Purple Palette for Murder
A Meg Harris Mystery
Chapter 1"Is the faun still there?" I asked Jid, picking his way through the tall ferns in front of us.
Yesterday I'd accidentally discovered the tiny newborn while tramping along a trail that meandered through the forested hills behind my cottage. Or more correctly, Shoni, my seven-month-old standard poodle, had stumbled onto the defenseless baby deer while chasing a squirrel. Fortunately, I was able to stop her from doing any harm. I didn't linger, knowing the mother would return once we were gone.
But this morning, while picking up the mail from my box at the end of my road, I noticed the legs of a dead deer protruding out of the ditch on the other side of the main road. It proved to be a doe, a lactating one that had been run over. I immediately thought of the faun. If its mother was this dead deer, it wouldn't survive the coyotes, wolves, and other predators that called this forest home.
"I don't see it yet," Jid replied, moving the chest-high fronds aside.
His full name was Adjidamo, meaning "Little Squirrel" in Algonquin, but he preferred to be called Jid. He hated to be reminded that he was small for his thirteen years. "Are you sure this is the right place?"
I pointed to an enormous granite boulder covered in lichen and moss rising several metres from the forest floor. "It was hidden in the ferns to the right of that rock." If the faun's mother were alive, it would be gone. Sensing that her baby had been discovered, she would've moved it. Barely able to walk during the first couple of weeks of life, a faun had two things going for it: it had no scent, and it remained absolutely still. The mother could safely leave it for many hours of foraging without fear of predators seeking it out. Until someone like me stumbled across it and left behind a scent, which would attract the curious.
"If you see it, don't go any closer."
He hitched up the waist of his baggy jeans, which had crept downward from their usual resting spot midway down his bum. In an effort to keep up with the older boys at school, he had recently adopted this ridiculous fashion statement.
"I know," he replied, not bothering to hide the impatience in his voice. Of course he would know. Having spent his entire short life in these Quebec woods, he knew considerably more about its inhabitants than I ever would. He also had a way with animals, like a whisperer, if such a person existed.
One time when we were hiking with Sergei, my sadly missed standard poodle, we surprised a black bear, a large one, not at all happy at being accosted by a frenetically barking dog. I froze, convinced the dog would shortly be dinner. But Jid continued walking toward the animal, easily four times his size, and spoke to it in a calm, soothing tone as if they were buddies. For several nervous seconds I was terrified the bear would pounce. By the time the boy had calmed Sergei, the bear had settled down too. He grunted and took one last look at us before loping into the forest shadows.
"I see something." Jid pointed to the middle of the ferns. I could barely make out a faint cinnamon colour amongst the sun-dappled green that could just as easily be dirt or last fall's dead leaves.
"Go closer. I want to be certain it's still there." I stayed where I was, a good three or four metres away. "Don't touch it."
"I know, I know." He parted the fronds and inched forward. "It's still here. Oh, it's so cute. So small. This is the first time I ever see a baby faun."
"The first time for me, too. Does it look sick or injured?"
"Nope. It looks okay. It's staring at me. What should we do?"
"I don't want to remove it in case the dead deer isn't the mother."
"Yeah, but it's still here. You said that wouldn't happen if she was alive."
"I know, but I worry about taking it away before being absolutely certain that the mother is dead. If we remove it, it'll jeopardize its ability to survive when it's old enough to be released."
"Yeah, but the injured birds and raccoons Janet saves don't have any problems when she lets them go."
"I know, but this tiny deer would become so used to us, it would no longer be afraid of humans. It would be an easy target for hunters."
"We could tie a red ribbon around its neck and tell everyone not to shoot it."
"I wish. No, we should give the mother one more day. If the faun's here tomorrow, we'll assume the dead deer is the mother and take it to Janet, okay?" Janet Bridgford, a retired veterinarian, had moved into a nearby farm a few years ago and established a wildlife refuge. People in the area, including the Migiskan Reserve, had taken to bringing her sick and injured wildlife. I'd done it a few times myself.
At the suggestion of my husband, Eric, I'd been helping her out a couple of days a week over the last few months. He viewed this as a way to get me out of the house and out of my funk. Though I enjoyed working with these helpless creatures, it wasn't proving the cure Eric hoped it would be.
