As Birds & Bees owner Amy Simms guides a halfhearted birding group around Ruby Lake, rumors soon start flying about the annual Fall Festival's classic car and tractor show. Local eccentric Chick Sherman-boasting the hottest ride in town-has ruffled feathers by mysteriously entering the contest, and curious Amy hatches a plan to sneak a glimpse at the phantom automobile before the big event kicks off . . .
But competition turns deadly when Amy finally spots the sleek '56 El Morocco-and it's on top of Chick's very dead body. With her neighbor and business partner framed as the murderer and priceless Audubon prints suddenly missing from Chick's home, only Amy can identify the telltale markings of a killer before another hapless victim is plucked from the flock . . .
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"It says here," read Kim, "that the black-capped chickadee is slightly larger and a tad brighter than the Carolina chickadee." She had her nose in a well-worn copy of one of my birding field guides.
"What good does that do us?" whispered Otelia, hovering nearby like a baby jay. "We have nothing to compare it to." She cinched her light sweater tighter. A small but cool breeze had kicked up.
Sally Potts snapped her chewing gum and the little bird jumped to a farther branch. It was late September and leaves were beginning to fall from the trees, but there were still plenty of yellow-orange leaves on the maple to obscure our bird.
"Shh." I pressed a finger to my lips. The bird in question was the chickadee singing in the tree overhead, but I wasn't sure yet which species it belong to. "Go ahead and read some more, Kim," I suggested softly.
I watched for a moment as Kim's eyes scanned the page, then lifted my binoculars and trained them once more on the small chickadee.
Chickadee-dee-dee! The bird extended its neck and shook itself briskly after singing its signature song — a sure sign that we were spooking it.
John Moytoy, a Ruby Lake librarian, lowered his binoculars and rubbed the bridge of his nose where his eyeglasses hit. "The Cherokee called it tsikilili because of the sound it makes." John was well versed in the Cherokee heritage, being of Cherokee descent himself. He had jet-black hair and was cherubic in body and spirit. He'd been letting his hair grow out and it was now long enough that he sported a ponytail.
"Thanks, John," I said. "Like many other animals, numerous birds are commonly named for the sounds they produce, such as cuckoos and bobolinks."
"And whip-poor-wills, right?" That was Tiffany LaChance. Tiff worked as waitress at Ruby's Diner. She was a buxom blonde who was very easy on the eyes. Hers were green. She was a few years older than me but had already been married and had a child. She had been wedded to Robert LaChance, but I didn't hold it against her because they were divorced now. Robert and I have had our differences. Tiffany and her eleven-year-old son lived in a condo by the lake.
"Good example," I whispered. Tiff wasn't one of my regulars, so it was especially nice to see her join us.
Kim cleared her throat. "It also says that the black-capped chickadee has a larger area of white behind their, um, aur-auriculars." Kim paused and shot me a questioning look. She's a long-legged, blue-eyed blonde who can eat any amount of food and get away with it, as evidenced by the tight jeans hugging her hips. Life really wasn't fair.
"That's right," I said. "Go on." Kim and I were both in our midthirties. The blue eyes were practically all we had in common physically. On a good day, I was a tad heavier than her — a tad being measured in five-pound increments — but I also had an inch on her height-wise. While Kim often goaded me to dye my hair blond like hers, I was sticking with the chestnut brown I'd been born with.
Kim took a sip from her water bottle, then read a little more. "The Carolina chickadee's auriculars are more grayish." She closed the book and looked up into the maple.
"What the heck is an auricular?" Karl scratched the side of his head and pushed his thick, black-rimmed eyeglasses back up his nose for the hundredth time since our in-town bird walk had begun. He owned an ancient pair of binoculars that he'd had since his younger days. The weight of them strapped around his neck threatened to bring him to his knees.
"The area around the ears." I replied. "That's the name for the feathers that cover their ears." The four-inch gray, white, and black bird hopped to yet a higher branch. The black-capped chickadee and the Carolina chickadee share a territory and their markings are quite similar, making them difficult to differentiate. The fact that they sometimes interbreed makes it nearly impossible to distinguish such birds with the naked eye.
"Like a covert?" Floyd asked.
"Exactly." I smiled. "In fact, they are also called coverts because they protect the ears." Floyd had once told me that in his younger days he had been a duck hunter, so I wasn't surprised to see that he was familiar with the coverts that hunters often utilized in the field. I was glad he'd given up shooting ducks. Not only for the sake of the ducks. Floyd's eyesight wasn't the best. He occasionally mistook branches and even rocks for birds.
"So what do we think? Black-capped or Carolina?"
"I vote black-capped," answered Kim. She stuck her water bottle back in its holder attached to her belt.
"I vote Carolina," countered Sally Potts. Sally's a slender woman with red hair and sharp green eyes.
"I vote lunch," came Steve Dykstra's reply. Steve was also new to our group. He'd come into the store once or twice for birdseed with Olivia Newsome. He had been mentioning lunch ever since the group had met up after breakfast.
"I'm thinking Carolina myself," I said, studying the little bird closely and ignoring the digressions that always seemed to pop up on these walks.
