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Ed Bronsky was leaving a strange trail behind him on Alpine's grapevine. The Alpine Advocate's former ad manager was creating a stir with his unusual behavior. He'd been spotted at the Grocery Basket stuffing bananas in his raincoat pocket, at Cal Vickers's Texaco station putting only three gallons of gas into his Mercedes, and leaving the Burger Barn without paying for his double deluxe bacon cheeseburger with extra fries. Indeed, I had noticed him in church at St. Mildred's dropping coins into the collection basket instead of waving a check with his usual flourish.
My House & Home editor, Vida Runkel, was sorely tempted to put some of those occurrences into her weekly gossip column, "Scene Around Town," but even she felt there might be something seriously wrong with Ed. Many years earlier, he'd quit his job at the Advocate after inheriting a pile of money from an aunt. Ever since then he and his wife, Shirley, and their five children had lived the high lifeor as high as you can get in Alpine, with its four thousand residents living in semi-isolation eight miles from the Stevens Pass summit.
I was about to discover the answer.
Ed had wedged himself into one of my two visitors' chairs on this first Monday morning in January. He looked more pugnacious than crazy.
"I want my old job back," he said without any preamble.
I was aghast. "What?"
Ed nodded once, his three chins settling into his Burberry muffler. "That's right. I'mwe'rebroke."
Given the rumor mill, I wasn't completely bowled over. But I was still flabbergasted. "What happened?" I asked, pretending I hadn't heard his request to be reinstated. "I thought you had a financial adviser."
Ed cleared his throat. "I do. But . . ." He averted his eyes. "The dot-com disaster, 9/11, the whole downturn thing . . . plus, I made a few investments on the side. They didn't turn out so good."
I had to ask. "What kind of investments?"
Ed shot me a swift, furtive glance. "Prune-based fuel. Plastic tires. Paper shoes."
I didn't know what to say. "Those sound like kind of far-fetched ideas, Ed."
He pounded his pudgy fist on the table. "No! Think about it! We're ruining the planet by relying on traditional natural resources. We've got to find other solutions. We have to seek unusual means to maintain our quality of life. Was Ben Franklin flying a kite far-fetched? You bet. But look what happened."
I sensed that this spiel wasn't Ed's but had come from whoever had conned him into his bad investments.
He sighed and swiped at the comb-over that hid part of his bald dome. "There goes Stanford. Shirley and I really wanted to send at least one of our kids there."
It would have been unkind to point out that even if the Bronskys could have sent one of their five children to Stanford, that didn't mean that child would get in. I figured Ed would have had to endow most of the Bay Area to get his offspring accepted at the academically challenging Palo Alto school.
But I had to say something. "I'm so sorry, Ed."
He shrugged, the powdered sugar on his cashmere overcoat sprinkling the air of my cubbyhole office like tiny snowflakes. "You got any more of those doughnuts?" he asked.
"I think you ate the last three," I said.
"Oh." Ed frowned. "Maybe it's just as well I never got that bond issue on the ballot last fall," he mused. "Even if it'd passed, I'd probably still have had to invest some of my own money for the Mr. Pig Museum and Family Fun Center."
Ed was referring to his harebrained scheme for an amusement park that would feature the Mr. Pig characters from a Japanese animated TV show that had been loosely based on his self-published autobiography, Mr. Ed.
"Yes," I agreed. "And it certainly would've been a lot of work." Work. It was a word with which Ed had only a passing acquaintance, as I'd learned to my sorrow when I inherited him from the Advocate's previous owner, Marius Vandeventer.
"So what about it?" he asked, burying his chins deeper into his muffler. "I mean . . . that is . . . what's the chance of getting my old job back?"
I grimaced. "We have an ad manager, Ed. Leo Walsh has done an outstanding job ever since you quit."
Ed looked at me as if I were dumb as a rope. "Emma, Emma," he said in a condescending tone, "Leo came here from California. Southern California," he added, emphasizing the part of the state to make it sound even worse, like having pulmonary pneumonia instead of simple bronchitis. "I'm an Alpine native. Who knows commerce around here better than I do? Who hobnobs with all the business and civic leaders? Who plays golf with Mayor Baugh?"
I honestly didn't know what to sayexcept, of course, to refuse Ed's request to return to work. "Why didn't you run for county commissioner in November?"
Ed grimaced. "I missed the filing deadline." He paused and looked away. "And I forgot there was a fee, even for a write-in candidate."
I'd known that, of course, but I wanted to hear Ed admit it. "That's too bad," I said. "You could have added something to the board." I was sincere. Our trio of doddering old coots should have been voted out of office long before, but nobody sane enough to replace them had ever offered any opposition. Even Ed would have been an improvement. At least he didn't drool at meetings.
