Monday, August 8, 2022

Owl Be Damned, fiction by Nikki Knight

A Jaye Jordan Vermont Radio Mystery

 Everybody loves a snowy owl.

 At least everybody I want to know. Nobody I want to know loves murder, though, and that sure took the joy out of Blanche’s visit to Simpson. 

 But in January in Vermont, you take what you get.

 January’s pretty ugly here. Figuratively, anyhow. Literally, it’s spectacularly beautiful, with thick, deep snow, shimmering blue skies, and flaming sunsets. As long as you don’t mind being reminded of why some cultures believe in a Hell of Cold.

 Ugly is exactly the right word for two big storms in a week, followed by a cold snap. Uglier for me, since I had to sweep that snow out of the satellite dish on the roof to keep my little radio station on the air. 

 Just another fun day of running WSV, the tiny operation I bought and took live and local again when my husband survived cancer but our marriage didn’t. My daughter is happy here, and the station is getting by…and that’s about all I want to say about it.

 I’m Jaye Jordan, by the way. Yes, my real name – people always wonder with DJs. Western PA country girl made good as a New York City jock before my life unraveled. I’m the one who just keeps going, no matter what.

 But January is wearing.

 Which is why pretty much everyone went nuts when the snowy owl showed up near the WSV transmitter shack out on Quarry Road. Anything at all to break up the monotony of shoveling, sweeping and scraping. Especially if it’s something as magnificent as a snowy owl.

 Blanche, as we inevitably christened her when birdwatcher Willard Collier pointed out that her gray-barred markings meant she was female, was the toast of the town within about fifteen minutes.   

 And my usually deserted stick (radio slang for transmitter) was the most popular hangout around, with folks driving and hiking up, coming close enough to see her – but not to scare her away.

 That Saturday afternoon, my pals and I had finished our weekly yoga class at the Community Center, when Sadie Blacklaw waved the keys to her Hummer. “C’mon. No one else will be there right now because the Patriots are the early game.”

 None of us really wanted to ride in the Hummer, a genuine military surplus one that Sadie had gotten through her many connections as Town Clerk and legendary local leader. She drives like Speed Racer on meth.

 But, Maeve, Alicia, and I definitely did want to see Blanche, and that was worth the risk.

 Too bad she wasn’t the first thing we saw when we wobbled out of the Hummer, crunching into the slushy tire and boot prints, an indistinguishable mess now two days after the latest storm. 

 No, while Blanche was perched on the corrugated-metal roof of the shack, her feathers fluffed up by the breeze, her vivid orange eyes glowing with something that sure seemed like annoyance, but the attention-getter was the guy on the ground.

 He was crumpled onto a drift at the edge of the lot, half on his side, one hand reaching toward the shack. It was Willard Collier, the birdwatcher, who’d been hiking up every day from his house a half-mile away. And I was pretty sure he was dead.

 “Call George!” Sadie said to Alicia, referring to her husband, Police Chief George Orr. “You’re still current on CPR, right, Jaye?”

 “Yeah.” I kept up my certification because of my tween daughter. Mom thing. If you have it, you won’t need it.

 I’ve never been so glad that it was her weekend with her dad. 

 “Good. Me too.” Sadie gave me a shove. “Let’s go. Two-man is better than one.”

 “What about me?” Maeve asked.

 “Reverend, you do your thing.” 

 Maeve, the Reverend Collins, is indeed a duly ordained Episcopal priest, despite enviable skills with profanity, makeup, and drinking. I’m Jewish, but I’m pretty sure she has a direct line to Whoever’s up there.

 As Sadie and I turned the guy over, his camera fell out of his hand, skidding over a patch of frozen coffee to smack into the thermos.

 First time in history coffee didn’t make things better.   

 Something about the camera didn’t look right to me, but it wasn’t the time. 

 “I’ll start with breaths,” I offered.

 “No, you’re stronger. You do compressions.” 

 Without even a blink, Sadie reached in and cleared the airway, and got down to it.

