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Authors: Mary Daheim

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“Yes,” I said, “but she may not be ready to talk to outsiders. She’s lucky if she doesn’t miscarry.”

Vida quickly counted on her fingers. “Four months along. She should be all right. I’ll talk to Cookie Eriks. Or perhaps Dot Parker. She
is
her grandmother, after all, and I still have to interview the Parkers about their Alaska trip.”

I’d forgotten the Parker-Eriks-Rafferty connection. Even after so many years in Alpine, I still had trouble unraveling all the family ties. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll do the main story, and have Scott handle whatever sidebars we need. You’ll write the obituary, of course.”

“Of course,” Vida agreed.

Scott appeared from the back shop, where he’d been conferring with Kip MacDuff, our production manager. “I should have hung around longer last night,” he asserted with a scowl. “I left right after you did, so I missed it when they found Tim’s body.”

“Don’t feel guilty,” I said. In fact, I hadn’t driven by what was left of the Rafferty house that morning. It would have taken me only a block out of my usual way down Fourth Street, but I’d doggedly kept to my routine. Seeing the smoking rubble would have been a bad way to start the day. “I wasn’t there, either. Besides, we wouldn’t run pictures of . . . Tim’s remains.”

Scott nodded. “I know. But I could have gotten a shot of the firefighters standing over the place where they found the poor guy. A silhouette, maybe, with their outlines against the sky.”

I smiled appreciatively at Scott. He was an adequate writer, but it was his photographic skills that made him so valuable. His artistic talent was inherent, of course, and his technical expertise was growing. The better he got, the more readily he’d be able to market his skills to a wider world.

I didn’t want to think about that. Besides, I had work to do. I took a mug of coffee and a sweet roll into my office to start the day. But before I sat down at my desk, I called out to Scott.

“What about the county commissioners? Was there any big news last night?”

Scott set his own mug of coffee down next to his computer screen and came to the doorway. “They’re still arguing over whether the county or the city has jurisdiction out by the fish hatchery. The new bridge over Burl Creek that everybody wants may be inside the city after all, if the Peabodys can ever figure out where their property line ends. Right now, they think it’s in the middle of their chicken coop.”

“Anything else?”

“The usual—potholes in the ski lodge road, potential flooding on the Skykomish River, that illegal dump site off Highway 187.” His expression turned puckish. “And Ed.”

I sighed. “I was afraid of that. Did he present his bond issue proposal?”

“Oh, yeah.” Scott shook his head. “That’s why the meeting ran on so long. Ed had charts and diagrams and even clips from that Japanese TV series,
Mr. Pig.
Leonard Hollenberg—he’s getting really senile—thought Ed was promoting some kind of 4-H thing. Leonard couldn’t figure it out, because hardly anybody around here raises pigs, but he thought it’d be a good idea.”

“What? A bond issue? More pig farms? Japanese cartoons?”

“More pigs, I guess,” Scott replied with a grin. “Leonard said he really enjoyed a nice ham on Sundays. Hams don’t taste like they used to. He insisted that his complaint be put into the record.”

“Was it?”

Scott shook his head. “George Engebretsen voted nay to Leonard Hollenberg’s yea, and Alfred Cobb was asleep. As usual.”

“So what happened to Ed’s proposal?”

“They tabled it.”

“Ooooh—good grief!” Vida, who—naturally—had been eavesdropping, yanked off her glasses and began rubbing her eyes in that furious and infuriating gesture that indicated extreme disgust. “Such a trio of ninnies! It’s a wonder they ever accomplish anything! Not,” she added, putting her glasses back on, “that I don’t think Ed is out of his mind.”

I had to put my own mind on our deadline. I’d already written my weekly editorial, a less-than-sterling piece about the need for arterial stop signs at the intersection of Spruce Street, Foothill Road, and Highway 187—or, as it was better known, the Icicle Creek Road. The high school’s main entrance faced Foothill Road, and in the past three years teenagers driving their cars out of the student parking lot had caused a rash of accidents. Fortunately, no one had been killed or seriously injured, but it was only a matter of time. I’d hoped that the stop signs would be installed before classes started after Labor Day, but Mayor Fuzzy Baugh was dragging his feet. Progress came slowly to Alpine—if at all.

I had the basics for the fire story, so I began writing the first few paragraphs. Any gaps could be filled in later after I heard from Milo.

The phone rang about ten minutes later. I guessed it was the sheriff—but it wasn’t.

