by Earl Staggs
Sheriff Mollie Goodall sat at her kitchen table sipping her first cup of coffee of the day and smelling the pungent enticing aroma of perfectly fried bacon while her husband Lilburn stirred a pan of scrambled eggs at the stove. Bacon and toast were already on the table, and Mollie could hardly wait till he scooped eggs onto her plate so she could dig in. Lilburn retired from Bell Helicopter two years ago at the age of fifty and immediately took up something he’d always wanted to do. Cooking. Now, he did all the cooking at home, which pleased Mollie very much. To her, cooking was a chore. To him, it was an art.
“Have you decided what you’re entering in the contest next week?” she asked him. Each year, on Thanksgiving day, the county held a cookoff. Last year, Lilburn entered for the first time and won.
Without turning around to face her, he said, “Pretty much. I’m working on a green bean casserole with pearl onions. I have the seasonings figured out, but it still needs something to give it a special oomph.”
“I know you’ll come up with the perfect oomph. You always do.”
He turned his head enough for her to see his grin. “Thanks. Now can you please hold off on the chatter? I’m creating here.”
She giggled. “Oooops. Sorry, maestro.”
He turned back to the stove. She sat quietly and watched his arms move. His left moved in a slow circular motion. Rotating the pan, he called it, to make sure the eggs didn’t stick to the pan. His right moved this way and that, stirring the mixture to ensure uniform cooking throughout. Even scrambling eggs was an art.
She admired his broad shoulders just as she had when he was the All State high school quarterback and she was the head cheerleader. They’d both gained about thirty pounds since then, but he was still the sexiest man she’d ever seen.
And, the man could cook!
She was geared up for work in her uniform with all the paraphernalia attached and would head out to the station as soon as she’d eaten. When Lilburn turned and stepped toward the table with the pan of fluffy golden eggs, her cell phone rang. She pulled
it from her belt and answered.
“Mollie, it’s Clete Ashburn. You’d better get over here right away. The birds are gone.”
“Gone? All of them? How in the hell did that happen?”
“I don’t know, but every last one of them is gone.”
Mollie sat frozen for a moment. How could this happen.
“Mollie?” the man on the phone said. “Did you hear me?”
“Uh, yeah, I heard you. I’m on my way.”
Lilburn stopped with a heaping spoonful of eggs hovered over her plate. “What’s wrong? Who was that on the phone?”
“It was Clete Ashburn.“
“Really? I just saw him the other day. I stopped in Bryan’s Hardware to pick up a new lock for our shed and he happened to be there buying one for himself.”
Mollie only half heard him. She was still in shock from what Clete Ashburn said. “The birds are gone.”
She grabbed a piece of toast and wrapped it around six slices of bacon. “Looks like I’ll have to have breakfast to go. He said the birds are gone. I’ve got to get right over there.” She raised up on her tiptoes and kissed the big man on the cheek.
Lilburn said something but Mollie was halfway to the front door wondering what the hell was going on. How can eight hundred frozen turkeys go missing from a locked freezer?
As soon as she was in her patrol car, Mollie punched in on her hands-free phone. Her secretary, dispatcher, and all around everything else, Linda Prindle, answered.
“Linda, I’m on my way to Ashburn’s Grocery Store. Has Carole checked in yet?”
“Not yet. What’s up, Mollie?”
“I’ll fill you in later. As soon as you can get word to Carole, have her meet me at Ashburn’s, okay? We have a serious problem.”
“Copy that, Chief.”
Mollie shut off her phone and backed out of her driveway. It was a serious problem for sure. If those turkeys were gone, the “thanks” and the “giving” for this part of Texas would go out of the Thanksgiving Holiday, which was only six days away. When Mollie took over as sheriff of Wautango County five years ago, she helped start the program. The County Council chipped in half the money to buy the turkeys and private donations covered the rest. They always stored them at Ashburn’s since it was the only place in the county with a freezer large enough. On Turkey Tuesday, as it came to be called, the birds were given out to indigent families in the county as well as hospitals, orphanages, and assisted living facilities.
Today was Friday. Turkey Tuesday was only four days away.
