When a beautiful young African-American nurse with a shady past takes a job in Alpine, some locals show their true bigoted natures, filling editor-publisher Emma Lord with disgust. But when a second newcomer -- a young black man -- is found shot through the head, Emma is stuck with a story she will never forget.
Though Sheriff Milo Dodge connects the victim to the nurse, Emma believes there's something more sinister afoot. So she and Vida Runkel, her formidable house-and-home editor, try writing their own scenario. But the case offers too many subplots, too many suspects, and one crafty killer who leaves no tracks. That is, until Emma hits the deadly trail . . .
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THERE’S NO FOOL like an old fool, unless it’s a middle-aged fool. Like me.
The letter from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association was very businesslike; the invitation to the seminar on advertising revenue was suitably formal. So why was my heart racing like an out-of-control dishwasher?
The answer was simple, and so was I. According to the program schedule, the panelists included Tom Cavanaugh of San Francisco, former reporter and editor, currently owner of seventeen weeklies and four small dailies throughout the western United States and Canada. According to my pudding-like head, Tom Cavanaugh was my former lover and permanent father of my only son, Adam. I hadn’t seen Tom in almost two years. The prospect both thrilled and terrified me.
“Your sleeve’s on fire,” said Vida Runkel, my House & Home editor. “Be careful, you’re going to burn your arm.”
I jumped, slapping at my beige linen jacket. Sure enough, I’d scorched the fabric on the coffeemaker in The Alpine Advocate’s editorial office.
“Damn!” I exclaimed, wincing at the heat that seared my fingers. “I don’t exactly have a lavish spring wardrobe.”
Vida was sitting at her desk, peering at me over the rims of her tortoiseshell glasses. “Trim the sleeves, then roll them back. That look came in a few years ago and it’s still around. I ought to know—I get all the fashion handouts.” She returned to her typing, a wonder of two-fingered wizardry on a machine almost as old as she was.
Removing my singed jacket and pouring a cup of coffee, I studied the WNPA letter more closely. “I should send Ed Bronsky to this. They’re holding the summer meeting at Lake Chelan.”
“You should hold Ed under water at Lake Chelan. I don’t know why you put up with him. He’s the worst ad manager I’ve ever met.” Vida didn’t pause in her typing.
It wasn’t the first time that Vida and I had argued over Ed Bronsky’s ineptitude. Indeed, Ed wasn’t inept so much as he was negative. In a town like Alpine, Washington, with four thousand souls held hostage by semi-isolation on Stevens Pass, Ed couldn’t see any reason why local retailers needed to advertise in the first place. There was one furniture emporium, one pharmacy, one sporting goods store, one bakery—and, until the past year, one source of food. A few months back Safeway had opened to give the Grocery Basket a run for everybody’s money.
“Maybe the seminar would motivate Ed,” I said, but sounded dubious to my own ears.
“Dynamite wouldn’t motivate Ed,” Vida replied, and this time she did stop typing, not to concentrate on our conversation or her latest story, but because she was finished. She whipped the paper out of the ancient upright and gave me her gimlet eye. “Why don’t you go, Emma? Chelan is a short drive from here. Why, you wouldn’t even have to spend the night if you didn’t want to.”
Her innocent look didn’t fool me, and though I hate to admit it, I blushed. The mail had just arrived. Vida couldn’t possibly have seen the WNPA invitation. It was addressed to me: Emma Lord, Editor and Publisher. I had opened it a mere five minutes ago with my own two hands. But somehow Vida knew. She always knew. It was her way.
“I shouldn’t take the time,” I mumbled. “It’s in mid-June, and I was away for almost a week at Easter. That was just a month ago.”
“So? It’s another month until mid-June.” Vida shook her broad shoulders, making her lime, magenta, and white striped blouse ripple in various directions across her impressive bosom. “You know it’s worthless to send Ed. He’ll pooh-pooh any innovations. But if you go, you can collect all sorts of new ideas and insist that he knuckle down. Really, Emma, it gets my goat how you turn a blind eye to his laziness and indifference. Just because your predecessor hired Ed, doesn’t mean you have to keep him.”
My predecessor, Marius Vandeventer, had founded The Alpine Advocate back in the Thirties and sold it to me at the start of the Nineties. I’d inherited Vida and Ed from Marius, but had hired my sole reporter, Carla Steinmetz, and our office manager, Ginny Burmeister, on my own. Carla was eager, but dizzy; Ginny was methodical, but diligent. I felt I was batting about five hundred, which wasn’t bad. The thought put me on the defensive.
“Ed has a wife and children,” I said, resorting to my usual weary defense. “With the logging business gone to hell, there are enough people out of work in Alpine without adding Ed to the list. Besides, he’s improved. Really, he has.”
