Who’s got time for birdwatching? Amy has enough to do running her shop, fighting attempts by the town planning commission to demolish her old Victorian house, and rescuing an injured towhee. Yet somehow she allows herself to get roped into performing in the Ruby Lake, North Carolina, community theater’s new musical after some cast members get injured by mysterious mishaps. The production seems plagued by bad luck, but events turn tragic when a member of the company is found murdered in a locked dressing room.
Trading in her binoculars for a magnifying glass, Amy steps into the role of amateur sleuth and soon discovers the victim ruffled a lot of feathers. With a flock of suspects, Amy will need to beat the bushes before the cagey killer takes flight. After all, the show must go on . . .
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"That's the third time this week," I complained, brushing back a lock of limp brown hair that refused to stay put.
"Maybe you should go over and say something," Kim replied, and it sounded very much like a dare. She wore the same khaki culottes and green T-shirt that I did, so why did hers look fresh and sharp while my clothes looked dumpy and dowdy?
I frowned, looking at the ratty blue and white camper van parked outside my front door. "Maybe I will." I wasn't exaggerating. This was the third time in under a week that someone working on the place next door had parked their beat-up old Winnebago at the curb directly in front of Birds & Bees. Definitely a man.
He'd also been trampling through my flower beds. Mom and I had purchased six trays of petunias from a local greenhouse. We painstakingly planted them one Sunday morning between the sidewalk and the white picket fence in an effort to give the front some color. I noticed, walking out to the mailbox, that the entire corner of the bed nearest his vehicle was a mushy pulp of purple and green. The worker had been using my flowerbed as a shortcut.
To paraphrase a song in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Carousel, June flowers were busting out all over. And this guy was busting up my flowers.
I wasn't sure who he was. There'd been a lot of workers in and out of the empty storefront of late. I'd only seen snatches of the back of his head. Definitely a man.
Not only was the thing an eyesore, it blocked the view out my main window. It also blocked potential customers' view into the store. Definitely not good for business. And I could use all the business I could get.
"Well," Kim chided, "what are you waiting for?"
"I'm thinking." I tapped my toe in sync with a downy woodpecker rhythmically stabbing away at a tray of peanut butter suet suspended in a cage feeder that dangled from the porch on a green chain. The downy woodpecker is a smaller member of the woodpecker family with fluffy black and white plumage. The one feeding now was a female. I could tell because the bird lacked the distinctive red patch on the back of its head that the males bear. Though short-billed, the bantam-sized woodpecker had no trouble extracting the peanut butter treat from behind the metal grill.
Kim and I grew up together. She was my best friend and a working partner, albeit part-time, in Birds & Bees, the shop we'd opened a couple of months back. Our store catered to bird-feeding and birdwatching enthusiasts and also carried a few supplies for beekeepers. We were not a sex-ed shop for preteens, and I was getting tired of the joke.
In addition to the store's stock, we had started a small garden out front with plants to support bird and bee populations, like holly, milkweed, and assorted wildflowers, depending on the time of year. With summer just around the corner, options were nearly endless. The little town of Ruby Lake is located in an area of western North Carolina that boasts a robust growing climate.
Mom and I had also planted a row of pulmonaria tucked up against the front porch. The flowering plant also known as lungwort did well in the shade and was especially popular with both bees and hummingbirds.
The camper van blocking the view of Ruby Lake, the town's eponymously named medium-sized natural lake, was a rusting blue hulk with near-bald tires and a sagging white shell. Its windows looked like they'd last been washed during the Nixon administration.
Kim was right. It was time to stop whining and do something. The ruined flower beds had been the last straw. "I'll be right back."
I pushed out the French doors and walked determinedly toward the camper van. I couldn't help grimacing at the tattered bright red NC STATE WOLFPACK bumper sticker on the back as the door of the camper flew open.
