Freddie Cleveland reeked of cooking grease. He’d battered, fried, boiled, basted, fricasseed and cooked chicken every way imaginable. He made it every day, one way or another. The smell never went away, never left his clothing. He figured it would be there as long as he worked at Chicken Jumbo, a second-rate chicken joint in Semblance, Iowa. His recent lack of dating opportunities supported the assumption.
Freddie paced around a small table in a two-toned, grey-walled police interrogation room. His deposition for a disputed incident was being questioned. A heavy steel door banged open, flooding the small space with harsh hallway light. Detective Robert Miller filled the doorway crowding into the room. A veteran, with 40 years on the Semblance police force, Miller had re-opened a local, cold case. Freddie Cleveland was his primary suspect. But Miller had been unable to prove that an actual crime took place.
“I’m Miller. You Freddie?”
“Freddie Cleveland. Like the city.”
“Ok, if you’re talking to my old man. Not if you’re talking to me. It’s Freddie.”
Miller closed the door and dropped a stack of file folders onto the table.
“Take a seat – Freddie.” The detective emphasized the boy’s first name and coughed something that sounded like “Cleveland.” Freddie sat. The reticent 17-year-old resembled a bag of bones in loose-fitting clothing. He draped himself over the chair. It was awkward and uncomfortable. Freddie feigned nonchalance. He shrugged and copped a negative attitude toward Miller.
“I’ll be asking a few questions,” said Miller. “But, it’s your story to tell. I’d encourage you to get it right the first time.”
“What does that mean?”
“Does that count as a question?”
“Don’t get smart with me kid.”
“That’s not gonna happen,” Freddie assured the detective under his breath.
“Listen, smart mouth. Wise up. You’ll be answering to tougher guys than me if you don’t clear your name. That’s why you’re here. Got it?”
“You bet. Another question. Better pace yourself. So, what are we talking about? Am I accused of a crime? Where’s the body? What’s the motive. Where’s the weapon?” Freddie mimicked the detective.
“Let’s get this straight.”
“Shoot.” Freddie grinned from ear to ear. “No! Wait, don’t. Gotcha.”
The detective scowled. “You’re our number-one suspect in the disappearance of Frank Stecher, your former boss.”
Miller had to admire the plucky kid, even if Cleveland was a royal pain. He’d dealt with worse. Try a different tack, thought Miller. Save intimidation for later. He smiled. But Miller’s contemptuous gaze suggested otherwise.
“Let’s start over.” Miller shuffled through pages of notes crowded with cramped handwriting. “Your name is Frederick Cleveland.”
“You’re a Junior at West Central Valley High School in Stuart. You live with your folks in Semblance, Iowa west of Stuart and work part-time for Chicken Jumbo.”
“Not bad,” said Freddie.
“Care to elaborate?” Miller glanced up at him over an opened file folder.
“Nope.” Freddie twirled pencils he’d pulled from a pocket in his jeans as Miller scanned notations in the case file. The kid flipped them left, right, over and under each finger then across both hands together in unison. He repeated the performance.
“Is that necessary?” asked Miller.
“Wasted question. Yes. I find it’s relaxing.”
Miller shrugged. “You started work on June 12, 2018 along with…let me see.” He flipped forward several pages. “Ah yes, with your buddy Jason Johnson. Chicken Jumbo owner
Frank Stecher interviewed you both in turn, right?”
“So, you knew Frank?”
“Your words, not mine. As a boss. Yes. He was friendly, in an offhand way I guess.”
“Let’s be certain,” Miller scowled.
“It’s hard to explain. He kept to himself. You could say he had big dreams.” Freddie stifled a laugh.
“Go on.” Miller sensed the boy opening up. Relax, he thought to himself.
“Me and Jason, we both needed money. The chicken joint seemed like an ok job. Mr. Stecher paid us every week. We got by. That’s about it.”
“How long had you worked there before Frank Stecher disappeared?”
“He’s GONE? I can’t believe it.” Freddie faked horror on hearing the news.
Miller’s stony expression was a reminder of Freddie’s disputed involvement with the missing man.
“C’mon, you’re straight-facing me man.”
“Well?” Miller shrugged.
Freddie held out both hands, palms toward Miller and raised his arms real slow, like he’d seen in the movies.
“What now?” Miller asked.
“Need to refer to my journal. It’s in my backpack.” He motioned with caution toward the back of the room, thumbs pointing over his shoulders.
“No fast movements son.” Miller leaned sideways to see past Freddie. The kid’s backpack lay crumpled in a corner. Miller sat back. Missed that, he thought. I’m slipping up.
“Sick,” said Freddie.
Miller ignored Freddie’s teenage slang.
