Read Parrot Blues Online

Authors: Judith Van Gieson

Parrot Blues (3 page)

“You're not gonna believe this,” she said.

“I hate these machines, don't you?” I heard. “If you want to just leave your number, that's okay. I'll call you back. I'm a sensitive, romantic guy who likes the outdoors.” It was a hesitant male voice, the same hesitant male voice.

“Covering all the bases,” I said.


What a jerk,” said Anna, who had begun looking through the Females to Males for Brink. “‘Rubenesk.' What does that mean?”

“Fat,” I said.

“Plump,” said Brink, who was on the Rubenesque side himself.

“Look at this,” Anna continued. “‘SWF ISO single European or Latin American male, handsome, athletic body, cute face, who plays soccer.'”

“I've already got him,” I said.

“I'll say,” said Anna. She clapped her hands together. “I've found one for you, Brink. ‘Do you like homemade chocolate chip cookies?'”

Brink liked any kind of cookies.

“‘Blond, semi-full-figured DWF.' She's divorced. That's good. You need someone with experience. ‘ISO a good heart, not good looks,' and—get this—‘no country dancing, like lawyers, corny jokes.' Perfect!”

“Let me see.” Brink snatched the Relationships section out of Anna's hand.

“Be careful with that; it's evidence,” I said.

“Make me a copy, will you?” Brink asked Anna.

“You got it,” she said.

Brink took the copy, went back into his office and shut the door, and not because he intended to do any work. “Do you think he's gonna call her?” Anna asked me.

“I know it,” I replied, watching the button for his extension lighting up.

2

A
T
10:10
THE FOLLOWING
day, Terrance was waiting for me near the Psittacine Research Facility, not outside the door but at the end of the walk. He leaned against the corner of the building reading the
Wall Street Journal.
His briefcase was set beside him on the sidewalk. He looked at me, he looked at his watch. I don't wear a watch, but that wasn't why I was late. Unlike Terrance, who had pulled his Jaguar up onto the curb, I'd been looking for a place to park.

“Sorry I'm late,” I said. “I couldn't find a parking place.” In most cities the first thing people discuss when they get together is parking, but it isn't considered a fit subject for conversation in Albuquerque—unless you're meeting at UNM.

“Did you leave the message for Brown?”

“Yes.”

“Call back the Relationships number this afternoon; there'll be an answer.”

“Can he change the message on the Relationships tapes?”

“If you have a little sniffer, you can change the message on any tape.”

“I suppose you can listen to the messages on any tape, too.” Deborah wouldn't have had any privacy on her answering machine either.

“Yup.”

“Where do you get all this electronic surveillance stuff anyway?”

“I get mine through a catalog. I don't know where Wes Brown gets his. There are places right here in Albuquerque where you can buy it if you want to.”

“Is it expensive?”

“The Marantz cost me, but you can pick up a little sniffer for a hundred and fifty bucks. You can buy a Punch KRM-2 for as little as nine dollars.”

“What's that?”

“Red pepper spray. It'll immobilize any aggressor—two-legged or four-legged—for thirty minutes. Every woman ought to carry one. If Deborah had, we wouldn't be standing here right now.” He snapped open his briefcase and took out a red spray can about six inches long and another smaller one with a holster for attaching it to a key ring. “Here,” he said. “They're on me.”

“Thanks,” I replied. My attitude has always been nobody's going to protect me if I can help it, but I took the Punch anyway and put it in my purse. It had to be less noxious than some forms of self-
protect
ion I've used.

Terrance folded up his
Journal
and put it in the briefcase. “Well,” he growled, “let's get on with it. Now I'm not going to reveal any more than I have to to Deborah's students. I don't want them trying to be heroes, looking for Wes Brown and screwing things up.”

He knew I wouldn't be revealing anything about this case to anybody. There was, as always, the matter of client confidentiality.

“If my allergies start acting up—and they probably will—I'll have to leave the lab,” Terrance said. “I want you to be another set of eyes, look around, talk to the students, see if they're concealing anything. All right?”

“All right.”