The Wolfpack were practically the mortal enemies of my own school's team, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Not that such things mattered to me. I was hardly the rah-rah type. And, after all, I had many friends who'd attended NCSU. Not to mention a certain unmentionable ex-boyfriend. It was a terrific school. Just so long as its alumni didn't park their wrecks in front of my place-of-business-slash-home.
"Hi," said the young man in blue jeans and a white tee, stepping from inside. I placed him at my age, give or take a couple years. I'm thirty-four and plan to be for many years to come.
The stranger ran his fingers through a shock of wavy brown hair, then stuck his hand out with a smile. "Paul Anderson."
"Hello," I said, reluctantly shaking his hand. "I'm Amy Simms." I nodded my chin toward the shop. "This is my store." And my home, I could have added.
"Oh." He beamed. "You're the pet shop lady." He stuffed his hands into his denim jacket.
I smothered a frown. "I don't sell pets. I sell birding supplies, birdseed, nesting boxes —"
He cut me off. "Got it." He slammed the door of his camper shut, then kicked it again with his boot when it refused to stay shut. "Thing never latches right." He started to turn away. "If you don't mind, I'm sort of busy right now."
I noticed bits of purple and green plant material on the bottoms of his boots. My petunias. "Listen, Mr. Anderson —"
Anderson stopped and raised his hand. "Paul, remember?"
How could I forget? "Listen" — I cleared my throat — "Paul, about your Winnebago —"
The young man's brow shot up. "This isn't a Winnebago."
Was this guy going to chop off every sentence I started? "Well" — I bit my lip — "your camper van —"
The guy chopped me off again. "Camper van? I'll have you know this is a 1987 Holiday Rambler, Amy." He slapped it lovingly on the side, and I expected the shell to separate from the truck. "With a Ford Econoline three-fifty chassis and a four-sixty engine under the hood."
I didn't know what all those numbers meant, but I knew enough about men to know that such things impressed them. Me, not so much. "Fine. But your Holiday Bumbler —"
"Rambler" — I paused to let some steam off — "is blocking my store."
Paul looked confused. "It's on the street."
"Yes. I know, but still —"
"This baby's a real collectible."
"Looks to me like your baby's collecting mostly mud and rust," I said, stepping off the curb and assessing the monstrosity more closely. It was also collecting stares from locals and tourists alike. A car tooted and I jumped back quickly to the sidewalk.
Paul cocked his head. "Have you got a problem with me?" he said with surprise. "With my Rambler?"
"That's what I've been trying to tell you. I would appreciate it if you would park it somewhere else."
He shook his head. "This is convenient, you know?"
"Convenient for what?" It certainly wasn't convenient for me. I pointed to the empty storefront next store that abutted mine. "Why not park it there? That's where you're working, right?"
"Yeah," he said slowly. He grabbed my extended arm and swiveled my hand toward the curb. "Fire hydrant, see?" I pulled my arm free. I saw.
"So I can't park there." Paul Anderson shrugged. "Gotta park here."
I sighed. "But it's blocking my store."
Paul Anderson's brow wriggled. "I'm not exactly parked on your sidewalk. I'm on the road." He shook his head. "Perfectly legal."
I pointed at his tan harness boots. "You see that?"
"You like my boots?"
"No." I shook my head. "That's my flowers your boots are wearing. You're trampling my flowers."
"Oh." He rubbed the top of his boot against his calf. "Sorry about that. Maybe you should think about plastic."
"Plastic?" I could feel the pressure building up behind my eyes. Why were we suddenly talking about plastic?
"Yeah, flowers, you know? I've seen them in the store. You plant those puppies and you'll never have to worry about people trampling your flowers again. I'm thinking of adding some to my flower boxes." There were several empty metal flower boxes outside the storefront and along the front edge of the outdoor sales area.
"Plastic flowers don't do our endangered bee population a fat lot of good."
"Huh. I never thought about that," he replied, looking thoughtfully at his own empty flower boxes.
"I'd rather you simply stay on the sidewalk."
