Parrots Prove Deadly: New Excerpt

An excerpt of Parrots Prove Deadly by Clea Simon, the third Pru Marlowe pet noir mystery (available April 2, 2013).

Parrots will repeat anything—they don’t talk sense. Or do they? When Pru Marlowe is called in to retrain a foul-mouthed African gray after its owner’s death, the bad-girl animal psychic can’t help hearing the bird’s words as a replay of a murder scene. But the doctor on call scoffs at the idea, and the heirs just want their late mother’s pet to quit cursing. With the only other possible witnesses being an evasive aide, a blind neighbor, and a single-minded service dog, Pru is stuck with what may be a feather-brained theory. Even her crotchety tabby Wallis doesn’t buy it, although she’s more than willing to “interrogate” the big bird, as Pru deals with drugs, jealousy, and a potential rabies outbreak.

 

Chapter 1

Polly didn’t want a cracker. Polly didn’t want much of anything anymore. Polly Larkin, aka “Room 203,” had been dead several hours when her aide came to wake her, early on the morning of September third, and her days of haranguing the staff were done.

Nobody was surprised much by Polly’s demise, least of all the aide. That she’d toppled to the floor at some point in the night, knocking over her walker, was unfortunate, but not shocking. Polly had been sickly for as long as anyone could remembersickly and stubborn, refusing requests that she stay in bed until her aide or a night nurse could be summonedand at 84, nobody expected her to last much longer. But even an anticipated death sets off repercussions in the world of the living, and while the assisted living staff was handling the arrangements, I had to deal with the parrot.

Randolph Jones, that was the parrot’s name, and whether that was the deceased’s idea of a joke or a handle the old lady had inherited when she adopted the bird was not shared with me. What I did get was an urgent phone call from the daughter, begging me to call her back on a matter of utmost importance.

“Please.” The voice on the message gasped. “I need your help. It’s life or death.”

I was making coffee when I heard the message, and I confess it didn’t make me pause. I didn’t know at that point that the old lady had passed three days before, but I’ve been in this business long enough to know that “life or death” rarely is. I’m an animal behaviorist, or almost, not a cardiologist or brain surgeon, which means I work with people’s pets rather than anything they really care about. Used to be, I’d spend my time trying to understand why domesticated animals did what they did. If Spot’s pooping on the floor, you know he’s got a reason, same as you would. What the clients pay me for, though, isn’t an explanation, it’s behavior modification. They want the behavior changed, and my job is to change it.

I’ve gotten used to that. Hey, it beats watching Spot taken to the pound. Or worse,  “released” by the roadside miles out of town, as they still do in my semi-rural burg. I’ve developed a repertoire of training tricks, re-education if you will, to help everyone adjust. My refusal to pick up the phone before nine a.m. is an attempt to use the same techniques on the owners. It rarely works, but it’s the principle as much as anything. Besides, I knew I’d be no good before I had my caffeine. In addition, while I was grinding the beans, Wallis had come into the room, and serving her breakfast trumps everything. And so while the coffee was brewing, I cracked open two eggs and scrambled them in butter. She kneaded the floor in anticipation, and so I didn’t even wait for them to cool before scooping them onto a plate and placing them on the floor.

Wallis may be a cata mature tabby who has shared the last twelve years of her life with mebut she has more sense than most humans. If I had to talk down some hysterical would-be client, I wanted her in the roomand in the mood to consult. Besides, I cared about her happiness. The caller? Well, we’d see about that.

“Jane? Jane Larkin? This is Pru Marlowe, returning your call.” I’d taken my mug over to the big farmhouse table that serves as a general workspace. “You said you had a problem?”

From the stuttering on the other end, I thought she’d forgotten me already. That was fine. I didn’t need another client, especially not one who indulged in histrionics.

“Oh, Miss Marlowe, thank you.” She had someone else in the room, I realized.  I raised my eyebrows to Wallis, who started to bathe. “Things are just so crazy here.”

I looked at the clock. Five past nine, late enough for me to begin my morning rounds.  “I can call you back later.”

“No, please. Can you come over today? The vet at the county animal hospital said you were a miracle worker, and I need… well, could you just come over?” I heard a deep sigh. “I’ve got a real problem with a very aggravated parrot.”

