Bird, Bath, and Beyond: New Excerpt
Bird, Bath, and Beyond by E. J. Copperman is the second book in the hilarious Agent to the Paws cozy mystery series featuring a woman who is a talent agent for showbiz animals and discovers that she has a talent herself: solving crimes.
Kay Powell, theatrical agent to non-human animals, is babysitting―that is, birdsitting―her client, a parrot named Barney, on the set of his new TV show, Dead City. When the show’s charismatic star is shot in his trailer between scenes, the only eyewitness to the crime is―you guessed it―Barney. And even though Kay keeps explaining that even a “talking” parrot doesn’t actually converse with people, the investigators insist on interrogating the bird for information he clearly can’t communicate.
Suspects accumulate like birdseed, and before long it’s clear the killer believes Barney might actually be able to supply useful evidence. Even Barney can’t fly away from this one.
“Polly want a cracker?”
The question was stupid for any number of reasons, and the bird to whom it was addressed stared at the interrogator blankly. First of all, his name was Barney, not Polly. Second, he probably didn’t care if he had a cracker or not. Third, and most important, parrots don’t actually converse with people; they just occasionally repeat what they’ve heard, assuming the bird has been taught diligently and patiently for a long time.
So no, Polly did not want a cracker. Or maybe she did, but she wasn’t here.
We were standing, Barney and I, on the set of a television show called Dead City, a program whose conceit was that zombie detectives would investigate crimes against their own as well as against the living in a gritty post-apocalyptic New York, specifically in Tribeca. Because it costs too much to shoot in Midtown.
This particular set was a mock-up of the medical examiner’s office, where intrepid Dr. Banacek, played by Dray Mattone, was examining the latest victim of the anti-zombie racists (are zombies a race?), who being a zombie herself could help by pointing out exactly where it hurt and describe her attackers if she’d seen them.
Barney was in a cage over the examination table, a symbol of the quirky Dr. Banacek’s eccentricities. He was playing the role of Babs, the doctor’s pet parrot, whose catchphrase “Can’t kill a zombie!” had spawned bumper stickers, T-shirts, and countless Internet memes. Barney had stepped in when the original Babs (real name Cecilia) had passed away, luckily of natural causes and not a zombie attack.
The cameras were not currently rolling, so Barney was hanging back, biding his time. He’s a professional, well thought of in parrot circles, and did not require any wing-holding or special treatment between takes. I was very proud of his behavior, particularly now that Harve Lembeck, the first assistant director, was pulling out the cliché manual on how to deal with a parrot, calling him “Polly” and requiring about his possible desire for a saltine.
“Barney’s fine, Harve,” I said. “But thanks anyway.”
Harve looked oddly at me, perhaps wondering who I was or why I might address him by name. It wasn’t like we had met six or seven times in the past three hours—because we had—but I was just the bird’s agent and therefore unlikely to help anybody get any work after this show wrapped, so I was invisible.
“What do you mean?” he asked. Nice of him not to inquire as to who I was, but you could see the confusion in his eyes.
“He doesn’t need a cracker,” I explained.
Harve looked at me like I was a dangerous crazy lady. “I don’t have a cracker,” he said, and walked behind the set, undoubtedly to tell someone else in the crew what a nut that woman with the bird must be.
It was true, I decided—I must be crazy. Not that many people choose to be a theatrical agent, and the vast majority of those who do go out of their way to attract and represent clients who are, at the very least, human. I go in the other direction.
All my clients are animals, and they are much easier to deal with than the people with whom they work.
I started Powell and Associates because I loved animals and I knew show business from literally the time I was born. My parents, Jay and Ellie Powell, raised me onstage, mostly at the Nevele Grand Hotel in the Catskill Mountains. By the time the hotel closed, I had firmly resolved to get the hell out of show business as fast as I could and went to college with the ambition of attending veterinary school, which (once science classes were introduced) became law school. I got my law degree, passed the bar in the states of New Jersey and New York, and began representing animals with the help of a kind mentor who has since passed away.
So standing on a sound stage tending to a parrot wasn’t just an acceptable way for me to pass a workday; it was the norm for me. I have represented dogs, cats, birds, the occasional horse, one chimpanzee who turned out to be a diva, and very briefly a boa constrictor. If you own an animal and think he or she might have some talent, I’m the person to talk to. Because as I said, not that many agents do what I do.
I checked on Barney, but he didn’t need anything. His cage had fresh newspaper on the bottom and Heather Alizondo, the director of this week’s Dead City episode, was back on the set, checking with Dray Mattone about the scene. The actress playing the victim, whose name I believed was Mandy, walked over to lie down on the examination table, and makeup people surrounded her to make sure the slightly purple makeup on her face was not fading. They touched up her hair—on TV, you don’t want your zombies to look unattractive, after all—and she lay down, arms at her side.
