Preview of Fiddling with Fate: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #10
Written by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst
Published by Midnight Ink Books

 

Chapter 1: April 1984

Chloe didn’t cry until the fiddler walked to the casket suspended over the grave, settled the instrument beneath her chin, and began to play.

Roelke McKenna, Chloe’s fiancé, took her hand. “Are you okay?” he whispered. He wore a black suit, which seemed as surreal as everything else today. But his fingers were warm and strong. She was glad he was beside her.

She swiped at her eyes and tried to swallow the salty lump in her throat. “The fiddle.” She tipped her chin toward her Aunt Hilda, who was coaxing a haunting tune from her Hardanger fiddle. Hilda’s eyes were closed as she poured everything she had into the music. “It’s just so—so Mom.”

“I expect Marit is smiling down, right now.”

Maybe so, Chloe thought. The music concluded a memorial service for her mother, Marit Kallerud, who’d cherished Norwegian heritage. She and Dad had been active members of Stoughton’s Christ Lutheran Church for years. Many of the mourners were wearing bunader, traditional Norwegian clothing.

Roelke leaned close. “It doesn’t matter what Marit did or didn’t know about her birth. This would please her. You put together a perfect tribute.”

Chloe glanced at her older sister. Kari stood with her husband, Trygve, and their two daughters. She was crying. She’d been crying pretty much nonstop since Mom had died of a heart attack in her sleep five days earlier. Dad was a shadow of himself, unwilling or unable to offer opinions. Chloe had found herself making calls, making plans, making decisions.

At least we have a nice day, she thought now. April in Wisconsin could be iffy, but they’d been blessed with sunshine. Robins hopped among the graves. Daffodils were blooming. It helped.

After the last poignant strains of Hilda’s tune faded in the quiet churchyard, the pastor cleared his throat. “We will close by reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian. Fader vår, du som er i himmelen, La ditt navn holdes hellig…”

Chloe’s gaze locked on the dates printed above Marit’s photograph on the bulletin. May 20, 1920—April 4, 1984. Mom had only been sixty-three. In good health, as far as anyone had known. But just like that, she was gone.

I’m sorry, Mom, Chloe thought, blinking against the sting of tears. I thought we’d have more time.

###

The pastor urged everyone to stay for the luncheon, and people drifted toward the church hall. The fiddler stood alone by the grave with fiddle dangling from one hand, her bow from the other.

“Come meet Aunt Hilda,” Chloe murmured to Roelke. “Hilda Omdahl. She’s not really my aunt, but she was my mom’s best friend.”

When they approached, Hilda started from her reverie. “Oh, sweetie. What are we going to do without your mother?”

“I don’t know,” Chloe admitted. She hadn’t even begun to process the reality of life without her mother. “Hilda, this is my fiancé, Roelke McKenna.”

“I’m glad to meet you, Roelke.” Hilda managed a tremulous smile. She was a plump woman of medium height, with permed gray hair. She wore a long blue wool skirt and matching vest, both gorgeously embroidered, and a white blouse adorned with a traditional silver filigree brooch. “When’s the big day?”

A tricky subject. “We haven’t actually set a wedding date yet,” Chloe said. Roelke was Catholic. She was not. They hadn’t quite figured out how to handle things.

Hilda patted Roelke’s arm. “Marit spoke highly of you.”

“My mom and Hilda went way back,” Chloe added.

“We met when we were five.” Hilda’s eyes became glassy.

“Your fiddle is beautiful,” Roelke said. “I’ve never seen anything so ornate.” Intricate black designs had been inked onto the fiddle body, the fingerboard beneath the strings was inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and the scroll featured a carved dragon’s head. A talented rosemaler had painted delicate flourishes on the sides.

Hilda regarded her fiddle with affection. “I was playing for Marit today.”

“I’m sure Mom heard you.” Chloe put her arm around the older woman’s shoulders. “It was the perfect way to close the memorial.”

