Dealing with depression, PTSD and other issues, Tom Jurgen takes on a murder case: The victim was stabbed 171 times, and his body was covered with blood—but not all of it was human.
Sunday, November 5, 2017
Vandella Burroughs pounded her fist on her knee. “My husband is dead! Someone stabbed him 171 times! And the police aren’t doing a damn thing about it!”
I took a deep breath. Just like my therapist had advised me. “I don’t, uh, usually handle murder cases.”
“Sure you do.” Sharon Marmont clicked her expensive Montblanc pen. She’s a lawyer. She usually calls me when she has a case that veers into . . . unusual territory. “You’ll want this one.”
I pulled the police report forward. “Just let me take a look.” I opened the folder, reminding myself to stay calm. This is what I did.
Tom Jurgen. Ex-reporter. Private detective. Currently struggling with PTSD and depression. After years of dealing with vampires, demons, and monsters of all kinds, including a dragon, I’d had some kind of a breakdown that landed me in the hospital. Diagnosis: depression, PTSD, high blood pressure, and too many Doritos.
But after a month of therapy sessions, medications, and long walks in the park, I needed to get back to work. Or I’d just sit in my apartment watching bad sitcoms and drinking coffee for the rest of my life.
Jared Burroughs had been found dead in an alley two months ago. He’d died of blunt force trauma and blood loss caused by, yes, 171 small stab wounds in his chest and abdomen.
Vandella Burroughs sighed impatiently. I leaned down. One detail stood out from the report.
Burroughs’ body had been covered in blood. But not all of it was his. Or human.
I stifled a groan. Rachel was going to kill me. But Marmont was right. This was my kind of case.
I packed the folder into my briefcase. “All right. I’ll see what I can do.”
But first I had my weekly 11:30 a.m. appointment.
“So how are you doing this week?” Dr. Neral closed his laptop as I sat down.
Dr. Francis Neral was a psychiatrist. An African-American with a balding scalp and a thin black necktie. I’d been seeing him weekly ever since I got out of the hospital.
He sat in an office. I had the couch. A standard, comfortably upholstered couch, not a black leather-padded one from the 19th century. No lying back and free-associating about my mother here, Dr. Freud. “Well, I took a case.”
“Is that good? What kind of case?”
“I don’t know yet.” I shook my head. “But my internet isn’t going to pay for itself.”
“Right.” He made a note. “Are you still taking the medication?”
I sighed. “Yeah.”
“Any side effects?”
I sat back. “I don’t have much appetite. My girlfriend’s been cooking for me.” I had lots of leftovers.
Dr. Neral nodded. “How are things with Rachel?”
I hesitated. “I guess she still likes me. I’m still not sure why.”
“Why wouldn’t she? I mean . . .” Dr. Neral shrugged. “You’ve been together for a long time.”
My shoulders tensed. “Didn’t I mention how I almost got her killed half a dozen times?” Not even counting the time she got possessed by a demon because of me. I hadn’t gone through my entire case file with Dr. Neral yet. “But she insists on coming with me.”
“And that worries you?”
“Yes! I mean . . . okay, she saved my life at least once.” Although if I hadn’t been stupid enough to get abducted by aliens . . . “And I like having her around. She’s smart. Smarter than me.” And she had a mean elbow jab. “If something happened to her, I don’t think I could deal with it. I already told you about Elena Dudovich.”
Dr. Neral nodded again. “You still feel guilty about that.”
“Of course I do. We weren’t exactly friends, but we . . . found a way to work together. If I hadn’t screwed up . . .” My voice shook. “Shit.” I grabbed for the box of tissues.
After a moment Dr. Neral asked, “How are you sleeping?”
“I had a nightmare about Donald Trump as a vampire.” I tossed the tissues into a can. “I woke up before I could stake him.”
Dr. Neral chuckled.
We had an hour to kill. And although I was used to asking the questions—ex-reporter, now a private detective—I was finding that answering them was oddly therapeutic. Go figure.
But mostly I wanted to get back to work on the case.
The main piece of information was the blood evidence.
Marmont had scanned a copy of the police report. I emailed the forensics to a chemist I knew at the University of Illinois, asking if he could identify the non-human blood. He’d worked for the police for twenty years; now he was a professor, and he’d helped me out on a few cases.
But forensics information only went so far. I had to talk to people.
Jared had worked the 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. shift in one of the big department stores downtown, managing loading and unloading of the trucks that came in at all hours of the day and night. Vandella had given me the names of a few co-workers. I had their statements to the police, but they might be able to give me more information, since I was working for her, and I wasn’t a cop.
So I started making phone calls.
The first guy hung up on me. The second guy said he’d call me back. Then Vlad Smith answered. He’d just gotten home.
“Yeah, I only saw him at work that day.” He yawned. “I didn’t go out. My wife was sick, and I had to get home to take care of my kid. Hi, bubbles!” I heard a little girl laugh.
Vlad cleared his throat. “Sorry. He was going out with Mick and Hector. They’re two guys from work.”
Mick Soto and Hector Moore. They were the first two people I’d called. “Do you know where they were going?”
