Amy and her bird-loving crew are ducking out of Ruby Lake, North Carolina to attend the annual American Birding Expo in Philadelphia. The event will generate publicity for Birds & Bees, though assistant manager Esther is strangely reluctant to attend. Before she’s even set up their booth, Amy manages to insult JJ Fuller, famed bird photographer and the expo’s guest of honor. An inauspicious beginning, made worse when JJ is found dead as a dodo, his head caved in by a pair of binoculars.
The police suspect Esther is mixed up in murder, and her mysterious past starts coming to light. Amy isn’t sure what to believe. JJ boasted that he would be the first to locate a near-extinct woodpecker. Did a rival decide to beat him—literally—to the punch? With a ZombieFest convention taking place in the exhibit hall next door, there’s all kinds of creepiness to contend with. And somewhere among the birders and the walking dead there’s a killer hoping to fly the coop before justice is served . . .
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Derek flipped rapidly through the pages of A Field Guide to the Birds of the Carolinas. "What did you say was the name of that bird we saw earlier, Amy?"
I sipped and set my beer mug on the side table. "Which bird?" The scent of pepperoni and hops hung in the air.
We had gone on a late afternoon bird stroll near Ruby Lake and along Lake Shore Drive, the town's main thoroughfare. Near sunset, we ended our walk at Brewer's Biergarten, which was next door to my own shop, Birds & Bees. Both businesses are located on Lake Shore Drive.
Our group at the table, included Esther Pilaster, Floyd Withers, Karl Vogel and me. There had been more of us on the birding walk. The rest had retired for the evening. The small expedition had been part of our monthly Birds & Brews meeting.
The meetups had been the brainchild of Paul Anderson, one of the biergarten's owners — the tolerable one. The intolerable one was his partner, Craig Bigelow, my ex-boyfriend.
I had been reluctant initially to take part in the whole birds and brews thing but Paul had been right — birds and beer went together rather nicely.
Paul skipped the walk that evening, claiming he had too much work to do at the biergarten — his usual excuse.
We had seen dozens of birds and close to a dozen different species. I had been particularly delighted to see a variety of warblers, bay-breasted warblers, magnolia warblers and Tennessee warblers.
At Brewer's Biergarten afterward, we talked birds, ate wood-fired pizza and drank one of the house brews selected by Paul. Tonight's beer was a small batch IPA. The focus of the night's conversation was supposed to be the red-eyed vireo. We had seen a number of the olive green and white songbirds hopping limb to limb in the lush canopies of the majestic oaks near the edge of the lake.
However, the topic that I had so carefully chosen drifted further than a rufous hummingbird in a hurricane.
Esther sat stiffly, knitting something out of gray yarn that looked suspiciously like a cat-sized sweater. Floyd and Karl had their eyes fixed on a replay of an Alabama stock car race on the big screen TV hanging in the corner of the bar.
Esther Pilaster, or Esther the Pester, as I called her on occasion, although never to her face and sometimes affectionately, was a tenant of mine. I had inherited her when I'd bought the house. The previous owner had made her remaining in the building a condition of the sale.
My nickname for her had stemmed from her annoying ways when we'd first met. We hadn't exactly hit it off. To be fair, I think she had found me just as annoying when she'd inherited me as her landlord.
"The one that was rummaging around on the ground next to the shops. The gray and white one," Derek replied in answer to my question. He riffled some more through the guidebook.
I had to give Derek credit for trying. He had been coming on more and more birding outings with me. He'd have been just as happy if we had been carrying golf bags over our shoulders and walking the back nine at the local country club chasing a little white ball rather than LBJs. That's little brown jobs, not former U.S. presidents.
Little brown jobs is an affectionate term birders give to small, nondescript birds whose identity cannot be readily determined, either because they had flown past too quickly, there was insufficient light or maybe — as was often my case — you just plain didn't know what the heck it was.
I squeezed Derek's arm. "The same one whose name I told you not five minutes ago."
Derek scratched behind his ear. He looked like a big, ole adorable puppy dog. "Tell me again."
