Nothing like joining the homeless community to realize how rotten people can be on both sides of the law.


The gun blast frightened all of them. Someone screamed.

Gretchen watched with a mixture of frustration and disbelief as Bonnie dove for the floor, landing on her padded stomach. The man’s black synthetic wig she wore on her head slid sideways, and her fake handlebar mustache skidded across the floor.

Bonnie’s body seized. Then her eyes stared sightlessly.

Julie Wicker dropped the weapon on the floor and covered her face with both hands. “I didn’t mean to fire it,” she said after clearing a space between her pinky fingers for better articulation. “It was an accident. I’m so sorry.”

“Cut,” Nina shouted, recovering slightly faster than Gretchen had from the unexpected explosion. Nina stomped up to the stage to glare at the cast members. She maintained a commanding presence even while dwarfed by a six-foot Barbie mannequin dressed in a cheerleader’s outfit.

“Take five,” Nina ordered. “Then come back and try to do the scene the way it was written. And why did the mustache come off?”

Gretchen was the one who had applied Bonnie’s mustache, another one of the many responsibilities she was trying to juggle. “Who’s got the glue?” Nina continued when no one answered. “Where’s makeup?”

“We do our own makeup,” Bonnie said. “You know that.”

Another glare from Nina. “Use superglue next time. I want that mustache to adhere so well it never comes off.”

Bonnie Albright, president of the Phoenix Dollers Club and mother of the man Gretchen was dating, could have pointed an accusing finger at Gretchen, but she didn’t, which raised Gretchen’s esteem for the woman several notches.

Bonnie rolled to her side, pushed up into a sitting position, and readjusted her wig.

“We’ve been at this for hours,” she griped. “We need more than a five-minute break.”

The other cast members agreed.

Gretchen sighed, and followed her aunt onto the stage, picking up the blank-firing revolver on the way. Not only was the cast totally inept, forgetting their lines and firing weapons at all the wrong times, but Nina, who had volunteered to help out so that she could keep an eye on Gretchen after the unfortunate tarot reading, seemed determined to horn in on Gretchen’s directorial turf. Nina apparently didn’t understand the role of assistant director.

Gretchen fervently wished that she’d never mentioned the high school stage production she’d had a minor role in years ago. Suddenly she was the director of Ding Dong Dead, the certified expert on play production. Certifiable, was more like it. She had to be nuts to have agreed to take this on. The title of director didn’t suit her, as she was quickly finding out. She didn’t have the necessary air of authority. But Nina didn’t have the people skills, judging by the pleading expressions on the cast’s faces.

“A few more minutes before we start up again would be appreciated,” Julie agreed.

They looked expectantly toward Gretchen, waiting to see if she’d challenge Nina’s bid for power. She really should say something that would reestablish her status as commander of this listing ship. But after last night’s trip to the cemetery, Gretchen hadn’t slept well. Nightmares weren’t anything new, but her usual dreams had morphed into something different-monsters she couldn’t see, screams she couldn’t scream, cliffs, falling, and a dead woman’s sightless stare.

Gretchen managed a nod to indicate her agreement with the cast.

Nina rolled her eyes.

Bonnie, who played the role of Craig Bitters in the production, flipped off the cheap male wig, exposing a tight wig cap underneath. Beneath the cap, crushed against her scalp, was Bonnie’s own red wig, which she wore every day to conceal the large bald spot on her crown.

“I’m proud of our stage setting,” Gretchen said to distract them from further dissent. The play, which had been written by her mother, Caroline, took place inside a doll collector’s home, in a room devoted entirely to Barbie dolls and teddy bears. They had found a damaged pink Barbie house and had converted it into display cases, filling it with dolls and bears. The six-foot Barbie had been donated by one of the club members. The overall effect was perfect. At times, Gretchen could suspend belief and actually imagine that she was in one of the club member’s homes.

“When that gun went off, I almost peed in my pants,” Bonnie said.

Julie giggled. Cast as Craig’s long-suffering wife, Doris, Julie came to rehearsal each day dressed for her part. Although Gretchen had insisted that she was perfect already, Julie had dyed her brown hair black and styled it in a messy updo. Heavy makeup and a red cotton sweater with embroidered teddy bears completed the package.

Gretchen felt the tension break as the group of doll collectors took turns stepping down from the stage of the banquet hall, all talking at once. She watched them head for the break area in the next room.

Gretchen went over the play notes her mother had left for her. Without them, she’d be lost. Her spirit brightened as she read. The play was a modern farce with great lines for all the characters. Doris, played by Julie, would accidentally shoot her husband, and the women of the doll club would form a conspiratorial bond in a humorous attempt to cover up the murder.

After working with Bonnie in Craig’s role, Gretchen felt that the end for her, or rather for him, couldn’t come soon enough.

“Oh, no!” Nina rushed toward the stage, where her pampered schnoodle Tutu chomped down on a prop, one of Bonnie’s beloved teddy bears, which she had reluctantly contributed to the stage setting after extracting a solemn promise from all the members that her treasures would return to her private collection without so much as a smudge or wrinkle.

Not a chance of fulfilling that promise with Her Highness running wild.

Tutu leapt off the stage with the bear firmly planted between her canine incisors and circled the large banquet room with Nina in hot pursuit. She finally trapped the pooch in a corner and coaxed her into releasing the stuffed animal.

“Tutu just demonstrated one of the main reasons why we decided to ban pets from rehearsals,” Gretchen reminded her aunt.

“I wasn’t part of that decision,” Nina said, wiping Bonnie’s teddy bear on the hem of her red and white polka- dot sundress. Tutu, always accessorized to complement Nina’s flamboyant attire, had large red and white bows attached to each ear.

“You aren’t a voting member of the club,” Gretchen said. “If you’d ante up and pay your dues like the rest of us, you’d have more say.”

Aunt Nina didn’t “do” dolls, but her unique personality had made her a welcome addition to the club. That was, until recently when her tyrannical behavior indicated that she was on borrowed club time.

Aside from her New Age endeavors, Nina owned a specialty business that catered to those club members who had furry little pets. She’d talked many of them into adopting what she called purse dogs, three- to five-pound miniature dogs. Then she offered training courses to teach the little things to stay put inside their travel purses-and to hide whenever their owners entered no-pet zones like restaurants or supermarkets.

Nina had succeeded in her mission to place pups with as many club members as possible, and she was very good at training them-both the canines and their humans. What she hadn’t done well was train her own dog, Tutu, a miniature diva she had rescued from the animal control center when no one came forward to claim her. Tutu was self-absorbed and completely unteachable. Gretchen didn’t know what Nina saw in the critter.

Nina had even convinced Gretchen herself to adopt Nimrod, a curly coated black teacup poodle.

“Nimrod’s at doggie day care,” Gretchen said, reflecting on her tiny companion, always surprised at how much she missed him when he wasn’t at her side. “That’s where Tutu should be right now.”

The schnoodle stared at Gretchen as though she understood English perfectly. They were at war, the beady

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