We’re going to wrap up this little clambake this weekend. Here’s the penultimate installment of our story.
35. The evidence
Sheriff Harold Rhude did not drive Mayor Claire Kornstedt home from the Alien Dance. Instead, after dropping off his wife at their house, they drove up to the county courthouse in the dead of night. A lonely light shown in the sheriff’s office. Harold unlocked the front door and let them in and they walked up the marble stairs to his second floor office where he unlocked another door and gave a heads up to the deputy he knew would be there.
“Iggy! It’s us.”
“Welcome, mayor!” shouted Deputy Sheryl Ignatowski from the sheriff’s conference room.
Claire knew Iggy as her bright student back when Claire taught the fifth grade at Narvik elementary. Now she was all grown up and the county’s lead crime investigator.
“Ok, Iggy, let’s see what you’ve got for us,” said the sheriff as he and Claire took seats on either side of her.
“Well, the image was a little grainy at first but I did what I could to sharpen it. Anyway, see for yourself. I’d say that’s a positive id.”
It was a positive identification of a man at a checkout counter at what appeared to be a hardware store. Iggy explained that it was the Nelson’s Hardware Store in Redding, which was said to be the best hardware store in southwest Wisconsin. A big, busy place where not every customer would necessarily be recognized.
Claire stared at the image obtained from the store’s camera. There was no doubt it was him. The person at the check out was none other than Dr. Martin Boyd.
Sheriff Rhude explained. “I had a hunch about this from the start, Claire. So, I sent Iggy here on what may have been a wild goose chase, except that it looks like we got ourselves a goose after all.”
Iggy chimed in. “The sheriff asked me to track down store surveillance videos from every hardware store that had them in a fifty mile radius of Narvik. That’s 12 stores. Then I was asked to visually examine the videos frame by frame for a period of 48 hours before the recent incident at the Olson farm.”
“What Iggy means is that I told her to put aside the two dozen more important things she has to do and to spend her weekend busting her ass and going blind to find a needle in a haystack,” Rhude said.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what this bastard told me to do,” replied Ignatowski.
“Thank you, Iggy,” said the mayor while ignoring the sarcasm. “And I see the date stamp on the image is about a day before Ole Olson reported the strange goings on at his farm?”
“That’s right,” said Iggy. “It looks like our Dr. Boyd was in the area just before that. But here’s what’s even more interesting.” Iggy zoomed in to what was on the counter between Boyd and the check out clerk. There were three red and yellow aerosol cans and Claire could read the product name. She read it out loud.
“Fire Break Flame Retardant.”
“Yep,” said the sheriff as he leaned back in his chair. “What we’ve got here is an anti-arsonist.”
“Explains why Ole’s firewood didn’t burn,” said Iggy.
“Did you ever bother to get his wood tested at the crime lab, Harold?” asked the mayor.
“Well, no. I didn’t. I didn’t see any reason to tie up their time when they’ve got real crimes to work on. And besides, I didn’t want Narvik, not to mention yours truly, to look silly. They already think of us that way over in Madison.”
“If they think of us at all,” mused the mayor out loud.
Harold slapped his deputy on the back. “Nice work, Iggy.”
“Yes. Good work, Sheryl,” said her former teacher.
“Thanks. I’m going home now. I worked a ton of hours this week. Can I take Monday off?”
“No,” said the sheriff.
“Okay then I’ll see you Tuesday,” said Iggy as she collected her computer and papers and headed for the door.
Harold and Claire sat alone in silence for several minutes.
Harold crossed his arms. “Well, Claire, we’ve got an interesting situation on our hands.”
“Yes. What do you feel you must do, Harold? What’s your duty here?
“Well, now, that’s a curious question. What am I required to do? Under the law, I mean. And what should I do as someone who loves his little hometown? What’s honest? What’s fair? What’s legal and what’s not?”
“It’s complicated, isn’t it?” asked Claire staring out the conference room window into the blackness of a still autumn night outside the big, old courthouse.
The sheriff went on. “Complicated. I’ll say. On the one hand we could view this all as a prank and hoaxes aren’t illegal. Or we could say it’s fraud, which is. But then who’s been defrauded? Ole Olson? It’s mostly his money that Boyd got, but Ole got attention and he got to be grand marshal of the parade tomorrow. I doubt he’d press charges.”
“You forget, sheriff. I emptied my official travel budget and contributed $500 of Narvik’s money. The taxpayer’s money.”