With a toss of her unruly gray curls, Vida snorted. “That’s only because you watch him like a hawk and Ginny helps so much.”
Even though Vida was right, I would have argued further if Carla Steinmetz hadn’t burst into the office, carrying a white paper sack from the Upper Crust Bakery.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said, waving the sack at Vida and me. “Here, it’s glazed twisters. You’d better eat them before Ed gets back from the Rotary Club breakfast meeting.”
I glanced at my watch. It was almost ten. Ed should have returned by now. And Carla was definitely tardy.
“Where were you?” I asked, hoping against hope she’d been out getting a hot story.
Carla passed the bakery bag first to Vida, then to me. “At the doctor’s. You know I’ve had an earache for three days. Libby, my new roommate, said I couldn’t go on like this.”
In all probability, neither could Libby. Carla had hardly talked of anything else since coming in Monday morning, holding her head. I could imagine how she’d complained at home. Libby—Liberty, actually—Boyd was a brash young woman who drove a Ford pickup truck, lifted weights, and had recently been posted to the ranger station at Icicle Creek. She and Carla had moved in together May first. I wondered how long the wholesome, athletic, down-to-earth Libby would survive in the company of my flighty, ebullient, comfort-loving reporter. I’d met Libby only once. She struck me as long on valor, but short on patience.
Carla had swept her long black hair back and leaned forward just enough to show off the wad of cotton stuffed in her left ear. “See? Dr. Flake put drops in it. I think they’ve helped already.”
“Good,” I said, not without sympathy. “Earaches can be nasty.”
Carla and I munched on our twisters. Vida, however, let hers sit on the desk, untouched. It wasn’t like her. She was gazing at Carla, expectancy written all over her majestic figure.
Carla was getting herself a mug of coffee. “Well, what?”
Vida made a face. “Well, what about the new nurse?”
With another flip of her long locks, Carla hopped into the chair behind her desk. “The new nurse?” Her black eyes were very round. “Why, Vida, you must know all about her. Your niece is the receptionist, after all.”
Vida’s nieces, nephews, and other relations, by family and by marriage, were everywhere. The tribal network of Runkels on her late husband’s side and Blatts by blood formed the basis of her limitless knowledge of Alpine. She narrowed her eyes at Carla.
“Marje has been on vacation for two weeks, and you know it. She went to Mexico to get sick.”
At first Carla looked surprised, then she turned smug. “That’s right, I didn’t see her this morning. Doc Dewey’s wife was working the desk.” Carla took a big bite of her twister. “What do you want to know, Vida?”
Vida’s right hand closed over the twister that lay on her desk in a gesture that suggested it might have legs and try to escape. Or, perhaps, that she would like to do the same to Carla’s neck. “I’m curious, of course,” she replied with dignity. “Marilynn Lewis is the first black person we’ve ever had living in Alpine. I think she’s either very brave or very foolish.”
Carla was still looking smug, even superior. “You’re supposed to say African-American,” she declared. “I think Dr. Dewey and Dr. Flake were very brave to hire her. I gather it was Dr. Flake’s idea, since he’s more progressive than Doc Dewey.”
There was almost twenty years’ age difference between Alpine’s two physicians, but the town’s perception was based on more than the generation gap. Peyton Flake was a recent arrival and new to private practice. Gerald Dewey was a local, the son of Alpine’s late and much-beloved Cecil Dewey, who had attended three generations of Skykomish County residents. During the years that the father and son had practiced together, they were known as Young Doc and Old Doc. Gerald Dewey was still called Young Doc by most Alpiners, and it appeared that for good or for ill, his indigenous roots were perceived as making him far more hidebound—and thus more reliable—than the upstart newcomer. But the senior Dewey hadn’t felt a need to build his practice; his son relied on the clinic’s virtual monopoly. Peyton Flake was much more aggressive: He foresaw potential patients defecting along the Stevens Pass corridor, driving to doctors in Sultan, Monroe, Snohomish, and even as far away as Everett. Flake worked actively to keep current patients and recruit new ones. Consequently, the active chart file was growing, and with it, the need for a new nurse.
“I just happened to see Marilynn Lewis leaving work the other night,” Vida remarked. “The clinic is right on my way home.” The explanation may or may not have been an excuse for satisfying Vida’s rampant curiosity.
Having devoured her twister, Carla settled down to deliver serious information. “She’s young, maybe my age or a little older, pretty, seems sharp, and very nice. I heard she’s rooming with the Campbells, at least until she finds a place of her own.”
Swiftly, Vida digested Carla’s account. “Yes, Jean and Lloyd Campbell have taken her in.” She made it sound as if they’d acquired a stray cat, but I knew better. While Alpine abounded in prejudiced people, Vida wasn’t one of them. “I’m not sure how they’re all managing, with Cyndi living at home and Shane back from Seattle.”
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