“What've you done?” Marvin asked Luscious. “Did you call the state police?”

“Of course I did, Marv. They said for me to go ahead and get search parties started. Captain of the fire department's mobilizing his men right now.”

I could tell by his shaking hands and nervous stammer that Luscious was already in over his head.

Marvin's brow creased, and I assumed he knew even better than I how poorly prepared Luscious was to manage a tragedy.

I opened my notebook and wrote down the commands as Marvin gave them.

“Call for fire companies from Gettysburg and Mc-Connellsburg to come over. And see if we can borrow up that people-sniffing dog from Hagerstown.” Marvin turned to face the crowd. “We'll set up a command post at Corny's Feed Store, out at the junction of Iron Ore and Bright's Church roads. Who wants to be in charge of getting out the volunteers for a search party?”

A gray-haired man raised his hand.

“That's J. B. Morgan,” Ginnie whispered in my ear, “president of the Lickin Creek National Bank.”

Marvin acknowledged him. “Good, J.B., go door-to-door if you have to. I want three, four hundred people up there within the hour. Get moving.”

J.B. was already jamming his arms into his parka.

“I'll be in charge of serving refreshments to the volunteers,” a woman offered. “At least until the fire company's ladies’ auxiliary can take over.”

“That's Primrose Flack, wife of Trinity's minister,” Ginnie told me.

“I know who she is,” I said, beginning to feel slightly annoyed with Ginnie. “She's on the borough council.” I wrote Primrose Flack's name in my notebook.

“The token woman,” Ginnie said.

“I'll help you, Primrose,” Oretta offered. “Come on, Weezie, grab the cookies and coffeepots and let's go. My God, that poor little boy… it's so cold, and so dark out there.”

“I'd like to help, too. May I ride with you?” Ginnie asked Oretta. She shook her head despairingly. “What kind of animals those cousins must be… deserting a little kid like that.”

Oretta sighed. “They are probably very young and didn't know better. Let's go. We can stop at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way out of town. Matavious, you're still here! You are going with the men, aren't you? They might need a doctor.”

“Of course, dearest. I only wanted to make sure you were taken care of first.” He scurried out the door without even bothering to put on his coat.

“You coming, Tori?” Ginnie asked.

I shook my head. My job was to put on my reporter's hat and interview the lost boy's parents. I dreaded turning back into one of those insensitive media pests who intrude into other people's grief. It was a role I'd never felt comfortable with.

There was a noisy rush for the coatrack, and then the hall was quiet. Only some tipped-over chairs, a few white cups that hadn't quite made it into the trash cans, and the scattered evergreen branches on the floor indicated that a few minutes ago we'd been involved in preparations for a gala Christmas pageant.


On a cold winter's night

THE STREETS IN THE DOWNTOWN HISTORIC district were dark as I drove past the fountain in the square. In Lickin Creek, even the fast-food restaurants closed early. As my truck rattled over the brick-paved streets, I mentally rehearsed some questions I could ask the Poffenbergers about their missing child. Questions that I hoped would satisfy readers of the Chronicle, but wouldn't add to the family's anguish.

I was near the Chronicle building, and a light shining from the front window caught my attention. The paper couldn't afford a large electric bill; I'd have to stop and “out the lights,” as a true Lickin Creek native would say. This wasn't a delaying tactic, I assured myself, but simply a necessary detour.

Somehow, I maneuvered the truck down the dark alley without adding any more scrapes to either the truck or the buildings on either side and pulled into the slot marked EDITOR. That was a new enough experience to still give me a thrill.

I paused for a second in the doorway of the narrow brick building to admire the shiny brass sign that said 1846. Polishing off a century of tarnish had been my first official duty as editor. As I reached for the door handle, I noticed something on the sill. Apparently, our janitorial service had forgotten a broom. I carried it inside.

Cassie Kriner, the paper's only other full-time employee, was at her desk, nearly hidden behind stacks of yellowed paper and piles of bound newspapers. She glanced up over the top of her half-moon reading glasses, noticed the broom, and said, “Coming in to redd up the place?”

“Found it on the stoop. Cleaning people must have dropped it.” I stood the broom in the corner.

Sinking into the red imitation-leather sofa with chrome arms, a relic from the thirties, I said, “I saw the light in the window and thought I'd forgotten to turn it off.”

“I came in as soon as I heard about the missing boy on my scanner,” Cassie said. She jumped to her feet and nearly stumbled over a large box on the floor next to her desk. “How about a cup of coffee?”

I nodded. “Thanks. What's in the box?”

Cassie's cheeks flushed, and it seemed to me she avoided my eyes as she filled two mugs from the freshly- made pot of coffee. “Something I ordered from the Home Shopping Network.” She fixed mine the way I like it-with a lot of artificial cream and sweetener-and brought it to me.

“Better move it out of the way,” I suggested as I accepted the steaming mug. “Last thing we need is someone tripping over it and suing us.”

“I will.” She changed the subject abruptly. “I've found some information about the Poffenbergers in our morgue. Thought you might need it for your article.”

Although she spoke calmly, I could tell by the way she'd dressed how upset she was. Instead of one of her usual elegant cashmere suits with matching shoes and handbag, Cassie had thrown on paint-splattered slacks and a Lickin Creek centennial sweatshirt, and her silver- gray hair was drawn into a ponytail rather than the usual Grace Kelly-like French twist. She wore no makeup-a sure sign of distress. Despite all this, Cassie still looked like a million bucks, which actually was a lot less than what her late husband had left her.

“Bless you. What've you got?”

“There's a lot of Iron Ore Road Poffenbergers on the police blotter. It's a large family-and apparently they're all related. Nothing unusual: in the past year a few were picked up for DWI, one for making terrorist threats at the Crossroads Tavern, two for issuing bad checks, and one for discharging firearms within borough limits… and-oh my!” She began to laugh. “Did I really say nothing unusual? Here's one who was charged with…” She blushed. “It had to do with a goose. Shall I go on?”

“I get the idea. Charming family.”

“Salt of the earth.”

“Thanks, Cassie. I don't know what I'd do without you.” I meant it, too. Once, when I'd goofed up the front page half an hour before it was due at the printers, I'd half-seriously threatened to throw myself off the Main Street Bridge. Cassie had made me laugh by reminding me that the creek under the bridge was only eighteen inches deep. Then, together, we'd repaired the damage.

Almost daily, she single-handedly saved the Chronicle from disaster. P.J., the editor, once told me Cassie had come to work for the paper shortly after her husband had suffocated in a silo. I guess she wanted something worthwhile to do, since she surely didn't need the meager salary we paid her. With me at the editorial helm, her forty-hour work week had expanded to nearly eighty. She worked day and night without protest, except for one night a week, which was saved for her club meetings.

I gulped down the last of my coffee. “I'm off,” I announced. “God, I hope by the time I get out to the Pof-

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