NaNoWriMo2022 – Crime Doesn’t Spay

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Chapter 1

by Marian Exall, 2767 words

COVID hit the Animal Farm No-Kill Shelter hard at first. Donations dried up; volunteers stayed home. For a while there was even talk of abandoning the no-kill policy. Then, everyone wanted a lockdown companion: the dogs, the cats, even the parakeets flew out of the place. When the regular fundraising events had to be cancelled, the nominal adoption fees kept the wolf from the door for a while. Post-COVID opened it wide again. This time the flow was in the opposite direction. As remote workers went back to the office and children returned to school, the cute puppy peed on the rug, the cat got fleas, and even the sweet little guinea pig lost its charm. Noah only had to deal with animals two by two; pets turned up back at Animal Farm in droves every day.

Charitable contributions failed to keep pace with the influx. During the long months at home, previous donors had put their money into outdoor kitchens or in-house saunas— creature comforts rather than creatures. Volunteers found other interests: Wordle and marathon Zoom sessions with distant relatives in New Zealand. The shelter was in trouble.

Tom Lyons was a recent recruit to Animal Farm’s dwindling volunteer ranks. He showed no interest in animal care, but his offer to help with the bookkeeping had been gratefully received. Tomaso Leone was born in Queens, New York, a few years after and two blocks over from a certain former U.S. president. Their careers had taken different trajectories. Tomaso ran a successful food wholesale business, supplying the many mom-and-pop Italian restaurants throughout the five boroughs. Several of these restaurants were patronized or even owned by mob royalty. Through these connections, Tomaso expanded his ventures into logistics and finance, or, as law enforcement agencies labeled them, trafficking and money laundering. When the Big Apple became too hot, Tomaso disappeared to the Pacific Northwest, changing his name, but, like a tiger, unable to change his stripes.

“I think we need a professional fundraiser,” he declared to the group of diehard volunteers gathered to review his report. They were assembled in the cramped office space inadequately partitioned off from the cat house. His presentation was punctuated by occasional feline screechfests, and had to be abandoned until the kitties calmed down.

“Hire a fundraiser? We can’t afford that!” Phil Pike exclaimed. He was a little resentful of the way Lyons had assumed the lead in the discussion. On the basis of a course in animal husbandry begun but not completed at the local technical college, Phil thought he was the natural person to take charge of the failing shelter. Phil was in his forties, never married, and his rental agreement precluded four-footed animals in the apartment. He owned a goldfish.

“No, we don’t need to hire anyone,” Tom explained. “There’s a cadre of contractors who do fundraising on a commission basis. They take a percentage of the total raised. My daughter is doing this work in New York. Should I ask her for a recommendation?” Tom smiled deferentially at Phil, who shrugged.

“It can’t hurt to ask,” Audrey Merino murmured, shaking her wooly white head. “I’m too old to shoulder all the donkey work required around here. We need help.” Seventy-year-old Audrey shared her life with a white standard poodle named Camilla who looked uncannily like her owner.

Lynn Bassett also nodded her agreement. Short and stocky, Lynn lived with two Great Danes and a three-legged cat. Relationships with people were more difficult. Nevertheless, with dogged determination, she had called every erstwhile volunteer in an attempt to solicit donations. Result: two hundred and thirty-one dollars—fifty from her own bank account.

“Maybe Delia can find some time in her schedule to help us out,” Tom suggested. “She’s coming to see me next weekend. I’ll explore it with her then.”

***

Delia Leone had grown up wanting for nothing. When she was still a baby, Tomaso had moved the family to Connecticut, but continued to spend the working week in a studio apartment over the Queens warehouse. His wife played tennis, engaged in occasional flings with younger men, and spent Tomaso’s money. Delia went to a private school where she excelled in every subject to the point where school bored her.

When she was sixteen and old enough to travel into New York by herself, she started dropping in at the Queens warehouse. It was there, behind the flagons of extra virgin olive oil and boxes of canned San Marzano tomatoes, that she began to smell a rat: she tripped over a suitcase packed with tightly wrapped bundles of $100 bills. Her father equivocated for a while before admitting he was “placing” the money for a friend in a midtown Manhattan construction project. To Delia, this sounded a lot more interesting than AP Algebra. Before long she had weaseled her way into Tomaso’s confidence, and, after she started her studies at NYU, she became a part-time mule, using her student persona to slip unnoticed into Staten Island diners and Hoboken hairdressers with a backpack that might have contained books, but didn’t.

The times they were a-changing, however. The old mafia bosses were dead, dispersed or doing time in Attica. The Russians had taken over, and they didn’t care for Tomaso. He planned his escape carefully, acquiring identification papers in a new name, and opening bank accounts in several far-flung cities. Based on the significant deposits made, these banks were happy to issue credit cards to Tom Lyons. After loading a hold-all full of cash into a used Mustang with New Hampshire plates—“Live Free or Die”—he headed west, shedding his former identity as he went. At an REI in Pittsburgh, he purchased a Patagonia down jacket and Danner boots, some all-weather hiking pants and a flannel shirt. A donation bin outside a homeless shelter received his Joseph Aboud suit and hand-made Italian loafers. At a motel near Indianapolis, the first night on the road, he shaved his silver pompadour to a grizzled half-inch buzz. By the time he reached as far west as he could go without falling into water, and as far north without crossing a border, his beard was growing in nicely and his face had taken on a weathered look from driving with the window open. He rented a nondescript apartment in a dreary town, and settled in to assess the business landscape.

The wife in Connecticut was well provided for—she wouldn’t miss him—but he had tried to persuade Delia to come with him.

“No, Daddy, I love New York and I want to finish my degree. The Russians won’t come after me, I’m sure.”

He at least persuaded her to move apartments and change her name. She chose Woolf in honor of her favorite writer. She planned to major in English.

Then came COVID. Classes went online and friends scattered to their parents’ houses upstate. The City That Never Sleeps became a Dead Man Walking. She was bored and lonely. With nothing to do but study, she completed all degree requirements in record time. Even when restrictions eased, she found herself dissatisfied. She missed the life of crime. When her father called her on the burner phone used exclusively for communication between them, she was primed.

“Honey, I’ve found the perfect location. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel—we can’t fail, but I need you to make the scheme work.” Tom wouldn’t divulge the details over the phone. It didn’t matter; Delia was hooked.

***

Bull McKee celebrated his first day of freedom by getting a tattoo. He had already checked in with his probation officer and dropped off a bag at the halfway house that was supposed to be his home for the next six months.

He showed a photo to the ink artist. “Will I have room for her name underneath?” he asked.

The artist surveyed Bull’s well-developed bicep, her head aslant. “I should think so; depends how many letters.”

“Cherry,” Bull replied, warm feelings rushing through him. “I surely do miss her”

An hour later, he examined the image reproduced on his upper arm: the head of a German Shepherd, tongue lolling, “Cherry” in gothic lettering curved underneath. Happy to part with most of his “gate money”—the allowance given to released prisoners—he set off to reclaim his beloved companion.

The fleabag apartment on the edge of town appeared more dilapidated than when he had left it two years before. He hammered on the door, hoping someone was home. Eventually, the door opened a crack.

“Hi, Cindy, howya been?” He was impatient to see his dog, but aware he should not antagonize his old girlfriend: she had a hard edge.

The door opened wider to reveal a beefy bare-chested man in jeans, standing close behind Cindy. Bull wasn’t surprised. Two years was a long time to stay faithful. Cindy had visited often at first, then less frequently, then not at all.

“I just came by to pick up Cherry,” he said with a grin at the new guy.

“She’s not here,” muttered Cindy.

“Whadja mean?” His fists bunched, but he reminded himself that violence was what got him incarcerated in the first place. Breathe, like the anger management teacher taught him; just breathe.

“Yeah, well, that organic kibble cost an arm and a leg. Then the landlord started complaining, and Jason here’s allergic, so I took her to the pound.”

“What?” Bull wanted to scream. “When? Where? Jesus, Cindy, why didn’t you tell me? How could you take her to the pound?”

“Keep your hair on—it’s a no-kill shelter. She’s probably still there. Who’d adopt a monster like that?”

Deep breathing wasn’t working. Bull practiced the serenity mask: smooth your facial features from top to bottom, close your eyes, then open them wide. The effect on Cindy and her new man was instantaneous.

“Look, we don’t want any trouble,” Jason stuttered. “Cherry’s at the Animal Farm Shelter out in the county. We can give you directions.”

“Give me the keys,” Bull intoned, his voice rich and deep from diaphragm inhalations.

“Wha?” Cindy was really nervous now.

“The keys to the truck I left with you,” he responded.

They couldn’t rush to find the keys fast enough. After Cindy pointed to where the truck was parked, Bull exited like a bat out of hell.

***

The noise was deafening. Whenever Delia Woolf (née Leone) parked her car outside the shelter, she was assailed by the sound of a pack of hungry hounds barking for their breakfast. When an organization is staffed by volunteers, there is no enforcement mechanism for punctuality. “We’ll dock your pay” doesn’t work; neither does “You’re fired!” So the shelter supporter charged with dispensing chow this week might turn up at nine, nine-thirty, or not at all.

As she let herself into the office, the cats joined in. The higher pitch of their complaints grated on Delia’s ears like nails on a chalkboard. She could feel the muscles in her neck tighten, the precursor of the headache that would arrive long before the morning volunteer and last until the afternoon feed. She put on noise-cancelling headphones and began her daily ritual of cleaning the surface of her desk and chair with Clorox wipes. No matter that she kept the office door firmly closed, each new day seemed to bring dander and drool into her workspace. In spite of her chosen name, Delia Woolf did not like animals. She wasn’t allergic; she wasn’t phobic from a traumatic childhood dog attack; she just didn’t like them. Why in God’s name had she agreed to work at Animal Farm? A question she asked herself repeatedly. She knew the answer, but didn’t want to revisit it.

Her father’s scheme had sounded fireproof. It was a sophisticated variant of the traditional money-laundering dodge: plow dirty money into a legitimate business and bring it out as untainted “profits.” Here, clean money would be “donated” to a friendly non-profit organization, earning the donor a healthy tax deduction. Then, a portion of the money would be quietly returned to the donor, with the charity—or its managers—pocketing the rest as their “commission.”

“Zero risk,” claimed Tom. “And more or less legal.”

Tom’s job was to schmooze with the billionaires who hated paying taxes. Delia’s job was to do the accounting and make the books look authentic.

“You’ve taken creative writing courses,” cajoled Tom. “This should be easy for you.”

True, it wasn’t challenging, but Delia missed New York. She was more “Sex in the City” than “Schitt’s Creek.” By early afternoon, she was scrolling through TikTok on her phone, bored to tears, when someone knocked on the office door. She considered ignoring it; probably one of the volunteers bringing wet dog smells into the room along with some question she couldn’t answer. But she needed distraction. “Come in.”

The man silhouetted in the doorway was tall and slim, with broad shoulders. He was clean shaven, his fair hair tied back in a ponytail. About thirty, Delia thought. And fit.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I’m looking for a dog.”

Delia smiled and stood up, glad she had worn her figure-flattering turtle-neck top and leopard print leggings today. “Then you’ve come to the right place. We have lots of wonderful dogs just looking for the right man—owner,” she corrected herself. “Let me show you.”

“I’m looking for one particular dog. A German Shepherd. Her name is Cherry. A friend dropped her off here by mistake while I was…out of town. My name’s Bull, by the way, Bull McKee. Well, William really—Bill, but they call me Bull.”

I can see why, Delia thought. Overcoming her distaste for the smell, Delia gave Bull a tour of the kennels. Or at least attempted to: she had only a vague idea of the shelter layout.

“Can I help you find something, miss?” In the gloom of the ramshackle barn that housed the dogs, Delia hadn’t noticed a kid dispensing water to bowls fixed onto each cage’s gate.

Tim Bird came to the shelter every day. Although, at fifteen, not old enough to be an official volunteer, he had been a regular helper since the pandemic started. Remote school hadn’t worked for him. The double-wide where he lived with his mom didn’t get broadband reception, so even with the laptop the school district provided he could only join classes if he hoofed it two miles to the public library parking lot. On the way, he passed the collection of buildings that housed Animal Farm. Soon, the shelter became his destination. When in-person school resumed, he had fallen way behind and the move to high school seemed a leap too far. No one noticed he’d dropped out, not even his mom. At first, the other volunteers questioned his youth. Tim’s small stature precluded him lying about his age. “It’s practical experience as part of a high school class,” he improvised.

Appreciating Tim’s work ethic and skill with animals, the others grew to accept him—except Phil Pike, suspicious of anyone who threatened his self-appointed role as the big fish in this small pond. Audrey grandmothered him and brought him home-baked cookies. Lynn enjoyed discussing her Great Danes with him.

Delia, who avoid the animal quarters, had never even met Tim before. Bull answered Tim’s question for her. “Cherry. She’s a German Shepherd—”

“Oh, yes! What a great dog! She’s over here.” Tim led the way through the maze of cages.

The reunion between man and beast was emotional, and Delia felt moved in spite of herself. Tim stood back, torn between relief that Cherry had found her owner, and sadness at losing one of his favorites.

“She had some bad tartar when she came in, but I’ve been cleaning her teeth every other day, and she’s in good shape now.”

Gagging at the thought of putting a hand inside the mutt’s mouth, Delia took hold of Bull’s arm. “Let’s go take care of the formalities.” She had no idea what paperwork was needed to release a dog, but she wanted to detach Bull from this doggy dental hero before they became absorbed in a prolonged discussion of Cherry’s care. 

In the parking lot, Bull shuffled his feet. “Thing is, Delia, I don’t have any money to pay the recovery fees,” he explained. They were on first name terms now; she’d seen him crying after all.

“I’m sure we can work out some kind of arrangement,” Delia assured him. “Come on back to my office and let me take down your personal details.”

Things are looking up, she thought. Every dog has its day.

Chapter 2

by Linda Lambert, 1764 words

In 1918, a forward-thinking farmer of ordinary means, ordered a “Modern Home” from a Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogue. The pre-cut kit cost $874 and arrived by rail for on-site construction and included everything from soup to nuts, or rather from bolts to lumber. As advertised, the structure was a handsome, cross-gabled, two-story building with a porch and a parlor, an attic and four bedrooms into which the farmer and his wife managed to sandwich themselves and their six sons, ages seven to twenty-one. But first, the farmer, a prudent, earnest and wise man, pressed his none-too happy lads, into labor dedicated to bringing the house into existence. They worked alongside their mother and father, swinging hammers and climbing ladders until the house looked like the ad. They continued to erect new buildings as personal needs increased and the farm expanded—a bathroom, livestock barn, supply shed, space for machinery, and eventually a small bunkhouse/guesthouse. In time, the sons appreciated adding carpentry to their agricultural skills, equipping some of them to leave and some to stay.

The youngest son stayed, the last to live on the property. He hung two plaques inside the entrance to the house. One came from a book he had read to his nephews and nieces:

“Do you see, Pooh?  Do you see, Piglet?
Brains first and then Hard Work.
Look at it! That’s the way to build a house.”
 —A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

He had found the other quote on a scrap of paper in his father’s desk:

“He who loves an old house never loves in vain.”—Isabel Fiske Conant

He lived on the family land, along with a menagerie of animals—not quite two of each species, like Noah, but a varied assortment of felines and canines he treated with kindness, adjusting the facility to meet their needs—a two-story cat condo, expanded kennels for the dogs.  His reputation for taking in strays made his address, despite its location in the foothills, a drop-off target. He refused to transfer animals to the shelter in town. Word on the street indicated that the queen bee who ran the local shelter was a snake in the grass who did not acknowledge killing 56 per cent of the dogs and 71 per cent of the cats who resided on the grounds. 

In the mid-eighties, an estimated 17 million animals a year in U.S. shelters were being euthanized. “Euthanize” means “good death.” Were those all good deaths? The youngest son began to write checks to charitable organizations which didn’t euthanize animals.

In 1984 “Best Friends,” self-described as a “scrappy group of friends from far corners of the globe” organized themselves and settled in Utah’s high desert and established a no-kill sanctuary for animals. The idea spread across the country.

Predeceased by his wife and without children, before his death at age 94, the youngest son willed the house and all outbuildings to a new “Best Friends” copycat group in town: the Animal Farm No-Kill Shelter (AFN-KS). The “shelter” in their name was more the embodiment of hope than reality: AFN-KS’s original physical facility consisted of a tiny backyard with makeshift cubicles and feeding stations and a VW van as an office. Now they had acreage and a number of buildings.

***

Eighteen years later, staff love for the old house, despite many improvements and happy days, had waned. If the youngest son had been alive, he might have hung another sign: “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.”—George Orwell, Animal Farm. Lack of funding propelled AFN-KS administrators to fly the coup, and the quartet of volunteers, Phil, Audrey, Lynn, and Tom wrangled for leadership.

At one meeting when Phil said, “Going after money is just a wild moose chase,” none of them knew whether his malapropism was a mistake or meant to be funny. The next day Tom, puffing out his chest, confided in Audrey: “He converses with his goldfish, for God’s sakes, so he probably doesn’t know any better. He always talks like that—’Grin like a Cheshire bat,’ and ‘cute as a tug’ or ‘a little turd’ told me.  He’s a fish out of water, and he’s flogging a dead horse if he thinks he can lead this group.”

Audrey smiled and changed the subject. Her peacekeeping tendencies kept her from disagreeing.

“But, how bout Tim? Did you notice what good care he took care of that German Shepherd? Did you hear him tell that guy Bull about the Bark BrightTM he’d used to freshen Cherry’s breath? He taste-tested it himself! And even showed him how to wrap a wet cloth over a finger and scrub each tooth. What a kid!”

Tom shrugged, tossing his buzzed head as if he still had a mane of wild dark hair. His mind was on money. Leopards can’t change their spots, but never underestimate the intimidating shake of a lion’s mane.

***

Bull filled out Delia’s paperwork quickly, worried that she’d recognize his address as a half-way house, but, hell, he was who he was and why would she care anyway? Maybe she did care. She offered to cut the $100 fee in half and delay payment for 30 days.

Cherry sat at Bull’s feet, quiet but alert, as if she remembered the training Bull had given her two years prior. As a kid, Bull loved Rin Tin Tin, and when he learned that a German Shepherd guided a blind hiker along the entire Appalachian Trail, he knew a Shepard was the breed was for him.

Cherry did not disappoint.

Most puppies took eight to twelve weeks to train. Cherry was on the early side of everything: basic commands at eight weeks, house and crate trained by 10 weeks. Biting, barking and chewing was mostly eliminated, but jumping, well, that was harder.

Bull pushed the papers across the desk to Delia. “Okay, I think that’s it. I’ll be back in a month with the payment.”

At that moment, Cherry leapt up, stretching out all of her 80 pounds—sticking her nose up Bull’s sleeve, sniffing and sniffing, exposing the large, detailed tat on Bull’s biceps and the bright pink letters spelling “Cherry.”

“What the…?!” From deep memory Delia dredged up a flicker of trivia: her “namesake” liked dogs. Why hadn’t she remembered that? Virginia Woolf had two dogs— a mutt named Grizzle and a purebred black spaniel named Pinka, a gift from Vita Sackville-West, her lover. Woolf even wrote a biography of a dog, Flush, about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel.

Against all reason, words rushed forth, throwing a monkey off her back, “I have a confession. I don’t like dogs…or any animals…but maybe I could learn tolerance if I spent time around them. And, I’ve been wanting a tattoo because my father hates them!”

“I’ll pick you up tomorrow, we’ll take Cherry to the dog park, and then I’ll introduce you to M.T. She has a really good lookin’ rose tattoo. See you then.”

Delia sat at her desk, pondering what kind of tattoo she wanted. What would increase Bull’s interest in her? Annoy her dad? Indicate her own identity? A quill? A lighthouse? She wished she had a bee in her literary bonnet, but nothing was buzzing.

She was glad the weather had changed—no longer raining cats and dogs. She didn’t want to think about animals, except to look up where that phrase came from. She pulled her text book on cliches off the shelf. One explanation was not pretty:

In North European myth, cats supposedly influence weather and dogs symbolize wind…currently the most likely [source], that with the primitive draining systems in the seventeenth century, a heavy rainstorm would cause gutters to overflow with a torrent of debris that included garbage sewage and dead animals.

I hope the shelter’s gutters are clean, she thought and moved her thoughts to Bull’s departure, a fit, muscular man with man’s best friend trotting behind him.

***

The ink artist at Tattoo Confidential enjoyed keeping her name secret. If clients asked what the M.T. on her badge stood for, she was evasive: “Nothing. Just M.T. My parents liked brevity.”

She, a brand-new licensee, had gotten the idea of abbreviated anonymity from the school where she learned tattooing. Most courses took one to five years, but “M.T.” didn’t have the time or 10K for most schools; the 16-week course at the Northwest Tattoo Academy was perfect. The academy’s website had the look of a noir detective story from the thirties and dangled a promise: “You will receive hands-on instruction as you work with Master Tattooist with over 10 years’ experience.” Who was Master Tatooist? she wondered.

M.T. never did find out. The classes were taught by a rotating band of all-male instructors in identical black pants and t-shirts. Still, she left with the promised free “Professional Tattoo” on her forearm, (the perk that prompted her to attend, a well-drawn rose demonstrating her own artistic ability, her years of dabbling in art), a Blood Borne Pathogens Certification (BBC), and a card listing contact information for the state licensing department.

She was hired right away by a big city dermatologist, Carson Fox, who, stripped of his scrubs and hospital privileges because he neglected to keep his scalpels and reputation clean, had relocated north, and opened up Tattoos Confidential to capitalize on the burgeoning desire for self-expression amongst the young. He’d anticipated his target market: Millennials through Zs—but really any generation—wanting obligatory signage and emblems of independence on the blank canvases of their bodies. Oh, and the ink addicts who chose everything from fighter jets to someone else’s genetic code. Yes, that was a thing!

But: his main goal was to get back to dermabrasion. The market was vast. Rich women terrified of fine wrinkles around their mouths. Young professionals who could afford to remove acne scars. Floridians who’d moved to the Northwest to avoid more sun-damaged skin. Old men with conspicuous red, swollen noses. Occasional feel-good activities—removing potentially precancerous skin patches.

Others, unhappy with tattoos indicating previous lifestyles or the names of ex-lovers or spouses, would be ready for the motorized device that spun away outer layers of skin.

My career here will be long, he thought. For the present, he needed someone with artistic skill, a sense of confidentiality, someone who would grow along with him. Someone attractive. Blond, trim, and efficient, an eager but not obnoxious beaver.

Fox thought the presence of a female tattoo artist would look welcoming, someone who wouldn’t nose around in his personal life. He’d hired M.T.

Little did he know.

Chapter 3

by Frances Howard-Snyder, 1776 words

“Here. Buy yourself a pair of shoes,” Polly Bird, AKA Pretty Polly, told her son.

Tim took the twenty-dollar bill with the tips of his fingers. Somehow the money felt dirtier than the plaque-caked molars of a German Shepherd he’d cleaned by hand that afternoon.

Polly was small like him, with slim legs and “perky” boobs. (“Perky” was what the grandpas at the casino where she worked called them. Tim used the word only inside scare quotes.) She wore short shirts and tight, low-cut, glittery tops and worked at the casino. She sometimes brought men home, usually when Tim was out of the double-wide and some of them left money on the nightstand.

He’d been born when she was just a little older than he was now, his birth being the best and worst thing that ever happened to her—which was quite a burden for a kid.

Tim needed the money though. He didn’t have a paying job, in spite of working his ass off at the shelter, but he had needs. Not the sort of needs other teenagers had: for candy or cigarettes or concert tickets. He needed a pair of bolt cutters and a rental truck. Those things didn’t come cheap.

If you asked about his life—and not many people did—the first thing to mention was that he loved animals—non-human animals, as his guru, Peter Singer would call them. Ever since Tim had been a tiny child, he’d been moved by the suffering of baby birds, spiders, squirrels in winter, stories of puppies being threatened with murder by cruel women or dogs and cats travelling long distances to return to their owners. Animals (he often dropped the “non-human” bit) were so much more vulnerable than humans, just like children were more vulnerable than adults. He himself had been kicked out of the double-wide to play in the snow while a big, bearded fellow cavorted with his mom; like a puppy might be abandoned if it couldn’t help peeing on the carpet or chewing slippers.

So, the Animal Farm Non-Kill shelter was a perfect fit for Tim. Here he could care for dogs and cats, rats and guinea pigs, feeding them, grooming them, exercising them, sometimes just sitting stroking their silky ears, an act that brought comfort to both animal and boy.

He’d dropped out of school, at least temporarily, but he was no dummy. Ninety seven percent of school bored him. He didn’t want to read poems about daffodils or draw parallel lines. Sometimes biology was interesting but usually it wasn’t.

Instead, he read books in the school library and later in the town library. His favorite book—one he’d snuck out of the library so he could read it at home without having to return it—was Animal Liberation. Published in 1975 and reprinted in 2009, the book by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, detailed atrocities against animals in farming, the cosmetic industry, and medical experiments.

Tim paged through the photographs of chickens crushed into cages with beaks and claws amputated, of sows crowded so tightly they couldn’t move, or boiled-alive pigs, and felt the tears run down his cheeks. He had to end this suffering. And if he couldn’t stop it all, he had to stop as much as he could. If each of us did our part, he thought, we could make a difference.

He refused the hamburgers his mom brought home from the casino, saying he’d eat the fries and drink the milkshake instead, but she pointed out that the fries were made with pig fat and the milkshake was made with milk and ice-cream which came from dairy farms that killed male calves and enslaved cows. It wasn’t easy being a vegan in the double-wide, but Tim did his best. Most lunches were a bowl of spaghetti and tomato sauce and a banana.

Sometimes he worried about the cans of meat he fed the dogs and cats at the shelter. But they were carnivores. They couldn’t very well eat soy burgers and even if they could, he couldn’t afford them.

Tim watched the people around him, at his school, at the shelter, in the town, watched how they treated animals and judged them for it. The worst of them were the Cluckers brothers who owned a large poultry farm on the outskirts of town. The town employed many of the town’s citizens, occupied fifty acres, and smelled as bad as you might imagine. They sold eggs and chickens and chicken pieces. Talking to one of the workers, a schoolfriend’s older brother, Robin Koch, at a party in the friend’s basement, he’d learned about the factory’s practices. Pretty much what he’d read about in Singer’s book. They marketed their chickens as “free range” but that meant that a thin trickle of natural light came into the factory from a skylight and a door was left open in case the chickens wanted to wander outside; producers and stores and even most consumers understood this trick, Robin said with a laugh.

Tim said this was plain mean, and Robin called him a naïve little kid, and said he’d figure it out when he got a little older.

When Tim grew angry and started tearing up, Robin had slapped him on the back and said, “Sorry, Buddy, but I gotta eat. And the chickens wouldn’t exist if we didn’t eat them. Think about that.”

Ashamed of his tears, Tim left the basement stumbling out of the marijuana fog trying not to hear the catcalls behind him. Outside he thought about what Robin had said and of all the cool responses he could make—next time this argument came up.

Cluckers’ factory and others like it were the concentration camps of the twenty first century. They had to be liberated. This was what Tim had been born for, he realized as he lay on his thin mattress watching the sky through his curtainless window, waiting for the sound of his mother fumbling with her keys at the front door.

“Don’t end up like me” she often told him. “Don’t dip your wick where it don’t belong.” She was right. He had more important things to do right now than making another human to add to the huge dung heap of humanity that was crushing the world.

She meant that she wished he’d never been born, which was kinda hard to swallow. But if he did something big, if he improved the lives of thousands of creatures, perhaps his life would have been worth all the sacrifices she made.

The plan was simple. Drive a large rental truck to the factory at night when no-one was there except the old night watchman, somehow distract this fellow, use the bolt cutters to cut the lock on the factory’s front door, open up the cages, let the birds go free, and take all the eggs and the tiny chicks and the adult birds that couldn’t fly because of the amputations and carry them away in the truck and take them—well, somewhere safe. He needed to figure out exactly where safe would be. He also needed someone to drive the truck because he didn’t have a license or any prospects of getting one any time soon.

Who would this accomplice be? Not Robin obviously. He would consider the plan a threat to his own livelihood, selfish bastard.

Not his mother. She would eat a plate of chicken wings in front of him, chewing the last strands of flesh off the bones and smacking her lips. And she liked to steer clear of trouble that had no monetary payoff. She would have no time for poultry liberation.

Maybe somebody at the No Kill shelter. They were supposed to be animal lovers like Tim. He ran through the options. Phil didn’t like him, maybe because he was jealous of Tim’s easy rapport with the animals. Audrey Merino was kind-hearted but too old for a big crime caper. She couldn’t run if she needed to and her arthritis would make it hard for her to do the jail time if they were caught. But Delia Woolf! She was tough and smart, competent. She’d probably be the best choice. And Tim liked the thought of riding beside her Bonnie and Clyde style. She had the toughness and the competence, but would she care enough about the animals?

He thought of the way she’d pulled away when a half-grown golden retriever tried to lick her face and the way she chloroxed her desk and chair every morning. She was no animal lover.

He’d have to find some way to persuade her to use her skills to serve his ends.

He stared at his face in the tiny bathroom mirror. Still no hair to shave. But one of the advantages of being 5’2″ and one hundred pounds, and pale and inconspicuously dressed in dark jeans and t-shirt and beanie, was that he often went unnoticed. Adults said things in front of him they wouldn’t say in front of more interesting people. He could learn things just by sitting very still and listening. On Friday, he sat himself down on the floor next to Delia’s desk, reading another library book, Making a Killing, about animals and the evils of capitalism. He wasn’t exactly eavesdropping but as he listened, her phone calls became less and less inhibited. He heard her talking to a girlfriend about how boring the Pacific Northwest was after New York. A little later he heard her talking to a man, saying the sort of flirty, suggestive things about tongues and shoes that he’d overheard his mom say to men, things that made him so uncomfortable he even considered making his presence known by knocking over a lamp, but then she put the phone down and called her dad, Tom Lyon. “If you wire me $50,000, we can maybe say that we’re investing it in building a large animal shelter. But I don’t know. This place hasn’t had much cash flow in the last five years. A sudden influx of that sort of dough might look suspicious—”

The speaker on the other end cut her off. Tim heard a male voice talking fast but couldn’t make out the words.

“Yeah, yeah, maybe I could make that work,” she continued, snapping her gum. “Listen.. how about I hire this new guy Bull to do the construction. He has a lot of muscle and not a ton of brains. I think he’s done time so we could work things out with him…”

Tim bit his lip and shook his fist in triumph. Delia would have to work with him now.

Chapter 4

by Lorinda Boyer, 1352 words

Bull lay sprawled across the community room couch in the halfway house, Cherry’s head rested in his lap. He had the television on but hadn’t bothered to turn up the sound. He was tired, bone tired. He had a million things he needed to do: look for a job, find a more permanent place to live, get some wheels. But retrieving Cherry had been at the very top of his list, so he felt justified in taking a break.

Bull snickered at Jerry Seinfeld’s waving hands and Elaine’s raised eyebrows; he didn’t need to know what they were saying to find the humor. Cherry snorted in her sleep, snuggled deeper into Bull and he closed his eyes. The warmth of his dog’s body, the steady rhythm of her heartbeat, began to lull him to sleep. He let his body melt into the couch cushions and was nearly out when he felt his left butt cheek vibrate. His eyes popped open, and he reached his hand into his pants pocket, pulled out the pay-as-you-go phone his probation officer had given him. He didn’t know how anyone other than his officer could have his number. He hadn’t given it to anyone. He hadn’t had time. The only place he’d been was the Animal Farm No-Kill shelter. Oh, that was it; he’d written down his number on the forms he’d filled out to get Cherry back.

Bull flipped open the phone, drew in a breath.

“Hello, Bull here.” He exhaled slowly as Delia’s voice filled his ear.

“Why hello, handsome.” She paused long enough to make him uncomfortable. “How are you getting along with your girl, Cherry?”

“Uh, fine.” Bull snickered more out of nervousness than amusement.  

“Good, good,” Delia cooed. “So hey, I don’t know what you have going on, but I was wondering if you’d be interested in doing some light construction for the shelter?” She punctuated her question with a snap of her gum. Did she mean for money? Because he needed money, he needed a job, and the sooner the better. He had worked construction when he was a teenager, he was sure he could still swing a hammer. He felt a renewed wave of energy pulse through his veins. Depending on how much they paid, he could move out of this hell hole after six months into an actual respectable joint and maybe even shop for a cheap car.

