Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

I was stunned by the letter from my old pal and Oregonian newspaper compatriot Mavis Marley Fulkerston. Not having heard from her in over two months, I worried. The reason for the lapse was valid, but the rest of the message upset me.

"Dear Emma," she began, "sorry for not thanking you sooner for the exquisite ­mother-­of-­pearl vase you sent for Christmas. Ray and I love it. Your backwoods gallery owner has surprisingly good taste.

"Ray and I took our usual ­post-­holiday Oahu trip to escape Portland's gray skies. We had a great ­time--­until we were waiting for the airport shuttle to take us home and Ray had a heart attack. One quadruple bypass later, he was pronounced viable (if ornery) and sent to rehab for two weeks. He's still grouchy and I may have to kill him.

"Your recent close call with death horrified me. Hope you've recovered by now. Hope you've also ­deep-­sixed your zany idea about marrying the local sheriff. That shocked me more than hearing about the nut who tried to kill you both. The last time we talked about Milo Dodge was years ago, just before you dumped him. He sounded so unlike your kind of guy and about as exciting as meat loaf. Maybe you've spent too much time in Alpine. What happened to the independent, culturally aware, freethinking gal I knew on the Oregonian? I envision you atrophying like a petrified cedar stump in that isolated mountain burg.

"Okay, it's none of my business. I know you've been looking for a new man since Tom Cavanaugh died. I never met him, but when he abandoned you for his crazy wife and ­didn't help support your son until Adam was grown up, I thought he was a jerk. I'd hoped you had something going with the AP stud, Rolf Fisher, but then he retired and moved to France. He was civilized, single, and, according to you, ­good-­looking. Maybe I'm venting, taking out my frustration with the Resident Grump, who ­doesn't even like the way I make toast these days.

"Go ahead, marry the dull and boring sheriff. Just hope he never has a heart attack and falls on top of your new designer luggage. I don't want to see you make another mistake when it comes to men. You're too good for ­that--­you're too good for Alpine."

Mavis always sent her letters to The Alpine Advocate office instead of to my little log house. Maybe I'd complained too much about our often careless postman, Marlowe Whipp. It was the third Wednesday of February, ­post-­pub day. I might have time to answer Mavis.

"Well?" my House & Home editor, Vida Runkel, demanded, startling me out of my gloom. "You look like the pigs ate your little brother."

"My big brother ­wouldn't appeal to pigs," I said, trying to shield the letter from ­Vida's probing eyes. "Ben's still on the Mississippi Delta getting reacquainted with his former parishioners."

Vida sat down in one of my two new, if used, visitor chairs. I'd replaced the originals after my former ad manager, Ed Bronsky, broke one of them just before New ­Year's. "Of course," she said testily. "He and Adam discussed their mission work on my radio show. Such hardships. So cold for Adam in that Alaskan village, so hot for Ben in Arizona. Are you going to Delia Rafferty's funeral at the Lutheran church?"

I grimaced. "I forgot. It's at one, right?"

"Yes. Despite the Irish name, the Raffertys ­aren't Catholic."

"I went to Tim's service, remember?"

Vida adjusted the green bow on her ­wide-­brimmed purple hat. "So sad when Tim was killed and their house burned down. Poor Delia had been gaga for some time. The ­baby's a year old now. Walking, according to Dot Parker. What kind of name is Ashley for a girl?"

It was better than Tank or Pewter, both of which had been given to recent local newborns. "Tiff's lucky her mom and grandmother babysit so she can work at the Grocery Basket," I said, aware of ­Vida's sharp gray eyes fixed on the letter I was trying to hide.

"Dot and Durwood enjoy their ­great-­grandchildren," she said wistfully, probably thinking about her spoiled grandson Roger who'd finally disgraced himself. "Is that letter from an irate reader? It looks long."

As the Advocate's editor and publisher, I'm the boss, but Vida is over twenty years my senior, and keeping secrets from her is futile. She sees all and knows all, and God help anyone who ­doesn't tell all. "It's from my friend Mavis. She's in a lather because Milo and I are engaged."

Vida harrumphed. "What does Mavis know? She lives in Portland!"

"True," I said, accustomed to ­Vida's disdain for anyone who ­didn't call Alpine home. She was also a bit jealous of my other female friends. "Maybe she's off her feed because her husband had a heart attack."

