Murder in Miniature
Gal Strip 1

Hydrogen Cover

 

 

SYNOPSIS

 

GERALDINE PORTER, a recently retired high school English teacher in a small northern California town, has more time now to spend on her lifelong hobby — building dollhouses and miniature scenes.

You'd think the world of tiny country cottages and cozy room boxes would be trouble-free. Not so for Geraldine and MADDIE, her 10-year-old granddaughter, visiting Lincoln Point for the summer. Even before the doors open to the crafts fair that Geraldine has organized, there's a snag in the program. Geraldine's friend and fellow crafter, LINDA, has failed to appear at her post. Also missing is the last piece of furniture Linda painstakingly built, a miniature Governor Winthrop slant-top desk.

By the time the week is over, Geraldine and Maddie have dealt with robbery, fraud, and murder, all wrapped up in the world of the very small.

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CHAPTER 1

I picked up the mahogany-framed sofa with my right hand, and the gold balloon-back chair with my left. The seat of the sofa was royal blue, matching a hue in the busy pattern of the living room carpet, which lay in my lap, along with a dining room table and a chandelier. I held the furniture at arm's length and moved my head up and down, to find the section of my glasses that brought the miniatures into focus. It didn't seem that long ago that I had twenty-twenty vision without glasses, let alone trifocals.

Finally, I assembled the tiny pieces in my shoebox-size Victorian shadow box.

"What do you think?" I asked my friend, Linda Reed. She was seated one table over at the back of the old school hall. "Do these colors work together?"

The question was semi-rhetorical. In only two hours, at six o'clock sharp on Friday evening, the doors would open and the fundraiser would begin—the Abraham Lincoln High School Dollhouse and Miniatures Fair, a decorative magnet for crafts lovers all over the county. I certainly didn't have time to reupholster my Victorian furniture, but I wanted my friend's approval.

I should have known better.

"The seat on that chair is pretty wide, even for Victorian ladies' skirts," Linda said. I suppose it came as a kit?" She held a delicate replica of a Governor Winthrop slant-top desk in the palm of her hand. She'd made it from scratch, for the living room of her entry in Lincoln Point's celebrated Dollhouse Contest, a highlight of the fair. "And one of your buttons is loose." Linda leaned over and aimed her thin paintbrush at a tiny pearl bead, one twelfth of an inch in diameter, one of a dozen I'd glued onto the chair back, to give a button-tufted effect.

"The chair needs to be this wide, not just to accommodate the ladies' petticoats but to keep gentlemen at a suitable distance." I used my best imitation of a Victorian matron, then reverted to my normal, smooth voice, but with a touch of annoyance at the edges. "And how can you see a wobbly button from that distance?"

"I saw it an hour ago."

And you didn't tell me? Typical Linda. But I'd come to understand her moods and appreciate her good qualities, even as many called her the most disgruntled woman in Lincoln Point, if not all of Northern California.

Linda's latest beef was with the City Council and its proposals for making the area more attractive to tourists. Not that our small town could compete with neighboring cities south of San Francisco, like Palo Alto and San Jose. We didn't have the advantage of a university (Palo Alto could boast about Stanford) nor a high fun rating (a national magazine had recently ranked San Jose the third "most fun city" in America).

Personally, I gave Lincoln Point a very high fun rating. Didn't we have an oratory contest every year, based on the Lincoln-Douglas debates? A parade on February 12, Lincoln's birthday, no matter what day of the week it fell on? Colorful and inspiring billboards along Springfield Boulevard with quotes from Honest Abe himself? In case you think Lincoln was not a fun guy, consider this quote from him, now the motto of our crafters club: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

Linda Reed didn't care about fun ratings. She was against anything that would bring more people into her life.

"There's enough trash, trouble, and traffic in town already." Linda seemed thrilled with the alliteration she'd concocted, and repeated it whenever anyone mentioned the positive side of growth—that more visitors and real estate development meant more customers for our local merchants and more funds for city services.

I'd known Linda for many years, however, and had to admit she had enough reasons to be disgruntled.

Misfortune followed Linda like a string of melted glue from a low-end glue gun. She'd had two bad marriages and a shaky nursing career, often losing a position over hospital politics that were out of her control. And her teenage adopted son, Jason, had spent nearly as many of his school years being suspended or expelled as not. The most recent and worst accusation had come just this week when Crane's Jewelers, a town fixture for two generations, was robbed—the same morning that Jason cut summer school classes.

A lot on Linda's plate, as my younger friends would say.

Right now Linda was also nursing a grudge because I'd refused to go on a cruise with her.

