For a small town newspaper like The Alpine Advocate, a new play at the local community college is big news. Editor and publisher Emma Lord is duty-bound to attend opening night, but expects the amateur enterprise will serve only as a cure for insomnia. The play is dubbed “a black comedy,” but the only laughs Emma gets are from the bad acting and the wretched script. And while the turgid production makes Wagner’s Ring cycle seem like a vignette, the real drama begins just before the final curtain.
Hans Berenger, dean of students, wasn’t well known or well liked around Alpine, but the audience found his death scene genuinely convincing—until they realized he wasn’t acting. No one can say how or when the blanks in the prop gun were replaced with the real bullets that killed Berenger, but the list of suspects reads like a playbill of the cast and crew. They all had opportunity, access, and their own axes to grind with the thespically challenged dean.
Seeking the assistance of Vida Runkel, the Advocate’s redoubtable House and Home editor, Emma Lord vows to unravel a mystery that spirals out into unexpected places. As Emma sets the stage for the most likely suspect, she finds herself in a two-character scene whose next cue could make the resolute editor take a final—and permanent—bow.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My brother, Ben, and I had flown into Rome on a dark October morning. A heavy rain fell all the way into the city from Da Vinci Airport, making it almost impossible to see through the train windows. It was eight-thirty in the morning when we got a taxi at the stazione to head for the Hotel Bramante near the Vatican. The buildings in the oldest part of the Eternal City showed their age, with bright colors dulled, wavery glass, worn wrought iron, and cracked stucco exteriors. Rome seemed as gloomy as Alpine, where it had rained for a week before I left. If this trip was my brother’s effort to raise my spirits after Tom’s death, I was afraid Ben had made a big mistake.
An Alpine winter is even gloomier than most autumns, but I’m used to it. Changes in the weather pattern during the past century have raised temperatures, however. No longer is the mountain town snowed in from October to April. The current fall had accumulated to over four feet, but it was the third week of February and that was ordinary at the three-thousand-foot level of the Cascades. Seventy years ago Alpine was completely isolated except by train—when the locomotives could push through. We still had the trains, but we also had roads and streets, and we usually had access to the highway. Stories were still handed down about snow up to the housetops and how close the community of two hundred hardy souls became when there was virtually no contact with the outside world. Listening to the legends, it almost sounded like fun.
But the good old days weren’t always so good. I was reminded of that fact when a group of Alpine residents decided to revive a theatrical tradition that had begun before World War One. Forced to rely on their own resources for entertainment, the diversions included lectures, musicales, sports competitions, and plays starring local amateurs. Judging from cast photos, the actors had a wonderful time. I’m sure the audience did, too. Maybe everybody was juiced on moonshine.
“Very professional productions,” declared my House & Home editor, Vida Runkel. “That is, given the limited amount of talent.”
Vida hadn’t been born until after the troupe shut down along with the original mill in 1929. But as a native Alpiner, she was loyal to the core. As a non-native, I was skeptical. Looking at the pictures of people in outlandish wigs and grotesque makeup, I sensed that the productions had been god-awful.
But the locals couldn’t leave good—or bad—enough alone. They had revived the tradition after World War Two, only to abandon it for a second time when the logging industry was hit hard in the early 1980s by environmental concerns. Then, two years ago, a group of misguided souls again reverted to tradition. Aided and abetted by the drama professor at Skykomish Community College, The Alpine Council Dramatic Club was resurrected, original name and all.
I’d seen only one of the first four plays—they did two a year—an uncut version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It certainly was. I felt as if I were nailed to my seat for twenty-four hours.
At least Eugene O’Neill could write. The current rehearsals were for a play called The Outcast, written by Destiny Parsons, the aforementioned college prof. It was described as a “. . . black comedy, revealing the inner struggle of a young woman to find herself in a small town.”
I could identify with the concept. Thirteen years ago, I’d come to Alpine as a thirtysomething woman. Despite my best efforts, it had been difficult to fit in. It wasn’t just my controversial status as editor and publisher of the local weekly, but that I’d committed the unforgivable sin of being born elsewhere, and in the big city of Seattle at that.
“Wait a minute,” I said, rereading the play’s premise. “Does this mean the protagonist is searching for her identity or trying to get out of town?”
Vida, who was sitting at her desk in the corner of the newsroom, whipped off her big glasses. “Of course not! Why would she want to leave?”
I’d been standing next to Leo Walsh’s desk. Leo, my ad manager, looked up from his computer screen. “Does the town have a name?” he asked with an innocent expression on his leathery face.
“Certainly,” Vida snapped. “It’s called Evergreen. But it’s obvious that it stands for Alpine.”
Leo retained his air of naïveté. “How miserable is she in . . . Evergreen, Duchess?”
Vida leaned forward, her imposing figure exuding hostility. “For the last time, don’t call me Duchess. You know I despise that nickname. As for the heroine, Dorothy Oz, she isn’t miserable—merely confused.”
