Prophet, Bird, or Devil

Dr. Karen Stone slammed her palm down on the table. “Not fast enough!” She hissed, and stalked out of the trailer door, slamming it behind her. The monitor on the table showed one George Hernandez, sitting chained to a deck chair, sweating under the Oklahoma summer sun.

Dr Stone strode onto camera, a leathery woman with her dusty blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. I looked out the window of the trailer where I could see the same scene I saw on the computer screen, except now Dr. Stone was screaming and waving a water bottle in Hernandez’s face.

It looked like I needed to reinstate some sanity into this situation. I got up with an internal sigh and deep misgivings about my life choices. I’d started out with big dreams, but by the time I finished my enlistment in the army the recession had hit and it was easier to find employment with a private security firm. After a year on the job in various positions, I had been intrigued when I was told I’d be assigned to a team of scientists dedicated to researching the mysterious Time Vulture.

But after three weeks…I looked out the window, to where Hernandez hunkered in his chair and Dr. Stone stomped around him, ranting and raving. First of all, the scientific research had some big government money, but there was no team, at least not since she harassed and bullied her two partners so badly that they packed up and left a week ago. She did stuff like watching Hernandez on the computer monitor when she could easily just look out the trailer window.

And then there was the way she treated Hernandez. Supposedly using him as a test subject was all aboveboard and legal, but I guessed Hernandez hadn’t realized that his contribution to science would involve being handcuffed to a white plastic deck chair and set out in the sun for hours at a time. All of this to research a bird that was, in my opinion, mostly myth.

The urban legends say that when you near the day of your death, your heart sends out a funny little pulse and your Time Vulture senses it and comes to escort you to your death day. The closer they get to you, the sooner your death day will be. Some people plan their funerals and say their goodbyes when they see a vulture. Others panic. But a lot of people just don’t believe there’s a connection between Time Vultures and death—pretty easy to do, since a relatively small number of people actually get a Time Vulture.

Theoretically, Dr. Stone’s mission was to research someone near death (in this case a Death Row inmate named George Hernandez) roll back the mystery and show the natural explanation for how these birds work. In reality, we had been here for three weeks, the Time Vulture was just a threatening black silhouette against the blue sky, and both Dr. Stone and her experiment were beginning to fray around the edges.

I got up and went out into the heat. Dr. Stone was screeching, “You’re useless! The longer you sit here ruining my project, the less valuable you get, do you understand that?” I caught Dr. Stone’s arm just before she bashed her water bottle against Hernandez’ head.

“Dr. Stone,” I said. “I don’t believe that enduring physical violence was in Mr. Hernandez’ contract.”

She did an abrupt turn, her eyes icy cold. “I don’t believe policing me is in your contract, Mr. Riley. Mr. Hernandez’ contract allows him an entire extra month to live. If he takes what he’s been generously given and will not cooperate before his execution day, I have no choice but to increase the stressors in his life.”

I didn’t like to keep pushing the matter, especially since she was technically my superior officer while I was on this job, but I also wasn’t going to sit in there and see a man dehydrated, beaten and given heat stroke on the whim of what she called science. Maybe some folks wouldn’t care if a man sentenced to death for some brutal homicides was treated well, but I like to think right and wrong are a little bit bigger than my opinions and feelings.

“I’m going to have to ask you to stop,” I said, keeping my voice level, and drawing attention to my gun by putting my hand on my hip.

She’s a small woman, but the way she looked at me chilled my blood. “Fifteen minutes,” she snapped, and marched back into the trailer.

I got Hernandez out of the plastic chair and took him to the shade of his own trailer, where there was a water cooler. He leaned against the trailer side, shut his eyes, and dumped the first cup of water I gave him over his flushed face. I kept my back to Dr. Stone’s trailer, and asked, “What was she screaming about?”

“I don’t know,” he said, mopping his face and drinking another cup of water. “I keep asking her isn’t it the vulture’s job to get closer when it’s time for me to die? And she just screams that it’s not coming down fast enough and I’m doing something to mess it up.” He shivered. “Riley, they offered to give my wife citizenship if I agreed to this experiment. She keeps threatening to have her deported if I don’t get that bird down here, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. They come on their own, not when you call them.”

Personally, I have reservations about the truth in all the legends surrounding those birds at all, but I didn’t bring that up, especially since Hernandez and Dr. Stone both believed in the vultures’ abilities with religious fervor. Hernandez even believed that the birds feed off the dying soul and don’t disturb the body, a superstition so ridiculous I avoided even bringing the subject up because it embarrassed me to see an otherwise intelligent man make a fool of himself.

“I’m going to report this to my superior officer,” I assured him. “I don’t think she told anybody that Jones and Davenport quit two weeks ago, either, and she’s going off the rails.”

Hernandez snorted. “No kidding.”

That evening in the desert dusk, I went out behind the trailers, out of earshot, I thought, and called my boss to tell him what was going on. Despite my assurances to Hernandez, the answer was what I expected. Abercrombie, my boss, believes wholeheartedly in the chain of command, and in his company, the highest rank belongs to the customer. He chewed me out in colorful language and finished with a threat: “Do your job or lose your job, Riley. It’s simple.”

I hung up and cursed, turning back towards the trailers. As I turned, I saw a pale figure in the shadow of Dr. Stone’s trailer, and then Dr. Stone herself stepped into the moonlight, staring me down, her mouth a flat, hard line. When she’d ensured that I saw her, she turned and stalked away. I went to bed, more uneasy than I’ve been in a long time.

