One morning when unwilling early bird Amy Simms grabs her binoculars for a closer look at the woodpecker who's been waking her up, she can't believe her eyes. Across Ruby Lake, through a curtain of rain, she sees a body being tossed out of an upstairs window at the old McKutcheon place.
Or at least she thinks she does. The police chief finds no body-only a discarded dressmaker's dummy-and complains that Amy sent him on a wild-goose chase. She should probably focus on minding her store, Birds & Bees, but Amy can't help snooping. And when she turns up another body-a murdered member of her birdwatching group-Amy once again needs to wing it as a sleuth to zoom in on a killer . . .
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The Woodpecker Always Pecks Twice
By J.R. Ripley
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 J.R. Ripley
All rights reserved.
I peeked at the clock on the bedside table: 6:30 a.m. As usual. "Good morning to you, too," I said with a groan. I sat up. My feet bounced around on the pine floor in search of my pink slippers.
Rat-a-tat-tat-brrr. The sound was loud and dissonant — hardly the stuff of "Peachum's Morning Hymn" from The Threepenny Opera.
I came to my feet and rubbed my fists into my eyes. "You're killing me, bird." It had been a late night. I'd had a real, honest to goodness date with Derek Harlan. Dinner and a movie, the whole nine yards. Now, if I could have only followed it up with nine hours' sleep. Heck, I'd have settled for six, but it wasn't in the cards.
Rat-a-tat-tat-brrr. The bird could've used a music lesson from Kurt Weill.
Nonetheless, I crossed to the dresser and picked up my binoculars, determined to get a better look at him. I removed the tethered lens covers, pulled the curtains and brought the binocs to eye level. There he was, a beautiful red-bellied woodpecker, clinging to the gray bark of the big bitternut hickory outside my bedroom window, tapping away at the twisted hollow branch hanging closest to the house.
Waking me up, like he did every morning lately, the relentless pounding reverberating across my skull as if he were perched on my head and not in the tree. The woodpecker wasn't tapping to drive me crazy. He — and this was a he because I recognized the bird as a male by the intense red coloration on the back of its neck and top of the head; a female only has the red coloration adorning its neck — was tapping to drive out carpenter ants and other insects. In other words, breakfast.
I moved the binoculars out over the street toward Ruby Lake. There was a doozy of a storm brewing. The sky was the color of lead with streaks of black running like watercolor down a page. Jagged bolts of lightning streaked across the distant sky.
The woodpecker went about its business, oblivious to the storm. When a bird's got to eat, a bird's got to eat. Don't ask me why it is named a red-bellied woodpecker when it is the bird's head that is the most clearly and visibly colored red. A small patch of red is distinguishable on a red-bellied woodpecker's lower belly but that's all. Perhaps it was because the scientists had already proclaimed another woodpecker to be the red-headed woodpecker. First come, first served. I'm no ornithologist. I was an English major in college and now run a small-town store selling bird-watching and bird-feeding supplies.
I scanned the distant treetops, wondering if I might spot any other interesting or unusual bird species this morning. There was no avian activity to be seen along the shoreline. Generally, I would spot ducks, kingbirds, swamp sparrows, and the occasional swallow flying low across Ruby Lake.
A small motor-powered fishing boat sat alone in the lake, bobbing side to side in the windblown water. I searched the woods for signs of bird life. With the heavy clouds blocking the sun, there was little to see besides shadows. Lately, a pair of red-shouldered hawks had spent early mornings settled on the broad limbs of a tall oak whose branches loomed over the water. But not this morning. They seemed to have taken the day off. I suddenly wished I could do the same.
I was about to retreat in search of my own breakfast — I smelled fresh-ground coffee brewing — when my eyes fell on the old McKutcheon house across the lake. The McKutcheons had been one of the Town of Ruby Lake's first families, having settled in our small North Carolina town back in the early 1800s. The house was nearly that old — even older than the late nineteenth-century home that now housed both me and my business, Birds & Bees. Though much of the original McKutcheon house had burned to the ground in the 1890s, family members had rebuilt the house and barn and added various other outbuildings around the turn of the twentieth century.
