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Einar Rasmussen Jr. was angry. The deep grooves in his face that reminded me of cedar bark were twisted, and the agate-blue eyes never blinked.
"So Miss Steinmetz told me to be here by noon," Einar Jr. growled, planting both fists on my desk. "It's twelve-fifteen. I've been waiting for her out front, but nobody's there."
Unseen by Einar Jr., a small child sat on my feet. "CarlaMs. Steinmetzleft before eleven to do a story on a new restaurant," I explained, trying to keep my patience along with my composure. The child was bouncing up and down. "She should be back any minute."
The agate eyes narrowed. "A new restaurant? So you mean that harebrained scheme the Bourgette kids came up with?"
I nodded. "Dan and John. They want to build a Fifties-style diner where the old warehouse burned down by the railroad tracks."
"Dumb," Einar Jr. declared. "Alpine doesn't need a new restaurant. My son, Beau, would never come up with such a harebrained scheme. When it comes to business, those Bourgette kids haven't got the sense to pour sand down a rat hole."
I didn't know the Bourgette kidswho were actually thirty-somethingwell enough to assess their business acumen. But then I didn't know Einar Rasmussen Jr. much better, and I'd never met his son, Beau.
"It's different here now with the college," I countered as little Brad Erlandson started to squeak like a rubber duck. "Alpine's no longer just a stagnant mill town. You ought to know. You've had a big hand in helping build the new community college."
The flattery wasn't intentional, which was just as well, because Einar Jr. scoffed. "Bull. A few underpaid faculty members and a bunch of hard-up students can't support new restaurants." Einar Jr. scowled, the hard blue gaze raking my little cubbyhole of an office. "What's that noise? It sounds like a pig's loose in here."
I reached under the desk and tried to budge one-year-old Brad. "It's Ginny Burmeister's boy," I explained, gritting my teeth as Brad offered resistance. "Ginny Burmeister Erlandson, that is. Our office manager."
"So I wouldn't think an office would be the place
for little kids." Einar Jr. smacked one fist into the other. "What are you running here? A newspaper or a baby-sitting service?"
Einar Jr. had pushed too far. "Look," I said, finally getting little Brad to remove himself from my feet, "I don't need advice on how to run The Alpine Advocate. Would I try to tell you how to run your trucking business? If you don't want your picture taken in front of the Rasmussen Union Building at the college, just say so. When I need an outside consultant, I'll take out an ad in The Advocate's classifieds."
At last Einar Jr. blinked. "Okay, okay, Mrs. Lordyou don't have to get ornery with me. So I'm leaving. If your inconsiderate reporter ever shows up, let me know."
"I will. She will. Have a nice day. And," I added in an uncharacteristic display of waspishness, "it's Ms. Lord. I've never been married."
"I don't doubt it," Einar Jr. shot back. "Who'd have you?"
In my youth, there would have been a dictionary at hand to throw at Einar Jr.'s infuriating head. But in the computer age, there was only software. As with so many other aspects of life, high tech had sucked the drama out of human emotions.
It was probably a good thing. As the editor and publisher of The Alpine Advocate, I had no reputation as a prima donna. But Einar Rasmussen Jr. had pushed the wrong buttons; Carla might be a flake, but she was my flake. Einar Jr. ought to stick to supervising his fleet of eighteen-wheelers.
Getting little Brad out from under the desk proved hopeless. I had just unwrapped the tuna-salad sandwich I'd made at home when the phone rang. My former ad manager, Ed Bronsky, assaulted my ear with a jumble of words that I didn't quite catch. "Sorry, Ed," I interrupted, "would you mind going over that one more"
Ed was exasperated. "Emma, have you got a bad connection down there at The Advocate? I repeat, Shirley and I are getting an opergirl, and we want you to meet her."
"That's what I thought you said, and I don't know what you're talking about. What's an opergirl?" I winced as
little Brad tickled my legs and started to giggle.
