Preview of The Weaver's Revenge: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #11
Written by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst
Published by Three Towers Press

 

Chapter 1

This is a mistake, Chloe thought as she parked her car in the secret spot along the wooded entrance drive to Old World Wisconsin. She was officially on vacation from her job as curator of collections at the large outdoor ethnic museum. If a site employee or volunteer spotted her, she’d almost certainly get sucked into some tangle of museum business. Not good for someone expected in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a six-hour drive, later that day.

She wasn’t bailing now, though.

Chloe crossed the road and hurried along the short path leading to the Rankinen Farm, one of the historic site’s two Finnish exhibits. It was only 7:30 a.m. She was avoiding both the official parking lot and the single dirt lane that looped through the 600-acre site. With luck, she could get in and out without discovery. And, Chloe instructed herself firmly, if you do see someone, do not engage.

All she wanted to do was grab the rug. A quick in-and-out. Easy-peasy.

When she emerged from the trees, she instinctively paused to savor the view. The Rankinen family’s log home had been dismantled, moved to the site, and restored to its 1897 appearance. On the whole, the farmstead appeared more rustic than many of Old World’s exhibits that predated it by decades. But Jacob and Louisa Rankinen had arrived, like so many Finnish immigrants, long after south and central Wisconsin’s fertile prairies and oak openings were settled. Most of the state’s Finns began their new lives in northern Wisconsin. They experienced their own arduous pioneer era at a time when the first farms established in the southeast counties were already the pride of second- or third-generation owners.

Chloe sucked in a deep breath, savoring the stillness. Then she climbed the front steps and let herself into the house.

It was furnished to represent a family busy with the demands of working a farm in the Northwoods while offering room and board to lumberjacks laboring nearby: subsistence with a touch of mail order catalog. In addition to the crosscut saw standing in the entry, meat grinder and heavy cast iron kettles in the kitchen, and immigrant trunks still used for storage, the curator who’d furnished the house had added a glass-fronted cabinet and a lovely cupboard with geometric inlay.

The main room, which had been painted a cheerful blue, was dominated by a heavy loom. Finnish immigrants were particularly known for their rag rugs, and interpreters at the Rankinen house honored that legacy by cutting strips of cloth from worn-out blouses and shirts and weaving them into carpets.

Since Chloe had taken charge of collections in Old World’s fifty-plus restored buildings two years earlier, in 1982, she’d used rugs woven by novices to protect the floors in heavy traffic areas of Rankinen and Ketola, the site’s other Finnish farm. Rugs created by skilled interpreters, with straight selvedges and even tension, went to the museum gift shop. Most artifact rugs were in storage.

The rug she was after this morning was none of the above. She’d found the treasure in an antiques shop in northern Wisconsin a few weeks earlier while she and her sister Kari were enjoying a quick getaway. The rug came without provenance information, just the word “Finnish” written in faded ink on a manila tag. Most of the rag rugs she’d seen had been woven of multi-colored scraps on a two-harness loom, with no particular pattern beyond basic stripes. This rug had been created in rippling blues and greens that reminded her of Lake Superior, the weft strips woven in an undulating pattern reminiscent of waves. When Chloe had traced them with one finger she simply knew that this rug had a story to tell.

It had called to her so loudly that she’d purchased it on the spot. “Do you happen to know anything more about the rug?” she asked the man at the register.

He slammed the cash drawer shut and counted out her change. “The missus got it at a garage sale over in the U.P. somewhere. That’s all I know.”

“It’s pretty,” Kari had commented. “For your kitchen?”

“I’m going to donate it to the site. It’s perfect for the Rankinen Farm.”

The donation process, however, involved a proposal, paperwork, and sometimes mind-numbing debates at the state’s Historic Sites Division’s Collections Committee meetings. Chloe hadn’t been able to resist putting the rug on display in the Rankinen bedroom, which visitors could see but not enter.

Now she slipped into the bedroom, crouched, rolled up her rug, and slid it into the oversized canvas totebag she’d brought. And I, she thought, am outta here.

