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Is there anything more grounding than the tweet of birds at the dawn of a new day? I don’t think so, and neither does Ralph, my one-pound yellow-naped Amazon parrot. We’re both sitting on my back balcony—me on the glider bench with Ralph perched on my shoulder—on the third floor of the circa-1820 building I purchased when I moved home to Stonebridge, Pennsylvania. I signed my full name, Angel Strooper Warren, on the deed a little over a year ago.
One year. How can so much have changed in such a short time? I went from Commander Warren, United States Navy, to a retired naval aviator after twenty-two years of active duty. I still fly, but now it’s the Cessna that I rent every so often at my local airport, and not the Seahawk helicopter I did hundreds of ship and aircraft carrier landings in.
No longer one of the less than 1 percent of Americans serving on the “tip of the spear,” I’m making a go of hometown life and running my own small business.
“Life is very, very good, isn’t it, Ralph?” From here we get a glimpse of the rolling foothills of the Appalachians, but mostly we take in the other buildings and the residential yards that abut the back alley behind my property. Well, I mean I get a glimpse. I have no idea how much Ralph takes in, but since his eyesight is exponentially better than mine, I imagine he’s spotting hawks that circle high above our valley, invisible to me without my binoculars.
It’s full-on summer and this is the coolest it’ll be all day. Ralph snuggles into the crook of my neck, lowering his beak to my shoulder and inviting a scratch. As I gently rub under his feathers, a sharp point hits my finger pad. It must be painful where it pokes through his soft, paper-thin skin.
“Aww, poor baby bird, do you have quills coming in?”
He replies with a low birdie murmur, followed by some beak grinding. The sawing together of his upper and lower beak is Ralph’s way of letting me know I’m comforting him, that he’s content.
I didn’t always allow him to sit on my shoulder as that’s like telling a parrot they’re in charge of your life. When a parrot is eye level with you, as in on a shoulder, their birdie brain tells them they’re an equal. Which means they may feel the need to assert their dominance. Ralph’s given me a nasty bite here and there, and I have no desire to repierce my ears at the age of…fortyish. Okay, I’m forty-five. Since Ralph basically saved my life last Thanksgiving, I’ve risked allowing him to use my shoulder like a tree branch.
We’ve lived a life beyond my imaginings since we’ve been back in Stonebridge, including a murder in my international gift shop downstairs. When I made the decision to retire to south central Pennsylvania, I never, ever imagined that small-town life could become so complicated, so fast. Transitioning from being in charge of over five hundred sailors at my last command to becoming the new woman in town who owns the eclectic curio shop seemed manageable. But then there was a murder in my store before it even opened. Which turned me into an investigator of sorts. After I pushed my bestie, the town’s senior (only) detective, to let me help.
“Good morning.” Ralph nudges me out of my mind’s attempt to relive what I’ve come to think of as the “shock and awe” time. Shock at finding my high school classmate dead, murdered, in my shop no less. Awe at how I found a new talent I didn’t realize I had: crime solving.
The Navy taught me a lot of things, gave me skills that translate well to running a business. Turns out the same skill set goes a long way in solving a murder.
That was seven months ago. As my time here increases—along with my regular customers—I’m hoping that we all forget that I once helped to solve a murder. Let’s all agree that it’s not what I want on my gravestone. Not that I want an epithet of any kind. I want to be cremated with my remains buried at sea. But that’s neither here nor there.
The scent of roses from Mrs. Carver’s prized garden is heavy in the humid air, and I shift my gaze downward and focus on her little paradise. It’s the next street over, kitty-corner from my building, across the tiny alley that runs behind all of the buildings on Main Street.
Downtown Stonebridge isn’t unlike any other North American small town. The original section of it is a neat grid of streets, dating back to the early part of the nineteenth century. Some of the Victorian homes added over the following century remain, with many divided into apartments, offices, and more recently, condos. But not Mrs. Carver’s place. She keeps her garden lush, and it reminds me of the English manors Tom and I took the girls to when we were stationed overseas.
Tom. I smile at the memory of my deceased husband, grateful that my tears have turned to an acceptance. Tom was taken from us nearly six years ago, gone too soon, thanks to a nasty form of cancer. I’m no longer regularly sobbing, breaking down from the relentless waves of grief that swamped me the first couple of years after he had passed. It’s true that time helps, no question. But I think being where I’m loved the most has made all the difference in moving on.
Stonebridge has a been a big part of my healing.
“Yip yippity yip!” Admiral Nelson, the O’Ryans’ Chihuahua, has been allowed into the nautical-themed yard that’s next to the Carvers’ and directly behind me. From my balcony’s vantage, I watch as the tiny mammal scurries over to the flagpole and lifts his even tinier leg to nourish Mrs. O’Ryan’s fire-engine red and optical-white geraniums. They were interspersed with tiny blue flowers only a few days ago, but I assume the heat got to them. Or Admiral Nelson’s urine.
“Admiral Nelson, you know you’re not supposed to pee over there.” Mrs. O’Ryan’s octogenarian voice drifts up to us, and Ralph ruffles all his feathers at once, sprinkling me with his fine dander. It’s as if he’s horrified to breathe in the same air as any other creature without feathers.