He scraped the soles of his boots on the cement, leaving a smeared trail of petunia guts in their wake. "I'll try." He held up his hand. "Scout's honor."
I looked at his hand and frowned. "That's not scout's honor. That's a peace sign."
He twisted his lips and looked at his fingers. "Really?"
I rolled my eyes. "Really. You need three fingers, not two and —" I stopped. "Oh, never mind. What are they working on over there, anyway?" I asked, changing the subject. I didn't feel like giving this grown man Boy Scouts lessons. "I've been meaning to go over and introduce myself to the new owner but haven't had the chance."
Paul beamed. "Well, you just did."
"Did what?" I asked, already fearing the answer.
"Meet the new owner." His hazel eyes sparkled as the sun came out from behind the clouds that had been obscuring the morning.
"You bought the old garden center?" The place next to mine had been a garden shop with a large outdoor area that extended all the way to my house and interior space on the other side. With Brewer's Garden Center out of business, I'd thought adding a few flowering plants for sale at my place might help me pull in some of their old customers.
Paul Anderson beamed. "Yep. You might say I'm reopening the garden center. Even keeping the old name." He scratched his cheek. "Sort of."
"You?" Paul Anderson did not look like the gardening type. I followed him to the door of the closed storefront.
"Only this time it'll be a beer garden."
"Beer? You're turning this place into a bar?" He stepped inside the dark and dusty space, and I had no choice but to follow. The inside smelled of fresh sawdust.
"Yep. Into a beer garden and brew pub." He stretched out his hands. "Brewer's Biergarten." He tapped the neon sign spread out on the new bar top. "Funny coincidence, don't you think?
Brewer's Garden Center." His brow went up suggestively. "I'm a brewer. Brewer's Biergarten?"
I stifled a groan. "Funny is one way of looking at it." There it was in bright red, foot-tall letters: BREWER'S BIERGARTEN. I couldn't wait to see it all lit up at night. Not.
"Wanna see the equipment? It's in back. I've already got the wort kettle set up and the —"
I cut him off. After all, it was my turn. "No, thanks. And what's a wort kettle?" I instantly regretted opening my mouth and snapped it shut. I had not meant to get this guy started when what I wanted to do was to get this guy stopped.
It wasn't that I was against beer or even brew pubs. Lord knew I enjoyed my fair share. But right next to Birds & Bees, my business and my home — that I could do without. I could also do without Paul Anderson. Especially when he was parked on my front steps.
Paul waved and plowed through a pair of swinging shutter half-doors.
"Wort is the liquid you extract from the malted barley. From there, you add yeast and, presto, beer!" He smiled sheepishly. "Well, at least that's it in a nutshell."
From a nut job, I thought. I stared suspiciously at all the shiny equipment, vats, pipes, and doohickeys of unimaginable purposes. It all looked practically medieval against the exposed red brick background. "Look." I cleared my throat and backed out toward the street. "About your Scrambler."
"Rambler," Paul corrected. "It's my home, not a plate of scrambled eggs." He laughed.
"Your home?" I tapped my foot at the door. "And just how long are you planning on making that — that thing your home?"
Paul Anderson shrugged. He thrust his hands in his back pockets. "That's hard to tell." His eyes took a swing around the store. "Until I get settled. You can see for yourself there's a lot to do here."
"I'll say." The place looked more a wreck than my own store had when I'd taken over the old Queen Anne Victorian-era house mere months before. "Couldn't you park your home around back?" I knew the garden center had a large parking area behind the store. Plenty of space for cars. They'd even kept large slatted wooden bins of soil and pine straw back there for their customers. Surely there was room for his vehicle.
Paul shook his head. "No room. Lots of construction materials, equipment, you know?"
"You know, there are laws against living on the street." Okay, I was bluffing. Sort of. Come to think of it, weren't there laws against opening places that sold alcohol? Permits required? Did this guy have any of those? The man seemed a bit oblivious. I made a mental note to check with the building department.
