Deb Baker. Dolly Departed

(Dolls to Die For — 3)


Gretchen Birch was still several blocks from the doll shop when Charlene Maize, better known to her friends as Charlie, failed to suck in enough air to feed her panicking brain and various other vital organs. She keeled over in the center of her miniature doll shop, Mini Maize, amid the clutter from a tipped display case. Charlie took the dive in full view of a group of Parada del Sol spectators gathered in front of the shop's window to watch Old Scottsdale's largest western parade.

No one noticed.

A marching band, passing at that precise moment, struck up the familiar beat of 'Louie, Louie,' and people along the parade route swayed and bopped to the music. Caught up in the swell of humanity, Gretchen was running late, and as if enough hadn't gone wrong already, her teacup poodle, Nimrod, was slowing her down even more.

'Here comes the parade!' someone shouted as Gretchen hurried past a crowded corner on her way to Mini Maize. Nimrod, all five inches and three pounds of black puppy fur, heard his cue. He pitched his fluffy body out of Gretchen's white cotton purse, which was adorned with red bows and embroidered with little black poodles, Nimrod look-alikes. She frantically grabbed for the pup, managing to break his fall to the pavement. Then she lost her grasp, and Nimrod shot off toward the street.

Every time the miniature pup heard the word parade at home, he headed for the kitchen doggie door, burst through into the backyard, and trotted around the perimeter of the privacy fence that encircled the pool, barking away as though he were the grand master of a parade. It was a cute stunt at home, but out in public. . well, she'd never expected it to be an issue. Gretchen raced after the wayward canine, jostling past a rowdy group on the curb who had obviously started partying well before the ten o'clock a.m. parade began. One reveler almost stepped on Nimrod.

'Watch out for the puppy!' she yelled. 'Don't move!'

No one heard her. 'Help!' she screamed, imagining the worst as she lost sight of Nimrod. 'Catch him!' A few people turned and stared at her, but no one jumped to her assistance. Gretchen burst through to the front of the parade line, knocking over a lawn chair and almost falling across an elderly couple sharing a sun umbrella. She saw Nimrod dart back into the street directly in front of the parade's lead vehicle, a Scottsdale police cruiser. The squad car, strobe lights flashing in honor of the event, jerked to a halt, and a uniformed Scottsdale police officer jumped out.

Nimrod scampered for the other side of the street, where he was instantly enveloped in a circle of kids. Gretchen waded in, not far behind him.

'You've disrupted the parade, lady, you know that?' the cop said. 'I ought to write you up for having an unleashed animal. Move back and try to stay out of the way!' He hurried back to his car, slammed the car door, and began to edge forward.

Gretchen and Nimrod ended up on the wrong side of the street, forced to wait for the parade to pass. Parada del Sol, Spanish for walk in the sun, was a spectacle to behold on this warm and brilliant February morning. The world's largest horse-drawn parade meandered down Scottsdale Road. Cowboys on horseback pranced by, and women in carriages threw candy into the crowd. Kids scrambled off the curb, grabbing Tootsie Rolls and bubble gum. Giant floats rambled along, trailed by clowns rolling wheelbarrows and cleaning up behind the horses.

While Gretchen watched, she had plenty of time to blame her absent Aunt Nina for teaching Nimrod such a useless trick. Purse dog trainer extraordinaire Nina hadn't anticipated problems, either.

'Don't you just love a parade?' someone said behind them. Gretchen had another tangle with Nimrod, but she was ready this time and held him back.

On the other side of the street, she saw Joseph Reiner make his way through the crowd in the same direction the parade traveled. He was hard to miss in a pink, shortsleeved, button-down shirt and yellow shorts. Joseph's Dream Dolls was one of Gretchen's favorite doll shops, but Joseph did tend to dress like a parrot. He looked her way. She waved, but he continued on without seeing her. Hadn't he received one of Charlie's mysterious invitations? She was sure her mother had mentioned his name, but he was headed in the wrong direction. Odd. Gretchen cuddled Nimrod and waited impatiently for the parade to pass. She'd be late for the party, and Charlie had stressed the importance of being on time for a grand unveiling at Mini Maize. Ten sharp, she'd written in the invitation. When the last horse-drawn float rolled past, Gretchen stuffed Nimrod back in her purse and made for the other side, weaving among the straggling, shovel-clenching clowns. She ran right into one of them, bouncing off an enormous stuffed stomach. She fell sideways, clutching Nimrod and the purse protectively to her chest.

'Watch where you're going,' the clown said, not bothering to stop or to help her up. Gretchen saw a bald head with two large patches of green hair protruding from the sides like clumps of moldy cotton candy. The clown loomed over her momentarily, and then waddled away, a purple sack slung over a shoulder and enormous red feet flapping.

'Thanks a lot,' Gretchen muttered, rising and brushing herself off. What else could possibly go wrong? Today was turning out to be one of those days when absolutely nothing went right.

By the time she arrived at Charlie's doll shop, it was almost eleven o'clock, and quite a crowd had gathered in front of the store. Most of the other parade-goers along the route were drifting away from the curb to explore the shops of Old Scottsdale or head for the party at Trail's End.

'She didn't open up,' a man said when Gretchen edged through and tried the door to Mini Maize. It was locked.

'That can't be right,' Gretchen said, holding her invitation in the air. 'I'm invited to a special celebration.' She noticed a posted sign. 'It says the shop opens at ten.'

'We all have invitations,' the same man said. 'Maybe Charlie's sick?'

'She has a bad heart, you know,' said a woman with an enormous straw sun hat and dimpled cheeks.

Gretchen had heard about Charlie Maize's heart condition. When the invitation arrived a week ago, her mother, Caroline, had filled her in on the doll shop owner's health situation. A recent physical had prompted the diagnosis. Immediately afterward, Charlie had arranged for the celebration at her shop, as though she worried that her time was near, and she had one last wish.

'Oh my Gawd!' A woman nearest to the window shouted. Another woman screamed. 'She's on the floor!'


'Right over there! In the middle of all that doll furniture. Looks like a display tipped over.'

'We have to get inside and help her!'

Gretchen couldn't get anywhere near the window to see for herself. Not that she wanted to. Emergencies made her feel totally helpless. Next time she had an opportunity, she promised herself, she would take a CPR class and learn how to save people.

'Someone call nine-one-one!'

Maybe she could help by making the emergency call. Standing next to the locked door, Gretchen dug in her purse past Nimrod's tiny body. His head poked out of her bag, taking in the situation. She pulled out her cell phone, dialed the emergency number, and gave the dispatcher as much information as possible.

As she ended the call, a man with a full head of white hair and a white mustache that reminded Gretchen of Geppetto pushed through on his way to the shop's door.

'Bernard!' the big-hat lady called out shrilly. 'I think that's Charlie on the floor inside, and the door is locked. Do you have a key?'

'Of course I do, Evie.'

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