"A fool must now and then
be right by chance"

Chapter One

Natalie Joday balanced herself with both 
hands on the arms of the chair and raised 
her feet off the floor. Ignoring the 
resulting wobble, she crossed her legs and 
sat Indian-style on the swivel chair. 
Satisfied with the result, which had the
effect of realigning wrists and keyboard 
at an angle better suited to her long-term 
physical well-being, she pulled herself, 
castors moving unwillingly over the newsroom 
linoleum, snug against the desk. Thus primed 
for action, she addressed the computer:
Police Puzzled by Dollhouse Dilemma
A Hackensack family awoke yesterday morning to find 22 tiny dolls and
pieces of dollhouse furniture dangling from the branches of the crabapple
tree in their front yard, sources at the Bergen County Sheriff's
Department say. Stumped law enforcement investigators are toying with the
idea that it's just a prank undertaken by local youths. But, according to
investigators, the absence of any signs of trespass indicates that care
was taken to hide the identities of the perpetrators. "It's the second
time since January we've seen this scenario played out," says County
Superintendent Sandrine Louden. "We have a lot of serious questions. For
example, why was the plastic poodle in the little refrigerator?"


Natalie turned to the newsroom doors and beheld Ginny Chau, ace Crime
Bureau reporter, dressed uncharacteristically down in a strapless red
dress, sandals, and large-frame sunglasses.

Ginny waved and made her way through the maze of desks and flopped onto a
nearby vinyl chair. "Dja miss me?"

"Ceaselessly," said Natalie. "But you're not due back till after Labor

"This is just a pit stop." Ginny crossed her legs, flashing her golden
toenails. "I'm off to Montreal tomorrow."

Natalie hit save and leaned back. "Did you have a nice vacation?"

"Working holiday." Ginny chucked her handbag into Natalie's in-box. "Which
didn't stop me from having a fine time. To think I never knew Virginia had
a beach!"

"How was the conference?"

"Oh, the usual." Ginny hooked her arms over the back of the chair. "Jaded
Washington insiders being cynical about politics. Seminars by one or two
of the giants--guys who've covered crime since Cain v Abel. Made some
contacts with a few TV producers, talked shop.... Y'know."

Natalie shook her head. "Same ol' same ol'...."

Ginny cast a lazy look around the newsroom. "Nothing much different, here,
either.... Although I saw in yesterday's paper that Star stock dropped four
points while I was gone. Not that I'm implying a connection.... What about
you?" She flipped the sunglasses onto the top of her head, wrecking havoc
with her black bangs. "How did you enjoy your stint in the Crime Bureau?
You sure look at home at my desk...."

"It's my desk till next Tuesday at nine AM, so keep your mitts off it."
Natalie straightened the keyboard. "My computer at home became obsolete
when that graphical Internet browser came out."

"Poor baby. And how did you get along with--" She glanced toward the
cubicles at the far end of the newsroom. "Tyler...?"

"Fine." Natalie removed a twist from the mouse cord. "No problems. Not

"Sure." Ginny stuck her tongue in her cheek.

"I'm serious!" protested Natalie. "He never said a word out of line. Of
course...." She laid a finger against her cheek. "Now that I think of it,
he never actually spoke to me at all...."

"I knew it!" Ginny sat up and uncrossed her legs. "His nose is out of
joint because I suggested you to cover for me. Tch. He's been running the
Crime Bureau with his antiquated ways so long he thinks every story is an
exclusive with his name on it."

"He's only 46...."

"Like I said! Antique! His approach is twenty years out of date!" She
fished in Natalie's candy dish. "His idea of covering a crime is to report
whatever his police contacts tell him. He thinks of a trip to the
Courthouse as being in the field. These days there's plenty to go around
for two reporters--I mean, three. The competition for readership is too
fierce for a paper to cover just the murders and the hold-ups and let the
rest go! There are scads of good juicy felonies going unreported!" She
unwrapped the candy.

"There didn't used to be so much crime in Bergen County," sighed Natalie.
"In my day, my brother and father were the only crooks I knew."

Ginny grinned as she popped the butterscotch into her mouth.

"Oh Miss Hunt!"

Both women's heads turned. A scrawny young man in an orange coverall
leaned against the counter that separated the mailroom from the newsroom.
He held up an envelope and wagged it back and forth. Natalie and Ginny
turned to follow his gaze.

An elderly woman was standing stock-still by the double doors to the hall.
She wore a high-waisted polka-dot dress that accented the hips of her plump
figure. As the young man called out again, she swung her head from side to
side, then turned and looked.

The young man flipped the letter up and down with his forefinger. "One
more for you, Miss Hunt." His little round eyes were open wide, expressive
of an innocent desire to help.

The woman clutched her book bag to her bosom and walked toward him with
the air normally associated with martyrs on their way to the lions.

Ginny spoke out of the side of her mouth. "And here's another example of
what happens when you hire fossils instead of journalists."

Natalie nodded in reluctant agreement. Thanks to her nephew, who sat on
the Board of Directors, Louise Hunt had been taken on as the Star's advice
columnist (Ill at Ease? Ask Louise!) the previous fall. It was an open
secret (thanks to the indiscretions of Rudy, the mailroom clerk) that for
the first three months of her sojourn (and despite the regular appearance
of her weekly 500 word column in the Sunday Star, Life Styles section),
she had not received a single letter. Further, it was widely assumed
(particularly by the writing staffers, wizened past-masters at judging
these delicate matters of "style") that such letters as had arrived
shortly after Rudy let the cat out of the bag had one and all flowed from
the same lugubrious pen.