"You'd go if Beverly asked you," she'd accused.

Linda had always been jealous of my close friendship with Beverly Gowen, my sister-in-law and—if I were forced to rank the people in my life—my best friend. Linda held onto that seventh grade friendship-bookkeeping behavior: You go shopping with her more than you do with me. I'd tried to explain that I wouldn't go on a cruise even with Beverly. At fifty-eight, with bones becoming more brittle by the day, I couldn't see myself learning the samba. The same for any other dance ending in a vowel. Neither did I want to act my age and play bingo, or clap for an amateur musical comedy group, or lounge on a boat headed for an island that most likely did not have a library or a hobby shop.

"The best thing about cruises is the pampering," Linda had said. She patted the sides and top of her beehive up-do, many shades of blond and a staple of Linda's look since her teen years in the mid-sixties, if the photos around her home were any indication. "A whole crew of people feed you, entertain you, turn down your bed, and tend to your every need."

That made sense—for her. Poor Linda had spent her life caring for others. She now worked as a nurse in three convalescent facilities, and as a mother to a problem child, with no support, let alone pampering.

A pushover for difficult personalities, I often found myself apologizing for Linda's petulant moods to one or another of our friends. My late husband, Ken, told me I was a pushover, period, always the first one to volunteer when a need arose. Like helping to organize this fair, for instance, when the original chairwoman fell and broke her hip. Ken would have teased that I offered my services just for the glory of seeing my name on the program. In this case: Geraldine Porter, Dollhouse Committee Chair. Whatever his theory, it hadn't kept Ken from helping me with all my projects, and I missed him every day of the last two years.

No time to reminisce, however. I had oversight duties to tend to and a Victorian chair to repair. I reached into the hard plastic crate at my feet, stocked with a myriad of ways to attach one material to another. Glue gun, glue dots, glue sticks, liquid glue, and two kinds of tack glue (both original and fast-acting) for starters. Plus a variety of tapes, string, needles, pins, staples, and Velcro. I chose a thin cyanoacrylate glue and went to work on the errant button. 

"Here they come," Linda said. She announced the arrival of other vendors and a few early bird customers sneaking in—the way I would announce the appearance of knots in my thread, or a rash on my skinny arms (hers were chubby, another source of complaint). I wanted to remind her that the fair wasn't held for her own enjoyment and profit, but to generate revenue for the school. Each vendor had paid a fee to use a table and had agreed to contribute ten percent of her or his weekend take to the school library. Linda wanted the best of both worlds—crowds of people buying her crafts, but no one actually talking to her.

"She's all bark," Ken used to say, and I had to agree. We'd been the lucky recipients of Linda's generous side through the years. She'd used her nursing skills to help both of us during Ken's long bout with leukemia, finding hard-to-get medical supplies, checking out the best deals on meds, even arranging a house call from a respected oncologist.

She'd waved away our effusive gratitude. "They all owe me," she said. "It's about time they did something useful for me."

We never asked who "they" were, and assumed she meant the medical profession in general, and her bosses over the years, in particular. When I thought of the angel of mercy she'd been to Ken, I could forgive Linda many, many cranky days.

I set down my now-perfect chair—so what if it started as a kit, I told myself, I've added unique embellishments, like the tiny buttons Linda paid so much attention to.

The air conditioning had been cranked up, so I pulled on a sweatshirt that read SEE THE WORLD IN A GRAIN OF SAND and hung my COMMITTEE badge around my neck.

"I guess you missed your hair appointment again," Linda said, as she watched me struggle with my longish gray hair (I'd given up my easy-to-care-for pixie once Ken died). My unruly locks had become tangled with the black lanyard that held my badge.

I let out a resigned sigh. "I had a ton of meetings," I said. "To set everything up for the convenience of the vendors." Like you.     

Linda didn't acknowledge my gibe. She was applying the last coat of dark stain to the drawers of her desk. A master at crafts, Linda built everything from scratch. She'd managed to squeeze a good-sized workbench into the one-car garage attached to her small house and outfitted it with the tools of the woodworking trade. Her miniature tables were fitted with carefully crafted mortise-and-tenon joints; her tiny desk drawers opened; her turn-of-the-century steamer trunks had operating hinges and fabric linings with faded flower prints.

Unlike most of my pieces. I managed to build one or two from-scratch items a month, but my real pleasure was in turning found objects into miniature furnishings. I enjoyed creating a table by the simple act of placing an olive jar cover on top of an empty spool of thread and painting them to match. The black wire top of a champagne bottle became a stool, and an old contact lens morphed into a lampshade when I placed it on a colorful spherical or cylindrical bead.

