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My brother ben was driving me insane. he'd missed my early November birthday, but sent a gift just after Thanksgiving. When the package arrived, I didn't open it. I was mad because he'd canceled his plans to join me for Turkey Day.
Then life took a weird turn, hurling me into a personal and professional crisis that made me forget about his present. But a few days before Christmas, I remembered that I'd ditched it in the back of my closet. It was a cell phone. Not having updated my ancient model and being high-tech impaired, I didn't know how to use the new one without directions. Ben told me there weren't any. He'd gotten it from an incarcerated drug dealer. I accused him of taking a bribe, but he insisted it was a thank-you for visiting the inmate who owned it. I believed him. Ben, after all, is a priest.
Thus, the Wednesday before Christmas, I showed the cell to Kip MacDuff, my tech wizard who runs the Alpine Advocate's back shop.
"This is the latest type," he said, his still-youthful thirty- something face envious. "I thought drug dealers only used cells they could toss."
"I don't care if they use two tin cans and a string," I said, sitting in my ad manager's chair in the newsroom. "Teach me to use it."
Kip hesitated. "I'll give it a run-through first." He picked up the device and fiddled with it. "Wow. It has all the latest gee-whiz features. Download music, access email, text?.?.?."
I held up my hand. "Stop. My son texts from St. Mary's Igloo. He's nagged me to get one of these so we can text each other. Phone connections to Adam in Alaska are dicey and email's too slow. I figure he and Ben conspired about this. Why do I think it'll drive me nuts?"
"It's easy, just tap in the words. You don't have to spell right. In fact, you shouldn't. You can only enter so many words."
I glared at Kip. "You're telling me-Emma Lord, your editor and publisher-that I can willfully screw up the English language?"
Kip grinned. "It makes communication faster. Don't you want to be in instant touch with Adam?"
"Not necessarily, since he took a vow of poverty. The kind of 'touch' my son puts on ol' Mom indicates he's trying to impoverish me."
"I thought Adam and Ben were coming for Christmas," Kip said as my House & Home editor, Vida Runkel, stomped into the newsroom.
"They are," I said hurriedly, aware from the look on Vida's face that she was about to make a pronouncement.
"Bones!" she exclaimed, whipping the plastic rain bonnet from her green derby hat. "I am so sick of bones!"
"What bones?" I asked, getting out of Leo Walsh's chair.
"Who knows?" Vida retorted, hanging up her tweed winter coat. "A bear, a deer, a gopher.?.?.?." She shook out her rain bonnet onto the radiator. "When any bones are found around here, the Eversons go wild. It's been sixteen years since Myrtle Everson disappeared. Why can't they let her rest in peace?"
Kip correctly assumed this wasn't the right time for a cell phone tutorial. He was moving toward the back shop, but paused at the door. "That Mrs. Everson thing happened not long after my high school graduation. Tina Everson was in my class. When her grandma didn't come back from berry-picking, Tina got us grads to search for her. We spent three days going all over the woods. I fell into a bunch of devil's club and practically itched to death."
Vida gazed at Kip through her new silver-rimmed glasses. "From what I heard, very little searching occurred. Beverly Tomlinson and Jeff Dahlquist had an unanticipated wedding in October. Their baby was born on April Fool's Day. Jacqueline Munson sprained her ankle running away from Terry Caldwell's amorous advances. Coach Ripley complained that when four of his seniors came to collect their sports memorabilia after supposedly looking for Myrtle, they were high on marijuana."
"Hey," Kip said, laughing, "we felt like we were out of jail."
"That's no way to talk about an education," Vida huffed as she sat down at her desk. "You're fortunate to have a marketable skill."
Kip made a little mock bow. "You're right. To prove it, I'll get to work." He exited the newsroom.
"Cheeky," Vida murmured affectionately. "If Kip doesn't have time to teach you how to use the cell, Ben can."
I sank into her visitor's chair. "True. I'll be able to text Adam."
Vida barely glanced at the cell. "Roger's texted for ages. If he joins the Marines," she added pensively, "he can chat with his chums."
I tensed, as I often did when she mentioned her grandson. Roger had finally gone off the rails in October, ripping the blinders from his grandmother's doting eyes. "Roger's taking Buck's advice?"
"Well?.?.?." Vida rested her chin on her hand. "It's either that or getting his grades up to attend Western Washington in Bellingham."
