Authors: Mary Daheim
I hadn’t worn out my welcome, but the Baccarat clock on the mantel told me that it was time to go. Louise protested, insisting that I have one more eggnog, a piece of homemade fruitcake, a taste of her Mexican wedding rings. I demurred, and after nervously negotiating the steep curves that led down First Hill, I slowly drove home through blinding snow.
Adam and Ben surprised me. They had brought my tree inside and set it up in the sturdy cast-iron stand fashioned by my father thirty years ago.
“It’s been out there for a week,” Ben said as Adam turned the tree to display the best side. “We thought we’d start decorating it.”
I had planned on leaving work early Wednesday to put up the tree, but as long as my son and my brother were willing to help, there was no time like the present. Having decided on the fir’s best angle, Adam began testing the lights, while Ben unwound the tinsel garlands and I opened the first box of ornaments. I had four cartons of them, each individual piece wrapped in tissue paper. Every year, I went through the same ritual, smiling and sighing over the ornaments’ history: “This bell belonged to my parents … That reindeer came from Aunt Rylla in Wichita … The skinny Santa was a freebie at a toy store … Adam made this one with his picture when he was in first grade.” Naturally, it took a long time to trim the tree, but every ornament was like a present, a gift from the past, a garland of memories. My son thought I was a real sap.
The topper went on first, an angel from Germany clad in blue velvet and silver tissue, with spun-glass hair and a golden halo. My grandmother had bought her over fifty-six years ago for three dollars, ignoring Adolf Hitler and his schemes to conquer the world. Hitler was gone and so was his ruthless ambition. Germany had been conquered, divided, reunited, and gone on to produce copies of this same ornament at
twenty times the price. No wonder my angel looked a little smug.
The lights were next, no easy task. Adam didn’t start them up high enough. Then he left gaps about a third of the way down. One of the plugs wouldn’t reach the outlet to the previous string. The white electric candles tipped every which way. The last set, miniature colored bulbs, went out as soon as it was connected. Like the lights, Adam also blew up.
“Jeez, Mom, you’re so picky! You’ve got six strings on the tree already! You want to blow a fuse?”
“I always have seven,” I said doggedly. “Try plugging the little ones into the wall.”
Muttering, Adam did as I suggested. Nothing happened. Ben intervened, fiddling with the plug. No luck. “I think these are shot, Sluggly,” he said. “You got a spare?”
I did, but it was old, another hand-me-down from our parents. Some of the wires were frayed. I was a bit nervous about using them, but Ben assured me that there was no danger as long as we didn’t keep the lights on too long at a time.
The silver tinsel was next, wound carefully around the tree by Ben and me. Adam had decided to take a break and watch TV. I would lure him back with popcorn later. We were halfway through the first box of ornaments when Vida called. She was practically chortling.
“I figured out a way to get Bridget Nyquist to talk to us,” she said.
I was momentarily distracted from admiring a bright pink pine cone made of glass. “How?”
“We tell her that Evan Singer has been asking impertinent questions about her.” Vida sounded as smug as my angel looked.
“Vida!” I protested. “That’s unethical! You’ll have to come up with something better than that. It’s not worthy of you.”
Vida harumphed into the phone. “It most certainly is. I
don’t need anything better.” She paused just long enough to speak sharply to her canary, Cupcake, who apparently had not settled down for the night under his cloth-covered cage. “It’s true, Emma. Evan Singer left here not five minutes ago, on his way back from the lodge. He made some very strange remarks about Bridget. I wouldn’t like to repeat them over the phone. We’ll talk more in the morning.” On an imperious note, Vida hung up.
Ben, who had been inserting a Jessye Norman Christmas CD into my player, stared at me. “What’s up?”
Jessye’s rich voice filled the room with the strains of “The Holy City.” I tried to explain. “This is all very strange. What did your buddy at Blanchet have to say about Carol Neal and Bridget Nyquist?”
“Bill Crowley?” My brother turned Jessye down a notch. “Not much. He remembered them both, but they weren’t very active in school. He wasn’t even sure if they were friends. Or if they
I had resumed decorating the tree, clipping on a red and white mushroom, Santa climbing down a chimney, and a bird with a silvery tail. “If Bill Crowley was the chaplain, why didn’t he help Bridget and Carol fit in?”
