Authors: Mary Daheim
It was Milo, not Ben, who answered: “That old broad? Who cares? She tried to put the make on me at the Labor Day picnic. Maybe she’s the one who gave Father Fitz his heart attack.”
“It was a stroke, you boob,” I replied. “Do either of you two rollicking goof balls know how Father is doing?”
“As well as can be expected.” It was Ben, this time,
giving me a skewed look. “We saw Doc Dewey, remember?”
I narrowed my eyes at my brother. “I sure do. But do you remember
you saw Doc Dewey?”
Ben ran both hands through his thatch of hair and turned around in a little circle. “Oh, yes. We remember. Why do you think we were drinking to forget?”
“But we didn’t,” put in Milo. He was patting himself down, as if searching a suspect for weapons. “Hey, where’s my beeper? Did I leave it at Mugs Ahoy? Shit!”
I realized that Ben couldn’t return to the rectory in his inebriated condition, nor could Milo drive home. I wasn’t making much progress in getting to the facts, but if I stuffed them both with food, they should be able to tell me what I wanted to know. With the lure of beef stroganoff, I led them out of the sheriff’s office to my car. The snow was coming down quite hard, with another two inches on the ground since mid-afternoon. I drove home cautiously, while Ben and Milo told each other perfectly dreadful jokes.
“I’m divorced,” Milo announced to Ben as I pulled into my driveway. “Do you care?”
Ben responded with more laughter. “Joke’s on you, Dodge. In my church, you were never married. Ha, ha!”
Milo’s jaw dropped. “You mean … my kids are … Whoa! That’s great! If I turn Catholic, can I stop paying child support for the little bastards?”
“You’re only paying for one of them as it is,” I said, pushing the car door open. “The other two are over eighteen. Besides, we’re talking church, not state. Get out of the car, you two bozos. The first thing I’m going to do is make coffee.”
My beef stroganoff takes only about twenty minutes to cook. By the time I was ready to serve, Ben and Milo had downed three mugs of coffee apiece and were almost themselves again. I suspected that neither of them—or Sam Heppner, for that matter—had drunk as much as it appeared.
There hadn’t been time for them to down more than two or three beers apiece. Rather, I surmised, my brother and the sheriff were reacting to the horror of their find down by the falls.
My guess was verified when Milo announced that we’d wait until after we finished eating to discuss the afternoon’s occurrences. Ben agreed, but almost blew it by saying grace and offering a prayer for the repose of the soul “… of the unfortunate young woman who met a violent end in Alpine.” My curiosity further piqued, I ate very fast.
Clearing away the remnants of stroganoff, rice, and green beans, I offered Ben and Milo the rest of the Viennese torte with more coffee. I love food, but am not a big sweets freak. While they tackled the torte, I remembered Vida’s words and heated some cocoa.
Milo was the first to broach the subject that held our minds hostage. “The body apparently had been dumped in the river, but the current had pushed it toward the bank. Snow had drifted onto some big boulders where the body was wedged. All you could see was the arm.” He paused, looking at Ben for confirmation. “When we got there, we realized there was more than just an arm. It took us some time to dig her out. She probably hadn’t been there very long.” Milo’s voice had grown subdued. Ben’s mouth twisted at the memory.
“Was she naked?” I asked, and wondered why the question had sprung into my mind. I hadn’t seen the arm, but if it had been clothed, surely Ben would have said so.
“Right,” nodded Milo. “She was young, early twenties, pretty, I’d guess, hair about the color of yours, but longer. She had a tattoo.”
I arched my eyebrows. “Where? What?”
Milo touched his backside. “Here. It spelled
-s or something like that, then
, all in small letters. It was hard to read.”
Finally, I was managing to set aside personal feelings and follow the story. “Not a last name?”
“I don’t think so.” Again, Milo turned to Ben. “You agree, Father?”
Ben inclined his head. “The
or whatever it is was under the name Carol, but smaller and centered. Then the
beneath that, also centered and even a little smaller.”
doesn’t spell anything,” I said, getting up to put another log on the fire, “unless it stands for something like International Order of whatever. Are you sure that’s what it said?”
“No,” Milo replied flatly. “Doc Dewey will use one of his high-powered microscopes on it. We’ll get a full report tomorrow.”