“We usually go to a bar called Friendly’s over on LaSalle. They might have gone somewhere else later. Why don’t you ask them?”
“You’re the first one who’d answer me.”
He chuckled. “Look, I liked Jared, but I’m a white guy. Mick and Hector? Getting questioned by a bunch of white police officers will make anyone a little nervous about answering questions from some other white guy on a phone.”
I could understand that. “Okay. Thanks for your help.”
I was scanning the internet for stories about the killing when Rachel opened my door. She has a key.
“Hi there!” She dropped a bag of groceries on the table. “What are you working on?”
I closed my laptop and sipped my Coke. I wanted a beer, but I couldn’t drink with my medication. “I took a case.”
“It’s about time.” She started unpacking the bag. “Look! Ground beef! I hated buying this for you, but I did it. Think about all the poor innocent cows who died for this while you fry it up into hamburgers or bake it into lasagna.”
Rachel’s a vegetarian. She’s also my girlfriend. She lives upstairs. And she’d also been checking in on me at least twice a day since I’d been in the hospital.
“You don’t have to cook dinner for me every night.” I was nervous. “This is great, but—”
“Dinner? It’s 2:30. I have work to do. I’m just buying you groceries so you don’t forget that milk and eggs go bad after a few weeks.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“Okay, talk.” Rachel sat down. She’s got short red hair and hazelnut eyes. Plus, she’s sort of psychic. But she probably didn’t need supernatural powers to sense that I hadn’t told her everything. “What kind of case? Tell me it’s just a cheating husband. Or wife. Or a missing person. Or embezzlement. Or—”
“It’s a murder case.” I braced for a punch.
She blinked. “You’re really jumping right back in.”
I opened my laptop. “The victim was stabbed over 100 times, and he was covered in blood. Some of it wasn’t human. The cops and the media aren’t paying a lot of attention to it. Probably because it’s not a gang-related shooting.”
“Fine.” Rachel shoved her chair back and stood up. “I’ve got a big project. Call me.”
Damn it. She was mad.
“Come on, Rachel!” I followed her to the door. “I need to do something. I can’t just sit around doing background checks, or trailing some worker’s comp case—”
“Bullshit!” Rachel turned on me, her eyes burning. “You want the adrenalin! You can’t wait to get back to fighting vampires and zombies and assassins who can walk through walls!”
She punched me. Hard.
“Okay, okay!” I staggered back. “It’s what I do! I didn’t ask for it, but I can’t quit. You know that. You know me.”
Rachel grabbed the doorknob. “It’s a good thing I like you.”
I grinned. “I think that every day.”
She slugged me again. Lighter this time. “Jerk. I’ve got to go.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Thanks for the groceries.”
I was putting everything into my refrigerator when my phone buzzed. I ran back out to the table to pick it up. “Tom Jurgen here.”
“Who? My name’s Mick Soto. You called me.”
Mick. One of the names Vandella Burroughs had given me. “Hi, Mr. Soto, thanks for calling me back. I’m Tom Jurgen, a private detective working for Vandella Burroughs about the murder of her husband Jared Burroughs. She gave me your name. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
“Shit.” For a moment I thought he was going to hang up on me. “I don’t know if I should.”
“I’m only looking for information. Jared’s wife and her lawyer think the case is being ignored. Anything you can tell me would help.”
“That’s not what I mean.” He hesitated. “Look, I’m working right now. Double shift, with Jared gone. You want to come down here, then maybe we can talk.”
I looked at the clock over the door to the kitchen. 2:55. “Sure. Where are you?”
He gave me an address.
I texted Rachel when I got there. Usually I call to let her know where I am, but I didn’t want to talk to her while she was mad at me.
Okay, maybe she was right about the adrenalin rush. I’d missed it. When I was a reporter, there’d been nothing like chasing a hot story. Since becoming a P.I. with a reputation for cases involving the supernatural, I’d gone into some dark corners. I couldn’t deny the fear, or the relief at surviving. But I kept doing it.
Right now I felt better than I had in months.
A light rain was starting to fall as I met Mick Soto outside an office building on LaSalle downtown. He was finishing a cigarette.
“I just have a few minutes.” He looked down the alley. “More trucks coming in. I’m working until midnight.”
“I’m parked a block away if you want to get out of the rain.”
“Just get to it.” He dropped his cigarette butt into a garbage can.
I held out a card. “I’m working for Jared Burroughs’ wife. You can call her.”
“The cops already talked to me. I told them everything I know.” He grinned. “You going to crack this case?”
“Probably not.” The last thing I wanted right now was to confront a murderer. I only wanted to find some information that might provoke the police to take a closer look at the case. That meant asking questions. “So what happened that night?”
Mick lit another cigarette. “We all went down to Friendly’s. It’s on the next block. A couple of beers. Then Jared and Hector left. That’s . . . all I know.”
I’ve learned how to tell when a subject wants to say something more. Sometimes they just need a nudge. “So why did he leave? Where was he going?”
He blew smoke from his lips and shook his head. “Okay. He was going for a fight.”