The sheriff gnawed on that for awhile. In fact, he had forgotten that part.
He stared right along side her into the dark night.
“Well now. How much do you suppose all this free publicity is worth to Narvik, Claire? I mean the New York Times? Must be worth a couple million dollars, easy. Not bad for a $500 investment I’d say. But that’s just me.”
“What do you suppose Robbie Porter would say?”
They both continued to stare out the window. “As city attorney he approved your use of the funds, didn’t he?”
“Oh, but Robbie Porter is not the kind of guy who would think three steps ahead and figure he’d look foolish for approving the money in the first place, would he? Not the future sheriff of Ottawa County, no sir.” Now Harold smiled into the reflection of them both in the courthouse window. And he saw Claire’s wry smile right next to his.
36. Black ops
It was early Sunday morning on Madison’s Capitol Square. Bleary-eyed enterprising reporters Thelma Rhude and Harriet Sobelman stood in the deserted lobby of a nondescript yet modestly lovely old nine-story office building.
After a few minutes a young man in black jeans and a grey hoody sweatshirt, wearing big, black-rimmed glasses arrived carrying a tray of coffees.
“Thought you guys would need some of this,” Alan Mossberg said as he passed the hot coffee to his companions.
“My god! You’re a genius,” said Harriet as she took the paper cup. Alan beamed.
Thelma took her cup. “Thank you, young man,” she said. “Can we get started?”
Alan keyed the elevator into service and the trio boarded as Alan hit the button for the sixth floor. The doors opened to a pleasant, but slightly worn and dark narrow hallway. Lights clicked on to their motion as they exited the elevator.
Alan unlocked the door to the office where he sometimes worked at the venerable alternative Madison weekly The Badger. The paper had been formed in 1971 by student anti-war protestors who were at wits end for what to do after they graduated from the university. They founded the thing on a shoe-string budget, but they were good writers having honed their skills as student newspaper journalists. The paper’s motto was and remained to this day, The Badger: We Claw For the Truth.
Ad sales for the free paper were slow at first and in the early years they came close to folding several times, but by the time they sold the paper and its related digital operations four decades later they pocketed millions.
Saddled with debt from the purchase and more interested in the digital part of their little empire anyway, the new owners were more cost conscious than the founders. To save money they relied more heavily on barely paid stringers like Alan Mossberg.
“I sit over here at Martha’s desk. She’s the receptionist and sort of the den mother type. Sometimes she leaves me her home baked cookies in a tin.” He looked down. “Not today. Sorry.”
“Well, you probably told her you were staying in Narvick this weekend,” Harriet said distractedly while she looked around the one big room. It occurred to her that every newsroom, no matter the size of the operation, felt and smelled the same. The messy desks and the faint odor of paper made her feel at home.
Thelma interrupted her reverie. “Young man,” she said. “We’re here to work if you don’t mind.”
“Ok,” said Alan. “Let’s go.”
They rode the elevator up to the ninth floor and stood in front of the BDC LLC office door. It was an unimposing façade. In fact, they only surmised it was the right one by the process of elimination. There was no sign on the door at all, but the Fierce Women League and Free the Children were clearly marked.
But they had seen the black Cadillac in the parking lot. Harriet looked at Thelma and sighed as if to say, ‘do we really want to do this?’ Thelma turned back to the door and rapped on it hard.
37. Charlie’s Char-Broiled
In 1972, L. Grayson Charlie was laid off from his job as an engineer at a Milwaukee manufacturing plant. He took his severance and did something he had always wanted to do. He opened a hamburger joint, Larry Charlie’s Charbroiled Burgers.
His first store was in Madison and he catered to students and the big crowds for football, basketball and hockey games. Now he had a half-dozen franchisees who owned stores in four states.
On this Sunday morning he heard a rap on his office door and he thought it was his secretary who had forgotten her keys. He opened the door to see an elderly woman with fiery eyes, a young woman with shrewd eyes and a young man with eyes that reminded him of his granddaughter’s puppy. But in two of those sets of eyes he could see the dawning of recognition. They knew who he was or at least they knew one person he was.
Startled to see anyone other than his own employee he asked without any attempt to mask his irritation at both his tardy secretary and this trio, “Yes? What can I do for you?” His tone indicated what they could do for him was to go away.
Thelma spoke up. “You’re Larry Charlie,” she said.
