Preview of The Lacemaker's Secret: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #9
Written by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst
Published by Midnight Ink Books

 

Chapter 1: November 1983

 “Something is burdening you,” Libby told Roelke McKenna. “Spill it. Now.”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

Libby’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe you.”

Roelke turned to the kitchen counter where an old-fashioned percolator burbled with promise. Trust his cousin to just know. He’d had another rough night, but he didn’t want to talk about it.

“It’s more than Chloe spending the weekend in Stoughton,” Libby insisted. “Something’s been bothering you for weeks.”

Roelke poured a mug of coffee and added cream. “No, it’s the Chloe thing.” That wasn’t totally a lie, because he did miss Chloe.

“When are you two going to get engaged?”

Roelke choked on his coffee. “When…what?”

Libby folded her arms. “Oh, come on. You two are great together. Can you honestly say you haven’t thought about it?”

“I’ve thought about it,” Roelke admitted. “And the topic has come up.” Awkwardly. He didn’t want to talk about that, either. “I’m picking her up later, but she’ll only be home long enough to pack again. She’s going to Door County for the week.”

“Sounds nice.” Apparently diverted, Libby turned and cracked the oven door. A rich wave of banana, vanilla, and cinnamon swirled into the room.

“Please tell me that’s Libby’s Legendary Banana Bread Pudding.” His favorite Sunday morning treat at his cousin’s house.

“It is, and it’s just about ready.” Libby began setting the table with practiced precision. “So, why don’t you take a few days off and go with Chloe? Door County must be peaceful in late November. It could be a nice romantic getaway.”

“She’ll be working,” Roelke reminded her. “She was asked to develop a furnishings plan for a Belgian farmhouse that’s being restored at an outdoor museum in Green Bay. Heritage Hill, it’s called. You know how she is.” Nothing excited Chloe more than diving into a new aspect of immigrant history.

“Well, come eat supper with us sometimes.” Libby turned off the heat beneath a small pot of maple syrup. “Pour some juice, will you? I’m going to check on the kids.”

“Sure,” Roelke said, but Libby was already gone. That was how his cousin moved through life—brisk, focused, straightforward. As a single mother supporting herself as a freelance writer, she didn’t waste time on the superficial. Her dark hair, threaded with gray, was clipped no-fuss short. She usually wore whatever jeans and pullover happened to be handy, although today she’d upped her game to black trousers and a royal blue blouse.

He leaned against the counter, took a bracing sip of dark roast, and blew out a long sigh. He had to do a better job of hiding what was weighing on his conscience. Libby, who’d known him longer than anyone, picked up way too easily on signals he didn’t even know he was sending. Something was burdening him… but for the first time ever, Libby was the last person he could confide in.

He couldn’t confide in Chloe, either. They were sharing his family’s old farmhouse outside Palmyra, and doing pretty well. She was the curator of collections at Old World Wisconsin, a big historic site just outside the Village of Eagle where he worked as cop. She had a tendency to fling herself into her history world with a passion he didn’t always understand. She was four years older than him, too. Still, despite their differences, he loved Ingrid Chloe Ellefson as he’d never loved another woman. He could talk with her about almost anything, and expect a fair hearing and a thoughtful response. But not this.

You have to try harder, he told himself. Figure out a way to live with –

“Roelke!” Libby’s nine-year-old son Justin ran into the room. Roelke barely managed to get the glass he’d just filled on the table before the boy barreled into him with a hug.

“Hey, buddy!” Roelke ruffed Justin’s hair and turned to Deirdre, who’d followed more sedately. “And how’s my girl?” Deirdre, who had just turned five, raised her cheek ingénue-like for his kiss. She wore a pink dress and tights. A sparkly headband held her curls away from her face. Libby, who hadn’t worn a dress since her own wedding, was perpetually bemused by her daughter’s love of all things princess.

“Breakfast is ready.” Libby shooed her family toward the table. She got the casserole out of the oven and transferred bacon to a plate.

Roelke finished pouring pineapple juice before sliding into his chair. “What’s your plan for the day?”

“We’re going to Mass,” Justin announced.

“You’re going to…Mass?” Roelke repeated blankly. To the best of his knowledge Libby hadn’t been inside a church since her wedding, either.

She shrugged, spooning some of the steaming pudding onto Deirdre’s plate. “No big deal.”

“Mama says you have to sit still,” Deirdre said.