A heavy sigh rolled over the line from Ed and Shirley's so-called villa above the railroad tracks. "A live-in, a helper, a ..." Another sigh followed, shorter and conveying frustration. "It's spelled A-U space P-A-I-R. I think it's French, but she's a Swede."
"Oh. An au pair girl." I pronounced the term as well as two years of French class at Blanchet High School in Seattle would allow.
"Right, right," Ed said impatiently, "you got it. She gets here tomorrow, Tuesday, and Shirl and I are giving a little party up here at Casa de Bronska. Friday, May sixteenth, eight o'clock. You and Vida and Leo and Carla and everybody else at the paper are invited. Tell Ginny to bring her husband and their little boy. We'll have a big spread."
The biggest spread at Casa de Bronska was Ed himself, but naturally I kept that thought to myself. Maybe my mean-mindedness was caused by envy at Ed's soft life since inheriting money from an aunt in Iowa. Or perhaps it was little Brad, now shinnying up and down my legs and threatening to bump his head on the underside of my desk. With the boy toddling at my side, I went into the news office, and expressed my annoyance to our current ad manager, Leo Walsh, who had just returned from making his Monday-morning rounds.
"Is Ed as big a dim bulb as I think he is or am I crabby these days?" I asked of Leo.
"Ed's a dim bulb, all right," Leo agreed, his weathered features amused. "On the other hand, you may be crabby because you haven't gotten laid lately."
"That's a really rotten thing to say," I retorted, flashing angry eyes at Ed's successor. "Besideshow do you know?"
Leo shrugged. "Ever since you and the Sheriff broke up last fall, I haven't seen you hanging out around Alpine's hot spots with any other guys."
"There are no hot spots in Alpine," I said with a straight face. That much was truein our small moun-
tain aerie in the Cascades, nightlife generally consists
of unemployed loggers dumping pitchers of beer over each other's heads at the Icicle Creek Tavern. "Where's Carla?" I asked, changing the subject. "She was supposed to meet Einar Rasmussen, Jr., here at noon for a photo shoot out at the college."
Leo shrugged. "I haven't seen her since I left around nine-thirty."
"Where's Ginny?" I demanded as Brad suddenly decided walking wasn't such a good idea after all and began crawling around on all fours.
"It is the lunch hour, boss lady," Leo replied. "She probably went over to the Burger Barn."
"She shouldn't have left Brad," I complained as the boy crawled under Carla's desk. "Ginny is usually so responsible. What if I weren't here? What if you weren't here?"
"But we are," Leo said reasonably, then pulled out his wallet. "Are you seeking male companionship? Bright lights? Fusion cuisine in a sophisticated setting? Look. I got five of six numbers in the lottery Saturday night. Want to drive into Seattle and have dinner this weekend?"
"Wow!" I was impressed. "How much?"
"Six hundred and forty-seven bucks," Leo replied, fingering a half-dozen Big Bens. "What do you say?"
While occasionally Leo and I fraternize in a platonic sort of way, his offer sounded suspiciously like a date. "Why me? Why not Delphine?" I asked, referring to his off-and-on-again girlfriend, who happened to be the local florist.
Leo wrinkled his broad nose. "We don't do it for each other anymore. To tell the truth, I think she's stalking one of the construction workers out at the college."
"Well." I fingered my chin. Invitations to big-name
city restaurants didn't come along very often. In fact, invitations of any kindexcept for Ed's, which somehow didn't countwere as rare as an environmentalist at the Icicle Creek Tavern. "Okay," I said, diving after Brad, who was trying to pull a desk drawer onto his head, "why not? I haven't been into Seattle for a couple of months."
"Five months." Leo had stood up, stretching and ironing out the kinks in his broad back.
"What?" I stared. "Are you keeping score?"
"Yeah, I am." Leo grinned and ran a hand through his graying auburn hair. "I was only partly kidding when I made that crack about your sex life. You've been spending too much time alone lately, babe."
