Preview of Old World Murder: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #1
Written by Kathleen Ernst
Published by Midnight Ink Books
AS CHLOE ELLEFSON WALKED from 1982 into 1870s Wisconsin, a white frame church emerged from the trees, prettily framed against a cloud-studded blue sky. The view alone was enough to make most visitors pause, appreciate the simple elegance of the restored church, perhaps even wonder about the lives of those women and men and children who had first worshiped within its walls.
For Chloe, the historic site’s newest employee, the scene represented a fresh start.
A cadence in her mind kept time with her steps: Must - make -this - work. Must - make - this - work. Dr. Eberhardt could no doubt have written a thesis about that obsessive little drone...but Dr. Eberhardt was still in North Dakota with his white pills and his spiral notebook and his guttural grunts that had reminded her all too often of Markus’ father. Visiting a psychiatrist who reminded her of the people she was trying to escape seemed counter-productive, but Solomon, North Dakota - population 793 on a good day - hadn’t offered many options in low-cost mental health care.
Anyway, Chloe had come to Wisconsin to stand on her own two feet. Although, she thought as she reached the church gate, it would be more accurate to say she’d come home to Wisconsin. The last thing she’d ever expected to do. But she was here now. A new job. A new life. And she was determined to make it work.
After all, her chosen field was all about façades. Curators at living history sites presented impressions of the past. The bustles and bonnets (or braces and boots) that interpreters wore hid more than modern clothes and hairstyles. Well, she thought, nothing wrong with a good façade. In fact, a huge historic site intended to create and present illusions wasn’t a bad choice for someone wanting to rewrite her own history.
Chloe had visited the outdoor museum during open-hours only once, the day before her interview almost a month earlier. As she’d wandered the sprawling grounds that day, her spirits had unexpectedly begun to rise. Over fifty historic structures had been restored among the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s woods, prairies, and kettle ponds. Interpreters in period clothing brought the farmsteads, homes, and service buildings to life by telling tales and churning butter and making shoes and weeding gardens, and giving visitors as many participatory and sensory experiences as possible. Old World Wisconsin, the state’s newest historic site, was spectacular.
Now, she was hoping to recapture some of that good vibe. It was a late Monday afternoon. The last group of shrieking school children had tramped from the site, quickly followed by the interpreters’ stampede toward the parking lot. Chloe’s first day on the job, a blur of paperwork, staff meetings, and behind-the-scenes orientation, was winding to a close. This was the best time of day to visit any historic site. And having after-hours access was one of the true perks of becoming an employee.
Chloe knew it would take a long time to become truly familiar with Old World Wisconsin. She planned to visit a building or two after-hours each day. Starting with...she consulted her map...St. Peter’s Church.
She mounted the steps and, feeling important, used her new master key on the lock. Once inside she paused, letting impressions of the place come. St. Peter’s Church offered nothing too striking. Good.
Next, she took a quick curatorial survey: plain wooden pews, a pump organ, painted stations of the cross hanging on the walls. Most of the window panes were thick and distorted - original, amazingly enough. The altar cloth needed cleaning, and she scrawled a note on her pad.
Outside, tires screeched on gravel. A moment later heavy steps thumped up the stairs and a stocky, white-haired, red-faced man burst into the sanctuary. “Who are you?” he demanded.
Chloe blinked. “Who are you?”
He scowled. “Look here, lady, the museum closed at four o’clock. You can’t be in here!”
Belatedly Chloe noticed the vague uniform: dark brown trousers, tan shirt, patch of some kind duly sewn on his sleeve. His official attire contrasted sharply with the non-uniform she’d mustered for the day: tan chinos and a royal blue cotton shirt, long blonde hair captured in a single braid and coiled behind her head.
OK, Chloe told herself, time to get one more working relationship off to a good start. “My apologies. I should have introduced myself. My name is Chloe. I’m the new curator of collections.”
The security guard rubbed his chin. “Marv left something in the log about a new curator starting...but that’s not the right name. It was something Scandihoovian. Inger? Ingrid! Yeah, that was it. Ingrid - ”
“I go by Chloe. But I am the new curator.”
“Well...” He still looked suspicious. “You can’t come out on the site after hours without letting us know.”
Chloe mustered her brightest smile. “I’m really glad to know that site security is so tight. But I’ll need after-hours access on a regular basis. Can we consider some other solution, um...what did you say your name was?”