“Are you dead?” Rolf Fisher asked. “If so, where do I send flowers? And is it proper to wear my yarmulke to a Catholic funeral?”

“I’ve never seen you wear it yet,” I replied. “You aren’t Orthodox, are you?”

“I’m very unorthodox, as you should know by now,” Rolf responded, “but that doesn’t mean I’m not religious in my own way. Can you come down this weekend? I’ll show you my yarmulke if you show me your rosary.”

“I tried to call you last night,” I said. “You didn’t answer.”

“That’s because some moron hit a utility pole with his SUV,” Rolf said. “My home phone’s still not working. You didn’t answer my question.”

“Oh.” I paused to double-check my calendar, though I don’t know why. I knew it was empty. “When’s the concert? Friday or Saturday?”

“Saturday,” he answered. “But come Friday anyway. We can go someplace really grand for dinner. There are a clutch of new restaurants I haven’t tried. In fact, there are even more old ones I’ve never been to. I don’t get out much.”

I smiled into the receiver. I could picture Rolf, lounging in his chair at his desk, looking dark and lean and alarmingly attractive. “I hate driving in Friday-night traffic,” I said. “But maybe I can make the sacrifice. At least your condo is air-conditioned.”

“We’ll heat it up in any event,” he responded. “Oh, darn the world and all its worries! Here comes breaking news out of yet another place I can’t pronounce. I’ll talk to you before Friday.” Rolf rang off.

However earth-shaking the big news might be in Seattle, it wouldn’t get into the
Advocate
—unless it had a local connection. While we subscribed to the AP wire service, we used its material only if there was a Skykomish County angle. Sometimes, when we needed to fill space, it was a stretch. A logging story, an environmental piece, state and national parks—all could somehow be tied in to our readers’ interests if we could get a local comment. Otherwise, SkyCo residents got their news from the outside world via TV, radio, the Internet, and the daily newspapers. The
Advocate
’s audience cared more about one of Grace Grundle’s cats getting lost in Old Mill Park than a man-eating tiger on the prowl in Calcutta.

“I’m fighting an uphill battle,” Vida announced from the doorway. “I may be losing. I wonder if I should.”

It was unlike Vida to surrender on any issue. “What is it?” I asked.

“It’s Elsie Overholt at the Alpine retirement home.” Vida paused, sticking a couple of loose hairpins into her scattered gray curls. “She’s pestering me again about writing that column.”

“You mean the old-timers’ thing?”

Vida nodded. “Elsie’s ninety-five if she’s a day, and I must admit, she has all her faculties. Or at least as many as she ever had. I suppose it’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard, especially as people in general live longer.”

Elsie, whose family owned a farm run by her grandson Ellsworth, had contacted Vida earlier in the year about writing a column that would appeal to the older generation. Vida had rejected the suggestion, insisting that there wasn’t room on her page. That was true enough, but we could squeeze it in elsewhere if we had to, and Elsie had recently stepped up her campaign to become a regular
Advocate
contributor. For free, of course.

“We might find room on the editorial page,” I said. My weekly piece filled less than two columns. Letters to the editor took up another column or so, depending on who wanted to nail me to the wall. The rest of the page featured whichever spokesperson had the time to put together an article about the community college, the public schools, the park service, the timber industry, the local churches, or any other general-interest topic.

Vida looked resigned. “Well. I suppose I’ll have to call Elsie back and tell her we’ll try it. When we have space.”

I nodded. “It might work out. Can she write?”

Vida shrugged. “She taught in grade school eons ago. She must be at least literate.”

“Okay.” I saw Milo coming into the newsroom. “Go ahead. Here comes the sheriff.”

Vida moved only enough to let Milo enter my office. If he had something to say that was worth delivering in person, it must be important. My House & Home editor wouldn’t miss it for the world.

I looked up at Milo with an inquisitive expression. He didn’t sit, but stood looming over my desk, his long face grim.

“Doc Dewey had to ship Tim’s corpse over to the medical examiner in Everett early this morning,” Milo said in a tired voice. “Doc couldn’t handle the autopsy on . . . what was left. For once, the Snohomish County MEs weren’t real busy, so we didn’t have to wait in line.” He stopped, removed his regulation hat, and ran a hand through his graying sandy hair. I sensed that he was stalling, that he hated to say what was going to come next. But he forged ahead. “Tim died before the fire started.”

Milo stopped again. Vida, who was standing just behind him, looked impatient. “Well?” she said.

