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Authors: Barbara Michaels

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BOOK: Stitches in Time
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He was standing with his back to her, examining one of the quilts Cheryl had hung on the wall—a spectacular Baltimore album quilt, each square showing a different pattern of flowers and birds—and Rachel was trying to nerve herself to speak, when the door into the hall opened.

Tony got out three words—“Excuse me, Rachel”—before the man spun around. At the sight of Tony his jaw dropped and his eyes bulged. With an inarticulate exclamation he bolted for the front door.

And Tony went after him.

It was pure unthinking reflex. When you're a cop, and people flee at the sight of you, you go after them. He moved too fast and too abruptly, and the hardwood floor had been polished to a slippery shine. One of the crutches skidded, and Tony fell with a crash.

Rachel ran to him and knelt down on the floor. He had landed on his right side, twisting as he fell in an instinctive attempt to spare his left leg and the cast that covered it from ankle to hip.

Gray-faced and sweating, Tony glared at her over his shoulder. “What the hell are you doing? Go after him. Stop him.”

“How?” Rachel demanded.

A car door slammed and tires screeched. The roar of the engine faded fast; he must have been doing sixty. Tony's tight mouth relaxed. “Good question. I'm sorry, Rachel. Sorry I swore at you.”

“That wasn't swearing.” She laughed shakily. “Stay where you are. Don't move. I'll call the doctor—or the rescue squad—or—”

“No, it's okay. No damage done, except to my ego.” He leaned back against the arm she had slipped under his shoulders. He was wearing a heavy sweatshirt—people feel the cold when they are lying still, bored and helpless—but even through the thick fabric she could feel the hard muscle and bone. He'd be forty next year—Cheryl had already started kidding him about it—but he was in better condition than most men half his age. The creep wouldn't have made it as far as the door if Tony had been able-bodied.

Rachel retrieved the crutches and, with their help, got him up and into a chair. “I still think I should call the doctor,” she said anxiously. “Or do you want to go back to bed? Would you like some coffee or a glass of water?”

He smiled at her and her knees went weak. “I want you to sit down. That was an incredibly stupid performance. All I accomplished was to scare you half to death.”

“You got rid of him.” Rachel pulled up a chair and dropped into it. “I was getting worried. How did you know?”

“You had the intercom on.”

She glanced at the desk. “I didn't know. Cheryl must have turned it on before she left. So you heard.”

“The whole thing.” His mouth twisted. “I was getting worried too. If it hadn't been for this damned leg I'd have been here sooner.”

“Who was he?”

Tony shrugged. “Never saw him before.”

“Then why did he run?”

Cautiously Tony shifted position. He didn't seem to be in pain; in fact, he looked more alert and cheerful than he had for some time. “The guilty flee where no man pursueth? I certainly couldn't pursue him. If he hadn't panicked, he'd have spotted the crutches and realized I was no threat to him.”

“You might have been armed.”

“Most people aren't. Unless they're cops. I think he recognized me.”

“I think you're right,” Rachel agreed. “Does that imply that he's from around here?”

Tony gave her an approving smile. “Smart girl. He wouldn't have reacted so dramatically if he hadn't encountered me before. I may even have arrested him. I can't remember every two-bit crook in the county.”

“Well, thanks for rushing to the rescue. If you hadn't come when you did…” She stopped, realizing she was overdoing it and that he wasn't dumb enough to fall for the helpless female routine. He gave her a quizzical look.

“Yeah, I was a big help, wasn't I?” His brow wrinkled. “It's strange that he should come here. He couldn't know you'd be alone, and this isn't the sort of place a thief would hit, especially in daylight. I wonder…”

He broke off. “Don't tell Cheryl I fell,” he said softly. “You know how she is.”

His fingers closed over hers in a warm, warning grip. He had heard the car before she had. Speechless, Rachel swallowed and nodded, and Tony released her hand.

Cheryl was carrying a bag of groceries. Her face lit up when she saw Tony, and Jerry flung himself at his father, yelling, “The doctor stuck a needle in me and I didn't cry, and he said I couldn't have any candy 'cause it wasn't good for me, so can I have some?”

