There was a knock at the door just as I took a big bite of bagel with tomato.
“Yes?” I tried to sound like I didn’t have my mouth full.
My receptionist, Ruthie, opened the door a sliver. “There’s someone here to see you — she says it has to do with a quilt,” she smirked at me.
I (reluctantly) put down my bagel. “What do they think I am, a quilt detective or something?”
Ever since I’d cracked a quilt case a year ago, I’ve been flooded with calls from people wanting me to find their long-lost quilts. Forget my experience with insurance fraud, deadbeat dads and a brief spurt of dognapping cases. To the public, I’d forever be known as the Quilt Detective.
But I hadn’t taken any more fabric-related cases yet. That’s because I decided to move the whole shebang to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (where I also live) and we’ve been busy setting up shop in the meantime.
In case you’re wondering, there are several reasons to cross the East River to what is known as the Outer Boroughs, not the least of which is that you can get a bigger office space for a fraction of the rent. But more importantly, after 11 years working in the city, I was burned out.
Not that Williamsburg is exactly the suburbs, mind you, but at least it presents an illusion of tranquility — outside my window, there happens to be a tree where a bird perches itself. Combine that with the hum of a lawnmower during the summer and you’ve got the sounds of suburbs — until you walk outside and see that the tree is planted in a tiny plot of dirt in the sidewalk, and the “spacious yard” is actually a little strip of grass. Suburbia, it ain’t, folks. But it’s a lot more pleasant than having car horns as your background noise, or having to press your nose against the 34th floor window to see what the weather is like outside. But the main reason is that to me, there’s much more mystery hidden in the authentic streets of Brooklyn than the Big Apple.
At least, that’s what I was hoping for when I moved shop. And surprisingly, the announcement of my move didn’t raise much fuss from Raoul, my assistant, and Ruthie, my receptionist. Oh, sure, they grumbled for 10 minutes until they realized that it would take them less time to get to work than usual (Raoul lives in the Bronx and has an easier transfer to the L train than to our old midtown Manhattan office, and Ruthie can drive from Queens).
And, it didn’t hurt that our office space is twice as big as our old one, which means that Raoul gets his own office (he had to share a space with Ruthie before). Ruthie, for her part, gets a huge reception area, which she loves to dote on with fresh flowers, candies and magazines (she’s a pro).
I also promised Raoul that since I had promoted him to assistant detective, he’d take on more cases, and he could take over the Spanish-speaking contingent, of which there are many in this Puerto Rican neighborhood (it’s actually part Polish, part Puerto Rican-Dominican, part Hasidic Jewish — talk about multicultural!). This helps me, too, because my Spanish skills hardly extend past hola and gracias, although I’ve been known to sprinkle a como estas in there now and again (and then nod and smile if they actually try speaking Spanish back to me).
Now normally, this move would only take a month or two, tops — but Brooklyn operates on its own time. That is, they say it will take a month to renovate the space, and they mean a year. Not that I’ve really been complaining, mind you — I just worked on small jobs out of my apartment and traveled here and there.
Luckily, Ruthie had been saving money for school, so she got two full-time semesters in and will continue to go to school part-time after work (she wants to be a paralegal, but I’m trying to get her to take a criminal justice class).
Raoul helped me out with cases before jetting off to Puerto Rico with his fiancé to visit his mom for two months, and he was due to return in a week.
We’d officially opened our doors just yesterday, but news travels fast in these parts.
A new case begins…
“Send her in,” I shrugged. A young Latina woman followed Ruthie into my office, clutching a manila envelope and a newspaper clipping. I recognized the newspaper as a report of my quilt case last year (which ended up including the entire 11 board members of the Tradewind Museum — long story). I’d been surprised at the time that it made the headlines of The Post, but I guess it isn’t often that a quilt goes missing (or that a private eye is hired to find it!).
“Hi, I’m Mitzi McDruben, Quilt Detective,” I strolled around my desk to shake her hand (hey, might as well play up the whole thing!). “Won’t you sit down, please,” I gestured to the pride of my office, the comfy couch. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Coffee light, please,” she replied, straightening her skirt as she sat down.
I repeated the order to Ruthie, leaving her to figure out the nuances of coffee ordering. (I’ve never quite figured it out myself — why not just say what you want, coffee with milk or coffee with milk and sugar, or black coffee? In Brooklyn, you deal with a different set of rules, though, and the true test of how long you’ve lived here is how you order your coffee. After three years living here, I still haven’t gotten it down.)
While Ruthie ran to get coffee-and-whatever, I got the ball rolling. “So, you’ve come regarding a quilt, is that right?”
“Yes, I saw this article in The Post and I saved it, thinking it might come in handy. Then when I called your old number, I found out you moved to my neighborhood, so I knew it was meant to be!” She smiled as if we shared an inside secret.
Oh, boy. I hope she doesn’t think I’m going to work any needle miracles here. And it’s not really such a coincidence, seeing as everyone and their yuppie brother is moving to her neighborhood, but I let her feel the bond anyway. Why argue with someone who’s willing to plunk down some cash so you can hunt down a missing quilt?
I grabbed my clipboard (helps me look official) as Ruthie came in with a coffee that looked like it fit the description of coffee light. Apparently, my new client was satisfied because she started sipping away, making red lipstick marks as she went.
A Quilter’s Secret…
“You see, my great-grandmother, may she rest in peace, was a quilter, and she always had quilts around the house,” she said. “She recently passed on, you see.”
