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Authors: Mary Daheim

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“A good point,” Vida conceded. She looked thoughtful. “Yes, I can see that might happen. Do you suppose Ed will give the news to Spencer Fleetwood today?”

“Drat. I didn’t think of that. It wouldn’t have done any good to swear Ed to secrecy,” I went on. “He can’t keep his mouth shut.”

Vida crossed her arms over her jutting bosom. “It puts me in a bind. My radio program airs tonight. If Spencer carries Ed’s candidacy on the news at six, I don’t know whether I should mention it when
Vida’s Cupboard
comes on at seven.”

“Well . . . Ed’s a former
Advocate
employee,” I pointed out. “It would give the paper a mention.”

“Yes.” Vida nodded once. “Yes, it would. But down the line, I’ll have to interview him.” She shuddered. “So off-putting. But needs must.”

Vida’s phone rang. She hurried back to her desk just as Milo entered the newsroom.

“I hear Toni had a meltdown this afternoon,” he said, putting a big booted foot on the visitor’s chair Ed had recently vacated. “What was that all about? Doe told me you chased after her.”

“Stress,” I replied. “Or so Toni informed me. Are you working her too hard?”

“No more than usual,” Milo answered, tugging at the sweat-stained collar of his regulation shirt. “Damn, it’s hot. Anyway, Toni’s load’s lighter these days. When she was the only woman on the staff, sometimes she had to help with female perps. Now that Doe’s aboard, Toni can skip that part. She never liked doing it.”

“So she should have less stress,” I remarked.

“Yeah, right.” Milo made a face. “The problem is, she doesn’t like Doe. Toni thinks she’s too pushy.”

“Doe is fairly aggressive,” I said.

“Hell, yes. That’s one reason I hired her.” Milo looked pleased with himself. “You know how I had to pare the budget to get somebody new. I think I got us a winner.”

“Doe seems very competent,” I agreed. “So what’s with Toni?”

Milo shrugged. “I thought maybe she told you.”

“Stress,” I repeated adamantly. “She didn’t explain.” Hesitating, I wondered if I should pass on what Janet had said. I wouldn’t print hearsay in the paper, and generally I didn’t pass it along in private.

“What?” Milo asked.

I hedged. “I suppose you can always blame a man.”

“What man?”

“How would I know?” The sheriff was beginning to irk me. “You’re the one who works with her. Surely—being a detective as part of your job—you know who she’s dating.”

“She never talks about her love life. Almost never,” Milo added.

“Maybe she talks about it to Doe,” I said.

“I doubt it. Like I told you, Toni isn’t chummy with Doe.”

“Who does she hang out with then?”

Milo frowned. “Heather Bardeen. Heather Bavich, I mean, since she got married. Mandy Gustavson. Mags Patricelli—I forget her married name.”

I didn’t remember it offhand, either. Mags was the daughter of Pete Patricelli, who owned a pizza parlor. Heather Bardeen Bavich worked for her father, Henry, at the ski lodge, and was also the niece of Buck Bardeen, Vida’s longtime male friend. I recognized Mandy as one of the many Gustavsons in town who were somehow related to Vida. Mandy had always been employed as a waitress, most recently at the Venison Inn. Trying to keep everyone straight was no easy task, not even after thirteen years in Alpine. The best way was to put them into two categories: those who were connected to Vida, and those who weren’t.

“Didn’t Mags move to Sultan after she got married?” I inquired.

“Could be.” He nodded in Vida’s direction. She was still talking on the phone. “Ask her about Mags.”

“You ask. You’re the one who has to work with Toni.”

Milo waved a hand in dismissal. “Toni’ll get over it. She was pretty upset about Rafferty’s death. I guess it’s the younger generation facing up to their own mortality.”

I recalled Ginny and Kip’s reactions. “Yes. Especially when they grew up with someone who’s died. That, and hitting the thirty-year milestone.”

The sheriff removed his foot from the chair. “I didn’t come here just to shoot the breeze about Toni. I talked to Wayne Eriks this afternoon. I’d interviewed him earlier to find out if he knew of any reason why someone would want to murder his son-in-law. He didn’t, but today when I ran into him while he was working on a pole by the old water tower, he remembered seeing Nick the recluse the other night.”

