Richard S. Crawford
Damned dog. Double damned dog.
Vince gripped the leash tight in his fist, the leather wrapped around his fingers several times to keep it from sliding away from him. The damned dog — his wife’s little shih tzu, eight pounds of slobber-nosed fury — kept tugging anyway, straining so hard at times that he would raise himself up on his hind legs, barking at some damned thing or another.
And now it had found a chicken. Porky — that was the damned dog’s name — was glaring at this one chicken with every ounce of hatred that it could summon. Why this chicken, Vince wondered. There were dozens of them about. As always. Damned chickens, all over the place. And more every day.
“Come on, Porky,” Vince muttered, tugging at the damned dog’s leash. He didn’t want to tug too hard, because that might end up tipping it over backwards onto its back. And Vince would never hear the end of that if Maureen happened to hear about it. “It’s just a chicken.”
But Porky wouldn’t be dissuaded. And now that Vince took a closer look at the chicken that Porky was so interested in, he could see that there was something odd about the chicken’s coloration. Its feet were bright red, as was its beak. And, now that Vince looked even closer, it was leaving red footprints on the sidewalk.
For a moment, Vince considered dragging the damned dog away and pretending he hadn’t seen anything. But, then, his curiosity got better. Besides, the bloody chicken was in front of Abigail Worth’s house, and Vince had always felt close to Abigail, even if — as his wife had so often pointed out — he’d never spoken more than a dozen words with the woman.
He went to the front door of Abigail’s little bungalow. He tapped gently, and was surprised to see that it was already slightly ajar. “Abigail?” he called.
There was no answer from within. No human answer, at least. There were clucking noises, but that didn’t puzzle him too much. The damned chickens were everywhere these days.
He called out her name again. There was, of course, no answer. Just the clucking noises.
Beside him, Porky whimpered.
“Hush, you damned dog,” Vince muttered, but not loudly. He looked around the living room; Abigail had always been a neat woman, well made up and proper looking. Even on Saturday mornings she looked like she was off to a business meeting. Vince didn’t know what she did but he had it in mind that she was a real estate agent or some such thing. The way she wore those nice tailored suits with those skirts and those pumps…
He shook his head. This wasn’t the time to think about such things. Besides, Maureen wouldn’t approve.
“Abigail, you here?”
“Cluck,” said a chicken.
Vince caught a whiff of a strange smell. Something birdlike, but also very… coppery. He hesitated. Then took a step into the kitchen. He caught sight of Abigail’s perfect leg lying on the floor. The rest of her was scattered around the small room. What he could see of her was covered with tiny bloody marks, as if someone had attacked her with hundreds of crochet hooks. A pair of hens sat on the kitchen counter, glaring down.
“Aw, hell,” Vince muttered. Now he’d have to find some other neighbor to fantasize about.
Fred leaned over the taped outline of the dead woman on the floor of the kitchen and tapped his front teeth with the tip of his pen. “Just how many pieces was she in?” he asked.
His partner — a small African woman named Binta whose sharp features looked as if they had been carved from ebony — consulted her notebook. “Five. Just like the other three victims.”
“Jesus.” Fred stood upright again and looked around the spacious kitchen. In addition to the blood stains on the floor and the walls, the place was littered with chicken feathers. The house itself had been evacuated of birds, but through the window that looked over the back yard, Fred could still see five or six of them. “And where the hell did all those chickens come from?”
Before Binta could reply, Sheriff Biederman broke in. “Nobody knows. They just started showing up about a month ago. All over town.”
Binta consulted her notebook again. “About the same time as the first murder, right?”
The sheriff raised an eyebrow. “I suppose.”
Fred looked over at Binta, trying to figure out what was going on in her head. She sometimes had a funny way of looking at things. The chickens may have showed up at the same time as the murders started, but it didn’t make sense to him that there would be a connection. They were chickens, after all. Poultry. Harmless, unless you ate them raw. “Well, with a name like Roosterville, you’d expect to find chickens all over the place, I suppose, wouldn’t you?”
The sheriff cleared his throat. “You’d think so, but you’d be wrong.”
“Named after a man called Rooster then?”
“Nope.” The sheriff looked like he was starting to get into his element, discussing the history of the tiny town. “Roosterville was founded in 1887 by Matthew Harris, a chicken farmer. He planned the town to be an agrarian commune, a haven for the artistic and spiritually enlightened who also wanted to raise chickens.”
Fred furrowed his brows. “Chickens? Why chickens?”
“Oh, Harris was a man well ahead of his time. He knew that chicken would one day become a favorite food of Americans, but back then… Well, no one agreed with him.”
Fred nodded and looked back at the chickens in the yard. History was not a topic that interested him much, and he doubted that the chickens could offer any clues into the murder of Abigail Worth.
But Binta had apparently decided to pursue the topic. “So what happened? Obviously it didn’t work out as an agrarian commune.”
“Did for awhile, ’til it went broke.” The sheriff picked his teeth with his fingernail, examined the results. “Then it became just another tiny town in Patwin County. So small we don’t even have our own police force. Which is why you guys are here from San Augustin.”
