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A Murder of Crows

Jim Bob Renfro needed a helper, and I really needed a summer job. His opening at A Pest Free Palace was available, and it paid $12/hour – a fortune to a high school sophomore with no experience.

Most of the time, I vacuumed up mouse turds and fetched things from the truck. Stuff like that. From the start, I didn’t like Jim Bob – Mr. Renfro – much. Not sure why. He hadn’t said anything mean to me, and he looked like an average middle-aged dude – nothing weird or creepy. One thing, though – he had a flashy gold watch that he was uber-proud of.

Once, he saw me looking at it and said, “You work hard, save your money, and maybe you can get a watch like this. It’s very expensive.”

What I was thinking was, “Did he really pay money for that gaudy bauble?”

I hadn’t been there long when we went to a house for a follow-up visit. We climbed the rickety pull-down ladder to the attic to check the de-ratting progress. I had a trash bag tucked into my belt, and I held the flashlight for him while he rummaged around in a dark corner.

“Open the bag,” he grunted.

He tossed a glue trap with an emaciated, dead rodent into the sack.

I felt queasy.

There was some rustling and squeaking, and Mr. Renfro produced a second glue trap with a terrified, live rat stuck to it, squealing and struggling to get free.

“You’re not going to just toss it in the bag, are you?”

He cocked his head and looked at me as if I’d asked the question in Russian.

I pointed to the trap. “The rat? It’s alive.”


“You’re going to throw it in the trash and let it suffer?”

Renfro smirked and dropped the trapped rat onto the floor. Before I realized what he was going to do, he slammed his heel down on the rat’s head.

“Now it’s not suffering. Clean it up.”

I gagged as I tossed the bloody mess into the garbage bag. Maybe I should start looking for another job tomorrow.
Renfro headed toward the ladder. “Put out some more glue traps.”

I did. I just didn’t remove the plastic layer that covered the glue.

By the time I came down and refolded the ladder, Renfro was finishing up with the homeowner.

“Good bye, Mrs. Thompson. We’ll see you next week.”

“Thank you, Jim Bob! I don’t know what I do without you.”

As it turned out, job opportunities were hard to come by, so I had to grit my teeth and stick it out for the rest of the summer. I was never so glad to see August roll around – couldn’t wait for the first day of school.

It was a few months later when my mom called me to the phone. I think we’re the only people I know who actually still had a landline.

“Hey, it’s Jim Bob Renfro. Got a big job Saturday, and I wondered if you could use some extra cash?”

I could definitely use extra cash. “I have plans that night, but I’m free during the day.”

It was Halloween, and Randy – one of my buds – was having his annual party. He and his brothers made their own haunted house in the garage with black plastic sheeting to form the corridors. Sure, sometimes it was cheesy, but they also had a pool, and it was still usually 80 or 90 degrees in October. And his mom went nuts with all the Halloween food. Spider cupcakes, mummy meatballs, witch’s fingers breadsticks. And then some.

“If we start by eight, we should be done in the early afternoon.”

I was saving up for a car, for when I got my driver’s license over the summer. I needed every penny I could get, because Dad said I had to pay the insurance, too.

“Sure. See you Saturday morning, Mr. Renfro.”

“Crows. Filthy birds, even worse than pigeons. Started roosting on an office building, and we have to encourage them to leave.”

“Oh?” I was afraid to ask.

“We have to install bird spikes, stuff like that. I’ll tell you all about it Saturday.”

Saturday was a little chilly, and I was glad I had a jacket when my mom dropped me off at A Pest Free Palace’s office. Being here reminded me how much I hated this job. Probably too late to call in sick. I just had to think of the beautiful car I would buy with my saved-up money.

Mr. Renfro waved at my mom as he opened the door. She drove away. I wanted to run after her. But if I wanted my own car, I had to come up with the cash. I forced a smile.

“Morning, Mr. Renfro.”

“Morning. Everything’s already loaded up. Let’s get ‘er done.”

The crow-plagued office building was across our small town, at the edge of the city park. Fifteen minutes after setting off, we arrived. A few of the black birds watched us from the trees as we tacked down bird spikes, installed rotating reflectors, and hooked up a motion-activated predator call broadcaster. Sometimes they flapped around and cawed to each other, but mostly they just watched. I felt like I was trespassing.

As I walked across the roof to string some cable, I heard a loud crunch and the roof started to give way. I threw myself backward and landed on my butt. At least my foot didn’t go all the way through the shingles – just left a big dent. Renfro didn’t ask if I was okay, but he did take a picture to send to the building manager to they could get a roofer up to repair it. Priorities, I guess.

