THE CHICKEN RESCUE LEAGUE
Chapter One only.
Copyright 2004, all rights reserved by Rob Preece. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events
portrayed in this novel are either fictitious or used fictiously.
This is the first chapter only. You may buy the entire book for only $3.99 by clicking the Buy Now button below (Available in HTML, Adobe Acrobat PDF, eReader/Palm Reader, Mobipocket, ePub, Sony Reader LRF, and Microsoft Reader formats). Processed by PayPal for your security.
Sam Katz leaned closer to me, his deep blue eyes gazing soulfully into mine.
My heart gave a little jump. We'd only started the relationship a couple of months before when Sam had moved into the trailer park I manage, but things had gone pretty fast--hence me lolling naked in his bed.
"Oh, Tina." He ran one large hand down my waist.
I giggled despite the romantic moment. He tickled.
"I wish you could stay," he continued in that same deep romantic voice.
What was that about? I hadn't been hoping for nonsense about deep and eternal commitments. But I definitely hadn't expected to get kicked out of his bed.
"Emily will be up any minute."
Emily was his four-year old daughter and Sam had exclusive custody. None of the guys I'd dated before had been dads, and I guess my ignorance showed because Emily'd had taken one look at me when they'd first moved in, announced to her father that I was a jerk, and since then, had done her best to make my life miserable.
It wasn't that she was comparing me to a perfect mother and I was coming up short. The kid just didn't like me.
But I could live with that. Sam was the real problem.
I thought about slugging Sam, but realized he was just being male. He couldn't help it that I got all romancey when he used that deep soulful tone in his voice.
"How about you come back over around ten tonight," Sam suggested as I pulled on last night's outfit and got ready to slink back to my trailer.
A rooster crow cut off my answer, giving me a chance to catch my breath and not gush something. I didn't want Sam to take me for granted. After all the bad relationships I'd been in, I wanted this one to work.
"Damn chickens," I said instead.
"It does seem strange," he admitted. "You'd think that wild chickens would keep quiet rather than risk getting caught and eaten."
I shook my head. Sam's story was that he'd been a telephone switch installer until the telecom meltdown had eliminated his job. I wasn't so sure I believed him anymore though. About that or a lot of the things he'd told me. He just didn't seem to know the facts of life that anyone with a blue-collar background in Dallas would know. People in the south keep chickens for laying or fighting. I hadn't seen any fresh eggs lately.
I yanked my t-shirt over my head, stuffed my bra in my pocket, and turned to face him.
He looked so cute with his hard-muscled chest and his black hair and blue eyes that I decided not to worry about it. So what if he had a few secrets. Who didn't? I kissed him on the cheek and ran my hand down that perfect chest. "I'll try to make it over tonight, honey."
His gorgeous smile was quite a reward. He had about five miles of straight, bright white teeth.
"And don't forget rent is due tomorrow," I added.
I heard movement outside his door and gritted my teeth. This seemed to happen every morning. Emily would wake up and head to her father's room to check on him. And Tina Anderson, trailer park manager and girlfriend would have to sneak out Sam's bedroom window. Again.
The trailer park I manage is in the Oak Cliff district of Dallas-where they put the poor people and minorities and the trailer parks that just aren't suitable in areas where rich people might actually have to confront how much of the population who does the dirty work lives. You'd think that smack in the middle of a city the size of Dallas would mean high-rise buildings and fancy city parks, but that isn't the way Dallas works. Instead we butt up against a little stream that's thick with poison oak and bois d'arc trees. On the other side is the Trinity River floodplain.
The area around the trailer park might be urban, but there was plenty of space for anyone to hide a million chickens down there. It was a health risk, and the idea of fighting cocks grossed me out. If anyone in my park was responsible, I intended to put a stop to it.
I chased one fluffy white chicken for a while, but it didn't seem interested in heading back to wherever its crate might be. So I tried to home in on the sound of rooster crowing.
"You're out early, Tina."
I turned and faced Patrick Adams.
His trailer is pretty much like the rest of the trailers in my park-beat-up and fading. One difference is that he never opens his blinds. As far as I can tell, he sits at home all day with his blinds drawn and looks at dirty pictures on the Internet. Lack of sunlight and Patrick's diet of Twinkies and Ho-Ho's gives him the appearance of a snowman, pale and softly round.
"Hi Patrick. Rent's due tomorrow."
Patrick was one of my few tenants who paid their rent on time. As endearing features went, this one came high. They don't pay, I don't eat.
"Big night last night, Tina?"
"Uh, no. I'm trying to figure out who's keeping the chickens."