I had no idea how many credits-if any-Roger had earned in his sporadic career at Skykomish Community College. I was more interested in the status of the child he'd had by a local hooker who was doing time for offing one of her other customers. Vida was mum on the subject, although I assumed the toddler was being cared for by Roger's parents, Amy and Ted.
"As a career air force type, Buck believes in military life," she said, referring to her longtime companion. "But Roger could end up in harm's way. That terrifies me." She shuddered. Vida is a big woman, tall and buxom. I could've sworn the aged floorboards creaked under my chair.
She paused as Leo Walsh entered the newsroom. "Emma! Duchess!" he cried, freezing in place. "Duchess? Are you okay?"
Vida bridled a bit at the nickname she claimed to despise, though I sensed she secretly relished it. "I was considering the lack of peace on earth. Isn't that what Christmas is about?"
Leo went to his desk, a few feet away from Vida's. "Backslider I am, but I bring glad tidings of great joy." He propped his ad portfolio against the wall and removed his raincoat. "I sold six full-page ads, plus a four-color coupon for Pete's Pizza. And I conned the merchants who can still breathe without a ventilator into a double-truck New Year's ad. Isn't that jolly Advocate news?"
"Splendid, Leo!" Vida cried.
I leaped out of the chair to kiss Leo's weathered cheek. "You're a wizard! And you still have one more day before heading to California."
"I'll have everything set before I leave in case I don't get back by deadline. You can get bumped from a flight during the holidays."
"I should start next week's editorial," I said, backpedaling to my office cubbyhole. "Ben and Adam's visit may cut into my work hours."
"The priests," Leo remarked. "Where are you putting them?"
"Ben's staying at the rectory," I said. "He's relieving Dennis Kelly. If you'd go to Mass, you'd know Father Den is spending Christmas with his sister's family in Houston."
Leo wagged a finger at me. "Hey-I'll go to Mass with Liza and the rest of my family. I even know the liturgy isn't in Latin anymore."
"Good for you, Leo." I heard my phone ring and dashed to take the call before it trunked over to our temporary front office manager, Alison Lindahl. I barely said hello before Lori Cobb, the sheriff's receptionist, interrupted. "I've got bad news, Ms. Lord," she said in a tremulous voice.
I stumbled over the wastebasket and just managed to catch myself on the desk. "What?" I all but shouted, steeling myself for the worst.
"My grandpa died about an hour ago," Lori said, and paused.
I collapsed into my chair. "Oh." My voice was a croak. I cleared my throat. "I'm sorry, Lori. It must've been sudden."
"It was." Lori sniffled a couple of times. "A heart attack, I guess. He'd finished lunch and was sitting at the table and fell into his cake plate. Grandma called 911, but it was too late."
"Are you at work?" I asked.
"Yes, but I'm leaving soon." Lori paused. "My folks are with Grandma now. Mrs. Runkel will write the obituary, but I don't know when the funeral will be held, because of Christmas. I hate taking off from work when we're shorthanded, with Doe Jamison on vacation and the boss man gone."
I didn't need a reminder that Sheriff Milo Dodge was out of town. "He can't stay with his daughter forever," I said, trying to keep the lead out of my voice. "She's on the mend."
"Physically," Lori said, "but mentally, she's a mess. Who wouldn't be after getting shot by their fiancé before he killed himself?"
"Yes, very hard on Tanya. Her mother, too." And Milo and me.
"There's the other line-got to go." Lori hung up.
Vida, her nose for news at work, stood in the doorway. "Well?"
"Alfred Cobb died," I said. "Heart attack."
"It's about time," Vida declared. "He was ninety and gaga for ages. I wonder if Lori will take his place on the county commissioners' board."
"I doubt that's a high priority for her right now."
"Probably not," Vida conceded, moving closer to my desk. "Did Lori say anything about the bones?"
My mind had gone blank. "Bones?"
"The bones that were found." She scowled at me. "Are the Eversons insisting they be examined in case they belong to Myrtle?"
"She didn't mention it," I replied. "She was pretty upset."
"I suppose." Vida drummed her short fingernails on my desk. "The Cobbs attend the Baptist church. Actually, Alfred only went at election time. Still?.?.?.-that's where the funeral will be." She stood up straight. "I'll get his file out so I can write a draft while I have time." She started to turn away, but stopped. "Where's Mitch?"
It was almost three-thirty. My news reporter had left before lunch, saying he'd be back in a couple of hours. "He's shooting photos for our New Year's greeting. He said he'd wing it. I trust him, he's an old hand."