"Besides, we don't call that rummaging, Derek. We call that foraging." Floyd never took his eyes off the race cars on the screen as they banked a steep turn. Floyd is a retired banker and a widower with thinning gray hair and a bushy moustache. "Right, Amy?"
We slapped our palms together. "Right, Floyd." He had been one of my first customers. I own a shop catering to bird lovers and bird watching enthusiasts in the small town of Ruby Lake in western North Carolina. Floyd's wife had been a bird watcher. He had taken up the hobby in her memory.
"Right, foraging." Derek persisted in turning the pages of the glossy guide. "The one making that high-pitched twinkling noise."
I arched my brow. "In the first place, what you call noise, is trilling. It's music to my ears. Bird song can mean many things from a male trying to get the attention of a female, to defending their territory."
"Maybe you should try whistling to get Derek's attention, Amy." Karl hooted.
"She's already got my attention," Derek said with laughter and more in his eyes. He cupped his hand over mine.
"I'll give you a hint," I said. "A dark-eyed ..."
"Right, right. A dark-eyed ..." Derek snapped his fingers thrice. "Shoot." He ducked his chin. "I forget."
"Again?" Esther snorted. "What do you see in this guy?" She pointed a lavender knitting needle in Derek's direction.
"Free legal advice," I joked. Derek, like his father with whom he shared a practice in town, is an attorney.
Derek is also TDH: tall, dark and handsome, six-foot-two and eyes of blue. There was nothing nondescript about him, at least not in my guidebook.
A thick row of holly bordered the fudge shop at the corner shopping center across the street. Dark-eyed juncos had been busily scratching through the leaf-littered ground beneath the bushes.
"Remember the pneumonic I told you." My boyfriend looked at me blankly. "Gray skies above, snow below? Must be a ..."
His beautiful blue eyes stared into my tired blue ones with a complete and utter lack of comprehension.
"Rhymes with below?" I hinted.
Derek squeezed his brows together. "It wasn't a crow, was it?"
I smacked my hand against my forehead.
"I'm glad I don't need any legal advice." Esther's knitting needles clickety-clacked as she spoke, eyes on her work. She's a small, narrow- shouldered, elflike septuagenarian with a hawkish nose, sagging eyelids covering her gray-blue eyes and silvery hair normally pulled tightly to the back of her head in a four-inch ponytail.
She was garbed in loose-fitting tan slacks and a black Birds & Bees branded sweatshirt. Definitely not runway worthy but definitely not going to frighten our feathered friends either.
Whether Floyd was frightened by her or not, I couldn't say.
Karl pointed to the TV screen. A racecar had bounced off the racetrack's outside wall and two more cars like a careening steel ball in a pinball machine. Car one was now limping back to the pits. "That car's done. They'll probably have to junk her."
We all glanced at the screen.
"Yeah, she's junk, all right."
I finally understood what Karl was up to. "No helping, Karl. What is it with men?" I aimed my question at Esther. "They can remember who won the 1962 World Series —"
"Yankees, four games to three." That was Karl chiming in. Thick, black- rimmed glasses framed his gray eyes, which color-coordinated nicely with his own silver locks. "Over the San Francisco Giants."
Karl lives in a two-bedroom bungalow at Rolling Acres, a senior living facility near the outskirts of town. Floyd and Karl are good friends. Floyd has a condo in the same community. He'd moved out of his house and relocated there not long after his wife passed.
"And how many cubic inches in a '56 Corvette —"
My point was interrupted again. This time by Floyd, who held up his hand for silence as he squeezed his eyes shut. "Two hundred and fifty-six," he said proudly.
"They didn't go up to two eighty-three until '57," Karl added.
"I believe that was one of the first mass-produced automobiles to reach the golden one horsepower per cubic inch ratio," Derek contributed.
I folded my arms across my chest. "It was a junco. A dark-eyed junco. And no, I do not know how many cubic inches it is or how much horsepower it can produce or even what its zero to sixty speed is."
"Right, a junco." Derek flipped to the page in the bird guide. "Yep, that's him." His index finger landed on the picture of a gray and white bird resting on a bare tree limb. "Thanks, Amy."
"Don't mention it."
"I tried to tell you." Karl wrapped his hands around his mug.
