Stolen gems. Shady cops. Murders that could lead to an international incident. Orwell Brennan, chief of the Dockerty police force in small-town Ontario, had enough problems on his hands with the mayoral election, a daughter engaged, and, perhaps worst of all, someone in the department stealing his favourite cookies. Things are complicated for the loveable curmudgeon: a police officer from Toronto, in Dockerty as part of a Metro murder investigation, is killed in his hotel room. And the eccentric local dance teacher, a former Russian ballet star, has some very dark secrets, unsavoury associates in her past, and a slippery way with the truth. But Brennan finds help in one of his bright young officers, who teams up with the dead cop’s brash ex-partner. Together the two women uncover a ring of shady pawnbrokers, crooked public figures, and Russian thugs all after one thing the Sacred Ember, a very rare ruby once owned by the Tsarina herself.
About the Author
Marc Strange is a writer, an actor, and the author of "Body Blows," "Follow Me Down," and "Sucker Punch." He is the cocreator of the hit television series "The Beachcombers," having written, directed, and edited more than 70 episodes, and he appeared in the Canadian television program "ReGenesis." He lives in Toronto.
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Woman Chased by Crows
An Orwell Brennan Mystery
By Marc Strange
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2012 Marc Strange
All rights reserved.
Monday, March 14
Orwell Brennan's parking space under the chestnut tree offered a generous mix of March's bounty — icy puddles, crunchy slush, broken twigs from last night's blow. He dunked his left foot ankle-deep in scummy water getting out of his vehicle. This made him dance awkwardly onto the dry pavement, at which point he looked heavenward. Mondays always start out bad. Laura used to say that, usually with a laugh. His first wife was killed by a drunk driver late on a Sunday night. That long ago Monday morning had started out very bad. On a scale of one to ten, a soaker didn't register.
Spring was Orwell's second-favourite time of year; a season full of the things he looked forward to all the long Ontario winter — an unselfish angle to the sunrise, spring training in Dunedin, the ospreys circling the big nest near RiverView Lodge. As with most men his age, the arrival of spring signalled a victory of sorts and he routinely breathed more deeply as the vernal equinox drew near. The sodden pant cuff slapping his ankle as he climbed the stairs to his office reminded him that he was a tad previous in his anticipation. It wasn't spring yet. Hitters might be looking for their swings and pitchers working on their stuff in the Florida sunshine, but Newry County was still salted sidewalks and distressed footwear.
"In early, Chief." Sergeant George was a tall, cadaverous man with a face like a basset hound; baggy eyes and dewlaps.
"I am a bit, aren't I?" Orwell said without elaboration. He headed for his office. "Did you leave me any shortbreads, Jidge?"
"Not following, Chief."
The office door clicked shut. Sergeant George saw the Chief's extension light up briefly and then blink out. The Chief was back again almost immediately scanning the outer office.
"Something I can help you with, Chief?"
"Paper towels? Rag? I've got a wet shoe."
"That'll do." Orwell accepted a wad of tissues, put his left foot on a chair and did what he could to dry his leather. "Beats me how the bag always gets so nicely folded when you work the night desk." He tossed the wet paper into a wastebasket.
"Seen the Register this morning, Chief?"
"Why no, Jidge, I haven't."
Sergeant George held up a fresh copy of the paper. "Didn't think you and Donna Lee were that chummy," he said.
The front page featured a shot of Mayor Bricknell and the Chief, both smiling, each holding one handle of a trophy. Dockerty High had won its first basketball tournament in ten years. The award ceremony had taken place Saturday night and evidently nothing sufficiently newsworthy had happened in the intervening thirty-six hours to knock it off page one.
"Didn't think she was going to be there," Orwell said.
"Wouldn't miss a chance like that. Not in an election year."
