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The month of June is unpredictable in Alpine. My House & Home editor, Vida Runkel, is not. But this spring and early summer, she’s been as changeable as the weather. Vida insists she isn’t angry with me, but her long lapses into silence are a sign that all is not well.
Sadly, I know the reason for her behavior. Vida’s embarrassed. Her adored grandson, Roger Hibbert, is serving a four-year prison term for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Or minors, in his case, having been busted for luring teenage girls into prostitution. As a sideline, he had also been dealing drugs.
Law breaking isn’t new to Roger, though the first time around Sheriff Milo Dodge went easy on the punk for Vida’s sake and because he’d ratted out our local drug dealers. However, his recent crimes were more serious. Vida was forced to remove her blinders and see Roger through realistic eyes. That, however, didn’t mean she was happy.
Neither was I, but my displeasure was with the weather. A June heat wave in our Cascade Mountains aerie is unusual. Instead of gray skies and intermittent showers, we were having bright sun and unseasonable heat.
“It’s not even ten and it’s already too warm,” Amanda Hanson griped as she brought in the morning mail. “I should write a letter to Vida’s advice column asking what she can do to fix it. What happened to our rain?”
I smiled at The Alpine Advocate’s receptionist and office manager. “We’ve had some early morning drizzle,” I pointed out. “And it’s always good to have had sun for the annual Summer Solstice festivities.”
“That was last week,” Amanda said, a hand on her bulging abdomen. “If it stays this hot and the baby doesn’t come for another couple of weeks, I may explode like a Fourth of July firecracker.”
I laughed. “My son, Adam, was born in June on the Mississippi Delta. Think humidity on top of heat. At least we’re spared that here in the Cascades.”
Amanda gazed up at my small office’s low ceiling. “I know. It can always get worse. Are you sure Alison Lindahl’s taking my place while I’m on maternity leave?”
“Yes,” I replied. “She doesn’t teach cosmetology during summer quarter at the community college. Alison came back from her Alaskan cruise Saturday. She’s spending a week with her parents in Everett, but if we need her, she can rescue us. She did a fine job when you left to fill in for the post office rush last December.”
Amanda suddenly looked dazed. “Where did this year go? So much happened in Alpine. Who says small towns are boring?”
Not me. Last June, if anyone had told me I’d be happily married for the better part of this year, I’d have reserved space for the predictor in RestHaven’s psych ward. I didn’t even know I was in love until after Thanksgiving. In fact, back then I’d never heard of RestHaven.
“Ahem.” Leo Walsh, my ad manager, stood in the doorway. “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” I replied, after giving a start. “I was wool-gathering. I’ve decided that my editorial this week should rouse the citizenry to endorse Mayor Fuzzy Baugh’s plan to do away with his job and the county commissioners. As usual, everybody in Skykomish County is suffering from utter apathy. Maybe it’s the heat.”
Leo’s weathered face broke into an ironic grin. “Having spent a long weekend recently in Southern California, I feel right at home. Don’t worry, boss lady, I have no immediate plans to retire even if I did turn sixty-two in May. But I’ll go back to Santa Maria for my son’s wedding later this summer.”
“Keep saying that,” I urged. “It helps dispel my fear of Ed Bronsky wanting his old job back. How are we shaping up for ads this week?”
“Not quite the desired sixty-forty split,” Leo admitted. “But we’ve got the special Fourth of July section coming out this week, which makes up for it. How much copy have you got?”
“Enough,” I said. “The insert’s front page will be the 1917 photo of the American flag presentation to Alpine for selling the most World War One Liberty Bonds per capita of any Washington city or town. There are two versions of that picture, but we haven’t run either of them for the last five years. Our readers never get tired of seeing those shots. Maybe I can use the old-timers as the hook to inspire the locals to get off their duffs and support Fuzzy’s government-reorganization plan at the polls.”
Leo nodded. “Shame them into it. It might motivate the merchants to buy more ad space.” He glanced out into the newsroom. “The Duchess has taken off,” he went on, referring to Vida, who insisted she despised his nickname for her, though we all knew better. “Will she ever bounce back after Roger’s fall from grace?”
“She has to,” I said. “Her gloom can get contagious. Mitch already suffers from that problem.”
“Our star reporter’s been better since his wife’s emotional state stabilized,” Leo noted. The previous December, Mitch and Brenda Laskey’s son, Troy, had made his second failed escape from the Monroe Correctional Complex, some thirty-five miles west of Alpine. “Oddly enough, I’ve never heard Mitch and Vida compare notes about their jailbird offspring.”
