It was never hard to infuriate The Alpine Advocate readers. Even my mildest editorials could earn me such epithets as pinko, nazi, or psycho slut. But this time I’d gone too far. Without writing a single word, I’d managed to offend one of our business associates.
Buddy Bayard’s photo studio had done our darkroom work for years. Unfortunately, technology had caught up with him. After Buddy cussed me out over the phone and damned progress as well, my ears were still ringing.
Sitting at my desk, I looked up at my reporter, Scott Chamoud. “I warned you,” I said, “he’d be furious.”
Scott’s dark eyes—sable, I called them, the kind a woman could feel caressing her like the richest of furs—looked sad. “Maybe,” he lamented, “I should never have suggested that we update our photography process. But Kip MacDuff thought it was a terrific idea, and said he could handle it. Kip’s a real wizard when it comes to high-tech stuff, and you said there was enough in the budget . . .”
I waved a hand at him. “Stop fussing. It didn’t make sense to keep farming the work out. It slowed us down. In the long run, we’ll save money. And we can run more color. It isn’t as if Buddy can’t make a living without us.”
“Ha!” The shout came from Vida Runkel, my House & Home editor, who had just tromped up beside Scott. “Buddy and Roseanna overcharge anyway. Do you have any idea what it cost for Roger to have his graduation picture taken there last month?”
If I’d been Buddy, I’d have paid Vida’s grandson to go out of town for his photo session. Seattle, New York, London, Bombay—anywhere to put some serious distance between the obnoxious teenager and Alpine.
“Buddy will simmer down,” I declared, though in recent years his once-amiable disposition had soured a bit. “Today’s November first, All Saints’ Day. I’m going to seven o’clock evening Mass. He and Roseanna may be there, too. I’ll see if I can get Ben to soothe them.”
“An able ally, your brother,” Vida murmured. She flashed her toothy smile. “Really, Emma, I’m pleased that he’s taking Father Kelly’s place for six months. You’re much more like your old self since Ben arrived in Alpine on the first of October.”
My brother had finished his missionary assignment in Tuba City, Arizona. He hadn’t quite reached burnout stage, but knew from his previous experience on the Mississippi Delta that he was due for a change. Still, his departure had been wrenching, not only for him, but for the entire community. He’d grown very close to his Navajo and Hopi parishioners. Indeed, Ben had confided that after over thirty years in the southern part of the United States, what he really yearned for was more temperate weather.
Temperate is a relative term, of course. Seattle is temperate. Alpine is more variable. At almost three thousand feet above sea level, the mountain town gets more rain, more wind, more snow. But November was starting off with mild temperatures and hints of sun. I needed only a light jacket when I left my little log house to head for St. Mildred’s.
Father Dennis Kelly’s last contribution before leaving on sabbatical was a paint job for the church’s simple wooden exterior. The building had been white since it was built more than seventy years ago. Father Den had decided that the color wasn’t practical, and after wrangling with the parish council, he had won the argument. Our church’s exterior was now a deep navy with light blue and white trim. I liked it.
My brother was on the front porch, greeting members of his new congregation. Ben is two years older, seven inches taller, fifty pounds heavier, and a whole lot wiser than I am. I smiled as I watched him shake hands with Deputy Jack Mullins and his wife, Nina.
I waited for Clancy and Debra Barton to have a word with Ben before I approached him and Mary Jane Bourgette, who was scheduled to be the lector for the first two Scripture readings.
“Any sign of the Bayards yet?” I asked.
Ben made an adjustment to his white vestments. “They came to eight o’clock, you lazy twit.”
“So the early twit gets to heaven?” I retorted. “You know damned well I had to be at the office by eight. Don’t call me lazy.”
Ben chuckled; so did Mary Jane. “Actually, Buddy and Roseanna had to leave for Seattle around noon to pick up his mother at the airport. She flew in from Spokane and wanted to spend a long weekend with them in the city. I guess she lived in Seattle for several years before she moved across the mountains.”
Mary Jane’s pretty, dark face wore a curious expression. “I didn’t know Buddy had a mother. She must have lived here before Dick and I arrived.”