Shoes sounded on the steps. “Hello-o,” someone called cheerfully.

Drat, Chloe thought. Then she belatedly recognized the voice. “Good morning, Helka!”

A short, plump, elderly woman walked into the parlor. Helka Toivonen, a veteran interpreter at Old World Wisconsin, was beloved by staff and visitors alike. Born in 1913, she still lived much of the year on the ancestral homestead up north. Interpreting her own cultural heritage in Old World’s two Finnish farms, however, brought her so much joy that during the site’s open season she made do with a rented room in nearby Palmyra.

The foods prepared in the Finnish kitchens were dishes Helka learned to cook as a child. She’d grown up butchering chickens and milking cows and cleaning De Laval cream separators. Best of all, she was an excellent storyteller. When she sat at the loom, chatting and weaving, visitors often packed the space, reluctant to leave. Helka was capable of commanding even squirmy fourth-graders’ attention as she spoke of life in the Northwoods during the early days of Finnish settlement.

Today Helka wore an ankle-length black wool skirt, a light blue cotton blouse, and an apron so faded and stained its original hue was lost to the ages. A plaid head scarf covered her gray hair. Blue eyes sparkled with good humor behind wire-framed glasses. “I wondered why the front door was unlocked,” she said. “Glad to see it’s you.”

“I just needed to make a very quick stop,” Chloe began…but this was Helka, beloved Finnish grandma to the whole staff. No way was Chloe going to risk appearing brusque by dashing off. “What are you doing here so early?”

“I like having time to prepare for the day before visitors arrive.” Helka shrugged, as if arriving early for a day spent on her feet, talking to guests, was nothing for a seventy-year-old woman. “Can you stay for egg coffee?”

“I shouldn’t,” Chloe said reluctantly. She loved good egg coffee, and nobody made it better than Helka, but…still. “You see, I’m–”

“And I’ve got some pulla bread tucked away.”

Chloe adored Finnish pulla bread. “Well…”

Looking pleased, Helka bustled into the kitchen. She’d left kindling and crumpled newspaper in the woodstove’s firebox, and a full pot of water on the largest burner. She lit the fire as Chloe trailed in behind her. “What are you doing here so early?” Helka asked.

“I came to borrow this.” Chloe put the totebag down and patted the rug. “I’m heading to northern Michigan today to meet with a folklorist. She’s going to introduce me to an elderly weaver. I’m hoping that will lead to meeting others. I want to show them this beautiful rug.”

Helka opened a cupboard and retrieved a Tupperware container. She put it and two ironstone plates—antiques, but approved for use—on the table. “That’s a beauty,” she agreed. “I’ve been around rugs all my life, but I’ve never seen such workmanship.”

“Me neither.”

“How did your trip come about?”

“Well, it started with a consulting job.” Chloe slid onto a bench, giving up all pretense of making an exit anytime soon. “A guy named Mike Curtis, who worked on the restoration crew here back in the 1970s, has found an intact Finnish homestead in the Upper Peninsula. He’s restoring it, and wants a curator’s perspective. But I’m taking advantage of the trip to work on a project of my own. You see…” She hesitated. The first colleague she’d told about her idea had greeted her excitement with contemptuous disdain.

“Yes?” Helka said encouragingly. She sliced a piece of the braided loaf and pushed a plate across the oilcloth that covered the table. Chloe took a bite and almost groaned with delight. The soft bread was flavored with freshly-ground cardamom and washed with a light coffee glaze.

It suddenly felt completely right to sit here chatting with Helka, and she leaned forward on her elbows. “Finding this rug in an antiques shop sparked my interest in Finnish rag weaving. I’m hoping to document a few weavers and their stories, and perhaps different patterns used by Finnish immigrants. The information is important to collect for its own sake, but I’m also thinking that a formal museum exhibit would be the best way to share the rugs and history.”

