After a relatively calm and cozy holiday season, neither Emma Lord, editor and publisher of The Alpine Advocate, nor her husband, Sheriff Milo Dodge, are surprised when their new year gets off to a rocky start. A woman’s body has been found in a squalid motel. Her driver’s license shows that Rachel Jane Douglas was in her late thirties and lived in Oakland, California—and the only connection between that town and Alpine is their gold-mining and logging origins. When they discover that Rachel’s room reservation was open-ended, Emma, Milo, and the ever-inquisitive Advocate receptionist, Alison Lindahl, are more than mildly curious. And never mind that the youthful Alison is a bit distracted by the new county extension agent’s virile good looks. She can still sleuth while she stalks her newest crush.
But that’s not all the news that’s unfit to print. There’s something strange about the older couple who have moved into the cabin down the road that was once owned by a murder victim. The elderly wife seems anti-social. There’s got to be a reason, which Emma, Milo, and Alison intend to find out—even if it puts them in deadly danger.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I’ve never been called a prima donna, but as editor and publisher of The Alpine Advocate, I, Emma Lord Dodge, am entitled to be annoyed when I enter my office on the second Monday in January and find a chicken clucking on my desk. Never mind that the Bantam Red hen was staring at me with beady-eyed indignation. I stared right back.
“Whoa!” The masculine voice behind me belonged to Leo Walsh, my ad manager. “How’d that get in here?”
“That’s what I want to know,” I said. “Where’s Alison? I didn’t see her at the reception desk when I came in.”
“The back shop, maybe?” Leo leaned down to pick up the hen, but she flapped her wings and skittered away to land on my chair. “Hey!” he shouted as he clapped his hands. “Out! Now!”
Apparently the chicken didn’t like loud voices. She turned her back on us and pecked at the draft of an editorial I’d started Friday afternoon. It wasn’t one of my better efforts, so maybe that was her way of offering criticism. Before Leo or I could react, our office manager ran toward us.
“So that’s where the chicken went,” Alison Lindahl muttered. Diving across my desk, she grabbed the hen. But the chicken wasn’t giving up without a fight. She tried to flap her wings, but Alison’s grip was firm as she carried our intruder through the newsroom and to the reception area.
Leo chuckled. “I’ll bet that hen followed the new county extension agent in here. I think he brought a news release.”
“And a chicken,” I muttered. “I haven’t yet met the guy, though Alison pointed him out to me on the street. Boyd Lanier.” I smiled at Leo. “He’s fairly young and good-looking. Quite a change from his predecessor.”
My ad manager nodded. “Single?”
I nodded. “According to the official Skykomish County news release, Lanier is thirty, from Wenatchee, and a graduate of Washington State University. I suspect Alison would let him lead a herd of goats into the office. She and I must talk.”
“And I,” Leo said, turning toward the newsroom, “must talk local merchants into buying ads so we Advocate staffers can afford food. My wife is fond of both cooking and eating. I’d gotten used to meager meals during the years we lived separate lives. Liza didn’t. Now we find two Walshes can’t live as cheaply as one.”
“But you’re both happy about that,” I pointed out.
“True. Incredible, but true.” Leo’s walk was almost a swagger as he headed through the newsroom.
I smiled as he put on his trench coat. It was raining, which was good, since Alpine is at the three-thousand-foot level of the Cascade Mountains. Old-timers recalled as much as eight feet of snow on the ground during winters when they were young enough not to be hampered by having to tunnel their way to school on Tonga Ridge. Recent winters had been more benign. Global warming has had its effect during my sixteen-plus years in Alpine.
I’d arrived with a college-bound son, a used Jaguar, and the ownership of a small-town weekly newspaper. Back then I was more intimidated by failure than hoping for success. The resident ad manager, Ed Bronsky, was a lazy, gloomy dud. I never had the heart to fire him, but after a frustrating three years he’d inherited money and quit. That’s when I hired Leo. Thanks to his hard work, the Advocate was still solvent. While newspapers were in peril all over the country, there was an advantage to living in a small town. The eight thousand residents of Skykomish County knew most of their neighbors. They liked reading about their fellow Alpiners—and themselves.