"Oh. So that's why you're wearing the same shirt you had on last night." He paused a beat. "You know, Tina, we could make a few bucks if you'd let me take your picture. I mean, you don't have the greatest body in the world, but lots of guys go for the natural look. And there are whole sites devoted to trailer park trash. You'd fit right in."
"How about I just fit into the people who don't do that kind of thing, Patrick."
He looked hurt. "I thought it might help with your financial problems, Tina. All you have to do is say no."
As if I hadn't been telling him no ever since I'd taken this job. "Is that all I have to do? Well, listen carefully. Hell No. How about that."
He held up a pudgy hand. "No problem, Tina. Like I said, I'm trying to help you. I'd be the first guy to understand what happens when the money runs low."
This was the first I'd heard that my financial problems were the talk of the park. You wouldn't think the telecom shutdowns that had happened up in snobby north Dallas would affect real working people down in south Dallas. But crap flows downhill and I'd lost tenants and was having trouble getting rent from a lot of the others. That and my income from my custom programming projects had largely dried up as people started deciding that they didn't really need new software in tough economic times.
"Don't call me, I'll call you. And by the way, do you know anything about all these chickens?"
"Why ask me?" he demanded.
When Patrick doesn't give you an answer, you can bet he's hiding something. "Because you spend a lot of time peeking through that gap in your Venetian blinds," I reminded him.
Patrick thought about that for a few long seconds. "There's been a lot of cockfighting out south," he admitted. "Get some good cocks and you can make some money." He grinned. "Course, being a woman, you can probably get cock any time-"
I held up a hand. "Don't want to hear it, Patrick. But you think somebody is raising fighting cocks here?"
I had to look away. His gesture sent slow waves of jiggle around his body like a stadium crowd doing the wave.
"Tell you what, Patrick. If you learn anything, let me know."
If the city learned that the Shady Rest Trailer Park actually allowed tenants to raise roosters for illegal cockfighting, they'd shut us down in a minute. For some reason, cities don't treat trailer parks, or the people who live in them, like citizens. We're more like squatters they'd like to get rid of but need at least a hint of an excuse. As excuses went, fighting cocks would be a dandy.
"How about a deal?" Patrick suggested. He was slightly breathless from standing for so long and I caught the strong odor of marshmallow in the wheezes.
"No pictures," I insisted. I'm working-class, and more than one person, starting with my ex-mother-in-law, has told me what a slut I am. But I have my limits. And being jerk-off bait for a few million horny Patrick Adams's of the world crossed those limits in a big way.
He shrugged again. "Those chicken-fighting guys can be rough and you'll be needing all the help you can get. Tell you what, though. I'll give you something for free. Be careful about Sam Katz."
I'd used Patrick's shrug as an excuse to turn away, but that slam on Sam whirled me back around like a punch to the head. "What are you talking about?"
Patrick giggled and took a step toward me. "A guy shows up driving an almost new Winnebago that had to cost fifty thousand. And he's got some story about having sole custody of his daughter. And nowhere on the Internet is there a Sam Katz that is anything close to a match for our artificially handsome tenant. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it, Tina? Checked the back of any milk cartons lately?"
I hadn't noticed that Patrick was getting closer as he talked until he made a quick grab and yanked my bra out of my pocket where I'd stuffed it.
"I had you down for the old fashioned white padded numbers." Patrick sounded disappointed.
"Give me that." I snatched it back and shoved it into my pocket. This bra was going into the washer for a long soak before I even thought about wearing it again.
I'd wasted enough time with Patrick that I didn't feel like chicken hunting any more. Besides, what he'd said about Sam left a strange taste in my mouth. I'm not the world's greatest judge of the male of the species. I can get buffaloed by a cute tush or a good line. But Sam had seemed too good to be true and I hadn't wanted to question it.
I'd switched over to a DSL connection a few months before--telling myself that it was essential if I was going to be serious about my custom programming business and about the shareware game programming I enjoyed. It only took me a few seconds to run a quick backgrounder on Sam Katz.
There are probably two thousand Sam Katz's listed on the Internet. But Patrick was right. None of them was a thirty-three year old unemployed telecom technician with midnight black hair. More to the point, none of them had recently been divorced and been granted sole custody of their four-year-old daughter.
My Sam Katz was a phony.
When I'd been in high school and got into this kind of trouble, I would run to Andy Anderson. Andy was my mentor in high school. He was the guy who helped me fit in with the cool people when everyone else seemed impossibly rich and I had a choice of exactly two t-shirts to wear with my one pair of jeans.