“Thanks, Ralph. It’s okay. You don’t own the universe.” It’s not lost on me that two animals weighing less than five pounds combined can have such oversized personalities. And I’m talking to one of them as if he’s a human.
“Come on in now, Admiral Nelson. Daddy has a special treat for you!” Mrs. O’Ryan raises her voice, as if cueing her husband, somewhere inside their home.
A quick suggestion? If you ever are introduced to Admiral Nelson, make sure you don’t forget that “Admiral” is as much a part of the doggy’s name as “Nelson.” Otherwise you’ll be listening to Mrs. O’Ryan explain how he’s named after her great-great-too-many-to-count-great grandfather Admiral Nelson. Her husband is retired Navy Captain Richard O’Ryan. Captain Rick is a Naval Academy graduate like me, except he attended when the concept of women serving as midshipmen and fleet officers seemed not only a dream but a full-on nightmare. Mrs. O’Ryan has expressed her belief that “war jobs are best left to the men, dear” to me, and I gave her my best “bless your heart” smile. Same with Captain Rick. We’re cordial, but whenever we pass on the street, he peers at me through his frameless lenses as if I’m some kind of insect specimen. A known entity, but not accepted as part of the local environment. I’m okay with our hello, good-bye relationship. For now, anyway. I do hope that someday we’ll get a chance to compare career notes and Captain Rick will see that the best values have remained at Annapolis, and all of the changes since he was a midshipman have been beneficial for both the Navy and the nation.
“Admiral Nelson! You get over here!” Mrs. O’Ryan’s croaky whisper is louder than some of Ralph’s chatter.
“That’s our signal, Ralph.” Admiral Nelson gets let out at seven a.m. on the dot, right as I finish my first cup of coffee. Time to get dressed and grab some breakfast.
Ralph emits a lengthy cackle that carries over the entire back street. I hate to admit it but it’s the exact replica of my laughter. Ralph’s vocalization sets Admiral Nelson off into a yipping frenzy, at which Ralph—the quintessential ham—bellows his bomb-falling sound. He learned it from cartoons, honest. I manage to get us back inside and close the balcony door before his high-pitched descending whistle ends with a very punctuated boom!
I put Ralph on his cage top and head for the shower, both of us either singing or whistling to music I stream over wireless speakers. My twin daughters, Ava and Lily, are home from college for the summer and have already gone to their other part-time jobs. There’s no one to worry about waking up, so I crank the tunes up a bit more and step into the tiled shower that was part of the renovation that transformed the dilapidated building into a showpiece. Water streams from the rainfall shower faucet, and I breathe in the eucalyptus essential oil–scented soap that’s part of the Spanish soap collection I have on sale in my shop.
It’s a typical start to a summer day in Stonebridge. Except today is Saturday, so I’m going to take off a few hours earlier this afternoon from my international gift store, Shop ’Round the World, and my brother, Bryce, is taking time from Skeins and Baahls, the yarn shop he owns with his husband. Our plan is to have some sibling fun.
We’re going tubing, as in floating down our local creek, Jacob’s Run, atop our overinflated plastic inflatables. People ride all kinds of floats on the water, but most look like a colorful version of tire inner tubes, when tires had such things. People kayak and canoe on the creek, too, but tubing is unique in that you have to relax and literally go with the flow of the water. The current ranges from a fun clip after a summer storm to barely above a trickle during drought season. Tubing was our favorite pastime as kids.
When I came home, I promised myself to work on my relationships with each of my two siblings. I can’t make up for being gone for so long, nor do I feel I need to. Serving my country was the best reason to be away. I can, however, get to know my brother and sister better.
Bryce is two years older than me, and Crystal is two years older than Bryce. Crystal and her husband, Brad, have built a garden and landscaping business together over the past thirty years. Brad handles all things landscape and hardscape, and Crystal runs the thriving nursery and florist shop.
Crystal and I do lots of girly things together, including the recent spa day we shared at Stonebridge Serenity Spa. Other than knitting and spending time looking over my shop inventory together, it’s more difficult for Bryce and me to find fun things to do as a team. I’m looking forward to our creek adventure.
I start to perspire the minute I’m out of the shower. After yesterday’s downpour, Jacob’s Run should offer a bit of breeze with the faster water. It’ll be the perfect respite from the humidity. Even if the flow was its usual snail’s crawl, it’d be a reprieve from the constant pace of retail during tourist season. The five-mile-long creek parallels Main Street, but at its closest point of approach, it is over a quarter of a mile from the town center. In addition to the ample grassy, wooded banks on either side, the waterway boasts a hiking trail that is an offshoot of the Appalachian Trail.
Jacob’s Run is part of the Conodoguinet system of waterways that eventually spill into the Susquehanna River, which in turn empties into the Chesapeake Bay. It would take years to explore all of the tributaries in our slice of the world. I’ll settle for our modest length of creek.
We’re no longer tweens. Between our work responsibilities and, let’s face it, more, ah, mature—that’s it, mature, not old or aging, no way!—bodies, the ability to spend an entire day riding the local waterways is a thing of the past. So we’ve agreed to grab what we can. As much as I’m looking forward to relaxing on the float, I’m going for an ulterior motive: humor. No one makes me full-on belly laugh like Bryce. Because no one can speak the truth like a brother.
