Harlem was always gray in February–even at night. The cold atmosphere seemed to suck the color from the very walls. Vibrancy was neither good nor allowed. Even the men coming back to their imprisoned wives from their dreary jobs walked with sorrow in their steps. A ragged woman whose black hair had faded into a lifeless silver sat at the corner of the street singing to herself.
One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven,
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self
She leaned against a pair of intertwined trees–one of which was clearly leeching off the other–begging passersby for spare change.
The nursery rhyme sent shivers down Henry Jordan’s spine as he pulled a fedora over his red hair and shuffled out of his apartment. He gave the woman a dollar. She was part of the people he was supposed to serve and protect, after all. He could afford the charity–especially with the big promotion he was about to accept.
“Bless you, officer,” she said, her voice old and worn, but her black eyes shone into Henry’s with intimidating intensity. “Let me read your fortune to repay you.”
He shook his head. “No, thank you, ma’am. I’ve already settled into my lot in life.” Henry quickly retreated. He felt small compared to the woman.
A bird cawed somewhere above him, and Henry shuddered again. He heard someone behind him. When he turned around, there was nobody but the beggar lady, who looked at him with fear and pity. He increased his pace to his car.
He drove to work in silence. A picture of his friend, Tucker, hung from a locket on his rear-view mirror. He caught sight of his reflection. No matter how much sleep he got, he always looked so tired. He plastered a smile onto his face; he was used to masking. He could pretend to be like everyone else. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a pale figure sitting in the back seat of his car. He nearly crashed in his haste to look behind him. There was nobody.
Henry stepped out of his black car to walk on the gray sidewalk into the police station, starting the night shift. The sounds of birds caused him to look up. A group of crows perched on the roof of the building. Their inky feathers–black and vibrant–and sharp features made them almost look like they were painted into existence. His heart caught in his throat when he noticed that there were seven of them. One in particular looked at Henry far too intelligently with its one good eye. Henry shuddered again and quickened his pace.
That one-eyed crow cawed as he entered the building. It rang inside his head like a tuning fork.
The NYPD’s 28th Precinct was always busy. Case reports piled up on every overworked person’s desk. A couple of colorless Christmas decorations from almost three months ago clung to the corners of the white rooms. Cork boards lined every desk, pinned with old evidence and gray string. One was labeled “The Homosexual Agenda” in big, black letters.
“Good evening, Detective Jordan.” Gwendolyn looked up from her typewriter and smiled sweetly. The boys said the black-haired woman had a thing for him. Henry supposed she looked about as nice as any other woman. Maybe he’d ask her to dinner later. He supposed it was possible to grow attraction over time. He hoped so, at least.
“Evening, Gwendolyn.” He took off his hat and tucked it neatly under his arm. “Any news?” He was always ready for workplace gossip.
She leaned her hands on the counter. “Yeah, actually, a new lieutenant got transferred here.”
“They need another one?”
She looked at him meaningfully. “He took your promotion.”
Henry’s breath caught in his throat. “That’s short notice.”
“Yup.” She turned back to her work. The sound of typing chorused her words. “Apparently, he got in some big wig’s good graces and was allowed to go anywhere he wanted.”
“What made him want to come here?”
“Golly if I know.”
“Mind pointing him out to me?”
A crash at the window made the two jump. It was that bird again. It clawed at the glass and yelled its head off. Henry hated the way it looked at him. What did a one-eyed blackbird need to be concerned about him for?
Gwendolyn, the lover of horror films as she was, laughed at the scare. “Yeah, it’s that man over there by the coffee maker.”
Something about him was immediately repulsive to Henry in a way he couldn’t explain. His papery skin looked sick. He seemed slightly too tall. His limbs were slightly too long. His eyes hid underneath a pair of Crookes’ sun goggles, giving him a sinister appearance.
He looked like the man Henry saw in his mirror.
The new lieutenant talked to Tom, the dark-skinned custodian of the precinct and grandfather of two. Despite how uncomfortable the latter looked, he spoke politely to the new lieutenant trying to appease him long enough to find a way to escape. The papery newcomer turned his head to look at Henry, grinning broadly. His incisors were too long.
Ashamed of his inability to help Tom, Henry escaped to his desk.