The Bourgettes and some of their numerous progeny had moved to Alpine several years ago. Dick owned a construction firm, and at least three of their children had made careers for themselves in town. Along with Mary Jane’s involvement in church and civic activities, the family was a welcome addition to the local scene.
“I never met Mrs. Bayard,” I remarked, nodding at pizzeria owner Pete Patricelli. “Or Mr. Bayard, either.”
Mary Jane shrugged and patted Ben on the arm. “Short. Keep the homily short. I have to tape a TV program at eight for Dick. He’s out of town on a job.”
Seeing my former ad manager, Ed Bronsky, and his wife, Shirley, arriving in their Mercedes, I hustled inside. Years ago, Ed had inherited money. Last winter, he had toyed with the idea of running for mayor in the September off-year election against the longtime incumbent, Fuzzy Baugh. Along about June, Ed discovered he’d have to spend money and exert himself to woo voters. “Golly darn,” he’d said to me, “I put in my time making nice with advertisers. I just can’t see myself working hard to win an election.”
Neither could I, especially the part about “working hard,” a concept with which Ed was unfamiliar. He was currently slogging away on a sequel to his self-published life story, and had been nagging me to help with the manuscript. I’d been pestered to pieces by his requests on the first book, eventually feeling as if I’d rewritten the thing. At least I could spell and punctuate. But Ed then had to edit my work, resulting in a mishmash of turgid prose and about five hundred exclamation marks. This time around, I knew my Christian charity would flee at the sight of the word preface.
I sat down next to Jack and Nina Mullins.
Nina leaned across Jack. “Your brother is such a good-looking man. I was so afraid we’d get some crazy old coot to sub for Father Den. You know, with the priest shortage.”
My response was cut short by Annie Jeanne Dupré’s heavy-handed pounding on the organ. Annie Jeanne was a longtime fixture at St. Mildred’s despite her lack of musical talent. She sounded as if she was playing with mittens. But she was a good soul, and had signed on as the parish housekeeper a few years back. The job had enabled her to move out of the old ramshackle family home, which had gotten too difficult for her to maintain. Ben said she cooked better than she played.
However, I invited Ben to dinner whenever he was free, which wasn’t often. Invitation or not, he knew he was always welcome, even if dropping in would get him a hot dog, potato chips, and some store-bought pickles.
Because of the holy day, the rest of Thursday night was open for my brother. By the time Ben came out of the rectory in his civvies, I was starved.
“You shouldn’t have waited,” Ben said in his crackling voice. “I’ll drive my own car.”
“That’s a car?” I shot back, pointing to the beat-up Jeep Wrangler parked in the pastor’s slot. “What did you do with that thing in Arizona? Play war games?”
Ben grinned. “You’ve seen the roads down there. What you haven’t seen are the dirt tracks. See you.” He got into the Jeep and zipped out of the parking lot before I could open the door to my Honda.
I took my time. My brother is not a good driver. He goes too fast and takes too many chances. Ironically, he didn’t start out that way. Unlike many teenagers, Ben had been cautious and considerate. Of course, he’d also been in the seminary for part of his youth, but it was only after our parents were killed in an auto accident that Ben began to exhibit a more aggressive, reckless style behind the wheel. He’d just been ordained, and I wondered if his driving was an outlet for the suppressed anger he felt for Mom and Dad’s untimely deaths. Sometimes I thought that he was subconsciously seeking revenge. In any event, he certainly hadn’t improved with age. But I attributed some of that to the roads less traveled in Mississippi and Arizona. My brother simply wasn’t used to driving in towns, let alone big cities.
As usual, Ben somehow managed to get to my house in one piece. I had visions of his guardian angel in the heavenly weight room, working out on a half-dozen apparatuses at once. That angel needed to keep in tip-top shape to keep up with Ben’s driving.
“What’s for dinner?” Ben called from the front porch as I came around from the carport.
“Shish kebabs,” I replied, “with very good beef from the Grocery Basket. Jake and Betsy O’Toole don’t skimp when they buy meat for their store.”
“They were at eight o’clock Mass this morning,” Ben noted as I unlocked the door. “One thing about Alpine, it doesn’t take long to get acquainted with my flock.”
