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.
Poe is a blind common raven who lives at a bird rescue center. He has a secret life as a writer.
They can take my eyesight but not my memories and not my stories
As soon as he was sure all the handlers had left for the day, Poe got busy. He mentally thanked whoever designed the mews with gravel floors 4 feet deep. He unearthed his typewriter and dug a little deeper for the stub of his cigar. He’d have to ask the free birds who brought him scraps of paper and smuggled out his manuscripts to bring him another stogie soon.
Jazz and Vihar were arguing, as usual. The great horned owls were sisters, but they couldn’t agree on anything. “I was out of the nest first,” Jazz claimed. “That’s because you fell,” Vihar countered. The same argument, every night. Hoot, hoot, hoot, was all he heard as they bickered back and forth. But, they were paying him in mice to write their story, so he would put up with them.
Jumping up on his typewriter, his stogie in his beak, he swiped the cigar back and forth against the side of his mews until it lit. He took a deep breath and got ready to type
“Stop arguing, you two,” Poe croaked around the cigar in his beak. “Jazz tell me how you came here to the rescue center. Vihar, you can add your details after Jazz is finished. I can’t understand you when you both hoot at once.”
Vihar clicked her beak. She was annoyed, but she let Jazz speak first.
“We were living in a nest in a tall tree. Our parents were away a lot, hunting. Vihar and I were trying out our wings, seeing if we could fly. I jumped up and flapped my wings, then a gust of wind caught me, and I couldn’t get back to the nest. I kept flapping my wings, but I ended up on the ground. Some humans saw me and bought me food. I decided I had a good thing going,” Jazz went on. “Humans brought me food. Why should I learn to hunt when I had a ready supply of food delivered at my feet? But after a few days another human came and put me in a box and brought me here.”
Vihar hooted, “I landed on the ground a couple of days after Jazz did. “But I knew what I was doing!” It’s not my fault the wind gusted again.”
“I sat at the base of the tree waiting for our parents. Then some humans walked by and saw me. They brought me food, too. It was much easier to eat the food they brought than to try to fly back up to the nest,” Vihar explained.
“Our parents flew back and saw me sitting on the ground. They waited for a few days for me to fly back up to the next, but those other humans came and took me away in a box, too.” Vihar added.
“Now we live at the bird rescue center. We lived together in the same mews for a long time,” said Jazz. “Then, we started arguing and the humans separated us. Now, Vihar lives next door. That’s fine with me,” she said, clicking her beak.
“If I were living in the wild, I’d stay up in my favorite tree all day. I’d hunt at dawn and dusk. When I got hungry, I’d use my big asymmetrical ears to hear a squirrel skittering through the leaves on its way to its nest. I can see really well, too, so I’d know exactly where to swoop down to catch that squirrel for dinner, grasping it and killing it with my strong talons. They’re much stronger than any human’s. I eat just about anything I can catch.” Vihar added. “So does Jazz. She caught and ate a skunk once.”
“Hey, look what I can do,” Jazz piped in. She turned her head three quarters of the way around her body. “I bet you can’t do that,” she told Poe.
“I can’t see what you just did,” said Poe. “I’m blind, remember?”
“Oh, sorry,” Jazz said. “I just turned my head 270 degrees. I can’t move my eyes, so I move my head instead when I want to see to the side or behind me.”
“Cool,” Poe answered, dancing on his typewriter keys. “I think I’ve got this. I’ll finish typing it and push it through the slit in my wall to my friends on the outside. They’ll take it to my publisher.”
“Pipe down!” Star, a red-tailed hawk, called. “Some of us sleep at night.”
“We’re done for the night,” Poe replied. “You’ll get your turn to tell your story.”
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.
Maggie had a headache and her heart was hurting. She had spent the afternoon visiting her best friends’ families. She loved them all and felt loved by them, but she also carried their grief and their worries that she would be next. Why? Why was this happening? She had no clue. She pulled into the small parking lot of the police station and got out of her car. One more thing to do today, then she could go home and collapse.
Molly met Maggie in the lobby after she was rung in by the receptionist. “Come back to my office,” she said. “We can talk there.”
Maggie nodded and followed the detective down the hall to a small and dreary office. “Not very stylish,” Maggie explained, “but I get by.”
Maggie decided to take control of the interview. “Why were they killed? They were my best friends since kindergarten. What is happening? Do you know anything about the killings?”
“We know that each of them was killed with a knife and there was a lot of blood on scene. We think the killer collected their blood. The killer has left very little evidence, but there may be a clue at the scene of Skye’s murder. We’re working on that. We’ve interviewed teachers, neighbors, parents, friends; anyone and everyone who knew them. No one has any idea why they were killed. Mrs. Jensen told me you were good friends with them; one of five forever friends.”
