"Dewey Pellicano, you nearly killed me! You left the blade open. Again!"
I looked at the blood dripping from my sister-in-law's elbow. Sure enough, I'd forgotten to close the safety cover on the rotary blade. If Kym found out that I'd used it to cut through the plastic on an impossible-to-open ink cartridge instead of using it to cut fabric, she'd really flip out.
I tried a diversion. "Where's the packaging? I just opened that cutter. I left it right there."
Kym pushed the safety cover back on the blade with a forceful click and gave me a pout that probably worked on my brother, but did nothing for me. "How many times do I have to tell you that a rotary cutter is dangerous? I barely brushed against the blade, and look how I'm bleeding. I could have opened a vein."
A girl could dream. I pressed on. "I need the barcode so I can take that cutter out of inventory. Otherwise, the computer says we have more than we do. And it's bad when the inventory numbers don't jibe."
My tactic was working. Like a time-lapse photograph, I could see Kym tuning out. Any mention of inventory or computers and she went slack-mouthed and glassy-eyed.
She daubed at her elbow with a tissue. With a giant sigh, she tossed the packaging to me and began folding fabric. Obviously, her injury was not life-threatening.
I needed this weekend to go well. I'd done an end run around Kym, bringing the computer to power the cash register despite her threats. I needed to use the new program at the quilt show so I could bring the store online and make my job tolerable.
Next to Kym was a wire crate. The honeycomb partitions designed to hold milk bottles were the perfect size for the half-yard cuts of fabric she was arranging. I went back to hooking up the computer. It was Thursday morning, and we were almost finished setting up the Quilter Paradiso booth at the Seventeenth Annual Northern California Quilt Extravaganza.
Kym stopped shoving fabric into the partitions, dove under the table next to me, and came out with a purplish thing in each hand.
"Here, put on your apron," Kym said. "I just heard Eve and Justine in the next aisle making their rounds. We need to look good when they get here. I am going to win Best-Decorated Booth this year."
There was no way I would wear that thing. The lavender gingham apron with purple rickrack on the pockets complemented her attire and the old-fashioned general store booth theme, but would look really stupid over my khakis and Quilter Paradiso T-shirt.
Kym yanked on her apron, flipping the strings around her waist and pulling them tight, crafting an expert bow centered on her flat belly. The ruffled shoulders fell perfectly into place. I winced at her efficiency. That kind of knot-tying ability explained the short leash she had my brother on.
I balled up the apron and stuffed it back under the table. "If I stop what I'm doing," I explained, straining to keep my voice even, "the computer won't be up and running when the customers arrive."
"So what?" she said. "I don't understand why you picked this weekend to start using the new system."
Kym was ignoring the fact that she'd refused to work on the test version I'd installed at the store last week. Forcing her to use the system here was my only option.
"Do you realize how many customers will be coming through our booth for the next four days?" Kym whined.
"And we will accommodate them faster than ever."
I tried to stare her down, but she had the advantage. Her eyes were the same blue color as the inexorable summer sky here in Silicon Valley. Each July, when the sun had been shining without in-terruption for months, I'd search desperately for a cloud or two to break up the monotony. Kym had the same lovely, relentless streak. Hard to rail against something so pretty, but if you didn't, you might lose your soul.
Kym broke off eye contact to straighten a picture of my great-great-great grandmother behind the counter of the Dewey Mercantile, her slouched shoulders unconsciously mimicking the sack of dried beans in front of it. Guarding the penny-candy barrel had given Great-Great-Great Granny a permanent scowl.
Kym hijacked my heritage to win a hundred-dollar prize. Under her watchful eye, last night's taped-off 16' x 24' bit of floor in the cavernous convention center had become a charming replica of the Dewey Mercantile. She hated the fact that the silver laptop didn't fit in with the tall, wooden bobbins, the pickle barrel full of buttons and the shelving that smelled slightly like prunes because it was made of floorboards Kevin had salvaged from a fruit-drying shed in Campbell.
I had to admit Kym had made the booth look pretty. But pretty wasn't everything. Even before my mother had died in a car accident six months ago, and I'd been thrust into the role of shop owner, I'd been computerizing Quilter Paradiso. My mother had pressed me into installing the free trial version of a very expensive point-of-sale system she'd received from a friend six weeks before she'd died. Laid off from my high-tech job, I'd agreed.
This weekend's show would be the first time we would use the POS system to record actual sales. I wanted to prove to my skeptical sister-in-law how valuable it could be to keep track of the customers and their sales electronically.
"We need to account for the inventory," I continued.