I nodded, furrowing my brow, pen poised. (It makes me look like I’m taking the case seriously, when really I’m feeling an urge to make a mark for every time she said “you see” like I used to in my college criminal justice class every time Professor Albert would say “you know.” Once I counted 52!)
“You see, my great-grandmother always told us the story behind all the quilts, but there was one quilt she never talked about —this one,” she pulled out a quilt block from the manila envelope. “She always kept this block in her closet. One day when I was, oh about 10, I’d say, I was playing in her closet, dressing up, you see, and I found this block. Well, I asked her about it, of course, because it’s such a beautiful block and I wanted to see if she could make a dress with the block in it — she used to incorporate quilt blocks into my clothes, you see …”
At this point I had exactly five marks on my notepad to correspond with the “you sees,” and I didn’t even know what her point was yet. Don’t people ever notice when they keep repeating themselves? I mean, I always find myself apologizing when I say “you know” twice in a conversation! But I digress …
“… but my great-grandmother took the block and hid it away instead, telling me never to ask her about it again. I never saw it again, until last week when we were going through her things. You see, my great-grandmother passed on a few months ago, but we just couldn’t take it upon ourselves to sort through her stuff, you understand. I found this block along with this picture in her dresser, underneath her sweaters.”
The Sewing Circle…
She reached into the manila envelope and produced a black-and-white photo of a group of 10 women. On the back of the photo were a lot of names, followed by the caption, “Ladies Sewing Circle, Williamsburg, 1947.”
“The funny thing is, the women’s names are printed on the back, and I don’t recognize any of their names,” she says. “You see, I knew all of her old friends. But here my great-grandmother is with all these strangers, and she never once told us about the sewing circle.”
I was still trying to do the math on the 1947 date to see how old her great-grandmother was. I knew that 40-year-old grandmothers were not unusual in this neighborhood, but it still boggles the mind — boggles my mind anyway, seeing as I’m 36 and don’t even have children, let alone grandkids on the way.
“You said your great-grandmother was how old?” I asked, under pretext of official questioning.
“81,” she replied.
“Indeed,” I said, “and you are how old?”
“22,” she answered without hesitation. “So will you take my case?”
“Before I answer that, I’ll need to know two things.” I stood up and started pacing, after I scribbled “22″ on my notebook. (Since math isn’t my strong suit, I can’t exactly do addition in my head without looking obvious, so I’d have to resume my math problem later.) I like to command control, much like a lawyer in a courtroom, so my potential clients know they’re in good hands. Little did she know that I’d never known more than a Log Cabin block before my first quilt case, and this would only be my second.
Who, What, and Why?
“First of all, I never caught your name. And secondly, what exactly is it that you want me to do?”
She set her lipstick-stained coffee down on my end table (mosaic, if you must know. They have fabulous flea markets in the area, and it was quite a find).
“Do excuse me, my name is Juanita,” she extended her long, slender hand, complete with long red fingernails, the kind that always leaves you wondering how they type. “Juanita Gomez. And I’d like you to see if there’s more to this quilt than just this block. I think it might have something to do with the women in this picture, that’s why I brought it.”
She handed me the block and picture, and, while she was at it, the manila envelope.
“So, you’ll help me, yes?”
I looked at the half-century-old picture, wondering if any of the women were still alive. The beauty of this neighborhood, though, is that people don’t usually take off. That narrowed it down to about a 10-block radius (see, there’s another bonus to operating in Brooklyn, it cuts down on your research time!).
“Of course I’ll take your case, Juanita,” I extended my hand to shake hers, feeling her nails on the inside of my wrist as I did so, which instinctively made me think of her screeching them down a blackboard. “Why, quilts are my specialty,” I added for good measure.
I led her out, giving her my new card and promising to track down the other sewing circle members.
Once she was gone, I lingered at Ruthie’s desk. “Well, Ruthie we’ve got another quilt on the loose,” I leaned an elbow over her desk. I like to dramatize things for her, because I always have the feeling she thinks I’m pretty loony anyway (I’m not denying it).
“And we’ve reason to believe there’s more to this one than meets the eye.” I held up the block with both hands, examining it.
Ruthie Spots a Clue…
Ruthie looked at me blankly and blinked.
“The quilt, I mean, there’s more to the quilt than this block,” I repeated. Ruthie still hasn’t gotten the detecting lingo down. It’s a good thing she’s in night school to have something to fall back on.
Still, she’s a good kid (and at 21, she still lets me call her that, unlike Raoul who always retorts with a “who you calling kid?” even though I have 10 years on him. Kids these days, I tell ya).
“What’s that?” Ruthie pointed to the back of the quilt block, which was facing her.
I turned it over, and saw the letters “sburg” written on the back. So maybe the dame’s detective skills aren’t so bad after all. But still, that posed yet another mystery. What does “sburg” mean, or does it mean anything? Could the blocks actually all connect to spell something out, or are there any more blocks at all? And where was Raoul when you needed him?
“Good work, Ruthie,” I patted her on the shoulder as I stood up to go back to my office. “But before we figure that out, there’s one thing I must know.”
“What’s that?” she looked up at me expectantly.
“How old are Juanita’s mother and grandmother, anyway? They sure do have the kids young around here.”
And with that, I went into my office to finish my bagel and do the math.
to be continued…