Nest of the Basilisk

(sample)

chapter two
A Naked Lady Found


Devil Brigham never curtained the single window in his bedroom, nor closed the door that opened on the rest of the ranch-house. He didn't consider himself a night-owl nor an early riser, and though he could at times that required it do both, it was nature itself that steered him toward the latter.

Even from behind closed eyelids, Devil was sensitive to any change in the quality of light surrounding him, and it was the air of the ranch itself letting slip the night's darkness each morning that awakened him.

A ranch like the Lazy B, even in retirement, had needs that required strong hands and an eye for what needed doing as it arose. So every morning just before dawn it awakened Devil and set him to work. That Thursday was no different.

Every morning Devil would refill Chance's water pail from the hand pump in the kitchen and set it back out on the porch. In winter he'd bust the ice out of it before he refilled it for her. Then he'd open Rascal's barn door if the wind had blown it shut and make sure his water trough was ice-free in winter and full at the start of each day. He'd spread hay out for him to munch if the wild grasses were low, and pour half a bag of oats in a dry trough as a treat for him each morning. In winter, horses need hay more than oats because it was the hard digestion of the high-fibre hay that keep their bodies warm, so Rascal's morning treat would be less in the cold weather, making winter a double disappointment for him.

The clattering of Devil's telephone that morning in early spring came to him from the ranch-house, but he made no move to run and answer it. He knew the caller would give up by the time he got there, so he continued to pour out the last of a bag of oats in the dry trough while Rascal chomped enthusiastically beside him.

"They'll call back." Devil told Rascal, "They always do."

Rascal snorted his agreement.

Just after the phone stopped ringing, the squawk of the two-way radio in Devil's '29 Buick sedan patrol car told him it was police business that was determined to ruin the peace of his morning. They only called him on the radio for something dire.

With a whispered dammit, Devil crushed the empty oat sack and dropped it in the burn barrel on his way to his patrol car parked at the side of the ranch-house.

The dirty thirties had brought many changes to Devil's life as a lawman, the car radio being one of them. If he was near his patrol car he was accessible anywhere at any time of day or night. He missed the days of patrolling his district on horseback away from phones and radios, but he believed you either embraced progress or got out of its way.

"Base to Chief." came the crackling voice of Deputy Will Smalls, "Base to Chief, come in?"

While he'd been doing his chores, the rising sun was already driving the chill out of the interior of the black Buick. Devil slid into the driver's seat and picked up the microphone.

"Go ahead, Will."

"We've got a situation here, Chief."

"What manner of situation?"

"We ... Deputy Rutledge found a lady wandering Cage Creek Road on his way back from a call this morning."

"And how is that a situation?"

"She's ... well, she's naked."

"Do we know this naked lady?"

"No, Chief. She's not local."

"Did she give you a name?"

"She isn't talking, Chief."

"Get Carl to run her over to the clinic. She might need a Doc more than a cop."

"We had to put her in cells, Chief. She's ..." and the radio squawked - Will had let go of the microphone button.

"She's what, Will?"

There was a pause, then;

"She's covered in blood, Chief."

dammit

"I'm on my way." Devil said and hung the microphone back on its dashboard hook silently saying farewell to his uncooked breakfast and unbrewed coffee.

"Reeve Ardolf wants so see you first thing too. He's been calling." the radio squawked a final time.

"To hell with Harold and any horse that can carry his fat ass to town." Devil muttered to himself as he got out and retrieved his scoped Marlin '94 and gun-belt from his front porch. Strapping on his belt as he returned to the car, he seated the Marlin in its padded foot and stock grip that held it against the dashboard. Devil held the car door open and let go a shrill double-whistle and called; "Chance!"

He waited while his white and grey furred partner came streaking across the nearest field and leapt into the car, taking her usual post on the passenger's seat.

"No peace for the wicked, is there girl?" Devil asked her as he got in behind the wheel and she hung on his every word wondering what the day had in store for them. She didn't have an answer for the question about peace for their wickedness, but she appreciated being asked.

"You ever wonder what we did in a past life that we have to make up for in this one?"

If Chance knew, she kept it to herself.