The sheriff kept his eyes fixed on me. “Cause of death was a blow to the head. It looks like we may be talking about a homicide.”

THREE

E
VEN
V
IDA WAS
shaken by Milo’s bombshell. “Does Tiffany know?” she asked in astonishment.

Milo shrugged. “That’s up to Doc Dewey. He’s got her at the hospital, making sure the baby’s okay. Her folks are there, too. I’ll tell Beth when I go back to headquarters. She’s tough. She came to work despite Tim’s death. She said it’d be too hard to find a sub on short notice.”

“Very brave.” Vida glanced at her wristwatch. “I have an appointment with Dot and Durwood at eleven. Goodness, it’s a quarter to now. I wonder if they’re home. I must call.” She dashed out to her desk.

I wished Milo would stop looming. “How was Tim killed?” I asked.

“Blunt instrument,” the sheriff replied. “The ME’s findings aren’t complete. He may not know—if he
can
know—what it was until later today.”

I frowned. “Robbery?”

“Could be. Classic setup. The house is dark, burglar figures nobody’s home. Maybe somebody who knew the Raffertys and their schedule breaks in, Tim wakes up, they get into it, and Tim gets his skull smashed in.” Milo fiddled with the collar of his regulation tan shirt. I noticed that he was already beginning to sweat under his arms. It was supposed to hit ninety by afternoon.

“Where was the body found?”

“In the bedroom,” the sheriff replied. “This is going to be hard to reconstruct with so much of the house burned. We’re calling in somebody from the state to help figure out how the fire was started. Assuming it was done to cover up the murder.”

“I suppose,” I said grimly, “that Fleetwood will have this on the noon news.”

“I haven’t told him,” Milo said. “I don’t know if he’s back in town. He was taking a long weekend.”

I shook my head. “It won’t matter. KSKY will still beat us. I should be used to it. You’ll have to make a formal announcement today. It’s going to be all over town in an hour anyway. A murder might get buried in the second section of the
Seattle Times
or
P-I,
but it’s the biggest story of the year in a town like Alpine.”

Milo was backing out of my office. “Aren’t you being kind of crass?”

“Yes.” I had the grace to look sheepish. “But it’s the curse of the weekly newspaper. Hell, it’s the curse of the dailies, too. Everything is broadcast as soon as it happens these days. No wonder print journalism is dying.”

Milo lifted a hand in a semiwave. “Bitching doesn’t help. See you.”

“Let me know when you find out anything new,” I called after him.

The sheriff kept going. As he closed the newsroom door, Vida hung up the phone. “Dot and Durwood are terribly upset. I’m going to their house right away. The Alaskan cruise story will have to be put on hold, I suppose.”

As Vida left, Scott came in. “I just saw Dodge outside. Was Tim really murdered?”

“That’s what the medical examiner says.” I got up from my chair and met Scott halfway. “I need a coffee refill. I also need some ventilation in that damned cubbyhole. It’s beginning to feel like a sauna again.”

“You should drink more water,” Scott commented in a detached voice. He was looking worried. “Who’d want to kill Rafferty?”

I paused with my hand on the coffeemaker. “How well did you know him?”

Scott considered the question. “Not very well. But once in a while I’d meet Tammy at the Venison Inn for a drink after work. She tends to be late.” His grin was apologetic, maybe for her tardiness, maybe for confessing that his beloved had a flaw. “Sometimes I’d sit at the bar until she got there. Then I’d talk to Tim if he wasn’t real busy.”

“Did he ever say anything of interest?”

Scott shook his head. “We’d talk sports, mostly. Sometimes he’d get off on his E-trading and try to convince me it was a good way to make money. I always told him I didn’t have any spare cash to invest. Tammy didn’t, either.” Again, Scott looked apologetic. “No offense, but you know—journalism and teaching don’t make people rich.”

I smiled reassuringly. “Nobody knows that better than I do,” I said, although I figured that Tamara Rostova probably made almost half again as much money in her job at the community college as Scott did working for me. “When was the last time you talked to Tim?”

Scott grimaced. “It’s been a couple of weeks. Maybe closer to a month. Tammy and I haven’t hung out much at the Venison Inn lately. During summer quarter, she usually gets done with work a couple of hours before I do. Besides, she’s knee-deep in wedding plans. I didn’t realize how complicated all that stuff is. And expensive.” He was looking worried again.

I nodded. “Can her parents afford to help?”

“Pretty much,” Scott said. “Her dad’s a structural engineer. He works for a big firm in Seattle. Her mom teaches the violin. But they aren’t rich, either.”

