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On Tuesday, October 5, Skykomish County Sheriff Milo Dodge arrested Clive Berentsen, forty-one, in connection with the death of Alvin De Muth, thirty-eight. Dodge and Deputy Sam Heppner took Berentsen into custody at eleven-twenty-five pm. The timing was almost perfect, allowing me to include the story for The Alpine Advocate’s weekly deadline.
“I know KSKY has the news,” I said to my production manager, Kip MacDuff, the next morning, “but at least we got it in this week’s edition.”
Kip, who was pouring coffee from the urn behind my new reporter’s vacant desk, grinned. “There are some wars you can’t win, Emma.”
“I know that, too.” I paused, contemplating our coverage of the homicide down the road. “I suppose Clive Berentsen will plead self- defense. Do you know Clive or Alvin De Muth?”
Kip shook his head. “Only by sight. Clive’s been a long-haul trucker for years. De Muth has done some work on our trucks, but I hardly ever talked to him. I guess he was the strong, silent type.” Kip smiled at me. “I don’t hang out at the Icicle Creek Tavern. Never was my style. If I want a beer, I go to Mugs Ahoy or our fridge at home. I’m a respectable married man, remember?”
I smiled back at Kip. He’d worked for the Advocate since his high school days, starting out as a carrier and eventually taking over the paper’s production. He was now in his early thirties; I’d designated him as my heir apparent if and when I ever retired.
“You deserve a raise,” I said on impulse. “If we crunch some numbers . . .”
“Whoa.” Kip held up a hand. “I know the numbers as well as you do. The profit margin is pretty lean. Nobody here expects to get rich.”
“True enough.” I glanced over at my House & Home editor’s empty chair. “Where’s Vida? It’s ten after eight.”
“She’s got the bakery run,” Kip replied, heading for the door to our back shop. “She traded with Mitch this morning. He had a problem at home and called to say he might not get here until eight-thirty.”
Mitch Laskey was my latest hire as the Advocate’s sole reporter. “Nothing serious, I hope?”
“Ask Vida.” He chuckled. “She’s the one who knows everything,” he added, then disappeared into his high-tech domain.
Kip was right. Vida Runkel was the source of all knowledge in Alpine and the rest of Skykomish County. No secret was safe, no slip of the tongue went unnoticed, no vow of secrecy was sacred to my redoubtable House & Home editor. She could be annoying, contrary, and even infuriating. But I’d be lost without her. I owned the Advocate, but Vida held Alpine in her heart—and the palm of her hand.
I’d retreated to my cubbyhole office when she burst into the newsroom five minutes later. “No maple bars!” she cried. “No sugar doughnuts! What’s going on at the Upper Crust?”
I rose from my chair and went to my almost-always-open door. “They can’t make everything every day,” I pointed out.
Vida, who was wearing a toque plastered with artificial autumn leaves, tromped over to the table where the coffee urn was located. “True, but my mouth was set for a maple bar.” She began arranging the pastries on a tray. “Cinnamon doughnuts are good, so are the frosted kind, but I prefer raised sugar. Oh, well.” She finished her task and snatched up a blueberry Danish.
“What’s going on with Mitch?” I inquired.
“His wife’s loom broke,” Vida replied en route to her desk. “Brenda has deadlines, too. She’s weaving a rug for someone’s mid-October birthday in Kalamazoo.”
I perused the bakery goods. “So what do you think of Mitch?”
Vida shed her new green raincoat; the hat remained atop her unruly gray curls. “Competent. Pleasant. Good writing, fine pictures. Most of all, he’s mature, which was not true of his predecessor.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “We’re lucky to get Mitch. I was afraid we’d get stuck with another recent college grad. The scary part about hiring Curtis Mayne last spring is that he was the best applicant.”
“A disaster,” Vida murmured. “So irresponsible, a borderline mental case.” She sat down in her chair. “I listened to KSKY this morning. Spencer Fleetwood reported that Clive Berentsen will be charged with first-degree manslaughter.”
“Standard for a tavern brawl,” I said, selecting a cinnamon-sugar doughnut. “How come you don’t know everything there is to know about either the victim or the alleged killer?”
Vida’s expression was disdainful. “As you’re aware, I don’t associate with the type of people who spend Saturday nights at the Icicle Creek Tavern. Lowlifes, virtually all of them. I don’t understand why Milo didn’t arrest Clive on the spot.”
“He wanted to be sure,” I said as my ad manager, Leo Walsh, came into the newsroom. “You know Milo—he always goes by the book.”