We were walking down the same sidewalk Deborah had, but to our own beat. Terrance clunked along in his boot heels. I followed as silent as a scout in my running shoes. Running shoes are the preferred footgear for some crimes: stalking crimes, silent crimes. In daylight, this was an ordinary cement sidewalk, but high-heeled shoes heard walking alone on a sidewalk at night have a resonance. The faster the footsteps, the deeper the resonance.

When we reached the door with the sign that read
PSITTACINE RESEARCH FACILITY
, Terrance stopped and said, “You've got to take off your shoes the minute we get inside so you're not bringing in any germs. You'll see a pile of plastic booties to put on.”

We went inside. I followed his instructions, slipped out of my running shoes, put on the plastic booties and took a look around while he struggled to get his cowboy boots off. “Goddamn,” he said, “I wish they'd bring in a bootjack or a chair to sit on.”

The Psittacine Research Facility was as noisy and hyper as a day care center. Next to the door we'd entered was an office with a window that faced onto the lab. Two students sat at a table in the middle of the lab talking to a parrot. The parrot was about a foot tall, bright green with a yellow head and red epaulets on its wings.

“Key,” said one student, holding up that object and speaking slowly and distinctly, as if to a two-year-old.

“Awrk,” said the parrot.

“Key,” the other student said. “Key.”

A female student stood at a counter feeding a baby parrot with a large dropper. The parrot was pink-skinned and speckled with gray feathers. It had a huge beak and feet. It was so ugly it was almost appealing. The student was tall and lovely. She wore washed-out jeans and a pale T-shirt, but even in that casual uniform her body attracted attention. She was slender, but voluptuous and strong. Her hair hung down her back, long, blond and silky.


Alice Ashburn,” Terrance sighed her name with that longing in his voice middle-aged men reserve for beautiful young women.

A male student, who was balancing a green and yellow parrot on his shoulder, hovered around Alice inhaling her pheromones. He was as tall as she was but as awkward as the baby parrot. The parrot was all beak and feet; he was all elbows. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had the overeager manner of the first student to raise his hand in class, the last one to get a date. His hair was light brown and pulled back in a long, limp, sixties-style ponytail. He wore jeans and a T-shirt like Alice's, but he looked scrawny in his. If Alice had noticed that he was enamored of her, she wasn't letting on. She continued squeezing food into the baby parrot's beak.

“That's Rick Olney,” Terrance said. “Ph.D. He's Deborah's assistant.”

“What does he have his Ph.D. in?” I asked.

“Ornithology. He'll never let you forget it, either.”

There are three ways to have power: body, brains and bucks. Alice had the body, Rick had the brains, Terrance had the bucks. I was segueing from body to brains myself, knowing full well I'd never have the bucks.

Rick noticed our presence, adjusted his glasses and did not seem at all pleased to see that Terrance Lewellen had entered the lab. He tucked in his elbows and walked our way, balancing the parrot on his shoulder. Dispensing with any preliminaries, he said in a tight voice, “Have you heard anything at all from Deborah?”

“Not a word, and you?” Terrance responded, telling the truth the way he saw it.

“Nothing. Deborah would not go off without telling us, and she would not take Perigee and leave Colloquy alone. Something is very, very wrong.”

The pupils of the parrot's eyes dilated and contracted. Standing on Rick's shoulder put it high above the rest of us, and it seemed to like being there. “Hello-o,” it called.

“Hi,” I replied.

“Be quiet, Maxamilian,” Rick said.

“That's Max,” Terrance said to me. “He's a double-yellow-headed Amazon, and Deborah's prize pupil. He has a vocabulary of over two thousand words.”

“Twenty-five hundred,” Rick corrected him.

“Right,” Terrance replied. “This is Neil Hamel, my lawyer.”

“Call my lawyer,” Max cackled.

“Your lawyer?” asked Rick in the deep-freeze voice people reserve for members of my profession and the IRS.

“My lawyer,” said Terrance with no further explanation. In his world a lawyer (and probably a
woman,
too) was as necessary a part of the baggage as the briefcase he held in his hand. “How's Colloquy doing?”