“Don't jump at your daddy like that,” Cheryl exclaimed. “You'll hurt him.”

Jerry, now on his father's knee, turned to stare at his mother. He had her stocky build and Tony's olive skin and black hair. His resemblance to his father had never been stronger than at that moment; both male faces bore identical scowls.

“It's all right,” Tony said. “I think you deserve a reward, Jerry.”

“He can have an apple,” Cheryl said.

“I don't want a stinky apple, I want a choc'lit bar.”

It turned into one of those idiotic, unproductive arguments bright children are so good at provoking, and which usually have undercurrents more complex than the immediate issue. Rachel took the groceries from Cheryl and escaped; when she came back, Jerry was eating cookies and looking maddeningly smug, and Cheryl was dragging a large black trash bag into the shop.

Rachel hurried to help her. The bag was heavy, the plastic strained by the weight of its contents. “What's this?” she asked.

“I was just about to ask you. Found it outside on the porch.” She started to reach inside.

“Wait!” Rachel caught her arm.

Tony had stiffened. “Bring it over here. Please,” he added.

Rachel knew what he was thinking. The unpleasant character who had left so hastily might have left an equally unpleasant souvenir—rotting trash laced with broken glass, for example. There was something wrong with that bag. She could feel it. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled.

Cheryl sat back on her heels. “What's the matter with you two? It's just old linens.” Before Rachel could stop her, she pulled a crumpled bundle out of the bag.

“People bring things like this in all the time,” she went on cheerfully. “Usually it's junk when it arrives in a trash bag, but you never know…Good gosh. Look at this.”

The fabric she lifted between her hands was yellowed with age and badly wrinkled, but now Rachel saw the pattern Cheryl's better-educated eye had spotted. Delicate precise stitches shaped an elaborate tracery of intertwined scrolls.

“It's a quilt.” Cheryl laid the fabric carefully out on the floor, smoothing the crumpled folds. “White work, trapunto, hand-stitched—though the stitching is so fine it looks machine-made. Look at the detail!”

The pattern covered the entire surface of the quilt, which was large enough for a double bed, in an intricate design of formalized flower and leaf shapes, scrolls and overlapping feathers. Certain elements had been raised by inserting cord or bits of cotton under the fabric of the top—the process called trapunto—so that it resembled low bas-relief. It was an astonishing piece of work and ordinarily Rachel would have been as rapt with admiration as Cheryl. But her irrational sense of something wrong had not diminished. If anything, it had grown stronger.

“Who brought this?” Cheryl demanded.

“Somebody you wouldn't want to meet,” Tony said. His hands were clenched on the arms of the chair and Rachel sensed the frustration that filled him. If he had been able to move easily he'd have pushed his wife away and investigated the bag himself. “Hold it a minute, Cheryl,” he continued. “It's probably all right. But Rachel just had a nasty encounter with the guy who left this—at least I assume it was he who left it—and I'd just as soon make sure there's nothing but old clothes inside.”

He described the incident, making light of it and without mentioning his disastrous attempt at pursuit.

Cheryl jumped up, her eyes fixed on Jerry. “Oh, my God. A bomb?”

Tony laughed. “Nothing like that, honey. I was thinking more along the lines of something harmless but
unpleasant, like the donor. I wonder…Is that old quilt worth money?”

“Once it's been cleaned, several thousand dollars.”

“That much?”

“Maybe more.” Torn between caution and fascination, Cheryl leaned closer to the quilt. “It's over a hundred years old and in excellent condition. The fabric is cotton and I don't see any bad stains. With careful cleaning it will be as good as new. Actually, I couldn't begin to put a price on it. We've only had one other of this type and it wasn't nearly as fine. Mid-nineteenth century at a guess.”

“Hmmm.” Tony stroked the piratical mustache framing his mouth.

“You think he stole it?” Rachel asked.

“The circumstances are suspicious, wouldn't you say? Trash bags have been a blessing to modern thieves. They're strong, you can cram a lot of stuff into them, and they are a lot less conspicuous than boxes or cartons. He had something on his shabby little conscience or he wouldn't have bolted when he recognized a cop. Let's see what else is in there. Carefully, babe; take hold of the bottom and spill it out.”