Freddie snagged a strap, pulling the bag onto his lap and fumbled inside. Miller tensed to act. He relaxed as Freddie pulled out a tattered notebook. The detective started talking. He stopped Freddie from accessing any excuses he’d documented in his book. “You know more about Stecher than you’re saying kid.” The direct accusation caused Freddie to fumble the notebook onto the table. He didn’t answer.
“Why do your friends call you Sticks? Is it because you like to stick it to people? Did you stick it to old man Stecher? I know he placed you on the dreaded night shift, isn’t that right?”
“More than once,” Freddie replied. “But that was between the two of us, man.”
“That’s what I mean. It got personal didn’t it?“ Miller hesitated. He showed no emotion. “You took your feelings out on Stecher with your Samurai sword.” Freddie sucked in his breath. Miller pressed his point home. “Did you off the old guy and dice up the body parts like you dismember chickens?”
“Hey, that’s not fair.”
“You have a lot to fess up to kid. With all this bluster and posturing, I think you’re hiding the truth. You showed your kitchen co-workers your skill with that Samurai sword of yours. Remember the night you brought it to work? Jason did.”
Freddie cringed. He didn’t expect that escapade to come up. Had his buddy ratted him out?”
“How’d it go? The crew tossed raw chickens in the air. You sliced and diced them into pieces onto waiting plates in the parking lot. Remember? Did you deal with Stecher the same way? Did you cleave the old man into neat little pieces? Plop them into the fryer to make your own special batch of crispy tenders?” Freddie froze. The small room felt a lot smaller.
“No…no, I didn’t.” Freddie stammered but kept his eyes on Miller.
“Pretty hard to keep that blade clean, eh?”
“I sent a squad car to your parent’s house with a search warrant. I’ll bet trace amounts of blood show up when we examine your sword. Luminol will do the trick. Blood’s hard to hide.”
“You’re making this up. You still got nothing.”
Miller jotted two words on scraps of paper, and tossed them in from of Freddie.
“Motive, weapon,” Freddie read the words aloud.
“You had a motive, a weapon, and will tell me what you boys did with the body.”
“You think I’ll cave? That I’m hiding some dirty secret and will break if you push me around?”
“When you learn the whole truth, you’ll be hard-pressed to deal with it. Trust me.”
“That’s not likely. So, let’s get to the truth. Think about it for a few minutes, I’ve got to check something out. You stay put. I’ll be right back.”
Miller left the room. Freddie twirled his sticks. He hadn’t realized how dry his mouth was from talking. The lingering smell in his clothing assaulted his nose. Nauseating. He quelled the feeling, Miller would see that as weakness. Or worse, as evidence. Freddie thought about his situation. He’s trying to hold me accountable. Weaving a few disjointed facts into a convenient story, for himself and for the police. That night, I brought my sword to Chicken Jumbo, was a mistake. It’s time to lay everything out for Mr. Miller, as it happened
Miller returned with coffee. “Want a cup?”
“Where did we leave off?” asked Miller.
Freddie flipped his ragged journal open. “So much happened. Real fast. I wrote it all down, in case.” Freddie found a dog-eared page and began reading to himself.
“This better be good,” said Miller, easing back in his chair.
Freddie licked his thumb and forefinger. He leafed forward, back, and stopped. Miller leaned forward. Freddie noticed. “It’s worth waiting for, you’ll see.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“Of course. Here they are. Notes from the night Mr. Stecher went missing.”
“You mean died?”
“Give me time,” said Miller.
Freddie shook his head. Reading again, his mouth formed words in silence. He skimmed, looking for something. He stopped and pointed. “A typical night.” Freddie read aloud to Miller. “Kinda slow. Jason complaining, as usual. A gang of girls came in around 9:00 p.m. to worship at the altar of Jason.”
“It’s what he does.”
“Dates groups of girls? Why?”
“He hates making decisions.”
“Would you say he’s a popular guy?”
“Oh yeah! When Jason’s not eating his paycheck, he gets bored and hits the gym. He attempts to break his own school weightlifting record.”
“He squats. A lot. Over 500 pounds. Earned himself the nickname, ‘Johhny Squat.’ Hates it. Makes the girls laugh though, so I guess he’s alright with it. Anyway, this was the night Jason noticed the smell and the padlocks.”
“Yes. Doors leading to the Chicken Jumbo basement and the pole building out back had
“We didn’t know. Didn’t ask. Old man Stecher would get cranked if we did. He was like that.”
“He’s an old man now, eh?” asked Miller.
“He was mercurial. On and off. Hot and cold. Temperamental. Always seeking the Holy Grail.”
“I could ask these questions.”