"Never did before."
"Exactly, and because of that, I have missing inventory."
Kym rummaged in her pockets and came up with a lipstick. She pursed and applied the color without taking her eyes off me. I gave her credit for that; I had trouble putting the stuff on with a magnifying mirror. She ground her lips together and flicked her Disney-heroine blond hair off her shoulder. I liked to keep my brown hair short but it was no good for expressing disgust.
I flinched as she reached to pick a stray thread off my T-shirt. "Face it," she said. "We both know if the economy in this valley hadn't tanked, you'd be back in high tech by now."
And Kym would be running Quilter Paradiso. Kym was the daughter my mother never had. Unlike me, she loved anything to do with–her words–the home arts. Even as a kid, I'd chosen a Com-modore 64 over needle and thread.
She might be right, but that didn't change anything. My mother had died, and I was the new owner of Quilter Paradiso. Kym moved on to fuss with a length of calico laid over the front table, gathering up a handful and tying a graceful knot. The cloth draped artfully, much better at taking direction from her than I was.
I punched the plug to the cash register into the back of the lap-top and positioned the computer closer to the edge of the table. I adjusted the free-standing monitor, making sure the transaction screen was clearly visible to the person taking cash. I pushed the buttons that opened and closed the register drawer and tucked the separate keyboard on a lower shelf for easy access. The merchandise scanner sat next to the drawer.
Kym bent down, parting the curtains she'd velcroed to the fake wood table and pulled out what looked like a quilted casserole cover.
"What's that?" I asked, my blood pressure rising. "I will not wear whatever?"
"A computer cozy." She came toward me, holding the elasticized ends apart like a shower cap.
"Get out of the way. Justine and Eve will be here any minute."
"You can't cover the laptop with that."
"That ugly thing is ruining my booth theme. First impressions are important."
I lunged for Kym's cozy and stubbed my toe against an old-fashioned soda-bottle cooler. I swallowed a curse as I hopped on one foot, rubbing the throbbing toe.
"You can't cover up a laptop while it's being used," I said, when the pain had passed enough that I could speak again. "The computer needs ventilation. It'll overheat." I grabbed, but missed the cozy. My cell phone rang. Before I could stop her, she closed the lid and swathed the laptop in calico.
I recognized my brother's voice. "Kevin? Why are you calling my phone?"
"Kym's not answering hers."
"Of course not. It clashed with her outfit."
Kym stuck her tongue out at me. I handed my phone to her and turned away, to get clear of the baby talk I knew was coming.
"You people got everything you need?" an unfamiliar voice asked.
Two women, probably in their forties, approached the booth. They wore matching black bowling shirts with red lettering embroidered over the pocket that identified them as Justine and Eve, of JustEve Productions. I recognized the name as the company responsible for putting on this quilt show, the people who'd cashed our six thousand dollar check for the booth fee.
Although dressed alike, these two couldn't have looked more different. Justine was tall, slender, and ash blond, with a heart-shaped face and pleasant smile. The lipstick she wore was bright red and shiny, the color of rain boots I'd coveted as a kid. I'd bet she didn't need a mirror to apply hers either. Eve was shorter than Justine by several inches, with dark hair cut short, losing the battle to gray. No lipstick that I could see, not even the eaten-off kind.
Justine appraised our setup. "Nice. Love the old-fashioned general-store idea." Kym hung up on Kevin in mid-coo. She dropped my phone into her apron pocket and smiled, the kind that didn't reach her eyes. She had to be nice to Justine if she wanted to win the prize, but I could see it was difficult for her. She hadn't forgiven JustEve for awarding last year's prize to a vendor who decorated her booth like the solar system, complete with imploding black holes.
"It's the family business." Kym said.
My family. Not yours. I bit my lip to keep from saying the words out loud.
She spoke in a monotone, pointing out the features of the booth. "We celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit with our booth. The Dewey family has been in business in the same building for over a hundred consecutive years."
I opened my eyes wide to stop them from rolling involuntarily at her air hostess delivery. Justine moved into the short aisle between our tables, clucking over the American flag with the historically accurate forty-six stars that Kym had sewn. I couldn't stomach another tour of the authentic décor, so I turned my attention to Eve, who was scanning the booth, her heavy eyebrows nearly meeting in the middle as she creased her forehead in what looked like a permanent furrow. She cocked her head and barked into the phone she held in front of her. I had the sense that Eve thought if she relaxed for one moment, the whole show would fall apart. For all I knew, she was right.