Paul ambled over carrying a half pitcher of the night's brew. "Anybody need a refill?" Paul is about my age with brown eyes and wavy brown hair. He was Mr. Cool in his usual work outfit, a pair of designer jeans, polished black boots and a black Brewer's Biergarten shirt.
"No, thanks." I was tired. The meeting had devolved into talk of baseball and cars. If I didn't get some sleep, my eyes would be as red as that of the red-eyed vireo we were supposed to have been discussing. "I'm ready to call it a night."
"I'll take some." Karl raised his glass.
"You got it." Paul topped off the ex-chief's glass and shuffled away.
Derek scooted back his chair. "Come on, Amy. I'll walk you home."
Esther picked up her pink knitting bag. "Wait for me."
"How about staying for one more round, Esther?" Floyd suggested. "Karl and I will escort you home afterward."
"No, thanks," Esther replied.
Floyd was crestfallen as Esther stood.
Karl and Floyd used two modes of transportation. One of those modes was the Rolling Acres shuttle bus. The other was the humongous 1956 Chrysler 300B that the boys had purchased together as a project car. It was bright red with a capacious tan leather interior that must have required the sacrifice of a small herd of cows.
The two men loved tooling around in the antique automobile. How they managed to steer the chrome-embellished behemoth around town without bumping into everything in sight was beyond me.
The darn thing took up two parking spaces when they parallel parked. The Chrysler practically occupied parallel universes.
As for Floyd and Esther, I thought they would make a cute couple; him a widower, her never married — so as far as I knew. Esther was keeping a wall between them.
I turned at the sound of a familiar voice. My mother stood on the sidewalk. My best friend, Kim, was at her side. The outdoor seating area of the biergarten was separated from the sidewalk by a brick pony wall.
Asia had its Great Wall of China. The Town of Ruby Lake had what was becoming known as the Little Wall of Beer. The occasional customer leaving an empty mug on the low wall had turned into a growing custom. Some nights, the wall was lined side to side with empty beer mugs. Paul thought it was cute and now actively encouraged the behavior.
"Mom? Come on in." I waved for them to join us.
A waitress asked if they'd like anything to eat or drink. Both declined although Kim grabbed a triangle of cold mushroom pizza from the aluminum platter resting in the middle of the table.
Esther was annoyed that our departure had been delayed.
"What's up, Mom?" I scooted over and Derek brought a chair from an empty table and set it beside me.
"Thank you, Derek." Mom sat. "Amy, do you remember that nice woman we met at the Outer Banks last year?"
"You mean at the Wings Over Carolina Bird Festival?" Mom, Esther and I had attended the fall bird watching event for several days the previous season.
"We met a lot of nice people there, Mom." Though Esther had done as much to drive away people as she had birds. Her people skills were even poorer than her nonexistent bird watching skills.
Esther made Derek look good by comparison. Our first morning out on the marsh, she had chosen to wear a snow white jacket and a bright red hat. From a distance, her skull looked like the Angry Red Planet. And both colors were scaring the birds away.
I'd had to buy her a pea green jacket and hat in Nags Head just so she would blend in better with our surroundings and not freak out the birds — or the tourists.
"I'm talking about Phoebe Gates."
I inclined my head and thought a moment. I pictured a tall, athletic blonde in her early forties. She had led several of the shorebird field trips. "Sure, I remember Phoebe."
"I remember her, too," Esther said none too kindly. "She kept suggesting that I invest in a new pair of binoculars. She got to be so annoying, I thought she might be a saleswoman working on commission."
To be fair to Phoebe, Esther's binoculars looked like something Captain Nemo might have used to spot land when the Nautilus surfaced to look for the Mysterious Island. I'd seen steampunked pairs with more modern touches.
Kim plunked herself down between Floyd and Karl who were only too happy to have her join them. She stretched her long legs. "How are my two favorite men tonight?" She planted a friendly kiss on each man's cheek, leaving a smear of pink lipstick on each.
Floyd blushed. Karl cackled.
Was that a tinge of jealousy I had seen in Esther's eyes when Kim kissed Floyd?
"She telephoned a few minutes ago. She wants you to call her back right away."