Miller motioned for Freddie to continue.
“He wanted to make it big in the chicken business. B.I.G. Said we should hang with him and we could make it big too.”
“You believed him.”
“Nope. We came in on time, got sent home when it was slow and tried to ignore Stecher.”
“What about the smell?”
“Right, the smell. Man, it was real. It was bad. Real bad. I didn’t believe Jason at first. He said it was coming from the basement. I work elbow-deep in grease at the joint. Kinda does a number on my sniffer. Everything smells like greasy chicken to me. But this was different. Like real strong amonia or something. We weren’t sure what it was to tell the truth. The padlocks kept us from finding out.”
“It went away.”
“Yes. But that’s not all.” Miller shrugged in frustration.
“The weird sounds went away too.”
“You failed to mention that part.”
Freddie gave the detective an irritated look. “We heard them during the night shift. Muffled sounds and scratching.”
“Freddie lifted the journal, sharing a smug smile. “This is why I’m glad I’ve got these.” He pointed to his notes and tapped the notebook.
“People might think we’re crazy. Me and Jason, without these.”
“There’s a lot of noise back in the kitchen and muffled sounds. Like very big pigeons.”
“Pigeons?” Miller was writing, as fast as he could. Freddie grinned. Miller didn’t notice.
“You know. Cooing and clucking. But bigger somehow.”
“No small bird makes sounds like those. Hard to describe. They were there, and then they were gone. Weird. But, we both heard the sounds and we didn’t make up the padlocks. They were real. So we knew we weren’t going nuts.”
“This is where it goes crazy. Tripping.”
“What do you mean.” Miller leaned forward, scribbling more notes on his paperwork.
Freddie attempted to explain as if it was all too hard to remember. “Business as usual. Fouled up orders. Rude customers…a real jerk job. Stecher burst in one night, about a month after the sounds stopped. Flustered. A worried look on his face. He was bald you know, but for that ring of hair around his dome. His noggin beaded with sweat. His face red from exertion I guess. He said he’d been chasing something. Something BIG.”
“What was it?” asked Miller.
Freddie scowled. “It’s like this, a few of the other guys took over for us. Me and Jason, we split when Stecher took off. Figured we’d follow him. See what he was up to. He’d legged it outa the chicken joint with a couple of bags. Looked like seeds of some kind and two fistfulls of white pills, some dropping on the ground as he ran.”
“The padlocks were missing. Like Stecher. Or broken off. It was the first thing we noticed. Then branches.”
“Busted branches everywhere. From the pole building covering the ground all the way to the nearby woods. Seemed like the way to go, so we went.” Miller leaned farther forward. Intent. Focused. Eager for more. He motioned for Freddie to continue.
“We came out of the woods about a half mile from Chicken Jumbo. Close to the railroad tracks.”
“Which tracks?” questioned Miller.
“Iowa/Nebraska Freightliner tracks. Des Moines to Omaha commercial route. The train blazes by Semblance at over 75 miles per hour.”
“Timing’s everything.” Miller gave Freddie a quizzical look. “We didn’t realize Stecher’s time was running out. Jason and I were running as fast as we could. It was so dark. Hard to see and not trip. There was a commotion ahead in the clearing between woods and tracks. A huge white shape moved between buildings visible above the rooftops, moving fast. Being chased by Stecher. He was running like a maniac. We couldn’t believe it. Definitely chasing something.”
“What was it?”
“That’s the definitive question detective.” Freddie sighed, “finally.”
Miller’s jaw dropped. “He was chasing a chicken?”
“Well, yes. And what else?” Miller was suspicious.
“It was a very large Chicken. No lie.”
“It was BIG. Huge. Jumbo. A jumbo chicken.” Freddie waited a few seconds for effect. “A 20-foot chicken I’d say.”
“Twenty feet tall?” asked Miller.
“Eyes as large as dinner plates. Big and fast.”
Freddie could see that he’d lost the detective. Miller was no longer looking at the boy. Nor writing either. He kept repeating “20 feet tall. A chicken you say, a jumbo chicken from the chicken joint. You realize how that sounds?” said Miller.
Freddie spoke again, slower, recognizing Miller’s conundrum. I warned him, didn’t I? “Stecher didn’t see well. It was dark. He would zig left, the bird right. It was almost comical. Until he kind of cornered the jumbo chicken. On the tracks. Dead center, so to speak. Bad timing. We were close, but the sound of the train stopped us cold. The bird must have seen that single light. Paralyzed. Couldn’t move. Wouldn’t move. No matter how much Stecher pushed or pulled. He was swearing. Jason gasped. He saw the train coming and turned away yelling no, no, NO! I watched. Frozen. Had to know. The freightliner hit Stecher and the bird square. Dead nuts on. There was a large BOOF. Then the sound of rushing air and clacking wheels. It was over.”