"Many people have heart attacks," Vida asserted, "but their loved ones don't go around meddling in other people's affairs. ­Really, I cannot understand why she thinks she should give you advice. Has she ever met Milo? To my knowledge, Mavis has never been near Alpine."

"True on both counts," I agreed. "She thinks he's the wrong type of man for me. Face it, Vida, you used to feel the same way."

She bristled a bit, her imposing bosom heaving under her black vest and purple blouse. "That's because you had so little in common. Now it's ­obvious--­too obvious ­sometimes--­that you love each other. That trumps the rest. It would be nice, however, if you actually got married."

"You know we have to wait for an annulment of ­Milo's first marriage. Ben's started the process with the Seattle Archdiocese."

"Yes, yes." She pursed her lips and frowned. "I still say that given your high profiles you should have a civil ceremony first. It simply ­doesn't look proper for you to live together without being married."

"We ­aren't living together. Tanya's been staying with him for over two weeks. I've hardly seen Milo. His daughter still has nightmares."

Vida grimaced. "I thought the Hawaii trip would've cured her of that. It must've cost Milo the world to send her and her mother, Tricia."

"It ­wasn't cheap," I said. "But I'm not unsympathetic to ­Tanya--­or even Tricia. It was traumatic for them to be held hostage by her crazy fiancé and have Tanya get shot before watching the guy off himself."

"You and Milo had your own trauma. You don't have nightmares."

"I did for the first week or so," I admitted. "I still dread the possibility of a trial. Maybe our perp won't be judged sane enough to be tried. It'll take two more months before he's evaluated at Northern State Hospital. Giving all those depositions was bad enough."

Vida stood up. "But you've come through it. As for Tricia, she may be manipulating Milo. She can't accept the idea he's marrying again, especially since her second husband betrayed her and they're divorcing. So foolish to think he ­wouldn't philander after cheating with her while they were both still married to other people. Which reminds me, I must work on my advice column. I still can't believe Pastor Purebeck ran off with Daisy McFee. What will become of us Presbyterians?" Straightening her hat, she walked away in her ­splay-­footed manner.

I decided to delay answering Mavis's letter. My sole reporter, Mitch Laskey, entered my office and put some hard copy on my desk.

"Here's the last of my RestHaven series," he said, placing a foot on the chair Vida had vacated. "I finally got some straight answers from Dr. Woo, the chief of staff. ReHaven is the corporation out of New York and RestHaven is for smaller facilities, like here. Have you taken a tour?"

I shook my head. "Is the grand opening still firm for Saturday?"

He nodded. "Converting the former Bronsky villa took longer than they figured. Ed and Shirley weren't big on upkeep even before they blew all of his inheritance on fancy furniture and expensive cars."

" 'All for show, not much for go,' as Vida would say. The architect, Scott Melville, is very competent. He worked on a RestHaven project when he lived in California."

"So Scott told me," Mitch said. "The facility's already at seventy percent capacity. They can take ninety ­patients--­forty in rehab, a dozen ­post-­ops in the adjacent unit, and ­twenty-­two in what they call the emotional restoration ward." His lanky frame slumped a bit.

I knew what he was thinking. After his son, Troy, had failed in his second escape from the Monroe Correctional Facility just before Christmas, Mitch's wife, Brenda, suffered a breakdown. She'd spent time in the psych ward at Seattle's Harborview Hospital. Instead of bringing her back to Alpine, he felt it might be better for her to stay with their daughter, Miriam, in Pittsburgh. The Laskeys were newcomers to Alpine, having moved from Royal Oak, Michigan, in September. While he ­hadn't said so, I wondered if Mitch thought Brenda might benefit from a stint at RestHaven.

"I may go on the formal tour," I said. "You'll take pictures?"

"Sure. What else have I got to do?" he asked wryly.

"Thanks." I smiled, but I, too, had bad memories of ReHaven. I'd first heard of it when Tom Cavanaugh's wife had been shipped off to their Bay Area facility. I'd finally stopped grieving for Tom, but occasionally something came back to hit me like a nagging pain from an old injury.

Mitch had started out of my cramped office, but stopped short to turn around. "Jack Blackwell's still raising hell with the sheriff."

"Now what?" I asked in exasperation. "Why ­doesn't that jackass stick to running his mill? It's the only one left in town."

"He came in this morning just before I got there to check the log," Mitch said, leaning one hand against the door frame. "His latest alleged brush with death was brake tampering on his SUV. Cal Vickers is checking it out at his Chevron station."

"Did Jack get into it with Milo?"

