Authors: Mary Daheim
“I want publicity!” boomed Oscar, standing in the middle of the room and somehow making the walls suddenly appear
to close in on all of us. Ed looked up from his copy of the
. Ginny pivoted in the act of handing me some phone messages. Carla jumped so violently that she spilled latte on her desk. And Vida gave the newcomer a tight-lipped glare.
“Oscar, you old fool,” she railed, “how many times do I have to tell you—and fifty other idiots in this town—that we don’t do
. We do news or ads. After sixty years of running that movie theatre, you ought to know the difference. Either get yourself arrested or plunk out some money. Which is it you want?” She stopped long enough to cock her head to one side and smile warmly at Travis. “You’re up and about, I see. How’s your leg?”
“Dr. Flake put the walking cast on this morning and it feels …”
“Like hell!” interrupted Oscar, barging in front of his grandson. “If I say publicity, I
publicity! Isn’t this a newspaper? Isn’t it printed for the public?”
“Oooooh …!” Vida whipped off her glasses and frantically rubbed at her eyes, the telltale gesture that indicated she was highly agitated. “I give up! Emma, you deal with this crazy old coot. He’s impossible!”
So far, my dealings with Oscar Nyquist had been limited. Ed handled his weekly ads; Ginny did the billing; Carla had written a little news story the previous spring when a new Dolby sound system had been installed; and Vida, of course, covered any social events connected with the Nyquists. I knew Oscar only by sight—and sound, since his presence in the office was always unmistakable. To get my further acquaintance off on the right foot, I invited Oscar and his grandson into my inner office. Travis, however, demurred and sat down at Carla’s desk. With a shrug, I followed Oscar and closed the door. It wouldn’t prevent the others from hearing him, but at least it might muffle the roar.
“Have you seen my marquee?” he demanded, sitting across from me with his elbows on my desk.
“I saw it yesterday, I guess. You have your special annual showing of
It’s A Wonderful Life
. I’d like to see it again.…”
“Today!” He pounded on the desktop, rattling objects and shivering timbers. “Yesterday I was showing
It’s A Wonderful Life
, this morning I’m showing
It’s A Wonderful File
! Who’s the culprit, I ask you? Who’s persecuting the Nyquists? That stupid sheriff of ours does nothing! We want you to help us. It’s your duty, right?”
My brain was still dealing with the switch of letters on the marquee. It was simple enough, no doubt the nocturnal effort of some kids. It was also kind of funny, but I didn’t dare say so to Oscar.
“Frankly, Mr. Nyquist,” I said in a serious voice, “I’m not sure
would suit your purpose. That only calls attention to this sort of thing and invites more trouble. As long as there’s no damage to your …”
“Not yet,” bristled Oscar, taking a briar pipe out of his lumber jacket. “Not to the Marmot, I mean. But damage, yes, oh, yes, we’ve had plenty of that. Theft, vandalism, passion pits—what next? Where does it end when there’s no police protection in this town?”
Oscar Nyquist was shaking his pipe. He had gotten very red in the face, which in his case meant all over his skull as well. His jaw jutted, and there were deep furrows in his forehead. Fleetingly, I wondered if he were about to have a stroke, like Father Fitz.
“Wait a minute,” I urged, keeping calm. “Back up a bit. I heard about the theft and some of the vandalism. That’s happened mostly to your son, Arnie, right?” I saw Oscar give a jerky nod. “What’s this passion pit business? That’s news to me. Are you talking about necking in the movie theatre?” I phrased the question in the old-fashioned terms Oscar understood.
“Sheesh!” breathed Oscar, arching his eyebrows far up into his dome. He settled down enough to extract an oilskin
pouch of tobacco from his jacket. “Not in
theatre, you don’t. I still got ushers, remember? But I can’t say exactly in mixed company,” he murmured, lowering his voice as well as his head. “It’s the new bowling alley site. Immoral acts. You know what I mean? My son has proof of it. That’s not all, either.” His voice began to rise again. “Somebody punctured the tires of two of Arnie’s construction trucks. And then there’s that Peeping Tom at my grandson’s place.”
“Has all this been reported to Sheriff Dodge?” I asked, still trying to keep my tone mild.
“Why bother?” exploded Oscar. “I tell you, he hasn’t done anything! Oh, Arnie went to see him about the break-in the other day, but this new stuff—what’s the use? That’s why I’m here.”
A single knock sounded on my door. I called out.