But I had to deal with reality. "Have you any income?" I asked.
Ed looked wistful. "A little. Not enough to cover the mortgage and everything else."
I nodded sympathetically. "Given your close association with the business community, surely you can find a job."
Ed bridled. "Not just any job! Not after what I've been . . ." He leaned forward, his stomach pressing against my desk. "I'm an ad man. I'm not an auto mechanic or a building contractor or anything like that. I need to do what I've always done."
And done halfheartedly, I thought. I sighed. "I simply can't replace Leo. He's earned his keep."
Leaning back in the chair, Ed jiggled one leg up and down. "Right. I understand. Okay." The chair creaked under his weight. "If . . . never mind." He got to his feet, huffing and puffing a little. "I never thought I'd have to put my kids to work."
"Why not?" I said. "They should work. They're old enough except for the two youngest. Jobs would be good for them. They need to take responsibility."
Ed shuddered. "They won't like it."
I was tempted to say that was a hereditary trait, but it would have been cruel to kick Ed when he seemed down. My phone rang. I hesitated in answering it, but Ed waved a hand.
"Go ahead. I'm out of here." He opened the door to the newsroom. The last I saw of him was a mound of cashmere overcoat scurrying past Vida's desk.
The call was from my brother, Ben, who was still in town after spending the holidays with me. On Christmas Eve day he'd driven over two thousand miles in two and a half days from his temporary parish in East Lansing, Michigan, and he was taking an extra week's vacation after New Year's. My son, Adam, who is also a priest, had come down from St. Mary's Igloo in Alaska December 19 but had to go back to his ice-bound outpost on the third. Adam had stayed with me; Ben was bunking at St. Mildred's rectory.
"Sluggly," Ben said, using his childhood nickname for me, "who's Anna Maria Della Croce?"
The name rang only the faintest of bells. "Am I supposed to know?"
"Den's not here this morning," Ben said, referring to St. Mildred's pastor, Dennis Kelly. "Remember, he was taking a long weekend in Seattle to recover from all the Advent and Christmas hoo-hah."
"Oh, right." I saw Vida's imposing figure heading in my direction. "Anna Maria what?"
Ben spelled her last name. "She called the parish office at seven this morning, asking for Den. I thought she said Ben, so I got her confused."
The confusion was understandable, since my brother had filled in for Father Den during his six-month sabbatical. "What about it?" I asked as Vida stood behind the visitor's chair that Ed had recently vacated.
"She started telling me her troubles as if I should know," Ben went on, "and I finally figured out she thought I was Kelly. I don't recall her from the six months I served here, and I couldn't find her in the parish directory file. She needs to talk to Den, not me."
I looked up at Vida, whose face was puckered with curiosity. "Does the name Anna Maria Della Croce mean anything to you?"
Vida repeated the name several times, very fast. "It should." She frowned. "Really, I can't place her. Are you sure she lives in Alpine?"
I started to relay the message to Ben, but Vida's trumpetlike voice already had reached his ear.
"If Vida doesn't know her," Ben said dryly, "nobody does."
My brother was right. Vida was the font of all knowledge in Alpine, having been born and raised in the small logging town some seventy years earlier.
"Did she give you a local phone number or address?" I asked.
"Yes," Ben replied. "A number, that is."
"Is her situation dire?" I inquired as Vida leaned over my desk to try to hear Ben on the other end of the line.
"No. Naturally, I can't tell you what the problem is even if it's not under the seal of confession," Ben said. "Anyway, she rattled on like a steam engine, and I'm not sure what she was talking about, except that it's something she seems to have discussed with Kelly. Got to go. I have to take Holy Communion to a couple of sick people at the nursing home."
"Well?" Vida said after I'd hung up. She was leaning on the desk with both hands, and her felt hat with the feather looked like something left over from a B movie version of The Three Musketeers. "What's going on with that ninny Ed? He wouldn't even talk to me just now."
It was useless to keep information from Vida. She'd find out eventually, even if she had to tap every one of her considerable resources. "He says he's broke. I gather he's been doing some investing on his own and it hasn't turned out well."
"Of course not." Vida sat down. "So foolish. But I'm hardly surprised. Why doesn't he sell that ridiculous house of his?"
"Who'd buy it?" Casa de Bronska was an Italian-style villa that Ed and Shirley had built at the east end of town above the river and the railroad tracks. It was complete with swimming pool, marble statuary, and Tuscan tiles featuring likenesses of the Bronsky family and their dog, Carhop. "There's no market for that kind of house in Alpine."
