The post lecture party at the Flying Saucer was going nicely. Martin Boyd was holding court with a group of locals near the billiard tables. Pauline was pouring the special one-dollar “alien taps” right and left. Even Sheriff Harold Rhude was having one now that he was off duty. He glanced over at Robbie Porter who was standing on the edge of the Boyd court and nodded. Attorney Porter raised his beer to the sheriff.
In another corner sat the members of the fourth estate. Harriet Sobelman of The New York Times, Thelma Rhude of the Narvik News and a Madison hipster named Alan from the college town’s alternative weekly. Harriet and Thelma were comparing notes with Harriet’s take being decidedly more ironic than the more earnest Thelma. Yet the women, five decades apart in age, were hitting it off, sharing a love for the good story even if they loved it for different reasons. Alan was making himself unbearable in his efforts to impress the Times reporter, but the women were making progress by allowing his bragadacio to wash over them and then returning to their own conversation. Slowly, Alan was burning himself out, getting to the point that even he was tiring of the sound of his own voice.
Nervously, Sam drifted over to the press table. “What did you all think?” she asked, but what she really wanted to know was what Harriet thought.
“Fascinating!” said Thelma Rhude. “I’m so impressed that you pulled this off, Sam. Good job! Good for Narvik! I can’t wait to write this up.”
“Thanks, Thelma. And you, Harriet?”
Before Harriet could respond Alan barged in with his analysis of the meaning of an alleged alien sighting in small town Wisconsin and how it signaled the desperation of hopeless locals to be saved by some powerful outside force because, of course, their own government was incapable of doing anything for them.
When he was finished the three women stared at him for a moment. “Interesting,” said Sam. “And Harriet?”
Harriet chuckled and clapped. “Bravo, Sam. Excellent start to the weekend. I can’t wait for Sunday.”
Sam was a bit relieved. “So, no story until you’ve seen it all then?”
“Hate to tell you this Sam, but even the esteemed Dr. Martin Boyd’s revelations about aliens in Narvik, Wisconsin are not considered breaking news in New York.”
“Coastal elitists,” said Sam.
Harriet raised her one-dollar tap beer. “Fuck the bastards,” she said. “This’ll still be a great story.”
Sam took her leave of the press and returned to a table with Claire Kornstedt and Joe Ellsted.
“You feeling better about all this, Sam?” asked the mayor. “I told you it would be okay.”
“We’re not out of the woods yet. We’ve got a whole weekend ahead of us and don’t forget that Professor Nutjob over there said he’s staying until he’s figured out who the alien is. But he saved himself and me and you, Claire, at least for now.”
“How so?” asked Joe as he sipped his beer.
“Kindness!” replied Sam. “That’s the new angle. That’s the thing that will keep Harriet from writing something that will make us look bad. When Martin said that there was an alien still among us I thought we were cooked. ‘Crazy Rust Belt Town Launches Witch Hunt for Space Alien.’ That kind of thing. But then Martin pulled us out of the fire with that kindness crap. Now it’s like looking for the guy who just won the lottery. Different story altogether.”
“Do you think Martin knew what he was doing?” asked Claire.
Sam took a long sip of her beer. “Who knows? I doubt it. I think he really believes all this stuff. Two more days, Claire. We have to get through the dance tomorrow night and the parade on Sunday and then Harriet will leave and write her story. And then we’ll see how crazy Martin Boyd is and how crazy he’s made us look.”
On his way out of the Saucer after his one beer, Sheriff Harold Rhude stopped by the mayor’s table. “Quite an evening,” said the sheriff.
“Yes,” said Claire. “Hasn’t Sam done a wonderful job? There’s new life in the festival.”
“Yes. New life.” The sheriff looked over at Martin Boyd still holding forth with Robbie Porter still on the edge of his audience, but listening intently. “Still, the good doctor said a thing or two that has me concerned. Would the three of you join me in my office tomorrow morning?”
31. Witch hunt
It was eight o’clock on Saturday morning and Sam Tucker was fidgety. She sat with Claire Kornsted and Joe Elsted in the dingy, empty, quiet waiting room of the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office. Claire and Joe paged through the old trout magazines they found scattered around the waiting room while Sam sat cross-legged on the couch punching away at her phone and checking things off the multiple lists in her notebook.
“Does anyone know why the fudge we’re here?” asked Sam yet again. By now Claire and Joe were immune to the question, which had been asked multiple times on the drive over from Narvik. They paged through their magazines without looking up.
At 8:10 Sheriff Harold Rhude burst through the door carrying a flat white box. On top of it perched a cardboard tray holding four large coffees.
