Finding a dead body was not a good way to start a new job. Finding the dead body of your newest client was decidedly worse.
Ten minutes after making the horrendous discovery, Madison Reynolds sat outside the commercial chicken houses, waiting for the police to arrive. She was still trembling, but the shiver working its own down her spine had nothing to do with the wind whipping around her. Never mind that she had spent the entire morning sweating profusely; thermostat-controlled heaters kept the inside of the houses at a balmy eighty degrees. The cold seeping into her bones now had less to do with temperature, and more to do with shock. She could still see his face, so gruesome and distorted in death. And with that chicken perched upon it so proudly, as if staking its claim…
Madison shivered again and forced the image from her mind. She considered calling her best friend for some much-needed support, but the wail of an approaching siren drew her attention. She struggled to her feet, found that her knees were too weak to support her, and fell sharply back onto her rumpus.
Less than a minute later, a fire truck arrived on the farm amid a swirl of white dust and red lights. Madison was thankful to the driver for turning off the siren and strobe lights as he approached where she sat in front of House 4.
The truck barely stopped before the driver opened the door and jumped out.
“Are you all right?” the man demanded immediately, his eyes already probing the area for potential danger.
Madison opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. With eyes that were large and swimming with sudden tears, she merely nodded.
The firefighter seemed to recognize her distress. The quality of his voice changed, as if he were speaking to a frightened child. He even crouched down in front of her to be at the same eye level. “You’re Miss Bert’s granddaughter, aren’t you?” he asked.
Again, she could only nod. She thought she recognized the young man as one of Tug Montgomery’s boys, even though his slim frame bore no resemblance to his father’s famous ‘tug-boat’ build, the one from which Texas football legends were made. But he had Mary Alice’s eyes and was certainly handsome enough to be the former beauty queen’s son. She thought she recalled her grandmother saying something about one of their sons being on the fire department. Her guess was that this was little Cutter Montgomery, all grown up and setting women’s hearts aflutter, with or without the uniform.
He confirmed her suspicions with a smile. “Cutter Montgomery.” He extended a hand that was large and calloused.
Madison tugged off her filthy leather glove and placed her trembling hand into his. He immediately cocooned her icy fingers within the warmth of both his palms, his brows puckered in concern. “Are you sure you’re all right, ma’am? I don’t want you going into shock.”
It took two attempts, but she finally found her voice. “I’m- I’m okay. It’s not every day I find a … dead body.” In spite of herself, she shivered at the mere words.
“Would you like to sit in the fire truck, ma’am, until the police arrive? You might be more comfortable.”
Madison shook her head. She looked over her shoulder, toward the long metal building that housed the body. “I feel like we should do something. The chickens are- are pecking at him.” Again she shivered, this time in revulsion.
Cutter Montgomery rocked back on his heels and deliberated for less than a minute. “We need to preserve the scene,” he acknowledged. “I don’t want to disturb anything, but you’re right, we need to stop the chickens from doing even more damage.” With one smooth movement, he shot to his full height of just under six feet.
Madison’s attempt was much less graceful. As she lumbered to her feet, she wavered for a moment like a leaf in the breeze. Squaring her shoulders and digging in her heels, she took on a battle stance as she made a brave offer. “I’ll help.”
“Are you sure?”
No, she was not at all certain, but she felt obligated to see the mission through. “It’s the least I can do.”
“What were you doing out here, anyway?” Despite his friendly tone, the first responder’s eyes were speculative.
“Mr. Gleason hired me to walk his chicken houses for him this week while he was out of town.”
Cutter Montgomery looked down at her with obvious surprise. His gaze flickered over her, as if noticing her attire for the first time. Hazel eyes took in the raggedy t-shirt streaked with dust and perspiration, the filthy jeans smeared with Heaven-only-knows-what, the plastic sleeves over muck boots at least a size too large, and the disposable respirator dangling from her neck. He bit back the smile, but amusement still sparked in his eyes as he questioned his hearing. “You?”
Madison lifted her chin defiantly. “Yes, me,” she fairly snapped.
“Sorry, ma’am, I meant no disrespect,” the younger man apologized. He reached around to open and hold the door for her. “I’m just surprised, is all. I didn’t realize Ronny had hired anyone to work for him.”
“He didn’t, not exactly. I own In a Pinch Temporary Services,” she explained. With a brave gulp, she stepped over the threshold and into the chicken house.
She immediately regretted the deep breath without interference from the respirator. The stench of twenty-five thousand chickens and high levels of ammonia burned her lungs and assaulted her nostrils. As her eyes adjusted to the dim interior, she quickly put the breathing apparatus back in place.
