Not even in Alpine, Washington, could the death of octogenarian Jack Froland be considered big news—except by his drinking buddies at Mugs Ahoy. But that suddenly changes when in the middle of the funeral, Jack’s widow hysterically insists that he was murdered. Emma Lord, publisher of The Alpine Advocate, who is already investigating a threatening letter received by the town’s beautiful blonde judge, now suspects she has two hot stories to unravel. Backed by her House and Home editor, that bottomless repository of scandal Vida Runkel, she prepares for a triple-threat special: murder, blackmail, and—as wildfire sweeps the mountainside— possible arson as well. But success will not come cheap. With a killer roaming the woods, it may cost Emma her life. . . .
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The Alpine Advocate
Novels by Mary Daheim
About the Author
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Tuesday, nine-fifteen a.m., publication day for The Alpine Advocate. Coffee and a croissant smeared with boysenberry jam. A quiet September morning with the sun filtering through the small window above my desk.
Quiet, that is, until my House & Home editor's hat fell off. She jumped from her chair, ignored the hat, snatched up a couple of sheets of paper, and stomped across the newsroom into my office.
"I've never seen the like," Vida Runkel huffed, slapping the handwritten sheets on my desk. "Believe me, I've seen my share of outrageous obituaries during my years with the Advocate, but this one beats all." She crossed her arms over her imposing bust and tapped an agitated foot.
As the weekly newspaper's editor and publisher for the past eleven years, I'd printed some real pips, including leads that read paddle your own canoe, arlo, georgie-porgie's eating heaven's pudding and pie, and agatha left her piano to her niece, but took her organs with her.
I began to read out loud.
"John (Jack) Augustus Froland died Monday night (Labor Day) at home in Alpine after a long illness. Jack, as he was known and loved by all, had turned 80 years young last month. Born Aug. 12, 1920, right here in Alpine, Jack was the son of Augustus (Gus) and Violet (nee Iverson) Froland. Jack graduated from Alpine High School in 1938 and went to work at the Tonga-Cascade Timber Mill until his retirement in 1985, when the mill was shut down due to pressure from the tree-huggers."
So far, so good. Well, maybe not very good, but at least not outlandish. I continued as Vida fumed.
"After serving with the Seabees during WWII, Jack returned to Alpine and married June Grandorf in 1948. Their daughter, Lynn, preceded Jack in death in 1967. A son, Max, lives in Seattle. Jack will be remembered as a hardworking, fun-loving man, especially to what he called 'his boys' at Mugs Ahoy Tavern. Funeral services are set for 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 8, at Faith Lutheran Church. Burial will be in Alpine Cemetery. A viewing of Jack's remains will be held at Driggers Funeral Home, Thursday, Sept. 7, between 7 and 8:30 p.m.
"come see jack in the box!"
I laughed. Not loudly, not uncontrollably, and not for long. But at least I laughed. I hadn't laughed much in the past fourteen months, and with good reason.
"We can't run this," Vida huffed. "It's too ridiculous. It's even worse than when Emily Trews wrote her own obituary and viciously attacked most of her relatives and half the congregation at First Presbyterian Church." And though Vida hadn't laughed, she didn't chastise me for doing so. Vida may work for me, but her seniority in years, employment on the Advocate, and august demeanor give her the right to take any one of us to task.
"We have to run it," I replied. "Ever since we started charging for space on the Vital Statistics page at the beginning of the year, we've promised to run items word-for-word except for spelling and grammatical corrections. And libelous material such as Emily Trews submitted."
Vida grabbed up the handwritten sheets, stomped out to her desk in the editorial office, and sat down with a thud. "You take full responsibility then," she called to me, whipping off her glasses and vigorously rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hand. "Ooooh," she wailed, "it must have been June who wrote this up. Jack's wife never did have any sense."
Most people didn't havemuch less usesense as far as Vida was concerned. I smiled in that vague, hesitant manner I'd developed over the past year and more. "Of course I'll take responsibility." I said from the doorway to my cubbyhole of an office. "I'm the publisher, remember?" Sometimes it seemed that Vida forgot.
"I suppose I'll have to go to the funeral," Vida grumbled. "I've known the Frolands forever."
Vida had known everybody in Alpine forever, and in a town of under four thousand citizens, she was related by blood or by marriage toby my estimateat least ten percent of them. Nor would she miss a funeralor a wedding or a christeningunless it was some poor soul who had only recently moved to Skykomish County.