“What kind of a fight?”
“He’s—“ A cab rolled past. “He used to be a boxer. Amateur. I guess he missed it. He talked about getting back into it. Some days he showed up with bruises, and he laughed about it. He was always a big, muscular guy—he could lift boxes it took two of us to move.”
He lit a new cigarette. “You know how it is? You want to go back and do it again? You played in a band in high school, and so you start playing with bands in bars even though you only know four or five chords and you can’t really sing. That was Jared. Except he looked like he could do it. So maybe he went off to some kind of fight. You’d have to ask Hector.”
He’d hung up on me. “I tried. Is he working tonight?”
“Nah, he’s been off for a few days.” Mick looked at my card. “I’ll ask him to call you.”
Off? “How long?”
“Couple of days. I don’t know.” He stubbed out his cigarette and tossed it into the garbage can. “I’ve got to get back.”
“Sure. Thanks for your help.”
Mick looked over his shoulder as he walked away. “Drive safe.”
Back in my apartment I called Vandella Burroughs. Sharon Marmont was technically my client, but she’d given me Vandella’s number and the okay to call her with any questions.
“Ms. Burroughs? It’s Tom Jurgen. Can we talk?”
“What?” She sounded surprised and angry. “I didn’t think—do you have anything?”
“No, not really. Just a question. Was Jared ever an amateur boxer?”
“Uhh . . .” She sounded confused. “Yeah. In high school. But he quit.”
I hesitated. “He may not have.”
“I knew it!” Her shriek made me pull the phone from my ear. Then her voice grew quiet. “I knew it . . . damn it.”
Vandella was crying. “He came home with bruises. He said a box hit him on the face. Or the arm. The last time was a week before it happened, and he was bleeding on his shoulder, and he said someone’s box cutter slipped. Goddamn it!”
“I still don’t know if it means anything.” I tried to keep my voice calm. “I’m still waiting to hear from some people. I’ve been in touch with Sharon Marmont. Don’t jump to any conclusions.”
“My little boy is asking where his father is!” She gasped. “I’m sorry. Just—anything you can find out. All right?”
“I’ll do what I can.”
I started to call Marmont when my phone buzzed. Len Dryer, the chemist at UIC. “Hi, Len.” I gulped some coffee. “What’s going on?”
“I looked at that report you sent over.” He sounded like he was swallowing coffee too. “From what I can see, it looks like chicken blood.”
Chickens? “Okay. How much?”
“Most of it’s human, but the markers on about 30 percent of the data indicate some kind of bird, and the closest match I can find is chickens. That’s all I can tell you.”
Chickens. “Okay. Thanks, Len. Send me your bill.” Marmont would pay it.
He chuckled. “Sure will.”
I sat back and sipped my Coke.
Yeah, Rachel was right. I lived for this kind of thing. I’d have to talk to Dr. Neral about that soon.
That made me remember to take my pills. I wasn’t sure how much they were helping, but it just following the rules made me feel a bit more in control of my life.
I clicked on my laptop. Chicken blood might mean voodoo. On the other hand, it might mean he had a side job in a butcher shop. It could a lot of things. But why would it be mixed with Jared’s blood? It didn’t make sense.
I should have called Vandella Burroughs back again. But after just making her cry, I wasn’t in any hurry to get her even more upset tonight.
So I called Marmont and left a message.
Then I got up to make dinner. Burgers. Rachel would be mad.
The next morning, after bad dreams of vampires, rabid dogs, and Rachel shaking a steak knife at me, I poured a bowl of Froot-Loops and milk and opened my laptop. I had emails from two potential clients—background checks, which were easy. I needed work. I responded to both in the affirmative.
Background checks reminded me that I hadn’t really checked out Jared or any of his friends. Maybe I really was off my game. I gulped some coffee and went to work.
I don’t depend on Google. As a private detective, I have access to databases the general public can’t get intro. As long as I pay the yearly membership fees. So I started typing in names.
· Jared Burroughs. He’d won two semi-pro boxing matches and lost a lot more. He also had two arrests on his record, one for drunk and disorderly, the other for misdemeanor assault. He’d pleaded guilty to both, done his probation, and had boxed in one or two more semi-pro fights before apparently giving up the gloves.
· Vandella Burroughs. A few speeding tickets, all uncontested. She’d paid the fines. Delinquent taxes on the business she owned, a hair salon. A settlement from an ex-husband, details sealed by court order.
· Vlad Smith. One arrest for domestic battery. Charges dismissed. Issues involving child support payments, also resolved.
· Mick Soto. Clean. Not even a parking ticket.
· Hector Moore. He was the guy who’d hung up on me. No serious criminal record. But I did find a résumé posted online. Before working at the department store downtown with Jared and Mick, he’d worked at a meat-packing plant in Peoria, and then—or maybe right now, I couldn’t tell—at a poultry farm in Elgin.
A chicken farm. Was I back to voodoo?
I looked at the website—the Free Range Association in Barrington, Illinois, north of Chicago.
