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Authors: Mary Daheim

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BOOK: The Alpine Christmas
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“What is all this?” demanded Vida, forthright as ever, but testier than usual. Her boots crunched on the rock salt the city had used to melt the ice and snow on the downtown pedestrian walkways. “Well? Did you find the other leg?”

Milo had gone into his office to get Sam Heppner. “It was actually an arm,” said Ben, reaching out to hug Vida. He knew how fond I was of my House & Home editor, and although he had met her on a previous visit to Alpine, this was the first time he had seen her on this trip. “How are you, Mrs. Runkel? I hear you’re converting from Presbyterianism.”

“Aaaaargh!” Vida shuddered in Ben’s embrace, then stepped back a pace. “I’d rather be burned at the stake! Or have you people stopped doing that by now?” She didn’t wait for an answer, but jabbed Ben in the front of his down jacket. “Don’t you ever wear a collar, Father Lord? That old fool of a pastor up at St. Mildred’s has been seen in long underwear.”

“He was wearing
pants
,” I pointed out. “Anyway, that was a stupid story from Grace Grundle. She also reported that the Episcopal rector was seen kissing a woman. Which he was, but it happened to be his wife.”

“Never mind.” Vida retreated, almost stepping in the slush. Obviously, she didn’t want to hear any more scandal spawned by a fellow Presbyterian. “An arm? What sort of arm?” Again, she didn’t wait for an answer, but turned to me. “Shall I get a camera?”

I started to tell Vida that I wasn’t sure we were wanted. Just then my Christmas tree fell out of the trunk. In his haste, Ben apparently hadn’t secured it very well. The ride home must have jarred it loose. At that moment, Milo reappeared with the dour Sam Heppner. A small crowd was beginning to gather in front of the sheriff’s office: Cal Vickers from the Texaco station; Dr. Bob Starr, the dentist; Heather Bardeen,
who worked for her father, Henry, at the ski lodge; and a half dozen other people I recognized but couldn’t name.

“All right, everybody,” ordered Milo, as if he were dispersing an unruly mob, “let’s move along. If you want a show, go down the street to the Whistling Marmot.” Somehow, he’d managed to include Vida and me with the riffraff. Before Vida could do more than shriek at Milo over Cal Vickers’s head, the sheriff, the deputy, and my brother were off in the squad car, lights flashing, siren squealing.

“Well!” Vida was miffed. “Doesn’t that beat all!” She gave me a dark glare. “You’re the newspaper publisher. Don’t you have any clout?”

“If you want to know the truth, I’d rather rescue my Christmas tree.” I pointed to the Jaguar.

Vida started to join me at the curb, but the little crowd surged around her, asking questions. Typical, I thought, they would seek out Vida as the font of all knowledge. Even after almost three years in Alpine, I was still regarded as a newcomer. I tugged and hauled at the Douglas fir, finally managing to get it back in the trunk.

“Let’s go,” Vida shouted, at last making her way to the Jag. She got in on the passenger’s side, grumbling all the while.

I turned on the ignition. “I’m not sure we should follow …”

Vida heaved a sigh of annoyance. “I don’t mean Milo; I mean your house. You’d better get that tree home before you ruin it.”

Vida was right, though her attitude struck me as wrong. It wasn’t like her to abandon the trail of a juicy story. But it would take only a few minutes to deposit the Douglas fir. I shifted into first gear and waited for a UPS truck to pass before I pulled out.

“I don’t like all these spare parts floating around,” Vida declared as we headed up Fourth Street. “Milo’s got trouble on his hands.”

“Is that why you didn’t want to go to the falls? Are you afraid he might screw up and we’d have to report it?”

“Oh, no! He and Sam and your brother will dig and delve and measure and put samples of this and that into little plastic bags and well nigh freeze to death in the process. Men like to do stupid things like that, but the rest of us have more sense. We’ll find out everything in good time and have hot cocoa while we do it.” Vida paused, pointing at the windshield. “Be careful, Emma, there’s Averill Fairbanks, skiing across Cedar Street.”

Alpine residents on skis in town weren’t a rarity. On certain days, Seventh Street was barricaded from Spruce to Front to provide a free ski run. Henry Bardeen didn’t approve, but the lodge made plenty of money off the tourists.

“On your left,” Vida noted. “Mother with child on sled.” She took a quick breath. “Meter reader, the Whipps’ grandson, not looking where he’s going. Dunce.”

“Stop!” I braked for a school bus that was heading out to collect its afternoon load of middle-school children. “Vida, what’s wrong with you? You’re driving me nuts.”

From under the brim of her knitted cloche, she shot me a penitent look. “I’m annoyed. It makes me edgy.”