“We were friends since the first day we met,” Maggie said with a sigh. “We’ve shared everything with each other. Forever friends.”
“Can you think of anything that would link you all together with someone who would want to kill you?” Molly asked.
“Maggie leaned on her elbows and put her hands over her face. “No. I don’t know why anyone would want to kill them.”
Molly glanced down at her notes. “There’s a police report from (need[KG1] year) that states you and your friends saw something in the wood nearby. You followed a classmate and saw some sort of ritual.”
Maggie looked through her fingers. “I had forgotten about that. It was Kestrel. Do you think she’s involved in this? I haven’t thought about her for years. I don’t even know what happened to her after she was taken away by the police.”
“We don’t know,” Molly replied, “but we’re following up on every detail. Please call me if you think of anything; remember anything.”
[KG1]Decide how old they are now and how old they were when they made the report about Kestrel
Detective Molly Burns sat at her desk rubbing her eyes. Everyone else had gone home, but she couldn’t get this case off her mind. It was her first murder case. As a newly promoted detective, and a woman, Molly was determined to solve it. There was a pattern. There was always a pattern to serial killings. She just had to find it.
She stared at the bulletin board with the photos of the four victims. Push pins marked the places where their bodies were found. They were all local. They went to school together. They probably knew each other. But, why were they killed? And, more importantly, how many more would be murdered?
Those women weren’t random victims. Something tied them together. Molly felt it in her bones. She was also sure they knew their killer. All she had to do was figure out the tie and she’d find the killer. Molly was pretty sure the killer was a woman; another feeling in her bones. Molly trusted her bones. She hoped the blood the officers found on the sidewalk a few yards away from the most recent victim belonged to the killer. She hoped they would find a DNA match with someone in their database, but she knew it was a long shot.
Mrs. Jensen offered Molly an armful of ripe tomatoes. Their spicy, warm scent made Molly’s mouth water. “You’ll be doing me a favor, my dear,” Mrs. Jensen said, “by taking these tomatoes. I have too many to use.” Mrs. Jensen had retired from teaching at Valley Vista School after 30 years. Now she spent her time babying her plants.
Molly was interviewing everyone she could find who worked at the school when the murdered women were there. Mrs. Jensen remembered them. “They were nice girls, always kind to others, and always laughing. There was a fifth friend. Her name was Maggie. Those girls were never out of each other’s sight. They were such good friends.”
Molly heart beat faster as she jotted down Maggie’s name in her notebook. “Another potential victim,” she thought.
Later that afternoon, Molly tracked Maggie down and made an appointment to talk with her in person. “I can come to Petaluma,” Maggie told the detective. “I want to visit my best friends’ families. I’ll stop by the police station afterwards.”
Satisfied with her phone call; Molly reviewed the officers’ notes from each killing. “There’s always blood, but the killer is meticulous,” she said to herself. “She doesn’t leave clues. No fingerprints. The only shoe prints are from hospital style booties. What is she doing with the blood? Is it some sort of ritual?” Then she re-read the notes from the most recent killing. A neighbor insisted that she saw two great horned owls and a peregrine falcon attack a woman getting into her car. It sounded crazy, but something made Molly look at the description the neighbor gave of the woman being attacked. Could she be the killer? Molly pushed a new pin into the bulletin board where the bird attack took place and added the description the neighbor had given. Maybe it was a clue.
I played Reverse Mouse Jenga yesterday. It’s a game I made up to take my mind off of what I was really doing. The point of Reverse Mouse Jenga is to gently manipulate a pile of frozen mice until you find the keystone mouse. The one, that, once dislodged, causes all the other frozen mice to separate so they can be weighted and sorted into gallon-sized zip lock bags to be fed to the raptors living at the bird rescue center.
These mice didn’t run away. Or, if they did, they didn’t run fast enough. Now they’re bird food.
Frozen, dead mice stink. They stink even more when thawed. I wear gloves when I sort mice, but the gloves don’t help much. I wear Eau de Dead Mouse for the rest of the day after I sort mice. Cats love me.
I avoid handling the resident raptors on mouse-sorting day. I don’t want them to find the scent of dead mice so irresistible that they take a bite out of my ungloved hand.
A glove is only worn on the left hand when handling raptors. Raptors stand on a handler’s left fist and the glove protects the handler’s fist from their talons as well as providing a surface for the bird to grip and balance. The other hand needs to be ungloved so the handler can jess the bird and tie off the leash.
My ungloved hand is vulnerable, and raptors have very sharp beaks. I am not a mouse. And I can’t run away.