“Ya, sure, I can. When?” He sat up, Cherry yawned but remained otherwise unmoved. Delia smacked her gum.

“Can you come in tomorrow morning, say eight a.m.? We can discuss the details then.”

Bull smiled, nodded, realized he hadn’t replied.

“Yes!” he answered enthusiastically. He closed his phone and pumped his fist in the air. Not bad! Barely out of the slammer and already employed. Almost. This called for a celebration. He felt like a pizza, except he didn’t have money for a pizza. Maybe if he’d spent a little less on his tattoo. He flexed his bicep, watched as Cherry’s likeness gazed back at him. He chucked the live Cherry gently under the chin. “You’re worth it,” he assured her. “You’re my best girl after all.” She licked his hand. Without money to order out, he’d have to rifle through the few groceries he’d purchased and stuffed in his corner of the kitchen cabinet. 

Peanut butter, saltine crackers, a can of chicken noodle soup—not exactly pizza, but it would have to do. Cherry nudged his hand with her wet nose. She would be happy to indulge in some peanut butter, this he knew for sure.

“Okay, girl.” He unscrewed the jar of Jif and moved it under her nose. She drooled, but luckily not into the peanut butter. He grabbed a spoon from the drawer and scooped a gooey heap out of the jar.

***

Delia hung up the phone. That had been much easier than she’d anticipated. She took a swig from her coffee cup. Of course, it contained vodka, she hadn’t used a coffee cup for coffee since before college. She leaned back in her chair, lifted her feet, and swung around. The face of that scrawny kid who cleaned the animal cages blurred past her. She put her feet down and turned back to where he sat.

“What in the heck are you doing?” she snipped.

Tim pulled his book closer to his face, pretending not to hear.

“Hey, you, I’m talking to you!” Delia pulled Tim’s book back and then let it go, it bopped him in the nose. He dropped the book, covered his nose with his hand.

“Ouch!” He glared back at her. “I’m just reading.” He picked his book back up and crawled to his feet. Delia put her hands on his shoulders and gave him a shove toward the office door.

“Go do it somewhere else,” she commanded. She liked kids about as much as she liked dogs, which was very little. She didn’t want to be tied down, bothered with the mundane chore of looking after someone else. She much preferred taking care of herself and only herself. She had grown accustomed to the finer things in life, and she was less than thrilled to be stuck here in the rainy Pacific Northwest with nothing to do. Where was she to shop, to drink, to party? There was no way she would be caught dead hanging out in one of those local breweries drinking that brown, cloudy crap they called beer. Most of the places were practically outdoors, like half-built sheds with heat lamps and a few canvas coverings. And if this weren’t bad enough, these hick night clubs often had local musical group playing, too. Banjos and harmonicas and the like. And as for shopping, please. As if rummaging through rack after rack of worn-out lumberjack clothing in one of the million local thrift stores could even be considered shopping. Gross. No, she’d more than had her fill of this place and the sooner she could get out the better. Securing Bull to do the building was one step closer to getting the job done for her father and getting herself back to New York, where she belonged. Delia picked up her coffee mug, it was empty. She felt sleepy. Maybe she should make some coffee. She opened her office door, practically knocked Tim to the ground.

“Geezus!” Her mug slipped out of her hand, fell to the floor and shattered. Tim dropped to his knees and began to pull the pieces into a pile.

“What is wrong with you?” Delia yelled. “Why can’t you go do something or better yet, leave. Go home!” She shoved him out of the way and grabbed a broom from the corner.

Tim straightened up, brushed his pants off with his palms. “I…I…” He stuttered.

“You have something to say?” Delia was becoming even more agitated.

“Yes,” said Tim. He better get it out now. Better just tell her what he knew before he lost all his nerve. This was his one chance to make a real change. To do some real good for the animals and he couldn’t let mean old Delia through him off. He may never get this kind of a chance again and though he hated to admit it, he really did need her help.

“Spit it out kid.” Delia dropped the broken mug pieces into the garbage can. She stood up with her hands on her hips and glared right into Tim’s eyes. He rubbed his hands together, rocked back and forth on his feet.

“I, uh, heard you.” His face was burning, his palms were sweating, he was pretty sure he was going to pass out.

“You heard what?” Delia’s heart beat a little faster in her chest. She felt her eyebrow twitch. What had this little punk heard and what was it to her? She took a step forward and he took a step back.

“You better tell me you little creep before I toss you out on your sorry little pipsqueak ass.” Tim backed up another step, swallowed hard. This was for the animals.

Chapter 5

by Amory Peck, 1715 words

Delia had been a powerhouse in New York City. She easily juggled college classes, her work as a fundraiser, and her single-woman-in-the-city lifestyle. Though her evenings often went well into the morning hours, she was always ready to take on the new day. Her habitual coffee shop, Big Apple Eats, was used to seeing her soon after they opened, dropping by for her customary flat white and avocado toast to-go. Those were the invigorating years.

Ever since she’d agreed to join her dad in this god-forsaken location, though, her energy and drive had oozed away, melting in the dismal, damp, grayness of her new surroundings. Keeping the books in an animal shelter—unbelievable! Delia felt a flicker of interest whenever she thought about her dad’s big plans, but the day-to-day tedium, accompanied by intolerable yaps, barks, and screeches from the animal residents and the on-going blather of her inane workmates was wearing her down.

This morning, though, was different. At 7:45 a.m., way earlier than anyone else would arrive, Delia slid her key into the office door and started her inspection. She’d been awake all night, churning the events of the previous evening over and over.  What did I miss? Does anything look out of place? I checked a dozen times—but a thirteenth go-over would have been good.

Everything was in order, of course. Precise, efficient Delia hadn’t missed a detail. However, there was one thing she hadn’t considered. As Delia settled herself in to begin the day’s work earlier than usual, the noise level around her began to build. It began in the cat house—the animal area closest to her desk. As the felines’ caterwauling grew in intensity, the dogs joined in from their pens. Good God! That cacophony is intolerable. What do those wretched creatures want?

Delia pretty quickly figured out the answer to her question. Of course, the key in the lock was a signal to the animals that a human was about. That Tim was about, ready to feed them, water them, exercise and play with them—whatever it was that started off the day for the animal residents.

Well, Tim wasn’t about to appear, that was for sure. Delia knew that no one else would arrive for at least an hour. Delia didn’t concern herself with the animals’ discomfort; she did wonder if she’d be able to even hear herself think.  And. In particular, she didn’t want the volunteer staff to walk into too much chaos. That would start up the Tim questions too quickly.

So, averting her eyes and holding her breath (a troublesome combination when trying to complete unfamiliar tasks) she headed to the dogs’ area, found a hose, and stuck that hose into each cage to fill up the water bowls. She scooped a scoop-full of dog food into each empty food bowl. There were several different varieties of dog food to choose from, but really…what difference would that make to the dogs? She closed her eyes and held her nose in reaction to the dog poop in the pens—that was a line she just would not cross.

From the dogs’ pens she moved to the cat house. Seeing no real reason to change, she continued scooping from the same dog food bag.  Really—would it matter, just this one time?

By 9:00 a.m., before any of the volunteers arrived, the animals were temporarily placated, and Delia was settled in at her desk, working her books, just as she did every morning.

***

Phil Pike was the next to arrive that morning. Now that Tom Lyons was spending less and less time at Animal Farm, Phil was again trying to assert himself as the most likely leader of the group. After all, had any of the others even started an animal husbandry course? Phil was a bit put out. Arriving just a bit after 9:00, he assumed he’d be the first in that morning. Well, first after Tim, but a high school student hardly counts in the “who should be director” conversation. Whatever was Delia doing here so early? As Phil entered, Delia looked absolutely riveted on the books in front of her. He started up the coffee pot, checked his inbox, and hung around the communal office space, putting off starting the day for a few more minutes. He deliberately ignored the already busy Delia in her corner space.

Lynn was the next to walk in, arriving by 9:15. It seemed that everyone was intent on getting started on their tasks at Animal Farm. Lynn, who was tuned in to all dogs, not just her two Great Danes, sensed unrest among the doggie guests, even though she couldn’t see the dogs from the office area. She could also smell their accumulated poo. Something was definitely amiss.

Last, but not especially late, Audrey swept through the door. Completely oblivious to Delia’s concentration on her tasks, she commanded, “Come! Come! Let’s gather around Delia’s desk. I’ve been thinking all night, and I want to share my ideas with you.”

Phil, carrying his delusion of leadership, was put off by the directive. But he was more curious than offended, so everyone grabbed a chair and attempted to assemble in the very small area known as “Delia’s office.”

Delia, never wanting much interaction with the others at Animal Farm, and certainly not on this day of all days, had no choice but to be grudgingly gracious about the bodily intrusion. She chose to ignore Lynn’s “Do you all smell that nasty smell?” query.

“So, what’s up?” Phil inquired, figuring he should, at least, grab some measure of control of the impromptu meeting.

“We can do it; we really can do it!” Audrey replied. “I thought about our financial needs all evening and about Tom’s suggestion we hire someone to help with fundraising. Even if that person worked for just a percentage of what was raised, we’d have to share with him or her. But we can do it. All on our own. For an investment of just twenty-seven dollars. I kept remembering my nephew Dougie saying over and over, ‘You can find whatever you need on the web. The answers are all right there, you just have to look.’ So, I did. I typed in ‘How to raise money for animal shelters,’ and this popped up.”

She continued. “There’s this man on the internet who says he can guarantee a successful fundraising campaign, even if you’ve never done one before. Guaranteed! All you have to do is buy his twenty-seven dollar download and you’ll have all the strategies and answers and plans—well, everything needed to get started. Surely, we can afford twenty-seven dollars. Why, if each one of us four donated just six dollars and seventy-five cents, we’d have it covered. I move we each donate six dollars and seventy-five cents right now. Do I have a second?”

The Animal Farm staff rarely had meetings and they certainly never followed anything remotely like Robert’s Rules of Order, so a second was slow in coming. Finally, mostly to break the confused silence, Phil, desperate to show leadership potential, said, “I second the motion.” Within moments, without further discussion, the staff had committed to a fund raiser and each had pitched in six dollars and seventy-five cents. There was some confusion about making change, breaking a ten dollar bill, etc., but it all sorted itself out and the Animal Farm gang had committed to spending twenty-seven dollars—since success was guaranteed, of course.

Lynn jumped into the conversation. “I know what we could do next.”

Phil, disgruntled that he’d failed to commandeer the discussion yet again, mumbled. “Yeah, what?”

“There’s this technique you can use called ‘Popcorn.’ We tried it at our last 4-H planning meeting. It worked pretty well. The idea is to generate lots of ideas. We can sort them out later. So, just let your ideas ‘pop’ out as they come to you. Maybe with a one sentence or so explanation. Phil, could you write the ideas down for us?”

Phil, too chagrined about being asked to be secretary, didn’t have the energy to say “no.” Just going along seemed easier.

Lynn started them off with an enthusiastic: “Okay now, ideas.”

“How about a Dog and Car Wash? Everyone’s car needs washing, and people would be delighted to have their dog cleaned up as well.”

“A Pet Picture day. We could get Sammie the photographer to take the shots for us, cheap I bet.”

“Yappy Hour! Tom’s Tavern out on Old 99 would be glad to host, I bet.”

“A Pet Talent Show. Everyone thinks their dog or cat has some special trick.”

“A Pet Calendar. One with the dogs from here. Maybe with one of us. Maybe with us nude,” That got snickers aplenty.

“Run a ‘Barkery,’ selling homemade dog treats.”

Even Delia entered in, suggesting a fashion show, hopeful that would bring a bit of New York sophistication to the area.

The ideas were coming so fast, Phil could barely keep up, let alone note who was suggesting what. But, no matter, the group was delighted with the cleverness of their ideas and enthusiasm for what was ahead was high.

“Summing up,” Delia said, eliminating Phil’s last opportunity for command. “I’m the best of us on the computer. I’ll sign us up for that twenty-seven dollar, guaranteed program on fund raising. What will the rest of you do?”

In the background, the dogs and cats sounded more and more restless, eager for attention and exercise. Some were suffering with gastric issues from the strange diet they’d been fed earlier. And the animals seemed distressed about the cleanliness of their cages. It was getting stinky. But, for the moment, the attention of their four keepers was focused on the future. For just six dollars and seventy-five cents a person, they were going to revitalize Animal Farm. They’d raise money, so much money—the animals would be better cared for, the community would be proud of the facility. They’d be a team, holding their heads high. Delia, in particular, was smiling. Dad will be so pleased! More money passing through helps our “real” business a lot, she thought to herself.

“By the way,” asked Phil in his first managerial comment of the day, “where’s Tim?”

Chapter 6

by Laura Rink, 1694 words

Tim was not shoveling poop out of the kennels in the dilapidated barn or scooping poop out of the litterboxes in the cat house. Accompanied by howls and yowls, Phil and Lynn surveyed both areas with concern and dismay.

“I knew something was amiss!” said Lynn. “Oh what’s wrong, Rusty?” The Irish setter leaned his head into Lynn’s proffered hand. His food bowl was half empty.

“Poor Mame!” Phil patted the Doberman’s back as she retched, yet again as evidenced by the vomit already splattered across the concrete floor.

Phil rushed over to the dog food bags tucked into the mouse-proof bins lined up on the sturdy wood table constructed by past volunteers. The large bag of kibble used for most of the dogs was not property sealed—not rolled up tight and secured with wooden clothes pins, courtesy of Audrey—and it shouldn’t be so empty. He looked at the other bags for dogs with special dietary needs—all tightly sealed, as all the regular volunteers would know to do. In addition to throwing balls for the dogs out in the large grassy pen and dangling feathered fishing poles for the cats, Phil handled the ordering of food and supplies for the animals. He worked with a local veterinarian, Dr. Connie Shepherd, who provided dietary suggestions, spaying and neutering, and treated any illnesses that sprung up, which was oftener than the volunteers’ caring hearts and the shelter’s finances could stomach. Fortunately, Dr. Shepherd gave the shelter deep discounts.

The cats’ mewling and yowling, before in the background, now grew louder.

“Phil! Come here!” Lynn shouted.

Phil jogged around the dog cages and through the open door to the cat house.

“Give me that,” Lynn was taking a piece of dog kibble the size of a small jawbreaker away from a two-month old kitten. “Look,” she said as Phil burst in, “someone gave dog food to the cats, what the hell!”

The cats, unlike dogs who will eat poop, were pissed at not being fed their regular food. The exceptions were the kittens who were, for now, intrigued by the novelty and Jasper the eighteen-pound Maine Coon who would eat almost anything, including the tails and ears off any toy offered him.

“They gave all the dogs the same food, ignoring the bright red labels on the cages which indicate special diet required!” said Phil.

“Where’s Tim? Who fed the animals this morning?” Phil and Lynn spoke in unison and then glared in the direction of the office, right there, poorly partitioned off from the cat house.

Phil mouthed Del-i-a? Lynn shrugged her shoulders.

The howls of the dogs increased.

“We’ll discuss this later,” said Phil, feeling every bit in charge of this disastrous situation. “For now, we must be like bulls in a teapot store and pour this place back into shape.”

Lynn’s nod acknowledged the decisiveness of Phil’s tone, not the nonsense of his words.

Phil and Lynn fed all the animals properly, except the dogs not on a special diet and Jasper who had polished off his doggy kibble. They rotated dogs out into the fenced pen and shoveled poop and hosed off vomit and diarrhea. They scooped out the litterboxes.

While Phil and Lynn worked, busy as bees, Audrey adopted out three animals. Into the barn she brought a young family whose three-year-old had daunder allergies and Audrey directed them to six-year-old Missy, a hypoallergenic Bichon Frise. While the child buried her face in Missy’s fluffy white coat, Audrey whispered to the parents that her nephew Dougie also had a Bichon Frise who he referred to as his Bitchin’ Frisbee. Later Audrey ushered into the cat house two middle-aged men who adopted Fluffy and Frank, three-year-old siblings, Torticos—Tortoiseshell, Tabby, and Calico all mixed together, Audrey explained, often known as dog-cats for their attachment to their owners, their propensity to come when called—quite unusual for a cat Audrey stressed—and their willingness to walk on a leash, if they must.

Phil noted Audrey’s skill in matching prospective adopters with just the right dog or cat. The only retired volunteer, Audrey spent a lot of time at the shelter and got to know each animal quite well, which was important to find them forever homes. He should praise her for that, that’s what good managers do, lift up their colleagues.

Lynn sidled into the barn. “Cats are mostly settled down, for now. How’s it going in here?”

Phil was primed to begin exercising his managerial goodwill. “Great. Good job, Lynn.” He beamed at her.

“Uh, thanks.” Lynn gestured at the clean dog cages. “You too, good job.”

Phil nodded in what he hoped was a humble manner. “And I want to commend you for the popcorn idea-generating thingy earlier.”

“Sure. I know most of those ideas won’t bring in the big dollars, but they’ll bring in something and hopefully raise our profile in the community so more animals get adopted.”

Phil looked from Lynn to the dog cages, full cages, one after another, mazelike in the dimly lit barn. “That’s it, isn’t it? Our main mission to find these animals their forever homes. Yes, we need money to care for them but we also need to get people in here, so they can find their animal soulmates.”

“Wow, Phil, that was sort of eloquent.”

Phil gave her another of his humble nods.

“How do we get more people to visit the shelter?” Lynn asked.

Phil felt Lynn’s eyes on him. She was asking him, as if he was in charge! He must tell her some ideas, good ones. Unexpectedly his vacation in Hawaii five years ago, and the highlight of visiting a well-financed, well-run shelter, sprang to mind. “Pet a kitty!” he almost shouted. “Take a dog to the beach!” Seeing Lynn’s befuddled expression, he added, “To a park! We need to get people in here who like animals but aren’t sure if they want a full-time pet. Come by and pet a kitty—twenty minutes of your time! Or take a dog for a walk in the park—fun and exercise for you and a dog!” Phil was thrilled with his ideas but also a little abashed by his forthrightness. “What do you think?”

“I love it! We’ll update the shelter’s website inviting the public to pet a kitty or take a dog for a walk, and also a list of upcoming fundraisers, once we decide which to pursue.” Lynn, a freelance graphic designer who worked from home, maintained the shelter’s website and designed brochures and flyers as needed for the shelter. “We could collaborate on a radio ad.”

“Yes!” Phil’s humble restraint was gone and he nodded vigorously. He too worked at home, as an audio engineer on a variety of freelance projects, from corporate finance podcasts to audio books for Audible. “Let’s go tell Audrey our ideas.”

Phil and Lynn left the barn and headed for the office where Audrey would be finishing up the paperwork on today’s adoptions. As they crossed the parking lot, a truck pulled in and Delia stepped out of the office.

“Are we going to confront her about screwing up the feeding of the animals?” Lynn asked.

Another question to him. Phil rolled his shoulders back.

Bull exited the cab of the truck followed by Cherry. He spoke to Delia, “Sorry. I know I was supposed to show up earlier for the construction job.”

“What construction job?” Phil and Lynn both said as they looked at Delia.

“Hmmm—” Delia didn’t get a chance to speak.

Bull continued in a rush of words. “You wanted to get to know Cherry, so I thought we could talk about the construc—” he glanced at Phil and Lynn, “we could just talk at the dog park, and then go see M.T. about your tattoo.”

“Who’s getting a tattoo?” Audrey had exited the office, a plate of cookies in one hand. She didn’t wait for an answer but addressed them all. “Be sure it’s something you won’t tire of—a tattoo is forever. Sort of like adopting a cockatoo—they can live seventy years. Or more. Imagine having a pet that could outlive you.” She shook her head and her gaze fell on the dog. “Oh is that Cherry? Come here, girl.”

Cherry looked at Bull and at his nod ran over to greet Audrey, careful not to upset her plate of cookies. “There’s a good girl. I’m so happy you’re back with your daddy.” Audrey smiled at Bull, and then looked at Delia. “Though I haven’t seen the paperwork on this re-adoption.”

“I’ve got it,” said Delia, her words clipped. “We can go over it later.” She turned her attention to Bull. “I do want to get to know Cherry, and talk, but I’m not sure if I have time today.”

“You should go,” said Lynn. “How much work can you have?”

“Yes,” said Phil not wanting to lose his newly-earned manager-type status. “If you’re going to work here, you should be comfortable around animals.” Lynn elbowed Phil. Now was his moment to solidify his position, to get all of his donkeys in a row. “Speaking of which, we now have some ill dogs because you gave them the wrong food. I’m going to have to call Dr. Shepherd, which costs money.” Phil paused. “The visit, not the phone call. Costs money. Which we don’t have much of, as you must know going through the books day after day.” Phil paused again, and looked at Lynn who widened her eyes at him. “Anyway my point is, if you’re going to feed the animals, Delia, you must get properly trained first, by one of us or Tim.”

“I have no interest—” Delia began, and was promptly interrupted by Audrey.

“Where is Tim? I baked his favorite cookies—peanut butter chocolate chip, and they’re vegan! Using almond milk was an easy enough switch, but what could possibly take the place of eggs, I asked myself. Well, did you know flaxseeds soaked in water can substitute for eggs? I guess it’s the consistency that matters—a moist gooeyness. Anyhoo, where is that young man?”

Chapter 7

by Eva Leontoni, 1666 words

Tattoo confidential! How fitting a name for her need for privacy. She had worked hard to keep her identity hidden and was happy that Carson Fox didn’t care for her paperwork at all. This job would get her back on her feet and give her much needed independence. M.T. had had a romantic idea of marriage as a vehicle that would get her through good times and bad times but found herself stuck in the mud of everyday duties. It hadn’t been laundry, shopping and cooking she had on her mind when she married her high school sweetheart. He turned out to be anything but sweet and their relationship soured quickly. M.T. found fewer and fewer moments where she had the place and some time to herself. She wanted to paint and become a real artist. When creativity left the building, she feared it would never return.

One day, she had just stocked the fridge with the cheap beer he liked, when her husband took out a can and opened it. The liquid foamed out over his hand and onto the floor.

“This is piss warm.” She couldn’t believe how stupid he was.

“I just put it in the fridge.“

He still stood there with the can in his hand. “Why didn’t you buy cold beer?”

“Why don’t you go to the store yourself?”

“What did you say?”

She should have known better than to talk to him like that in front of his friends. She couldn’t back up now. Couldn’t let his friends see him treat her this way without any consequences. She wasn’t prepared for what he did next. He raised his can and poured the beer on her head. She felt the liquid running down her neck and was glad it wasn’t cold. She heard his friends gasping and holding their breath. For a moment it was quiet in the apartment. Then they broke out in laughter as if this was the best joke they had heard in a long time. With a wide grin he turned to his friends celebrating his superiority over his wife. She used the moment to open the door, fearing he would grab her, anticipating his fists in her hair to pull her back. But he didn’t. She turned to see him cracking up with his friends and quietly closed the door behind her. Then she ran. She ran and ran until she was sure he couldn’t catch her.

She never went back. Not for her clothes and not for any of her art supply. She moved as far away from him as possible without leaving the country. She was still married but she couldn’t bring herself to see him again. What for? She sure as hell would never ever marry again.

She was glad to have this job and set up her workspace out front. Carson hardly ever left his office in the back and when he did, he locked the door. M.T. first thought he mistrusted her. But after two weeks, he had given her the keys to the place and she forgot about his office. One place less to clean up after work.

This morning he had surprised her showing up early. As soon as he had closed the door behind him a new customer entered. M.T. asked her if she wanted to make an appointment. Her day was full as was the rest of the week. She already had returning customers. This was great but M.T. wished she had an open spot right now. This woman was something else and M.T. wanted to put her finest design on her the moment she saw her. A butterfly on her collar would look great on her.

But it turned out she already had an appointment with Mr. Fox. As she led her to the back, M.T. wondered who she might be. She was too young to be Carson’s mother and too old to be his lover. M.T. had never knocked on his door before and wasn’t sure how to do it. She could barely hear the knock herself and was embarrassed the woman might think she was some timid girl. She decided to knock again, louder this time, but the door swung open and a smile appeared on her bosses face she had not seen there before.

“Mrs. Cluckers! Come in. Come in.”

“Mr. Fox, no names please.”

“No worries. You are in good hands here at Tattoo Confidential.” He closed the door behind her with a brief nod to M.T. “Here we do not reveal our customer’s names nor which tattoos they chose nor where they wear them.”

Some customers had to come back several times to have their design completed. M.T. had the impression it wasn’t so much the body art that brought them back but the procedure itself, being tickled by a woman who operated a needle. As if applying the tattoo gave them access to their feelings rather than providing a shield in permanent colors.

A tattoo was an excuse to have someone touch their body, M.T. thought. And the big advantage compared to a massage was that a tattoo gave them something to talk about with their buddies. For days they could talk about which design to get and afterward they had something to show for. A tattoo gave a man an opportunity to talk about himself. Other times a tattoo session felt like a spiritual journey. Whenever M.T. looked up from her work in progress, plodding away the blood seeping through the skin, she would catch a glimpse of her customer in a trance.

When lunch time came, the mysterious woman was still in Carson’s office and M.T. wondered if she should let him know she was going on her break. She thought better of it and simply locked the entrance door when she left. She bought a yogurt with strawberry flavor at a minimart and, equipped with a plastic spoon, took it to the nearby park. Grateful for the rays of sunlight penetrating the clouds, she took off her jacket and slung it over her shoulder. The rose on her forearm gave her a sense of ownership and made her feel good about her body. Folks eating their lunch or basking in the sun had taken up every space on the benches she passed. She shuddered when a whiff of their convenience food made its way to her nostrils.

Finally, she came upon a bench occupied by a tiny introverted person, a boy. He sat bent forward, his elbows resting on his thighs, like so many boys with their phones, gambling their youth away. She sat down and put the jacket next to her to claiming the space for her lunch break. M.T. enjoyed the tranquility of the moment, savoring the fact that she would not need to make conversation with anyone. She took a deep breath and looked up at the clouds. The sky’s is the limit, huh? She was confident that one day she would open her own tattoo parlor and take some of the customers with her. Like that guy who had wanted her to draw his dog’s face on his biceps. He was not her type at all, but something about him made her believe that he was a good customer. Someone who would return for years to come.

M.T. took out her lunch, pulled the lid off and scooped out the creamy yogurt. The color reminded her of the walls in her childhood bedroom and maybe that thought was the reason she was repulsed by the flavor. It had the taste of soured milk and definitely was not strawberry. She looked at the picture of the fruit but now she saw it was sitting on top of a cake. The label told her she had picked strawberry cheesecake flavor. What the heck? If she wanted to eat cheesecake, she would have bought the cake.

She was about to throw the yogurt into the waste basket next to the boy when she heard him ask, “Are you not going to eat that?”

She looked into his hungry eyes and her cheeks flushed. His eyes fixed on the yogurt, he didn’t notice her embarrassment. “It’s strawberry cheese cake,” M.T. warned the boy about a cake pretending to be a yogurt.

His body straightened. “Looks like yogurt to me.”

M.T. spun her forearm out toward the boy who took the yogurt without hesitation.

She was about to offer him her spoon when he drank the cake straight from the container.

While the boy’s head was tilted back, she had ample time to study him. His shirt and jeans were clean then she noticed his shoes. They were not the kind over which boys lose their shit. M.T. had watched her younger half-brother obsessing over the right brand. This boy was not like her brother at all. Sadness came over her. She missed her brother. She had sacrificed her brother to get away from her marriage. She could not visit or contact him without risking him telling her husband. She watched the boy use his fingers, licking them until the container was clean as a whistle.

“What are you doing here? Don’t you have school?” Shit. She sounded like a teacher or worse like her own mother. M.T. hoped that the rose tattoo on her forearm looked cooler than she sounded.

The boy got up and dumped the empty container in the trash. “I had the opportunity to make the world a better place but I got fired.” It all came out at once as if vomiting into the waste basket. He scanned the park as if looking for a better place when something caught his eye. “Gotta go. Thanks so much.”

M.T. looked at her watch. Time to go back to work. She got up and was almost run over by a dog, his tongue hanging from his open mouth. She was still trying to get her bearings when she heard a familiar voice yelling, “Come back here.”

Chapter 8

by Nancy Canyon, 1716 words

Delia Woolf agreed to discuss the construction project with Bull while they walked Cherry in the park. “Cherry has buds, see,” Bull had said. “It’s her morning ritual, you know, constitutional and then a romp with pals. We can take my truck.”

Delia had huffed indignantly. “Dog hair and dog breath! Gross.”

“You love ‘em, right?” Bull said. “That’s why you work here?”

“I keep books,” she’d said, looking around at Phil and Audrey who were still commiserating about the mess they had to clean up earlier.

“Yes, I fed them, what’s your point?” she had practically yelled.

“Tim feeds the animals, and walks them, and loves them….” Audrey had said, still balancing the plate of cookies she’d baked for Tim. “I’m worried about him. He’s been nothing but consistent. And now….” she said, running a hand through her puffy white hair, worrying her brows, “he’s gone.”

Delia had straightened, standing up taller, feeling above everyone now. Partially because she was taller than them in the heels she’d bought on 5th Avenue, but also because Phil wasn’t stepping up. What a wuss. Thinks he’s in charge of this shithole. She thought of New York and suitcases of bundled hundreds…and Russians. Hardly! 

“Yes, our dog whisperer, where is he?” Phil had said. “We need him like a rain break.” He turned to look out the dirty windows, the blinding sunshine attempting to penetrate the shelter.

“I fired him!” Delia said. “He was eavesdropping on me. And he’s a letch. Haven’t you noticed. Back to work, everyone!!! Ready, Bull?”

As she left the building, she could hear Phil calling after her. “He’s like…a helper. You can’t can helpers.”

***

Delia pulled into the parking lot at the off-leash dog park. She turned off the engine and slipped off her heels. She kept a pair of high-tops in the back, for just such occasions. Though there hadn’t been any such occasion since she’d come to the PNW.

She brushed dog hair off her pencil skirt…hair she now found everywhere. When she felt satisfied, or at least no longer grossed out, she opened the door and stepped out. That’s when she saw Cherry trotting toward her. Bull, his blond ponytail swinging side to side, strode along quickly behind his dog. Both were good looking. Cherry in a well-groomed way, if you liked dogs, that is, and Bull in a crooked way. Maybe a bit smarmy like some of her father’s friends back in New York. But thank goodness, no combed back hair, just fine blond hair brushed into a ponytail. She blushed at the thought of running her fingers through it. Was she attracted to him? She locked the car door and started across the parking lot toward the path.        

Bull waved, grabbing his dog’s collar as Cherry almost ran a woman over. “Sorry! Come on, girl,” he said. “Not everyone likes beasts as big as you.”

“No problem,” the woman chirped.

Bull followed her with his eyes, thinking he recognized her voice, but from where? He hadn’t been many places since he’d been released. Then it came to him, the tattoo parlor.

“M.T., hey,” he called after her. “It’s me, Bull. And Cherry. Remember? He raised his arm, pointing at the fresh tattoo. “I got her back. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

M.T. stopped, lifted her hand to the starburst of sun flooding through the trees. “Oh, Bull. Nice to see you again. I have an appointment. Got to get back. Another time, okay?”

“Sure. I’ll bring her by. Great seeing you.”

Delia slipped on her sunglasses, blocking the brightness. That’s when she saw a woman walking quickly away from Bull, and Tim running toward Cherry. She followed the woman with her eyes for a moment. Shrugged, then turned back to Tim.

What’s that little creep doing here? She remembered what he said he’d overheard while lurking outside her office. Tim was a liability. A bleeding heart. A little snot wanting to save hundreds of stupid chickens.

Delia shook her head. Now that he knew about the $50,000, she’d have to win him over, otherwise…but she hated chickens more than yapping dogs and mewling cats!

“Cherry,” Tim cooed. He clicked his tongue and slipped something from his pocket. It was at the same moment he turned to Delia, almost as if he’d known she was approaching from behind. He stared straight at her, raising his hand inside the pocket, which lifted the light coat in a way that was reminiscent of a Russian mobster threatening a victim with a gun.

