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Authors: Mary Daheim

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BOOK: The Alpine Pursuit
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Destiny Parsons was standing on her front porch. The light was on, but I could scarcely see her through the heavy snow. I blinked and brushed the flakes from my eyes. She was holding something in her arms. A coat? A blanket?

“Destiny?” I shouted into the wind.

“It’s my dog!” she shrieked. “It’s Azbug! She’s dead!”

FIVE

Maybe I was becoming as callous as Ed. I don’t hate dogs; I don’t dislike animals. Adam had a dog for almost nine years, but the poor pooch got run over by the milkman the day my son entered seventh grade. We never had the heart to get a replacement for Goofy. Yet as I stared across the street at Destiny with her beloved Azbug I felt only a twinge of sympathy.

“What happened to him?
Her,
I mean?” I called back.

But Destiny was too overcome to answer. She just stood there, holding the dog in her arms.

“Damn,” I muttered, heaving a sigh and starting toward her house.

Destiny didn’t appear to see me until I was at the bottom of the two steps that led to her small porch. She was still wearing her coat, but the front door was wide open. I assumed she’d found Azbug as soon as she got inside. “Emma?” Her voice was choked.

“Right. Emma. We shouldn’t stand out in the cold.”

She didn’t seem to hear me, either. Her teeth were chattering and tears ran down her pale cheeks. The tears might freeze if she stayed outdoors much longer.

I grabbed her by the upper arm. “Come on, let’s go.”

She obeyed like a robot, tripping over the threshold. I closed the door behind us and looked around. We were in the living room, where a single torchère burned in one corner. I guided her to the brown leather sofa. Some of the fabric at each end had been torn away, probably by the late Azbug.

Destiny sat down but didn’t surrender the dog. I perched on a matching leather ottoman. “What happened to Azbug?” I asked.

The answer was slow—and difficult—in coming: “Her . . . neck’s . . . broken.”

In spite of myself, I winced. “You mean . . . she had an accident or . . .” I couldn’t say the words aloud.

“I found her on the back porch,” Destiny said, her eyes finally coming into focus. Gently, she stroked the animal’s fur. “I called to her as soon as I got in the house, but there was no answer. Then I looked out back. Azbug shouldn’t have gone outside. She never does at night and in bad weather.”

“But she can, even when you’re not home?”

Destiny used the back of one hand to wipe away the tears. “Yes. It’s a doggy door, like a cat’s door, but bigger. I had to install it when I taught night classes fall quarter. There were days when I couldn’t get home to let her out. But if she went out, she came right back in. Azbug was always waiting for me.” She turned just enough to look at the telephone on the side table. “Should I call the sheriff?”

I considered how much Milo already had on his plate. “Wait until morning,” I cautioned. “I doubt that he can send anybody tonight.”

“Why not?” Destiny demanded, a spark of life surfacing in her green eyes.

For a moment I simply stared at her. “Because,” I said. “Hans Berenger. The weather. Traffic accidents.”

“Oh.” Destiny hung her head. “Of course. Hans.”

It occurred to me that if anyone might be a suspect in Azbug’s death, it was me. Apparently, Destiny’s thought processes hadn’t gotten that far. “Could your dog have fallen in the snow and broken its neck?”

Destiny eyed me with disdain. “Hardly. That would be a freak accident. Azbug wasn’t a clumsy dog. Someone,” she went on, her voice rising, “did this deliberately. I wouldn’t put it past those kids who live next door to you.”

“The Nelsons?” They weren’t my favorite neighbors, either. Their kids, who were now well into their teens, had always caused me grief.

“Yes.” Destiny, who was still petting Azbug, looked self-righteous. “Or that cat woman next to me. What’s her name? Holmgren?”

“Edith Holmgren.” A few years ago, I’d taken in a friend’s Siamese cats that drove me nuts. I’d managed to dump them on Edith, who already had a feline menagerie that numbered close to a dozen. “I can’t see her doing such a thing—unless your dog bothered her cats.”

“Azbug never bothered anybody,” Destiny asserted.

That was a lie, I thought, but didn’t argue. “Is there anything I can do?”

Destiny shook her head. “I’ll have to wait until morning. I can’t bury Azbug in this weather, but maybe Jim Medved can keep her until the snow melts.”

“That sounds like a plan,” I remarked as I slid off of the ottoman and stood up. “Unless you need something, I’ll go home now.”

“Fine.” Destiny didn’t look at me but kept her eyes on the dog.