 I started compressions. I’m not just stronger. I’m bigger – a lot taller than most of my friends, at six feet. 

 We reached the first pause, where you’re supposed to check the person and see if they’re breathing on their own.

 “Nothing.” Sadie shook her head.

 Maeve, who’d been quietly watching from a few feet away, moved a little closer as we started again.

 I heard her soft, clear voice beginning the prayers for the dying just before the siren’s wail tore through the cold, still air.



 That evening, I was back in the studio, finally warm again thanks to double layers of fleece and most of a pot of coffee. I’d just finished a break and started the standard nightly spin of “You’re the Inspiration,” this time for a milestone anniversary couple, when Alicia Orr appeared.

 Many weekdays, she drops by for a coffee after working late at the local bank, where she’s a vice president. Sometimes weekends, too, especially when her husband, Police Chief George, is busy, as he sure was tonight. But her troubled expression was different.

 I didn’t remark on her new coral down coat and harmonizing striped fleece, which made her ebony skin glow. She’d wear it again – and it’s better to give a compliment when people will hear it. 

 With the coffee poured, another pot brewing, and the next song (overwrought Celine Dion for a depressed dump-ee) started, we settled in for a talk.  

 “Nasty thing today at the shack,” she said neutrally, though her expression wasn’t neutral at all.


 “Probably just sad, yeah.”

 I waited. 

 “Did you sense anything off?” she asked.

 “Um…” The camera hadn’t looked right to me, and we’d all been a little bothered by the way Willard Collier’s daughter had so coolly said she was glad her dad died doing what he loved.

 Everyone grieves differently, and it’s not necessarily a sign of anything.

 That’s what I had very firmly told myself.

 After all, some people can’t understand how I can joke about getting my husband through cancer only to get dumped, but humor keeps me from harming anyone. Probably myself. So I wasn’t going to judge. 

 Still, I’d never seen anyone’s eyes light up at the sight of their relative on a gurney,nd I’d spent enough time in the chemo suite to see a whole range of reactions. 

 Alicia watched me, and nodded.

 “Here’s the deal, Jaye,” she said, speaking slowly and carefully. “I know something that makes me suspicious. But I know it because I work at the bank, and I can’t break confidentiality.” 

 “And the Chief…” I started.

 “Will very rightly do nothing on the basis of his wife’s gut.” She shrugged. “I’m not thrilled with him, but he can’t open a criminal case because I’ve got a bad feeling and the daughter acted like she’d won the lottery.”

 “True.” I took a sip of my coffee, thought about what I’d seen when Sadie and I started CPR. “What if there was something inconsistent in the scene?”

 “Like what?”

 “Like the camera was not set up for what he was supposed to be doing.”

 Her eyes lit up. “Really?”

 “My uncle’s hobby is wildlife photography, and I know just enough to be dangerous. He explained his new camera to Ryan and me when he was up here at Thanksgiving.”

 “And poor Mr. Collier’s camera?”

 “Didn’t look right to me. But I’m not the expert. Why don’t I call Uncle Edgar and run it past him…and then get back to you?”

 “I like it.” She drank a little more of her coffee. “Thanks, Jaye.”

 “Glad to. It’s always good to have an excuse to talk to Uncle Edgar.”

 She smiled, knowing I was telling the absolute truth.

 Alicia stayed for a bit more coffee, and a little relaxing talk of moisturizers and long underwear, the two main topics of discussion for women in Vermont this time of year. Once she left, I picked up the phone.

 “Jacks!” Uncle Edgar roared. He’s the only person on earth allowed to call me that, as the closest thing I have to a father. I’m the closest he has to a daughter, since he had two sons with Aunt Mellie before she ran off with the urologist. (Don’t go there.)

 “Hey. How are you and Mom liking January in Palm Fountains?” He and my mother retired at roughly the same time, and they’re now enjoying a very late adolescent rebellion as a brother-and-sister act in their Florida senior development.