Leo made a mocking bow to greet Vida. She made a noise that sounded like a growl. During all the years they’d worked together, the pair had conducted what might seem to casual observers like a simmering feud. I knew better. Beneath the gibes and jeers, they liked and respected each other. When Leo had almost died in July, Vida’s concern had been genuine. Indeed, she hadn’t criticized him for smoking when he returned to work two weeks later.
Leo turned to me. “You talking about Berentsen whacking Whatshisname?”
I nodded. “It sounds like the good old days—or bad old days, depending on how much you enjoy an old-fashioned tavern brawl.”
“Dreadful,” Vida remarked. “Yet part of Alpine’s history as a logging town. You both arrived too late for the timber industry’s heyday.” Her glances at Leo and me seemed almost pitying. “Unfortunately, it occasionally brought out the worst in some people.”
Leo, who was getting his coffee and a plain doughnut, chuckled. “Oh, yes. Harrowing tales of Saturday nights at both the Icicle Creek Tavern and Mugs Ahoy. Regular knock-down, drag-out affairs, especially at Icicle Creek. Wasn’t there another murder at one of those saloons a few years back?”
Vida and I exchanged quick glances. We both remembered the victim, a young man who may or may not have deserved killing. “Yes, ten, twelve years ago,” I said. “If you’re really interested, you can read all about it in back copies of the Advocate.”
Leo shook his head. “No thanks. I used to work in the LA area, remember?” He turned back to Vida. “How long did they keep the windows boarded up because they couldn’t afford to replace them every month or so?”
Vida heaved a big sigh. “At least a year after one fracas. On the weekends, whichever deputy was on night duty would cower outside in the patrol car, too frightened to restore order. Then there were the bikers who’d roar into town thinking they could win a victory over the loggers. So foolish. The bikers were overmatched.”
I caught a hint of pride in Vida’s tone. As a native Alpiner, even the worst behavior couldn’t dim her high opinion of the town’s citizens.
Leo paused on his way to his desk. “I have to ask—did you ever go to the Icicle Creek Tavern on a Saturday night, Duchess?”
Vida scowled at the nickname she claimed to despise. “I most certainly did not, nor at any other time.” She paused, pursing her lips. “Well, once or twice, perhaps, but only in the line of duty.”
Before Leo could comment, Mitch Laskey arrived. “Sorry I’m late,” he said in greeting. “Brenda’s loom had a tension headache.”
“Did you fix it?” Leo asked.
Mitch settled his long and lanky form behind his desk. “Only time—and the results—will tell. The rug she’s making is wool. That’s good. If she was using linen or silk, it might be a bigger problem.” He leaned back in his chair and yawned. “Coffee. I need coffee.” He swiveled around and moved closer to the table. “So what do we have from the sheriff on this tavern murder?”
I strolled over to Mitch’s desk. “Nothing official since last night. Check with Dodge when you go through the log to see what crimes and misdemeanors the lesser locals have been nailed for. You should be at the courthouse when Berentsen is officially charged.”
“Got it.” Mitch had poured his coffee, but refrained from taking any of the bakery goods. My new hire rarely seemed to eat much, which, I supposed, accounted for his slim frame.
My phone rang. I hurried into my office to answer it before the call trunked over to our office manager, Ginny Erlandson.
Milo Dodge was on the line. “You sure about this new guy handling the murder?”
“I told you already that he’s very experienced,” I replied, lowering my voice. “He’s not a raw recruit with a brand-new college diploma. Mitch worked twenty-five years for the Detroit Free Press. He could probably do this story with his eyes closed. He’s covered more homicides than the two of us put together,” I added, irritated at the sheriff for questioning my judgment.
“If you say so.” Milo didn’t sound convinced. “Alpine’s not Detroit. You know what happened with that last moron you put on the payroll.”
“Guess what?” I snapped. “I don’t need reminding. Mitch will be at your office in ten minutes. When are you going to the courthouse?”
“Nine,” the sheriff replied. “Got to run. Fleetwood’s here.”
The click in my ear riled me even further. Of course the voice of Skykomish County, Spencer Fleetwood, had shown up. Gloating, too, and suffused with more self-confidence than ever since he’d gotten approval from the FCC to crank up KSKY’s transmission signal.
I got up and went to the doorway. “Mitch, the sheriff’s going to be at the courthouse in twenty minutes.”
