Read The Alpine Pursuit Online
Authors: Mary Daheim
“Please do,” she replied quickly. “I’ll call you . . . Emma, correct?”
“Yes. I don’t mean to pry, but I understand that you and Hans Berenger were not only colleagues, but friends.”
For a moment, I thought Clea’s face shut down. Certainly she was devoid of expression before looking away. “We were both, of course. It’s helpful to be on good terms with the dean of students. Being adversaries only results in doing harm to the students and the programs. I’ve always tried to maintain good relationships with my colleagues.”
That wasn’t the answer to my original question. “So his death must have hit you quite hard.”
“Naturally.” Clea looked me in the eye with a mournful expression. “It will be terribly hard to replace Hans. He was an outstanding administrator.”
That still wasn’t the answer I’d expected. Clea, after all, had badgered Destiny into giving Hans a role in the play. Maybe Clea was merely sucking up to the dean of students. I sensed that under that charming facade she was a political creature.
“Do you believe it must have been an accident?” I inquired after waiting for Clea to order dry whole wheat toast, imitation scrambled eggs, and coffee.
“I try to eat healthy foods,” she declared, avoiding a look at what was still left of Boots’s gut-busting omelet. “Of course, when you’re younger, you can afford to splurge occasionally.”
I put the conversation back on track. “I was wondering if you felt that Hans’s death was a genuine accident.”
“I . . .” She stopped, darting a quick glance at Boots, who had been watching her with pathetic admiration. No wonder he hadn’t finished his breakfast. “I have to assume it was. Who on earth would want to kill Hans?” Clea gave a good imitation of a shudder. “I’m sure Boots didn’t load real bullets into Dr. Medved’s gun. I suppose what happened was that someone else accidentally switched them later in the evening.”
“Why,” I asked, “would anyone do that?”
Clea sadly shook her head. “You’ve no idea what sort of confusion reigned before and even during the play. After all, we’re amateurs. Someone gave Rey Fernandez the wrong headsets, so he couldn’t communicate from the stage to his lighting people in the booth. Dodo was running loose and at one point we couldn’t find him anywhere. I mislaid my backpack—Dorothy’s backpack, that is. Coach Ripley had to walk off a leg cramp. It was very stressful.”
Clea seemed adept at avoiding direct questions. I surrendered. “I’m sure it was,” I agreed, sliding out of the booth with bill in hand. “The performing arts are like that. Stressful, I mean.” I made my farewells, paid the bill at the register, and went out into the heavy rain.
seemed to be the key word when it came to what was going on backstage before and during the play. Maybe that could lead to an accident. Or maybe it provided camouflage for premeditated murder.
There had also been confusion—if choreographed—onstage.
That was when I began to wonder if Hans Berenger had actually been the intended victim.
I had stood on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome, a quarter of a mile from Hadrian’s Tomb. It was a cool autumn day, with a pale sun reflected off the river’s placid waters. I’d gazed upstream at the ancient stone and granite edifice I knew better by another name, Castel Sant’ Angelo. It is from there that Floria Tosca leaps to her death in Puccini’s opera. Her lover has been shot to death, and she cannot live without him.
For a few moments, I’d reflected on fiction and fact. What was life going to be like without Tom? Then I recalled the other reason—maybe the more imperative one—for Tosca’s suicide: She had murdered the villainous chief of police. His death would be avenged by underlings who were chasing Tosca to the edge of the parapet. It was a no-brainer. Under different circumstances, she probably would have muddled through, plunging back into her successful career as an opera singer. Publishing the
wasn’t as glamorous as singing Mozart and Monteverdi, but it was my vocation. I, too, had talent—I’d studied; I’d trained; I’d honed my writing talent over the years. I, too, had an audience and a responsibility to serve it. Suicide is not only morally wrong; it’s a gyp. It takes away not only a life but also a gift that serves others.
