STARK RAVEN MAD
By Maddi Davidson
Nearly two years with the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office and still the junior detective, I get the short straw when cases are assigned. Not that Blaine County has much headline-making crime. The populace of twenty-one thousand is mostly law abiding and heavily armed.
Nevertheless, one night in May, someone burgled a residence near the Sun Valley Resort and started a fire, presumably to cover up the crime. However, howling winds pushed the flames eastward, torching 70 acres of woodlands and reducing three other houses to ashes. Blaine County residents who had twice been menaced by wildfires in the past eight years––the second of which forced half of them to evacuate––were livid.
Sheriff Walters assigned his best detectives to the case. Karina Whistle, yours truly, was not among the chosen. Dang it. My fellow detective and pseudo big brother, Dan Stoker, was.
“The thief is a moron,” Stoker said, several days into the investigation. A former college linebacker, he was perched precariously on the corner of my desk and loomed over my petite, 5’2” frame.
“Bozo sets the fire next to the house, not inside, so the house is barely singed. On top of that, his take was squat: a few pieces of jewelry, less than $500 in cash, and . . .” Stoker paused, a big smirk on his broad face.
“Go ahead, you’re dying to tell me,” I said.
Leaning forward, he whispered confidentially, “Handcuffs. Nearly a dozen of ‘em.”
The specter of the homeowner James Cabot––middle-aged, bad comb-over, sporting a tractor-trailer-sized spare tire––and Morgan––blond and leggy trophy wife––cavorting with sex toys flashed unbidden to mind. I bit the inside of my cheek to stifle the laughter and affected a bored expression.
“Want me to tell you about them?” he said.
“No need. I’m familiar with feathered, leathered, and tethered cuffs.”
It was Stoker’s turn to keep a straight face. “I’m sure you are, but they’re not those kind of handcuffs.”
Stoker explained that the cuffs were antiques valued at more than $20,000. The McKenzie Mitts alone, the centerpiece of Cabot’s collection, were worth four grand.
“We still don’t know why the security system failed to function when the back door was breached,” Stoker said. “We’re talking to Sun Security—they installed the system—and reviewing their records for other unexplained system failures. I bet you twenty bucks someone at Sun is in on the burglary and we nail the thief before you find your swiped snowmobile.”
I should have taken the bet.
Snowmobiles were frequently snatched in Blaine County … in the winter. I was hunting down one that had disappeared from the owner’s garage around the first of May, well after the melting snow had retreated to higher elevations. Ten days after Stoker’s offer of a wager, I discovered the missing snowmobile in Alturas Lake: five yards off shore, sitting in twelve feet of water, and serving as a trout condo. The owner’s cousin had borrowed the machine while plastered to prove to an equally drunk friend that a super-fast moving snowmobile could skim across the surface of a lake.
I lorded my triumph over Stoker who grudgingly admitted that the security company was a dead end, and the investigation was going nowhere.
* * *
On a beautiful, dry, sunny day two weeks later I was dispatched to interview a motorcyclist who had lost control of his bike and crashed into Fred’s Fine Furniture on Main Street in Ketchum. Normally the traffic division handles motor vehicle accidents, but witnesses reported large, black birds attacking the cyclist prior to the crash. To forestall speculation about a feathered uprising, Sheriff Walters assigned me to investigate the strange avian behavior.
The cyclist, Thomas Brady, appeared to be in his mid-twenties and sported the popular “haven’t shaved in days” look. After letting me into his sparsely furnished apartment, he hobbled over to the sofa where he reclined, propping his boot-encased foot atop several pillows.
“Tell me what happened,” I said.
Brady shifted on the couch, adjusted the position of his foot, and grabbed the open beer next to his remote. “I work for Sun Valley Nerds and was doing some maintenance work on a guy’s laptop. He’s a market trader, so real dependent on technology; he has me come by the house regularly and check out his computer. I was just leaving his house when this crow flew real close to my head, squawking. Scared the cr … I mean, the heck out of me. It flew across the driveway and landed on a tree branch. I took maybe one step before another big ol’ crow flew by and pulled at my hair.” Brady winced as his hand touched the crown of his head. “I swatted at it and ran like hell for my bike. Soon as I reached my Harley I hopped on, kicked it over, and hauled ass out of there.”
“Are you sure you didn’t do anything to provoke the birds?”
Brady shook his head. “I told you, I was barely out of the house when the first one came after me.”
“And where was this exactly?”
“Hemingway Drive. James Cabot’s place.”
Brady admitted to exceeding the speed limit “a bit” in his zeal to get away from the berserk birds, but once on Main Street where a sedate twenty-five mph was enforced through rigidly timed traffic lights, he was again besieged. It was while waving an arm above his head trying to ward off another kamikaze bird that he’d “wobbled a bit, ran onto the sidewalk, skirted a pedestrian, crashed into a large planter, and flipped over the bike” landing awkwardly on his ankle.
Brady claimed “dozens” of birds attacked him. Witnesses to the aerial assault on Main Street gave estimates ranging from one to eight birds. Two of the on-lookers had pulled out their cell phones to capture the action, one of whom, God bless his vainglorious heart, had taken a squawky video that he’d posted on YouTube.