For this fair, I had more items than usual on my table, the direct result of my ill-gotten windfall of free time. When Ken was diagnosed, I took early retirement from teaching English at this very school, to care for him. In between doctor visits and hospital stays, while waiting for medical test results and resolving insurance issues, I distracted myself with my lifelong crafts hobbies.

There was nothing like entering the world of miniatures to take one's mind off the unpleasant realities of the macroscopic world. Nothing like rearranging furniture and tearing off wallpaper with the flick of the wrist. Nothing like studying a pair of wood screws, standing them on their heads, and seeing them as candlesticks.

Since Ken's death, I'd been spending more and more time in my crafts corner, which had spread to a crafts room, which some would say was now a crafts home. I'd built up a large inventory of miniature rooms, boxes, and freestanding scenes.

Now I unwound my apron ties from my waist, preparing to offer an official welcome and a helping hand to vendors just arriving to take their places for the fair. Technically, I was responsible only for dollhouse vendors, but I wanted to become familiar with all the specialties our craftspeople had brought for sale. The other co-chairs were only too happy to have me spread myself around.

Not that there was a lot to spread, but I was working on it. Only two turns around for the apron strings tonight, meaning my waist was finally getting to a healthy measurement. My appetite had fled with Ken's, it seemed, and I had gotten much too thin—another source of consternation for Linda, who thought it unfair that she was the only one on the planet who gained weight so easily. "I just have to look at a donut," she'd say, "and the pounds pile up." I'd seen her eat three at one sitting, however, so I had little sympathy for her constant battle with pudginess.

"Keep an eye on my goods, would you, Linda?" I asked now, as I headed toward the front of the hall and my "greetings" duties. Geraldine on the job, Ken would say.

"What? Oh, no," Linda said, sounding exasperated.

I bristled, assuming she was responding to my simple request, but then saw that she was talking to herself. Something about her Governor Winthrop desk had disturbed her. A splinter? An uneven dab of paint? Either would be enough to send her on a verbal rampage.

"My table, Linda? Can you just keep an eye open?"

"Sure, sure," she said, back in the real world.

Her heavy tone had the enthusiasm of a ten-year-old asked to leave her toys and clean her room. I heaved a sigh. It was time for another heart-to-heart talk with my chronically out-of-sorts friend. To give her credit, Linda allowed me to lecture her periodically on her people skills and always responded positively. Until the next crisis hit in her job or family life. I had an idea that the present crisis involved Jason and the jewelry store robbery. For now, however, I was determined to enjoy the weekend, immersed in tiny ceramic bathtubs, wastebaskets the size of a thimble, and dinner plates with rims no bigger around than my wedding ring.

The school janitor, "Just Eddie,"—he refused to tell us his last name—had done a little more than his minimal level of effort to spruce up the school's multipurpose room for the fair. The trash had been reasonably contained, the area around the heavy plastic barrels free of candy wrappers and greasy napkins. The usually sticky linoleum floor was relatively smooth, the price being the unmistakable scent of liquid cleanser, mingling with that of this noontime's meatloaf.

Though I'd mailed a map of the hall to each vendor and stapled a poster-size layout on the wall by the entrance, I knew many would still not know their table numbers. I was there to help. Mabel Quinlan especially needed me—the eighty-something-year-old Queen of Beads couldn't keep the days of the week straight sometimes. Too much rubber cement, it was said. One look at the thousands of tiny glass beads she'd glued to items as small as one-inch coffee tables and as large as a five-inch stained glass window in a miniature Gothic church, would explain the tubs of glue she kept (some said sniffed) in her workshop.

"Table 8, Mabel," I told her, pointing to the first row. I'd assigned her a spot close to the restrooms and snack counter at the front of the hall, so she wouldn't get lost on her breaks, and far enough from the Children's Corner where the puppet shows and clowns would simply confuse her more.

"You're the best, Gerry," Mabel said. "Nothing miniature about your heart." She laughed at the line she'd probably rehearsed on the ride to the school. Linda's moods aside, most crafters were a good-humored lot and I had many friends among them.

I smiled broadly as the room boxes and dollhouses rolled in, their satisfied architects behind them, pulling the structures on luggage wheels or staggering under their weight. Most of the ladies were members of our local crafts group, and I'd seen many of the pieces in formative stages—Karen's Cape Cod ("I'm all about symmetry this year"), Gail's split-level ranch ("My hipped dormer idea failed"), Susan's Frank Lloyd Wright ("I'm in my low-slung, prairie phase"), and Betty's Tudor mansion ("Crown me now and have it over with").

