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Authors: Mary Daheim

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BOOK: The Alpine Pursuit
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And accidents did happen.

I found no comfort in the thought.

SIX

For the next half hour I busied myself with chores but kept an eye on the Parsons house. I’d built a fire from some of the dry logs I keep under a tarp in the carport. If I had to be stuck inside, I wanted to be cozy.

The snowplow stayed put in the middle of the street. It wasn’t blocking traffic because there wasn’t any, except for the couple on skis who were making their way through the intersection at Fir and Fourth. Most of Alpine seemed hunkered down, even as the icicles began to drip from the eaves.

I saw Jim leave, trudging through the snow and carrying Azbug away. His clinic was six blocks from my doorstep. Apparently, he’d decided he could walk. Fox terriers aren’t heavy dogs.

Milo didn’t reappear for almost another half hour. By that time, it was close to four-thirty. I wasn’t exactly posted at the front window, but I happened to look up from my laptop, on which I’d been writing a letter to my friend, Mavis Marley Fulkerston, in Portland. The sheriff was heading my way.

“How’s the bereaved dog owner?” I asked as he stamped his feet on the porch.

“Not good,” Milo replied. “She rescued that dog from the pound and raised her from a puppy. She was like a kid to Destiny.”

I tried to look sympathetic. “I gather Destiny has never had children.”

“She was married once, a long time ago.” Milo began the task of removing his parka. Puddles formed on my carpet, but I ignored them. They’d dry. “No kids, I guess.”

“Are you on duty or do you want a drink?” I asked as Milo spread out in my easy chair.

“I’m here to take your formal statement,” he replied, “but I wouldn’t turn down a shot of Scotch. It’ll keep me warm.”

In the kitchen, I made two quick, short drinks—Milo’s Scotch, my bourbon. When I came back into the living room, the sheriff was nodding off.

He jumped when I approached him with his glass. “Jeez!” he exclaimed. “I was practically asleep. That fire feels good.”

Sometimes it was hard to stay mad at Milo. He looked so comfortable in that easy chair with his long legs stuck out so far that they almost reached under the coffee table in front of the sofa. He was rubbing his eyes and brushing the graying sandy hair from his forehead. The familiar way he was lounging meant that with any luck, I’d find at least a dollar in change that had fallen out of his pocket. I was trying to be unsentimental, but it wasn’t easy. The sheriff always looked so at home in my living room.

“How are the interviews going?” I inquired, getting Milo an ashtray before I sat down on the sofa.

“What you’d expect,” he answered, pausing to light a cigarette. “Everybody still seems in a state of shock, including Dustin. I’ve only talked to him, Cardenas, Fleetwood, Medved, and Destiny so far. The rest of my guys have done some interviews with audience members over the phone. Oh . . .” He stopped to take a sip of his drink. “. . . I paid a courtesy call on Old Lady Rasmussen this afternoon. They couldn’t get back to Snohomish, so she’s up at the ski lodge.”

“In the imperial suite,” I remarked. “If they had one.”

“She’s driving Henry Bardeen nuts,” Milo said with a sardonic smile. “Henry’s had his share of pains in the ass over the years, but he swears Thyra’s the worst.”

Henry was the ski lodge’s longtime manager and the younger brother of Buck Bardeen, Vida’s dear friend. “You can’t blame Thyra for being upset,” I said. “Killing off a cast member isn’t good publicity for your theater.”

Milo nodded. “The old girl blames Destiny. Carelessness, that’s what Mrs. R. calls it. Hell, she may be right.”

“I suppose,” I mused, “you can’t have a murder without a motive. Does Hans Berenger have a lurid past or have you had time to check?”

“I had Nat Cardenas fax me Berenger’s résumé,” Milo replied, flicking ash from the end of his cigarette. “You must have gotten the same dope for the paper. Don’t you always do a story on new faculty members?”

“I think Scott did that one,” I said. “This is—I mean
was
—Hans’s third or fourth year at SCC. Frankly, I don’t remember what the story said except that he was originally from the Midwest.”

“Chicago,” Milo said, and frowned. “What does that mean? People say they’re from Chicago or L.A. or New York, and then you find out that they really came from some suburb you never even heard of. Seattle’s getting like that. I met a guy at the firing range in Yakima last fall and he told me he was from Seattle. Turned out he was forty-two years old, grew up on the Eastside in Issaquah twenty minutes from the city, and hadn’t ever seen the Space Needle except from an airplane.”

