by Michael Weitz
Growing up in a small rural community has its charms though we rarely appreciate them until we’ve grown up. One of the things I enjoyed was looking for deer, badgers, coyotes, birds and whatever else might be wild and not on a farm. It passed the time while my dad drove us through the surrounding agricultural fields on our way to a movie or to the home of a friend who happened to live seven miles out of town and surrounded by acres of wheat fields.
Today I live in a larger city that, if they’re smart, animals of an untamed nature tend to shy away from. After all, a raccoon driving a minivan around town to pick up his forest pals just doesn’t wash unless it’s in a Pixar movie, right? Besides, even though a raccoon has “hands” that could grasp the steering wheel, it lacks the size to reach the gas pedal and still be able to see where it’s going. That being said, my neighborhood surrounds a pond that is home to a number of creatures and my wife and I feel very lucky to be able to sit and watch their activities while we relax after a long day.
There are Canada geese, but the Canada moniker seems dicey because every spring we watch the newly-hatched goslings form a maritime train behind their parents in our pond so there is obviously some dual citizenship agreement; frogs and toads perform a nightly chorus that sounds more like broken fog horns than anything of the “ribbit” variety; Mallard ducks build their nests and receive an occasional visit from a colorful Wood duck, and there’s a turtle or two who are only seen when they sun themselves on a rock. We’ve even spied a fox trotting through our neighbors yard, but my favorite is a Blue Heron that appears nearly every day to stand majestically along the shore. It’s all very serene.
We’d recently bought our house and had been living in it for a few months before I finally dug out our binoculars in order to get a better look at the heron we’d arbitrarily dubbed “Simon.” The bright yellow eyes glared down his saber-like beak seemingly fixed in a permanent scowl of concentration. His grayish blue plumage smoothed back as he slowly stepped into the water of the pond. “Honey, come check out Simon!” I called to my wife. “The binoculars really bring him in close.”
She’d just poured a glass of wine and came outside to enjoy the warm weather. I handed her the optics and pointed to where the bird was standing stock-still. She looked through the binoculars and said, “Ooh, he’s so neat. He’s looking at something under the water. I wonder if-Oh! Blegh! He got a frog!”
“What? Let me look!” I said. She handed me the binoculars and I quickly focused on Simon. Sure enough he had a frog the size of a football dangling from the end of his beak. No sooner had I seen this, though, than the bird dropped the frog onto the grass and stared as it leaped twice and back into the water. Two giant steps and a flap of his mighty wings brought Simon to the water’s edge just as fast and with a lunge he snatched the frog and brought it back ashore. Again he dropped it and again he caught it and brought it back from the water.
“Do you want to look somemo…” That’s when Simon cocked his long neck into an S and with Bruce Lee-like speed, unleashed his beak of fury. In a flash Simon stabbed the frog, reared back and stabbed it twice more. That frog was dead, yep, no question. “Never mind, honey,” I mumbled and tried not to retch. The swift and bloody violence was shocking and worthy of a Scorsese film.
But I kept watching. The prey was dead, the predator victorious, now it was time to dine. If you’ve seen a heron, you know their necks are about as wide as a champagne flute and there are no knives and forks available at the pond side restaurant. I was genuinely, if somewhat morbidly, curious to see how Simon intended to down his dinner. In fact, it was a gluttonous scene of maneuvering the carcass into his mouth head first, lifting his head high and swallowing the frog whole. Through the binoculars I was awarded a splendid view as Simon’s neck swelled to near bursting as the night’s menu slid down into his stomach. No sooner had his neck returned to its slender, graceful state than he knocked back a quick sip of pond water. If he had lips I swear he would have smacked them.
That was the first time we’d witnessed Simon dining on the local wildlife and it was the last time my wife took up the binoculars to look upon his beauty. But we still feel blessed to live here on the pond. Simon has grown fatter and the number of frog voices singing the nightly song has diminished, but we’ve seen other birds and been visited by the occasional mammal. Oddly enough though, no raccoon. Although now that I think about it, there were some unaccounted for miles on the car after I left the garage door open the other night...
All my best,
Here is a short intro to Michael’s mystery novel for your reading pleasure.
When one of Ray’s students, Walter Kelly, is found dead in his shop, the police and his family let it go as an accident. Ray, however, doesn’t buy it. As a former cop with a lingering curiosity, Ray snoops around and stumbles into the murky world of methamphetamine, the worst drug epidemic of our time.
The problem? Walter Kelly was sixty-five years old and his only addictions were woodworking and chess. How does a sixty-five-year-old man become involved with illegal drugs? Why is a neighbor glad Walter’s dead? And just how do dead men play chess?
To take my mind off the task at hand, I thought about Brian Kelly. Was it just the cabin going to waste that rubbed him the wrong way or was it the land value he was afraid of missing out on? Real estate assessments had been big news over the last month or two. Housing prices and land deals had gone berserk and sellers were making massive profits. Maybe Brian was in trouble financially and he just couldn’t take it anymore? Walt refused to sell and Brian killed him for it, knowing the cabin would eventually come into his hands or he would at least be able to talk his mother into putting the land up for sale.
Outside, I heard Ed Carter’s back door creak open and closed. I poured fresh water over the floor and started mopping it up. If Ed planned on being neighborly again, I didn’t think he needed to witness the clean-up process. But after several minutes passed without an appearance from the Kellys’ neighbor, I began my attack on the table saw with a scouring pad.
Just as I got into a nice scrubbing rhythm, Morphy growled low in his throat and raised his head off of his paws. I stopped and watched him. His ears were erect and his gaze was on the window behind me. Goose flesh erupted on my arms. To hide the shiver that ran down my spine, I resumed wiping down the table saw with calm casualness. I kept my attention focused on Morphy, though, and he growled again. This time, the hair over his shoulders stiffened and rose up as his emotions kicked in. Someone was watching or trying to look in the window. Morphy wouldn’t get so angry over something like a skunk or a cat.
I twisted around just as Morphy leapt to his feet and barked. Someone ducked down before I could see a face. I ran to the door and pulled it open. Morphy tore around the corner, barking after the intruder and I followed as close as I could.
In the darkness of Margie Kelly’s backyard, I saw Morphy’s blond fur disappear into the black shadow of Walt’s shop. He chased a dim figure, which ran toward the back of the property, to Helen Parker’s house. I ran full out once I saw the shadowy form of the person who had been spying through the window. Gone were the trepidations of twisted ankles and bloodied shins from unseen objects lying hidden on the grass.
Even Dead Men Play Chess
A variety of jobs including waiter, gas station attendant, truck driver and a host of others, helped shape his world. After college he landed in the television industry where he wrote and produced a multitude of award-winning commercials, two documentaries about Mt. St. Helens and various other projects.
After a few years in Phoenix, AZ, Michael, his wife, and their dogs are back in the Pacific Northwest. Currently working on the next Ray Gordon mystery, Michael may also be found reading, playing chess or shooting pool. As an avid photographer, he enjoys traveling anywhere picturesque with his wife.
Learn more about Michael Weitz on his website and Goodreads.
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