A Serpent's Tooth
An Excerpt From
A Serpent's Tooth

1

I stared at the black-and-orange corsage on Barbara Thomas’s lapel so that I wouldn’t have to look at anything else.

I don’t like funerals, and a while ago I just stopped going to them. I think the ceremony is a form of denial, and when my wife died and my daughter, Cady, informed me that she was unaware of any instance where going to somebody’s funeral ever brought them back, I just about gave it up.

Mrs. Thomas had been the homecoming queen when Truman made sure that the buck stopped with him, which explained the somewhat garish ornament pinned on her prim and proper beige suit. Next week was the big game between the Durant Dogies and their archrival, the Worland Warriors, and the whole town was black-and-orange crazy.

The only thing worse than going to the funeral of someone you knew is going to the funeral of a person you didn’t; you get to stand there and be told about somebody you had never met, and all I ever feel is that I missed my chance.

I had missed my chance with Dulcie Meriwether, who had been one of Durant’s fine and upstanding women—after all, I’m the sheriff of Absaroka County, so the fine and upstanding often live and pass beyond my notice. On a fine October afternoon I leaned against the railing leading to the First Methodist Church, not so much to praise Dulcie Meriwether—or to bury her—but rather to talk about angels.

I reached out and straightened Barbara Thomas’s corsage.

One of the jobs of an elected official in Wyoming is to understand one’s constituency and listen to people—help them with their problems—even if they’re bat-shit crazy. I was listening to Barbara tell me about the angels who were currently assisting her with home repair, which I took as proof that she had passed the entrance exam to that particular belfry.

I glanced at Mike Thomas, who had asked me to bushwhack his aunt on this early high plains afternoon. He wanted me to talk to her and figured the only way he could arrange running into me was by having me stand outside the church and wait for the two of them as they departed for a late lunch after the service.

I was trying not to look at the other person leaning on the railing with me, my undersheriff, Victoria Moretti, who, although she was trying to work off a hangover from too much revelry at the Basque Festival bacchanal the night before, had decided to take advantage of my being in town on a Sunday. The only person left to look at was Barbara, eighty-two years old, platinum hair coiffed to perfection, and, evidently, mad as a hatter.

“So, when did the angels pitch in and start working around your place, Mrs. Thomas?”

“Call me Barbara, Walter.” She nodded her head earnestly, as if she didn’t want us to think she was crazy.

As Vic would say, “Good luck with that.”

“About two weeks ago I made a little list and suddenly the railing on the front porch was fixed.” She leveled a malevolent glance at the well-dressed cowboy in the navy blazer and tie to my left, her youngest nephew. “It’s difficult to get things done around home since Michael lives so far away.”

As near as I could remember, Mike’s sculpture studio was right at the edge of town, and I knew he lived only two miles east, but that was between the two of them. I adjusted the collar of my flannel shirt, enjoying the fact that I wasn’t in uniform today, figuring it was going to be the extent of my daily pleasure. “So, the angels came and fixed the railing?”

“Yes.”

“Anything else?”

She nodded again, enthusiastically. “Lots of things—they unclogged my gutters, rehung the screen door on the back porch, and fixed the roof on the pump house.”

Vic sighed. “Jesus, you wanna send ’em over to my place?”

I ignored my undersheriff, which was difficult to do. She was wearing a summer dress in an attempt to forestall the season, and a marvelous portion of her tanned legs was revealed above her boots and below the hem. “Have you ever actually seen the angels, Mrs. Thomas?”

“Barbara, please.” She shook her head, indulging my lack of knowledge of all things celestial. “They don’t work that way.”

“So, how do they work?”

She placed the palms of her hands together and leaned forward. “I make my little list, and the things just get done. It’s a sign of divine providence.”

Vic mumbled under her breath. “It’s a sign of divine senility.”

Barbara Thomas continued without breaking stride. “I have a notebook where I number the things that have to be done in order of importance, then I leave it on the room divider and presto.” She leaned back and beamed at me. “He works in mysterious ways.” She paused for a moment to glance at the church looming over my shoulder and then altered the subject. “You used to go to services here, didn’t you, Walter?”

“Yes, ma’am, I used to accompany my late wife.”

“But you haven’t been since she passed away?”

I took a deep breath to relieve the tightness in my chest the way I always did when anybody brought up the subject of Martha. “No, ma’am. We had an agreement that she’d take care of the next world if I took care of this one.” I glanced at Mike as he smoothed his mustache and tried not to smile. “And there seems to be enough to hold my attention here lately.” I turned my eyes back to her. “So you haven’t ever seen them?”

“Seen who?”

“The holy handymen, for Christ’s sake.”

Barbara looked annoyed. “Young lady, you need to watch your language.”

I drew Barbara’s attention away from a sure-shot, head-on, verbal train wreck. “So you haven’t actually seen the angels then?”

“No.” She thought about it and stared at the cracks in the sidewalk, the strands of struggling grass having abandoned the hope of pushing through. “They do take some food out of the icebox every now and again.”

