsibility for this disaster would fall squarely at his feet. He’d be impeached for sure. “You’ve got to recover the missing quilt, Jim.”
“That’s right, dear. One of the Pennington quilts has been replaced with a forgery.”
“Didn’t you tell me those patchwork quilts were worth forty grand each?”
“The Smithsonian had them appraised for that amount,” said Cookie. “But in some ways they’re priceless. After all, Sarah Connors Pennington is long dead and can’t make any more. I looked her up on Wikipedia. It says she died during a diphtheria epidemic in 1926.”
“Maybe I’d better call the FBI. My department’s not up to this kind of crime-solving.”
“Don’t worry, Chief Purdue,” said little Aggie. “The Quilter’s Club will solve the crime for you.”