The guard hesitated. “Hank,” he said finally. “Well, just be sure to check the alarm before you go barging into buildings. The Village buildings have been switched over to the new security system. Did Marv give you the access codes?”
Had Marv given her access codes? She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t even picture Marv. The day had been full of too many names and too much information. “I’m not sure, to be honest. I’ll have to look through my notes.”
Hank showed her the security touchpad hidden behind a door, and gave her an access code. “That’ll work for every building in the Village,” he told her. “There are different codes for the German and Finn-Dane areas. The Norwegian buildings are still on the old microphone system, so you’ll have to call. You’ll be outta here within the hour?”
“Less,” she promised. “I’ve got a five o’clock meeting in the restoration area. I’ll probably just visit one more building here before heading out for the night.”
Hank made a big show of seeing her out of the church. Lovely, Chloe thought, as she watched him get back into his car and drive slowly away. Day One, and she’d already annoyed a security guard.
“Just keep trying,” she ordered herself softly. She had a new position - and a permanent one, which was hard to come by in the mostly seasonal world of outdoor museums, complete with benefits and a salary that actually covered rent with enough left over for a bit of food each week. “I will,” she announced, “stay positive.”
That resolve fled as soon as she oriented herself on the visitor guide and map. The next building was a small cobblestone cottage across the road from the church. She’d skipped the Tobler House on her earlier visit, but the new curator of collections couldn’t ignore one of the exhibits just because its first occupant had happened to come from Switzerland.
Chloe knew that her Swiss connection had helped land the job. “I see you spent five years at Ballenberg,” Ralph Petty, the site’s director, had said during her interview. He’d tilted his head to peer at Chloe over the half-glasses that perched on his nose. “The Europeans have so many excellent outdoor museums. Did you enjoy living in Switzerland?”
“Oh, yes,” Chloe assured him blithely, as her fingernails dug angry red trenches into her palms. “I adored Switzerland.”
“We’re currently restoring the home of a Swiss immigrant in the Crossroads Village,” Petty said. “Aldrick Tobler emigrated from Switzerland to Green County, Wisconsin, in 1872. We were able to get our hands on the small structure that served as both his carpentry shop and living quarters.”
“Will - will I be expected to furnish the Tobler building?” Chloe stammered. If so, they might as well end this interview right now. No way was she up to that.
“Unfortunately...no. We want to open the building to the public later this year, and we couldn’t wait for your position to be filled. I hired a freelancer last winter to develop a furnishings plan.” And Director Petty had rattled on enthusiastically about the project for at least another ten minutes. Chloe had tried to nod in appropriate places.
She could skip the Tobler house today. Just mosey on down the path to the Hafford House. Mary Hafford had been an Irish laundress, and Chloe was eager to visit her home.
But...no. Just check the place out and be done with it, Chloe told herself. She let herself inside and quickly punched in the access code on the security box hidden behind the door.
As she turned, Chloe paused to get a feel of the century-old building. She got a brief glimpse of half-papered walls; a worktable covered with tools. Then the impression came. It was not the distant jumble she’d felt in St. Peter’s Church. Instead, a sense of palpable unhappiness crackled in the air.
Chloe clenched the doorknob. The sensations grew stronger, although she couldn’t quite define the root emotion: Frustration? Discontent? When her skin began to tingle, she bolted from the building.
On the front step she wiped her forehead with suddenly trembling fingers. What the hell was that? After a lifetime of absorbing impressions of old buildings, she’d learned to take the occasional flash in stride. But that sensory barrage had been unexpectedly strong. Chloe pulled the door tightly shut and snapped the lock.
It probably wasn’t even the house, she thought, as she hurried away. Poor old Mr. Tobler had probably lived a hum-drum life and died without leaving any bad ju-ju behind. Surely her own bad ju-ju had caused her reaction. It had been a mistake to enter the Swiss exhibit alone. She’d come back some day when the site teemed with hyperactive fourth graders. That energy would dispel bad vibes of any vintage.
Chloe checked her watch. Time to head out, anyway.
Once she retrieved her green Pinto from the main parking lot, she drove down the site’s twisting entrance road. The village of Eagle lay to the left, but Chloe turned right onto Highway 67. She passed the 1940s-era house that inconveniently held Old World Wisconsin’s administrative offices. Another right turn onto County Highway S took her past a tree-lined prairie that marked, if she remembered correctly, the edge of the museum’s German area. The huge historic site warranted several access gates for staff use.
