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Blackwork

Blackwork, October 2010
Needlecraft #13
by Monica Ferris

Berkley
Featuring: Leona Cunningham; Ryan McMurphy
304 pages
ISBN: 0425237427
EAN: 9780425237427
Mass Market Paperback
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"One of the most cleverly plotted cozy mysteries I've had the pleasure to read."

Fresh Fiction Review

Blackwork
Monica Ferris

Reviewed by Paula Myers
Posted November 29, 2010

Mystery Hobbies | Mystery Cozy

Residents of Excelsior, Minnesota, believe Leona Cunningham to be the town's resident witch, and while most are tolerant of Leona's Wiccan beliefs, a few are wary or even outright fearful of her. As co-owner of Barleywine, a local dining establishment, Leona primarily uses her skills for brewing beer. Her latest creation, Don Be Afraid of the Dark Ale is set to debut just in time for the annual Fall Festival.

Betsy Devonshire, owner of the local needlework shop Crewel World, is on the festival planning committee, which is this year headed by Leona's partner, Billie Leslie. Things are moving along smoothly at one of their planning meetings until local resident Ryan McMurphy falls off the wagon. In a drunken rant he accuses Leona of using her witchy ways to curse him. When Ryan turns up dead in a locked room with no obvious cause of death, more than a few townsfolk put Leona at the top of their suspect list.

Betsy knows her friend is innocent and sets out to prove it. Unraveling the seemingly unrelated clues is almost as difficult as learning the latest stitching technique, but Betsy isn't one to give up on either. When the clues finally begin to fall into place it will take all of Betsy's skill to catch a killer.

Monica Ferris' BLACKWORK is a part of the Needlecraft Mystery series, and one of the most cleverly plotted cozy mysteries I've had the pleasure to read. Betsy is an intrepid sleuth, quite likable and supported by an entertaining and diverse group of townsfolk. Ms. Ferris carefully leads the reader through a variety of twists and turns to reach a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. This is the first in this series I've read; without a doubt it won't be the last.

Learn more about Blackwork

SUMMARY

The beloved USA Today bestselling Needlework mystery series continues.

It's Halloween-and Betsy Devonshire, owner of the Crewel World needlework shop and part-time sleuth, is haunted by murder...

In the town of Excelsior, Minnesota, Leona Cunningham, owner of a popular microbrewery, is a practitioner of Wicca, the nature-based religion often mistaken for black magic. But that doesn't bother the thirsty crowds. Then, after one too many pints, a local blames Leona for the series of "accidents" that have happened throughout town. When he ends up dead without a mark on his body, Leona's the main suspect. But Betsy's on the case, and that spells trouble for the killer.

Excerpt

The Monday Bunch, six strong today—Emily, Bershada, Jill, Alice, Phil, and Doris—gathered at Crewel World on Monday afternoon. They came in shivering, shaking raindrops off their umbrellas and coats, complaining about the weather.

"You’d think we’d get just one good fall weekend!" lamented Emily. "Henrietta’s play group has been trying to have a fall picnic since the beginning of September! Poor thing, she’s so disappointed!" Since Henrietta was barely four, it was likely that the disappointment lurked more in the heart of her mother than in her own.

"It’s the middle of October, so we probably won’t be able to have it outdoors now," she continued. "Hi, Betsy," she added as she settled down in her chair.

"I’ve got spiced apple cider heating up in back," said Betsy. "The coat rack’s back there, too," she added, and Jill led the way to the tiny back room, where the coffee urn waited, along with the tea kettle—currently heating apple cider spiced with cinnamon and cloves—and cups and mugs in Styrofoam and china.

"Well, Leona did say we were going to have a cold, wet fall," said Bershada, coming back with a cup of steaming cider. She said it lightly and without looking at anyone as she led the way to the big library table in the front area of the shop. She sat down, lips slightly pursed, still not looking at anyone, and got out a wooden frame holding a large rectangular piece of counted cross-stitch. It was a half-completed alphabet sampler featuring bright-colored flowers, from amaryllis to zinnia. A retired librarian, she was doing it as a gift for the Excelsior Public Library.

