They materialized from the chill fog like ghosts from an ancient past. The Gaia, Saga Siglar, and Oseberg, their dark sails bellied out before a northwesterly twenty-knot wind, were shadows against a dreary morning sky. Pointed bows knifed effortlessly through rolling four-foot seas, and low hulls lunged forward, hunting shelter from the stinging rain that lashed the Rhode Island coast. The Vikings were coming.
Captain Ragnar Thorseth had nursed the Gaia from Norway to Greenland to Canada, retracing the sea route that Viking explorers such as Leif Ericsson may have traveled a thousand years before. The other ships joined him along the way and they rode the heavy swells left over from Hurricane Bob to arrive off Brenton Point right on schedule.
As they swung into East Passage, the Newport Artillery Company slammed out a thirteen-gun salute from its antique Paul Revere cannon. The retort rolled over the water along with the cheers of six hundred people lining the shore at 10:00 A.M. on that wet Friday, September 20, 1991.
Up on the bluff of Brenton Point State Park was a yellow school bus, its windows foggy from the breath of about sixty excited children squirming inside. Each year the Alternate Learning Program class at Primrose Hill School in Barrington, twenty-five miles from Newport,chose a foreign land to study. Last year it was England, with tales of castles and dragons. This year Scandinavia had been picked, and the red and blue flag of Norway was tacked to a classroom wall. When the Norse ships planned to call in Newport as part of a program dreamed up by a Norwegian cruise line, there was no doubt the ALP class would have a field trip.
The three ALP teachers put together a package of information. In addition to the permission slips the parents had to sign, there was a newspaper clipping about the event, pictures of Viking ships, information on lunch, and advice on how the kids should dress. It also explained that students would get out of school later than usual on Friday because of the travel.
Early on that Friday morning, eight-year-old Emily Brendel bounded from bed in her second floor room at the rear of a broad white house located at 51 Middle Highway. While her mom made a point of neatness elsewhere in the house, Emily's room remained in comfortable chaos, the lair of a young child. She pushed aside her favorite white blanket, which she called "Blankie" because it was more of a friend than a piece of cloth, and pulled together her outfit for the day: size eight white panties with little red hearts, light blue jeans with zippers at the ankles, a pink turtleneck sweatshirt, and a white sweater emblazoned with the cartoon characters Minnie and Mickey Mouse. On her feet were white socks and a pair of L.A. Gear white sneakers with sparkling laces. She would put on a pale green jacket before leaving the house. Emily brushed her teeth, gave her short brown hair a quick brushing, and satisfied, smiled at her reflection in the mirror with her hazel eyes.
At eight her father loaded his excited daughter into the red Toyota sedan parked beside the front porch and drove the few hundred yards down Middle Highway to the brick school. The bus was waiting, and Emily piled aboard with her ALP friends. A sticker with her name printed on it was pasted to her jacket. With teachers and chaperons, the bus set off for Newport.
It was the stuff of dreams for the energetic little girl whose name was shortened by her friends, who called her Em. Not only was she off to see real Vikings, but there was Newport itself, with its chic red-brick waterfront shopping district and the huge mansions that hid behind iron gates and generous sloping lawns, giant places as big as a child's imagination.
But today belonged to the Vikings, who were about to drop anchor near the place where unknown souls in a distant age had built the Old Stone Mill, a round tower on eight pillars of weathered rock. Historians say it was constructed by Vikings in the twelfth century for their Norse gods. As the low ships drew near, the parked school bus rocked on its wheels and tilted as the kids all surged to one side, noses pressed to frosty, closed windows.
When the three boats faded from view, the children reluctantly returned to their seats and the bus took them down to the wharf, where the ships tied up. Under the watchful eyes of their escorts, the ALP students walked around, took photographs, and asked a barrage of questions of Norsemen wearing furs, sailors from warships, men dressed in American Colonial Militia uniforms, and people posing as Native Americans. The hodge podge mixture of music, cultures, and dress worked because it was fun. By 2:00 P.M., when it was time to head back to Barrington, the ALP troop was a tired bunch of kittens. A photograph shows Emily sitting on the grass beside the old fort, surrounded by classmates in various forms of foul-weather gear. She is in the front row, eyes squinting to her left. Her thick hair, parted in the middle, is disheveled, a slight smile brightens her face, and she clutches a wad of tissue.
Back in Barrington, Primrose Principal Elizabeth Durfee was out in the parking lot to watch the other Primrose students leave classes for the day, departing with parents, boarding school buses, or heading for day care centers until their families could pick them up. The school had a specific list of who could meet a child, andDurfee was adamant that every kid be watched until they were safely away. A slight problem had emerged. Although Emily's parents approved the class trip, her father had telephoned a secretary at the school about 1:00 P.M. to authorize Durfee to let Emily walk home today. Without further confirmation, Durfee decided to keep Emily on the preapproved schedule.