All were for sale, and all were eligible for the big contest. They'd be displayed on the individual crafters' tables until Sunday morning, when they'd be moved to the annex and the final votes would be tallied. As Chair this year, I wasn't eligible to enter my own pueblo dollhouse, and these masterpieces told me it was just as well.

I usually spent more money than I took in at crafts shows, and I could see that this weekend would be no exception. I wandered through the aisles making a mental list of what I "needed." A half-scale red metal ladder that would be perfect for the garage scene I'd begun as a present for a neighbor. A floral ladies' desk set for my next Victorian shadow box. A decorator pack of wallpaper and a mahogany bookcase, to have on hand. A three-inch wicker porch swing, just because.

I flourished my clipboard and inspected each vendor's compliance with the rules. No more than two folding chairs behind any one table, no spreading of cloths or merchandise onto a neighbor's table, and nothing taller than eighteen inches, except for two-story dollhouses, which were assigned end tables so as not to block the view of other treasures. And a new mandate this year—no cell phones inside the hall.

"Thanks for all your work, Gerry," I heard repeatedly, as my friends-turned-vendors prepared their tables and cash boxes. Popcorn erupted from the giant machine we'd rented and filled the hall with an appetizing aroma, finally masking the stale, leftover odors of the summer school lunch menu. I basked in the fresh, salty smells and in the warmth of camaraderie.  

When I reached the back of the hall, I was surprised to see that Linda had abandoned our corner, leaving both our tables unattended. Not that there was a big worry, but sometimes children could be careless and might knock over a tiny bowl of Fimo-dough fruit, or upset small pieces like the kuchibana, the lovely Japanese vases Linda crafted after lessons from one of our Asian-American members.

Maybe Linda had a bathroom emergency. I scanned our tables for a note. No message, but I noticed that the Governor Winthrop desk was missing. I had the crazy thought that Linda might have taken it to the restroom with her. It was her pride and joy and she'd have been reluctant to leave it behind even for five minutes. She'd planned to add it to her dollhouse entry at the last minute.

I stepped over to the nearest occupied post, Table 29, where Karen Striker, one of our younger crafters, was repairing a shingle on her Cape Cod house. "Did Linda say where she was going?" I asked. "Or ask you to watch our tables?"

Karen looked up from her work and stared blankly at me, as if she'd been called back from a visit to the southern tip of Massachusetts. "Sorry, I'm totally not paying attention to anything but getting this set up," she said. "I didn't even know Linda was gone. Is there a problem?"

"No problem," I said, a bit annoyed at Linda's apparent unreliability.

For a distraction, and a moment of pleasure, I turned on the power to the rotating stand under my pueblo-style dollhouse. The building was roofless, all the rooms visible from the top, so the turntable was hardly necessary. Still, I liked the effect of the motion and let it roll.

I made one more pass up and down the aisles. I opened Mabel's bottle of water for her, exclaimed over a quarter-scale tea ceremony arrangement and a thatched cottage on adjacent tables, and used my thumb and index finger as a vise while Betty repaired the strawberry plant in front of her Tudor.

"Hard to believe the first real Tudors were in filthy, unhealthy towns infested with rats and flies," Betty said.

"Thanks for that," I said, with a smile.

A minute before six o'clock and all was well. Time for Just Eddie to open the doors. But where was he? He had a habit of "disappearing" even during normal work hours—we all wondered what was in his daily thermos. He was supposedly doubling as security guard for this event, but had clearly caved under the weight of the extra weekend work. I went up to the front doors and removed the rope across the opening myself. Crafts lovers and potential customers poured in.

I returned to my table, number 31, at the back of the hall, where I'd be stationed until it was time for the first raffle drawing.

Still no sign of Linda.

But out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chuck Reed, Linda's second ex-husband, head for the side door by the dining area.

Puzzle solved. Linda and Chuck were meeting in the parking lot, no doubt, to engage in one of their regular feuds. One week it was over money (neither had much), the next it was over their adopted son, Jason. The next it was back to money, and so on.

No problem. I dragged my chair three feet to my left, halfway between our two tables. It was quite clear which items belonged to Linda and which to me. Unwilling to admit that I didn't have the patience or the skill to be the miniaturist Linda was, I invented a theory that my furniture was more attractive to children and beginning crafters, since my pieces were clearly easy and inexpensive to make. This would attract more and more children to miniatures and keep the hobby alive. This theory had served me well for many years, and kept me from having to be the perfectionist Linda was.

I was ready to handle both tables. The only downside to Linda's absence was how humbled I'd be to admit that the exquisite pieces on Table 30 were not mine.

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