A mile or so later she slowed and turned right again onto a gravel drive with a fading sign that proclaimed “Restoration Area.” In front of her was a long, low building that housed the maintenance staff. A pole barn held a few large artifacts and two of the big trams used to haul visitors around the site.
Two ancient trailers squatted off to the left, almost hidden in a grove of pines. The words “Celebrate The Bicentennial! Visit the History Mobile!” were barely legible in peeling paint on one. The other, an ugly pinkish-gray rectangle on cinder blocks, gave no hint of its lineage. Both trailers had been pressed into temporary service for collections storage, and were crammed with shelves of artifacts.
Chloe climbed rickety steps to the pink monstrosity. The tiny kitchen area had evidently provided desultory office space to a curator who, in a whirlwind of energy, had furnished the exhibit buildings before Old World’s grand opening six years earlier, in 1976. The burned-out curator had soon after joined the Peace Corps and moved to New Guinea. State-imposed budget cuts had left Old World Wisconsin without someone to oversee its collections ever since.
The office held a miniscule table and two chairs. It was cramped and dusty, and smelled of mice. Chloe had been aghast that morning when the museum’s receptionist had handed her a note with the meeting arrangements on it. “You told a potential donor to meet me at the trailer?”
The receptionist - what was her name? - had shrugged. “Look, once this lady heard you’d actually been hired she called half a dozen times, wanting to know when your first day was. She was determined to come out today.”
Chloe turned on the ancient faucet. After several moments of agonized burbles and clanks, a dribble of rust-colored water reluctantly emerged. She used the tap water and a few paper towels to wipe down the yellow Formica table and two wooden folding chairs. She jumped when a phone rang. She hadn’t known she had a phone in here. By the fifth ring she’d located the ancient rotary-dialed monster - an artifact in its own right - behind a stack of black notebooks.
“Chloe? Listen, are you expecting a Mrs. Lundquist? She ended up over here at Ed House by mistake.”
Chloe mentally fast-forwarded through a filmstrip of her morning. Ed House...yes, she remembered. Education House. Another of the empty homes left behind when the state bought out the few properties that infringed on the projected Old World Wisconsin site, now used by research and interpretation staff. If she wasn’t mistaken, this male voice belonged to the curator of interpretation.
“Right,” she said. “I’m waiting here at the trailer.”
“I’ll send her along.”
“Thanks...” - she went for broke - “...Brian.”
Small silence. “It’s Byron.”
“Byron. Right. Sorry.”
“I’ll send Mrs. Lundquist over.”
“Thanks,” Chloe began, but a dial tone already rang in her ear. Evidently Byron was a tad touchy about his name.
Day One. She’d annoyed a security guard and irritated the curator of interpretation.
A few minutes later car tires crunched slowly over gravel, and Chloe went outside. The big Buick dwarfed the elderly woman who emerged. She wore Easter Sunday-best - a pale yellow linen dress, white pumps, matching handbag. Chloe winced, picturing what the trailer’s dust would do to that outfit.
“Mrs. Lundquist?” she asked. “I’m Chloe Ellefson. I’m so glad to meet you.”
The hand that clasped hers seemed fragile, like wrapping paper stretched over a toothpick model. Mrs. Lundquist’s carefully permed white hair framed a thin face with anxious blue eyes. “How do you do?”
“I’m well, thank you,” Chloe said, as she led the way into the office. “Please forgive the dust. It’s my first day, so I haven’t had a chance to tidy up.”
“I understand.” Mrs. Lundquist settled gingerly on one of the chairs, put her purse on the table, and folded her hands in her lap. “It was kind of you to see me so quickly.”
Chloe sat down with legal pad and poised pencil. “The phone message I got didn’t contain much information,” she began. “You’re interested in making a donation?”
“Oh, no!” The tiny woman sat up straighter. “I need to get one of my family antiques back.”
“Um...back? Back from where?”
“From here!” Mrs. Lundquist pulled a piece of paper from her handbag and presented it.
Chloe read the faded photocopy. It was an acquisition form confirming the accepted donation and legal transfer of an item described as a “Hand-painted Norwegian ale bowl with cow heads, nineteenth century” to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. At the bottom was a neat signature - Berget Lundquist - and the date: November 10, 1962.
“Well...it seems this item was transferred to the Society twenty years ago,” Chloe said. “This is your signature?”
