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The last time I saw my cousin Ronnie, he was half of a sack race at a family picnic. He was a clumsy kid, and the leg that was tied to my brother, Ben, managed to trip them both, so that they finished dead last.
I never imagined that the next time I saw Ronnie he'd be in the King
County Jail on a homicide charge.
The Ronnie Mallett I remembered from the gathering at Seattle's Woodland
Park was nine or ten, an undersized, unremarkable boy except for his cheerful disposition. I'd been entering my junior year at the University of Washington and felt the natural superiority that comes from age and the use of good grammar. Maybe that's the thing I remembered best about
Ronnie: He said ain't a lot.
"I ain't guilty, Emma," Ronnie said now, his thin face wearing an earnest expression that didn't quite suit him. "Hey, why would I kill Carol? I was nuts about her."
Carol Stokes was his girlfriend, a thirty-four-year-old woman who had been found strangled in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment in
Seattle's Greenwood district. Obviously, I was supposed to say something reassuring, such as, "Of course, you didn't, Ronnie."
But I couldn't and didn't. I hadn't seen my cousin in over twenty-five years. For all I knew, he could be a serial killer.
"I'm not sure I can be of much help," I said, substituting candor for comfort. "I'm not exactly sure why you asked me to come down from Alpine to see you here."
Ronnie's knuckles whitened as he gripped edge of the table that separated us. We weren't more than three feet away from each other, yet I felt the distance might as well have been the eighty-plus miles between Alpine and
Seattle. The visitors' area was painted a pale blue, about the color of
Ronnie's eyes, and just about as lifeless. My chair was hard and uncomfortable; so was Ronnie's, I supposed. The difference was that after
I stood up, I could leave the building.
"Like I said," Ronnie explained, "a coupla months ago Carol told me you were some kind of detective. See, she was raised in Alpine, but moved out when she was just a kid."
The original message I'd received from Ronnie's court-appointed lawyer two days earlier had asked me to visit my cousin in jail because I was an investigator. I was puzzled, since my job as editor and publisher of The
Alpine Advocate didn't seem to qualify.
"I'm not a detective," I said firmly. "I do some investigative reporting for the weekly newspaper I own in Alpine."
"Carol said you caught a couple of killers," Ronnie said in an accusing tone.
"Not exactly." An editor, a publisher, a reporter in a small town can get caught up in a case when local law enforcement is hampered by size and budget. Certainly in the ten years since I'd bought the paper, I'd helped out with some homicide investigations. Digging for information was an occupational necessity. But I was no sleuth. "Carol must have misunderstood. My main job is to report the stories after they happen."
Ronnie's lean face fell. I knew he was in his mid-
thirties, but he looked younger, if pinched and hollow-eyed. His dull blond hair fell over his high forehead, his upper lip disappeared when he smiled, and his eyebrows didn't quite match. Ronnie's overall appearance was that of a very old little boy.
I could see no family resemblance. Ronnie was fair, while I was dark-haired and dark-eyed. His narrow face with its ferretlike features was the flip side of my softer, more rounded contours. Maybe one of us had been a changeling.
"What'll I do?" Ronnie asked in a helpless voice.
"You've got a lawyer," I pointed out.
Ronnie shook his head. "He can't do me much good. Alvie's kinda young and real busy."
On the phone, Alvin Sternoff had sounded as if he was straight out of law school and maybe had finished in the bottom 10 percent of his class. He hadn't offered much advice on how I could help Ronnie.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked my cousin, and immediately cursed the soft heart that matched my even softer brain.
Ronnie leaned back in the plastic chair and gave me his guileless smile.
"Find out who really killed Carol," he said, " 'cause I ain't guilty."
"Do you believe him?" Vida Runkel asked the following Monday morning as I
stood in The Advocate's newsroom drinking coffee.
"I don't know," I said with a shake of my head. "The problem is, I don't know Ronnie. The last time I saw him, he was just a kid, and I don't think our families had gotten together more than four or five times before that.
My parents thought that his parents were--as my mother put it--'party people.' I translated that as 'too dumb to be hippies.' "
"My, my," Vida said, setting down her mug of hot water and adjusting the pinwheel straw hat that sat at a peculiar angle atop her unruly gray curls. "And you say his girlfriend--the victim--came from Alpine?"
The local angle intrigued Vida more than Ronnie or the murder. My House and Home editor is so thoroughly centered in the town of her birth that occasionally she has trouble accepting events that happen elsewhere as important or even real. Indeed, even World War II had been reduced in
Vida's mind to how she had traipsed along with her father on his air-raid-warden duties and looked into the windows of those foolish enough to leave the lights on and their shades pulled up. Snooping into other people's homes was a habit that she had never outgrown.