Travis Nyquist poked his head in. His words were for his grandfather: “Popsy, what did I tell you?” Travis’s blue eyes narrowed slightly, distorting his otherwise appealing, all-American face.
Oscar turned slightly, then banged the desk again. “You’re soft, boy! This is persecution, I tell you!”
Travis, however, stood firm, if slightly unbalanced on his new walking cast. “For Bridget’s sake, Popsy. Come on, she asked nicely, didn’t she?”
“Nyaaah!” Oscar made a scornful gesture, taking a swipe at the framed Sigma Delta Chi Award from my days at
. “She’s a baby, still wet behind the ears.…” But he caught the warning stare from Travis and began to simmer down. “Okay, okay, but those tires—do you know what they cost?”
“The tires don’t bother me,” agreed Travis, his face regaining its usual pleasant aspect. “Just remember what you promised.” He winked, then closed the door.
“Maybe,” I suggested, having racked my brain for a way out of this awkward situation, “what we need to do is look into the matter of the sheriff’s office. That’s what you’re really
complaining about, right?” I saw Oscar give a little shudder that passed for assent. “Perhaps I could assign one of my staff to investigate how the sheriff handles complaints. We might do a series, you know, in-depth, and in the process, goad Dodge and his deputies into taking complaints such as yours more seriously.” It sounded exemplary, even though I had absolutely no intention of following through. Over the years, however, I have learned that most unreasonable requests made to journalists can be put off by the promise of
. The average layman is impressed by the idea, and when nothing comes of it, the explanation is easy:
takes time. Most people’s attention span is only slightly longer than that of a bug’s, so eventually the crisis dries up and blows away.
Oscar, however, was looking dubious. Instead of protesting, however, he set aside his pipe and pouch, reached for my notepad, and picked up a ballpoint pen. Apparently, Oscar was incapable of whispering. His handwriting was large and overblown, like the man himself:
Someone is trying to kill my grandson’s wife. Help us
I blinked at the message, then stared at Oscar. He motioned for me not to speak out loud.
, he scrawled in reply.
With a sigh, I leaned back in my swivel chair. It would do me no good to urge Oscar or any other Nyquist to go to the sheriff. Rapidly, I considered the previous problems the family had encountered. All of them were petty, probably pranks. Young people in Alpine didn’t have enough to do, especially in the winter. None of the Nyquist complaints would lead me to think that they could be connected with a killer. My initial reaction was to dismiss Oscar’s fears as part of a persecution complex.
Except that we already had two dead young women. Was it possible that Bridget Nyquist might become number three?
I found a fresh piece of paper and invited Oscar to come over to my house around six. He mulled over the request,
fidgeted with his pipe, then gave a nod of assent. “Okay,” he said out loud. “You promise to help?”
“Of course.” It felt like an empty vow, but at least I could hear the man out. He was on his feet, heavy shoes tramping on the floor. “What about Travis?” I murmured. “Would he like to come?”
The bald head gave a sharp shake. “No.” Oscar started for the door. “He needs to rest.” The remark was an afterthought.
Out in the news office, Vida and Ed were gone, Ginny had returned to the front desk, and Carla was deep in conversation with Travis. She giggled, which Carla often does, a decidedly unmusical sound. Travis was laughing, too. They were head-to-head, and I noticed that Oscar stiffened at the sight of them.
“Let’s go, boy!” bellowed Oscar, barreling through the newsroom like a tank. Startled, Travis looked up from his tête-à-tête.
“Sure, Popsy,” he said, appearing to struggle with the crutches. He slipped, caught himself on the desk, then allowed a wide-eyed Carla to brace him. “Thanks, I needed that.” Travis beamed down on Carla, who actually blushed. I was refreshed and at the same time annoyed. Carla’s private life was none of my business, but flirting with married men was dumb. After all, look where it had gotten me.…
I waited by the window to make sure Oscar and Travis had taken off in a brown Range Rover. Throwing my purple car coat over my shoulders, I turned to Carla. “What’s with the bridegroom? I thought he had a nurse at home.”
Carla giggled and blushed, blushed and giggled. “Travis Nyquist is just a friendly kind of guy. You know, the type who makes you feel like a
“So how come you’re acting like an idiot?” The response was more cutting than I’d intended. Immediate remorse set in, and I gave Carla a crooked smile. “Sorry, Carla, but
someday I’ll tell you the story of my life. It’ll cure you of friendly men who wear wedding rings.”