I despised the nickname, and Leo knew it, but obviously didn't care. "So you're taking it upon yourself to save me from myself?" I asked, my tone rather stiff.
"Something like that. Hey," he continued, leaning on his cluttered desk, "a while back you were worrying about me, remember? I let you. Now it's my turn."
I had indeed fussed about Leo's temporary withdrawal almost two summers earlier, and had wondered if he'd started drinking again. But my ad manager had merely been going through an introspective phase. The life he'd left behind in California looked better from a distance, was better, in the sense that he had reconciled himself to his ex-wife's remarriage and resumed speaking to his children.
"Okay," I finally said, pulling little Brad out of Carla's wastebasket. "Saturday it is. But don't forget, you're invited to Ed and Shirley's soiree Friday."
Gazing through one of the small windows that looked out onto Front Street, Leo sighed. "How can I forget? Nobody can forget Ed. Though we try." He sighed again.
My House & Home editor, Vida Runkel, was neither surprised nor dismayed when I told her about Ed's invitation. "I heard he and Shirley had sent for an au pair," she said, shrugging out of her new orange raincoat. "Frankly, I didn't think they'd get one. Whatever is the point except that the Bronskys want to show off?"
I had no explanation. The oldest of the five Bronsky children was now attending Skykomish Community College; the youngest was an eighth-grader at St. Mildred's Parochial School. "Maybe," I ventured, "Shirley needs help with that big barn of a house."
"Then she should hire a housekeeper, not an au pair." Vida sniffed. "Of course Shirley did hire at least three housekeepers, including Frieda Wunderlich, who told me it was utterly useless to clean the Bronsky house. They litter, like vagabonds. Food, clothes, appliancesthey simply drop them as they walkor waddle, as is the case with Ed."
"Maybe she won't stay," I remarked, checking Carla's computer screen to see what she was working on for the weekly issue due out in two days. The screen was blank. "Damn it," I groused, "Carla and Ginny have both been gone far too long! Little Brad's asleep under my desk. What's going on around here?"
Vida peered at me over the orange rims of her big glasses. She had recently acquired new bifocals, and replaced her tortoiseshell frames with a shade that matched her raincoat. I still wasn't used to the change.
"Something's afoot," Vida said in an undertone, though no one else was in the news office. "Ginny and Carla had their heads together earlier this morning. Buzz-buzz, whisper-whisper. I couldn't believe they wouldn't tell me what they were talking about."
Neither could I. There was scarcely a soul in Alpine who didn't divulge the darkest of secrets to Vida Run-
kel. She knew everyone, she was related to many of them, she hardly ever missed a morsel of news. If Vida had worked for the CIA, no foreign power's secrets would have been safe.
To prove the point, Vida pounced when Ginny and Carla entered the office ten seconds later. "Well?" my House & Home editor demanded, fists on broad hips and formidable bust thrust forward. "Where in the world have you two been? It's almost one-thirty."
"I'm sorry, I'm really sorry," Ginny Erlandson said, wringing her thin hands. "Is Brad okay?" She turned in every direction, her glorious red hair spraying around her shoulders.
"Brad's napping," I said, gesturing toward my office at the rear of the newsroom. "He's fine, but he'll be hungry when he wakes up."
My office manager rushed to check on her son. Carla, however, strolled to her desk without looking at Vida
or me. "Was I supposed to get those Rasmussen Union Building pictures today?" she asked in a detached voice.
"You sure were," I responded, waving a finger at her. "Einar Rasmussen Jr. waited around here for twenty minutes and left in a huff. He said you had a noon appointment here."
Carla glanced at her calendar. "No, I didn't. It's tomorrow, the twelfth."
"This is the twelfth," I shot back. "Monday. You must have written it down wrong."
"Big deal. There's plenty of time. The dedication section isn't due out for over a week." With a languid air, Carla sat down.