 

I still hadn’t heard how an angry bird translated to life or death, but I agreed to head over once I was done with my regular visits. She’d given me an address on the new side of Beauville, in the complex called LiveWell. Even I knew that euphemistic tag meant it was for old people, so I was rather surprised to find the array of activities listed in the beige and pink front lobby: movie nights, field trips. What have you. All on a billboard crowned with a stylized LW that would do minor royalty proud. And I was even more shocked whenonce I’d smiled and nodded my way past the similarly colored receptionistthe door marked 203, along with that same logo, opened.

“Jane?” The woman in front of me couldn’t have been more than fifty. A very tired fifty.

Before she could respond, I heard a voice yell out behind her. “Who the hell is it?” The woman at the door winced.

“I’m sorry,” the woman whispered. “You can hear why I called.” She led me in.

“Mind your own damned business!” The room was overheated and dark, heavy shades covering the big picture window. I remembered how distracted she’d been that morning and dreaded meeting her companion. “Bugger off!”

“I just got here,” my host said, walking to the window. When she pulled back the drape, I saw that the room was close for a reason. Small to start with, the studio was overstuffed. Boxes, some taped shut, were stacked against empty book shelves and more lay, waiting to be assembled, on what looked like a hospital bed. Photos had been taken down, showing lighter spots against the deep cream wall. Some were piled on top of the mini fridge, and more lay on a small table top, threatening to tumble.

“Your own damned business!” The woman winced again, and I turned toward the voice. In the corner, suspended from a frame, hung a birdcage. Inside the cage a large gray bird shuffled on his perch, turned his head, and seemed to appraise me with one cool eye. An African gray, known for their skills at mimicry and their longevity. In some circles, they’re also known for their intelligence.

“And who the hell are you?” he asked me, punctuating his question with a squawk. “The cleaning lady?”

 

Chapter 2

“This, I take it, is the problem parrot?” I was addressing the woman who’d let me in, but I was looking at the bird. Large as a football, though a little more slim, he had a coat of rippled gray, like sea foam on the edge of wave. Behind him, I could see the distinctive red tail feathers of the breed. When I looked up, I saw the parrot considering me, the black iris sharp in that round yellow eye. Parrots have only limited binocular vision, it’s true. But I couldn’t escape the feeling the bird was looking at me askance, especially as he tilted his head to scan me from head to foot. “Are you the owner?”

“Oh, no!” I heard my host rustling around behind me, but I didn’t turn. I’m not crazy about birds; they tend to be hypermanic. Nervous. Parrots, though, can be different. Just by virtue of the fact that they live so long—seventy, eighty yearssome of them have a little more gravitas than their feathered fellows. If there was anything here, I needed to get it.

“Squaw!” The bird turned to size me up with his other eye: a second opinion. I didn’t know if I was being stonewalled. The woman in the room wasn’t going to let me find out.

“Randolphthat’s the parrothe’s my mother’s.” She interrupted my concentration with a voice only a little less annoying than the parrot’s.  “Was my mother’s, I mean.” I nodded and murmured something I hope sounded like sympathy. So that explained the boxes, as well as the worn look my hostess was wearing. “She passed away three days ago.”

I turned then, bumping into a folding walker. This didn’t look like three days’ worth of packing, and as I well knew, the first duties after death don’t usually involve bookcases.

Something must have shown on my face.

“This all… it’s something to do.” Jane looked around as if surprised by all the boxes. “I need to clean this all out. Sort through everything….”

I nodded, as if that explained everything. Maybe it did. I’d nursed my mother through her last illness less than two years earlier. She’d died at home, though, and the hospice worker had cleared away the hospital bed and IV set-up almost without me noticing. Still, by the last weeks, I was doing laundry voluntarily and had even cleaned out the fireplace. Anything rather than sit, listening to those labored breaths.

“And the parrot?” I turned back to the bird, looking harder. Something was off: the cascading pattern on the parrot’s breast had been disrupted. There were pink spots showing through, bare skin that shouldn’t have been visible. Birds tend to overgroom when they’re upset. The death of a longtime caretaker could do that, as could the noise and disruption of packingand of grief.