“Well, I thought it best to play outside.” A tiny smile quirked the corners of Hilda’s mouth. “Just in case the good pastor is a traditionalist.”

Roelke frowned. “I’m sorry?”

“In the old days, fiddlers weren’t permitted to play in churches,” Hilda explained. “Ministers declared hardingfeles like this ‘the devil’s instrument.’ Most people today wouldn’t think twice about it, but I didn’t want to be insensitive.”

“No one could ever call you insensitive,” Chloe protested.

“Chloe …” Hilda glanced away. “Never mind.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue.

“Come inside with us,” Chloe told her gently. “I’m sure the ladies have put on quite a spread.”

The ladies, actually, had outdone themselves. “Holy toboggans,” Roelke breathed as they went into the hall. Long tables covered with white cloths were laden with platters and bowls. Servers wearing comfortable shoes bustled in and out of the kitchen with coffee pots and water pitchers. Round tables held centerpieces created with flowers, candles, and tiny Norwegian and American flags.

Chloe felt a surge of affection for these people, this community. “The church annually serves the world’s largest lutefisk supper,” she told him. “Dried whitefish soaked in lye, served with lefse, for two thousand people.” These women could handle the memorial meal for a dear friend with one hand tangled in their apron strings.

Near the door, Mom’s rosemaling friends had created a display of some of her painted pieces. It included a photograph taken after Mom won her coveted Gold Medal in the annual National Exhibition of Folk Art in the Norwegian Tradition, coordinated by Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Mom looked grand in her favorite bunad of white blouse with beaded bodice insert, black skirt, and fancy white apron. She held the painted porridge container that had tipped her into the winner’s circle, and she was beaming.

“I wish I’d seen that smile more often,” Chloe murmured. Grief, she was learning, meant far more than missing a loved one. Grief also meant confronting regrets and the finality of unasked questions. It meant accepting sadness for a life not completely understood, with no more time to try.

While Hilda went to retrieve her fiddle case, more friends and neighbors greeted Chloe and Roelke. One woman expressed condolences before saying, “As you know, Marit was serving as vice president of the Mandt Lodge.”

“The Stoughton chapter of the Sons of Norway,” Chloe interpreted for Roelke. The group promoted fellowship and preserved Norwegian traditions through gatherings, workshops, travel, and other activities.

“Some of us were wondering if you might step in,” the woman continued. “We need to bring younger people into leadership positions, and as Marit’s daughter …”

“Unfortunately, my schedule would not permit that,” Chloe said. No way could she even begin to fill Marit’s shoes with the lodge, and she wasn’t foolish enough to try. “Perhaps you could ask Kari.”

A man about her own age was waiting to greet her. Although the younger woman at his elbow was a stranger, the man looked familiar. Then the years slipped away. “Kent? How nice to see you!”

Kent Andreasson was still tall and muscular. His tawny hair was still thick and wavy. His blue eyes still crinkled when he smiled—just as they had in high school. Chloe accepted his hug, then drew Roelke forward. “Roelke, I’ve told you how much I enjoyed being part of the Stoughton Norwegian Dancers in high school, right? Kent was a star. There’s a demanding dance called the Halling that ends with a man kicking down a hat held high with a stick. Nobody could leap as high as Kent. And with a few back flips tossed in, he always stole the show.”

Kent put a hand on Chloe’s arm. “Oh, it wasn’t such a big deal. Being on the gymnastics team helped.”

Chloe realized that her smile might be misconstrued at her mother’s funeral. Then she realized that she hadn’t even made proper introductions. “Kent, this is my fiancé, Roelke McKenna.”

“Good to meet you, Roelke.” The men shook hands. “And this is Trine Moen.” He drew his companion forward. “She’s an exchange student from the University of Bergen, interning at the museum this semester.”

“I’m so sad about your mother,” Trine said earnestly. “Marit was kind to me.” Trine was a pretty young woman with big eyes, a luminous complexion, and light brown hair captured in a complicated braid. Chloe could only imagine that she turned heads on either continent.