I sat back down on the sofa next to Ben. The living room was cozy, with its comfortable, eclectic furniture, stone fireplace, forest green draperies, and the wonderfully warm, stained log walls. So far, the only Christmas decorations I’d put up were the first ten pieces of my Nativity set—one for every day of Advent. It was a tradition I’d started when Adam was a toddler. Tonight I would add another sheep.
“I suppose,” I mused, “there’s no way to connect this corpse with the leg?”
Milo gave me a wry glance. I made a face. There didn’t seem to be any way to discuss this case without uttering something that sounded like a bad joke. “No. Two different parts of the river, probably a time frame of three or four months’ difference. It’s probably just a coincidence.”
“Probably.” I had to agree, yet I wasn’t much of a believer in coincidences that didn’t mean anything. “But you’ve got to admit that there
be. What about foul play?”
Before Milo could answer, the phone rang. It was Vida. “I’m almost out the door,” she said in a rush, “but Marje Blatt just called from Doc Dewey’s office.” Marje was Vida’s niece and Gerald Dewey’s receptionist. As such, Marje walked a fine line between strict patient confidentiality and her aunt’s mighty badgering. Her aunt usually had the edge. “Marje worked late tonight, so she was still around when
young Doc started the autopsy. He practically had a fit—that body Milo and your brother dug out of the snowbank had been frozen!”
I pulled back, staring at the receiver. Had Vida lost it, along with Father Fitz? “I should think so,” I said calmly. “It’s been getting down to about ten above zero the last few nights. You’d be frozen, too, if you were lying under a snowbank in the Skykomish River.”
Vida’s tone was not only rushed, but impatient. “I mean frozen beforehand. She’d thawed a bit, maybe the other afternoon when it got up to thirty-six. Monday, wasn’t it? Think about it—I’ve got to head out to the Grange Hall. By the way, Doc can’t find Milo. He doesn’t answer his beeper.”
Milo called young Doc right away. Yes, Doc figured the victim had been left to freeze, judging from the internal organs, then somehow had been partially thawed. Definitely, foul play: signs of trauma, a blow to the head. Blunt instrument, no idea what, brick, bat, or bowling trophy—that was Milo’s department. When? Hard to tell, given the frozen state of the corpse. Maybe, said young Doc, four or five days, possibly longer. No, there was no sign of sexual assault or of recent intercourse. As for the tattoo, Doc hadn’t gotten around to that yet. Ever the man of science, young Doc was more interested in the medical post-mortem than in such superfluous details as who he was performing it on. Milo looked very unhappy when he hung up.
“Now the rest is up to us,” he sighed after relaying Doc Dewey’s multiple messages. “You wait and see, everybody will jump on that spare leg and figure we’ve got a serial killer loose. Damn.”
The Burlington Northern whistled in the distance, a mournful sound. Outside the window, I could see snow piling up, drifting against the small panes, obscuring the rest of the world. The train whistled again. Irrelevantly, I thought of the avalanche, over eighty years ago, that had caved in the Great Northern Railroad tunnel on the second switchback up
the line at Tyee. Ninety people had died, buried under a mass of snow. There had been only a handful of miners and loggers living in Alpine at that time. The disaster had served as a reminder that death lurked even in the most remote, beautiful settings.
Trying to shake off such grim thoughts, I made an attempt to encourage Milo. “You ought to be able to find a match with missing persons. If this poor young woman has been dead for going on a week, she’d be reported by now.”
Milo refused to be consoled. “Not if she was a prostitute. Or if she’s from out-of-state. Or on the run from some guy who was trying to beat the crap out of her. You’d be surprised. People can lose themselves pretty easily. At least on a temporary basis.”
Ben had gotten to his feet and was toying with my manger scene. He set the three shepherds in a row, as if they were queuing up to get into the small wooden shed. “She must have worn clothes. What happened to them?”
Looking mildly affronted that Ben would raise such a point, Milo shrugged. “How do I know? According to Doc, it wasn’t a sex crime. At least not rape. Maybe the killer is trying to hide the victim’s identity.”
Putting the two sheep in line behind the shepherds, Ben turned to Milo. “Do you mean she had her name stitched in her clothes?”
“Not necessarily,” replied Milo. “Labels, maybe, that would narrow down where the clothes came from. You know, like some fancy designer store.” He glanced at me. “Isn’t that right, Emma?”