∗ ∗ ∗
The Skykomish in February was not placid like the Tiber in October. Rome was almost three thousand years old; Alpine had yet to celebrate its centennial. The Tiber’s surroundings had been civilized for over two millennia; the Sky tumbled among old growth forest and rugged mountainsides. In a little over a decade I’d seen the river change course, cut new channels, erode its banks, take trees and even buildings into its churning waters. The rivers of the West were peculiarly American—changeable and individualistic. I would rather live by any stream, large or small, than a lake or the sea. Somehow, despite the danger, I find hope in rivers.
“It’s higher,” I said to Wes Amundson as we stood in front of the public storage building. “No new sandbags yet?”
Wes glanced at his watch, which bore the U.S. Forest Service logo. “I don’t expect them until after one. We’ve got a half hour to go.”
At least sixty Alpiners lined the river. There were small children and large dogs. Most of the adults and some of the older kids were trying to help, though there was nothing much they could do except pile odd-lot pieces of barricade behind the sandbags. I looked around for Scott but I couldn’t see him. I hoped he’d come along in time to get pictures that would tell the story better than words.
“What about those houses on the other side of the river?” I asked. “Will they be evacuated before the river crests?”
“We’ve already warned them,” Wes replied. “They can see for themselves. Some of the folks have already gotten out. But nobody’s leaving town in this weather.”
I studied the small frame houses that dated from the 1930s. They’d been built by one of the logging companies for their employees in the days when there was good money in risking life and limb harvesting the forest. The company had been gone for almost twenty years, and the real estate had been sold off. Still, there were at least a few old-timers who lived there. Loggers don’t like change. They have pride in their dying profession. Working in the woods isn’t just a job. Often logging has been handed down from father to son. They’re like clergymen whose religion has been outlawed by the state. They’d rather give up a chance for a better life doing something else than forsake their vocation.
There was no reason for me to stand around waiting for the river to flood. It wasn’t as cold as it had been, but it was very wet and generally miserable. I returned to the office to find it deserted. The leaks had been stopped. Kip had done his job.
Instead of going home, I drove to Vida’s house on Tyee Street. Her car wasn’t there. She’d probably attended services at First Presbyterian before going on to her daughter’s home in The Pines development on the other side of town. Maybe I should crash the family party. I didn’t like dropping in unexpectedly, so I used my cell phone to call first.
Not surprisingly, Vida answered. “I’ve been trying to call you,” she said before I could utter more than a peep. “What’s happening with the investigation? Does Milo know anything yet? He interviewed Roger yesterday—very helpful, I’m sure—but being Milo, and so tight-lipped, Roger and his parents didn’t learn anything. My nephew Billy won’t—or can’t—pass on anything of interest. I’m very frustrated. Where are you?”
I informed Vida that I was sitting in my car in front of the
. She asked if the office was underwater. I said not yet.
“It could happen any hour,” she declared in ominous tones. “I wonder if I should remove my recipe files.”
Since Vida never used notes and kept everything tucked inside her brain, the recipes were the only background she retained in her desk. Frankly, she’d be lost without them. While Vida regularly dispensed meals both simple and exotic, she couldn’t cook to save her life. When it came to something as uncomplicated as spaghetti, she put a whole new meaning into
. Her pasta was so undercooked that a diner risked a broken tooth. It was more like
, as in a trip to visit Dr. Starr.
“Don’t worry about any files,” I said. “I doubt it’ll get too bad.”
“Then come over here right away,” Vida commanded. “We must catch up, and I’m staying on for dinner.” I heard a voice in the background before Vida spoke again. “Oh, yes—Amy says you’re invited, too.”
Since it was still early afternoon, I politely declined the invitation, not being keen on staying cooped up in the Hibbert house with Roger for at least four hours. But I did agree to drive straight over.
The Pines is an upscale neighborhood, at least as upscale as Alpine gets—not, of course, counting the Bronsky villa at the other end of town. I arrived to find Vida and the three Hibberts playing Monopoly.
