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I couldn’t believe my ears. Maybe I was going deaf. As editor and publisher of The Alpine Advocate, I’ve heard some startling revelations, but this one almost zapped me through the roof of the cubbyhole I call my office. I gaped at Vida Runkel, my House & Home editor. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, Emma, I’m going to retire,” she repeated, her imposing figure moving closer to my cluttered desk. “I’d like to enjoy some leisure time in my remaining years. I’ve earned it, I think.”
“You surely have,” I assured her, glancing into the empty newsroom. “I just can’t imagine the Advocate without you. You’ve been here much longer than I have. You’re an Alpine icon.”
“Perhaps,” she allowed, sitting down in one of my two visitor chairs. “Close to thirty years. I prefer not telling anyone just yet. But it’s time.”
I was still flummoxed. “You’ll stay on until I find someone else, won’t you?”
“Of course.” She adjusted a floppy magenta rose on the pillbox hat that looked as if it was made out of twine. “I’m in no great rush. You know I’m not the sort of person who has any desire to start gallivanting around the country in a motor home.”
Despite fighting back tears, I smiled. “No, Vida, that’s not your style. I’m having trouble thinking what the paper will be like without you. You broke me in. The previous owner of the Advocate left town as soon as my check cleared the bank.”
“Yes,” Vida murmured. “I suppose he had a reason, though I often wondered why.”
Vida always wondered why anyone would ever leave her beloved Alpine, short of hot pursuit by rabid mountain goats. Not that I’d ever seen such a thing, but normal mountain goats are no strangers at our three-thousand-foot level in the Cascades. “It may take time to find a replacement,” I said, noting that our receptionist, Alison Lindahl, was approaching with her gaze fixed on Vida.
“Your daughter Amy has been trying to reach you, Mrs. Runkel,” Alison said. “She’s on hold.”
Vida stood up. “Goodness, what now?” She tromped off in her splay-footed manner.
I managed a smile for Alison. “You seem more like yourself these days. I’m so glad you decided to stay on with us.”
Alison had been a temporary hire after our regular receptionist, Amanda Hanson, quit to have her baby in early July. “I’m glad I was needed here,” she replied. “I was totally wiped after the college canceled my cosmetology program. But I realize the state system is short on funds. Skykomish Community College may cut a couple of other courses come winter quarter.”
“So the rumor mill says,” I said. “I’ll remind Mitch to check on that. I don’t know if the administrators are on campus right now. They usually take a break after summer classes end in mid-August. Where is Mitch, by the way? I haven’t seen our reporter since he went on his rounds earlier this morning.”
“He mentioned going to the library to do some research for a Labor Day weekend follow-up,” Alison said. “I think he wanted to write the story and put it online before it runs in the paper.”
“Right.” I glanced at my Blue Sky Dairy calendar. It was Thursday, the first day of September. “The office will be closed Monday, so that’s why Mitch wants it online by tomorrow. Are you going over to Everett to visit your parents for the holiday?”
Alison grew glum. “I might as well, since Justin and I broke up.”
The failed romance had dealt her a double blow, as it had happened right after she’d learned the bad news from the college. Justin Graham also taught there, but his job was safe. No administrator ever canceled a math program.
“You’ve had a rough summer,” I said. “I’m sorry we can’t meet your college salary.”
“That’s okay,” Alison responded. “I’m going to offer makeup lessons in the evenings at my apartment. Lori says she’ll help. My roommate wants me to show her how she can look more glamorous.”
“She couldn’t look any less,” I said, and immediately felt like biting my tongue. Lori Cobb was the sheriff’s receptionist. She had a decent if lean figure, but otherwise was as plain as a street lamp. “Hey,” I went on, to make amends, “I could use some improving.”
Before she could comment, Mitch Laskey came into the newsroom, heading our way. Alison excused herself as my reporter entered the cubbyhole I called the editorial office.
“I’m glad I did my homework about labor unrest in Skykomish County,” Mitch said, parking his lanky frame in the other visitor chair and tugging at the collar of his dress shirt. It had been a year since he and his wife, Brenda, had left the Detroit area and his longtime job at the Free Press and he’d started working at the Advocate, but it was taking him time to shed his big-city ways. “Until the Great Depression, there weren’t many unhappy workers around here,” he said. “The manpower shortage during World War Two increased opportunities. Then things really heated up in the next couple of decades.”
I nodded. “Vida recently filled me in on some of the town’s earlier history. Are you thinking about revealing unsavory deeds from the past?”
Mitch ran a hand through his thick gray hair. “That’s a series. You told me that Alpine itself was never incorporated. The ballot issue to eliminate the three county commissioners and the mayor seems long overdue for eight thousand people, even if SkyCo has grown in recent years. Replacing all four positions with a county manager will save a lot of money.”
I’d considered delving into some of the shady doings in the past to show how bad things happen under corrupt leadership. But Vida had warned me that I’d be risking lawsuits from descendants of previous generations. Worse yet, it might discourage voters from risking a change. In small towns, tradition can trump progress.
“Have you talked to the sheriff about how he feels on the issue?” I asked. “As you know, he reports to the three county commissioners.”
Mitch shot me as quirky look. “You don’t know?”
“I mean an official statement, not hearsay.”
He gazed at the low ceiling. “When does Sheriff Dodge get back?”
“Milo will be in the office tomorrow. It was a one-day meeting.”
Mitch stood up. “I’ll see him first thing in the morning when I check the sheriff’s blotter.” Looking a bit glum—not an uncommon expression for our reporter—he returned to the newsroom.