Carla sobered suddenly, and her complexion returned to its usual smooth olive hue. “Do you mean Adam’s dad?” If nothing else, Carla was direct.
With a resigned sigh, I perched on her desk. “Yeah, that’s right.” So far, I’d confided only in Vida about my ill-starred love affair with Tom Cavanaugh. But with Adam due home for Christmas break and no doubt headed back to the Bay Area to visit his father over the holidays, my secret was about to come out. “It wasn’t just a flirtation, though. It was the real McCoy. But that hasn’t made it any easier for the past twenty-plus years.” I lifted my chin, attempting dignity. Carla frowned. “Hey,” I went on, shaking her arm, “I don’t mean to deliver a lecture. I’m overreacting. But Travis reminds me of Adam’s dad—on the surface, that is. Smart, good-looking, charming, ambitious, talented—and married. Seeing the two of you together at your desk brought back those days at
The Seattle Times
when I was an intern and Adam’s father was a copy editor. I was just about your age, maybe a year or so younger. Do I sound sappy?”
Carla considered. “A little. Gosh, Emma, it’s tough up here in Alpine. Most of the unmarried guys have grease under their fingernails or have lost a few digits in the woods. Where do you find a guy who isn’t married and who uses good grammar?”
My brown-eyed gaze met her black-eyed stare. “Good question. Where, Carla? Where?”
Carla giggled. But she didn’t blush.
The one man in Alpine who might have qualified, as far as I was concerned, was sitting in his office with the phone propped up against his ear and his long legs stretched out on his desk. The problem with Milo Dodge was that there was no chemistry between us. Then there was Honoria Whitman, his current woman of choice. Also, he was divorced, and I
was Catholic. But most of all, there was Tom Cavanaugh. As long as I remained stupidly, stubbornly in love with Tom, Milo’s flaws and virtues counted for naught.
Milo gestured for me to sit down, then went on with his monosyllabic side of the conversation. Whoever was at the other end was monopolizing the call. With a promise to see to it ASAP, Milo rung off.
“Dot Parker,” said Milo with a sigh. “Durwood bought a snowmobile.”
Durwood Parker, retired pharmacist, and unarguably the worst driver in Skykomish County, had been grounded by Milo for six months. Obviously, he was chafing at the bit and had discovered a new way to make mayhem. I clapped a hand to my head and gave Milo an incredulous look.
“Where is he?” I inquired, hoping it was nowhere near civilization.
“Somewhere up the Icicle Creek Road,” replied Milo, rubbing his temples. “He got Averill Fairbanks to give him a lift as far as the ranger station. Ave saw a UFO land near the campground up there this morning.”
“Oh.” I marveled that Ave hadn’t called the paper to report his latest sighting. He usually did. In fact, we could have kept a standing headline for Averill Fairbanks and his alien spacecraft. “Is Dot worried?”
“Yeah, a little. She wants Jack or Bill or somebody to go check on him if he’s not back by mid-afternoon. You had lunch?”
Since it was only eleven-thirty, I hadn’t. But breakfast had been meager: cinnamon toast and coffee. Tired out from my decorating efforts, I’d slept in, almost twenty minutes later than usual. I decided that if we could find a discreet table at the Venison Inn, it would be as appropriate a place as any to tell Milo about Oscar Nyquist’s concerns.
Since we had beaten the usual lunch crowd to the restaurant, we had our choice of seating. I steered Milo to a back booth, next to a window. Red paper bells hung from the
ceiling, with silver tinsel looped wall-to-wall. Springs of holly stood in slim white vases and red felt stockings were hung over the fireplace at the rear of the main dining room. “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” was prancing along the restaurant’s music track.
“What’s up?” Milo inquired after he’d ordered a steak sandwich medium-well and I’d opted for the beef dip because I could get it rare this early in the lunch hour.
I relayed Oscar’s complaints, as well as my empty promise. Milo looked mildly exasperated. “Jesus, those Nyquists think they own the damned town. Old Lars used to face off with Carl Clemans about once a month. Luckily, Carl usually won,” said Milo, referring to the fair-minded mill owner who had been Alpine’s unofficial founder. “Oscar followed in his father’s footsteps, then Arnie, and now Travis, I suppose. I wouldn’t bother myself with that marquee crap—kids have been doing that for years around here. Remember
The Mail and Louse
? Then there was
Lethal Peon 2
. We found the extra letters in the litter can. Same with
The Prince of Ties
. My favorite, though, was
Silence of the Lamps—they
upside down …”