The runoff reservoir was about the size of a large pond. There was no doubt it was man-made. Its sides sloped at a consistent angle and three of its lengths were ruler-straight. The last curved evenly around the border of the city park. Most of the water from the storm had faded, leaving only a marshy carpet of weeds spotted in puddles, which reflected the sun like mirrors. It was clear and quite a bit cooler than it had been yet that season, which necessitated full-length yoga pants under my workout shorts.
To be clear, I’m not a big yoga-pant kinda girl.
I turned from the path and stopped my run at the little neighborhood park. I wiped the sweat from my brow and took a drink from the bottle strapped to my arm. There was a jungle gym and a swing set in a moist sand pit next to the small open lawn. The whole place was surrounded in trees, both along the street and the reservoir. The latter was also lined by a tall fence. Metal trash cans were spaced along the sidewalk by the road. The restrooms were near the street corner. A pair of reflective orange caution barrels flanked the door to the men’s room. A stretch of yellow tape had been wrapped back and forth between them, indicating it was out of order, but the tape sagged so badly I suspected it had been that way for some time. Deep in the bowels of the city, I was sure, a work order was waiting to be taken seriously.
I had instructions, and I carried what I needed in a small jogging pack strapped tightly to my back. I took another drink and walked to the men’s room. I stepped over the sagging tape and went inside. The smell of stale urine was so stout you could almost taste it. I took off my pack and took out the box of sidewalk chalk. It was full of two-inch-thick cylinders of soft pastels.
“Find a leftover,” he had told me, “a hole or nook where people could go but don’t for one reason or another.”
“Such as?” I had asked.
“An empty barrel or a derelict house or the gap in the earth left by the roots of a fallen tree. Or a burrow, but not any inhabited by an animal.”
“How can I tell that?”
He gave me a look. “Put your hand in and feel!”
“Right. Then what?”
“Draw a conjuring circle on the ground. Make it big enough to stand in comfortably but not more. Find north-northeast and mark it with a tick.”
“Yes. The west wind is a real dick. That’s how you say it, right? If he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he’s liable to spit it back in your face. The east wind is lazy, but not so much that you can be careless. Turn just a bit north, but not more north than east.” He held up a finger. “Otherwise the spirits will think you’re addressing the pole star.”
“The heavens. Remember, when they’re not pissed off and blaming the living for something, they’re looking for any reason to ignore us. You have to be insistent, unavoidable, yet still polite enough that they might actually help.”
“Sounds like the DMV.”
“Yes,” he said. “I have been.”
I drew a circle in blue pastel on the dirty floor of the men’s room. I traced it three times just to be sure. I stood inside and took out my phone and found north-northeast and marked it with a tick.
Once inside, he had said, I was to draw symbol. I watched as he drew on the back of the nudie poster. It was the only sizable piece of paper we could find.
He was a good teacher—or experienced, I guess. He made the symbol three times to make sure I could see the ideal shape through the variance of any single attempt. Then he made me copy it three times as well. It was sort of like a lazy eight—or a tilted infinity sign, I guess—with a hook off the side and a knife in the back.
I drew it in chalk on the ground. Then I set the chalk aside and removed the tube of navy blue lipstick from my bag. I opened the cap and twisted and held it in the air.
“Are you sure this will work?” I had asked him.
“Yes, yes. It won’t work for anyone. But it should for you.”
“Because not anyone can pull a boto.” He meant the carrion ghoul. “However you did, that is how you will do this.”
I looked at the dark blue stick poking up from the plastic case. In the low light, it looked almost black.
I don’t wear a lot of makeup, but I do wear some. For whatever reason, nature gave me good skin and what few blemishes I have never seemed worth much effort. I do like painting my face for special occasions, though. Always makes it seem that much more special. Point being, I’m not exactly a stranger to lipstick. However, I can honestly say I had never applied it to my forehead before.
I drew a solid line straight over my eyebrows. I felt ridiculous.
“Why the forehead?” I had asked.
“You need to make a barrier,” he explained, “like drawing a shade between the world of men and the world of the spirit, which hovers just above our own. Calm your heart. Close your eyes if necessary. That’s usually helpful at first. And listen.”
“For?” I asked.
“You will know.”
I closed my eyes. I took two deep breaths, letting each out slowly through my nose. I let several minutes pass.
“So . . .” I said to the brown-stained porcelain urinals. “Anyyyyyy . . . spirits?”
I waited a moment. I felt like I was sixteen again, sitting in the car on my first date with Sheri McQueen having no idea what to say.
“Any spirits in here?” I repeated. “Any spirits at all?”
I turned a little just to make sure I was facing the right way.
“Anyone feel like talking?” I waited.