When we finally got the equipment installed, we sat under the awning over the office’s front door and took a break. I seriously wished I’d brought more than a PBJ sandwich and an apple.

“Now,” Renfro said between bites of his own meal. “There’s one more thing we have to do.”

I’m not sure why this made the food in my stomach curdle. Maybe it was the way he looked at the watching crows.

“Pigeons, sparrows, they’d see all that stuff and just go away. Not crows, though. They’re too smart for their own good. They’ll find ways around the spikes, and realize the reflectors aren’t a threat. Nope, crows, you have to send them a message.”

I didn’t like the way that sounded. I just nodded. Something bad was getting ready to happen, I could feel it coming.

Renfro packed up his lunch kit and took it to the truck. When he came back, he had a BB gun and a sparkly glass bead the size of a grape.

He chuckled softly. “They can’t resist something shiny. Watch this.”

Renfro rolled the bead out onto the grass beneath the tree where the crows were perched. They cocked their heads from one side to the other, trying to get a better look. After muttering amongst themselves, they hopped, branch by branch, to the lowest part of the tree. One must have been the lookout, because it stayed perched in the leaves and kept its beady little eyes on us while the other three flew down to investigate.

Renfro carefully sighted in on the middle crow in a group of three and pop! Down went the bird, struggling and flapping on the ground. The other three flew off, cawing loudly.

I don’t think you should have done that.

He took the bird by the feet and carried up onto the roof. He used a heavy-duty staple gun to secure it to the roof, out of sight from the street, but easy to see if you were a crow flying over the building. It squawked both times he stapled it, and I jumped each time. I couldn’t really see it, but I could guess what he was doing.

You really, really should not have done that.

“Welp, that’s it. The crows won’t roost here anymore.”

He gave me $100 in cash and dropped me at my house – it was on the way back to his shop. The bills were new and crisp, but they felt dirty.

I tried playing Assassin’s Craft online for a while, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor crow stapled to the roof. My mom had dabbled in reupholstering chairs, so I found her tack removal tool and stuck it in my pocket, pulling my shirt over the long bit of the mini-crowbar that stuck out of my jeans.

“I’m going to ride my bike,” I told my dad.

He barely looked up. “Don’t be gone too long if you want a ride to Randy’s at seven thirty.”

“I know.”

It took about twenty minutes to get to the office where we’d worked earlier, and dusk was just settling in. I didn’t have a ladder, but I pulled the fire escape down and used that to get up on the roof.

There were crows everywhere. They surrounded the bird that Renfro had stapled down, and they moved silently out of my way as I approached their fallen comrade.

I pulled up the staples, and the bird just laid there limply. I thought it was dead, but one of its eyes opened. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I couldn’t leave it there. I put it inside my shirt and tucked the shirt into my pants.

As I started toward the fire escape, a flash of something shiny and gold caught my eye. When I turned towards it, I noticed a huge hole in the roof, where I’d nearly fallen through earlier. What had made it collapse?

Curiosity was not my friend. I looked over the edge.

Lying on the polished concrete below was Mr. Renfro. What on earth could have brought him back to the office building? He knew the hole was there – he took a picture of it. I thought of the shiny object at the edge of the collapsed roof and swallowed hard.

I called 911and scurried down the fire escape.

The fire department broke through the glass doors, but it was too late for Mr. Renfro. They suddenly became very suspicious of what I was doing there. I called my mom to come get me, and I told them what had happened. Everything. I even pulled the half-dead crow out of my shirt to show them.

One of the police officers looked at him and said, “My girlfriend’s a wildlife rehabber. Why don’t you let me take him to her?”

I handed the bird over. What was I going to do with it?

Needless to say, I didn’t make it to Randy’s party. After taking such a long time to go to sleep, I was annoyed at being woken up at a quarter of six by cawing crows. Then came the pecking. There were birds pecking on my bedroom window. Irritated, I went to shoo them away.

I opened the window. “Let me sleep, you idiot birds!”

Something shiny glittered on the window sill. I rubbed my eyes and picked it up.

It was Mr. Renfro’s watch.

The Seventh Circle

Mr. Hughes loved Halloween.

He once told me that it had been his wife’s favorite holiday, and he kept up the decorating to honor her after she’d died. An elaborate shrine to the dead, if you will. Instead of “Sweets for the sweet,” “Deads for the dead?” But I digress.

Every year, he created a different theme. Last year had been the best yet. A realistic cemetery erupted from his yard one morning. Bats hung from the trees, and giant spider webs stretched between tombstones. On Halloween night, he added a fog machine, and a hidden projector threw stalking specters against a nearly invisible mesh. Younger children were too scared to come close to the trick-or-treat bowl, but the older ones loved it – it was almost like a free haunted house.