“Thank you,” she said. “Kent, what are you doing these days?”

“I’m an accountant.” He shrugged. “I’m also serving as the director of the Stoughton Historical Society. I think I was tapped because of my fundraising experience with the dancers.”

“We washed a whole lot of cars that year we went to Norway.”

“Yeah.” Kent nodded. “Anyway, Marit was one of our star volunteers at the museum. Irreplaceable, really. She was so excited about the Norway trip.”

“The Norway trip?” Chloe repeated, trying to place this in context. Mom had often traveled to Norway—usually with Dad, but not always.

“Because of the Sons of Norway grant?” Kent prompted. “Funding her research trip to one of Norway’s folk museums?”

“The grant, yes,” Chloe said sagely. She had no idea what he was talking about.

Kent leaned closer. “Since you’re a curator at Old World Wisconsin, we thought you might go in her place.”

Ah. Now Chloe understood the build-up. “Unfortunately, my schedule would not permit that. Perhaps you could ask Kari.”

Kent looked disappointed, but didn’t argue. “Give my respects to your dad, okay? Take care.” He and Trine moved away.

“Your mother was one busy lady,” Roelke observed as they edged toward the buffet. “And I suspect we don’t know the half of it.” When it came to preserving and celebrating Norwegian heritage, Mom had possessed a bottomless well of energy.

I wish I understood what drove her, Chloe thought. She was one of the few people who knew that Marit Kallerud had been adopted. Chloe had learned that only inadvertently, and she’d spent the past five months dithering about when/how/whether she should ask Mom what she knew about the adoption. Kari had been against broaching the subject, and Chloe had reluctantly stayed silent.

Now I’ll never know what, if anything, Mom knew about her birth parents, Chloe thought. She craned her neck, hoping the desserts weren’t getting too picked over. “I need krumkake,” she said plaintively. “Maybe a piece of almond cake too.” Comfort food.

“You need something nutritious,” Roelke said firmly. He handed her a paper plate. “Do not skip straight to the treats.”

“I don’t know how I got so lucky,” she whispered. Roelke McKenna was a good-looking guy with dark hair, a strong jaw, and muscled shoulders. He was a cop, and could be a bit intense. Chloe had found herself squirming more than once when those piercing brown eyes focused on her. But he was a good man. Someone to depend on. Nothing was more important to Roelke than the well-being of people he loved. Lucky me, she thought again as she dutifully scooped up some cucumber salad.

Hilda joined the family at the head table, but not for long. “I’ve been on my feet too much today,” she confided. “I’m giving tours during the historical society open house tomorrow night and need to rest up for that. Anyway, sweetie, you know you can call me anytime, right?”

Chloe’s throat grew thick. “Thank you, Hilda.” She held the older woman close. Hilda kissed her cheek before limping away.

The food and the friends and the gathering’s Norwegian-ness helped Chloe get through the afternoon. She took solace in the knowledge that Marit Kallerud would be remembered for making an enormous difference in the community.

“Well,” Kari said finally. “We have to get going.” Kari and Trygve ran a dairy farm. Their routine was inflexible.

“We can go anytime you’re ready, Frank,” Roelke told Chloe’s dad. She shot him a grateful look. They were spending the night at her folks’ house before heading home to Palmyra tomorrow.

As Dad hugged his granddaughters goodbye, Kari pulled Chloe aside. “Make sure he’s okay.”

Chloe suppressed a sigh. Kari was only a year older than her, but she sometimes took the “big sister” thing a bit too seriously.

Or … maybe that wasn’t fair. Perhaps Kari was just reacting to the metaphorical cloak of “family matriarch” settling heavily onto her shoulders. One of their maternal grandmother’s sisters was still alive, but Great-Aunt Birgitta lived in a nursing home and was fading into dementia. Mom had been a force of nature. Maybe Kari felt a need to step into that void.