“You could come with us,” Justin added hopefully.

The thought of walking into God’s house made Roelke’s gut clench. “Um … I can’t today. I have to go pick up Chloe. She spent the weekend with her sister’s family. Do you remember visiting the farm where Anja and Astrid live?” Chloe’s nieces.

“Of course!” Justin scoffed, pushing his glasses to a more secure position on his nose.

Talk moved to other things, and Roelke was glad. Being in this kitchen, with these people, was good for everything that ailed him. The ranch house was tired and cluttered. A pile of research books on the counter waited for Libby. A plastic bin of toys stood in one corner. Magnets pinned the kids’ vibrant artwork to the refrigerator. Before Roelke met Chloe, Libby and her children were the only family he had. Listening to the kids chatter, seeing Libby watch them without worry in her eyes, was good.

“Dishes!” Libby reminded the kids when the meal was over. They dutifully rinsed and stacked plates and glasses in the sink before racing off. “We’ll leave for church in about twenty minutes,” she called after them. “Don’t get all mussed up.”

Roelke leaned back in his chair. “So, Mass. What brought that on?”

“I think I’ve waited too long, actually.” Libby began clearing the other dishes. “I need to expose Justin and Deirdre to church, don’t you think? They can’t make their own choices one day if they’ve never experienced a church community.”

“Makes sense,” Roelke agreed. “What else?” He knew her pretty well, too.

“Well, if you must know, I want to go. I’m feeling profoundly grateful these days. You know, about Dan.”

Roelke had not seen that coming. “Oh.”

“When I heard that the kids’ father was in jail I cried with relief.”

“Once sentencing takes place, he’ll be headed to prison.”

Good. When he got so angry at me last fall, and started harassing us, I couldn’t imagine any positive outcome.” Libby leaned back and ran a hand through her hair. “This seems … like a miracle, almost.”

“Yeah.” Roelke toyed with his fork. Dan Raymo had gone all stalker after seeing Libby, his ex-wife, with another man. Roelke was also grateful that the asshole had ended up behind bars.

But thinking about that summoned bad memories. Roelke wiped a hand over his face, remembering the bleak moment he’d realized that Raymo was too smart to get caught; the sickening twist inside when he’d realized it was up to him to stop Raymo before someone ended up dead. Roelke remembered how numb he’d felt after planting a stash of cocaine in Raymo’s car. All too soon a gnawing guilt had replaced that emptiness.

“Do you ever go?”

He blinked, interrupted his gloomy reverie. “What?”

“To Mass.”

“Not in years.”

“Well, I’ll see how it feels.” Libby began rinsing dishes. “You would be welcome to come with, you know.”

“Chloe’s expecting me,” Roelke said, with an undeniable sense of escape. “You guys have fun. I gotta go.”

“Sure. But Roelke…” She hesitated. “Take care of yourself, okay? And please, let me know if I can help with…whatever.”

After saying good-bye to the kids he climbed into his truck and drove west. From the small town of Palmyra, where Libby lived, he had about an hour’s drive to Stoughton, where Chloe had grown up. November had been cold but they’d had only a dusting of snow. It was a scenic rural drive, mostly. But Roelke tapped an irritated rhythm on the steering wheel with his thumbs. He had to figure out how to live with what he’d done to Libby’s ex-husband. If he didn’t, Libby would pry and poke and prod until she figured it out.

He slowed to let an impatient driver pass, frowning at himself. It shouldn’t be this difficult. No one knew what had happened. It was time—past time—to put the mess behind him and move on.

I’m a simple guy, he thought. All that really mattered to him was being a good cop and taking care of his family. When he started his law enforcement career, it had never occurred to him that one might get in the way of the other. But when Libby and the kids were being stalked last September, when fear turned his cousin into a stranger and the children’s lives were threatened, he’d run into that conflict like a battering ram.

Roelke was profoundly ashamed of the choice he’d made. But if he could live that day over, he wouldn’t change a thing.

# # #

Roelke’s spirits lifted as he approached the outskirts of Stoughton. He and Chloe wouldn’t have much time together today, but he’d take what he could get.

He reached for the slip of paper where he’d scribbled the address of the nursing home where Chloe was visiting her great aunt Birgitta. Skaalen, that was it. Stoughton—like Chloe—had a strong Norwegian heritage.