He always made a costume that matched the decorations. One year, I helped him pass out candy, and he was surprisingly good at making me up like a zombie. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and it terrified me for a moment before I realized that it was me. The makeup was too realistic, too perfect. Made me think of the nightmares I used to have when I was in the hospital. I didn’t sleep that night. Or the next one. By the time I got to fifty-six hours, I was starting to hallucinate. I collapsed on the sofa and slept twelve hours straight. But at least I was too tired to dream. Another plus: my house was incredibly clean and my closets were more organized than they’d ever been.

The year after that, he did a werewolf scene. A disguised post supported a leaping canine monster, and I couldn’t tell you how creepy it was to go to my mailbox and be faced with a werewolf in mid-attack. Did I mention that it moved? It gave me the heebie-jeebies. Reminded me too much of the time my aunt’s big dog attacked me when I was little. Still have the scars on my jaw. I even go the long way around out of the neighborhood so I don’t have to drive past that monstrosity on the way to work. I couldn’t even look out the living room window in the evening – those glowing eyes haunted my nightmares.

Aside from his Halloween obsession, Mr. Hughes isn’t a bad neighbor. If you don’t mind obsessive grass mowing. At seven in the morning. But he always smiles and waves when he sees me. Although I suspect he might have been the one to complain to the HOA about my edging. That’s how the lawn service company does it. Not my fault, is it?

But this year, he’s got the most over-the-top tableau I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, given his decorations. It looks like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Layers of ragged nylon fabric dance in the breeze of a fan, simulating flames. Damned souls writhe in the fires, and motion sensor-triggered sound effects wail in anguish. An enormous three-faced Lucifer head with pointed teeth and gaping maws was tethered between the two oak trees.

The night he put out the display, I woke up screaming. It had been months since that happened. I had to call my shrink at three AM. I think it’s probably been two years since the last time I had to do that.

Mr. Hughes. It was almost like he knew. Knew my most vulnerable spot, then gleefully sucker punched me. Was he trying to drive me insane? He couldn’t possibly know. But why? Why on earth would he choose this scene?

Surely, if he had been there, listening to my wife and kids screaming as the house blazed around them, he wouldn’t have done it. There was nothing I could have done as I lay on the ground, grass slick with my own blood, jagged bone ends sticking out of my thighs. I had tried to drag myself to the front door, but my legs were worse than useless. An explosion – later I found it was a gas line – shattered the windows and roared through the house like the Devil himself. I had been upstairs and got thrown through a picture window into the front yard. I lived. Not sure if it was a blessing or a curse. I had survived Hell, and for what? To be mocked by Halloween decorations? But this year, I could do something about it. I called up Mr. Hughes and offered to help with the final touches.


Sunday, Halloween morning, was cool and dull. Thin clouds lazed by, briefly exposing the wan sun. Clots of neighbors paused on the sidewalk, admiring Mr. Hughes’ pièce de résistance. A very realistic corpse had been added to one of the jaws of the three-faced Satan. The body’s head and neck vanished into dark mouth, and the arms were raised, hands against the teeth that were trying to chomp it down. The grass had been torn up, as if there had been an epic struggle. The character wore the kind of robe common to Christmas pageants – perhaps he was meant to be Judas? But I’m not really sure. Almost as soon as I’d arrived at Mr. Hughes’ house the prior evening, he’d offered me whiskey from an expensive, imported bottle. We each had a shot, then another. We went outside to look at the display, and he told me that this would probably be the last year of his Halloween extravaganzas. I agreed, fingering the length of clothesline I had in my pocket.

Watching from my darkened window, I could see that the neighbors’ concern increased to panic as Halloween evening stretched on, and Mr. Hughes had not appeared to pass out candy. I saw Mrs. Montoya, his other next door neighbor, standing on the sidewalk in front of his house, talking on her cell phone. I went to see what she was up to.

She ended the call before I got out there, and as I got closer, I could see that she was crying.

“What’s wrong, Mrs. Montoya?” I kept it formal – I didn’t know her all that well.

She sniffled before she turned to me. “Ernie seems to be missing – he hasn’t come out with candy, and he won’t pick up the phone. I’ve called the police. I’m afraid he may need to go to the hospital.”

Too late for that. “Really? Why?”

“He was diagnosed with an aggressive pancreatic cancer. He only has a few months to live.”

“I didn’t know. I’m very sorry to hear that.” You have no idea how sorry.

I sat on the curb and started to laugh. I was still laughing when the police arrived.

