When her favorite ornithology professor comes calling, Birds & Bees owner Amy Simms hangs six hummingbird feeders around the shop to welcome Professor Livingston with a flock of his favorite flying creatures. But Amy soon finds that the sugar water in the feeders brings more than a swarm of hummingbirds. It also attracts murder.
Professor Livingston is just as friendly as Amy remembers, but something seems to be troubling him. When Amy pays him a visit that night, she finds the professor slumped over a table with a pair of scissors buried in his neck. And standing over his body is Rose Smith, the local bookseller, who claims she killed him. But while the police believe they have a bird in hand, Amy thinks the real killer may still be in the bush . . .
Praise for J.R. Ripley's Beignets, Brides and Bodies
"A clever, amusing cozy."
"Ripley's entertaining second series outing is a tasty option for foodie mystery fans of Sandra Balzo and Jessica Beck."
- Library Journal
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"A my, what are you doing up on that ladder?" asked Kim.
I jolted, and the ladder's legs wobbled precariously. "Don't do that!" I had a hummingbird nectar feeder dangling from my index finger by the ring at the end of the metal rod attached to the round base. The rod was for hanging the feeder from a tree or hook.
Kim scratched her head. "Do what?"
"Scare me like that. I could fall." I looked down at the ladder's feet to make sure I was safe. "And to answer your question, what I'm doing up here is hanging a hummingbird feeder."
"Why?" Kim's my best friend and partner in Birds & Bees, my bird-feeding and bird-watching supply store in Ruby Lake, North Carolina. She only works in the business part time. She's employed as a Realtor the remainder of her working hours. Still, for all her time spent in the store, she's far from an expert on bird feeding or bird watching.
"To feed the hummingbirds, for one thing."
I hung the distinctive red plastic hummingbird feeder on the steel hook my cousin Riley had attached to the porch eave. The red-topped feeders have a clear shallow base that holds the sugar water the birds favor. "How does it look?"
"Okay, I guess." Kim didn't look impressed. The truth was, she wasn't as into birds as I was.
Esther poked her head out the front window of the shop. "Her ex-professor, Mason something, is coming, and Amy's trying to impress him."
"Thank you, Esther." I frowned at her and climbed down. Ladders make me nervous. People sticking their faces out windows while I'm teetering at the top of one downright scare me. "And that's Mason Livingston." I dusted off my khaki shorts, part of the Birds & Bees uniform. That and the red T-shirt I was wearing with our store's name and logo embroidered on it.
Kim removed a hummingbird feeder from the cardboard box on the front porch. I saw her lips moving as she counted the rest of the feeders in the carton. "Yeah, but six hummingbird feeders?"
I laughed and pushed a curl behind my ear. "I want to impress him a lot!" I grabbed the feeder from Kim's hand. "Help me with the rest of these, would you?"
"Sure thing." Kim grabbed a suction cup hanger and stuck it to the front door.
"Not the door." I pulled it down and moved it to one of the front windows opposite the cash register inside. That way we could watch the hummingbirds come and go while ringing up the sales. "It will only get spilled. Besides, the hummingbirds may not like the door opening and closing all the time."
"Okay," said Kim, snatching another from the box. "What about the rest of these?" I looked around the porch. "Let's put another on that side of the door." I pointed to the window Esther had stuck her head through. "The rest can go in the garden."
"You must really like this guy." Esther stepped out on the porch. She had balked at the idea of wearing shorts around the shop but had finally agreed to wear a pair of khaki slacks and had opted for a robin's-egg blue T-shirt.
I'd ordered her several colors of the shirts and made her promise to wear them. I was tired of seeing her around the store during business hours in her raggedy old housedresses that smelled of cigarettes and looked like a cat had been snoozing on them — both of which were forbidden items in my business-slash-home.