There was a little pause while Bershada put on the magnifying glasses that rested near the tip of her small nose and the others seated themselves around the table and mulled over whether to take the bait being offered.

Alice, as bold as she was blunt, said, "I do hope we aren’t going to talk about Leona and her witchcraft." She was a widow and the oldest member of the group. Well into her seventies, she was nevertheless a vigorous woman, big-boned and broad-shouldered, with a deep voice. She sat down, opened an antique carpet bag, and produced yarn, a crochet hook, and a half-completed afghan square.

"Why not? Our television weatherman said this past weekend would be partly cloudy with a slight chance of rain," said Godwin. "Leona is always better than he is at predicting the weather." It had, in fact, rained steadily all weekend. Betsy raised an eyebrow at him. He had been hoping to hear what the Bunch thought of the Ryan McMurphy incident, but Betsy didn’t want hurtful gossip aimed at Leona. He wasn’t sitting at the table himself, but was standing at a rack of counted cross-stitch patterns with religious themes, setting in new ones by numbers the shop had assigned.

Betsy was seated at the big old desk that served as a checkout counter, carefully punching credit card numbers into her laptop. The shop’s card reader had unaccountably died on Friday, and she had instructed her staff to write down the numbers by hand. A replacement machine wouldn’t arrive until Wednesday, so now she had the task of sending the information over the Internet.

She was muttering bad words under her breath because one number wasn’t being accepted. It had been written down wrong—and it was a number Betsy had taken down herself. Already two other credit card holders had gone over their limit and Visa was not accepting the charges.

Hearkening to the sounds of angst, Jill twisted around in her chair. "When you get tired of mere words," she said to Betsy, "you can ask Leona Cunningham for something more potent, you know."

There were stifled gasps and giggles around the table. Godwin contributed a patently false gasp and a shake of his blond head in a denial of his own.

"Oh, posh!" said Jill, turning back and fixing them with a cool blue stare. "Isn’t that what we’re leading up to here? Witchcraft as practiced by Leona Cunningham?"

"No, of course not!" said Emily, but her cheeks were pinking. "None of us believes in that stuff."

"I think some of us do," said Doris in her pleasant sandy voice. She and her beau, Phil, sat side by side, no longer pretending in public to barely know one another. They were each working on a needlepoint Christmas stocking. "It’s been all over town that Ryan McMurphy taunted Leona—and Billie—in The Barleywine on Friday, then got hit by a truck three minutes later. I’d say half the people in town think the two things are connected."

"No, they think it’s fun to pretend the two are connected," said Bershada. "Like going to a scary movie: you’re scared, but not really. Phil, for example, doesn’t really think Leona Cunningham put a curse on Ryan McMurphy that came true."

Phil said, "Now, ordinarily I wouldn’t believe such a thing, especially of such a nice woman as Leona. But Ryan is such a terrible drunk, and after the way he behaved in The Barleywine, maybe he’s not wrong to be worried." He wore a superior sort of smirk as he said this, and Doris nudged him in rebuke.

Emily said, "If Ryan is scared, he’s taking a funny way to show it. Did you hear he broke through the screen into Leona’s back porch and trashed it? She had flower pots and bundles of dried flowers stored back there, and he kicked and smashed and threw stuff everywhere."

"When did this happen?" asked Betsy, surprised.

Phil looked at Doris. "Saturday night?" She nodded. "Yes, Saturday night. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it."

"You sound pretty sure Ryan did this, Emily," noted Jill, glancing also at Phil. "How do you come to think that?"

Jill used to be a police officer, and she still had that polite but implacable look a traffic cop can summon at will. Confronted by her cool stare, Emily confessed, "Well, I’m just assuming it was Ryan. But really, who else could it be?"

"What do the police think?" asked Phil.

