Read an Excerpt
An Owl Too Many
A Peter Shandy Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
Professor Peter Shandy spied it first, to nobody's surprise. Shandy, hot-shot horticulturist at Balaclava Agricultural College, wasn't the man to miss much. "Saw-whet," he whispered.
"Screech." Dr. Thorkjeld Svenson's gentlest whisper still brought to mind the roaring of maddened trolls in caverns measureless to man.
"Too small. No ear tufts." Associate Professor Winifred Binks, newly appointed to the chair of Local Flora, was not to be intimidated even by the college president. This was her first time out with Balaclava's traditional Annual Owl Count; she clearly saw it as a chance to burnish the name of Binks, which had acquired an ugly greenish patina through no fault of hers.
"Maybe it's a young screech owl that hasn't grown its ear tufts yet." Emory Emmerick wasn't even a member of the faculty, nobody quite knew how he'd managed to muscle his way into this august company. "Or a Richardson's owl?"
His suggestion was greeted with the silence it deserved. The small avian settled the matter itself by emitting a weak, two-toned rasping cry instead of a mournful whinny (screech) or a song like the dropping of water (Richardson's). Svenson conceded.
"All right, Binks, saw-whet. Write it down, Shandy. Yesus, look at that!"
October's bright blue weather had given way to crisp autumn night. Here in the woods behind the campus, dead oak and maple leaves lay ankle-deep. Low in the sky rode a harvest moon just past the full, veiled off and on by fast-scudding rags of gray cloud. At the moment, the huge orange disk showed clear. Across its face was flitting, huge and silent, a feathery form of ghostly white.
"Nyctea scandiaca," gasped Professor Stott, head of animal husbandry and the greatest owl-watcher of them all. "President, this cannot be! The snowy owl is an arctic day-flier, habituated to marshes and meadows. One might find a snowy owl in Maine or Minnesota during the winter months, but rarely this far south unless driven to forage abroad by a shortage of lemmings in its customary haunts. I have it on excellent authority that there is an abundance of lemmings in Canada this year."
"Then might what we saw have been merely the white underbelly of an extra-large barn owl?" suggested Professor Binks.
Stott shook his head, deliberately and ponderously, for he was not a man given to haste. "That was not a barn owl. I would know a barn owl. Barns, after all, are my own native habitat." Stott could wax jocose upon occasion.
"How about a short-eared owl?"
That was Emmerick putting his foot in it again. Nobody paid any attention to him, the bird had been far too large and much too white.
Dr. Svenson was a student of Norse mythology, so his jokes tended to be on the obscure side. Emmerick, who'd just become acquainted with the college's magnificent draft horses, all named for Norse gods and goddesses, naturally missed the point.
"I thought Loki was one of your Balaclava blacks."
As usual, the rest ignored him. "An interesting suggestion, President," murmured Winifred Binks. "Loki was a shape-changer, was he not? Didn't he once turn himself into a woman?"
"Into a mare. Got knocked up by a horse named Svadilfari while he was trying to con a rock giant into rebuilding the wall of Asgard for nothing. Served him right. Bore an eight-legged colt and gave it to Odin. There it goes again! Come on."
They stepped up their pace, still in single file according to owl watch protocol. President Svenson led, of course. Daniel Stott, Balaclava's most dedicated owl watcher, was second; the knowledgeable Winifred Binks third. Emory Emmerick, the novice, made an annoyingly erratic fourth; Peter Shandy came last as whipper-in.
Each was anxious for a clear sighting. Rules demanded that each bird be positively identified by at least two members of the team. What judge was going to believe a snowy owl in Massachusetts in October without an oath sealed in blood by the entire group, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof?
"There's something almost eerie about that bird." Winifred Binks excelled any of the men in woodcraft. She was sharp as a fox, quick to catch each teasing glimpse as it flitted along between the trees. "It's flying so slowly, one might almost think it was leading us on. Dear me, how fanciful!"
"The owl may be wounded, or simply confused," said Professor Stott. "That would explain its being so far out of its customary habitat."
Professor Stott had on the same owl-counting garb he'd worn every year for two decades: ankle-high boots, green porkpie hat with a speckled guinea-hen feather stuck in the band, vast brown tweed knickerbockers, and matching Norfolk jacket. Completing the ensemble were a dark-green flannel shirt and Argyle plaid stockings in tones of brown and green, knitted years ago by his late wife, Elizabeth, and kept in repair by the second Mrs. Stott. Iduna, née Bjorklund, had been named after the Norse goddess who kept the golden apples of youth, and might have been feeding them to her husband. Though a man of mature years and considerable size, Stott was gliding along behind the leader without even panting.