"A vast improvement after Curtis Mayne," Vida declared. "All those big ideas about going global. This is Alpine. What was he thinking?"
"He figured he'd get a Pulitzer after he got his college diploma."
"Curtis thought he was the story," Vida said. "Making a false homicide confession to write about the experience was the last straw. It's a good thing he didn't get charged with impeding justice. Milo was too lenient not doing any more than holding him overnight after he told such outrageous tales about shooting people."
"Milo couldn't stand having the little jerk around, either," I declared, as the screwups, missed appointments, and unreturned ASAP phone calls to Curtis came back like a bad dream. "All I wanted was to have him gone. Luckily, Mitch was available."
"I thought the Laskeys planned to visit family for the holidays," Vida said.
"They're waiting for better weather in northern Minnesota, where one of their sons and his family live. Being Jewish, Christmas isn't so big, except for Brenda filling gift orders with her weaving. Her shuttle broke last week, but she's found a local supplier for spare parts."
Vida nodded. "Yes, Dee Krogstad. She also weaves."
"Cut the Laskeys some slack," I said. "Having a son in jail at the Monroe Correctional Complex isn't easy."
"True," Vida agreed, "but Brenda strikes me as standoffish."
I stifled a smile. Vida's attitude really meant that the Laskeys were disinclined to reveal family secrets into her eager ears. A sudden commotion in the newsroom caught our attention. Vida blocked my view, but when she moved out of the way I saw the local postmaster, Roy Everson, at Leo's desk. An orange crate was next to him on the floor. Alison, looking puzzled, hurried to join me in my office doorway.
"Is Mr. Everson okay?" she whispered. "He's talking about bones."
"Don't get excited." I said softly. "It's not a crisis."
Reassured, Alison smiled and headed back to the reception desk.
Meanwhile, Leo was trying to give Roy the brush-off. "Don't ask me. Here's the expert," he said, pointing to Vida.
Roy turned to my House & Home editor, who, at almost six feet in her sensible heels, towered over him. "This could be Mama," he said, gesturing at the crate. "Why do Jack Mullins and Sam Heppner think it's a joke? Just because Dodge is away, his deputies sit around drinking coffee and wasting taxpayers' money. And some people say the post office isn't efficient! I knew you'd tell me I'm not crazy."
Vida cast her gimlet eye on the wooden box, apparently taking Roy's statement about the deputies as a challenge. "I'm always open to possibilities," she said. "Can you show me what's in there?"
"Sure." Roy picked up the crate. "I'll put it on your spare chair."
I was halfway across the newsroom when Leo started for the back shop. As Roy carted the box to Vida's area, my ad manager went by me, murmuring, "It's not heavy, it's my mother."
I managed not to laugh. Judging from Roy's earnest manner, this was serious stuff. I'd never paid much attention to the missing woman's saga. She'd disappeared before I arrived in Alpine.
I was refilling my coffee mug when Mitch arrived, a weary expression on his lean face.
"Whoa," he said, espying Roy. "We rate personal delivery? Who sent us oranges?"
I joined the others at Vida's desk. "Not even close," I murmured. "How did the photo shoot go?"
"I need more snow and less rain," Mitch said. "Days are too short, clouds too low, no mountain view." He stared at our visitor.
"It's a femur," Roy announced, holding up a large bone. "Human." He set it on Vida's desk, oblivious to her annoyed expression. "Two ankle bones," he said, showing off what looked like chicken drumsticks. "Aren't these worth testing at the Everett lab?"
"Where were they found?" Vida asked.
"Downriver on the Sky," Roy said, turning over the two smaller bones. "By the campground and the ranger station. A family heading over the pass last Sunday with their little boys stopped there. The kids were horsing around, digging up rocks along the riverbank. Their parents are into that geocaching thing. They found these." He carefully placed the small bones next to the larger one. "Human, right?"
"Perhaps," Vida conceded. "How did you get them?"
"The kids' folks took them to the ranger station. Wes Amundson heard about it and called this morning. He and the other rangers always let us know when they find something that might be Mama."
"Indeed," Vida said noncommittally, glancing at the bones. "I have no idea about anatomy. I assume you intend to have them tested?"
"Sure, but the sheriff has to get approval from SnoCo's DNA experts. Can you talk Doc Dewey into taking a look as our coroner?"
"Given that Doc's overworked and Milo will return soon, I suggest waiting," Vida said. "If the bones are your mother's, why rush?"