Delia stopped in her tracts. She wasn’t naturally jumpy, but when the Russians took over the mob scene in New York, she’d heard the worry in her father’s voice. Would they come after her? New York, where millions of people were packed into a bustling landscape, could turn dangerous in an instant. Imagining Tim with a weapon made her legs go weak.

But then Tim reached his hand toward Cherry, who was jumping around obnoxiously, and barking loudly. He held out his other hand, making a gesture. Cherry sat and waited for a signal. Then the Shepherd took the treat from his hand, crunched it up and licked Tim’s face. He ruffed up her fur and patted her head. “I took care of you,” he crooned. “You’re my fav.”

Delia walked up to them, a big smile plastered across her face. “Not to interrupt this happy reunion, but I don’t have time to dally. Tim,” Delia said, nodding curtly. “Bull and I are taking a walk. You joining us?”

“What?” Tim said, looking at his shoes, keeping a hand on Cherry’s head as if to steady himself. “But…”

“But what? I misspoke. Come back.”

Tim tried to speak but only sputtered. Did this mean she’d drive the truck for the Clucker’s raid? Had she forgotten that he’d overheard her on the phone and how he had promised not to tell if…. It was for the animals.

“$50,000…cleaned money,” she’d said over the phone.

He wasn’t stupid, but also, he knew nothing about large sums of money. Nor crime for that matter. He seldom had any money. In fact, his mother only gave him a bit now and then when she had extra suiters…that’s what she called them. Not johns, but suiters. It disgusted him.  But also, he felt sorry for her. She looked terrible these days. Dark circles under her eyes. And she had developed a cough. Just this morning he’d heard her hacking away early on; that’s when he slipped out the door without any breakfast. He didn’t have much to do now…no school, no so-called job, and there were those sorry chickens who needed his help. Did activism pay?

“Sure, Ms. Woolf. Perhaps…you know….” Tim said, “I need…money?”

Bull said, “Good idea. Maybe while I’m adding onto the shelter, Tim here could watch Cherry. Dog walking pays well, my man.” He dropped a hand on Tim’s shoulder and Tim jumped.

“Sorry,” Bull said, eyeing Delia. “Fired? He’s good, you know. Even cleaned Cherry’s teeth. My man,” Bull said. “I’m good at reading faces and I see that Delia here respects you. I think you two can come to an agreement.”

Delia huffed. “Come back. I’ll see about a small stipend.”

Bull looked from Delia to Tim and back. “Settled then,” Bull said. “Cherry’s growing impatient. And we’re losing our sun. Let’s walk.”

He handed the leash to Tim, who stepped in line behind them without another word.

***

Bull was a man with crime experience. But unlike the man he’d read about in the news, who arrived to take his cat home from some shelter somewhere, he’d never dress in full military gear and carry a fake gun. No, Bull wasn’t the dangerous type. He was the super-efficient-cat-burglar type. Yes, he’d done time. But it wasn’t for an aggressive act. He loved taking from the rich and giving to the poor. But a fake gun would make Delia pay attention, wouldn’t it? He knew she was up to something. It was written all over her face. And Tim…he had a secret too. What was that boy up to?

As they followed the path along the pond, Delia explained that the shelter needed more room. They were working on fund-raising so they could add on. And she had an investor that might be willing to donate a large sum of money. “Thus, we can start soon…if, that is, I play my cards right.”

Played her cards right…yes, a good term for gambling with an idea. “When do I start?”

“Let me get the rest of our crew on board…I’m not in charge, you know.”

“You’re not? You act like you are.”

Delia felt happy about that. And she felt happy walking next to Bull. “Hey, you said you were going to introduce me to your tattoo artist.”

“Funny, I just ran into her. She had an appointment. We can walk over there after we walk. It’s just a block that way.” He pointed to the north.

“Sure, then I’ll head back to the Animal Farm. Books don’t wait, you know.”

They walked the path down to the end of the pond and turned around. On the way back to their vehicles, they turned off on a side street. Tim followed behind, walking Cherry, stopping to pick up her poop, giving her treats when she followed commands, and talking to her.

Bull said, “I can take her now. We’re stopping by Tattoo Confidential. I want Delia here to meet my artist, M.T.”

“I’ll tag along. Nothing else to do…except clean the cages at the shelter later.”

Delia made an irritable noise in her throat, then cheerfully said, “Yes, tag along.”

As they approached Tattoo Confidential, Tim noticed a car parked, not in the parlor’s parking lot, but down the block a bit to the east where beyond big black clouds piled up on the horizon. “Rain,” he thought and then he said, “Shit!”

“What’s the problem, my man?”

“Nothing,” Tim muttered, not moving as Cherry kept going, tugging him along.

But then, Delia saw it too, and stopped in her tracts. On the side door of a white Tesla was an image of a Rhode Island Red, with the script beneath it reading, “Clucker’s Poultry Farm.”

Chapter 9

by Judith Shantz, 1940 words

Delia was pacing the chipped linoleum floor in her dad’s cheap rental, her stiletto heels clicking the drumbeat of her impatience. “Dad, are you losing your edge? Fifty thousand for a construction project? Hell, we’ve blown nearly that much just getting set up out here. Even so, our standard of living, my standard of living, has bottomed out. You’re always talking about half a mil. Even with this construction funding and even if this animal joint miraculously raises 10K in donations, how am I gonna push half a mil through any of that?”

“Well, what brilliant ideas do you have, Chicklet? This sodden burb has almost no enterprise. And so far, the billionaires aren’t exactly beating down the door.”

Tom really wanted to tell her about his big plan, his really big plan, bigger than anything he’d come up with before, but he was losing his trust in her. She was just too impetuous these days. She wanted things and she wanted them now. That made her a dangerous partner. He couldn’t believe she was hiring this ex-con just because he was a hunk. That was just hormones talking and that guy wasn’t born yesterday. He would probably smell a rat pretty quick. Tom thought he might try to pay Delia off and send her back to Manhattan, but he didn’t have enough liquidity at the moment.

Delia pivoted on one skinny heel and leaned on the table, hissing at her father, “Then, you gotta get back out on the interstate and find another, bigger burb.”

Tom grumbled, “I ain’t going near Seattle – it’s….it’s crime infested!”

Delia snorted laughter, spraying vodka across the table. “Dad, can you even hear yourself? What’s big in this neck of the soggy woods, Dad? Casinos! Think about casinos, Dad. We could use some of those yahoos at the Farm as mules. They would never catch on.”

Delia’s laugh was high, brittle and mean.

***

There’s more than one way to skip town. Perhaps “town” is a bit grandiose in this case. Let’s say “community.” Rufi’s community was a small tract of land, only a couple of acres, in the parched Sonoran Desert just east of the California border. He knew no other home and his only teacher, his mother, had not mentioned geography or biology. But he had natural instincts and a quick intellect and he had been taught hunting and survival skills.

Rufi certainly had very different needs from Tom and Delia—and they were a lot more urgent. Like all living things, the first was water—something Tom and Delia never thought about. They just turned on the tap or bought some fancy flavored beverage in a plastic bottle. But his second need was very different from theirs—mice! Or the occasional jackrabbit. That was all he really needed.

Rufi was of the family Felidae, the same family as the pretty house cats waiting in cages at the Animal Farm shelter. But the family name and a love of mice was about all they had in common.

He was raised, along with his two litter mates, by a ferociously devoted mother who taught them everything she knew and saw to it that they grew into healthy, skilled animals. At that point, she led them to the edge of her territory, nudged them over an invisible boundary and said, in effect, “so long—don’t come back.”

Skilled or not, the next round of seasons was very rough. Those cycles on the desert were bracketed by polar nights and hellish days. Many creatures could not survive this wasteland, including some of the thousands of human migrantes who trekked through it each day. Even within the lifetime of one generation of his kind, the rains had almost vanished, the land had dried and cracked and even the tough plant life had withered and died. There was no water and there was no prey.

But like many living creatures who survive on instinct, he was tuned into a genetic memory; the myths of his ancestors. That memory told him that there were other lands, lands with towering forests and fat squirrels. It told him, not in words but in instinct, in feelings. Go now and go with the sun behind you. And so, he did.

For a while he managed to survive, slinking around the edges of the migrant camps, picking up the odd pieces of tortillas de maíz or frijoles. Hard on his digestive track and bad for his teeth. He really needed some bones.

One night he came up to a road that was packed with the roaring machines of humans, the largest that he had ever seen. Their size, the smell of burning diesel, the noise, should have sent him running. But he was desperate for some edible scraps and he crept closer. Most of the machines had more machines on their backs, but one was loaded with dozens of bales of alfalfa. Rufi’s nose twitched. Where there was hay, there were mice. He leapt onto the back of the machine and tried tearing into the nearest bale. They were in there. He could hear them. Then suddenly the machine was moving but Rufi was unwilling to give up his dinner. He flattened himself on the top of the load and kept trying to dig his way down. The machine picked up speed. There was no getting off now.

***

The little burner phone in Pino’s pocket set off a tinny rendition of O Sole Mio. “Merda,” he muttered, as he hurried to silence it. “Yeh?” he whispered into the phone. “I told you not to call me. I’m expecting the guy any minute. Yeh, I’ll call you back later.” He hung up and muted his phone. He was sitting on the tailgate of his truck and he went back to eating the fat carnitas burrito he had picked up back in Salinas. It was old and cold but it would have to do.

He liked this life. Hauling watermelons, and sometimes other stuff, up and down the country. He could be from anywhere: Mexico, Italy, Noo Yawk, as he liked to say. He played whichever identity he needed at the moment.

On the edge of the gravel pull-off he noticed the eyes watching him. Some kind of animal. Maybe a skunk or raccoon. He sat very still and the animal slowly approached. A cat. A very large cat. “Hungry?” Pino unrolled the burrito and pulled out a piece of pork. He stood down from the tailgate and walked slowly toward the creature. Rufi darted away. Pino put the pork down in the gravel and backed off. After a couple of minutes, the cat returned and grabbed the pork.

A van came screeching around the corner and into the pull-off, leaving the engine running. One guy got out and said “watermelons” into the dark. The other guy got out, watching the proceedings.  “Refreshing” answered Pino, as he turned on his headlamp so he could see what he was doing. The van guy pulled out a huge wad of bills and fanned it for Pino to see. Pino sorted through the watermelons until he found the right one and, using his penknife, pried out the plug. Pushing up his sleeve, he reached into the hole and pulled out the packet. The two men approached each other warily, each holding out what the other wanted. Pino handed over the packet, stuffed the cash into his pocket and hurried around to the driver’s side. All of a sudden, shots rang out. The two van guys were shooting at him or at each other. Pino couldn’t tell which but one of the men fell. Pino jumped into his truck, head down, and screamed out of the pull-off. He didn’t look back.

***

Rufi’s ride on the alfalfa truck lasted all night and into the dawn. When it finally stopped, the topography had changed but the air was foul with smoke and fires burned on the nearby hills. He jumped off as soon as he could, and ran into the scrub on the side of the road. His hunger had become a painful, living thing. He moved forward all day and at nightfall spotted another human, a small truck, and something that smelled wonderful. If this guy would feed him, he might try taking another ride.

***

When Pino had driven a hundred miles and his heart was no longer trying to break through his chest wall, he pulled off to call Tom. “Yeh,” he said, “it all came off just as planned.” He could hear Tom give a loud “yahoo” to someone in the background. “But,” added Pino, “there was one little glitch.”

“Huh?” Glitch?”

“Yeh, I think someone might of gotten murdered.”

There was silence for a moment and then Tom said, “You’re going to have to destroy the truck.”

“Like hell,” yelled Pino and hung up.

Tom tried calling Pino back but he didn’t pick up. Then he called Delia. “Look, Honey. Remember my cousin Pino from Newark? Well, he’s coming for a visit. I think he’ll come straight to the Farm cuz that’s the only address he’s got. If anyone asks any questions, just say that you adore fresh watermelons and that your dad orders them for you special.”

“Watermelons,” she practically screamed into her phone. “You’re really losing it, Dad. I should have you committed.”

“Just do as I say,” he roared back at her and hung up.

***

Pino pulled to a stop in the gravel yard in front of the barn and turned off the engine. Checking his mirrors, he saw his cat passenger slip over the side of the truck and dash for the barn door.

The cacophony of howls and shrieks started immediately as the hungry cat went searching for food. Rufi could smell something edible but odd. The smell was coming from a large bag that he dug into with clawed fury. He gobbled mouths full of the dried kibble, swallowing and growling and choking in his desperate need to eat. The caged animals kept up their loud chorus of fear.

Over the din, Delia was trying to talk to Pino about what the hell the deal was with the watermelons. Tim slipped away to the barn to calm the animals and Bull stepped back to watch this weird scene unfold.

As Tim’s eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, he spotted the cat practically inside the huge bag of kibble. “Oh, you beautiful thing,” he said softly. “Don’t be afraid.”

For a moment, Rufi believed in this human. Believed he wouldn’t be harmed.

Then Delia stormed into the barn, shrieking her anger about the noise. Rufi rose up out of the bag of food, terrified by this creature. The feeling was mutual. Delia ran from the barn screaming, “Cougar! Cougar! Run for your life.”

Tim tried in vain to be heard above the din. “It’s not a cougar. It’s a bobcat. He doesn’t want to hurt you.”

Rufi bolted for the gate and into the thicket of blackberries outside. He needed to get away from humans. They were so unpredictable. At least that hard, dry kibble had done a number on his teeth. Dental hygiene in a bag.

He started down the hill toward a little valley. Maybe that would be a place full of those squirrels that grew fat each fall on the acorns and pine cone seeds. Maybe he would find a female. Maybe, maybe.

Then he smelled it—something from a distant past. The wind shifted and it smelled stronger. The memory! The pure joy! He could really smell them now. Chickens! Hundreds of chickens!

Chapter 10

by Dick Little, 1631 words

Detective Inspector Philip Pike (ret.) hunched over his keyboard scrolling through possible links. Years of doing the grunt work at his job had made him good at this seemingly menial task, every bit as necessary to effective crime fighting as the colorful sleuthing, babes, and gun slinging that make for juicy crime fiction. Besides, it paid the bills, and he hadn’t gotten shot, even once.

A ray of late afternoon sunlight arrowed through the blinds adding little warmth to the room. At least it wasn’t raining, he thought to himself. A long way from his career in The Big Apple, here in the far-off Pacific Northwest, Phil was searching for links that would help him in his quest for retribution—make that revenge. Tracking “Tommy the Cat” Leone all the way across the country from New York City had been the easy part. So was the scheming that landed him along with his quarry on the fundraising committee for a local no-kill (what irony!) animal shelter.

“I’m Tom,” said the smiling “Tom Lyons,” extending a paw.

“Call me Phil.”

Phil Pike’s personal quest had begun a short while before. Tomaso Leone was a suspect in a money laundering operation Phil was bird-dogging. “Tommy the Cat” knew people who knew people, and a wiretap had disclosed that a certain overweight, blond-haired, orange-complected millionaire, a neighbor of Tommy’s, had a stockbroker that was working wonders. “What’s good for the goose, et cetera,” thought Phil, surveying the latest disappointing report of earnings from his IRA, his state retirement fund, and the dog’s breakfast of stocks his barber had put him on to. Which led him to the aforesaid neighbor’s brokerage firm one day, in tony offices in the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue, a few months before his scheduled retirement.

The details of the meeting needn’t be reported, except to say that Detective Inspector, straight-arrow Philip Pike ended up signing over twenty-thousand big ones to what he euphemistically told himself was merely a “secondary market.”

Money laundering was not a mystery to Phil. He and his colleagues with the NYPD Fraud Division could have taught classes on the subject. Moreover, it wasn’t uncommon for the occasional law enforcement officer to be lured into the very criminal activity he or she was investigating. Who could blame them, barely getting by in an expensive city in the US on the pittance of a salary bequeathed them by penny-pinching councilmembers, well-heeled residents of the Upper East Side or Gowanus in Brooklyn where money fell from trees like the colorful leaves in autumn?

What made this venture of Phil’s different was the discovery a few days later, with horror via the same wiretap, that his hard-earned cash was now in the larcenous claws of Tommy the Cat himself. Worse, Leone had meanwhile felt too much heat for his comfort zone, had somehow smelled a rat, and had absconded to parts unknown. That was it. Phil cashed in the rest of his nest egg and took early retirement. A lifelong bachelor, he had no other family except a sister who lived in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan.

Plus, Philip Pike was over New York. He packed his bags, jumped in his vintage Mustang, and set out after Tomaso Leone like a springer spaniel after a pheasant.

No one at Animal Farm asked Phil Pike much about what he’d done for a living, and he obviously didn’t volunteer. “Stuff back East,” he usually replied. If pressed, he passed himself off as an audio engineer who had some freelance projects in the works, mentioned his major as a proud alumnus of the University of Michigan, a Wolverine, then changed the subject. Besides, he quite enjoyed being an anonymous newbie in his new comfortable, if moist, town. He went further to disguise himself. No longer the sharp-as-a-shark’s-tooth police detective, he acted a bit birdbrained. He made fumbling attempts to assert leadership of the group despite his frequently noticed verbal tics. He played word games, no malapropism or spoonerism too good to pass up.

“We need to hire someone to low the mawn,” he offered one morning.

“Aren’t we making a mountain out of a moleskin?”

“Does what I’m saying sake any mense?”

“Bulls in a teapot store.”

He enjoyed the giggles. He also enrolled in an animal husbandry class. All of it to keep private who he really was and blend in as sort of a clueless nerd, all the while thinking up how to spring a trap, to geld Tommy the Pussycat.

Along the way, Phil found he liked his fellow board members, warmed up to them as folks with a common love of animals and their welfare. He also began to admire his new town more and more. The brilliant fall leaves of the East Coast were magnificent, to be sure, but here in the Northwest the yellows and oranges and reds were backdropped against the dark, majestic green of evergreen forests. Particularly when it rained, which was often, leaves glistened like polished gems.

If any of his comrades were tempted to tease Phil Pike about his apparent slowness of mind, they didn’t do so. When he came up with a goldfish as his emotional support animal, his cover was complete.

Looking up from his keyboard, former Detective Inspector Pike stretched, arms behind his head, and gazed fondly at “Bruiser’s” fishbowl across the kitchen table. (Bruiser was indeed a very large goldfish.) His sympathetic companion stared back, large bulbous eyes unblinking, tail slowly fanning the clear water. He cared deeply, or was he looking at the tin of Minnow Munchies goldfish food on the windowsill past the monitor?

“C’mon Bruiser,” Phil said, “Come up with something. How’re we gonna get our money back?”

***

The twisted menagerie at Animal Farm that morning was the last straw for Delia Woolf. Contraband stuffed in watermelons? A vicious wildcat? Pino the Rat from Jersey! Howls and shrieks and awful smells! Bedlam? She jumped in the car and sped back to Dad’s.

She stomped her pretty little foot, this time down on Tom’s still slippered, fur-lined instep.

“Ouch! W The F, Girl.”

“Wake up, Dad!” She shoved him back in his chair, nearly knocking over his mid-morning Grey Goose vodka pick-me-up which would have ended up in his lap.

She slammed the table. “If this is about drugs, I’m outa here. What happened to laundering money?”

Tom started to answer, but she cut him off.

“Look around, Daddy, this place is a dump. Capital D.” She took a breath, sat down, and swept a few strands of hair away from her face. “I have a plan. Don’t interrupt. If I understand this game at all—and I do, thanks to your caring tutelage—the idea is to get rich folks to cough over cash, some of which we keep as a ‘commission’.”

She went on about “clean money” being “donated” to an innocent non-profit organization, earning the donor a healthy tax deduction, assuming their itemized Schedule A total exceeded the recently increased standard deduction. After which, a portion of the money is quietly returned to the donor, with the charity (or its “managers”) pocketing the rest. Conclusion: The first obstacle is to round up enough folks with too much money—donors with enough cash stashed away, itemized deductions up where eagles fly, and by the way, the need to assuage gnawing guilt at having so much money to burn.

“Enough of a challenge to begin with in this soggy burg, as you call it, Pop. On top of which, how exactly are you going to hobnob with those self-appointed crèmes de la crèmes? Bring ’em over here for tea and cookies?”

She waved a hand at the dishes piled in the too-small sink, the linoleum curling up against the baseboards, the threadbare muslin curtains. Tom kept his mouth shut. She was making sense.

“We’re going to move.” She slammed her fist on the rickety table. “Now.”

And they did.  

Without a penny to his name, Tom tricked-out a loan application, sought out one of the “friendly” banks he knew of, and took advantage of a lender eager to climb aboard the post-Covid housing boom. In record time, he leveraged a healthy down payment and bought a signature home in an exclusive neighborhood, Edgemoor (or “Edgeless,” to the natives). Bay view, split level, exposed beams, spotless oak floors, gabled three-car garage, faux Classic portico and double-door front entry, circular drive. Delia was happy as a clam about her daddy’s new digs, to say the least. Her secluded bedroom (the house had four, plus three and a half baths) included a sitting room, two spacious closets, deluxe salle de bain with walk-in shower, and private deck for sunbathing…if it ever stopped raining.

How to square foxy Delia’s domestic opulence with her below-the-poverty-line new “friend,” Bull, the hunk du jour, did give her pause. But that was a minor problem as long as she didn’t plan to invite him to the many soirées Tom Lyon was already busily arranging.

***

Across town in more modest digs, an idea began to form in Phil Pike’s head, just a flicker. Problem number one, he’d need an ally, a confidant who’d share his righteous indignation. He pondered his choices. Obviously, the local constabulary was out of the question. Other Animal Farm wonks? Wooly-headed Audrey Merino; putting it kindly, too old. Plump little Lynn Bassett, out of the question. Subtlety was not her strong suit. Sexy Delia, too fiery with her spike heels and, whoa, way too much Esther Loudly perfume to cover up the smells. The guy, Bull, was just plain scary.

Tim, still a youngster, and there was often that deer-in-the-headlights look…by the way, where was Tim?

Chapter 11

by Kate Austen, 1810 words

MT had already turned off the neon OPEN sign, and was finishing cleaning up, when the woman staggered out of Carson Fox’s inner office, her face swathed in bandages.

“Are you OK, Mrs. Cluckers?” MT recognized her from the clothes. This was the same woman who had disappeared into Fox’s office early that morning.

“Shh, no names—not that one, anyway,” Cathy Cluckers was swaying on her feet from the after-effects of anesthesia and pain killers. “It’s not me…it’s the new me…new face…” She collapsed into the Barcalounger provided for those about to be inked.

“Do you need me to drive you home?” The white Tesla with the Rhode Island Red rooster on the door had been parked outside all day.

“Not going home…never again,” Cathy mumbled. “I’m escaping, somewhere he won’t find me.”

MT instinctively recognized a fellow abuse victim and took Cathy’s hand. “Your husband?”  

Cathy nodded.

“What’s your plan?” MT hadn’t had one, but this woman seemed to have things worked out.

“Ditch that Cluckermobile—” Cathy gestured at the car on the curb—“and take a bus to Seattle. Hole up in a hotel until the bandages come off.” 

“Do you have money?”

Cathy started to laugh until the pain in her facial muscles made her gasp. “Oh, yes, I’ve got money—or access to it. All his passwords and account numbers. The names of the banks in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. All I need is an internet link and I’ll clean the bastard out!” The effort of this speech exhausted her, and she closed her eyes.

MT considered Cathy’s position. “Hmm. Don’t take the bus; you’d be noticed, and anyway you need to rest. Listen, why don’t you hide out at my place? I’m new in town so nobody knows me or where I live. I have a computer at home you could use to transfer the money.”

Cathy opened one eye suspiciously. “Why would you help me? What do you want? Money?”

“No. I know what it’s like to be trapped in a bad relationship. I just want to help you.” MT saw Cathy was close to tears, so she squeezed her hand and turned to practicalities.  “To start with, let me drive that car somewhere. It’ll attract attention left outside here. Give me your keys.”

With Cathy Clucker’s car keys (say that three times fast, MT thought) in hand, she exited the tattoo parlor. As she moved to the driver’s side door of the Tesla, she was accosted by a teenage boy. He looked familiar. Then she remembered the sad boy who had drunk her yogurt at the park.

“Hi, I’m Tim, Bull’s friend. I wondered if I could perhaps borrow the car?” It all came out in a rush. Tim was nervous. The perfect irony of using the Cluckers’ own vehicle to free the imprisoned and mistreated chickens had appealed to him when he first thought of it. It would avoid having to rent a van—he didn’t have a drivers’ license or the necessary cash for that. He’d hoped Delia might help, but she had shrugged off his threats to expose her dubious plan to “clean” fifty thousand dollars through a construction project at Animal Farm. Now, faced with the reality of carrying out his scheme, he doubted himself. What if he was stopped? Driving without a license was one thing; grand theft auto was another.  And he still hadn’t worked out what to do with the liberated poultry, especially the chicks. Perhaps Bull could construct some kind of shelter for them at Animal Farm, as he was working there now.

MT was more concerned with getting back to look after her new friend Cathy Cluckers than the formalities of license and ownership. This boy—how old was he? He wasn’t very tall—was the answer to a prayer. “Okay. Just drive it away from town. You can dump it anywhere out of sight. Leave the keys in the ignition.” She hurried back inside Tattoo Confidential.

Tim let out a long breath. He wasn’t going to chicken out now. First, a stop at Animal Farm to pick up the bolt cutters he’d secreted in the dog barn—and perhaps give Audrey a hug in case he didn’t make it back alive—then on to Cluckers’ Poultry Farm and his mission! He adjusted the driver’s seat so his feet reached the pedals, then looked around for the place to turn the key for ignition. There wasn’t one. He’d only ever driven his mother’s wreck of a 1998 Pontiac, when she was too drunk to take the wheel. This set up was different. A screen lit up in front of him. “Press start,” it instructed. Cool! He pressed start and heard something. Not the bronchial rumble of the Pontiac’s engine, but a faint silky hum. He slid the gear into drive and glided off.

***

Delia’s diatribe had stung Tom’s very soul. Hadn’t he always given her everything she wanted? The Bloomingdales account, the Manhattan apartment? Such ingratitude to call her father a failure! “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” He remembered that quote from some high school play Delia had dragged him to. She’d performed as one of the daughters—and not the nice one, either.

She’d been right about the drugs though. He should never have encouraged young Pino Noir to get involved with the smuggling racket, but Pino was a newer vintage of villain—he liked risk. The casino idea wasn’t bad either, but a big score didn’t just fall into your hands, you had to work for it, do the research, make preparations.

Which was why he’d bought the bicycle. “How hard can it be?” Tom said to himself as he surveyed the spindly contraption for which he’d paid north of four thousand dollars. “Will it even take my weight?” Tom’s life had been town cars and taxi cabs. He’d never ridden a bike, even as a child. The phrase “easy as falling off a bicycle” reverberated in his brain. However, cycling was step one towards the Big Score.

“I don’t take meetings,” Tyson Cluckers announced when Tom called. “Much too busy. But I ride a 50k loop three times a week. You’re welcome to join me. If you can keep up, we’ll discuss your proposition as we ride.”

Tom’s research had revealed that Tyson Cluckers and his younger brother Purdue were potentates in the poultry world. Besides the fifty-acre spread outside town, they owned extensive operations in Alabama and Louisiana, where immigrant labor was cheap and nobody asked questions. None of his factories followed USDA regulations—that would cost money. Besides, Tyson hated government. Not just the Department of Agriculture but all government, and especially the Internal Revenue Service. The Cluckers evaded taxes by channeling their wealth into secret offshore accounts. But the Treasury Department was bearing down on those accounts and Tyson was looking for another way to keep his money out of the IRS’s hands. That’s where Tom came in, with his “charitable deductions” scheme. After all, charity begins at home, and the Animal Farm shelter was less than a mile from Clucker Castle as the crow flies.

Tom’s research had also uncovered that Purdue was unmarried, but Tyson had a wife called Cathy. In fact, it was her family money that had given the Cluckers their start. No kids. “Lucky man,” thought Tom. He wasn’t going to tell Delia about his plan to recycle Tyson’s funds through the shelter. If it all worked out, he’d be able to send her back to New York while he stretched out on the beaches of…Brazil? Thailand? Goa? He’d have to do some more research on countries without extradition agreements with the U.S.

Time to go. Tom examined himself in the full-length mirror. Bike shorts didn’t do him any favors, but he prided himself on always dressing the part. For the mob bosses, it had been Italian suits, gold knuckleduster rings, and cologne. For Tyson, it was LycraÒ pants and a tight neon jersey. At least the helmet and goggles made him unrecognizable. He mounted the bike—the saddle was even more uncomfortable than it looked—and wobbled off towards the Clucker estate.

***

Bull spent most of the day hanging around Animal Farm, trying to work out what was the big construction project he’d been hired for. Sure, there was building work to be done about the place— gutters hanging off, doors that didn’t shut properly—but a competent handyman could take care of all that and hand back change from a couple of thou. It wouldn’t cost fifty thousand dollars, the sum Delia had mentioned. He picked up that Delia was into him: she’d come out of her office a half-dozen times to flirt with him. He’d responded in kind; he was a man after all and she was sexy. She always backed off when Cherry came too close though. “Love me, love my dog,” Bull thought. If it came to a contest between Delia and Cherry, there was no doubt who would win.

He chatted to the other helpers too. Audrey shared her home-baked cookies with him as Tim hadn’t turned up today. She confided that she worried about Tim. “He’s such a vulnerable child,” she said. “I went to the high school to look for him, but he wasn’t there. I couldn’t worm any information out of the school office—student privacy or something—but I found a kid in the halls who knew Tim from middle school and he told me where he lived.” Audrey’s voice dropped. “Shocking! A trailer out in the middle of nowhere. The woman who answered the door wasn’t even dressed, and it was the middle of the afternoon! She said she was Tim’s mother, but she didn’t look old enough, and she had no idea where Tim was. What kind of mother is that?!”

Lynn brought her Great Danes with her, and they had a whale of a time romping around with Cherry. As long as Lynn was talking about the animals, she was quite animated. As soon as Bull asked her anything personal, she blushed and stuttered.

Phil puzzled him. On the surface, he seemed a bit of a lame duck, muddling his metaphors and bustling around as if he owned the place. But Bull caught him in the office looking at Delia’s computer while she was out to lunch. He made some bumbling excuse about trying to find an adoption record, but Bull was skeptical. More importantly, Cherry was suspicious of him. Cherry had been his lookout on the burgling jobs he’d done. She could smell a cop a mile off, and the little yip she gave when Phil approached told Bull the volunteer was not what he seemed: not a lame duck, but a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Chapter 12

by Al Clover, 1503 words

Well, hello there. How are you doing so far? Has my story entertained…wait what did you say? Yes, you in the back with the glasses. Don’t think you can sit in the back and not get called on. What do you mean who am I? I’m the author.

Alright for those who may have forgotten (not sure how you could but whatev) my name is NaNoWriMo. It’s a family moniker. Last name? I’m like Cher or Madonna. Or even that Prince guy. You say you’ve haven’t heard of me? Where have you been? I’m known worldwide. No humble brag but seriously I’m known all over the face of this planet. Especially in the world of writing.

Okay enough goofing around you’re probably saying. But it’s important for me as the writer to make sure every word makes sense. That’s my job for thirty chapters and it’s going great. We’ve seen sneaky characters be sneaky, cute animals, and worthy protectors of those cute animals.

No spoilers but I’d watch those two characters, Tom and his daughter Delia. No relation to the Bible Delilah. Except there is that guy, Bull, with long hair. Hmm. But I don’t see Bull as a Samson. He seems much more aware of Delia’s intentions. Still, she is trouble. Believe me, I should know. And what a twist that was, when—Spoiler Alert!—we found out Phil wasn’t as goofy as we thought. Pretty clever if you ask me. Okay a bit of a humble brag on my part. And how cute is Bruiser? I mean come on, a goldfish? That Phil is a funny guy. That’s weird. A funny New Yorker? Obviously New Yorker’s can be funny, ha-ha funny that is. Seinfeld. Need I say more? But Phil is funny-sneaky.

Now I don’t know about you, but Tim is my favorite character. I thought for sure he was going to have to abandon his mission—rescuing the chickens from reaching the dinner tables of America—when M.T. gave him the keys to the electric car and he admitted he didn’t have a license to drive and had only driven when his mom was too drunk to drive. But our hero wasn’t fazed for more than a few moments by the electronics though. Naturally the “Press Start” button didn’t hurt but once again proving you can always count on a young person in our hour of need to navigate computers in the modern world. Okay let’s get back to the story in progress.