Cutter Montgomery murmured something as he backed out of the doorway and disappeared into the adjacent control room. Madison had a moment of panic at the thought of being alone with the body, but when the long barn brightened, she realized the firefighter was merely adjusting the lighting. Seconds later he was back beside her and asking which way to go.
Madison motioned to the fan end of the five-hundred-foot building. When he waited for her to take the lead, she reluctantly pushed forward, wading through the dense maze of white birds.
Less than one week ago, she joined Ronny Gleason on rounds through the houses where he grew commercial broilers for Barbour Foods. Although the houses were fully automated and run by a computer program, some things still needed personal inspections. He taught her how to ‘walk’ the houses, which entailed looking for trouble spots and picking up dead or inferior chickens. Water lines needed adjusting every few days as the chickens grew, and feed lines had to be free and flowing. The list of potential problems was overwhelming -everything from broken fan belts and stalled motors to leaking water nipples and disease among the chickens- but surprisingly enough, the massive process was generally smooth and trouble-free. The crash course in chicken growing taught Madison more than she ever intended to know about the feathered fowl, but at this point in her life, a job was a job. She needed the meager amount Ronny Gleason was paying her to tend his houses for the week.
To her chagrin, a sudden thought crossed Madison’s mind. Who will pay me now? Do I even still have the job? She knew it was in poor taste to be thinking of a paycheck when a man lay dead just a few dozen feet away, but she had a lot riding on this job. It was her first ‘real’ service. Walking Glitter Thompson’s dogs while she was out of town, carrying Leroy Huddleston back and forth to physical therapy in Bryan, and running small errands for some of her grandmother’s friends were such meager jobs they hardly qualified; unless, of course, she was putting together a resume. In that case, her agency had experience in transportation needs, personal shopper assistance, and pet care.
Even though the odd jobs brought in a small amount of income, they were more like kid work than actual temporary services. She had not been blind to the evil looks ten-year-old Trey Hadley gave her at church last Sunday; after all, he usually walked the Thompson poodles when their owner was away. Madison found no pleasure in stealing jobs from the local youth, but she was just desperate enough to do it anyway.
That was why this job was so important to her. If Ronny Gleason gave her a good recommendation, other chicken growers in the community might call her when they needed help, and her agency would finally get off to a solid start.
The sickening sweet, rancid smell of death permeated the respirator as she approached the end of the house, reminding Madison that there would be no recommendation from poor Ronny Gleason. She stared at the mound of chickens that now roosted atop his prone body and was ashamed of herself for worrying about her own plight at a time like this. When her feet stalled, unwilling to carry her closer, Cutter Montgomery bumped into her from behind.
The first responder stepped around her and plodded forward. He shooed the birds away with sweeping movements of his arms. The action set off a flurry of noisy activity as chickens squawked and flapped and scurried away, but it cleared a direct path to the body. Stopping within a couple of feet of the dead man, the young fireman assessed the situation without touching any evidence.
He said something, but the words drowned under the noisy cluck of the disturbed chickens. Madison reluctantly stepped forward so that she could catch his next statement. “Looks like he’s been dead several hours. In this kind of heat, though, it’s hard to tell.”
A shiver of repulsion shimmed through Madison. She had only been in the chicken business for one day, but she knew exactly what he was talking about. Even she had no trouble telling which chickens had died within the day and which ones had been missed on the last walk-through. The chickens could quickly deteriorate into a gooey, disgusting mess when left in these conditions; she supposed a human body would be no different.
As Madison bit back a gag reflex, Cutter looked around the huge building and continued to speak. “We need to section off this area to keep the chickens away. If you’ll stay here, I’ll move those divider fences this way.”
“I’ll help!” she said frantically. She wasn’t about to stand there with the body.
“I know it’s not pleasant, ma’am,” he said, his voice gentle, “but you’d be more help standing here and keeping the chickens away.”
“Oh.” The flap of nearby wings swept the small word away.
Madison turned her back to the body as she shooed away the curious birds. She fought back a wave of panic as she watched Cutter move away from her, leaving her alone with the dead man. She was almost thankful when one feisty rooster pecked at her calf; the brief sting of pain gave her something else to think about, other than the fact that she stood two feet away from a grotesquely mutilated body, swollen by heat and ravished by a flock of chickens.
