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Chapter One

Nobody noticed the bag at first. It was just a plain brown grocery bag sitting on the end of our table at the fund-raiser for Los Encinos State Park. I must have moved it at least once during the day and never given it a thought. The park was really what was left of a rancho and had an old house and some outbuildings, along with either a small lake or a big pond, depending on how you look at things. The pond attracted all different kinds of ducks and geese, and they were already looking for places to roost as the sun faded on the February afternoon.

We were packing up the few things we hadn't sold. The we were the Tarzana Hookers - that's hookers as in crochet. We had made a bunch of scarves, along with some eddy bears and baby blankets for the fund-raiser and were donating all the proceeds to the park to help keep it afloat.

Well, most of us were clearing the table. CeeCee Collins was posing for a photo with the park ranger and at the same time eyeing the brownies left on the bake sale table. Actually, her name was Connie Collins, but everybody called her CeeCee. Up until recently, she'd been referred to as a "veteran actress" because her old TV series The CeeCee Collins Show was practically ancient history. But ever since she started hosting Making Amends things had changed. Every week the reality show gave another "guest" a chance to right some old wrong. There was always a lot of embarrassment, usually some tears and hopefully some laughs. The program was a big hit, and CeeCee was enjoying being referred to as simply an actress once again.

"Look what I got," CeeCee said when she rejoined us. She held up a white bag hat had telltale grease stains and a strong chocolate scent. "There are still some goodies left over at the bake sale table."

"Oh, no, I'm late, Ali Stewart said as she caught sight of the time. "I have to go. I promised to help my mother with something."

Ali Stewart was our newest member. Adele Abrams liked to think of herself as Ali's mentor, though from what I'd seen of her crochet work, Ali didn't seem to need any help. The crocheted pink miniskirt she'd worn over leggings was adorable and expertly made. She had topped it with a white mohair poncho and finished the look with a dainty choker of tiny crocheted pink flowers. She was in her early twenties, tall and slender, and carried off the look with ease.

"That girl has a problem with time," Dinah Lyons said. "She's always late and then has to leave early because she's already late for something else."

Adele glared as if Dinah's comment were a personal affront to her. I wondered if she was identifying too much with Ali. Adele was in her late thirties with a generous build and voice that carried over a crowd. Her outfit almost matched the one Ali had worn, only the effect was different. Ali looked cute and Adele looked silly.

Sheila Altman, another of the younger Hookers, remained speechless as she put several small teddy bears into the box. She kept looking at the darkening sky with a tense expression. Even though she tried to control it, Sheila tensed up about most things. I could understand why. She didn't have much money and was working a bunch of jobs while trying to go to school at night to become a costume designer. Lately she'd been making exquisite scarves and blankets with gorgeous color combinations that she had begun selling in some local boutiques. "We'd better hurry up," she said anxiously. "The park closes in a few minutes.

"Don't worry, they're not going to lock us in," CeeCee said. "Besides, we're almost done anyway. Brownie anyone?" She held out the bag. "Wouldn't you know just when I went to the bake sale table I ran into the executive producer of my show and his wife. They asked me a bunch of questions about the crochet group, but I think it was just a cover to see if I was going to buy any baked goods."

CeeCee's sweet tooth was legendary, but being the host of a show made staying trim important. "I don't know what they're concerned about. The stylist I hired is a wonder," she said, laying the white paper sack with her purse. "She's a wiz at making an extra five pounds disappear with a long tunic."

CeeCee's attention turned back to helping us clear up, though there wasn't much left. She absently picked up a red fuzzy scarf and started to fold it.

"Watch how you're folding that," Adele said, taking it from CeeCee. Adele and CeeCee were still trying to work out who was in charge of the group.

"Dear, I can handle folding a scarf," CeeCee said, taking it back and rolling it into a tube. "It seems to be the only one left." She checked the items still on the table. "No wonder - it's so cold." As if to punctuate her comment, she shivered.

Dinah rolled her eyes. "Cold?" she said with a laugh.

"Yes, cold," CeeCee repeated. "It is winter. For once everybody is buying scarves for warmth instead of style."

Dinah rolled her eyes again. She was my best friend and taught English at Walter Beasley Community College. She claimed teaching English to rowdy freshmen had prepared her to deal with anything, including the Hookers' personalities.

Dinah pointed to the green grass and the orange trees loaded with fruit still visible in the low light. "Yes, it is February, but this is southern California. What is it - maybe fifty-five degrees?"

"Yes, dear, but have to factor in the wind-chill," CeeCee said, wrapping her charcoal gray shawl around her shoulders. "And look, the sun's setting. You know how the temperature drops in the evening."

Adele stepped between them and turned toward CeeCee. "Are you kidding? Wind-chill factor?" Adele nodded toward me. "Pink, I can't believe you're not saying anything."

I tried to keep my smile intact even though it grated on me that Adele insisted on calling me by my last name. She only called me Molly by mistake. Adele and I had had a problem since day one, when I'd been hired for the position at Shedd & Royal Books and More that she wanted. Se couldn't seem to see that I was more qualified to be the event coordinator-community relations person. I had experience in public relations thanks to my late husband Charlie's business. True, I hadn't really been a salaried employee for Charlie, but I had arranged launch parties at hotels and set up TV interviews for clients. Adele had just been a clerk at the bookstore.

As a consolation, Mrs. Shedd had given Adele kids' story time. Adele hadn't taken it well or given up. I'm not sure how it happened, but Adele had ended up working with me on some store events.

"Yes, but this is the Valley, and the temperature is always extreme compared to the other side of the hill," CeeCee said. There was some truth to that. We did bake in the summer and sometimes got frost in the middle of the night in winter. Technically both sides of "the hill" as the Santa Monica Mountains were referred to, were part of the city of Los Angeles, but the Valley was considered a bunch of suburbs with all that implied.

Attempting to bring the debate to an end, I suggested we adjourn to the cafe at the bookstore.

"Wait. You can't forget this," Sheila said, pointing at a brown a brown paper grocery sack as CeeCee started to close the box of leftovers. Sheila spoke so fast, she choked on her words and began to tap her fingers of her nonpointing hand on the table. Then she took the pointing hand and used it to stop her moving fingers.

"What's in that bag? I don't remember putting anything in a bag," Adele said, glancing at the rest f us. We all shrugged in reply.

"Pink, why don't you check it out?" Adele suggested. She stepped away from it as she pulled on a long denim coat over her leggings and miniskirt. Adele had adorned the coat with doilies. She hadn't said anything, but I knew she thought it was a walking advertisement for the wonders of crochet.

Sheila had edged down the table and was standing next to me. I felt her hand grab onto my arm.

"Too bad Eduardo isn't here," CeeCee said, referring to our other member. Eduardo Linnares was a hunky cover model-poet-expert crocheter. He was also a gentleman and would certainly have dealt with the bag that was creeping us all out if he hadn't had to skip the fund-raiser to do some of his cover-model work.

"Stop being so silly," Dinah said, moving along the table toward the sack. Dinah was a gutsy ball of energy. She flipped her long intertwined purple and orange scarves over her shoulder and out of the way, and grabbed the bag. She opened it with abandon and looked inside. She seemed perplexed but not horrified, which I took as a good sign. What were we expecting? Maybe something dangerous like a gun or a bomb? Or something furry and dead? Or something forgotten like a dirty diaper? Everyone had moved to other end of the table to distance themselves from the threatening bag, and Sheila was gripping her purse with white knuckles. We held our breath as Dinah dumped the contents on the table.

By Hook or By Crook
by Betty Hechtman

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