The song of the night heron has awakened Anna from her sleep. Now, as she makes her way to the park to catch a glimps of the elusive night bird, an evil predator has picked up Anna's scent. But Anna has endured evil before, and this time she'll be ready.
Birds of Prey
Anna awoke two hours before dawn and gazed out the open window, her brilliant green eyes glinting duel reflections of the full moon hanging overhead. She knew never to leave the house at this hour, understanding her father would be frantic if he awoke to find his twelve-year-old daughter gone. But the call of a night bird had disturbed her sleep, and Anna wanted nothing more than to catch a glimpse of the elusive, nocturnal hunter shown in the book her father had given her.
The book had come with a C.D., which recited scientific and common names along with each bird’s unique call.
“Nyctanassa violacea,” Anna whispered as the night bird again spoke in the dark, “the yellow-crowned night heron.”
Home schooled since adoption, Anna’s father had always insisted upon repetitive verbal phonics as a way for Anna to remember her studies. And though there were days over the past years in which Anna had wanted to scream out in frustration, she also knew how much it pleased her father to hear the college level pronunciations finally issue correctly from her vocal cords. “No matter our status in society at any given time,” her father had once said, “you must learn to speak the language of an intellect. Proper communication is one of our strongest weapons.”
And besides, she liked the park at this hour – the stillness of it. It was like traveling back in time…to a time in which man had not yet invaded nature’s tranquil surroundings and claimed it for his own.
Anna eased out of bed and dressed, her long hair cascading down the back of her white dress like a waterfall of glistening ebony as she tied the sash. She then opened the closet, picked up the white shoes that went with her dress, and walked barefooted to the front door, cocking her head as she listened for movement from her father’s room.
Not a sound.
Anna slowly opened the front door, freezing her motion as a slight creak invaded one of the hinges. The house remained silent, and with the stealth of a cat, Anna slid through the opening and latched the door shut behind her.
The pre-dawn air held a humid chill, which was rare in southwest Florida for mid April, but Anna didn’t mind. The cool air actually invigorated her senses, heightened her awareness. She stooped to put on her shoes, the morning paper inches from her hand, the bold headline visible through the clear plastic bag: Young girl found dead! Second murder in two weeks!
Anna read the bold type twice and wrinkled her nose. “Sicko,” she said with distaste and began the half-mile walk towards J.C. Park; her white shoe heals clicking in stride with her step.
As she neared the park entrance, Anna heard the squawk of the night bird again. She knew from the book that the yellow-crowned night heron took its prey from the water, so angled her course towards the river. Large rocks placed along the riverbank formed a ten-foot wide breakwater and prevented wake erosion, making an excellent feeding ground for the indigenous flying foul. Anna approached the rock reef and gazed out across the mile wide expanse of the Callosahachee River. A green channel marker flared ominously half way across as small orbs of white light dotted the far shore like motionless fireflies.
Lights from the riverfront mansions, Anna thought. Probably the maids or other staff readying for the owners day. This led to more thoughts, painful thoughts, which Anna didn’t want to think about. But they came anyways, (as bad memories often do), like flood waters caught in a tidal surge, and Anna closes her eyes.
Before her adoption, Anna remembered living by the water with her natural father - not in a mansion like the ones across the way, but in a dilapidated motor home among the other degenerates residing in the confines of the North Fort Myers River campgrounds. Her mother had been addicted to heroin - Anna weathering withdraw upon leaving the womb - and on Anna’s second birthday, she had run off to California in search of stardom with a bar bouncer named Noodles.
Throughout her younger years, Anna remembered being more of a slave than a daughter to her alcoholic father – cleaning the trashed motor home after one of his all night drunk fest parties, scrubbing up dried Spaghetti-O puke from around the rust-stained toilet bowl, washing her father’s piss-stained pants after one of his weekend binders. But she tried to stay positive, praying all the while for God to grant her a miracle.
Then the sexual abuse had started, and one night Anna decided that she’d had enough. With her father passed out on the couch, she’d crept into his room and withdrew the .38 pistol stashed in his dresser. After returning to the living room, Anna remembered how she had stood over her father, feeling confused, trembling as she contemplated which head to shoot him in first. Then an emotional wave had washed over the shores of her being, causing her to flee the motor home in disgust.
