This is the second installment of my short novel, Alien Parade. See the Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos website for the previous installment.
The Ottawa County courthouse was a beautiful old building in the center of the town square of Bosshardt, the county seat. Statues of young Union soldiers kept guard over each of the four walks leading to the red brick building with its steeply pitched roofs and dormers. It was under one of those dormers, in the attic in fact, where the state’s Home Town program kept a small office.
Thanks to a lack of insulation or modern heating and cooling, the office was far too hot in the summer and way too cold in the winter. But in late September in mid-day it felt just right to Samantha Tucker. She started the morning in two sweaters, but a few hours later she had peeled off the layers and worked comfortably in jeans and a shirt.
At noon she pulled one of the layers back on and headed downstairs and across the square to Bauman’s for lunch with Narvik Mayor Claire Kornstedt. Bauman’s was a classic old Germanic place with stained glass windows and scenes of elves and gnomes painted on the dark walls. Massive beer steins lined an oak shelf that rimmed the walls just under the ceiling.
The menu was decidedly heavy, featuring schnitzels and rouladen backed up by dumplings and sauerkraut. But there was a modern day nod to healthy eating, a chef’s salad and, of course, one could order that without the bacon and shredded ham, which is just what Sam Tucker did.
Claire had the schnitzel with roesti, which is hash brown potatoes laced with melted Swiss cheese, and an iced tea. Her old fashioneds were strictly an evening affair.
The Narvik Alien Festival was only a month away and the two women were going over the social media buys to promote the events. Sam was growing in her excitement but she had a concern.
“This is exactly the kind of quirky thing that will get young people from the cities to make the drive,” she explained to the mayor. “But here’s the thing. It’s got to be just the right kind of lame.”
“The right kind of lame?”
“Yes, the right kind of lame. I mean, hokey and weird is good but only if it goes far enough without going too far.”
“I see,” said Claire, not seeing at all.
“It’s got to have a sense of irony, you know? Like Narvik is in on the joke.”
“That’s fine, my dear,” answered the mayor, “but you know some people have always taken this very seriously. We’ve always been careful not to insult anyone. Ole Olson, for one, is really quite serous about it. And Ole has no sense of irony.”
Just then Sheriff Harold Rhude walked into Bauman’s accompanied by a gust of warm, dry, sweet September air just tinged with the first perfume of rotting leaves.
As he passed their booth he noticed the two women. He knew one of them.
“Well, mayor! What brings you to the seat of power in Ottawa County?”
“Just business, sheriff. I’d like you to meet my young friend Samantha Tucker. Sam’s helping us with our Home Town program.”
“Nice to meet you, Samantha,” said the sheriff extending his hand.
Sam shook his hand firmly. “Good to finally meet you, Sheriff Rhude. I’ve heard good things.”
“Then you’ve heard mostly lies, I guess,” said Rhude.
“What are you up to today, Harold?” asked Mayor Kornstedt.
“Oh, I was out to the Olson place. Seems Ole thinks he’s had another sighting.”
“That so?” said the mayor. “It’s been a long time.”
“Yep,” answered the sheriff. “Couple years anyhow.”
Sam listened intently. “What kind of sighting?” she asked.
“Well, Ole claims there was some firewood stacked on his place and he didn’t stack it. Moreover, it was stacked in kind of a half circle. That’s something almost artistic that Ole would not be inclined to do. Plus the bark was up.”
“The bark was up?” asked Sam.
“The bark was face up on the firewood. Ole always stacks bark down.”
Now Sam had pushed her salad aside. “Sheriff, is Ole saying aliens did it?”
“Well, yes ma’am. That’s what Ole thinks happened,” said the sheriff, a wry smile developing on his lips.
“And what do you think, sheriff?”
“Oh, that’s hard to say, but I’d guess kids. Just some bored kids trying to pull off a prank on a gullible old man. That’s what I’d guess. Anyway, I’ve kept you ladies too long from your business. You have a good one, now.”
As the sheriff walked to his table, Sam stared at a row of steins just below the vaulted ceiling above the bar.
“What are you thinking?” asked the mayor.
“I’m thinking this was sent by the marketing gods,” answered Sam. “This is sooo great! A new sighting. We should use this, use this, use this!” She slapped her open hands on the table scattering loose silverware. “Sorry,” she said returning to her salad.