Richer than anybody working for a newspaper or a community college.

“Did Tim want you to invest money through him?” I asked, pouring out half a cup of coffee.

“We never got that far,” Scott replied. “I had the impression he mostly gave advice. But I’m not really sure. He claimed to be good at it.”

“But he still worked part-time tending bar and on KSKY,” I pointed out. “While Tiffany checked out customers at the Grocery Basket.”

“Right.” Scott grinned. “But they’re having a kid. I mean—well, that’s what maybe they were saving up for before . . . last night.
If
they were saving.” My reporter looked vague. I guessed he didn’t know much about saving money. He had no reason to, I reminded myself, and felt guilty.

Guilty.
Who was guilty of crushing Tim Rafferty’s skull? Milo’s burglary theory might be correct. Or was it too obvious? The sheriff lacked imagination; I had too much of it. But who would want to kill Tim? He had his faults, but he seemed like a basically harmless, even insignificant, individual.

I went back into my stuffy little office and rewrote the lead for the fire story. I wouldn’t be able to finish it or fill in the gaps until I learned more from Milo.

But I could talk to Beth Rafferty. I wondered if she was still manning the 911 calls in her cubicle at the sheriff’s office. I knew her slightly. She seemed like a much more stable personality than her younger brother. A few minutes later, Deputy Dustin Fong was ushering me down the hallway that led to Beth’s inner sanctum.

“Sheriff Dodge told her a few minutes ago,” Dustin said in his customary sympathetic manner. “She was upset, but refused to go home until after her shift’s over. I don’t know how she does it.”

“Is she busy this morning?” I asked just before Dustin opened the door for me.

“Not very,” Dustin replied. “A couple of highway calls—breakdowns on the pass. A kid who fell in the river, but his folks got him out before anything serious happened. Tourists, I think.”

Beth Rafferty was sitting at her console, looking as if she was in a daze. “Emma.” She spoke my name without looking at me.

I felt inadequate. “I don’t know what to say.”

Keeping her headset in place, Beth moved her intelligent hazel eyes to my face. “I know. It’s so terrible . . .” She shook her head and bit her lip. “It must have been that nut.”

I didn’t know what she was talking about. “What nut?”

Beth sighed heavily. “What’s his name? Old something-or-other. The recluse who’s been hanging around that vacant house by the cul-de-sac.”

“Old Nick?” I said. There was nowhere for a visitor to sit in the cubicle, so I perched on the edge of Beth’s desk. “Have you seen him?”

“No,” Beth replied, “but Tiff did. Twice. The first time was at night. He scared her half to death.”

The vacant rental was only two doors down from my own house. But my log cabin was set back from the street, a good twenty yards deeper than the other homes facing Fir. My view of the area was also blocked by the trees and bushes that grew around the cul-de-sac.

“I’ve never seen Old Nick,” I said. “Do you think he’s dangerous?”

Beth glanced at her console. “We’ve gotten a couple of calls about him in the past few weeks. He’s been sighted off Fir Street, toward First Hill.”

“But did he do anything except prowl around?”

Beth made a face. “To be honest, no. One call was from Grace Grundle. You know how she is—always so afraid somebody’s going to hurt one of her cats. The other was from a teenage girl who was babysitting. We sent one of the deputies—Dwight Gould, I think—to check out the place, but the nut—Old Nick?—was gone by the time Dwight got there.”

“Milo knows that Old Nick has been hanging out by your brother’s house?”

Beth nodded. “I told him when I found out that Tim had been—” She clenched her fists and clamped her lips shut.

“They’ll check it out,” I said to ease the awkward moment. “How’s Tiffany?”

Maybe I imagined it, but Beth’s expression changed ever so slightly. She seemed to freeze, as if the mention of her sister-in-law’s name annoyed her.

“Tiff’s okay,” Beth said tersely.

“And the baby?”

“Fine.” Beth picked up her bottled water and took a sip. The sheriff’s headquarters wasn’t air-conditioned, but a huge fan had been installed behind Beth’s chair. “Her folks are taking her to their place as soon as Doc signs the release form.”

“I’ve never known the Eriks family very well,” I said. “They live in the Icicle Creek development, right?”

Beth nodded again. “A couple of blocks from where Dodge lives. Wayne and Cookie Eriks are on the edge of the development, near Railroad Avenue.”

The less attractive homes in the neighborhood were closer to the railroad and farther from the golf course. Not that any of the houses were upscale. The development was strictly middle-class modest.