Andy was the one I'd commiserated my botched tattoo with--and the one who'd taken my cherry. But I'd run to him too often and eventually we'd gotten married. Marriage hadn't been a good idea. Andy traveled with the rich set and liked it. I never felt comfortable there, and his mother's antipathy certainly didn't help. Eventually it dawned on me that we were hurting each other. We did a lot better as friends than as spouses.
Andy had taken the software business we'd started and gone on to become one of the first dot-com millionaires in Dallas. Unlike many others, he'd actually found a way to make money from what he did, and had cashed out early enough that he was able to keep most of what he'd earned.
Now Andy moved in circles so high they gave me airsickness. I'd gotten out of the marriage before I'd strangled. Still, Andy was my go-to guy.
I told myself that I should handle this on my own. Andy was getting on with his life and didn't need me running to him with my little problems.
I told myself that as I dialed, and kept telling myself when I heard his deep voice coming over the other end of my cell. "What's up, Tina?"
"Oh, is it you Andy?"
"You called me, remember?"
"Uh, yeah." I headed for my kitchen and rescued a carton of ice cream from my freezer. Nothing like marble fudge ripple to give your confidence a boost.
"Are you okay?" he demanded.
"I sort of might have a problem." I felt about as articulate as I sounded. I'm normally a bigmouth, but when it came to talking to my ex-husband, I sometimes froze more solid than the block of ice cream I dragged out of the freezer.
He didn't sigh. Thank God for that, at least.
"Listen. I've got a meeting in ten minutes and I don't want to cancel if I don't have to," he told me. "Is it an emergency? Or how about we get together to talk about it? Lunch at Norma's?"
"Lunch is good," I told him. "Noon?"
"Noon works for me. See you then."
I stared at the suddenly dead phone, then at the spoon in my hand. Well, the ice cream was ready and it was hours before noon.
I demolished most of the carton of ice cream and changed my clothes three times, finally deciding on a ratty pair of jeans and a logo t-shirt I'd gotten when I did booth duty for Andy back when I'd been employee number three in Anderson Software. It wasn't my best look, but I didn't want to look desperate or like I was trying to seduce him. He was my friend, that was all. Sam, not Andy, was my boyfriend. But then again, Sam was the one who just might be a kidnapper.
My Geo Storm wheezed up the hill that gave Oak Cliff its name, a trail of blue smoke following. The Storm and I had worked out a deal. I gave it a quart of oil every week and it didn't complain too much about the other things it wanted. A buck's worth of oil was a lot cheaper than the valve job it really needed.
Andy was just pulling up when I got there. He'd gotten a new car since I'd seen him last--a cute little Mercedes convertible that probably kept the debutante set wet between their legs.
Twist my arm and I'd admit that I lusted after it a little too.
"Hey, doll," he called out.
We went through the motions of air kissing, but Andy's arm around my waist felt pretty good as we walked into Norma's, a Dallas institution of fat grams and serious comfort food.
Pam, the owner, was working the cash register and came over to say hello and bring us our iced tea and a big basket of corn bread and rolls.
In Texas, iced tea is served sweetened, with enough sugar to make your teeth ache, and Norma's tea is even sweeter than the usual Texas mash. Yumm.
I swallowed a long drink of my tea, grabbed the biggest corn bread muffin from the basket before Andy could snag it, and started chewing.
"Want to tell me about it?" Andy asked. "Or did you just need a free lunch?"
I had a flash of genius. I could put off talking about Sam for at least a few minutes if I ran some of the smaller stuff by him first. Since Andy owns the Shady Rest Trailer Park, he's technically my boss and is technically responsible for meeting code. "Have you heard about the chickens?" I was trying to sound innocent and helpful.
He glared at me. I guess I'd run the innocent-and-helpful routine by him a few too many times. "You called me up with a problem and now you want to talk about poultry?"
"Patrick Adams says somebody is raising fighting cocks in the park. I've heard a lot of crowing for several days now. This morning I spotted a hen wandering around loose."
"Patrick?" Andy was trying not to smile. "He's the pervert, right?"
I rolled my eyes. "Not the pervert, a pervert. We have several."
People don't end up in trailer parks on purpose. They sort of drift there. And perverts drift downhill. So I had my share of peeping Toms, problem drinkers, and men who went to family reunions hoping to get hitched. Mixed among them, though, were some of the nicest people I'd ever met. One thing for sure, not one of them was as cold as Andy's mother could be.
"Cockfighting is illegal in Texas," Andy told me. "If I remember right, it might be legal in parts of Oklahoma. I've also heard that there's a lot of illegal cockfighting in parts of Texas. Including in south Dallas. So, it's possible that Patrick is right. It's also possible that someone wants fresh eggs."