“Emm, I don’t know,” said Claire. “It’s not much and the sheriff is probably right. Just some kids. Plus, Ole’s pretty old. And he’s been living out there for a long time by himself. A mind can play tricks on a person, even a young person when they’re alone too much of the time.”
“Claire, don’t you see? It doesn’t really matter. This story gets out and it’s going to bring new attention to Alien Fest. Do you think the sheriff would talk to the press?”
“I don’t know. Harold’s kind of protective of people and I don’t think he’d want to see Ole get exploited.”
“But his reports are public record, no?”
“Yes, as far as I know they are. Well, but just eat your salad, dear. We should think this thing through before we do anything at all.”
Sam toyed with her greens, but she spent the rest of their lunch glancing into the mirror behind the bar where she could catch a glimpse of Sheriff Harold Rhude, minding his own business and eating his roesti.
Thelma Rhude showed up at the sheriff’s office per usual first thing Wednesday morning. She sat at the table in the sheriff’s conference room, pulled a thermos out of her backpack and poured herself a steaming cup of strong black coffee.
Within moments the sheriff, who also served as Thelma’s son, walked in and plopped a handful of folders on her table. These were the cases from the previous week. Mostly speeding, some disorderly conducts and a few minor thefts. But there was one folder in the short stack that the sheriff worried might gather the interest of his mother.
“There you go, Mom,” said Harold Rhude. “You need anything you know where to find me. Want the thermostat turned up?”
“That’d be nice, Harold. It’s chilly in here. It’s that time of year, you know. Can’t save the taxpayers on heating bills forever.”
Harold cranked the thermostat up five degrees before returning to his office, which was across the hall from the conference room. He filtered through email and waited for his mother to get to the file he feared and to walk across the hall to ask him about it.
Ten minutes later there was a rap at his door.
“Sheriff, I have a question.” As she had done for the last three decades Thelma Rhude, publisher, editor and reporter for the Narvik News dropped her motherly role and addressed her son by his professional title when asking him about the public’s official business.
Harold did not take the same professional stance. “Fire away, Mom.”
“Well, sheriff, this Ole Olson incident,” she began. “What do you make of it? Could it be explained?”
Harold expounded on his theory of kids playing a prank on Ole.
“What children do you suspect then, sheriff?”
Harold had actually not given that any thought at all. “Well, I’m not sure. I don’t know. Maybe the Halsted kids.”
“Jeremy and Joshua Halsted have been away at college. I think one’s graduating next year.”
“Oh. Time flies, I guess. Could have been a lot of kids.”
“Well, I’m not telling you how to do your job, sheriff (he noted to himself that she was always telling him exactly how to do his job), but it would seem to me that if you suspect youth involvement you would make some inquiries.”
“Mom, I would make some inquiries if this was worth my time. But if you haven’t noticed I’ve got other cases to work on and this is not exactly what you’d call the crime of the freakin’ century. In fact, as far as I can tell it’s not even a crime. Ole got some wood stacked without having to do it himself. If aliens did it, well, then Ole should just thank them and be done with it.”
“No need to grow surly, sheriff. I just find this to be an interesting story. A nice tie-in to the festival coming up.”
“Oh, ma. You’re not going to put this in the paper, are you?”
“Not without interviewing Mr. Olson first. I want to know if his story has any credibility and frankly I find the official report lacking.”
8. The interview
Amid the steep hills of the Olson farm cell phones did not work. And Ole Olson had stopped paying for the landline the day after his mother passed away. So, for all intents and purposes there were two ways of communicating with the old farmer. One could drive out to his place or wait until he came into Narvik as he routinely did each Saturday evening at about 5PM just as The Flying Saucer started to serve its popular prime rib dinner.
Thelma Rhude drove sparingly. She knew that her children were circling about ready to snatch her keys and rob her of her independence. She was especially wary of her son Harold, the sheriff, who often lectured her on not driving at night and staying away from school zones. So, Thelma thought prudence to be the best course of action. Don’t give them any openings to take away her car. Drive only when she must and then with the utmost caution. It seemed like a sensible and responsible strategy.
So, in lieu of driving out to see Ole she laid in wait. On Saturday evening, just before five, she walked over to the Saucer. She ordered a coffee from Pauline and sat at the bar waiting for Ole to arrive. She badly wanted a manhattan, her drink of choice on a Saturday, but she never mixed cocktails and work.
