GERALDINE PORTER, a recently retired high school English teacher in a small northern California town, can't help getting involved in crime-solving. Gerry and her ten-year-old granddaughter, Maddie, are drawn into the art world and a reenactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates to solve a crime that spreads debris across the whole town.
My new house didn't have western exposure in the kitchen. It was almost criminal. I couldn't imagine working at the sink or stove without benefit of the late afternoon sun.
Fortunately, it was an easy problem to fix. I picked up the house, rotated it about ninety degrees, and set it down in its corner. Only a couple of items fell over in the operation—a small lamp and a vase of flowers that apparently weren't glued down properly. I righted them and peered through the picture window.
Now I had four dollhouses, spread throughout my life-size home, with picture windows that framed the setting sun, especially brilliant this February afternoon.
"You should have asked me to do that, Mom," said my husky son, Richard (The Orthopedic Surgeon, as I liked to append to all who would listen). "That must weigh forty pounds."
"I've been moving houses like this since—"
Richard followed me from the dining room to the kitchen where I resumed dinner preparations. "Before I was born, I know," he said. "First in the Bronx, and now in Lincoln Point. Yada, yada."
His smile, with his long laugh lines, prompted me to kiss him on his scruffy cheek (it was still a novelty to have my only child back home). "Thanks anyway for the offer."
The truth was I'd gotten used to being alone and doing whatever heavy lifting needed to be done. I'd been a widow for more than two years. As wonderful as my local family and friends had been to me, they weren't by my side 24/7, and at the end of the day, I was on my own. I wasn't one to sit around and wait for help or call someone when I wanted to install a shelf or rearrange my furniture—even the life-size version—when I was perfectly capable.
Richard, his artist wife, Mary Lou, and the joy of my life, my granddaughter, Madison Porter, recently turned 11, had moved back to Northern California only a few weeks ago. They were staying with me while their home-in-the-making near the Stanford University School of Medicine, Richard's new employer, was being completed. I didn't say it out loud, but my secret hope was that the contractors would live up to the stereotype and be many weeks late. But no matter what, my son and his family would be only ten miles to the north of me now, instead of hundreds of miles to the south in Los Angeles, where they'd been since Maddie was two years old.
"How many dollhouses do you need, anyway?" Richard asked me.
"I think one hundred would be a good number," I answered.
Not easily bested, Richard gave me another broad smile. "Well, you're on your way."
"I like your attitude. I'm glad I'm serving your favorite tomato sauce tonight."
I hadn't yet owned up to my family that my true heroine was a woman featured in a documentary I'd seen on our local cable channel. She's been collecting dollhouses of all sizes for many years. On the video you can see houses everywhere. One-room cabins, shops, and barns lay on her windowsills; large Victorians and colonials sit on tables and along the walls of every room. An especially beautiful structure from 1840 (she'd rescued it from a trash bin in a Welsh village) lined with majestic Palladian windows, takes up a large area of her living room floor.
I thought of visiting her until I learned that she lived in England. Who knew that Channel 16, the Lincoln Point cable franchise had such far-reaching contacts?
I couldn't remember the last time Richard and I shared a meal together by ourselves. Tonight, the rest of our extended family was otherwise engaged. It was Mary Lou's turn to pick up Maddie from the after-school program in their new neighborhood. They would then have dinner together, for a little quality mother/daughter time.
With my near and dear reasonably content and healthy, the only stress in my life at the moment was the looming deadline to finish a room box by February 12, one week from now, when Lincoln Point would celebrate "The Real President's Day," as we called it. In store for us was a reenactment of one of the 1858 campaign debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, with all the trimmings of period staging. My foot-long room box, featuring an outdoor debate setting, was to be raffled off for the benefit of the library.
I focused on the task at hand and stirred my special marinara sauce.
"Do you know where your wife and daughter are eating?" I asked Richard, handing over a hot shrimp for him to sample.
"It's a no-brainer. Mary Lou will suggest a salad bar or sushi or whatever, Maddie will bat her eyes and plead for pizza, and guess who'll win?"
"I'll count on a couple of leftover slices coming home," I said.
Richard stopped to lick his lips. "Mmm. The shrimp is perfect. Who needs pizza?"
What followed was more Maddie talk—especially about her adjustment to the move away from her Los Angeles school and neighborhood.
"She doesn't seem to have made many friends here yet," Richard said.
"It's hardly a month," I said. "Give her a chance."
If anyone but her father had suggested that my granddaughter was slow at assimilating, I'd have sounded even more put out. The only child of an only child, Maddie seemed determined to fill her life with surrogate siblings and cousins and had learned to charm both adults and other children.
Not that I was biased.
"I guess we'll see," said Richard, who knew enough not to belabor any hint of imperfection in his daughter in my presence.