We were about to start another take. I looked at Barney’s water supply, which was sufficient, and at Barney, who looked straight at me with his right eye. He did not wink to indicate he had this one with no problem. He was too much a pro.
“Quiet!” Harve, who had emerged from the bowels of the set, yelled. A bell rang. Dray walked over to the examination table as I scurried off the set and retreated to my little corner, where I could more easily be the least noticed person in the production.
“Okay,” Heather said. “Let’s try for a master on this one, please.” She meant that if possible, the actors would work all the way through the scene without stopping, and that all three cameras in the room would be rolling while they were acting. If it went well, there would be time for pickup shots later.
“Settle down, people.” That was the stage manager, Bonnie Prestoni. She had the most impressive clipboard of the bunch, one with Dead City emblazoned on its top and not just on a sticker like some of the others. It was embossed. That’s power.
The second assistant director (originally known as a clapper loader, as if that helped), Tom Hedison, held up the slate, which showed the scene and take numbers along with other information, and made the clapping sound necessary before each take to help sync the sound and image in postproduction. A second or two went by.
“Action,” Heather said.
Dray, playing Dr. Banacek, immediately stopped opening and closing his mouth to get it ready and set his face in “concerned” position. His hand went to his goateed chin. His eyes took on intensity. His lips narrowed.
Dr. Banacek was not pleased about something. I hadn’t actually read the script other than for Barney’s lines, which Heather had decided he should recite on cue even though they could easily have been added after shooting was completed. It was fairly well known that in Cecilia’s last months, a human actor pretending to be a parrot had dubbed her lines in a recording studio.
Mandy lay flat on the table, convincingly purple and still enough that it was somewhat startling when she sat up, eyes wide. She had not flustered Dr. Banacek, though. Dray Mattone just folded his arms and looked at his latest patient.
“I was wondering how long that would take,” he said with a slight air of impatience. Dr. Banacek had a wit so dry you could light a match on it.
“What is this place?” Mandy asked, looking around and not acknowledging the small army of technicians, the cameras, the director, and me. Actors are amazing: They can convince you of the illusion even when you can see the lights and the stagehands.
I used to work onstage. I know what I’m talking about because I was never that good an actress.
“You’re in the morgue,” Dray told her as she swung her legs—demurely, as this was network television—around and let them dangle off the examination table. “I’d think you’d be used to that sort of thing.” You see what I mean about that dry wit.
“What happened?” Mandy said, not doubling over in laughter at his hilarious comment.
“That’s what I was hoping you could tell me,” Dr. Banacek told her. “They found you in a butcher shop on Thirty-Fourth Street. Now the Board of Health is worried the ground chuck is no good.”
“I didn’t go to a butcher shop,” Mandy answered him.
I knew Barney’s line was coming up, but he seemed relaxed. He wasn’t distracted by the situation on set and he wasn’t simply sitting back and watching; he was acting as Babs. He watched intently and moved his head back and forth, watching the actors as they delivered their lines.
“I didn’t think so,” Dray said, pointing at her lower legs, which I saw one camera move in to capture. Even so, there would be coverage later on to insert into the scene. Heather nodded, satisfied. “The scrapes on your legs indicate you were dragged there, maybe with a rope. Do you remember any of that?”
Mandy scratched at her arm and a piece of “skin” fell off. That was in the script, apparently, because nobody seemed the least bit worried about it. “I don’t remember it. But I can tell you I have a very strong urge to eat your brain.”
Dr. Banacek didn’t even flinch; he was incredibly intrepid and unflappable. You couldn’t flap this guy with a ten-foot flyswatter. “I think it’ll do you more good if it stays in my head for the time being,” he said. “Someone shot you in the back of the skull. That wasn’t an accident. Even in your condition, you can’t want to be murdered again.”
“Can’t kill a zombie!” Barney piped up, and I saw the crew relax a little. It was his second day and he was impressing.
But Dr. Banacek didn’t even acknowledge his beloved parrot’s outburst. He looked at Mandy with the practiced intensity that had spawned a thousand fan clubs and millions of tweets. “Why don’t you tell me what you do remember?” he asked Mandy, and then they both held the pose. They knew the scene was fading out.
“And … cut!” Heather shouted, and the crew all started moving around. “Let’s print that one!” There was no applause because it was just another shot completed, and it was only eleven in the morning. There would be plenty more filmed today. Television series require long hours and lots of hard work.