Lots of pictures of signs and trucks and happy employees, and chickens stripped on slabs ready to get chopped and wrapped for the grocery store.
I know about all the terrible condition in some farms. Rachel is more of an animal rights person than I am. She tolerates me eating meat, but she’s taught me a lot. Some days I even eat tofu.
I picked up my phone.
The receptionist at the Free Range Association didn’t recognize Hector Moore’s name, so she transferred me to Human Resources. The guy there confirmed that Hector worked at the farm on a part-time basis. He wouldn’t give me his schedule, or any other information, except that he’d been working there off and on for two years.
So I called Hector’s number again and left a message. Then I went to work on those background checks.
At 11:30 I got up and stretched. The coffeepot was empty. I grabbed a Coke from the fridge. I walked around the apartment, splashed some water on my face, and then gazed out the window behind my dining table. The trees swayed in a light breeze. The leaves were just starting to turn.
My phone buzzed. “Tom Jurgen speaking.”
“Yeah, Hector Moore? You were calling me about Jared?”
“Yes, thank you for calling me back.” I pulled my laptop forward. “I’ve been hired by Jared’s wife—her attorney, actually—to look into some questions about the death.”
“Yeah. I talked to Mick, he says you’re okay. I don’t have a lot of time. I’ve got trucks coming in.”
“Okay.” I sipped my Coke. “I’m starting to get a handle on the timeline. I’ll just get to the point . . .” I paused to frame the question in my mind. “Can you think of any reason why Jared’s body would have been spattered by chicken blood?”
The silence was so long I thought he’d quietly hung up. Finally . . . “I can’t talk about that right now. I’ll call you.”
I sighed and returned to the background checks.
Sharon Marmont called me back at noon. “What the hell are you getting into, Jurgen? Chicken blood? Voodoo?”
“It was a natural connection, all right?” I gulped some Coke. “What did she say?”
“She called me a racist and told me to go to hell. I spent ten minutes calming her down, and that’s coming out of your invoice, Tom. Look, all you need to do is find something that will convince the CPD to put more effort into the case. Are you getting anywhere?”
I hesitated. “These things take time.”
She snorted. “I’ve got to get back to the courtroom. Don’t say or do anything stupid, Tom.”
Who, me? “I’ll be in touch.”
I made myself a sandwich. Turkey, cheese, lettuce, Dijon mustard. I carried the plate out to the table. The other background checks waited for me, but I was bored.
So I did a quick Google search on “voodoo” and “chicken blood.”
After two hours, I was more confused than ever, but I was pretty sure voodoo had nothing to do with Jared Burroughs’ murder.
Yeah, chickens are sometimes sacrificed in rituals. I was glad Rachel wasn’t sitting next to me. From the Classroom website:
During voodoo ceremonies, worshippers gather, pound on drums, chant and offer up sacrifices to the loa. In certain instances, this can entail the sacrifice of a farm animal, such as a chicken. The chicken’s throat is cut, and the blood is used as an offering to the loa. In other instances, the loa may accept chicken’s eggs or roasted chicken meat instead of blood. The loa then appears, and takes possession of one of the worshippers. The priest or priestess then asks the loa questions or entreats it for favors, while the possessed worshipper responds in the tone and personality of the spirit. When the ceremony ends, the loa departs the possessed worshipper and restores him to his former facilities.
None of that sounded like anything Jared would have been involved in. He wasn’t a zombie. He was just dead.
So that left the chicken farm.
I checked the address. I could drive out there—I double-checked the address—but I knew I didn’t have enough information to just show up and start asking questions.
The scary thing was that I wanted to. I could feel my muscles tense.
I turned on the radio to classic rock and forced myself to go back to the background checks. One guy had an arrest warrant out for unpaid parking tickets, and a woman hadn’t showed up for jury duty 13 months ago. But she lived in another state. I filled out the reports and sent them in. Not my problem.
By 5 p.m. I was done. The radio station was playing a Rolling Stones marathon. Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste . . . This was the time I would have opened a beer and called Rachel.
But I wasn’t sure Rachel was speaking to me. And I couldn’t drink alcohol with the medication I was taking. The Coke I’d replaced it with was just as good.
I checked my email. More clients wanted my services. This was good. None of them were looking for paranormal investigations. That was . . . better. Boring. But better.
I took every single case. More background checks, which were easy. Two people wanted surveillance on potentially cheating spouses, and one executive wanted me to tail a VP who might be meeting with a competitor to share corporate secrets. I set up meetings. After twenty minutes I stood up, feeling good.
I was back. I could do this.
Then my phone buzzed. “Tom Jurgen speaking.”
“It’s me.” Hector Moore. “You want to find out about Jared?”
Oh hell. For twenty minutes I’d forgotten about all that. Twenty good minutes where I didn’t think about zombies or vampires or things going bump in the night . . .
For a moment I wanted to throw my phone out the window. I don’t have to do this anymore. I could just be a normal, everyday P.I., the kind they don’t make TV shows about, serving papers, tailing cheating spouses, the occasional missing persons case that went nowhere . . .
But I knew I couldn’t quit.