Paul smiled. "Nobody's complained so far. Besides, it'll only be for a few months."
As much as I was tempted to file a complaint, I knew I wouldn't either. In the end, I was a live-and-let-live kind of person.
Then the few months line sunk in. "Over my dead body."
Okay, so I'm a hypocrite. Aren't we all one time or another? I could imagine the noise, the late nights, the fights. The drunks stumbling over to Birds & Bees looking for a place to spend the night. The house had been an inn for years, after all. No, this was not going to end well.
"You got something against beer? Or gardens?" Paul Anderson inquired. "Or maybe people having fun?"
"Fun?" I crossed my arms. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means people having a good time, enjoying each other's company. Capital F-U-N."
"I know what fun means. What I don't know is what your game is."
"No game, Amy. I'm merely an entrepreneur out to build my business." He nodded toward Birds & Bees. "Just like you."
Okay, so he had me there. I was disliking this guy more and more by the minute. "What made you decide to start your bar here? In Ruby Lake?"
I rolled my eyes. "Biergarten."
I stepped aside as Gertrude Hammer, Gertie, town curmudgeon, ambled past, pushing a grocery cart that had no doubt been stolen from Lakeside Market. I say no doubt because the green plastic LAKESIDE MARKET placard was still welded to the back of the cart.
"I heard it was a nice little town," Paul replied. His close-set hazel eyes scanned me from head to toe. "Full of friendly people." Paul popped open the passenger-side door of his truck and pulled out a battered toolbox, which he dropped carelessly to the sidewalk, where it landed with an ear-splitting rattle. "At least that's what my buddy said."
"Ha!" We both heard Gertie snort from ten feet away. Gertie spun around, letting the grocery cart roll free. "Not Simms!" She had on a baggy gray sweat suit and a pair of shoes that looked like they might have been made from triceratops hide.
Gertie had sold me the house and, while I'd felt ripped off and foolish at the time, for some reason she'd been desperate to buy it back from me. I hadn't figured out why yet. The cart bounced down the curb and into the street.
The tour van in its path screeched to a halt. I leapt into the road and retrieved it. "Here you go," I said with a flourish, whipping the cart into old Gertie's hands. Gertrude's about a million years old, give or take an epoch.
"Thanks," Gertie spat. Her eyes fixed on me. "Watch out for this one. She's a death magnet."
With that, the old woman gave her cart a shove and continued up the street.
"Death magnet?" I huffed and stamped my foot.
Paul laughed. "Man, Craig told me Ruby Lake had potential, but he never told me what a bunch of characters you all were!"
"Craig?" I felt a terrible tension creeping up my neck, the blood draining from my face.
"Yeah." Paul's teeth flashed white against his swarthy complexion. "Craig Bigelow. He's the friend who turned me on to this place. We're partners. I can't wait till he gets here."
My heart went cold. I clenched my fists.
Craig Bigelow — rhymes with gigolo, of course — was the man who'd taken my heart and broken it into six pieces. One for each year we'd been together. He wasn't the only reason I'd left Raleigh and returned to Ruby Lake, but he was a big one.
"I don't know him at all." I turned on my heel and retreated.CHAPTER 2
"Well?" asked Kim, sliding shut the cash register and handing a woman a receipt. The woman's companion hefted a twenty-pound bag of unshelled black oil sunflower seeds, our bread and butter so to speak, over his left shoulder. The sunflower seeds were our biggest seller. They're cheap and plentiful, and attract a wide variety of birds to backyard feeders.
"Well what?" I asked, holding the door open as our customers departed.
"Is he going to move his camper?"
"We agreed to table the discussion for now," I answered. I picked up the broom and dustpan and circled around the front counter, my arms working quickly.
Kim planted her feet in my path. "Spill it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Towhee Get Your Gun"
Copyright © 2017 J.R. Ripley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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