Milo had a particular dislike for Seattle’s eastern suburbs. His ex-wife had moved to Bellevue with their children after the divorce. Tricia—or Old Mulehide, as Milo called her—had remarried almost as soon as the decree had become final. Her second husband was, in fact, a schoolteacher. Maybe the sheriff wasn’t trying as hard as he could to find out who might have wanted to kill Hans Berenger. Maybe he was trying to get some vicarious revenge on the profession.

“You digress,” I said. “Refresh my memory about Hans’s background.”

Milo made a face. “I can’t remember all that stuff about his degrees. He got a doctorate of some kind from Wisconsin, moved to Southern California, and later took a job in the Bay Area. Anyway, he came up here about four years ago. He was dean of students at some two-year school in the Bay Area. Cardenas hired Berenger because he’d had experience as a dean.”

“Not married?”

“Widowed,” Milo replied. “His wife died while they were still living in California. Some kind of accident. No mention of kids.”

“It sounds as if he wanted to get away from big cities,” I noted. “From Chicago to Wisconsin to Southern and Northern California to here. Does it sound as if he’s been running away?”

“Could be,” Milo allowed. “The wife’s death probably had that effect on him.”

“She must have been fairly young,” I said, noticing that Milo’s glass was empty. “Do you want a refill?”

Milo shook his head. “Can you write down what you saw before I take off?”

I shrugged. “There’s not much to write. I saw what the rest of the audience saw—what you saw, too. The fight broke out, Hans tried to break it up, Nat entered . . .” I stopped and retrieved my laptop from the other end of the sofa. “Here. I always do better when I type. It’ll just take a minute. Do you want me to print it out or bring it by Monday?”

“Monday’s fine,” Milo said, looking at the fire and yawning. “It’s just routine. You know me, I like to cover all the bases.”

By the book, that was our sheriff. I finished the three paragraphs and closed the laptop. “Are you sure you can stay awake for the rest of the day?”

Milo grimaced. “It was one hell of a short night. It’s thawing out there, and that damned snowplow’s hard enough to drive without steering it through slushy stuff. I still have a couple of people to talk to.” He extinguished his cigarette and stood up.

“Who?”

“Rita Patricelli and Clea Bhuj,” Milo replied, getting into his parka. “I hear Rita’s been seeing Hans. Seems like an odd couple to me.”

“Rita certainly fell apart last night,” I said. “Whatever happened to her ex?”

Milo looked puzzled. “Haines? Wasn’t that his name? She used to go by it when she first came back to Alpine.” The sheriff shrugged. “I think she left him behind in Seattle. I don’t think I ever met the guy. He wasn’t from here.”

“By the way,” I said as Milo opened the door, “Vida mentioned that Clea was responsible for Hans being cast in the play. Maybe he’s been playing the field. Clea’s single, isn’t she?”

But I was mistaken. “She’s got a husband in Everett,” Milo said. “They sort of commute back and forth. He works for the city over there. Dustin told me he has to live in Everett to keep his job. It’s some kind of rule they’ve got.”

“Oh.” I’d begun to realize how little I knew of SCC’s faculty despite the fact that the college had now been around for several years. It was strange, really. Many of the instructors were in my peer group, and most undoubtedly had more wide-ranging interests than their bowling scores or how many half racks they should lay in for the weekend. Yet I hadn’t gone out of my way to make friends, and when it came to interviews, I usually handed off the assignments to Scott or Vida. It was an old story for me. All my life, I’d built so many fences to protect myself that there were few to mend and no one to help me rend them.

Under deepening clouds of gray, Milo went off into the melting snow. I hadn’t pried about his meeting with Destiny. Was that because I didn’t care?

I made myself another drink and tried to think of other things.

One of those things that came to mind that evening was the car that had gone into the Sky. Around eight, I turned the radio on. But Saturday nights were devoted to Big Band music, with only a few commercial breaks. Spence’s theory was that KSKY could be piped into the local taverns so the patrons could trip the light fantastic toe. Assuming, of course, that they could still stand up, let alone dance. I didn’t wait for the sign-off news at midnight. By eleven-thirty, I was fast asleep.

By one-fifteen, I was wide awake. The bedroom seemed to shake, and at first I thought we were having an earthquake. Then a bright light filled the bedroom and I heard a whirring noise. The room stopped vibrating; the light and the noise grew fainter by the second. If I’d been in the city, I would have sworn it was a helicopter. But nobody that I knew of in Alpine—including the sheriff—owned any type of aircraft.