“She’s too embarrassed,” I said. “I don’t know if Vida’s visited Roger since he was sent to the Shelton facility. It’s a three-hundred-and-fifty-mile round-trip from here.”
Leo shrugged. “Just as well. Thank God my kids managed to avoid serious trouble despite my bouts with the bottle and getting fired.”
“You turned your life around,” I asserted. “I’ll admit, when I first hired you, I had my doubts, but you did it.”
“Thanks in large part to you.” Leo glanced over his shoulder. “Here’s Mitch now. Maybe he’s got some hot news from the sheriff’s office. Later, babe.” My ad manager ambled out to greet my reporter.
Apparently, there were no headlines from Sheriff Dodge’s crew. The last I’d seen of the sheriff was the back of him going out the side door of our house carrying the garbage and cussing a lot. That was over two hours ago. It was just as well that he and I didn’t talk much in the morning. Neither of us was very sociable before we consumed large amounts of caffeine. Maybe that’s why our marriage had lasted for over four months.
By ten-thirty I’d made inroads on my weekly editorial. So far, I’d praised the grit, pride, and patriotism of Alpine’s early residents. Now I had to rally their modern-day counterparts. That task wasn’t easy. I decided I needed more coffee.
I left to seek a refill in the empty newsroom. All that remained from the Upper Crust Bakery run made by my back-shop manager, Kip MacDuff, was a bran muffin and a powdered sugar doughnut. I snatched up the latter and was biting into it when Vida entered, pushing her great-grandson, Dippy, in what looked like a stroller out of Star Wars.
To my relief, Vida was smiling. “Amy has an emergency dental appointment,” she said, referring to the youngest of her daughters and the mother of Roger. “Short notice, of course, to get a babysitter. I told her I’d be delighted to bring Dippy to work with me. Look—see how happy he is. So many teeth now that he’s two and a half. Such a big boy!” She bent down and clucked her tongue at him. “What word did Great-Grams teach you today, Dippy?”
“Fool,” Dippy said. His watchful eyes, which were remarkably like Vida’s, darted around the newsroom. “Old fool. Mud Dudd is . . . old fool.”
“Maud Dodd,” Vida corrected gently, beaming all the while. “But you mustn’t say that to other people.”
Dippy turned belligerent. “You do.”
“That’s different,” Vida argued, the toothy smile still in place. “I’m old, you see. You are not.” She stood up, one hand adjusting the rhinestone brooch on her felt cloche. “Isn’t he amazing? So clever, so quick, so observant.”
Except for those watchful eyes, he looked like Roger. Or how his father would have looked had I known the wretch at the same age. I hadn’t met Vida’s grandson until he was eight. “Dippy seems very alert,” I said. “He’s grown since I saw him on Mother’s Day.”
“My, yes,” she agreed, wheeling him closer to her desk. “He’s almost outgrown his handsome stroller. Dippy has an excellent appetite. Not the least bit fussy. He simply lapped up the casserole I made for Amy and Ted last night. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Amy—the abscessed tooth made my daughter quite ill.”
Vida’s casserole would have made me ill, though her three daughters and their families must be used to her lack of skills with anything resembling a stove. Maybe they didn’t know any better. To my consternation, I saw that Dippy had gotten out of the stroller.
“Don’t let Dippy hurt himself,” I cautioned, fleeing to my office.
My House & Home editor didn’t respond. I could see her tall, imposing figure standing by Leo’s desk, watching Dippy make a beeline for the pastry table. No doubt the bran muffin was about to become pastry history. I was lucky that I’d already eaten the doughnut during Vida’s vocabulary exchange with Dippy.
My phone rang just as I settled into my chair at eleven. “Will you be in your office around eleven-thirty?” Amanda inquired.
“Yes. Is something happening then?”
“A woman named Irena Rawlings is in Monroe on business and wants to see you,” Amanda explained. “She’s interested in Alpine’s history.”
“She should talk to Vida, not me,” I said. “Tell her that’s fine. We’ll probably both be here.”
Amanda rang off. I looked into the newsroom, where Vida was on the phone. There was no sign of Dippy, but I assumed he was still there, if out of my line of vision. Twenty minutes later, I saw the little guy scurrying to his great-grandmother’s side while Kip MacDuff entered my office at a slower, if more purposeful, pace.