I started to respond, but Vida interrupted: "What have you and Ginny been up to? It couldn't have taken you almost three hours to interview the Bourgette boys. Why would you need Ginny to go with you? It seems more likely that the two of you were out shopping at the mall or ate a very long lunch. No one takes more than an hour break at The Advocate. Isn't that right, Emma?" The latter comment was clearly an afterthought. Sometimes Vida has trouble remembering who is in charge. Sometimes
I do, too. At sixty-plus, Vida not only can spot me by twenty years, but she has seniority on the newspaper, having been employed for almost two decades by the previous owner, Marius Vandeventer.
I nodded. "It tends to leave the rest of us in the lurch, especially with Ginny bringing Brad to work most of the time." As the boy began to walk and grow more active, I was beginning to think that my original offer of on-premise child care was a bad idea.
"That's it." Carla's pretty face brightened. "We were checking out day care. Ginny thinks it may be time to find a nice place for Brad."
Vida scowled. "Goodness, but you're a poor liar, Carla. You know perfectly well that Ginny's sister-in-law, Donna Wickstrom, has always said she'd take Brad in. Now, where were you?"
Carla's olive skin flushed and she hid behind her long, black hair. "It's a secret." One eye peeked out between the dark tresses.
"Nonsense!" There were no secrets in Vida's world. "Come, come, what's going on?"
Slowly, Carla brushed the hair from her face and made an attempt to stare down Vida. "I mean it. Honestly. I can't sayyet."
"Yet?" Vida's scowl deepened.
Carla shook her head. "I really, really can't. Wait until this weekend."
The sigh that Vida uttered could have blown down a small sapling. "Carla! I'm ashamed of you!"
Ginny was tiptoeing out of my office. She was Bradless, so I assumed the child was still sleeping. "It's true," our office manager put in. "Carla can't say anything just yet. But it's nothing bad."
It seemed to me that Vida looked faintly disappointed. "Well, now. Then I suppose we'll have to wait." She drummed her short fingernails on the desktop. "When, this weekend?"
Carla and Ginny exchanged quick glances. "Sun-
day?" Carla finally said. "We'll drop by your house in the
Mention of the weekend reminded me of Ed's phone call. As soon as Vida indicated she was partially appeased, I relayed the invitation. Ginny said she'd have to check with her husband, Rick; Carla hemmed and ha
"Ohthe RUB," I echoed, using the acronym for the student-union building named to honor Einar Rasmussen Jr.'s financial contributions to the community college. The dedication was set for Sunday, May 25. Our special section would be published Wednesday, May 21. The scheduling was awkward, because it meant we had to postpone our Memorial Day edition until after the legal holiday, but at least it would come out before the historical date, May 30. "Leo figures he can sell enough advertising for a four-page pullout," I said. "How much space can you fill with photos and text?"
For once, Carla seemed more at ease discussing business than personal matters. "I've got plenty of photos. I've been taking them ever since construction started. I ran into Mr. Rasmussen on campus last week to set up a photo of him in front of the completed union building. Now I suppose I'll have to reschedule." She sighed, the soul of self-sacrifice. "This is such a pain. I can't find his number in the phone book."
"He doesn't live here," Vida said with a faint sneer. "Einar Rasmussen Jr. lives off the highway on the river, between Grotto and Skykomish." The distance from town was less than ten miles, but Vida's disparaging manner indicated that Einar Jr. might as well reside in the Florida Keys. Though I had lived in Alpine for seven years, I still marveled at the natives' insular attitude.
I literally inserted myself between Carla and Vida by standing in the middle of the news office. "Einar Rasmussen Jr. is originally from Snohomish," I explained to Carla, though it seemed that I'd already imparted the background information to her a week or more ago, "but he and his father, Einar Sr., have always had ties with both Snohomish and Skykomish counties. Until about eight years ago they owned a sawmill on the site where Einar Jr. built his house."
"It was nine years ago when the mill shut down, before you came to Alpine, Emma," Vida put in, with the usual implication that I was completely ignorant of the town's history before I moved in. "And don't forget Harold."