"They’re investigating it as a hate crime," admitted Jill, who would know, of course. Her husband was Police Sergeant Lars Larson.

"Poor Leona!" said Emily.

Bershada said, "I wonder if those were not dried flowers, but dried herbs. Leona has a wonderful herb garden, so this must be like she lost her whole summer."

Emily said, "I bet she was furious!" Then she looked guilty.

"Now, Emily—" said Betsy in a warning tone.

But Doris said, "I’d be furious if someone got into my needlework stash and tore things up."

"Yes, but you can’t throw a hex on the person who did it," said Phil.

"Neither can Leona," said Alice. "Nobody can, there’s no such thing as hexes." Her late husband had been an extremely orthodox Lutheran minister.

Betsy stopped entering numbers long enough to say, "I agree. Plus, I think you’re all in danger of being cruel and stupid to say such things about Leona, even in fun. She’s a very nice woman, and most of you know that."

"Of course we don’t really believe in hexes!" said Godwin. That’s why we’re joking about it."

"I suppose that’s true," said Phil. He took a thoughtful look at his stocking—a present for Doris. It depicted Mr. and Mrs. Claus in the front seat of a Stanley Steamer, a stocking specially designed and painted to his order by local needlepoint artist Denise Williams. Doris, retired herself, had a boiler license and they shared a knowledgeable interest in Lars Larson’s Stanley.

Phil leaned sideways to admire her stocking. It depicted Santa driving a steam locomotive—Phil was a retired railroad man. The stocking in her hands was, of course, a present for him.

They had become accepted as a couple in town, seen everywhere together, without passing through that public-kissy-face stage. Perhaps because they were seniors, it had been an old-fashioned courtship; since they were only engaged, not married, they even maintained separate residences. Doris gave a fond glance at the sapphire and diamond ring on her finger.

Jill said, "Some people believe in curses." She was nearing the end of stitching a counted cross-stitch pattern, of a black cat sitting on a jack-o’-lantern while licking its paw. "That’s why what happened to Leona is being investigated as a possible hate crime."

Bershada said, "I heard Ryan invoked Adam Wainwright’s name in The Barleywine when he was raving at Leona about hexes. And you have to admit that what happened to Adam was very strange."

A little silence fell around the table. Adam Wainwright had been a financial counselor in Hopkins, and Leona had invested fifty thousand dollars of her husband’s life insurance with him. A couple years later, needing the money to set up the microbrewery, she discovered that all but a few thousand dollars of it had disappeared. Adam told an investigator that Leona had instructed him to invest in high-risk stocks and the money was lost when the investments went sour. Leona denied Adam’s story but the man produced documents with Leona’s signature on them and so he was never charged with a crime. Soon after, he was driving his classic Corvette convertible around Lake Minnetonka when an eagle flying overhead dropped a huge bass, which landed square on Adam’s face, causing him to swerve off the road. The car was totaled, and fish scales got into his eyes and caused an infection that essentially destroyed his vision. It was a shocking, weird accident, and some of Leona’s friends felt it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person.

"Do you mean to tell me that any of you sitting at this table thinks Mr. Wainwright’s accident was caused by a curse put on him by Leona Cunningham?" demanded Alice in an awful voice.

"Ryan believes it," said Godwin. He pushed another pattern into the row of them on the shelf, and turned to face them. "And right after Ryan accused her of it, he goes out and gets his car wrecked. This despite all his amulets."

"What are amulets?" asked Emily.

"Haven’t you seen that collection of his?" Godwin used his hands to form a softball-size shape in the air. "It’s got so many good-luck pieces on a big silver ring that if he ever fell into the lake, it would take him right to the bottom."

"Oh, that Ryan is just silly!" pooh-poohed Emily, her knitting needles flashing. She was making a sweater for her toddler son. "She made him mad, telling him to walk home. Of course he felt he just had to drive his car, and so he blames her for the wreck."