Only a couple of hours of work are between me and my exclusive comedy show, aka my brother, Bryce.
Shop ’Round the World smells like a sunny beach day, thanks to my signature scent of the month wafting from the candle display. Summer weekends are my favorites because as the day wears on, the brass bells on the entrance door chime incessantly. The customers, many tourists, come in to peruse my wares, often carrying an iced drink from Latte Love. A customer’s gasp of delight at a newfound treasure usually leads to the electronic ding of a sale.
I’m at my usual place during store hours, behind the custom counter made from reclaimed Pennsylvania barnwood, tapping on the tablet that I had imbedded into an antique cash register. The register’s keys were declared DOA after I scavenged it from an estate sale. I get so many compliments on the shop’s ambiance, and I credit my military training for it. Not the ambiance, but how I had to pay attention to the tiniest details to make it all come together. It wasn’t just making sure I had the right angles, the best merchandising surfaces. True, the custom-built oak shelving and display tables are arranged using feng shui principles I learned over many Navy moves. And the choice of store stock comes from years of digging through open-air markets all over the planet, giving Shop ’Round the World an international flavor not often seen in south central Pennsylvania. It’s my belief, however, that the glue that keeps my brand fresh and intact is the constant scrutiny I give each and every nook and cranny of the store. From the original shelving setup down to the exact shades of yellow I chose for the Diwali linens, it is all a deliberate attempt to make the store instantly welcoming, to allow the most sparkly mementos of my travels to shine light into my customers’ lives.
The shop is set up by countries and cultures, and I’m quite pleased with the variety of merchandise. Not only in type and items but in the colorful way the displays seem to sprinkle the store with happiness, like the multicolored dots on the outside of a jawbreaker candy.
Bright blues and deep greens dominate the Japanese tea set shelf, deep reds and golds splash across hand-painted Matryoshka nesting dolls from Poland and Russia, and white porcelain from Belgium and Luxembourg balance the center of the space. And those are just the mainstays. I rotate merchandise seasonally, as well. The shelves that hold French cookware in red, white, and blue held hand-painted Polish and Ukrainian Easter eggs only a few months before, and hand-carved Russian Santas only a few months before that.
I look up from the inventory list I’m working on in between customers and see why it’s grown quiet. There are only two customers in the shop at the moment. Three, if you count the large chocolate Labrador sniffing the air while his owner stares at the display of essential oils and candles. I wonder what the dog’s picking up on. There certainly isn’t a dog treat–scented candle in my stock, but I do have a basketful of multicolored dog toys in the “globe-trotting pets” area across the room.
I recognize the woman, as she’s one of my best customers to date. Verity Price is constantly in search of unique items for her garden, and I’m constantly in search of high-quality items to meet her desires. She’s checking out a Japanese ceramic tea set and matching cast-iron teapot, both in a fiery shade of persimmon. I open my mouth to ask if anyone needs any help.
“Don’t forget the reason you dragged us in here.” The man’s quiet request makes my nape prickle, and I shut my mouth, conscious of my back molars grinding.
“I won’t, babe, don’t worry.” Her tone strikes me as placating. Another hair-raiser.
“Someone needs to worry about how you spend your money.” His voice is low and I have to strain to hear his words, but one surreptitious glance at his body language is all I need. He has both hands on his hips, glaring at Verity. His dog’s tail is as still as the air on this humid day.
“You’re the last one to talk about money.” Verity’s expression is twisted into a sneer, her tone harsh, but her arms are crossed over her middle. Protecting herself.
“We’re talking about you, dear, remember?” He says “dear” like a verbal slap. “You’re the one in the habit of wasting our hard-earned cash on stupid junk. Nothing is ever enough for you.” While he keeps his volume low, it’s not low enough. From his expression and total focus on Verity, he doesn’t realize I can hear him. I’m catching his words and worse, their implied menace, loud and clear.
Do I have a supersensitive awareness of men who behave inappropriately? Heck, yes. Not from my deceased husband, Tom. He was all I’d ever dreamed a spouse could be and never treated me with anything less than total respect. We had our disagreements, though, same as any couple. They probably didn’t look so great either, to an onlooker. My wariness comes more from my years in the Navy, though, where every now and then I encountered latent, and even blatant, misogyny. Not enough to sour my sense of pride and satisfaction at having served the country. Rather, enough to pick up on an asinine attitude before others might.
Which is why I’m working hard to not form a judgment against this man who I’m assuming is Verity’s husband. It’s hard for me to believe the other half of the town’s most popular chiropractic practice would be so mean.
The Stonebridge Buddies is our local version of a Rotary Club. There are two chiropractors in the Buddies, Verity Price and Hank Price. I’ve only ever seen Verity at the meetings, though. She’s always bubbly and exudes a sense of quiet knowing. Nothing like the air of impatience Hank reeks of.
To his credit, he has a sweet dog who’s behaving like an angel. A jerk wouldn’t have a such an apparently loyal dog, would he?
End of Excerpt