Magpie (short fiction)

Life in Rockwood


Everyone who called Rockwood home knew it was a special place with its own unique problems. Marshall Kopp had known it before becoming sheriff, and he couldn’t rightly complain about it now that dealing with those problems was his job.

Becka Rodriguez pointed to the empty spot on her dresser. “It was right there, Marshall, when I went to sleep. Then I woke up, and it was gone.”

“Mmmhmm.” Kopp flipped open his notebook. “And how much would you say is missing?”

“Seventy-four cents,” said Becka. “I counted it before I went to bed.”

“Mmmhmm.” He scribbled out the number for his notes.

“I wouldn’t have bothered normally, but what with the rash of thefts we’ve had lately, I thought I’d best be safer than sorry.”

“Not safe enough to hide your change,” said Kopp.

“It’s my change. This is my home. I shouldn’t have to hide it if you did your job.”

“Anything else missing?”

She led him to her kitchen, where she opened her junk drawer. “All my stray string and buttons are gone too.”

“Approximate value?”

“I don’t know, Sheriff. But I was saving them for emergencies. Now what am I supposed to do if Jose loses a button?”

“You could always go down to the store and purchase a bag of a hundred for five dollars.”

“I ain’t made of money. Anyway, that ain’t the point, and you know it. We’re dealing with a crime wave here, and you don’t seem concerned.”

“Settle down, Becka,” he said. “I’ll get to the bottom of it, but you got to realize, finding a thief who specializes in loose change and buttons ain’t as easy as you might think.”

“Well, if you don’t stop this soon, I don’t know what we’ll do. It’s so a body doesn’t feel safe in their own bed anymore, what with thieving sorts wandering around unchecked in the night. Starts out with change. Ends up with murdering and who-knows-what?” She clutched her chest as if contemplating what the cannibal serial killer in training might be planning on doing.

All across town, people were reporting stolen bits and junk. Nothing big. Nothing valuable. Just a few coins here. Some keys, never used for any further crimes. Beads and shoelaces and a couple of balls of yarn. It was tempting to think of it as mass hysteria. People lost things all the time, and now they had a convenient boogie man to blame it on. And in any other town, Kopp would’ve taken the reports and not thought much more about it.

But this was Rockwood, where the weird could be harmless and the harmless could be weird. Once, a herd of cattle had died, reduced to skeletons in less than an hour. It’d only been the avatar of Famine passing through town, who was more than happy to pay a fine and be on his way. Once, the Beauregard Children had taken to piling stones in funny little towers and ended up almost summoning a slumbering Babylonian death god in their backyard. Kopp took it all in stride.

He was nearly finished taking Becka Rodriguez’s report when another call came in. Romie’s gravelly voice came over the radio clipped to his belt. “Marshall, the Carters say someone stole their son’s marbles.”

“Roger that, Romie.”

“Should I call in Dwayne?”

Rockwood was a sleepy little town, and a single sheriff was usually enough to deal with its problems. Dwayne wasn’t a full-time deputy. Just someone to call when things got busy.

“No, I’ll handle it.”

“Roger. I’ll let them know you’re on your way.”

“I’m telling you, Sheriff,” said Becka. “Unspeakable things are coming. Mark my words.”

Kopp nodded. He didn’t believe the worst. He never did. It’d drive him crazy if he took every little strange incident as a sign of the end of the world. His base philosophy was that as long as nobody was dead or missing, then things couldn’t be that bad.


Bernie and Selma Johnstone were dead. They sat on their old sofa, next to each other. He still clutched a beer in his hand, and her needlepoint in progress sat on her lap. There wasn’t a mark on either of them, and it looked like natural causes had taken them. It wasn’t that they were dead that made Kopp nervous. They were both pretty old, and both had had more than their share of health problems. Bernie’s ticker had been on borrowed time for years now, and nobody expected Selma to make it more than a year or two after her last bought with pneumonia.

But people didn’t usually die side-by-side like that. It was too much of a coincidence, and nobody in Rockwood cared much for coincidences, Kopp in particular.
Glenda Sampson had found their bodies. She liked to check on them. She knew the Johnstone’s better than most.

“Anything missing?” asked Kopp.

“Not that I noticed.” Glenda’s eyebrows raised as she whispered, for no apparent reason. “You don’t think this has anything to do with the crime wave, do you, Sheriff?”

Kopp pulled the brim of his Stetson lower. There weren’t many secrets in Rockwood. “Crime wave is a bit much, Glenda.”

“Do you think they were poisoned? Hexed maybe?”

“Now, Glenda, I never said anything of the sort. Don’t go running wild with that imagination of yours.”

“Heaven forbid.”

But calls would be made. Gossip would spread. By the end of the day, everyone would assume that witchcraft or voodoo or that poor Quaker family on the outskirts of town had used their evil powers to kill the Johnstones. There wasn’t anything Kopp could do about that.