I was mulling other topics for this week’s editorial when our former House & Home editor tromped into my cubbyhole of an office. “Well now,” said Vida Runkel, settling her majestic self into one of my two visitor chairs, “Alison tells me you were invaded by a chicken. Don’t argue. I’m putting that in my ‘Scene Around Town’ column.”
“That’s fine,” I assured her. Not that Vida ever needed my approval. She’d worked for the newspaper long before I arrived in town. But in the fall, she had finally announced her retirement. Vida had been a staple of the Advocate for over ten years before I bought the newspaper. Naturally, there were occasional problems about which of us actually ran the show. Now in her late seventies, she was entitled to take her ease, but I’d had trouble imagining the newspaper without her. As it happened, I didn’t have to. Vida had retained her right to “Scene” with its snippets of Skykomish County residents’ daily lives, along with her advice column and an occasional feature about senior citizens. She’d been replaced—not quite the right word, since nobody really could replace her—by Leo’s wife, Liza, who had once held a similar job on a Los Angeles–area newspaper. In fact, that was how the Walshes had met some thirty years ago.
“I’d hoped,” Vida went on, “to interview the sheriff’s new deputy, since she’s female, but my nephew Billy told me Mitch Laskey has already gotten the assignment.”
Bill Blatt was one of Vida’s numerous relatives on her mother’s side and thus duty bound to tell all to his redoubtable aunt. He was also one of Milo Dodge’s deputy sheriffs.
I shrugged. “County law enforcement is part of Mitch’s beat. I could hardly not give him the interview.”
Vida adjusted the single pheasant feather of her broad-brimmed hat. “I suppose that’s so. But I’ve already met her.”
“So has Mitch. He introduced himself on her first day of work last Monday.”
“So did I.” Vida’s gray eyes were glittering behind her gold-rimmed glasses. “She’s rather nice-looking.”
“Didn’t your husband say so?”
“No,” I replied. “Milo mentioned that she was qualified and seemed sharp. There were four other candidates, but he considered her the one best suited for the job. She’d worked for law enforcement in Tacoma but wanted a change. Having only one female deputy until now, the sheriff felt Doe Jamison has been overworked dealing with abused women, especially during the holidays with so much drinking.”
“Yes. I’m sure she’ll find Alpine a wonderful place to live. And work.” Vida turned thoughtful. “Consuela De Groote. What can she be?”
“Milo’s new deputy?” I smiled when I said it.
Vida wasn’t amused. “I meant her nationality. She looks French to me. But the name doesn’t suit her.”
“She’s probably gotten used to it.”
“Perhaps.” Vida paused, then shrugged her broad shoulders. “I must get to work on ‘Scene.’” She made her splayfooted way out of my cubbyhole.
I returned to my editorial. After my standard—and dull—hope for everyone in SkyCo to have a healthy, happy, prosperous new year, I needed something fresh. What I really wanted was to demand that County Manager Jack Blackwell put streetlights on Fir Street where the sheriff and I resided in what was now our log cabin since we’d finally gotten married last spring. I could also push for sidewalks, but knew that’d break the budget. If there was one. But whatever I suggested, Blackwell would dismiss. He and Milo had never gotten along since Jack first came to town thirty years ago, when my future husband was still a deputy. I couldn’t stand Jack, either. Yet he ran Blackwell Timber as an efficient, safe operation and treated his employees fairly. He had even survived a public tirade against him by a woman who blamed him for her husband’s death in an Idaho logging operation. Being our second-biggest employer after the community college, I had to tread lightly around Black Jack.
Alison brought in the mail a little after ten-thirty, which was later than usual. “Marlowe Whipp’s limping,” she said in a cheery voice. “He was hit by a car.”
Our regular mailman was a chronic complainer, but this news jarred me a bit. “But he’s doing the route? What happened?”
“The car had started to back up and only bumped him,” she replied. “But you know Marlowe. He likes to gripe. I’m surprised he didn’t ask the post office to relieve him for the rest of the day.”
I was, too. But before I could say anything, Alison went on. “The new county extension agent is a hottie. He’s not married.”
“So I understand from the news release. Has he asked you out yet?”
The cheer faded a bit. “No, but I’ll figure out something. Maybe I’ll ask him if he could teach me to churn butter.” Alison didn’t quite dance out of my office, but she came close.