L. Grayson Charlie’s expression softened a bit. He had never quite gotten used to being recognized and he wasn’t sure he liked it. But almost forty years of television commercials had embedded his likeness in the minds of Midwesterners like Thelma Rhude and Alan Mossberg. He appeared at the end of every commercial, poised to take a big bite out of one of his burgers, he would exclaim to the camera, “I AM Charlie’s Char-Broiled!”
“Well, yes, I am,” he told the small group. “But if you’ve got business with the Larry Charlie Corporation those offices are not here. They’re open tomorrow and they’re over…”
Thelma interrupted. “No, Mr. Charlie, we’re all reporters here.” Alan’s chest swelled just a bit. “And we have questions for the Black Deer Company. Can we assume, since you answered our knock, that you are with the company?”
“Suppose you contact our press relations office tomorrow,” he said as he began to shut the door, knowing full well that BDC LLC had no such thing. Just before it closed completely, Harriet blurted out, “We’re here to ask you about the Olson farm.”
The door stopped just before closing. “We know about it,” said Harriet. “We just want your side of the story.”
They could feel his moment’s hesitation from their side of the door. Then he opened it again and, wordlessly, swept his left arm across the room in a gesture of exaggerated welcome.
The office most definitely did not fit the slightly worn, nonprofit office vibe of the old building. The furniture was high-quality recent corporate chic. The art on the walls was original. The copier was sleek and techie. Everything was neat and in its place.
Charlie showed them in to a small conference room and asked in a perfunctory way if anyone wanted water. There were no takers as Harriet and Thelma pulled out their reporter’s notebooks and pens. Alan had not thought to bring his.
“Whoa,” said Charlie. “Let’s start by putting those things away. We’re not going on the record here.”
All three knew the rules. When the subject of an interview said that a conversation was going to be off the record they had three choices.
Option one was that they could try to convince him to stay on the record. It was clear that a man like L. Grayson Charlie would not be persuaded.
Option two was to pick up and leave. But that strategy was reserved for people like politicians, who desperately wanted to get their names in the paper but wanted to control just exactly what got in and what was left out. But they had barged in on Larry Charlie, who would have been more than happy if they vacated the premises.
So they were left with option three. Capitulate. They put away their notebooks.
Charlie took a seat at the head of the conference table, a position he was used to being in. He put his fingers together to form a steeple as he glared over it at his questioners. “Alright. Let’s make this quick.”
Harriet was about to speak but then deferred to Thelma Rhude, who after all, represented the most local paper.
“Thank you for your time this morning, Mr. Charlie,” opened Thelma. “What can you tell us about the happenings at the Trygve Olson farm in the autumn of 1982?”
Larry Charlie thought back to that time. Ten years into his burger business and with his franchising operation taking off, the business was starting to practically print cash. Charlie had a small hunting cabin not far from Narvick where he went each fall for a week of deer hunting with some of his old friends and investors.
Word started to get around that the federal government was planning a massive dam and artificial lake on the Kickapoo River. The government would have to acquire thousands of acres of farmland that would be submerged beneath the new lake. With lots of cash to spare, the burger baron and his hunting pals formed the Black Deer Company and began quietly buying up farms with the idea of making a killing when the federal agents came to call.
That’s what he knew, but his answer to Thelma Rhude’s question about the Olson farm was a curt, “Not much.”
Harriet intervened. “Mr. Charlie. We’ve researched this at the Ottawa County Clerk’s office. We have documentation. You were buying up land through the Black Deer Company at that time. The Olson’s parcel stands out as one at the center of your holdings that was owned by someone else. You had reason to want them to change their minds and sell to you, no?”
“No,” said Charlie. “It’s true my friends and I enjoyed hunting in that neck of the woods and we just wanted more elbow room. I had some extra cash and so we bought some land. Simple as that. Whether the Olson’s sold to us or not didn’t matter. We had plenty of land for our purposes.”
“But the Olson property was different,” said Thelma. “You wouldn’t have needed it for hunting, that’s true. But there were other needs about that time.”
“Like what?” asked Charlie staring out the window now.
“Like a dam, Mr. Charlie,” said Harriet. “The feds were going to build a dam and every acre was going to be worth five, ten times what you paid for it. So, you wanted every acre and the Olson’s were sitting on 130 of them. Wasn’t that what was going on?”
“I guess I heard something about that back then,” said Charlie.
Thelma continued. “One theory is that you wanted the Olson land so much that you concocted the flying saucer incident to scare them off of it. You’re an engineer and you had money. You could have operated the whole thing by remote control.”