And in truth, Kari had always taken the primary responsibility for their parents. When I got the heck out of Dodge, Chloe thought, Kari stayed. Kari had been the one to check on Frank and Marit during blizzards, to deliver Crock-Pots of homemade chicken soup in flu season, to invite them over for anniversary or birthday celebrations. Kari had gone bowling with Dad, taken rosemaling classes with Mom, made lefse and krumkake for Mandt Lodge dinners.

Sometimes, Chloe thought, I can be extremely self-absorbed. “We won’t leave tomorrow unless we’re sure Dad’s okay,” she promised.

Once Dad was in the truck, Roelke headed to Stoughton’s old Southwest Side, a celebrated historic district. Chloe felt wistful as they drove past fine Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne structures. Her parents’ less-grand house on South Prairie Street would always be home. She’d grown up here, playing with Kari in the yard beneath flapping American and Norwegian flags. The Ellefsons’ friends had gathered here for coffee, their conversation speckled with Norwegian words because many had grown up with the language. A sign Mom had painted hung by the front door: Velkommen til vårt hjem—Welcome to our home. Norwegian culture had become part of Stoughton’s thriving tourism boom. But behind the rosemaled park benches and glossy photos of Norwegian Constitution Day celebrations, countless families like the Ellefsons were proud of their Norwegian roots.

Was Mom? Chloe wondered for the umpteenth time as they went inside. Had she known she was adopted? If so, did she embrace this heritage because it was in her genes and marrow? Because she’d married a Norwegian-American man? Because she desperately wanted to belong?

No telling.

Dad got as far as the kitchen before halting, staring around the cheerful room as if he’d never seen it before. He was a tall man, quiet and calm, with gray eyes that could sparkle with mischief. He liked to refinish old furniture, he liked to putter in the yard, he liked to have breakfast every Tuesday morning at a local diner with a few lodge buddies. He’d checked his daughters’ math homework. He’d beamed with pride when they’d performed with the Stoughton Norwegian Dancers or exhibited with 4-H in the county fair. Chloe’s relationship with Mom had been complicated; with Dad, not so much. Chloe hated thinking of him fumbling around this suddenly lonely kitchen.

“Dad, how about a Wisconsin brandy old-fashioned?” she asked, as eager to busy herself as she was to offer him a cocktail. She knew where to find the Korbel’s brandy and Angostura bitters, the sugar, the oranges and cherries, the muddler used to squeeze juice from the fruit. Taking three glasses from the cupboard, she got to work. “And I’ll fix supper.”

“Lord, no, don’t cook. Your sister was here yesterday.”

Chloe cracked the fridge door and saw stacks of neatly labeled Tupperware containers. “Um … yeah. You’re set.” She added ice cubes and a splash of Sprite to each cocktail, stirred, and delivered them. “Here you go.”

Dad lifted his glass. “To Marit.”

“To Marit,” Roelke echoed. Chloe’s throat seized up, but she raised her glass.

Dad tasted the concoction. “That’s perfect. Thank you.” Then he hesitated. “Chloe, I need to talk to you about something.”

She felt an instinctive childhood-inspired flash of Am I in trouble? “O-kay …”

He went into the den and returned with an envelope in his hand. “Your mother wanted you to have this.”

As she accepted the envelope, Chloe darted a quick glance at Roelke: I have no idea what this is all about. He raised his eyebrows: Only one way to find out. Peeking inside, she saw multiple bills featuring Benjamin Franklin.

Chloe had never seen a hundred-dollar bill before. Heck, she had only passing acquaintance with fifty-dollar bills. She looked up, dumbfounded. “What’s this?”

Dad swirled the liquid in his glass. “Your mother was saving money so she could take you to Norway.”

“So she could take me to Norway?” Chloe repeated blankly. She and Mom had not been particularly compatible travelers on a weeklong trip to Iowa a while back, but Mom had been thinking of a much bigger trip? “Don’t you mean Kari?”

