Preview of Mining for Justice: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #8
Written by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst
Published by Midnight Ink Books
Chapter 1: September 1983
“I'm worried about Libby,” Roelke said.
Chloe Ellefson glanced sideways at the man she loved. He hadn't spoken since they'd left home almost an hour ago, so she'd known something was on his mind. “Because she canceled at the last minute?”
Chloe waited. They'd known each other for a year and half now. Been officially living together for almost two months. She'd gotten pretty good at reading his moods. Although Roelke wasn't on duty today, he was in cop mode. Mirrored sunglasses hid his eyes. His jaw was tight. Officer Roelke McKenna, Village of Eagle Police Department, looked like he wanted badly to arrest someone.
“What did Libby say when she called?” Chloe prompted. “Did her ex-husband blow off another date with the kids?”
“No. He picked them up.” Roelke glanced in his truck's mirror, flicked on the blinker, and pulled out to pass. Having skirted Madison, Wisconsin's capital, they were heading southwest to the community of Mineral Point.
“Oh.” Chloe digested that. “I just assumed he had.” Roelke was close to his cousin Libby, and to her kids Justin and Deirdre. Chloe loved them too, and was accustomed to plans changing because the kids' dad was a jerk.
She swiveled in the seat. “So...why did Libby cancel?”
“She just said that something came up.”
“That doesn't sound like her.” Chloe wrinkled her forehead. Blunt was a euphemism for Libby's conversational style. “Maybe she didn't want to be two hours away from home if Dan decided he was tired of acting like a father.”
“Or maybe she didn't want to see Adam.”
Chloe scootched down in the seat and propped her toes on the dashboard. It was late September, but the sky was gray as slate, muting the golden maples and garnet sumacs as if in sympathy with Roelke's mood. “Did Libby and Adam have a fight?” Libby had met Roelke's friend Adam Bolitho last summer. Chloe and Roelke both thought the two would make a good couple.
“Not that I know of. But her tone was ... I don't know. Funny. Something's wrong.”
“We're just going to help out with the cottage he's restoring,” Chloe mused. “It's not like it's a date.”
“Maybe she felt like it was. She did tell me that she wasn't willing to date anybody until her kids were grown.”
Chloe sighed. “Since Deirdre's only four years old, that seems a little harsh.”
And I thought this was going to be such a nice day, Chloe thought. She seriously needed a nice day. Maybe even two or three. Mineral Point was a charming town she was eager to explore. She didn't know Adam well, but he seemed like a nice guy. He'd helped fix up the old family farmhouse Roelke had recently purchased, where she and Roelke now lived. Since Adam worked construction and ran a small contracting business from his Eagle apartment, his help had been invaluable. Now he'd invited them and Libby to see the old stone cottage he was restoring in his hometown.
“Do you want to cancel the trip?” she asked. “Go back and see what's going on with Libby?”
Roelke's thumbs beat a mindless rhythm on the steering wheel. “It's not fair for us to bail on Adam too. Beside, you've got the work thing.”
“I do.” Mineral Point was home to Pendarvis, one of the historic sites administered by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Chloe was employed as curator of collections at Old World Wisconsin, a sister site located just outside Eagle. With over fifty furnished structures to manage, she had more than enough to keep herself busy. Still, when site director Ralph Petty announced that he was loaning her to Pendarvis as part of a “sites support” initiative, she'd been pleased. It would be fun to help out at another site. September was a quiet-ish month at Old World, so this was a good time to be away.
Besides, she and Petty despised each other.
Her maniac boss had wanted to fire her pretty much since the day she'd started working at Old World sixteen months earlier, in May, 1982. Back in July she'd given him good reason to do so, and she'd felt herself teetering on the edge of unemployment. Inexplicably, he hadn't acted. She'd spent two months tiptoeing around, wondering if today would be the day. It was exhausting.
“This is going to be a good week for me,” she announced. “Claudia Doyle, the Pendarvis curator, is a friend. I'm ready for a break. It will be restorative.”
Roelke threw her a sardonic look. “I know it will be a break from Old World, but you're still working at a historic site. It seems to me that there's a good chance you'll get sucked into some kind of mess. Site politics or something.”
“No, I won't,” Chloe vowed. “I'm just a guest. I will not get involved in anything even faintly problematic. If something comes up, I will refuse to take delivery.” She was determined. Being on loan to Pendarvis wouldn't just give her the chance to learn more about this community's history and help out a colleague. She desperately needed to engage in museum work without having a micromanaging megalomaniac hovering over her shoulder. And she needed a chance to gain back a little curatorial credit. I'll show the Pendarvis director that I'm good at my job, she thought. If he made a good report of her time here to the Historic Sites Division Director, it would make it that much harder for Petty to malign her.