“Well, you’ve heard him.” The parrot cocked his smooth head, listening. “I’ve left him here, where he’s comfortable, hoping he’d settle down. But I can’t take him; my apartment is strictly ‘no pets.’ And my brother won’t. Not while he” 

“Bugger off, fruitcake!” The big beak moved. “Bah!”

Jane paused. The bird and I continued to eye each other, my two to his one. “Not while he keeps doing that. I need you to retrain him.”

“Your own damned business,” the bird muttered, and then whistled low and long.  “Ignorant slut.”

 

In any other situation, this might have been funny. Someone had taught this bird a litany of insults, and from the way the woman behind me had winced, I gathered she’d been hearing them for a while now. For me, the bird posed a larger problem, not one I could share with this potential client.

For starters, I’m not really a behaviorist. Not yet, and although I’m only a few credits and a thesis short of being certified, it’s enough so that I tend to fly under the radar. She’d gotten my name from Dr. Sharpe, the vet at the county shelter, so I was probably good for the job. But if she started asking experts, they’d have questions for me, too. The real problem, though, was a little more involved.

You see, I’m not only an expert on animal behavior; I’m also an animal psychic. Not the kind who advertises in the back of pet magazines, the kind who tells you that, yes, Fluffy is happy over the Rainbow Bridge, and, no, Goldie doesn’t blame you for flushing her. What I have is more like sensitivity. I don’t hear messages per se. Animals don’t function that way. I hear how animals are responding to their environmentand to us. That usually means some combination of fear, hunger, or lust. Aggression, too, but that’s secondary. Unlike in our own species, what we would call anger is invariably linked to one of the other primary motivations: my mate! My nest! My kill!

Except in this case. I wasn’t a specialist in birds. Didn’t know much about them beyond what I’d learned back in class. But as I stood there, trying to make contact with those round little eyes, I could swear this parrot was seething with rage and something else. I would almost call it guilt.

“To hell with you,” the bird said, with a squawk and a dismissive whistle. That whistle was the most animal-like sound he had made yet. Almost, it made me think the bird didn’t mean every word. “Bugger off.”

With a shrug that I meant as half apology, half acquiescence, I turned back to the woman. Up close, she looked younger than I’d thought. Younger, and a lot more tired. Grief could do that to you, I knew. But there was something worn down about her. The gray in her dirty blonde hair hadn’t been washed out, but most of the color in her cheeks had. And from the chapped and bleeding look of her lips, she’d been biting back something for an awfully long time.

“So you areyou wereyour mother’s caregiver?” I wanted to tread carefully here. The rage I’d felt came from the parrot, but he could have been picked up from the deceasedor her daughter.

“No, no.” Jane’s lanky hair barely moved as she shook her head. “Jeanie was her aide for the last few months.”

“Full time?” I didn’t know what LiveWell charged its inmates, but I was betting one-on-one care cost extra.

Another shake. That hair looked dirty. “Days. My mother needed help getting out of bed, showering, getting dressed. And the management here said that, if she was going to stay….”

I nodded. I’d briefly looked into places like this for my own mother. They’re great if you can function, but once you really start showing your age the rules change. “She helping with all this?” I nodded toward the books, but I was thinking about the bird. Odds are, the woman who had spent her days here would be more likely to have some insight into the animal. Maybe she’d even want to adopt it. “Is she around?”

“Oh, no.” She bit down on the words. “I couldn’t afford to keep paying her.” I could see how those lips got so chapped. I could also begin to imagine where the rage came from. Someone had lost a paying gig rather abruptly.

As if to bring me back to the topic at hand, the parrot whistled. Loudly. I walked back to the cage. The birdRandolphshuffled on his perch and turned again, keeping me in sight.

“I didn’t know they let theahresidents keep birds.” Somehow, I’d had the idea that old people’s homesand that’s what it was, despite the fancy color schemehad strict rules about pets, if not profanity.

“Small animals, including birds, are allowed, provided the resident can maintain sanitary conditions.” Jane sounded like she was quoting. “And companion animals, of course.”

“And mental hygiene?” I realized I was smiling.

“Letter of the law,” Jane shrugged. “And my mother was not one who could be easily deprived of her rights.”

“I’ll bet.” I said, under my breath. Randolph whistled once again.

 

 As much as I was enjoying the visit, I needed to get down to brass tacks. I told Jane my rates. When she agreed, I wondered how much the aide had charged. Then again, the worst I’d have to do was change the paper in the cage. With the big bird looking on, I asked some basic questions about the age, care, and health of the bird, and ended up getting a little more info on his late owner as well. None of it seemed out of the ordinary. Then again, none of it looked very helpful, either. By the time I’d gotten around to the parrot’s routine, I could see that my human client was fidgeting. She, at least, was ready to fly.

A good part of training is knowing how to read an animal’s cues. I could have used more information, but it was time to wrap things up.

“I’d like to leave himitRandolph,” I caught myself, “here, for the time being.” This bird had already been through enough change, and there was no way I was taking him home to Wallis. “Birds are very sensitive to shock.”

“Oh.” Jane was probably not the most articulate, even at the best of times. For a moment, I wondered if my explanation had sparked an idea. A dead bird would be convenient, I suspected. One more possession sortedand discarded.

“These birds can be quite valuable.” I covered quickly. I wasn’t going to be party to an avicide of convenience.

“Mother loved Randolph.” That wasn’t an answer, but I took it. “Only, well, how long do you think this will take?”

“A few weeks, probably.” I was winging it, so to speak. I’d never reeducated a parrot. The look of shock on her face brought me back to earth. The rent, of course. “Don’t you have till the end of the month?”

“I’m trying to have everything cleaned out by the fifteenth. They’ve promised me a rebate…”

I nodded. “That gives us almost two weeks. Let’s see what we can do.” If Jane was that hard up, I wanted my money up front. “Should I bill you? Or is there someone handling the estate?”

“My brother, Marc.” She looked around like her sibling might suddenly pop out of a box. “Only he Let me write you a check.”

Curiouser and curiouser, I thought, as she retrieved a beat-up bag from the corner and fished a plastic-covered checkbook from its recesses. I took the check, though. I don’t get paid enough to handle family dramas.

“When can you start?” She stood up straighter. Hiring someone can do that. Transfers dominance. We’re all animals.

“This afternoon. Now, even.” It was past two, and I’d done my jobs for the day. “Will I be in your way?” The apartment wasn’t that big, but maybe I could take the bird into the corner.

“No, I should go.” She looked around at the mess and her shoulders sagged. I’d been right about the fidgeting, not that she was happy about whatever awaited. “Marc’s meeting me. He’s really busy, and we’re supposed to talk about some things.” She didn’t look thrilled. “Do you want to meet him?”

I shrugged. Anyone who knew the bird might help me understand him. “Couldn’t hurt.”

“Maybe you could convince him to, you know, take Randolph?”

“Mind your own business, you ignorant slut.” The voiceloud, harsh, and strangely asexualinterrupted whatever vague answer I’d been planning to give. African grays are talented mimics, and I could only guess at whom Randolph was doing now. Jane winced, but she didn’t follow up when I smiled rather than give her an answer. Just as well, I was distracted. The parrot’s voice had gotten louder, and something about his cool glance made me wonder if our exchange had prompted his words. “Bugger off!”

So she did, heading off to meet with her brother and leaving me in the close apartment with Randolph the angry parrot. Every surface outside the bird’s cage was covered with books or knickknacks, so I wandered over to the windowsill and leaned back, the better to study my new charge.

“So, Randolph” I paused. “Is that your name?”  Now that we were alone, I needed to make some kind of connection with this creature. Often the first step to doing that is to acknowledge the animal’s sense of himselfwhat he calls himself. This bird, however, was silent. A little shuffling on the perch with those scaly feet was all.

“Okay, then, how are you doing?” I was speaking out loud. More important, I was reaching out with my thoughts, trying to see the room as the bird might see it. “Do you miss your person, Polly?” With the light behind me, the parrot’s ruffled breast feathers were obvious, as were the spots he’d picked bare. Animals experience grief, just as we do. Even when there is no affection, the habit of another’s presence can become part of our lives—it’s a habit that can be hard to break.