The flag out front snapped in the brisk and chilly wind, the trailing end of a March gale that had the house moaning all night long. He stood for a moment next to the bronze plaque bearing the likeness of his predecessor, Chief Alastair Argyle, noting that a pigeon had recently saluted the great man. To Orwell's eye, the white stripe across the former chief's cheek wasn't unattractive, rather it gave the dour face a gallant aspect, like a duelling scar, a Bismarck schmiss.
As was his custom, Roy Rawluck arrived marching, no other word for it, striding out of the parking lot, heels clicking, arms swinging, sharp left wheel to the entrance. "Bright and early, Chief," Roy said with a nod of approval. It was rare that Orwell arrived before his staff sergeant.
"Sharp breeze this morning, Staff," he said. "Fresh, as the farmers put it."
"Coming or going, Chief?" Roy was frowning, just now noticing the desecration of his late boss's memorial.
"Going, Staff. Soon to return."
From the other side of Stella Street, Georgie Rhem was waving his walking stick. Orwell could tell it was Georgie by the feathers on his Tyrolean hat and the distinctive kink in his hawthorn stick. The jockey-tall lawyer was otherwise hidden by the sooty drift lining the curb. "Soon to return," Orwell repeated, heading across the street. Roy marched inside to get his can of Brasso. Argyle's face would be shining again in no time.
"Where to, Stonewall?" Georgie wanted to know. "Timmies? Country Style? The Gypsy Tea Room isn't open yet."
Banked piles of snow followed the concrete walkways on the shaded side of the Armoury, dirty, spotted, stained and slushy, revealing as they melted a winter's worth of litter and unclaimed dog scat. Orwell detected, or thought he did, a tinge of yellow in the willow near the fountain.
"First to leaf, last to leave," he said.
"It's what Erika says. That willow's yellowing up."
"Jaundice, likely," Georgie said.
"Not the prettiest time of year, I'll admit," said Orwell.
"Think she's had some work done?" Georgie was stopped at a campaign placard planted beside the walkway on spindly wire legs.
"Who? Donna Lee?"
"She looks prettier than usual, don't you think?"
The poster read: "Reelect Mayor Donna Lee Bricknell ~ Experience + Commitment = Consistency."
Orwell tilted his head. The Mayor's photograph was flattering and he suspected some technical process had smoothed her wrinkles a bit, but having spent an unpleasant hour with the woman the previous Friday in her office, he was pretty sure she hadn't undergone any facelifting. "Looks the same to me," he said.
"Don't think this reelection's going to be the simple formality it was in years gone by," said Georgie.
"How many will this make?"
"She's got six terms under her belt." He tapped the placard with his stick and resumed walking. "This would be number seven."
"Think she could lose?"
"Possibility," Georgie said. He pointed at an opposing campaign poster on the other side of the park. A handsome young man with an expensive haircut beamed at the world in general. "Young Mr. Lyman over there has the blood of career politicians in his veins. Son of a sitting MP, grandson of a senator. I smell ambition."
"Wouldn't think a small town mayor's job would be big enough."
"Gotta start somewhere, Stonewall." They waited for the light to change at the intersection. "Hell, he's only twenty-six. Be in Ottawa before he's thirty-five."
"No six terms for him," said Orwell.
Anya was on the couch. "It was gone for almost a year, now it is back." She fidgeted. The psychiatrist wouldn't let her smoke.
In her dream the man has no face and there are shadows across his eyes. In her dream she is always ready for him, bathed and scented, wearing a white nightgown like a bride, lying on top of the covers, her feet bare, her pale gold hair across the crisp linen pillowcase, her hands tucked under her buttocks, her eyes open as he enters the dark room. When he raises the pistol to kill her, she lifts herself as if to meet her bridegroom's beautiful hands. And when he pulls the trigger she wakes up, lost, missing him.
"No. Not every night. But often. Enough. Often enough."
"Once a week?"
"More than that. Just not every night. Some nights he does not come." She stood up, rolling her neck and shoulders as if waking from a fretful sleep. "I am going outside to have a cigarette now."
"You can wait a bit longer. We're almost done for today." The psychiatrist drew a square on her notepad and filled in the space with crosshatching. "And you never see his face?"