He didn't believe that any more than I did, though. You didn't need roosters for eggs. And what I'd heard had definitely been roosters crowing. It was vaguely possible that someone would keep roosters to fertilize the eggs, but not enough to explain the noise. Someone was raising fighting birds.
"I don't want cockfighting birds in my complex," I told him.
"Call pest control," Andy offered.
"Maybe." It wasn't a bad idea, but I didn't want to spend money if I didn't have to. Since he was the owner, it would be his money and I think I was even more careful with that than I was with my own. "I've got a few things to try myself, first."
Andy looked serious. "There's a lot of money tied up in illegal cockfighting. Don't be the Lone Ranger here, Tina. Let's get professional help."
So much for my thinking I'd start with the easy stuff. Now I had two major worries rather than just one.
A waitress came, refilled our tea, and took our orders. Andy got a salad. I ordered the chicken fried steak dinner. I'd already blown my diet when I'd pigged out on fudge ripple so I figured I might as well enjoy my fall from grace.
Andy waited until the waitress went away, then took my hand across the table. "Are you going to tell me what's really going on, or are you just going to sit there and waffle the entire meal away?"
I took a deep breath and plunged in, telling him about Emily who might or might not be a kidnap victim, about Patrick saying that Sam was too perfect, and about what I'd found, or not found, on the Internet.
"No law against using a false name," Andy said. "But it does sound suspicious."
"I did everything I know how on the Internet," I told him. I reached into my purse and pulled out my copy of Sam's rent application. It included a social security number I was pretty sure was fake and a former address that was definitely fiction. Given the clientele I normally get, neither of those minor falsifications was unusual. Of course, normally I don't date the tenants.
Andy jotted down the information, then took the picture I'd had taken when Sam, Emily, and I went to the Weatherford Peach Festival. "I'll have someone look into it."
I nodded. Andy's company does a lot of secure computing work, so his human resources team crunches through background checks in volume. If anyone could get to the bottom of the mystery, it was Andy.
I stuck my fork at an almost polished plate. Now that I'd gotten my problem off my chest, I was ready to eat. Except somehow, while Andy and I had been talking, I'd inhaled my food without noticing. It wasn't fair and I wasn't satisfied.
I looked into my purse and saw that I had three dollars. "Uh, Andy."
He saw my worried look. "My treat."
"In that case, can I have dessert?"
Norma's has some of the best meringue pies anywhere and the chocolate and peanut butter meringue is a masterpiece. I thought about ordering two, one to take home, but decided that would be pushing it.
"I'll order it for you on my way out. I've got to get back to work." Andy stood and grabbed the bill from the table where Pam had dropped it, leaving a five for a tip. "I'll call you tonight and let you know what I find out."
He nodded, then bent next to me, brushed his lips against my cheek, and headed out.
I watched him leave.
Andy isn't a hard-body the way Sam is and stays clear of the weights. Still, he goes for long runs most mornings while he thinks about what he wants to do with his company and how he's going to make his next million dollars. His lean body looked damned good. I felt myself getting excited again. Maybe Andy's mother was right and I really was a slut.
Pam caught me watching and dropped into Andy's seat, sliding the pie in front of me. "You two thinking about getting back together?"
"Hey, Pam. Uh-un. He's all yours if you want to give him a shot."
Pam laughed. "I don't think my husband would go for that. You know you were crazy to walk away from him. He's rich, good looking, and he thinks the world turns around you. My opinion is, you couldn't ask for much more from a man if you had to write the ingredient list."
I hadn't asked her, but she was right. The problem wasn't love. I couldn't imagine not being able to call on Andy for help no matter what happened in our lives. The problem wasn't even Andy's mother--although she did her best to make herself one. The problem was that we lived in different worlds, dreamed different dreams.
Unfortunately, I hadn't done any better on the man front since I'd moved on. Certainly Sam and I had no mass of shared interests.
I realized that Pam was waiting for me to answer, so I tried to get my thoughts together in a way where they'd at least sound logical, even if they weren't. "The problem is," I told her, "he's like a big brother to me. We've shared so much of our lives that there isn't any mystery left. I know he'd do anything to help me, to protect me. But it can be suffocating sometimes."
Pam narrowed her eyes. Don't tell me he's stalking you."
The mental picture of Andy using his Palm Pilot to schedule stalking moments was too much. I burst out laughing. "He tries to squeeze in a quick stalk on the third Saturday of each month," I giggled.
"Guess you're right. He's the most on-the-go man I've ever met." She paused a beat. "Hey, want another piece of pie?"