The policy was no reflection on cats. I'm a big fan of the felines. Unfortunately, I have a strong allergic reaction to them. Esther Pilaster, aka "Esther the Pester" or "Esther Pester," as I was wont to call her on days when she was especially annoying and I was especially short of patience, wasn't much for following my rules about either. Not that I had caught her smoking or frolicking with a cat, but all evidence pointed to the existence of both. One of these days, I was determined to prove it.
Since my mom had unilaterally given Esther a job in my store and she was already renting a room here, I could only make do until her lease was up.
"Mason Livingston was one of my college professors." I had attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the other side of the state. "I admire him."
"I thought you were an English major? Not an ornithologist." Kim hung a feeder in a small Japanese maple just inside the white picket fence that hugged the sidewalk. "This okay?"
"Yes, fine. And yes, I was an English major. But I took a Birds of North America class from Mason as an elective. You know birds have always been my passion." Now they were my job.
"Esther, would you mind running over to Otelia's Chocolates and picking up a pound? I remember Mason was a fanatic about chocolate," I called as I carefully maneuvered the wooden ladder between the flowers. Otelia's chocolate shop sits catercorner to Birds & Bees and is within shouting distance of Ruby Lake and the marina.
"Sure. Anything special?" she asked with peppermint-scented breath. I was sure she sucked on the hard candies to cover the smell of tobacco.
"Something fun. Use your best judgment." I'd give Mason the chocolates later at the book signing. "My purse is behind the counter."
Esther went inside and returned with my credit card. "I'll be right back. Either of you ladies want anything for yourselves?"
"I wouldn't say no to a half pound of maple fudge," Kim answered quickly.
"What about you, Amy?" Esther hollered as she started down the brick path to the sidewalk. Bright red salvia and yellow coreopsis bordered the edges and were alive with bees. I was hoping to attract at least one hummingbird to my yard while Mason was in town.
"I wouldn't say no to some maple fudge either," I said. I laid the ladder down along the edge of the sidewalk and moved to a feeder pole I had asked Cousin Riley to place in the center of a bed of hummingbird sage, formally known as Salvia spathacea.
"That's my problem." I ran my fingers over my tummy. "A half pound of fudge seems to equal about four pounds of body fat. So nothing for me, thanks."
"How is that even possible?" Kim chuckled as Esther crossed the street, ignoring the crosswalk and the moving vehicles and their blaring horns. Like I said, Esther is not big on rules. Even rules of the road.
"Must be my metabolism."
"I'll leave you to finish hanging the last couple of hummingbird feeders. I'm going to run upstairs a minute." I wanted to get the sugar water I had prepared earlier for the feeders.
"Okay, I'll top off the regular birdfeeders while I'm at it," Kim answered. We have several birdfeeders outside the shop. We keep them filled mostly with unshelled black oil sunflower seeds but occasionally offer treats like peanuts or safflower seeds. The idea was to attract the birds to the feeders and the customers to the birds and then to Birds & Bees. So far, it seemed to be working fairly well. Business had picked up since opening several months back. With summer in full swing, I was hoping that upward trend would continue.
I climbed to the third level of the old Queen Anne Victorian-era house where I lived with my mother. The second floor was occupied by my current renters, Esther Pilaster and Paul Anderson. The business occupied the entire ground floor.
Some say the old house is haunted. I like to joke that it will cease being haunted once Esther moves out. She was on the last year of her legacy lease, and I, for one, was looking forward to her moving on.
"Hi, Amy," said my mother, looking up from the English countryside mystery novel she was reading. "Everything okay in the store?"
"Fine, Mom." I crossed the apartment to the kitchen on the other side of the small flat. We shared a two-bedroom, open-concept apartment. Open-concept because there was one bathroom, two bedrooms, and the living-area-slash-kitchen; we lived our lives in the open, like it or not. I pulled the plastic jug from the fridge and set it on the counter. "I came back for the hummingbird nectar."
"Anything I can do to help?"