Then, fortunes failing, the McKutcheon house had sat empty for decades, when the last members of the family moved to Boston, or so I seemed to remember hearing. But there was a light on in one of the upstairs windows now. Wisps of smoke fought to rise from the central chimney against the onslaught of rain falling in heavy sheets.
I heard a flutter and turned. My woodpecker friend shook himself to rid his feathers of raindrops, then returned to digging into the hickory bark.
I trained my eyes once more on the McKutcheon house. The light coming from the upstairs window danced like flame, but I knew this to be a trick of the rain, which blurred and bent the light until it looked almost alive. I was about to turn away, when a man stepped into view. At least, I thought it was a man. It was really too dark to be certain at first. I was too far away. The rain was falling too hard.
A second, smaller shape stepped into view. He, if it was a he, moved quickly, arms flailing. The larger figure threw up his arms as if to ward off an impending blow.
It wasn't a blow that came next. It was a full-scale attack. The smaller man launched himself at the larger one as if to tackle him. Both fell in a heap. I gasped. What were the two fighting about?
They disappeared from sight, the window ledge blocking my view. A moment later, one of the men's heads came into view. He crossed the floor on his knees, stood, and opened the window.
What on earth was he up to?
My hands were shaking as I tried to see what would happen next. The binocs were bouncing so much, the room jumped in and out of my sight. I squeezed my elbows against my ribs to steady the binoculars and narrowed in on the room once more.
The smaller man threw open the window and hoisted something up over the sill. I fiddled with the focus, trying to get a sharper look. I now realized what I was seeing. A pair of legs dangled over the window ledge, nothing more distinguishable than a pair of dark trousers with two bare feet protruding.
Rat-a-tat-tat-brrr! My heart skipped a beat.
The smaller man stooped and lifted the other man, pushing him up. The larger man put up no struggle. Was he unconscious? Was he dead?
A moment later, the smaller man heaved. His victim fell silently, tumbling like a sack filled with wet straw, from the upstairs window to the ground below. If he wasn't dead before, he most certainly was now.
I gasped. The startled red-bellied woodpecker took flight. I ran to the phone.CHAPTER 2
"What on earth?" my mother exclaimed as I came running into the kitchen.
"Phone!" I cried. "Where's the phone?"
Mom set the coffee carafe back on the warming plate. "Right here." She lifted the portable phone from the base on the corner of the counter and handed it to me.
The landline doubled as the Birds & Bees business line. I punched in 911 and reported what I'd seen. Mom gaped at me.
I dropped the phone on the counter and pressed my face against the cool window. The rain was letting up. If I turned my head just right, I could make out the McKutcheon house from this vantage.
Mom poured two cups of coffee and handed one to me. She cinched her robe around her waist, sat, and motioned for me to do the same. "You saw some man throw another man out a window?" There was shock, surprise, and maybe a smidgen of disbelief in her voice.
My hand trembled as I lifted the cup to my lips and sipped. "Yes. I mean, at first I wasn't sure what I was seeing. But it was definitely a couple of people fighting." I took a steadying drink. The coffee was black and unsweetened, but I didn't mind for a change.
Mom broke off a piece of her breakfast cookie. "At the McKutcheon house? Across the lake?" I nodded and glanced out the window. How long would it take the police to reach the house?
"I thought the old place was empty," Mom said. "What were you doing looking at the McKutcheon house?" I turned back to my mother. I felt terrible to be causing her any concern or alarm. Mom's got muscular dystrophy and, though it is still very manageable, I was concerned for her health and didn't want to say or do anything that might cause her undue stress.
Unfortunately, in practice, I seemed to be doing the opposite despite my good intentions. "I'm sure it's nothing." I patted Mom's hand. "Jerry will get it all sorted out." Jerry Kennedy is Ruby Lake's chief of police. I don't exactly have the highest opinion of him, but then, his opinion of me isn't exactly the stuff upon which friendships are formed.