He’d planned to park, but when he pulled into the lot he saw her sitting on a bench in front of the building. Only Chloe would wait outside in twenty degree weather, he thought. Her parka was unzipped, and her long blonde braid dangled over one shoulder. She must have been a little chilly, though. She’d pulled her feet to the bench and sat with arms wrapped around her legs.

Roelke pulled to the curb, leaned over, and opened the passenger door. “You could have waited inside,” he called.

She didn’t move.

“Chloe?”

No response.

Alarm bells rang in his brain. Had Birgitta died? He cut the engine and jumped out of the truck. “Chloe!”

She jumped. “Oh!”

“What’s wrong?”

She raised both hands in a helpless gesture. “I have no idea who I am.”

# # #

Chloe hadn’t realized she was cold until she stepped inside the warm diner. She felt odd. Dazed, sort of. November 27, 1983, she thought. The day I learned I’m not who I thought I was.

A gray-haired waitress with a tired smile pointed them to a booth. Chloe tugged off her parka and slid onto the seat. Pull it together, she ordered herself. This was a good idea. It would be easier to talk face-to-face than in the truck.

Roelke reached across the table and took Chloe’s hands in his. “Okay. Tell me again what Birgitta said.”

Chloe sucked in a deep breath, blew it out again. “She said my mother was adopted.”

“Start at the beginning, sweetie. Take your time.”

Anchored by his warm strength, she nodded. “My maternal grandmother’s name was Maria. She had two sisters, Birgitta and Elen. Birgitta is the only one left. Sometimes she gets confused. Today when I walked into her room she greeted me as Elen. It always seems easiest just to go with the flow.” Chloe nibbled her lower lip. “Maybe I should have corrected her.”

“Seems like that might have done nothing but upset her.”

“That’s it exactly,” she said gratefully. “Besides, I’ve been a bit afraid of Birgitta since I was little. She could be quite impatient.” Chloe’s cheeks grew warm. “The truth is, I like hearing snippets of her memories.”

“But today you heard more than you bargained for.” Roelke gently disengaged his hands as the waitress returned with two steaming mugs.

Chloe stirred in a generous dollop of cream before cupping the stoneware. “Birgitta mumbled something about my mother. Then she said, ‘We don’t know who Marit really is, or where she came from. I told Maria not to adopt that girl.’” Chloe sagged against the booth.

“Did you ask Birgitta about that?”

“What popped out was ‘Marit wasn’t adopted!’” Chloe rubbed her temples. Her mother, Marit All-Things-Norwegian Kallerud, was an avid genealogist and extremely proud of her roots. She’d won a coveted Gold Medal in the Norwegian folk art of rosemaling. She’d served as secretary of the Norwegian Women’s Club, president of Society Nora, and frequent volunteer with Stoughton’s Sons of Norway lodge. Nobody celebrated Norwegian heritage with more fervor than Marit.

“Maybe she wasn’t really adopted,” Roelke mused. “If Birgitta’s mind is wandering, maybe she mixed your mom up with someone else.”

“I don’t think so.” Chloe sipped her coffee. Her first instinct had been the same—to deny the accuracy of a senile woman’s memory. But I can’t pretend, she thought. “Birgitta was very specific. She talked about the day my grandmother brought her new baby to visit her parents and Birgitta at the family farm. The details…it was a real memory. I’m sure of it.”

Roelke nodded thoughtfully. “Well, hunh.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Chloe said. “Hey, if you see the waitress, could you flag her down? I could use a pastry or something.” Comfort food.

He managed to catch the waitress’s eye and beckoned her over. “Could we get a cinnamon roll for the lady, and toast for me? Thanks.” When she’d shuffled away he turned back to Chloe. “I can certainly understand why this news came as a shock, but … does it really matter? Marit is still your mom. You’re still the same person I fell in love with.”

Chloe had to gulp inelegantly a couple of times before she could speak. “Thank you, Roelke. And I know you’re right. It’s just that…” She tried to still the thoughts somersaulting through her brain. “My parents raised me and Kari as full Norwegian-Americans. They were so proud of that, especially my mother. You know how she is.”

“I know how she is,” Roelke agreed.

Chloe pondered her coffee for a long moment. “It’s just so strange.”

The waitress planted their plates on the table. Chloe eyed Roelke’s toast dubiously before reaching for her pastry. “Do you think I should ask my mother about it?”

Roelke considered. “I don’t know about that. Maybe she doesn’t know she’s adopted. Maybe she does but doesn’t want you to know. Either way, you’d be inviting trouble.”