“Sorry I’m late, kids,” said the Sheriff. “Betty’s Bakery doesn’t open ‘til eight and I wanted to get some donuts.”
“No problem. Did you get some with the sprinkles?” said Joe as he rose to follow Harold into his office.
“Sure did,” said the Sheriff.
“Wait. I want to finish this article from 1997 on roll casting,” said Claire.
“No reason for sarcasm this early,” called the Sheriff as he entered his office.
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud,” mumbled Sam to herself.
When they were all arranged around the Sheriff’s big desk each with their coffee and selected donut in hand, Harold Rhude began.
“Well, I suppose you want to know why I called you here,” he said.
“Thought crossed my mind, Sheriff,” said Sam. “It’s kind of a busy day, ya know?”
“I know. I know, Ms. Tucker. Big party tonight and all. By the way, I was happy to do what I could to get you that temporary liquor license,” he said to make a point.
“Okay. Okay. Hand slapped. I can feel the sting,” said Sam her mouth full of donut. “These are good.”
“Yes,” said the mayor. “Betty does a nice job. But Sam’s got a point. She’s got a lot on her plate, Harold, so I suppose you should get to your point.”
“Right, well, here’s what concerns me. Our good Dr. Boyd has started a kind of witch hunt in our town. Now, I know, he claims that what we’ve got on our hands is a good witch. A ‘kind’ sort of witch, I think he said. Nonetheless, having the whole county under the impression that there’s a mysterious alien in their midst, well, that’s not a healthy thing for any community now is it? I mean it’s fun now but just wait until there’s a crime or something goes awry that we can’t immediately explain. This could quickly turn bad.”
“The same thing occurred to me,” said the mayor. “I thought that’s why you might be calling us together, Harold. But what do you propose we do about it?”
“Now that’s just it. I don’t know. That’s why I wanted to get the very best minds in Narvik together to think this thing through. We’ve got two more events – the party tonight that Sam has reminded me she’s working so hard on and the alien parade on Sunday. It’d be good if we could find some way to get this whole thing wrapped up and put to bed by the end of the weekend. And I sure as shit do not want Dr. Martin Boyd hanging around here longer than that.”
As Sam, Claire and Joe were walking down the stairs of the courthouse they met Thelma Rhude and Harriet Sobelman walking up them.
Claire cocked an eyebrow. “What brings the Fourth Estate to the seat of government so early on a weekend?” she asked the duo.
“Research!” answered Thelma as she brushed by them in a hurry. Harriet just looked at her old friend Samantha with a wry smile and followed the much older woman into the courthouse.
“Now, I wonder what they’re up to,” said Claire.
“Beats me,” said Joe.
“Nothing good, I’ll bet,” said Samantha. “But I don’t have time for them. I’ve got stuff to do today.” And she hurried toward the car they had shared on the way over to the courthouse. Sam looked back at Claire and Joe, still standing on the courthouse steps apparently chatting about what Thelma and Harriet could be doing in there.
“Well, c’mon!” shouted Sam. “Whatever the hell it is we’ll read about it eventually.”
Claire and Joe caught up to Sam at the car and the three of them drove back to Narvik.
Inside the courthouse Thelma and Harriet waited in the hall outside the county register of deeds office. On a Saturday morning the building was silent. After a few minutes they heard the squeak of sneakers on the marble floors and County Register of Deeds Meryl Oberhauser came lumbering down the hall. Thelma introduced Meryl to her young friend, the reporter from the east coast.
“Nice of you to do this for us on a Saturday morning,” said Harriet as he jingled through a mass of keys to find the right one.
“It’s his job, dear,” said Thelma. Just then Meryl found the right key. He held it up and glared at Thelma.
“But we appreciate it!” Thelma said.
“That’s better,” said Meryl and opened the door. Meryl showed them to his conference room and put on some coffee. Then he disappeared. A few minutes later he reappeared with three bound notebooks.
He called each out as he slapped them on the table. “October, 1982. November, 1982. December, 1982. That’s what you wanted, right, Thelma?
“That’s it for now,” said Thelma.
“Help yourselves to some coffee. I’ll be in my office,” said Meryl.
“Thank you, Mr. Oberhauser,” said Harriet, but Thelma was already plowing into the first notebook.
Harriet poured them each a cup of coffee, one in a blue Narvik Nimrods mug and the other in a chipped green and gold Packers mug. She settled in at the table next to Thelma who didn’t look up when the younger woman set the Packers mug in front of her.
“Thank you,” said Thelma as a waft of cool air pushed the steam to her nose. “Now, let’s see if we can solve a mystery today.”