I saw Heather walk to Dray first and talk to him quietly, no doubt giving notes on the previous scene. Because she’d said they would print it and did not announce another take of the same scene, the crew would now move on to the coverage—the same scene filmed separately with a camera on each actor, then shots like the leg insert they’d need of Mandy—so they were setting the scene to look the same when they started again. But the lighting crew would reset some of the key lights to highlight other areas of the set. It would be a while before the cameras rolled again.
I walked to the cage where Barney was leaning back on his perch, chilling after a job well done. “How you doin’, Barney?” I asked.
“Can’t kill a zombie!” he observed. He’d been carefully coached for the scene and he wasn’t going to be denied.
“That’s very true,” I noted. I added a little seed to his feeding bowl and Barney pecked at it a bit.
“He does good work.” I looked up and saw Dray Mattone, all six-foot-two of him, looking down at me with less of Dr. Banacek’s intense obsession and more of the actor’s own talk-show-ready charm. You never know if he’s faking it, but it completely doesn’t matter.
I nodded in Barney’s direction. “He’s a professional, just like you,” I said. I extended a hand. “I’m Kay Powell. I’m Barney’s agent.”
Dray took my hand and held it a moment, which probably worked with a lot of women, because it was coming close to working on me. “Wow. I wish my agent showed that kind of interest. I can’t get the woman on the phone.”
“Well, you don’t need your paper changed every few hours.” Luckily that was not the case now.
“You’d be surprised.” Dray grinned. I took for granted he wasn’t flirting with me, since he had his pick of virtually any drop-dead gorgeous woman in Hollywood, so his interest in me was baffling. I considered that he might just be trying to be nice and then I remembered he was a successful television actor. So that wasn’t it either.
“Well, I bet your agent is up for it,” I said. That was sort of keeping things professional, wasn’t it? “You’re really successful and your agent is part of that.”
He sighed theatrically—what other way is there, really?—and cocked his head. “You would think.”
I checked on Barney again. He required remarkably little care at the moment, and not that much the rest of the time. This was not his usual cage, which was much larger, but the one that had been designed for Babs, especially to look good on camera. It had a couple of toys in it because Barney was not happy when not engaged, and he hopped down to chew on a piece of wood, his favorite thing to do besides act. He loved acting.
I decided not to follow up on Dray’s comment about his agent. I wasn’t looking for human clients, and even if I was, meddling with someone else’s while the actor was still under contract would be considered highly unethical. I could have referred him to a few agents I knew who handled human clients, but he’d have to show me he was no longer with another agency, and besides, I really didn’t care.
“Was it hard to bring in a new bird after the old Babs died?” he asked me. “She knew the routine around here pretty well. How did this one learn the lines so fast?”
I wished I could have let Barney fly around a little, but that probably would have caused some consternation on set and there wouldn’t be time to round him up before another take was ready to go. “Well, I’m not the trainer, but you repeat it enough times and use a clicker and this kind of parrot will usually pick up the sounds pretty easily, they tell me.” Actually, Patty Basilico, who owned and trained Barney, was the typical on-set handler for shooting days, but she was sick with the flu and had asked me to fill in. Patty is a sweetheart, and even though I’d known her only a few weeks, she was probably my favorite of the humans who owned my clients, so I’d taken a crash course in parrot and headed for the set.
“It’s amazing. I’ve known actors who couldn’t learn their lines so fast.” Dray started to stick his finger into the cage, then stopped and looked at me. “Okay?” he asked.
“Sure. Barney likes people.”
Dray smiled, a lethal half-grin that had graced many a tabloid, and put his index finger into the cage to smooth back the parrot’s feathers. “Hello, Babs,” he said.
“He doesn’t know he’s Babs,” I pointed out. “He’s Barney.”
The actor nodded, absorbing this. “Hi, Barney. What’s shakin’, dude?”
Barney responded as he usually did, by luxuriating in the touch and making a contented noise that sounded a lot like gargling. Then he looked Dray right in the eye and said, “What’s shakin’, dude?”
I thought Dray Mattone would fall over laughing. He loved that moment so dearly—or was pretending to, since it’s always hard to tell when an actor is being genuine—that his eyes watered and he actually held his well-toned abs as he shook with laughter.
“Oh … that’s great,” he managed after a moment. “How did he do that after only one time?”
The fact of the matter was that I had no idea how many repetitions were necessary for Barney to learn a line, if that was simply an aberration or if he’d heard someone say, “What’s shakin’, dude?” fifteen thousand times before. But the key here was to appear like the woman who knows all about the parrot, so I nodded wisely and said, “He’s a pro.”
Dray got control of himself again. He put his hands up to his face, covering his nose and mouth, and shook his head slowly. “He sure is,” he said, the sound muffled. He put down his hands. “So is Barney the only reason you’re here?”