Before he could settle down, he heard a voice behind him. “Hello, detective, I’m your new lieutenant, Jordan Henry. I understand I got the promotion over you? Sorry to hear that, but I guess them’s the breaks.” Meeting his veiled eyes to Henry’s seemed to give the newcomer more delight than should be normal.
“I’m Detective Henry Jordan, sir.”
“What a coincidence.” Somehow, Jordan’s overly happy tone made it feel like it wasn’t. He offered his hand to Henry to shake.
The cawing of the crow became more desperate, and its friends seemed to have returned to join it, making a massive ruckus.
Jordan looked out the window at the flock with murder in his eyes, fingering his Smith and Wesson like he wanted to unload the revolver into it.
It was then that Henry knew. The unexpected new boss. The crows. The mutual hatred between them and Jordan. The nursery rhymes.
Seven for the devil, his own self
As if some kind of veil was torn from his eyes, he saw. Jordan Henry was the devil, and the devil looked just like him.
“I’ll go get rid of them.” He turned to leave, not shaking Jordan’s hand.
“Yeah, you do that. Don’t be long. We raid a faggot ball tonight, by the way. We can’t have those perverts ruin the moral soul of our community, can we?” His smile made it clear. He didn’t care what those people were doing or the effect on the world they had. He just wanted to hurt them.
Henry couldn’t breathe. Those kinds of raids would result in mass arrests and ruined lives. “Yes, sir,” he heard himself saying. He couldn’t get away fast enough.
“Leaving so soon?” asked Gwendolyn as Henry had a foot out the door.
“Yeah, I have an informant I need to speak to.”
As Henry exited the building, he could feel Jordan’s eyes gleefully burning a hole in his spine.
The crows seemed to know what he wanted. They stopped their ruckus and followed him from above. All of them except the one with the scar. That one perched on Henry’s driver-side mirror, looking at him. When Henry opened the door and slid in, the crow flew in after him. It sat on the passenger seat the same way Tucker had before he retired. Tucker, he thought. Tucker was going to be at the Masquerade and Civil Ball that was going to be raided. Tucker had even sent him an invitation. He began to hyperventilate.
“I’m too much of a coward to try to stop this.”
The crow looked at him sternly. You’re a cop, it seemed to say.
“Criminals are different.” Henry snapped.
The bird ruffled its feathers. This is a crime.
What does that matter?
Henry started his car sadly. “I guess it doesn’t”
Once on the road, Henry could no longer bear the silence. “So what is that thing?” Jordan was a thing in his mind.
The small creature looked at him, exasperated and cawed in a way that seemed to mean, What do you want me to tell you? You’re too low to speak Corvid.
“You don’t have to be rude about it. What should I call you?”
The half-blind crow made a tutting noise. What did I just say?
Henry rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say, buddy.” He remembered his father telling him fairy tales and mythological stories before bed when he was a kid. “How do you like ‘Odin?’”
Odin made a delighted chirp.
“Odin it is.”
It was thanks to Odin that Henry did not have a panic attack on that car ride.
The fortune teller was right where Henry left her not an hour ago. He tipped his hat to her and Odin bowed in surprising reverence. “Excuse me, I’ll take that fortune now, if you don’t mind.” He had to figure out what was going on.
She looked at him in a way that made it clear she was expecting his return. “Give me your hand, son.”
Henry did so and she gently traced her finger on his palm, following their natural lines. “You’re in danger,” she said gravely, “but you already knew that.”
“Yes, what is that thing?”
She doesn’t look up. “It’s a mimicry of you. One that wants you dead.”
“Why would it want that?”
“Does it matter? Now hold still.” She tightened her grip on his hand. “It’s going to isolate you, take away everything that is precious, and when you’re at the end of your leash, it’ll hang you with it.”
Henry gulped. His tie felt too tight around his neck. “What am I supposed to do?” In his fear, he couldn’t help but raise his voice and Odin nipped at his ear painfully at the disrespect.
The woman shook her head. “I’m sorry, I would tell you if I knew, but if he’s at your job, I wouldn’t go back there.”
Henry’s home had always felt too large and empty for him to live there alone. The shadows were long. His footsteps echoed loudly, and the walls, once painted with vibrant colors, had shoddy primer slathered on them. Henry could never find himself able to muster enough energy to repaint it. Odin cawed nervously.
Henry nearly ran to his bedroom, stuffing clothing into bags. He needed to get out of New York. Surely, somewhere else needed a cop. Somewhere where monsters were only human.