I, however, made a quick perusal of the living room. There were at least three framed photographs of dogs, presumably Azbug, since they all looked alike. There was a doggy bed near the hearth, complete with matching plaid blankets and pillow. The andirons were fox terriers, a glass figurine—Steuben, maybe—of a fox terrier resided on the mantel, and the pattern of the drapes was fox terriers rampant. The carpet was littered with doggy toys and pigs’ ears.

Without another word, I left Destiny to mourn.

∗ ∗ ∗

I was so worn out that night that I slept until almost ten. The phone rang just as I was coming out of the bathroom. It was Ben, calling from his cinder-block parish office in Tuba City, Arizona.

“Hey,” he said in his crackling voice, “I hear you got more snow. I saw it on the Weather Channel. Are you marooned yet?”

“Give me a minute,” I replied, taking the cordless phone out into the living room. “I’m not awake yet. Let me look.”

Opening the front drapes, I looked out onto a world of white. The snow had stopped, but at least another six inches had piled up, high enough to partially block my view.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m marooned. Are you satisfied?”

“We’ve got rain,” Ben said cheerfully. “A real gully washer. Eight inches in less than two hours. Thunder and lightning, too. It woke me up.”

Yawning, I turned toward the kitchen. “Did anybody drown?”

“Luckily, no,” Ben replied, sounding somewhat more somber. “But there may have been some loss of livestock.”

“You got off easier than we did,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Now my brother’s voice conveyed a hint of alarm. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” I always set up the coffeemaker before I go to bed, thus eliminating the need to think in the morning. Clicking on the switch, I regaled Ben with the shooting story.

“I’ll offer a Mass for the guy,” Ben said after I’d finished. “Thursday, maybe. The other days are taken. The Santiago family had three members die in a car wreck six years ago. This week is the anniversary of their deaths. They always offer up a bunch of Masses for the repose of their kinsmen’s souls. Last week, I said one for our folks.”

I winced. Ben was far more conscientious than I was when it came to remembering the date that our parents had died in a car wreck on the way home from his ordination. Of course the twentieth of each month had twice the significance for him. But that was no excuse. They’d died in May over thirty years ago, and except for the day and the month itself, I tried not to dwell on their loss.

“I guess you were always a better son than I was a daughter,” I said wistfully.

“Bullshit,” Ben retorted. “I’m in the prayer business, remember? Do you think whatshisname—you better tell me again so I can write it down—got shot by accident?”

“Hans Berenger,” I said, then spelled it out. “I don’t know, Ben. It could have been. I’ve heard some pretty weird tales about how people manage to shoot somebody or themselves with the gun that wasn’t loaded. Let’s face it: people in this county own guns. I own one myself.”

“Dad’s?”

“Yes.”

“He had two,” Ben replied. “I’ve got the other one. It comes in handy for shooting rattlesnakes.”

“Have you ever killed one?”

“No.” Ben paused. “But I’m ready.”

I managed my first smile of the day. “Same here. Every so often we get a bear or a cougar coming into town. There were two cougars, in fact, while you and I were in Italy. They were in the cul-de-sac just down the street from my house.”

“Did somebody shoot them?” Ben asked.

“No,” I said, pouring a mug of coffee. “One of the forest rangers used tranquilizer darts. But a year or so ago, Dwight Gould had to kill a very angry bear that made its way onto the playfield at the middle school. That was scary. But accidents do happen,” I went on. “A couple of years ago Milo sponsored a gun safety class. He brought in an expert from Seattle who started his lecture with the standard ‘the gun is always loaded’ bit. Then he checked his weapon and assured everyone that
his
gun wasn’t loaded. To prove the point, he took aim at the ceiling, pulled the trigger . . . and blew out the lights.”

Ben laughed. “Milo must have blown up, too. I assume the guy hasn’t been asked back.”

“No, but you can imagine how embarrassed he was. Darla Puckett fainted and they had to send for the medics.”

“So you’re hoping this one was an accident,” Ben remarked.

“Of course. Do you think I’m a ghoul?”

“No,” Ben responded, “but murder makes good headlines. Besides, Birchwood or whatever his name is at the radio station beat you on the actual shooting. If it’s an accident, it’s the end of the story. But if it’s not . . .” Ben let the sentence trail away.

“For a priest,” I retorted, “you’re pretty damned harsh.”

“No, I’m not,” Ben asserted. “I’m realistic. That’s why I’m a pretty damned good priest.”

“Not to mention modest,” I snapped.

“Honest. Modesty has nothing to do with it.” Ben cleared his throat. “Hey, these days with all the problems in the priesthood, I have to give myself a pep talk now and then.”