I sucked up my will power and turned it down. Will power comes a little easier after you've had most of a half gallon of ice cream, a chicken fried steak, a serving of mashed potatoes with gravy, a serving of kernel corn dripping in butter, and a big helping of fried squash. And a piece of pie.
I didn't think I'd need to eat again for a week. Which was lucky because my refrigerator was empty and I wouldn't get my next paycheck until then. Unlike with Andy, going out with Sam is usually Dutch treat. Which meant we wouldn't be going out any time soon.
I spent the rest of the afternoon working on the Java code for a game I'd been designing for cell phones. The computer game industry had gotten so specialized and so sophisticated that just about every mainstream game takes a huge team of professionals. Any more, it was only the specialty niches where a single programmer can put something together and make a few bucks. At least I hoped I could make a few bucks. The cell phone industry was right down the tubes with the rest of high tech so I wasn't that confident. Still, programming was what I do.
I keep my trailer dark in the summer because my window air conditioning unit has a hard enough time keeping up with the Texas sun and all the heat thrown off by my computers. So I was surprised when I looked at my watch and saw that it was after ten.
My game was coming along pretty well and I was pretty sure that if I pulled an all-nighter, I could wrap things up. On the other hand, I'd promised Sam that I'd stop by. I felt enough like a traitor having Andy investigate him without dumping him at the same time.
Besides, I only had Patrick's word that there was a problem. And Patrick's word wasn't worth much.
I'd put on a halter top and a pair of shorts that barely keep me legal when I'd gotten home from lunch. In my trailer, I'm lucky if the air conditioner just falls behind. I'd done enough sweating back when I'd been a kid and my father would drag the entire family out to pick cotton at the end of the summer.
I thought about putting on a bra, but Sam was a pretty typical guy and liked to see the boobs jiggling. I don't have that much going on in front, but I decided to give him what he wanted. Except when he was in a hurry to get rid of me when Emily was around, Sam was one hell of a lover.
It was dark outside. I'd thought about hitting Andy up for the money to put some lights up through the complex, but most of the tenants liked it dark. Oddly enough, we'd never had any problems with muggings in my complex. Maybe because potential muggers were afraid they'd run into someone tougher than they were.
I'd walked the couple of hundred feet between my trailer and Sam's about fifty times since we'd started dating so I didn't think I needed any light. Until I felt something give under my foot.
I probably would have been all right if it hadn't screamed.
I panicked, tried to twist away from whatever I'd stepped on, and fell flat on my face.
A rooster screeched at me again, pecked once at my bleeding hand, and scooted off in a movement halfway between flying and running.
It took me a few seconds before I could catch my breath and check that I hadn't broken anything. One thing for sure, that was it as far as the chickens went. No more computer programming, no more ice cream orgies until I found where they were hiding and got rid of them. Either they left, or I'd eat them.
The lights were off in Sam's trailer. For a moment, I thought he'd given up on me. Then I saw the flicker of a television reflected through the curtains of Sam's bedroom window.
He was waiting up for me. I felt a little gooey inside. With some of the losers I've dated since Andy and I split up, I would never know whether they would be waiting, or worse, waiting with another woman looking to get into some three-way action. But Sam wasn't that kind of guy. He seemed satisfied with just me-and I liked it that way.
I almost knocked, then smacked myself in the forehead. If I woke Emily up, my chances of getting lucky were close to zero.
I opened the unlocked door and stepped in.
When he watches television after he puts Emily to bed, Sam uses his earphones. So the silence didn't bother me. But something did. I'm not sure whether it was smell, or some psychic sense, but no amount of Texas heat could keep the goose bumps down on my arms.
I managed not to call out his name. Again, fear of waking Emily kept me from doing anything completely insane.
I stepped into his bedroom and stopped.
Sam lay on his bed, propped up on his pillows like a king on a throne as the television flickered through some news show.
The sheets, which had been white that morning when I left, were a rusty red color. Sam's pale face looked even paler in the reflected glow of the television tube. Paler, because he'd lost so much blood. Red lines gouged deep into his throat showed how he'd been killed.
Papers, books from his bookshelf, and other remains of a detailed search lay scattered everywhere.
I couldn't help screaming.
Sam didn't react to my scream. I stood there, caught between the urge to do something and the urge to flee and pretend that I'd never been here, that Sam was nothing to me but another tenant.
The faint buzzing of a fly persuaded me to move.
I reached to try to stop the bleeding, to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or something. But his head flopped slackly to the side.
Sam, my boyfriend of the past three months, lay dead on his bed, his body already cooling to air conditioner level.
I screamed again.
I hope you have enjoyed Chapter One to THE CHICKEN RESCUE LEAGUE by Amy Eastlake.
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