Winifred Binks had recently inherited her grandfather's fortune and was still trying to count her ever-multiplying millions. Still, she hadn't put on any show of affluence. Her customary working clothes were plain gray or brown slacks and knitted pullovers in neutral shades or gentle pastels suitable for a woman of indeterminate years. Tonight, though, she'd surprised the men by appearing in the well-worn tunic, pants, and moccasins she'd cobbled together out of home-tanned deerskins during her leaner days.
The head and tail of the line were less exotically garbed. Thorkjeld Svenson, even taller than Stott and a good deal brawnier, could have passed for a rock giant himself in his gray flannel shirt and work pants if he hadn't also been wearing a red wool cap with a huge white bobble like an overgrown rabbit's scut. Peter Shandy, bringing up the rear with field guide, clipboard, first-aid kit, flashlight, and a pint of brandy just in case, was dressed much like the president, except that he wore a shapeless old tweed hat in place of the bobbled cap.
Emory Emmerick, in natty flannels and a Fair Isle pullover that would have suited Miss Binks better than him, looked too much like an ad from a men's mail-order catalog to fit in with this congeries of individualists. Nor did he act like them. Owl-count protocol demanded that members of each team keep in single file; all at once Emmerick put on a burst of speed, snapping a twig under his foot to everyone else's fury, and moved up toward the front of the line. This was practically lèse-majesté; who did the damned fool think he was?
Peter couldn't figure out why in Sam Hill Emmerick had invited himself along tonight. He was an engineer, or called himself one. He obviously didn't know anything about owls, he didn't know how to behave on an owl count, and he didn't have sense enough to keep his big mouth shut at any time. He'd been airing his opinions right and left every time Peter had seen him at the station this past week.
"Station" was a portmanteau word encompassing the college's new field station out on the western border of Balaclava County and the small television station that was about to get built under Emmerick's supervision. The thirty-acre tract had been the old Binks estate; both the land and the buildings being erected on it were gifts of the heiress. Professor Binks and her long-time idol, Professor Emeritus of Local Fauna John Enderble (author of How to Live with the Burrowing Mammals, Never Dam a Beaver, Our Friends the Reptiles, et al.), had set up a museum of local flora and fauna in a prefabricated building where they were already conducting nature-study classes. Winifred had built herself a house from a kit. Television stations, they were learning, were a great deal more complicated to set up, even though this one would be producing and airing nothing but environmentally oriented programs.
Peter was a member of the steering committee; he'd already lined up his old friend Professor Timothy Ames to star in a rip-snorting, soul-stirring epic on soil conditioning. Emmerick had aired his opinion that they ought to get some sex and violence into the program, so Tim had offered to cut an earthworm in half with a switchblade knife. He would thus have created not one dead worm but two perfectly viable live ones, without all the fuss and bother to which the mammalia, including Homo-allegedly-sapiens, are subjected. However, Emmerick had said that wasn't quite what he'd had in mind. Peter had a hunch that once he really got to know Emmerick, he was going to have him kicked the hell off the station and replace him with somebody whose brains weren't wired to a cathode-ray tube.
But all things in their own time. At the moment, that improbable great bird was still allowing them to catch quick glimpses of it through the trees. If anybody was going to get a sight of the snowy owl, or ghost, or whatever it was, P. Shandy was determined to be among those counting.
Of course Svenson's group was not the only one working on the owl count. Several other faculty members, the more avian-minded among the students, and a number of Balaclava Junction's townsfolk were out owling, too; they'd all be prowling the fields and woodlands for as much of the night as they could stick. Territories had been divided off and assigned to groups, usually of eight spotters. Svenson had claimed for himself the trickiest plot and the fewest spotters but had snaffled the cream: namely Stott, Binks, and Shandy, in that order. Emmerick could have been added to the group by way of penance, Peter supposed; the president never felt comfortable making things too easy.
What the flaming perdition was that confounded blob of feathers up to now? Peter had never before seen an owl behave like this one; it was beginning to give him the heebie-jeebies. Miss Binks—she'd asked him to call her Winifred but so far he hadn't been able to work himself up to it because she reminded him so much of his fourth-grade teacher—could be right about the creature leading them on. This was probably not a bird but a bogle, he decided. When they got to wherever it was taking them, it would emit a hideous squawk and vanish in a puff of sulfur. Maybe he ought to begin a second list for specter- spotting. Thus musing, he tripped over a root or something and went down on his knees.
The leaf mold was deep and spongy, Peter wasn't a big man. He fell so lightly that those in front of him didn't even notice. No matter, he wasn't hurt and hadn't dropped his tally- board or spilled the brandy. He was clambering to his feet and dusting off his pant legs when all hell broke loose.
"Get down!" Svenson was roaring. Peter felt a mighty thud as he saw the president hit the ground, carrying Winifred Binks down with him. Even Dan Stott moved fast, a fusillade of shots was a powerful motivator. Peter rolled over to flatten himself behind a boulder. Who the flaming perdition was trying to slaughter them all? It sounded like a squad of machine gunners.