I’d put two teaspoons of sugar in my coffee. The combination of caffeine and glucose began to revive me. “You started out as a good man. Ergo, you ought to be a good priest.”

“I started out as a naive kid,” Ben replied. “I was still a teenager when I entered the seminary. That was the way it was done thirty-five years ago. I’m glad it’s not like that now. Adam got a taste of the world before he decided he had a vocation. That’s good. I had to learn by doing . . . or not doing. Hey—got to run. I’m saying a noon Mass at the public health hospital. Stay warm, stay dry, stay put. And for God’s sake, stay safe.” Ben hung up.

I didn’t have much choice but to remain inside. I wondered how the tin roof was holding up at the newspaper office. If Kip MacDuff could cover the six blocks between his house and the
Advocate
, he’d check on the building’s status. Visions of the roof caving in and leaks in my cubbyhole deep enough to require waders flitted through my mind’s eye. But there was nothing I could do about it except hope for the best.

Coffee in hand, I strolled to the front window and looked across the street to Destiny’s house. I almost expected to see a black crepe wreath on the door. But all was quiet; all was white. Like me, the pristine snow in her yard and driveway revealed that she, too, was stuck. With Azbug. Destiny wouldn’t dream of putting her dog outside. Maybe the fox terrier was lying in state.

The thought made me grimace. I should call to see how Destiny was doing. We certainly weren’t friends, but we were neighbors. Instead, I returned to the kitchen and made breakfast. Discovering that I was famished, I went to the trouble of fixing Swedish pancakes, ham, and a fried egg. Fortunately, I’d grocery-shopped Wednesday on my way home from work. The larder was fairly full.

A little after eleven, I called Milo on his cell phone. I didn’t know if he’d made it into work or was marooned at home in the Icicle Creek development.

The sheriff, sounding grumpy, answered on the third ring. “You bet your ass I’m at work,” he snarled. “I rode the snowplow in. If you weren’t still hunkered down in your cutesy log cabin, you’d see that Front and some of the other streets are open.”

“I don’t want to see,” I retorted. “Have you taken a look at the
Advocate
?”

“What do you mean?” Milo asked, sounding puzzled. “It’s been out since Wednesday.”

“I meant the building, not the paper,” I said in an impatient tone.

“Oh. Yeah, well, since I didn’t notice anything, I guess it’s still there. If you were brave, you’d walk down and have a look for yourself.”

“I’m not that brave.” Or foolish. Breaking a leg or getting frostbite would definitely hamper the next edition. “I want to build a fire and read a good book. I hear there’s a best-seller out about a sinister sheriff.”

“I hope you already got it. I don’t see you getting your tootsies cold going out in the snow. And by the way,” Milo added, “it’s just barely under thirty degrees. Now that it’s stopped snowing and the wind’s died down, it feels like spring.”

“I don’t see any sun,” I pointed out. “The clouds are still gray and close in.”

“Whatever. Why’d you call?”

“To have a pleasant chat with Sheriff Dodge,” I said. “Would you please put him on the line?”

“Okay, okay, so I’m not in a real good mood.” He paused, maybe to check his emotional barometer. “Well?”

“Did you find the other bullet?”

“Yeah, we found it fairly easy,” Milo answered, actually in a more agreeable voice. “It was lodged in the counter between the stools. Bronsky’s lucky he didn’t get it in the ass.”

“It’s hard to miss a sedentary target,” I murmured, “especially one that’s so large. Have you started your interviews?”

“Not yet. Everybody’s stuck except for Jim Medved. He’s coming in on his snowmobile. We’re going to have to ferry people here or see them at home.” The sheriff sighed heavily. “This is a bitch. Say, did you hear about Destiny and her poor dog?”

I told Milo that I not only knew, I’d been there. “How’s she doing?” I inquired.

“She’s pretty shook up,” Milo said. “I’ll try to get up there later. Jim’s picking the dog up after he gets through here.”

Ordinarily, I’d have asked the sheriff to stop in for coffee or a drink. But he annoyed me. How, I wondered, could he take time out from investigating a suspicious death to call on Destiny Parsons? Then I remembered that she was a witness, and a major one as director of the ill-fated play. Maybe I should cut Milo some slack.

But I didn’t. “You’ll need Jim’s snowmobile to get here,” I said.

“We’ve got one,” Milo replied. “We stretched the budget last winter. The only thing is, I don’t know how to run it.”

“Why can’t Jim show you?”

“Guess he’ll have to. Say,” Milo went on, “I should get a statement from you. You’re a trained observer, right?”

BOOK: The Alpine Pursuit
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