"Yes ... ah ... Harold." I had forgotten Harold, and my puzzled expression must have conveyed the oversight.
"Harold," Vida intoned, "is Einar Jr.'s older brother. Harold lives between Monroe and Sultan. Harold has rather peculiar habits."
The Rasmussens, it seemed, covered the route along Highway 2. "Such as?" I inquired.
"He drinks." Vida's face was wreathed in staunch Presbyterian disapproval. "Some people blame his condition on his brother. Very silly of them, of course. I doubt that Einar Jr. opens the bottles and pours the liquor for Harold."
I doubted that, too, but it wasn't Harold Rasmussen who had made generous donations to the college build-
ing fund. Until today, I had met Einar Jr. only once or twice; the rest of the family was unknown to me, except as a leitmotif in the history of Snohomish and Skykomish counties.
"Okay," Carla said, still lacking enthusiasm, "I'll look for Einar Rasmussen Jr. in the directory's Skykomish section. I still think the photo session was for tomorrow. He got mixed up."
It was pointless to argue. Though Carla was often wrong, she seldom admitted it. But that was typical of many people, including me.
Vida had turned away and was going through her in-basket. "I need 'Scene' items," she announced without looking up.
"Scene Around Town" was Vida's weekly collection of local human interest, a kind of gossip column that was probably the best-read part of the paper. While Vida's eagle eye usually provided most of the snippets, she relied on the rest of us for help. I'd never been certain if she really needed our input or if she was checking to make sure she hadn't missed anything.
Leo had just come through the door. "Cal Vickers is going to add a new line of tires at the Texaco station," our ad manager offered.
Vida gave a single nod, but didn't make a note. She never writes anything down; it all goes into her brain and sticks, like some cerebral bulletin board.
Ginny, who had finished feeding Brad, came in to check the coffeepot. "Carla talked to Dan and John Bourgette. They really are serious about building a restaurant where the old warehouse burned down last fall."
"That's a front-page story, not a 'Scene' item," I pointed out. "A new restaurant would be big news in this town. Carla, what did the Bourgettes tell you?"
"Not much," Carla said absently. "They're still involved in figuring out who holds the title."
"Keep on it," I urged, trying to come up with something for the gossip column. "Father Den traded in his eighty-five Honda for a ninety-four model," I said, starting to head back to my office. "I saw it Sunday at Mass. It's blue."
Vida nodded again. Having made my contribution, I turned away, but Carla caught me up short.
"I've got one, Vida. I'm pregnant. Does that count?"
I whirled around, Leo fell rather than sat in his chair, Ginny stifled a giggle, and Vida looked up so fast that
she knocked her tan beret askew. "You're what?" she shrieked.
Carla let out an exasperated sigh. "You heard me. I'm pregnant. Ginny knows. The baby's due in December."
Vida's eyes were bulging. "That's your news? Why didn't you say so?"
But Carla shook her head, the long black hair sweeping around her shoulders. "That's not my news. I mean, it's not what I have to tell you this weekend. But maybe it's not right for 'Scene.' You usually don't put baby stuff in the column until after they get here, right? You know'Sally So-and-so seen pushing her newborn along Railroad Avenue in a red-and-white-striped stroller.'"
"Well ... I ..." For once, Vida was flummoxed. "Carla!" My House & Home editor put a hand to her heaving bosom. "Really, I don't know what to say!"
Carla shrugged. "Then don't use it. I know the staff isn't supposed to be mentioned unless it's something really wild."
"This," I said, moving slowly but deliberately toward Carla, "qualifies as wild. Not," I added hastily, "in a bad way." After all, I had borne my only son out of wedlock. "How do you feel?"
"About what?" Carla gave me a puzzled look.
"In general. Physically." I waved a hand in an agitated manner. "You knowremember how sick Ginny was the first few months when she was expecting little Brad?"