Helka broke a clean egg into a small crockery bowl, shell and all. “Chloe, I can’t tell you how happy this makes me! The Finnish immigrants’ stories aren’t nearly as well-known as some of the other groups. Have you visited Little Finland?”

“Not yet,” Chloe admitted. She was familiar with the cultural heritage organization in northern Wisconsin, but hadn’t had a chance to get there.

Helka gently stirred in some ground coffee and a bit of water. “I volunteer some time there when I’m home in the winter. We have a loom in one of the restored cabins, and lots of artifacts from local Finnish families. My dearest friend Lois is president of the board. I’m sure she’d be happy to help in any way.” She checked the coffeepot, snapped the lid back into place, and turned as the sound of an engine approached outside. “My goodness, who is that?”

The motor cut off and a car door slammed. Chloe frowned. The farm drive was supposed to be used only by horse-drawn wagons. Modern vehicles left tire tracks, which ruined the 1897 atmosphere she and the interpreters worked so hard to present.

Someone hurried up the steps. Then site director Ralph Petty walked into the kitchen.

Oh, hell, Chloe thought, scrambling to her feet. Of all the people she didn’t want to see today, Ralph Petty topped the list. In fact, she’d have to turn the page before reaching a second name.

“Director Petty, good morning,” Helka said. The water was starting to steam, and she gently slid the egg-coffee mixture into the pot. “What brings you here?”

Petty apparently didn’t appreciate the sublime pleasure of egg coffee, for his lip curled as he watched. “I saw smoke coming from the chimney. And you, Miss Ellefson?”

Chloe produced the artificial smile she reserved only for him. “I just stopped by to check on something.”

“She was telling me about a new project,” Helka elaborated. “She’s studying–”

Chloe coughed, barely refraining from making a slashing motion across her throat. Don’t mention the–

“–Finnish rag rugs,” Helka continued. “For a formal exhibit.”

Petty swiveled to Chloe. He was a dark-haired man of medium build, with a Sigmund Freud beard and half-glasses perched on his nose. “It that true, Miss Ellefson?”

She held his gaze. “It is.”

“I told you not to waste time on that ridiculous proposal, did I not?”

“You did,” Chloe allowed, “but I still want to help the Rankinen interpreters by learning more about–”

“What’s there to learn? Rags were made into rugs. End of story. You admitted that the practice isn’t distinct to Finnish immigrants, did you not?”

Helka spoke with a rare hint of reproach in her voice. “The Finns do have a particular affinity for weaving.”

Petty lasered his stare at Chloe. “The point, Miss Ellefson, is that the topic is not worthy of serious study. I told you not to pursue such an inane project.”

“Which is why I’m doing the work on my own time,” Chloe snapped. “I put in for vacation hours two weeks ago. You approved the request…did you not?”

Petty’s jaw tightened. Too far, Chloe thought, but she couldn’t bring herself to backtrack. The faint crackle of burning wood in the stove suddenly seemed loud.

Finally the site director turned toward the door. Then he paused, glaring at the rolled rug protruding from Chloe’s totebag. “What are you doing with that rug?”

She put a hand on the rug to shield it from his scorn. “I’m taking it north to show to local experts.”

“Do you have permission from Laila to remove that artifact from the site?” he asked sharply. Laila was the curator overseeing collections care for the state historical society’s properties.

“No, but this rug does not belong to the site. It belongs to me.”

Ralph Petty’s eyes narrowed down to slits, as if he could barely bring himself to look at her. Without a word he left the house. A moment later the engine growled to life, and the site-owned sedan roared down the drive.

Chloe exhaled slowly. “I apologize,” she told Helka. “You should not have had to hear that. I was out of line.” Although not as badly as Petty had been.

“Mr. Petty could have been more respectful.”

Respect was too much to hope for, Chloe thought. She and the director had never gotten along, and he’d once come very close to firing her. “He doesn’t like me.”

“I know, dear.”