Sure enough, just after five, Ole Olson shuffled in the front door wearing his blue nylon jacket over a red flannel shirt. He removed his camouflage Narvik Nimrods cap as he entered, nodded at Pauline who nodded back, and headed for his table in the corner, the same one occupied by the mayor often on a weekday evening.
When he got settled in and had ordered his usual dinner and sides, Thelma took her cup from the bar and walked over to Ole’s table.
“May I sit?”
Ole said nothing, but nodded toward the chair opposite him.
Thelma asked about the farm and his health and received the expected lack of information. Then she zeroed in.
“I’ve heard you had another sighting out at your place.”
“Yeah, I think I did.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
Ole told her about the firewood in prose so sparing that it made her son’s official report read like a romance novel.
“So, you think it was the aliens then?”
“Don’t know what else it coulda been then.”
“The sheriff. He thinks it might have been kids.”
“Don’t know what kids it mighta been.”
“No, he doesn’t either,” she said with mild contempt. “Ole, tell me this. Have you done anything to move or disturb that stack in any way? Because if it’s okay by you, I’d like to come out there and take a picture or two.”
“Not much? You haven’t disturbed it much? That’s good, but why not?”
“Not much reason to.”
“Because you’ve got plenty of firewood?
Now his dinner arrived and Ole got busy buttering his baked potato. “Yeah, plus it don’t burn.”
“What doesn’t burn?”
“The alien firewood. I put a couple pieces in my wood stove, but it don’t burn.”
9. Fire retardant
Harold Rhude couldn’t stop laughing.
“Mom, did you know that the word ‘gullible’ does not appear in the English dictionary? The same kids who stacked Ole’s wood sprayed some kind of fire retardant on it. It’s all part of the same hoax.”
On the other end of the phone his mother, in full reporter mode, would have none of it. “Ok, sheriff. Let’s say you’re right. Why not get it tested just to prove your point?”
A vision flashed through Harold’s mind. He’s arriving at the state crime lab in the Madison suburbs carrying a piece of firewood in an evidence bag. He explains what he needs. He watches the mouths of the technicians as they curl into barely restrained laughter. He observes as his credibility burns up before his eyes.
“The crime lab has real crimes to worry about, Mom. I’m not going to waste their time with a kid’s prank.”
“Fine, sheriff. If you won’t do your job then I guess a citizen will have to do it for you. I’ll take it to Madison.”
Now, in a second’s time, Harold made another set of calculations. He was ready to retire and be done with it all. Then again what would he do? His very identity was ‘Sheriff Rhude’ as if Sheriff was his first name. And if he did decide to run again, this could cut either way. On the one hand, if he got the wood tested he could see Robbie Porter mocking him for being taken in by the wild goose chase. But on the other hand, if this alien thing got out of hand, Robbie could just as easily attack him for not putting a definitive end to the circus.
“Now hold on, Mom. You can’t do an end run around due process.”
“There’s no end run here, sheriff. A citizen can certainly petition her state’s crime lab. If they don’t want to test it, well then, I can always get a private lab to do it.”
Harold thought fast. “No, you can’t.”
“Because that firewood is evidence. You touch it and you’re tampering with evidence.”
“Evidence of what? You said yourself you’re not treating this as an investigation.”
“I am now, Mom. Officially, I am now.”
10. Next move
Harold hung up the phone, satisfied with himself for buying some time. But the good feeling didn’t last long. He knew his mother and he started to wonder what her next move would be. He wasn’t sure, but he knew there would most certainly be a next move.
It came in the October 2, 2018 edition of the Narvik News:
Olson Case Grows More Serious
Ottawa County Sheriff Harold Rhude announced this week that he was undertaking an official investigation into unexplained recent events at the Ole Olson farm just outside of Narvik.
In late September Olson discovered a stack of firewood near his home. It was arranged in a semi-circle and stacked in a manner that was not Olson’s. Moreover, Olson reported that the wood did not burn.
Sheriff Rhude visited Olson on his farm and he tells the News exclusively that he has launched what he now calls an “official” investigation.
The sheriff’s announcement comes as Narvik prepares to celebrate the 36th anniversary of Olson’s alleged sighting of an alien spacecraft on his property.
Harold tossed the paper aside and stared out the window of his office at a raw, windy autumn morning. He noted with only faint gratitude that enterprising reporter Thelma Rhude had mentioned that Ole couldn’t get the wood to burn, but she left that hanging. She didn’t pursue the obvious question of getting to the bottom of why it wouldn’t. Clever, he thought. She didn’t need to do that. Her readers would do it for her.
