Ghost Fish swam slowly across the pond. If koi could waddle, she would have. Her normally bullet shaped grey body spread wide with eggs.
She felt like something big was going to happen, she just didn’t know what.
Victor and Shadow, two large male koi, swam next to her, possessively flanking her and steering her away from the other koi. She felt threatened but didn’t know why.
She felt a spurt and a need to swim wildly. Behind her, the pond water clouded with hundreds of tiny eggs. Victor and Shadow pushed Ghost Fish to the side of the pond, then chased her as she zigzagged away from them. The two males swam aggressively through the cloud of eggs, furiously spewing sperm in an unconscious need to fertilize those eggs.
Ghost Fish swam behind a water plant and hovered to rest and hide from the male koi. She was exhausted.
She looked at the eggs floating on the water but didn’t know what they were. She wasn’t wired to have maternal feelings. Most fish spawn and swim away. Eggs are fertilized or they aren’t. They develop and hatch or they don’t. They’re on their own.
Two days later, the water in the pond was clear again. There were no more eggs. The koi had eaten them.
Ghost Fish had no memory of spawning. Victor and Shadow stopped flanking her. All was normal in the koi pond again. Until next summer.
Maggie noticed every detail in sharp relief. The way the sun slanted through the trees. The leaves glowing, drinking in the sunlight. The sharp scent of the resin from the Eucalyptus trees. The damp smell of the earth still wet with morning dew. It was eerily quiet.
“Kestrel,” Maggie said. “You know you’ll fail. You won’t kill me. Today or any day.”
“Shut up!” Kestrel shouted.
“You use that phrase a lot,” Maggie replied. “And I’m not shutting up. You’re misguided now, just like when we were girls. You aren’t a witch. There isn’t black magic or power in blood or sacrifice. You’re just trying to be important.”
“You don’t know anything! Today, I will complete the cycle by killing you. The last of the five stupid girls who saw something they shouldn’t have. Today, with your blood, my power will come.”
“You aren’t just misguided. You’re nuts.” Maggie wanted to keep Kestrel talking to distract her.
“I am not nuts. And you’re dead.” Kestrel turned and lunged. Maggie danced back a step.
Maggie heard the whisper of wings as the owls flew close. The noisy flapping wings of the hawk. She heard the air rush by and saw the blur of the diving peregrine falcon. Kestrel screamed again, “NO!” wildly waving her arms over her head, desperately trying to beat off talons and beaks. She turned to run. Her foot caught on a tree root and she fell, pinning her arms beneath her. She gasped. “No. I have to finish this. I have to kill Maggie.”
Maggie noticed blood pooling around Kestrel’s prone body. “She landed on her knife,” she whispered to herself.
The peregrine landed first, stabbing the back of Kestrel’s neck with its tomial tooth. The hawk landed next, digging into Kestrel’s back with its talons. The owls were last to land. Their attack was fierce. Kestrel’s back, neck, and arms bled from dozens of beak and claw wounds. The pool of blood around her grew. She stopped trying to fight off the birds and was still.
Overhead, crows were gathering. They sang their rusty chorus as they landed on tree branches. Further up, three turkey vultures circled, waiting for their turn.
Maggie’s stomach lurched and she swallowed bile. She took a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves and her stomach. “I don’t want to vomit,” she said to herself. She stepped back into the trees and watched the birds tear into Kestrel’s body. She clapped her hands over her hears so she wouldn’t hear to wet rending of flesh being torn off Kestrel’s back.
Maggie widened her eyes in disbelief when a kestrel rose from Kestrel’s body. One of the owls grabbed the kestrel and flew off. The other raptors followed, grabbing at the lifeless form. Feathers floated to the ground.
“It’s over.” Maggie turned and walked slowly out of the trees.
Maggie sat at her parents’ kitchen table; her hands wrapped around a steaming cup of tea. She was still shaking. Her mother wrapped a soft blanket around her shoulders. “Here, darling, this will help you get warm.”
Maggie’s father sat across from her, pouring a liberal amount of whiskey in his tea. He looked at Maggie and gestured with the bottle. Maggie nodded.
Molly sat next to Maggie. She had asked Joe to wait outside.
Maggie’s mother bustled around the table, putting a plate of coffee cake in the middle. “Here, sugar will help. Eat.”
