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Daheim / ALPINE YEOMEN
My head was pounding.
Delete that. Bad reporting on my part.
It was the pounding over my head that was driving me nuts. Silly me, to think I could escape the chaos of my little log cabin by striking out early on a drizzly April morning to The Alpine Advocate.
“Paging editor-publisher Emma Lord,” intoned my ad manager, Leo Walsh, as he entered my office. “How come you’re here before eight?”
The pounding had mercifully stopped long enough so I could hear him. “I forgot that one of the Bourgettes is finally putting a decent roof over our heads here at work. You may recall I canceled doing it last July because I couldn’t afford replacing the leaky tin with slate. Not that I’m sorry they . . .” I winced as the pounding resumed. “Oh, hell!” I exclaimed, getting up. “Did you do the bakery run already?”
Leo and I went into the newsroom, where the noise was muffled. “I had advance notice in this week’s Upper Crust ad featuring a new kind of Italian slipper. Those things sell fast, so I thought I’d get there when the bakery opened. How’s the renovation going at your place?”
“Dick Bourgette and his sons are fine,” I said, being my usual perverse self and taking a French doughnut instead of an Italian slipper. “It’s the pile drivers or whatever it is that make an awful noise. They have to go down into the rocky face of Tonga Ridge to anchor the addition out back. It feels like an earthquake in the house, and it’s really loud.”
Leo frowned at the coffee urn, which hadn’t quite finished perking. “You sure the ground’s thawed out so far below the surface?”
I nodded. “Scott Melville—our architect—assured us it was. We could’ve started sooner, but the Bourgettes had to repair those homes that were damaged during the March windstorm. When Alpine was founded almost a century ago, there was snow on the ground from September until May. This winter was mild. Too mild. We haven’t had snow since January and not much rain since then.”
The expression on Leo’s weathered face was wry. “It’s a good thing. I might’ve headed back to California. I haven’t seen my new grandson yet.”
My shoulders slumped. “If you took a few days off, you’d come back, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, sure,” Leo replied, seeing that the coffee was ready. “I won’t be sixty-two until May. I’d like to hang on until sixty-five, but . . .” He shrugged before filling his mug.
“Is Liza willing to take you back after all these years?” I asked.
“I hope she’s leaning that way.” He smiled wistfully. “It doesn’t seem possible, does it?”
I tried to put on a brave front. Leo’s defection from his family dated back well over a decade. Between his heavy drinking and the eventual loss of his advertising job, he’d drifted north. I’d hired him ten years ago in desperation. To his credit and my relief, he’d managed to straighten himself out. I’d feel lost without him.
“As I’ve learned,” I said slowly, “all things are possible.”
“So,” Leo said, picking up an Italian slipper, “how’s life with the sheriff? I haven’t seen much of him lately.”
“That’s because he took some time off to help Scott Melville and Dick Bourgette get the remodel project under way,” I replied, following Leo to his desk after pouring my coffee. I’d already eaten the French doughnut. “Milo had to supervise some maintenance work on his own house, too. He’s back on the job today.”
“I don’t want to be nosy,” Leo said, easing into his chair, “but is Dodge still dividing his time between his daughter and you?”
“Milo isn’t staying at his house much now,” I replied, but I didn’t elaborate as Mitch Laskey entered the newsroom.
“Good morning,” my reporter said, looking reasonably cheerful for a Monday morning—and for being Mitch. He often wore an aura of hard-earned gloom. “Vida’s outside. She has a flat tire.”
Leo laughed. “Is she pumping it up with her own hot air?”
Mitch shook his head. “Watch it. You want the wrath of Runkel to come down on you? As we know, it’s awesome to behold.”
“She’s still not her usual redoubtable self,” I remarked. “I suppose she’s waiting for Roger to prove himself as the peerless grandson she’s always insisted he is despite ample evidence to the contrary.”
Mitch frowned. “I missed most of that when I left town to bring Brenda back from Pittsburgh,” he said, referring to his wife. In late December she’d suffered a breakdown after their son Troy botched his second escape from the Monroe Correctional Complex. “But I got a dose of the Vida Freeze before I left. She seems in better spirits lately.”