"Look at that beauty." Karl whistled. "White with teal accents."
"Where?" I turned and followed the line of his binoculars. "I don't see anything."
There was too much traffic. My little group and I were on a birding walk in the city and had stopped at the Town of Ruby Lake's spacious town square to observe the large variety of birds that could normally be found there.
People who weren't into birding didn't realize how many interesting species lived in an urban setting. Though urban was being generous when describing our modest town nestled among the Carolina foothills.
I moved my binoculars back and forth. Could Karl have possibly seen a blue-winged teal? The ducks were rare to this part of western North Carolina, but it wouldn't be impossible to see one — especially with the lake being so near.
And with the fall, we would get our share of migrators.
"Right there!" Karl said loudly. "Heading east. You can see its rear end!"
"I can't see anything," complained Otelia, a fiftyish brunette with a beehive hairdo. She owns a local chocolate shop that I'm drawn to like a bee to nectar.
"Me either." That was Kim.
I refocused my binoculars on an elm across the road.
Karl lowered his glasses. "It's gone now. Turned the corner. What do you think, Floyd?" asked Karl. "Was that a fifty-seven Chevy or maybe a Pontiac?"
I lowered my glasses and gaped at Karl. "What?"
"That was no Star Chief," Floyd said, lowering his own glasses and wiping the eye pieces with the corner of his shirt — something I'd warned him a hundred times would only scratch them. "Didn't you see those taillights? Definitely a fifty-seven Chevy Bel Air. Man, what a beauty."
"You guys were looking at a car?" I shook my finger at Floyd and Karl. "We're supposed to be bird-watching."
"Yeah, but not just any car, Amy," explained Karl. "That was a fifty-seven Bel Air."
The corners of my lips turned down. "So I heard. Can we get back to bird-watching now, do you suppose?" I added a smile to my request.
Karl nodded sheepishly.
Floyd nudged his buddy Karl and said in a stage whisper, "That car's not from around here. I'll bet it's in town for the car show."
The car show in question was part of an upcoming annual event in town. Among the myriad of special events the Town of Ruby Lake helps organize, each fall we host the Ruby Lake Fall Festival. It's held annually the first weekend after the fall equinox. The Fall Festival includes a number of popular events, such as the classic car and tractor show and a baking competition. The local residents enjoyed it, the tourists came for it from miles around, and the merchants loved what it did for their bottom lines.
I was hoping it might do the same for mine, though I wasn't sure I could count on an uptick in my bird-store traffic from fans of classic automobiles and farm equipment, or even baking. But you never know, and I was participating like most every other business owner in town. Kim had suggested we bake up a couple dozen mock four-and-twenty-blackbird pies. But considering we ran a shop catering to birders, it seemed a bit tasteless to me. No pun intended.
We did intend to have an outdoor presence along with dozens of other street vendors, and we'd be selling my mom's surprise hit, Barbara's Bird Bars, along with other food and bird-watching and feeding products.
To my surprise, the Birds & Brews trailer that I had found myself a reluctant partner in, due to the machinations of my mother and the business owner next-door, could just prove to be a winner. We were planning on setting up the trailer, which had been built to look like a giant red birdhouse, along one of the streets surrounding the town square.
That former camping trailer still gave me the heebie-jeebies, considering that it had once belonged to a friend of mine who'd met an untimely end. Buying it had not been my idea. That idea had been my mother's and Paul Anderson's doing. Now I was stuck with it and doing my best to make the most of the situation — and bury the unpleasant associated memories.
Paul Anderson, my neighbor and now business partner, had taken care of the business permits and Cousin Riley had remodeled the interior of the trailer, which had once served as my friend's home away from home, into a proper mobile storefront for Birds & Bees and Paul's business, Brewer's Biergarten. We'd even sprung for a fancy solar-lighted sign reading BIRDS & BREWS, which Cousin Riley had affixed to the roof.
"I'm pooped," said Steve. In his early fifties, Steve was one of the youngest of our group. He was tan and fit, with coppery hair swept back dramatically atop his head. His eyes were painted bunting blue. Having come dressed in white slacks and a raspberry-red sweater, however, he might have been having a negative impact on our bird sightings.
Birds are visual creatures and communicate a lot with color. Red and white are danger signals to birds, as they are to other animals. The flash of a bird's white tail feathers or a scared deer's white tail warn of trouble. The best way to see birds or any other wildlife in a natural setting was to blend in. That meant wearing neutral colors.
Steve and Otelia were dating. He worked as a mechanic at Nesmith's, the gas station on the edge of town. The next closest stations were out along the highway. I didn't know him well, having only a nodding acquaintance from seeing him around the gas station where he pumped gas, in addition to the time or two he'd been in the store with Otelia.
"I'm starved." Otelia looked meaningfully across the town square, her eyes smack on Jessamine's Kitchen, our planned lunch stop.