Devil pushed in the clutch and slid the Buick into second gear before releasing the handbrake. Like he always did, Devil had parked the patrol car facing down the inclined road that led through the Lazy B's main gate on account of the two-way sometimes drained the battery. He let the car pick up some momentum and turned the ignition on before popping the clutch. The old Buick lurched and coughed and came to life as Devil followed the rutted driveway down the hill through the gate and onto Arawana Road toward town. In ten minutes the scrub pines on either side of the road opened up into the outskirts of town as the dirt road transformed to gravel and finally, through modern chemical magic, to concrete under his tires.

Above the lakeside village of Naramata, the township of Arawana was actually a district that covered a wide expanse of territory that fanned out above the lake into the highlands to the east. Aside from the Constables in Penticton, Summerland, and Kelowna who covered the valley floor, Devil and his two deputies were the law on this side of Okanagan Lake and were responsible for the safety of a wide variety of people; from the small Syilx families that lived off the reserve, to both poor and wealthy orchardists, farmers, and ranch owners, and even the solitary and sometimes prickly placer miners who were scattered far and wide between the Okanagan Valley and the mining town of Carmi that lay tucked in a valley of its own to the east. For the past few years the population of Arawana had grown to include transient migrant workers displaced from their homes by the depression that was still grinding the country's bones to powder.

As Devil rolled off Arawana Road onto Main Street, the town was just waking up around him. Marta was flipping the Closed sign on Ruby's Diner to Open which meant the coffee was already perking and the bacon was frying. Reggie Milton was sweeping the sidewalk in front of Ritchie Hardware & Lumber. Mister Fitch was lowering the fabric awnings over the windows of the Arawana General Store. And Lance Gilbert was propping open the fold-up wooden front boards of the Gilbert Fruit and Vegetables shack which this time of year mostly displayed jars of preserves until local produce could mature and be harvested.

That any sort of violence could invade such a peaceful town seemed unthinkable, but a naked, bloody lady had broken that illusion.

Devil parked where he always did at the mouth of the alley beside the brick Police Department building, backing in to take advantage of the slight slope in case the battery died again. Then together, he and Chance walked around the corner and in through the front door.

The Police building was far bigger than it needed to be, having shed most of what it had originally been designed for.

It was once the municipal hall, housing the district Council meeting room and offices, the Reeve's office, the licensing office, the public library, the Fire department, and the Police station which was once on the second floor. It was hot up there in summer and cold in winter, so once everyone else moved into the new municipal building, the police moved down to the main floor and converted the garage that once held the single horse-drawn Fire wagon into a drunk tank, evidence room, and file storage. The second floor was left dusty and vacant; a frozen, slope-roofed box in winter and an oven in summer.

"Morning Devil." Stuckey Ardolf said as he limped and bobbed past him toward the dispatch desk with his cup of coffee only three-quarters full so he didn't spill any.

Stuckey was once the Chief of Police but now filled the role of Dispatcher having a fused hip-joint from taking the bulk of double-ought buck shot to his lower back during the Simpson Sawmill strike in '31. It was a case of friendly fire, getting shot accidentally by one of the union-busting gun thugs Simpson had hired to break the strikers. The gun thug who shot him swore he was jostled in the confusion and didn't mean to shoot Stuckey, and the rest of the gun thugs took a powder in the chaos that ensued, never to be seen again.

"Morning, Stuck." Devil greeted him as he pushed through the swinging gate that separated the front counter from the open bullpen of the station, "I heard your nephew wants to see me. Know anything about that?"

"Most like it's about that Provincial Police malarkey." Stuckey said as he leaned to peer into Devil's office and double-check that he'd filled Chance's metal water dish that morning. He didn't perform that twice daily ritual out of care for the half-wolf police dog, but rather out of fear. There was a day a couple years back that he'd forgot to water her and Chance had come out of Devil's office with the empty dish in her jaws and threw it at him then growled her displeasure. Stuckey made sure it was full of fresh cool water all day, every day.

Stuckey strained as he lowered himself into his swivel chair in front of the phone switchboard and two-way radio at the dispatch desk, "All the individualism is being sucked dry out of us lawmen by little pricks like Harold. We should never have joined Confederation."

"That was a fight done before either of us was born, Stuck." Devil said, "The only constant in this century is progress." then to Deputy Smalls who stood nervously in the centre of the bullpen, "How's our naked lady, Will?"

"Still hasn't said a word, Chief. We got her a blanket, but she won't wear it."

