A beautiful blonde with a figure that Venus de Milo would've envied walked into my office, sat down on the other side of my desk, crossed her long legs, removed her big, expensive sunglasses, and offered an appealing smile. "I need your help," she said. "I'm in big trouble."
"What kind of trouble?" I asked.
She ran her tongue over her full, crimson lips. "It's tricky," she said, her voice dropping a notch. "I don't know where to turn." A lilting laugh broke out somewhere in her skimpy red tee's deep cleavage. "You'll probably think I'm an idiot."
Had I been a macho private eye with a gun under my jacket and a fifth of Scotch in the drawer, I might have told her she was this idiot's delight. But since I'm also female, the come-hither act flopped. Indeed, at that moment, I was a middle-aged mother and newspaper publisher in a small town with egg salad on my lower lip.
I grabbed the paper napkin from the Grocery Basket's deli and wiped my mouth. "Sorry," I apologized, the words covering various flaws, including the egg salad, my lack of a flattering response, and not knowing my visitor's name. "We haven't met."
"Oh!" She laughed in a disarming manner. "I'm Ginger Roth. My husband, Josh, and I just moved to Alpine. I love the setting here, with all the mountains and trees. I'm from Phoenix."
"This is quite a change for you," I remarked, resisting the urge to gobble a couple of potato chips and cursing my staff for abandoning The Alpine Advocate office during lunch hour. "How can I help you?"
"Well." This time Ginger's smile was self-deprecating. "A friend of mine asked me to talk to you about your newspaper."
"Okay," I said. "How does that get you in trouble?"
She grew serious. "My friend's getting an M.A. at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She's focusing her thesis on weekly newspapers, so when she found out Josh and I were moving to Alpine, she asked me to talk to the local publisher." Ginger grimaced. "I don't know zip about journalism, so I haven't a clue how to go about it."
"Your friend didn't give you a list of questions or topics?"
Ginger shook her head, the golden, shoulder-length strands glinting in the afternoon light. "She told me to get an introduction first, and see if you'd be willing to cooperate."
I shrugged. "No problem. Find out the specifics, and then we can set up a time to talk about whatever she wants to know. Is she planning to go into the print media when she finishes her degree?"
"I'm not sure," Ginger replied, her green eyes roaming around the low-ceilinged room. "She worked in an art gallery before going to grad school."
"Newspapers are dinosaurs," I pointed out. "Major metropolitan dailies are losing circulation hand over fist. In some ways, small town papers are more viable because they're so localized. I struggle to make ends meet, but owning a newspaper that serves around six thousand readers is better than going out of business in a big city."
"Wow." Ginger didn't sound terribly interested. In fact, she looked bored. "I'll pass that along," she said vaguely, handing me a slip of paper with her cell phone number. "I'd better go. I'll let you know when I've got those questions." She smiled again, not quite so delightfully, and sashayed out of my office, through the newsroom, and, presumably, onto Front Street. I took another bite of my sandwich.
Two minutes later, my House & Home editor, Vida Runkel, tromped into the newsroom and made a beeline to my office cubbyhole.
"Who was that blond girl?" she demanded. "I've never seen her before."
"That's what I was going to ask you," I said. "You're the one who keeps track of newcomers. How'd she slip under your usually efficient radar?"
"She lives in Alpine?" Vida scowled from under the brim of her daisy-covered straw hat. "What's her name?"
"Ginger Roth, husband is Josh." I popped a potato chip into my mouth. "That's all I know except she's got a friend at the University of Arizona who's doing a thesis on newspapers."
"That's it?" Vida was clearly disappointed. "What's wrong with you?"
"I was trying to eat my lunch," I said. "She arrived unannounced."
That was no excuse in Vida's eyes. "You don't know her address or where she or her husband work?"
I tossed the empty chip bag into the wastebasket. "Okay, so I was derelict in my duty. I'll put Curtis on the story."
"Curtis!" Vida spoke our new reporter's name with disdain. "He's been here two weeks. He won't know where to start."
"He has to learn his way around town," I pointed out. "He's not a bad photographer. The photo spread we ran today on the Summer Solstice Festival was quite good, especially Curtis's kiddie parade shots."