I explained to Mom how I had picked up the binoculars to watch our resident alarm clock, then happened to be perusing Ruby Lake for further bird sightings. I keep a chalkboard behind the counter in the store where I and anyone else can post local bird sightings on a weekly basis.
"Ah, Drummy." Mom smiled. Drummy was the name we'd given to what we had come to think of as our woodpecker. After all, if he was going to come around every morning, noon, and night giving us a solo drum performance, he might as well have a name.
Curses are much more personal if you can attach a name to them.
Mom slid the package of breakfast cookies my way. She'd begun eating one of the prepackaged oatmeal-raisin cookies each morning with her coffee since discovering them in the cereal aisle in the market a month ago.
I declined. "I don't think I could eat a thing." My stomach was churning. I thrummed my fingers against the kitchen table as I glanced at the clock on the wall. "How long do you think before we hear something?"
"You need to be patient, Amy." Mom is a retired high school teacher and still knows how to talk to me, when necessary, like I'm a troubled teenage student in need of a calming, steadying, grown-up influence, instead of the mature, thirty-four-year-old woman my driver's license claims I am. Dad passed away awhile back and Mom and I share the third-floor apartment above Birds & Bees. "I'm sure Jerry will call us the minute he has the situation under control."
I stood and began pacing. "I don't think I can stand to wait."
Mom grinned. "I can call Anita, if you like." Anita Brown is one of my mother's best friends, pinochle partner, and more importantly in this case, part-time dispatcher for the Ruby Lake Police Department. If anybody else knew what was happening, Anita would.
The doorbell interrupted my answer. I opened the door. "Esther?" Esther Pilaster, or "Esther the Pester" and "Esther Pester" as I sometimes interchangeably refer to her, is a renter of mine. She came with the house when I bought it and, until her lease is up, I am stuck with her. Her apartment is on the second floor of Birds & Bees.
"You've got company downstairs," snapped Esther. "I let him in and told him to wait." Esther is a long-in-the-tooth spinster in her seventies. Narrow shoulders only barely supported the flowery dress she wore. She's a small woman with a hawkish nose, sagging eyelids, and a silver ponytail. Wispy white eyebrows topped off a pair of rheumy gray-blue eyes that looked at me funny. "Hey! What's that? Kittens?"
She pointed a crooked finger at my pajama top. "Your jammies are covered in kittens." She squinted at me. "I thought you said you didn't like cats."
I tugged at my pj's and blushed. "I'm allergic to cats, Esther. I never said I didn't like them."
Footsteps pounded up the steps from the shop below. "What the devil is going on up here?" Chief Kennedy's head appeared at the top of the stairs. His cap was damp and dripping.
"Jerry — Chief Kennedy." I pulled my collar closed.
He took off his cap and thumped it against the side of his thigh. "If you're not coming down, I'm coming up." The chief pushed past me and into my apartment. "You got coffee?"
"Please" — I cleared my throat — "come on in," I said, hoping the sarcasm wasn't too heavily laced. I wanted to learn what he'd discovered at the McKutcheon house, so this wasn't the time to start sparring with the man.
"Thank you, Esther," I said, turning to my renter. "Shouldn't you be prepping the store for opening? Thank you." I shut the door on her before she could object.
Not only was I stuck with Esther the Pester as a tenant, I was now stuck with her as an employee of Birds & Bees. That was Mom's fault. Mom figured I needed more help around the store, as if she and my best friend and business partner, Kim Christy, weren't enough assistance.
To tell the truth, Mom was right. Somehow, I seemed to be spending as much time out of Birds & Bees as I did within. Mom had made the executive decision to hire Esther part-time. As much as it irritated me, it made sense. And, so far, Esther had been a pretty decent employee. Sales were up. I was pretty sure that was because customers were afraid of her. But, hey, a sale's a sale.