Low-to-the-ground grid panels were used as fences within the house to create distinct sections down the five-hundred foot corridor. The fences helped distribute bird density for more equal access to feed pans and water lines, while still being low enough for the growers to step over. With no heed now to unbalanced sections, Cutter Montgomery jerked holding stakes from the ground and began maneuvering the long panels amid the feathered sea of white.
He dutifully made his way back toward Madison, who was careful to keep her back to the dead man as she circled his prone form, flapping her arms to chase away chickens. If the situation had not been so dire, she might have laughed at the crazy sight she must make. When she made a round and saw Cutter just a few feet away, a sound that was half-sob, half-laughter escaped her scorched throat and she almost tripped on her own clumsy feet.
“We need to push all the birds forward,” he advised. “Go to the back wall and start herding them this way.”
Madison soon learned that herding several hundred chickens was about as easy as convincing a pair of petulant toddlers into doing something they refused to do. Every time she thought she was making progress in moving the mass forward, a half dozen birds slipped behind her. While she chased those birds down, another dozen or so decided to backtrack.
“This isn’t working,” Cutter announced after several minutes. Madison would have agreed, but she was too busy trying to get a deep breath, horrid odor and all. The combination of physical exertion and excessive heat zapped her energy and robbed her of air. Bent at the waist to catch her breath, she barely heard him as he planned their next course of action. “We’ll just make a section here around the body. That will have to be good enough, at least until the police gets here.”
Madison nodded incoherently. In retrospect, maybe getting her unruly twins into the bathtub hadn’t been as difficult as she remembered; it was certainly easier than getting all these feathered foul to move. Maybe she should take chicken houses off her list of offered services…
As Cutter Montgomery went to work erecting a triangular fence around the dead chicken grower, Madison shooed birds away and followed simple instructions. She held the panels as Cutter drove stakes into the ground to make them stay upright, careful to keep her eyes averted from the body. Bending to hold the low fences brought her closer to the cloying smell that permeated the air and turned her stomach, but Madison held her breath as much as possible. Even without the noxious fetor of death, the odor in the chicken houses was already so overpowering it was enough to make any sane woman run the other way.
Madison, however, had always found that sanity was over-rated. Ignoring the bile that rose in her throat, she took tiny sips of air through her mouth and steeled herself to the task that must be done.
To keep her mind off the mutilated mass just feet away, Madison tried to concentrate on something else. She wondered what the twins were doing. It was still mid-morning, so they would probably be in their shared Science Lab about now, or maybe in their respective classes of English Lit and Algebra. Didn’t Bethani have a math test today? Madison worried that her daughter’s grades were slipping. The move had been hard on the fifteen-year-old, especially after losing the father she so adored. Blake seemed to be adjusting better than his sister was, but with boys, it was often hard to tell. Not for the first time, Madison felt the swell of insecurity wash over her, making her question herself and her decision to move back to her hometown.
“There, that should do it.” The firefighter’s satisfied grunt brought Madison from her musings and back to the situation at hand.
Without thinking, Madison glanced over at the body they protected. After so carefully avoiding the sight since her initial discovery -and even then she had not looked at his face- this one careless action was a brutal and cruel slap of reality that brought Madison up short. With no chance to brace herself to the sight before her, she was less than a foot away from the distorted flesh that slipped from Ronny Gleason’s face. One unseeing eye stared straight up at the ceiling; the other had been pecked out by the chickens, leaving a bloodied, empty socket in its place. His mouth gaped open and was a festering place for dozens of swarming flies and beetles and maggots. The skin of his neck was ripped from a hundred sharp claws marching over it, and what was once his Adam’s apple was now pecked clean.
Horrified, Madison jumped to her feet and whirled around. She slipped in the wet litter beneath her feet and went down amid the chickens. Scrabbling for traction, she used whatever she could find -chickens, the filth she lay in, a nearby feed line- to push herself upright and get her feet beneath her once again. She ran for the end door, stepping over and sometimes on the hapless chickens in her path. She wrestled with the door that stood between her and freedom, finding even the simple doorknob too difficult to manage in her hysteria.
When the handle finally turned, Madison burst out into the gloriously fresh air and gobbled it in with deep, greedy gulps. The cold air collided in her airway with remnants of her breakfast, on its way up from her queasy stomach. As Madison choked and gagged and gasped for air, the police finally arrived on scene.
Brash deCordova pulled behind the fire truck, grateful that at least the VFD had responded to the call in a timely manner. With his crew of exactly three officers, himself included, the police department was stretched thin across the connecting cities of Juliet and Naomi, collectively known as The Sisters. The Volunteer Fire Department often filled in the gaping holes.