“There’s still room for improvement,” I declared—and wished I’d kept my mouth shut, especially since Vida was making her entrance.
“Well now!” she exclaimed. “This is no way to start the week. Cal Vickers is bringing me another tire, so the Buick doesn’t have to be towed to his Chevron station.” My House & Home editor paused in the removal of a felt bowler hat plastered with limp paper daffodils. “Goodness, is that noise coming from your office, Emma?”
“It’s stalking me,” I replied. “I had to endure deafening sounds at home, too.”
“I assume,” she said archly, “you’re not referring to your often overloud husband.”
I ignored the comment. It was easier to return to my office and try to ignore the pounding. Vida’s disposition had improved only marginally since she’d managed to save her adored great-grandson, Dippy, from the clutches of his mother, the town hooker. But she still blamed Milo, Prosecuting Attorney Rosemary Bourgette, and Judge Diane Proxmire for not putting together a tighter case to prevent Holly Gross from being released on bond after shooting a local drug lord. Never mind that the sheriff should have busted Roger for his own misdeeds. Despite all the problems the spoiled lump of a kid had caused, Vida still doted on him. She refused to appreciate that Milo had gone easy on him, not just because Roger had provided valuable information about the most culpable of the culprits, but for Vida’s sake. In fact, she had yet to offer congratulations on February’s civil ceremony uniting Milo and me in marriage. But while I was now Mrs. Dodge, I remained Ms. Lord on the newspaper. The sheriff and I agreed that we had to keep the often confrontational nature of our jobs separate from our private lives. I preferred the loud pounding over Vida’s sharp tongue.
By eight-thirty, the noise had stopped. John Bourgette, Rosemary’s eldest brother, came in to tell me that the cost of the repair would be factored into his father’s invoice for the addition to my—our—house. That was good news. It wouldn’t have to come out of the Advocate’s tight budget. It was typical of Milo’s attitude that I shouldn’t be out of pocket for the remodel. He had wanted to cover the entire cost to ensure that it was our home, not just mine. His house in the Icicle Creek Development had been on the market since the third week of March, but real estate wasn’t moving fast anywhere, especially in a small town like Alpine. When the property did sell, we’d have to deal with the removal of one entrenched item: his daughter Tanya. She was still recovering from what had been diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder after being shot by her fiancé before he killed himself.
Just before nine, Mitch returned from making his early morning tour of the courthouse and the sheriff’s headquarters. He was shaking his head when he came into my office to lower his lean and lanky frame into one of my visitor chairs.
“I hope,” he said, “that living with Dodge is easier than working for him. The sheriff isn’t pleased with the way his staff ran the operation in his absence. He was sparing nobody, his daughter included. Do you think she likes working for her father?”
“It’s one way to keep tabs on her,” I said. “She can’t just sit around his house watching TV all day.”
“But Dodge wasn’t around much lately,” Mitch pointed out.
I couldn’t resist a little smile. “It’s also a way she can hang out with Deputy Bill Blatt. And vice versa.”
Mitch, who has been in Alpine since coming from Detroit in September, still isn’t attuned to small-town ways. He somehow manages to avoid the local grapevine. Back in February, he’d suggested investigating the sheriff’s department because he felt Milo had been on the job too long “without some transparency.” I’d finally broken the news to him that I was about to become Mrs. Dodge. Incredibly, he’d had no idea we were even dating, let alone that we’d been friends for fifteen years and off-and-on lovers for the past decade.
“No kidding,” Mitch murmured. “I thought Bill got married.”
“He was engaged,” I said, “but they broke up during the holidays.”
Mitch nodded absently. “Isn’t he somehow related to Vida?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Half of Alpine is. She’s his aunt. Vida was a Blatt before she married. Is there anything like news coming out of the courthouse or the sheriff’s office?”