I kept my eyes on her. “Food?”

“Yes.” She thought some more. “And they sometimes take a shower.”

“A shower.”

She was nodding again. “But they always clean up after themselves; I just notice because the towels are damp or there are a few pieces of fried chicken missing.”

I shot Mike a look, but he was studying the banks of Clear Creek on the other side of the gravel walk a little ways away, probably checking for trout and wishing he was somewhere else. My eyes tracked back to the elderly woman. “Fried chicken.”

“Yes, it would appear that angels really like Chester’s fried chicken.”

I leaned back on the railing and watched the dancing pattern of light on the water for a while myself, the scattered golden leaves of the aspens spinning like a lost flotilla. “I see.”

“And Oreos; the angels like Double Stuf Oreos, too.”

“Anything else?”

“Vernors Diet Ginger Ale.”

“You must be running up quite a grocery bill feeding the legions.” I smiled and chose my next words carefully. “Barbara, when these things happen . . . I mean, do you make your list and then go to bed and get up and everything is repaired?”

“Oh no, I do my agenda in the morning, then I go out to run my errands or go to my bridge club, and when I get back everything’s done.”

“In the morning?”

“By the middle of the afternoon, yes.”

I pulled out my pocket watch and looked at it, noticing it was ten after one. “So if I were to head over to your place right now, it’s likely that I might catch the angels at their labors?”

She looked a little worried. “I suppose.”

“What is it you’ve got them doing today?”

She thought. “There’s a leak in the trap under the kitchen sink.”

Vic couldn’t hold her peace. “Wait, angels work on Sundays?”

I looked at the nice but crazy old lady. “Where do they get parts on a Sunday; Buell Hardware is closed.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I get them the supplies, Walter. The Lord provides, but I don’t think that extends to plumbing parts.”

“Hmm . . .” I stood up, and she looked concerned.

“Where are you going?”

“I think I’ll drive by your place while you and Mike have lunch.” I shrugged. “Maybe see if we can get Vic here a little divine guidance.”

Barbara Thomas folded her hands like broken-winged birds and spoke in a quiet voice. “I’d rather you didn’t, Walter.”

I waited a moment and then asked, “And why is that?”

She paused, just a little petulant, and then looked up at me with damp eyes. “They do good works, and you shouldn’t interrupt good works.”

“Do you think there are more crazy people in our county than anywhere else?”

We drove west of town in the direction of Barbara Thomas’s house, and I turned down the air in the Bullet so that the fan would not blow Vic’s dress any higher on her smooth thighs as she propped her cowboy boots on the escarpment of the dash. “Per capita?”

“In general.”

I redirected a vent in the direction of Dog, panting in the backseat. “Well, nature hates a vacuum and strange things are drawn into empty places; sometimes oddities survive where nothing else can.” I glanced over at her. “Why?”

“That would include us?”

“Technically.”

She glanced out the windshield, her face a little troubled. “I don’t want to end up alone in a house making lists for my imaginary friends.”

I took a left onto Klondike Drive and thought about how Vic had seemed to be given to philosophical musings as of late. “Somehow, I don’t see that happening.”

She glanced at me. “I noticed you didn’t offer to share your experiences with the spirit world with her.”

Vic was referring to the events in the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area that I’d had in the spring, an experience I wasn’t sure I’d even fully processed yet. “It didn’t seem pertinent.”

“Uh-huh.”

I gave her a look back and noticed she was massaging one temple with her fingers. “How’s your head?”

“Like hell, thanks for asking.” “You mind if I inquire as to what happened at the Basque Festival?” She adjusted her boots on the dash and confessed. “I was traumatized.”

“By what?”

“The running of the sheep.”

I thought I must’ve misheard. “The what?”

“The running of the fucking sheep, which you conveniently missed by taking the day off yesterday.” “The running of the sheep?” She massaged the bridge of her nose. “You heard me.” “What happened?” “I don’t want to talk about it; you don’t want to talk about

your imaginary friends, and I don’t want to talk about the running of the sheep.” She played with the pull strap on her boot. “Suffice to say that I am not working the Basque Festival ever again.”

I shrugged as we passed the YMCA and continued down the hill and past Duffy, the vintage locomotive in the park at the children’s center. I took a right on Upper Clear Creek Road, then pulled up and parked under the shade of a yellowing cottonwood next to Barbara Thomas’s mailbox.

“We’re walking?”

“There’s shade here, and Dog is hot.” I lowered the windows to give him a little extra air. “Besides, I like to sneak up on my angels. How about you?”

She cracked open the passenger-side door and slipped out, pulling her skirt down. Boots and short skirts—a look for which I held a great weakness. “I’m not exactly dressed for a footrace.”

I closed the door quietly and moved around to the front of the truck to meet her. “I thought angels flew.”

“Yeah, and shit floats.”

A Serpent's Tooth

A Serpent's Tooth

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