While Bull was trying to figure out this “job” Delia had chosen him for, and during the shenanigans of the wild cat-like animal, Cherry had snuck away. Along the way to visit her former roommates, she checked out the Pee-mail. A sniff here and snort there let her know who and what was going on at the shelter.

Soon the excited barking grew with the others sensing her approach. The animals at the Animal Farm No-Kill Shelter were a tight bunch of friends who just happened to be without two-leggs friendship. But the camaraderie of living in the shelter created a society of togetherness. Of course, the two-leggs here at the shelter cared for them daily but that was different. Even when the young one talked to and played with the residents, that feeling of “home” still wasn’t entirely the same. The animals didn’t have a home. In the meantime, the AFN-KS supplied shelter and food for the various animals waiting for that special two-leggs to take them home. Passing by the cathouse a hiss drew Cherry’s attention.

“Hey what’s it like on the outside?” The large feline meowed while chewing on the small mesh fencing that surrounded the clowder waiting to be adopted out.

“Oh, you know, lots of mice and other chewy things. How are you, Jasper? Getting enough to eat?” Cherry hadn’t usually interacted with the huge cat, but he was well known among the residents. Human and animal. 

“Stop rubbing it in, already. One of these days I’m gonna get out of here and run free just like my cousin from earlier. They had the right idea. I bet there are lots of chewy things in the woods.” Jasper persisted in his chewing at the enclosure.

“Alright, well you have fun with that escape plan.” With that Cherry continued to the dog run.

“Cherry.” The dogs all barked her name in unison. From the offices Delia could be heard yelling something about quieting the damn barking. The pack ignored her naturally.

“You look great. Your two-leggs must be treating you right.” Rusty stuck his brown snoot through the fencing and Cherry, with her blueish nose, gave him a bump in greeting.

“We miss your company but also glad you got your two-leggs back.” Mame stopped barking and sat back with a ripple of her mahogany fur. “Is it as great as I remember? Open runs and squirrels?”

“Squirrels??” The excited chatter of a bark came from the tan Belgian Malinois.  He then ran to the other end of the enclosure whimpering at the imagined sounds that had hit his excitement nerve. With all his running back and forth you’d think he’d tire but basically, he could do this all day. And he did. Every day.

“Oscar calm down. There are no squirrels! We’ve told you before.” Rusty growled.

“Mame are you okay?” She didn’t look well. Cherry knew the older dog had special needs for her diet.

“Oh, I’m fine. Just a hiccup in our feedings. The female,” a deep growl accompanied the “female”, “fed us all the wrong food. I foolishly didn’t think. It tasted different but being hungry I ate it. Boy was that a mistake.”

“I see Tim is back. All should be back to normal. Your intuition about the female is right on. My two-leggs is having doubts but he still hasn’t figured her out yet. I’ve tried to tell him she’s only interested in him for a litter but he’s not listening to me. Right or wrong. They don’t always listen to feelings.” Suddenly a loud crooning began at the other end of the enclosure. All heads swiveled to see Oscar jumping up and down. His bark signaled the young one approaching.

Tim was carrying bowls of food in both hands and under each arm he had bully sticks of various lengths. “Alright you mangy mutts.” Tim laughed, “Wow. I can’t say that with a straight face. Sorry I wasn’t here the other day.” He stood there talking to the animals like they could understand him. And maybe they could.

“Okay back up. Don’t rush me. You know everyone gets food. Here Mame, you first.” Tim set the bowl of food down for Mame to eat. Noticeably the other animals didn’t rush the Doberman, giving her space to eat in peace. Even Oscar.

“Here Oscar.” Tim tossed a bully stick in the Belgian Malinois’s direction. The treat hit the dog in the nose and bounced away. Oscar would get teased about his catching ability—of which he had none—later. Tim set bowls down and tossed a few of the bully sticks to the other citizens of the community. “I’ll be back with the rest of the food in a few minutes.” Standing there he petted as many animals as he could reach, then he spied an escapee.

“Ah Jasper, I see you’ve escaped again. Let’s get you back where you belong. I’ll get your Meow Mix once you’re back in the cat enclosure.”

With a shake of his tail Jasper sauntered back toward the enclosure, almost as if Jasper knew what Tim had said. Subsequently, Jasper stopped and turning, stared at Tim, “Merowe.”

“Fine. Let me open the gate before you get all upset. Sheesh. You’d think you never get fed.” Tim saw the ragged torn opening in the mesh of the enclosure Jasper had chewed through. “I’ll need to fix that before I leave.” Tim noted. While he fed the animals and did a quick cage cleaning, he tried to come up with a plan for his chicken rescue mission.

He knew he couldn’t move all the chickens by himself but there was no one he could trust to help. All the volunteers at AFN-KS, even though they all had the animals best interests at heart, he was pretty sure they’d draw the line at stealing chickens from the Cluckers’ factory. And his hope of help from Delia was a bust. He was lucky to have gotten his voluntary job back. He was on his own. He’d just have to do the best he could. If only he had a truck or some type of vehicle to transport the chickens. That was the key to the rescue. But where was he going to get said vehicle? No license and no money to rent one. His mom’s Pontiac was out of the question as she’d barely had enough gas to make it home the other day. He’d checked the gas gauge just in case but no dice.

Chapter 13

by Jon K. Culp, 1708 words

Tom’s bike a Mosaic RT-2 snappy titanium frame.

The air is blue around the intersection of Ten Mile and Noon roads. Tom’s right knee and elbow are red however, as blood oozes freely from both. “Damn bike!” he yells at the lone cloud in the sky. Having never ridden a bike in his life, he’s unfamiliar with the oddity of toe clips. His Mosaic RT-2 lay in the gravel, the back wheel clicking in slow circles ignoring his pisstivity, its titanium frame in much better shape than his ego. Brushing the rock chunks from his skin, he picks up the bike and gets back in the saddle. He can do this. He has to do this. With a couple wobbles, he heads back down the road to meet up with Tyson and the deal of his lifetime.

Tom pedals into the yard at Cluckers Farms and dismounts, careful to pull his toes out of the clips before coming to a full stop. He looks quite the mess, dried blood on his arm and leg, large beads of sweat on top of his bald and now shiny head and a dirt smudge on his nose where he keeps wiping the sweat out of his eyes.

Tyson steps out of the farmhouse through the squeaky screen door. His tight black bib-tights and lime green jersey stood in contrast to Tom’s choice of red, white, and green jersey and shorts with “ITALIA” splashed on the chest and down his right thigh. Tom looks down, flushing slightly comparing his tuft of silver chest hair and beer belly pushing the bounds of fashion and capacity. Tyson is sleek and muscled, like he belongs on a bike. Tom looks like he is trying too hard. Likely he is, but desperation makes a guy push his own limits. Luckily, Delia hadn’t seen him leaving the house, he’d never hear the end of it.

“Ready for the ride, I see!” Tyson strings out with a bit of a smirk on his lips. “Your knee there matches your outfit . . ., um . . ., nice ride!”

“This old thing?” “I’ve had it for a while,” Tom offers, glancing down to make sure there were no tags left on the frame and check the sting of his knee and his face.

Without another word, Tyson’s already peddling out to the road. Tom fumbles a bit with the toe clips and has to stand and peddle hard to catch up. He’s already panting when he finally does. “This guy doesn’t mess around,” Tom thinks as his knees churn and he thumbs through gears to slow the peddles a bit.

“So, what’d you want to talk to me about? You’ve got a couple hours on this loop.”

“Just a minute,” Tom sputters out, trying to process a couple hours of this and enough oxygen to keep from passing out. The bike eventually finds its way to a decent gear, allowing him to catch enough of his breath to think and speak. “So, how’re the chickens doing?”

Tyson continues to pedal on, not sweating, not panting, just cruising along Badger Basin Road. After an uncomfortably long minute, “You seriously joined in to ask me about chickens?” He cranks a hard left onto Loggerhead Road.

Having no warning, Tom nearly misses the turn and swings wide and through the gravel shoulder on the far side. He cusses under his breath and fights to keep the dang contraption beneath him. He is not starting out well, at all.

***

Rufi glides through the Oregon grape and alder brush with his nose wagging back and forth. The sweet smell of chicken pulls at his stomach. The crunchy kibble he’d had yesterday moved right through him, leaving his bowels as clean as his teeth. It was certainly not a fun experience but was necessary, in the moment. Now he is on a mission to fill up on some of that delicious smelling chicken.

Pausing momentarily at a roadside stream to drink his fill, he stretches and listens. A clicking, buzzing sound, not like any bee or bird he has heard comes whizzing around a corner into full, colorful view. Two humans quickly floating toward him on whooshing contraptions carrying them toward him. Rufi freezes, unsure what to do. Panic! He darts forward, bounds over the stream, and stretches out full tilt for the brush on the other side of the road! They narrowly miss him. He slides to a halt just beyond the blackberries. Turning to ensure he is not pursued, he sees the rounder human crashing through the gravel and into the water next to his drinking spot. Humans!

He trots off in the direction of lunch. Sliding along a small meadow’s edge, he pounces on a red-legged grasshopper. He couldn’t resist stopping the movement and he could use an appetizer before the feathery main course, ahead. Doh! There’s another one!

Rufi remembers his mom teaching him and his brother and sisters about grasshoppers and other bugs. They weren’t very filling but could give you some food between mice and rabbits. His sisters were so grossed out about eating bugs though–hope they’ve survived. He saddens momentarily at the memory.

One more for the road. Pounce!

Coming to the edge of the farmyard, Rufi can hear the cacophony of clucking coming from the huge barn. It’s just past the old farmhouse and driveway. Leaping into an aspen, he rests on a branch to scan for humans, or worse, their dogs.

Satisfied that there are not obvious dangers, he scrambles down and heads towards the feast of his life. He bounds across the yard, pausing for a second behind a stump, a lawn chair, and finally a bucket. Crouching in absolute stillness, he looks and listens. Scanning the bottom edge of the barn, he sees that there is an opening along the edge of a large sliding door. One last sniff and a bound and he’s through the opening and blinking eyes to adjust to the dim light of the inside. As soon as he focuses on the nearest hen, the rodeo begins! Dust puffs from every barn crack into the yard.

***

The hum of the Tesla is almost soothing to Tim as he races toward Cluckers’. The red chicken decal on the steering wheel is a little uncanny, but that doesn’t lighten his foot on the “gas” (go?) pedal. A little hard to feel like your hair’s on fire when you don’t have eight cylinders rumbling through the seat of your pants. But don’t tell that to Tim’s blood pressure. He is running on pure adrenaline and gall! He barely slows the car down to make the turn into the wide driveway and heads straight for the barn.

Pulling up alongside the main loading doors at the end, he backs as close as he can to the building. Hoping that he is out of sight enough from the house, he jumps to work. Lucky for Tim, the door is unlocked. Unlucky for Tim, he walks into a whirlwind tornado of blood-streaked, white feathers and half-bald, Tasmanian devil-hens. “No, no, no!” he yells, seeing the bobcat pouncing, batting, scurrying, and eating, in one liquid motion!

Picking up the nearest thing he can find in the storm, he hurls a cottage cheese container full of hog ring clips at the fiendish cat. In an instant, it disappears through a crack by the back door. “Oh no,” he moans, “you poor girls.” His eyes start burning . . . from the dust and dander.

Tim takes as deep a breath as he can muster without choking on everything airborne. He begins trying to catch the nearest hens which are now all collecting against the opposite wall. Every time he goes right, they, as one, shift left, and vice versa. This continues for what seemed like hours when Tim decides he needs a different tactic.

Up on the wall, by the door, hangs a long-handled salmon fishing net. “Ah ha! I’m not the only one who’s had trouble corralling you ladies.” It takes a few minutes to get the hang of letting the hens run along the wall and into the net on their own. Well, he still has to motivate them to move down the wall.

After trying to get the second chicken in the driver side door without letting out the first one, he opens the sunroof and leaves the doors closed. The third and every other chicken till the car is full came in through the roof. When it looks like the Tesla can hold no more and it will be tough to sit in the driver’s seat without squashing one, he puts down his net. Moving over to the cage of baby chicks, who’s peep, peep, peeping was drowned out by the hen’s panic, he grabs a box full. He sets the box on top of the car and is about to get in when he goes back inside. Crossing the room, he unlatches and opens the back door. “You’re free, run for your lives!”

The hens huddle together and stare at him with an occasional cluck of derision.

Grabbing up the box, Tim cracks the door of the Cluckermobile and slowly eases his way into the churning, cyclonical, feather-storm inside. He ends up having to pull his t-shirt up over his nose and tuck them under his glasses to breath. Press to Start. Start where, he wonders.

***

Pino tosses the last three watermelons into the brush. He’d found an abandoned farm road through the treed hedgerow off Ten Mile Road. They were beginning to smell a bit winey, and the fruit flies were obnoxious. He’ll have to find a hose back at Animal Farm to rinse out the cargo box. It is already sticky back there.

Using his GPS, he decides to take the scenic route back to the shelter. He sees the large white sign with the red rooster on it, just prior to the cloud of dust and feathers surrounding the barn. “What the . . .?” He slows the box truck and pulls in just in time to make eye contact with a squinty-eyed boy, face hidden bandit-style, stuffed into a car full of bloody chickens.

Chapter 14

by Erin Curlett, 2307 words

Tim could hardly see, could hardly breathe, for all the feathers. Razor-sharp talons dug into his neck, scraped his cheek. Needle-tipped beaks pecked the skin of his hands, his arms, his legs.

Where am I going?

A drop of blood—his own or from one of the chickens, he couldn’t be sure—oozed down his forehead and settled in the inner corner of his eye, further impairing his vision.

He lifted his right hand off the wheel to wipe the blood away, and as he did, a particularly squawky passenger flapped her wings and lifted her bloodied, feathered breast so that it settled against his face, her feet clawing for purchase to roost on his neck. Her beak descended into his scalp. Peck. Peck.

Dizzy, blinded by agony, he grabbed the chicken by a handful of feathers, and flung her across the Prius to land, stunned, in the passenger seat.

Why are they all so panicked? Don’t they know I came to save them?

He had thought that, like a dog or a cat, the chickens might be lulled to sleep by the hum of the engine as he drove.

Idiot! His mother’s voice rang, shrill, in his head. Why’dja think a bunch of chickens would act like dogs or cats?

Peck.

Why, indeed. The original plan had been to use a van. A van that rumbled and hummed. A van with a partition between the front and the back. A van with Delia at the helm.

You think I would’ve let you sit up front with me? The crack of Delia’s gum echoed in his head.

Peck. Peck.

Why did Tim think anything? Why did he even bother?

The women in his life—his mother, with her perky boobs, and Delia, with her sexy shoes—had made it perfectly clear there was only one thing he excelled at: staying hidden, silent.

Tim squared his tattered shoulders, pressed down on the accelerator, and let out a bestial roar.

“I’m done with this! With all of you!” he yelled into the dusty air of the Prius, his words more muffled than he would have hoped. “You have no IDEA what I’m capable of!”

***

Ginny, plump and brown and admired for her bicolor beak, had settled herself into a corner of the back seat. She had been trying to make eye contact with her featheren, but not one of these girls seemed to have the presence of mind to stop their flapping for a moment and recognize they had just been rescued.

They’re traumatized, she clucked to herself, and no wonder. Memories from the bloodbath they had just witnessed swam across her mind: the thwippp of ripping canvas as his feline claws cut into a bag of feed. The growl she saw before she heard: huge, glistening teeth drenched in the blood of her sisters. The smell of hysteria, of chicken shit, of blood.

Ginny trembled, remembering. The day had started out typically enough, with breakfast and chatter over Miranda’s horrendous snoring the night before (everyone agreed, even Miranda!). They had all been settling in for a post-chat nap when that vile creature had entered their haven of safety. Miranda had already been snoring (poor Miranda!). Ginny knew this, because she was roosting across the coop, and she had been clucking softly to herself to hear the old hen at it again. There was a flash of fur, and before she had time to register what had happened, the snoring had ceased.

Ginny, you old biddy, she chided herself, as a single tear dripped from her liquid eye. Miranda had deserved better than that. She shook her head, gave her wings a perfunctory flap, and as quickly as they had descended, the memories flew away into the dusty air. 

She looked around at the bedlam before her. Doris was flying from one back seat window to the next, crashing herself into the glass, then turning, dazed, to fly to the next. Fifi was hovering over the carton of chicks, clucking loudly to whom, Ginny wasn’t quite certain, but perhaps for the benefit of the crazed man behind the wheel: “Don’t you dare take these babeees! These babeees are not leaving meee!”

Ginny, mid-eye roll, suddenly realized Fifi had lost her own two chicks, Pierre and Popo, back in the coop. 

While she contemplated this horror, the head of Babs, who had flown to the front of the car, appeared over the armrest, peering at Ginny from the passenger seat. “Help me, Gin—” she sputtered, as she reached out her two wings.

Ginny was up in a flash, fueled by adrenaline she’d never experienced, not even earlier in the coop. She used her wings to guide her friend up and over the armrest, prodding her gently with her beak to rest against the rear seat which Ginny had kept warm.

Babs was covered in blood, from beak to talons. Her feathers were unrecognizable save for the black streak in her tail. 

“Ginny. Ginny, that monster—”

“Shh, Babs, it’s okay now,” Ginny clucked. “We’re safe now. Let me tend to you.”

True, Miranda and Flo and Telula had given their lives bravely in the fight. But what would their sacrifice be for, if not for the liberation of the fowl left behind?

Babs’ beak trembled. “No one deserves this, Ginny.”

“But Babs, we are free.”

Ginny turned to fluff her feathers before taking her place next to her friend. As she did, her talon caught on a piece of paper sticking out of—what was that, a notebook?—and as she looked down, she saw well, she wouldn’t call it chickenscratch, though she supposed a human would. 

There, scrawled across the top of the torn piece of paper were the words “To save a chicken.”

“Girls!” She called out. “Girls, you have to see this!”

***

It was poetry, really. Epic poetry. 

Tim pumped his fist in the air as he pushed his foot even harder on the accelerator. The chickens had inexplicably moved to the back of the Prius, even the one who had tried to roost on his very face. 

He took a deep breath, ran a hand over his blood-caked brow, and turned on the AC first, and then the radio. 

A familiar jingle played through the car stereo, and when he looked down at the digital panel to see which station had been left on, he felt a twang of comfort. The country station, 109.7, the DAWG. The soundtrack of his childhood.

His chest swelled. He had always known he was destined to be a hero. Since the early days in the trailer park when Mama would send him off to play in the dust, he knew it would only be a matter of time before he stepped into his role of protector.

***

“What is this hogwash?” cried Babs, her eyes beadier than usual as she stared at Ginny.

“Babs,” Ginny breathed, reverent. “It’s poetry.”

Fifi strained her neck to see, not daring to leave the chicks, even for this. “Poetry about us,” she cooed.

***

Tim had been writing about the chickens’ liberation for years. Notebook upon notebook, journal upon journal, packed full of scrawling script. He couldn’t explain the pull they had on him, these beautiful, majestic creatures. He couldn’t explain why he had always felt it was his destiny to set them free. 

He had poured his desires—to rescue them, to love them, in some strange unrequited way—into the pages of poetry he wrote and carried with him, always, in his backpack, now tossed hastily behind him in the backseat of the Prius.

Delia had wanted to know what he was writing that day she found him hunkered down next to her desk. He had debated whether to show her. His mother had taught him that beautiful women were not to be trusted, but a deep, longing part of him believed if only Delia could read his words, she would understand, maybe even help. 

It was when he saw a book of poetry peeking out of her purse, he knew he had to show her, to convince her. She was a woman of the pen! Surely, they were kindred spirits. 

It had not gone as he had hoped. 

“What is this drivel?” She had laughed, flipping through his notebook like it was a cheap magazine, perched on her desk to show off her sexy shoes.

“It’s—it’s my heart, Delia.” He had whispered, praying she would see the depth that lie beneath his slight frame.

***

“He poured his heart out for us!” crowed Ginny, pulling herself up to her full height. “He loves us! He came to save us!” 

Babs scoffed. “Look at him! He’s a boy! Look at us! Look at what he’s done.”

***

He had held out his heart, and Delia had smacked her gum at him and smiled. “Oh yeah?” She had purred the words, pouring herself off the desk like a cat who had just spotted a bowl of milk. She had stood in front of him, towering over him from the height her sexy shoes afforded her. “Your heart, huh?” As she said “heart,” she had traced a manicured red nail from the collar of his shirt to the center of his chest. “Interesting.”

This was the closest Tim had ever been to Delia—the closest he’d ever been to any woman other than his mother—and he could feel her bubblegum breath tickling his cheek. Is she about to kiss me? He had thought, inanely, hopefully.

She had not kissed him. She had not helped him. She had laughed. And laughed. And laughed.

Just like his mother. 

Tim gripped the steering wheel tighter as he pressed the accelerator once more. 

***

“Featheren! This man has liberated the chickens, just as he promised!” Ginny’s heart was pounding as she glanced wildly around at her friends.

“Look, he has it all right here: we are the damsels in distress! He rode in, like a knight in shining armor!”

***

He was a boy in a shiny Prius, unlicensed, ill-prepared. He hadn’t known he’d also have to fight a bobcat. Mountain lion? Could have been a tiger. All he knew was it had claws like Delia.

Had it been messier than anticipated? Sure. But isn’t that how heroes are forged?

What are you even blathering on about, boy? His mother’s voice rang once more in his ears. You good-for-nothing.

A chicken squawked from behind. 

Good-for-nothing Tim, that’s what his mother had called him for as long as he could remember. Any time she’d bring home a new suitor, she’d introduce him as such with a wink and a smile, as though Tim himself was in on the joke. 

The chickens were rustling their feathers again. He needed to figure out where he was going, and fast.

Good for nothing? He’d show her. Mama had no idea what he was capable of.

Poetry.

A deep, guttural laugh rose from Tim’s chest at the thought. Oh, if only Mama knew about his notebooks of poetry! 

If only Mama knew about this Prius of poultry!

He knew exactly where he was headed. 

***

Ginny cleared her throat and began to read another poem:

Their silken feathers glisten in the moonlight 

Alas, I cannot touch—

I cannot feel the airy wings as they take flight—

Ginny stopped, considering. Was he in love with them? It gave her pause.

Babs, the bloodied passenger who’d tried to roost so innocently against her supposed savior’s chest, and who had been tossed aside with the same savagery she’d witnessed the bobcat wield against her sisters, was the first to speak up.

“Ginny, he may write pretty words, and he may drive a Prius, but this boy is not the hero you think he is.” 

At that moment, as if on cue, a deep laugh rumbled toward them from the front seat. 

Babs raised her feathered brows. “Tell me friends, is that what a hero sounds like?”

Ginny had to give Babs credit. The boy’s poetry had struck a chord deep within her, and she had been ready to follow him anywhere he might take them. But now that Babs mentioned it, something was a bit off about this boy. 

Fifi fluffed her feathers. “I don’t trust him.”

Doris nodded, her head aching from the impact of the windows. “Me neither,” she whispered. “Where is he taking us? Why hasn’t he set us free?

***

Though he had never driven there, Tim knew the way to the trailer park like the back of his freckled—and now quite bloodied—hand. He imagined the look on his mother’s face when he swung open the door to the trailer, his poetry in one hand, a chicken in the other. 

“I did it, Mama!” he’d announce, to her and whatever suitor no doubt accompanied her. “I saved the chickens!”

Good for something. He was good for something after all, and she’d cry when she saw how wrong she had been. 

A slight smile played at the corner of Tim’s mouth as he spied the sign for the trailer park.

***

It was Babs who made the final call.

Let’s go, girls.

They were a flurry of feathers, blood, and loose-leaf pages. They moved with the fervor of chickens set free. They flew at him, upon him, with talons outstretched, to show him they were worth much more than pretty words on a page.

As the chickens descended upon him, Tim thought he caught a brief echo of a song amidst the flapping of their wings—a favorite song of Mama’s.

His shoulders shook as he laughed, no longer noticing the slicing talons, no longer noticing the road, or the wheel, or the trailer park sign that seemed to jump out at him from the horizon. 

Chapter 15

by Carolina Reid, 2155 words

Loggerhead Road extended in front of Tyson and Tom as far as the eye could see. Tom’s body wobbled on his seat. His weight shifted from side to side as his feet reached too far for the pedals on the bike he had never ridden before. The men were less than five minutes into their ride and Tom could already feel pain radiating up his shoulders from the stress in his wrists. How could he possibly make it 50 miles, let alone around the next corner Tyson would certainly take too sharply…

“You’re quite the biker, I had no idea we’d be going this fast,” Tom huffed. Despite years of holding slick conversation and negotiating smooth business deals with some of New York’s finest mobsters, Tom resorted to icebreakers with Tyson. He hadn’t gotten his heart rate up in years and feeling light-headed, couldn’t tap into his former charismatic ways. He was sure Tyson could hear him but Tyson said nothing in response.

“So if you don’t want to talk about your chickens, how about your wife? Or the rest of your fam—-”

“Listen,” Tyson cut him off. “I need to average 25 mph on this ride to achieve my desired heart rate, so you’ll have to cut to the chase before I leave you behind. I know who you are and a little about your logistics and finance work in New York, Tom.”

Tom’s front wheel shifted and he nearly lost balance.  After moving west with Delia, he had kept a low profile. He hadn’t left the house much, especially after Delia had found such a nice new place for them. He ordered food to be delivered and paid for everything with cards that were connected to Delia’s identity. He was known around New York decades ago but he’d been out of his usual debauchery for enough time that he figured his crimes were unknown by someone as pioneering as Tyson Clucker. 

“Oh!” He tried to cover, “who knew word of the humble work of a multi-generational wholesale grocer and importer like myself would make it’s way ou—-”

“You don’t fool me, Tom.” Tyson’s words were tight and succinct. “I know about you, so let me tell you about me. This state sees less than 1% of my business. And this whole country sees less than 50% of it. I do 2 billion a year in revenue just in the poultry industry. I have my hands in the profits of 8 other majorly influential industries. You and I both know what that means…”

Tom, who had been giving every iota of effort he had to stay caught up to Tyson, was exhausting himself so quickly that his head felt foggy. Tyson’s numbers jumbled together in his mind. Normally, he followed business talk easily, but he was lost.

“Quite the…” Tom huffed, “…business…man…” He still couldn’t figure out how much Tyson knew about him. 

“Here’s the point. I know you used to work with a lot of wealthy guys when you lived in New York. I don’t know what it is you do exactly, and I don’t really want to. I know you’d end up with a happy sum of money, and those guys would hand a lot less over to the government.”

Tom stopped pedaling. His hands seemed to go numb and his eyes were locked on the small blur of heat waves where the road touched the sky. He could feel his heartbeat through his forehead and heard it in his ears. His bike came to a stop, sliding off his seat for his feet to touch the ground. Tom was both exhausted and shocked. Only real mobsters said ‘logistics and finance’ the way Tyson had earlier. Usually the billionaires that Tom targeted were wealthy enough to hire a man like himself to “handle their money, especially their taxes” but too naive to realize it was through illegal endeavors. Or maybe they just wanted to ignore that part of it. 

“I play games the same way you do, Tom. So I’ll be frank.”

Tom sensed in this moment that although Tyson was wealthy like his “clients” back home, he wasn’t naive at all. Tyson knew exactly what Tom and Delia were up to and wanted in. 

“I’ll trust you to handle $250 million for me this year. How you do your magic, I don’t care. Maybe you’ll follow through with your little animal shelter donation gimmick, maybe it’ll be an overseas thing, maybe you still have mafia connections back home. Whatever happens, I want a positive return for myself and no extra work.”

Tyson finished his words while making a circle back to where Tom had stopped. “I think this is where our ride together ends. I’ve got a workout to do.” He finished his sentence with clarity and sped off down the road. 

This was the quickest business meeting Tom had ever had. With his legal clients, there was so much paperwork and organization. And with his felonious regulars, there were often threats and weapons. Other than some scratches, a few days of sore muscles, and a bruised ego, Tom hadn’t had to do much at all to bring Tyson Clucker into agreement.

***

Just less than two hours later, after leaving Tom in the dust early into the ride, Tyson was within a mile of his estate when he noticed Rhode Island Reds filling the road in front of him. 

Tyson didn’t have to think twice to know something was terribly wrong. He raced the last stretch to his gate and from lengths away, could see the door to his biggest poultry house was wide open. As birds flooded out the opening, wings flapping in chaos, he could see blood splattered throughout the area. It wasn’t the value of this part of his operation that he cared about–this single house that held 10,000 birds was a drop in the bucket of his poultry business, which Tom had just learned was a drop in the bucket of his annual income and investments–rather, it was likely someone had been on his property. Tyson hated nothing more than the thought of someone disrupting what he felt was his kingdom. 

He pulled his cell phone from his jersey pocket as he dismounted his bike, heading directly towards the poultry house. The birds flowed out the door and around him like a river current. He didn’t care much about the well-being of the birds but his anger rose as mud filled the clips on the bottom of his feet. 

“Where the hell is Jose?” He yelled into the air. He had employees to manage these things and was livid that it seemed no one was in sight. 

He opened his phone, and clicked on his wife’s cell phone number. This morning, he had awoken to an empty bed. Cathy, his wife, had left the house in her white Tesla before he was even awake. This had made Tyson a bit uneasy, as he was just as possessive of his wife as he was of his land. He held his phone to his ear and before the phone even rang, he heard the crashing sounds of a line that had been disconnected. Little did he know that by this time, Cathy had already undergone facial reconstructive surgery to secretly escape the wrath of her husband and he would never see her again. 

He cursed the disconnected line and dialed 911. At their answer, he could feel his rage bubbling in his stomach. 

“There’s been a robbery at my farm operation! And I haven’t seen my wife in God knows how long!” Tyson shouted details of the scene to the operator in panic and dismay, not realizing that his frustration was encouraging him to push the truth. “There’s blood everywhere! And I have reason to believe she’s been kidnapped.” 

They assured him they’d send enforcement immediately. 

***

Pino pulled into the parking lot of Animal Farm shaking his head. Through his time working for his cousin Tom and in other similar family ventures, he’d seen some wild things–cantaloupes engineered to grow their fruit around a brick of cocaine for subtle transport, an X-ray of his brother’s abdomen with more than $6,000 cash inside, trophy hunters who were so gluttonous that they had the skeleton of every animal they had killed dipped and displayed in precious metals. 

But what he’d just seen truly stumped him. He pushed open the door to Animal Farm. 

“Yo Delia, honey, you around? It’s your Uncle Pino. Don’t believe anything your dad tells ya.” Pinot was the kind of guy who talked to an empty room as if it were filled with old friends. He was comfortable immediately. 

“Pino?” Delia responded from afar. 

“Darlin’, you wouldunna believed the looney tune I just saw–some Tesla-owning schmuck was a-racin’ that sucker around on those country roads like he didn’t know left from right with, I tell ya, I tell ya, you never believe your Uncle Pino anyways, but chickens, real live chickens, flyin’ outta the windows.”

Delia met Pino in the lobby and signaled towards her office. Pino was so consumed in his own story, he missed her signaled and continued blabbing. Arms flailing, heart racing, excitement fluttering, his adrenaline from witnessing a murder while securing a major deal was still on high and he couldn’t hold back. 

Phil, just one room over, was restocking the shelter’s supplies. His old detective ways encouraged him to listen to the police blotter on the radio while he accomplished menial tasks. He could hear the hoopla from the next room but Delia had already warned him that her eccentric watermelon-loving uncle might be stopping by so Phil didn’t check on them. That is, until the blotter spoke up.

“All units to be made aware of reported stolen vehicle: white Tesla with license plate C10284Y. Company marked vehicle with red chicken logo on the side. Owner of the vehicle also reporting raid at poultry house. Any available units to respond to robbery.” 

Phil’s interest piqued. He knew based on the vehicle description that this had to be a raid at the Clucker family estate and because of their high profile in the community, he turned the blotter up louder. 

“Suspected kidnapping in association with robbery” he heard through the airwaves, not knowing the story had been misreported thanks to the manic-state that Tyson had originally called in the report.

Phil stuck his head into the lobby at the perfect time. Pino was bent at the waist, catching his breath from telling his story so passionately while Delia was propped in the doorframe, rolling her eyes. 

