The fifth miniature mystery is about a Halloween decoration gone wrong. A neighborhood scarecrow turns out to be the murdered body of one of Lincoln Point's inspectors, one who wasn't liked much by certain influential devious citizens of the town.
Thanks to Gerry's sleuthing skills and Maddie's high level of computer literacy, the suspects pile up and then whittle down as the killer is identified.
Besides bringing down the guilty, Gerry deals with questions and secrets about her beloved, late husband and grows closer to a new friend.
It took me nearly an hour to do a few simple tasks around the house: I painted the kitchen and dining room walls a dull gray, laid black shag carpet in the living room and main hallway, and installed torn-up lacey curtains in the bedrooms and the attic. I'd hoped also to rewire the house before lunch, but I needed a break.
I'd always wanted to make a multi-story haunted dollhouse for Halloween, and this year the timing was right. My eleven-year-old granddaughter, Maddie, was excited about the project and I was a pushover for whatever enticed her to spend time with me.
Maddie was kind enough to allow me to do the boring parts. "Like, you can glue the shingles onto the roof when I'm not here, Grandma, and I'll help with all the decorations."
"You're a princess," I said, and, despite the conditions, she knew I meant it.
I'd bought this newest dollhouse as a fixer-upper at a miniatures flea market in Sacramento, about two hours from my (life-size) home in Lincoln Point, California. One of my crafter friends, Susan Giles, and I had made the trip together. We'd all gotten used to traveling long distances to find supplies for our hobby since, sadly, so many local dollhouse stores had gone out of business.
With only a little more than a week till Halloween, the lawns and porches of our town were lined with goblins and ghosts, shimmering black cats and lighted jack-o-lanterns. One street in particular, Sangamon River Road, had become a tourist attraction of late, drawing visitors from all around the county. The residents held a contest every year for the most creative outdoor Halloween scene. Last year's winners had converted their one-car garage into a barred, jail-like container for a large green monster that shook his fake cage and bellowed every time someone approached.
"Everybody's using motion sensors this year, Aunt Gerry," my homicide detective nephew, Skip Gowen, had mentioned to me casually. "If you'd like something like that for your lawn, I'd be glad to help."
In other words, the young cop in our family was still trying to drag me into the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the town's official century was the nineteenth, its citizens sworn Lincoln-ophiles, its government buildings adorned with wise, inspirational quotes from Honest Abe. We celebrated even the most remote anniversaries connected with our sixteenth president—from his first political speech in 1830, on improving navigation on the Sangamon River, to the day in 1831 when he wrestled his good friend, the rough-and-tumble Jack Armstrong, to a draw.
Miniaturists often recaptured the past, with replicas of Victorian homes being one of the most popular dollhouse styles. The more layers of lace, velvet, and floral patterns, the better. We were admittedly inconsistent: we delighted in furnishing our dollhouse bathrooms with claw foot tubs and pedestal sinks, but no one in my crafts group would be willing to give up her blow dryer and real-life Jacuzzi.
Maddie was also angling for a hi-tech haunted dollhouse this year. She'd suggested having eerie, screeching sounds come out of the tiny windows and flashing, blood-red lights around the porch.
"I learned how to do that stuff last summer in technology camp, which cost my parents a lot of money," she'd reminded me.
"That doesn't mean I have to adopt all your new knowledge," I'd told her. I accompanied my proclamations with tickling in the right spot, and my granddaughter acquiesced in a burst of giggles.
"Okay, okay, Grandma!" She'd caved easily. "You're wicked."
Which I knew was an endearing term.
I looked forward to a scream-free Halloween.
No one could bring me back to this century like Madison Porter, my only grandchild. I picked her up after school a couple of nights a week—on Wednesdays and Fridays mostly, so she could join my crafting circle. I'd deliver her back to her Palo Alto school on Thursday mornings, but on Saturdays, the time was ours without limit.
According to her parents, I was more rigorous about our schedule than a divorced couple with a custody arrangement.
On the way home this Friday, Maddie and I made a stop at Sadie's Ice Cream Shop on Springfield Boulevard. Maddie put away a hot fudge sundae with extra whipped cream (orange flavored with black sprinkles, in honor of the season) and then asked if I were going to eat the wafers that came with my single scoop of Swiss milk chocolate. If not, she'd be glad to take them off my hands. To look at her skinny body, you'd never know how much food she consumed in a single day. She'd inherited the tall, thin gene from both sides of her family, the only exception in the group being her father, my son, Richard, who ran a bit toward the bulky.