“I’m off,” he responded, taking a last gulp of coffee before grabbing the gray windbreaker that matched his full head of wavy hair.
I started back into my office, but Vida, who had been on the phone, called to me. “Emma, that was Maud Dodd at the retirement home. She wanted to know if we caught the mistake in her weekly column about Milo’s aunt Thelma. Did you proofread it?”
“I thought you did,” I said.
“No, no,” Vida replied. “It came in late yesterday just before I left to see the dentist. I put it on your desk.”
I grimaced. “I don’t remember seeing it. What’s wrong?”
Vida was sitting back in her chair, fists on hips, frowning in concentration. “Oh, dear. Maybe I . . .” She reached for her out- basket. “Drat! I mistakenly put it there for Kip. Ginny must’ve picked it up and given it to him.” She flipped to page two of her copy of the Advocate. “How upsetting! Listen to this, it’s about Milo’s aunt and uncle—‘Thelma Petersen is enjoying her new residence here. Elmer is also enjoying himself, having taken an interest in the handmade holiday crafts Thelma has sold privately for lo these many years. The Petersens’ current project is fornicopias, a colorful display on any dining room table.’ ” Vida tossed the newspaper aside. “I never should have insisted that Maud get someone to type her columns for her!”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or sympathize. “You did say you couldn’t read her spidery handwriting.”
Vida had taken off her glasses and was rubbing her eyes in a familiar and ferocious sign of distress. “Ohhh! How embarrassing! And how stupid of me to have mislaid the copy.”
I winced, certain I could hear her eyeballs squeaking in protest. “It happens,” I said. “You were in a hurry.”
“Inexcusable.” She’d finally stopped punishing her eyes. “I’ll certainly hear about this from Leo,” she murmured, glancing at his vacant chair. “Not to mention Milo and half the town.”
“You could always use it in next week’s ‘Scene,’ ” I said referring to Vida’s front-page one-by-three-inch gossip column.
“That’s not funny,” Vida retorted. “Maud will be humiliated. She’s so upset. She’s afraid she’ll be evicted from the retirement home.”
“Maud’s overreacting,” I pointed out. “Half the people who read her column at the retirement home won’t get it.” I stopped just short of saying that the other half of the residents were either gaga or almost dead. The callous thought made me realize that I wasn’t in a very good mood. I changed the subject. “Fill me in,” I said, picking up Vida’s copy of the Advocate with its lead story under Mitch’s byline and a photo he’d taken of the Icicle Creek Tavern exterior. His interior shots included one of De Muth’s body lying halfway under the pool table with only his legs and lower torso showing. I’d decided that was too grim for the front page. “I made sure he didn’t use any quotes from the other patrons and kept just to the facts that Milo and Sam had given him. Being an old hand at covering homicides, he didn’t need reminding. But down the road we’ll have to find out what the witnesses had to say about the incident.”
“Of course you will,” Vida said. “We’d be a poor source of information if we avoided printing what the bystanders saw and how they responded. Human interest, that’s so important.”
What Vida really meant was that Alpine was agog, its residents waiting impatiently for reactions from their friends and neighbors. “The gossip mill is already grinding,” I said. “What have you heard so far?”
“Well now.” She rested her elbows in the desk and folded her hands. “I already mentioned Fred Engelman being there. Very unusual, since he never goes to the tavern. Of course it was his ex-wife’s birthday, so I suppose he felt an obligation to be with Janie instead of in jail.”
“Probably,” I allowed. “It’s ironic that the first time he shows up in months there’s a big brawl and a fatality. He would’ve been better off spending the weekend in his favorite cell.”
“Perhaps.” Vida paused. “I rather admire Fred for acknowledging his problem with alcohol, but you’d think he’d join AA rather than checking himself into jail every weekend to avoid carousing and brawling. Admittedly, he never drank during the rest of the week while working for Blackwell Timber, but I don’t think Milo likes having one of his cells used on a regular basis. On the other hand, Fred’s always very good about keeping the place tidy.”
“A real plus,” I murmured.
“It is, actually,” Vida said. “I understand Fred does some chores at the sheriff’s office. He’s quite the handyman. I’ve had him do some repairs at my house and I’ve always been rather pleased, particularly with electrical problems. Oddly enough, he never wears gloves. He insists that the shocks he gets from live wires are invigorating.”
“As fun goes, I suppose that’s better than getting blotto on several schooners of beer.” I sat down in her visitor’s chair. “Fred and his ex, Janie, are on good terms?”
From the Hardcover edition.