Rudy showed his teeth as Louise approached. "You get so many letters these
days I just can't keep track of 'em." His tenor voice was audible from end
to end of the suddenly hushed newsroom. He looked at the envelope before
he gave it to her. "River Vale," he said helpfully. It was a standing joke
that Louise spent all her spare time crisscrossing Bergen County to ensure
that the letters she sent herself carried different postmarks.

Louise, cheeks scarlet but head held high, took the letter and mumbled her
thanks. When her back was turned, Rudy clutched his sides and mimed
helpless laughter, then disappeared into his den.

Natalie watched the double doors swinging in Louise's wake. "What a vile
young man." She turned to Ginny. "What's his problem, anyway?"

"Congenital viciousness." Ginny held her butterscotch between her front
teeth. "That said...Louise shouldn't have gotten into this situation in
the first place. Or rather, she shouldn't have been allowed to get into
it. The poor woman can't even type--and yet she's hired to work for a
paper with a circulation of 100,000? This Dickensian management style is

"Oh, I know what you mean, but--there are places for all kinds of
journalism, Ginny. Even the frivolous." Natalie glanced around the busy
newsroom. "Just because you or I don't want to write advice to the
lovelorn doesn't mean there's no place for it. We'd all shrivel up and die
on a steady diet of serious news."

"There's a difference between frivolous and ridiculous. No--don't go all
philosophical on me! Tell me you don't blush whenever you read that
applesauce Louise writes."

Natalie gave a grudging nod.

"Of course you do." Ginny pointed a finger. "You want substance as much as
I do. And if not substance, at least some drama, or something with a little
shock value. Which reminds me--what have I missed? I'm counting on you to
help me catch up on all the latest suburban villainy. Anything really big
hit while I was gone? What are you working on?"

She got up and moved around to Natalie's side of the desk. Leaning both
hands on the ink blotter, she straightened her bronzed arms and peered at
the monitor. She read for a minute, crunching her candy.

She shifted her gaze. "Where do you get these stories?"

Natalie, anchored to the desk with one hand, rocked the chair back and
forth. "Odd-ball, isn't it? There's something about it that struck me.
Somebody went to the extent of drilling little holes in all the dolls so
they could be hung by those little Christmas ornament hooks. I think the
story has legs...."

"You do. Unh hunh. I see." Ginny glanced downwards. "Do you have your feet
on my chair?"


An hour later, Natalie fired the dollhouse piece off to the summer editor,
who changed the title (to "Police Perplexed by...."), cut an adjective, cut
a line about the history of dollhouses, and approved it (Local News, page

Natalie glanced at her watch as she waited for confirmation that typeset
had received the approved version: 1:15 PM. An hour before deadline. She
might just pay a quick visit to the mega-toystore down the street and
check out their dollhouse furnishings. Get a feel for what was
available.... The "Thank You for Filing" icon flashed on her monitor, and
she logged off the Network with fingers accustomed to the task. She shoved
her notebook into her briefcase, switched off the computer, and headed for
the exit.

Her mind preoccupied with visions of miniature kitchen appliances, she
barreled through the double doors and straight into Louise, who staggered
back, waving her arms.

Natalie moved quickly forward to lend a steadying hand. "Jeez! Louise! I'm

"Oh no...it's my own silly fault." Louise slid out from under Natalie's
grip. "Stupid of me to be standing so near a door...."

"Are you okay? Did I hit you...?"

"I'm fine...." She touched a wrinkled hand to her hair.

"I'm so sorry!" Natalie looked Louise over anxiously. "Are you on your way
out? Can I give you a lift?"

Louise looked down the hallway. "No...I'm not on my way out."

"Of course...." Natalie smiled foolishly. It had been an hour since she
had seen Louise leave. "Did you come back for something?"

Louise glanced up the stairs. "No, no, I wasn't coming back...."

Natalie's smile grew fatuous. Louise's problem expressing herself was not
limited to print media. "Well, I guess I'd better be going and let you go
do...whatever you're doing."

Louise's eyes wandered to Natalie's face. They were large, brown eyes,
filled with trepidation. "May I speak with you a moment, Natalie?"

Natalie shifted her briefcase from one hand to the other. She really
wanted get to that toystore.... "Well...gee, what about?"

The doors burst open and a summer intern appeared carrying a bundle of
files. She glanced at them, then clattered up the stairs.

"I know we don't really know each other...." Louise lowered her eyes.
"But--you are so intelligent, and so tactful, too. I admired the way you
handled yourself in the Dow murder investigation last spring. So
sensitive.... I promise not to take up too much of your time. I've been
waiting here hoping--"

"Here? In the hall? Louise!" Natalie looked around in dismay: there wasn't
even a place to sit. "Why didn't you just call me on the interoffice line?"

"I didn't think of that." Louise's round bosom rose and fell. "That's just
it--I'm not good at analyzing a problem and coming up with a plan of
action. I just do the first thing that comes into my head." She looked at
Natalie timidly. "Are you angry...?"

"Of course I'm not angry! I'm just...." Natalie groped for an adequate
descriptor. "Confused.... What do you want to talk about?"

Louise's soft brown eyes widened to the maximum and then blinked.
"Something odd has happened, and, although it may be embarrassing for
me--professionally--I know I can't handle it on my own anymore."

Curiosity kindled in Natalie's heart and burst into flame. She took a step
closer to Louise, and lowered her voice. "What is it?"

Louise moved closer, too, and placed her fingers on Natalie's arm.
"Someone's been writing me letters!"
(end of excerpt)

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