Harold tried to go on with his day, but late in the morning, his assistant Pauline (in the evenings Pauline tended bar at The Flying Saucer) entered his office to tell him that there was someone in the waiting area requesting to see him about the Olson case.
Resigned to his fate and once again calculating the exact amount of his monthly pension check, Harold told Pauline to show the young woman in.
“Ms. Tucker. What brings you here?” the sheriff said as Samantha entered his office.
“Sheriff, so nice of you to make time for me. And so nice of you to remember me.”
I’ve still got it, Harold thought to himself. Or maybe it was just the automatic reaction of an old politician. Just the suggestion of another campaign in the offing and all of a sudden he never forgot a face and a name. He offered her a chair across from his desk.
“Of course I would remember you! You’re an important person around the county. You’re doing a great job by the way. Giving this area a shot in the arm and putting us on the map with young people. God knows we need that. Now, what can I do for you?”
“Thank you, sheriff. Well, partly that’s what I’ve come to talk with you about. See, it’s this Ole Olson case and how it relates to the Alien Festival.”
“How does it relate to the Alien Festival?
“Sheriff, since you seem to be very civically minded can I be blunt with you?”
“Excellent. This mystery firewood thing could not have come at a better time. I mean for the festival. I put Thelma’s story out on social media just this morning and I’ve gotten inquires from all over. I think the AP wire service might pick up the story and – fingers crossed – I have a friend at the New York Times who saw it on her news feed and she’s going to try to get her editors to send her out here.”
Harold sent a stream of air between his lower teeth to create a shrill whistle. “The New York Times. You don’t say.”
“I do say, sheriff. And you can imagine what all this would mean for the festival and for Narvik if… it’s handled right.”
“Which brings me to why I’ve come to see you. It’s not my place to tell you how to do your job.” This was the second time in two days that someone had told him they weren’t going to tell him how to do his job right before they were going to do exactly that.
“That’s good,” said Harold in the hopes that he was making a point.
“Yes, well, I noticed that Thelma’s – your mother’s – story this morning didn’t say if you were going to follow up on the wood, you know, the wood not burning.”
“There’s reason for that. I haven’t decided.”
“Oh,” said Samantha, with audible relief in her voice. “But can you tell me your plans?”
“That’s a complicated matter, Ms. Tucker. We don’t generally discuss these things, active investigations, in public. Could tip our hand for the perpetrators. But, may I ask what does this have to do with the Alien Days Festival in Narvik?”
“I totally understand, sheriff. Totally. It’s just this. Right now this story is really, really interesting. Old reclusive Norwegian guy with a history of seeing flying objects discovers strange structure on his property. It’s almost like Stonehenge. And then on top of it the firewood won’t burn. It’s a great story.”
“And so you’re worried that if I get the wood tested and it turns out to be somebody sprayed it with a fire retardant… well, there goes your mystery and intrigue.”
“Eggsss-zactly!” Samantha had a way of stretching out certain words to emphasize her meaning.
“Well, Ms. Tucker, your business is promotion while mine is law enforcement. I can’t have my investigation compromised by outside considerations.”
“Oh, I understand that, sheriff. Absolutely. Of course not. No, no, no. I wasn’t suggesting that. Not at all.” Sam was stalling since this was exactly what she was suggesting and so she needed to retreat and charge at the same time.
“Of course you may decide that the wood needs to be tested. Law enforcement decision. On-going investigation. Yes. I get that. I wouldn’t dream to interfere. No. I was just wondering on the timing is all. I mean, if you got it tested when might you get your results?”
Harold saw that now she was offering a way out for them both. Now that young Samantha Tucker had upped the stakes on him, making his investigation a key factor in the success of this year’s Alien Festival just months before his reelection (if he chose to run, of course), he was looking for a way to side step it all. And here it was.
“Well, Ms. Tucker, I can’t speak for the crime lab. But I know they have a backlog of serious crimes to test for in Madison, so I’d say that even if I personally delivered it to them today, well, there’s no telling when they’d get to it.”
“So it could be well after the festival?”
“There’s no telling. And of course that’s even if I got the sample to them today.”
“And you’re busy with other investigations?”
“My gosh. Up to my eyeballs.”
A wry smile came over Samantha Tucker’s face. She muttered “eggsss-zactly!” to herself, rose from her chair, extended her hand and said, “thank you, sheriff.”