“Where?” I noticed that Vida had hung up the phone and was leaning in our direction.

“By the high school football field, across the street from the other side of the cul-de-sac.”

“Ah.” I saw Vida, halfway out of her chair. “Which night?” I asked.

“Sunday, just before dark,” Milo replied. He raised his voice slightly. “That’s Sunday, Vida, the night before Tim died.”

“Do you think I’m deaf?” she snapped.

“But nobody’s seen him since?” I inquired.

“Nope.” Milo started backing away from my desk. “We were pretty sure he’d been at the vacant house in the last few days, though. We could tell from the leftovers. All kinds of leftovers.” He made a disgusted face.

I saw Vida wince. Getting out of my chair, I came around to where Milo was standing. “Do you think Old Nick has gone back into the woods?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “Even if he wasn’t involved, the fire and the sirens and the emergency personnel would’ve scared him off. His kind doesn’t like that sort of commotion. That’s why they’re hermits.”

“But,” Vida put in, now on her feet, but remaining by her desk, “he may have seen something or someone. You really must try to find him.”

Milo had turned around to face Vida. “We’re talking about a guy who doesn’t want to be found. That’s not going to be easy.”

“Boy Scouts,” Vida said. “Girl Scouts. All sorts of teenagers who are at loose ends this summer. Let them help.”

The sheriff shook his head as he loped through the newsroom. “Too risky. Any kind of accident, and we get the pants sued off of us. Not to mention that Old Nick may be armed and dangerous. He doesn’t want visitors. See you.”

The sheriff left.

“That’s ridiculous!” Vida declared. “Milo doesn’t have enough manpower to find Old Nick, and the forest rangers are all overworked these days, what with visitors at the parks and the danger of forest fires and everything else that goes along with summer. I’ve a good mind to—”

She broke off, a spark gleaming in her gray eyes. I had come out into the middle of the newsroom to listen to her rant. “To do what?” I asked.

“You’ll see.” She snatched up the phone and dialed from memory. Alpine has only one prefix, but I swear she’s memorized over half the numbers in the county. “Todd? Is Todd Wilson there?”

Todd is the PUD manager. I waited.

“Todd? Yes, this is Vida Runkel. Is there some way I can reach Wayne Eriks in the field?”

I waited some more.

“Very well. Have him call me at the paper when he gets in. Please tell him it’s urgent. You have my number, of course. Thank you.”

“Why do you want to talk to Wayne Eriks?” I asked after she hung up.

“To get his description of Old Nick,” Vida replied brusquely. “It would appear that Wayne may be the last person to see Old Nick in recent weeks.”

“So?”

“You’ll see.” Vida looked smug.

I knew it was pointless to press her. “Maybe Wayne
wasn’t
the last person to see him around here,” I said.

She was quick to catch my meaning. “Yes.” Her face had turned solemn. “That person could be Tim Rafferty. That’s why I think Old Nick should be found as soon as possible.”

SEVEN

W
AYNE
E
RIKS SHOWED
up shortly before five o’clock.

“I thought I might as well stop by instead of call,” he said to Vida. “My final job today was out on the Burl Creek Road, so you were on the way back to the PUD office down the street.”

“Excellent,” Vida said, beaming at Wayne as if he were a long-lost friend. “Do sit.”

I didn’t recall ever having officially met Wayne Eriks, though I’d seen him around town for years. “Hi,” I said, offering my hand. “I’m Emma Lord. I was at your house this morning, but I missed you.”

Wayne’s grip was strong. He was a man of medium height, but with broad shoulders and the hint of a paunch. His fair skin was peeling from sunburn, and I noticed he was wearing a long-sleeved cotton work shirt to protect himself from further damage. For those who worked outdoors, long, hot summers were especially difficult. I was suddenly grateful for my stuffy little cubbyhole. At least I had shade.

“I know who you are,” he said with a gap-toothed smile. “I mean, everybody does.”

“It’s part of being a publisher,” I said in a self-deprecating manner. “I’m very sorry about Tim. It’s brave of you to go back on the job so soon after the tragedy.”

