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J. Keith Jones

&More--Nov/Dec 2014



J. Keith Jones is the author of the novel, In Due Time, and two nonfiction history books. His writing has appeared in such journals as “Georgia Magazine,” “Dew on the Kudzu,” and “Thunder Sandwich.” Native to Georgia, he’s spent much of his adult life in either South Carolina or his adopted home in North Carolina, where he currently lives with his wife who kindly tolerates his writing habit. Find out more at his website,www.jkeithjones.com.


DressedAnd StuffedTo Kill:
 
A Matt Cutter Mystery



J. Keith Jones


November was drifting along--at times fluttering, then stopping cold--much like the turkey that had become its symbol. I had no idea that my fate would mirror that of the turkey.

The holidays were often slow in the private investigation business. I had just wrapped up a divorce case. After weeks of hiding in bushes and slumping down in car seats across the street from seedy motels, the court date had finally come and gone. It was a slam dunk for my client. She had been resplendent in her finest low-cut dress and spray-on tan; a strand of gleaming cultured pearls proudly draped the mountains surrounding some serious store-bought cleavage. 

Her husband by contrast, dressed in his shabbiest dull-gray suit, trying to draw attention away from the millions he had made in the packaged food industry. It surprised me how he could manage that much time away from his business during the hectic pre-Thanksgiving rush. Pickens Hoyle–known locally as "Chicken Pickens" for all the poultry his company sold–was the richest man in town. Holly–the trophy he had plucked from the ranks of the top beauty contestants–had been a college cheerleader and the most sought after woman around the state in her day.

Chicken Pickens was a man who never had enough. He traded cars every year or two and wives nearly as often. Holly was contestant number six in Pickens' matrimonial pageant. Holly, in stark contrast to the previous Mrs. Hoyles, was brighter than the average houseplant which spelled trouble for old Chicken. Nevertheless Chicken Pickens Hoyle was not a man to be trifled withwhich would spell trouble for me.

His glare as he left the court room could have burned off a dense fog. I would have been less cocky had I known what he had up his sleeve.

That evening, I sat behind my desk in my tiny office above a used furniture store. My door opened on an exposed steel staircase which led down into an alley ending a few feet from Main Street. I was entertaining my two favorite pals, Jack Daniels and Slim Whitman.

I was startled by a gentle rap on the door. I often left it ajar to allow the air to circulate in the small office and tonight was no different. The young woman's body was silhouetted against the street light down on Main. Gentle curves subtly accentuated her trim figure.

“May I help you?” I asked.

“I'm sorry to bother you, Mr. Cutter.” Her voice was as soft and tempting as melted butter flowing onto warm biscuits. Her hair glowed like burnished gold. “My name is Destiny LaRue,” she purred in a southern lilt.

“Have a seat, Ms. LaRue,” I gestured toward the stuffed chair and loveseat I had crammed in the tidy space opposite my desk. She sat in the chair and I walked around to the loveseat. “What brings you out this evening?”

“It's my brother, Mr. Cutter.”

“Please call me Matt, Ms. LaRue.” Her eyes looked like they had been transplanted from a doe.

“Okay, Matt.” She giggle nervously. “Then you must call me Destiny.” I smiled and nodded. “It's my brother.” A tear appeared in the corner of her brown eye and slowly trickled down her cheek. “Um... Winston. He's missing. I'm afraid something's happened to him.”

“Have you contacted the police?”

“I filed a report, but . . . well, I think it had something to do with his job.” Her eyes stared past me. “He had stumbled onto something and I'm afraid that is why he's missing.”

“Where does he work?”

“Pickens Packaged Food.”

“Chicken Pickens' plant?”

“Yes, something's going on with the turkeys and chickens there, Matt. I just know it and now I think it may have gotten Winston . . .” Destiny broke down into sobs, burying her face in her hands.

Winston LaRue had not been heard from for two days. He had told Destiny about accounting irregularities. Chicken Pickens had a serious slush fund off the books that Winston had detected. Late night conference calls to China and in-the-dead-of-the-night turkey shipments were picked up by unmarked trucks. There was always a team of tough-looking Chinese thugs in black suits and dark glasses overseeing the loading. There was also a section of the plant that few people were allowed into. 

Something smelled in Chicken Pickens' plant worse than the gut bucket. Perhaps Chicken had more reasons to be concerned about my snooping than just his marital troubles.

“Can you get me into the plant tonight?”

* * *

We tiptoed past the pen where Terrence the Turkey, Pickens' resident mascot, rested. Terrence raised his head warily at us. Pickens would trot Terrence out for any occasion he could. Terrence would be the grand marshal of the local Thanksgiving Day parade this year. Chicken Pickens would ride in the back of a convertible with his arm around Terrence waving as he passed. Terrence would flap a wing giving the appearance of waving like Pickens had taught him.

A large pen down in a pit occupied the far corner of the compound. This was the home of hundreds of turkeys, their gooses all soon to be cooked, destined for someone's dinner table this holiday season. We gave the pen a wide berth fearing the turkeys raising the alarm, and crept along in the shadows lining the outside wall of the plant. Muted voices drifted from an open window. I held up one hand and Destiny nodded her understanding.