Odin glared at him.
“If I leave, maybe he won’t hurt Tucker.”
The crow perched itself on a picture frame on the bedside table. Tucker had taken Henry to Long Island. They wore matching red button-ups. They looked so happy. You’re willing to bet his life on that? The bird seemed to ask.
Henry sighed. “I’ll call him, alright?”
The detective made his way to his kitchen. He could have sworn that he heard the phone slam. He hoped that was just his nerves. He picked up his telephone and made the call.
“Tucker Hale speaking.” Tucker sounded sad and hurt. What had happened to him?
“Tucker, it’s Henry. You can’t go to the Masquerade and Civil Ball.”
There was a long pause. “I know.” Was he crying? “You made that very clear before.”
Before? Oh no. “Tucker, listen to me very carefully. That wasn’t me.”
“Who was it then? Your evil twin?” He sounded deeply hurt. Deeply sarcastic.
“I know it sounds crazy, but it is. I’ll do–”
Tucker had hung up.
Henry could have sworn he heard laughter in the cell phone static.
Odin gently perched on Henry’s hand. He seemed to ask, what are you going to do?
Less than half an hour later, Henry pulled in front of the Hamilton Lodge. The building stood proud in its multicolored, brick glory. Henry quickly parked and ran inside, Odin riding on his shoulders, his overcoat preventing the bird’s talons from digging into him.
When he stepped inside, Henry was so overwhelmed with color that he nearly fell over. There were bright streamers of every hue of the rainbow from wall to wall. Nearly everyone—both women and men—wore their finest, gaudiest, and most fun dresses whose edges seemed to defy gravity as they spun around in a grand dance. Jazz music filled the room as the band had the biggest smiles on their faces. The bass player was too busy laughing at something the pianist had said to stay in perfect tempo, but the sound was so joyful that nobody cared.
Henry looked enviously at the dresses. They were so beautiful.
A muscular, black man who looked stunning in his crimson, flapper dress, saw Henry awkwardly standing at the entrance and took his hand. “This your first time, honey?”
The detective meekly nodded. “I’m looking for Tucker?”
The man’s painted lips stretched into a grin. “Oh, they’re here darling. Come right this way. I’d love to take you to them. I’m Larry, by the way.”
Them? What did that mean?
Larry took Henry through the crowd of laughing people. It’s like all of their fears and doubts were left at the doorstep for a few hours of unhindered joy.
Larry happily droned on about the event: what their plans were, who had made their own dresses, who were the people who were helping the marginalized outside of their parties. However, Henry’s urgency seemed to prod Larry to walk faster. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you to your friend. Did you get into a fight or something?”
Henry looked sheepish. “Was it that obvious?”
“Don’t worry. Tucker is a good egg. I’m sure if you apologized–”
At that moment, a gun pressed against Henry’s back. “Well, here you are, Detective,” said Jordan. “You love it here, don’t you?”
Henry froze. Larry, seeing what was happening, let out a fearful noise and ran into the crowd. Henry didn’t blame him. “Lieutenant, I was just trying to–”
“Don’t bother lying.” Jordan sounded immensely pleased with himself. “I know you came to these perverts because you want to be one of them.”
“I don’t know what you’re–”
The gun pressed painfully against his body. “I told you not to bother lying. Here’s what I’m going to do: I am going to take all of this down forever.”
“Why am I doing this?” Jordan leaned into Henry’s ear, whispering. “It’s because I’m you, and if you become who you are, I can’t exist anymore. It’s survival of the fittest, Henry, and that’s not you.”
Odin had had enough. The crow flew into Jordan’s colorless face, screaming and clawing. The doppelganger yelled in pain. Not thinking, Henry grabbed for the gun, and the three of them fell over in the tackle. The gun went off.
A year later, Larry helped Lieutenant Henry Jordan put on his new cocktail dress in one of the changing rooms at Hamilton Lodge. Tucker was doing their makeup in another room, and Odin, who had insisted on having his beak and feet painted the six colors of the rainbow, seemed to be dancing to the muffled music outside.
Something in his too-knowing eye made Henry believe that the colors were going to catch on someday.
Odin wasn’t able to bring his mate. She was busy sitting on their three eggs. Two adults and their three chicks made five crows.
Five for heaven