"Yes. Carol Stokes. Don't tell me you know her?" I was aghast. Vida knew everybody in Alpine, going back to the generations before her birth some sixty-odd years ago.
She grimaced. "Honestly, I can't say that I do. Carol Stokes." She said the name as if it were an incanta-
tion. "She must have left town at an early age and married. Carol Stokes,"
she repeated. "Carol . . . Carol . . . Carol . . ." Obviously, Vida was reaching into the past, taking inventory of every Carol who had walked
Alpine's steep streets on the face of Tonga Ridge. "Ah," she exclaimed at last, "Carol Nerstad! Now I remember!" Her broad face beamed in triumph.
"Nerstad?" The name was unfamiliar.
Vida nodded, the straw hat swaying dangerously. "Her parents died quite young, and Carol's brother, Teddy, moved to California. Burl, the father,
was killed in the woods, and Marvela, the mother, had cancer. A shame, of course, though they were a bit odd."
I refrained from asking Vida how odd. In her critical mind, the word could have described a penchant for putting gravy on gingerbread or having a physical relationship with the family pet.
"Goodness," Vida mused, "that must have been almost twenty years ago. As I
recall, Carol left town under a cloud, as we used to say."
My ad manager, Leo Walsh, turned away from his computer screen. "You mean she got knocked up?"
Vida scowled at Leo. "Mind your language. Yes, I believe she was pregnant.
One of the Erickson boys. Or was it a Tolberg?" She stopped and stared at me through her red-framed glasses. "Carol Nerstad was murdered? Heavens,
that's a page one story! Why didn't you say so, Emma?"
My family problem had finally landed in Vida's lap. "Because I didn't know
Carol was from here until I saw Ronnie when I was in Seattle over the weekend. Yes, it is a story for The Advocate, even though the actual murder happened a couple of weeks ago."
Vida was agog. "What about services? Where was Carol buried? Who handled the arrangements?" She slapped at her visitors' chair. "Do sit and stop prowling around like a cat on a griddle. "Why didn't we get a notice from the funeral home in Seattle?"
With a sigh, I sat down next to Vida's desk. "I haven't any idea about the burial. You know perfectly well that we don't always get alerted when a former resident dies. If my cousin had anything to do with it, he probably didn't even mention where Carol was born. I'm not sure he knows where he was born."
"But you do," Vida said, looking as if she was about to pounce on me.
"Yes, he was born in Seattle." I stared at Vida. "So what?"
"Family. Kin. Ties. Really, Emma," she said in reproach, "except for your parents and your brother, Ben, you don't speak much about your relatives.
Frankly, I've always found that odd."
Leo chuckled. "I find it a damned good thing. The trouble with you,
Duchess," he went on, using the nickname Vida despised, "you've got so many relatives and in-laws and shirttail relations that nobody can keep them straight."
"I can," Vida snapped. "One of the things that's wrong with this world is that families don't keep up with each other. They move here, there, and everywhere like a bunch of nomads. What are they looking for? Trouble,
mostly. If Carol Nerstad had stayed in Alpine, she probably wouldn't have gotten herself murdered. Now," she continued, her voice quieting, "tell me what happened, Emma."
"I would if I could get a--"
" 'Morning, all," said a deep voice from the doorway as Scott Chamoud arrived, late as usual. "What's up?"
"The Duchess's dander," Leo replied. "Thanks for joining us, Scotty. We're having a staff meeting."
My young reporter's limpid brown eyes grew wide. "We are? Did I forget?"
"No," I managed to get in, "you didn't. Leo's kidding. But," I added with a meaningful glance at my watch, "you're late. It's almost eight-thirty."
Scott waved a white paper bag he'd been hiding behind his back. "I know.
It was my turn to stop at the Upper Crust Bakery. Anyone for fresh doughnuts and some cinnamon twists?"
It was hard to get mad at Scott. He was not only a good writer, but handsome as hell. I didn't bother to remind him that he would have been late with or without the bakery stop.
"I'll take a twist," I said, holding out my hand. Vida, who is always dieting to no perceptible effect, staunchly shook her head. Leo snagged a couple of doughnuts before Scott sat down behind his desk.
"Okay," I said, taking a deep breath, then glancing at Scott. "I'm filling everyone in--I guess--on the recent murder in Seattle of a young woman who grew up in Alpine and 'left under a cloud.' "
"Pregnant?" Scott asked.