To her horror, Anna had realized that even after all the shame and humiliation the man inside the motor home had put her through, she still carries a spark of love for her natural father. But why? She was not able to answer that question, which made the decision to take her own life all the more clear.
Wondering in a stupor, Anna settled under scrub oak by the trash-strewn riverbank. She then raised the .38 and stared down the dark hole of the muzzle, her finger slowly applying pressure on the trigger.
A dog barked, startling Anna from her visit into the past. Slowly she turned, locking eyes with a mixed mongrel of about eighty pounds baring his teeth. Anna felt moisture on her cheeks, realized she’d been crying, and became anger at the intrusion, her green eyes blazing intently in the moonlit darkness.
She wanted to kill the dog; advance like a gladiator and strip from its hide the vengeance she felt towards her father’s memory. Maybe Satan, for his own amusement, has trapped his retched soul inside this flea-infested beast…, Anna thought ,…giving me the chance to do what I should have done in the first place – end his miserable existence.
Possibly sensing more danger than fear from its adversary, the dog took a tentative step back, but still bore its yellowing canines while issuing another low, guttural growl.
Walk easy, my daughter, spoke the voice of her adopted father inside her head – her real father. The dead of the past do not infest the mongrel before you, but haunt only your inner being. Banish them.
Anna took a deep breath, letting it out slowly and relishing the calming effect. She let her eyes settle back to the dog, which was still growling but no longer bearing its teeth.
“Leave,” she said, pointing to the north. “That way.”
The dog ceased growling and gave a quizzical tilt of its head as if in surprise.
“Now,” said Anna.
A small whine escaped the confused creature, and Anna saw urine trickle to the ground, but the dog remained.
“Leave!” Anna commanded, stomping a foot to the ground and giving a fierce point to the north, and as if jolted with fully charged cattle prod, the dog gave sharp yelp and bolted away to the north with its tail between its legs.
Anna watched the dog until it was out of sight, and then sighed as she dropped her north-pointing arm to her side. She found the solace of a park bench close by and sat down with a sorrow-filled groan. Why did I go and dredge up those awful memories, she thought, fighting back tears. My adopted father took me away from all that – saved me from it. And then the first sentence she’d heard pass from the mouth of her adopted father played through her head like a beautiful symphony.
“I think that would be a mistake.”
Anna closed her eyes, smiled, and let the wonderful memory replay itself.
She’s sitting by the trash-strewn river bank and looking down the barrel of the .38 that will end her life. Her trembling finger begins applying pressure on the trigger. Then her adopted father speaks his first sentence to Anna.
“I think that would be a mistake.”
After that, her life had changed forever; the man she now considered her real father saving her from a living hell, stealing her away from death’s grip and showing her a life that most people only dreamed of having. But most importantly was the love, the unconditional love her adopted father showed for her. It was the love of a true father - loving his only daughter - and that was enough for Anna.
She sat on the park bench with her eyes closed, and smiled as her adopted father's face filled the boundaries of her imagination.
Anna opened her eyes, and not five feet from her stood a portly man wearing glasses and a Florida Marlins baseball cap. She guessed the man to be in his middle thirties, but it was hard to tell for sure. He wore jeans, sneakers, and an oversized sweatshirt, presumable to minimize the spare tire hanging around his waist. His face had a dopy, innocent look, reminding Anna of Elmer Fudd from the Loony Toons cartoons. Dee- ba-da-be! Dee-ba-da-be! Dee-ba-da-be…that’s all folks! she thought, and had to put a hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle.
“Oh,” the man said, smiling. “I didn’t realize ‘hello’ was so funny.”
Anna waived a dismissive hand. “I’m sorry. Hello…and, I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
The man blinked as if confused, giving him that classic ‘where’d that waskly wabbit go’ look and forcing Anna to swallow another smile. Then his face took on a knowing expression of understanding. “I follow you. Lot’s of weirdo’s out there. Can’t be to careful now-a-days. If I were your Dad, I wouldn’t want my daughter talking to strangers, either. Especially if my daughter was as pretty as you are. That’s a beautiful dress. Do you live around here?”
Anna gave the man a firm look, remaining quiet.