I looked at my watch. It was a little early, but I could see that my flock's attention was beginning to stray. "Fine. Let's eat. Besides, if we dine now, we can beat the lunch crowd." Normally, I liked to start my bird walks early in the morning. That was the best time to spot birds as they busied themselves in search of breakfast, but in an effort to appease the group, we'd picked a midmorning start with lunch afterward. I had reconnoitered the proposed walk the day prior and was confident we'd see plenty of birds.
We had. Despite the time of day and Steve's clothing choices. Proper clothing was something I might have to bring up with the group before our next walk.
Using my mobile phone, I snapped a quick photo of the chickadee in the tree for later inspection.
We cut across the town square with Steve and Otelia leading the way. Tiffany waved to Aaron Maddley, who was working out of his stall at the farmer's market. Their relationship seemed to be developing into something beyond casual dating. Good for them.
Aaron, dressed in blue jeans and a gray T-shirt, was selling farm fresh arugula, lettuce, radishes, and other fall vegetables under his tent. Besides being good at working the earth, Aaron was good with his hands. He provided me with handmade bluebird houses and other nesting boxes for the store.
"Go on without me," Tiffany said with a big smile on her face. "I'll catch up in a minute."
I smiled back. "Okay. Say hi to Aaron for me." My relationship with Aaron was still a bit strained. He was having a hard time letting go of the accusations I'd once wrongly levelled at him. When we'd first met, there may have been something between us.
Now that something was a lingering animosity on his part. Still, I was happy for him and Tiffany. I was even happier for me and Derek Harlan, the handsome and steady man I'd been getting closer to since returning to Ruby Lake to open Birds & Bees and be nearer to Mom and the rest of my family.
I couldn't get much nearer to Mom. We shared an apartment above Birds & Bees.
My flock and I waited for traffic to clear, then moved as a group across the street to Jessamine's Kitchen, a homey Southern-style restaurant that had only recently opened. I had called Jessamine Jeffries yesterday to let her know our group would be coming in.
A high school girl I knew greeted us at the entrance. "Hello, Ms. Simms. You're early." She had a laminated menu in her right hand.
"Hi, Lulu. It won't be a problem, will it?" Lulu Nowell was a chipper young blonde who worked to pick up some spending money on weekends and occasionally after school, and on weekdays when her strict mother and father would let her.
"None at all. Jess has your table all ready."
The layout of Jessamine's Kitchen was simple and the décor was as cozy as the food. The furnishings included Shaker-style tables and chairs. Blue and white checkered tablecloths covered the tables. In the evening, the waitstaff placed beeswax candles on the tabletops in small cut-glass bowls shaped like tulips. The floor was old pine, reclaimed from a local barn that had been torn down. The local lumber yard sells tons of the stuff.
There was a black cast-iron woodstove near the center of the room, though I hadn't seen it lit yet. With winter around the corner, I was sure it wouldn't be long.
I followed Lulu. Several tables in front of the window overlooking the town square had been pushed together. Two vases near each end of the joined table held fresh bouquets of sunny yellow coreopsis.
I took a seat at the far side. Floyd and Karl opted for spots against the window, looking inward. A flamboyantly dressed man and woman, who appeared to be in their late fifties or early sixties, sat at the small round table nearest us. Their plates were piled high with fried chicken and hush puppies. My mouth watered just looking at them.
"That sun is bright," Karl said. "Hurts my eyes." He made a show of removing his eyeglasses and vigorously rubbing his eyes with his fists.
Floyd agreed. "It is kind of bright." I had a feeling both were more interested in having a good vantage from which to view Jessamine than they were in protecting their eyes from the sun's rays.
Steve held out a chair facing the window for Otelia. Sally sat at the opposite end of the table. Kim squeezed in beside her, and John Moytoy sat beside me.
A lanky waiter, approaching forty by my guess, came to the table and took our drink orders. Karl and Floyd ordered beers and the rest of us settled on a shared endless pitcher of iced mint tea.
As the waiter set down our drinks, Tiffany came hurrying in. "Sorry I'm late!" Floyd scooted over and she took a seat beside him.
"Have some tea." I filled Tiffany's glass.
She pulled off her sunglasses and unbuttoned her green sweater. "Aaron was telling me all about the work he's been doing on his truck." She jiggled her brow. "The man about talked my ear off."
"Is he having a problem with it?" bellowed Steve from across the table. Steve wasn't much for whispering, a trait I was trying to instill in him if he was going to go bird-watching with us. Birds have a way of disappearing if you go thrashing about and talking at the top of your lungs. "Maybe I can help!" "Thanks, Steve, but there's nothing at all wrong with it," called Tiffany from the other end of the table. "He's getting it ready for the car show." She picked up her napkin and unfolded it. "Polishing thingies, tuning the engine, replacing parts." She laid the white cloth napkin in her lap. "You name it, he's doing it."
"Don't tell me Aaron is all caught up in the car show this year, too," I groaned.
Tiff smiled my way. "Oh, yeah. Big-time. I can't believe it. Just my luck, I go from being married to a car dealer to dating a car nut!" She laughed as she said it.
Excerpted from "Chickadee Chickadee Bang Bang"
Copyright © 2017 J.R. Ripley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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