Murder is news--even when editor-publisher Emma Lord is away from The Alpine Advocate. A picturesque Oregon seashore village may not be Emma's traditional beat, but when a sensational headline-grabbing murder occurs, she's on the case.
It all begins as sexy Audrey Imhoff emerges from her nightly nude dip in the Pacific--and a killer makes it her last. A week later Audrey's husband disappears, and the couple's three adolescent children seem strangely relieved by his absence.
What's the story behind all this bizarre behavior? Emma Lord will find out-- or die trying. . . .
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Vida left her hat.” Leo Walsh twirled the maroon pillbox on his fingers and eyed me with wonder.
I stared. “Vida went out?”
My ad manager nodded.
“Without her hat,” I said, equally awestruck. Vida Runkel never went anywhere, except perhaps to bed, without one of her eclectic pieces of headgear.
“What gives?” Leo asked, placing the hat on his lap and sitting down in one of the two visitor’s chairs in my tiny editorial office. “She’s been kind of strange lately, don’t you think?”
In the concentrated energy required by The Alpine Advocate’s special edition to celebrate the opening of Skykomish Community College, I hadn’t had much time to observe my staff’s vagaries. But Leo was right. Our House & Home editor definitely had not been herself for the last few weeks.
“Is it that retired air-force guy?” Leo asked when I didn’t have a ready answer. “You know”—he made kissing sounds—“heart trouble?”
I shook my head. Vida had been seeing Buck Bardeen for over a year. It appeared to be a comfortable, companionable relationship based on shared interests. Since Vida and Buck were both in their sixties, I had assumed that unbridled passion played no part. But of course I could be wrong.
“She doesn’t complain about him,” I remarked. “She hasn’t been to see Doc Dewey lately, so I don’t think it’s her health.”
“It can’t be,” Leo said with an off-center grin that made his weathered face almost attractive. Our ad manager is a few years older than I am, and is from Los Angeles, a designation that carries with it a patina of sophistication for rural Pacific Northwestern natives. Leo has known the mean streets of alcoholism and the lean years of small newspapers. He appears to have come to rest in Alpine, settling in among the mountains and evergreens and gray days like an old dog hiding behind the stove. “The Duchess is invincible,” Leo added, using the nickname that Vida despised.
Vida seemed invincible. She is a big woman, with unlimited energy and boundless curiosity. “If it were family,” I mused, “she would have said something.”
“God, yes.” Balancing the hat in his lap, Leo lighted a cigarette. The match flared dangerously close to the pillbox. “All those damned relatives would drive me nuts. But then I’m not exactly a family man, am I?”
Leo had more or less surrendered his role as husband and father a few years back when his wife left him and his three grown children stopped speaking to him. In recent months, relations with the kids had warmed; it also sounded as if he and his ex could speak via long distance without blistering the telephone wires.
But it wasn’t my ad manager’s behavior that puzzled me. “Vida is usually so outspoken,” I said, trying not to inhale secondhand, lest I create an urge to try smoking firsthand. Again. “I suppose I could ask.”
“You could,” Leo said, getting up. “I wouldn’t. She’d take my head off.”
Vida might. While she was quick with opinions, Vida retained a private core that I was reluctant to probe even after seven years as her employer and friend. If she had something on her mind, she’d tell us eventually.
The same thing apparently occurred to Leo. “It’ll come out. Vida can’t keep anything under wraps forever. That big bazoom of hers would burst.” With a chuckle and another twirl for the pillbox, he left my cubbyhole.
I sat back in my chair, pondering the morning mail. Most of the letters addressed to Emma Lord, Editor and Publisher, were junk that could be thrown out without opening. But on this Wednesday in October, I found a letter I’d been waiting for: Mavis Marley Fulkerston, my old friend and former colleague on The Oregonian, had sent me directions on how to get to her new home in Portland.
I had been to Mavis’s house in suburban Tigard many times when I lived in Portland, but she and her husband had recently bought a condo on the Willamette River. While I knew the city like the back of my hand, it seemed that there were always changes in street directions and new traffic islands and other innovative sources of confusion in my old stomping ground. Studying the hand-drawn map, I smiled. If you get lost—get lost! My instructions are flawless! Mavis’s big scrawl careened across the bottom of the map, almost obliterating one of the street numbers.
I was tucking the map into my handbag when Vida came into the newsroom and headed straight for my office. She was hatless, breathless, and scowling.
“Carla is not to be the only person who has access to the college faculty,” my House & Home editor declared. “How dare they!”
“How dare they what?” I inquired, blinking rather fast.
Looming over my desk, Vida didn’t deign to sit. “The president, Ignatz whatever his name may be, and that dean of students—he also has a peculiar name. Tail-feathers, or some such. Really, Emma, can’t these people call themselves something normal, like Holmgren or Skylstad?”
It wasn’t like Vida to be so picky about non-Alpine—which translated as non-Northern European—surnames. “The president is Ignacio Cardenas,” I said calmly. “He prefers to be called Nat. And the dean of students is Ryan Talliaferro. We’ve certainly run enough stories about both of them lately.”
