Now that Geraldine Porter is retired, she has more time to devote to her lifelong hobby, dollhouses and miniatures, and, unexpectedly, solving crimes! In MIX-UP IN MINIATURE, Gerry and her precocious 11-year-old granddaughter, Maddie, solve the murder of a local dollhouse collector and bestselling romance novelist.
My nephew Skip looked over my shoulder at the magazine I held. He read from the open page, stumbling over some of the abbreviations.New Home Listing: 1890 Victorian beauty: 6 br, 3 bath, orig wdwrk, stained glass, rare lghtng fixts, wall trtmnts, oak flrs, 2 frplcs, 2 wd stvs, bsmnt, attic, cottge w possible rental rm upstairs. Exclnt cond, some gutter repair rq. Exclnt val.
Skip shook his head, his Porter-family red hair catching the rays from my atrium skylight. "You already own six houses, Aunt Gerry, and, like, a gajillion shops."
"Shouldn't you be selling some off, not buying?"Intermittent bites from a ginger cookie slowed down his friendly rebuke. My kitchen, just behind us, still held the aroma of Skip's favorite snack, newly out of the oven.
"I have no duplicate shops," I said. "And some of my houses are very small. For example . . ."
I waved my arm in the direction of a beige-and-terracotta Pueblo-style dollhouse sitting on a table in my atrium where we'd settled for a brief visit. At one-half scale (one half inch of dollhouse for every one foot of life-size space) the whole house was barely two feet in width and in length. Adorable, especially after Maddie and I had painted all the doors and window frames a rich Santa Fe blue.
At eleven years old, my granddaughter was still a little shaky with a brush, but I liked the fact that you could distinguish her walls from mine. I couldn't predict how much longer she'd be happy doing projects with me. She'd already hinted that she might be calling me Gerry soon.
But on the home ownership issue, Skip had a point. Being Lincoln Point's youngest, sharpest homicide detective, he'd noticed how I'd maneuvered houses of different sizes, scales, and architectural styles into every available space. My four-bedroom life-size home had become one giant crafts room and miniature-real-estate show room.
Besides the half-scale Pueblo, I had five miniature houses in full, or one-twelfth scale (one inch of dollhouse for every one foot of real space), the largest of them a ten-room brick Victorian forty-two inches high. And of course I also displayed the standard "street of shops" pieces and assorted room boxes. None of my buildings were of the "playhouse" type that children might use or dolls might populate.
Time to 'fess up. I owned a lot of property. I was a regular mini feudal lord. I closed the dollhouse magazine on the tempting ad for another miniature Victorian.
"Here's an idea," Skip said, working on his third cookie. "Aren't you part of that library committee that wants to buy a bookmobile for the town? You could donate one of your dollhouses to the auction for the fund-raiser."
That was Skip's way of reminding me of my lofty position on the committee: gofer for auction items. In particular, our chairman and head librarian, Doris Ann Hartley, had been prodding me to approach the biggest celebrity in our small northern California town, bestselling romance novelist Alexandra Rockwell, aka Varena Young, her pen name. I was to persuade Ms. Rockwell to donate her enormous museum-quality dollhouse, a Georgian mansion.
"You want me to ask for Alexandra Rockwell's award-winning mansion? Lord and Lady Morley's home?" had been my startled response.
"Who are the Morleys? And why do they have titles?" Doris Ann had asked. "I thought I knew everyone in town."
"That's the name of the dollhouse. Ms. Rockwell calls her hallmark dollhouse the Lord and Lady Morley mansion. That miniature must be worth a million dollars," I'd said, facetiously emphasizing miniature. "She's not going to give that gem to us to auction off."
"Of course she's not," Doris Ann had said. "It's just the start of a negotiation. You ask for that, then bargain to accept whichever smaller piece of her dollhouse collection she offers."
It was true that any one of Ms. Rockwell's dollhouses, featured often in trade magazines, would be an excellent auction item, far surpassing my own creations and those of all my crafter friends.
"So it's a trick? Ask for the biggest, most elaborate house, though all you really want is one of the smaller ones?"
"That's the idea."
No wonder I'd never get the hang of negotiating. No wonder I hated it.
"I'd rather donate all my houses than try to get one from the Rockwell Estate," I said to Skip now. Only a slight exaggeration, as my nephew knew. Alexandra Rockwell was well into her eighties by any reckoning. She was purportedly a duchess, whatever that meant these days, and she'd become a franchise, publishing up to three Regency romance books a year for her legion of fans throughout the world.
Not just from nobility, I dreaded soliciting from anyone, even for a worthy cause like enhancing the reading pleasure of hundreds of Lincoln Point citizens who were unable to get to the library. My usual sales presentation went along the lines of, "You probably don't want to do this, but—" Not a successful communication path for any venture, whether selling Girl Scout cookies, peddling raffle tickets, or asking outright for a charitable contribution. I'd explained to Doris Ann that making a cold call to negotiate with a novelist who was number one on the romance charts was not in my skill set.
Ms. Rockwell was known as well for her dollhouse collection, which she started as a young woman. But the lady was not the kind of miniaturist I hung out with. It wasn't obvious that she hung out with anyone in the lowlands of Lincoln Point—those of us who lived below the gated communities on the hill.
