FULL DARK HOUSE by Christopher Fowler LEAD A HORSE TO MURDER by Cynthia Baxter UNZIPPED by Lois Greiman FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Morag Joss SIGNS IN THE BLOOD by Vicki Lane STUFFED by Brian Wiprud

First Chapter: STUFFED by Brian Wiprud

Read an excerpt of this funny tough-guy mystery featuring Garth Carson

STUFFED by Brian Wiprud

STUFFED by Brian Wiprud
Fiction - Mystery & Detective | Dell
Paperback | May 2005
$6.99 | 0-440-24188-X

When a prized stuffed crow is stolen in this zany prequel to the action-packed debut PIPSQUEAK, taxidermy collector Garth Carson is drawn into a rollicking international treasure hunt. It's not exactly the Maltese falcon, but then Garth's no Sam Spade.

Chapter 1

I was walking down the creaky steps of a shop called Gunderson's Odds N' Ends. In my arms was a heavy bell jar with a white crow in it. The albino Corvidae was dead, had been for a long time, but was still around thanks to the noble art of taxidermy. I was intent on not dropping the bird and was focused on my footing. Ice patches lay in my path, and an impromptu Eskimo cha-cha would likely send the crow to the scrap heap and me into traction.

My '66 Lincoln was close at hand, top down. A nine-foot Pacific sailfish lay on its back in the rear seat. Fish tail sticking out one side of the car, sword out the other. Cut a corner too tight in Manhattan, and I'd have some pedestrian shish kebab on my hands. But I was far from home, in the boondocks of Vermont, and didn't expect much foot traffic.

The backseat was full, so I dodged slippery swaths of snow and heaved the bell jar into the car's front seat. Stretching my back, I groaned and smiled at the bird. It was a birthday gift for Angie, one I thought she'd really like.

"Mister!"

The salutation went right by me. "Mister" is some dude with a pipe, a fedora, and a cardigan. "Mister" is Fred MacMurray, Ward Cleaver, Robert Young, or that dyspeptic Wilson guy next door to Dennis the Menace.

Just the same, my attention was drawn to a husky kid with a portland college sweatshirt. He was running toward me across the village square, past the gazebo and white picket fences and lawns where crocuses were still snoozing.

I am not "mister." I'm just over forty-three, chew bubblegum, and still think of myself as being cardable at the package store, however much of a fantasy that might be. So I looked around for a handy fifties' TV dad and came to the unhappy conclusion that this husky kid was aiming at me. I was already feeling old that day, and this wasn't helping.

I flashed on all the mundane things a stranger could want: the time, directions, possibly to sell me a subscription to Grit.

But when he stopped in front of me, panting, I never imagined he would say: "That raven is mine."

He forced a smile.

I didn't.

And now that the bird was mine, I wasn't going to let it be insulted.

"It's not a raven, it's a crow. A raven is a big bird, with a wedge-shaped tail, coarse feathers, and a taller beak with a slight hook at the end."

"My name's Fletcher," he panted, ignoring my lecture. "My mother gave the bird to Gunderson to sell while I was away. She didn't ask or

anything. It's not for sale. I just come back and—"

Frat Boy seemed a little desperate, which naturally made me more possessive. I drifted between him and the bird.

"Sorry. I just bought it from Gunderson." Damn nice-looking bird it was too. Angie loves crows.

"How much you want for it?" Fletcher started fishing in the pocket of his sweats.

"Well—" In keeping with local Yankee custom, I looked to the sky for a divine price check. I would have thumbed my suspenders too, had I been wearing any. "Five hundred dollars." Sorry, Angie—business is business.

Fletcher paled as he picked up his two twenties from the ground.

"You paid Gunderson—"

"Never mind what I paid Gunderson. The crow belongs to me, and the price is—"

"But my mother, she—"

"Well, she shouldn't have—"

"But it's mine, dang it." Now he sounded insistent, if not a little hostile, the fingers of his left hand fidgeting with a bulky silver high-school ring. Dang? To me, that's a western expression, not something you hear down east.

I turned and drew the seat belt across the bell jar to secure it.

"What do you think you're doing?" He took a step forward. "Don't you understand—"

He was standing a little too close, and I put a hand on his chest, easing him back.

"Look, I had a mother, and she threw out dead things of mine too. Did she ever! That's just a part of life. Like hitting a baseball through a car window or finding out the Easter bunny is an elaborate conspiracy to sell cheap chocolate. You live with it, eat the jelly beans, and move on."

He stood there looking completely devastated, which didn't seem odd to me at the time. I hoped the bit about the jelly beans—particularly clever repartee, I thought—had floored him. As a kid, I would have gone ape shinola over this bird if someone got it away from me, so his mortification seemed an entirely normal reaction. But I should have wondered why a lad like Fletcher would be so attached to an albino crow in a bell jar. Instead, I sympathized and softened my tone.

"Look, Fletcher. I really, really like the bird. You had it for a while. Now it's my turn to enjoy it for a while. If you're ever in New York, you can come and visit him."