Bershada laughed, but Jill said, "That sounds just like excuses I’ve heard from drunks back when I was on patrol. ‘She told me I couldn’t, so I had to prove I could.’ And he probably doesn’t remember doing the vandalism to Leona’s back porch. He’s been drunk ever since he got out of jail."

"He knew what he was doing when he dared Leona to put a hex on him at The Barleywine," said Betsy, remembering.

Godwin said, "Even if he thought his lucky charms protected him in that accident, it seems stupid of him to tempt her again by trashing her back porch."

"Of course, his accident had nothing to do with the fact that he was severely intoxicated that evening," said Alice repressively.

"It had everything to do with it," said Jill. "Being drunk also gave him the nerve to beard the lioness in her den—stand up to Leona in The Barleywine."

Phil said, "I heard he jangled that keychain right in her face and dared her to lay a curse on him."

"Did she?" asked Emily. "Lay a curse? You know, did she say the words that meant she was cursing him?"

"No, of course not," said Jill. "She told him to walk, not drive, walk home and sleep it off."

"Were you actually there?" asked Doris, hearing a note of authority in Jill’s voice.

"No," said Jill, "but that’s what’s in the police report. I also happen to know Ryan blew a two-oh."

"What’s that mean?" asked Emily.

"When they make you blow into a little machine that measures how drunk you are," said Betsy, "it comes up in numbers."

Jill said, "In Minnesota, oh-eight—that is, a zero-point-zero-eight percent blood alcohol level—is legally too drunk to drive. Zero point two zero is very drunk."

Betsy said, "He must have had a lot more beer than we realized. I wonder why Joey Mitchell kept buying it for him."

Bershada asked, "Aren’t those two good friends?"

"They used to be," said Phil. "Then Joey was in a car accident with Ryan behind the wheel. Joey came away with a smashed left arm that’ll never be right. He had to quit the fire department because of that, and I know he was mad at Ryan for a long time."

"He must have gotten over it, then," said Betsy, remembering how Joey greeted Ryan warmly and came to sit with him in The Barleywine booth.

"How’d Ryan get drunk?" asked Bershada. "I heard Leona and Billie agreed never to sell

him any more beer after that night he got in a fight and broke their juke box."

"Joey bought it for him. He admitted it."

"What was Ryan doing there in the first place?" asked Emily.

"He’d come to tell the committee about having finished restoring that antique fire engine for the parade," said Betsy.

"What would one point zero be?" asked Doris, idly curious.

"Dead," Jill said. "I read not long ago of a woman who was zero point five seven and she is considered a medical miracle because she came out of her coma and lived."

"Why would anyone drink till they nearly die?" asked Emily.

"Usually on a dare or a bet," said Jill.

"Chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug," chanted Phil, nodding at an old memory.

Betsy frowned at him. Where had she heard that recently? Not directed at her, but overheard. Probably from someone at The Barleywine.

The subject was wandering away from superstitions, so Godwin said, "Look, a Hamsa Hand." When they all looked toward him, he held out a counted cross-stitch pattern with a color photograph of the completed piece on its front. It looked like an open hand, blue, palm forward, with three fingers between two thumbs, all pointing down. In the center of the palm was an eye with a red heart for an iris. Above the hand was printed a line in some very foreign language. "Ryan has one of these in pewter," he said; "I’ve seen it myself."

"What does the writing mean?" asked Doris.

Godwin consulted a tag hanging on a string from the bottom of the canvas. "It’s Hebrew for ‘Let this home be filled with the blessing of joy and peace.’" He seemed disappointed that it didn’t say something like, "May this home be safe from hexes."

Betsy said, "The Hamsa Hand is also found in Arabic countries. There, it’s the Hand of Fatima."

"Muslims and Jews have the same superstition?" asked Emily incredulously.

"Actually, the hand is older than either religion. But sometimes Muslims and Jews will wear the hand as a sign that they want reconciliation."

"Why is there an eye in the palm?" asked Doris.

"It’s protection against the Evil Eye," said Godwin, looking again at the tag.