In the morning, Stone made no comment about overhearing my conversation with Abercrombie last night. After Hernandez had eaten his breakfast and I had cuffed him to his chair, she elected to stay outside under the trailer’s awning for the first half of the day. She seemed in an oddly good mood, even offered me a cup of coffee. “With cream; just like you like it.”

I smiled and took it. I drink my coffee black out in the desert. It’s not that I like it black so much as I just hate the powdered creamer they sent out with us, but I appreciated the gesture. I’d never expect a scientific type, particularly not this scientific type, to notice how the lowly security guard took his coffee. Maybe when she overheard my conversation last night she realized how far off the grid she’d been going and would behave more civilly in the future.

Fifteen minutes later I regretted my assumptions. She was fidgeting, tapping her fingers on the table, moving papers that didn’t need moving, readjusting her chair. I yawned, my eyes heavy. I was usually better at staying awake, even after a difficult night. Out in the morning sun, Hernandez was beginning to sweat. She was watching me out of the corner of her eye. I yawned again, rolled my neck to wake myself up—and froze. The Time Vulture was lower in the sky.

They’re menacing birds. As big as a California Condor, and an impenetrable matte black, their wings slice backwards in the shape of scythes. I saw the glint of this one’s obsidian eye as he tilted in the air to peer down at us. I didn’t believe in the whole sense-the-time of death myth, but I felt a chill as the bird looked at us. Dr. Stone was also watching the vulture, perfectly still. Then she looked at Hernandez, who had followed our gaze and was watching the bird as well. I saw something in the lines of Dr. Stone’s face then, an arrogance and disdain so deeply ingrained that she might as well have been carved out of a granite block with them in place.

I yawned again, and went to pick up my coffee cup. My hand was numb. My hand wouldn’t move. I couldn’t move my hand. I couldn’t move my feet. The coffee! I gasped, and at the sound, Stone moved faster than I could have thought possible. She’d drawn my gun from my holster and was running towards Hernandez, gun raised.

The vulture dropped lower, its shadow rippling over the trailers. I struggled to move even a single finger to help Hernandez. I will never forget that moment—unable to move, watching a madwoman level a gun at someone who was no threat to her. She was screaming at him, “It’s working! I’m going to see what happens when you die, you worthless piece of trash!”

George jumped for her, reaching for the gun, stumbling as the chair chained to him hampered his movements. They fought with the desperate concentration of life and death.

And then there was a soft thump to my left.  The vulture had landed in the sand by the trailer. It waddled forward a few steps, settling its long wings and cocking its black head to watch the combatants. George and Dr. Stone froze, the gun gripped between them.

The bird was massive, its head as high as Dr. Stone’s waist, its eyes disturbingly intelligent. I am not a man inclined to believe atmospheres and emotions—but that bird brought something cold with it, a silence, a finality, a presence. There was only the sound of the wind in the grass and Dr. Stone’s high, excited breathing.

“It’s beautiful,” she gasped, in a half whisper. I glanced at her and saw that her eyes were wild and tears streaked down her cheeks. “And I brought it down.” She was speaking in barely a whisper, not moving her eyes from the bird. “I brought it down, and I can do it again, and now nobody will wait on the flailing stupid judicial system to get rid of garbage like you, you murderer, you convict. I’ll harness the power of the vultures, and I’ll make the decisions.” She wrenched the gun away from Hernandez, took a step towards the bird, and flung her hand backwards, pointing the gun at Hernandez’ chest. “I will be Justice.”

While she was fixated on the bird, Hernandez moved. He lunged for the gun, twisting her arm, Dr. Stone screamed in rage, pulled the trigger, and then—the report cracked across the desert. A body fell to the earth.

The Time Vulture walked forward with its rolling sailor’s gait, implacable, unstoppable, a solemn mourner, and took up its place by the body of Dr. Karen Stone. Hernandez whispered something in Spanish, dropped the gun and sat down on the ground with thump, tears streaking down his face.

When the police reached the campsite three hours later, the bird had not touched the corpse. It stepped back as they approached, and as they zipped her into a body bag, it lifted off, massive wings sending sand blowing. In moments, it was gone.

Hernandez was acquitted for the murder of Dr. Stone because of my testimony that he was acting in self-defense. Two days before his scheduled execution for the crime he’d previously been imprisoned for, new evidence was uncovered proving that he was not guilty and he was pardoned. I’d figured he was innocent as soon as I saw him shoot Dr. Stone. Nobody kills people like he was supposed to have killed people and then cries like that.

I visited him and his wife last Christmas in Florida. “Do you believe in Time Vultures now?” he asked me as we saw on his back porch one evening, smoking cigars.

I wriggled my shoulders noncommittally. “It was just an opportunist. Maybe it just knew somebody would die. Maybe it was curious.”

“Oh, no,” he said, “See, I never had a Time Vulture before I agreed to the experiment. She just picked me because she thought I would be sure to attract one. That bird,” he emphasized his point with a jab of the cigar, “came for her. She wanted to claim power over death, and in the end, it claimed her.”

“She was crazy.” I said.

“I think more people than you would like to think are that kind of crazy.” He said. And we sat and watched the sun turn the ocean blood red.