The man put up a defensive hand. “All right…fair enough. I’m gone.” He took two steps away, and then halted. “But as the only adult present, I do have to ask: What’s a girl your age doing wandering the park alone before dawn?”
Anna kept her silence, and then thought, why not? “I’m bird watching.”
The man nodded. “Ah, a night heron fan, are you? Me, too!”
Anna gave the stranger a sarcastic look. “Oh…come on!”
“No, seriously…try me. What’s the common name of the bird you’re seeking?”
Anna once again gave the man a cold stare.
“Okay, look,” he said, coming a step closer. “My name is Todd, and I live right over there in that little cluster of condos. I’m not a rapist or child murderer – I just like to get up before dawn and bird watch in the park. Now, what’s the common name of your bird?”
Anna sighed, and gave in. “The yellow-crowned night heron.”
“Nyctanassa violacea,” the man shot back. “See, I told you.”
Her eyes widening in surprise, Anna said, “That’s right!”
“And let me guess,” Todd pressed on, “you heard one squawking and you came down to the park to catch a glimpse of it feeding. Correct?”
Anna nodded, a smile of guilt crossing her face. “Okay, you got me.”
Todd brightened at once. “It’s not a matter of getting you…it’s a matter of showing you.”
The cynical look returned to Anna’s face. “What are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere with you!”
“Nor do I expect you to,” Todd said in a calm voice. “I just wanted to point out to you where your elusive feathered friend is hanging out.” He then put a finger over his lips in a shushing gesture and pointed over Anna’s shoulder. “About fifty feet behind you to the right.”
She eyed the man named Todd for a moment longer and then slowly turned to look - and there it was; the bird she came seeking – the yellow-crowned night heron.
Perched on the rock reef, the two-foot tall heron moved in slow, graceful strides, pausing only for a closer inspection under one of the stones. Then, with eerie speed, the heron’s beak darted down and came up with a small blue crab. Tilting its head back, the heron swallowed the crab whole and then strutted over the rocks, the yellow plumes atop the large bird’s head fanning open as it squawked out a boastful note of triumph.
“Did you see that,” Anna asked, never taking her eyes from the prize. “Did you see how fast it grabbed it’s…” She felt the prick of a needle invade the back of her neck and spun to face the man behind her.
Todd held up a small, diabetic syringe and waggled it in front of her face. “You had it right at first,” he said, giggling like a girl, his lips pulling into a prissy cupids bow, “you should never talk to strangers. But we won’t be strangers for long; of that I can assure you.”
Anna fell to one knee and Todd rushed in to grab her, sneaking guilty looks over his shoulder to make sure they were still alone. Grabbing at the front of his shirt, Anna felt a layer of think padding, her eyes rolling up to Todd’s face.
“Oh…that,” Todd said nonchalantly. “It’s a fat suit, just like my hair isn’t real either.” He reached up and pealed back his baseball cap, which also contained his hair, the skull underneath shaved completely bald. “All the good criminal maintain great disguises, especially the ones that have a taste for pretty young girls such as youself.”
Anna’s eyes rolled to white and she went limp. Todd, tossing her over his shoulder like a sack of laundry, hurried along the riverbank and pushed his way into a thick growth of mangrove trees. After dropping Anna unceremoniously to the wet, root-choked soil, Todd removed his prop glasses and poked his head through mangroves to make sure they were still alone; giggling again when he realized his crime had gone unseen.
He pulled his head back into the mangroves, turned to attack his bounty, and then instinctively recoiled, his mouth coming open in a gasp. These were the things he saw, in a torrent of terrifying impression: the girl awake, which should have been impossible considering the amount of drugs he’d pumped into her body; her eyes glowing green, as if lit from within by neon light; two inch long fangs, bright white and needle sharp, protruding from the girls grinning mouth; her pale skin, the color of creamed milk and devoid of all color; long, vicious claws, where her fingers should have been.
“Hi, stranger,” the girl thing whispered in a harpies hiss. “Seen any birds lately?”
Todd raised an accusatory finger, his face a jumble of terror and his mind taking a vacation from sanity. “You’re not real! Vampires don’t exist!”
With the speed of a striking snake, Anna lunged, sinking the claws of her right hand through the body suit and into the soft flesh of child killer’s innards, using her left hand to cover the mouth and stifle his howl of pain.
