Yarrow House

Big Bird Blues

Raine shoved her hang dog face at me and said again, "If you take one more job like this one, that's the end of the partnership." She said it in the middle of every other job. I let it slide off the table and flop onto the floor. One more useless piece of verbiage in an already over-talked job.

Two weeks ago a plump little 80-year-old lady, dyed purple hair standing out in a frizz around her head, hired us for what had sounded like a fairly simple search. Mrs. Grooten. "Please find my lost parrot," she begged. Two weeks later we weren't even close. Raine glared at me like I was the one who'd accepted the job. Short-term memory loss. Bad character trait in this business. I'm Moss, the other half of "Moss and Raine, Search and Research." We've been partners for 20 years, and there's not much I haven't heard more than once come out of Raine's mouth. A woman of few, frequently recycled comments.

"I still think we should have just put a lost bird ad in the paper," Raine growled over her third mug of coffee. I'd heard that before, too. Old purple hair had claimed her African Gray, Ronnie, was smarter than anyother Psittacus in the country, but I figure even Ronnie couldn't read. We'd spent the last two weeks tramping around Queen Anne looking for the big gray bird, listening for his squawking voice, and quizzing neighbors if they'd seen him. We'd checked out pet shops, bird vets, and swap meets. No luck.

I was all for bringing in a female parrot, see if sex wouldn't pull him out of hiding. "What if Ronnie's a female?" Raine headed me off before I brought in the dancing girls, feathers and all. Looked like we were going to have to place an ad, a real come down for an operation like ours. If people get the idea a simple classified will do the trick, why hire us? I was momentarily saved from concession by the jangle of the phone. Moss's turn to answer. "Moss and Raine. We find things."

"Mrs. Moss?"

"Yeah. That's Ms, by the way."

"Mrs. Ms, you were asking my neighbor Gina Marie about Mrs. Grooten's parrot? And I thought maybe I should report a very strange event I saw just before that parrot disappeared? Only I just don't know, really it's probably not my business but?" I could tell this was going to be a long conversation so I poured another cup of coffee and settled back to count the cobwebs strung across the ceiling. "You know I saw a strange man go into Mrs. Grooten's house when she was out at the store? And come out carrying something wrapped up in a bag? Just the very day that parrot disappeared?" I sat up so fast I spilled coffee across the pile of bills covering my desk.

"You're saying you saw someone steal the parrot?" Speaking in questions was catching. I managed to establish that Mr. Long-Winded hadn't actually seen the parrot, but that the package resembled a shape similar to that possibly of a parrot, and then I pried out a description of the birdnapper, engineered an escape from the informant, and flashed Raine my biggest grin. "I believe we have here a classic 'break in the case'. Now all we have to do is find a guy who looks like 'a skinny Peter Lorre'—about 5-foot 10 7/8 inches. . ."

"About seven eighths?" Raine's face wrinkled with irony.

"With slicked back, black hair, 'could'a been painted on." I nodded at the phone for the source of the quote, "and wearing a jacket that 'looked like a patchwork quilt.' He left in a 4x4 with a trailer hitch."

"Narrows the suspects down to about 30 percent of the King County population," Raine grumbled. I'd heard that before too. "Say Fancy Jacket's been hanging around bird shops," Raine was looking at me, but I knew she was talking to herself. He's got to be buying birdseed somewhere." She pulled the detective's bible toward her, flipped its yellow pages open to pet stores, and started dialing. If you can't find 'em through sex, try food, that's our motto.

A half hour later we had five pet stores reporting black-haired customers with jackets we figured matched our sketchy description. "Somethin' like a juggler," "one of them harlequin outfits," "weird," "prob'ly from the circus," and "an old hippy." I pulled out a city map and dotted the addresses. Could be a pattern of some kind, I guess. I connected the dots. Didn't make a parrot, that's for sure.

"Looks like he might be out in Crown Hill, somewhere," Raine decided. I don't know how she does it. Stares at a map, goes into a trance, picks the spot 90 percent of the time.

"Thinking he's got more than one of those birds?"

"He's sure buying a lot of bird seed."

"So let's see if anyone's been making shriek-and-screech noise complaints lately."I called my favorite 911 operator, Freddy K, who can't decide if he wants to be a cop or a DJ. After talking rock groups and trading a few of the usual sexual innuendoes, we moved onto business. He said he'd call me in an hour or so, let me know if he'd found any bird racket complaints.

An hour later we were heading out to Crown Hill, looking for a one-story storefront with an apartment full of angry neighbors behind it. Complaints said it sounded like the chorus line from Bye Bye Birdie running fast forward, all day, all night. Police report—thank you Freddy K. for the fax—said the occupant of the storefront, a skinny, black-haired guy appearing to be in his mid-40s, promised to "turn his music down."