Post Spring Break Contest

The first person who correctly identify the beach I was sitting on when I wrote this short story wins a signed copy of their choice of one of the following: Earthbound, Cheval Bayard, Confessions of a Troll, Dragon by Knight, The Hanged Man’s Wife, or The Magician’s Children. Reply in the comments.

Spring break was almost over, and the clouds were rolling in. The fog was so thick that even the midday sun hadn’t been able to burn through it. The wind had churned the waves to nearly the color of chocolate milk, and the mist that shrunk visibility to only a few dozen meters was only a few shades lighter.
“Should we start packing?” Carmela asked, pulling her hoodie down around her neck.
“We still have one more night in the campsite,” Madison replied.
“Supposed to rain,” Carmela said, disappointed.
She was not a fan of the ghostly white crabs that scuttled on the beach when they’d walked down to skinny dip in the wee morning hours. Last night, even the tiny sliver of moon had been obscured by clouds. The fog seemed to make the roaring waves sound louder and the crabs bolder. There were more of them last night than ever.
Today, the beach was mostly deserted. A frustrated kyaker and a family with two toddlers were the only other people around. Even the seagulls hadn’t bothered coming out. The other four girls, Carmela and Madison’s school friends, had left this morning. Carmela wished she had joined them.
A sand piper paused in its race down the wet strand of beach and dipped its long bill hopefully in the sand.
“You want to go up the seawall to Ben and Jerry’s?” Carmela asked.
They were down to their least desirable provisions, and there didn’t seem to be much point in just sitting on a chilly, empty beach with Madison.
It sounded like someone had thrown a large rock into the water.
“What was that?” Carmela asked.
Madison rolled her eyes and sighed. “I’m sure it was just a fish jumping. They do that, you know.”
They do that because something’s chasing them. But Carmela didn’t say it out loud.
“Fine. Let’s go get lunch,” Madison said.

After pizza and ice cream, Madison used her mother’s credit card to rent a pedal car, and the girls spent a few hours riding up and down the seawall. The spring break crowd had thinned considerably.
“You sure you don’t want to head home back early?” Carmela asked.
The girls picked up some sandwiches and headed back to their tent. The fog had turned to drizzle, and Carmela couldn’t think of many things she’d rather do less than be stuck in a tent with Madison and nothing to do for the next twelve hours. Maybe she could catch up on some much-needed sleep.
“I need to call Caleb,” Madison announced when they got back to their camp.
“Okay,” Carmela replied.
“I need some privacy.”
Carmela frowned. “It’s raining outside.”
“It’s not raining that hard. Besides, you can take my umbrella.” Madison held out a pink, heart-spattered collapsible brolly to Carmela.
Madison nodded toward the tent flap. “Yes.”
Carmela should have put her foot down, should have stood up to Madison. But that was the funny thing. Nobody ever stood up to Madison, no matter how much they ought to have. Carmela snatched the umbrella and crawled out into the rain.
All the other campers had had the good sense to pack up and go home. Madison’s green and white tent was the only one left in the entire campground. At least that meant that she’d most likely be able to use one of the flush toilets instead of one of the portables. She climbed the ramp and opened the first door.
The fluorescent light flickered and hummed. Just don’t go out while I’m in here. As bathrooms go, this one was quite large, with built-in benches lining the corner facing her. There were no windows, of course, but Carmela did consider dragging her sleeping bag into it, despite the signs forbidding just that. It would be nice if her cell battery wasn’t dead. She could at least text Emily while she was waiting on Madison to finish her oh-so-important private call with her boyfriend. But, lacking anything better to do, she went out to the beach.
It wasn’t quite dark, so she wasn’t too worried about the crabs being out just yet. She hadn’t walked very far down the beach when she noticed strange tracks in the sand – a large body, pulled along by flippers. Could it be a turtle? There were “Report Nesting Turtles” signs everywhere. Although, Carmela hadn’t thought they were that large.
Carmela whirled around, but saw nothing. That was it. Phone call or no phone call, she was going back to the tent.
She headed over the boardwalk towards the campsite. She was surprised to see Madison coming towards her.
“Bathroom,” she told Carmela.
“I want to show you something when you get out,” Carmela replied.
Madison nodded. While Carmela waited, she looked over the edge of the dunes to the wild sea. A vee of pelicans glided silently above the beach.
Something wet and cold flopped onto her shoulder. She yelled as her elbow flew back and struck its target.
“Ow!” complained Madison, rubbing her jaw. “What did you do that for?”
“Why were you sneaking up on me? How was I supposed to know you weren’t some perv?”
“Whatever. What is it you wanted to show me?”
“This way. I think there may be turtles on the beach.”
The tide was going out, and the tracks on the beach were still intact.
“I think that’s more than one turtle. Look how wide it is. Should we call the park rangers or something?” Madison asked.
“Probably. But my phone’s out of batteries.”
“Go get mine. It’s under my pillow.”
Carmela shook her head as she trudged through the deep sand to the boardwalk. Madison was wading into the water. What she saw in that cold water, Carmela would never understand. Besides, the strange tracks and odd noises made her uneasy. She’d get the phone and try to talk Madison out of the sea while they were waiting on the ranger.

