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I HADN'T BEEN SO angry since I was a freshman in high school and my brother Ben told a boy I really liked that I'd had a sex change. “Emma,” Ben said to Nick Battista some thirty-five years ago, “is really a man.” Nick ran like a scared turkey.
“Stop that!” Vida Runkel cried as I threw my coffee mug across the newsroom. “Violence doesn't become you.”
I glared at my House & Home editor. “Then what should I do? Haul Crystal Bird into court and sue her for libel?”
Vida picked up her mug of hot water and eyed me from under the brim of her charcoal-gray fedora. “From what I've read, Crystal hasn't actually libeled you. Yet.”
“She called me lumplike,” I said, glancing down at my reasonably trim figure. “When did she see me? Where did she get the idea I was a lump?”
“A figure of speech, I'm sure,” Vida said blithely. “Like sleeping with the enemy.”
I stopped storming around the newsroom to see if Vida was being sarcastic. But her broad face under the tousled gray curls seemed innocent. Still, I could never be sure with my House & Home editor. Her mind travels many roads at once, and at terrific speed.
Still angry, I waved the latest copy of Crystal Clear at Vida. “It's only a matter of time before she goes too far. Every issue gets more scurrilous. Last month, she criticized me for driving a Jaguar, and never mind that it's fifteen years old and falling apart. Now she's invaded my private life. What next? And why?”
Vida set the mug down and folded her sturdy arms across her equally sturdy chest. “A good question. Are you certain you don't know her from somewhere? After marrying and moving away from Alpine, Crystal spent most of her adult life in Oregon. Perhaps you crossed paths while you were living in Portland.”
“If I did, I don't remember.” Stopping by my ad manager's empty desk, I tried to get a rein on my temper. “If she liked Oregon so much, why didn't she stay there?”
Vida peered at me over the rims of her new red-framed glasses. “You didn't stay. You moved here. Crystal, at least, is originally from Alpine.”
Even after almost nine years, the natives still considered me an outsider. Sighing, I sat down in Leo Walsh's vacant chair. “I'm tempted to contact a lawyer,” I said, ignoring Vida's remark. “Every issue of Crystal Clear is more brutal.”
“In the old days,” Vida said, turning to her battered upright typewriter, “there were several independent publications around here. Cass Pidduck put out a virulent socialist newsletter urging the extermination of Alpine's class system, which didn't exist when this was a company town. Arthur Trews became a religious fanatic in some bizarre sect that promoted the worship of squirrels. And of course there was Averill Fairbanks and his UFO postings, so very peculiar, especially his sketches of what he called Jumping Jupiter Jackrabbits. No ears at all. What kind of a rabbit is that? Sometimes Marius Vandeventer would get quite up in arms,” she added, referring to the previous owner of The Alpine Advocate.
“The woman can't write, either,” I declared, poking at the four-page newsletter. “This is a turgid, pedantic bunch of crap.”
“She spells better than Averill,” Vida said, inserting a sheet of paper into her typewriter. “Certainly her punctuation is superior to Arthur Trews's and Cass Pidduck's. And please watch your language, Emma.”
“It's still crap—or worse,” I muttered, scrunching up Crystal Clear and tossing it into Leo's wastebasket. “Crystal worked for a bank in Oregon. Why didn't she stick to numbers instead of words?”
“I believe,” Vida said in an annoyingly calm tone, “she put out the bank's newsletter before they downsized and let her go.”
“In-house publications,” I sneered. “They give people the idea they can actually write.” I paused as my new reporter, Scott Chamoud, entered the office. “Scott,” I began as he grinned a greeting at Vida and me before sitting down at the desk that had belonged to Carla Stein-metz Talliaferro until she quit to get married, “you're from Portland. Did you ever run into this Crystal Bird person?”
Vida looked up from her typewriter. “She wouldn't have been Bird then. As I understand it, she took her maiden name back only after she left Portland. She would have been Crystal Ramsey or Crystal Conley, depending upon which husband she was married to at the time.”
Scott, who is so young and good-looking that he makes my eyes water, leaned way back in his swivel chair. “Portland, like Seattle, is a generic term for a forty-mile radius. I was born and raised in Gresham, a suburb. I'm afraid there are several hundred thousand people in Portland that I don't know, Mrs. Runkel.”