It used to be because no one believed me. That was a long time ago. These days clients come because I have a reputation for handling the strange stuff, the paranormal, the supernatural. Even the Chicago Police have me as a consultant for vampires.
So I didn’t need to prove myself anymore.
But for some reason I still had to do this. I’d need to talk to Dr. Neral about it. But for now . . .
“Where?” My voice was raspy. I reached for my Coke. “What time?”
Hector gave me an address. “Tonight. 8:30.
“Okay.” I stared at the cases waiting for me on my computer. They could wait. “I’ll be there.”
“Okay.” I stared at the cases waiting for me on my computer. They could wait. “I’ll be there.”
Rachel sat next to me in the Honda as twilight faded outside the windows. She’d insisted on coming. I’d learned I couldn’t win that argument.
Her upper lip curled. “You have no idea how hard I want to punch you right now.”
She hadn’t spoken a word in the forty-five minutes we’d spent driving out to Barrington. Even a threat was a relief.
“I’d rather have you hitting me than not talking to me.” I peered at my rearview mirror. Where the hell was Hector?
“What if I just hit you silently?” Rachel’s arms were crossed and tense. I wasn’t sure if she was joking.
“As long as you don’t feel the need to tie me up and whip me.” I checked the time on my phone. 9:02.
Rachel laughed. “When I decide to explore bondage, you’ll be the first to know.”
“Thanks. I think.” I twisted my neck to look around at the Burger King parking lot Hector had told me to meet him in. A family of four hopped out of a minivan. I’d eaten dinner, but the smells from the kitchen were making my hungry.
“Where is this asshole?” Rachel pressed window switch for some clear air. “Was Deep Throat always this late for Woodward and Bernstein?”
I was about to explain that Deep Throat only met with Woodward, not Bernstein, but before I could start a discussion on the history of investigative journalism that would have ended with a punch to my arm, a black minivan parked in the space next to my Honda. A tall balding man in a tan jacket walked around the back and leaned his elbows against my door.
I hit the window button. “Hector?”
“Yeah.” He glanced at Rachel. “Hi there. Who are you?”
“I’m just here with Tom.” She punched my shoulder.
I managed not to wince. “Rachel’s my associate. You didn’t say anything about anyone coming alone.”
Hector sighed. “Yeah. Okay. It’s going to cost extra, though. And you’re going to have to leave your cell phones in the car.”
Cost extra? “What am I paying for?”
“For the show. Follow me.” He started back to his car.
“Wait a minute.” I pushed my door open. My legs shook as I stood up, but I tried to hide it. “I’m not going anywhere until I know what’s going on.”
Yeah, I was excited about getting back to work, but I wasn’t ready to do anything stupid. Maybe. Especially with Rachel right next to me.
And my heart was pounding in a familiar rhythm. I focused on my breathing, just like Dr. Neral had advised me a week ago.
“Damn it.” Hector reached into his back pocket for a pack of cigarettes. “I didn’t mean for any of it to happen. And I’m sorry for Vandella and those kids.” He lit up. “I just work there.”
“At the chicken ranch.”
“You coming or not?” He lit a Marlboro. “It’s going to start soon. Remember about the cell phones.”
He climbed up into the minivan and started his engine. I sat down and closed my door.
“What’s that about?” Rachel buckled her seatbelt.
I opened the armrest compartment. It held two pairs of sunglasses, a pack of stale cigarettes, and a cheap burner cell phone. I checked the charge and made a quick call to my phone to make sure it was still working.
“Here.” I handed it to Rachel. “Hide this. Somewhere.”
“Ooh.” She leaned backed, unbuttoning her jeans. “You’re going to pay for this, you jerk. Don’t look! Eyes on the road!”
“Riiight.” I followed Hector out of the lot and down the road.
The gate beneath the sign that read FREE RANGE CHICKEN ASSOCIATION was locked. Hector tapped something on the sun visor in his minivan. The gate opened, and then closed behind us.
“A chicken farm.” Rachel grimaced. “You take me on the weirdest dates.”
“Hey, it’s free range. At least that’s what the sign says.”
“And all those chickens willingly give their lives just to make your McNuggets? Meat’s still murder no matter how happy the animals are up until the last second.”
Did I mention how Rachel’s a vegetarian?
We followed Hector’s minivan down a short driveway past an empty parking lot in front of a long ranch house. Floodlights illuminated the signs:
“The BEST Free Range Chickens in the Midwest!”
“Come in for a FREE sample!”
“Our chickens live FREE and OPEN!”
“This place is bad.” Rachel shivered. She’s psychic, at least a little. I’d learned to trust her instincts. But I couldn’t turn back now. Could I? I glanced at my reaview mirror. The gate was shut.
Rachel flipped her middle finger at the signs as we veered around the house. “Lies. Liars.”
“Sorry.” She’d asked to come—demanded, really—but this didn’t seem like the time to remind her.
Hector led us around the house toward a parking lot behind the main house, in front of a thick building that looked like a farmer’s barn. Attached to the barn, lights burned in a long barracks-style building with corrugated steel walls and a curved roof.