When it was just dark enough for the lighted props on Lincoln Point streets to be effectively spooky, we headed for Sangamon River Road in my little red Saturn.
"I hope Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson have their creature out," Maddie said, sitting tall, buckled into the front seat like the grown-up she considered herself. "Maybe he has some new digital sounds."
I got the message: if her grandmother wasn't going to provide Halloween thrills, she'd find them elsewhere.
As we wound through the darkening streets, taking detours on our way to Sangamon River Road, Maddie played tour guide, calling out the main feature at each residence: a shimmering, black-draped monster hugging a tree; a stiff, long-tailed ghost protruding from a second story window; an oversize inflatable spider perched on a life-size skeleton. Everything brought an "ooh" or an "aah" from me, as Maddie hoped.
We came upon three stick-figure witches ensconced around a caldron of boiling … something … dry ice, I guessed, and not "eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog". I thought of treating Maddie to a discourse on the witches in Macbeth. She'd grown weary of the soliloquy in Hamlet, and had been less than fascinated to hear the context of the phrase "sweets to the sweet," spoken of the dead Ophelia, by Queen Gertrude. Such were the drawbacks of having a retired English teacher for a grandmother. You grew up with Shakespeare whether you liked it or not.
This time I treated Maddie to a passage from Macbeth's witches. "When shall we three meet again—in thunder, lightning, or in rain?" I spoke in my best Elizabethan tones, which weren't too bad given my Bronx roots. I answered for the second witch, "When the hurly-burly's done, when the battle's lost and won." I lowered the pitch of my voice for the third witch: "That will be ere the set of sun."
Maddie raised her eyebrows. "There are witches in Shakespeare? Why didn't you tell me? I love witches."
How was I to know? The witches had never impressed my students at Abraham Lincoln High School. I'd done my best to engage them during the nearly three decades I'd taught there before my retirement. Fortunately, there were a few in their number who were sufficiently intrigued to major in English in college.
"We can make witches for our haunted dollhouse," I said.
I took that as enthusiasm.
We turned down Hanks Road and headed far out of town to the east. At one point Hanks became a narrow, rather curvy road, then dead-ended at the Sangamon River homes. Not that there was a river anywhere close. For fans of Abraham Lincoln, it hardly mattered, however; the name was a way to recognize a principal tributary of the Illinois River and a place of note in Lincoln's life.
I pulled over to the curb on Sangamon, a typical tree-lined suburban street that, for the most part, was quiet the other eleven months of the year. Maddie unbuckled her seat belt. She was still in her school clothes, which weren't that different from her hanging-around clothes—jeans and layered tops—simply newer. Today had been short-sleeve weather with temperatures in the seventies, but she'd added a red hoodie now as the late afternoon cooled.
I straightened her sleeve before she jumped out. "When I was your age, it was so cold on Halloween that—"
"I know. I know. You all had to wear long underwear under your little angel outfits. I'd never wear an angel outfit in the first place." I looked sideways at her. She wrinkled her nose. "Except for the time I wasn't even a year old and someone put me in one."
I shrugged, as if I had no idea who might have done such a thing to her.
Maddie's eyes widened as we walked through what looked like a theme park in orange, white, and black. Some of the families dispensed treats remotely, through gumball machines and baskets of candy set out near the edge of their property. I wondered if there would be any left on Halloween night as Maddie popped a chocolate roll into her mouth. Certainly, I thought, and took one for myself.
"That house is lame," Maddie said, pointing to a small green-and-white Cape Cod with only a few pumpkins on the gravel walkway.
"They must be on the judges' committee this year," I said.
I reminded her that the judging rotated each year so no one residence would be permanently disqualified from entering the contest. We found three other lame houses, with minimal acknowledgment of the season.
"I thought there were only three families that did the judging," Maddie said. "But there are four boring houses."
"They must have changed the rules this year," I offered.
"Nuh-uh, it has to be an odd number, like the Supreme Court."
I couldn't argue with that. I acknowledged that there must have been some other reason why one extra house wasn't participating this year.
Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson lived several houses from the corner on the street of Halloween dreams. Sam and Lillian, pioneers in the high-tech approach, had the same spectacular, though witch-less, scene every year. Their main character, fashioned by Sam, a retired mechanic, was a half-scarecrow half-"human" figure set out on the wraparound porch of their country-style home. Sam used a lifelike head, probably made of modeling foam, and a straw body with baggy clothes.