That was a weird question. Why else would I have shown up on the set of Dead City with a bird? But before I could answer, Heather walked over, quietly putting her hand on Dray’s shoulder and steering him, once he noticed her, to a corner where she could give him more notes on the scene. I guessed. I couldn’t hear a word she was saying.
Harve appeared from behind one of the flats that looked like a wall and glanced at Barney. “Can you get the bird back up on its perch?” he came close to demanding. “We’re going to need it there for the take.”
“Barney will be ready,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
“Your ass if it’s not,” he grumbled as he walked away.
Of course Barney was ready for the next take and the one after that. In another two hours his scene—the only one he’d be required for today—was shot. I packed him up to take him to Sunnyside, Queens, where Patty lived.
But Heather stopped me on the way to the door. “Can Barney stay for another hour or so?” she asked. “I have just one tag for the end of the show and he wouldn’t have to say anything, but I’d like him in the background where he could be seen.”
I’d told Patty I would have Barney back by three, and it was a little before two o’clock now, but she understood this was a job and he’d have to stay as long as the work required. “How long do I have to leave him?” I asked. “I need to check in with my office.” There was a schnauzer in need of grooming for an audition in a Thin Man revival, and I was supposed to oversee head shots for a Siamese cat named Martha.
“It’ll just be an hour, hour and a half at most,” Heather said. “I’ll tell you what. You go ahead and do what you have to do. I’ll take Barney into Dray’s trailer until the moment he’s needed and I’ll do my best to get him out and ready to go home by the time you get back. How’s that?”
I didn’t want to leave a client alone, but Dray’s trailer? Had to be luxurious. “Dray won’t mind?” I asked.
“No. He’s bonded with Barney, just told me he likes the bird.”
“He’ll need some stimulation,” I said.
Heather looked at me strangely. “Stimulation? Dray?”
“No, Barney. He can’t just sit. He needs his toys and he needs his pellets to eat. It’d be great if we could let him out to fly a bit, but I wouldn’t recommend that in Dray’s trailer.”
She chuckled. “No, I don’t think I can let Barney fly. But we’ll see to it he has all his toys. Did you bring more than are in the cage?”
I gave her what I had for Barney and Heather agreed to have one of the production assistants—who probably had been longing to get into Dray’s trailer under any pretense—stay with Barney for a while when I was gone. I was a little reluctant, but hadn’t been planning to do much more than put the cage in my car and drive to Sunnyside, not far from where Dead City was filming in Astoria. Barney wouldn’t have gotten much stimulation anyway.
It was a way of rationalizing the move, I know, but I’d budgeted the time and Heather was asking for more. This way Barney was in more of the show and I got to do my other work.
I took him into Dray’s trailer, which was indeed quite lovely and spacious, and told the bird I’d be back soon, which I would. Then I called Patty, got her voice mail—she was probably asleep—and left a message. I put the cover over Barney’s cage in the hope he would chill out, but could hear him knocking around and squawking, so I took it off again.
“I’ll be right back, Barney,” I told him. “Play with the wood.” There was a small dowel in his cage he liked to pick up and move around. I raised it to show him and he put it in his beak. “That’s a boy.”
“Can’t kill a zombie!” Barney responded.
I couldn’t have agreed more. I left the trailer, walked to my car, and called Consuelo, my assistant back at the office in East Harlem.
“I’m glad you called,” she said. “There’s a movie shooting in the same studio you’re at now and the production company called. They need a dog, and I thought Bruno…”
I’d adopted an enormous Tibetan mastiff named Bruno because … it’s a long story. “Bruno has quit the business,” I said. “He’s retired.”
“Well, they want a big shaggy dog and we represent a few,” Consuelo reminded me. “Do you have pictures on your phone?”
She gave me the address of the production company, Giant Productions, on the lot. I drove (these places are huge) to the trailer that was serving as its headquarters while preproduction was going on.
It was a five-minute meeting. Unfortunately, it took place after forty minutes of waiting for the casting director, a harried-looking woman aptly named Harriet, to appear. I showed her some photos of my clients and she asked me to send her two, one of a bearded collie named Herbert and one of an English sheepdog called Bagels. She wanted to give the director a choice.
So by the time I got back to the Dead City set, I had again called Consuelo to arrange for bigger pictures to be sent to Giant Productions and for the Siamese to be beautified. The schnauzer’s audition was pushed to the next day at the producer’s request.
I’d gotten all that done in less than an hour, and still when I arrived back at the set, Dray Mattone had been shot dead in his trailer.
Copyright © 2018 E. J. Copperman.