Ah. Apparently, the entire staff, including frontline interpreters, knew that the professional relationship between the site’s director and collections curator was framed with animosity. “I would like to improve the situation,” Chloe said plaintively. “It’s just that…that I…” To her horror, her voice began to shake.

Helka patted Chloe’s shoulder. “Sit back down. Let me finish the coffee.”

Chloe obeyed, bewildered by her own reaction. Usually Petty had to work a lot harder than that to provoke her to tears.

Helka slid the pot from the burner and added a dash of water to settle the egg-grounds mixture, which had coalesced into something resembling a Brillo pad. Then she filled both mugs.

Chloe accepted one, took a sip, and closed her eyes. The egg had extracted any hint of bitterness and allowed the grounds to separate completely. So mellowed, the coffee was incredibly smooth. “Thank you.”

“Don’t let Mr. Petty’s remarks bother you,” Helka advised. “People who feel a need to harm others in words or deeds are usually deeply unhappy with themselves. Or, perhaps simply envious of the person they’re trying to demean.”

Chloe almost snorted coffee from her nose. Ralph Petty, envy her? Not likely.

“Do you have some Finnish heritage yourself, Chloe?” Helka tipped her head. “This rug project seems to mean a great deal to you.”

“I do not, but it does,” Chloe admitted. “I wrote up a proposal, and needless to say, Mr. Petty was less than enthused.”

Now she berated herself, again, for her stupidity. She should never have gone to Petty about a project focused primarily on working-class women. “He told me to choose a decorative art to pursue.”

“Woven rugs are decorative!”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

Helka reached across the table and squeezed Chloe’s hand. “Don’t let anyone shut down your independent project. A woman needs more than one jelly jar in her pantry.”

###

Roelke McKenna yawned as he pulled into the driveway at the farmhouse near Palmyra where he lived with Chloe. The “Old Roelke Place,” people called it. He loved sharing the farm with his wife. But not today, he thought as he parked his truck. The spot reserved for Chloe’s ancient Ford Pinto was empty. She was planning to drive north today, but she generally moved at a sloth’s pace in the mornings. Besides, he’d assumed she wouldn’t leave before he got home from work.

Roelke was a police officer in the Village of Eagle, the closest town to Old World Wisconsin. He should have been home hours ago, but shortly before his shift ended a drunk teen driver had plowed into a parked car on Main Street. The kid’s injuries were minor, thank God, but Roelke had found a crack pipe and two ounces of nuggets on the back seat. Crap like that involved a lot of paperwork.

He got out of the truck, slammed the door, stretched. It was a beautiful August morning.

He wandered over to Chloe’s garden, an exuberant jungle of sprawling squash and climbing beans, rows of lacy carrot tops and bushy kale, fragrant herbs, pockets of zinnias to attract butterflies, marigolds to repel pests, and eighteen—yes, eighteen—heirloom tomato plants. Chloe did love her tomatoes.

The fruit on the closest plant was green but looked ripe. Roelke was trying to figure out if it was some strange old-time breed when a car crunched onto the gravel drive. He turned eagerly, but instead of Chloe’s car, it was Kari’s AMC Rambler.

Well, hunh. Roelke liked Chloe’s sister, but since she lived on an actual working farm an hour away, she wasn’t prone to dropping by. He went to meet her. “’Morning!”

She greeted him with a hug. “I hope you don’t mind me stopping on my way to Palmyra. Libby is helping me reupholster an armchair.”

That didn’t surprise him. Roelke’s cousin Libby was one of the most practical people he knew.

Kari scanned the yard. “Did I miss Chloe?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I just got home, and expected to find her.”

Kari flapped an unconcerned hand. “Don’t worry. She probably just got caught up in some history thing.”

“Probably.” Roelke had seen Chloe caught up in “some history thing” many times.

“You should have seen her when we went into this antiques shop up north.”

“The rug?”

“Oh, yeah. The rug.” Kari leaned against her car and crossed her ankles. “You’d think she’d just found the Holy Grail.” She shook her head, but her smile was indulgent, not mocking. “I’m sure she’ll be along any time. Don’t worry.”