Rachel's skin prickled as she watched Cheryl move slowly backward, tipping the contents of the bag out onto the floor. When it was empty she tossed it aside and straightened with a long breath of relief.

“No bomb. That was silly of me, wasn't it?”

“Not these days,” Tony said. “You never know what people will think up next. So what have you got?”

There were two more bundles. At first glance they appeared to be the same white on white, but when Cheryl unfolded one of them a pattern of colored shapes was visible on the inner surface.

“Carolina Rose.” Now relieved of her apprehension, Cheryl knelt to squint at the quilt. “At least I think that's
what it is; I've never seen this particular variation. Patchwork, with some appliqué and the same exquisite quilting. Look at the way she uses color! Every flower is a different shade, but they blend perfectly.”

Jerry came over to see what was going on and Rachel picked him up in time to keep him from walking across the quilt. He wriggled, trying to free himself.

“He's too heavy for you,” Tony said. “Put him down before he kicks you—quite unintentionally. Jerry, how about another cookie?”

Cheryl was too preoccupied to comment on this flagrant violation of her rules. “Gosh, this is gorgeous. I'll bet it was made by the same woman. The pattern was popular during the mid-nineteenth century and the workmanship is almost as fine as the white quilt.”

She went on crooning and commenting, but Rachel had stopped listening. There was one more bundle on the floor. The thief—the alleged thief—had crammed the quilts roughly into the bag. The third, on the bottom, had suffered most from careless handling and the weight of others on top of it. The fabric was filthy, covered with a peculiarly uniform grayish film. It didn't appear to be the normal yellowing of old linen, or ordinary dirt, and it certainly couldn't have been the original color of the cloth. No housewife would have chosen that nasty shade, even for backing.

Rachel spread it out on the floor and turned it over. Under the blurring gray film she saw colors and shapes—not the repetitive geometric shapes of patchwork, something quite different. Something wrong…She started violently when she heard Cheryl's voice.

“It's an album quilt, I guess. Each block has a different pattern—picture, rather, in appliqué. Is this a horse, with a rider and…a dog? It's so filthy I can't make out details. What a shame it's in such poor condition. Those stains probably won't come out.”

Normally Rachel wouldn't have ventured to disagree. “They aren't stains. Look.” Delicately, with one fingernail, she scraped at the gray film. It dissolved into a flaky powder. Bending closer, she blew gently at the spot. “I can get it clean, I'm sure I can. I'll try brushing it first, and then—”

“The hand vacuum.” Cheryl peered at the area Rachel had cleaned. “Look at those minuscule stitches. I wonder how it got so dirty; the others aren't like that. I've never seen anything quite—”

She put out her hand, and then hesitated, her fingertip, like that of God in the Michelangelo painting, not quite touching the fabric. “I'll leave it to you, then.”

“Thanks. I'll be careful, I promise. I know how to do it, you showed me.”

“Just a minute,” Tony said. He had one arm around Jerry, who was dribbling crumbs all over his lap. “Aren't you girls forgetting something? That may not be stolen property, but it certainly doesn't belong to you.”

A dimple appeared at the corner of Cheryl's mouth. Rachel had seen this indentation before; it wasn't produced by laughter but by tightening lips. “Flotsam,” she said. “Or is it jetsam?”

“Neither,” said her husband. He was also familiar with that particular dimple.

“Oh, for God's sake, I was kidding,” Cheryl snapped. “Although I'll bet there's some law that would support my argument. If unknown people dump things on other people's front porches—”

“We know who left it.”

“No, we don't. That's just your guess.”

“Not a guess. A reasonable hypothesis.”

Rachel had never heard him raise his voice to anyone except his brother-in-law, in the course of one of their friendly arguments. But she knew the signs of rising temper—the way his eyebrows drew together, the soft, slightly
rasping tone, the way his fingers tugged at the end of his mustache.

“Well, what am I supposed to do with the stuff?” Cheryl demanded. “I'm not running a free storage locker.”

“Would you buy it?”

“If we could agree on a fair price. I've never cheated anybody in my life.”

BOOK: Stitches in Time
3.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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