My phone rang, recalling me to my desk.
"Emma Lord here," I said in my acquired robotlike manner.
"I'm going to Rome next month. Want to join me?"
It was my brother, Ben, calling from Tuba City, Arizona, where he is a missionary priest to the Navajo and Hopi tribes. The energy in his crackling voice forced another smile.
"Rome?" I said. "Why are you going there? Is the pope in trouble?"
"The pope's always in trouble with somebody." Ben replied. "I felt like I wanted to get away from here after the summer dust storms settle and before the ice shows up on the roads. Thus, I'm attending a conference on the home missions the third week of October. I'm serious. You could drink buckets of Chianti and put grape leaves in your hair and swim naked in the Trevi fountain while I'm meeting with a bunch of other priests who don't know what the hell they're doing, either. Then we could spend a few days in Paris or London. Take your pick."
I knew that Ben's offer wasn't for his own sake, but for mine. Without his hardheaded counsel in recent months, I might have gone over Deception Falls without a barrel.
"You're serious," I said.
"Sure. Why not? You haven't had a vacation in ages."
I noticed that he wasn't specific about the length of time. But in a generic way, he was right. It was almost two years since I'd taken any real time off from the newspaper.
"You think I should go, don't you," I said, not a question, but a statement.
"Yes, I do." Ben's tone was solemn.
"I don't want to go to Paris," I responded.
"I shouldn't have mentioned Paris. Sorry."
"London would be fine."
"You'll do it?" His voice lightened.
"Give me a few days," I replied. "I'll let you know after the weekend."
"Great," he enthused. "How are you doing, Sluggly?" he inquired, resurrecting his childhood nickname for me.
"I'm doing," I said, trying not to sound glum. "I mean, I really am better than I was, say, a month or two ago."
"Adam thought so when I talked to him after he visited you at the end of July," Ben said, referring to my only son who had been ordained a priest in the spring and was now assigned to an Inuit mission at Mary's Igloo, Alaska, not far from Nome. His ordination had been held in St. Paul, where Adam had attended the seminary. There, in the granite and marble splendor of the great cathedral, I wept tears of joy and sorrow. I was exalted by Adam's achievement, his dedication, his faith. I was heartbroken because Tom couldn't share this proud moment.
"I worry about Adam," I admitted, "when I'm not worrying about me."
"He's doing okay," Ben assured me. "Breaking into the priesthood keeps him occupied. He'll have plenty on his mind when winter comes and he has to fend off the sub-zero temperatures and the hungry grizzly bears."
I worried about that, too. The village was small and isolated. Adam had been candid about his orientation, informing me that every winter at least a couple of people froze to death or were mauled by bears. But that wasn't the only thing that troubled me about my son.
"Maybe," I ventured, "it's just as well he didn't know his father when he was growing up. When he finally met Tom ten years ago, they didn't have much time together. Or am I kidding myself?"
"I can't answer that," Ben said candidly.
"Adam may feel cheated," I said, doodling on a piece of paper. "He should. And it's my fault."
"Hey," Ben said sharply, "knock it off. You had your reasons, and they were pretty damned good at the time."
There was no point in arguing with my brother. It was an old bone we'd chewed between us. When I'd fallen in love with Tom Cavanaugh thirty years earlier, his married status hadn't prevented us from conceiving a child. Tom had been torn between his wife and me. But Sandra Cavanaugh had more than inherited wealth and emotional problemsher trump card was that she, too, was pregnant. I lost the hand, the game, and the love of my life.
"It doesn't matter now anyway, does it?" I asked in that wispy voice I used all too often when discussing Tom. I looked down at the doodles on my notepad. They were teardrops. If there had been room under the desk, I would have kicked myself.
"Jeez, Sluggly, cut it out," Ben rasped. "You're tough. You've been on your own since our folks died when you were twenty. I'm beginning to think you're playing a part. 'Emma Lord, Tragic Heroine.' It doesn't suit you. It's like Jerry Seinfeld playing King Lear. Feeling sorry for yourself is a sin. 'Fess up, I'm listening."
One thing about Ben, he could always get me riled. "I'm not acting, and I'm not feeling sorry for myself," I declared in a far from wispy voice. In fact, Vida had turned toward my open office door and wasn't bothering to conceal her interest. "Admit it, Stench," I went on, dropping a notch in volume and using my old nickname for Ben, "it's not easy to be planning a wedding and a Paris honeymoon with the father of your child and then have him shot to death before your very eyes."