"Perhaps," Vida allowed, "though he chose some of the homeliest children in town. Not at all representative of Alpine's youngsters. I'm afraid it's going to take a long time for him to fit in."
I thought back some fourteen years to my first days as editor and publisher of the Advocate. "Fitting in," as Vida put it, wasn't easy for newcomers in a small town. It had taken years and years before I felt generally accepted. One of the biggest hurdles for me was the barrage of names and places, which had thrown me for a loop. Unlike in my reporter's job on The Oregonian in Portland, I had to do far more than learn my beat. In a small town, a journalist has to recognize at least half the population on sight. Curtis Mayne was a green graduate from the University of Washington in Seattle, where he'd grown up half a mile from the campus.
"Curtis knows as much about Alpine as a pig does about war," Vida declared. "I'll do it. Really, I can't think this Ginger person moved here and I haven't heard about it."
I, too, found that hard to believe. Vida's extensive grapevine usually kept her apprised of every new face, every marital spat, every bounced check, every illness, and everything in between. Her brain was a sponge; her memory, prodigious. And woe to the Alpiner who didn't pass on the latest tidbits.
"I'm off," she announced, abruptly leaving my office in her typical splayfooted manner. I assumed she was going to track down Ginger Roth.
It was a mild Wednesday in late June. The weekly edition of the Advocate was on the streets, the front porches, and in the newspaper boxes. My staff-all six of us, including our ad manager, Leo Walsh; our office manager, Ginny Erlandson; and our production chief, Kip MacDuff-took a bit of a breather after the paper came out. Wednesday was catch-up day, with time to think about what we'd do for the next issue. I'd eaten in so I could go through my files to find inspiration for a fresh, pertinent editorial. I'd gotten stale lately, and hadn't even managed to get my usual spate of "Dear Moron" letters of protest. I was in grave danger of boring my readers to death.
"Hey, Emma," Kip said, leaning against the doorjamb a few minutes after Vida's departure. "We've got a problem."
"Oh?" I put aside some articles I'd been perusing about recent state legislation passed during the last session in Olympia. "What?"
Kip is just over thirty, and got his training on the job. He is unflappable and seems able to solve any and all problems that arise in the back shop, which to me, in this high-tech age, might as well be a foreign land with an exotic language I don't understand. I came of age in the era of cold press and shipping the newspaper mock-ups to an out-of-town printer. Now we could use computer programs and publish the paper on-site. It sounded simple, and it was-except for fuddy-duddies like me who didn't understand the process.
"We need to update our software," Kip said. "The problem I'm running into is-"
I held up a hand. "Stop. You know I won't have the vaguest idea what you're talking about. How much to replace whatever's not working?"
"I'm guessing," Kip admitted, "but probably a few hundred dollars. If we go ahead with the new version, we should also buy a-"
I put my fingers in my ears. "Find out what all this new and improved equipment will cost and bring me a number. We're not exactly rolling in money these days."
Kip nodded. I removed my fingers from my ears. He started to walk away but stopped and turned back. "What about the new roof?"
"Oh, crap!" I cried. "I forgot about that."
"You said last March we'd get it done when the rain stopped toward the end of June," Kip reminded me. "You got tired of falling over the buckets under the leaks."
"I know." I sighed. "I'll call Dick Bourgette right away."
Kip, who by now might as well have left a cloud of gloom behind him in my cubbyhole, finally headed to the back shop. I was looking up Bourgette Construction in the local phone directory when Curtis Mayne came into my office.
"Can I have a peek at your county map?" my new reporter asked, for the fifth or sixth time since he'd started his job.
"Sure." I swiveled around in my chair to face the Skykomish and surrounding counties map on the wall. "What are you looking for?"
"The index," he replied with his usual earnest expression.
"That map doesn't have an index," I said. "What do you need to find?"
"There's a guy named Caldwell who sold a wood carving to Mayor Vaughn, and he wants his picture taken with it while it's still in his workshop," Curtis explained. "He told me I'd find it in the index on the map."
I was beginning to think my staffers didn't speak any form of English I could understand. "Did he mean in the phone book?" I waved the directory at him. "By the way, it's Mayor Baugh, not Vaughn. Fuzzy Baugh to be exact."
"Oh. Right." Curtis dismissed the directory. "I've got my own. There's a map in it. Maybe I can find the index on that one."
