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Authors: Mary Daheim

The Alpine Recluse

BOOK: The Alpine Recluse
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THE
ALPINE
RECLUSE

A
N
E
MMA
L
ORD
M
YSTERY

M
ARY
D
AHEIM

BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK

For Maureen Moran—in gratitude for over twenty-five years of professional and personal support. You are my valued friend and ally, an unfailing source of humor, intellect, and compassion.

ONE

“I
F
I
WANTED
to be hot,” I said to Leo Walsh, “I’d go to hell in a handcart. There’s no reason why it should be ninety-four degrees in Alpine, even in August.”

Leo gave me his off-center grin. “You could always take a couple of weeks off and visit Adam in Alaska. I’ll bet it’s not ninety-four at St. Mary’s Igloo.”

“I’ll bet it isn’t, either,” I grumbled from across the desk in the cubbyhole that was my office but felt more like a pizza oven even at eleven in the morning. To think I was sorry for my son, Adam, when his first assignment as a priest sent him up to the Frozen North. Now I envy him. “When will it ever rain? Everything is tinder-dry, Leo. It’s a wonder the woods don’t explode.”

“They did,” my ad manager said in his usual wry manner. “Or haven’t you been checking the AP wire this morning?”

“I have,” I retorted. “I mean
all
the woods, not the ones burning up in eastern Washington and other parts of the West. Grass fires, too. Not to mention that water and power rates are going to skyrocket because we haven’t had enough rain, let alone snow.”

“Why don’t you write an editorial taking a tough stand against hot weather?” Leo inquired reasonably. “Maybe you can change it.”

I glared at him. “That’s not funny. Nothing’s funny in this heat.”

“Come on, Emma,” Leo said, no longer smiling. “At least western Washington’s not humid like the Midwest or the eastern seaboard. Dry heat’s not as bad. I worked on a newspaper in Palm Desert where it was over a hundred and twenty degrees for a week.”

“No wonder you drank,” I snarled. “Besides, people from southern California deserve to be hot. Native Pacific Northwesterners like me don’t.”

Leo took no offense at my remark. We’d known each other too long and too well not to be able to speak candidly. He merely sighed. His well-worn face showed the ravages of his former bouts with the bottle. In my heat-crazed state, I decided that he’d also spent too much time in the sun. “Mad dogs and Californians . . . ,” I muttered.

“Quit bitching and just look at the ad layout,” Leo finally said, tapping the Grocery Basket’s mock-up on my desk. “Jake O’Toole went over it with a fine-toothed thesaurus. What gets into that guy, wanting to use all those big words that half the time aren’t what he really means?”

“Heat,” I said. “He’s a native, too.”

“Knock it off,” Leo retorted, temporarily forgetting that I was the boss. “Jake’s been doing it forever when he talks, but he started in with the grocery ads back in April.
Unsullied
for fresh tomatoes?
Temperate
for tender pork chops?
Unskeletal
for boneless chicken breasts? I’m not even sure
unskeletal
is a word.”

At last, I scanned the layout. “You’re right. It’s stupid. Jake should stop trying to show off, especially when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It might be a midlife crisis. Maybe I’ll talk to Betsy. His wife’s a sensible woman.”

“Go for it,” Leo urged, standing up. “I’m changing this damned thing.” He cocked his head. “With your approval, of course.”

“Of course.” Leo knew he didn’t need my approval, which, I suppose, was why he occasionally forgot that I was
The Alpine Advocate
’s editor and publisher. He did an excellent job, about fifty rungs above the lugubrious and lazy Ed Bronsky, a leftover ad manager from Marius Vandeventer’s ownership.

“Lugubrious,” I said, and managed a smile.

“Huh?” Layout in hand, Leo turned around to look back at me.

“The header for the grocery ad is ‘Lazy Days of Summer.’ It’s a wonder Jake didn’t ask you to put in
lugubrious.

Leo grinned again. “He did—sort of. Only, he wanted to use
lubricious.

I nodded. “He would.”

“Would what?” Vida Runkel inquired. Leo made way for her semimajestic passage into my cubbyhole, then left. “Oh, goodness, it’s even warmer in here than it is in the newsroom! Why didn’t Kip put a vent in this low ceiling when he repaired the roof after the big storm?”

I remembered the punishing rain and windstorm of eighteen months ago with nostalgia. “Because I’m an idiot,” I told my House & Home editor.

Vida, who was wearing a sleeveless red and white print dress that resembled a bedspread, eased her imposing body into one of the two visitor chairs. “Would what?” she repeated.

I recounted Leo’s misadventures with Jake O’Toole.

Vida shook her head. The unruly gray curls were already damp around the edges. “Jake hasn’t been himself lately,” she declared. “It’s much more than his pretentious—if often inaccurate—language. He and Betsy have stopped fighting in public.”