“Surprise, surprise! So you’re the sicko that’s been killing little girls, huh? I was hoping to run into you.”
Todd only cowered in stupefied horror, and before she could speak again, Anna was struck in the face - not by any physical fist, but rather by the overwhelming smell of fresh blood.
Todd noted the distraction and tried to make an exit, but before he gained the first step, a shearing pain exploded in his lower back as Anna set her claws again, and both of his legs lost all feeling. He fell to the root infested ground at an awkward angle, Anna's grip like a sprung animal trap, and heard the sickening snap of his shoulder as it lodged between the twisted root system of the Mangroves. He gave off a loud moan, but could muster no more; his strength fading like a dying breeze.
Anna rolled the dying man over; she could sense his life force draining at a rapid pace and knew she needed to make this quick. If his heart stopped before she could suckle, the meal would be wasted.
“Look at me,” she hissed.
Todd turned his head in defiance and Anna lacerated a cheek to get his attention.
“Look at me!”
Turning his head to meet her stare, Todd began to weep. “Please,” he blubbered. “Please let me go. I promise to be good.”
Anna’s gave him a savage smile. “Men like you can never be good. It’s not in your nature. Trust me, I know. But I did want to say ‘Thank you’.”
Todd batted his eyes in surprise, sensing a ray of hope. “For what?”
“For showing me the night bird, of course.”
And with that said, Anna could wait no more; the smell of living blood to strong. She bent, watching keenly as the blood pulsed through his neck, and buried her fangs - the child killer calling himself Todd breathing his last.
Anna was hungry, so the feeding took only a short time, Todd’s mouth hanging open in a final, silent scream. She removed her fangs and gazed into the dead man’s face, eyes open and vacant, complexion …well okay… a corpse gray. She felt satisfied with the killing, as if released from her past in some way. The ghost of her natural father would probably always lurk in her memories, but now she felt a small sense of justice done, knowing that other girls her age, (well, that looked her age anyway; in human years, she was actually twenty-eight now.), wouldn’t suffer the same fate at the hands of the dead man before her.
Anna stood. It was time to go home. But before she could step out of the little cluster of mangrove trees, a warm tingling sensation invaded her flesh. Anna studied her skin for a moment, and then jerked her head skyward.
In the star strewn sky, Anna saw faint tendrils of light blue fanning open in the eastern horizon. The sun was beginning to rise.
In a fit of panic, she thought about making a mad dash for home. But then realized there was no way she’d make the half mile dash before the sun's brow crested the horizon.
Her skin went from a warm tingling to a maddening hot buzz. She was out of time, with nowhere to seek cover.
Anna did the only thing she could and crouched into a fetal position, using her hands to cover her head in a futile effort to ward of the sun’s rays. She saw tiny strands of grey smoke beginning to drift up from her arms, and thought, Oh father, I’m so sorry you’re going to be alone again. I love you. Carry me with you always, and…
Just then, a black phantom descended from the trees, falling atop of Anna and covering her with a blanket in one motion.
Her sensing returning, Anna smiled. “Hi, Dad.”
The man was tall, his physique slender but muscular. He had dark hair that touched his shoulder and a pale complexion. But what always captured Anna’s full attention was his blazing blue eyes. It was as if he had somehow grabbed a handful of bright summer sky and then released its magic into his own eyes.
“Don’t you ‘Hi, Dad’ me!” Anna’s father almost roared under the blanket. “Do you realize how peerlessly close to death you just came? And by who’s permission did you leave the house?”
“I’m sorry,” Anna said, lowering her gaze. “Do you forgive me?”
She heard a deep sigh come from above her, and knew she’d won back her father heart.
“What were you doing here in the first place,” he asked, trying to sound irritated.
“Bird watching,” he repeated. “And who’s your friend here?”
“Well, do you remember reading in the paper about the two young girls that were sexually assaulted and then murdered?”
“Yes. Is this the man responsible?”
“Not anymore,” Anna said, licking a taste of blood from the corner of her mouth.
Anna’s father nodded. “I see. And did you get a look at your night bird?”
At that moment, the squawk of the night heron filled the early morning air.
“Yes, as a matter of fact I did - Nyctanassa violacea,” Anna said, burying her face in her adopted fathers chest as he catapulted into the pre-dawn sky and carried her home.