 “A little chilly. Only seventy yesterday.”

 “I think I hate you.” 

 “Well, I envy you. You have a gorgeous snowy owl up there. And you’ve only sent me one picture?”

 “I’ll get some more.” I am not the family photog, but I absolutely did owe him pics. 

 “You’d better. Maybe Judy and I fly up for a quick visit.”

 “We would love that.” Mostly. I didn’t even have to cross my fingers. “But I wanted to ask you something. A man collapsed and died near the shack earlier today, and-”

 “Oh, that’s too bad, Jacks. You all okay?

 “It was sad, but we’re fine. It’s just…”

 “You think there’s something hinky?” Uncle Edgar did thirty years with the Mineral County Sherriff’s Department. I could practically hear the click as his cop radar came on.

 “Well, I’m not a hundred percent sure, but his camera looked wrong to me, and I think I know why.”

 “Tell me exactly what it looked like…”

 I did. He agreed with me.

 Alicia was glad to hear it…and so was Chief George. 


 Sunday afternoon found us once again at the shack. This time, it was Maeve, freshly changed from vestments to fleece, picking us up in her old green SUV for a much safer trip, even if Sadie groused a little about it having less power on the hill than the Hummer did. 

 Blanche was back to the front of the shack, enjoying a patch of sun. 

 Enjoying more than that. 

 “Get the pic, Jaye!” Sadie called from the backseat. “She’s eating!”

 I’d had my cellphone ready because you never know when you might get a good shot of Blanche. I didn’t really want one with a rodent tail sticking out of her beak, though – that was more Uncle Edgar’s speed.

 As we got out of the SUV, Blanche finished her meal and shot me a glare. 

 I’d have to apologize to her later. 

 Everyone who wasn’t a vole had more serious things to worry about just then. The Simpson cruiser was on the other side of the little gravel parking area, and Chief George was leaning against it, just watching Blanche and observing the scene with his usual former NYPD cool and intensity. It’s always fun to watch him, and reactions to him, since most Vermont towns do not have a six-foot-three Black guy in a leather trenchcoat as their top cop. 

 This appeared to be pretty much the usual owl fan club: a small knot of local folks at the back of the parking area, standing and observing, or occasionally taking a picture, all trying to be as unobtrusive (to Blanche) as possible.

 Except for the woman at the front of the lot.

 She couldn’t be unobtrusive if her life depended on it.

 Standing by her white SUV, wrapped once again in her urban-fashionable silver puffer, her expensively highlighted brown hair wafting lightly in the wind, Jennee Collier (two N’s and three E’s please, she’d said yesterday as Chief George asked her whether her late father had been in poor health) was placing a bouquet, down on one knee in the chunky slush.

 I was honestly surprised that she was willing to get parking lot slop on her expensive yoga pants. Jennee was off in a lot of ways: that stupid white SUV that showed every bit of slush and muck, clothes always expensive and impractical, and hair and makeup far too much for Simpson. I’d always idly wondered how she afforded it on a teacher’s aide’s salary, and just figured there was family money around somewhere.

 Now I suspected something else.

 “What’s going on?” Maeve whispered.

 “Wait and see,” Alicia replied, sending her husband a glance and getting a nod. “Must have gotten his warrant.”

 Sadie’s eyes widened a little, and she smiled. “Looks like Blanche’s lunch isn’t the only show.”  

 Jennee stood, and glanced back at what had probably been an appreciative, or at least neutral, audience when she knelt. Not so much now. Her carefully sad face changed at the sight of Chief George and Alicia, hardening into something else for an instant before she snapped back into reality-TV mournfulness, complete with quivering lip. Maeve probably recognized the brand and color of the shimmery nude lip gloss; I just knew it was better than the usual drugstore stuff.

 “Ms. Collier.” Chief George didn’t raise his voice; it just carried across the parking lot in the chilly air. 

 “What?” She tried for innocent. “Is there something else? I’m just paying tribute to Dad where he had the heart attack.”