“A couple of marriage licenses at the courthouse, a divorce filing, and a broken window in the basement,” Mitch informed me. “No sign of illegal entry, though. As for the sheriff’s log, a cougar sighting, three prowlers, two domestic violence calls, vandalism of the Big Toy at Old Mill Park, one runaway teenager reported . . .”
I held up my hand to interrupt. “That’s the second one in a month. The other girl—I forget her name, Samantha Something-or-other—had gone off with her boyfriend. Who’s this one?”
“A sixteen-year-old named Erin Johnson. Address is First and Spruce.” Mitch’s expression was curious. “The trailer park?”
“Probably,” I agreed. “Maybe these girls have spring fever. Anything else?”
Mitch nodded. “Four collisions, three on Highway 2 and one on the Burl Creek Road. No fatalities, no serious injuries. Fairly tame on the roads for a weekend. Oh—Ron Bjornson quit as the sheriff’s handyman. He got promoted to head of security at the community college.”
“Bjornson’s a column inch or two of copy,” I remarked, thinking that Milo would have to find a replacement. “Keep tabs on the Big Toy thing. It’s probably kids.”
Mitch got out of the chair. “Hey—thanks for suggesting that Brenda try the RestHaven shrink. She likes Dr. Reed.”
“Good,” I said, smiling. I didn’t add that Tanya was also seeing Rosalie Reed, who was treating her for PTSD.
After Mitch went back to his desk, I turned to my editorial. Off and on for the past two months I’d followed up on Mayor Fuzzy Baugh’s plan to reorganize Alpine and Skykomish County. Fuzzy rarely had an idea, let alone a good one, but this time he’d come up with an extraordinary brainstorm. He proposed abolishing his own job, along with the trio of county commissioners, and replacing the positions with a professional manager. This would save money for everybody. I’d tackled the issue slowly, as befit Fuzzy’s laid-back native Louisiana roots. Only now was I about to endorse the revolutionary plan. I’d assigned Mitch to a front-page interview with our mayor. While the local citizenry might be opposed to change in any form, they were also tightfisted. Maybe not spending their money would trump clinging to the status quo.
It was a tricky editorial to write. I was finishing my opening paragraph when our receptionist, Amanda Hanson, brought me the mail, just before nine-thirty. Her olive complexion looked washed out, though she’d been in good health for the first five months of her pregnancy.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
After setting the mail in my in-basket, Amanda leaned on the desk. “I’m fine. It’s Walt who isn’t. He called to say I shouldn’t worry if I heard something was going on at the fish hatchery. But I am worried. He sounded really weird.”
“So it isn’t personal with Walt,” I said. “It’s a work problem, right?”
“I guess.” She frowned. “What can go wrong unless the fish died?”
“I’ll send Mitch to find out. It sounds like news.” I stood up to see if I could spot my reporter, but he wasn’t in sight. “Did he go out?” I asked.
“I think he’s in the back shop with Kip,” Amanda replied, referring to Kip MacDuff, our production manager. “If he comes my way, I’ll send him to see you.”
I nodded. “Hey, don’t get too upset. If Walt can call to tell you something’s the matter at the hatchery, then he isn’t being held hostage by outraged anglers like Milo who always gripe about the lakes and streams not being planted with enough fish. Maybe I should call my neighbor Viv Marsden. Her husband, Val, might’ve told her what’s going on since he’s the hatchery’s main man.”
“If you learn anything,” Amanda said, “let me know.” With less than her usual brisk step, she headed back to the front office.
When Mitch reappeared a few minutes later, I dispatched him to check with the hatchery. A moment later, Vida tromped in to see me.
“There is no reason for Maud Dodd to censor my copy,” she declared. “Is it my fault that Henrietta Skylstad and Oscar Halvorson prefer dancing with each other instead of their mates at the retirement home? Melvin Skylstad has only one leg and Selma Halvorson is deaf as well as blind.”
“Which part is Maud trying to censor?” I asked. “The leg? The blind? The . . . ?”
“The dancing part,” Vida broke in. “There’s been talk about Henrietta and Oscar for some time. They were sweethearts in high school, you know.”
