Read an Excerpt
THE FROST WAS on the pumpkin, and also on Leo Fulton Walsh’s rear end. My new advertising manager had skidded on one of Alpine’s icy sidewalks, landing in Front Street, across from the newspaper office. The accident wasn’t entirely Leo’s fault. He was from California, and unused to winter weather. If there was blame, it rested on me for hiring Leo in the first place.
The situation had been desperate. My former ad man, Ed Bronsky, had inherited a small fortune from an aunt in Iowa. His exit had evoked mixed emotions. Though Ed showed occasional flashes of enthusiasm, he usually acted as if he were being forced to walk the plank. Gloom had hung on Ed Bronsky just like his baggy raincoat. But money had done wondrous things, and Ed was now downright chipper.
He was also off The Alpine Advocate’s staff, which was why I’d hired Leo Fulton Walsh. Ed’s abrupt leave-taking had put me in a bind. Leo had been available, and had come recommended by my son’s father, Tom Cavanaugh. Tom is not and never was my husband, but he does own several small weeklies west of the Rockies. I’ve always had faith in his judgment. I’m not sure why, since twenty-two years ago he was the one who assured me I couldn’t get pregnant. Adam’s arrival nine months later proved Tom wrong. I was beginning to think that Tom might be mistaken about Leo, too.
“He’s drunk. Again.” Vida Runkel, my House & Home editor, looked up from a sheet of contact prints taken at the Alpine Elementary School’s Halloween party. “I’m afraid Leo is an alcoholic, Emma. You’ll have to do something about him.”
“I already did,” I replied dryly. “I hired him. And he’s not drunk.” My tone turned defensive, though I wasn’t sure whether I was defending Leo or myself. “It’s really icy this morning. There’s a snowstorm coming.” I tapped the latest wire service forecast for the central Cascade Mountains.
“He’s drunk.” Vida’s voice brooked no argument. Neither did her gaze, which didn’t blink behind the tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses. As ever, she looked daunting, even sitting down. Vida is in her sixties, a big woman with strong shoulders, a formidable bosom, and unruly gray curls. She gave me her gimlet eye, then resumed squinting through a magnifier at the Halloween picture. “Is Bryce Bamberg wearing a mask in this photo? I can’t tell.”
I glanced over Vida’s shoulder. I couldn’t tell, either. Bryce Bamberg, fifth grade, was one homely kid. I shuddered, and dismissed Bryce from my mind.
“Leo may have sprained his ankle,” I said, looking out through the small window above Vida’s desk. Front Street was busy on this first Monday of November. That is, there were at least a dozen cars in sight. With not quite four thousand residents, Alpine, Washington, isn’t inclined to gridlock. Indeed, the traffic was somewhat lighter than usual, due not only to the ice, but to the local economic crisis. The backbone of Alpine’s industry is, as I once inadvertently said in print, rooted in trees. But logging has been curtailed by environmental restrictions, and as yet, the community hasn’t been able to regroup.
Cars, including Sheriff Milo Dodge’s Cherokee Chief, continued to trickle past the Advocate office. I gave up waiting for Vida’s response. Maybe she hadn’t heard me. But she had—Vida can hear people even when they don’t speak out loud.
She had finished choosing the Halloween pictures for the Wednesday edition. “Give me something,” she demanded abruptly. “I’m doing ‘Scene.’”
“Scene Around Town” is our version of a gossip column. Vida writes it, but we all contribute. Rarely are these items juicy; only occasionally are they of interest. Still, Alpiners love to see themselves and their relatives and neighbors and friends in print. The column is the best-read in the paper, with the possible exception of the obituaries. When we have any.
“You could use Leo,” I suggested. “Falling down always makes news.”
“Not when it involves drunkenness.” Vida looked both grim and prim. “So far, I only have three items: Tim Rafferty and Tiffany Eriks enjoying double-tall nonfat lattes at the new Starbucks; high school coach Rip Ridley losing his voice after the football team’s 45–7 defeat in Sultan; and Dot Parker seeing sparrows ice-skating on her frozen birdbath. Give me something useful.”
But Front Street looked very ordinary from my vantage point. Running east-west on the flat, the heavy frost which had turned to ice was almost melted by eight-thirty. The north-south streets heading up the mountainside were another matter. That was where Leo had slipped, coming down Fourth and crashing at the corner by the Alpine Building. He had walked from his apartment on Cedar Street because he was afraid to drive his new Toyota on the ice. Our office manager, Ginny Burmeister, and I had rescued Leo, guiding him the two blocks to the medical clinic where he was having his ankle X-rayed. Ginny was still with him.