And that was essential. She'd made a commitment to Old World Wisconsin. She'd also made a commitment to Roelke. The farmhouse they now shared had been built by his ancestors near Palmyra—a short commute from Old World. She'd have a very hard time finding any other museum job within driving distance of the farm.
She tried to rid herself of gloomy thoughts. “Well,” she said, “talk to Libby when you get home tonight. If something's going on, you'll both feel better when it's out in the open.”
“Yeah,” Roelke said. “I will.” But his thumbs still beat a troubled tattoo.
# # #
Less than an hour later, Chloe pointed to a sign: Shake Rag Street. “Turn here.”
Roelke did. “What kind of name is Shake Rag Street?”
“It has to do with the area's mining history,” Chloe said. “Supposedly women stepped outside and waved rags to let their men know a meal was ready.”
“That may be just a legend. Miners working underground couldn't see women waving rags. But it's very cool that Adam's house is on Shake Rag Street. He must be close to Pendarvis.”
The narrow road descended through a shady ravine. Despite a few modern houses, the road had an old feel.
“There's Adam's truck,” Roelke said. He pulled over and parked in front of a small one-and-a-half-story stone cottage built into the hillside behind it. A ladder stood against the eaves, the windows were empty holes, and piles of rubble were visible in the side yard. A low stone wall ran along the sidewalk.
“Oh,” Chloe breathed reverently as she slid from the truck. The disrepair didn't hide the magnificent stonework.
“Hey, guys!” Adam strode from the open front door, wiping his hands on his jeans. “Welcome to Chy Looan.” He met Roelke with a handshake before turning to Chloe. She leaned in and kissed his cheek.
Adam Bolitho was wiry, well-muscled, deeply tanned, not classically handsome but good-looking in a rugged kind of way. He had dark hair, a thin face, and blue eyes that often sparkled.
They weren't sparkling today. “I'm sorry Libby couldn't come.” Adam's tone strove for casual but didn't quite make it.
“Yeah,” Roelke muttered. “Something came up.” His tone wasn't even remotely casual.
Chloe felt compelled to intervene. “What does Chy Looan mean, Adam?”
“It means ... well, it's Cornish, but I don't actually know what it means.” He shrugged apologetically. “This house has been called that as long as I can remember. Look.” He pointed to a stone above the door.
Squinting, Chloe made out chiseled letters, weathered and worn but still visible. “Very cool. Adam, your cottage is charming.”
He looked pleased. “I'm not moving back to Mineral Point full time, so once this place is restored you'll be welcome to stay here.”
Chloe grinned. “When was it built?”
“Sometime in the 1830s.”
Roelke whistled. “Holy toboggans. My ancestors came from Germany in the 1850s, and I thought that was early.”
“The Cornish weren't the first white people here,” Adam said. “Miners, mostly Americans from the Southern states, started arriving in the 1820s to look for lead. But the Cornish, who were world-class miners, showed up in the 1830s after word of mineral deposits here started circulating. And unlike most of the original miners, who were single men looking to strike it rich and move on, many of the Cornish immigrants brought their families and settled down. Lots of descendants still live in the area. The first Bolithos got here in 1837.”
Chloe felt her spirits rise. Immigrant history was her specialty. Her passion, really. She especially loved searching out evidence of everyday people whose stories would otherwise be lost.
Roelke studied the cottage. “Has this place always been in your family?”
“No. We're not sure where my mother's people settled. The Bolithos had a place that dated back to the same period, but it was across the road.” He gestured widely with his arm. “In the 1820s and '30s, that whole hillside was being mined. At first the men scratched about, looking for easy hauls.
The Cornish introduced deep mining to the region.”
Chloe eyed the wooded hill. There was something compelling about it, something that made her want to leave the men to their rehabbing and go exploring. If she squinted her eyes, she could almost see the miners digging for lead. “How lovely that you've got such a great view,” she said. “Pretty much all rocky ridge and prairie landscape back then, I take it?”
“Right. Not many trees in the area, and what wood there was went to smelters or cookfires. But Cornish stonemasons in that first wave of immigrants had no trouble building cottages—and later on, bigger homes—from local limestone and sandstone. There were maybe thirty little homes along Shake Rag Street at one time, plus the ones over on the hill.” Adam's gaze became faraway. “I'd give anything to have the original Bolitho place, but it was destroyed in the 1930s. They built the municipal pool with local limestone—including stones from the old cottages. It was one of Franklin Roosevelt's projects to put men to work.”
Chloe's shoulders slumped. “I'm glad the men got work, but ... I hate stories like that.”
“Me too,” Adam agreed. “But I did enjoy swimming there when I was a kid. And my grandparents were able to purchase this cottage, which likely saved it from destruction. My grandpa died about ten years ago, but my grandma lived here until last spring. It wasn't easy, but we finally talked her into an apartment.”