Devil turned the corner and looked at the woman in the first small cell across from the desks in the bullpen. She was in her late-thirties, had dark hair laced with rumours of grey, eyes the colour of aged whiskey, body gone plump and laced with silver stretch-marks fanning across her belly and sides of her breasts. Her nails were short and her hands calloused, and like Will had said over the radio, her hands, arms, face, and feet were spattered and smeared with dried blood. Devil suspected she refused the blanket because she wanted to display the blood on her body.

"Any of that blood her's?"

"I couldn't see any wounds, Chief." Will told him.

Devil studied her stoic face as she stared back at him and noted the pinched outer edges of her eyes, the pug nose, and heavy eyebrows.

"Carl?" Devil said, still studying her face.

"Yeah, Chief." Carl looked up from his desk where he was busy with his report about how he found the naked woman.

"Run down to Simpson's Sawmill and ask Kirill Sokolov to come back here with you."

"What's the charge?"

"No charge. I think our lady here might be Russian." Devil said and noted that the naked woman reacted to the word, "Maybe she'll talk to him."

Devil walked toward his office, passing Stuckey on the way.

"Stuck, your wife is about the same size as our lady, think Ella can part with any cast-offs she can wear?"

"I'll call her." Stuckey said, picking up the phone.

Chance was already curled in her favoured armchair in a corner of Devil's office dripping water from her chops when he walked in and hung his coat and stetson on the coat tree inside his door. He had to take a read of the overnight reports from the other Police departments in the surrounding area and see what went on there and in Arawana according to Carl who'd been on-call. The police department was fully staffed and awake now.

First thing on arrival each morning, Will pulled the plug from the switchboard that forwarded calls to whichever lawman was on-call so daytime calls would ring through to the police station. Stuckey would be answering them until supper time.

Surveying the overnight reports was the first thing Devil did each morning, barring any naked ladies covered in blood, because crime sometimes overlapped jurisdictions. More than once there'd been a robbery or bar fight in Penticton and a crashed car in Arawana that he could link together and make an arrest. Maybe their naked, bloody lady started off somewhere else and found her way into his beat.

"Will?" Devil called as another thought came to him.

"Yes, Chief?"

"There many people over-wintered up at the Cage creek Relief Camp?" Devil asked and by the time he sat down, Will was in his office doorway.

"The camp's not quite half full, so maybe fifty men? Some of the Chinese stayed camped over the winter south of there, down by where the creek bends." Will reported, "A few other tents have gone up just above the Relief Camp as well, I'm guessing they're the wives and children of some of the men in the Relief Camp."

"What sort of work are the Relief Camp men doing?"

"Not sure."

"Find out, will you?"

"I'll get on it."

The Cage Creek Relief Camp had been a fixture above Arawana since it opened in '32, partially because of the Simpson Sawmill strike when Simpson cut wages for his regular workers and they struck. When Simpson fired all the strikers and brought in wandering unemployed workers as scabs, the strike became a riot and the violence spilled over onto Arawana streets. That was the day Stuckey had been shot.

It was a vandal's free-for-all for three days, sending Devil chasing report after report until District Council called in help from the RCMP and their mounted officers saw order restored. Many of the men who'd lost their jobs at the sawmill got work building the new Cage Creek Relief Camp for the federal Employment Service of Canada. Simpson profited both by breaking the strike with lower-waged scabs and selling the government the lumber for the new camp to house the men he'd fired and any wandering desperate workers they picked up.

"Devil?" Stuckey called him from the dispatch desk saving the wear and tear on his hip.

"Yes, Stuck?"

"Irene's coming in with some old overalls and a flannel shirt. She's gonna bring some drawers as well."

"Sounds fine."

"And Devil?"

"Yes."

"Reeve's here."

dammit

"Send him in." Devil lowered his head and read Carl's overnight call report.

"Good morning, Constable Brigham." Harold said as he entered Devil's office and huffed as he sat in one of the wooden chairs in front of the desk. The chair creaked, alarmed by the combined forces of gravity and the sudden bulk of the Reeve.

"Hello, Harold." Devil greeted him, ignoring the insult of being called Constable.

Reeve Harold Ardolf was a soft man who'd edged past chubby after he married Abigail Simpson five years before. He fancied himself a progressive frontier politician and sported polished western boots that had never fit a stirrup, a white stetson that had never absorbed a drop of rain, and a rodeo buckle he'd bought at a pawn shop in Penticton.

"I guess you know why I'm here."

"I don't have a clue why you do anything, Harold."