Most of us crafters stood in awe the few times Ms. Rockwell had visited our crafts fairs. She'd breeze in, accompanied by her assistants. Bodyguards? we wondered. She'd walk quickly through the aisles of handcrafted furniture and accessories, waving her long arms gracefully, pointing to what she wanted, always the most exquisite and expensive items in the exhibit room. A four-inch-long inlaid wooden coffee table by a craftsman who specialized in such pieces. A tiny, delicately painted ceramic vase. A miniature hand-woven reproduction of a unicorn tapestry. Pieces most of us coveted and saved up for years to buy.
One of Ms. Rockwell's aides would make the purchases as the great lady continued down the rows of tables, then disappeared through the side exit. No stopping to chat with the vendors. No checking out the snack bar to grab one of Mabel's mint chip brownies.
Once Ms. Rockwell left the building, we'd all make guesses as to where in her collection she might place her purchases. "She must be working on a half-scale late Regency," I'd said on the day not long ago that Ms. Rockwell bought a marvelous double-bow high back elbow chair. "It would complement the period her novels are set in."
"You mean her crafter-in-residence is working on a late Regency," my friend Linda had responded, doubtful that anyone who didn't come to our crafters meetings had the skills to put a dollhouse together. It never did any good to remind Linda that if it weren't for noncrafters, we'd have very few customers at our fairs.
It wasn't the first time we'd engaged in speculation as to whether the famous Ms. Rockwell actually made miniature furnishings and built her dollhouses herself, just as there was a question about whether, as Varena Young, she still wrote her own books.
Susan, another member of our regular miniatures group, had had a different response altogether. "Don't tell me you actually read romances, Gerry," she said, a look of mock horror on her face. "A former English teacher who's always quoting Shakespeare reads Varena Young's bodice-rippers?"
I felt I needed to defend my reading habits. "I've read only a couple, to prepare myself for when I ask for her million-dollar dollhouse. And they're really not bodice-rippers. If they were movies, they wouldn't even be R-rated."
In any case, Alexandra Rockwell and her writer persona gave us all something to talk about in the sleepy town of Lincoln Point, where—far from the hubbub of San Francisco—there was little drama to everyday life. Rock music playing in my backyard brought me back to present realities and the fact that I couldn't put off my negotiating task much longer. Skip's cell phone had rung.
My nephew, an apartment dweller with no yard, had gone out to inspect his patch of brussel sprouts and kale in my garden. He now reentered through my patio doors, clicking his phone shut and ending our visit with his trademark "Gotta go, Aunt Gerry."
Once Skip left, called to duty on a Monday afternoon and toting a plastic bag bursting with cookies, there was nothing to do but steel myself to call the Rockwell Estate. Or was it the Young Estate?
I wondered how I should address the lady to increase my chance of seeing her. I wondered if it would matter.
I refreshed my tea and gave some thought to reneging on my bookmobile assignment. I recalled last week's meeting when Doris Ann had said, "You're the closest we have to a dollhouse expert, Gerry."
"Linda Reed is much better," I'd pointed out. "Unlike me, Linda makes everything from scratch."
Doris Ann sighed and gave me a look that, I had to admit, I understood. She was well aware that Linda was the Martha Stewart of crafters, never having built from a kit since she was old enough to use a wood sander. But we all knew also that Linda was at the low end of the tact and social skills spectra, just as likely to challenge or insult Ms. Rockwell as not. I might well have been the best the library committee had to offer.
A sad state, indeed, but it was time I took action.
I picked up my phone and dialed the number of the Rockwell Estate. A nervous shiver ran through me, just thinking of the winding road to Ms. Rockwell's life-size mansion high up on the edge of town. I wanted to see her home and her dollhouse collection, I realized, without actually having to ask for permission or, worse, a donation.
I knew what I was getting into. I'd driven past the checkpoints at the perimeters of the gated communities in the hills. Though he didn't live there, it was the scenic route I took to the home of Henry Baker, my BFF, or Best Friend.
Forever, as Maddie called him. Henry and I were still working out what the proper term was for our dating-after-fifty situation.
More than ever, traffic at the busy intersection between our homes was a nightmare, thanks to a huge construction project that promised to add tens of thousands more square feet of office space to Lincoln Point.
I waited through six rings for someone at the Rockwell Estate to answer. I was ready to count my blessings and hang up. A sorry excuse for a solicitor, hoping for no response. But a woman picked up the phone before I could escape. I heard a stern voice say "Rockwell residence."
I was committed now.
I identified myself and asked to make an appointment with Ms. Rockwell. I tried to slur over the "Ms.," in case the lady of the house preferred to be called Miss, as were all the heroines in her romance novels, or Mrs., in the event that there was a Mr. of the house.
"Are you the Geraldine Porter from the library bookmobile committee?" the woman asked.
I gulped, bracing for either rude verbiage to put me in my place or an abrupt dial tone resulting from a quick hang-up. I had a flashback to my days of trying to sell ads to local businesses for my Bronx high school yearbook. I always came in last on the sales thermometer.
"Yes, it is. I'm sorry to bother you," I said, true to form.
"Wonderful." The tone had turned downright cheery. "Ms. Rockwell has been hoping you'd call. Are you free to stop in and visit with her, say, around three this afternoon?"
How old did I have to get before human behavior didn't surprise me every time?