Wayne shrugged. “Keeps my mind off of it. Besides, we’ve had a bunch of problems. Everybody’s running their fans and even air conditioners, if they’ve got ’em. That causes outages. Not to mention the morons who let their trees and vines grow into the poles and blow the transformers.”

“I know,” I said. “We had one catch fire on our street last summer.” It was the fault of my evil neighbors, who had allowed a morning glory to wend its way up the pole outside of their house.

Wayne had sat down by Vida’s desk. “I remember that. It was in August, just about a year to the day.”

Having joined the conversation, I decided it was my turn to eavesdrop. Leo had left for the day, so I perched on his desk. Vida didn’t look very pleased, but began to interrogate Wayne.

“Now tell me about seeing Old Nick Sunday night,” she said.

Wayne seemed puzzled. “I already told Dodge.”

“Yes, of course.” Vida gave Wayne her toothy Cheshire cat smile. “But I’m doing my radio program tonight, and I thought I might give a description of Old Nick while I’m on the air. You must admit, his presence in that vacant house next door to your daughter and Tim is highly suspicious.”

“You bet it is,” Wayne declared. “Damned scary, too.” He didn’t seem to notice Vida’s brief look of disapproval at his language. “Wish I’d known he’d been hiding out around there. I would’ve run him off. You can never guess what a nut like that is going to do.”

“So,” Vida said, “you think he may have been responsible for what happened to your son-in-law?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Wayne said, coughing and blowing his nose loudly into a wrinkled handkerchief. “This Nick must be crazy. He may have gone into the wrong house. I mean, it was dark. I’m guessing his brain’s scrambled, so he goes into Tiffany’s place instead of that dump next door. He wakes up Tim, panics—well, you know the rest.” Wayne sighed heavily.

“Yes,” Vida said softly, “it could have happened that way. Now, tell me about seeing him Sunday night by the football field.”

“Right.” Wayne sat back in the chair, clasping hands that still wore work gloves. “I’d gone up to First Hill to check out a problem we’d been having. It was my day off, but I wanted to make sure everything was okay at the box on Disappointment Avenue. It was getting dark when I got done, but it was still hot, so I decided to take Fir down Fifth.” He chuckled self-consciously. “I was going to get a cold one at Mugs Ahoy before I went home.”

“So you turned the corner on Fir at Fifth and saw Old Nick?” Vida prompted.

“That’s right.” Wayne nodded as he cleared his throat. “He was sort of leaning against the cyclone fence that goes around the field. I mean, it’s the track part down at that end, where they do the hurdles and long jump and that stuff. I noticed, because I’ve seen kids hanging out there at night, smoking dope. But this was no kid. It was a guy with a long gray beard and long hair and really ratty-looking clothes. Grubby jacket, torn pants—the whole bit. I slowed down, and he got real agitated, like he wanted to climb the fence. I didn’t recognize him. I figured he was some bum from off one of the freight trains. But you wrote about the hermit being seen around town, so then I thought afterwards I should tell Dodge.”

“You didn’t approach him?” Vida queried.

“Couldn’t see the point.” Wayne raised his gloved hands in a helpless gesture. “Those kind of rummies might do anything. I mean, their brains are all screwed up. I just kept driving.”

“How close were you to him?” Vida asked.

“Oh . . .” Wayne gazed around the newsroom. “From here to the main door. Twenty feet, maybe more.”

Vida pressed on. “Can you describe his clothing?”

“Ragged. Old jacket and baggy pants, shirt, some kind of boots.”

“Colors?”

Wayne shook his head. “I couldn’t tell in the dark. He looked dirty, though. What you’d expect.”

“Height? Weight?”

“Average, maybe closer to six feet.” Wayne paused. “No way to guess what he weighed with all those baggy clothes. I’d say he wasn’t fat, though.”

Vida was relentless. “How long was the hair and beard? Did he wear anything on his head?”

Wayne put one hand in the middle of his chest and the other a few inches down his back. “Gray, scraggly. He wasn’t wearing a hat or cap. I’m pretty sure of that, though it was hard to tell. I mean, if he had a bandana or something, I couldn’t see from where I was in the car.”