“Really?” I was surprised. The O’Tooles, who had been married forever, were famous for bickering in front of other people. But in fact, they were a devoted couple who used their often heated exchanges as a sort of lovemaking. “Do you think they’re having problems?” Vida would know. She knew everything that went on in Alpine.

She gave me a quizzical look from behind her big-framed glasses. “I don’t really think so. It has more to do with the store. Staff, I’d guess. Jake’s had to fire at least two of his courtesy clerks in the past month. High school students, you know, and quite irresponsible. And of course there’s always Buzzy.”

Buzzy was Jake’s younger brother who had had a somewhat checkered career until he finally went to work for the Grocery Basket as the produce manager. “What’s wrong with Buzzy now?” I asked.

“Now?”
Vida pursed her lips. “I honestly don’t know. It might be trouble at home with Laura. The only thing I’ve heard for certain is that Buzzy had a row with their peach supplier, and that he ordered Ugli fruit, which no one in Alpine would dream of eating because it’s so . . .
ugly.
It all rotted in the bins. I was tempted to mention it in my column, but I didn’t want to hurt the O’Tooles’ feelings.”

I was dubious. Vida didn’t usually worry about hurting other people’s feelings, being extremely outspoken in her criticism of fellow Alpiners. The O’Tooles, however, were big advertisers, buying a two-page color insert to compete with the regionally produced ads of their archrival, Safeway.

“Which reminds me,” Vida went on, “have you a ‘Scene’ item? I only need two more for this week’s edition.”

I tried to put my heat-hazed brain to work. “Scene Around Town” was Vida’s popular front-page column featuring snippets of local happenings, involving usually nonnewsworthy events such as Dutch Bamberg’s lawn mower accidentally executing a hapless frog, Edna Mae Dalrymple discovering fudge smudges on a cookbook that had been returned to the local library, or Darla Puckett’s zany adventures at the Home Depot’s faucet fixtures section in Monroe.

“Rip Ridley’s growing a beard,” I finally said. “I saw him at the Alpine Mall yesterday.”

Vida gaped at me. “Impossible! The high school would never allow a faculty member to have facial hair. Except,” she added more softly, “for Effie Trews, but she can’t help it.”

“School hasn’t started,” I pointed out. “Rip swears he won’t shave until the football team wins its first game this season.”

“Oh, dear.” Vida sighed. “He could end up looking like Santa Claus. Principal Freeman will make the coach shave before school starts. Which reminds me—I saw Old Nick Saturday morning. Imagine!”

For a moment, I was puzzled. “Old Nick?” Then, before Vida could respond, I remembered. “You mean that hermit who lives someplace near Sawyer Creek?”


Some
place,” Vida said wryly. “No one has ever been certain. I don’t think he’s been seen in town for several years. Frankly, I thought he was dead.”

Hermits weren’t uncommon in the forests of western Washington. Most were harmless, though some could be dangerous. They’d fled civilization for various reasons, like monks going off to the desert. A few would show up in town a couple of times a year to buy, beg, or steal supplies. But Old Nick was rarely seen. Indeed, in all of my thirteen years of Alpine residence, I’d never sighted him.

“I’ll put him in ‘Scene,’ ” Vida declared. “That should fill up the column. Unless something more gossip-worthy comes up between now and tomorrow’s deadline.”

My eyes had strayed into the newsroom. “Something just came in,” I groaned. “Ed Bronsky.”

“Oh, dear!” Vida exclaimed. “We’re trapped.”

“You’re not,” I whispered as Ed rumbled toward my office. “Go, or else there won’t be enough air in here for the three of us to breathe.”

“Plenty of hot air,” Vida murmured, hurriedly getting out of the chair. “Why, Ed! What a surprise! I was just leaving. So was Emma.”

Bless Vida.
“Bad timing,” I said, forcing a smile. “Is there something you’d like to drop off, Ed?”
Like about a hundred pounds of excess weight?

“Hey, hey, hey,” Ed enthused, “it’s more than a news brief. It’s front-page stuff. You’d better hold up, Vida. You won’t want to miss this.”

Vida frowned at her watch. “I’m afraid I’ll have to. I’m already running late for my eleven-thirty appointment. Emma can fill me in later.” With a pitying glance in my direction, Vida exited my office in her splayfooted manner.

Ed plopped down in the chair next to the one that Vida had vacated. He was wearing a yellow tank top and khaki shorts, a most unflattering look. But the only thing that would have covered Ed’s rotund form was a Quonset hut.

“Who’s reporting on tonight’s county commissioners’ meeting?” he asked, removing a folder from his leather briefcase.

“Scott Chamoud,” I replied, referring to my only news reporter. “He always does.”