“So all you’ve got left is your chicken farms, right?” asked Fred.
The sheriff pursed his lips and let out a long breath. “Well, now, there’s the thing. There aren’t any chicken farms left around here.”
“So where are all these chickens coming from?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
Binda looked like she was about to say something more, but Fred decided it was time to get going. Local history was interesting, but not likely to be pertinent to solving the case. “Come on, Okello. Let’s get going.”
Reluctantly, Binda put her notebook away. “Well, thank you for your assistance,” she said.
“You’re welcome. Hope you can figure out what’s going on around here. We got a nice town, hate to see something like this ruin it.”
Fred tapped the case report. “This is, without a doubt, the weirdest case I’ve ever worked. Three people dead from apparent chicken attacks. These things just don’t happen.”
Binta took the case report from Fred and began thumbing through its pages. “It’s weird, all right.”
“Attacks like these aren’t random. There’s something linking all three of the victims. I’m sure of it.” Fred drummed his fingers on the dashboard of the car. “Can you see any pattern to it?”
Fred took the case report back from Binta. He opened it and began scanning the summaries of each of the attacks. “They’re all out of towners,” he observed. “Each of them moved into Roosterville between six and eight months ago.”
“I’m sure that has nothing to do with it.”
“I don’t know. Why would anyone have a grudge against people moving into town?”
“Don’t you think these could just be random chicken attacks, Fred? I say we just close the case and move on. These things happen.”
“Not quite yet. There’s someone I want to run these images past someone I know at San Augustin State. He should be able to give us some insight. Come on.”
Keith Rhoten was a professor of ornithology at San Augustin State University, and had devoted his life to the study of domestic fowl. Some might have said that Professor Rhoten had wasted his life, but he would have argued otherwise.
“Actually, Detective MacMahoney,” he explained to Fred, “the chicken has a very long and fascinating history. “Chickens were probably first domesticated in ancient Greece, but the red jungle fowl from which modern chickens were bred were probably around for millions of years before that.”
Fred stifled a yawn. While Binta had been back at the station hunting down any possible connection between the three victims beyond their having moved recently to Roosterville, he himself had come to the university to visit Professor Rhoten. The professor had been discoursing for at least an hour now about chickens, their breeds, their behaviors, their history as domestic fowl and as food. He had pointed proudly to one of the many bookshelves in his office displaying at least four dozen cookbooks all dealing with the preparation of various chicken dishes. “Chicken was considered a luxury meat until the fifties,” he had explained. And he had been doing this nonstop with barely a breath, and Fred had barely had a chance to get a word in edgewise.
Finally, Professor Rhoten said, “And that is chickens in a nutshell. Naturally there’s plenty more. I offer a three semester series in the domestication of chickens, and you’re welcome to sign up. The University allows non-students to audit any courses at all. Do you have any questions?”
Fred, who had nearly fallen asleep at this point, had forgotten for a moment why he was even here. He shook his head to clear it. “Just one,” he said. “Is there any history of fatal chicken attacks?”
Professor Rhoten blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Are there any cases in history where chickens attacked and killed a human being?”
Professor Rhoten stroked his chin. “No, of course not. Chickens will occasionally attack other animals that intrude on their territory, but the idea of a fatal attack on humans is ludicrous.”
“If I showed you a picture of a chicken peck mark, could you tell the species?”
“Of course,” Rhoten scoffed. “The idea that I wouldn’t be able to… Absurd.”
Fred opened the case file and took out one of the photographs of the victims. He handed it over to Rhoten. “What do you make of these?”
Rhoten scrutinized the photograph. “Well, now, this is peculiar.”
“Well, the beak shape is highly reminiscent of the black Orpington, a very popular breed in the United Kingdom. Usually a very docile breed, even by chicken standards. But look here.” He pointed at one of the bite marks. “See that there?”
Fred shook his head. “It’s a chicken bite.”
“Yes, but do you see these serrations along the edges?”
Fred peered but couldn’t tell if anything he was looking at was unusual. He was not familiar with chicken bites, after all. “Sure,” he said, to keep the conversation going.
“Well, it’s almost as though these chickens had teeth.”
“A chicken with teeth? Even I know chickens don’t have teeth.”
“Well, of course they don’t. However…” Rhoten’s voice drifted off.
“Yes?” Fred prompted.
“Well, there was an experiment done in 2006 in England. Some biologists managed to turn on the talpid2 gene in chicken embryos. This caused the embryos to grow vestigial teeth. Much like the prehistoric ancestors of modern chickens.”
“Oh! So there could be a breed of chicken with teeth.”
Rhoten scoffed. “Well, the talpid2 gene is lethal. None of the embryos survived to hatch. Someone would have to activate the gene while simultaneously deactivating its lethal effects. Which, if you know anything about chicken genetics, is impossible.”
Fred nodded, as if he knew what Rhoten was talking about. He took the photograph back from Rhoten. “Well, thank you. You’ve been very useful.” He stood up to go.
“You’re welcome. I’m very happy I was able to help out. And if you ever have any other cases that require an expert in domestic fowl, please don’t hesitate to call.”