"Come now, Devil. Ignoring it isn't going to make it go away."

"What is it I'm ignoring?" Devil asked as he underlined an entry in the local overnight report book written in Carl's spidery printing, setting it aside for follow-up later and looked up at the Reeve.

"Detective Sergeant Locke from the Provincial Police Boundary District is arriving today to evaluate my police services."

"Your police services?"

"Arawana's police services." Harold said and Devil saw the colour rise in his plump cheeks, "They run a lean force and we just may be overstaffed. Sergeant Locke may look to keep a couple of you on if you're lucky. Then again, if you're not, he may replace all of you with one or two of their own Constables trained up in Victoria. Policing is changing, Devil, modernizing. It's a whole new world."

"How long will this evaluation take?"

"Hard to say." Harold said, rubbing at a smudge on the toe of his right boot, "He'll want to interview all of you one on one and observe our department in the field."

"Sounds reasonable." Devil said, then stared at Harold a moment, "Anything else?"

"Well, while I'm here I might as well collect your Chief Constable badge. Maybe put it in the Library museum case as a memory of days gone by."

"You brought a copy of the last District Council meeting minutes, did you?"

"No, I did not. Why would I do that?" Harold squinted at him.

"So you can show me the vote on the motion to remove me from office."

"I'm the Reeve."

"Yes, and I'm Chief Constable until the Council votes otherwise."

"I'm the Reeve, god damn it."

"So you keep reminding me, but you didn't promote me, the Council did."

"You're on your way out, Devil."

"Maybe. But right now you need to be on your way out of this station. We've got a developing case that wants our full attention and having to mind you will just slow us down."

"I'm not leaving without that badge."

"You're edging toward impeding an investigation, Harold."

"Reeve Ardolf, dammit. And I'll have that badge."

Devil made a lazy double-whistle and Chance, who'd been napping content in her chair, lifted her muzzle and growled softly at the Reeve as she bared her teeth. Chance could sense who Devil liked and disliked and absorbed those opinions as her own.

"You're going to sic your mutt on me?" Harold's voice rose an octave as he scrambled up from his chair.

"She's deputized and more than willing to show you the door. And don't call her a mutt, it hurts her feelings."

"This isn't over, Devil!" Harold sputtered and stormed out of the office.

"Nothing ever is." Devil said softly to himself as Chance lowered her head onto her paws, watching the doorway with suspicion.

"Carl?" Devil called, looking at the overnight log again.

"He's down at Simpson's picking up Kirill like you asked." called Stuckey.

"Right. Tell him and Kirill to come see me as soon as they get back."

"Will do, Devil."

"And if your nephew comes back, arrest him for obstruction and let him cool his heels in the drunk tank for an hour. And don't feed or water him while he's in there."

"I would be delighted."

"Thought you might."

Devil finished reading the overnight reports. A car slid off the road coming down Summerland hill, the driver saying he swerved to avoid a cat but chances are he swerved because the beer he'd been drinking slipped him into a short nap. He was rewarded with a busted arm and a wrecked car. Two men were held overnight in Penticton for drunk and disorderly, probably released already so they could get to their jobs. And a shack fire put out by locals down Skaha way that most likely was set by a fire bug that poked his head up every few weeks in that end of Penticton.

Devil kept the overnight log open to the underlined note that had caught his attention and set it aside. Devil heard a car rumble up in front of the station.

"Carl's back!" Stuckey called out, keeping Devil up to date on all the comings and goings in the station whether he needed to or not.

"Thanks, Stuck." Devil said.

Will knocked on Devil's open door before coming in, holding his open note book.

"Mister Otto at the Relief Camp says that ten of the men have been painting the bunkhouses and tarpapering the roof of the kitchen, and twenty-two had been contracted to crutch fruit trees at local orchards and do some pruning." he told Devil, "A few others had been set to plough and plant at the Archer farm."

"You say they had been?"

"Yes, Chief. Seems they didn't like the wages offered in the contract and didn't go to work yesterday." Will told him, "Maybe they're holding out until the ground's dry. They'll be shoring up roads and spreading fresh gravel for the tar truck and get paid regular wages soon."

"Thanks, Will."

As Will departed, Carl walked in with Kirill.

"You wanted to see me, Chief?"

"Yes. Hello Mister Sokolov." Devil nodded to Kirill as he rose and came around the desk, "Carl, I read in the overnight log that you had a call around three in the morning about a scream up near Archer's last night."