Mitch shook his head. "Dodge ­wasn't there. He had to take his daughter to the ER."

"What?" I shrieked. "Is she sick?"

Mitch looked pained. "Dodge caught her downing a bunch of tranquilizers."

"Oh, crap!" I cried, falling back in my chair.

"I guess she's okay, but he wanted to make sure," Mitch said.

"Right." I realized my reporter looked puzzled. His absence from Alpine seemed to have left him out of the loop when it came to my relationship with Milo. This ­didn't seem like the right time to enlighten Mitch. "There are so many people with emotional problems," I said. "Your wife has had her share and ­that's hard on you. Maybe we should all be in RestHaven's psych unit."

Mitch hung his head. "Maybe so." He shrugged and walked away.

I was considering going to the hospital to check on Tanya when the phone rang. It was the city librarian, Edna Mae Dalrymple. "Emma, dear," she twittered in her ­chickadee-­like voice, "I must congratulate you on standing up to Dixie Ridley last Thursday about the attempt to suppress Tom Sawyer from the high school curriculum. I meant to call you sooner, but I've been so busy. Did you write that editorial about it?"

"I did, but naming no names," I said. "You'll see it when the paper comes out today. I reminded readers that Samuel Clemens was related to Carl Clemans, despite the difference in the spelling of their last names."

"Oh, excellent! No one in Alpine will dare criticize the original mill owner or his kin. He's a legend here for being fair and generous. Dixie, as a football coach's wife, should be the last one to quibble. You should hear how some of those players talk on the sidelines!"

"Shocking, I'm sure," I said, wanting to get off the phone.

"If you think ­that's shocking," Edna Mae rattled on, though she'd lowered her voice, "have you heard about the pornography that was found in two of the basketball players' lockers?"

"No. When did that happen?"

"Over the weekend when they played Granite Falls. Oh, ­dear--­I ­shouldn't tell tales."

I made a note. "I don't suppose you know any specifics?"

"I ­wouldn't want to know," Edna Mae asserted.

"Of course not," I said. "Thanks for the ­heads-­up, though."

"You're not putting it in the paper, are you?"

I hedged my bets. "The paper's printed. Got to go. Thanks again."

I put on my jacket and grabbed my purse, but stopped at Mitch's desk to relay Edna Mae's porn rumor. "Check with Principal Freeman. He'll probably stonewall you, but you can deal with that. Keep track of Blackwell's latest ­attention-­getting stunt. I've got to run an errand."

Vida was on the phone, looking vexed. She stared at me as I rushed past her. Behind the reception desk, Amanda Hanson's eyes widened. "What's wrong?" she asked, her pert face alarmed.

"Family emergency," I said, half stumbling out the front door.

The rain was a mere drizzle, so I walked the two blocks uphill to the hospital. My response to Amanda had come unbidden. Tanya ­wasn't ­family--­not yet. But she would be when Milo and I got married. If we ever got married, I thought dismally. The new year had not treated us kindly. Not only had we narrowly escaped death, but trying to blow up a county sheriff and a newspaper publisher made regional news. We'd been pestered by the media, which had asked for everything from personal interviews to the possibility of a ­made-­for-­TV movie. Neither of us wanted our private lives invaded. We'd hunkered down in my snug little log cabin as much as our jobs would allow. Between ­KSKY's Spencer Fleetwood and my own media contacts, we'd discouraged most of the snoops without Milo resorting to the ­strong-­arm tactics he swore he'd use if needed. I'd cringed at the thought of the sheriff decking a ­big-­shot Seattle TV reporter or one of my former Oregonian colleagues.

Mavis ­hadn't a clue about Skykomish County's sheriff, I thought as I waited for a Public Utility District truck to go by at Pine Street. Behind that often laconic exterior, a volcanic personality lurked in his imposing ­six-­foot-­five-­inch frame. My only regret was that it had taken me fifteen years to realize how much I loved him. Mavis was right on one ­count--­I'd been ­bat-­blind when it came to men. Milo had finally woken me up, though I was no Sleeping Beauty and he ­wasn't Prince Charming. The words "Milo" and "charm" in the same sentence would have to include "not even close."

I was panting with exertion by the time I reached the hospital. Jenny Bjornson sat behind the front desk. She and I had a bit of a history, but her father worked for Milo ­part-­time as a handyman.

Excerpted from The Alpine Xanadu: An Emma Lord Mystery by Mary Daheim
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