“For better or for worse,” I said, hanging my new red wool jacket in the front closet, “that’s the way it is in a small town. It’s different in the city. When I went to work for The Oregonian in Portland, I needed to recognize only the people I met on my city desk beat. But in the first week I was here, I had to memorize about a hundred names and faces—literally. A journalist has to know who’s who in a little place like Alpine.”
Helping himself to the cupboard where I kept my liquor, Ben nodded. “I did that in Tuba City. No easy task, since so many of my parishioners—and nonparishioners, for that matter—were spread out all over the place. Hence, my battered Jeep. You ever try to drive through what’s left of a gully washer?”
Accepting a glass of Canadian whiskey and water from Ben, I shook my head. “Just blizzards, ice storms, and foot-deep puddles.”
He held up his glass, which also contained Canadian whiskey but without the water. “To your recovery.”
“Amen,” I said, and clicked glasses.
“You are better, you know,” Ben asserted, leaning against the kitchen counter while I put the prepared shish kebabs under the broiler. “Rome must have helped.”
Ben referred to the trip we’d made the previous autumn. He’d felt it would elevate my emotional and spiritual state to visit the Vatican after my longtime lover and almost husband, Tom Cavanaugh, had been murdered before my very eyes.
“I think going to Rome was good for me,” I said slowly. “It was hard at first. I saw Tom everywhere.”
“You told me that,” Ben replied. “Six, ten, twenty times.” His smile was typically wry.
“Right.” I shot him a rueful glance. “What I mean is, maybe that helped me get over my grief. Not that I’ll ever stop grieving, really. But time—” The oven door slipped out of my grasp and slammed shut. “Damn! I’ve got to do something about that hinge.”
“Sackcloth and ashes don’t become you, Sluggly,” he declared, using his childhood nickname for me. “You look good in red. I like your new coat.”
“Benjamin Lord, the Common Sense Priest,” I said with a touch of sarcasm. “Whither pity, compassion, mercy?”
“Up your oven,” Ben retorted. “How long do you cook shish kebab? I didn’t take a vow of starvation.”
“As long as the rice that goes with it. Have another drink.”
Ben shook his head. “Later, maybe. You know I’m a two-drink-limit kind of guy. I made up my mind before I got out of the seminary that I wasn’t going to be one of those priests who fought off despair and loneliness by making Jim Beam my best friend.”
“You’re strong,” I remarked, wrapping a buttered baguette in foil.
“Ornery,” Ben put in.
“Darn.” I’d turned on the oven light—which worked much better than the door—to observe the shish kebabs. “I know we’re both hungry, but I’ve got a lot of food in here. I should’ve invited Vida to dinner. She’s fond of you, you know.”
Ben glanced at his watch. “It’s almost eight-thirty. Being a staunch Presbyterian, she didn’t have to go to church tonight. Vida probably ate a couple of hours ago.”
“God only knows what she ate,” I murmured. “She can’t cook, despite all those recipes and culinary advice she hands out on her House and Home page. Of course, it’s all filler she gets from the news services. She’s doing the same thing on her weekly radio show, Vida’s Cupboard.”
“I still haven’t heard it,” Ben said. “Too many damned meetings on Wednesdays.”
The water for the rice had boiled. “You’re right—Vida’s probably eaten. But,” I added, “I bought half of a coconut cake from the Upper Crust Bakery. I’ll call her and see if she wants to come by for dessert.”
“Vida’s a real character,” Ben noted, his eagle eye spotting the pink cake box on the counter. “I suppose every community has somebody like her. In Tuba City, there was Dolores Goodgrass. She knew everything about everybody, despite the fact that she lived way out past Moenkopi. Once a week, she’d come into the Tuba City trading post, and everybody would gather round to catch the gossip. On Sundays, she’d stand outside the church and grill all the parishioners, especially the kids. She’s over seventy, but she has a way with young people. Dolores could get them to tell just about anything, including whose pa was stepping out on ma. Yet she was never malicious, just nosy. Dolo—as she’s called—dished out advice, sympathy, and her own little sermons. I always felt she had more spiritual and moral influence than I did.”
“I take it she wasn’t as critical of others as Vida,” I said.
“Only to their faces,” Ben replied. “She never talked smack behind anyone’s back.”
