Dolled Up for Murder

1

Antique dolls have histories much like their human counterparts. They have beginnings, and they have endings. Occasionally a doll collector is fortunate enough to acquire a doll with a hand-written history dating back to its creation. The collector can trace the doll’s journey through its past owners and its travels. It is up to the new owner to continue writing the history, to keep a detailed record of the doll’s lifetime.

—From World of Dolls by Caroline Birch

Head buried under a mound of pillows, Gretchen Birch struggled to ignore the phone’s incessant ringing. She had stopped answering the phone at midnight, and it had rung every hour on the hour since. Gretchen lifted a corner of the pillow and squinted at the clock on the nightstand. Three in the morning. The answering machine would pick up after one more ring, and Nina’s urgent message, the same hour after hour, would reverberate in her head until the woman called again at four.

What was the use? She wasn’t sleeping anyway.

Gretchen fumbled in the dark for the phone and knocked it to the floor. Tangled in a sheet, she yanked herself free and lunged for the phone.

“What now?” she said. “Don’t you ever give up?”

“You have to come to Phoenix.” Aunt Nina, her mother’s sister. Bold, bigger-than-life Nina. The dramatist. “Martha Williams is dead, and your mother is missing.”

Gretchen rubbed her red, sleep-deprived eyes. “Drunken Martha tripped and fell from a mountain ledge. That’s what you told me when you called the first time. Again, I extend my sympathies to you, even though you hardly knew her.”

“Your mother is missing.” Nina’s husky voice strained upward, hitting a high soprano note. “How many times do I have to tell you that?”

“According to you, she’s been missing . . .” Gretchen checked the clock again. “. . . approximately fifteen hours. That isn’t missing. That’s out power shopping or taking a personal day to recharge. Knowing her, she’s probably in Vegas, finishing up at the blackjack table as we speak.”

“She didn’t take her lucky bracelet. She would never go without it. And she wouldn’t leave without telling me.”

Gretchen’s cat, Wobbles, brushed against her bare toes, demanding attention. The stray’s leg had been smashed in a hit-and-run outside Gretchen’s apartment two years earlier. She witnessed the accident as she stood waiting for the traffic light to change; the car traveling too fast on the winding street, the cat lying at her feet. Shocked and outraged, she scooped the injured stray into her coat, ignoring the blood soaking her clothes, and rushed to the vet. Too late to save his back leg, but a partnership developed between them. Wobbles, the three-legged cat, had stayed.

Gretchen ran her hand along the cat’s silky black fur. She sighed and tried another tactic. “I lost my job last week. Downsizing, remember? I was terminated without warning along with several other startled, soon-to-be-starving souls. I don’t even have the money for rent, much less airfare.”

Not to mention that July in Phoenix is like the inside of a blast furnace. You cook from the inside out. Roasting, suffocating, charring heat. But Boston, home sweet home, is at its peak. Green, leafy trees, breathable salty air, foghorns calling in the harbor.

“A ticket is waiting for you at the airport,” Nina replied. “You have to get moving. Check in by seven, or you’ll lose your seat.”

Gretchen shot upright, startling Wobbles. “I need more time to think about this. If I decide to come, I need to make arrangements for Wobbles’s care, and I need to pack. I need to stop the paper for a few days and