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Carla and Harriet were at an ironing board at the back of their classroom starching their fabric rectangles to within an inch of their lives when their teacher interrupted.
"Class, would everyone return to their seats, please?"
The students looked at each other in puzzlement but did as she asked. When they were all seated, Ray Louise came around to the front of her table and sat on the edge.
"I'm afraid I have some sad news," she said. "I've just been informed Selestina Bainbridge has passed away."
"What happened?" a dark-haired woman at the back of the room asked.
"I thought she was awake and alert at the hospital," said a younger woman toward the front.
The teacher held her hands up. "We don't know anything yet. They were treating her for a heart arrhythmia, and she must have had a heart attack before they could control it. I'm not a doctor, so I can't really tell you any more than that--I just don't know. The important thing is that this tragic event will not impact your time here. Of course, there will be some staff changes for a few of the classes, but it was Selestina's wish that school continue. It was her legacy. She told her son Tom it was important to her that her students not be disappointed."
"Almost makes you feel sorry for her, doesn't it?" said Jan Hayes, the doctor, who was standing next the Harriet.
"Almost," Harriet conceded, remembering how vicious Selestina had been to Carla.
"Well, I can tell you one thing," Jan said.
"If she had a heart attack, it was a kind I've never seen before."
"People often have pain in their left arm if they're suffering a heartattack. Although women often don't have classic symptoms, Selestina's were beyond atypical. She seemed to have numbness in both her arms. And there was something wrong with her pupils, too. You can mark my words. She had something else going on besides a simple heart attack."
"Having said that," Ray Louise continued, "we will cancel class for the rest of today. The teaching staff needs to meet to figure out how we will cover Selestina's work load for the rest of this week."
"Will we be able to stay here and continue working?" asked the dark-haired woman.
"No, we can't leave the room open without a staff member present, and we'll all be in the meeting. However, each of the dormitory buildings has a storeroom off the back porch. They should be unlocked, and if you look inside you should find card tables and chairs and power strips. You're are welcome to set tables up anywhere in your building as long as you don't disturb anyone else. If you didn't bring your own sewing machine, there are loaner machines available in the Folk Art Center office. The office is the smaller round building on the west side of Building A, which is the ceramics center." She paused and looked over the group to see if anyone else had a question. "Lastly, if you can find it in your heart to do so, please say a prayer for the soul of a fine, fine, woman--Selestina Bainbridge." Ray Louise left the room without another word.
A deafening clap of thunder broke the silence that had fallen over the room.
"I think that's our cue to leave," Harriet whispered to Carla. The two desk-mates quietly packed up their tools and headed for the door.
"Are you going to work any more on your rectangles?" Jan asked Harriet.
"I didn't bring my sewing machine, but I thought I might cut mine." She turned to Carla. "Are you going to do any more?"
Carla studied her toes. "I thought I would try to cut a few."
"Do you want to get together later and compare what we've done? You know, make sure they all look somewhat the same." Jan asked.
"Sure, I guess," Harriet looked at Carla, and the young woman nodded. "Would you like to come by our dorm later? We're staying in the Tree House."
Jan agreed, and they parted company at the classroom door.
Mavis and Connie were already settled in the common room when Harriet and Carla arrived. Connie had a teapot and cups on a tray on the oak table between the sofas. She had wrapped a dishtowel around the pot to keep the contents warm until the rest of the group arrived.
Mavis was talking on the dormitory's cordless phone. She covered the mouthpiece with her right hand.
"Carla, honey," she said, "it's your sister. She says she needs to speak to you."
Carla took the phone and turned away from the group. Mavis put her hand on Harriet's back and guided her to the sofa.
"I presume you heard about Selestina?"
"Yeah, we heard. What did they tell your class?"
"Not much. They said Selestina died of a fatal heart arrhythmia."
"I don't think heart rhythm problems are unusual for women her age," Connie said. "A couple of ladies in my aerobics class take heart rhythm medications already."
"Yeah, but do they die from it?" Harriet asked.
Connie's face lost its animation as she thought about it. "No, I don't think so. I can't think of anyone I know who's died from a heart rhythm problem."
"Your record is still clean," Darcy Lewis said from the entryway. Darcy worked for the Foggy Point sheriff's office as a crime scene investigator. Foggy Point wasn't a big enough town to support one full-time CSI much less the three it had, but the state of Washington had made a deal with the county to host the unit that served the small towns in the northwestern part of the state. Foggy Point wasn't a hotbed of crime; but the state politicians had discovered that if fingerprints were taken at every crime in every town, no matter how minor, the public felt safer and that meant votes for the incumbent regime. It didn't seem to matter to either side that the evidence collected at car prowls and simple burglaries didn't usually result in conviction. Even when it did, the perpetrator was out on the street in a matter of hours, if not minutes.