The bus from Newport pulled into the lot at 3:00 P.M. and the ALP kids came off in a rush, to be parceled out to their respective destinations. Durfee picked the little girl she was looking for out of the jostling crowd. "Emily, your dad called and said he wanted you to walk right straight home." A teacher standing on the school property could have watched Emily walk all the way to the front door of her two-story white colonial home.
The child scrunched her eyebrows, looked puzzled at the unexpected rearrangement of schedule. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a librarian. Plans and schedules in the family were firm. "That can't be right, Mrs. Durfee. I know I'm supposed to go to the Y because it's gymnastics day."
"Let's call him." The principal smiled to put the little girl at ease. Inside Durfee's office, Emily took the telephone and punched in 246-1666, her home number, listened with a frown, then hung up. "He's not home, Mrs. Durfee. I only get the answering machine."
The school was emptying rapidly and the YMCA van pulled into the parking lot, making a late trip to Primrose to gather the ALP students who had gone to see the Vikings. Durfee made a choice. "I'll tell you what, Emily. You go on to the Y, and I'll leave a message on the answering machine that you're there."
The principal explained to Pam Poirier, the Y program director driving the van, that there seemed to be some confusion. Poirier told the principal not to worry. Emily would call home once she got to the Y.
Barrington is not a big place, and open roads have few signals to impede traffic. The van went straight down Middle Highway, turned left at Volpe Pond onto MapleAvenue, then right onto West Street. Less than ten minutes after leaving the school, the van reached the sprawling YMCA building on the flank of Brickyard Pond. The kids hurried past the carved wooden double statue of an Indian brave with his hand on the shoulder of a child, burst through two sets of doors and turned to the big gymnasium, where others were already playing noisily in the School's Out program.
Emily, however, paused long enough in Poirier's office to call her home again. She again heard the answering machine message. Her father's brusque recorded voice said, "Hello, you have reached 246-1666. We're out right now. If you wish to leave a message, please wait for the beep."
When the tone sounded, she spoke. "Hi, Dad. It's me. I'm at the Y. What?" Nearby, Poirier whispered for Emily to say what time it was. "It's 3:25, and you called the school for me to walk home, but I came here." She hung up and ran toward the sounds of the gym.
Only a few minutes later the Brendels' red Toyota pulled into the lot and Christopher Hightower, a close friend of the family, strolled into the Y. He went directly into the day care room and found a counselor, then walked over to where Emily was playing with other children at a table. "Hi, Emily. Remember me? I'm Mr. Hightower." The muffled sounds of balls bouncing on hardwood courts and children's shouts provided an undercurrent of noise and he had to raise his voice to be heard.
Poirier, the program director, took Hightower to her office and pulled the cards listing who was authorized to pick up the children. She had sent several reminders for Emily's parents to update the list, but they had not replied. The last completed form was from 1989, two years before, and showed that Alice and Ernest Brendel, and Christopher Hightower, were the only people who could collect Emily from the after-school program. Hightower explained that Ernie was wrapped up in some important business work today and could not get away, then showedPoirier the keys to the car that Brendel had loaned him for the errand. Still, Poirier was concerned. She would not allow Emily to leave, because Hightower did not have current authorization.
Hightower, a Sunday school teacher whose own family were longtime YMCA members, politely nodded, said he understood the dilemma, and left. Poirier notified her supervisor of the situation, then returned to work.
At ten minutes to four the telephone rang at the Y reception desk and was answered by Nancy Paiva. A male voice spoke. "This is Mr. Brendel. May I speak to Pam?" Paiva had frequently seen Ernie Brendel come into the Y, usually right at 5:10 P.M., but had never met him. She put the caller on hold, walked into the room where the kids were playing, but did not see the program director. Returning to the telephone, she said Pam could not be located. The caller seemed piqued. "Tell Pam that Mr. Hightower will be picking up my daughter Emily. He will have my license for ID."
Fifteen minutes later the Toyota rolled up again and Hightower walked inside, where Poirier asked how things had worked out. He smiled and displayed Ernest Brendel's driving license along with a handwritten note that said Emily could be released to his care. Poirier thanked Hightower for his patience, then called to Emily to leave her seat. On the signout sheet, beside the type-written name of Brendel, Emily, is the autograph of Chris Hightower as the parent or guardian picking her up. Poirier also wrote her initials, PP. The time of departure was exactly 4:00 P.M.
Emily had known Hightower for much of her young life, and gave him a toothy grin. She had seen him working with her father, and they had even vacationed with the Hightower family in New Hampshire. Anyway, after the long day in Newport and exercising at the gym, she was ready to call it a day. That soft bed upstairs, her "Blankie," her pet turtle, her stuffed animals, dinner, and the twenty books she had recently checked out ofthe library were all calling to her. She left the YMCA hand in hand with Christopher Hightower.
Emily Brendel could not know that the kind man who was joking with her had already tortured and murdered her father and, within hours, would horribly strangle both her and her mother, and dump all of their bodies into shallow graves.
Copyright © 1994 by Don Davis.