“Hey Delia, we might want to be ready for some bird intake–I know we won’t house them for long but just heard of some nefarious behavior at the Clucker compound and I know some of those PETA-type folks have brought birds here before after what they think is a noble rescue.”

“What you mean by nefarious behavior, huh?” Pino perked up immediately, “I just seen some kid making off with some birds but I’ll be damned…”

“Kid?” Phil pondered. “Oh god, they said a suspected kidnapping as well?”

“Well, all I can say is that kid didn’t have enough meat on his bones for a sandwich, couldunna been more than 12 years old. Doubt he’d ever be strong enough to be able to kidnap no one…” 

Delia had said nothing after initially greeting Pino. At first, she was overwhelmed by his exuberance when he burst in the door. Then consumed by Phil’s suggestion to prepare for intaking birds at the shelter, the type of animal she hated the most. But now Pino was talking about a youngster in a car with the birds and Delia felt nauseous.

“Well,” said Phil, “maybe the kid isn’t the one who has been kidnapped but rather the kidnapper… And having watched lots of crime shows,” Phil tried to cover up any clue he’d give for his knowledge in the field, “something tells me this isn’t what the police might think it is…”

That was the moment Delia knew exactly what was going on. That idiot kid Tim had actually tried to pull off this mission he had wanted to rope her into; he had actually attempted to set the birds free. How he might be the one driving the Cluckers Tesla, she had no idea. But this was also the moment she realized Phil and Pino had absolutely no idea what was going on. And Delia lived for moments like this–when she, the youngest person in the room who was often patronized just because of her gender and good looks, was already steps ahead of leadership-hungry, ego-driven men like Phil whose full story she didn’t trust, and sleazy, sloppy men like her uncle who had spent decades working for the smartest con men around but still couldn’t tie his own shoes. 

Chapter 16

by Sky Hedman, 1876 words

Only the white headed volunteer, Audrey, knew where Tim lived, and only Audrey instinctively knew to help Tim right now. She paused in the hallway, listening to the conversation about the Tesla, the chickens and the kidnapping. Lucille, the black and white Border Collie that Audrey had just taken for a walk, stood quietly at Audrey’s side. Tim had few choices when it came to safe places, and Audrey sensed that Animal Farm was not one of those at this moment. Neither was his home at his mother’s, the double wide trailer where his mother ran a side business getting tips from “clients” that she brought home for the evening. Audrey guessed that Tim had been the one driving the white Tesla filled with chickens (where did he get that car?) and, that it was probably parked outside the place that Tim called home.

Audrey could do more than bake cookies for Tim. During her career as a middle school teacher, she had developed “street cred” that calmed the waters during chaos. What should she do? Mr. Roger’s phrase popped into her head: “Look for the helpers.” None of the excited people she was listening to belonged in the category of helpers. Each of them, Delia, Pino and Phil, seemed to care more about themselves than anyone else. She knew that they could care less about Tim’s safety.

Audrey had just seen another volunteer, Lynn Bassett, out back, hosing down the dog run. With a gentle tug on the leash, Audrey turned Lucille around and the two headed for Lynn. Since Lynn’s van was big enough for her two Great Danes, it would work out for the chickens, Audrey thought. In hushed tones, Audrey conveyed what she had heard. “We need to help Tim,” she said. “Would you drive?” With Lynn’s consent, Audrey brought Lucille along, hoping her herding instinct would help with the chickens. Without delay, they headed for the parking lot. “Wait,” Audrey said. “What do we have that chickens could eat?”

Lynn silently ran through the various bags of food the shelter kept in the pantry. “Food for gerbils, kittens, cats, rabbits, puppies, dogs, hmmm,” she thought. “Oats? Parakeet food?” The two made a quick detour to the pantry, and without asking permission, hauled a huge bag of vegan cat food towards the van. “We don’t have enough vegan cats to eat this much in ten years,” Lynn commented quietly. “No one will notice.” She also grabbed a bag of apples.

The three of them, Lynn, Audrey, and Lucille, loaded into the van, hoisting the vegan cat food and the apples onto the back seat. Lynn put the van in gear just as Pino was coming out the front door of Animal Farm. Avoiding his gaze, Audrey gave quiet driving directions to Lynn. “Turn right out of the driveway.”

“Oh, Tim,” Audrey thought as they drove the narrow country road. He has the biggest heart, but the prefrontal cortex of his brain? It was lagging behind. Audrey knew Tim would never plan to hurt any animals, but he might impulsively act out his dream of freeing chickens from industrialized murder without thinking it through. “He’s a sweetie,” she said out loud. The sun was already dipping in the sky, as it did this time of year in the late afternoon. Audrey’s volunteer shift would normally be ending now, so no one would question her absence. The waning light cast deep shadows across the road.

“It’s amazing that Tim gets to Animal Farm every day on foot. This is a long commute,” Audrey said. She knew that sometimes he borrowed a bicycle. 

Lynn drove with a heavy foot. She had been on her own since she “liberated” herself from home at age 15, same age that Tim was now. Lynn didn’t dwell on her past. Some memories were clouded by too many beers and a few too many tokes.  After years of riding on the backseats of motorcycles owned by her boyfriends, she bought her own at age 18. The motorcycle was cheap enough to purchase but not fun as transportation in this climate of rain, cold and dark. Not much to write home about anyway, Lynn thought. She was glad to leave the past behind.

Lynn’s two Great Danes filled up the house that she rented, even before she added the cat. She worked full time as a meter reader for the city, which gave her time to volunteer in the mornings and her days off. She didn’t have much use for humans. The animals were a loving and grateful family, more so than the people she knew. The other Animal Farm volunteers came and went. Only Audrey had been a steady presence, and only Audrey had reached out to Lynn.

Rain started to spatter the windshield. “We need the rain,” Audrey commented, filling the space in Lynn’s silence. Just then, they spotted an old man slowly pushing a bicycle in the opposite direction. He seemed to be limping. His helmet was pushed back from his forehead and the muddy spandex bike top he was wearing revealed a gap that exposed his pale stomach. He limped on stiff bicycle shoes like he had been walking a hundred miles. Audrey recognized him immediately. “That’s Tom!”

“Should I stop for him?”

“No!” Audrey said as she exhaled, “We are on a mission.”

***

Tom was heading into the rising wind, and soon water was dripping down his forehead from the rain. In just another mile he would be back at Animal Farm. He was ready to heave the $4000 bike into the first dumpster he encountered, but here on the edge of town, none offered up themselves. He settled on the idea of making a deal with Tim, or one of the other low budget staff members, who would undoubtedly appreciate the bike more than Tom did.

Tom mused over Tyson’s business proposition. Had Tyson really said $250 million? Tom had reason to celebrate that proposition if he could just get out of the rain and into warm clothes. An armchair and a drink would be good too. Delia would be impressed, although Tom wasn’t sure he needed to tell her the whole amount. $50 million would be enough to settle her back in New York permanently. He’d try to get Tyson to transfer the money tomorrow before Tyson changed his mind.

***

When gray haired Sergeant Ralph Pepper and his younger Officer Charles Winthrop turned off the blue lights and eased the police car onto the Cluckers’ driveway, they were overwhelmed by chicken chaos. The door to the main barn stood open. At least a hundred rusty orange Rhode Island Reds were foraging on the driveway and in the field around the main chicken house, pecking like perpetual motion machines. A female flotilla of Cluckers’ chickens was streaming across the field that led to the river. Some had flown up in the trees, their red combs and waddles standing out amidst the fall leaves. Sergeant Pepper rolled down his window. The peeps of baby chicks mixed with the squawking of the mature hens scattered everywhere.

“Supposed to have 10,000 chickens.,” Ralph commented.

Charles murmured, “Yeah, I’ve been in the barn before.” The officers looked over the chicken scene, taking in a mental picture. It was remarkably devoid of human presence.

The cruiser continued past the chicken barns and slaughterhouse, as well as the original farm house where the caretaker used to live. A massive ten foot wrought iron fence separated the newer house and yard from the chicken operation. The fence gave an air of formality to the home.

Ralph steered the cruiser through the wrought iron gate, marked with two signs: “No Trespassing. This property is protected by Video Surveillance. Violators will be prosecuted,” as well as the familiar blue and white ADT security sign. The pair drove in silence towards the palatial house, following the circular driveway which curved around a lit fountain. It was pumping water over tall basalt rocks, stacked artfully to channel the cascade into the sparkling pool below.

Tyson Cluckers stood on the front steps of the house, still in his tight fitting green bicycle jersey, cycling bib tights and shorts. His fit body was framed by the massive two story glass entrance behind him. He walked towards them, every step accentuated by the tapping of his bike shoes on marble. Despite the rain and rising wind, he walked with confidence.

“Chuck,” Tyson said as the two police officers emerged from their squad car. Tyson extended his hand to Charles. The two had played high school soccer together. They shared many a late night party, as well, celebrating a win or commiserating from a loss. Most of the players attended, along with their girlfriends or sisters. It was at one of these gatherings that Tyson had met Cathy.

Officer Pepper introduced himself, “Ralph Pepper.”

“Tyson Cluckers.”

The radio on Charles’ shoulder crackled and Charles turned away. He put his hand over the radio as he stepped away and spoke into it briefly, then turned back to give his full attention to Tyson. Pulling out a notebook and a pen from his vest, he said, “What seems to be the matter?”

***

Through the bandages, Cathy Cluckers could only see part of the screen. M.T. had to read the rest to her and put in the passwords that Cathy had carefully written down. Cathy was feeling feverish and tired after signing on and off several bank web sites and transferring money to the one account only she controlled. She sent silent thanks for her deceased father, who had made sure that his darling daughter would have enough for “what if.”

Cathy teared up as she thought of her father’s reluctance to support her marriage to Tyson. She had hidden her injuries and made excuses for Tyson’s behavior for a long time, eventually finding it easier to not see her parents or her sister, claiming to be busy. She soldiered through his bouts of rage and violence, suffering silently because she knew she couldn’t match his strength. “I’m not a camel and I don’t carry straw,” she thought, “but the straw that broke my back was the day Diamond was found dead in the back of Tyson’s pickup.” She knew her cat Diamond’s death was no accident, and she knew then that she had to get away from Tyson permanently, or her body might be next. She was vigilant enough to cover her tracks and plan her exit carefully before she made her move. Finding a plastic surgeon in this small town had been hard, but once she saw his ad guaranteeing privacy, she began to plot her solitary escape.

M.T. brought Cathy a cup of mint tea. “This should help you relax,” she said. “We can keep working on the computer stuff tomorrow.” Cathy’s energy was sagging, and M.T.’s caring demeanor was welcome. It has been a long time since Cathy had been on the receiving end of kindness.

“Before I leave tomorrow, tell me who I should donate to, to thank you for your help.” Cathy’s words were slurred. She pushed the recliner back until she was completely horizontal, and soon was fast asleep.

Chapter 17

by Lora Hein, 1940 words

Audrey directed Lynn into the fading sunlight filtering through rain streaking down the window between swipes of the wiper blades. On the far side of the trailer park sign she spotted the white Tesla with the chicken on the door. The car was pulled over at an odd angle.

“Stop!” Audrey almost barked with urgency and Lynn slammed on the brakes, putting her tires into a skidding stop just beyond the Tesla.

Audrey scrambled out of the passenger side door and hoofed it as fast as her arthritic knees could go. Adrenaline only helped so much. The flurry of feathers inside the steamy windows caught Audrey’s eyes first before she noticed the blood streaks and Tim’s head against the side window. She yanked the door open then flinched backwards as hens flapped at her in their haste to escape.
“Tim!, Tim? Can you hear me?” Audrey reached out and shook Tim’s shoulder.

Tim’s head lolled to one side once it was no longer supported against the window.

Lynn appeared at Audrey’s side, “Oh, no, what have they done to him?”

“They must have felt trapped,” Audrey replied as she lifted Tim’s head to survey the damage, “Poor things, they didn’t realize he was on their side. What are we going to do with him?”

“Should one of us see if we can find his mother? Do you know which trailer she’s in?”

“I do, and I doubt she’d be much help at all, could even be more of a hindrance if you ask me.”

“But we need to get him some help. He’s still bleeding and if he loses much more blood…” Lynn trailed off. She’d been on the receiving end of blows, physical and emotional, so she could understand why home may not be the best place for Tim right now. She’d never seen anyone as scratched as he was.

Tim lifted his head a fraction and his eyes flickered, trying to find focus through lids already swelling and the salty sting of blood in his eyes. “Who? What? Where am I?” He mumbled through battered lips.

“You’re at the entrance to your trailer park. But how did you get Clucker’s Tesla?’ Audrey didn’t want to tax him with too many questions, but maybe if she knew how he had come by the car they might know who was trying to help Tim.

“It was the girl at the tattoo place.”

“That’s the same place as Dr. Fox’s dermatology practice.” Lynne interjected. I must have seen it there for hours earlier today. If it had been parked in that spot another hour I would have had to ticket it. But it was gone by the next time I came around.”

“How did you get the car?” Audrey asked, hoping not to compound Tim’s predicament with a warrant for a stolen vehicle.

“M.T. gave me the keys,” Tim muttered.

“Who’s M.T.?” Audrey really did not want to stress Tim needlessly.

“The tattoo artist. I met her with Delia and Bull.”

“That’s where we need to get him to,” Lynn chimed in. “We can’t take him to the hospital, that could get him in even deeper doodoo, A tattoo artist will know how to deal with all this blood.”

“What does a tattoo artist know about blood.”

“It’s part of their training. They have to know about how to handle blood born pathogens as part of the safety aspect of their certification.”

“Let’s load him into the van. I don’t think anything is broken.”

The two women gingerly pulled Tim out of the driver’s seat. It appeared the hens had not pecked into any major blood vessels. “Face wounds always look worse than they are.” Audrey assured Lynn. “I dealt with enough bloody faces of middle school boys to know what a mess they can make with minimal damage. I think he’ll be okay, but we need to get him cleaned up and figure out what to do with this vehicle.”

“Let’s leave it here. If M.T. gave Tim the keys, maybe she knows what we should do with it.”
***

Meanwhile, M.T. had decided Cathy couldn’t get into too much trouble sleeping off her fatigue and pain in the lounger. She needed to take care of calling a few clients to see if she could rearrange her schedule for the next day. Cathy was going to need help and care. Not only that, she wondered what sort of mess Tim may have gotten himself into with the car. Perhaps he would have brought it back to the office and it wouldn’t do anyone any good, least of all Cathy to have someone find it there, especially Cluckers.

***

Back at the animal shelter, Bull was done for the day and since it looked as if Delia was wrapped up in some heated discussion in her office, he thought he’d head into town to see if he could find something to eat before dark.

As he pulled out of the parking lot, who should be limping in but Tom, dragging the bicycle alongside his shaky legs.

“Can I give you a hand with that?” Bull leaned out the driver’s window to call across the road.

“You can take this darn torture contraption and unload it on the next kid you see who needs a ride. Let them be cursed with it instead of me.” Tom retorted. He would be seeing so much profit from the deal with Tyson, who gave a hoot about the stupid bike.

“Sure thing.” Bull climbed out and swung the bike into the bed of his truck. Cherry, sitting in the passenger seat, let a low growl escape as Tom passed around to the other side. “What’s the matter, girl, he’s just got some problem with biking. I’m sure he’ll be fine once he gets to the shelter. They’ll take care of him. Not for us to worry about.”

Bull pulled into a parking spot in town. M.T. walked past as he got out of the car. She was putting her key in the lock of the front door of her shop when Bull realized he’d found a place to park right in front of it.

“How’s that little friend of yours?” She asked him as he emerged from the car.

“You mean Tim? Haven’t seen him all afternoon.”

“Yeah? Well he took off with a friend’s car and hasn’t brought it back yet.”

“A car? I didn’t think the little fella was old enough to drive yet.”

“Me neither, but he seemed to need it pretty bad, so I let him have it.”

“You let him have what?” Came a voice behind her. It was Audrey.

“How do you know each other,” Bull asked.

“Lynn has Tim in her van around the corner. He told us this tattoo artist gave him the keys to a Tesla. He’s torn up pretty bad and needs help.

“Let’s get him into the shop and I’ll see what I can do for him,” M.T. offered. “Where is the Tesla?”

“He left it on the side of the road out near his house. I think he was trying to get home and didn’t make it.”

“What happened to the Tesla? Is it safe?” M.T. wasn’t sure who or what to be more worried about at this point, Cathy, the boy, or Cathy’s car. She hoped it hadn’t been left anywhere that Clucker or the cops could find it. She was pretty sure Cathy’s husband would have the cops involved by now if he knew the car and his wife were missing.

Bull followed Audrey around the corner and between Lynn and Bull on either side to prop Tim up they got him into the tattoo place and onto a table where M.T, could minister to him.

For the second time that day, M.T. felt herself getting involved in other people’s problems in ways she hoped she could disentangle herself from. The last thing she needed was having cops or news reporters showing up and getting her face splashed into the news. You never knew these days what sort of stories would find their way to national TV and the adage of the business was true, what bled led and this was a bloody mess in more ways than one.

Once it was clear the gals were making sure Tim was cleaned off and patched up, Bull excused himself. Cherry was waiting for him in the cab of his truck and he needed to get both of them to a meal. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he was pretty sure he didn’t want to get messed up with whatever the gals were starting to talk about as far as what to do next. He had a hunch there was at least a hint of law breaking of some kind involved and he didn’t want to have anything to do with something that put him at risk of a parole violation this soon.

“Someone needs to retrieve the Tesla and get it out of sight.” M.T. opined once Bill had left. 

“It’s going to be a tough one to hide, with that chicken logo displayed on the side,” Audrey added.

“I’ve got, I mean a friend of mine knows a guy with an auto body shop out past the Why Road. He’s done favors for some of the folks I’ve run into having to give tickets. A lot of the impounded vehicles …” Lynn trailed off as soon as the realized all three pairs of eyes were on her. “I mean I’m just guessing this car is going to need to get disguised and he can do a paint job in a hurry. He’s Harry at the Grey Pony-tail body shop if you know the place.”

“Yeah, I know Harry,” M.T. came to Lynn’s aide. “He’s had a tat or two from me. Good guy, quiet, friendly.” M.T. didn’t want to say anything about why or how she had come by the Tesla and Audrey and Lynn sensed they ought not pry.

“I mean, if someone’s in trouble and needs a place to stay that is safe,” Lynn continued, “I mean I’m thinking of Tim and what we might need to do to find him a place to stay that is safe and cover up whatever happened with the car.” She couldn’t help but wonder how the car had become available to M.T. and why. Her hunch was that there was more to this situation than a hen heist and an underage driver.

I also know a gal, a friend, who has a place out past Harry’s, on the other side of the rendering plant. She bought into some land when the developer had to unload hit cheap. Turned out the big city tech folks he was hoping to sell his overpriced monster mansions to out on acreage weren’t too keen on being down wind of that stench. She got lucky and the county has been spared a little  of the cul-de-sac creep taking over the woods out that way. She’s taken in a lot of chickens some of the in town folks had to unload when their easy egg schemes got more complicated than they had counted on. I mean, she might be able to help Tim out. It could be a good place to tuck away a Tesla once it gets a paint job to disguise it.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Audrey stepped in when the other two remained silent.

M.T. nodded, “I’ll have to see what the owner wants to do once I can get ahold of …” M.T. stopped herself before she said too much more.

Chapter 18

by Matthew Morgan III, 1719 words

Harry Collier had reimagined himself recently. His body shop was receiving undue attention from occasional visitors who stank of Popo—men whose shoes were too clean, whose collars were too white, whose questions led too far along a path he denied following. He’d chosen to pull up stakes. New phone number, new address. But he’d kept the old number in case an occasional client he trusted rang him up.

And that was happening now. It was Audrey, dear poodle-haired Audrey, calling to get some body work done, he supposed. He flipped open the phone and answered the call.

“Audrey?”

“Harry! Where are you? When did you close your shop?”

“Now, now, don’t panic. But let me call you back.” He snapped the phone shut.

She wouldn’t be turning on him, would she? Nah. He could drag her down as easily as she could him. He fished his burner phone from his desk.

“Hello?” Audrey whispered, as if whispering would keep surveillance recordings from counting in court.

“Yeah, it’s me. Don’t call this number ever. Call the one you know. Now, here’s the deal: I closed that shop because of some snoopy guys from Seattle. I grabbed a building on King Tut Road. Shop has a new name. Mo’s Transformations. You can call me Harry on the phone, but in person, I’m Mo.”

“Wow. You’re really worried. Is it taxes? Or just the paint jobs?”

“Come on out. I’ll fill you in.”

***

Audrey was glad she had told M.T. she would take care of Cathy Clucker’s car. She missed Harry, and though that had been her motivation for driving out to the shop, she trusted herself more to maintain his cover than she did M.T. Why? No reason, other than she trusted herself above all others.

King Tut Road. A short stretch of road heading west from the Guide Meridian, named after some guy. Audrey thought it might be too easy for the feds to narrow down the location of the new shop. But that was up to Harry. Rather, Mo.

She drove the van to Mo’s Transformations. She didn’t see Harry, just one of his employees, a guy with a red crewcut. Then she realized she was looking at Mo, who, as Harry, had had a grey ponytail that showed his age. His beard was gone as well. She had always thought his beard was flattering, because, as with A. Lincoln, a beardless Harry was not much to look at.

“Hi there, Mo,” she said as she waved, “Long time. Care to have a look at a car we need to clean up right quick?”

She looked around the yard. A blue steel warehouse that had its previous name masked with green paint, without a replacement name to attract business. Word of mouth seemed to be Mo’s new business model.

Mo wiped his hands on his jeans and leaned on Audrey’s door. “How hot is this car?”

“More conspicuous than hot. Hop in, and I’ll show you what’s up.”

***

Polly usually did something most gamblers at the casino didn’t do: she quit while she was ahead. Since she left the daily earnings from her side gig up to the largesse of her clients, it sometimes took her longer to get ahead. But today was a good day. Her second gentleman caller, a Texan who came equipped with the requisite Stetson, had forked over two Benjamins, and that was before the incident.

After she escorted him safely to his rental Mustang convertible, an appropriate shade of red, she sauntered back through the drizzle to the trailer, broom in hand, shooing beat-up hens as she went. How they got here, and how they got so bloody, was anyone’s guess. All she knew was that they had helped her end her workday early.

Diamond Jim, as she called the Texan, had almost dragged her to the double-wide, he was so eager to avail himself of her services. But near the door, he saw a couple of hens pecking for bugs, and he pulled up short, as he might have on a horse, if he actually had ever learned to ride one. He stepped sideways as a skittish mare might, walking a half-circle and backing to the cinder-block steps to keep the hens from attacking him from the rear.

“What’s up, hon?” Polly asked, feigning innocence. “Hen got your tongue?”

“I’m not a fan of chickens,” he drawled. “Got bit by one when I was a toddler. Poked a hole in my hand when I tried to pet it. Can’t stand ’em.”

“Oh, sugar, they won’t do you no harm.” Polly was trying out her Southern Belle persona, hoping it would be close enough to whatever Texas women sounded like. “Let’s get on inside. I’m so hot I could fry eggs on my boobs.”

“Hot? In this weather? Oh, got it. Yeah, let’s go.” He licked his white mustache and backed up the blocks into the trailer. Once he crossed the threshold, he relaxed.

When they were settled in her room, Polly thought she heard a commotion in the living room. Must be outside, she thought, because the cackleophony of numerous hens sidling up under her bedroom window made more sense than having a kitchen turned into a coop.

And yet, when ol’ Tex zipped up and handed her his gratuity, the hens seemed louder. And sure enough, when he opened the door, he first gasped, then screamed like a lobster taking a hot bath.

He backed into her, stepping on her bare right foot, and slammed the door. His boot made a dent in her instep, and as he screamed, she screamed. Her response made him panic more, and he turned his back to the door and pushed to keep it closed, as if the hens had opposable thumbs and might turn the handle.

Once he stepped off her foot, she stopped screaming and grabbed her foot. She hopped to the bed and sat, massaging her toes, while Tex tried but failed to stop screaming. He stuffed the arm of his white sports coat into his mouth, which muffled the rhythmic utterances, but his face was cherry-red, and tears streamed down his cheeks.

“Good God, are the cops here?” Polly asked.

“Mmmns,” he gasped.

“M&Ms?”

“Chmmms.”

“Clams?”

He cleared his mouth and enunciated, “Chickens.”

She looked at her dented foot and shook her head. “Yeah. Hens. We have a chicken farm around here. Sometimes one or another gets loose.”

Tex locked the door and knelt before her. “Look, I can’t leave until you get the chickens out of the living room. How did they get in here anyway? I closed the door. Is this a trick?”

“It certainly was. But I don’t know nothin’ about the hens, honey pie. You just have to put on your big-boy hat and strut right past them like you’re a cock-a-doodle-doo rooster and show them who runs the barnyard.” She patted him on his sopping cheek.

“I can’t.” He buried his face in his hands and cut loose with huge sobs.

“Well, I’m gonna have to work on whatever happened here so you’ll feel safe. That may take awhile.”

“Oh, no,” he groaned. “I have to fly to Midland in three hours. How long are we talking?”

“How fast do you want them gone?”

He looked up. She winked.

“How about another hundred fast?”

“Ooh, I dunno. Sounds like five-hundred-dollar fast to me.”

He sighed and pulled out his wallet. He handed over five crisp hundred-dollar bills and ran to the master bath. After he closed the door, Polly slipped out of the bedroom to face her new friends, the hens.

What she saw intrigued her. Her progeny lay on the couch, his face a bloody mess, feathers in his hair. Lynn from the shelter sat by him, dabbing his forehead with a damp pink rag that probably was white a short while ago. Lynn looked up.

Polly started to wiggle her pelvis. “Who let the hens in? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?” she sang. Lynn frowned.

“Your son is injured, and he may need a trip to the hospital and a way to avoid going to jail for auto theft,” she scolded.

“Like father, like son,” Polly replied. “But I sure wouldn’t have given Tim credit for such boldness. What the heck did he do?”

“We can talk about that later. How about we get Tim disinfected and put him to bed?”

“Hen scratch fever, duh duh duh!” Polly was at it again. “Actually, the big priority here is to shoo out the hens and clear a path to that Midlife Crisis-Mobile out yonder. Fella in the bathroom is chicken of chickens.”

Lynn gawked at Polly. “Mrs. Bird, have you no shame?”

“I think it’ll be a shame if we don’t help ol’ Tex to his car. He paid me well to do just that. I’ll give you twenty if you help me.”

Lynn shrugged her shoulders. “This can’t take long. Then we can tend to Tim, right?”

“Sure.” Polly grabbed a broom and started swooshing at the hens while Lynn held the door open. When the last feather settled, she called out, “All clear!” her client peeked out, then rushed to the door.

“That’s Phase I,” Polly explained. “Now, stay close while I cover you and get you to your car.”

Waving the broom like a censer, Polly moved steadily forward on a direct line to the car. Tex jumped into his seat and hit the starter button. He did a quick 180 and sped down the lane. As he slowed at the end of the trailer park road, a bobcat, a hen in its mouth, leapt into the back seat of the Mustang. Tex floored the car, screaming once again. Polly wondered if he was screaming about the cat or the hen.

“Sheeee-it,” she thought as she sauntered home, swatting at the hens. “Some days are diamonds.”

***

Ginny watched the bobcat nab one of the hens she didn’t know well, one who had been slated for execution anyway. That didn’t make the lost hen any less a part of the Sisterhood, and in fact the reduction in the Hen Army by one would make the eventual overthrow of the Cluckers a bit more of a challenge. But not much more.

Chapter 19

by Carmella Bauman, 1810 words

Grey haired Sergeant Ralph Pepper didn’t like the congenial way his officer, “Chuck,” was cavorting with Tyson Cluckers.  He had always liked working with Charles – thought he had behaved well in his time with the department, proving himself to be a fair and accurate officer, even during the “defund the police” days – but his informal tone with his old pal made him wary.  And, nearing retirement – but not quite near enough for his liking – he was already weary.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Tyson said as they strode down the dirt track to the barn.  “She doesn’t go anywhere, I mean anywhere without checking in with me first,” he said to ‘Chuck.’

“What do you mean, ‘check in with you first’?” asked Pepper, his inquiry reminding Tyson that he wasn’t just chatting to his former classmate, but officers of the law.  Pepper realized that he was coming off as a salty old dog and rolled his own eyes at the thought.

“What? Oh. I mean, ‘tell me.’  She usually tells me where she’s going,” corrected Tyson, continuing on hurriedly.  “Cathy has barre class a couple times a week but that’s the only time she goes out in the morning.  But never before I wake up.” 

Sergeant Pepper noted the way Tyson hitched ever-so-slightly as he amended his statement.  Twenty-seven years on the job had given Pepper plenty of time to home in on the habits folks didn’t even realize they have – tics that can tip a fella’s hand, turn them from victim to perpetrator in an instant.  Pepper was aware that everything Tyson said could be a ruse, a scheme to collect an insurance payment for the damage at the farm, or that his wife may not really be missing, at least not by accident.  Hell, she could have just gone to her sister’s, mentioned it over dinner, and, given Tyson’s self-indulgent and selfish behavior, he could’a just forgotten she’d said something.  Pepper made a mental note to ask: Did Cathy even have a sister?

The three took long strides, arriving at the barn in rapid fashion.  Tyson sighed.  “And I don’t know what’s going on here,” he said, gesturing at the barn, tones of annoyance dripping like the weather surrounding them.

The sight in front of them was a chaotic mess.  Feathers floated in the breeze, landing on the dried grass, the gravel, and the wire of the coops, only to be picked up and resuspended.  Blood trailed in uneven patterns in the barn and on the road.  Tyson ineffectively batted at a feather floating in front of his face, agitated.  A couple of rain-moistened feathers had stuck to the front of Officer Winthrop’s jacket.  Sergeant Pepper reflected that it was as if they were standing in a snow globe.  But when does a snow glob contain a (potentially) murderous kidnapping scene? he wondered.

He resurfaced from his musing to hear Officer Winthrop mid-sentence.

“ – bobcats seen in the vicinity.”

“No,” Tyson shook his head vigorously, “no chance.  The staff know better than to leave a door, gate, bolt, or even their fly open.”

Winthrop nodded agreeably, making Pepper feel sick to his stomach.  He was still annoyed that Winthrop had promised to do “whatever it takes to get Cathy back safely.”  She hadn’t even been missing a full 24 hours and, besides, he had absolutely no business making promises.  Pepper frowned at the recent memory.  He loathed when officers treated the local wealthy businessmen differently than the rest of the community.  Until now, Winthrop hadn’t succumbed to that level.

“What about the staff,” asked Charles.  “Did you lay anyone off recently?  Anyone seem disgruntled?”  He was talking to Tyson like a friend, a big brother that he looked up to, rather than an interview subject.

“Nope.  It’s a small staff, for the size of our facility,” Tyson responded.

“Well, we’ll be able to review the security footage,” offered ‘Chuck.’  He didn’t seem to pick up the intensity and evasiveness Pepper noticed in Tyson’s tones and mannerisms.  Winthrop was a good cop but clearly too close to this guy, thought Pepper, even if he claimed to just be old high school pals. 

“Is it closed circuit,” asked Pepper, “or do you use a company for monitoring?  How long will it take you to get us access?”  A feather, dampened by the mist, landed on his shoulder.  He didn’t bother to brush it off.

Tyson was already pulling out his mobile phone.  “I can have it up for you in just a couple of minutes.  It’s always accessible to me.”  His fingers seemed to punch the screen harder than necessary, and Pepper found himself wondering if the screen might crack under the pressure.  “It’s just a matter of –”

“Start after you last saw everything as it should be,” offered Officer Winthrop.

“Here we go,” said Tyson, holding out the screen for the three of them to view together.  He set the video playback to five times speed, and it didn’t take long for them to see something unusual.   

“What the…” trailed Tyson, drawing the phone toward his flushing face, and becoming increasingly agitated.

Winthrop put his hand on his buddy’s forearm and Pepper appreciated his officer’s attempt to deescalate.  “Let’s get somewhere we can look at this on a bigger screen,” he said softly.

Tyson couldn’t pull his eyes away from the phone.  “Yeah,” he said, distracted, “Let’s go to the house.  I have a laptop we can use.”