When she'd clicked off her phone, I stepped out of the booth and approached Eve with my hand extended. "We haven't met," I said. "I'm Dewey Pellicano."
Her eyes scanned my chest. "You're not wearing your badge. You must wear your vendor ID at all times."
So much for small talk. "Big problem of folks sneaking in without paying, huh?"
I thought I was being funny, but she nodded gravely. "People will try to avoid the admittance charge."
"Quilters? Really–those little old ladies?"
"Most quilters aren't arthritic blue-hairs, as you well know," Kym put in from several feet away, always ready to correct me.
Little old ladies and women like Kym who lived in the past. I shrugged. "I'm surprised. My mother always said quilters were honest people."
"Do you need another ID badge?" Eve asked.
"No, no, mine's around here somewhere."
"Put it on," Eve said. "And leave it on."
Kym grinned at my chastisement. She'd nagged me earlier about wearing it, but I'd ignored her. Her badge was in a calico holder with scalloped edges that she'd sewn to match her outfit.
Justine broke the tension, touching my upper arm gently and smiling at me. I saw a weariness in her eyes. Smoothing over Eve's rough edges must be a full-time job. I felt her pain and knew she and I would get along.
"Ten minutes until show time," Justine said. "All ready?" Kym snapped, "Of course we are."
"Great," Justine continued, pushing past Kym's snarkiness. "From now until Sunday, we'll bring in the shoppers. All you have to do is sell 'em stuff and make 'em happy."
I smiled. "We'll do what we can."
Justine and Eve said their goodbyes and moved away, hailing the woman selling quilt jewelry at the booth next door.
Kym turned to me, her face suddenly twisted. "Why'd you have to set up that ugly computer this year? You've spoiled any chance I had of winning."
I bit back nastier words. "So I should forego accuracy so you can win a hundred-dollar prize?"
I stripped the cover off and started the computer again. The familiar whirrs of the hard drive booting up soothed my frayed nerves. I clicked on the icon, a smiling woman in a patchwork vest, to open the sales software. I entered the password and was rewarded with the bells that meant the system was open. To be sure, I started a sale under my name and scanned the packaging from the cutter Kym had opened. A satisfactory ping chimed and the SKU number popped into place on the screen. I canceled the test sale, put the packaging in my backpack to take to the store for the tax board report, and pushed the backpack under the table with my toe.
"Okay, Kym, the computer is ready to go. Do you remember what I showed you?"
"Never mind that contraption, Dewey, come here. Someone wants to meet you."
I turned to see a man standing next to Kym. His hooded green eyes were locked on her ample breasts, which were emphasized by her prissy long-sleeved blouse and apron.
He was dressed in a Nehru-type jacket, made of red, shiny fabric, a style that had never been in and so couldn't be considered retro-chic now. The brown hair on top of his head was thinning, strained by the straggly ponytail he'd pulled the strands into. He was no taller than me, probably about 5'9".
Was this her idea of the right man for me? Kym thought being single was only one step away from being dead. She never believed me when I said I was happy on my own.
She identified him as Freddy Roman of Freddy's Fine Fabrics in Los Angeles. He finally tore his eyes from Kym's bust and turned to look at me, first taking a quick detour at my chest. When he found it lacking and looked up at my face, I saw his eyes flash.
"Oh, my god, you scared me. You look so much like your mother, I thought I was seeing a younger, prettier ghost."
I didn't notice the hot tears spilling from my eyes until one hit my hand. By that time, I was well away from the booth and Freddy's spirit sighting, heading blindly for the nearest exit. My heart was pounding wildly in my chest.
I'd prepared myself for the possibility that people here would compare me to my mother. She had been a vendor at the first Ex-travaganza and made friends with many of the people who returned year after year. I'd thought I was ready to handle her grief-stricken colleagues.
Then, faced with the very first person to mention Mom, all I could do was bolt. I felt like a fool. My stomach tightened, and the tears dripped freely.
I needed air. My nose began to run, and I wiped my face on my sleeve. I kept my eyes straight ahead, ignoring the looks I was garnering from other vendors making last-minute adjustments to their displays.
I moved over one aisle and into a row of hanging quilts, maybe thirty total. Ignoring the colorful display, I spotted light through the glass transom over a row of exit doors and headed that direction.
I pushed open the door and found myself in a glass-walled two-story atrium. I was nearly bowled over by the crush of women on the other side. Their bleating voices echoed off the steel rafters. I covered my ears to protect myself from the din.
I was stunned by the size of the crowd. Were all these people here to see quilts? A mass of middle-aged women filled the space and disappeared down the hall. I couldn't see the end of the queue.