Okay, so maybe the term cities was a bit presumptuous, he acknowledged to himself. Even thrown together, the population of the two towns barely scraped two thousand. Admittedly, he was not chief of a thriving metropolis, but there were plenty enough residents to keep his job interesting and his hours long. And according to Vina, his ever-efficient clerk and the best department coordinator he had ever known, the arrival of the area’s newest three citizens bumped the department into a new category that qualified them for additional state funding. The dream of having a fourth officer might finally become a reality and take some of the workload off his over-stressed team.
Dreaming aside, Brash had work to do. Never mind that he worked last night’s shift and should be sleeping right now. A minor wreck along the highway tied up Officer Perry, as well as most of the fire department. Officer Schimanski was responding to a report of a suspicious person lurking around The Gold and Silver Exchange. Which left him to respond to the report of an unattended death here at Gleason’s Poultry Farm.
Just a few hundred feet to the north, he mused as he stepped into the dank and putrid interior of the chicken house. Then the farm would fall under the county’s jurisdiction. But no, last year’s re-districting of the Naomi city limits -a blatant and obvious effort to outrank their rival town’s population- landed the farm within his responsibilities. So much for a nap.
Even with the lights turned up, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the interior lighting. Over the tops of fluffy white feathers and through the haze of dust that seemed to always inhabit the houses, Brash could see a figure at the back of the long structure. Judging from the rig outside, his guess was Cutter Montgomery. A good kid, the police chief thought, always ready and eager to help. Let’s see what he found this time.
Halfway down the house, Brash decided being an over-worked, under-paid, sleep-deprived public servant was still a far sight better than being a chicken farmer. Even without the smell, the noisy din of thousands of clucking birds was enough to drive him to drinking. A few more feet, and he got a whiff of another kind of odor. The undeniable stench of death immediately reminded him that his own career was hardly glamorous.
“What have we got?” he called out when he came within hearing range of the other man.
Cutter Montgomery turned to acknowledge the officer’s presence. “Ronny Gleason. At least, I think that’s who it is. Kind of hard to tell, considering.”
Stepping over the fence with an easy stride, Brash deCordova crouched beside the badly damaged body. Using the antenna of his hand-held radio, he gingerly pushed and pulled at the dead man’s shirt, trying to determine if there were any obvious signs of foul play. No bullet holes, but slashes from a knife could be easily confused with slashes from chicken claws.
“I’d say it’s definitely Ronny,” he agreed as he eyed the body. “Good idea with the fence, by the way, even though the damage has already been done. So who found the body?”
“New worker.” With a thumb, he motioned toward the end door which still stood ajar. “Losing her breakfast, as we speak.”
“Yeah, but to give her credit, she hung in there longer than I expected. She’s been a real trooper, helping me section off this area and keeping the birds away. I know a lot of men who couldn’t have done what she did.”
“You’d need an iron stomach, that’s for sure,” Brash muttered. He lifted his wrist to his nose and breathed against it, hoping to dilute the reek of death laced with ammonia and wet litter. He could not recall ever smelling something quite so repulsive. Ignoring his own stomach’s protest, he studied the body for a few moments longer. “As far as I know, Ronny was in good health. How old do you figure he was?”
The fireman shrugged. “I think he was younger than my dad, so late forties, maybe? About your age, I’d say.”
Brash pulled to his feet and did his best to stare down at the younger man. Given the fact they were both within an inch of six feet tall, the attempt was not as effective as he hoped. He resorted to a glare. “Just how old do you think I am, boy?”
Unfazed, the younger man grinned cockily. “Old enough to consider me a boy.”
“I don’t even qualify for mid-forties,” Brash grumbled. Forty-two was still the early forties, was it not?
“No, but I could still hear your knee pop, even over all this racket,” Cutter quipped.
“Perils of playing football.”
“I know. My old man pops the same way.”
Brash pretended to scowl as he stepped over the fence. And with no popping joints, he was proud to note. “Don’t forget your old man can still whip your ass, boy,” Brash informed the younger man. He felt the need to defend the great Tag Montgomery. After all, Tag had been not only his hero, but also his mentor. Between the two of them, they still claimed most of the standing records for The Sisters Fighting Cotton Kings. For good measure, he threw out another warning. “And so could I.”
Cutter Montgomery merely laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Exerting his authority, Brash got in the last word. “You stay with the body; I’ll go talk to the witness.”
But as the police chief walked away, the younger man called after him. “Fine by me,” the fireman insisted affably. “I guess the smell doesn’t bother the younger generation near as much as it does you old folks.”