My new recruit, who had joined the staff November 1, wisely deferred to Vida. Indeed, Scott had excellent manners, as well as brains and talent. After not quite a month with The Advocate, his only drawback was that he had severe difficulties meeting a deadline. I hoped that experience would cure him, but knew that Carla had never gotten the hang of the inverted pyramid concept in straight news reporting. Her whos, whats, whens, and wheres could be found scattered throughout the story, instead of in the lead paragraph. I was realistic, however. With the salaries that I could afford on a small weekly, the perfect reporter was beyond my means.
Vida sadly shook her head. “Imagine,” she murmured, “living in a place where you don't know the other inhabitants. I've never understood why people choose cities over small towns.”
The typewriter rattled as the keys clicked at Vida's usual two-fingered staccato pace. My wrath had waned, at least for the time being. I'd never met Crystal Bird, which made her use of me for target practice all the more puzzling. Luckily, she published Crystal Clear on an erratic schedule. She had moved back to the area in April, and brought out her first edition in June. So far, there had been seven issues in Volume One. Since this was the Friday after Thanksgiving, I hoped I'd be free of her harangues until New Year's. Otherwise, Advent was going to be a spiritual bust.
I was off to a bad start anyway. Having missed a full day of work, we had some catching up to do to make our Tuesday deadline. With Scott still easing his way into the job as well as the community, I had to handle more of the hard news until he became assimilated.
Bringing up my editorial format on the computer screen, I uttered a sigh of resignation. The second bridge over the Skykomish River was in the news again, after four years of false starts. The three old duffers who made up the county commissioners had finally yielded to pressure from the community college to change the original site. I was duty-bound to praise them and had written the first two sentences of my editorial when my old friend Paula Rubens came into the cubbyhole I call an office.
“I have my hand out,” Paula announced, easing her full figure into one of my twin visitors' chairs. “Literally.” She reached into her briefcase and passed a single typewritten page across the desk.
I scanned the sheet, which displayed the logo of Sky-komish Community College. “Is all the stained glass your doing?” I asked, referring to the announcement of an upcoming exhibit at the student union building.
“In a way,” Paula replied with a wry expression. “This is only the second quarter that I've taught glass-making at the college. Let's just say that the students who are taking part in the show have had a lot of help. And,” she added, with no attempt at false modesty, “the really good stuff is mine.”
I grinned at Paula, who had the power to lift my spirits. “So the glass show starts next Friday in the RUB,” I said, using the acronym for the college's Rasmussen Union Building. “Why so late? Aren't finals coming up?”
“Not until December tenth,” Paula replied, untangling the strands of glass beads that cascaded over her handsome bosom. “Assuming we get that far. Wouldn't you know it, my second quarter on campus, and we've got a threat of sexual harassment, two cases of date rape, and a poli-sci professor who showed up in class wearing only his mackinaw.”
My eyes bulged. “How come I don't know anything about this stuff?”
Paula sighed. “Because none of it has gone public. I should have kept my mouth shut. Sometimes I forget you're the press.” She laughed and gestured at my cubbyhole with a dimpled hand. “All this power in one tiny room.”
“Ha.” My spirits dropped a notch. “Have you seen this week's copy of Crystal Clear?”
Paula laughed, a hearty, rich sound that seemed to make my plywood walls shake. “Not yet. But I've seen the earlier issues. Is Crystal still trying to run you out of town?”
I nodded. “Why has she got it in for me, Paula? You mentioned that you knew her. Has she ever told you why she hates me?”
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe whistled as it slowed on its approach to Alpine. A fresh snowfall the previous night had required crews to plow the stretch of tracks between Alpine and the Cascade Tunnel.
Paula shrugged. “Don't editors need a target? You're a major one for Crystal. Who else can she pick on?”
I admitted I wasn't the only victim. She'd attacked Sheriff Dodge, Mayor Baugh, the county commissioners, the U.S. Forest Service, the state department of wildlife, the local clergy—just about everybody, and all in less than six months. “My complaint,” I said to Paula, “is that when it comes to me, she gets personal. Last month she jumped me for using the term Pilgrim Fathers in an article on Thanksgiving, and before that, she pitched a five-star fit because Vida had written ladies instead of women in a piece about the Burl Creek Thimble Club.”
Paula shrugged again, then rose from her chair. “Crystal's always been big on women's issues, and I don't blame her. Don't sweat it, Emma, she's not evil, just a little off center. She might move on to somebody else eventually.”