Everyone just sat and stared into space. No one spoke.
No one would believe what they had seen in the clearing. But, it was over.
Mollie pulled the patrol car into Maggie’s parents’ driveway faster than she should have. The car fishtailed, the tires caught gravel, and she gunned it towards the garage, stopping with squealing brakes and a shower of gravel.
She burst out of the car, waving papers in her hand as she ran towards the front door. She nearly ran into Mollie’s mom at the door. “It’s Kestrel!” she shouted. “We found evidence at her house. She’s coming here to kill Maggie. We have to move NOW.”
“She’s already here,” Maggie’s mom whispered. “Maggie went out this morning to confront Kestrel. To end this. She and Maggie walked towards the clearing in the trees a few minutes ago.” Maggie’s mom’s voice shook as she related the morning’s events to Mollie. “My husband followed them. He’s out there with that killer and my daughter right now.”
I swing gently back and forth on the porch swing, breathing in every sight, sound, and scent.
The sharp tang of the resin from the porch roof releasing its oils as it bakes in the sun.
The soft shine of the painted floor reflecting the light.
The dappled shade on the lawn from the ancient spreading oak tree.
The whisper of air that caresses my face as I swing back and forth.
The songs the birds sing from the branches of the trees.
The sound of children laughing as they chase a ball across the lawn.
The green scent of grass being mown next door.
The drone of the lawnmower.
The clink of ice and refreshing, cool taste of lemonade with its perfect balance of tart and sweet.
The heady perfume of the rose that blooms in front of the porch.
The knowledge that the love of my life will be home soon, greeting me with a smile, eyes twinkling, moving in for a kiss hello. He’ll taste of sweat, salt, and sawdust from his shop. The children – our children – will see his truck and come running, abandoning their game of chase. “Daddy, you’re home!” Embracing him with sticky arms and hands. “Look, I skinned my knee!”
I’ll have to get up and made dinner soon. We’ll eat outside on the big plank table set up in the back. As afternoon turns to dusk, we’ll watch the lightening bugs emerge to dance, and listen to the frogs sing their nightly chorus from the creek behind our property. The night blooming flowers will unfold their petals in the soft night air.
A perfect end to a perfect day. A snapshot to memorialize in my heart, savoring every minute.
Kestrel shivered in the pre-dawn mist. She stretched the stiffness from her legs and smiled. Her wait was nearly over. It was time to lure Maggie out of the house.
Maggie woke up in her childhood bed, stretched her arms above her head and snuggled deeper under the down comforter. She was drifting back to sleep when she smelled coffee. “Dad,” she thought. “He’s always up early and always makes coffee. Maggie climbed out of bed, grabbed her robe, and headed towards the kitchen. “Smells delicious, Dad. May I have a cup?”
“Of course,” her dad replied. “I was hoping the smell of coffee would wake you up. I want to talk with you – alone. Your mother is worried. She doesn’t need to hear what I have to say.”
Maggie definitely needed coffee before having this conversation. She sipped and sighed at the rich, dark taste and the first hit of caffeine. “Ok, I’m ready. What do you want to tell me?”
“I want you to go away until this is over.”
“Dad, I can’t, and you know that,” Maggie said. “I heard the owls last night. I know Kestrel is close. She’s calling me. I need to confront her and end this. But,” Maggie tried to reassure her dad, “it will be easier if you make your banana pancakes before I go.” Maggie hugged her father and turned to help him prepare his special breakfast.
After they had eaten and cleaned up the kitchen, Maggie pulled on her jacket and stepped outside. The sun was just rising over the hills. A hawk and a peregrine falcon were perched on the roof, watching. Maggie could have sworn they looked at her and nodded. She felt oddly protected. Shaking her head, she headed towards the barn.
Kestrel stepped out from the side of the barn. “I’ve been waiting for you, Maggie. Its time.”
“Hello Kestrel,” Maggie replied. “I am not surprised to see you. Were you comfortable in the clearing last night, or was it too cold and damp for you?”
“Shut up!” Kestrel screamed. “Do you know what today is? It is the day you die.”
“Today is the first full moon after the spring equinox. Isn’t that when we saw you and your mother in the clearing all those years ago?”
“Yes, and it is perfect day to complete the circle. Come to the clearing with me. Unless you’re afraid.”