"Well, at least you weren't the one who shot him."
"Ben!" I was shocked, though I knew he was trying to make me laugh.
I couldn't. Not yet.
I had just hung up the phone when Ginny Erlandson, our office manager, approached me with a note in her freckled hand.
"Judge Foster-Klein called a few minutes ago," Ginny explained in her sober manner. "I didn't know how long you'd be, so I told her you'd call back. She wants to arrange a meeting as soon as it's convenient."
I gave Ginny a curious look. "A meeting about what?"
"She didn't say," Ginny replied. "You know how Judge Foster-Klein isvery brisk. She also sounded . . . odd."
Marsha Foster-Klein wasn't particularly odd, but she could be downright acerbic, especially in the courtroom. For the past year and a half, she'd been sitting on the bench in Alpine, replacing our aged and senile superior court judge who thought he was a penguin.
"I'll call her now," I said, curiosity impelling me.
Marsha was temporarily ensconced in The Pines Village apartment complex on Alpine Way, but her office was in the courthouse. Since it was a workday, I was a bit surprised to note that Ginny had given me Marsha's home phone number.
When Marsha answered, her voice was thick and labored.
"Emma Lord here," I said, wondering if she were drunk. It wouldn't be the first time that a local judge had started the day with a quart instead of a tort.
"Emma," she said, then coughed. "Sorry. I've got an awful cold. Every year, just before Labor Day, I get a real pip. Maybe it's the change in the weather."
I expressed my sympathy, then asked the judge if she wanted to wait until she felt better for her proposed meeting between us.
"The sooner the better," Marsha said, and coughed some more. "I'm staying home today. Late this afternoon would be good."
Typical. At her convenience, not mine. Furthermore, I wasn't keen on walking into a House of Germs, but after a brief hesitation, I told Marsha that would be fine with me.
"Okay," she said, and excused herself to blow her nose. "Sorry. I've had this cold since Saturday. They say you can't give it after the second day."
I hoped so. Informing Marsha I'd be at her apartment around five o'clock, I rang off. It was Tuesday, our pub date, and with time off for Labor Day, we'd tried to get the paper filled before the weekend. Only late-breaking newssuch as Jack Froland's deathwould be included in this week's edition.
My shoulders slumped as I stared at the layout for the front page. I'd saved space for the photos our reporter, Scott Chamoud, had taken of the Labor Day picnic in Old Mill Park. As good as Scott was with a camera, he hadn't been able to rise above his subject matter: the usual three-legged races, demonstrations of pole-climbing, smiling wives showing off their pies, macho men bearing their flabby chests, and happy children running through the sprinkler system that hadas usualbeen turned on "by accident."
"You look like you just got thrown out at home plate," said my ad manager, Leo Walsh.
Trying to smile, I gazed up at Leo. "The Advocate has become incredibly dull," I declared. "And so have I. My imagination seems to have struck out swinging."
Leo abstained from sitting in one of my two visitor chairs and perched on the edge of the desk. "Except for the six-car pileups with multiple fatalities out on Highway 2, summer can be kind of dull. Things will pick up now that September's here."
"But will I?"
Leo, like everyone else in Alpine, knew the cause of my malaise. But unlike most others, he understood it better. Tom had been his boss and his friend. He'd given Leo a second chance when the World of Walsh was spinning out of control. Later, when Leo resumed drinking and his wife left him, Tom had asked me to give Leo a last chance. I'd agreed, and eight years later, I had no regrets. At least none about Leo.
"You'll be okay," Leo assured me. "You know something," he went on, lowering his voice and leaning closer, "you can mourn all you want for what might have been. But face it, Emma, you can't grieve for what you never had."
It was harsh counsel, but I knew Leo meant well. And he was right. "It's just that I'm not ready to . . ." I hesitated, trying to think of the right word. "To move on. I know that's crazy, but somehow I just can't."
Leo shrugged as he slipped off the desk. "You will. How about dinner after we put the paper to bed?"
I grimaced. "I can't. I have a five o'clock appointment with Judge Foster-Klein."
Leo frowned at me. "What about?"
Ordinarily, he wasn't the prying kind, but I knew what he was thinking: Judge Foster-Klein had handed down the stiffest penalty possible to Tom's killer. Two weeks after being shipped off to the penitentiary at Walla Walla, the S.O.B. had committed suicide. Maybe Leo thought I was crazy enough to ask the judge if there was a way that punishment could be dealt out beyond the grave.