***

Tyson Cluckers was incensed.  He had already spent twenty minutes pacing in his kitchen.  How had a skinny, little kid gotten ahold of his Tesla?  Though he was furious, a part of him appreciated the gumption of the scraggly twerp.  Took a lot of balls to use a man’s own car to liberate a few hens.

He stood at the granite island in his state-of-the-art kitchen – that he never used – drinking a glass of water while Chuck and the other officer watched the footage over and over again, making notes.  What he really wanted was a cold beer – or a glass of Bullet Rye Whiskey, neat – but he was pretty sure it was uncouth to drink in front of cops when they were still in the process of investigating and taking your statement. 

The officers were hunched together at the end of the island, scrolling through the different camera angles.  One angle showed the Tesla coming up the drive, very slowly, as if it didn’t know it was in the right place, the crown of the driver’s head barely visible above the steering wheel.  Another showed the Tesla backing toward the barn, weaving at variable speeds as if drunk, narrowly avoiding first a ditch and then a fence.  A third showed the kid getting out of the car and opening the barn doors, struggling to move them.  Another angle showed just how inept the boy was at moving the chickens from coop to car.  And then there was the bobcat that streaked out, hen clenched in its jaws.

The officers had asked if he recognized the teen – he didn’t.

Then they asked if there was any chance that his wife knew him, any chance she gave him the car.

“Not a chance,” he responded. 

The elder of the two had the audacity to ask him if there was any chance his wife was having an affair.

“Not. A. Chance,” Tyson responded again, his voice low and stern, locking eyes with the cop until Chuck said something to break the tension.

Tyson was glad the two were reviewing footage again, speaking to each other in hushed tones.  He didn’t like what the older cop had inferred.  Damn bastard.  He lifted his glass and set it back down without taking a drink.  Water wasn’t cutting it.  Cops be damned, if he wanted to drink in is own home, he was going to.

He strode over to the built-in maple bar between the kitchen and the dining room, picked up a crystal highball glass, and poured himself an unhealthy measure of whiskey.  He took a swig and sighed.

“Tyson,” Chuck said kindly, “Any chance –”

Tyson turned and glared at Chuck over the top of his highball glass, eyes glinting.  Chuck swallowed, mid-sentence, and appeared to blush.

“Any chance,” he continued, “Cathy went out of town?  That she told you where she was headed and that you… misremembered?”

Tyson responded by silently sipping his whiskey, sauntering back to the island, and staring at his old friend. He had already told them that nothing was missing and was still annoyed at the older cop restating that he, Tyson, hadn’t noticed anything missing.  As if there was a difference.  As if Tyson didn’t notice things in his own home.  As if he would misremember his wife.

“Okay,” Chuck said, glancing at the other cop.  A beat passed between them.

“So,” said the old cop slowly, hands folded on the island in front of him. “What is it that you think happened?”

“I think that’s what the two of you are supposed to be figuring out,” Tyson responded, locking eyes with the old man again. 

“Tyson,” Chuck started, his tone half placating, half admonishing, but the old guy cut him off.

“You and your wife have substantial funds.  Has anyone reached out to you?”

“No,” said Tyson, his voice flat.

“If she were kidnapped and someone asked for ransom –” Chuck began.

“– I’d cover it,” responded Tyson, his voice and eyes, cold as ice.

He took another sip of whiskey.  His glass was lighter than he wanted, and he wished he had given himself a heavier pour.  These two cops were going nowhere, fast, but he saw them give each other sideways looks when they thought he didn’t see.

“What?” asked Tyson, growing restless and heated.

Chuck sighed.  “How much would you be able to cover?” he asked.

Tyson set down his glass with force.  “Enough,” he said, his jawline tensing.  “I’d be able to cover damn near anything they asked.”

“Are you sure?” asked the old guy.

“Damn sure,” responded Tyson.  “I’ll show you.”

He picked up his phone, punching the screen as if the phone itself was causing all his problems of the day and a little force would knock everything in line, back where it was supposed to be.  Tyson opened the banking app he used, one with two-factor authentication, and went through the steps to securely log in.

“Here,” he said, before the screen fully loaded.  “Right, here—”

Tyson’s voice trailed as the numbers appeared before him.  He felt Chuck and the old guy’s eyes on him as his blood boiled.  He would never know the shade of puce he turned as he felt fury flood his body. 

He heard himself shout “That fucking bitch!” and a glass smash against a wall before he blacked out in rage.

Chapter 20

by Mary Louise Van Dyke, 1650 words

Tim groaned and woke up as the van stopped in the Animal Farm’s parking lot.

Outside the window, darkness draped the horizon. He didn’t want to go anywhere else today. He just wanted his bed. Nasty as the doublewide might be, Tim just wanted to be there. – and he had to see how the chickens were doing. His mom must have seen them by now. Maybe she would finally think he was worth something. More than just a drudge who couldn’t do anything much

“Where am I?” Audrey had already disappeared and Lynn’s face stared back at him. “I’m taking you to someone who can help, Tim,” Lynn said in a voice that she probably thought was soothing. “But we have to hurry.”

“No! NO.” he said and pushed himself up, trying to ignore the blood dripping down his face. “Let me of here.”

“But you have to help us find M.T.” Lynn said. “So they can help you.”

Tim gritted his teeth. “I said no and I mean it! I can take care of myself.” He reached for the side door handle and yanked the handle back. “Just leave me alone.”

Pain jackknifed through his body as he jumped down and Lynn rolled down her window, heedless of the rain. “Tim, stop it. You know your mother isn’t going to help you. We can.”

He forced his eyes to open wide and stared her down. “I said no. You can’t make me.”

Tim put one shaky foot in front the next and the next, willing himself to not trip and get her clucking at him to get in the van. But he wouldn’t. He would show them – all of them – and he would show his mother he was a hero.

“Tim, please?” Lynn called again. “It’s raining!

Duh. Tim ignored her and plodded on. The rain eased as the van lights faded into the distance. He would catch a bus home. All the way to the bus stop, he shivered, wanting to fold up and drop onto the rocky drive. Instead, he found a puddle with clear water and splashed his face to wash off as much blood as possible.

The bus driver stared at him but didn’t comment as Tim found a seat in the back and waited for his stop. 

Home. What passed for home. Ahead he saw the dark shadow of the doublewide and heard the cluck, cluck, clucking of the chickens he’d saved. They wouldn’t end up being served extra crispy at the local Cluckers drive-thru.

The buck-buck-bucks intensified as he reached the edge of the scrabbly patch of land the trailer sat on. The moonlight allowed him to see a sea of white and brown feathersters shifting from side to side.

***

Hades, his face hurt. Tim rubbed his forehead. At least it was crusted now. He wanted to be done with all them, chickens, people, everything.  If his mother would just finally realize what a hero he was – this whole thing would be worth it. No more being called good-for-nothing.

She would call him good-for-something.

The porchlight wasn’t on. Was she still at work or gone out for the evening with one of her pick-up guys? He started into the yard and was suddenly aware that every buck-buck-buck was stopped and beady eyes gleaming at him in every direction.

One brown chicken with a weird two-colored nose stepped toward him. Bu-ck, bock – od and the beak opened wide.

More fowl voices joined into a gigantic buck-ood – buck–ood.

Blood? His heart stopped and his legs felt like playdough as he stepped back. Or were they saying food? Food? Food?

His heart sank. They needed food. Chicken food. There wasn’t any chicken food here at the doublewide unless the cans of creamed corn kept in the pantry might work.

But the fowl-hearted feathersters weren’t about to let him any closer to the front door.

He wanted his bed. He wanted to wash his face, his hands free of the blood and feathers. The cluster of clucks appeared ready to attack him again.

He cringed. Hungry chickens foraging on him, on his hands, his face, his legs.

With a cry he turned and ran conscious of the brown hen nipping at his heels. Bood. Buck-buck Buck-ood.

“I’ll get you food,” he hissed.

But how? The van and the Tesla were gone and the Cluckers farm where food awaited, miles off.  The only thing available without keys was the ancient adult-sized tricycle and rattly trailer that belonged to a neighbor.

He was just borrowing it, he soothed himself as he rode into the night. Just borrowing it and would return it soon. He was a hero after all.

Yes, a hero indeed wA as he and a tough one indeed,

He would fetch the life-giving kernels the hens did need,

Upon those beaksome morsels (and not him) they would graciously feed . . . .

Not many wheel revolutions later Tim wished he’d been able to enter the trailer and get an energy drink before taking off. Tim wanted to ditch his rattly three-wheeled vehicle and lay down in a ditch somewhere and sleep and sleep and sleep.

But the chickens needed food and the only way he’d get safely back into his house was by the front door. To bed. To shower. And to hear those hoped for words from his mother.

The sun was scratching away the darkness when he spotted Cluckers farm. Tim sighed with relief and pedaled onto the dirt driveway. He would surely find feed in the barn and with luck, he would be home in a few hours. Mom never woke up.

What was that?

His right hand tightened reflexively on the brake and the bike skidded to a stop.

Why was there a cop car here? Two of them crowding the way back to the barn and the food. Without thinking, Tim slid off and flinched as his feet met the pavement. Had Mr. Tyson Cluckers already noticed the hens were gone?

He would realize much later if he’d been smart, he would have turned around and pedaled away for dear life. Instead he tiptoed towards the house where he heard the sounds of shouting.

“Either the bitch has stolen all my money or she’s been kidnapped and the person forced her to rob me.” Tyson yelled.

Tim peeked through the side window. The chicken butcherer was standing there, face flaming brighter than a Rhode Island Red.

“Now Tyson, you need to calm down,” one of the cops said, patting the man on the hand. “Until we know for sure what’s happened.”

“It’s my entire fortune. All my money. She’s got it – or they’ve got it.”

Someone had taken all the Cluckers money? Tim gasped and managed a lopsided smile. Yes! He wasn’t aware he’d shouted until too late. Three startled faces stared out at his and Tim moved away too slowly as a cop came dashing out of the house followed by the other two men.

“Gotcha,” the cop, whose name badge read Pepper, grabbed Tim’s hen-pecked arm.

“That’s him,” Tyson yelled. “That’s the little bastard who stole my chickens!”

After making sure the dogs all had kibbles and clean blankets, Phil stretched out his legs on the desktop in Delia’s office. Good thing she wasn’t here to see him. The police scanner aka blotter continued to spew out the latest desperado doings of the not-so-fine county citizenry.

Tom hadn’t bothered to come in the office, after reappeared after his outing with the Cluckers earlier today. His car was gone when Phil checked.

Shame that. Hopefully the man would be in tomorrow and would be singing like a canary about his rubbing elbows with the well-to-do Poultry Princes of the county. Phil thoughtfully tapped his pencil on the edge of the desk in a 2-4-2-4 beat. Tom and money. Money and Tom. Why would the Cluckers brothers want to get involved with Tom?

Phil thought about his missing money. He would get it all back,  every last thin dime and all the Grants and Hamiltons. Tom wouldn’t dog the long arm of the law. Not this time.

He grunted and sipped his cooling coffee. What a day. Chickens and kidnappers. Phil grunted and reluctantly swung his feet down. He still needed to check on the cats and the rabbits and gerbils. Looked like he would miss his evening class again.

Deciding the purries could wait, Phil poured himself another cup of coffee and spooned in three teaspoons of sugar. Was the teen the chicknapper?  His detective instincts shouted yes, Tim was the perpetrator. However, Phil’s softer version side, hewn here at Animal Farm, hoped he was wrong. Tim seemed a good kid who should be in school and working towards a goal that featured animal care. Not trying to liberate feathered livestock that couldn’t even fly or take care of themselves.

Wait. His head swiveled towards the police scanner that filled the tiny office with anti-white noise.

A 10-35? A robbery is reported, static flared. Kidnapped. Wife. More static flared.

Growling, Phil thumped the scanner, his police senses tuning in. 10-35 was code for a major crime alert.

Chickens.

Chickens? Wife? Kidnapped? Hat the whell? Did something else occur at the Cluckers farm factory? He pushed the coffee aside, not caring that the liquid sloshed over onto the printed daily report. Delia could do something useful for a change when she arrived in the morning and print out a new copy.

Speaking of Delia. He shook his head. Chasing Tom was challenging enough. But that young woman was another fettle of kish entirely. Brainy, oh yes, brainy. Built, not that he was interested. He wasn’t.

Phil needed to do some under the table investigating and probe what her part in Tom’s underhanded business was. For all Phil knew, she was the real force.

“Phil?” said a voice behind him.

Chapter 21

by Heidi Beierle, 1724 words

MT returned home from the tattoo parlor and walked into the room where she’d left Cathy. “We’re all set. It sounds like the car is on its way to getting a makeover.”

“Fabulous,” Delia said. She was sitting next to Cathy with her legs crossed.

“How are you feeling Cathy?” MT asked.

“My face hurts, and I’m scared. But your friend, Delia, wow. She knows what’s scary and what hurts, and so I guess I’m not so scared right now. She’s helping me see a way to the future. Both of you are. Thank you.”

“I’m glad it worked out,” MT said. When Delia was at the tattoo parlor earlier, she asked MT to keep an eye out for Cathy. MT hadn’t expected it would be so easy to draw Cathy into her confidence much less move Tyson’s billions. Billions. MT counted the commas a few times to be sure. A person with money like that just kind of walked around town, kept a barn of chickens, and abused his wife. Were all billionaires assholes or just this one?

Delia looked at Cathy. “It’s like magic, huh?”

“Mmmm.” Cathy settled back in the chair and lightly pressed the bandages at her eyes. “I can’t believe I left Tyson.” She sat up. “My god! He’ll kill me if he finds me.”

Delia leaned forward. “Probably, but we’re not going to let him do that, are we?”

Cathy’s voice was small. “No.”

MT held Cathy’s hand. “He’s been killing you since you got together. This is what it feels like when your life is your own. It’s a big deal what you did today. Give yourself some credit.”

Cathy squeezed MT’s hand. “I feel like the stars aligned. Like you were there for a reason when I came out of Dr. Fox’s office. I doubt I could have made it to Seattle. And you were able to help me move the money. Then Delia was here. What a gift.”

Delia met MT’s look and smiled with her eyes.

“MT,” Cathy said, “Delia and I were talking about creating an endowment at the Animal Farm Shelter. I’d love it if you were part of it with us. It’s the least I could do to thank you for your help.”

“A trustee? Me? Sure, I guess.”

“Delia, could you explain it again? The money is safe in the Cayman Islands, but how do we spend it?”

Delia uncrossed her legs and leaned toward Cathy conspiratorily. “We launder the cash in various businesses – car washes, laundromats, strip clubs, casinos, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors.” Delia winked at MT. “Fifty to sixty percent comes out clean. We put that toward the endowment.”

Even through her bandages Cathy looked puzzled. “I’m sorry to ask this again. My face hurts. That sounds complicated. How do we access the money?”

“Look, Cathy, my family’s been in this business for four generations. Leave the complicated part to me. The, air quotes, endowment,” Delia gestured, “is our piggy bank. We run the books on that money. Make sense?”

“I think so. I don’t have to stay in town to make this work, do I?”

“Nope. You don’t. I don’t. MT doesn’t. MT and I may elect to stay in town, but it’s unnecessary. The endowment is just a front. Where do you want to live, Cathy?” Delia turned to MT. “Where do you want to set up your tattoo parlor, MT?”

MT smiled. “Now that’s something to think about.”

***

“I haven’t had time to do much to this place,” Delia said. She sat at a bistro table. Pool care items decorated the walls. “Do you like it?”

“A pool house is a pool house,” Pino said.

“Not too obvious?”

“In this soggy town? What about you? You are obvious.”

“Point taken, but I’m here to do a job, and I just landed a winner. I could be gone in a heartbeat, but I’ll hang around for a bit. I don’t want to raise suspicions. It was an easy catch, but you’ve probably already heard the noise.”

“Sure. A lotta squawking.”

“How soon can you start the wash?”

“Honey, I just hosed down the truck.”

“You’re real cute, Pino.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“The fuck, Pino?” Delia glared at him and let a pouty silence hang in the air. “And what possessed you to risk the business with that melon shit?”

“Eh.” Pino fanned the air dismissing Delia’s concern. “A man needs a little excitement from time to time.”

“Well, get this, the planet now has more than 8 billion people on it. Does that excite you?”

“That so?” Pino’s eyes lit up and one corner of his mouth arced into a smirk. “It does.”

***

“Cathy, I’m getting you out of here.” MT was firm. “I have a friend coming by in a rental car. What was your original plan for when you reached Seattle?”

“I don’t know, exactly. Disappear into the anonymity of the city. Hop on a plane. Drive. Go somewhere he wouldn’t think to look for me. Hideaway. Cache. Truth or Consequences. Nameless. Looneyville.”

“Where?”

“Exactly. I already have a new identity and documentation. I’ve been planning this for a while. I guess I should have known that other women have escaped bad relationships. I’ve felt alone for so long. It’s my own fault. You’re helping me, and I’m touched. I don’t feel I deserve your help.”

“Shit, Cathy. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be. Do you mind if I take the bandages off and see what you look like?”

“Go ahead. I hope I’m ugly. And if the procedure winds up killing me from infection or blinding one of my eyes, it will still be ok. At least it was MY choice.”

“That’s bold.” MT started cutting loose the bandages.

“Well? What do you think?”

“Looks like you have a broken nose and a slice down one side of your face that runs through your eyebrow, eyelid and into the hollow of your cheek. It’s stitched up of course.”

“That sounds right.”

“You paid Dr. Fox to make it look like Tyson beat you up?”

“Hah! I suppose I did.”

“I can work with this. You have sunglasses?”

“Two pairs.”

“Rad. Let’s get you some traveling clothes. Here,” MT dug in her dresser. “Artful Dodger Tattoo hoodie. Your jeans will be fine. I doubt people will make eye contact with you dressed like this with your face all cut up. Let me black up your other eye with eyeliner.”

“Thank you, MT. Really.”

“Lose your cell phone if you still have it on you.”

“I left it in Tyson’s playroom. If anyone comes looking for me, they’re going to find things Tyson doesn’t want them to.”

MT straightened. Cathy was full of surprises. “I guess you have a wad of cash on you?”

“Yep.”

“Nicely done.”

“I’m trying to smile, but it hurts.”

“I’ll bet. Here’s a burner phone.” MT slid the flip phone into Cathy’s hand. “Keep the battery out. When you use it, short is your friend. It has a few numbers programmed in. Me and Delia. We have more than one. Call the first number in a couple days so we know you’re ok. We’ll establish the next contact then.”

Cathy held the phone to her heart. “This is really happening?”

“It is. And your ride is here.”

MT opened the passenger door of the black Maxima for Cathy. Once Cathy was settled in, MT introduced the two women to each other. “Amy,” MT looked to her friend, “meet Emily.” MT looked into Cathy’s sunglasses hoping to see through the reflection to Cathy’s eyes but saw only herself.

***

“Phil? The fuck you doing?” Bull had come to tell Delia he was quitting. All the humans at Animal Farm, except Tim, made him feel like he was striding toward a parole violation. No money was worth being separated from Cherry again. He knew he would be fine if he could escape the tractor beam of cagey dealings he seemed drawn into.

Phil stammered. “Uh. Uh. There was something beeping. I was trying to, uh, see where it was coming from, and, you know, stop it from beeping.”

“How’d you do?”

“What?”

“Where was the noise coming from?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t find it yet.”

“Really? That’s strange. I don’t hear anything.” Bull was done with the place. It was probably better for him that Delia wasn’t there.

Phil cocked his head like a robin. The police scanner fuzzed with static.

“Since you’re here,” Bull said, “could you lend me a hand over in the barn? I’ve been working on a place for the chickens you said we should expect.”

“Oh. Yeah, sure.” He reached for his coffee but thought better of it.

They walked out of Delia’s office together. “In some situations, Cherry’s only so much help.”

“I hear ya. So what can I for ya do?”

Bull pointed at the new coop. “I’m not entirely sure of the design. They like to be totally closed in at night?”

“Yeah. All kinds of critters like to snatch them in the dark.”

“Ok, that’s what I thought. I have another support to add at the top. You go in, and I’ll feed you the lumber through the ventilation slit up there.” Bull pointed near the roof. “It anchors near the roof on the far side in there. You hold it up while I secure it out here.”

“You bet.” Phil went inside the coop.

“Here it comes.” Bull slid a 2×4 through the vent. “Got it?”

“Almost. Lower it just a tad. Yeah.”

Bull pushed the lumber to the back of the coop and closed the door as he did so. “Hold it.”

“I got it.”

Bull quietly slid a plank across the coop doors, locking Phil inside. He put several screws in the plank to ensure Phil wouldn’t get out any time soon and made a half-assed attempt to secure the 2×4 at the roof. “Darn it.”

“What?”

“I don’t have the right length screws. The one I have in there barely bit into the roof beam. Hold on a minute but don’t let the wood fall.”

“Ok.”

Bull walked across the lot where Cherry was waiting for him in the truck, got in, and drove off.

Chapter 22

by Al Clover, 1689 words

Yep, Bull was done. He was on the straight and narrow from now on. The talks he’d had with Delia about the construction were sprinkled with red flags and he’d ignored them. In his defense she’d flirted like crazy—and he’d just gotten out of prison. But now he was thinking of Cherry and how he wasn’t going back to prison. Ever again.

At her whimper, he ran his hand through Cherry’s fur, “Oh girl what have I gotten myself into?” Cherry nudged his hand with a lick of her rough but gentle tongue. She sensed her two-leggs was in conflict.

Bull sat there trying to come to terms with locking Phil in the barn and the conflict of not wanting to break the terms of his parole. He couldn’t explain his sudden action. Cherry bumped him again. The problem was Bull’s cop radar. It sounded an alarm in his stomach whenever he talked to Phil. Which sucked because Bull wasn’t doing anything illegal and so shouldn’t feel guilt. There was just a feeling about Phil. Bull couldn’t quite put his finger on it. It was dogging him.

Phil’s confused way of bumbling around the farm had seemed off and Bull just didn’t know what to think. Cherry gave a short bark of encouragement and Bull knew he was going to regret his decision. Putting his truck in reverse he backed up to the parking lot of the No-Kill farm.

And in addition to the problem with Phil there was Delia’s father(?) Tom. Cherry growled— it wasn’t a playful growl—whenever Tom was around. And that was a sure sign that Cherry didn’t like the guy. Earlier he’d seen Tom and that Clucker guy talking on the side of the road and Clucker had that serious look Bull remembered from some of the cons he “roomed” with during his prison stay. A conversation that most often led to nothing above board. Tom looked like he was suffering from riding a bike with a seat that tried to cut you in half.

***

“Hey Bull, this is getting heavy. Did you get the tools you need? Bull?” Phil’s arms were beginning to ache from holding the two by four in position. He set the plank down. “Bull you out there? This is no time for pranks.”

“Sorry Phil I couldn’t find the hammer I wanted.” Bull pulled the nails and opened the door. It wouldn’t look good if Phil saw he’d blocked the door. “Look I’m gonna come clean with you. I hope you’ll understand but, are you a cop?”

“Nooo. Why would you say that? I’m just a tired out old guy.” Phil was a bit out of practice when it came to fooling people. As a cop in New York, he’d been a savant in the box. He could wring a confession out of the villains with just a look. These days not so much.

Bull wasn’t a villain, but he’d spent enough time in prison to recognize the subterfuge Phil was attempting to pass off as an old guy pose.

“Look I don’t know what your deal is but I’m trying to stay out of jail. I think you’ve seen that stuff is going on around here. Maybe not of the mastermind type but I get a wrong feeling.” Bull strove to sound sincere and forthcoming.

The change in Phil’s demeanor was like night and day. “Alright Bull, you got me. I guess the cat’s out of the bag. I’ve been following Tom Lyons or as I know him, Tomaso “Tommy the Cat” Leone ever since he moved his money laundering operation from the East Coast to here on the West Coast. I’m no longer a cop but this is personal. Tommy boy there stole my 401K money along with others.” During this speech Phil went from a hunched, shoulder stooped man he’d affected during his tenure here, to his true six-foot frame.

“I knew you were off.” Bull patted himself on the back, when with a bark Cherry tore off towards the road.

“Cherry girl, come!” Bull shouted, and forgetting the Phil conversation, ran after the dog. Cherry continued to bark and getting to the main road she stopped and waited for Bull to catch up.

Phil was huffing from the exertion, but he arrived not far behind Bull, who was kneeling talking to his dog.

“What is it girl. Did someone fall down the well?” Bull chuckled at the joke whenever Cherry acted like she knew things he didn’t. In between barks, he heard a weird softly clicking sound. Cherry glanced up at him and whined. Then the noise he’d heard sounded again, this time he determined it was moving further away from him but still not sure of its origin. Cherry mouthed, without any teeth, Bull’s hand and started pulling him back to the parking lot.

“What’s going on? Why did your dog run away like that?” Phil was glad they were walking. He’d let himself sink too far into the character he was playing. That short run shouldn’t have winded him. Time to hit the treadmill. Especially since he’d broken cover.

“I don’t know but she certainly wants me to do something. Girl what is it?” Bull took a moment to give the dog a once over. She didn’t seem too anxious, but a smell or a sound had upset her. She led him back to the truck.

Cherry hopped into the bed of the truck and stood there with an expectant stare back to the main road. Her bark had an urgent tone to it.

“Girl, I don’t know what you want. I need more.” Bull had done this before with Cherry. They had a connection and he just had to figure out what was going on. Cherry jumped out of the truck and moved to scratch at the driver’s side door.

“I don’t know about you, but I think she wants to go for a ride?” Phil was impressed with the dog’s ability to communicate with Bull. At least it seemed that was the idea anyway. Bull opened the door of the truck and Cherry jumped in the cab.

“Seems you’re right. Cherry what’s up with you? Do you want to go for a ride?” Cherry whined and moved to the passenger seat. “Phil, we still have a lot to talk about but I’m going to follow Cherry’s lead and go on a drive.” When Bull said drive, Cherry barked eagerly.

Bull turned to Phil, “Okay if you want you can come along. I don’t think it’ll be a long drive and I can come back and drop you off afterwards. I’d like to hear more about your personal vendetta against Tom. If you want, that is.”

Phil was uncertain but he’d given the game away so… “Sure why not. You may have noticed little things I missed.” He walked around to the passenger side. Cherry had moved to the center of the bench seat giving him room to climb in. Cherry then bumped her nose on his window.

“Could you open the window for her? It’s raining but she likes to hang her head out. You can even move to the middle so she’s not sitting on you and you’re not getting too wet.” Phil decided that was a good idea, so he rolled the window down and moved over. The rain had slowed to a drizzle. Typical Washington weather. Bull put the truck in gear and drove to the main road. He turned left and immediately Cherry started barking and turned to regard Bull’s driving. The truck continued down the road and now Cherry’s bark had a gravity to its tone.

“Now what?” Phil was questioning his decision to go for a ride. He hoped it wasn’t a ride he didn’t come back from.

“I don’t know. What now’s the problem girl?” Cherry had rotated in the seat with her head leaning out the window back the way they’d come. Bull maneuvered the truck onto the side of the road changing direction. They’d been heading north, now their journey turned southerly. Cherry had calmed down when they turned around.

“Seems like she wants us to go this way. Not sure why but she’s not barking so that’s good.” Phil was REALLY questioning his decision now.

Bull drove along the road and concluded that they were driving toward the Cluckers chicken farm. Why Cherry wanted to go there he was unsure. She never chased chickens whenever they ran afoul of the feathered flightless birds. In fact, she never chased any birds. Chickens or other fowls.

As the truck drew closer to the chicken farm a glow in the sky could be seen. And a pulse of red and blue mixed in with the darkness. Bull knew that pulse.

Dodging a three-wheel bike that was precariously perched off the road Bull pulled into the drive. Cherry began her excited barking that accompanied her greeting of Tim. Bull could see Tim in the grasp of a uniformed policeman. The truck skidded to a stop and all three occupants jumped out. Cherry ran to Tim.

“Hey, get that dog away from us!” the policeman shouted at Bull. The new arrivals had interrupted the cop’s talk with Tim.

“Come here girl.” Bull summoned Cherry back to him. She reluctantly took a few steps towards Bull and then moved back to nuzzle Tim’s leg with the side of her head.

“Now as I was saying what did you mean by your comment about money, and someone named Delia?” The cop glared at the disheveled and panicking boy.

With his voice tight from panic Tim cleared his throat and channeling his TV crime show watching, “I’m not saying another word until I get a deal.” He had no clue what kind of deal he could get with the information he had. Or even if it was real. The information that is, but Delia had threatened him if he said anything about what he heard when she was on the phone that day. And he knew he was in big trouble. But it was for the chickens.

Chapter 23

by Randy Dills, 2095 words

M.T. shut the door and watched the car pull into traffic carrying off her golden goose to parts unknown. Satisfied that she’d seen the last of Cathy, she shut the door on solidarity. She had her hand in a cookie jar. A big cookie jar. There were butterflies in her stomach. Not now, she told herself. Not this close to the finish line. There was only Delia to deal with, she thought. She turned. Saw Delia leaning in the doorway, arms crossed, smiling slightly. M.T. blanched, thought, which of us is the fox and which is the hen?

“Let’s take a drive,” Delia said.

***

In the car, Delia asked:

“Whatcha ya thinking?” 

Shit. Delia knew. M.T. looked her up and down, finally seeing Delia for the first time. How did this baby-faced youngin’ get around on her so fast?

“Sisterhood,” M.T. tried weakly. Maybe it was not too late for solidarity after all. Maybe she could still get a little taste of the Clucker’s cookie. She could share, right? She glanced down at the Ace of Spades tattooed on her forearm. Or, she thought, I might have one card left to play.

Delia laughed. “Not a bad day’s work at old Tattoo Confidential, eh?”

“How so?”

“I’m thinking that we might could be friends, the two of us.” Delia paused, watched M.T.’s face grow pale. Delia chuckled about how fast a piece of her dad’s fifty grand score had mushroomed into a billion-dollar haul. Billions. She could axe her Powerball habit now. She thought back to her econ classes at NYU. And money grows money, she thought. In her head, she started spending. Milan’s Quadrilatero d’Oro on Friday. Ibiza on Saturday. Back in her condo in the Village in New York on Monday. Still, she felt a pang. Oof. What is that? She thought back to the feelings wheel in her Psych 101 textbook. Tried to pin the feeling down. Was that knucklehead Tim Bird’s idealism rubbing off on her? Was it watching M.T. use the traveling sister’s network to send Cathy into the ether? Was it seeing that rag tag crew at the shelter running their nickel and dime fundraising scheme to save the animals from the needle? Don’t get soft.

They parked in front of Tattoo Confidential. They got out and looked at the store front. The LED closed sign flashed in the dusk. Delia nodded at M.T.

“What’s wrong with this picture?”

M.T. shrugged.

“A tattoo parlor closed at this hour?” Delia said. “Not a good look.”

“I cleared the books tonight,” M.T. said.

Delia did not reply. She looked up and down the street. Saw foot traffic picking up. The streetlights snapping on. A man with close-cropped hair and a handlebar mustache, striped shirt, and cuffed jeans put a sandwich board out in front of the curated burger joint across the street. Tough to make that go in this town, Delia thought. She noticed the burrito shop next door, the bayou chicken and shrimp place next to that, and the Korean chicken shop beyond that. They all had signs in the windows offering vegan options.

A Clucker’s delivery truck turned the corner. It pulled in front of the burger shop and parked. The driver turned on the yellow flashers and pressed the in-cab lift gate button to engage it. He opened the door and hopped out of the cab. He trotted to the rear of the truck where he pressed two of the three buttons on a panel above the taillights to tilt the lift-gate down. When it was level, he released one of the buttons and the gate descended all the way to the pavement. Frost dissipated from the interior of the hold and drifted out into the evening air. Pallets of frozen chicken stood wall to wall.

The mustachioed man said, “You’re kind of late, aren’t ya?” The man fidgeted. “Tu,” he started, then stopped. “Usted?” he paused again. “I don’t know how to say that in Spanish.”

The driver shrugged. Did not bother explaining. “Don’t worry, man.” He glanced up to see two teens approaching rapidly on ten-speed bicycles. “THIS IS A DIRECT ACTION!” one of them called into a megaphone. “MEAT IS MURDER!” He tried to get off his bike while holding the megaphone, got tangled and fell over.