“They went together, you know. Before Kari’s girls were born.”

Chloe looked back at the Franklins. She’d been living in Switzerland when Mom and Kari went to Norway, and she’d paid no attention. “But we did all go that time. When I was in middle school.” She remembered visiting some distant relatives of Dad’s in Oslo, and sailing north on a Norwegian Coastal Express ship. Crossing the Arctic Circle had been a big deal. “I got to go again with the Norwegian Dancers in high school. We danced for the king.”

“But you were young.” Dad studied the rosemaled woodenware displayed above the cupboards. Mom’s work, all of it. “I think your mother always felt bad that she didn’t have a chance to take you again later.”

This still wasn’t making sense. “Did Mom want me to go along on that research trip she had planned with Kent Andreasson?”

“No.” Dad waved that away. “She just wanted to take you.”

“Why didn’t Mom ever talk to me about it?”

He lifted his palms in a weary gesture. “You know how your mother was.”

She did, but that explained nothing. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything. Just take it. It’s what she wanted.”

Chloe glanced at Roelke again. He tipped his head with an affirmative expression: Clearly, it’s yours.

Well, okey-dokey, Chloe thought as she stuffed the envelope into her shoulder bag. The last thing she wanted to do was make anything harder for her father. She’d think about the money later.

Dad sat in a kitchen chair, tugged at his tie, and gestured for Roelke to join him. “And Chloe, I have a favor to ask. Your mother’s cousin Shirley cornered me after the service and asked if she could have one of your mother’s purses. Some little black thing with beads on it, she said.”

This was safer ground. “Geez, Dad. It takes some nerve to make that kind of request at a funeral.”

“I guess Shirley’s always admired it.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Kari already said she didn’t want it. Unless you do, the easiest thing is to find it and send it to Shirley.”

“I can’t even picture it,” Chloe said, “so I don’t care.” She fished a cherry from her glass and popped it into her mouth.

“I’d be grateful if you’d look for it.” Dad studied one thumb. “It’s probably in the guest room closet. But going through your mother’s things …”

Ah, of course. “Sure, Dad. Glad to.”

Chloe headed up the stairs. She paused in the doorway of her own old bedroom. Mom had never taken down a hideous purple macramé creation that Chloe had made in seventh grade, or the Doctor Zhivago poster reflecting her burgeoning love of period dramas. It all seemed a long time ago.

Mom had used the guest room for things she didn’t need often. “Hoo-boy,” Chloe muttered when she opened the closet door. The space was jammed. Mom’s bunader hung on padded hangers next to the folk dresses Chloe and Kari had worn during their dancing days. Cardboard cartons labeled “Christmas decorations” and “School projects—K” and “School projects—C” were stacked neatly on the shelf. More boxes covered the floor.

Chloe sat down—gingerly, since she was actually wearing a dress and pantyhose—and began pulling out cartons. It was hard not to get diverted by boxes of gloves, Stoughton High School yearbooks from 1937 and 1938, a heart-shaped button box that she and Kari had been permitted to play with when channeling their inner Laura and Mary Ingalls. In another box Chloe found long-forgotten toys, including an Etch A Sketch, a Magic 8 Ball, even a Slinky. Really, Mom? Chloe thought. You saved a Slinky? Either Mom had planned way ahead for grandchildren or she’d been more sentimental than she’d let on.

A silk handbag embellished with jet beads turned up near the end of her quest. Not something Chloe could imagine carrying. You’re welcome to it, Shirley, she thought, and set it aside.

There was only one box left in the closet, shoved into a back corner. She might as well find out what was in it before burying it again. The carton was sealed, but the tape had gone brittle with age and easily gave way. She lifted the flaps and found a tine—a bentwood box—oval, with a flat lid, and rosemaled in shades of blue, red, yellow, and green. The design itself was simplistic, but cheerful.