“Look!” Vida exclaimed, pointing to the board. “Roger has both Boardwalk and Park Place! He’s building hotels. As usual, he’s beating us soundly.” She beamed favorably at her grandson, who ducked his head and stuffed his face with cheese balls.
“I surrender!” Ted exclaimed genially as he landed smack on Park Place. “Here, Son, take everything I’ve got.”
Roger slapped money and mortgaged property next to his own fortune. “You’re all wiped,” he declared. “Give.” He held out his beefy hands to his mother and grandmother.
“So cleverly done,” Vida said in congratulations as she rose from her chair at the dining room table. “Really, Roger, you’re going to become quite a capitalist someday.”
Roger scowled at his grandmother. “I want to be an actor. I want to make action movies.”
I slid onto the chair that Vida had vacated. “I think that’s fascinating,” I said. “I didn’t know until the other day that you had acting aspirations, Roger.”
“Yeah.” His small eyes were wary. I’d always sensed that he considered me the Enemy.
“I had an uncle who was an actor,” I said. It was true, though Great-Uncle Andy had performed only in amateur theatricals and since he’d lived in Ohio before I was born, the only thing I knew about his acting career was that he’d once played King Lear in a gunnysack.
But Roger evinced no interest in my uncle. Instead, he took another handful of cheese balls, got up from his chair, and wandered into the living room, where Ted had turned on an NBA basketball game. Vida and Amy were putting the Monopoly pieces away. Doggedly I followed Roger.
“Sonics and Lakers,” I remarked, standing by Ted’s easy chair. Roger was sprawled on the floor, chin on fists, clearly bent on ignoring me. He looked not unlike a beached whale.
“Right,” Ted responded.
“Shoot! Three! Three!” Roger exclaimed as one of the Sonics fired a rim rattler from just outside the three-point line. “Awright!” Roger shook a fist as the ball went in.
The teams moved to the other end of the court. “Good D!” I cried, trying to ingratiate myself with the surly kid.
“Yeah, yeah!” Roger shouted. “Foul Shaq!”
“Good plan,” I remarked. “He can’t make free throws.”
Roger didn’t respond to my comment. Ted, however, chuckled. “Shaq’s like a big cedar,” he said. “Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable.”
“I should be talking to Vida,” I replied. “I’ll wait for half time. There’s only a couple of minutes to go. I’ll just sit here.” I dropped down on my haunches next to Roger.
Time-out. Roger shifted restlessly in front of the TV set.
“I guess they’re still looking for the bushy-haired stranger you saw at the theater,” I said, stretching the manhunt story to emphasize Roger’s importance.
He finally turned to look at me. “Yeah? Well, they’d better find that dude. He’s a pile of vile.”
“You mean because you think he’s responsible for Professor Berenger’s death?”
“Hell, yes,” Roger asserted.
“Son,” Ted put in, “mind your language.”
I smiled faintly before asking Roger another question: “Do you think you could pick the man out of a lineup?”
“Sure,” Roger said, though his attention was focused on three buxom beauties in bikinis peddling beer in a commercial.
“What did you see him doing backstage?”
“Huh?” He paused until the bikini-clad girls gave way to a pair of agile old duffers in an arthritis ad. “The guy was like . . . lurking. You know. Like hanging out, only he was looking around to see if anybody was watching him.”
“Yeah. Furtive.” Roger turned the word over on his tongue as if it were some strange new taste.
“You’d never seen him before?”
The game had resumed. Ted cleared his throat. “Okay, Son, let’s see if we can cut it to under ten points before the half.”
Apparently, that was my cue to stop interrogating Roger and keep my trap shut. It took five minutes to finish what had become a ninety-second quarter. A parade of free throws and a couple of twenty-second time-outs slowed the game to a crawl.
When the half finally ended, Roger got up and left the room.