 She carefully wiped an eye. There was no actual moisture that I could see.

 A little too obvious, I thought. 

 “About that, Ms. Collier.” Chief George took a step toward her. 

 She stepped back. “I didn’t do anything.”

 Her brittle voice gave her away.

 “I’ve seen the bank records, ma’am. Your father found out what you’d been doing, didn’t he?”

 “No! He said I could use the money for whatever I needed.” She looked at Alicia, with a snort. “Shows what you know.”

 Alicia shrugged, not taking the bait. 

 “He collapsed from a heart attack while he was out taking pictures,” Jenee said, nodding firmly like a determined toddler.

 “Not with that camera, he wasn’t,” I snapped. I’d had enough attitude.

 Jennee’s eyes widened.

 “It probably looked good to you when you put it together. But it was the wrong lens. That was a big zoom lens. It’s for distance shots.”

 She made a flapping wave at the shack. “That’s a distance.”

 “Not that kind of distance,” I said quietly. “Any decent photog wouldn’t even bring that lens out for this.”

 “Well, he wasn’t that good-”

 “He was amazing,” Sadie said. “I have one of his pictures of a great blue heron in my living room. Jaye’s right. He would never have used the wrong lens.”

 Chief George unclipped the cuffs from his belt.

 Jennee let out a howl.

 That was enough for Blanche.

 The giant owl took off with a bloodcurdling cry, and strafed toward us.

 Everyone ducked. 

 Jennee shrieked again, and didn’t duck far enough, because we all heard Blanche’s talons ripping the back of that silver puffer as she flew past.

 For the next minute or so, most of us were busy: the Chief helping Jennee up – and then hooking her up, Alicia watching them, Maeve making sure Sadie didn’t fall on the slick parking lot, and Sadie trying to shake free. I was the only one who got a good look at Blanche as she landed.

 The owl was maybe twenty feet away from me, and she shot me a sharp glance with those big orange peepers. I managed to whip out the phone in time…and clicked off a couple of pics. Who knew if they’d be good, but she was so close I had to try.

 As we all straightened up and dusted ourselves off, Alicia elbowed me.

 “Thank you for being a friend.” 

 “Blanche too.” I grinned. “Love the Golden Girls reference.”

 “Just don’t sing it.”


 Back at the station, a couple of hours later, I sent my hard-won shots to Uncle Edgar. 

 “Nice pics.”

 “Nice info on the lens.”

 “So what was it?”

 “Money. Seems she’d been quietly stealing from dad for a while, and when they went to move money from savings into a joint account, dad found out. He covered for her, but it was obvious to Alicia.”

 “And, of course, Alicia couldn’t tell you.”

 “Nope. Confidentiality.”

 “But the lens was enough to get a warrant for the records, right?” he asked.

 “Yep. And run a quick tox screen.”

 “Fentanyl?” he asked.

  “That’s the one. Apparently fed it to him in his breakfast and dumped him at the shack.” I sighed. “Too many opioids are too easy to get around here.”

 “Everywhere, Jacks.”

 We were both silent for a moment, as I thanked the Lord that he’d gotten out before the worst of it, and I suspect he did too.

 “Good thing you’ve got an eye,” he said finally.

  I laughed. “I just remember stuff.”

 “Got a pretty good shot of your owl, too, Jacks.”

 “Guess so.”

 A few minutes later, after we hung up, I looked at the picture again. I’d caught her with one eye closed. Winking. 

 As usual, Blanche was smarter than the rest of us. 



Nikki Knight describes herself as an Author/Anchor/Mom…not in that order. An award-winning weekend anchor at 1010 WINS Radio in New York, she writes short stories and novels, including LIVE, LOCAL, AND DEAD, a Vermont Radio Mystery from Crooked Lane, and as Kathleen Marple Kalb, the Ella Shane Historical Mysteries for Kensington. Her stories are in several anthologies, and she was a 2022 Derringer Award finalist. She, her husband, and son live in a Connecticut house owned by their cat.

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