"It does not matter. It will not matter. It could be anyone. They can send anyone." Anya moved around the room, a restless cat. "They could look like anyone. Young, old, a woman even. In my dream it is a man always, but they could send a woman." She stopped at the window. "But in my dream it is a man."
"Who are they?"
"I cannot tell you that. It is probably dangerous for you that I talk at all."
"It's all right."
"You think it is all right because you think I am delusional. You think the assassin is in my mind."
"Isn't the assassin already dead?"
"They will send another one."
After Anya left, the psychiatrist labelled the cassette case and filed the session with the others. There were almost a hundred now. Some of them had red tags. This one didn't rate a red tag.
The case of Anya Daniel was a personal commitment for the doctor and in a very real sense the only responsibility worthy of her talent. Were it not for Anya and her "special" situation, she wouldn't spend another day in this tiny, empty, backward little town. Some day, if things worked out, she might produce a paper, or even a book (with all the names changed, of course) detailing the bizarre elements of the case. The truly unique aspects would be fascinating, and not only to the psychiatric community.
They walked their coffees back through Armoury Park, Orwell acknowledging the occasional wave or nod of a passerby with his customary magnanimity, Georgie bouncing a few steps ahead, the scrappy flyweight of fifty years back still evident in his step. "Shouldn't be that big a deal, Stonewall," he said. "Not like you're planning a housing development."
"Thin edge of the wedge is how the township views it," Orwell said. "You'd think it'd be a simple matter to build a second house on your own property."
"I'm sure there'll be some leeway if it's for a family member."
"Claim they're merely protecting the farmland."
"Tell you what, my friend," Georgie said. "They're fighting a losing battle. New highway goes in, you're just close enough to be a bedroom community. Won't be too many years."
"That's what they're concerned about, and I sympathize, but hell's bells, a man wants to build his daughter a house on his own land, it should be a right."
"Hey, if they turn you down, we'll sue. Happy to take it to the Supreme Court. That'd be a helluva ride. But I'm not that lucky. My guess, they'll get one look at you in your brass and gold — you will remember to wear the dress blues when you make your pitch?"
"I'll bedazzle them."
"— and they'll rubber stamp the application forthwith."
"Even so, you're going to want all your ducks in a nice straight line. Everything they could possibly want — pictures, plans, estimates, maps, all the forms filled out."
"World's built outta forms. Beats me how you've come so far."
"It's a wonder," said Orwell.
Georgie spun around, planted his feet, grinned, threw a soft left jab at his big friend's chest. "I guess congratulations are in order."
Orwell shrugged. "Not quite. I may be jumping the gun. They haven't exactly set a firm date."
"Dragging their feet, are they?"
"Being prudent, I guess. Patty's had one bad marriage, can't blame her for thinking things through."
"Is there no escaping the man?" Georgie was pointing. Orwell looked over his shoulder to find Gregg Lyman's face smiling at him. Lyman's campaign placards were twice the size of Donna Lee's. His campaign colours were blue and silver, his slogan was "A Breath of Fresh Air," his image had a healthy glow. "There's been money spent," said Georgie.
"Well, the family's, I guess."
Sam Abrams, the burly bearded owner and managing editor of The Dockerty Register, was heading their way, briefcase bulging, overcoat flapping, delicately stepping around wet spots on dainty feet. Graceful as a dancing bear, thought Orwell.
"Register going to endorse anyone, Sam?" Georgie asked.
"It's a one-paper town, Georgie — I can't afford to take sides. Fair and impartial, right down the line."
"Coulda fooled me with that front page this morning."
"Hey, the Kingbirds don't win a championship every year."
"Oh? Is that who won? Looked like Donna Lee was getting the trophy."
"She wasn't scheduled to show up, was she, Chief?"
Orwell shook his head. "There I was, ready to hand the loving cup to the captain, and I find myself in a tug-of-war. Hope that's the last of it."
"Wouldn't count on it, Stonewall."