Ed shook his head. “You’d better do it, Emma. Huge news.” He placed the folder on my desk and tapped it three times. “I’m going for a county bond issue.”

“You’re what?”

He shoved the folder at me, knocking some other papers off my desk. “It’s all there. I’m asking the commissioners to put a bond issue for my Mr. Pig Museum on the November ballot.”

I tried not to show my astonishment at Ed’s gall. For several months, he’d been talking about building a museum in honor of his self-published autobiography. “Aren’t you a little late?” I asked, instead of what I was really thinking, which was
Aren’t you out of your mind
?

Ed shook his balding head. “Check the state laws.” He tapped the folder again. “It’s all in there. It’s a bond issue, not an initiative. I’ve done my homework.” For a brief moment, a shadow of doubt crossed Ed’s face. “I mean, if I missed a beat someplace, we could hold a special election next March.”

Reluctantly, I opened the folder. It contained several pages of what looked like printouts from the Internet. A quick flip showed that Ed had made some notes, along with leaving various types of food stains, including a couple of watermelon seeds.

“Why?” It was a stupid question, but it was a stupid idea.

Ed looked affronted. “You don’t think I’d be crazy enough to put up my own money for this, do you? My proposal can help turn Alpine into a destination place, like Disneyland.”

Or the Arctic Circle. “You’re serious.”

Ed nodded vigorously, his three chins wagging. “You bet. I outlined the whole thing to you months ago.”

“Yes.” Heaven help me from having to hear him repeat his outrageous ideas.

“So,” Ed continued, “since Mr. Pig will be a theme park that benefits everybody in Skykomish County, it should be up to the citizens to help pay for it. Right?”

The fortune that Ed had inherited from an aunt in the Midwest wasn’t a bottomless pit. I realized that he probably couldn’t afford to build any kind of viable attraction with his own money. On the other hand, Ed’s original concept hadn’t sounded viable—or plausible.

Ed seemed to read at least part of my mind. “I’m doing away with some of the hokey stuff. It’s going to be mainly the Hog Wild rides and Family Farm Fun, just like Iowa.”

It was useless to point out to Ed that he’d never lived in Iowa—though his late aunt might have been a resident. It was also pointless to remind him that his autobiography—originally entitled
Mr. Ed
—had nothing to do with pigs or farms or anything other than Ed’s actual boring life in Skykomish County. A vanity press had helped him self-publish the book, and somehow, through the wonder of Japanese cartoon animation, the Bronksy family had been turned into pigs as a TV series. For one brief season,
Mr. Pig
had pranced across television screens in Japan. Fortunately, the program had sunk somewhere off the coast of Honshu.

I pretended to study a page of Ed’s proposal. “Is this on the commissioners’ agenda?” I asked.

Ed nodded again. “Darned tootin’. I just came away from brunch with George Engebretsen.”

Brunch
to Ed didn’t preclude breakfast and lunch. He’d never met a meal he didn’t like. “What did George say?” I inquired. “Did he think the other two commissioners would go for floating a bond issue?”

Ed winked. “They know who’s got clout around here. George’s up for reelection this year.”

“Yes.” I marveled that any of the three commissioners would seek reelection. They were all old and virtually senile. They were also usually unopposed. Being a SkyCo commissioner was a little like being elected pope: It appeared to be a lifetime job.

“So you’ll be there tonight,” Ed said flatly.

“Leave it to me,” I said, handing the folder back to Ed.

Ed made a clicking sound with his tongue. “Gotcha. See you tonight.”

I smiled.

Ed would not see me. If I had to spend a hot night, it wasn’t going to be at the county courthouse. I much preferred my little log cabin on the side of Tonga Ridge, where a cooling breeze sometimes wafted through the evergreens at the edge of my backyard.

But that was before things really started heating up in Alpine.

         

“T
HEE AND ME
and a dog named Spree,” said the voice on my answering machine at home that evening. “How about coming down for the weekend? There’s a good concert at the pier.”

As I turned on all the fans in the house, opened the front and back doors and several windows, I considered Rolf Fisher’s offer. He hadn’t mentioned concert specifics. Who doing what when?
Where
was easy; summer concerts were held on Elliott Bay’s Piers 62 and 63, not far from the Pike Place Market. I changed into a shapeless cotton shift, poured Pepsi over ice, and nibbled on baby carrots pulled from the Overholt farm’s rich black dirt. Rolf was probably in transit from his job at the Associated Press bureau to his condo on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill. Even though he hadn’t mentioned who was performing, spending a summer evening on the water might offer a cooling effect. But it also meant looking into the setting sun while being packed in with a crowd of other sweating Puget Sounders.

BOOK: The Alpine Recluse
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