The video showed Brady sans helmet, stopped at a light and at the mercy of the large birds, his flapping arms ineffective against the onslaught. Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t have staged a more spine-chilling scene. I know: I’ve seen The Birds six times.
Keeping an eye out for cranky crows, I drove to the home of Kwang Ki Sanchez. A middle-school teacher, martial arts instructor, and president of the Blaine County Chapter of the Audubon Society, Kwang had helped me before with nuisance-causing cedar waxwings.
Kwang greeted me with his traditional fist bump. “Detective Whistle! Don’t tell me the waxwings are eating fermented berries again?”
“Nope. Crows attacked a motorcyclist in downtown Ketchum. I’ve got some photos and a video.”
We sat at the kitchen table and I opened up my laptop.
“Not crows, ravens,” Kwang said after looking at the first photo. “Common mistake.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Seven to ten inches in length and twenty ounces for starters. Ravens are much larger birds.”
Kwang skipped out of the room, returning moments later with an illustrated book on corvidae—the genus of both ravens and crows—and pointed out some of the differences between the birds: roughness of chest, bill thickness, and shininess of feathers. Despite his enthusiastic lecture, I couldn’t see that one big, black bird was all that much different from another.
Kwang carefully examined all the photos. “This is a good picture of the hair pulling. I’m not surprised to see it. Ravens often pull the tail feathers of other birds to torment them. They’ve also been known to go after the tails of dogs and wolves.”
After watching the video twice, Kwang sat back in his captain’s chair, clasped his hands across his abs, and grinned. “I think the ravens are imposing their own brand of justice. Extracting retribution, if you will.”
“Are you sure? Brady denies provoking them.”
Kwang shook his head. “He may not know what he did, but Ravens don’t attack without reason. I’ll bet a pound of kimchi that he ruffled their feathers in some way. Maybe not at that moment, but hours, days, or even weeks before the attack.”
“Ravens can hold grudges?”
“Absolutely.” Kwang opined that corvidae were among the smartest creatures on earth. He explained how University of Washington researchers had worn masks of human faces while capturing and banding crows. Months later, anyone donning the same mask would provoke scolding and mobbing by the previously captured crows.
“A raven’s memory is no less remarkable than a crow’s. Whatever Brady did, throwing stones, taking pot shots, threatening the nest, the ravens fingered him.”
The penny dropped, or maybe it was a feather floating by.
“The attack started at the Cabot place,” I said. “Where that huge fire began.”
“Ahhh.” Kwang leaned forward in his chair as he made the same mental leap. “The ravens may be nesting nearby, and wasn’t that fire in early May? There may have been hatchlings.”
“Is there any way the ravens could be mistaken? Their first sight of him was in the dark. Could they have mixed up Brady with someone else wearing similar clothes?”
“No, as I told you, it’s the facial features. The crow experiment was done with different people wearing the mask. It was the face the birds recognized. And these birds have excellent night vision.”
I thought of trying to explain all this to Sheriff Walters. “We need some sort of proof.”
“If the fire threatened but didn't destroy their nest, we may be able to find it.”
Twenty minutes later we reached Hemingway Drive. Like other residences on the street, Cabot’s house was set well back from the road. The quarter-mile driveway curved through tall pines before reaching a large stone and timber house with a three-car garage backing up to the Wood River Forest Reserve.
No one answered my knock, so Kwang and I walked around the house. All the underbrush to the east had burned, but some of the tall trees were still standing, their trunks and lower branches blackened. It was Kwang who, with the help of his binoculars, spotted the large nest one hundred feet up in a large Douglas fir. You could have knocked me over with a large, shiny, black feather.
I shared my discoveries with Stoker who contacted Sun Security. The company president confirmed they had installed software on Cabot’s laptop computer that could control the security system keypad via the Internet. In other words if someone––like a tech support person––had created a secret back door to gain remote access to Cabot’s computer, that person could disable Cabot’s home security.
It was Sheriff Walters who convinced Cabot to let Idaho State Police Cyber Crimes image his computer––make a copy of his hard drive––in order to analyze whether someone had unauthorized access. Meanwhile, Brady was put under surveillance with several of us taking turns watching him. Yes, us. And when the Ketchum A-One Pharmacy reported that two men had come into the store, loaded smiley-face plastic bags with twenty-five tubes of vaginal anti-fungal cream, and left without paying … well, some other poor sap was given the case.
In the end it was Brady—or rather his girlfriend—who provided all the evidence we needed. While Brady slept, Amber playfully locked him to the headboard with a pair of handcuffs. When he awoke, Brady was unable to free himself: he didn’t have the keys to the cuffs. Brady instructed Amber to call a locksmith, but she was in no mood to listen to someone who had just called her a dolt and a nitwit. She called 911 instead.
Sheriff Walters was pleased and proposed “a reward for the sleuths who’d solved the case.” Stoker and I should have known he didn’t mean us. Later that week I joined the Sheriff in delivering some exceptionally fresh road kill to the base of the ravens’ Douglas fir.
Maddi Davidson is the pen name for two sisters, Mary Ann Davidson and Diane Davidson. In addition to numerous published short stories, they’ve written three novels in the Miss-Information Technology Mystery Series and a non-fiction book about women’s struggles to play soccer.
Copyright © 2018 Maddi Davidson. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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