“You don’t scare me,” Maggie lied. “And, I don’t plan to die today.”
The hawk and the peregrine falcon circled overhead. Two great horned owls watched from the trees.
Molly ran to her patrol car, jerked open the door and jumped into the driver’s seat, knocking her knee against the steering wheel. “Ow! That hurt!” she said through gritted teeth while she rubbed her knee. The detective assigned to be her partner that day grinned as he climbed into the passenger seat. Detective Joe Jacobsen had been Molly’s mentor and teacher for a long time. He trusted her instincts and was constantly amused by her clumsiness. “You ok?” he asked. “Should I drive?”
“Not on your life!” Molly snapped back. “Fasten your seatbelt and hold on.”
“I found a current address for Kestrel,” Molly explained as she navigated the patrol car through traffic. “We have to move fast. I am not going to let her murder Maggie, and I know she’s the next victim.”
She pulled up to the curb in front of a run-down cottage at the edge of town. Paint was peeling on the siding and the roof was green with moss, but the lawn was a newly mown and flowers bloomed from neat beds. No weeds. The curtains were drawn tightly shut, but the windows were spotless. Today was garbage day, and the recycling and garbage cans stood in a near row near the curb. There was no car in the drive.
Molly looked around as she got out of the car. “Looks like she takes care of the place, but she likes her privacy. She strode briskly to the front door and knocked. And waited. And listened. “Doesn’t seem like she’s home,” she said to Joe. “Go around back and see what you can find.”
Molly knocked again. “Police!” she yelled. “Open the door.”
“Molly!” Joe called from the back of the house. “Come here and look at this.”
Molly ran back and saw Joe standing next to a fire pit holding a stick with a small piece of fabric on the end. “Looks like she burned some clothes. Hers?” Molly pulled on nitrile gloves, knelt and carefully put the fabric into an evidence bag.
“I think we have enough for a search warrant. Let’s go call the judge.”
Kestrel stood in the shadows at the edge of the trees. She watched Maggie run to greet her mother, and she saw Maggie’s father close the barn doors and lock in the chickens. He turned slowly, scanning the pasture, looking at the trees. Kestrel laughed to herself and stepped quietly back into deeper shadows. “He thinks he can stop me, but he can’t. No one can.”
The house glowed. Warm lights shone through the windows, and smoke wisped up through the chimney, its tendrils slowly dispersing in the night breeze. “You think you’re safe in there, with your warm fire and cozy kitchen,” Kestrel thought. “You’re wrong.”
“I’m going to kill you right where you and those stupid friends of yours saw my mother and me. I’ll slip my knife between your ribs, complete the circle and be reborn.”
Maggie felt a shiver along her spine. “Kestrel’s near,” she told her father. “I can feel her. She’s watching us. And waiting.”
“She can’t get you here, “Maggie’s father tried to reassure her. “She won’t get past me.”
Maggie wished that was true, but she just smiled and hugged her father. “I know, Dad. Thank you for protecting me.”
Outside, Kestrel turned and strode further into the trees. She found the spot where she and her mother had cast their dark circle. Opening the bag she carried on her shoulder, Kestrel took out the tools she needed. Her knife flashed in a sliver of moonlight. Satisfied she was ready; Kestrel pulled her cloak closer around her and sat on the ground to wait.
Kestrel felt the air above her move with the beating of wings. Looking up, she could barely make out darker shadows among the trees. Big shadows. She heard the “Who-who-who” of a great horned owl. “Who-who” answered another. Then Kestrel ducked as two owls swooped down and scraped her head with their sharp talons. “Again?”, she thought. “Birds are attacking me again?
Maggie felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand straight. She shivered and turned to check the locks on her car door yet again. The doors were locked. Maggie couldn’t shake the thought that she was being watched.
“I am going crazy,” she said to herself. “Kestrel is not watching me. How could she possibly know where I am?”
Her headlights painted the fence around her parents’ house grey as she approached. The fence looked eerie in the fog- diffused light. Maggie pulled into the driveway and looked around. “Kestrel is not lurking in the shadows,” she told herself.
Maggie turned at a noise and saw her mom standing in the open front door, washed by the porch light. “Come in, come in. You’re safe here with us,” she called.