Then I added softly “Or am I just talking to myself?”
After five minutes, I’d had enough and moved on to Plan B. I gathered my possessions and walked to the jogging path near the runoff reservoir. I found a stretch of pavement relatively free of weeds, just out of the way so other runners could pass unhindered. I drew another chalk circle. I found north-northeast. I closed my eyes and quieted my heart, then my mind.
I took the loaf of bread from my bag and opened it and threw a slice on the ground. Almost immediately, a squirrel darted across the path and snagged it without stopping. He was up the chain link fence and into the hanging branches before I could even speak.
He—or she, I guess—chattered at me from the trees, then proceeded to nibble in frantic tiny bites right in front of me.
I scowled and decided to take a new approach. I started squeezing and crushing the bread in the bag. Then I reached in and crumbled it between my fingers, making grainy pieces that wouldn’t present such an immediate prize. I started tossing the bits on the ground.
It took a few minutes for the first bird to appear, something small I didn’t recognize. But the first few pigeons came shortly thereafter. They scattered when a pair of 20-something joggers went trundling by. The girls both turned their heads to me, looking at the chalk circle and the line of navy lipstick on my forehead. I just waved like it was no big deal.
The pigeons returned almost immediately, and in a few minutes, I had pigeons all around. They chased away the smaller birds and occasionally squabbled with each other, although none of them would get closer than a few inches—except to dart forward for a stray crumb.
“So,” I said awkwardly, “any of you guys see anything weird last week?”
I threw more bread. Pigeons hunted and pecked and squabbled and didn’t seem to care about me one way or another.
I tossed more crumbs.
“A woman was killed,” I went on. “Someone dumped her body in the channel somewhere around here. Ring any bells?”
I tossed more.
“This is so fucking stupid. You’re just fucking birds.”
One of the pigeons lifted his head then and looked right at me. He had the usual blue-gray feathers and waddling gait and looked like a typical specimen of the species. If there was anything different about it him, it was the one tiny white under-feather at the back of his head, to one side, that curled up like a cowlick, or maybe the bill of a sideways ball cap.
Pigeon’s eyes are so big and they move their heads in such rapid jerks that they look constantly surprised to me. I couldn’t tell if he was waiting for more bread or if there was something else.
Then he flew off.
When he landed again on the back of a park bench and turned to me, waiting, I dumped the rest of my bread on the ground, grabbed my bag, and followed. He flew to a branch, then to the roof of the men’s room, over the orange barrels, then to a power line that ran along the street. On and on it went like that. I started jogging after him, one block, then two, when he led me off the path that followed the channel and into an older residential neighborhood. The houses were all single-level, with wood siding and narrow front porches barely a step above the grass. I figured it dated to just after the second world war. The yards were small and lined with half-height chain link fences, leaving residents closer to their neighbors than has been popular in a long time. And none of the lines were buried. A tangle of black cords for phone, cable, and power ran between log poles and the roofs of the houses, sometimes even between them.
Bits of gravel crunched under my feet as I slowed to a walk and looked for my tiny guide, who had moved out of sight. The road had no curb and ended wherever the weeds decided to stop growing. It was the kind of street that always had that one spot that flooded with every rain and made it so you had to go home the back way, or park at the corner and walk. At the end of it was a short open stretch with no dwellings, studded with road signs, like a little forest, where the residential street intersected the much more modern major road, complete with curbs and sidewalks and drainage sewers. A few cars passed in a cluster, as if a nearby light had just changed.
I stopped and turned around. All in all, it was unassuming and quiet.
The pigeon landed on a car to my left, a blue four-door American sedan. At least eight years old. Nothing special. It was parked in a perfect car-sized space between a lean-to shed and a tall slat fence. Grass grew up around it, which is probably what threw off the uniformed officers who did the canvas. It was just old enough to pass for a junker—that is, until you got close and saw where the tires were smashing some of the grass underneath, still green, meaning the vehicle had been driven over it recently.
The fence ran along the car and then in front of it, fencing it off from everything but the shed and making it unclear which of the nearby dwellings it belonged to. I walked to the nearest house and opened the screen door and knocked. A round African-American woman with dyed red hair answered and I showed her my badge. She looked at my forehead and asked if I’d had a problem with my lipstick. She told me she didn’t recognize the car but that the lean-to belonged to the house directly across the street.
Fortunately—or not, depending on your point of view—that house was derelict. There was a CONDEMNED notice glued to the door. I could see why, too. The front porch sagged to the dirt at the far side. I thumbed the corners of the paper, which curled from exposure to wet weather. There was no way the dwelling had been occupied since the car had been driven, at least not legally. Which was smart—no one to complain about the illegally parked car. No cameras either, not in that neighborhood. I imagine they thought it would be months before anyone noticed. I would’ve bet a hundred bucks right then that the house was the crime scene. But the windows were boarded and I couldn’t see inside. There was some colorful graffiti on it, though, which told me what I could go do with myself. And that Rayna was a ‘thot.’ As written, I wasn’t sure it was an insult.