“You could ask her,” Chloe suggested, only half in jest. “She likes you.”

“That most definitely is not going to happen.”

“Kari and I have a right to understand where we came from. Who we are.”

“Well, ask Kari what she thinks.”

“I will.” Kari had always gotten along with Marit better than Chloe had. Maybe she’d have some new insight.

Roelke glanced at his watch. “I don’t want to cut this short, but we should get going. You still have to repack. Although … ” He eyed her. “Maybe you should postpone your trip.”

“Because of this?” Chloe blinked. “No. I’m expected at Heritage Hill tomorrow. Besides, Elise is flying in today. We’re meeting at the bed and breakfast in Door County.” Elise O’Rourke and Chloe had worked together one summer, years ago now, at a Virginia historic site. They hadn’t been close, and had lost touch. Still, it had been a pleasant surprise to get Elise’s call earlier that month, and learn that she was traveling from her home in the nation’s capitol to northeast Wisconsin.  

Roelke was clearly unconvinced about the trip.

Chloe studied the man she loved. His face had become as familiar to her as her own—the strong jaw, the dark hair, the ever-watchful gaze. But his eyes were shadowed, as they so often were these days. Roelke was a wee bit uptight by nature, but something else was going on. She’d caught him brooding more than once—jaw tense, eyes troubled. Even at night, when he slept, he seemed withdrawn.

He’d put off her queries, claiming “It’s just work stuff.” Still, Chloe felt guilty for being so focused on her own problem. “Are you okay?”

“Of course. I’m just not sure it’s the best time for you to go away. This news from Birgitta is big.”

She hesitated, but decided against pressing harder. “I’ve got all kinds of appointments already scheduled. Staying home won’t change anything. The distraction will be good for me.”

Although Roelke looked disappointed, he didn’t argue. “Let’s go, then. I’ll feel better if you get up to Door County before dark.”

Once, Chloe would have assured Roelke that she was quite capable of driving after dark, thanks very much. But she had come to accept, even appreciate, his instinctive concern. Officer Roelke McKenna was a perpetual Boy Scout who tried always to anticipate potential disasters and protect the people he loved. She was lucky to be on that short list.

But he can’t help me with this, Chloe thought as they left the diner. Great Aunt Birgitta’s revelation had turned half of Chloe’s identity into a big black hole—one that likely would never be filled.

# # #

The sun, a pale smudge among gray clouds, was setting by the time Chloe had driven around the City of Green Bay and headed northeast toward the Door County Peninsula, which extended into Lake Michigan. Traffic was light, for the fair-weather leaf-peepers had mostly left the popular tourist destination. Patches of ruby-black sumac and stands of birch trees punctuated the muted landscape of tawny gold, chestnut, and a hundred shades of brown. This was one of Chloe’s favorite times of year.

But it was hard to soak in the scenery. At least it should be quiet at the inn, Chloe thought. The timing of this consulting gig couldn’t be better. A week away would give her a chance to come to terms with the astonishing fact that she might not be one of the dwindling number of Wisconsinites of “pure” Norwegian heritage after all.

Birgitta’s news bothered her more than she would have expected. Over the years she had often rolled her eyes at her mother’s ardent interest in Norwegian culture. Mom’s zeal in urging Chloe and her sister Kari to audition for the beloved Stoughton Norwegian Dancers when they started high school (both were accepted), to bake krumkakke and sandkake (Chloe was more excited than Kari), to learn the language (Kari was more excited than Chloe), had often been annoying. Chloe’s reluctance to revel in all of Marit’s cultural activities had caused friction.

A pretty brick farmhouse caught her eye. It was, based on her preliminary study, the style associated with Wisconsin’s Belgian community concentrated in parts of Kewaunee, Brown, and Door Counties. Okay, she thought, time to stop fretting about genealogy and start concentrating on the job. She’d been delighted by the invitation to spend a week learning about the experience of Belgian immigrants.

Now alert, Chloe kept her eye on the countryside. Highway 57, the main route into Door County, bisected the Belgian-American community. When she took her exit, she passed more farms—most clearly prosperous. Fields lay dormant but a few Holsteins watched with languid disinterest as her rusty Ford Pinto passed.

A little more of Chloe’s inner agitation ebbed away. This week was going to be a major treat.