“Probably because they didn’t ask him.” Ben had joined me, hanging a yarn snowman with ebony eyes. “I got the impression they went their own way and were perfectly content. What are you getting at?”
I put up a gold glass rose, a silver pear, and a purple cluster of grapes. “I don’t know, Stench. I really don’t. But it can’t be a coincidence that Carol Neal came to Alpine and got herself killed. I mean, why come here except to find Kathleen Francich, who probably was also murdered?”
“But Kathleen didn’t go to Blanchet,” my brother pointed out. “Why would she come to Alpine?”
I gave my brother a blank look. Somewhere, there was a common denominator. Was it Bridget? Was it the private
school connection? Was it someone or something else we hadn’t thought of?
“Let’s face it,” I said, opening another box of ornaments. “There are only four thousand permanent residents in this town. Oh, sure, people come here to hike and ski and fish and camp. Maybe that’s what Kathleen Francich did. But Carol Neal didn’t think so. Otherwise, she would have reported her missing to the Forest Service or to the sheriff up here. I figure that in the beginning, Carol didn’t know where Kathleen went. But six weeks later—more or less—Carol comes to Alpine, too. Why? What did she learn in that time period that led her to believe Kathleen had come up here? And why didn’t she go see Milo?”
My brother knew my questions weren’t idle speculation. “If those two girls were engaged in prostitution, Carol may have been chary of contacting the police. Oh, sure, she called King County to report Kathleen as missing, but she waited quite a while, right? Maybe she was going to see the sheriff here after she saw somebody else.”
“Somebody like Bridget?” I raised my eyebrows over a pair of turtle doves.
“You keep harping on Bridget,” Ben remarked, getting on his knees to hang some of the heavier ornaments down low on the sturdiest branches. “Are you sure she’s the only Blanchet High grad in Alpine?”
“She’s the only one who went to school with Carol Neal,” I replied. Seeing Ben look up at me with a mildly incredulous expression, I waved a plastic Rudolph at him. “Vida would know. She keeps track of every newcomer, every bride, everybody who arrives in town other than on a slow freight. It’s not just being nosy, it’s watching out for a story angle.”
Ben stood up, rustling through the ornament box. In the background, Jessye Norman put her heart and soul into “I Wonder As I Wander.” I wondered, too, about many things. So, apparently, did Ben. “Did Vida do a story on Teresa McHale when she took over at the rectory?”
“No.” I set Rudolph on an inner branch, his red nose poking out between the thick green needles. “We ran a paragraph in our Community Briefs column about her.” I paused, fingering my upper lip. “You know, that’s kind of odd—as I recall, Vida wanted to do more, but Teresa said she wasn’t interested.”
Ben had resumed crawling around on the floor. “Not everybody is keen on publicity. Some people like to keep their private lives private.” He put a plush calico cat on the lowest limb just as Adam resurfaced, seemingly refreshed by his thirty-minute break in front of the television set. My son admired the tree, hands jammed in his pockets. It was, I thought, an unconscious attempt to pretend he didn’t have hands and thus avoid work. “Hey, cool! You’re almost done.”
“Guess again,” I replied, nudging an unopened carton with my foot. “Get with it, Adam my son. The hour grows late and the old folks grow weary.”
With a heavy sigh, Adam unwrapped a crystal snowflake. I wasn’t kidding about being tired. It was after ten, and we were an hour away from completion. A glance out the window showed me that the snow was still coming down hard. I could barely see the outline of the Jag in the carport, a mere four feet away. Ben was going to have a difficult drive back to the rectory.
“Why don’t you stay here tonight?” I suggested.
But Ben declined. “I don’t want to take a chance on being marooned and missing morning mass. Besides, I walked. Teresa needed the car.”
Thinking of my brother blinded by snow and lying half-frozen somewhere along Fourth Street, I started to protest. But St. Mildred’s was only a half-mile away. Ben could practically slide down the hill from my house to the church. Instead of arguing, I shrugged, and ditched another one of Aunt Rylla’s homemade concoctions close to the tree trunk,
out of sight. Somehow, sequin-spangled furnace filters don’t appeal to my Christmas spirit.