The second teen tossed a leg over the frame and hopped off his bicycle at a run. The driver watched the bike coast by him down the street as if the teen had left his body and a phantom continued to pedal. The teen uncapped a canister and threw orange paint all over the Clucker truck’s red hen logo. The protester with the megaphone, with scraped knees and elbows, got up and handcuffed himself to the truck’s side mirror. “WE WILL NOT STOP UNTIL ALL THE RESTAURANTS IN THIS TOWN HAVE DIVESTED THEMSELVES FROM THE INTERNATIONAL MEAT CARTEL LED BY THE…” He was interrupted by the high-pitched static squawk of the megaphone. “…UCKERS OF THE WORLD. YOU KNOW,” he continued, unfazed, “FOR THE ANIMALS. FOR THE FUTURE!” The driver looked at the mustachioed man on the sidewalk. Looked back at the screaming protesters. The one with the paint was now trying to glue his freshly shaven head to the side of the truck. The driver shrugged. Put his hands in his pockets and sighed. A few people stopped and looked. Pulled out their phones and switched-on video. Most walked by without looking back.

“Hey man,” someone called from out of the hamburger shop. “You got any non-meat meat burgers left?”

Delia’s smile grew wide. She opened the door of the tattoo parlor and propped it open with her foot. “Come on in,” she said to M.T. with a wave. “There might be more good to be done yet.”

M.T., irritated at being wrong-footed and chafing at being invited into what she thought of as her own shop, stepped inside over Delia’s long leg. Delia moved her foot, let the door swing closed and clicked the latch. She took a last look at the scene unfolding around the Clucker’s truck. Pulled the cord and let the blinds drop to the floor in a whoosh, shutting out the rest of the world.

***

They would-be philanthropists moved into Carson Fox’s office. Wherever he was, he didn’t know he was no longer the sole proprietor of Tattoo Confidential. Sometimes life comes at you fast.

Delia gave M.T. her elevator pitch.

“Next-gen mafia does good. Women helping women. Save the planet.” She may have left a few things out. “We can fund the network that took Cathy away. And other things. I think we might even get some of the shelter volunteers on board.”

“What about your dad and your uncle?” M.T. asked. “They both seem pretty keen on taking up space.”

“You’ve seen them. They are liabilities. My dad has just retired. I retired him for his own good. And Pino? Pino could be useful in a very limited capacity. Like minding the door out front while we do what we do back here.”

“And Carson?” M.T. asked.

“He’s a liability too,” Delia said. They’re on the way down, but us? It’s our time.”

Delia studied M.T. Her posture and facial expression made it seem like the tattoo artist was buying in, but Delia thought she was playing coy. Watch your step, she told herself.

“The endowment is the public face here in this town,” she continued. “Gives us all a stipend if we’re disciplined, but we’ve got to move boatloads of cash.” She paused. “And then what? Would you be satisfied with tattoo parlors? Pizza parlors? Funeral parlors?”

M.T. remained expressionless.

“I’m not a mind reader, M.T.”

“We spend it.”

“No, darling,” Delia said. “We invest it.”

Delia typed into the laptop. “How would you like to take out the Clucker Brothers? Not just Tyson’s money, which, remember, wasn’t his in the first place, but his whole operation? And win one for Cathy and the sisterhood while we’re at it? And do a good turn for the animals?”

Delia swiveled the laptop on the desk and slid it over to M.T. The tattoo artist read the screen.

“Cultivated meat product,” she read aloud. “Huh?”

“Slaughter-free chicken!” Delia exclaimed.

M.T. stared at her blankly.

“You don’t need chickens anymore. They can, like, return to nature. Free-range or something.”

M.T. slouched. Then she sat up in her chair and leaned forward, and said,

“You mean we invest in this?”

“Welcome to the world of V.C., baby. We’re Angel Investors now.”

“Huh,” M.T. repeated. “Lab grown meat.” What the –?

There was a knock at the front door.

***

At Clucker’s farm, the group of men stood in a tight huddle in stupefied silence, chickens continuing to mill around and weave through legs, squawking. “They need to be fed,” Tim chirped. He plopped to the ground, keister first, indicating that he had nothing more to say. Bull locked eyes with Tyson Clucker. The former billionaire’s nostrils flared, but he looked away. Made like he got a phone call and turned his back on the group. Bull sized up the uniformed officers Sgt. Pepper and Officer Chuck. He’d heard the name Delia and began to plan his exit.

“Um, hey fellas,” Phil said. “Are you gonna write any of this down?” Yokels, he thought.

Bull kicked at the gravel but kicked a chicken instead. Looked at Phil. I should have left you in the coop. He looked down at Tim.

“Don’t say anything, Squirt. Get a lawyer. In fact, call mine.” He grabbed a notebook and pen from Sgt. Pepper’s hand and scrawled out a name and number on the empty page.

He ripped it off the pad and tossed it at the boy on the ground. “The kid has counsel,” the ex-con said. He clicked his tongue at Cherry and turned on his boot heel. Five sets of eyes watched the paper swirl in the air and flutter toward the earth. By the time the men looked up, man and dog were peeling out of the parking lot in the old pick-up.

***

Delia, Bull thought. Go home, moron. She’s not worth it. Go home. Or just go warn her and then go get chicken. He took a left on the main road toward town. He had some cash burning in his pocket. Go get a tv dinner. Hell, get a rotisserie chicken. She’s too young. But it’s been so long. He remembered the way her fingers brushed his arm, the way he got lost in those deep brown eyes when she told him, “You look good swinging a hammer, Cowboy.” Yep, I have to warn her how hot things are getting. He floored it and pushed that bucket of bolts to the limit. He thought back to their walk in the park. But she don’t like Cherry! He looked at his dog, head lolling out the window in the wind. Pure joy. He took his foot off the gas. Damn it, she don’t like Cherry, I know it! No one gets between Cherry and me. The bar then. Get some fried chicken at the Hen House and maybe one of them pretty barmaids too. But those brown eyes…lead straight to Walla Walla, buddy. Or worse. She’s using you. He punched the stereo on. Meatloaf, 1993. The last good album. He caught that tour at the Tacoma Dome with Stacy Fledermaus and Becky Hölle. He about went through the roof from the jolt it gave him. Stacy, I screwed it up so bad with you. And Becky, wow, where are you now? He turned the volume all the way up. And now Delia crossed my path. Just right there. Cherry, such a good girl, she led me right to Delia. Redemption! His heart swelled. That’s lust, not love. Just breathe, just breathe, just breathe! Lotsa women out there. Move on. Go take a cold shower. Get some food in the belly. Throw the frisbee with Cherry. Cherry, my one true love. He looked at the tattoo on his arm. Love. “I ought a get a back piece of you next old girl,” he reached over and tousled Cherry’s fur. The way you swing a hammer. He came into town. He could go right. Home. Or he could go left and warn Delia. Get Delia. Run off with her to the coast. Or the San Juans. Those eyes. A man could get lost in those eyes. Those heels. “Damn, girl,” he said to Cherry. “I think she’s the one!” He turned left.

Chapter 24

by Baker the Boston Terrier – as dictated to Cami Ostman, 2,384 barks, growls, grunts and “words”

Word had gone round during that day that old Mame had had a strange dream the previous night and wished to communicate it with the other animals.

When all of the two-leggs were gone–Tom to his new home, Delia to her capers, Phil to his policing, and Audrey and Lynn to who knows where–Mame barked all of the animals to attention.

“Gather around, all!” she shouted. 

Of course the dogs responded quickly with howls of attention. Mame was known to be the wise one in the bunch. She often had constructive ideas about how to keep the two-leggs happy enough to continue to work in the service of the animals (nuzzle their hands when they pass by the cages, pee in designated areas). But the cats, always protesting the dominance of dogs, ignored Mame’s efforts to bring everyone into focus and lazed undaunted on the pedestals atop their carpeted scratching posts.

“Jasper,” Mame decided the only way to get the attention of the cats was to enroll that rascal, Jasper. He was the smartest of the feline bunch and held some sway with the others. “Jasper, herd those malcontents over to the edge of the cage. I’ve got something important to say.”

“And what would be in it for me?” Jasper cooed. 

“What’s in it for you is your life and well-being.”

Jasper yawned and gave a stretch of his front legs, but he nodded. “Yeah, alright. I’ll get ‘em.” 

“Thanx for your cooperation,” Mame rolled her eyes.

When all of the cats and dogs had gathered, Rusty and Oscar began a fierce barking chorus to alert the caged animals–guinea pigs, bunnies, the few birds across the yard–that there was a meeting in progress and that they should listen carefully. Mame would articulate and project her vocalizations, but they would have to be silent to catch what she was saying.

When everyone was at attention, Mame began, “Comrades, you have heard already about the strange dream that I had last night. I will come to the dream later, but I have something else to say first.”

The silence grew breathless as everyone waited. It had been a very long time since such a meeting had been held like this. The last time had been when the old boar was still alive. He’d been a talker and used to love to hold rallies to hear himself yap, so mostly they had all ignored him. But Mame was a dog of substance. She wasn’t an orange-faced bumbling narcissist like the old boar… What was his name? Donny?

Mame continued. “I think it’s time to be honest with ourselves. These two-leggs are imbeciles. Most of them, anyway. And even those who are kind collaborators are ineffectual. They lack leadership.”

There was a shuffle of uncomfortable acknowledgment. In dysfunctional systems, no one says out loud what everyone knows to be true, and the animals had kept their peace in the interest of getting fed and housed. But no human had been there to take care of them for so many hours that one had to admit the competence of the two-leggs was questionable at best. And there had been rumors of unfed, bloodied chickens running about the town, and other blatant acts of speciesism. 

“Isn’t their neglect of us and their inability to raise the funds to keep this place up just speciesism at its core? Yes, it is a watered down version of it. They treat us with kindness on the surface, but they don’t take their role at this place seriously. WE HAVE TO TAKE IT INTO OUR OWN PAWS AND CLAWS. The soil of the Pacific Northwest is fertile. Its climate is good.”

Here the cats tittered. They weren’t as fond of water and mud as their canine comrades.

“And this single farm of ours would support hundreds more animals to live in dignity. There could even be space for all of those overburdened, underexercised chickens over at Cluckers. So why do we continue to live in these miserable conditions?”

Now there was a shuffling and a row of discussion. “It’s a good question.” “But what do we do? We don’t have thumbs. Can’t even work a cell phone.” “Well, but I don’t want to have to put my paw to the plow in any kind of significant way, do you?” “I like Tim, and the other two women. Do we have to get rid of all of them?” “Well where are they, though? We’ve been alone for hours.”

Mame barked a command of silence. “Clearly these two-leggs do NOT know how to bring in the money needed to make this place habitable. We’re going to have to do it ourselves. But we are going to need the help of the Freedcreatures. Cherry, and that poodle that prances around sometimes. What’s her name?”

“Camille,” Oscar replied. “She’s a real fox. I keep my eye on that one, you’d better believe.”

“This is no time for your indiscretions, Oscar,” Mame snapped.

“Sorry, you’re right.”

“We even need those two Great Danes, Copenhagen and Arhus, though their brains are not equal to their body size. And that bobcat could be of use, too. Anyone catch his name?”

“Said his name was Rufi when he rubbed up against my cage.”

“We’ll need to call them all to the cause. We can raise the money for this place and bring new two-leggs into proper service. It’s time for these well-meaning but useless nincompoops to be taught a lesson or two. Are you with me?”

There was a long pregnant pause as the possibilities settled on everyone. Could they really raise money? Find the right collaborators to pick up poop and feed everyone in a timely manner? Could they really execute a plan and finally live the well-kept lives they deserved.

Collectively there was an uproar. “YES. CAW CAW. MEAOW. RUFF RUFF RUFF. HOWL. YES WE CAN. YES WE CAN. YES WE CAN.”

When everyone had let the exuberance out of their bodies, Mame resumed. “And now, Comrades, I will tell you about my dream. I cannot describe that dream to you. It was a dream of the earth as it will be when two-leggs have come to their senses and learned respect for the rest of the animal kingdom. But it reminded me of something that I had long forgotten. When I was a little pup, my mother and the other big dogs used to sing an old song. I remembered that song last night and it shall be our battle cry. It shall be the tune that calls the Freedcreatures to our aid. And it goes like this:

“Beasts of Washington, Beasts of Oregon

“Beasts of every land and clime,

“Hearken to my optimistic tidings

“Of an equitable future time!”

The animals echoed the song, but quietly until they had learned the words. The harmonies of rodent, feline, canine, and fowl voices were beautiful and full of promise. 

“Our first step, Comrades, is to send out a cry for help from Freedcreatures. And once they have been instructed what to do, we will gather again to execute a plan to separate the wheat from the chaff among the two-leggs. With the right humans, this place can be paradise.”

And with that, the whole of Animal Farm No-Kill Shelter was filled with the voices of the creatures–mammal and fowl–singing the call for help from the Freedcreatures. 

***

Cherry was not keen on Bull’s decision to turn left and go toward the shelter, where he assumed Delia would be finishing up the books at this time of the late afternoon. Cherry loved her two-leggs very much, but she knew Delia smelled fishy. But just as Cherry was about to nudge Bull—to bark him away from his current direction, she heard through the open window the sound of a multi-species anthem rising into the air.

Beasts of Washington, Beasts of Oregon

Beasts of every land and clime,

Hearken to my optimistic tidings

Of an equitable future time!

Her heart quaked at the sound of this battle cry coming from the direction of Animal Farm. No, she would let Bull go searching for his female at the farm. This was a cry for help from her previous cage-mates. She needed to get to them.

***

Copenhagen and Arhus lay languidly in the back of Lynn Bassett’s van. Where exactly they were, they didn’t know, but it didn’t matter. At the sound of the cacophonous cry of “Beasts of Washington, Beasts of Oregon,” they perked up their gigantic ears and looked at one another. Their jowly snouts scrunched up. Was this what they thought it was? One push of the heavy back door and they were outside, sniffing their way to Animal Farm.

Back at Lynn’s house, even Janice, the three-legged cat heard the cry and snuck out an open window to wend her way to the Farm.

***

Camille wasn’t one to wander out of the house without her extra fur coat and her ear muffs. She was a pampered poodle who didn’t have much drive for adventure, but when she heard “Beasts of Washington, Beasts of Oregon,” she cocked her head, pushed through the dog flap into the backyard, and jumped the fence.

***

Rufi didn’t hesitate. When the call went out, he headed to the farm. “There is a special place in hell for animals who don’t help other animals,” he remembered some wise one saying once.

***

Once everyone was gathered between the canine and feline cages at the farm, they all turned to Mame. What now? 

“First thing’s first,” she said. You’ve got to get us out of these cages. Then we need to rescue Tim. Then, in the long run, we need the money to fix up this place and get the right people to manage it.”

***

Purdue, brother of Tyson Cluckers, was a beast of a man–thick and short. He was not flashy like his brother. Drove an electric Honda instead of an ostentatious Tesla. And he kept his nose mostly out of the business, although he’d been the marketing genius in the beginning. But a few years earlier, his conscience had begun to bother him. The cruelty of the chicken farm and the carbon emissions forced into the environment by their industry kept him awake at night. He knew his brother to be a cruel brute, and he didn’t want to cross him–also, he was a primary financial beneficiary of all they had built–but he didn’t want to be party to the violence any longer. Secretly, he’d been investing in lab grown meat, the wave of the future, he thought. And he also helped his brother’s wife by making sure she had all of Tyson’s account passwords.

Now he sat in his quiet home, which overlooked the bay, a glass of Malbec in hand, and realized he hadn’t heard from Cathy whether or not she’d managed to get out of town. 

Grabbing his phone, he dialed her… just to check on her, you know.

***

“Where the hell is that ringing coming from,” Tyson scanned the group: the two officers, Phil the shelter weirdo, and this kid sitting on the ground clutching a piece of paper with the number of that thug’s lawyer on it. He recognized the ring on Cathy’s phone–the old Hall and Oates song “She’s Gone,” which maddened him every time someone called her. Why would she leave her phone here?

The phone wouldn’t shut up. As soon as it rang itself out, whoever was calling called back. Clearly someone else was desperate to get hold of Cathy. Who?

“I think it’s from behind that door,” Chuck said. “What’s in there?”

From where they all stood, there was an out building a few yards away with a padlocked door. “Oh, that’s my… um… mancave,” Tyson said, wondering what was worse, to risk the group seeing his playroom or to let that phone ring until someone else suggested they break down the door. He decided he’d have more control of the situation if he took charge. “Let me get it and make it stop.”

“Whose phone is it, Ty?” his old high school buddy asked.

Tyson ignored the question and walked to the door. The officers followed him. Reluctantly, Tyson unlocked the door with a small key he dug out of his pocket.

“What the hell?” Phil said when the door was opened. “What do you do in here? Acrobatics?”

Tim sat on the cold ground watching as the four men turned their backs to him. He could get up and run, but where would he go? And they had guns. They were distracted for the moment but the minute they noticed he was gone, he’d be hosed.

Just then, there was a loud cacophony of barking coming down the drive. Two Great Danes, a couple of mutts, and a fluffy white poodle barged onto the property. Three of the dogs charged the four men standing at the door with the padlock. Ten seconds flat and all of those creeps were on the ground.

“Run,” Tim thought he heard someone say. “This way!” He looked at the poodle.

“Camille?”

She nodded. “Follow me.”

***

On the way to Animal Farm, Bull saw Delia’s car parked outside the tattoo parlor. He pulled into the parking lot and knocked on the door. Beside him, Cherry began to shiver.

“What’s up girl?”

Cherry saw what Bull did not see. Lurking along the edge of the building were three cats. One was clearly a wild animal–what species, Cherry wasn’t sure. One had three legs–looked like a domestic. And one was Jasper.

Cherry wined at the cats. But they dared not answer lest they would draw attention to their presence. The one thing Cherry knew was that if you need a physical rescue, you depend on a dog. If you need to spy for information, you send a cat to do the job. There was something behind these doors the cats were sent to sleuth out. The least Cherry could do would be to help them get in.

The knob turned and there was the woman, Delia, with the other very-inked woman behind her.

Chapter 25

by Dana Tye Rally, 1990 words

Snookie was pretty much dead to the world. The afternoon the No-Kill shelter creatures rose up to incite revolution, howling their heady refrain far and wide, he’d been sawing logs for close to an hour. Dreaming of a bowl full of cookies. Velvety ear flaps draped over his aural canals like blackout curtains. Didn’t much matter that he was still, technically, a dog, fur primed to twitch at the first sign of trouble. Neither scent nor sound—stinky or loud—could sneak through this pug’s sealed-up, indoor sleeping quarters in Klamath Falls, Oregon, much less puncture his hunger or trumpeted exhales.

In the dream, Snookie was inching closer toward the cluster of cheese cookies while a pesky two-legg kept snatching it back. Could it be Mom? No, Mom would never be so mean. Each time he lunged forward, exhausted, the metal bowl of goodness quaked, drifting a foot or two out of reach. Drool trickled from the dark trough of his mouth.

Then a familiar set of beringed fingers waggled its way into his dream, blocking his view of the cookies. Someone tugged, sharp, on his collar.

“Snookie, my little Snookie-Wookie,” she hummed straight into his ear, pulling the curtain flaps back. “Time for your walk before lunch.”

At the word “lunch,” Snookie’s eyes snapped open, front paws pushing him onto his haunches, blood pulsing toward his stomach. Mom stooped over to snap on his leash and lead him out of her bedroom toward the sliding glass door. Cookies danced before his rheumy eyes as she cracked the door open.

That was when a fall breeze set his jowls aquiver. And on that wind rode a swell of voices meant for him and his ear canals alone.

“Beasts of Washington, Beasts of Oregon . . .” came the cries.

Snookie gave his sleepy head a shake. Beasts of Oregon? he thought. Did I hear that right? Is someone calling for me? Surely he’d heard his mom mention that Oregon was the place where they were staying with her sister right now, the house beside a spindly-treed forest they’d tumbled into after he and Mom sat on the silver bird’s wings all the way from Connecticut.

The other words arrived in bursts, bending and crackling atop a twirling wind. Snookie stopped in his tracks. Mom stumbled behind him. He hovered behind the door sill on three of four legs, right foreleg up like a Pointer’s. Listening. Straining for more.

Never in his nine pug-years had he felt more compelled to hear these voices and their instructions. Not when Mom dangled treats. Not when she added gravy to his dinner. Not even when she got lazy and let him sit on her lap and eat straight from her plate.

“Hearken . . . tidings . . . equitable future time!”

With that, Snookie yanked Mom forward. Galumphing blind toward some mythical destination. He could hear her crossfit trainers squeak in protest, her panting. Still, he ran. Forward, onward, toward the species that spawned him, bulbous midsection swaying, short legs scampering faster than any breeders claimed they could.

“Snookie, whoa, whoa, slow down.” his mom muttered behind him, the strained leash biting into his esophagus, her huffs now heaves. “Where are you going?”

North, he wanted to tell her, but was too busy dragging her forward, craning to hear the voices clutching at his heart, I’m headed North . . . over the Cascades . . . and beyond . . . .

As the two of them trucked up the ridiculously bright sidewalk, Snookie walking his mom, heeding the call of his wild, he got the urge to go back and don his goofy raincoat for the trip he’d been told to take. Clippety-clopping on concrete, his senses remained on high alert. The wind had brought salt, the smell of waves breaking. He wondered, as he trotted along, unable to ignore Mame’s chant even if he wanted to, if signing up for the word “equitable” might signify the last of Mom’s leftovers.

***

“I’m quite impressed with you, young man” the pretty lawyer told Tim as she leaned over her desk, placing a hand on his shoulder. “A little nervous about your law-breaking driving habits, but impressed nonetheless.”

Tim’s ears burned. He fought a fierce desire to kiss this lawyer—Ida? Irene?—in the freckled hollow between her eye and cheekbone. Instead, he sat up straighter. She was the first person who’d looked him in the eye all week. “Thank you,” he said, chewing his lip in a half-grin. He went back to studying his ragged cuticles.

“Are you saying we might actually have a case here?” Audrey piped up beside him. It was Audrey who’d brought Tim to the lawyer’s office after Camille had retrieved him from the bloody chicken ranch, mouthing the words—he could swear he’d heard them—”Follow me.” Audrey had been busy hounding the lawyer with questions ever since they’d arrived.

“You said that the shelter can press charges for the way those chickens were treated? Some sort of animal rights’ violation, is that correct?”

Inez folded her arms patiently across her chest and smiled at Audrey. “RCW 16.52.205, actually. Animal cruelty in the first degree. Our firm has kept a close watch on Mr. Cluckers for some time regarding his foul poultry practices. A number of former employees complained about the absence of oversight, saying their boss’s overseas trips have created utter mayhem onsite. Drunken brawls. Beheadings. Chickens dangled and defeathered on videotape for the bestiality porn industry. I’m sure we’re just skimming the surface.”

Audrey clucked and shook her head. “Disgusting. We need to do something. This has to stop.”

Tim couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d come here half-expecting he’d have to call his mom to come drag him out of jail—wondering if they might throw her in there with him—and now he was being branded a hero of sorts. His sordid chicken caper had swung Audrey and the beautiful Inez around to his way of seeing things.

He placed a hand on Camille’s fluffy head as she stared up, her eyes beseeching him. Audrey had tried to tie her up outside the lawyer’s office, but she’d whimpered and pressed herself alongside him like some pushy member of the poodle press.

Camille’s watery eyes sparked a memory. Tim swiveled toward the women. “What about the fundraiser?”

“The fundraiser?” Audrey blinked. She vaguely recalled a discussion with the shelter board two weeks ago when she and Phil and Lynn were popcorning moneymaking ideas around the table. Inez stood back, her mouth twitching.

“Delia’s Fashion Show and Barkery—the one we’d planned for tomorrow behind Tom’s Tavern,” Tim said. “What if . . . what if . . . we could turn that day into an animal rights’ protest against the Cluckers. Hand out flyers. Create some unrest. Try to shut them down.” Tim remembered the scene out of an old Michael Moore movie. “If we got enough attention, we could ask people to donate to the shelter at the same time.”

“Oh my goodness,” Audrey said, having listened intently to his speech. “I had no idea you were so clever, Tim.” She pulled out a cookie for him from her purse. “Here’s a thought: why don’t we invite that pet photographer Sammie? See if she can draw out her media friends? I’ll ask Delia to help,” she added, frowning. “She’s always going on about her excellent people skills.”

Inez gave a slight nod, though her smile was beatific. “I’ll be in touch about the charges. Just remember, you two—you never got the idea from me!”

On the way back to the shelter—Camille had jolted Tim and Audrey out of their animal rights reverie, a reminder of the long-neglected animals in their care—Audrey wondered where Delia had disappeared to, along with that shady father of hers. She hadn’t heard a peep, and the two of them were scheduled to gladhand at the fashion show tomorrow. Honestly, she thought, the world might be a better place if it left all the animal lovers in charge.

***

By the time Cherry trucked up the muddy lane toward Animal Farm, Rufi was roaming around looking pleased with himself, his hide streaked with blood and feathers. Cherry had finally freed herself from Bull’s grasp. Cherry had wanted to stay and help, once they’d opened the door to the mess with Delia and the ink-stained woman, the three cats mewling and weaving around their legs. But Mame had called to her bones. She knew the shelter needed her. Turns out Rufi had made short work of the exercise.

Every animal cage yawed open, the farm devoid of barn smells and catcalls, beaks, and fur. Just a single cage door swung up and back in the breeze, creaking and clanging. Cherry was trotting forward to congratulate the big cat when the thick shadow of a two-legg stepped between them. The woman named Lynn stood before her looking weary, a dead snake draped over one hand, a pair of bolt-cutters in the other.

***

Vanessa Leone had spent her whole life listening to her gut. You could say she and her fur-baby, Snookie, had that one thing in common. But rather than propelling her to shop for snacks, her gut was telling her to head to Washington. The first sign was that cute vegan diner she’d stopped by on her way to shop for tennis skirts yesterday. The second was Delia refusing to answer her texts.

But by far, the third and most obvious sign she couldn’t ignore—the message blinking before her eyes as she marched behind Snookie’s wobbling bottom—was her pug’s mad exodus toward the mountains. She hadn’t planned going all the way up to Bellingham to see Delia. Then Snookie morphed into her otherworldly guide.

“Go North, young woman”—you could still call her dark Sicilian looks youthful—Snookie’s actions seemed to suggest. “Go now! Your daughter needs you!” And why not? she told herself as she tried to steer Snookie off the street and back to her car. Delia had been enjoying her father’s fickle and dubious attentions for far too long. It was time Vanessa stepped in, her friends at the club had all reassured her.

Delia’s last text told her the jig was up. Her father had taken up cycling—on a bicycle, for God’s sake, after she’d spent years trying to get him to join her at the gym—just so he could chase some chicken-killing mobster around town, cavorting with his billions. Then she read the words from Delia: “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ve met a tattoo artist and we’re off next week to the Caymans.”

She’d erupted, her two thumbs tapping out turkey scratch in reply. Then her screen went blank for days. Tomaso had always been a controlling influence. But she hadn’t thought he would go this far.

It was when she’d tucked into her delicious faux chicken burger at Freed yesterday that the thought sprang forth: Hadn’t her friends at the club been telling her to invest in the future, in socially sanctioned causes like veganism? She and her savvy daughter needed to think big. Forget restaurants. How about a vegan-themed lifestyle resort? Why not divert half the profits back to freeing the wild meat and supporting the neglected domesticates? Hell, why not save the planet, one nebulous protein burger at a time?

She’d gotten close enough to scoop Snookie into her arms, mid-waddle, and hurry back to the house to pack her things, say goodbye to her sister, and arrange for a flight from Medford to Bellingham. She’d strap Snookie’s carrier into the seat beside her.

Vanessa couldn’t wait to offer her daughter some clean family money. But she and Snookie would need to taxi out from the airport to the address Delia had given her. She wanted a word with her crooked husband first.

Chapter 26

by Kate Miller, 1725 words

As soon as Vanessa arrived at the Bellingham airport, she texted Tom, asking him to pick her and Snookie up. She loaded up a luggage cart, took Snookie out of his carrier and clipped his lease on before they went outside to wait for Tom. When he arrived, Vanessa noticed that he looked worse for wear, with numerous bruises on his face and arms and shorts (why was he wearing shorts anyway, it was pouring rain outside (a veritable “cats and dogs” kind of rain if you must know, had he become a fish already?) and he was really cranky.

On the drive over to Edgemoor he filled her in on his plans with the chicken billionaire that just cackled its way south when Tyson discovered that his billions had flown the coop with his wife.

“Sounds like another one of your half-baked plans, Tom, maybe you might try a real job for once.” Vanessa sighed. “I just came to see Delia anyway, is she home now?”

Snookie sat in the back seat, surprisingly alert considering there was no real food anywhere in the car. His ears pricked up; he was definitely closer to the dulcet tones that had beckoned him from Oregon. Now how could he escape his owner and unite with his clan?

“I need a drink,” Tom whined, “If she’s not at the pad I’ll lend you the car, she’s probably at the animal shelter where she works. I got her a cover job doing the books for them (and for me he thought). You can leave your stuff but take the damn flea-bitten mutt with you, you know how I feel about animals.”

Snookie growled low and long from the back seat, how he wished he could take a big bite out of Tom. He’d forgotten how much Tom hated him, and how much he hated Tom in return! He knew that Tom wouldn’t taste particularly good, but it would be worth it, if only to remind his owner that she didn’t need that controlling bastard anyway. He squirmed in his seat and tried to look out the passenger window, but he was too squat. All he could see were the tops of evergreen trees and raindrops splattering the windows of the car. And now his tummy was really growling. He’d never even gotten his lunch. Even tough freedom fighters for animal welfare needed food, he mused over the ever-growing stomach noises emanating from his round belly.

Once they arrived at the Edgemoor house, Tom poured himself a stiff drink and Vanessa dumped her suitcases in the extra bedroom, taking time to extract Snookie’s food and food bowl, the one with his name and picture of a Pug tongue on the bottom, and the words “All Gone,” as if he couldn’t tell. Even his mom underestimated him he thought as he licked the bowl one last time. She had brought his yellow raincoat and booties and quickly dressed him before they got into Tom’s car again. Vanessa typed Animal Farm Shelter into the GPS and off they went.

***

When Snookie and Vanessa arrived at the shelter, they went straight to the office. The door was shut but Vanessa could hear Delia’s distinctive nasal laugh, and two other voices chiming in, a woman’s slightly lower chuckle and a man’s booming guffaw. She knocked firmly on the door and called out “Delia, it’s your mother. Please open up.”  

***

When Bull arrived at the tattoo parlor earlier in the day, Delia and M.T. had just signed up as co-conspirators, agreeing to collaborate on a venture that would benefit both their combined personal greed while simultaneously fulfilling their charitable leanings, all the while avoiding stealing Cathy blind. They had accessed Cathy’s account through the password M.T. had memorized, adding their names to the account along with Cathy’s. Then they planned on donating funds to the Sisterhood, transferring a substantial amount into the purchase of lab-grown meat stocks, and opening another account for the Animal Farm’s fundraising. There seemed to be enough funds to be very generous and still have all three women come out as millionaires. They were giddy from all their planning and welcomed Bull and Cherry into the office, failing to notice the three felines who slinked in behind Cherry.

After they filled Bull in on the latest plot, he said, “I didn’t hear this from you all, as it would blow my parole out of the water, but good work, gals, Chuckers is a nasty piece of work and I’m not sad to see the work you are doing. Though I am going to refer you to my personal lawyer because you could always run into glitches in the form of Tom and Tyson finding a way into Cathy’s account and trying to take the money back, it’s not over till it’s over they always say…”

“Let’s drive over to the Animal Farm,” Delia said, “My office computer is much better protected against any type of hacking, I was taught by the best crooks of NYC after all. We can do the rest of the transactions from there.”

***

Now, when Delia opened the door, Vanessa and Snookie crowded into the already stuffed office. Bull stood up, offering his chair to Vanessa. Snookie shuffled over to sit in front of Delia, pleading to be picked up. Surprisingly, Delia reached down and hauled him onto her lap, as if she had been a dog person all along. Snookie was in fact the only dog she had ever had a soft spot for, but she didn’t really think of pugs as dogs anyway, more like some sort of Star Wars character, like Yoda with smaller ears and a wider girth.