Ten minutes later, Vida stood in the doorway. “I’m off to the retirement home to take photos of the Lundstroms’ seventieth wedding anniversary. It’s a shame he’s in a coma,” she said. “Of course, he never was very social.”
“I can’t remember ever meeting them,” I admitted.
“You wouldn’t,” Vida asserted. “They’re quite unremarkable people.” Huffing a bit, my House & Home editor stomped back into the newsroom. I watched with a misty eye, trying to imagine the Advocate without her.
My ad manager, Leo Walsh, returned just as Vida headed out on her rounds. After setting his briefcase on his desk, he came into my office and sat in the visitor chair Mitch had vacated. “Jack Blackwell’s got his mill employees handing out broadsheets on Front Street urging a no vote on the government issue,” Leo said in a grim tone. “Should I put that online or let Mitch do it?”
“He’s touchy about turf,” I responded. “Half the town must already know what Blackwell’s doing, since he’s one of the three commissioners. I’ll check with Mitch. The mill employees must’ve shown up after he came back from his early rounds. But we’ll have to go public.”
“Jack’s fighting for power,” Leo declared. “Hell, if he could run the government as well as he runs his logging operation, maybe he should play a bigger role around here.”
I was shocked. “Are you out of your mind? Jack and Milo might end up killing each other. Blackwell’s first move would be to fire the sheriff. Have you forgotten Jack recently spent the night in jail after beating up one of his ex-wives?”
Leo sighed. “We should’ve seen this coming. As a commissioner, Jack’s against government change. He may demand equal time when Mayor Baugh gives his Labor Day speech.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” I muttered. “Have you any good news?”
“Let me think. . . .” His gaze traveled to the low ceiling, rested on my SkyCo map, and finally fixed on me. “We should have an eighty-twenty split for this week.” Leo grinned, making more creases in his weathered face. “The special fall section for the week after that ought to up the ante in the Advocate’s kitty.”
“You’re a wizard!” I exclaimed. “That’s the best we’ve done all year.”
Leo shrugged again. “It’s a combination of Labor Day and back-to-school ads. With the community college not starting until October first, we can draw out ads aimed at students. We got another bump because the merchants had to let patrons know about the four o’clock closing in deference to the Labor Day picnic. I figure we can go twenty-four pages.”
I couldn’t stop smiling. “Having Liza living here seems to have juiced up your enthusiasm for the job.”
“In a way, it has,” Leo agreed, growing serious. “Up until our son was transferred to Raytheon, south of Seattle, I knew if I wanted a second chance at my marriage I’d have to go back to Santa Maria. But Brian’s move meant our little grandson was heading north, too. It was an easy decision for Liza.”
“And a lucky one for me,” I said.
Leo smiled again, though with a bittersweet edge. “The luck cut both ways, babe. If you hadn’t taken a chance on me, I’d have drunk my way into oblivion ten years ago. Liza owes you, too.” He stood up, rapping his knuckles on my desk. “Back to man the oars on the good ship Advocate. Your ad manager never rests.”
I smiled as he ambled back to his desk. Then I took a deep breath and set to work on my editorial. Labor Day. Work. American enterprise. Innovation. Technology. What could I say that I hadn’t said every year since I’d bought the newspaper and moved to Alpine? In fact, three weeks ago had marked the sixteenth year since I’d arrived with a college-bound son, a used Jaguar, and ownership of the Advocate. Back then, I’d had no plans to spend more than a few years in the small mountain town a mile off the Stevens Pass Highway. Alpine was in economic upheaval. Logging had been sharply curtailed by the environmentalists, and Skykomish County was in the wood chipper.
But if my editorials are often predictable, life isn’t. I deleted all the overused words and stared at the blank computer monitor. Then I got up and went out to the front office. To my surprise, our receptionist was sitting at her desk and looking dazed. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
Alison blushed. “A really hot guy just came in. How rare is that?”
“Well . . . I’m prejudiced, being a married woman. Who was it?”
“His name is L.J.—just initials,” Alison replied. She handed me a pale green sheet of paper. “It’s against the new government plan.”
I scanned the four paragraphs. “The hot guy must work for Blackwell. Leo says Jack has his employees handing these out.”
Alison’s blue eyes grew wide. “You mean L.J. might live here? How come I’ve never seen him before? He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.”
I laughed. “Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself?”
“Emma.” Alison grew serious. “Face it—the local gene pool’s majorly shallow when it comes to seriously hot guys.”
“Feel free to check him out. He might win you over to the no-change side and I’ll have to fire you.”
Alison didn’t seem to realize I was teasing. She sighed. “Maybe I should move back in with my parents in Everett. The naval base there has lots of eligible men.”
“Oh, stop!” I exclaimed. “You’re doing such a good job, and if I can squeeze any money out of the budget, I’ll—”
She uttered a weak little laugh. “Hey, don’t worry. I’m just in a bad place right now.”
I glanced at my watch. It was almost noon. “I’m in a hungry place. Let me treat you to lunch at the ski lodge. We’re unofficially closed in the noon hour. If anybody’s desperate, Kip MacDuff can handle it. He rarely leaves his production duties in the back shop.”
“Oh . . .” Alison looked sheepish. “I feel silly. You sure?”
“Yes. We haven’t had a real chance to visit since you started here in early July.”
She gazed into the empty newsroom. “I won’t be much fun.”
I kept a straight face. “Should we go to the Heartbreak Hotel Diner instead?”
In spite of herself, Alison laughed. “No! You’re a good boss. I bet you had a bad breakup back in the day, right?”
“I suppose I did.” She didn’t know the half of it.