"True," Vida allowed. "So silly to have such a house around here. The only thing it's fit for is some kind of retreat center, or perhaps an inn."
"That's not a bad idea," I said. "You should suggest that to Ed."
Vida shot me a disgusted look. "He wouldn't listen to good sense. That's undoubtedly how he got himself into this mess in the first place."
"I'm afraid so," I admitted, and paused. "He wanted his old job back."
Vida's jaw dropped. "No! What nerve! Leo can be aggravating, especially when he smokes, but he's ten times the ad manager Ed ever was. I hope you told him no."
I nodded. "I wouldn't jeopardize Leo for the world, and certainly not for Ed Bronsky."
"Honestly." Vida thought for a moment, shaking her head and folding her arms across her jutting bosom. "Who is this Anna Maria person? I'm trying to remember where I've heard the name. There aren't that many Italian families in town."
I shrugged. "Father Den will know when he gets back tomorrow. From what I gathered, whoever she is, she's not standing on a chair with a noose around her neck."
"I've no patience with people who do that sort of thing," Vida declared. "So selfish, to the very end." She turned as our office manager, Ginny Erlandson, came into the newsroom with the mail. "I should see what's piled up over the weekend." Vida rose and walked in her splayfooted manner to her desk.
As usual, Ginny delivered my batch first; it was one of the few perks I had as the Advocate's editor and publisher.
"It looks like the usual," she said, putting the stack into my in-basket. "PR and news releases, ads, and a couple of bills."
"Nobody does much between Christmas and New Year's," I noted. "How was your weekend?"
"Fine," Ginny replied. "We took the boys up to the summit so they could go sledding. It's so weird not having snow in Alpine this time of year."
It was weird. The Pacific Northwest was suffering from drought. While it might be convenient to not have to dig out from under a couple of feet of snow during the winter, the freezing level in the Cascades had receded above Alpine's three-thousand-foot altitude. Despite the off-and-on-again rainfall, the lack of snow meant there would be no reserve come spring and summer. I'd written a couple of editorials on the subject, but Mother Nature didn't subscribe to the Advocate.
"Your boys are getting so big," I remarked, sifting through the dross of mail in search of gold. Nothing even remotely glittered.
Ginny nodded, her single red braid bouncing over her shoulder. "They grow up so fast. Rick and I wonder if we should try for a girl."
It wasn't up to me to offer family planning advice. Over thirty years earlier, I'd given birth to Adam while not married. "You can't guarantee gender," I pointed out. "Vida had three girls."
"I know." Ginny gazed at the piece of mail that lay on top of the pile that still had to be delivered. "Vida's getting a shower invitation today from Julie Nelsen. I got one, too."
I tried to look pitiful. "Not me?"
Ginny, who is quite bright but lacks a sense of humor, looked embarrassed. "I didn't think you knew Julie."
I grinned, hoping Ginny would realize I was teasing her. "I don't. I mean, I know who she is. Julie works at Barton's Bootery. Her folks are Gustavsons, right? And she's married to . . ." I blanked.
"Nels Nelsen, from Index," Ginny said helpfully. "This is their first baby. They've been trying for years."
I decided not to say that they must be really worn-out. Ginny would take me literally. "That's nice. The Gustavsons are related to Vida, but I'm not sure how."
"Sometimes I think Vida's related to everybody in Alpine," Ginny declared. It wasn't much of an exaggeration. "She's amazing. I'd better take her the mail."
I polished off my share of the delivery in less than five minutes. The next day was the deadline for the weekly edition. I had no inspiration for an editorial. Maybe I could write a stirring piece asking our readers to donate money to a fund for the Bronsky family. I wondered how many of the locals would be gloating over Ed's decline and fall. I knew he'd rubbed a number of Alpiners the wrong way with his conspicuous consumption.
I strolled out into the newsroom, where Leo Walsh had just returned and was already on the phone. He gave me a high sign as I passed his desk on the way to the coffeemaker. My only reporter, Scott Chamoud, was scouring the streets for news. Or, I should say, street. Alpine had only one main east-west artery, which was where most of the local government and business offices were situated. Scott had had some news of his own before the holidays when he and his longtime girlfriend, Tamara Rostova, had gotten married in October. The wedding had been celebrated at the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Seattle. Our entire staff had attended, along with many of Tamara's Skykomish Community College colleagues. I couldn't give Scott a raise, but I ran up my much-abused credit card by giving them four settings of their china pattern. It was akin to a bribe, since I feared that the newlyweds might make good on their mild threat to move out of Alpine.