When it came to Chloe—to anyone Roelke loved, but especially Chloe—he did worry. There were too many ways a passionate, imaginative, sometimes single-minded museum curator could get into trouble.

He didn’t want to advertise that to Kari, though. “So,” he said, gesturing at the garden wilderness, “do you think I dare pinch off a few blossoms on her tomato plants? This late in the season–”

“She’ll know.”

“The plants will do better if–”

“She’ll know, Roelke. Pinch at your peril.”

Wise counsel, he decided.

Kari eyed him with a look surprisingly reminiscent of her sister. “Are you okay?”

“Sometimes I wonder if Chloe is having second thoughts about being married,” Roelke said. Which was astonishing, because he hadn’t been planning to say anything of the sort. Hadn’t even been thinking it.

“No way!” Kari scoffed. “Three months after the wedding? Please tell me you’re not worrying about that.”

“I’m not worried. Just making an observation.”

Kari looked baffled. “Why would you even think such a thing? My sister adores you.”

“I believe that,” Roelke assured her. “But I can’t help noticing that she’s traveling more than usual.”

“I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. In fact…” Kari broke off as the Pinto turned in.

Something inside Roelke eased. When Chloe emerged from the car, his heart instantly did that funny little fluttery thing it did every time she came home.

 Chloe’s looks were almost stereotypically Scandihoovian. Her eyes were the color of the chicory flowers blooming near the barn. Today her long blonde hair was braided and pinned in a complicated swirl behind her head. Her true beauty, though, came from inside. It showed in the way she smiled when she realized he was waiting for her, in the respectful way she tipped her head when elders spoke, in the delight sparkling in her gaze when she played games with his cousin’s kids. My wife, Roelke thought, with a familiar mixture of incredulity and joy.

“Hey, Kari,” Chloe said, then turned to him. “Hi sweetie. Been home long?”

“Just got here. I wondered if you’d already left.”

“Without saying good-bye?” She gave him an Oh, come on look before wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him close for a kiss.

Roelke was convinced.

When they came up for air she added, “I’d never do that. I made a quick trip to Old World to get the rag rug I put on display in Rankinen. I thought I’d be back before you got home, but I got caught up.”

Kari gave Roelke a loaded look: See? Just some of her history stuff.

Chloe didn’t miss the silent exchange. “I didn’t expect to see you today, Kari.”

“Since you’re traveling, I brought Roelke dinner. Chicken pot pie.”

“That’s kind, but hardly necessary.” Chloe sounded mildly aggrieved. “I left plenty of food in the fridge, including a lingonberry-curry stir-fry.”

Kari looked aghast. “Lingonberry…what?”

“It’s actually quite good,” Roelke admitted, almost embarrassed by the admission.

“Our mother is spinning in her grave,” Kari told her sister flatly. “You do know that, right?”

Roelke suspected that Kari and Chloe’s mom, Marit All-Things-Norwegian Kallerud, had never tasted curried anything.

“Yeah, yeah.” Chloe turned toward the house. “I’ve got to grab my stuff. I’ll take the pie inside.” Kari surrendered the casserole dish, kissed Roelke on the cheek, wished Chloe a successful trip, and left.

Roelke got busy inspecting the Pinto. He was checking the oil when she returned. Chloe opened the hatch, propped it up with a tent pole, and slung her suitcase inside. “I can’t linger, Roelke. I’m expected at that weaver’s house this evening.”

He slid the dipstick back into place and slammed the hood. “Oil level’s good. Tire pressure is too. First aid kit is stocked. I topped off the wiper fluid and put fresh batteries in the emergency flashlight. Your sleeping bag’s in the back, and a gallon of water, and–”

“Thank you.”

“–the belts look fine. I just want to grab a replacement headlight bulb–”

“Roelke, I have to get on the road!” She glanced meaningfully at her watch.