But one big bowl of popcorn and an hour later, I rallied. After a quick pass with the vacuum cleaner to pick up spare needles and spilled icicles, we switched off the living room lights and turned on the tree. Ben chuckled; Adam whistled; I gasped. As always, it was a miracle: Magic lights and glittering balls, silver garlands and shimmering rain, old memories and renewed promises. The tree was cut fresh each year, yet never changed. I glanced at Adam, at Ben. We were together. Christmas was nigh. I felt peace wash over me, and let out a weary, happy sigh. The moment was sufficient unto itself. Tomorrow and its troubles would have to wait.
I had no idea that they were only a few minutes away.
I had just put my book aside and was about to turn off the light when I heard the sirens. Shortly after midnight, by my bedside clock. My first thought was of Ben. The weird little fantasy I’d had of him struggling through a snowbank had come true. An ambulance was pushing up Fourth Street, desperately trying to rescue my brother.
But I can differentiate between the sounds of the various emergency vehicles. This was a fire truck—
fire trucks, in fact, and farther off, perhaps over on Alpine Way. It was hard to tell, with the wind blowing the sirens’ wail in erratic directions. I settled down into bed and drifted off to sleep.
It might have been the middle of the night, it could have been early morning, but it was really only one-fourteen. Fumbling for the phone, I managed to knock my book off the nightstand and hit my elbow on the headboard. My brain was fuzzy with sleep.
“Emma?” It was Milo Dodge. His voice was tense.
“What?” I finally managed to turn the light on.
“Sorry to bother you, but I know you’re sending the paper to Monroe first thing in the morning.” He paused, and I
heard shouts in the background along with the grinding of wheels.
“Right, right,” I muttered, fighting to get my eyes open in the brightened room. “What’s going on?”
“We’re at Evan Singer’s place. It burned to the ground. No known cause yet, no damage estimate.”
I sat up, feeling a draft around my shoulders. “How sad!” In my mind’s eye, I pictured the dreary exterior, the bizarre artwork, the strange Christmas tree. With candles. Maybe that’s what had started the fire. The rickety old shack would go up like kindling. Even if Alpine had more than four full-time firemen and a dozen volunteers, there probably would have been no way to contain the blaze. In ten-degree weather, the water in the hoses would no doubt freeze. “How is Evan taking it?” I asked.
Milo expelled a little grunt. “I don’t know. We can’t find him.”
My knees jackknifed as I clutched the phone. “What? You don’t mean … Was he in the cabin?”
“We don’t know yet.” Milo’s voice was grim. “I’ve got to go, Emma. If we have anything new, I’ll call before you ship the paper out.”
Clumsily, I set the receiver in its cradle. With a groan, I fell back onto the pillow. Surely it wouldn’t take long to determine if Evan Singer had died in the fire? The cabin was small; the furnishings were sparse. The image of his Christmas tree with its dangerous candles and grotesque ornaments wavered before my eyes. Evan Singer was odd, maybe even unbalanced. But he shouldn’t have been foolish enough to set his home and himself on fire.
Then, as I switched off the light, it dawned on me that maybe he hadn’t. Perhaps someone else had done it for him.
I slept fitfully, upset about Evan Singer, and aware that the phone could ring again at any minute. Milo, however, didn’t call back until after six
. I was already up and dressed, having decided that as long as I wasn’t going to get any more sleep, I might as well start the new day.
Milo reported that no remains had been found in the ruins. I heaved a sigh of relief, then asked if they’d figured out how the fire had started. They hadn’t, but it had originated inside. His voice foggy, Milo announced that he was going to bed.
Vida was an early riser, so I had no compunction about calling her. She would want to hear the news, and for once, I had scooped her. Or so I thought.
“My nephew Ronnie called an hour ago,” she said, sounding vexed at my insane notion that she should be uninformed. “He’s my brother Winfield’s son and a volunteer fireman, you know. It’s all very peculiar. I think we should run out there. We’ll need a picture, though I suppose we couldn’t make the deadline for this issue.”
We couldn’t. But I was faced with an editorial problem. On page four I had a photo and a feature on a young man who was apparently missing. I had to pull the whole spread and move something from page one to fill up the hole. The cabin fire was late-breaking news and took precedence over everything except our female body count.
’s front page was getting grimmer and grimmer. As for going out to Burl Creek, a peek through the window revealed that
we had at least another eight inches of snow. It wouldn’t get light for two hours, and the county road probably hadn’t yet been plowed. Nor would there be time to take the picture, get Buddy Bayard to develop it, and run the thing in the paper.