My remaining staff member arrived just as I was pouring a mug of coffee. Carla Steinmetz is young, pretty, enthusiastic, and flighty. On this Monday morning, she seemed uncharacteristically withdrawn. Carla’s step dragged over the threshold.
“’Morning,” she mumbled, not looking at either Vida or me.
Vida’s mouth set, and her eyes narrowed. “Good morning, Carla. How are you?”
It wasn’t a rhetorical question. Carla’s gaze slid in Vida’s direction, then fixed itself on the coffeemaker. “Depressed,” my reporter answered in a bleak voice. She poured herself a cup of coffee and went into the front office, presumably searching for her soul mate, Ginny.
Vida was looking out the window. “Francine Wells is wearing new boots. Very smart, probably not suitable for this weather. The refrigeration repair truck is in front of Harvey Adcock’s hardware and sporting goods store. Maybe his bait box blew up. Cal Vickers’s tow truck needs washing. Ah! Cal’s towing Fuzzy Baugh’s Chrysler! The mayor must have gone into a skid.” Vida shot me a quick look over her shoulder. “You see, Emma, even after going on four years, you still don’t have the knack for picking up small-town news. It’s the everyday occurrences that people like to read about. In Alpine, we don’t need drive-by shootings and arson fires and drug raids to entertain us.”
I managed to refrain from retorting that even callous city people didn’t exactly consider tragedy a source of entertainment. At least most of them didn’t. Vida knew as much; she was merely tweaking me for being an outsider. I probably wouldn’t ever be anything else if I lived until I died in Alpine.
Vida was back at her typewriter, rattling off her three new items for “Scene Around Town.” “I need at least four more,” she announced, throwing the carriage of her archaic machine with a flourish.
“You’ve got until five P.M. tomorrow,” I pointed out as the phone rang on Carla’s desk. I picked it up. “Emma Lord,” I said into the receiver just as Carla reentered the newsroom.
Ginny was on the line, calling from the clinic. She wanted Carla to help her bring Leo back to the office. According to Dr. Peyton Flake, my ad manager had suffered a slight sprain and was on crutches.
But Carla folded her arms across her chest and planted her booted feet squarely on the worn linoleum. “I’m not going to the clinic. I’m never going to the clinic, not even if my arms and legs fall off. Ginny can put Leo on a sled.” She slammed back out of the office again.
I raised my eyebrows. “What did Leo do to Carla? Or is she mad at Ginny?”
Vida was editing her new copy. She didn’t look up. “Carla isn’t angry with either of them. She’s broken off with Peyton Flake.”
“Oh.” Vida’s niece, Marje Blatt, worked at the Alpine Medical Clinic. Like so many of Vida’s kin, Marje was not so much a relative as a conduit. If Marje had ever taken an oath regarding patient confidentiality, there had been an asterisk excluding Vida. Had Vida been Catholic—perish the thought from her Presbyterian soul!—my pastor, Dennis Kelly, would have sent a note off to the Vatican stating the seal of the confessional did not apply when it came to my House & Home editor. Doctors, lawyers, merchants, and chiefs acknowledged Vida as both source and repository. If any of them objected, they didn’t dare say so.
I sat down on Vida’s desk. Never mind that there were stories to write, proofs to read, and a newspaper to lay out. An unhappy staff is an unproductive staff. Leo was injured, Ginny was detained, and Carla was in a funk. I needed the facts if I was to cope with my personnel and meet a deadline.
“Dr. Flake is too big for his britches,” Vida declared. “Since he came to Alpine last year, the clinic’s practice has grown. Young Doc Dewey gives all the credit to his new partner for actively soliciting new patients from the Stevens Pass corridor. It’s true, I’m sure. Young Doc is like his late father, competent, thorough—and passive. But Peyton Flake is, as you know, a maverick. Not only does he possess the latest methods in medicine, but he markets himself aggressively. He also considers himself a god. Carla is irked.”
I didn’t blame her. Carla isn’t stupid, but she does a fine imitation. Peyton Flake might take advantage of what I considered her lack of focus. Maybe he belittled her, or at least teased too much. At twenty-five, Carla’s self-esteem wasn’t firmly rooted. At forty-two, my own was on shaky ground.
“Maybe they’ll make up,” I said. “They’ve been going together for six months.”
Vida didn’t reply; she was inserting a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter. Using only two fingers, her hands danced across the keys. I retired to my office, wondering about our lead story.