"I'll make sure Gregg Lyman gets a photo-op real soon," Sam said. "As soon as he does something even vaguely civic."
"Well, you and the Chief here are required to tippy-toe," said Georgie. He gave his walking stick an airy twirl. "Happily, I don't have to be circumspect. I can come right out and say I don't much care for either one of them. Tell you one thing though, young Lyman didn't get that haircut in this town."
"That'll cost him one vote, anyway," Orwell said.
"Doesn't buy his suits here, didn't get his teeth capped here. Doesn't even live here."
"I hear he's shopping for a house," Sam said with a grin. He did a dainty dance around a patch of mud and headed off to work.
"He should sublet first," Georgie called after him.
Georgie and the Chief parted company at a fork in the path; Georgie off to feed cruller crumbs to the birds and squirrels, Orwell heading back to the station. Gregg Lyman's visage confronted Orwell twice more before he reached Stella Street. He doubted the sincerity of the man's smile. He reminded himself that the coming election had nothing to do with him. He maintained as conspicuous a remove from Dockerty politics as was possible for a man in the employ of Dockerty politicians. He kept his dealings with the mayor's office businesslike and his relations with elected officials excessively polite. He refused to be drawn into conversations that might indicate which way he was leaning. In private, and to those close to him, he freely admitted that the Mayor was a thorn in his side, a stone in his shoe and an occasional gumboil, but publicly he was never less than loyal. And while he had often entertained thoughts of a world without Donna Lee's annoying voice, the prospect of dealing with a new office holder, and one so obviously determined to climb the political ladder, gave him pause. He could do business with Donna Lee, he was accustomed to her, and their differences were clearly defined — she thought he was a sexist pig, and he knew she was a shrew.
Orwell was as convinced that he wasn't a misogynist as no doubt Donna Lee was that she didn't have a shrewish bone in her body. How could he be sexist? He lived and thrived in a house of women, his best investigator was a woman, he dealt with women every day — hell, half the storekeepers and waitresses in town smiled and fluttered when he walked in. He was a prince, he was certain of it: fair, respectful, non-patronizing. He had been confident enough of his gender-neutral behaviour to ask his youngest, Leda, Voice of the Oppressed, if she thought he was sexist.
"Well, Dad, you are a ma-an." Leda dragged the word out like a schoolyard taunt.
"Can't do anything about that," he said reasonably. He'd been driving the seventeen-year-old home from the Dockerty Little Theatre. She had auditioned, convincingly she thought, for the part of Emily in Our Town. Drama was her forte, although she had a tendency to declaim. Orwell worried that she might have picked it up from him.
"It's not your fault," she said kindly. When he started laughing, she gave him a critical look. "But that laugh, the one you're doing now, you don't think it's maybe a bit condescending?"
"Has a sort of 'oh isn't she just the cutest thing' sound to it."
"I was amused."
"In a paternalistic way."
"Right. Me. Father. Laughing."
"Okay, so maybe I can deal with it on those terms, but how about women who aren't related by blood or marriage? You give them that indulgent chuckle, too?"
"Oh heck, that's just me. I don't patronize — how could I and survive in our house?"
"You indulge us."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"I'll let you know in a few years."
Not the ringing endorsement he'd been fishing for perhaps, but she hadn't exactly reproached him for being an indulgent father. She merely pointed out that he sometimes adopted an air of, oh well, call it condescension if you want to be critical. He preferred to see it as the warm and gracious outward manifestation of his need to protect and provide. There were moments of course, late at night usually, when he acknowledged that he could sometimes be a bit ... what did Erika call it? Herrisch. One of those many-layered German words, the simplest definition of which was "manly," but seemed to encompass "imperious," "overbearing," "pompous," "domineering," and a few dozen other concepts that, he had to admit, were clearly implied in his daughter's pronunciation of the word "ma-an."
Excerpted from Woman Chased by Crows by Marc Strange. Copyright © 2012 Marc Strange. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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