Fred nodded. “I certainly will.” He slipped out of Rhoten’s office and closed the door before the professor could follow up. Then he took his cell phone out of his pocket and called Binta.
“I think I’ve found something,” Binta said.
“Same here. You first. What did you find?”
“All three victims were involved in a covert real estate deal. There’s a plan to expand Roosterville, to transform it into a bedroom community for San Augustin.”
“Hm. Well, that could only help the community. It’s got nothing going for it except its historical novelty.”
“So what did you find?”
Fred explained, briefly, what Rhoten had told him. “I think,” he finished, “that we may be looking for a rogue chicken geneticist.”
Fred and Binta drove along County Road 31 on the outskirts of Roosterville. The Sheriff had been wrong, or had flat out lied to them; there was one chicken farm in Roosterville. A simple Google search had shown that Harris Farm, a very small chicken farm which produced only a few select breeds from the United Kingdom and which was apparently the very same farm that had been started by Matthew Harris back in 1887, lay just within the town limits. Fred was not surprised that he hadn’t heard of it before. The owners did not actually sell the chickens or offer them to the community for any purposes whatsoever. The family that owned the farm operated it purely as a refuge for endangered breeds of chicken and as a tourist attraction. They were only open four hours a week, though, and had apparently been slowly going bankrupt for close to twenty years.
When they arrived at the farm, Fred noticed that the Sheriff’s car was already parked in the dirt driveway in front. Chickens wandered around the land, in small clumps. Each mini-flock was headed up by a large rooster, followed by at least half a dozen hens. Fred was reminded of rocks stars being followed around by groupies.
“The Sheriff’s already here,” Binta said. “Do you think he knows what’s going on?”
“I think that’s obvious,” Fred replied. “Come on, let’s see what’s going on.”
Fred and Binta approached the front door of the main building, a rundown shack with an uneven roof and stained walls. Fred knocked on the door.
A woman in a white bloodstained lab jacket opened the door. She looked Fred up and down and smirked. “Well, I suppose I’ve been expecting you.”
Fred was taken aback. “Who are you?”
The woman stepped aside. “Come on in, Detective MacMahoney, and I’ll explain everything to you.”
Fred hesitated. He didn’t like this. But then he felt a prodding in his back. He recognized the feeling. He’d been threatened with guns like this before.
“You’d better do as she says,” Binta said from behind him. “There’s still time to turn this around.”
Behind the woman in the doorway, Fred could see the Sheriff. He was grinning. Fred realized he’d walked right into this. He raised his hands to shoulder level and stepped through the door.
“We didn’t want it to come to this,” the Sheriff said. “But you made it inevitable.”
“What’s going on here, Okello?” Fred asked Binta. “How are you involved?”
“We’re only protecting our own interests,” the woman in the lab coat said. “Roosterville has history and culture. We can’t allow it to be threatened.”
“Threatened?” Fred said. “The town’s going bankrupt. There won’t be anything left here within ten years.”
“We would have figured out something,” the Sheriff said. “But we had to frighten people away. We couldn’t let the conspiracy to gain a foothold here.”
“So you bred mutant chickens to kill for you?” Fred asked.
“They’re fascinating animals,” the woman in the lab coat said. “They have a very distinct social hierarchy, very different from normal chickens. Wherever the toothed roosters go, the hens follow.”
“See?” said Binda. “That explains why there were chickens all over the town. The roosters were given free reign over the town. The hens followed.”
“Furthermore,” said the geneticist, “these chickens are very intelligent, and naturally very aggressive.”
“So you just tell them who to attack, and they attack?” asked Fred.
“Pretty much. They’re a mutant breed. Based on the work in England I was able to breed an aggressive toothed species.”
“Did you ever stop to think that a petition drive would be more appropriate?”
The Sheriff sneered. “Please. With Roosterville’s population of three hundred there’s no way we could gather the sympathy of the county seat. We had no choice but to take matters into our own hands.”
Fred looked at the conspirators. They were all, clearly, insane. Even Binda, who had been so reliable for the entire two months that they had worked together. Even Binda was going to be a problem. If he could figure out a way to get out of this situation.
“Hey! What’s going on in here?” The new voice had come from the doorway.
Behind him, Fred could sense that Binda had been distracted by the new voice, because the pressure from the gun pressed into his back had lessened. Fred took advantage of the opportunity and ducked and spun around, knocking the gun out of Binda’s hand.
“Hey!” Binda cried out.
The Sheriff grabbed at his own gun, but Fred had his out first. “Nobody move!” he ordered as he bent down to grab Binta’s gun.
“Detective MacMahoney?” the newcomer asked.
Fred turned and saw it was Professor Rhoten from the University. “Doctor Rhoten? What are you doing here?”
“Are you kidding? If someone was applying the British genetic research to modern Orpington species, I just had to check it out. This was the only place nearby I could think of where that kind of research might be happening. Did I interrupt something?”
Fred grinned and leveled the gun at the three conspirators. He took his radio from his Sam Brown belt and radioed for backup. All in all, this was probably the weirdest case he’d ever had to work on.
He could only hope he would never have to deal with another case involving murderous livestock ever again. And, somehow, he knew that he would.