“Ah . . . no, I didn’t,” I admitted. In fact, I wouldn’t recognize the Skylstads or the Halvorsons if they fell through my new roof. But Vida would have every detail of their lives and every other Alpiner’s tucked under whichever weird hat she was wearing. “What year did they graduate?” I asked, just to test her remarkable memory.
Vida tapped her cheek. “Oscar was a year ahead of Henrietta. He was in the class of 1928, so she was 1929. Not all that long before I was born. My mother often commented that she thought their breakup was a terrible mistake.”
I managed to keep a straight face. “I assume Maud hasn’t heard rumors of divorce.”
“No. I don’t recall anyone separating—certainly not in the nursing home section—despite the Whipps’ frequent attempts to kill each other. But Maud feels that mentioning Henrietta and Oscar dancing together at the April Fool’s Ball in my ‘Scene Around Town’ column could fuel ugly gossip. That’s absurd, since they were only dancing. Maud’s role as retirement home news contact has gone to her head.”
“It’s your column,” I pointed out.
“It certainly is,” Vida asserted. “However,” she added, pivoting on a sensible chunky heel, “I don’t want my news source to dry up.”
“You be the judge,” I said, uncharitably thinking that a lot of the residents at the retirement home had already dried up.
I watched as Vida put on her orange raincoat before leaving to face off with Maud Dodd. She’d been gone less than five minutes when I looked up to see the sheriff loping through the empty newsroom. He paused to pour a mug of coffee and grab a raised sugar doughnut before parking all six foot five of himself in one of my chairs.
“Did your staff quit?” he asked, taking off his regulation hat and tossing it on the other chair.
“They’re working,” I said. “They have to earn their meager pay.”
He glanced up at the low ceiling. “Got your roof fixed yet?”
“Yes. I was about to buy some earplugs. Did you just wander in to see if I’d survived all the noise, or do you have some news?”
Milo gestured over his shoulder toward the street. “I had to stop at the bank to get a cashier’s check for Melville. Except for overseeing the Bourgette crew, his part of the work is done.”
“Come on, big guy. I hear you chewed out your crew today. How come you’re calling on your wife instead of supervising those rascals?”
“Because she’s cuter than my crew?” He ran a hand through his graying sandy hair. “I do have news, my little smart-ass. Jack Blackwell just dropped the charges against Jennifer Hood.”
I stared at Milo. “Why? He didn’t mind that she tried to kill him?”
The sheriff finished the doughnut before he responded. “She was only trying to scare him for revenge after their long-ago and very brief marriage in California. Frankly, I hoped she might get serious about it and do him in. No such luck.”
Milo and Blackwell had a history. As the only mill owner in Alpine and now a county commissioner, Jack considered himself a big mover and shaker. The two men had been at odds since they were both in their twenties. Jack liked to throw his weight around, and even as a deputy, Milo hadn’t taken kindly to anyone who tried to bring him to heel. The relationship had been further fractured when Jack ran against Milo for sheriff—unsuccessfully—back when the job was an elected position.
“Since when did Blackwell get so softhearted?” I asked.
“I don’t think it’s that,” Milo replied. “I figure the SOB’s embarrassed. Oh, the brake tampering, the attempt to run him down, the shot that only tore his pants—he might’ve gone with that, but when Jennifer stabbed him in the back after he banged her for old times’ sake and then he went to sleep—that was too much. Especially since the moron didn’t even know he’d been stabbed and the wound got infected.”
I nodded. “That doesn’t make Jack look too swift. And even you have to admit he’s a shrewd businessman.”
“Oh, yeah,” Milo conceded, “the asshole is that. Will you write the story or hand it over to Laskey?”
“I’ll let him do it. I’d be tempted to turn it into a humor piece. Besides, Mitch gets touchy if he thinks I’m interfering with his beat.”
“He’s a prickly sort,” Milo said, taking a last swig of coffee before standing up and glancing over his shoulder. “Hey—there’s still nobody around. You want to close the door and pretend we’re in conference?”