“Oh, yes. I made the donation. My son had died, you see. My only child. I didn’t see any point in hanging onto family heirlooms.”
“But...now you want it back.”
Chloe studied the paper again. The donation had been made when Old World Wisconsin was no more than a gleam in some architectural historian’s eye. “Ma’am, I think that you need to contact one of the curators at the Historical Society headquarters in Madison.”
“I’ve already done that weeks ago. And I was told that my ale bowl was transferred here when this site opened.”
Shit. “Mrs. Lundquist, I’m new, so I’m not familiar with Society collections policies yet - ”
“I’m sure you’re doing your best, dear.” Mrs. Lundquist patted Chloe’s hand. “You seem like a sweet young woman. And with that hair...you must be Scandinavian also?”
“Norwegian. But - ”
“Just like me!” Mrs. Lundquist awarded Chloe a delighted smile. “So you understand.”
No, I don’t! Chloe insisted silently. “Mrs. Lundquist, once a donation has been made, it can’t be undone. It’s a legal transfer of ownership.”
“But I must get it back! It’s very important!”
Chloe pinched her lips together. She genuinely liked old people. She liked their stories, their memories, their hard-won experience. Their mementos, their refuse, even their homes - these things comprised Chloe’s chosen profession. Mrs. Lundquist didn’t need to beg, or to cajole; Chloe truly wanted to help her.
“The best thing I can do is check with the chief curator in Madison,” Chloe said. “I can call her tomorrow, and get back to you.”
Mrs. Lundquist’s face crumpled. “But...I had hoped to take the ale bowl with me today.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
“May I at least see my bowl? Make sure it’s alright?”
“The thing is...” Chloe massaged her temples with her fingertips. “Did I mention that it’s my first day? I don’t know where the ale bowl is. It could be in storage, or on exhibit in one of the Norwegian houses. Have you toured the Norwegian area on site? Do you know if it’s on display?”
“Old World Wisconsin is so big...I’ve been told that I’d have to climb in and out of a tram to even reach the Norwegian houses. I’m afraid that’s too much for me.” The elderly woman lifted one fragile hand in a helpless gesture. “But surely there are records? Can’t you look it up?”
“Mrs. Lundquist, I’m truly sorry, but I don’t even know how to look it up. I don’t know what system the former curator used. The collection here includes thousands of objects. And - ” Chloe took a deep breath.
“It’s my first - day.”
The other woman looked stricken. “Would you mind if...if I looked for it?” she asked, her voice quavering. “I recall the ale bowl well. I’d know it if I saw it.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Chloe said again, as gently as she could. “May I keep this acquisition form? Good. I will talk with the chief curator in Madison about your...situation. And - ”
“Miss Ellefson, please!”
“ - I will get back in touch with you as soon as I can.”
Mrs. Lundquist looked down at the table, but not before a telltale sheen of tears appeared in her eyes. “I see.”
Chloe felt wretched. “I promise you, I will find the ale bowl.”
The elderly woman gently patted Chloe’s hand again - a feeble, papery gesture that made Chloe want to cry herself. Then Mrs. Lundquist got to her feet, wiping her eyes. “Thank you for your time.”
Chloe made sure she had current contact information, then helped Mrs. Lundquist down the trailer steps. Mrs. Lundquist walked slowly, her thin shoulders bowed. The Buick’s door seemed too heavy for her. Once seated, it looked as if she could barely see over the top of the steering wheel.
Didn’t I switch from interpretation to collections to avoid people problems? Chloe wondered, as the Buick crept from the parking lot. What on earth had prompted Mrs. Lundquist’s sudden change of heart so many years after the original donation was made?
Day One: she’d annoyed a security guard, irritated the curator of interpretation, and disappointed a sweet old woman. Not the promising start she’d wanted.
“Time to am-scray,” she muttered. She’d confront this donation imbroglio tomorrow. Right now she had a mountain of moving cartons waiting at her newly rented farmhouse.
She locked up the trailer, threw her bag on the Pinto’s backseat, and headed for home. She tried to forget Mrs. Lundquist, but as she turned onto County S, the irritating drone crept back into her brain: Must make this work. Must make this work -
The incantation died abruptly as Chloe crested a rise. Below her, at the foot of the hill, was the big Buick which Mrs. Lundquist had driven from the restoration area parking lot five minutes earlier: in a ditch, upside down, and partially wrapped around a tree.
Old World Murder: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery © 2010 by Kathleen Ernst.