“My family went through something similar with my great-aunt Birgitta,” Chloe said sympathetically. Birgitta had been, at ninety four years old, alone on a farm. Still, she'd fought the move to a senior citizens' complex.
“Grandma's guest room is ready for you,” Adam told her.
“It's very nice of her to let me stay with her while I'm in town.”
“She loves having company, especially since my folks moved to California to be close to my sister's family.” Adam cocked his head toward Chy Looan. “I get here more often now that I'm restoring the cottage. I had to make it a priority. Years of deferred maintenance were taking a toll.”
“I'm here to help,” Roelke said. “I don't know a thing about stonework, but I'm a quick study.”
“Actually, I've got another job in mind for you two,” Adam said. “Want a tour?”
Chloe and Roelke followed Adam up two steps carved from massive slabs of stone and into the empty cottage.
“Watch your step,” he cautioned. “I had to take up the original floorboards, and I've shut off the electricity. The structure itself is stable …”
Of necessity, Chloe tuned out of Adam's tour and tuned in to the space itself. Since childhood, she had occasionally perceived lingering emotions in old structures. Most often she felt only a vague jumble, as easily ignored as background chatter in a coffee shop. Sometimes, though, a mood punched like a fist. It might be anything, but the bad ones—anger, fear, despair, hatred—could render her unable to stay inside.
“This lower room was originally used as living space, kitchen, and dining room, with a bed too,” Adam was saying.
Chloe opened herself to anything that might remain within the old stone walls. There was something here in Adam's cottage, something stronger than a faint muddle. But to her relief, what she perceived was contentment. Thank you, thank you, she murmured silently to whomever had left behind such good vibes. She would not have to make excuses to Adam after fleeing white-faced from his grandparents' home.
“I've been tuck-pointing …”
Roelke nudged Chloe, a question in his eyes: Any problems?
She smiled, and gave a tiny shake of her head: Everything's fine.
He nodded: Good.
Chloe reached for his hand, trying to telegraph just how much she appreciated his acceptance of something he didn't understand.
Adam patted a wall. “The local yellow sand gives it this nice warm hue.”
“It is nice,” Chloe agreed, and the tour continued.
“Families were used to living together in one open space in Cornwall,” Adam told them. “The kids would sleep upstairs, under the eaves.”
“This place is awesome,” Chloe said happily, admiring a huge fireplace.
Adam looked pleased. “I knew you'd like it. And you haven't even seen the really cool stuff yet.” He walked to a plywood-on-sawhorses table and with great ceremony, turned back the tarp covering it. “Look what I've found.”
Chloe stepped closer, her mouth opening with surprised delight as she surveyed dozens of artifacts neatly lined up for inspection. She scrabbled in her totebag for the penlight she carried for such emergencies, and flicked it on. The treasures included a clay pipe bowl, a slate pencil, what appeared to be an ivory brush handle, several clay marbles, a whistle, and a porcelain doll head. The collection also included innumerable shards of glazed pottery.
These were tangible scraps of real peoples' lives. Who touched you last? she asked silently, considering the toys, the jagged bits of cookware. What were your stories?
“This is really cool.” Adam reverently unwrapped a towel from an odd cast iron tool.
Chloe didn't recognize it. “What the heck is that?”
“A candleholder. The miners called them ‘sticking tommies.' This sharp end could be thrust into a crevice, see?” Adam pointed. “Or this hook could be hung from a spike.”
Chloe picked up the candleholder. The cast iron was pitted with age, but the device showed surprising craftsmanship. What blacksmith had taken the time to add that decorative twist? What miner had thrust the spike into a crevice, lit a candle, and gotten to work with pick and shovel in the scant light underground?
“Do you mind if I borrow this?” Chloe asked. “This decorative work is distinctive. I'd like to compare yours with whatever sticking tommies are in the collection at Pendarvis. I might be able to identify the maker.”
“That would be great,” Adam said. He turned to a curved piece of earthenware, glazed a yellowish-cream with brown spots.
“This one I can identify. Bernard Klais was a well-known potter in Mineral Point. He made roofing tiles, but also crocks and flowerpots.”
“But ... where did you find all these things?” Chloe asked.
Adam walked to a door in the back wall. “Some early occupant dug a big root cellar into the hill, accessed through here. The floor is packed earth, and over the years a foot of sand and gravel sifted into the space. My grandparents eventually blocked the cellar off to keep damp out of the rest of the house. Flooding used to be a problem in this area until the city engineered a drainage system along the road.”
He looked like a little boy ready to burst with the need to share a secret. “Anyway, I started shoveling out the sand, and the pipe bowl turned up pretty quick. After that I was a whole lot more careful.”