Harriet piped in now. “But the whole thing backfired. It turned out that the Olson’s liked the attention. That was strange for Midwesterners much less Norwegians. And now they wouldn’t part with their farm for anything.”
Thelma finished things off. “And then the whole dam project never materialized and you were stuck with thousands of acres. And then land prices started to go down with the farm crisis in the ‘80’s.”
Charlie looked down at the conference table for what seemed like an eternity. When he spoke it was in a careful, measured cadence.
“Look, friends. The land acquisitions are a matter of public record. You have those and you’ve traced them back to me. Okay. That’s not a crime. And the dam project, well, I expect Ms. Sobelman’s modest little news outlet could spend weeks digging through archives in Washington to ferret out what exactly happened there. Frankly, Ms. Sobelman, I wouldn’t mind finding out myself.
“But as for your creative theories about what happened at the Olson farm back in 1982, well, that’s just so much speculation on your part. For myself I like to think there really is intelligent life out there. I want it to visit us. And I want them to like hamburgers.”
With that a handsome middle-aged woman rushed through the door. “Mr. Charlie, I’m sorry I’m late. Church ran late again this morning. Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were having a meeting this morning. Can I get anyone water? Coffee?”
“No, Judy,” said Charlie. “We’re done here.”
38. On the road to Narvik
“Step on it, Alvin.”
Alan Mossberg couldn’t believe it. A reporter for the New York Times was ordering him around and calling him by a made up nickname that she herself had coined. True, she was probably a few years younger than he was, but still, this was so cool.
Alan, Harriet Sobelman and Thelma Rhude were racing back to Narvik in Harriet’s rented car with Alan at the wheel. If Alan could manage 75 or so for the next hour they would make it just in the time for the start of the parade.
“Why do you suppose Larry Charlie sneaks in like that on Sunday mornings?” asked Alan, his eyes glued to the road ahead of him.
Thelma had a ready answer. “Keep in mind that Mr. Charlie owns something like 5,000 acres in Ottawa County alone. Goodness knows how many farms that is. How many leases. How many timber contracts and so on. I suppose he gets together with his secretary every week or two when he can spare a moment from the hamburger business to make management decisions, sign documents and catch up with paper work and she spends the week making things happen on all that land.”
“Quite a story though, huh?” said Alan.
“What story?” replied Harriet, riding shotgun. “We don’t have much of anything. Thelma?” Harriet turned to Thelma Rhude sitting in the backseat.
“I agree,” she said. “All we can prove is that Larry Charlie was behind Black Deer all along. But so what?”
“Eggszactly,” said Harriet. Thelma thought to herself that she had heard “exactly” spoken in just that way before. She couldn’t place it.
“But what about the dam?” asked the driver.
“That was only a rumor,” said Thelma. “The congressman and senators at the time denied it. I’m sure there’s a paper trail somewhere in Washington.”
“You’re probably right,” said Harriet. “But the Times isn’t going to spend the resources to find it. Nobody on the coasts would care. How about the News?” She looked back at Thelma with a smile.
“Hmmph. I’ll get Sheriff Herald Rhude to investigate. A lot of good that’ll do.”
“So you see, Alvin,” said Harriet turning her gaze back to the road. “What we’ve got a is a burger millionaire who bought a lot of land so that he and his buddies could go hunting. You and I and Thelma know that he bought all that land to cash in on a federal dam project. But we can’t prove that so we can’t write it. It doesn’t help that he held onto it all these years for whatever reason. And we all strongly suspect that the whole 1982 space ship thing was a hoax designed to get the Olson’s off their land, but we can’t prove that either. So we can’t write that. In short, Alvin, there is no story here, except maybe a whimsical feature about a forgotten small town in the heartland fighting for its survival with a crazy alien festival. ”
Alan stared ahead. “Maybe some day I’ll write a novel about it all.”
“Better set it in Brooklyn,” said Harriet Sobelman. “Pedal to the metal, Alvin.”
One thought on “Alien Parade: Installment 10”
I’ve enjoyed your story, Dave; I eagerly awaited each installment. You’re very good at realistic, believable (is that redundant?) dialogue. I’m sorry the story ended.
Are you sure there wasn’t some link between someone in the community who hooked up with Martin Boyd in order to spoof Narvik for some reason? A nefarious reason wouldn’t work. Narvik is too innocent (WW) for that. Maybe some expansion on Larry Charlie and Black Deer?
I’m teasing. As I said, I enjoyed your story.