"It looks like an evil eye," noted Alice.

"But it has a heart in the center of it," objected Emily.

"There’s many an evil deed done in the name of love," remarked Jill.

"Do you believe in the Evil Eye, Goddy?" asked Betsy in a very dry voice.

"No, of course not," said Godwin, making cabalistic gestures with his free hand and pretending to spit left and right. Phil and the women at the table laughed, even Alice. Godwin often made grand, brave statements he would simultaneously contradict with a gesture. It was part of his insouciant charm.

"Are you superstitious, Betsy?" asked Phil in a jocular voice.

"Oh, no more than average," said Betsy, trying for a distracted voice, picking up the next sales slip. She didn’t have any amulets on her keychain, but there was a small, real amber bead sewn into the lining of her swimsuit. Sailors knew that wearing an amber bead means the wearer will never die by drowning. In another life, Betsy had been a Navy WAVE.

Godwin decided to become direct. "Do any of you really believe Leona Cunningham is a witch?"

"Of course she is!" said Emily, staring at him. "Isn’t that what we’re talking about? She’s a Wiccan."

"No, I mean, do any of you believe she can cast a spell on someone?"

"Well . . ." said Phil, scratching the underside of his jaw with two fingers. "There’s more things under heaven than most of us realize. We Christians believe in miracles, so maybe we should believe in the opposite, too . . ." He shrugged.

"Oh, stop it, Phil!" said Alice. "I can’t believe you think there’s anything in such silly superstitions. To think that in this day and age anyone would believe a person can boil up a potion of bats’ wings and tiger talons and harm another person with it is too ridiculous even to contemplate!"

"Bats’ wings and tiger talons?" echoed Emily. She began to giggle. "I thought it was eye of newt and toe of frog."

"Well, whatever it is. No mortal human can harm another with fairy-tale rhymes and a . . . a kind of nasty soup."

Emily’s giggle became a laugh.

Alice continued doggedly, "It’s wicked to spread belief in such nonsense. I should think responsible people would speak up against it."

Doris said, "I think that when people are harmed by curses, it’s because they believe in them. I’ve read that if a person truly believes in witches and warlocks and such, and a witch throws a curse on him, he will actually get sick or even die just from believing in it."

"Do you think Ryan got in that accident last week because he truly believed Leona put a hex on him?" asked Godwin.

"I agree with Jill—Ryan got into that accident because he was drunk," said Doris.

"And mad," amended Phil. "Leona told him he should walk home, so of course he had to show her she wasn’t the boss of him. Except he didn’t."

"How could he go home?" asked Bershada. "I thought his wife threw him out."

"I forgot about that, Bershada!" said Emily. "You’re right, she did. So where was he going? Does he have a place to stay?"

"He’s living with Shelly," said Betsy. "Apparently her boyfriend is an old friend of Ryan’s and he talked her into it. It would have been an easy walk, even in the rain." She remembered the hypnotic tone of Leona’s voice as she told him to walk the three blocks to Shelly Donohue’s house.

"I wish Shelly could join the Monday Bunch," said Doris. "I love it when she’s working in here, and I’ve been admiring her designs. It would be very interesting to watch her work out a pattern."

That set off a discussion of favorite designers. Emily loved Barbara Baatz-Hillman—her pillows ornamented her daughter Henrietta’s bed. Phil had recently added Stoney Creek’s patterns, "Railroad Memories," to his stash.

Jill was singing the praises of Jane Greenoff when the door sounded its two notes and Leona Cunningham came in, her dark eyes enormous in her white face. She was without a coat or an umbrella and was streaming wet, a condition she did not seem to notice.

"Betsy," she said in a trembling voice, "I want to talk to you."

Betsy stood. "Of course." She led Leona into the tiny room at the very back of the shop.

"Ryan McMurphy has been found dead."

"Oh, my God. What happened?"

"I don’t know. But someone just called me to accuse me of murdering him."


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