"What for?" I barely knew the woman. We'd shared a couple of conversations about birds and a cup of coffee or two over the course of the trip, nothing more.
Kim tossed down the crusty bit remaining of her pizza and licked her fingers all the way out to the tips of her lavender fingernails. She was always watching her weight. Why, I didn't know. Kim is gorgeous. I, on the other hand, look like I lost my gym membership.
Best friends can be so annoying.
Kim's blue eyes flashed as if reading my mind and gloating over that fact. "Remember when you told me about the American Birding Expo?"
"Of course." The American Birding Expo was going to be held in Philadelphia this year. I had attended the first expo prior to opening Birds & Bees. Seeing the level of interest in bird watching evidenced by the attendees had been one of the deciding factors that had led me to finally take the plunge and open my store. At the time, the ABE was being held in Ohio.
Looking back on that time, planning my move back home and taking the plunge going into business for myself, I must have been crazy. While I had a passion for birds, I knew nothing about running a business.
The Expo billed itself as North America's premier, all-encompassing gathering of birding-related products, services, companies, destinations, and organizations.
Mom and I had talked about attending the ABE again sometime, maybe even getting a booth in the expo hall to represent Birds & Bees.
What could it hurt to attend, except the wallet?
"We'll have to check it out someday." The store needed to expand, find new sources of revenue, if we were going to survive — especially since the payroll had grown with the addition of Esther and Kim as regular staffers.
Attending the American Birding Expo might give us some ideas. Not to mention, get the word out about our little store in the heart of North Carolina. Our state, with its diverse systems ranging from the ocean to the mountains with the piedmont in between, offered a wide variety of bird watching opportunities. There ought to be some way we could sustain our modest business. We needed some opportunities of our own.
"Phoebe said there's been a last-minute cancellation," Mom announced.
My brow quirked up. "Really?"
Mom drank from an untouched glass of ice water. "She said to let her know right away if you want it."
Not only did the American Birding Expo sound like fun — I hadn't had a real vacation since long prior to buying my house and starting my business — but a trip to Philadelphia sounded like just the ticket. "It could be a vacation and a marketing opportunity all in one."
"Like they say," Karl began, "kill two birds with one stone, Amy."
"You know I don't love that expression, Karl."
"Who came up with that saying anyway?" Derek turned to me for the answer.
I didn't have it. "Definitely not a bird lover."
"What are you going to tell Phoebe, dear?" Mom asked.
"It's a big decision." I mentally weighed the pluses and minuses and came up with a big fat zero, which was no help at all.
"Judging by that look in your eye, I take it you're in?" Kim said from across the table.
"Well ..." I suddenly thought of all the work involved and my heart popped like a red latex balloon against the tip of one of Esther's knitting needles.
"I hear the sound of waffles," Karl said.
"That's waffling, dummy." Floyd jabbed Karl with his elbow.
"I'm not waffling," I replied. "It's just ..."
"Just what?" Mom set down her glass.
"Who is going to watch the store? And what about marketing materials? We need, I don't know, new business cards, a poster or a banner or something. Maybe some packaged birdseed."
We sold seed in bulk, plus packaged our own Birds & Bees mixes. "We have nothing prepared."
"I'll bet the quick print place in town can make up most of that stuff," offered Floyd. "The bank used to use them all the time. I can give them a call."
"Good idea, Floyd," Mom replied. "Thank you."
I rubbed my neck viciously. "And the expense. Just think of it."
"The expenses will be minimal," assured Mom. "Phoebe says the hotel rooms are paid for."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Birder's Guide to Murder"
Copyright © 2018 J.R. Ripley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bird Lover's Cozy Mystery This is a cozy mystery involving bird watchers at an exposition. This is the 8th in a series, but the first one that I've read. It stands alone quite well. There are some very cute parts such as naming the crew from Back to Nature Tours with the last names of the 1960's band, The Monkees (Tork, Dolenz, Jones and Nesmith). There are too many parts that are so inane! It is like listening to 'Who's on First' 10 times in the book. As a bird watcher, I was expecting something entirely different and did not enjoy the book on that level. As a lover of cozy mysteries, it was okay. I received this book for free and this is my honest review.