“Unlike Vida,” I remarked.
I poured rice into the kettle, put on a lid, and turned the burner down. Then I picked up the phone, which I’d left lying on the counter. Dialing Vida’s number, I got her answering machine with its usual message urging any caller to leave as much information—translation: gossip—as possible. My own message was brief. “Thought you might like to have dessert with Ben and me, but I guess you’re out for the evening. See you tomorrow.”
I realized I’d been so hungry when I got home that I’d forgotten to check my calls. Sure enough, Vida had phoned shortly before seven. “I’m afraid I won’t be in the office tomorrow, Emma. My daughter Beth is ill and has asked me to visit her in Tacoma. I’m leaving as soon as I can pack a few things. I’ll try to be back to work Monday. But of course you never know with these things. That is, illness can be so unpredictable. Beth’s husband, Randy, is so tied up with work, and their children are very busy with school and sports. Well—you understand, I’m sure. Good-bye for now.”
It wasn’t just the content of Vida’s message that puzzled me, it was her tone. She sounded constrained and spoke slower than her usual staccato delivery. I was puzzled, and said so to Ben.
My brother shrugged. “She’s probably worried about her daughter. Did Vida say what was wrong with Jo?”
“Beth,” I corrected. “There is no Jo. Vida and Ernest had only three little women—Amy, Meg, and Beth.” Amy, the unfortunate mother of Roger, was the only one of the trio who lived in Alpine.
Ben’s keen brown eyes watched my every move, probably to make sure I didn’t waste any time getting dinner on the table. “Vida’s husband met a tragic end, right?”
“Totally tragic, but semicomic,” I replied. “Ernest decided to go over Deception Falls in a barrel. Bad idea.”
“People don’t do that kind of thing much anymore,” Ben remarked. “I guess it was a fad that lost its appeal. Especially when you don’t make it to the bottom in one piece.”
“That wasn’t Ernest’s problem,” I explained, peeking at the rice. “The truck that had brought him to the falls ran over the barrel—with Ernest in it.”
Ben winced. “That’s a pretty ignoble way to go. Was Vida driving the truck?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “No. I don’t think anybody was, or if Ernest had someone along, I never heard who it was. The brakes slipped. I don’t believe Vida was even there.”
“She’s not the type to endorse daredevil activities,” Ben declared. “Was Ernest always such a wild man?”
I shook my head. “I gather that Ernest was normally a most prosaic type. I suspect that this was his big chance to break out of his image—midlife crisis and all that. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out very well.”
“Only in Alpine,” Ben murmured.
“Risk-takers are everywhere and you know it,” I said, sounding defensive. “But Ernest wasn’t the first to try the barrel bit in Skykomish County. In the early years, several men had attempted the stunt, either at Deception or one of the other falls in the area. A couple of them also met a grim fate—though at least they got in the water.”
Dinner was a success, judging by Ben’s ability to eat not only his share but whatever I might have had left over for Vida. While we talked of many things, including my son, Adam, who had followed in his uncle’s footsteps and was now a priest in a remote part of Alaska, it was Vida who kept niggling at the back of my mind.
Finally, just as Ben was about to head back to the rectory at ten-thirty, I again expressed concern for my House & Home editor. “Vida never misses work,” I asserted. “I can’t imagine her not being on the job tomorrow and maybe not even Monday.”
Ben, however, downplayed my anxiety. “Her daughter’s sick,” he reasoned. “If it were Adam, wouldn’t you rush to his igloo?”
“You know it’s not an igloo,” I retorted. “And of course I would. What bothers me is that Vida sounded so . . . evasive.”
Ben patted my head, another old habit. I’d hated it when we were younger because it was so patronizing: older, taller, smarter brother. He was still all those things, but the gesture no longer irritated me.
“From what you’ve told me,” Ben began, “Vida is a very private person, at least when it comes to her personal life. If whatever is wrong with her daughter is serious, she may not want—or be able—to talk about it. Cut her some slack.”
Ben was right. Vida would use every means short of torture to uncover other people’s deepest, darkest secrets. But she guarded her own like the CIA. I told Ben I’d try to stop fussing about her.
I managed fairly well, in fact.
Later, I’d learn that I should have been worried to death.