"Hi, Darcy," Mavis greeted the young woman. "What are you doing here? Did you decide to take a class after all?"
"I wish that was why I'm here. No, I'm here professionally. I'm on the state's poison task force, which means anytime someone dies from any type of poison anywhere in the state, I get to go there and collect samples."
"Selestina was poisoned?" Harriet asked, even though Darcy's presence made that obvious.
"Looks like it." Darcy took off her uniform jacket and draped it over the arm of the sofa. "And whoever did it almost got away with it."
"Sit, mija," Connie said, moving her sewing bag from the sofa to the floor to make space. "What happened?" She took a cup from the tray and started to unwrap a tea bag. "Can you stay long enough for a cup of tea?"
"As a matter of fact, I can." Darcy took the tea when it was ready and sat next to her. "I have to wait for the local investigator to arrive. I guess he's dealing with a mentally disturbed guy who attacked a clerk at the Angel Harbor Grocery Sack."
"Could we back up a second here?" Harriet interrupted. "We were told Selestina died from a heart problem."
"That's true. The reason I'm here is because someone thinks the heart problem was caused by poison. She had some rather atypical symptoms."
"So we've heard."
"We have?" Mavis asked; her left eyebrow rose.
"There's a doctor in our class. She was there when Selestina collapsed. She was just telling Carla and me that Selestina had unusual symptoms."
"And no one would have been the wiser," Darcy added, "if there hadn't been a pathology intern moonlighting in the ER when she came in. He recognized the symptoms right away, but unfortunately, he wasn't the first doctor to see her. She just hadn't gone up to ICU yet when he came in for the shift change. As I understand it, they already had a cardiologist seeing her in the ER. The pathologist was just doing a routine check of all the patients. If she'd been younger, maybe they could have saved her, but even then it would have been touch-and-go if it ends up being what they suspect."
"What do they suspect?" Harriet asked.
"Sorry, I've said too much already," Darcy said. "I'm sure there will be some kind of official statement after the test results are back." She tried to smile, but the gesture never fully materialized.
"This week sure hasn't turned out how I expected so far," Connie said and lifted the lid on the teapot. It was nearly empty.
"You stay where you are," Mavis told her. "I'll make this round."
Connie put her feet back up on the edge of the table as Mavis picked up the teapot and went for a refill.
"What's wrong?" Mavis said as she came in. She set the pot on the counter and circled the island to where Carla stood, her packed duffel bag at her feet. She was surprised. She'd been so intent on Darcy's arrival and subsequent news, she hadn't noticed Carla had gone upstairs after her phone call. Tears were now running down the young woman's face, dripping from her nose and chin.
"Nothing," Carla said and scrubbed at her cheeks with the cuffs of her sweatshirt.
"Honey, if I'm not mistaken, people don't usually cry over nothing, and those don't look like happy tears."
"I'm fine," Carla insisted, trying for defiance but missing badly.
"I might not be able to fix what's wrong, but we won't know unless you tell me. I've learned that sometimes the telling can be a help, and with five boys, I've had a lot of practice listening."
Carla took a moment to compose herself as she pulled a stool away from the counter and sat on it. Mavis followed suit, placing her seat so her knees were touching Carla's.
"My sister has been taking care of Wendy." Carla hesitated, and Mavis reached out and took her hand. "Wendy, she's my baby. Anyway, Cissy has been taking care of Wendy while I'm here, but she heard there was a new restaurant opening in Port Ludlow, and she called and got an interview for tomorrow. I have to go home and pick up Wendy from her." She looked around. "This was really fun," she said sadly and stood up. "I better go. Cissy said if I can get to the ferry that leaves in an hour and a half, her boyfriend is working construction in Port Townsend, and he can give me a ride back to Foggy Point."
"Just you hold on a minute. Let me see what I can do." Mavis patted the hand she held before she got up to fetch the phone.
Carla rubbed her sleeve over her face again. Mavis turned away as she spoke quietly into the receiver. After what must have seemed like an eternity to Carla, she hung up the phone and turned back around.
"Go unpack your bag," she said. "Then you can call your sister and tell her your friend Beth is going to pick up Wendy in the morning. Beth can keep her until one of you gets back."
Carla's eyes filled with tears again, but her shy smile had reappeared.
"Thank you, Miz Mavis."
The older woman smiled and handed her a tissue from a box on the counter.