We stopped to admire the realistic looking form, slumped against the newel post closest to the level of the porch and partly surrounded by shrubs. From the street, the figure looked like an adult male relaxing, perhaps sleeping, on the top step. We knew that as soon as anyone got close to it, however, the mannequin would spring to life and stretch his arms wide, Frankenstein-style. His head would wobble and he'd give out a blood-curdling scream.
The large lawn in front of the Fergusons' scream-capable figure was filled with nearly as many headstones as the church cemetery on the opposite end of town. Skulls, remote-controlled black critters, headless corpses, and corpseless heads littered the aisles between the faux granite RIP fixtures.
"There's something new," I said, pointing to an upstairs window in Sam and Lillian's house. "The cat's eyes are blinking."
"Wow," Maddie said. "This whole place is wicked." There was her word of the month again, having nothing to do with Halloween. She draped herself on the old picket fence, leaning in and waving her arms, hoping to get her fingers within range of the motion detector and thus provoke a scream from the floppy, limp form on the porch.
I pointed to the partly rusted latch on the gate. "Look, it's unlocked. Why don't you go inside?" I asked, though I knew the answer. Maddie had never been brave enough to go right up to the Fergusons' scary creature. She always preferred to prod him from a distance and wait until a more courageous soul walked through the gate.
"Nuh-uh. I'm just trying to see what the range of the detector is," she said. "In case I want to build one at technology camp next summer."
A group of teenagers, three boys and three girls, happened by. They seemed to be enjoying the start of their weekend as much as released convicts might relish their first day of freedom. I remembered the feeling from having been on both sides of a teacher's desk. The teenagers unwittingly did Maddie the huge favor of crashing through the gate, laughing and prodding one another—who would dare get closest to the figure this year?
Maddie stayed on her perch, watching the action. Soon enough she'd be on her own, traveling with just such a group, I mused. I wondered if she were wishing she could join them now. Or was she relieved to be on the sidelines? For me, I was happy to have a couple more years with her as a preteen.
A human-sounding scream pierced the air. One of the girls had apparently walked within range of the motion detector.
Maddie and I blocked our ears. Sam and Lillian had outdone themselves in verisimilitude.
But something was different—the creature didn't budge. No bobbing head or flailing arms and no wildly kicking legs had been stirred into action.
Maddie came down from the fence and wrapped her arms around my waist. I stroked her red curls as we both sensed something was dead wrong.
Indeed it was. The scream had come from one of the teenage girls. "It's really a dead man," she yelled, in a hysterical voice, running out to the sidewalk. Most of her companions followed.
A prank, I thought. Had Sam and Lillian Ferguson enlisted a Hollywood makeup artist to better their chances at winning a prize? From what I'd read, the prize was nothing elaborate—a modest gift certificate to a store in town, a token gesture to encourage competition.
My teaching wits kicked in and I wondered if the young girl had faked her alarm, to scam her friends or Maddie and me? Or maybe all of the teens had been in on the joke, just because they were teens.
"What makes you think it's not makeup you're seeing?" I asked the girl who was either hyperventilating or a very good actress. "The porch is not very well lit."
"It is if you're up there." Of course it was. The Fergusons had rigged floodlights with the just the right amount of illumination to cover the porch and the steps in an eerie yellow glow. "And, besides, I can tell. I've seen real dead bodies close up on television," the girl said. If she weren't shaking so much, I'd have laughed.
"He's really dead," said a boy who'd gone as far as the bottom step to confirm the report. "It's a dead live man. I mean, a dead dead man." His face was white as he turned and touched his forehead. "His eyes are, like, staring, and there's a bullet hole … I think it is … right here. And there's a gun in his hand, and there's, like, a mess."
I knew that if I went up the walkway to examine the scene myself, the teenagers would flee, and on the off chance that there really had been a real gun and a real death, I needed them to stay. The more I looked at the man's body, the more convinced I became that it was human. The legs of his jeans and the arms of his red plaid shirt were filled out, not drooping over broomstick handles or seeming to be made of straw.
The only downside to believing without seeing for myself close up was that I'd be embarrassed if I called the police out to investigate a spoof. With all the supplies available at every party and discount store at this time of year, how hard would it be to paint a bullet hole on a fake head?
The looks on the faces of teens were enough to convince me, however, that this was no joke, not by the Fergusons, and not by the teenagers.
And there was one cop with whom I could take a chance. We had a history of sharing embarrassing moments.
I took out my cell phone and punched in my nephew Skip's number.
I saw my quiet Halloween turn into a dead pumpkin.