"No, thanks. I've got it." I yanked open the freezer. "Thanks for boiling it up for me though." Hummingbird feeder food is easy to make at home: four parts water to one part dissolved sugar. We melted the sugar in a saucepan of boiling water, then stored it in a glass juice container in the fridge. Mom had prepared a batch for me the night before while I'd been out on a date.
I pulled the ice tray from the freezer and stabbed a cube with my finger. "Solid as a rock." I grinned with satisfaction. Mom had made up such a big batch of sugar water that I'd had the idea to freeze the extra in an ice cube tray.
Mom looked up from her book. She appeared tired. Mom suffers from muscular dystrophy. She'd been getting worse there for a while, but the disease seemed to be in check now, which was a great thing. Still, she wears out easily, and I do my best not to be a source of stress or worry for her. Sometimes I succeed. "How did it turn out?"
"Perfect. I'll use the liquid now, and the frozen cubes will be ready the next time our little friends need their feeders refilled."
The sugar water only lasted in the feeders for about three days tops. That wasn't necessarily because the birds drank it all, but because the liquid tended to get a bit funky out in the hot sun, not to mention the effects of the insects that sometimes got trapped inside the water and decomposed therein. For the health of the hummingbirds, it was always best to clean the feeders and refill them every third day.
"Do hummingbirds really live on sugar water?" Mom asked. "It doesn't seem possible."
"It isn't. The sugar water is a nectar substitute. Hummingbirds also eat a lot of spiders and other insects. Sometimes when you see a hummingbird hovering over a flower, it isn't because it's about to feed on nectar — it could very well be that the bird has spotted a tasty spider or even an insect trapped in a spider's web."
"I never knew that."
"It's quite common. They also perform hover-hawking and what's called sallyhawking."
"Yes." I grabbed a bowl from a shelf, set it on the kitchen counter, and twisted the frozen cubes of sugar water free, then dumped them in the bowl. "Hummingbirds might fly through a swarm of insects, like gnats, and snatch them as they pass. Kind of like swifts do. That's called hover-hawking. Or they might sit on a branch, spot their prey, and make a beeline for it. That's sally-hawking." I jiggled the bowl of cubes.
"I don't think I'll ever learn everything there is to know about birds," sighed Mom.
I smiled. "That makes two of us!"
The distinctive dog-like hooting of a barred owl sounded from outside. But there was something funny about this call; it sounded a bit ... metallic. Not to mention I'd never seen a barred owl hanging around the Town of Ruby Lake in the middle of the day.
Mom turned her head toward the front window. "What on earth is that?"
"I don't know. It sounded like it came from the street." I slid the ice cube tray back into the freezer. "I'll take a look." I crossed to my bedroom from which I have a great view of Lake Shore Drive, the main road that sweeps along the lake and into town. The busy street is home to much of the tourist industry and shopping in our fair burg. It was the perfect location for Birds & Bees.
"What is that thing?" Mom had come into my room, and she peered over my shoulder to the street below.
I cocked my head. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that was a giant birdhouse!"
I ran down the two flights of stairs as fast as I dared. Esther was at the front counter. "What do you want me to do with these chocolates?" She held up a white bag, nothing more than a blur in my peripheral vision as I flew past like a hawk pursuing its prey. "I got chocolate-covered cherries. Otelia was running a sale on them."
"Perfect. Leave them behind the counter, please, Esther. I've got to see what's going on out there!"
Esther dropped the bag, leaned over the counter, and looked out the plate glass window. "Looks like the circus has come to town."
I threw open the front door and marched toward the street. A bright red pickup truck sat at the curb. Behind it, attached by a trailer hitch, was a tiny house. I'd seen tiny houses on TV — they had become something of a fad — but never one quite like this.
Kim stood at the edge of the street gaping, hummingbird feeders forgotten. "Have you ever seen anything like it?"
"It's a giant birdhouse," I said, stating the obvious. The adorable house on wheels was, indeed, shaped very much like a tall, skinny red birdhouse with a cedar shingle roof. I saw a pasty white face peek out the side window, then disappear.