"Now those are happy tears," she said. "Go tend to business, and then you can come down and have a nice warm cup of tea."
"What took you so long?" Harriet asked when Mavis returned to the common room with the fresh pot of tea.
Before she answered, Mavis settled into her spot at the end of the sofa and picked up a plastic sandwich bag full of pre-cut triangular pieces of fabric in rich brown-toned batiks and an array of coordinating prints. She preferred to piece and quilt by hand with needle and thread instead of using a sewing machine. Harriet had to concede that hand work offered a portability and simplicity machine sewing didn't.
"Carla was having a little crisis, but we've got everything under control--for now, anyway. That little girl is truly living her life on the edge."
"Oh, you don't know the half of it," Harriet said.
"At least she has a job," Connie pointed out.
"That doesn't guarantee anything." Harriet refilled her teacup.
"Anybody want to tell me what's been going on here?" Darcy asked. "I send you gals off to have a relaxing week of quilting, and here we are." She swept her arms open to indicate the women sitting around the coffee table sipping tea.
No one spoke, and then they all started speaking at once.
"Hold on," Darcy said. "One at a time, please."
By the time Mavis, Connie and Harriet had finished recounting what had happened in the last two and a half days, starting with Lauren's exhibition and ending with Selestina's death, Robin and Lauren had joined the tea party.
"Have you figured out how to prove my piece is the original?" Lauren demanded of Harriet, breaking the silence that had fallen over the group.
"A woman's dead here, Lauren. Don't you think accusing her of ripping off your work is in poor taste, given the circumstance?"
"You're the one who said Selestina was the most likely person, not Lauren," Sarah pronounced as she swept in and plopped down on the couch between Mavis and Robin.
Harriet was trying to think of how to admit her lack of progress without setting off another outburst from Lauren when a tap on the door distracted the group and saved her.
"Hello? Anyone here?" Patience called from the entryway.
"We're in here," Connie called back. "We're just having a cup of tea. Would you like to join us?" She got up. "Here, you can have my spot." She picked up the once-again-depleted teapot for another refill.
Patience wore a gauzy skirt that appeared to be made up of several layers, each dyed a different shade of gray-black. She'd paired it with a black tunic-length ribbed turtleneck sweater that she'd belted at the waist with a wide black calfskin belt she had tied instead of buckled. She managed to look stylish in an arty sort of way and still honor Selestina with her mourning black.
"How are you doing," Mavis asked. "We're all so sorry for your loss."
"It has been quite a shock," Patience said. "Selestina was older of course, but I believe she was in good health."
"Are you sure you want us to finish out our week of classes?" Mavis asked. "Under the circumstances, I don't think anyone would expect a refund." By the look on both Sarah's and Lauren's faces, Harriet was pretty sure that wasn't a wholly accurate assumption.
"Thank you for that, but Selestina wanted the school to keep operating. She made plans for every eventuality. She was a bit compulsive that way. And this is her legacy, after all."
"Won't that be up to her son?" Harriet asked. "Or her other relatives?"
"Tom is her only child, and let's just say he's not all that interested in this place."
That's an understatement, Harriet thought. It looked to her like he'd been planning to sell it out from under his mother.
"Selestina knew Tom had his own interests and that those didn't include the folk art school. That's why she'd made other provisions. We were partners, you see." Patience curved her lips into a weak smile. "She's the front man, I guess you'd call it. I've always worked more behind the scenes." When she realized what she'd said, referring to Selestina in the present tense, she began to weep softly.
"I don't know how I'm supposed to go on without her," she blubbered. "I thought all our planning was just talk--you know, something to make her feel better, not something that was really going to happen. I can't run this place alone. This wasn't part of the plan." She covered her face with her hands, and tears leaked out between her fingers.
Connie went into the kitchenette for the tissue box. She pulled out three and brought them to Patience. Robin rubbed her hand on the teacher's bony back.
Patience blew her nose and sat up straighter, shaking off Robin's hand in the process. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't come here to make a scene. I came to make sure you were all right. And to be sure everyone knows school will go on as scheduled." She stood up. "Thank you for the tea. I've got two more houses to inform, so I better be on my way."
"That poor woman," Connie said when Patience was gone.
"I have to agree. I can't see her running the place, either," Harriet said. "Selestina seemed mean-spirited, but she also seemed to run a tight ship."
"Honey, let's not judge too quickly. We've only seen Patience in Selestina's shadow. She might be a great businesswoman in her own right. And kinder, too," Mavis suggested.
"Okay, so she's wonderful," Lauren said. "Can we get back to my catastrophe?"