He opened the door. Roelke followed him into the root cellar, and Chloe trailed behind. Inside she got an instant's look at the windowless space—shelves built around the walls, dirt and sand floor, the wheelbarrow and shovel Adam had been using—before a jolt of something almost electric shot through her solar plexus.
Something very dark, very ... very bad, was buried among the artifacts in Adam's root cellar.
Chloe bit her tongue hard to keep from yelping. After stumbling backwards through the doorway, the blackness receded.
Roelke glanced over his shoulder with a questioning look. Chloe gave him a tiny, helpless shrug: I was too quick to believe all was well.
“There's no telling what else might turn up, so I thought you guys might enjoy working back here,” Adam was saying. “I'm getting down to the bottom of the sand.” He turned and discovered that fifty percent of his team had retreated. “Chloe? Is something wrong?”
Shit, Chloe thought, because she had no idea what to say.
Thankfully, someone intervened before her silence became awkward. “Adam?” a feminine voice called. “You in there?” A woman in faded denim overalls stood on the front step, peering in the open door. She held several folded newspapers.
“Winter?” Adam emerged from the root cellar's nether reaches. “Come meet Roelke and Chloe. Guys, this is my friend Winter. She's a potter.”
Winter looked like a potter, Chloe thought. Some kind of artist, anyway. Her light brown hair was twisted into an untidy bun behind her head. Escaping tendrils framed a heart-shaped face. She had big eyes that should have given her a waifish look, but there was a tension to her, a tightness about the mouth, that was most un-elfin.
“Nice to meet you,” Winter said. “And I'm sorry to intrude, but—Adam, have you seen this? Today's Democrat-Tribune.” She slapped a newspaper into his hand.
Adam's smile faded as he unfolded the paper. “What the hell?” He held it so Roelke and Chloe could see the headline: PENDARVIS THREATENED WITH CLOSURE.
“What?” Chloe gasped. “Pendarvis is a state-owned site. Why on earth would it be closed?”
“Closing Pendarvis would kill Mineral Point,” Adam muttered. “This is an artists' town, and everyone depends on tourism. Lots of visitors come tour Pendarvis, then spend the rest of their time visiting galleries and studios.”
“You can keep the paper,” Winter said. “I wanted to be sure you got the news. A bunch of us are going to meet tomorrow evening. Seven p.m. at the Walker House. We can't let this happen.”
Adam was still staring at the headline. “I'll be there.”
“See you tomorrow, then.” Winter nodded at Chloe and Roelke. “Nice to meet you.”
After Winter left, no one spoke for a long moment. Then Adam put the newspaper on the makeshift table. “I'll look at this later. I don't want to get sidetracked while you're here.”
“Let's get to work,” Roelke agreed affably.
Chloe couldn't acquiesce. “I'm sorry, but I need to read this,” she said. After all, she was an employee of the Historic Sites Division. Besides, evil energy lingered in the root cellar.
Reading the paper would give her at least fleeting cover for not following the men.
Adam and Roelke left her alone. She leaned against a wall and read the lead article.
September 18, 1983
Pendarvis, the historical site on Shake Rag Street, is in danger of being closed. State Historical Society of Wisconsin officials have announced that financial shortfalls have forced them to consider the drastic measure.
The historic complex includes Polperro, Pendarvis, and Trelawny Houses. These historic structures were restored in the 1930s by Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum, who were alarmed to see Mineral Point's architectural heritage disappearing. Neal and Hellum operated a popular restaurant there for thirty-five years. When they retired in 1970 the property was transferred to the historical society.
The state has operated the popular historic site for the past thirteen years without problem. However, the development of Old World Wisconsin, a huge outdoor ethnic museum near Eagle, has drained the Historic Sites Division's resources.
“Oh, no.” Chloe felt a hollow sensation in her stomach. “No, no, no.” News that Pendarvis was on the chopping block was heartbreaking; discovering that her beloved Old World Wisconsin was being blamed made that even worse.
The news did not bode well for her having a happy week as guest curator at Pendarvis.
I bet Petty knew, she thought. The news hadn't trickled down to curators yet, but surely the site directors had been involved in the Division's budget process, or at least informed. Chloe could just imagine the SOB's self-satisfied smile as he made arrangements to exile her into the Mineral Point lion's den—the very week the news became public. Another Petty atrocity.
Well, this day is sucking more and more, she thought morosely. She was ready to get back into Roelke's truck and —
“Jesus!” Adam exclaimed from the root cellar.
Chloe darted to the doorway. Roelke was crouching in a back corner, gently brushing sand away from something. Adam watched with an expression of horror.
“What's wrong?” she demanded.
Adam pointed. “We were just going along, keeping an eye out for pottery and stuff, and then we found …”
“And then you found what?” She couldn't see.
Roelke stood slowly. “And then we found human remains.”
Mining For Justice: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery © 2017 by Kathleen Ernst.