"Yeah. Misses Archer couldn't tell where it came from, but I drove up anyway and had a snoop around."

"Find anything?"

"No. I'm thinkin' it could have been a cat or raccoon that coyotes got at." Carl said, "I saw lights on at the Archer's place so I stopped in to see if Misses Archer could tell me anything more and she couldn't. Just said she got woke up from a dead sleep by a single scream in the distance. The Archer's sleep with a bedroom window open a bit even in winter. I stayed for a cup of coffee and slice of pie and as soon as it started to get light I took a drive around but didn't see anything."

"So you headed back to town."

"Yeah. That's when I found the naked lady walking down Cage Creek Road." Carl said, "She put up a struggle while I was getting her in the car."

"She say anything?"

"She kept saying the same word over and over. Don't think it was english though."

"Do you remember the word?"

"Yeah, somethin' like 'moosh, moosh'.

Devil noticed Kirill perk up at the word.

"You make some sense of that, Mister Sokolov?"

"Da. 'Muzh' means husband."

"I'll be damned." Carl said, "Think she killed him? I mean with all the blood and all."

"Carl, did it occur to you that the scream call and our naked lady might have been connected?" Devil asked, and Carl's eyes widened in wonder at the possible connection.

Carl was Devil's most junior deputy and wasn't the brightest bulb in the string, but he was a hard worker and did what he was told if it was laid out in plain enough english. Carl had found his calling as a teenager when he discovered he was a pretty good goaltender for the Arawana Arrows hockey team. Learning quickly not to stop a frozen puck with his face, his mouth only had one missing tombstone when he smiled, and he was proud of that.

"Geez, Chief. I missed that."

"What else might you have missed on that call? Think hard now, Carl. What else did you notice?"

"Well, the Relief Camp was dark except for the gate light and the ones over the doors." Carl said, his brow furrowed as he sifted through his memory, "Coyote ran across't the road on my way up; that's what got me thinking they might have got at a cat or coon. Oh, there was a couple lanterns lit in the Chink camp down by the creek."

"On your way up or back?"

"Both."

"Good." Devil said and rose, "Mister Sokolov, would you mind acting as translator for the lady we have in cells? Find out her name and where she's from?"

"I'll do that."

"We won't keep you long. I'll make sure Simpson doesn't dock your pay for doing your civic duty."

"Thank you."

As Kirill walked into the bullpen, Devil tugged on Carl's uniform sleeve.

"Carl?" he said quietly.

"Yes, Chief."

"If I hear the word 'chink' come out of your mouth again aimed at another human being you're fired."

"Sorry, sir. Bad habit."

"No, liquor, cigars, and sunflower seeds are bad habits. Words like that are crude and ugly, and you'll choose not to use them, especially not in uniform."

"Yes, sir."

Kirill had slightly more success with the lady in the cell than Carl had. Besides now being dressed in a gingham shirt and blue overalls donated by Stuckey's wife, her hands and bare feet were still crusted with dried blood, and she sat stoney faced giving brief answers to Kirill's questions. She did seem to say her name was 'Pel', although Kirill said her name was probably Pelageya.

"She's Doukhobor. They shorten names." he told Devil.

"Ask her if her husband is in a house or a tent."

Kirill did.

"Sergiy v palatke." Pelageya said, and for the first time since she was brought in her face cracked a little with emotion and saying her husband's name caught in her throat.

"His name is Sergiy and he's in a tent." Kirill reported.

"Will? Call Mister Otto back and ask him if he's missing a man this morning." Devil said, "Mister Sokolov, we thank you kindly for helping out with this today. Constable Rutledge will drive you back to the sawmill now."

Then they all turned as they heard the little gate beside the dispatch desk flap shut and the thud of a travel bag hit the floor.

Standing beside the canvas bag was a sturdy looking man in a drab green coat with button-down pockets, matching jodhpurs tucked into riding boots, a Sam Browne belt sporting a flap holster with a black revolver tucked and buttoned snug inside it, and all of it topped off with a peak cap with a shiny brass hat badge.

"Looks like I've arrived on a busy morning." the man said as his steel grey eyes moved from Pelageya, to the Deputies, and finally to Devil himself.

"That new cop's here to see you, Devil." Stuckey told him.


Copyright © 2024 Aaron D McClelland
Penticton, British Columbia

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