Without bothering to put on a robe, I went to the window and pulled up the shade. Sure enough, I could see blinking white lights and a single beam through the mixed snow and rain. The copter was circling above the south side of town, searching my neighborhood and the nearby woods.

I picked up the phone from the nightstand and called the sheriff’s office. A weary Jack Mullins answered on the fourth ring.

“Go back to bed, Emma,” he said tartly. “Are your doors locked?”

“Yes,” I replied, struggling to put a robe on over my shivering body, “but I’m not going back to bed until you tell me what’s going on. Where’d that copter come from?”

Jack heaved a sigh. “The state patrol. We borrowed it. We’re looking for somebody, okay?”

“No kidding. Is he armed and dangerous?”

“Hang up now, Emma.”

“Where’s Milo?”

“In the copter. Good night, Emma.” Jack hung up.

I was still looking out the window. The aircraft hovered over First Hill before starting to turn back toward the residential area. I felt frustrated and wondered if I should call the state patrol. They might be more helpful than Deputy Mullins.

Before I could make up my mind, the phone rang. Even as I reached for the receiver, I knew it would be Vida. The copter was now in her vicinity, on Tyee Street, a block away from the middle school.

“My nephew Billy won’t come to the phone,” Vida declared without any preamble. “He’s working, but he’s out of the office. Since he can’t fly a helicopter, where in the world is he and what’s he doing?”

I didn’t have a chance to conjecture. Vida rattled on. “Imagine! A helicopter hovering over Alpine during the night! What can it mean? Is Milo chasing Hans Berenger’s killer?”

The thought had crossed my mind. “Maybe.” The sheriff had had eight hours to discover the perp. If there really was a perp. “It could be something unrelated. Grace Grundle may have reported another prowler.”

“Milo wouldn’t bother getting a helicopter for that,” Vida scoffed. “The last time Grace phoned in with one of her fright attacks, it turned out to be the mailman. Marlow Whipp, in fact. He’d forgotten to drop off her cat toy catalog and knew she’d be upset if it didn’t come on time. Besides, who’d be prowling around in this weather?”

Vida had a point. “I talked to Jack Mullins,” I said. “He virtually hung up on me.”

“This is most aggravating,” Vida asserted. “It’s no way to treat the press. I’ve a mind to march right down to the sheriff’s office.”

“Don’t,” I warned.

“Why not?” She paused. “Roger left his sled here a year or two ago. He said sleds were for kiddies. He wanted a luge. Maybe I could—”

“Don’t even think about it,” I interrupted.

“Why not? It’s straight downhill to Front Street. I’d merely have to walk a few blocks to the sheriff’s.” She sighed. “If only Buck were back in town. He’s an air force colonel. He’d be able to sort all this out.”

“Please don’t,” I begged. “It’s too dangerous.”

“You think I can’t ride a sled?”

“I think you won’t be able to see,” I warned Vida. “The weather’s awful, the snow may be melting, but it’s still piled high, and you might run into a car once you hit Front Street. They plowed down there.”

“You fuss too much,” Vida said. “I should go now.”

Vida clicked off. She should go where? To the sheriff’s? Back to bed? To call someone else? I paced around the house. Maybe I should try Vida’s number. If she was on the phone, I’d know she was safe at home. If she didn’t answer . . . I couldn’t think about that possibility. Nor was there anything I could do about it.

But there was. I should be the one who was hell-bent on getting the news. I was twenty years younger than Vida; I was the editor and the publisher of
The Alpine Advocate
. By nature, Vida was snoopier than I was. But she shouldn’t be more professional. When it came to risking a neck, it was mine that had to be on the block.

I picked up the phone in the living room and dialed Vida’s number. She didn’t answer on the first three rings, which alarmed me. But then I heard her impatient voice.

“Yes? Who is this?” she demanded.

“It’s me: Emma. What are you doing?”

“Getting dressed. Then,” she went on in a vexed tone, “I’m going to look for Roger’s sled. It’s somewhere in the basement.”

“Don’t. I’m already on my way.” It wasn’t quite true, but I had to forestall her.

“So? We’ll both go. How are you getting there?”

“I’m using Adam’s skis,” I replied. “He had to get a different kind when he was assigned to Alaska.”

“You don’t know how to ski,” Vida declared.

“I’m not turning out for an Olympic downhill race. If I can walk, I can ski. And if I can’t ski, I can still walk.”

BOOK: The Alpine Pursuit
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