"I feel fine." Carla continued to look at me as if I were the one who was acting strangely. "I dialed Einar Rasmussen's number, but nobody answered. How come they don't have a machine?"
The change of subject indicated that Carla had told us as much as we were going to hear. For now. Even Vida held back, sitting up straight and adjusting her beret.
"The Rasmussensthe junior Rasmussens" Vida began, "don't need a machine, because there's always someone home. I suspect they either didn't hear the phone or they chose not to pick it up."
"What do you mean?" I asked, turning my gaze to Vida. "Why are they always home? I thought Einar Jr. was a busy man."
"He is," Vida responded, taking a sip of the ice water she always kept at hand. "I wasn't referring to him. I meant his wife, Marlys, and their son, Beau." She gave me her gimlet eye. "Surely you've heard people around here say, 'Do you know Beau?'and chuckle."
If I'd ever heard the phrase, I didn't remember it. But I had heard of Marlys, and was aware of their son, Beau. They also had a daughter, as I recalled. "I don't get it," I confessed.
With a sigh, Vida put one fist on her hip and enlightened me. "Marlys Rasmussen is rather odd. I understand that one of the reasons they built the house along the river was because Marlys didn't like being around other people. She wanted to move out of Snohomish to someplace where the neighbors weren't so close. She appears for certain
social occasions, but I must say, she usually acts like a robot. A pity, too, because on one of the rare occasions that I've seen her, she actually smiled, and it simply turned her into a different person. You must wonder what makes a woman so withdrawn and unhappy."
It wasn't surprising that I'd never met Marlys Rasmussen. "What about Beau?" I inquired.
"You tell me," Vida said in a huffy voice. "To my knowledge, no one has seen Beau in years. Yet his father refers to him constantly. Beau this, Beau thatwhich is why people ask, 'Do you know Beau?' It's a catchphrase, suggesting something elusive."
"It sounds more reclusive than elusive," I murmured.
"It sounds like a bunch of nuts," Leo asserted.
"Now, now," Vida demurred, with a wave of one finger. "The Rasmussens are merely different, perhaps a bit eccentric. I must admit, I don't know the family that well. As I mentioned, they've never actually lived in Alpine." Her disparaging manner suggested that the family fed small children to circus animals.
Carla was back on the phone, perhaps trying to reach the Rasmussens. Leo had turned to his computer, and Vida, who wouldn't have surrendered her battered manual typewriter for a one-on-one software seminar with Bill Gates, began rattling the keys with her two-finger touch system. I retreated into my office to finish the latest logging-crisis story. The afternoon wound down, its soft spring sunlight filtering through my little window. The occasional rumble of a truck or a train passing through reminded me that there was life outside of The Advocate's four walls.
Shortly before four-thirty, I'd just finished conferring with Carla and Kip MacDuff, our back-shop manager, when Vida hurtled into my office.
"Honestly!" she exclaimed. "I thought Carla would never leave! She finally went out to the back shop with Kip. Now, what is this baby business? Is it that college dean?"
"It must be," I responded. "She's been going with Ryan Talliaferro for a year."
Vida began to pace in her splayfooted manner. "Are they living together?"
"I don't know." I felt like adding, How should I, when you don't? "As far as I know, Carla hasn't had a roommate since Marilynn Lewis left town to get married to
Vida gave a brief nod. "That was last fall," she said,
referring to the nuptials between Peyton Flake, M.D.,
and his nurse. Flake was Caucasian, and Marilynn was African-American. While both had courage to spare, they had felt that their interracial union stood a much better chance of survival in a more cosmopolitan environment. Yet the timing of their departure seemed somewhat ironic: since the college opened the previous year, Alpine was becoming increasingly, if somewhat microscopically, more integrated.
"That's the trouble," Vida groused, "with you assigning so much of the campus coverage to Carla. I really don't know as much as I should about these newcomers. Goodness, I'm not sure where Dean Talliaferro lives! For all I know, he could have moved in with Carla. Tsk, tsk."