She excused herself to start the gears turning, and he searched the house. He wasn’t sure what he would find or what he was looking for. The kinds of things that went missing lately weren’t obvious. The keys weren’t hanging on the hook by the door, but they could simply be misplaced. There wasn’t any loose change lurking in the couch cushions, but that didn’t mean anything. Even at her ripe old age, Selma had been a dedicated housekeeper. He’d almost given up when he found Bernie’s prized nearly-complete state quarters collection. Bernie had had some old grudge against New Hampshire, but the forty-nine other coins were all missing from the case.
Kopp called Romie, told her to bring in the coroner.

“So are we officially calling this a crime wave then?” she asked.

“Not yet, but maybe you should call Dwayne and tell him to be on standby. Just in case.”


The window opened, and the thief slipped in quietly. She tiptoed toward the pile of shiny coins, buttons, and colorful yarn sitting, unsecured, on the dining room table. She stuffed the valuables into a fanny pack.

Sheriff Kopp switched on the lights. He stood in the doorway, arms crossed, his weapon undrawn. In the light, the thief’s black and white feathers covered her face as well as poking out from the edge of her sleeves. She had a small black beak too.

She eyed the window she’d come through.

“No point in that, Mags,” he said.

Her beak bent in a frown. “How did you know it was me?”

“I didn’t know who it was. I just set the bait and waited. How I recognized you, even in that form, you’re the only one I know who wears a Caltech T-shirt around here.”

She groaned. “Ah, shit. That was stupid of me. Am I under arrest now?”

“Sit down. Want something to drink? A beer? Got some orange juice too.”

Maggie Peterson sat at the table and had a beer. She poked it with her beak and drank deeply.

“So what are you? Some kind of lycanthrope?” he asked.

“Something like that,” she said. “More of a spirit host. Family thing. Too complicated to get into.”

“So why the change?”

“Just something I do when I’m under stress. What with the divorce lately, I’ve been under a lot of stress.”

“Sorry to hear about you and Bill,” said Kopp.

“Thanks. It’s for the best, really. But the magpie spirit in me, it doesn’t like being alone. Acts out then. I can usually keep it satisfied with spare change I find in the street and the occasional piece of stolen candy.”

“And the Johnstones?”

“I swear to you, Marshall, that was an accident. One magpie is bad luck. Guess when I broke into their place I pushed them over the edge. I knew it was a risk, but those coins . . . just couldn’t help myself. Am I under arrest?”

Kopp put his boots up on the table and leaned back. “Not like you intended any harm.”

“No, you should lock me up,” she said. “Throw away the goddamn key. I can’t stop. It’ll just get worse. I knew this was a trap. I knew it. And I still couldn’t stop myself.”

“You’ve lived in Rockwood for years,” said Kopp. “Don’t recall ever having this problem before.”

“I’ve always been in a relationship,” she replied.

“Is that why you’ve always dated that string of losers?”

“I wouldn’t say losers.”

Kopp smiled.

“I can’t afford to be picky,” she said.

“Funny. I always did wonder why you married Billy. Always assumed it was because he got you pregnant.”

“That was sort of on purpose,” she admitted. “He’s not a bad guy. He’s a good father at least.”

“Yeah.” Kopp tipped back his beer. “I’ll give him that. But you two never were a good fit.”

“Am I under arrest?” she asked.

Kopp leaned forward. “That all depends.”

“On what?”

“You want to go to a movie on Saturday?”

Maggie said, “Are you asking me out? My divorce isn’t even final yet.”

“Way I see it,” said Kopp, “you’re just a victim of circumstance. My job is to help you deal with those circumstances. Now, I could lock you up, but it ain’t right to put a bird in a cage when there are other options. We’ll find a way around this, one way or another. But I always liked you, Mags.”

“Even knowing this about me?”

“Hell, Mags, we all got our secrets. I’m not saying it’ll be anything permanent, but it’ll take the pressure of you for a while until a better guy comes along.”

She took his hand. The feathers disappeared. Her face became human again.

“I always liked you too, Marshall.”

He smiled at her.

“I know, Mags.”

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  1. Keith Carpenter
    Posted May 4, 2015 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Was checking out your website for the first time to see when your next book was coming out. WOW. These short stories have been an unexpected surprise. I really enjoyed the Wren and Hess stories. Thank you for putting these out. For what it is worth A Nameless Witch has been my favorite of your books. Have to love a book that unapologeticly has a demonic duck as a character.

  2. Gary Ebert
    Posted May 6, 2015 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m like Keith. I’ve read (and thoroughly enjoyed) all of your books. I wanted to see if there was a new one on the way. These shorts are great, but they have whetted the appetite for more!

    There are very few books that I save. I normally donate them to the library or goodwill. Yours I have saved. Keep up the good work!

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted May 6, 2015 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Gary. Glad you’re enjoying the shorts.

      My next book isn’t due out until next year. I’ve moved to Simon & Schuster, and my first project with them will be a new trilogy (my first) featuring the adventures of Constance Verity. I’ll post more as we get closer to publication.

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