The lapel watch on her blouse read half past nine when Katie Russell removed the skates from her boots and dropped them inside the door of the Mercy Falls Telephone Company. She pulled the pins from her Merry Widow hat, then hung it on a rack. Smoothing the sides of her pompadour, she approached the switchboard in the room down the hall. “Has it been busy?” she asked the woman in front of the dangling cords.
Nell Bartlett sat with her stocking feet propped on the railing of the table that supported the switchboard. Her color was high and her voice clear and energetic as she answered a question then disconnected the line. A faint line of discontent lingered between her brows as she eyed Katie. “It’s your shift already?”
Nell was unmarried and still lived with her ailing mother, though she was thirty-five. On the street she dropped her gaze and barely whispered a hello, but in front of the switchboard she came alive. Whenever she entered the office, she removed her hat, let down her hair, and took off her shoes.
“It is indeed,” Katie said, approaching the switchboard. “Has it been busy?”
“Not too bad. I only received three calls last night.” Nell’s tone indicated her displeasure. “But the rings have increased quite nicely this morning.” She rose and stepped away from the seat in front of the switchboard but kept one hand on the top with a proprietary air.
Katie settled herself in the chair and donned the headset. Nell slipped her shoes back on, wound her hair into a bun, then put on her hat. Out of the corner of her eye, Katie watched her scurry from the room, her mousy identity back in place.
Katie peered at the switchboard then forced herself to put on her hated glasses. She nearly groaned when the light came on at her own residence. She plugged in the cord and toggled the switch. “Good morning, Mama.”
Her mother’s voice was full of reproach. “Katie, you left before I could tell you that Mr. Foster called last night while you were out gallivanting at the skating rink.”
Katie bit back the defense that sprang to her lips and kept the excitement from her voice. “What did he say?”
“He asked to speak with your father and they went to the library.”
Such behavior could only mean one thing. Heat flooded Katie’s face. “He asked Papa if he could court me?”
“He did indeed! Now you mind my words, Katie. You could not make a better match than this. You need to quit that ridiculous job and focus on building your social ties.”
Katie opened her mouth then shut it again. Another light flashed on her switchboard. “I must go, Mama. I have another call.” She unplugged the cord over her mother’s objection. Her parents didn’t understand how important this job was to her. She thrust the cord into the receptor. “Operator,” she said.
“Fire! There’s a fire,” the man on the other end gasped.
Katie glanced more closely at the board, and her muscles clenched. The orphanage. “I’ll call the fire department, Mr. Gleason. Get the children out!” She unplugged and rang the fire station with trembling hands. “Fire at the orphanage, hurry!” She rushed to the window and looked out to see smoke billowing from the three-story brick building down the street. People were running toward the conflagration. She wished she could help too, but she turned back to the switchboard as it lit up with several lights. Moments later she heard the shriek of the fire truck as it careened past.
She answered the calls one by one, but most were people checking to make sure she knew about the fire. The afternoon sped by. She relayed a message out to the North house and managed to chat a few moments with her best friend, Addie North. One call was Mrs. Winston asking the time, and Katie realized it was after one o’clock. At the next lull, she removed the waxed paper from her sandwich and munched it while she watched the board.
The light for Foster’s Sawmill came on. She plugged in. “Operator.”
Bart Foster’s deep voice filled her ears. “I’d recognize that voice anywhere.”
Katie pressed the palm of her hand to her chest where her heart galloped. “Mr. Foster, I’m sorry I missed your call last night.”
“I had a most rewarding chat with your father,” he said, a smile in his voice. “Did he tell you?”
Her pulse thundered in her ears. “He did not.”
“Excellent. I wish to tell you of our conversation myself. Might I call tonight?”
“Of course.” She wasn’t often so tongue-tied. All her dreams of respectability lay within her grasp. From the corner of her eye, she saw her boss step into the small room. “I won’t be home until after seven. Will that be too late?”
“Of course not. I shall call at seven-thirty.”
“I look forward to it. Did you wish to place a call?”
“Someone must be there since you are not quite yourself.” The amusement in his voice deepened. “Connect me with your father’s haberdashery, please. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Of course.” She connected the cord to the shop then turned to face Mr. Daniels.
“I just stopped by to commend you on the way you handled the fire call, Miss Russell. You kept your head about you in a most admirable fashion.”
She stood to face him. “The children? Are they all out safely?”
He nodded. “I just came from the site. The building is a total loss, but everyone is safe, thanks to your quick call to the fire department that I was told about. Well done. I’d like you to consider more hours. You’re the best operator I have. People like you, and you’re most efficient.”
She couldn’t stop the smile that sprang to her lips. “Thank you, sir. I’m honored. I love my job.”
“Then you’ll increase your hours? I’d like you to work six days a week.”
She realized the plum that had been thrown into her lap. These were tough times, and jobs for women were scarce. But her parents—especially in light of Bart’s courting—would be less than pleased.
“I would like nothing better, Mr. Daniels, but I fear I’m going to have to cut my hours instead. Nell will be delighted with the extra work.”
Will Jesperson brushed off his hands and surveyed the gleaming glass on the Fresnel lens in the light tower. Whether he’d done it properly was up for debate, but he liked the way the sun glinted through the lens and lit the floor of the tower. His eyes moved outside again. He’d found it hard to keep working when he would rather study the clouds and the waves from this vantage point.