I still found myself summoning up all the fortitude I possessed to get out of bed each morning. Sometimes I didn't. When I did, I only wanted to curl up in the sofa in front of the fire and watch the flames lick the glass. To be clear, it was the living room and not the den, once my favourite room for relaxing. I hadn't gone near that room, not even to look through the doorway, not since The Nightmare.
"Yeah, but is she going to be okay? I could stay here and guard her," Jid replied.
"And keep the mother away at the same time." I watched a woodpecker track up a tree above the spot where the faun was hiding. "You called her a she." "I can't tell, but she looks like a girl to me. So cute. Bye, bye, little faun. I hope you're gonna be okay." He hitched up his jeans and tiptoed away. The ferns rustled behind me as I headed back through the underbrush to the trail.
"Uh-oh, she's getting up. What do I do, Auntie?"
"Just keep walking."
"But she's following me."
I turned to see the tiny creature, its white-spotted body barely larger than a snowshoe hare, wobbling on matchstick legs toward the boy. It bumped up against a fern and almost toppled over but miraculously stayed upright. So endearing and yet so incredibly helpless. A wolf would devour it in one bite.
As much as I wanted to gather it in my arms and take it with us, I feared it would put her in more danger, so I said, "Speed up, and hopefully she'll stop following us." He had me thinking it was a girl too.
I picked up my pace. It was a sparkling late spring morning in early June with the forest bursting with new life. Unfortunately, the new life also included black flies, swarms of them. Before setting out, I'd liberally doused myself with anti-bug juice, which was working, marginally. Though the temperature required jackets and fleece, the sun spoke of the summer to come.
The trail meandered through an ancient maple forest. When my Great-Aunt Agatha lived at Three Deer Point, she operated it as a sugar bush and produced some of the best maple syrup in West Quebec. But she shut it down several years before her death. When I inherited the property, I thought of reviving it but so far hadn't got around to it and likely never would.
I was tramping along the trail, admiring the shy blooms of spring peeking through the dead leaves, when I realized it was too quiet behind me. I turned around and as suspected didn't see the boy.
"Jid, where are you?" I called out.
"I'm here," came the answer beyond the ridge I'd just crested.
"Hurry up. I have to get back to the house. I'm expecting a call from Eric."
My husband had flown to Yellowknife a little over a week ago to meet with the chiefs of various Northwest Territory First Nations and to spend time with his daughter. Teht'aa was having man problems and needed a father's shoulder to cry on. He had tried to cajole me into going with him, believing it would do me good to get away.
He was right, it would, but I couldn't do it. I couldn't leave my forest sanctuary. I'd only begun to find a sort of calm within myself, though an uneasy one. I wasn't ready to summon the nerve to venture out into the big bad world. Mind you, Three Deer Point had proven to be no less bad.
"I can't go faster," he replied.
"Kidi can't keep up to me."
"That's what I'm calling the baby deer. It's short for kidagagons, faun in Algonquin."
I scrambled back over the rise to discover Jid creeping along at a crawl with the tiny faun teetering a few metres behind him. The damage was done. We wouldn't be able to leave her now.
"Do you think she can walk all the way back to the cottage?" I asked.
"I think so. But if she gets tired, I can carry her."
"Will she let you near her?"
"Yeah, she's already nibbled my fingers."
So much for telling him not to touch her. "Okay. We'll take her to Janet's. She'll know how to take care of the poor thing."
"I can help her." His brown puppy eyes twinkled with eagerness.
"I'm sure you can. Look, I have to run. Can you manage on your own?"
"You bet." The faun tottered up to him, stretched her head into his groin and nipped. "Ouch, you're not supposed to do that."
"She's hungry. Janet will have some special milk to feed her. After I finish talking to Eric I'll come back for you, okay?"
"Yeah, sure. Say hi to Shome for me."
Though Eric wasn't his mishomis meaning grandfather, Jid used the shortened version, shome, as an endearment, the same way he used "auntie" for me, though we bore no blood relationship.
By the time my rambling timber cottage loomed into view, I could hear the phone ringing. I leapt up the back stairs and snatched up the kitchen phone before it stopped ringing.
"So how's my one and only today?" I gasped between breaths.
Whoops, not Eric, but a man. Thank god he couldn't see me blushing. "Actually, it's Meg Harris, but I answer to Mrs. Odjik."
"My apologies. I believe Eric Odjik is your husband."
"That's right." His voice wasn't familiar.
"My name is Derrick Robinson. I'm your husband's defence attorney. He has been arrested for murder."
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