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 the ordinance passed quickly.
As she digs into the proposal, 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, and its owner, Bo Bogan. 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, Neveah 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’s wife, Amy, is a beneficiary.
Neveah learns 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.
Neveah visits Sybil and learns that the Chamber of Commerce has offered Sybil’s brother, Jodey Beaumont, $3 million for the property held by the Trout family’s the land trust. Jodey is having financial problems, Sybil says, but is not a sneaky saboteur.
Neveah watches many hours of The Dipper’s security camera tapes, and sees Harvey speaking menacingly to Bo, pressuring him to relocate the store to a less desirable location. “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.” The tapes also reveal a shadowy figure scattering seed near The Dipper: The Night Feeder.
Neveah plans a stakeout, and with the help of friends Tootie and Lou, catches the Night Feeder in action.
If you missed Parts 1 through 6 of “Murmurations,” read them here: birdwatchersdigest.com/Murmurations.
Neveah stared at the man standing in front of her as Lou descended the stairs above them. Realizing there was nowhere to go, the Night Feeder’s shoulders slumped in resignation.
“I can explain,” he said.
“Bo Bogan?” Tootie sounded incredulous. “It’s you?”
“Why?” Neveah asked, though she was sure she already knew the answer: He wanted his wife to take the money.
“I told Amy we could open another store, move it to the other end of town. Or better yet, we could retire, take a few trips, and work on our life lists. But she and Sybil had made their decision. They were going to keep the land. She called it their grandfather Fred’s crown jewel.”
“So you decided to sabotage your own business?” The feisty octogenarian jutted out her chin. Neveah wondered if she planned to hit Bo with her cane.
“What else could I do?” Bo pushed back the hood on his sweatshirt, slumped down on the stairs and looked up, his gaze bouncing from Lou to Tootie to Neveah. “Did you know that there are forty-seven million bird watchers in the United States?”
Neveah shook her head, taking her cell phone out of her pocket and surreptitiously snapping several pictures—proof of the Night Feeder’s identity.
“Well, there are, and they spend billions every year on equipment and birdseed. Eighty-eight percent of them are backyard birders, and Troutdale’s demographics ensures that The Dipper will continue to prosper.”
Neveah knew that the average birder was around fifty, with better than average income and education, and more likely to be female. A perfect description of Amy Bogan.
“But why this attempt to attract hordes of crows and magpies?” Lou asked.
Bogan grunted. “When Todd Harvey threatened to shut us down with his ordinance, I saw an opportunity to help him prove his case.”
“Amy is not going to like this,” Tootie said.
“Are you saying Harvey knew about this?” Neveah asked.
Fear flashed in Bogan’s eyes, before he pushed to his feet. “We’re done here.”
That would be a yes.
“I’ve broken no laws. This is my property. It’s the three of you who are trespassing.” He jabbed a finger at all of them. “I could have you all arrested.”
“Is that a threat?” Neveah asked. What was he hoping to gain? Their silence?
“It’s Amy’s property,” Tootie reminded him. “I think we should ask her what she thinks.”
Bogan narrowed his eyes. “Look, if you don’t want a slander suit, I suggest keeping your mouth shut. Now I’m going to go and clean up the seed the Night Feeder spilled. I expect you to be gone by the time I’m done or I’m calling the sheriff.”
The three of them watched as he retraced his path toward The Dipper.
Tootie looked up at Neveah. “Why aren’t you stopping him?”
“How? We can’t have him arrested for feeding birds.”
“Not yet,” Lou said.
Tootie glared at him.
“What about tampering with evidence?” Tootie said.
Neveah shook her head. “He has a right to clean up his property. It would be his word against ours that he spread it, and he’s right. At this point, we are the ones breaking the law.”
Bogan was halfway down the path toward The Dipper when he turned around. “Want my advice? Give it up. Todd Harvey has the support of every business in town. You have no play, and nothing to gain here. There’s no way to stop what’s been put into motion.”
Maybe, thought Neveah. Maybe not.
The next day, Neveah turned in her story to the Troutdale Gazette. She’d outlined the perimeters of the proposed ordinance, detailed the value of The Dipper property to the Chamber of Commerce and alluded to Todd Harvey’s complicity in gathering support. But she didn’t go so far as to expose Bo Bogan as the Night Feeder.
In support of her husband, Amy Bogan had blocked the disclosure of the beneficiaries of the Trout Family Trust making it impossible to prove that Bo stood to gain by his actions. Neveah tried to get Sybil to talk, but she stood with her family. It seemed the old saying was true: Blood is thicker than water.
Based on the conversation Neveah had overheard at the T Bar S, she knew Harvey had hired private investigators to unearth the beneficiaries’ names. That might be enough to suggest collusion with the Night Feeder, provided she could find the men and get them to talk.
Which left Jodey Trout. He was Neveah’s last source.
She had called him, and he’d agreed to send her a copy of the trust documents along with letters he’d been sent by the lawyers Harvey had contacted.
With time of the essence, she didn’t wait for his corroboration to arrive. She had typed up her story leaving out Bogan’s name, but accusing Harvey of perpetrating fraud where it came to the congregating corvids. She’d closed by reminding backyard bird watchers that town council meetings are open to the public. They might want to attend the meeting and offer comments on the proposed ordinance.
Two days later Gazette editor Matt Farrell called her into his office. He slammed the paper down on the desk. “Where’s the proof?
Neveah laid out her theory and told him what Jodey was sending.
“So you don’t actually have any?”
“I will, once it gets here.”
“Stop right there.”
Neveah frowned and clamped her mouth shut.
“Did they teach you nothing in journalism school?” Matt scrubbed his hand through his hair and shook his head. “Todd Harvey has filed a libel suit against the Troutdale Gazette. I knew hiring you was a bad idea.”
“The proof is coming.”
“A day too late. You’re fired.”
Three weeks later, Neveah approached the town hall with trepidation. She had a fax in her pocket that provided the proof Matt needed to absolve The Gazette of any liability for her story. She knew Matt would be present tonight.
She glanced at the abandoned owls’ nest as she crossed the courtyard, wondering whether she might be smart to take flight. Todd Harvey was gunning for her and tonight was the night the council voted on the “Prohibition of Feeding of Wild Animals” proposal. There was no way of knowing how it would go.
Opening the door to the town hall, Neveah heard a rumble of conversation come from the meeting room at the end of the hallway. Inside it was standing room only. The council members were seated behind the table at the front of the room. A few business owners grouped together in the front seats, while a bevy of bird watchers filled the every chair and lined the walls on three sides of the room.
One glance at Todd Harvey, and Neveah knew he’d seen the writing on the wall. There was no way the ordinance would pass in a raised-hand vote.
Score one for the birds.