I assumed the tsk-tsks were not aimed at the couple's illicit merger, but at their lack of communication with Vida. "I've dropped by Carla's a couple of times the past few months," I said, "but I didn't notice if there was any sign of him living there."
Vida shot me a disparaging look. "That's the problemso few people notice. Really, Emma, I expect better of you."
I let the remark pass. "So what's Carla's big news?"
"Oh, that!" Vida waved a dismissive hand. "Now that she's told us she's pregnant, I can guess. She and Dean Talliaferro no doubt are getting married. Such a letdown! And how like Carla to do things backward!"
That much was true. Carla often wrote her news stories backward, paying no attention to whether the pyramid was inverted or not. The who-what-when-where-and-why of the classic newspaper lead might get buried in various parts of the story or show up in the last paragraph. Despite a degree from the University of Washington's school of communications and six years of experience, my reporter's professional lapses still appalled me. She was, however, an excellent photographer, which, along with my wishy-washy managerial tendencies, kept her safely employed.
Yet it occurred to me that if Carla was going to have a baby before the year was out, I'd need some fill-in help while she took maternity leave. "An intern," I muttered.
"An intern?" Vida scowled. "We don't need an intern, we need a full-fledged GP. Poor Doc Deweyhe's working himself into the ground since Peyton Flake left."
"I meant an intern for here, while Carla's having the baby. You know," I clarified, "maybe someone from the college. It would only be for a few weeks."
"Oh." Vida made a face. "I thought you were referring to our current shortage of medical personnel. Do you know that Grace Grundle has to wait four weeks to get her bunions off?"
I didn't know, nor did I care. The search for a qualified physician had gone on too long, however. Only the previous week I'd written yet another editorial about the county health department's foot-dragging. Until the influx of college students, Alpine and its environs had one of the oldest populations in the state. Between the longevity of its many Scandinavian residents and the migration of young people to the city, the average age in Skykomish County was almost five years older than that of other, larger counties. But for all my carping in The Advocate, Alpine still remained a one-doc town.
If I was temporarily disinterested in the current medical crisis, Vida wasn't concerned about a replacement for Carla. "Plenty of time to worry about that," she said. "For now, we must concentrate on this baby business. Why don't you come over to dinner tonight at my house? I'll fix a nice casserole."
Like most of her cooking, Vida's casseroles were a mixed bag. In fact, they tasted more like she'd used a paper bag as part of the ingredients. "Don't go to the trouble," I said hastily. "We can eat at the Venison Inn."
"Well ..." Vida fingered her chin. "I do have some
errands to run after work. Why don't I meet you there a little before six? We'll avoid the rush."
The rush in Alpine is always a relative term. What Vida really meant was that she wanted to make sure she got a window table so she could keep her eye on the passing parade down Front Street.
"Okay," I agreed. "I'll stick around here and get caught up on a few things."
By five, everyone else had gone home. By five-thirty, I finished going through the handouts and news releases that had piled up in my in-basket. Turning out the lights and locking up, I stepped cautiously onto the sidewalk. I would never admit it, but every time I left the office, I checked to make sure that Milo Dodge wasn't in sight. Maybe that was why I was eating lunch in so much these days. I didn't want to see him, not because I hated him, but because he didn't want to see me.
Strange, I thought, glancing the two blocks down Front Street to the Sheriff's office, how we had agreed to stay friends when we broke up. But maybe not so strange that Milo hadn't been able to keep the promise. It was my idea to stop seeing each other. He had reacted much more bitterly than I'd expected. Maybe he'd cared more than I'd ever guessed. It would have been nice if he'd told me so along the way.
There was no sign of his Cherokee Chief parked in front of the Sheriff's office. I assumed he'd gone home to his TV dinner and his baseball game. I didn't want to think about Milo sitting in front of the set and eating Swanson's Hungry-Man frozen chicken.
I didn't want to think about Milo at all.
But I did.