A tall wire fence stretched 10 feet high beside the barn and beyond it. I veered away from Hector’s minivan to take a look. Even with the floodlights low, I could see hundreds of chickens hunkered down for the night. A few of them stood up, fluffed their wings, and found a different spot to sleep.
Hector honked his horn.
This parking lot held twenty cars or more. A few Hondas and Toyotas like mine, mostly newer. One pickup truck. Minivans and luxury cars. One Mini Cooper.
Hector jumped down from his minivan and waved. “Come on!”
Rachel reached for the door handle—and froze, looking out the window to the long building. “I’ve got a bad feeling about all this.”
I tensed. “Should we bail?”
“No.” She ran her hand over her red hair. “Just—make sure we can pull a fast getaway, all right?”
I unlocked our doors, my skin tingling nervously. “You’ve got a key. You can drive off anytime you want.”
“Not without you. Jerk.” She punched my arm.
“You and me both.” I opened my door and stood up on the gravel. Hector was glaring at me.
I shrugged. “We needed a few minutes.”
Hector rolled his eyes. “The show’s starting.”
A tall blond woman in cutoffs and multiple piercings in her ears, nose, and lips glanced at me and Rachel. “Forty dollars. Each.”
I pulled four twenties from my wallet. The woman handed us two passes to stick to our shirts. “You come back and show these, you’ll get the money applied to your membership. That’s if you’re approved.”
I handed a pass to Rachel. “How do we get approved?”
“You need two sponsors.” She waved. “Hi, Hector.”
“Hi, Dulcie.” Hector pulled on my elbow. “Come on.”
Rachel jabbed an elbow into my ribs. “You were checking out her legs, weren’t you?”
“Ow!” I grabbed her hand. “I’m working. I have to be able to identify people.”
She smirked. “Riiight.”
A short ramp took us down into a circular room where folding chairs on risers surrounded a wide pit. Most of the chairs were filled with men and women laughing and drinking beer from a keg in plastic cups. Fluorescent tubes dangled from the ceiling, swaying in the breeze through the slats in the walls.
In the middle of the pit a steel cage rose 10 feet tall. Piles of straw covered the floor. The bars looked rusty but firm. A large metal bell hung from one ot the bars.
Hector climbed onto a riser. He said hi to a couple on the aisle as we made our way to a trio of chairs. “You want a beer?”
The aroma was tempting, but I shook my head. “What is this?”
So we waited. Music played from speakers near the stage, country-western mostly, with some Jon Bon Jovi mixed in. Rachel looked like she wanted to stuff her fingers in her ears.
The man next to me nudged my arm. “Gonna be a good one tonight.”
I looked at the bars on the cage. “I can’t wait.”
Suddenly the fluorescent went down. Rachel clutched my hand. Above the cage a floodlight flared.
A man walked into the pit. He had long black hair, a thick beard, and a gray T-shirt. “Hi, there, folks!”
The audience cheered.
“That’s Milo.” Hector pointed. “He’s the MC.”
Milo raised his hands. “Yeah, yeah. Well, you know we’ve got a good show for you tonight. First, a preliminary bout. Get ready. You folks in front might want to sit back a little, you know?” Milo laughed.
At the back of the cage, a door opened. Then another one, on the other side. The audience clapped and hooted. I leaned forward, not sure what I was waiting for.
It was nothing I was ready for.
“Holy shit.” Rachel leaned forward. “Is that—”
“Yeah.” A chicken.
It was five feet tall.
A leather hood was mounted over its head, and a sharp metal spike was strapped to its beak. Metal spurs were wrapped around its legs.
The audience roared as the chicken stalked forward, squawking and swinging its black wings, squawking and pounding its clawed feet in the straw piled on the floor inside the cage. A wrangler held a leash attached to a collar around its neck.
Then a second door swung back. Another chicken, almost as large as the first, with red feathers but the same battle armor, lurched into the cage, spinning around over the straw as if looking for the way out. Another leash jerked around its throat.
Giant mutant ninja chickens. I wondered if Dr. Neral would have me committed if I told him about this.
“Let’s get to it!” Milo stepped to the side as the wranglers held the chickens back, jabbing them with electric prods, but letting them get close enough to two giant chickens circled each other in the cage, their feet crunching in the straw. “The red chicken is Achilles! The black chicken is Lucas! Two enter, one will leave to fight again! Place your bets!”
“It’s a cockfight?” Rachel jabbed my ribs. “Don’t snicker.”
I shrugged, helpless. “What can I say? I was hoping for voodoo.”
Audience members raised their hands to place bets. Dulcie from the door and another guy in a loose T-shirt and red suspenders worked the room, taking money and laying down odds.
I really wanted a beer.
Hector reached into his pocket. “Ten on the red one. She looks feisty.”
Dulcie took his money, handed him a slip of paper, and then looked at me. “How about you?”
“Maybe later.” What the hell? I shook my head. “We’re just here for the glamorous spectacle of two giant chickens fighting to the death. Thanks.”