Vida snorted. “Carla’s stories have run, you mean. She’s hogged the entire college coverage from the day construction began. Now that classes have finally started, all I wanted to do was a story on Mrs. Cardenas and Mrs. Talliaferro. It turns out there is no Mrs. Talliaferro, and President Cardenas’s secretary—who is Siamese and chews gum—informs me that Mrs. Cardenas doesn’t care to be interviewed.” With an emphatic gesture, Vida folded her arms across her impressive bust.
“Maybe Mrs. Cardenas is shy,” I suggested. I’d met her only once, at an open house the week before fall quarter began. Justine Cardenas was pretty in a faded sort of middle-aged way, a too-thin blonde with nervous mannerisms. “Carla isn’t trying to freeze you out of the new campus, Vida. Is that what’s been bothering you?”
Vida drew herself up to even more imposing heights. “Bothering me? No, of course not. It doesn’t bother me in that sense. It annoys me. Alpine has an important new enterprise for the first time in years, and that newcomer hogs it all. Why shouldn’t I be vexed?”
Carla Steinmetz had worked on the paper for almost six years, but to Vida, she was still a newcomer. So, no doubt, was I. To a small-town native such as Vida, anyone who wasn’t born and bred on local soil would remain an interloper until he or she was buried under it.
“Believe me,” I said with feeling, “there’ll be plenty of stories coming out of the college in the months to come. Except for the dedication ceremony and my editorials, I haven’t written much about it, either. Don’t worry about Mrs. Cardenas. By the way, President Cardenas’s secretary’s name is Cynthia Kittikachorn. And I think Siam has been Thailand for quite a long time now.”
“You see?” Vida shot out an accusing finger, as if I alone were responsible for political change in Southeast Asia. “More ridiculous names! Why must countries keep calling themselves something else? Once you name a place, it ought to stay the same.”
“Alpine used to be Nippon,” I pointed out with what I hoped was an innocent expression. “Carl Clemans changed it on a whim.”
“It was no whim,” Vida declared, now hotly defending the man who had turned what was once a mere semaphore crossing on the old Great Northern line into a bustling mill town. “The Japanese miners and railroad workers had been gone for years. Alpine was a much more appropriate name for a forest-industry stronghold.”
The description was a bit grandiose for the little spot on the map where, even in their heyday, mills could be counted on one hand, and only the inauguration of a ski resort had saved the town from going under after the crash of ’29. Alpine’s history was as rocky as the crags on which it had been built, its legacy an uncertain, imponderable future.
I shrugged. “That was then, this is now. Maybe we should call ourselves College Place. Given the state of the logging business, Skykomish CC employs more people than the woods do.”
The comment rankled Vida as I knew it would. But even in her state of high dudgeon, she wouldn’t excoriate the coming of the college. “It’s been a godsend,” she admitted, simmering down. “But I still want my fair share of stories.”
“Granted,” I said. “Where’s your hat?”
“My …?” Vida’s hand flew to her unruly gray curls. “Oh! Wherever is it? I must have taken it off when I was … thinking.”
I pounced. “About what?”
Vida assumed an uncharacteristically vague air. “Oh … next week’s page. Now that Mrs. Cardenas has declined to be interviewed,” she continued in a firmer voice, “I shall have to come up with some original ideas. Mid-October is always difficult. Too late for back-to-school, too soon for Halloween.”
“Health care,” I said suddenly. “I was going to do it myself, but since I’ll be gone for a long weekend, why don’t you write a piece on the difficulty of placing doctors in isolated communities?”
It was the wrong thing to say. Vida bristled: “Isolated? How can you say that when Alpine is situated on one of the major state routes in Washington? We’re a virtual crossroads!”
“If you want to drive a mile off Stevens Pass to get here,” I said in a more sardonic tone than I’d intended. Noting Vida’s irate expression, I held up my hands. “I know, I know. The local economy is my bread and butter. I’m not knocking it. I just think I need … to … get away.”
Vida’s strong features hardened. “Perhaps you do. Portland, is it?”
“Yes. Right downtown by the train depot.” I heard the apologetic note creep into my voice. Alpine had a downtown and it had a depot, but I knew that Vida was making mental comparisons. Portland was home to half a million people; Alpine could barely count four thousand residents. Vida Runkel didn’t like it when Alpine came up short.
“Terrible traffic, I suppose. Crime. Expensive real estate. Drugs. Gangs. Tsk, tsk.” Vida pursed her lips. “Your dear friend Mavis,” she continued, exhibiting her inexplicable jealousy of my other female friends. “She must be a fascinating person.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “she’s very sharp and a lot of fun. I haven’t seen her for two years.”
“Mmmm.” Vida was gazing not at me, but at the clutter on my desk. “You leave Thursday night?”
“Right after work,” I replied. “I’ll be back Sunday.”
Her head shot up. “I’ll go with you.”
“What?” Vida possessed her share of brass, but I couldn’t imagine her horning in on my weekend with Mavis. “But … I don’t know if Mavis and her husband have an extra …”
Shaking her head, Vida tapped one of the few bare spots on my desk. “I’m not intruding on your visit. I’ll drive. I can drop you off in Portland and go on to my destination. I’ll pick you up on the way back Sunday afternoon.”
I was flabbergasted. “Where are you going?”
But Vida’s response was interrupted by Kip MacDuff, our back-shop wizard and county-wide deliveryman, who was dropping off the first editions of this week’s Advocate. As he handed Vida a copy and dumped a dozen or so on my desk, my House & Home editor made her exit.