Maybe Vida had had better luck quizzing her grandson. Wherever Roger had gone, it wasn’t into the kitchen. Mother and daughter were seated in the inglenook, drinking tea.
“Where’ve you been?” Vida asked. “You disappeared after Roger’s Monopoly victory.”
I explained that I’d joined the guys to catch a basketball game.
Vida saw through the ruse. “Did you question Roger? Did he say anything I couldn’t already have told you?”
I shook my head and sat down next to Amy, who had scooted closer to the wall to make room for me. “He hardly said anything. He was watching the game.”
“Tea?” Amy interjected.
“I can get it myself,” I said. “It’s easier for me to get up.”
“The cups and saucers are in that cupboard to the left of the stove,” Amy informed me. “Would you mind terribly turning the teakettle back on? It’s full.”
“Sure.” The request had been meekly made. Amy and her sisters, Beth and Meg, looked like their mother but had few of her personality traits. I assumed they took after the late Mr. Runkel, who had died several years before I arrived in Alpine.
“I assume you believe Roger,” Vida remarked when I sat down again.
I hesitated even as Vida’s gray eyes bored into my face. “Why would he lie?” To me, the answer was obvious: The kid wanted to be in the limelight.
Vida, however, took my comment seriously. “I can’t think of anyone Roger might want to protect. He’s still in high school. He doesn’t know many of the college students or faculty.”
“What about the townspeople?” I asked. “Like Rita Patricelli and the Reverend Poole and Dr. Medved and Mayor Baugh and Coach Ridley?”
Vida looked askance. “You can’t be serious. None of those people could possibly be responsible for what happened to Hans Berenger. Unless . . .” She let her gaze roam around the kitchen’s geranium-patterned wallpaper.
“Unless what? Give, Vida,” I urged.
Amy was watching both of us with somber interest. I wondered how often she’d seen someone dare to challenge her mother.
Vida sighed. “The only two people you mentioned—and I notice you left out Ed, who is too lazy and too dim-witted to plot a murder—that Roger knows well are Dr. Medved and Coach Ridley. I’m certainly not saying I think either of them is a killer, but Roger has such a vivid imagination. He might be afraid for them.” She looked fondly at Amy. “You know how our dear boy loves his pets. Jim Medved has always done the best he could for them, including Waldo the Snake.”
“Yes,” Amy said a bit grimly. “Even Waldo.”
“Thus,” Vida continued, “Roger is fond of Jim. Grateful.”
I glanced at Amy, who didn’t look so grateful. Maybe it was because of the snake. Or the ferrets. Or perhaps the three pet rats that became twelve and then twenty-seven and finally over fifty in number before Ted insisted on getting rid of them by scaring Roger with threats of Black Plague.
“As for Coach Ridley,” Vida resumed, “toward the end of the football season, he started Roger in the last two games, against Sultan and Monroe. Roger was thrilled.”
With a one-and-seven record at that point, Rip had thrown in the towel. I gazed at each woman in turn. “Do either of you think Jim or Rip would have a motive for murdering Hans Berenger?”
To my surprise, Vida said it was possible. “Jim wanted the college to train veterinarian assistants. Nat Cardenas—and I understand Hans Berenger as well—insisted there wasn’t money in the budget for such a program. As for Rip, he’s wanted to quit his coaching jobs at the high school for some time. What with budget cuts, he and Linda Grant are the only coaches for the high school sports teams. Rip and Dixie”—at this point, Vida shuddered—“have even talked of moving away from Alpine if Rip got the right offer. He asked the college for a job in their athletic department, but neither Nat nor anyone else in administration wants to expand beyond intramurals. They’re very firm about emphasizing the academic and vocational programs.”
I seemed to be out of the loop when it came to college gossip, though I was aware of the de-emphasis on sports. I wondered which of Vida’s many relatives worked at or attended the school. Obviously, she had a pipeline into the campus.