Vida blinked two or three times at Wayne, almost as if she were memorizing his own features. “Very well. I think that’s all. You’ve been of great assistance.”

“Sure.” Wayne got up and blew his nose again. It sounded like a duck call. “Glad to help,” he said amiably. “I’d like to see that Old Nick nailed.”

I slid off of Leo’s desk and spoke for the first time since the interview started. “You think the recluse did it?”

“It’d figure, wouldn’t it?” Wayne responded. “Either he was robbing the place, or like I mentioned, he made a mistake and went into the wrong house. He’s got to be crazy.”

Old Nick probably was unbalanced. But as Doe had pointed out, that didn’t automatically make him a killer. I kept my thoughts to myself, however.

Wayne left. Vida immediately began to gather her belongings. “I must dash,” she said without looking at me. “I’ve less than two hours to finalize my radio program.”

I knew that Vida didn’t need more than five minutes to produce her show, and that included a phone call to whichever local luminary she was interviewing in the final segment. She carried everything around in her head, the same way she approached writing for the paper. I was also aware that she had preferred I wasn’t on hand when she talked to Wayne Eriks. My suspicions grew. But it was pointless to confront her. Instead, I applied the needle.

“By the way,” I said over my shoulder, “did you know that Toni Andreas’s parents divorced?”

“Yes,” Vida replied tersely. “My nephew Billy told me.”

I couldn’t hide my surprise. “You knew?”

Now Vida turned her gimlet eye on me. “I found out only an hour ago. I happened to run into Billy on the street. He told me what happened with Toni today. You never mentioned it.”

I went on the defensive. “I’ve been busy. You were out most of the afternoon.”

“Not all of it,” Vida snapped. “I hold Billy at fault, too. He should have informed me about the Andreas divorce when it happened. I scolded him severely.”

Now it was my turn to suffer Vida’s wrath. As for Bill Blatt, the poor guy was expected to keep his aunt up to speed on everything that went on at the sheriff’s office. Despite his best efforts to be professionally discreet, Vida could eventually wheedle just about anything out of him.

“Billy insisted he forgot,” Vida went on. “That’s possible, perhaps. Men are so poor at paying attention, particularly when it comes to personal relationships in the workplace.” She picked up her straw handbag and took a step toward the door. “I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me what caused Toni’s emotional breakdown.”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “She wouldn’t say. Toni simply blamed it on stress.”

“Stress!” Vida spoke the word as if it were obscene. “Such an excuse for lack of self-discipline! I’ve always believed that Toni is a ninny!”

I didn’t utter a peep as Vida stomped out. She’d be even more annoyed when—and if—I told her what Janet Driggers had said about the possibility of Toni having suffered a romantic disaster.

Five minutes later I was heading out through the newsroom on my way home when Leo came through the door.

“I thought you’d gone for the day,” I said in surprise.

“I had,” Leo replied with an aggrieved expression. “But I stopped in at Harvey’s Hardware to buy another fan, and he’d given me the wrong information for his ad in this week’s paper. He’s selling some new kind of house paint that’s an acrylic and he mistakenly identified it as latex-based. The whole point is that the makers claim acrylic lasts longer or some damned thing than the latex. Harvey’s afraid the vendor will sue him or cancel the line, so I’ve got to put together a radio spot for tonight on KSKY.”

“Hey,” I said, annoyed. “Since when do you do ad copy for Fleetwood? Isn’t it bad enough that Vida’s got a show on the station?”

Leo made a face. “I’m doing it
for
Vida’s show, because it’s got such good ratings. But I’m doing it because I don’t want Spence to make it sound like it was our mistake and not Harvey’s. On the other hand, the ad can’t make Harvey out to sound like an idiot. It’s all of thirty seconds long. Do you trust me or do you trust Fleetwood?”

“You,” I admitted. “It sounds tricky.”

Leo had sat down and was already writing on a notepad. “Not for the clever likes of me. Hold on.”

I sat on the edge of Vida’s desk and kept my mouth shut.