He frowned. “Before starting a road trip you need to–”

Sweetie.” Chloe kissed him again, then slid into the driver’s seat. “All you really need to start a road trip is a full tank of gas.”

###

Despite her disclaimer, Chloe was truly grateful to her husband for making sure she was prepared for emergency. Her husband!

Roelke was not the man she’d imagined marrying. He was four years her junior. His passion was service with the police force, not history. He was generally tightly-wound, and she still quaked inside if he happened to turn his tight-jawed, severe stare on her. He was a good man, though—faithful, loving, protective. It didn’t hurt that his dark hair framed a face that was handsome in a rugged kind of way, that his shoulders were broad, and that he looked equally fine in his uniform or in jeans. It was still hard to take in the unexpected good fortune that had brought her and Roelke together. She missed him already.

But she was heading north, which was enough to make most any Cheesehead happy. In Wisconsin, “north” was not a direction but a cultural entity; a mindset as fundamental to state identity as brats and beer and fresh curds. When Chloe left Rhinelander behind, she basked in that “north of the tension line” feeling. The residual stress left by her encounter with Ralph Petty slipped away. Life was good.

Chloe loved road trips. She loved “the U.P.,” as the Upper Peninsula was called. She loved driving through towns with names like Squash Lake and Sugar Camp, and navigating curvy lanes through national forests. She loved seeing stands of birch appear, deciduous trees give way to coniferous, and masses of Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susans blooming along the roadside.

“My kind of country,” she murmured.

Prehistoric people had once mined this land, followed by the influx of white miners from “back east,” Great Britain, and Europe who created the nation’s first copper boom. Now, the extraction industry’s scars were healing. Second-growth forest had reclaimed boisterous frontier towns, population was sparse, and tourism was the shaky foundation of the local economy. This wild, green peninsula surrounded on three sides by Lake Superior was also home to the nation’s largest concentration of Finnish Americans. An immigrant family named Hanka had built the homestead that Mike Curtis was so excited about.

Chloe had hoped to check in at her motel before meeting Tuula Lepisto, the weaver, and Olivia Kangas, the folklorist who would make the introductions. The interlude at the Rankinen House that morning had taken too much time, though. Chloe headed straight for Tuula’s house, crunching a snack-pack of cheese and peanut butter crackers. She passed a number of old farms.  Some appeared prosperous; others were abandoned and crumbling, with trees and brush retaking hard-won fields still enclosed by wire and wood post fencing.

She spotted a few businesses with Finnish names, was passed by an old pickup truck with a “Sisu” bumper sticker, saw Lutheran churches and tidy frame homes painted white with blue trim—Finnish colors. After navigating a final stretch of gravel roads, she was relieved to spot “Lepisto” marked on a farm’s mailbox. A hand-painted sign stood by the long driveway: Rugs For Sale. Bingo.

Chloe puttered up the drive. The Lepisto home was like many she’d passed in Finn country, a two-story frame farmhouse with an enticing screened porch and detached garage. A dark sedan was parked in front. Olivia was probably already here.

A large barn stood behind the house, and a much smaller log structure she guessed was a sauna. Farthest away was a smaller shed-like structure. “Hen house, maybe?” she murmured. “Or—oh!”

The shed’s door had banged open. Someone emerged at a run—a fair-haired woman in jeans and a yellow jacket. She raced toward the house, then spotted Chloe’s car and veered across the lawn, wildly waving her arms. “Help! Help!

A cold knot formed in the pit of Chloe’s stomach. She scrambled from the Pinto and ran.

The other woman shoved frenzied hands through her hair. “I need help!”

“What’s wrong?”

“We need—to call—the police.” Her words came in breathy snatches. “Oh my God. I saw…oh God.”

Chloe grasped the woman’s forearm. “What did you see?”

“I saw Tuula. She…” The woman pressed a trembling hand over her mouth. “I think she’s dead.”

 

The Weaver's Revenge: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #11
© 2021 by Kathleen Ernst, LLC.
Published by Three Towers Press