Or did it? He heard the rapid-fire explosions, he saw the quick, sharp flicks of light, and the sudden puffs of smoke; he smelled the gunpowder. But where was the whine of bullets? Now came a new noise, a strange fizzing overhead. Peter glanced up at the sky, just in time to see three skyrockets explode together in a cascade of red, white, and blue fire.
He leapt to his feet. "Emmerick! You crazy son of a bitch, you've scared off every owl in Balaclava County."
Now Thorkjeld Svenson was on his feet, too, shaking the tree like a maddened gorilla. "Come down here, you yackal! I want to tear your arm off."
"That seems a splendid idea, President." Dan Stott, normally the mildest of men, was nodding enthusiastically. "I shall be happy to assist you."
Winifred Binks's was the sole voice of reason. "Peter, is your flashlight working?"
"Er—" He pressed the switch, and it was. That was when he learned it was not a boulder he'd taken shelter behind.
"Good God! Emmerick, how'd you get into that net?"
Emmerick didn't say anything, nor did he make any movement.
"He made a sudden rush to the front of the line," said Winifred, "and tried to pull me with him. Then all at once he was being flung up into the tree. I think he started to call out, but the banging started and he thumped down again. He must have had the wind knocked out of him. I couldn't see what happened next because President Svenson—whose gallantry and courage under fire I cannot sufficiently—"
"Oh yes, of course. First things first." She leapt for a limb and swarmed up the tree.
"Binks!" If there was by chance an owl still left in the area, Svenson's roar would surely have discouraged it from lingering. "Come back here!"
"I'm just looking."
Her voice fluted down from far overhead. This tree, Peter noted, was an oak, still clinging to the leaves it would continue to hold long after the maples and birches were bare. It was at the top of another giant oak that he'd first met Miss Binks; he wasn't at all surprised she'd made such excellent time climbing this one. The really astonishing development was that net.
He shone his flashlight again on Emmerick, trussed up like a supermarket turkey. The engineer had had time enough by now to get his wind back; why wasn't he breathing? Then Peter realized he wasn't going to breathe, not ever again. And Miss Binks was up there alone. Or not. Peter grabbed for that same branch, pulled himself up, and scrambled to meet her.
The moon kindly obliged by coming out from behind its veil of clouds, the pair of them were able to search the oak fairly well. They found the makeshift contrivance that had been used to launch the rockets, they found signs of burning and a few scraps of paper from the fireworks, but that was all.
So the spooky whiteness had been no snowy owl, merely a ruse to lure them here. Emmerick's unseemly behavior along the way had been due to his anticipation of the stupendous practical joke that was going to be played on this bunch of stuffed shirts from the college. He might well have engineered the fireworks display himself.
But if he was in on the joke, how had he got caught in the net? It would seem he must have had an accomplice up in the tree to fire off that opening salvo. Had his partner decided to turn the joke on Emmerick? There'd been something pretty damned selective about the way that net had managed to snare only one of four people who were still bunched up close together. Had it been dropped from above, or laid on the ground? Had Emmerick fallen from the tree because the ropes gave way or had he been deliberately dropped? And was it really supposed to have been a joke?
There must be marks up here that would give them information, if only they had enough light to see by. This flashlight was about as much help as a lightning bug. Peter snapped it off and stuck it in his pocket.
"We may as well go down, Miss Binks, before the president bursts a blood vessel. We're wasting our time, we'll have to get the state police out here with searchlights. If this was meant to be a joke, it's backfired very badly. I'm quite sure Emmerick's dead."CHAPTER 2
"Oh dear," said Winifred, "how very distressing. Mr. Emmerick was a tiresome man, in my opinion, but one would not have wished him so bizarre and untimely an end. I wonder what on earth that explosive retiarius thought he was going to catch. The net must have been rigged with some kind of automatic tripping device, wouldn't you think?"
"It's possible," said Peter. "I hope I wasn't it." He didn't pause to elaborate. Dr. Svenson was still bellowing for them to come down; perhaps he was irked because they hadn't tossed him a culprit to mangle. For a college president, he did have a rather wide streak of the berserker in him. Anyway, there really was nothing more to be done until they had lights; the police must be called without further delay.
Winifred was the fleetest of foot among them, but Peter wasn't about to let her go alone with a retiarius loose in the woods. He himself was second fastest but was damned if he'd be pried away from the scene of the crime. Dan Stott would be no earthly use, he'd get to ruminating somewhere along the way and forget what he was going for. Svenson himself would have to act as Miss Binks's bodyguard, and who better? Peter slid down the last ten feet of trunk and got straight to business.
"President, you gallop on back and get hold of the state police. Miss Binks, you'd better go with him as guide, you know all the shortcuts. Tell them to bring some portable searchlights and a stretcher, and to keep their confounded sirens turned off. We've had all the noise we need for one night."
Excerpted from An Owl Too Many by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1991 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >