Editor’s note: “Murmurations” is an original short story written for BirdWire by Christine Goff, author of the Birdwatcher Mystery series. Find these books online and in bookstores nationwide, and visit christinegoff.com.
Synopsis: The Troutdale Town Council tables a proposal to ban the feeding of wild animals—including birds—much to the frustration of Councilman Todd Harvey. Newspaper reporter Neveah Porter suspects there is more to the story, given the lack of public notice or input on the proposed ban, and the councilman’s determination to get it passed quickly. As she digs into the proposed ordinance, she finds that “overfeeding” birds can result in a fine of up to $2,650 per day! Clearly something is wrong with this picture, so she intends to investigate.
She visits The Dipper, the local wild bird-feeding store, where owner Bo Bogan debunks the notion that feeding birds year round is harmful. He suggests that someone is trying to put him out of business, noting that the Chamber of Commerce has its eyes on his location for a new building. He said someone has been scattering seed on his property to attract nuisance wildlife. As she leaves the store, she sees Councilman Harvey ducking into the neighboring restaurant. She overhears part of a conversation, and learns that The Dipper’s property is in a land trust, and Bo Bogan’s wife, Amy, is a beneficiary.
At the county recorder’s office, she learns that she is not the first to request information on the ownership of that land. Further investigation reveals that Sybil Beaumont, Amy Bogan’s cousin and head of the local bird club, is another beneficiary of the land trust. The majority of the trust owners, then, probably wouldn’t want to relinquish the land, so someone was taking it into their own hands to try and force the shutdown of the business. What’s going on?
The next day, Neveah paid a visit to Sybil Beaumont. She found the woman sitting in a lawn chair in her backyard enjoying the unseasonably warm afternoon. Sybil glanced up as Neveah approached and gestured toward the chair beside her.
“Neveah! What can I do you for?” she asked, shifting her gaze back to the birdfeeders that hung from a branch of a large Ponderosa pine tree. Four feeders and one suet holder hung in a row. Three white-breasted nuthatches, six or seven black-capped chickadees, and some house finches took turns flitting back and forth.
As Neveah watched the birds, a downy woodpecker flew in, scattering the smaller birds. In the tree she spotted a northern flicker. “Nice view.”
Neveah sat down and stretched out her legs. “I wanted to ask you about this ban on bird feeding proposal.”
“What about it?”
“I did some research. Turns out a land trust you’re part of owns the land The Dipper sits on.”
“How did you find out?” Sybil asked.
“It wasn’t that hard,” Neveah said. “I’m just wondering who else is part of the trust and how they feel about The Dipper.”
Sybil turned and looked at Neveah. “What are you suggesting?”
Neveah decided it was time to be frank. “Look, I know that you and Amy stand on the side of feeding the birds. After all, you’re the biggest champion of the birds Troutdale has and Amy is part owner of The Dipper, but what about your brother, Jodey? My guess is that he’s part of the Trout Family Trust and has something to say about what happens to the land.”
“So?” Sybil demanded.
“So, maybe he’s not as bird-friendly.”
A Steller’s jay called from the trees.
“Check it out,” Sybil said. She nodded in the direction of the tree. “Can you identify it?”
Neveah spotted the bird Sybil indicated perched on a high branch, and it was not the Steller’s jay. This bird had a pale gray body, black wings and a white-edged black tail. “Clark’s nutcracker,” Neveah said confidently.
“You know your birds.”
“Some. I’m not the expert you are.” Neveah wondered if Sybil hoped to steer her away from her line of questioning. “I’m just trying to figure out who else might want to see The Dipper shut down—besides the Chamber of Commerce. Bo told me it has made a few offers on the store, as you probably know. Any ideas who else?”
“Jodey might,” Sybil admitted. “He lives out of state, and the Chamber has offered a pretty penny for the land near the dam.”
“Mind if I ask how much?”
Sybil shot her a sideways glance. “Off the record?”
Neveah nodded. Sometimes you had to give to get.
“The last offer was $3 million. I think they’ll go higher.”
Neveah gave a low whistle, causing the birds to shift positions on the feeders. “Whoa! That is a pretty penny.”
Sybil narrowed her eyes. “Don’t forget, that’s not for print. It’s safe to say, though, that it’s the choicest piece of real estate in town.”
“Split three ways, that’s a lot of cash.” And one heck of a motive, thought Neveah. “Could Jodey want it badly enough to force the issue?”
Sybil stared out toward the feeders. “I suppose it’s possible. Jodey’s a construction worker. His wife has been sick. I’m sure he could use the money.” She looked back at Neveah. “But I’m sure my brother would come to me, and not try and sabotage Amy’s business.”
“Maybe.” Neveah knew from personal experience that money could make people do crazy things.
A half hour later, sitting on her couch, Neveah pressed the speed-play button on the VCR. The security tapes each held 40 hours of recorded video and audio, and the camera focused on the outside walking paths. Neveah recognized many of the people on the tape: townspeople who wandered out the backdoor of The Dipper, winding their way through the myriad birdfeeders and feeding stations. Some sat on the benches and talked. She fast-forwarded through slow spells and darkness.
Her interest perked up when she spotted Todd Harvey and Bo chatting by the store entrance. She slowed the speed to normal and listened.
“We would all benefit, Bo,” the councilman said, leaning in close and in an almost menacing fashion. “The town is willing to offer you a prime piece of land on the other end of town in exchange, if you’re willing to give up the spot. With you gone, I’m sure the Trout Family Trust could be persuaded to sell. And if the Chamber can’t meet the asking price, there are private concerns that can.”
“I wish it were up to me, Todd, but it’s not,” Bo said.
Neveah rewound the tape and listened to the conversation again. She wondered if Harvey was the “private concern.” Maybe his interest wasn’t political, but personal. He already owned most of the commercial property in downtown Troutdale. The land next to the dam would be a feather in his cap.
She hit speed-play again until it came to a spot where a shadowy figure in a dark hoodie appeared near the back of the property. Pausing the recording, she studied the figure. Whoever it was, the person wore gloves and kept their head down. In the baggy clothes, it was impossible to determine whether the suspect was male or female.
Leaning back against the couch cushions, she replayed the tape several times. Then, speeding through both tapes, she spotted the same mysterious figure three more times. The night feeder—it seemed like a good name for the culprit—had successfully eluded the police and Bo Bogan. Maybe it was time for a stakeout.