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MY HAIR WAS three inches too long and my bank balance was thirty dollars short. I wasn’t due for a paycheck at The Alpine Advocate for another two days. As the newspaper’s editor and publisher, I could have given myself an advance. But that was cheating, which I despised. I’d done it once, with somebody else’s husband, and the price had been high. In this winter of my introspection, I’d finally closed that long-overdue account.
Waiting to cross Front Street, I pondered my old sin and my new attitude. The affair twenty-three years ago had given me a son, a broken heart, and a skewed slant on love. The object of my blighted affection was currently separated from his certifiably crazy wife. But divorce wasn’t imminent. Waiting for Tom Cavanaugh to leave Sandra was like winning the lottery—there was always a chance, but the odds were terrible.
My patience with Tom had run out. I’d finally exorcised him on New Year’s Eve. He’d called from San Francisco to tell me how much he loved me. I’d said that was nice. Tom was justifiably bewildered. I wished him a Happy New Year and hung up. Six weeks had passed, and I hadn’t heard from him again. Maybe he’d gotten the message.
I had no regrets. I felt liberated, even exhilarated. On an overcast February day in Alpine, Washington, with four feet of snow covering the ground and a sharp wind blowing down from Mount Baldy, I felt buoyant. It didn’t bother me that the buildings along Front Street were small and drab, with piles of dirty snow hugging their facades. I ignored the jarring sound of a drill at the corner of Front and Second. All it meant to me was a two-inch story, about a frozen pipe across the street at City Hall. I could sniff the sweet cedar smoke from the sawmill and the heady aroma of chicken soup from the Venison Inn. As far as the eye could see on the main thoroughfare, there were no more than twenty vehicles in transit. With not quite four thousand residents, the town neither hustles nor bustles. While I often missed the city, Alpine’s quiet, arctic isolation suited my present mood just fine.
The thought of submitting my unruly brown locks to the capable hands of Stella Magruder was very appealing. Heedlessly, I allowed a logging truck to fling slush on my boots. Recklessly, I crossed Front Street before one of its two traffic lights changed. Giddily, I entered Stella’s Styling Salon and greeted her assistant, Laurie, at the counter.
Laurie is pretty, pleasant—and dumb as a rope. As usual, she couldn’t remember my name. This might be common in a busy metropolis, but Stella’s Styling is the only beauty parlor in town.
“Emma Lord,” I said with a big smile. Nothing was going to shake me from my newly acquired sanguine state.
“Umm.” Laurie scanned the appointment book. “Would that be a haircut or a facial?” Her bland blue eyes gazed beyond my left ear.
The salon had recently begun offering facials. There were rumors that massage might follow. I kept smiling. “A haircut, with Stella. Two o’clock.”
Miraculously, Laurie found my name. “Ms. Lord,” she said, with doubt in her wispy voice. Reaching under the counter, she handed me a black smock. “You can change next to the facial room. It’s in the back, by the rest room. Okay?” Laurie sounded as if it probably weren’t.
The smock-changing routine was new, along with the facials. Vaguely, I recalled where the rest room was located. As I passed by the two workstations, Stella’s reflection smiled at me in the big mirror that covered most of the wall. She was putting the finishing touches on an elderly woman I’d met somewhere around town. The blue rinse bordered on the garish, but the soft curls looked nice.
“Hi, Emma,” Stella said in greeting. “I thought you’d died. You should have been in here before the end of January. Now I’ll have to get out the hedge clippers.” She laughed, a husky, happy sound that followed me through the door that led to the salon’s nether parts.
The rest room was clearly marked. But there were four other doors. One of them was ajar, but I could hear the swishing sound of a washer and the hum of a dryer. I remembered that this was the salon’s laundry and linen room. Uncertain as to which was the changing area, I opened the door opposite the rest room.
I’d made a mistake. This was the facial room. It was lighted only by a pair of thick aromatic candles. A woman was lying on the table, swathed in a sheet and a couple of towels. Her face was covered with dark green cream, and there were cotton pads over her eyes. I intended to apologize for the intrusion. But before my brain could connect with my voice, I saw that the woman’s throat had been cut from ear to ear. There was no doubt that she was dead.
My sanguine mood was shattered.
* * *
Stella was the first to hear me. She rushed into the dimly lighted corridor gripping a comb. My initial reaction was that it was a weapon, and Stella was going to stab me. I screamed again, took in the alarm on her face, and tried to calm down.
“The woman in there is dead,” I said, gulping and gesturing. “Her throat’s been cut.” My unsteady legs forced me to lean against the wall next to the facial-room door.
Stella visibly steeled herself, then pushed the door all the way open. Dropping the comb, she put both hands over her mouth to stifle a cry. Laurie appeared at that moment, along with a dark-haired young woman I didn’t recognize. Stella whirled, grabbed her assistants by their shoulders, and spun them back down the narrow corridor.
“Becca! Call the sheriff!” Stella gave herself a shake. “Better yet, run over and get him or whoever’s there. Hurry!”
The Skykomish County Sheriff’s Office was almost directly across the street from the Clemans Building, which houses the salon. Becca, who I knew only by sight, now hurried away. Laurie stood dumbly by the rest-room door, watching her employer with uncomprehending blue eyes.
“Let’s go back into the salon,” Stella said, firmly closing the door on the dead woman. “I don’t want to see that again.”
Still shaking, I followed Stella and Laurie. The bright lights of the main salon hurt my eyes. Indeed, I seemed to hurt all over.
“Who is it?” I finally breathed as I half fell into the vacant chair at Laurie’s station.
Before I could get an answer from Stella, she saw her Blue Rinse waiting patiently at the front counter. I suddenly remembered that the woman’s name was Ella Hinshaw. She was a shirttail relation of my House & Home editor, Vida Runkel. Ella was about seventy, and deaf as a post. It appeared that she hadn’t heard my screams, though she was eyeing all three of us with curiosity.
Stella arrived at the counter. It sounded as if she was trying to get rid of Ella before the sheriff arrived. Laurie was leaning against the shampoo bowl, looking bewildered.
“Who was it?” I hissed at her.
Laurie turned her wheat-colored head in my direction. Every time I saw her, both her style and shade were different. “Ms. Whitman,” she said in a hushed voice. “You know—that woman from Startup.”