She cocked her head, as if she didn’t speak irony. Then she took a step down to solicit bets from the people in the row in front of us.
Rachel giggled. “Not bad. Jerk.”
Milo rang the bell. “All bets down? All bets down! Let’s do this!”
He stepped around the cage, and the wranglers unhooked their leashes. They jabbed both chickens with electric prods, then ducked back through the doors, pushing them shut and securing them with heavy padlocks.
The creatures turned on each other.
Rachel lurched up. “Okay, I can’t watch this.”
She pushed past my knees and pushed around Hector, and then she was heading up the ramp, her shoulders shaking.
I couldn’t blame her. I looked at Hector. “What does this have to do with Jared?”
“Just wait.” His face was flushed with excitement as he watched the chickens do battle. “Just watch.”
I clenched my fists under my arms and tried to breathe deeply, just like Dr. Neral had told me to do if I had a panic attack. This wasn’t just panic, though. This was real.
These weren’t the kind of chickens you see in commercials, happy and fat. Large as they were, they were thin and sinewy, the combs on their heads and the wattles under their chins sliced off, their legs thin and tight—not fat for drumsticks. At normal size they would have been intimidating, like turkeys in the wild. At this size they looked like monsters from a 1950s sci-fi movie.
Achilles jabbed the spike on its beak down at Lucas’s throat, but the black chicken spun away and lifted a leg to stab Achilles in the thigh.
They circled each other, feinting and stabbing. Achilles was more aggressive, lunging at Lucas with his spike over and over again as the black chicken tried to defend himself. Blood dripped on the straw.
A woman in front of me stood up and screamed. “Kill him! Rip his heart out!”
Lucas got weaker as he lost blood. He backed up against the cage bars, his legs thrashing. He lunged forward, head down, and stabbed Achilles in the neck with his spike. Achilles stumbled back, squawking and flapping his wings, his claws stomping on the straw-covered floor.
Finally Lucas leaned over for a last desperate kick, but Achilles dodged and stabbed his beak spike down into the Lucas’ skinny throat. Blood gushed. A man rose onto his feet and shouted with glee. The woman in front of me kicked over her chair onto my feet.
Lucas fell to the ground, twitching. Achilles kept stabbing him with the spike over and over again until the chicken was still, and dead. Then it jumped away, hopping around in a macabre victory dance as Lucas bled out over the straw.
When Achilles calmed down, two wranglers came in and attached the leash to his collar to lead him away. More wranglers came out, wearing thick gloves to carry Lucas off and then sweep up the blood-drenched straw. The audience cheered.
I leaned close to Hector. “Is this what I think it is?”
He nodded. “Just wait."
I was glad Rachel was outside. But I had to stay.
After fifteen minutes and a fresh layer of straw, when everyone had their beer refilled, Milo returned to the pit.
“All right, let’s get to the main event!” He raised an arm, one door opened, and Achilles came out, squawking and waving his red wings.
The crowd roared again. The woman who’d kicked her chair over waved her arms and screeched.
Milo pointed to the other door. “Achilles, winner of the night’s first bout, takes on his challenger—Kristianne!”
A woman stalked out into the cage. She wore a black vest around her chest, tight shorts that hugged her butt, and high black boots. She had muscular thighs and thick shoulders, and she clutched two long daggers in her hands.
Achilles strained at his leash, the spike on his head darting back and forth. One of the wranglers pulled him back, yanking the leash hard.
Again the bookies started working the room, taking bets and collecting cash.
Dulcie walked up to us. “What do you want? It’s three to five on Achilles.”
Hector pulled out a twenty. “Achilles.” Then he nudged me. “How much?”
Right. They’d get suspicious if I just sat here. “Uh, twenty on Kristianne.”
She handed me a slip of paper. I was glad Rachel wasn’t here.
Milo rang the bell again. “All bets down! All bets down! Get ready! Hang onto your tickets!” He stepped aside.
Troy looked out at the audience, his body tense, his daggers high. “Bring it on!”
One wrangler unhooked the leash from Achilles’ collar. The other one zapped him with an electric prod, and then they both dived back through the door and locked it up again.
Achilles charged forward, thrashing around in panic or pain. Or anger. The spike on his head rose up and down, seeking a target for his rage.
Kristianne stabbed at the chicken’s neck. But Achilles lifted a foot and slashed a spur across her knee.
Kristianne staggered back and lifted a dagger, her leg firm in the straw.
Achilles spun. Kristianne plunged her dagger forward, but she only pierced a wing. Then Achilles lowered his head and rammed the spike into her shoulder.
The spike tore a gash down her arm, drawing blood. The chicken danced away, flapping his wings and squawking. Kristianne spun her daggers, catching her breath.
Men and women were on their feet, pounding their arms like football fans shouting for their favorite players. “Rip her guts out!” That came from a twenty-something woman in tight leather jeans two rows down from me. “Get his spleen! Are you a man or a chicken? Let’s see some blood!”
My stomach lurched. I’d seen enough. I handed my slip to Hector. “Take this. Let me know if she wins.”
“But it’s not over yet!”