I had to admit I hadn’t yet read the script. Nor did I intend to. Destiny Parsons was in her second year at Skykomish Community College, teaching drama, literature, English, and women’s studies. She seemed intelligent, if a bit stiff. In the normal course of events, I would rarely have seen her, but she’d recently bought a house across the street from me. We saw each other in passing, though neither of us had gone out of the way to become further acquainted. One of these days I’d have to make an overture, and it probably wouldn’t be a pleasant encounter. Destiny not only allowed her fox terrier to use my front yard as a rest room, but some mornings I’d seen Destiny urge the animal to cross the street and head for my property. I was growing tired of cleaning up Azbug’s messes.
“Maybe,” Leo remarked, lighting a cigarette while Vida shot more daggers his way, “I ought to take in a performance. What’s the schedule?”
I grabbed a copy of the Advocate and waved it at Leo. “Read all about it! Jeez, Leo, don’t you read anything except the ads?”
Leo didn’t bat an eye. “Hell, I don’t read those, either. Not after I put them together. If I want news, I go home and watch CNN or one of the Seattle stations.”
“Watch your language, Leo,” Vida murmured before our ad manager finished speaking. When he did, she really exploded. “That’s blasphemy! You must be joking! Though in very poor taste, if you ask me!”
Leo must have caught the look of dismay on my face. He knows better than anyone how a publisher reacts to TV-only news viewers. “You know I’m kidding,” he said in a reasonable tone. “It’s Wednesday, pub day. The paper just came off the press ten minutes ago. When would I have time to read it?”
“Start now,” Vida commanded. “Scott and I both have stories on the play. And in case you forget, the performances are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Indeed, the play will be presented twice Sunday, at a matinee and in the evening.”
“I’ll have to check my social calendar,” Leo responded. “I may have opera tickets or the symphony or an NBA game.”
I left Leo to fabricate and Vida to froth. In my small office, I sat down to look at the latest edition of The Alpine Advocate. My sole reporter, Scott Chamoud, had managed to fill up the front page all by himself. The recent snow—with more in the forecast—had partially made up for the lack of winter moisture in western Washington. There was hope for the ski industry after all. The weather had also given Scott an opportunity to take photos of children playing in the snow, trees in Old Mill Park covered with snow, and a traffic accident at First and Front caused by snow. We’d save the icicle pictures for next week.
Below the fold, there was Scott’s story about the play. It ran for six inches and jumped to page three. Vida had two rehearsal photos on her House & Home page, along with a head shot of Destiny Parsons and a feature on various cast members. Since Mayor Fuzzy Baugh was one of them and we hadn’t run his stock studio portrait, I expected the phone to start ringing any minute.
I looked up as Sheriff Milo Dodge loped into my office. At six-foot-five and wearing his regulation Smokey the Bear hat, he filled the door.
“I suppose it’s too late for a dead guy,” he said.
“You know it is,” I retorted, mentally cursing the prospect of losing a big story.
“Who is it?”
“No idea yet,” Milo replied, lounging against the door frame. “Somebody in a pickup just got creamed on Highway 2 by Deception Falls. Sam and Dwight haven’t called in with the ID.”
“Milo,” I said sternly, “you know damned well that our deadline is five o’clock Tuesday. Are you pretending to forget or pretending to be stupid? And why don’t you sit down? You’re looming.”
Milo rubbed his long chin. “I guess I’ve never figured out how you can have a Tuesday deadline, but the paper doesn’t come out until Wednesday afternoon. What about all this new technology? Why can’t the deadline be Wednesday noon or else have the paper come out in the morning? You’ve got a whole week to put the thing together.”
I tried not to gnash my teeth. “I’ve explained this to you a dozen times. We hold the front page open for late-breaking news. If there is any. We put features inside, I write editorials, we watch the wire services for anything connected to Alpine and Skykomish County. We have ads and classifieds and legal notices and vital statistics. Not to mention photographs and occasional artwork. The paper has to be laid out, and even with page-maker technology, it takes time. There are headlines to—”
“What artwork?” Milo interrupted.
He caught me off-guard; I was stumped. “Maps,” I finally said. “Graphs. Are you going to sit down or not?”
“Nope.” Milo stopped leaning. “I’ll let you know when we get an ID on the crash victim. See you.”
I watched him walk away. Recently the sheriff had become very aggravating. Over the years we’d had our ups and downs. Being friends was tricky. As lovers, we’d failed. Milo had wanted to take the relationship further. I hadn’t. Not then, when Tom Cavanaugh was still alive. Six months ago, I thought we’d reached a new, comfortable level of companionship. But lately Milo had been acting oddly, or at least showing me his prickly side. I’d seen it before. I supposed I could endure it again. I only wished I knew what had triggered the change.
Milo had been gone less than a minute when the phone started ringing. Obviously, the latest edition of the Advocate had hit the streets, no easy feat considering that only the main thoroughfares—both of them—had been plowed in the last two days.
The first call was in fact weather-related. It was from the ranger station, a couple of miles west of Alpine, informing me that it was snowing up at the Stevens Pass summit. They expected the state to close Highway 2 before dark. For now, vehicles with chains and traction tires could still get through.