The console lit up. Beth’s “911” was calmly professional. “Please speak more slowly,” she said after a pause. “How old? Three months? Turn the baby upside down. . . . Yes, do it now. . . . Hold him firmly. . . . Good. . . . No, I wouldn’t try to give him vitamins anymore, either. . . . It wouldn’t hurt to check with Dr. Sung. You’re sure that Emerson is all right? . . . Yes, I hear him crying. He sounds angry. That’s what I’d expect. . . . Of course. You’re welcome.” She shook her head and spoke to me. “Another kidlet who hates liquid vitamins. They refuse to swallow, then choke and start turning blue. Mom panics. She can’t imagine that an infant could have such definite dislikes and opinions.”

“Or be so ornery,” I said with a little smile. “They’re born with personality traits. My son was always strong-minded, especially when it was something he didn’t like. I swear he had his first tantrum when he was a day old.”

Beth looked wistful. “I’ve never had kids. When I give advice like I did just now, it’s because of my emergency training. If I can, I try to resolve crises before anybody else has to be summoned.”

“You deserve a hero medal,” I said.

She turned grim. “I wish I could’ve been one last night for Tim.”

“Do you know who called in the fire?”

“I was off duty, of course,” Beth replied, “but Evan Singer was here. He told me it was Edna Mae Dalrymple. She was up late reading a book they’d just gotten in at the library. She wanted to finish it in one sitting because there were several patrons waiting to read it.”

Edna Mae was Alpine’s head librarian. She lived on the corner of Fifth and Fir, across from the Rafferty house. Perhaps she’d been in the group of onlookers on the other side of the street. Edna Mae is a nervous, rather timid creature, but conscientious. I’d mention her name in my story.

“Are you staying on all day?” I inquired.

“I might as well,” Beth said wearily. “There’s nothing much I can do until Tim’s body is sent back to Driggers Funeral Home. Evan fills in some evenings, but he’s got plenty on his plate managing the Whistling Marmot Movie Theatre. I’ll see my mother at the nursing home after work. Frankly, she won’t understand. Half the time she doesn’t know who I am. Her personality’s changed, too. The irony is that
I
hardly recognize
her.
Or at least not as the person who was my mother.”

“Did Tim visit her often?”

“No.” She held her head with one hand and looked away. “He said there wasn’t any point. That’s not true, really. A couple of times, I took her there to dinner. Mom had no idea where she was or who she was with. I might as well have taken her to Old Mill Park.” Beth’s voice broke. “Damn it, Emma, I wish Tim and I’d been closer these past couple of years. I feel as if I’ve lost my entire family.”

I was aware that there’d been friction between brother and sister, dating back to their father’s death. It was a sore subject—and not just with Beth, but in a different, horrible way—with me. I didn’t want to think about that now. Nor, I was sure, did Beth.

But she had to. “You’ll soon have a new niece or nephew,” I said, trying to find a bright spot.

Beth, whose eyes glittered with unshed tears, gave me a cynical look. “I doubt that I’ll see much of the baby. Tiffany isn’t exactly the sensitive, thoughtful type.”

The console’s light went on again. Beth composed herself immediately. I hesitated. The call could mean news. But I sensed that Beth wanted to return to her professional world of woe and stop thinking about her own. I didn’t blame her. With a little wave, I left.

         

V
IDA WAS HUNGRY
. She returned to the office just in time to catch me going out the front door on my way to the Burger Barn. “I’ll go with you,” she declared. “The Parkers didn’t serve so much as a cookie, let alone a Chinese chicken salad.”

“So how are they otherwise?” I asked as we crossed Front Street under a bright, hot sun.

“Upset, but managing,” Vida replied. She pointed to one of the concrete planters where petunias, lobelias, and alyssums were drooping sadly. “Honestly, can’t Fuzzy Baugh see to it that these flowers get watered in this weather? He is the most useless creature we’ve ever had for a mayor.”

Fuzzy was the only mayor I’d known since I arrived in Alpine. He was a good politician, oozing native Southern charm. But his administrative skills were lacking. Still, he was better than the county commissioners. At least Mayor Baugh wasn’t senile.

It was almost twelve-thirty, the Burger Barn’s busiest time. Vida and I had to wait five minutes before we were seated in a booth. Ordinarily, Vida would’ve insisted on one that was by a window, but because her hunger seemed even stronger than her curiosity, she sacrificed a view of passersby.

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