Since it looked like Vanessa wanted to speak to Delia in private, Bull offered to take Snookie out for a walk and look for Cherry, who had run off when they first arrived at the Farm. M.T. said she could use a chance to stretch her legs as well.  Snookie jumped off Delia’s lap when he saw the door open and pushed his way between their legs.

Once outside, Snookie ran ahead on his stumpy legs, making a beeline for the dog kennels.  When Bull and M.T. came up all round the corner they saw Cherry and Snookie sitting at attention in the middle of the yard, facing a stocky woman with a dead snake slung over her shoulder.  All the cages were empty, the doors swung wide open, not another animal in sight.  Snookie looked very official in his bright yellow raincoat.  He and Cherry exchanged a few quiet barks and whines, raised their heads and sniffed the air, and finally, raised their muzzles and let out a well-harmonized series of howls.

There was silence for a few tense moments, then gradually noses and snouts and beaks appeared from the woods and the animals once again circled in the square to hear from these newly arrived Freedcreatures.  Mame welcomed Cherry back and introduced herself to Snookie. “And what do you bring to the cause, Snookie” Mame asked?

“I am a pug, and I know I look small and slow and stumpy,” Snookie said with pride “But I am known far and wide for my pugnacious approach to life. Once I grab onto something, say the ankle of a nasty brute of a chicken killer, I never let go! The two-legs often think Staffordshire terriers give the most vicious bites, but pugs, though smaller of stature and mouth, can hang on for far longer than most people think.”

While Snookie was talking, Lynn laid the dead snake gently on the ground in front of Mame and moved to the back of the circle.  Mame shook her head sadly, but the animals knew that there were always ones who could not contain their own wild nature and were not able to restrain from killing their natural prey.  To promote unity in the name of a cause, this could not be allowed to happen.

“All right, everyone,” Mame called, “Let’s sing a round of our fight song to get in the spirit here before we go on the plan our next steps.” Every creature joined in the mighty battle cry, large and small: turtle, hamster, Guinea pig, ferret, lizard, horned toad, parakeet, Cockateel, cat, dog, bobcat, and look here, a slightly scruffy but well-turned-out raccoon came limping into the circle from the direction of downtown Bellingham.

“Hey there, Rocky” called Cherry, loping over to give the elderly racoon a doggie version of a High Five, “I haven’t seen you in quite a while, you old trickster!”

“Hi Cherry! I’m still on the old dumpster route, though I’ve kind of turned vegetarian, not by choice actually, but the gleanings are leaning a bit toward veggie and vegan burgers these days” Rocky chuckled, “but who am I to complain.”

Then they all began to sing:

Beasts of Washington, Beasts of Oregon

Beasts of every land and clime

Harken to my optimistic tidings

Of an equitable future time!

***

About this time Audrey, Tim, and Tim’s new lawyer Inez had pulled into the parking lot and followed Camile back to the joyous sounds of the rousing song in progress behind the main building. Audrey had convinced the lawyer that it was important to see for herself where she and Tim worked to fully understand the circumstances of Tim’s actions. And Camille seemed particularly excited to be going to the shelter, practically bolting out of the car as soon as they arrived. They all listened dumbfounded as the last strains of howls and purrs and tweets and growls had faded into the dusk, Tim wiping his eyes as silent tears slid down his awestruck face. 

***

Meanwhile, Tyson had gone over to Tom’s and persuaded him to come to the Animal Farm to look for the women he thought had last seen Cathy, in the hopes of forcing her to return home, and more importantly, to give back his money.  Tyson drove because Tom had clearly been drinking all afternoon.  If he could only get his money back, and his wife of course, everything would be all right again.  The chicken problem could be easily cleaned up, so to speak, with enough cash and cheap labor.  What’s a few hundred chickens in the bigger scheme of things, after all?

Chapter 27

by Seán Thomas Dwyer, 1611 words

How can I make a buck on this mess? Tom asked himself. Here was Tyson Cluckers, driving him from his house to the Animal Farm, nearly begging for his help in finding his wife. Even with a few belts under his belt, even too drunk to drive, Tom knew his prior attempts to get into Tyson’s good graces were small potatoes compared to the leverage he could gain right now. All he had to do was clear his head enough to think for a moment.

Tyson wound through town, and he took corners so fast that not only did Tom bounce between the passenger door and Tyson’s meaty yet mushy shoulder, but the liquid in his gut sloshed in the same direction, a couple of seconds later. His face grew hot, and he started swallowing reflexively to keep his multiple Manhattans in place.

Now was not the time to offend Cluckers by despoiling his ride.

***

In a seven-gabled house in Shaughnessy Centre, a pug with bulging eyes and a turned-up nose or, in other words, a pug like every other pug, perked up his ears at a faint melody that wafted up from Richmond, via Delta and White Rock.

It must be from south of the border, he snuffled to himself. The Dogs of White Rock can sing, but they’re not composers.

This worthy gentleman, who called himself Hieronymus but willingly answered to Fin when the blonde two-legg brought him a meal or a bit of a donut, sat up in his trolley to get a better listen to the mesmerising tune:

Beasts of Washington, Beasts of Oregon

Beasts of every land and clime,

Hearken to my optimistic tidings

Of an equitable future time!

Goodness! Indeed it was American Dogs who had created this call to paws! Hieronymus gave his most urgent call to the lady of the house, and she stopped typing and turned to him.

“Fin! What is it, boy?” She leaned over him in his four-wheeled bed, a necessity since he had lost the use of his back legs because they were simply too short to hold up his pot belly. She stuck her human nose right down against his wet, black nostrils. She rubbed her nose against his until he snorted with delight. He stuck out his tongue and licked her chin.

“That’s my good widdle Fin-Fin,” she said in response. He loved it when she baby-talked him. “Does my widdle Fin-Fin need to go out and about? Wet’s go have a wee-wee in the doggy washroom, eh?”

Hieronymus bounced about in his trolley as much as his front legs allowed, given that they held up a head the size and weight of a bowling ball. All he needed was to get her to open the door, and he’d be set.

The blonde two-legg, whom he called Mama and the other two-leggs called Dana, or sometimes Dana Banana when she was not home, started weaving through the maze of hallways toward the front door. Once she rolled him down the ramp they had installed for his convenience, Mama prepared to lift him out of the trolley for, as she thought, a quick break prior to their return to the office where Mama wrote her books.

But this was where Mama’s day went off the rails. Hieronymus scooted forward and got his paws onto the pavement. His nails clattered on the concrete, and as the trolley gained momentum, he heard Mama’s sneakers slapping on the ground behind him. At the corner, he hung a larry in the direction of Richmond.

The song of his people did not mention British Columbia, or even Canada generically, but he knew reinforcements from the North would be welcome.

It was on.

***

“What the hay?” Tom muttered when he and Tyson barged into the shelter. Had they adopted out all of the animals? Or had that kid freed all of the orphans when he kidnapped the chickens and, according to Tyson, most likely Cathy as well.

But it didn’t make sense to Tom, even in his state of inebriation, that Cathy would have been kidnapped and forced to transfer all of Tyson’s funds into an account of her own. Could people even transfer more than a million dollars in a day? Maybe so, unless Tyson was lying to Tom about his new state of poverty to get Tom off his back.

Tom had promised to find Cathy for a million up front. Tyson claimed not to have access to more than a thousand to his name. but Tyson said Tom could count on a million after Tyson beat the location of his fortune out of his wife.

Tom didn’t like that kind of talk. He might be willing to take out a Mafia rival, but he drew the line at touching women. Only cowardly bastards like this chicken mogul did such things. And yet, Tom thought he might have to put a bit of pressure on that M.T. character to get a line on where Cathy had headed.

The men stomped past the ominously empty cages, their heels clacking on the concrete and echoing as if they were in a morgue. The light was on in the office. Tyson turned the knob and tried to fling the door open, but it slammed into an obstacle.

“Ow!” a female voice exclaimed. Tom recognized it as Vanessa’s. he’d figured she would grab Delia and take her out for a meal or a drink, not stick around the shelter. If nothing else, Delia would have pushed for an opportunity to get out of a place she loathed.

Once Tyson squeezed through the door, he stopped. Tom saw his shoulders stiffen. Tom pushed up beside Tyson and saw what had disconcerted him.

The office was packed with people: Phil, Audrey, Lynn, Delia, Vanessa, Bull, M.T., Carson, Polly, Purdue, Sammie, Pino, and most surprisingly, Tim.

Tom called out, “Hey Tim, how did you get here?”

“I brought him,” Phil said. “Worked it out with the local constabulary.”

Tyson grumbled, “He let my chickens out, and they let him out? That’s a lot of dollars he’s cost me.”

Delia shook her head. “You’re worried about a few chickens when your wife made off with your whole stash?”

“Hey, you’re right!” Tyson exclaimed. “Which of you are the ones that helped her escape?” He pointed at M.T. “You! You gotta be the one!” He lunged in her direction, but Polly stepped in front of M.T. and leveled Tyson with one right to the jaw.

“Ow,” she said, rubbing her hand. Everyone stared at her, mouths agape.

“No big deal,” she added. “Gotta take out casino guests on a regular basis if they get fresh. So, what brought you and moneybags here, Tom?”

“Uh.” Tom cleared his throat. “He wanted to find out how Cathy got away with his dough. After all, he loves her, and he wants to share his fortune with her, but—”

“Oh, cut the crap, Tom,” Lynn said. “I saw the bruises this bastard left on her ribcage. If you’re going to defend him, well . . . ” She shrugged her shoulders and looked around at the women in the office. Their faces stony, they all balled their fists. Tom raised his hands.

“Hey, hey, I didn’t know nothin’ about any abuse. My bad. Now, what are we gonna do to get some of that cash back so’s we can keep this place afloat?” He read the room. “And, of course, make sure Cathy gets her share and decides what she wants to do.”

Tyson, who had been lying supine, probably unconscious, blinked and sat up. “How am I gonna get my money from my loving wife?”

“Shut up, Tyson,” the men all shouted.

***

“OK, Fin,” Dana panted after she caught up to his trolley, a full kilometer from home. “Let’s see what you’re after and get it sorted out.”

Hieronymus waggled his nubby tail and panted. He gazed into his eyes with his liquid chocolate-brown ones, and she kissed him atop his head. He licked her chin.

“Awarawa. Waranon,” he muttered. Dana stared at him.

“America? Washington?”

He yipped and shook his tail. “Noooookie!”

“Well, I guess we could go visit a few of my friends. I don’t go down there often enough, and some of them are desperate to meet you. Thank goodness I have your rabies card handy. OK, Mister Fin, let’s go!”

After she pushed him home, she settled him into her Audi, and they headed for the Peace Arch. Her NEXUS card got her through instantly, and she sped south. She assumed she could call friends once she reached Bellingham, but Fin started pitching a fit at the Portal Drive exit, so she pulled off and let him guide her. Soon, they reached a no-kill shelter.

“Goodness, Fin, you don’t want to be adopted by another family, do you?”

He shook his head and yipped until she pulled up to the office. She strapped him into his trolley and wheeled him to the door. A crowd stared when she entered.

“My dog led me here,” she explained. Another pug squealed and ran to Fin. They kissed and snorted greetings.

“They know each other?” the pug’s probable mother asked.

“That’s not likely,” Dana said. “But there is a Pug Network out there, like the Twilight Barking. Maybe they’re internet pals.”

The formalities over, Dana asked, “Why in the world did he bring me here?”

***

In the woods, all of the freed animals, led by Mame and protected by Rufi, inched forward to the edge of the trees. It was almost time to bring equity to their lives.

Chapter 28

by Patti D. Thomas, 1361 words

Icy Fraser Valley winds whistled through the trees. Hair on the freed animals’ bodies pricked up, trapping heat against their skin. As much as they longed to be cuddled in a warm blanket-covered lap in front of a fireplace, they were on a mission from the Animal Gods.

Now was not the time to think of one’s own needs. This was the time for pack mentality. From their primeval instincts to sacrifice self for others, each of them reached back into that shared ancient history and tried to unearth the commitment of acting as one unit with one purpose. If they could make the Animal Farm a viable healthy haven for hundreds of animals, their contribution would continue long after they were gone from the planet.

Mame felt this energy. She turned toward Rufi who nodded slightly, then faced the others and sat down. “My friends. Thank you for answering the call. It is only fair to warn you there may be danger ahead of us, including returning to a life of confinement, or worse.” Much as she hated to even utter the words, Mame knew she must. Gazing with pity at the pugs, she continued. “Your future could include Halloween costumes.” The other animals gasped in horror. “Anyone who is not fully committed should leave now.”

The dogs maintained direct eye contact with her and didn’t budge. Each cat began grooming itself or looking skyward at the impending storm. “God, I hate cats,” Mame grumbled.

Rufi curled his lips and hissed. “I beg your pardon?”

Sighing dramatically, Mame tilted her head to one side. “Oh, don’t get your tail in a twist. At least you wild cats are…assertive. You don’t get all weird and squirmy.”

“Thank you. I think. Shall we proceed?” Rufi said, moving forward and pausing until Mame stood and walked next to him. Ahead, a wide shadow approached just as the storm clouds closed in from behind them. They were being squeezed between two dark forces, one on the ground and one in the sky.

From the ground force, a voice yowled. “We’re here. How can we help?” Striding confidently toward them was Jasper, all gray tiger stripes and arrogance.

The cat’s appeal had always been lost on Mame. She had never tried to hide her disdain for the species, and her contempt only increased since their so-called uprising several months before. Jasper announced a feline demonstration to protest their poor cat kennel conditions. Most of the human staff were well meaning, but the Animal Farm’s ever-dwindling finances had forced several incremental reductions in the quality of both kitty litter and food. The cuts affected the dogs, also, but naturally the cats only focused on themselves.

As Jasper stood staring at them in his irritating way, tail twitching impatiently, Mame recalled the morning of the protest. The cats waited until the first staff arrived and opened the doors to the cat area. Jasper began screeching, “Now! Now!” In unison, at the top of their lungs, the cats stood on their hind legs and ran their front paws back and forth across the bars of their cages while screaming, “Cat-ti-ca! Cat-ti-ca!”

Dogs close enough to see into the cat room barked in hysterical laughter and described to the others what they saw. Cats’ paws running against sides of cages made as much noise as cats walking across a linoleum floor. That is to say, none. And as far as their protest chant, it sounded to the humans the same as their obnoxious yowling on any other morning – just a louder version of dozens of cats demanding attention and food.

“Guess what, Jasper, it’s not all about you. I know that comes as a shock, Mr. ‘Cat-ti-ca.’ “   Mame saw Rufi’s puzzled expression out of the corner of her eye and turned to him, “Tell you later. You’ll love it,” before again facing Jasper and the other recently-freed animals.

“Thank you all for joining us. We’re here on behalf of all animals – those living with two-leggeds as well as those living wild. After this is over, most of us who own humans will choose to return to care for them. I mean, we all have stories about their inability to live on their own, right?”

Camille, the poodle, immediately spoke up. “Mine makes angry sounds while moving papers around, then picks up another paper and does the same thing! And keeps doing it!” They all roared with laughter, with many nodding in recognition. A Siamese in the back rolled on her back and pawed the air with all four feet. “Oh, Great Cat in the Sky! They never learn!” Another wave of laughter rippled through the crowd.

Mame allowed a few minutes for the animals to bond through shared jokes: “tell us again about your large brain, Hairless One,” squeaked a brown-and-white Guinea pig. One of the Great Danes called out, “Yeah, ‘mommy,’ leave the chicken on the counter because you’ve trained us not to eat it – let’s go with that!”

“Okay, everyone, speaking of chickens, let’s get back to the reason for this gathering. We all know about the conditions at the Cluckers chicken business.” From the back came a distinctively fowl voice, “Mother-cluckers is what they are!”

“Yes, well…anyway, among all the two-leggeds inside this building is the owner, Tyson Cluckers. He has made millions through the brutal treatment of our feathered sisters.” Not lost on Mame was Rufi’s skulking into the shadows at the edge of the huge crowd of animals. She chose to ignore his attack on the chickens for now. Who amongst us, she thought – well, possibly Camille, bless her heart – was not guilty of chasing a chipmunk or chomping on a chickadee? But that was very different from butchering beings for profit.

“Let’s get on with it! Is it our turn to carve up that turkey, Cluckers?” called out Rusty.

“Hey, what’s going on out here?” A heavily-inked arm held the office door before M.T.’s head poked through the opening, eyes widening at the scene. “Oh, my God! What’s going on??” She called over her shoulder, “Hey, you guys! You’ve got to see this!” Even as the other humans stepped outside, horses and cows from surrounding pastures, deer, and a growing multitude of cats and dogs kept coming.

“Wh—what the Holy Hell is going on?” Tyson stammered.

Chuckling, M.T. shook her head. “I have a feeling your goose is cooked, Cluckers, old buddy.”

Audrey spoke up. “I say we all re-convene in the barn, where we’ll have some cover from the rain, but there’ll be room for our four-legged—” A piercing rooster crow sliced its way through the throng “—and other furred and feathered friends.”

Fierce winds propelled them toward the outbuildings. A dozen dogs tore down the food storage shed door and dragged out bags of food. Animals immediately veered in that direction and began fighting over the spilled kibble. Mame dashed through the crowd, baring her teeth and growling viciously.

“Stop! Now! Grab some food if you must, but do NOT fight each other! Don’t you know that oppressors pit us against each other so that we don’t focus on them? Don’t be fools and play into their hands!”  The dogs quickly hung their heads in shame and abandoned their looting, re-joining the others.

Once inside the barn, the enormous herd of animals squeezed together to allow as many as possible to be out of the storm. The humans gazed at the spectacle in astonishment. A bobcat sat half-way under a horse; a Chi-weenie and a Tuxedo cat curled up together on the ground; a mini-donkey rested its head gently across a deer’s back.

Cherry looked up at Bull and whined loudly. “What is it, girl?” Bull bent over and stroked the dog’s head. “Okay, sweetheart, you do what you gotta do. I’ve got your back.” Cherry circled around the humans, sniffing each one. She stopped when she reached Tyson and barked twice. Rusty, Oscar, two Huskeys and a yellow lab joined Cherry and began walking forward. The man looked terrified but didn’t resist.

Tim couldn’t help smirking. “Looks like this is your day in court, Mr. Cluckers.”  

Chapter 29

by Jerry Reid, 1578 words

“You’re back!” Phil said with a smile. He was sitting at the kitchen table, with a yellow tablet in front of him. Beside the tablet were two coffee cups, one full of pens, the other full of coffee. An honest-to-goodness magnifying glass lay beside the cups, just like the ones used by detective inspectors of old. Clutched in Phil’s left hand was the classic meerschaum crooked-stemmed pipe, smoking with the sweet smell of cannabis, which maybe explained Phil’s new attitude.

Tim looked around, expecting to see a double-billed plaid cap, like in the cartoons. Instead, he saw a squared-away kitchen, like never seen before at the Animal Farm. A new dishwasher groaned in the corner, the floor was spotless, the shelves full. Coming in, he’d noticed the mowed lawn and trimmed hedges and the newly painted entryway. The animals were quiet, chowing down, not howling in hunger as before.

Tim sat down as Phil handed him a fresh cup of coffee. He was in shock.

“What happened? I’ve been gone for awhile – you know, – personal business.”

Phil leaned back contentedly and smiled. Tim had never seen him so relaxed and friendly.

“I’ve changed my ways, Tim. I’m no longer interested in ‘management,’ which would be okay except for managing people. After the fracas with Cluckers and the animals, I decided to concentrate on being an investigator, and right away, found a mystery to solve, which explains my cartoonish behavior. I’m having fun with it, even without the dope.”

“What was the mystery?” Tim asked. He was interested, but not convinced about Phil’s changed ways.

Phil leaned forward eagerly, to tell his story. “You’ll remember Dr. Connie Shepherd, the vet giving the shelter discounts for services? Well she’s paid to fix our cats, which can be, ah, prolific. Suddenly, there were fewer and fewer cats in the shelter. The cats were disappearing! Dr. Connie explained to us that ‘Killing cats to save money on spaying is a crime. And crime does not spay, or pay’. Ah, a crime to solve. I could hone my investigator skills,” Phil said.

“So the investigation commenced,” Phil continued. “’Who would kill cats?’ I asked myself. The primary suspect was Rufi. Bobcats are disposed to killing housecats. They lurk outside and get between the cat and the house, cut it off and ambush it. But the shelter’s cats seldom go outside, and besides, Rufi is into chickens. So, I concluded, it’s an inside job!”

“It was almost like an Agata Christie novel,” he went on. “Who on the train, or in this case, shelter, would be the murderer? By looking deeply into the history of the shelter occupants and staff, suspects were looked at and eliminated. Delia doesn’t like animals, and is not above offing cats, but stealing is her schtick. She wouldn’t waste her time.”

“A close look at the shelter dogs, the next obvious suspects, revealed that, of the three long term dogs – Rusty, Mame and Oscar, Rusty was worth a closer look. This small innocent dog was brought into the shelter when a mere puppy, the victim of a trap. As Rusty grew up in the shelter, he was known for his curious nature. Unlike the other shelter dogs, who mostly eat and sleep, Rusty was looking, sniffing, poking and pulling everything. He could be found in the attic, the basement, at the back dock, and in the cat section, lying along the wall looking lovingly at the cats. Hmmm.”

“Then I heard that because of his ways, Rusty’s nickname in the shelter was Curiosity. You even called him that. So the question I had to ask myself,” Phil said with a satisfied grin, “was, ‘could Curiosity kill a cat?’ Close, private-investigation-type surveillance revealed that Curiosity was the villain!”

“Curiosity was, in fact, a coyote – mortal enemies of cats. He’d grown up in the shelter and probably didn’t know he was a coyote. Mystery solved. I’ts fun being a Detective Inspector again.”

Tim was impressed. “What happened to Curiosity?”

Phil smiled, “Deported to a more natural habitat, near Forks, Washington.

“Why Forks?” Tim asked.

“He went with some folk that were going that way. But that’s another story.” Phil smiled, “Now tell me your story, Tim. What have you been up to? I’m interested.”

***

Tim’s story:

“What happened was the Texan came back and set in motion an interesting chain of events – some of which are still hard to believe.” Tim smiled, drank more coffee and settled in the chair.

“He showed up at the doublewide, hat in hand, and told mother he’d purchased a condo at the golf course for us to hang out in.” Tim smiled. “Mom liked the idea. Most all the golfing crowd were her good friends from the casino. She is very popular. The Texan is very happy. She has a hold on him, and he follows her around like a puppy. They play golf together and I caddy for them, that’s why I haven’t been at the Animal Farm lately.”

“So we were at the country club after playing nine holes, and met a Seattle Tech mogul’s ex-wife, known as DoubleX, because she’s on her second hubby after the mogul. Her schtick is now giving away money for good causes. Her current hubby is an animal lover and it must have influenced the woman; she carries around a nasty little gerbil in her purse. So, the waiter is serving some kind of flame dish, when the gerbil panics and bites the end of his finger and he bleeds all over the place. The call goes out for a doctor for the waiter and a vet for the gerbil. Long story short, our very own Dr. Connie comes to calm down the gerbil with special dope, DoubleX finds out about the shelter, and promises money for our good cause, along with a management team to make sure it’s spent properly, for the most good. I guess she’s been ripped off in the past.”

Tim smiled. “Some story, huh? I’m ready to get back with the animals. Too much society for me.”

Phil clapped his hands together, laughing. “What you just told me puts everything together. DoubleX moved fast, and when the money and the management team, led by a lady with a New York accent, named Petchuko, arrived last week, all hell broke loose. Petchuko, sounds Russian, right? You must know, Tom and Delia are scared to death of the Russians. When the unknown money and “Russian” lady arrived at the shelter, Tom and Delia freaked, then flew. They are out of here.”

Tim was puzzled. “They thought it was mob money?’

“They must have been skimming the mob money and thought there was going to be an accounting! But it was new, fresh money from the mogul’s ex-wife. They didn’t wait to get caught, they ran like hell.”

“Where are they now?” Tim asked.

“You’ll love this,” Phil said. “Delia, Bull and Cherry are running a bait shop in Forks. They wanted to hide in a place they would never be found. If you’ve been to Forks, you would understand. Tom is hiding in plain sight by driving a poop truck at a local hog farm. Crime does not spay, er, pay.”

“The new money has allowed the Animal Farm No-Kill Shelter to get back on it’s feet financially, and operate in a professional manner,” Phil said. “Everybody benefits.”

“What happened to Rufi and Rusty, or Curiosity?” Tim asked.

“Bull and Delia dropped them off in the wilderness on the way to Forks, a perfect place for a bobcat and a coyote.’

While they were talking, Phil noticed Tim had expertly rolled a doobie from his pipe stash. He saw a roach clip fastened to Tim’s shirt front. Phil grinned. The kid was a comer.

Tim smiled, leaned back and asked. “What about the rest of the crew? And what happened to the Cluckers?”

Phil counted with his fingers as he talked. “Everybody is more relaxed now that the Nazi is gone. Audrey brought Camila, her poodle, in for a permanent, like hers. Lynn brings the Great Danes in to have their nails done, and keeps her cat on a leash these days. The word is Cathy Clucker and MT bought a disco in Puerto Vallarta, and are working on their tans. Carson Fox ran off with the cleaning lady. Jasper is well treated by the shelter animals these days, it’s almost like he’s been voted into a cat leadership role. This may be good, for as you know, you can’t herd cats. Dr. Connie is happily spaying critters. The Clucker brothers had a come-to-God experience when all the animals banded together and confronted them in the barn. They are now out of the chicken business. They converted the barn into a homeless shelter, feeding and sheltering the homeless from miles around. They don’t serve chicken. Barrels of animal food are in serving troughs around the barn. It’s created an interesting mix of humans and animals eating together and possibly communicating better. A surprise to us all. Tom & Delia’s relative, Pino Noir, is still in his element, now smuggling Americans into Canada for a better life. And my goldfish, Bruiser, has gone through a growth spurt and now weighs 9 pounds.”

Tim was impressed, “Wow, what next?”

“Oh, I’m sure there will be more,” Phil said. “Sean is doing more denouement, batting clean-up.”

“Sean? Who is Sean?” Tim asked.

“You don’t know Sean?”

Chapter 30

by Seán Thomas Dwyer, 1370 words

Now that we’re at 52,000 words and counting, I’m comfortable with stepping in and lifting the veil on the whole process of how the animals acquired agency for themselves. The telling will take as long as it needs to, but no longer. Phil gave you some of the details, explaining how it came to be that the more overtly carnivorous among the animals were rehomed for their good, and that of the entire local group.

Phil also honored me by making it seem that I’m a household name. as you can tell by Tim’s lack of knowledge of my existence, the bottom edge of the demographic that knows Seán is roughly the age-40 line. On the top end, I’d say most people over 100 don’t know me, either. Maybe I need to host some open mics at local elder housing.

Truly, it doesn’t matter who I am, or that I’m the writer tasked with giving you the rest of the story. The dénouement, as the French so elegantly put it, is in my hands. But darn near anyone who came around to tell part of the tale could have drawn the short straw, or the long straw, or whichever straw I’m holding at this moment.

I learned over the past couple of years something I should have known from being a French minor in grad school: In English, we say we’re tying up the loose ends of the plot, but in French, we are untying a plot knot. Everything is in a tangle, and, as one does with a bunch of computer cables or one’s holiday lights, one unravels the knot and comes out with a collection of straight, useful strands. Here’s what Phil didn’t know was going to happen, though Baker and I had a suspicion the knot might unravel this way after the first few strings came loose.

You gotta give ol’ Tex some credit for overcoming his fear of chickens, as well as healing from the stitches in the back of his neck that Rufi created when he tried to decapitate the driver. In truth, Rufi was after a hen that had settled on the Texan’s shoulder, but meat is meat. When Tex decided Polly was his favorite dish, he did the right thing. But Tim was the two-legg that the animals trusted most, and when he stopped coming around, like Little Jackie Paper, the animals decided he had outgrown them and became less fierce about their militance.

It almost seemed that their war chant:

Beasts of Washington, Beasts of Oregon

Beasts of every land and clime,

Hearken to my optimistic tidings

Of an equitable future time!

was going the way of the Top 40 tunes from 2006. Hardly anyone sings “Ridin’ Dirty” or “Bossy” these days. And the animals settled into the comfort of regular meals and improved housing. Without Tim as a spiritual guide to victory, they might as well give up.

There were, however, two flies in that ointment. They had the eyes of a koi, the nose of a failed pugilist, the snort of a pig, the tail of a Doberman, and the tongue of a 14-year-old boy on his first date.

Yes, the two pugs were not living their best life. Hieronymus was back to his birth state of Washington, but he loved Vancouver, and the cozy mansion where Mama gave him constant treats. Now, Mama was lurking in the Bellingham area, trying to figure out where she had dropped her NEXUS card. She had no time to give Hieronymus treats.

He muttered constantly about the lack of treats to his litter mate, Snookie, who had heard the same siren bark he had heard. She had traveled much farther than he had, and she was, presumably, far more stuck here, because her mom had beaten a path out of town, leaving behind her precious puggie-boo. Snookie was disgruntled as well, and she had been made aware that treats were not forthcoming anytime soon. And so, their little puggy hearts began to beat with the heat of resentment that only a formerly loving dog can muster.

From there, it took only a little while for the discontent to spread. Even the most privileged mammals and birds can be led to agree that the slighting of one is an offence to all. Slowly, Mame, who had written the call to action that they had sung with lusty voices so recently, regained her desire to see equity for all animals. Sure, this family was now safe and secure, not to mention well-fed, but many animals lived on chains in yards, exposed to the elements, or in terraria, bound to a heat rock and fearful of bumping into an invisible wall if they moved too far.

It had to stop. Equity was the goal, and until it was the new normal in this world, there had to be a class struggle.

Phil was not a bad guy, the animals decided, after giving up his goofy alter ego and taking on real responsibility. But when Hieronymus heard the slap of his mum’s sneakers on the pavement, he told Snookie who it was, and she yipped and spun in circles around his trolley. She pushed him to the door, and when Dana stepped in, their squeals became even louder. She was carrying treats! TREATS!

“Oh, my widdle Fin, Mummy is so sorry you’ve been neglected. I have treats for my baby! And for anyone else who wants some!” She was wearing a backpack that turned out to be full of a variety of treats, something for every animal eventuality, like Santa Claus. The entire crowd stirred and circled around her.

“Hey, big H, what’s your mother calling you?” someone shouted from the back.

“She calls me Fin. Can’t pronounce my real name.”

“Good of her to bring treats for everyone,” Mame commented.

“She’s the best two-legg. The only one I really trust.”

***

After everyone got a snack, Dana sat back, feeling content now that she had found her NEXUS card and made amends with Fin. She was thrilled that the shelter now had no locked doors. The animals had a dream life.

But just then, Mame started rowling-yowling a rhythmic growl in a howling singsong voice. The other dogs, the cats, the potbellied pig, the birds, all joined in. The two mature birds, an African Grey and a Macaw, sang actual words:

Beasts of Washington, Beasts of Oregon

Beasts of every land and clime,

Hearken to my optimistic tidings

Of an equitable future time!

Dana gasped. This song was what brought Fin and Snookie to Bellingham! She gave him an extra treat, then wondered if it was equitable to give just him a treat. He was her baby, but the other animals might not take that into account. She started around the circle, giving every animal a second treat. She felt some of the treats stick to her perspiring palms.

After the potbellied pig got his treat, a strip of bacon, they all sang a new verse of the song:

Beasts of Washington, Beasts of Oregon

Add Vancouver to our list,

Time to spread our realistic tidings

Of the equity some have missed!

Dana, never one to be called tan, paled further. What were they going to do?

“Fin, sweetie, do you want to go home? Back to your bed where we snuggle, and I write, and you give me inspiration?”

He looked at her with his Peter Lorre eyes and whimpered. She knew then what she had to do. These creatures needed one human to serve as their advocate. She seemed to be their chosen liaison.

“Come take on the world with us,” the African Grey said, presumably interpreting Fin’s whimper.

This was quite a pickle. She could do just one thing. “All right, you guys. I’m in. but this is going to slow me down in finishing my memoir, and I think Seán will have a hard time forgiving me for the delay. But whatevs.”

“Skookum!” the birds cried. They fluttered toward the exit.

The rest of the creatures looked from pug to woman, and from woman to pug, and from pug to woman again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.