She paused to check the directions sent by the hostess of Belgian Acres B&B. The farm is a bit south of Namur and Brussels, on Hickory Road ….  A mile later she spotted the sign and made the turn. She drove slowly now, peering at mailboxes. Almost there.

She hadn’t driven far when an abandoned farm came into view—a brick house set back from the road, a smaller outbuilding closer to the verge. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed, stomping on the brake. “I think that’s a bake oven!” She pulled over, cut the engine, grabbed her totebag, and scrambled from the car.

Hit the flashers! Roelke barked sternly in her head.

Chloe slid in, poked the appropriate button, and scrambled out again.

The farmhouse, once a beauty, looked forlorn with plywood nailed over the windows. An old metal windmill, missing a blade, clanged metallically in the wind. Beyond the house a weather-beaten timber-frame barn leaned precariously, on the way to collapse, although a large white wooden six-pointed star, affixed to the gable end of the barn, appeared to be freshly painted. Sadly, neither seemed safe to explore.

But the small stone outbuilding, with a brick chimney and decorative brick eyebrow over the window, was still in good shape. Chloe was pretty sure it was a summer kitchen because of it’s size and proximity to the house—and because of the smaller enclosure extending from one gable end, which almost certainly housed an old brick bake oven.

Chloe had experience with such ovens. Two had been restored at Old World Wisconsin, one of which was situated in a summer kitchen much like this one. But in all her back road rambles she’d never seen one still standing on its original site.

“This is awesome!” she said happily as she crossed the road. A light wind stung her cheeks, and every breath puffed out ghostlike. The sun had dipped below the trees behind the house. No lights pricked the blue-gray evening in any direction. Surely no one would mind if she took a look, right?

Then she spotted a faint trail of crushed grass and weeds leading from road to the summer kitchen. Obviously she wasn’t the first vernacular architecture junkie to want a closer look.

She trudged up the slight incline and slowly circled the building. The shed’s small access door was secured with only an iron latch, and she peeked inside. Yes! The dome of a plaster-covered oven rested on the earthen base that some farmer had constructed a century or more ago.

If it could be viewed from above, the brick oven was shaped like a light bulb. The entrance, which could only be accessed from inside the kitchen, was narrow. The oven itself curved a bit wider. Ovens had a flat bottom, constructed about waist-high for ease of use. A woman began baking day by building a fire on the oven’s floor. When the bricks were hot enough, she raked the coals out and used a long wooden peel—essentially a big paddle—to put loaves of dough inside.  

The shed created a horseshoe of open space around the oven, designed to provide a mason access to check the oven or make repairs. Chloe was tempted to crawl inside the shed to get a better look, but one stone wall was badly cracked.

Don’t even think about it! Roelke yelped.

“Yeah, yeah.” She circled back to the kitchen instead, which looked sound. To her delight, the door didn’t appear to be locked. She pulled off one mitten, turned the icy knob, and stepped inside.

The fading light revealed an empty room. She dug out her penlight and swept the floor and walls with the narrow beam, taking in whatever might linger in this place. She perceived a strong sense of busyness in this room where women had once cranked meat grinders, churned butter, sweated over kettles of apple butter. Among the cobwebs and dust Chloe imagined a sturdy worktable, shelves of canned beans and tomatoes, crocks of fermenting cabbage and pickling cukes. The room smelled stale now, but she almost caught the faint scent of herbs hung to dry.

And baked bread—lots and lots of bread. Chloe wandered the length of the room to the wall shared with the oven shed. The bake oven’s door was closed and latched; the slot below empty of ashes.

The ovens Chloe had studied were about two feet at the highest point, and five or six feet deep. Since only radiated heat baked the bread or pies placed inside, dimensions were critical. Bread burned in too-small ovens, and emerged with soggy centers in too-large ones. The two she’d used at Old World Wisconsin could hold a dozen or more loaves at once.

The door on this oven was larger than she was used to. Curious, Chloe held her flashlight in one hand and unlatched the door with the other. Bending down, she peered into the blackness.

Surprisingly, the oven wasn’t empty. Had someone laid one last ceremonial fire before closing the door for the final time? She could make out logs …

Suddenly all thoughts of fragrant loaves and capable farmwives disappeared. The dark shapes were not logs.

The last person to open this oven door had not shoved inside fuel or bread pans…but a body.

 

The Lacemaker's Secret: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery
© 2018 by Kathleen Ernst.