I nodded. “Some boutiques put their own labels in their merchandise. But it seems a little strange to me that the killer would check something like that.” I played the scenario through in my head: violent murderer bashes in skull of victim, then calmly looks to see if clothing came from other than off the rack. It didn’t make much sense, and I was sure that Vida would agree with me. It also didn’t strike me as
likely that a young woman with a tattoo on her rear end would buy her apparel at an exclusive shop. But people were unpredictable.
The discussion wound down. Ben finished putting the cow and the ox on the top of the stable roof, then announced that he had better get back to the rectory. I volunteered to drive both men, but they insisted on walking. St. Mildred’s was half a mile from my home; Milo’s house in the Icicle Creek development was about twice as far. I didn’t press either of them, figuring the cold air would do them both good.
After they left, I cleared away the remnants of our meal and played around with possible ways of handling coverage of the latest murder victim. I had almost six days to write the story. A lot could happen between now and then. Still, it was a mental reflex on my part to take any news item and run with it. Two decades on daily newspapers was habit-forming. Often, I still found myself unable to adjust completely to the slower pace of a small town. I also found it impossible to adjust to murder.
I rearranged my Nativity set, added the new sheep, and tried to focus on other, more pleasant concerns. It was Advent, my favorite liturgical season. Hope. Joy. Peace. Those were the emotions I should be experiencing. Year after year, I had vowed to seek more quiet in the weeks before Christmas. But as a single working mother, there had been little time for anything but my son and the job. As Adam grew older, I figured I’d have extra hours to myself. Yet every December had brought a new, unexpected crisis: for example, the gingerbread house for German class which Adam had wanted to resemble Mad Ludvig’s castle in Bavaria, but which, after forty-eight hours of shared toil, looked more like an overturned Dumpster. Adam knew he wouldn’t get extra credit when his teacher had to ask,
“What is it?”
When Adam went off to college, I was already an editor-publisher. Free time, let alone quiet time, was hard to come by. This year was proving no different. In a flurry of activity,
I hauled out a half dozen boxes from the storage room off the kitchen. Candles, wreaths, figurines, garlands, colored lights, ornaments, tinsel—it was all there, most of it mine, some of it my parents’, and a few treasured items passed on from my grandparents. I set aside all the decorations for the tree with the remainder of the nativity pieces, then began to drape artificial pine over the doorways. I arranged candles on the mantel, hung a trio of wreaths, and put the rest of the Santas, Madonnas, angels, reindeer, and elves on whatever spare places I could find. Weary, but content, I surveyed my handiwork. My log house looked festive, warm, welcoming. When the tree was up, it would become sheer magic. I smiled with pleasure.
. I had thought about it in the abstract, almost as if it were the same tree, from year to year, as artificial as the pine garlands. But the perfect Douglas fir that stood in a bucket next to the house had been witness to a murder. Or at least to a murder victim.
It was not a thought that brought hope or joy or peace. In fact, it was a damned rotten thing to happen to me during Advent.
But of course it was even worse for the victim.
Oscar Nyquist, owner of the Whistling Marmot, had started going bald in his early twenties. He was, like so many older people in Alpine, a living legend. One of my favorite bits of Oscarana, as I called it, concerned Alexander Pantages, famed West Coast theatre entrepreneur. When the great man took his final curtain call in 1936, Oscar wanted to pay homage to a fellow impresario. Either out of respect for this icon or vanity for himself, Oscar was compelled to cover his half-bald head. His neighbor, Millard O’Toole, had butchered a cow that very morning. In a fit of inspiration, Oscar had cut off enough hide to make a toupee. It didn’t match his remaining hair; it didn’t fit his large head; and it wouldn’t stay put—but Oscar wore it anyway. He drove off to Seattle in his Model-A Ford feeling respectable and looking ridiculous. When he bent over Pantages’s coffin, the makeshift hairpiece fell off. Humiliated, Oscar left it there, and all Alpine assumed that the famed impresario was spending eternity with a little bit of local lore.
At eighty-two, Oscar had long since become completely bald. He was still a big man, an inch taller than his son Arnie, and probably thirty pounds heavier. On Thursday morning, he lumbered into the
office behind his grandson, Travis, who had graduated to a walking cast, but still leaned on a pair of metal crutches.