“That’s okay.” I stumbled past him as the crowd howled. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I staggered up the ramp. Dulcie shook her head as I veered toward the door. “No refunds.”
“Fine.” I tore the pass off my shirt and tossed it at a trash can. “Nice meeting you. Have a great night.”
I leaned against my Honda outside, fighting the need to vomit on the pavement.
I could call the cops right now. This kind of fight had to be illegal. They could link it to Jared Burroughs’ death. They’d see the giant chickens. They’d have to believe it.
But I’d been a reporter and a P.I. too long to just run out and let other people collect the facts. I had to know what was going on.
For a moment I felt like my old self again. Before the depression, the anxiety, the PTSD. I could do this.
So now what? I couldn’t leave without Rachel. I looked around the dark, empty parking lot. Then I peered into my car.
The burner phone lay on the driver’s seat.
Rachel has a key to the Honda, of course.
I opened the door and pulled my own phone in the armrest compartment. Rachel’s phone was gone, Good.
I sent a text: “?”
Three seconds later she responded: “Behind long building.”
I closed and locked the door as quietly as possible. Then I headed around the metal building attached to the barn.
My back clenched as I bent down. I paused, took a deep breath, and gave in to curiosity and my aching back. Lifting my eyes slowly to peer through a window reinforced with thin wire. A gray-haired man sat at a desk working at a computer in front of a cage. Something moved inside the cage, large and angular, but I couldn’t get a good glimpse.
Ducking down again, I made my way around the building.
I froze. A cigarette glowed in the darkness. Rachel doesn’t smoke, so it had to be someone else. As my eyes adjusted, I saw two figures leaning against the structure. One was Rachel.
They talked in low voices. I heard Rachel laugh.
Finally the guy put his cigarette out and opened a door. He held it, as if inviting Rachel inside.
I stayed put, but Rachel looked around and spotted me and waved an arm. So I walked over.
“This is Jay.” Rachel gestured toward the man. “He’s a technician inside. He said he’d show me around. This is Tom. My boyfriend.”
Jay had blonde hair and a thin goatee. One eye twitched when he heard the word “boyfriend,” but he shook my hand. “I was just telling Rachel what we’re doing in here. Do you want to see?”
I glanced at Rachel. “Sure.”
Two steps up, and the interior smelled like, well, a chicken coop. Not that I’ve spent much time in chicken coops, but this was how I imagined they might smell: feces mixed with straw and ammonia. Fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling down the middle of a row of cages.
Six chickens, ranging in size from three to five feet, lay sleeping on mats of straw with dishes of water in food in the corners of their cages. Metal nameplates identified them, and a sheet of information in a plastic packet hung by the lock to each cage. Each chicken had a leather collar around its neck.
One nameplate read “Kull.” The chicken inside was almost as tall as me, with orange feathers and a sharp beak. The data sheet hanging from the cage might have been in ancient Etruscan. I couldn’t understand anything more than the punctuation marks.
Some of the cages were empty. One held the nameplate “Lucas.” The other belonged to Achilles. I wondered if he’d be coming back.
“How many have you raised?” I looked down the row of cages.
“Ten so far. We have others in incubation.” He pointed to a refrigerator with a glass door. Dozens of eggs sat under a dim yellow light.
“Wow.” Rachel his her repulsion. “How do you . . . do it? Some kind of. . . . genetic engineering?”
Jay nodded. “First the hens get additives in their feed. When they lay, a growth hormone is injected through the eggshell. The needle is really thin. Then the chicks get a different supplement orally after birth—”
“Jay? What the hell is this?” It was the scientist I’d watched through the window stalking toward us. “No one’s supposed to be here!”
“She’s okay, Harvey. They’re—” Jay flicked her eyes at me. “They’re okay. They were just interested. Rachel, and, uh, whoever you are? This is Harvey Duff. He’s a genius.”
Shades of Doctor Murrow. That clinic still haunted my nightmares.
“This is—“ Rachel managed to choke out a word. “Fascinating.”
I leaned forward to shake his hand. “Tom Jurgen. I was watching the fights. Incredible work with those chickens.”
Harvey ignored my hand, and then turned and stalked away. Presumably back to his computer. And maybe to a phone.
I glanced at Rachel. She nodded. “Thanks for showing us around, Jay. We don’t want to get you into any trouble.”
“Right.” He smiled. “No trouble. Nice meeting you both.”
Outside I leaned against the wall, catching my breath. “Nice guy.”
“My spidey-sense was tingling.” Rachel looked at the door. “I think I know him from somewhere, but he didn’t recognize me.”
A roar rose from the barn as we rounded the end of the building. The fight was over. “You flirted with him, didn’t you?”
“He flirted with me.” He bumped her shoulder against me. “I like it when you’re jealous.”
Yeah. “What’d you tell that young handsome guy about being out here?”
“That I couldn’t watch the fighting, but my idiot boyfriend couldn’t take his eyes off it.”
“So, the truth. Good.” I looked in the windows. Duff was indeed on the phone, waving an angry arm around. “Let’s get out of here.”