He arranged dishes and glasses on the dining room table. Probably I made too much of it, but I thought he looked more like his father when he was doing a chore that Ken often did, like setting the table or taking out the trash. My son had the Porter red hair and Ken's high forehead. I saw my genes only in his deep-set eyes. We couldn't trace his stocky build to either side of what were otherwise two families of long, lean men and women. He'd always said heft was an advantage in orthopedic surgery, and I didn't want to know much more about the life of one who cut into human flesh for a living.
In his afternoon-off jeans and sweatshirt, Richard maneuvered around Mary Lou's paintings, stacked three and four deep along the walls and in front of the hutch, and found our favorite wine glasses. His wife's artwork, finished and unfinished, filled the house, giving my dollhouses and miniatures hobby competition for space. A four-bedroom house was no match for four people when one was a child with enough protective gear, bats, sticks, and balls to equip a small school, and two of the adults had clutter-based interests. Though this temporary company put a strain on my crafts rooms, Richard and his family lifted my spirits every hour that they graced my home.
At the front of Mary Lou's stack now was a work in progress, a rendition of a Lincoln-Douglas debate. She'd sketched out the two men, one short and round (Douglas), the other tall and lanky (Abe), in formal attire, addressing a crowd of people in an outdoor rally. American flags were draped across the stage; banners were hung on the large, full-leaved trees. I could feel the excitement of the event in the swirls and shades of the sketch. The scene was on its way to be a spectacular watercolor.
Like Maddie, my daughter-in-law could charm people even from a distance, and she'd gotten herself a commission to do the painting even before moving here. Mary Lou had the same deadline I did for my room box—the painting had to be finished, framed, and hanging in the lobby of the Lincoln Point City Hall on the morning of February 12.
But now it was dinnertime for Richard and me. I took a steaming bowl of spaghetti and sauce to the table, leaving a richly aromatic trail behind me. Richard added the breadbasket, then held my seat for me. "I'm not being sexist, Mom, just honoring the cook. No offense."
He took his seat across from me. "This is nice," he said. "Not sharing you."
We toasted with wine Richard had brought home from a recent family outing to the vineyards of Napa Valley.
I heard the pleasant click of my parents' sixty-year-old wedding crystal.
Then, quickly afterwards, a demanding bzzz, bzzz, bzzz. My front doorbell.
Richard and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised all around. Then we laughed.
"It was nice," Richard said.
If it had been a single buzz, like the signal from a delivery person warning us there was now a package on the doorstep, we might have ignored it. But this was an insistent ringing, as if someone were desperate to get to me.
Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz.
"I'll get it," Richard said. "Before I have a doorbell to repair."
As if he could. Richard was handy in the operating room and laboratory (I assumed, since Stanford had paid a lot to woo him to Northern California) but he had none of his architect father's handyman skills.
He snatched a crust of Italian bread to eat on the way to the door.
"Is Skip here?"
I heard the distraught voice of June Chinn, my thoughtful next-door neighbor and my nephew Skip's girlfriend. A family favorite, I might add. I wondered why she hadn't simply hoisted her tiny body over our back fence into my yard and knocked on my glass patio door, as she usually did, day or night, in all seasons.
She was much too light to knock Richard over, but her entrance this evening was energetic enough to have made an impact as she pushed past him with a quick, "Hey, Richard," and landed in front of me, at the dining room table.
"Gerry, something awful's happened." June stood at her full her five feet, two inches and flailed her arms. The gesture, plus the intensely orange fleece vest she wore, gave her the look of a CalTrans worker on a freeway instead of the Silicon Valley tech editor that she was. "I can't find Skip."
I put down my fork and swallowed hard. I'd seen my nephew at noon when he stopped by for a quick bite. How could he be missing now? Frightening images went through my mind. Skip was a homicide detective on the Lincoln Point police force, in my mind at risk every hour that he was at work. I remembered he'd mentioned a new case that was "touchy." My mind ran amuck. His mother, my sister-in-law Beverly Gowen, was in Hawaii on vacation with her new beau. What if—?
I stood up, dropping my napkin, and looked at June, who must have seen my concern. "No, no. I mean I need to talk to Skip and I can't find him."
I felt my shoulders loosen up, but not completely. June was not a drama queen, so I knew this must be serious. Richard used his best doctor manner to lead her to a chair in the living room part of our combined living/dining room. I followed, still not able to allow myself to relax fully.
June rolled her head in a way that seniors like me are warned not to. "My best friend, Zoe, she came here from Chicago right after I did. We've been friends, like, forever." She took a deep breath. "She's in jail."
Skip's okay. Once I realized this, I was able to focus on June and her friend. What to ask first? Why? Where? I settled on "When did this happen?"
June looked around the dining room. "Where's Skip?" she asked, accusingly, as if we were hiding him from her.
"I assume you tried all his numbers, June?" Richard asked.
"I left messages everywhere," came out as a wail.
"What can we do to help?" I asked.
June's head jerked up. She gave me a wide-eyed look. "Gerry, you have to look into this. You know, the way you and Maddie are always solving cases."
It was Richard's turn for a wide-eyed look.