“What are we going to do with him?” A familiar voice asked. “It makes me nervous just having him here.” Pickens! It was the voice of Chicken Pickens.

“I told you, we just have to sit on him for a few days then we can sell him to the Chinese,” a different voice answered. “An agent like LaRue will bring top dollar. Maybe we can get a bidding war going between them and the North Koreans.”

Agent? I shot a look at Destiny. She avoided my eyes. I eased up to the window and peeked around the edge. Chicken Pickens and another man wearing dark glasses stood in the middle of the room. Pickens paced about waving his hands.

Tied to a chair between them was Winston LaRue.

"I'm going in," I whispered to Destiny. "It's Winston's only chance."

"There's a door just around that corner." Destiny pointed ahead where the wall ended, dropping away into a dark alleyway to the right.

"You wait here," I said. She nodded and reached out giving me a quick kiss.

"For luck," she said nervously.

I pulled my Smith and Wesson .45 caliber from my holster and eased off toward the corner. Halfway there, I stopped and looked back at Destiny. I couldn't help noticing her legs, encased in nylon, calves accentuated by high heels. Suddenly she seemed more beautiful. 

I turned and scampered off rounding the corner. The alley was dark except for one shaft of moonlight that pierced through the tree. I crept along until I was able to reach out and try the knob of a door half way down the alley. It turned easily. I drew in a breath readying to dash into the room. It was then that I felt a crack across the back of my head.

* * *

I awoke beside the turkey pen. Terrence the turkey watched from inside. The other turkeys gobbled on and off in mild distress.

"Boss, he's awake," a man who closely resembled a bulldozer on steroids shouted. Chicken Pickens and the other man walked up. The other man dragged Winston LaRue along and tossed him down beside me.

"If Cutter is here, this thing is hotter than we thought. Good thing you caught him, Barto." Pickens looked over at the big man.

Barto's grin gleamed in the moonlight. He folded two arms the size of telephone poles across his chest. He was wearing a black suit and shades.

"Nobody gets past me." The giant thumped his chest.

"We've got to get rid of them," Pickens ranted. 

"Relax boss. We can let the Chinese take care of them both," Shades said.

"No! We can't wait," Pickens said. "If the feds find out we'll never see the outside again. We can grind them into the turkey feed." 

Now that was a twist.Winston and I would end up being an early Thanksgiving dinner for the turkeys rather than the other way around. I wondered where Destiny was and hoped she had left and called the police.

"What is this about Pickens?" I asked.

"Why would I tell you?"

"You're going to kill us anyway . . . or sell us to the Chinese."

"Good point," Pickens said. "I guess you might as well know why you are dying. It's microchips. My man here," Pickens said indicating Shades, "has been spiriting them out of government facilities. We're implanting them into the turkeys we're sending to China. I'm making way more that way than I ever made from chickens and turkeys." 

Pickens' face took on an odd look, "Congratulations Cutter. Now I have to kill you."

"Your man there is really tough, right? What if I weren't tied?" Pickens glared at me the same way he had in the courtroom. I was counting on his anger and his need for revenge. "I'll make a wager with you. If I beat your man, we go free and keep our mouths shut."

"Yes, let's see how tough you really are. If you win, we sell you to China, but if you lose . . . well . . ."

"But boss . . ." Shades sputtered.

"Untie him!" Pickens shouted. Shades drew a knife, cut my bonds.

"Run away," Winston whispered just loud enough for me to hear. I didn't. I swaggered over to Barto.

"You get first shot," he said. 

I landed my hardest punch below his left ear. My hand hurt and Barto brought his head back upright and smiled.

I dodged the first two swings of Barto's and hit him in the solar plexus then followed up with a jab to the nose. Barto recovered and sent me to the mat with a left cross then kicked me in the ribs. He raised his foot to stomp my stomach.

Suddenly the night exploded with a crash. Barto howled and grabbed his knee. I moved in and landed a solid kick to his chest sending him into the turkey pen. The turkeys scattered.

I turned to see Destiny jump from the darkness, pistol in hand, and a pointy toe in Shades' stomach. Chicken Pickens tried to run, but I punched him in the jaw sending him to Destiny's feet. She placed her spiked heel on his throat and dared him to move. 

"Cut Winston loose," Destiny told me.

"Who are you two?" I asked.

"CIA." Winston smiled through cracked lips. "I've wanted to recruit you for a while."

Destiny's cherry lips curled up on the edges. "An extraction team is on the way."

"Why didn't you just call in your extraction team in the first place?"

Destiny smiled and twisted her foot eliciting a yelp from Pickens. "The Company pulled the plug on this operation weeks ago. Winston refused to back off . . . so he was on his own."

"Why did you call on me?"

"I wanted to see if Winston's faith in you was well founded."

"Any other reason?" I smoothed back my hair and grinned.

"Not too sure of yourself are you, Romeo?"

"Do I have reason to be?" I laughed.

"We'll see." Destiny's smirk made my heart leap. Floodlights from helicopters lit up the night. The lights accentuated Destiny's body, making it gleam with a giant halo. 

I couldn't help myself. The scene before me was ridiculous and the pressure was off. I threw my head back and roared with laughter.

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