I was passing St. Mildred’s. “Annoyed about what?”

Vida heaved another sigh. “Bridget Nyquist. I set up an interview with her for one forty-five, but when I got to the house, she’d changed her mind.”

“Why?” It was starting to snow again.

Wriggling in the bucket seat, Vida mimicked Bridget’s wispy voice: “ ‘I don’t think it’s right to draw attention to myself. I like to help others. It’s the way my mamma raised me. Tee-hee, simper, simper.’
Ugh!
” Vida’s lip curled.

I turned onto Fir Street. “Don’t worry about it. Say—what happened to that idea you had about an anniversary story for the Whistling Marmot? Isn’t that coming up January first?”

Vida emitted a snort. “Oscar had the wrong year. His father started showing movies in the old social hall during
World War I. So either we’ve missed the seventy-fifth anniversary, or we’ll have to wait a couple of years for the official opening of the theatre commemoration. Personally, I don’t care. Oscar probably won’t talk to me, either. Even when he does, he never has much to say. He told me once that when he was young he thought silent pictures had to be that way because people in California hadn’t yet learned how to speak. Moron.”

I turned into the driveway. My log house looked particularly charming with snow on the roof and icicles hanging over the little porch. It would be wonderful to have a painting of the house as it looked in December and another to show the way it was in June. I’d had a hanging fuchsia then and window boxes full of red geraniums, white alyssum, and purple ageratum. If Evan Singer could draw, maybe he could also paint. I’d ask him when we did the interview.

Vida helped me haul the tree out back, where I put it in a bucket of water. Maybe it wouldn’t freeze if I kept the tree close to the house. Vida recommended the carport, but there wasn’t room.

Fifteen minutes later, we were back in the office. Vida was still grousing about Bridget Nyquist. I asked Ginny and Carla, who were about the same age as Bridget, if they knew her very well.

“I met her once during Loggerama,” Carla said. “She seemed okay, but too much into herself.”

“The first time I saw her,” Ginny explained in her usual carefree manner, “was at Dr. Starr’s. She was coming out just as I was going in. We said hi.” Ginny’s fair brow furrowed under wisps of auburn hair. “I’ve seen her a couple of times at the Grocery Basket and once at the Venison Inn, but we didn’t speak. They only other time I saw her up close was about a month ago when I picked up some pictures for the paper at Buddy Bayard’s Picture-Perfect Photo Studio. Bridget was there with Travis. They were having a first-anniversary
portrait taken. Travis was friendly—he usually is—but Bridget sort of hung back.”

Carla flounced around her desk, long black hair flying. “Low self-esteem. Imagine, with her money and looks. Maybe she’s dumb.”

Vida eyed Carla over the rims of her glasses. “She behaves as if she might be. But I doubt it. Travis Nyquist wouldn’t marry a
nincompoop
.” She uttered the word with emphasis on all three syllables, still looking meaningfully at Carla. Vida and I were at odds in assessing
The Advocate
’s reporter. My House & Home editor thought Carla was definitely stupid; I felt she was merely dizzy. Unfortunately, the result was often the same.

When my phone rang, I figured it was Milo or Ben. But it was neither. Adam was on the line, calling from Fairbanks.

“Hi, Mom,” he shouted over a bad connection. “You okay?”

“Sure,” I shouted back. “How are finals?”

“I could do them in my sleep,” said my son so breezily that I assumed he had. “Hey, I may not get in until Tuesday or so. To Alpine, I mean.”

“Why not?” I felt a pang of disappointment pierce my maternal breast.

“What? Wow, is this phone screwed up or what?”

I heard a clicking sound which might have been the cable but more likely was the drumming of my son’s nails on the mouthpiece at his end. “Why not?” I repeated.

“Wow, I can’t hear you—we’ve got about a hundred feet of snow. I’ll call you when I get to Seattle.”

“Hold it!” Vida, Ginny, and Carla were all watching me. I’d taken the call at Ed’s desk. I tried to ignore my staff members. It was impossible. “Adam, where are you going if not to Alpine?”

“Erin asked me to spend a couple of days in Kirkland.” Though Adam had lowered his voice and semi-mumbled, I still managed to catch the words.

“Erin who?” Or was it Aaron? Either way, I didn’t know the name.

“Erin Kowalski. She lives in Kirkland. With her family. Right on Lake Washington. She’s into animals.” Now Adam was speaking more clearly. I could never keep up with his girlfriends. They seemed to exist on a monthly rotation. Even as he spoke, I was rummaging through Ed’s out-of-town phone directories. I found Seattle, but that wouldn’t do. The suburbs east of the lake had their own phone books. I rummaged some more. “We’re going skiing,” he added.