"Okay." I watched him walk out the door, heading for the desk that had belonged to his predecessor, Scott Chamoud, who had quit at the end of May to move to Seattle with his bride, Tamara. Scott had worked at the Advocate for several years. He was an excellent photographer and heartbreakingly handsome, although he often had to be nudged to meet deadlines. I already missed Scott, and after interviewing a half- dozen candidates, I'd decided Curtis Mayne seemed the best of a mediocre lot. At least he could spell, which was more than I could say for two of the applicants. There weren't many trained journalists who were willing to work for low wages on a weekly newspaper in a small, isolated town like Alpine.
While staring at the map and mulling over the situation, I had a sudden idea. "Curtis," I said, getting up and going into the newsroom, "are you sure that this Caldwell didn't tell you he lived in Index?"
Curtis's round boyish face looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"Index," I said patiently, "is a small town west of here on Highway 2, less than ten minutes away. You grew up in Seattle. Surely you've heard of it."
He shook his head with its blond buzz cut. "I don't think so. I don't remember seeing it when I drove up here."
"You wouldn't," I said as kindly as possible, "because it's off the highway." I didn't add that there were also at least two road signs bearing the town's name.
He flipped through his directory. "You're right. Winn Caldwell, Index. Thanks."
I wandered back into my office. For a Wednesday, I wasn't finding much time to ruminate. In fact, I couldn't concentrate, either. It took me ten minutes of staring into space to remember that I was going to call Dick Bourgette about the roof. When I finally dialed the number, I got his voice mail. Obviously, he was out on a job and unable to pick up. I left him a message and wondered if I should go over to Stella's Styling Salon for an emergency appointment. My brown hair was shaggy; my brain was arid. If I couldn't improve the inside of my head, maybe I could do something about the outside.
I got as far as the newsroom. Spencer Fleetwood strolled through the door, looking smug, not an unusual expression for Skykomish County's Mr. Radio.
"Emma Lord," he said in his mellow on-air voice. "Off and running to a breaking story?"
"Don't be a smart-ass," I snapped. We both knew that any big news would always be broken by KSKY-AM, while I had to wait for weekly publication. "What do you want?"
Spencer chuckled, another rich sound he could make with his ever-annoying vocal cords. "Are you flirting with me?"
"Jeez." I sat on the edge of Curtis's vacant desk. "Right. I've been pining away for you ever since I first heard you call yourself 'The Voice of Skykomish County.'" I sighed. "Okay, I'm not in a great mood at the moment. My so-called off day has turned sour. What can I do for you, or are you here to do something for me?" The reference was to the co-op ads that the Advocate and KSKY sometimes shared.
Spence grimaced. "Well . . ." The usually glib Mr. Radio suddenly seemed unable to find the right words. He reached inside the pocket of his safari shirt and took out a pack of his exotic black cigarettes. "May I?"
I shrugged. My ad manager, Leo Walsh, was a smoker, and after he'd stopped trying to drink himself to death, I didn't have the heart to insist that he quit smoking, too. Vida carped constantly about Leo's bad habit, but without success. I understood Leo's resistance to give up tobacco. I'd quit smoking a dozen times over the past few years.
Spence held out the black package with its gold lettering. I refused. Politely. I watched him light up, inhale, exhale, and move a couple of steps closer to the coffeemaker on the table by Curtis's desk.
"Last March," Spence began, "I applied to the FCC to increase the station's kilowatts. Today I received official approval. We'll be able to broadcast as far west as Monroe and Snohomish, but not on the eastern slope of the Cascades. Reaching the other directions doesn't matter."
"Yes," I said bleakly. The north and south sections of SkyCo's long, narrow county were virtually uninhabited, since they were primarily state and federal forestlands. But that wasn't what upset me. If Spence was expanding his advertising sales beyond the Advocate's readership scope, the paper would miss out on a lot of co-op revenue. "Congratulations." The word practically choked me.
Spence had the grace to look faintly sheepish. "Hey," he said, "I know what you're thinking. But it won't affect you that much. Maybe some of the Snohomish and Monroe businesses will agree to run ads in the Advocate."
"Let me go outside and see if pigs are flying over Alpine."