Nothing. Then it hit me. Randolph had lived—I checked my notes—for seven years with Polly Larkin. She had died here. Not in her bed, as I’d first imagined, but on the floor, after taking a nighttime tumble. I thought about the aide—and about Jane. Even if there had been money for twenty-four hour care, aides have been known to snooze—and the impulse to get up in order to go to the bathroom dies hard. I looked around the room again. It was small enough that the bed and both doors—to the bathroom as well as the hallway—would be visible from the cage. Small enough so that one old lady, with her walker by her bed, probably thought she could make it. She’d been wrong though. Such an event could easily leave an animal traumatized. I would have to get at that, work through the shock, before we could move on.

“Did you witness Polly’s death?” I wasn’t sure how to phrase it. “Your person?” I looked at the walker and down at the floor. I didn’t know how far she’d gotten.

“Squawk!” The yelp—and something else—made me jump. For a moment, I had felt something. Pain? Panic? My words, or maybe my focus on the walker, had hit a nerve.

“Polly?” I moved over to the walker. Tried to imagine an old lady, small and frail, positioned behind its curved metal frame. It was light. Hollow, but supposedly strong enough. I leaned on its rubber grip.

“Put that down, put that down. Stop. That’s mine.” I resisted the impulse to pull back. The bird wasn’t talking to me, not like other animals do. This was a parrot. It was mimicking someone—the eerie voice had gone higher and scratchy. An old lady’s irritation showing through. Either the walker, or my movement, had triggered this, and I needed to let the parrot roll. Anything could be useful for getting inside that sleek gray head.

“Stop! What are you doing? Stop it! What? Waah!”

The next sound made me fear the bird was choking, and I bolted for the cage, banging my shin against one of the boxes. It went over with a thud, landing up against the walker, and I ignored it, trying to remember anything I could about avian first aid.

That wasn’t much, and I had only time to open the cage before the big bird faced me and barked out something that sounded like “Ka-duh-klump”—a sound that was echoed a split second later as, behind me, the walker tumbled to the carpet in a jumble of metal tubing. The sequence confused me, for a moment, and I turned from the bird to the walker and back again. The parrot was still now, standing and breathing normally. Still, something was off.

“Randolph,” I addressed the bird. I didn’t really see an option. “What did you say?”

“Ka-duh-KLUMP!” The bird repeated, louder this time. Sounding for all the world like a walker, holding up the infinitesimal weight of a frail old lady, as it tumbled first against a table, and then to the floor.
 

Copyright © 2013 Clea Simon
 

For more information, or to buy a copy, visit:

Buy at Powell’s Buy at Amazon Buy at Books a Million Buy at Barnes and Noble

Buy at IndieBound!

 

 


A recovering journalist, Clea Simon is the author of 12 mysteries and three nonfiction books. Parrots Prove Deadly is the third in her Pru Marlowe pet noir series. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband Jon and their cat, Musetta, and can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.

Comments

  1. Clea Simon

    Hi folks – Don’t know if anyone has any questions, but I’m the author and I’m logged on now so if you do, fire away!

  2. Laura McDonald

    where on earth did you come up with such an original idea for a mystery? Just reading the excerpt made me want to laugh out loud. You sure know how to capture an audience.

  3. Clea Simon

    Thanks! This series started because I was reading a lot of female-oriented noir (Megan Abbott and the like) and I wanted to write “tough,” but somehow a cat started sneaking in and I came up with bad-girl Pru and her even tougher tabby. And I’m interested in animal issues, and I was reading up on the research Irene Pepperberg did on parrot cognition (she famously worked w/ a parrot named Alex if you want to google her) and what they can and cannot understand and… voila: Parrots Prove Deadly!

  4. Laura McDonald

    You used your background material very well, I have learned something new and it didn’t even hurt! I did google Irene and that was facinating. I never thought about birds as sensitive or intelligent. I did read a couple of weeks ago about corvids being superior to canines in reasoning, though.

  5. Clea Simon

    Thank you. Isn’t it fascinating? Did you see the Youtube videos? You can see why, with an animal behaviorist protagonist, I couldn’t resist!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.