Maggie’s heart warmed. She opened the car door, walked quickly to the trunk to retrieve her bag, slammed the door shut, and ran to the porch. “Mom! You shouldn’t be outside. The police said we have to be very careful.”
“Maggie dear heart,” her mother said. “If I can’t meet my daughter at my door, life isn’t worth living.”
‘Mom! Don’t even think that!”
“Come inside. Your father is out back putting the animals to bed. He’ll be right in. Dinner is almost ready.”
Maggie sighed as she walked into the embrace of her childhood home. There was a fire dancing brightly in the fireplace. Her mom’s favorite candles flickered on the mantle. The dark wooden floors showed their age beneath the shine. Maggie smiled, remembering running from her brother and knocking over a table to cause that long scratch in the hallway. She breathed in the savory scent of a chicken roasting in the oven. “Chicken with roasted potatoes and asparagus?” she asked.
“Of course,” her mom answered. “Your favorites.”
Maggie felt her shoulders relax and the back of her neck release its knots. She was home. She was safe. Tonight, she would sleep in her childhood bed beneath the quilt her grandmother had made. Safe and warm. And full, because there was sure to be apple pie for dessert.
Now that she had her name, Molly concentrated on finding Kestrel. The address listed on her driver’s license was vacant. Kestrel’s school records included a mother, but no father. The mother didn’t have a current address.
Molly decided to focus on the foster homes where Kestrel lived after she was released from juvenile hall. Picking up her pen, she jotted down the names and addresses she found. Quite a few homes in just a few year, Molly thought. Kestrel must have been a handful.
Molly’s first stop was in Fairfield to talk with Bob and Annie Black. They fostered Kestrel for nearly a year after she was taken from her mother. After the incident in the trees. “Kestrel was defiant and sullen. She thought she knew everything and refused to follow our house rules. We finally had to ask Family Protective Services to find her another home after she stole money and my wife’s jewelry,” Bob told Molly.
“I felt bad for her,” Annie added. “We hated to ask her to leave, but we just couldn’t reach her. I hope someone did, but I suspect you wouldn’t be here asking questions if she turned her life around.”
Molly just smiled and thanked the Blacks for their time.
After spending a day interviewing foster parents, Molly had learned that Kestrel was rebellious, disrespectful, secretive, and frightening to any other children in the homes. Kestrel could also be charming when she wanted. None of the foster parents knew where Kestrel was now. Molly got the impression that they were glad she was gone and didn’t want to know where she was.
But Kestrel wasn’t gone. She was nearby, sitting at her kitchen table planning how and when to kill Maggie. She knew the police would figure out who she was soon if they hadn’t already. She was ready. The cat and mouse game was on.
Maggie couldn’t get the night when she and her friends snuck away from their beds out of her head while she drove home. They were sleeping over at Maggie’s family’s house. She lived close to a tight grove of trees and the girls decided to sneak out to try to see one of the great horned owls who lived there. They had heard the owls hooting while they were getting ready for bed. It must have been a full moon, Maggie thought, because the ground was bathed in a white light.
As she turned into the parking garage below her building, her headlights shone on a woman with short black hair standing in the corner. Maggie didn’t think anything of it. Just another person waiting for the valet to bring her car.
Kestrel smiled as Maggie drove by. She didn’t even recognize me, she thought. Perfect. She watched as Maggie parked and walked to the elevator. Kestrel thought about how easy it would be to catch Maggie in the elevator, then shook her head. Too easy, she thought.
Maggie was still thinking about that long-ago night as she rode the elevator to her floor. The five of them had held hands as they walked through the trees. Then they saw strange lights in a clearing. Stormi had stopped and held her hand up to shush them. They looked at each other and nodded, holding back their giggles as they crept towards the strange lights in single file. Black candles set in a circle. A stone in the middle of a small clearing. A woman and a girl dressed in black cloaks. The girl held a knife dripping with blood. Lots of blood. They knew the girl. She was in their class at school. Her name was Kestrel.
Maggie didn’t remember screaming or running back through the trees. Or slamming her back door shut and locking it. Or calling the police. She remembered sitting on her bed next to her friends, all of them shaking and sobbing as their words tumbled over each other, telling her parents and the police what they had seen. She didn’t want to remember it all now, but that night came back in heart pounding detail. Maggie shuddered and checked the locks on her door.