But there was also a symbol, kind of a hook and cross not terribly dissimilar to the one I’d just made in chalk. The thing about graffiti is that it’s made to be cryptic. The really colorful stuff has such highly stylized letters that it’s difficult to read. Gang signs are explicitly not meant for the rest of us, but you better believe they have meaning. Point is, people passing on the street wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual about marks like that on the house.
I walked around to the back and saw more marks and symbols, and more colorful street slang. All off it had been done in the same color and in the same hand, as if made at the same time.
I nudged the back door hard with my shoulder but it didn’t move. I wasn’t about to start grabbing handles or jiggling windows until the forensics guys had a chance to do their thing. The best way to ruin a case was to get impatient and start trampling evidence—or contaminating it.
I walked back across the street, where the pigeon was waiting on the fence by the car, like it wanted a tip or something.
“Thanks,” I whispered as I bent to check the date on the registration sticker on the license plate.
I turned my face up to the pigeon. He bent his head sideways, like pigeons do, so we were looking at each other evenly. It seemed like he was clinging sideways to a vertical fence.
I stood. I looked around.
I turned back to the pigeon. “What’d you say?”
He jerked his head the other way.
“You deaf’r sumpn?”
I stiffened straight as the pigeon plucked at a wing feather a couple times and then shook it out.
“Say that again,” I demanded.
“I-guess-that-answers-that-question,” he said very slowly and with more than a little sarcasm.
I don’t know which got me more: that I was talking to a pigeon or that he had such a thick accent. I recognized it. Or thought I did.
“Long ways from home?” I asked.
“Lookit that. A regular Einstein.”
“Excuse you. Do I look like a bird brain?” He jerked his head the other way.
“Oh-ho-ho, lady’s got a lip! I’m from Philly, ya dumb broad. City of Brudderly Love, which you know nuddin about.”
His wings flapped hard and he flew away.
I watched him go.
“Huh . . .”
I stepped back and looked at the car. I took out my phone and called in the plate number to dispatch. I had to wait a minute, but it was worth it. The response couldn’t have been more perfect.
Amber Massey, MD. Caucasian. Age 32.
Right gender, right ethnicity, right age. No one had reported her missing. I’d already checked missing person reports for a hundred miles in any direction. But then, no wedding ring was found on the body. I’d check marriage records when I got back to the office, just to be sure, but fifty bucks said she was single and lived alone. Family, if any, were probably not local, so not hearing from her for five or six days wouldn’t necessarily raise any alarms.
I walked around the vehicle and looked in all the windows—I didn’t dare touch anything—but there wasn’t much to see.
I was bent over a the driver’s side, peering through the glass, when I heard the flap of wings and the sound of small claws scraping on the hood.
“Jimmies,” he said, right near my face.
“Jimmies,” he repeated, head jerking the other way. “That’s what they like. Sugar. Bright colors. Easy to peck, know what I mean? It’s like pigeon crack or sumpn.” He paced back and forth in two-step increments. “You want the good stuff, don’t bring bread.”
“Jimmies,” I said.
“Right. Those bastages’ll tell you aaaaaanything you wanna know. Belieb me.”
“What are Jimmies?”
His head jerked to one side, paused, and then back to the other. “You sure yer okay, lady? You doen need a doctor or sumpn?”
“You know . . . you got lipstick on yer head.”
“What are Jimmies?” I repeated tersely.
“Little colored jawns. Go all over ice cream. Sometimes they put em on cookies. For the kids.”
“You mean sprinkles?”
“Yeah, Jimmies. I’d say ice cream was good too, but some of us are lactose intolerant.” He jerked his head back the other way. “It’s a curse or sumpn.”
“Doen mention it.”
Then he flew away again.
“HEY!” I called.
He settled on an overhead telephone line and shook out his wing feathers again.
“You got a name?”
“A name. Something people—pigeons, whatever—call you.”
He jerked his head again. Then back.
“Is this a trick question?” He pronounced the words deliberately, as if he wasn’t so sure I actually understood language.
I thought for a moment. “No.”
He strutted a few steps to the side. “Buddy,” he said. “Or Pal, I guess.”
“Buddy,” I repeated. “Thanks.”
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS, in order until the book is released. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s been described as “Tolkien meets Dashiell Hammett for dinner in the present day.”
You can sign up here to be notified when the book is released.
You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.
The next chapter is: Who keeps a shotgun in the bathroom?