He didn't much like that. His face reddened, his left fist clenched, and Fletcher went for my jaw. Completely telegraphed. I dodged to the right and watched that big silver ring streak past my eye.

"Whoa, kid, whoa!" I backed away toward the car. Seemed to me I kept a tire thumper somewhere under the driver's seat. Not exactly handy at that moment.

Fletcher pointed a finger at me. "That bird is mine."

The shop proprietor, Gunderson, and his nor'east shop gal were suddenly on the porch, watching dumbly.

I had no idea what he was on about, but I wasn't letting him near the crow. Fisticuffs are way down at the bottom of my bag of tricks, especially when my opponent is significantly younger and stronger than me. If he'd come at me again, I guess I would have kicked him in the shin. But what with the midlife green meanies eating at me, my first move was to play the commanding adult. Hey, as long as he thought of me as "mister," why not indulge him?

I put a hand on the bell jar, hummed up a good resonant tone like Dad might use, and pointed a stern and reproachful finger at him. "Now, son, just simmer down."

One minute I think I'm eighteen, and the next I think I'm sixty. I sounded like a complete idiot, of course. But as I said, it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

And then, quite suddenly, Fletcher crumpled in a heap on the ground. Straight down, like one of those little plastic push-button puppets, you know, where you depress the button and the horsie goes limp. Flump.

I guess you'd have to say he fainted, but it was oddly instantaneous, no staggering or blinking or anything.

Wow. I gave my stern and reproachful finger a look of approval and figured I should use the Dad routine next time I want to move to the head of the line at the DMV.

Just then, the local constabulary happened to roll around the corner in a mud-spattered Jeep. The red strobes on the roll bar and gold seal on the side gave it away. It stopped, and I saw the silhouette of the driver peer our way. He was probably just making his rounds or something. I waved him over.

Gunderson and the shop gal were at Fletcher's side trying to revive the kid by the time the Jeep sputtered to a stop next to me.

A craggy man slowly unfolded from the Jeep. He was the weathered, thick-fingered kind of lout. Looked like he rolled his own cigarettes. His uniform of the day? Brown Carhartt bib overalls and a round badge pinned to one suspender. The law eyed me suspiciously as he bent down and helped slap Fletcher awake. His slaps were more forceful than Gunderson or the maid seemed willing to muster. While they worked on their patient, I helped myself to a stick of sugarless bubblegum.

"What happened, Gunderson?" the cop asked.

"They was arguin' over that thayah raven when Bret, all the sudden like, drops to the ground."

"Fainted dead away!" the nor'east maid marveled.

"It's not a raven," I hissed, mainly to myself.

The kid came around, confused, but quickly picked up where he left off.

"He's got a, uh, thing of mine, that Ma gave to Gunderson," he complained, his finger stabbing in my direction. "Gunderson sold it to this guy, and, like, he won't give me my thing, Constable Bill!"

"Thing? Thing? What thing?" The sheriff pawed his white shock of hair with one hand while helping Fletcher up with the other. "For the love of Sam! What's this about, Gunderson?"

"A crow," I said, snapping a bubble. "A stuffed crow. I've got the receipt." I held the invoice out for inspection. "The kid here wants to buy it with his fists."

"That so, Gunderson?" The cop glanced at the invoice and then locked eyes with me.

"Well," Gunderson shrugged. "Yeah huh."

Constable Bill eyed me a moment longer, my car, my license plate.

"That's a big fish, mistuh. You from New York?"

"Yup. Name is Carson. I deal in taxidermy. Just came from Brattleboro, and I'm on my way to Rangely."

"Rangely? Maine?"

I nodded. "I'm on a trip through the northeast buying stock."

He whistled, as if Rangely were a planet just beyond Pluto. He wasn't half wrong, come to think of it. Gets mighty cold there, and it's definitely in an orbit far from New York.

"Didya let Bret here take a shot at buying it back?"

"Yup. He doesn't—"

"He's trying to rip me off!" Bret honked. "He wants five hundred dollars for—"

"Sheriff, what can I say? I bought the bird, I like the bird, I want the bird. It's a birthday gift for my girlfriend. Five hundred dollars could make me get over it."

"For her birthday?" The maid whimpered, and I thought she might faint.

"Odd gift, I'd say," Gunderson added bitterly. He was just peeved that I'd conned him out of the bird.

"Five hundred dollahs." Constable Bill whistled again. "S'lot of money. Well, Bret, if you don't have five hundred dollahs, then I guess this fellah don't have to sell it to you." He gave me a cold smile. "Even if he did pay, what, thirty dollahs for it?"

"Fifty." I snapped another bubble, waved the receipt, and got into the Lincoln. As I started the car, I could see Constable Bill trying to reason with Bret in my rearview mirror. Frat Boy wasn't having any of it.

Okay, so maybe I'm a stinker. More than that, I'm a dealer. All in a day's work.


Excerpted from STUFFED by Brian Wiprud. Copyright © 2005 by Brian Wiprud. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


 

 

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