Phone in hand, Carmela paused in front of the sign at the end of the boardwalk to dial the turtle hotline. She reported the location of the track as she walked back toward the ocean, then hung up.
Madison, however, was nowhere to be seen.
“Madison! Where are you? This isn’t funny,” Carmela shouted, her voice lost in the wind. She walked perhaps a hundred yards in either direction, but there was no sign of her.
There was no reply.
Carmela decided to check the bathrooms and the tent, but Madison wasn’t there, either. Fear seeped into the corners of her mind. She ran back to the water, but she was alone on the beach. Completely alone.
Madison’s phone dinged, and Carmela looked at the screen. “Battery Critically Low! Plug into Charger.”
Not even a pale, spidery crab had emerged in the thickening dusk. Carmela spun and ran back to the bathrooms, slamming the door behind her and locking it. She slid down the wall and plopped onto the bench in the farthest corner from the door. The light bulb lit up, although it still sputtered. Her hands were shaking so hard she could barely turn on Madison’s phone.
The screen lit up, then went black. “Goodbye!” the message read before the phone fell completely dark.
“No!” Carmela yelled at it, before throwing the useless thing onto the floor.
She pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them against her. She sat there in the flickering light, heart pounding.
Carmela was sure she heard a grunting noise outside, as if there was a giant pig rooting around at the base of the bathroom structure. She held
her breath. Maybe it was just the wind.
It felt like at least an hour had passed, maybe more. It was quiet outside now. Had she just imagined the strange snuffling? Or maybe the wind had blown something up against the bathrooms? She let her breath out slowly.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Something pounded on the door.
Carmela was sure her heart stopped. She hugged herself even tighter.
“Hello?” called a voice from outside.
“Who’s there?” Carmela said, her voice too loud, too nervous.
“I’m from Parks and Wildlife. Someone called about nesting turtles, but I can’t find anybody.”
Carmela flew across the room and threw open the door. She’d never been happier to see someone in uniform in her life.
“That was me! My friend and I saw the tracks. I went back to get her phone to call, and now I can’t find her.”
“Let’s go make sure she’s not waiting for you on the beach. If not, we’ll call the Coast Guard for a search and rescue.”
Madison had still not turned up. Neither had the crabs. The turtle track was forgotten as Carmela and the park ranger called for her. At least Madison might be able to hear, now that the wind had started to die down.
Something bright green was caught in the beam of his flashlight.
Carmela felt ice in the pit of her stomach. Madison had been wearing a bright green shirt.
“Over there,” she said, suddenly hoarse.
They approached the object gingerly. It was a scrap of fabric. There was a tiny piece of a black printed mustache at one jagged edge.
“That looks like the shirt she was wearing,” Carmela said. “What could have done that?”
“You don’t know it’s her shirt. Every shop on the seawall has those.”
There was an odd sound behind them, like something heavy being dragged over sand. As Carmela turned to look, she heard the same grunting she heard earlier.
There was something large pulling itself across the sand towards them. Carmela cried out, and the ranger swung around, catching the thing in the bright glow of the flashlight.
At first, Carmela thought it was an alligator. A fifteen foot alligator. But she saw that it had flippers, rather than legs and feet. it was black and smooth, and glistened in the beam.
Carmela was sure she’d seen a picture of one of those before, if she could only think of where. She was also sure that the scrap of green fabric caught in its recurved teeth was from Madison’s shirt.
“Run!” yelled the ranger.
Carmela was rooted to the spot, so he grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her along. The beast wasn’t fast on land, and they easily outran it. The ranger radioed for help, but by the time the Coast Guard choppers arrived, the monster was gone. Carmela didn’t dare to be alone, so she stayed with the ranger. He followed the drag marks along the beach until they disappeared into the surf. Just at the water line, he bent over to pick something up.
He held it under the flashlight and examined it. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff wash up on the beach before. I’ve even hunted for fossils in South Dakota. And If I didn’t know better, I would swear this was a mosasaur tooth. Only it isn’t fossilized.”