I took a step forward and the door closed behind me. People looked at me expectantly as I came out of the place they wanted to be.
This mob was between me and fresh air. There was no way I was going to get to the outdoors. Static crackled, and I heard Eve's voice come over a loudspeaker. The crowd quieted and tensed like swimmers at a diving block.
"Okay, quilters, the Seventeenth Annual Northern California Quilt Extravaganza is officially open. Step this way to pay the entrance fee and get your hand stamped. Fifteen dollars, exact change very welcome."
A security guard moved the crowd back so he could open the door. The women began to move toward him.
I took a deep breath. I was feeling better. Freddy had probably gone to his own booth by now, and I felt ready to face the shoppers and Mom's friends. I started through the door, but was stopped by a skinny arm.
"Your ID badge?" the security guard, dressed in faux police blues with shiny buttons, asked. He was blocking the door I'd come through.
I realized I'd never put on my vendor badge. Kym's gloating face hovered in front of me. "I don't have it with me."
He gave me a pained look. "No entrance without a hand stamp or vendor ID."
"You just watched me come out that door," I said.
The security guard waved through a woman in a tie-dyed mini-dress holding up her badge. "Next." He made a come-forward motion, cupping his hand and closing his fist like a Caltrans flag guy in a cone zone.
The line of people began to move slowly through the door as the pimply security guard checked hands. I looked around for help. Halfway across the atrium, Eve and Justine were collecting fees and stamping hands. I couldn't get their attention.
A gray-haired woman in a pink and purple patchwork vest decorated with three-dimensional Easter eggs shook her arm at me triumphantly as she entered the show. I fought down panic as the crush of people closed around me.
Moving backward, I found an open piece of floor near the restroom door. How was I going to get in? Kym had my phone in her damned apron pocket, I had no money on me to buy a ticket, and it was impossible to get Justine or Eve's attention. I was screwed.
We'd picked up four badges yesterday. Kym and I had two, and I'd left the others at the store for the staff working in the booth. My employees, Jenn and Ina, were due to start work soon. They could be in this line. I'd have to intercept one of them and have them bring me my badge. I leaned heavily against a pillar and searched the crowd, hoping to see one of them. Looking for two women, one silver-haired, one blond pony-tailed, in this crowd? Talk about a needle in a haystack.
I turned to see Claire Armstrong, the grande dame of the quilt world, addressing me. Even I recognized her grandmotherly face from the covers of countless quilting magazines. We carried a dozen of her how-to books at the shop. She'd developed patterns to be used with the rotary cutter before anyone else realized the tool's potential. Like all superstars, she was known by her first name. Bono. Sting. Oprah.
The crowd stilled. Friends nudged each other and pointed. A low buzz began as the quilters realized they were in the presence of a true celebrity.
"The guard won't let me in," I whispered. "I don't have my ID badge. I'm a vendor, Quilter Paradiso. I came out to get some air, and he won't let me back in."
"Follow me," she said.
A thin woman in a blue suit at Claire's elbow spoke up. "We can't go in there. We need to prepare for our class."
Claire answered in a tone that brooked no discussion. "You won't be coming with us. Go up to the room, Myra. Make sure we have enough handouts. I don't want a repeat of last year. I have some business with Miss Pellicano."
Claire knew my name. Another friend of Mom's, no doubt. I straightened up. I could handle this.
The tears had dried on my cheeks.
"Stay with me. I'll get you into the show," she said.
I coasted in Claire's wake as she glided through the crowd imperiously, head held high, leading with her pillowy bosom like the figurehead of a ship. The crowd parted and murmured, but Claire didn't acknowledge anyone. Her head bobbed slightly, so I knew she heard the sighs and greetings, but she kept her eyes averted.
From behind, her white hair barely concealed a pinkish scalp. She was dressed in a rose-colored polyester pantsuit with sensible shoes. An overly large purse dangled from her elbow. She smelled like violet dusting powder.
Claire bestowed a nod on the security guard. The guard glared at me but let me pass. Once inside, I thanked Claire and started for the QP booth. I could see my mother's calico banner with Quilter Paradiso on it one aisle over. Claire stopped me with a hand on my elbow and led me to an unoccupied space beneath a row of wall hangings.
"Dewey, isn't it?" She tapped me; her nails were short with pink polish, matching her pearl earrings and necklace. She had a puppet's face; her jaw was hinged with deep lines, and her cheeks were apple dumplings.
"I want to talk to you," Claire said. "Before she died, your mother had agreed to sell Quilter Paradiso to me."