“You can ski in Alpine. Right in town, as a matter of fact,” I pointed out.

“That’s for pussies, Mom. We’re going up to Crystal Mountain. I’ll call you from Kirkland, okay? How’s Uncle Ben?”

I’d finally found the Kirkland listings. There were two Kowalskis, a Leonard C. and a Douglas L. Kirkland, like the rest of Seattle’s Eastside, had grown so much so fast that the addresses didn’t mean anything to me. “Ben’s fine,” I replied, deciding to give Adam a dose of his own medicine. “Right now, he’s out on a limb.”

“Huh?”

“Call me as soon as you get in. Bye.” With a smirk, I hung up the phone. My staff applauded me.

Ben, Milo, and Sam Heppner still weren’t back at four o’clock. Worried, I called the sheriff’s office, but Dwight Gould, another deputy, informed me that he’d been in touch with Milo as recently as three-thirty. They were heading back into town with the ambulance, stopping first at Doc Dewey’s.

“Ambulance?” It didn’t make sense.

“Right,” said Dwight in his rumbling bass. “For the body. Young Doc’ll do an autopsy.”

“On … what?” I had an awful feeling I knew.

“The body,” repeated Dwight. “It wasn’t just an arm, Mrs. Lord. It was a whole body.”

I put a hand to my forehead, for some irrational reason thinking of Safeway’s ad in today’s paper:
WHOLE BODY FRYERS, 89 CENTS A LB
. Maybe that was better than thinking of the previous week’s
CUT-UP FRYERS, $1.19 A LB
. But of course I thought of both and feared my hysteria was returning.

I got a grip on myself. “Do you mean that literally? About being whole? Nothing missing—like a leg?” I winced as I spoke.

“Nope,” rumbled Dwight. “All of a piece, at least near as I can tell from over the radio phone. Excuse me, Mrs. Lord, Bill Blatt and I are here all alone. Arnie Nyquist just came in, steamin’ like a smokestack.”

I passed the news on to Vida. She, too, was shaken, albeit briefly. “That means two dead bodies. My, my.” Her face was grim as she looked up to see Kip MacDuff come through the door with the latest edition of
The Advocate
. He was only two hours late, which wasn’t bad, considering car troubles and the weather.

By five o’clock, I’d had six phone calls inquiring about the leg item. Three asked if there was any further identification. Two reported they thought they’d hooked onto something strange, maybe an arm or a torso, maybe near Anthracite Creek, then again, maybe closer to Sultan or Index or Gold Bar or in their dreams. The last caller wanted to know if Milo got any fish.

All my staff had left by ten after five. Vida had been reluctant to go, but was committed to her round of festive holiday parties, this particular gala sponsored by the Burl Creek Thimble Club at the Grange Hall. Just before five-thirty, I closed up shop and walked over to the sheriff’s office.

Milo, Ben, and Sam had just returned, not directly from Doc Dewey’s, but from Mugs Ahoy. None of them were feeling any pain.

Exasperated, I turned my ire on my brother: “You jerks! I’ve been stewing and squirming all afternoon! You might have at least called!”

Ben grinned lopsidedly and punched me in the arm. The crackle in his voice had turned into a cackle. “Knock it off, Sluggly. You sound like Mom. Why didn’t you get off your duff and look for us? We were a whole block away.”

Sam Heppner had managed to slip off quietly, but Milo was lounging against the front counter, looking vaguely sheepish. “Ben’s right, Emma. We just went into Mugs Ahoy to steady our nerves. You think it’s fun freezing your unit off while you try to thaw out a stiff? Hey, that’s good—frozen stiff!” He glanced at Ben, and they both broke into unbridled laughter.

I was grinding my teeth. I hadn’t been this mad at Ben since he filled my strapless bra with Elmer’s Glue the night of the Blanchet High School winter ball. I’d never been this mad at Milo, period. Where was Vida when I needed her? And the hot cocoa? If I’d had some, I would have poured it over Ben and Milo’s heads.

“I need news, not a pair of drunken sots!” I railed. “What’s this about a body? A
whole
body?” The image of a chicken hopped through my mind. I started to laugh, too. “Oh, good grief!” I collapsed onto a chair, shaking my head, but still laughing.

“Hey, Emma,” said Milo, trying to lean his elbow on the counter, but missing, “your brother’s okay, especially for a priest. And I’m okay, too. I’m off-duty. It’s after five.”

I stopped laughing. “A priest is never off-duty,” I said, but my voice didn’t convey much indignation. “What will Mrs. McHale think?”

BOOK: The Alpine Christmas
8.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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