A moment later, the door at the back opened, a small step was lowered, and Mason Livingston alit on the street.
"Amy!" he called, seeing me standing on the sidewalk next to Kim. He beamed. "Wonderful to see you!"
He whipped off a pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses with greenish lenses and thrust them in his breast pocket.
"Professor Livingston!" We met halfway, and I gave him a friendly hug. "How are you, Professor?"
"Very well, thank you. Please, it's Mason, darling." He shook his finger at me. "I'm no longer your professor."
"Thank goodness for that. I mean, no offense, but I'm glad my college days are behind me."
He turned his attention to Kim. "And you are?"
"Professor Livingston — Mason — I'd like you to meet Kim." I waved my hand toward my friend. "She's my best friend and a business partner."
"Wonderful to meet you," said Mason. He took both our hands. "Frankly, I can't decide which of you is more beautiful."
"That's easy." Kim fluffed her hair. "It's me."
I laughed. "Come on. Let's go inside. I've got some refreshments, and we can get caught up."
"Of course," Mason said, bright brown eyes gleaming beneath bushy brows. He turned toward Birds & Bees. "Quite a place you've got here."
"Thank you," I said.
"Plenty of hummingbirds, I see." He nodded appreciatively. "Did you know that, to survive, a single hummingbird will drink twice its body weight in nectar each day?"
"Interesting," said Kim. "And not an ounce of body fat on them. I wish I could get away with that."
Mason started toward the shop, but Kim held me back.
"Tipsy," whispered Kim.
"I think your old college professor has been dipping in the sauce."
I cocked my head as I watched Mason start up the walk to Birds & Bees, arms swinging. His gray flannel suit hung loosely from his shoulders. His tie was half undone. "Mason does seem a bit unsteady, doesn't he?"
Kim giggled. "I've seen steadier rowboats out on the lake. In a thunderstorm."
"Let's go. Mason's waiting." He'd already disappeared inside. That meant he'd be facing Esther alone.
"Hold on, Amy. I want to get a picture."
"This giant birdhouse, of course." She thrust her phone at me. "Here, take my pic so I can post it online on my page."
"Oh, brother." I took the phone and aimed while Kim posed mischievously in front of the tiny quirky house on wheels.
"Did you know he was going to be showing up with this thing?" Kim smiled broadly.
"Not a clue," I replied. "Now turn the other way. The sun was in your face in that last shot."
Kim turned her head. "Do you think your old professor would mind if we take a look inside?"
"I'd mind. That would be trespassing." Not that I hadn't done a little of that myself. All in the name of truth and justice, of course.
"But I want to pose in that window." She pointed to a rectangular window with white trim and a window box that held some faded plastic flowers. "It will be fun."
"Maybe later," I said. I handed Kim her phone and gave her a nudge. "If Mason gives his permission."
"Fine," grumbled Kim, following me up the walk.
Inside, Mason had cornered Esther in the small first-floor kitchenette in the back corner of the shop. I always tried to leave out snacks and drinks for the customers. There were chairs where they could linger with their refreshments and read from a selection of bird-, plant- and bee-related literature.
"Are you sure you don't have anything stronger?" I heard Mason ask Esther.
Esther gave me the stink eye. "My fist's pretty strong." She waved her clenched hand at the professor's nose.
"Now, now, Esther." I grabbed Esther's hand and lowered it. "Care for some lemonade, Mason?" I pulled the glass pitcher from the fridge and set it beside the sink.
"Thank you, Amy. I am a bit parched."
Using a pair of stainless steel tongs, I dropped ice in each of our glasses, then poured a round of lemonade. Esther chugged hers down, then helped herself to seconds and a chocolate chip cookie. Mom had baked the cookies in advance of today's event. Nobody made a chocolate chip cookie like Mom. I heard the tinkle of the door opening. "Could you go assist our customer, please, Esther?"
Excerpted from "To Kill a Hummingbird"
Copyright © 2017 J.R. Ripley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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