“How,” he inquired, keeping his voice down, “can I tell Vida to stop that kid from invading the back shop? He just deleted Mitch’s Fourth of July humor piece and I can’t retrieve it. Does Mitch have a hard copy someplace?”
“He must’ve backed it up,” I said. “Check his computer.”
Kip glanced over his shoulder. “Here comes Mitch now. I’ll ask him. Oh, dang—he’s being attacked by Dippy.”
My back-shop wizard strode off to the newsroom. I wondered if I should close my door to prevent the little guy from interrupting the not-so-grand finale of my editorial. But Vida had gotten off the phone and was taking Dippy by the hand to lead him to the stroller. Apparently, they were heading off to drive some other Alpiners to distraction. At least Vida was still smiling.
I finished a draft of my editorial a little after eleven. My writing lacked oomph. Maybe inspiration would strike later. Mitch had re-sent his humor piece to Kip, Vida was still gone, and Leo had talked RestHaven into taking out a larger ad—which Chief of Staff Dr. Charles Woo called a public service announcement. I didn’t care if he called it a Bugs Bunny cartoon as long as he signed off on our invoice.
Mitch came into my office to inquire what our lead story would be. “Summer Solstice,” I said. “What else? Your events roundup has to go on page one. The annual bash didn’t officially end until yesterday with the picnic in Old Mill Park. The locals would riot if we didn’t fill up most of the page with their favorite celebration. Besides, we don’t have much else in the way of hard news. Unless you want to write about the heat.”
“That,” Mitch reminded me drolly, “was my humor piece.”
I felt sheepish. “Sorry. I don’t find the prospect of unseasonably hot weather funny. But,” I added hastily, “you did a good job with it.”
Mitch draped his lanky frame over the back of one of my visitor chairs. “You wouldn’t last long in a Detroit summer. I don’t miss that part of being in the Motor City, even before it started to deteriorate.”
I nodded. “I arrived in Alpine while the town was still suffering from the logging industry’s decline. It was very bleak here sixteen years ago, but the opening of the community college helped and now RestHaven has added some jobs, too. Yes, money’s still tight when it comes to spending public funds. But SkyCo residents are thrifty by nature.”
“That’s not all bad,” Mitch said. “It keeps government employees from embezzling.”
“All thirty of them?” I responded as my phone rang.
Mitch chuckled before heading back to his desk. “Ms. Rawlings is here,” Amanda said. “She apologizes for being a few minutes early. Can you see her now?”
“Sure. Send her in.” I hurriedly straightened some scattered notes on my desk. When I looked up, I saw a slim, attractive blond woman in a blue- and green-striped summer dress gliding gracefully through the newsroom. Her smile was brittle as she entered my office.
I stood up—not so gracefully, though I hoped with more warmth—and extended my hand. “Hi,” I said. “Have a seat.”
Her grip was tentative and brief. “You may think I’ve lost my mind,” she murmured, arranging herself in the chair Mitch had been leaning on. “Perhaps I’m on a fool’s errand.”
I kept smiling. “How is that?”
Her fine features grew solemn. “I should start with my curriculum vitae, Ms. Lord. I hope you don’t object.”
Her formality was putting me off. “Please—call me Emma. You are . . . Irena?”
She winced. “My first name is spelled E-i-r-e-n-e.” She pronounced it as “e-RE-nay.” “My birth mother named me after the Greek goddess of peace. I prefer Ren. It’s less confusing.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering how long it would take her to get to whatever it was she wanted of me.
Ren cleared her throat. “I’m thirty years old, I live in San Luis Obispo, California, where I’m employed as a public high school art teacher. I’ve held that position for the past six years. My birth mother, Kassia Arthur, wasn’t married to my father. I have no idea if he knows of my existence. They may’ve parted ways before I was born in Seattle. I should add that I believe one, if not both of them, were hippies. My first name suggests that, along with some poems my birth mother left behind when she abandoned me shortly after the delivery. I was placed in foster care until I was six, when Robert and Helene Rawlings adopted me. They’re wonderful people and I consider them my real parents.” She paused. “May I have a glass of water?”
“Of course.” I started to get up, but felt compelled to stay put. Maybe it was the birdlike nickname that made me think that if I left her alone, she might fly away. “Let me ask our receptionist to get it for you.” After relaying the message to Amanda, I asked Ren if my cubbyhole of an office was too warm for her.