We skulked around the perimeter of the storefront in our best detective fashion, even had our collars turned up, since the rain started falling just as we'd parked Raine's old Valiant. That car looked pretty battered, but our ace mechanic, JJ, out on MLK Way, kept the customized engine in speedway shape. Just shows you can't tell a thing by its cover, books, cars, or Raine, for that matter.

Couldn't hear a thing from the outside, or see in either. All the windows were covered with blackout paper. When we got around to the front again, Raine rapped on the window with her car keys. She kept it up until Mr. Fancy Jacket yanked the door open. "What's the matter now?" he demanded. All the descriptions we'd collected sort of matched, but they hadn't mentioned the birdshit covering his shoulders.

"I'm Raine, this is Moss." She scooted past him into the shop. I followed when he turned his back. He kept turning his head back and forth between us, looked like some kind of nervous bird himself. "We're looking for an African Gray that disappeared a couple weeks ago. You were seen taking it from the owner's house," Raine continued in her best official I could be a cop voice, bending the truth, I noticed. A musty smell oozed out of th back room along with a collection of bird sounds. Mr. Jacket puffed up like a turkey and denied the accusation.

"What's that smell?" I asked, moving toward the door at the back of the shop. Terrible little old me, just can't keep my curiosity under control. I pushed the door open before he could stop me.

The place smelled like a chicken farm and sounded like a dozen Martin Denny records all playing at the same time. Canaries, cockateels, parakeets and birds I couldn't identify screeched and twittered and trilled from rows of cages. All of them shrieking, whistling, and singing, yeah, singing not just bird songs. I could make out a Bach cantabile and a couple of show tunes, and was that Goodtime Charley's got the Blues?

"You get out of there right now," Jacket demanded. But I'd spotted an African Gray. In fact, I spotted a bunch of them, five or six it looked like, each one perched on an individual stand with a chain around an ankle, if birds have ankles.

"You'd better have a good story for us, dude, or you're going to be talking to the cops," Raine harangued, but Jacket didn't budge, just wobbled his head back and forth at the end of his long neck and repeated, "Get out of here, now."

Raine and I sat in the old Valiant and weighed our options. Not that we had anything against cops per se, but like with the want ads, falling back on them was bad for business.

"Grooten,"Raine said.

"Just what I was thinking." I called Mrs. Grooten from our cell phone. She was waitin for us on the porch, an oversized white patent leather purse on her arm and a large round-topped bird cage in her other hand. We managed to get Mrs. G and her baggage stuffed into the back seat and headed back to Crown Hill for a showdown with the parrot snatcher.

The 4x4 wasn't in sight, when we got back to Crown Hill. Raine worked a little of her illegal razzle dazzle on the door lock, and the three of us crowded through the shop front and into the bird haven in back.

Mrs. G. spotted her Ronnie on his perch in the middle of the row of big gray birds and immediately swooped down on him, holding her arms out wide and crooning, "My pretty boy, mama's come to save you." Just as she unchained the bird's leg, Old Jacket himself burst through the door.

"What's going on here?" He tried to growl but it came out in a screech. Must have been spending too much time with the birds.

"I'm rescuing my parrot, you dastardly birdnapper," Mrs. G snapped.

"You can't take that bird; he's the star of the show," Jacket yelped. He rushed Mrs. G, who whirled and spread her arms protectively in front of her parrot. "He's a natural, a born performer. He learned the lead parts in just a few hours."

Mrs. G just glared at him. "Come Ronnie, mama will take you home." She opened the cage she'd been lugging along with her and reached for the bird. Ronnie sprang from his perch and flew up on to an overhead beam. He stretched out his neck and started singing You Worry Me. The other parrots shifted from foot to foot and began to pick up the melody, if not the words.

Raine and I said our farewells and made for the Valiant. The contract said locate the bird, it didn't say recover. We'd found Mrs. G's bird. She'd have to deal with getting it back in the cage. The last I saw of Mrs. G and Jacket, they were still staring each other down in between trying to calm their mutual birds.

A couple weeks later, in a fit of business efficiency, I opened the mail and found a check from Mrs. G. Some people actually pay their bills. Along with the check were two tickets for an avian musical production featuring Ronaldo, the singing parrot. Raine raised an eyebrow at that, but she went along with me anyway.

Mrs. G was ticket taker and usher. "I just couldn't bear to break his heart, poor boy," she gushed, her frizz of purple hair bobbing above her patchwork jacket. "It turns out he loves to sing, and I didn't even know."

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2000