“Mom,” Chloe said softly, “was this your first project?” Preserving the rose-painting tradition had been Marit’s greatest passion, but she only put her best work on view. It tickled Chloe to think that her mother had been sentimental enough to save an early piece.

But the tine wasn’t empty. Easing off the lid, Chloe discovered something small and lumpy wrapped in tissue paper. She turned the wrapping back to reveal a small porcelain doll with long blond hair. “Oh!” Her eyebrows rose in surprise, for she’d never seen the doll before. It was dressed in a costume approximating a Norwegian bunad—red skirt, yellowing linen blouse, apron with a lace edge. Beads stitched on red ribbon suggested traditional ornamentation. Most distinctive was an elaborate crown made of wire, clearly representing the crowns that, historically, many Norwegian women wore on their wedding day

“Mom, was this yours?” Chloe struggled to imagine a young Marit sitting on the floor, playing with a dolly.

She set the doll to one side. In the bottom of the tine were two more tissue-wrapped packets—both soft and flat. The first held a gorgeous example of white Hardanger embroidery with cutwork. “A doily,” Chloe murmured. The cotton piece was about seventeen inches square, probably intended to take the place of honor on a table, perhaps beneath a vase. Why on earth had Mom kept this amazing textile folded away in the back of the closet?

The final treasure was another textile, this one maybe eighteen by twenty inches. The fine linen featured geometric patterns embroidered in black thread, much of it delicate cross stitch. The workmanship was exquisite, for the most part, although a couple of the mirror images didn’t quite match, and one or two motifs were off-kilter. Also, the maker had evidently been unable to finish the project, for half of the cloth was unadorned. It looked old.

And it seemed to represent … something. I’d swear I’ve never seen this before, Chloe thought, but it seems familiar. The doll evoked curiosity; the doily, admiration. This cloth brought a tingle to her palms.

Since childhood, Chloe had occasionally experienced lingering emotions in old places. She couldn’t explain or predict the sensations, but had accepted her ability long ago. Perhaps this cloth had come from a place still vibrating with events long gone. She closed her eyes, trying to open herself. But whatever the cloth represented glimmered only momentarily at the edge of her understanding before slipping away like a silver minnow darting into the shadows.

Chloe opened her eyes again. I wonder … she thought, but cut herself off before going too far. No point in speculating. She nestled the doll, the doily, and the embroidered cloth back into the tine and carried it downstairs.

“I was beginning to think you’d gotten lost,” Dad said. His forehead wrinkled as he saw what she held in her hands. “Weren’t you looking for a purse?”

“I found that, but I also found these.” Chloe placed the oval box on the table between the men, removed the lid, and slid into a chair. She brushed nonexistent crumbs from the table before reverently displaying her finds. “Dad, have you ever seen any of these pieces before?”

Dad studied them. “Don’t think so. No.”

“They were buried in a carton in the back of the guest room closet.” Chloe felt Roelke’s questioning gaze. He was always quick to pick up on her mood. She tried to compose her expression to suggest offhand curiosity.

“Your mother probably found those things at a garage sale or something,” Dad was saying. “She couldn’t bear to see heirlooms like that forgotten.”

But if that were the case, Chloe thought, why was the carton hidden away? She glanced around the kitchen—familiar blue curtains, blue teapot on the stove, blue-and-white dishtowels. A krumkake iron hung above the stove, and an antique lefse pin was displayed on the counter. It felt as if Mom had just stepped out.

Right that minute, Chloe wanted nothing more than to see Mom stride briskly into the kitchen, to offer a plate of Norwegian cookies, even to murmur some lightly veiled barb about her younger daughter’s inadequacies.

Most of all Chloe wanted Mom to explain why she’d hidden the tine and its treasures in her closet, and why she’d set money aside for a trip to Norway, without mentioning it to her.

 

Fiddling with Fate: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery
© 2019 by Kathleen Ernst, LLC.