Beautiful place, this rocky northern California shoreline. He still couldn’t believe he had landed such a perfect job. Instead of pursuing his hobby once a week, he could do it every day. There were weather balloons in the shed just waiting to be used. He eyed the rolling clouds overhead and held up a finger. The wind was coming from the north. Was that common here? He’d have the time and equipment to find out.
He stepped outside and leaned against the railing. The beauty of the rolling sea transfixed him. Whitecaps boiled on the rocks poking up from the water at the mouth of the bay. Seeing them reminded him of his grave duties here: to save lives and warn ships of the dangers lurking just below the surface of the sea. Squaring his shoulders, he told himself he would keep the light shining bright—both here at the lighthouse and in his personal life. God had blessed him with this position, and he would do his best to honor him with his work.
He removed his pocket watch, glanced at the time, and then stared back out to sea when he heard a man yell. Were those shouts of alarm? Through the binoculars he saw a ship moving past the bay’s opening. A puff of smoke came from a smaller boat trailing it—gunfire? The small craft caught up to the ship, and several men clambered up the mast.
Pirates. Will pressed against the railing and strained to see when he heard more shots across the water. Additional men poured onto the ship and were already turning it back toward the open ocean. He had to do something. Turning on his heel, he rushed toward the spiral staircase. The metal shook and clanged under his feet as he raced down the steps. He leaped out the door and ran down the hillside to the dinghy beached on the sand. The pirates shoved men overboard, and he heard cries of pain. He clenched empty fists. No weapon. Still, he might be able to save some of the men thrown overboard. Shoving into the water, he put his back into rowing, but the tide was coming in and the waves fought him at every stroke.
He paused to get his bearings and realized the ship was moving away. The smaller boat, attached by a rope, bobbed after it. Something whizzed by his head and he ducked instinctively. A hole appeared in the side of the boat behind him. The pirates were firing on him. His hands dropped from the oars when he saw several bodies bobbing in the whitecaps. Men were already drowned.
The wind billowed the sails and he knew he had no chance of intercepting the ship. But he could save the men that he could reach then inform the authorities of what he’d seen. He grasped the oars and rowed for all he was worth.
At 3:03 a light came on and Katie answered. “Number, please.” The caller, a man whose voice she didn’t recognize, sounded breathless.
“Is this the operator?”
She detected agitation in his tone. “It is. Is something wrong?”
“Pirates,” he said in a clipped voice. “Just off the lighthouse. They shot some sailors and dumped others overboard.”
She sprang to her feet. “I’ll contact the constable. Do you need further assistance?”
“I need a doctor at the lighthouse. I’ve got two injured men. The rest are—dead. I couldn’t get their bodies into the boat, but they’re washing up onshore now.” His taut voice broke. “I had to leave the men on the shore to get to a phone, but I’m heading back there now. Tell the doctor to hurry.”
“Right away,” she promised. She disconnected the call and rang the doctor first. Saving life was paramount. The constable would be too late to do much about the pirates. With both calls dispatched, she forced herself to sit back down, though her muscles twitched with the need for activity. She reminded herself she’d done all she could.
The switchboard lit again. “Operator,” she said, eyeing the light. The call originated from the bank.
She plugged in the other end of the cord to ring the Cook residence. Instead, she heard Eliza Bulmer pick up the phone on the other end. “I’m sorry, Eliza, we seem to have a switched link somewhere. Would you hang on until I can get through to the Cooks?” Katie asked.
“Of course, honey,” Eliza said. “I just picked up my wedding dress, and I’m trying it on. So if I don’t say much, you’ll know why.”
“You’re getting married? I hadn’t heard. Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” Eliza’s voice held a lit.
“Just leave the earpiece dangling, if you please.”
“I can do that.”
There was a thunk in Katie’s ear, and she knew Eliza had dropped the earpiece. Katie waited to see if the ring would be answered at the Cook residence but there was only a long pause. “There’s no answer, Eliza. You can hang up,” she said.
The other woman did not reply. If the phone were left off the hook, it would go dead. Katie started to raise her voice, but she heard a man’s voice.
“You said you had something to tell me. What is it? I need to get home.”
The voice was familiar, but Katie couldn’t quite place it. It was too muffled.
“Honey, thank you for coming so quickly,” Eliza said.
Though Eliza’s voice was faint, Katie thought she detected a tremble in it. This is none of my business she thought. I should hang up But she held her breath and listened anyway.
“Would you like tea?” Eliza asked.
“No, Eliza, I don’t want tea. What are you doing in that getup? I want to know what was so all-fired important that you called me at work—something I’ve expressly forbidden you to do.”
Katie’s stomach lurched as she tried to place the voice. Identification hovered at the edge of her mind. Who is that?
“Very well. I shall just blurt it out then. I’m out of money and I must have some to care for my daughter. I need money today or . . .”
“I won’t be blackmailed,” the man snapped.
A wave of heat swept Katie’s face. She heard a door slam, then weeping from Eliza. She wanted to comfort the sobbing young woman. Numb, Katie sat listening to the sobs on the line.
The door slammed again. “Who’s there?” Eliza asked in a quavering voice. She gasped, then uttered a noise between a squeak and a cry.
Katie heard a thud, and then the door slammed again. “Eliza?” she whispered. A hiss, like air escaping from a tire, came to her ears. “Are you all right?”
Only silence answered her.
She jerked the cord from the switchboard and broke the connection. Unease twisted her belly. She’d already dispatched the constable to the lighthouse. But what if Eliza was in trouble? Her fingers trembled so much she had trouble slipping the jack back into the switchboard. She muffled her mouthpiece with her hand and asked Nell to come back early. She had to make sure Eliza was all right.