Miller stared at Freddie. “You expect me to believe that story, that fabrication?” asked Miller. “Better have more up your sleeve than that kid.”
“The facts detective. Just the facts. Jason and I headed back right after the crash. We went to Chicken Jumbo where we made a pact not to talk. Made no sense. We’d both seen the same thing. Stecher was gone. Jason, shaking and upset, left for home. Thing is, I’d known what Stecher was up to. I promised not to tell anyone. Doesn’t matter now. I knew he was breeding hybrid, genetically-altered chickens. I don’t know who he knew or where he got them. But they grew. A lot. That’s what he was after. Jumbo birds. He thought bigger birds meant bigger profits. So, he pumped them full of nutrients during the day and sedated them at night. His scheme worked too well. Growth hormones were the key. They outgrew Chicken Jumbo, the pole building and Stecher’s ability to control them. That’s the story Miller. No crime, no case, no motive and no body. There was little left of Frank Stecher. The bugs and birds got whatever remained after the Freightliner hit him. The train was the weapon. Two engineers, Pete and Joe, never saw him on the tracks. No horn. Kablooey. Kept on going to Omaha, where…the engine looked like a guilty dog in a hen house. Four foot feathers sticking everywhere out of the train’s nose. Neither engineer believed they’d run down a giant chicken. The railroad men did agree…mum’s the word. To this day though, they pull on full chicken suits and wave at the locals as they pass the spot. That’s all it is, a spot on the tracks and a dubious incident.”
He continued, “After the crash, the nearby neighbors cleaned everything up. The ladies used the Neighborhood Watch call list to reach each other. They marshaled their children to field-dress the giant bird. The women later adopted the name, Lucky Pluckers. Their husbands and sons gathered chain saws, cut up the meat and distributed equal shares. They became known as the Chicken Charlies. Remnants of each group exist today. Two co-ed softball teams have the same names. First responders are a majority of the players. So, now you know everything, Detective Miller.”
Miller rose. He left the interrogation room, saying nothing to Freddie, who headed home.
Later that night Freddie paid a visit to Chicken Jumbo. He entered using a master key entrusted him by Stecher. Down into the basement, behind a cabinet, he sought a dark, damp, hidden room that held a single long freezer. Locked. As he’d left it. Freddie counted the thick plastic bags with gory, bloody contents. All the bags were as untouched. The labels made him grin.
Legs, Thighs, Gizzards. Nice touch, he thought to himself as he closed and re-locked the freezer. Miller was wrong. He’d never use his sword. Not for this purpose. The store’s band saw was more than adequate for the job. Regular store-wide cleaning with bleach kept all the equipment clean. It was always inspection-ready for the health department. The new Chicken Jumbo owner Freddie Cleveland grinned.
Robert Miller never attempted to share Freddie’s story with anyone on the force. He closed the case and filed all the paperwork. Some notes, he shredded. One night, unable to sleep, Miller re-traced his steps to the tracks and back halfway. He spotted a gleaming, curved crescent of moonlight near the ground. It was half obscured by branches, brush and leaves.
No way, he thought. A brief excavation stunned him. It revealed a massive, jumbo egg. The implications, the ramifications, his mind reeled. Cooing, clucking, scratching interrupted his train of thought.
Miller walked around the base of the egg. Cracks. Broken…from inside? Large pieces of shell littered the ground. Branches crashed together, splintered and parted. Miller screamed. He attempted to run. Round, blood-spurting wounds pockmarked his face, hands and chest. The officer fell onto his back. Thrusts from sharp beaks lacerated the detective’s body. Miller saw it coming. His eyes went last.
The Semblance Sentinel covered the demise of Robert Miller. “Veteran Detective Robert Miller’s body was found near the scene of an unsolved mystery. Officers from Des Moine’s Special Investigation Unit say they have no leads.”
Detective William O’Malley excused himself from the Sentinel reporter. He ducked away from major media representatives clamoring for more information. He walked away from the crowd toward the crime scene and grabbed a tub of chicken tenders. A local chicken joint donated the food. O’Malley waved at the locals. He leaned under a yellow police line for another look at the victim’s body.
Thomas Mills’ slightly-dark urban fiction employs a laconic, staccato style. Writing under the pen name Vox Populi, he absorbs everything and crafts his experiences into humorous, paradoxical irony. Mills is an author/artist/entrepreneur with more than 40 years’ experience as an independent visual communications specialist. Thomas creates with abandon and encourages others see the world differently through his writing and artistic explorations.