"Dammit, Mrs. Simms," I heard Jerry say as I crossed the living room to the kitchen. "I mean, no disrespect, but that daughter of yours is daft as a brush and half as useful!"
"What's that supposed to mean?" I shot back, feeling my pulse quicken. Jerry has a way of making my blood boil faster than most — dropping me in a cauldron of boiling oil wouldn't heat me up any faster than Jerry did. "Name-calling? That's the thanks I get for reporting a crime?"
Jerry snorted. "Crime?" His two-tone brown uniform was sodden, especially around the shoulders and cuffs. He'd left a trail of wet footprints across the floor. That meant there'd be mopping in my future today. Oh, joy.
Mom handed Jerry a steaming coffee mug. "Drink this. You'll feel better." Mom had been one of Jerry's teachers in high school. Neither of us would have suspected he'd grow up to be Ruby Lake's chief of police one day. Personally, I wasn't so sure Jerry would ever grow up mentally.
"The only crime is that you wasted a perfectly good morning sending me out on a wild-goose chase, Amy Simms!"
I threw out my chest. "Wild-goose chase? That's what you call reporting a murder, Jerry?"
Jerry twisted one of the kitchen chairs around and straddled it. He thumped his mug against the table. "There is no crime, Simms."
Mom slid the plate of cellophane-wrapped breakfast cookies the chief's way. She's become a real proponent of them. Jerry wasted no time peeling one out of its wrapper and wolfing it down.
He slapped at his trousers. "My squad car's filthy. I'm filthy. It's storming out, in case you didn't realize. And it's a dirt road out around the lake to the McKutcheon homestead."
Mom took a seat and said calmly, "Tell us what you found, Jerry."
Jerry huffed. "The place is a hostel of some sort."
"Hostile?" I jumped in. "You see? I told you there was something nefarious going on over there."
"I didn't say they were hostile." The chief growled. "I said they're running a hostel. H-O-S-T-EL. All sorts of foreigners and such running around over there."
"You mean like a bed and breakfast?" Mom inquired.
Jerry shrugged. "Young fellow at the door called it a hostel, so hostel it is. Guster McKutcheon is running it. He wasn't home."
"Guster McKutcheon," Mom said thoughtfully. "I'm not sure I remember him. Who were his folks?"
"I've no idea," answered Chief Kennedy. "Apparently he works out at the diner. Nobody at the house knew anything about a murder. And there was no body!"
Jerry's hand chopped through the air between us. "Not on the ground, not in the house, not in the air circling the property like a freaking pigeon! Do you have any idea how big a fool you made me look, Amy?"
I was pretty sure Jerry didn't need my help in that department but knew better than to say so. Mom shot me a warning look just in case. "I know what I saw, Jerry."
"Maybe you were hallucinating." He stuck his nose in my face. "Your eyes are red. Are you hungover?"
"Of course not!" I backed away. I may have had the teeniest bit too much to drink last night and I may have had a teeny bit too little sleep, but still, I knew what I saw.
Jerry leaned across the table toward me. "Explain to me how you happened to see anything at all." He shook his arm at the window. "The McKutcheon place must be a mile away from here."
I looked at my mother for support. "We were bird-watching," Mom said.
"Bird-watching!" Jerry chuckled. "Lord, I had no idea what this town was getting into when you came back and opened that silly store of yours." I refrained from protesting because no good could come of it.
He thumped his fist and the table jumped an inch. "Sorry, Mrs. Simms," the chief said, grabbing a paper napkin from the vintage brass holder on the table and wiping up the few drops of coffee that had spilled from his cup. He squinted at my mother. "Do you mean you saw this so-called murder, too?"
Oh, sure, if my mother, his former history teacher, says she saw a murder, he'd be all over that.
"Actually, no," admitted Mom. "You see, Amy was holding the binoculars." Oh, well. She tried.
Excerpted from The Woodpecker Always Pecks Twice by J.R. Ripley. Copyright © 2017 J.R. Ripley. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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