“Okay,” Leo said after about two minutes had passed. “How’s this? ‘Harvey’s Hardware is proud to announce that its new line of Paragon AAA house paints has gone beyond latex to a new acrylic coating that will withstand even the roughest and toughest of Alpine weather. Sun or snow, wind or rain—Paragon provides protection for you and your mountainside home that will last for years to come. So drop by and ask your old friend Harvey Adcock for the latest in all kinds of paint—interior, exterior, enamel, glossy, latex—and the new acrylic from Paragon. Remember, Harvey works hard for all your household wares.’ ” Leo took a deep breath. “Think Spence can handle that?”

“It lets Harvey and us off the hook,” I said, “but why not let Vida read it?”

Leo nodded once. “Good idea. I’ll e-mail it to KSKY right now. Harvey already had a spot later in the evening, but I’ll tell Spence to cancel that one. It was for more window fans, but he’s almost out.”

I stood up, ready to leave. But Leo held up a hand. “This’ll only take a minute. Want to go to the Venison Inn for a drink?”

I didn’t have anything better to do—as long as I was home in time for
Vida’s Cupboard.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll meet you there.”

Leo nodded again. “Good. Order me a Miller Lite.” He began to enter the ad copy on his computer.

I walked out into the late afternoon sun, taking my time to pass the dry cleaners and reach the Venison Inn. At almost three thousand feet above sea level, the air isn’t particularly thin, and on this semihumid August day, it felt oppressive. One of the few renovations I liked at the inn was the air-conditioning that had been installed when the owners remodeled. It had seemed like a luxury, but the past couple of summers had proved its worth. I felt slightly rejuvenated as I entered the bar.

“Hot enough for you?” Oren Rhodes asked as he came over to the small table where I’d sat down.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “The next person who asks that is going to get hurt.”

Oren chuckled, displaying a fairly recent second chin. “It’s hotter than Dutch love, as my granny used to say. She wasn’t Dutch, though. She was Swiss.”

I wasn’t interested in Oren’s heredity. But it dawned on me that he could answer some questions about Tim. On a Wednesday at five-thirty, the bar was just beginning to fill up. A clutch of workmen sat at the bar, regulars who worked in the woods and the warehouses and the mill. Logging, however, had been curtailed because of the tinder-dry conditions. I recognized a couple of the loggers. No doubt they were griping about the stoppage. The rest of the drinkers were probably complaining about the hardships caused by the weather, too. A bar is always a good place to bitch.

“I’m waiting for Leo,” I said, giving Oren a friendly smile. “I’ll have a screwdriver and Leo wants a Miller Lite. That’ll save you a trip.” I grew somber. “You must be shorthanded with Tim gone.”

“Thanks, Emma. Yeah, Tim helped out fairly often. Though he hadn’t put in the hours lately like he used to. I’m teaching Mandy Gustavson to tend bar. Damned shame about Tim.” Oren shook his balding head.

“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s awful. It doesn’t seem right that a young couple with a baby on the way should have a tragedy strike like that.”

“It’s a rough world out there,” Oren remarked, his gaze going past me. Maybe he was seeing that world, which isolated small-townsfolk often try to ignore.

“It is rough,” I said, still perfectly agreeable. “This should have been the happiest time of their lives.”

Oren’s eyes turned back to me. “Oh—well, yes, I guess so. Even with Tim not feeling good.”

I was surprised. “He was sick?”

“Not seriously sick,” Oren said quickly. “But he’d had a lot of complaints lately, especially for a young guy. That’s why he hadn’t worked so much.” Oren glanced at the bar where someone had called his name. “Excuse me, Emma. I’ll get your order.”

Leo arrived as soon as Oren left me. “No drinks?” my ad manager said. “How can you get drunk if you’re not drinking?”

I laughed halfheartedly.

“What’s wrong?” Leo asked, sitting down. “Do you still think I may fall off the wagon and have to crawl to work on my hands and knees?”

“No, no,” I replied. After a decade I believed that Leo’s battle of the bottle was over. He had never been a true alcoholic, but the type who drank too much in order to cope with that rough world out there. In all the years I’d known him, he’d never taken more than two drinks at a time. A ruined marriage and an almost equally bankrupt career had sobered him up. “I was thinking about Tim Rafferty. Oren mentioned he missed work lately. Spence told me the same thing. I wonder why.”

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