“Not well; she misses her mate,” Rick replied. “I don't like this, Terrance. Deborah's been gone two days now. It's time to call the police.”

“Call the police,” screamed Max, flapping his wings and doing a quick two-step on Rick's shoulder to keep his balance.

“No police,” Terrance said.

“Deborah and Perigee could be in danger,” Rick replied.

“They'll be in more danger if you call the police.”

“I disagree.”

Rick was towering over Terrance, who didn't get any taller but seemed to expand circumferentially as he went into intimidation mode, wielding the briefcase like a battering ram and moving right up under Rick's nose. “You're not getting paid to agree or disagree,” he barked. “You call the police, I cut off the lab's funding. It's as simple as that.”

Money talks, power shouts. Rick's eyes blazed behind the granny glasses, but he didn't say a word.

“Now I have to make a phone call,” my client said, taking his briefcase into the office that had to be Deborah's. He was not behaving well, but people who do don't need lawyers. “Why don't you show Neil around the lab?” he asked Rick.

It wasn't a question, it was a command. Rick put Max down on the office desk, turned his back to me and Terrance and stomped across the lab floor as rapidly as his plastic footgear would allow. Terrance opened his briefcase, took out his phone and started talking about buying and selling stock in cell voice. One of nature's laws is, the more inconsequential the conversation, the more advanced the equipment, the louder the voice.

My options were to follow Rick or to expose, embarrass and possibly lose my client. Rick squared his shoulders and straightened his ponytail as he walked across the lab. He stopped at the table where the other grad students were talking to their Amazon, more emphatically even than they'd been before. There was a beat-up paperback copy of Ayn Rand's
The Fountainhead
lying on the table. On the far side of the lab I could see into another room, and it was very easy to be diverted from the tension by a spectacular blue bird sitting on a manzanita perch in a metal cage.

“Is that Colloquy?” I asked Rick.

“Yes.”

“Can I take a look?” I asked him.

“It's Terrance's bird.” He shrugged.

Colloquy
was big and beautiful, a collector's item, a work of art. The place on the adjacent perch was conspicuously empty. Her tail feathers were a long and elegant train the same deep turquoise color as the feather that sat on my desk. Her feathers turned lighter and greener as they approached her neck, and there were bright yellow ovals around her eyes and beside her large beak. Her upper beak hooked over the lower with the deep curve of a scimitar that could snap off a finger. The indigo's size and color made her magnificent, her beak made her intimidating, but she had the goofy expression of a trickster or a clown.

“Hi, Colloquy,” I said, walking up to the cage holding out my empty palm, a reflex action, the way a child learns to approach a strange dog. Maybe the bird would have preferred a full hand. The floor of her cage was littered with feathers, but she still had plenty left and they fluffed out as she lifted her long wings, squawked and flapped furiously at me like a big-haired woman having a bad hair day. “It takes more than that to scare me,” I said, but when Colloquy began to screech in a voice that was loud and piercing enough to crack a piñon, I backed off. She had a sound to match her size. “Okay, okay,” I said, dropping my hand.

Terrance had finished his business and slapped across the lab floor in his plastic booties. “She doesn't like strangers,” he said to me. “Hey, Colloquy baby,” he cooed to the indigo. “Come to Daddy. Your daddy's here.” He reached into his pocket and took out a plastic bag, then he opened the door to the cage and stood next to the opening. Colloquy swung from her perch and climbed onto his shoulder. “Even I don't put my arm into the cage,” he said. Colloquy settled her ruffled feathers, accepted the contents of the bag and gave me a look just like her master's when he'd provoked the reaction he wanted. She got a lot of expression out of one beak and two eyes.

“What's in the bag?” I asked him.

“Granola,” he said. “My birds don't get monkey chow.”

Colloquy swallowed her granola, snuggled up to Terrance and nibbled on his earlobe. One quick bite and the ear would be history.

“Baby, baby.” Terrance stroked the indigo's brilliant feathers. “It's my allergy that's been keeping me away. You're still my girl.”

Colloquy nibbled. Terrance sneezed, and his ear came close to extinction. “Goddamn this allergy,” he said. “I'm gonna have to put you back already.”

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