Twenty minutes later, Mollie parked in front of Ashburn’s store. No problem finding a spot. Hardly anyone shopped here anymore. Samuel Ashburn opened the store some sixty years ago, and everyone in the county bought their groceries here for many years. When Samuel passed away four years ago and his sons Clete and Caleb took it over, the store went quickly downhill. The brothers knew a little about fishing, hunting, and NASCAR, but very little about running a grocery store. Now most people drove thirty-five miles to Stephenville and shopped at the Kroger there. Ashburn’s was still a convenient place to pick up milk, bread and eggs if you were in a hurry, but you had to make sure you checked the expiration date.
When she walked inside, she saw Clete standing in the back, leaning against a wall, talking to an older woman Mollie had seen but did not know. The woman held up a stalk of celery and looked like she might hit Clete with it. Mollie guessed the woman was complaining because the celery was limp and way past its prime.
Mollie walked toward them through an aisle of shelves only half filled with canned goods. The empty half of the shelves looked dusty. She saw only three other customers in the whole store.
When she approached them, the woman turned away from Clete, tossed the celery on the floor, and stomped off.
Clete Ashburn was about forty and tall and rangy like his dad with a wild head of black hair that desperately needed combing. The three-day stubble of beard on his face needed shaving.
When Clete spotted Mollie, he pushed himself away from the wall, gave her a hand wave to follow him, and went through a door beside him. Mollie followed him through the door and back to the large metal door of the freezer. He slid open the door and stepped inside. Mollie followed him again.
Clete stopped and pointed to racks along the right wall of the freezer where she had helped stack eight hundred frozen turkeys three days ago . All the racks were empty.
“See?” he said. “They’re all gone. Someone stole them.”
“How could this happen, Clete? Someone had to break into the store, open the freezer, and carry all the turkeys out without anyone seeing them. When did it happen?”
“When I closed up last night, they were all here. I opened the store this morning and came in here to bring out my meat for today and saw them all gone. It happened sometime during the night. They jimmied a window up in the store and took the birds out through the back door of the freezer.”
Mollie walked to the rear wall where another metal door opened into the alley behind the store. The door was there so deliveries could be made from the alley instead of hauling it through the main store.
“Don’t you have a burglar alarm in this place? It would have gone off when they came in the window.”
He ran a hand through his hair and looked away from her. “Yeah, but it’s broke. I been meaning to get it fixed, but just haven’t had the money.”
She nodded toward the door leading into the alley. “Wasn’t this back door to the freezer locked?”
He reached over to a small shelf beside the door. “Yeah, it was. They musta cut the lock with bolt cutters. You can see for yourself.”
She looked at the lock he handed her and saw where it had been sheared off. She glanced back at the door and saw a newer, bigger lock hanging on it.
“I see you replaced the lock.”
“I sure did. I don’t want anybody to clean out the rest of what I have.”
Mollie handed the old lock back to him. “Do you have any idea who might have done this?”
“No idea. Coulda been anybody in town. Everybody knew the birds were in here.”
Mollie walked a few steps away from him, shaking her head, thinking about what she would do. She walked back to him. “Okay, Caleb, first thing, don’t say anything about this. If we can get the turkeys back in time for Tuesday, we won’t have to face the disappointment of everyone who’s looking forward to getting their main course for Thanksgiving.”
“Makes sense to me. Only people who know about this are my store employees. I’ll tell them to keep it quiet.”
“Good. I’ll also need all their names and addresses. I have to start somewhere, so I’ll interview them and see if they have any ideas on what happened. I’ll also have to verify where they were last night.”
“I’ll give you the list right away. Let’s go to my office.” Clete walked to the door leading back into the main store.
Mollie hesitated and took another look around the freezer. She wanted to cry. Turkey Tuesday was nearly as special in the county as the day of Thanksgiving itself. She hoped she wouldn’t have to cancel it.
When she entered the store and closed the freezer door behind her, Mollie saw her deputy, Carole Ryan, walking through an aisle toward her. They were the same age, the same size, and had been friends since fourth grade.
“Hey, Molls, Linda said we had a serious problem here. What’s up?”
Mollie took a few minutes to tell her what it was all about. Carole looked like she, too, was going to cry. She’d been part of setting up the Turkey Tuesday program five years ago.
“Oh, Mollie, what are we going to do? There’s no money left to buy another eight hundred turkeys. We’ll have to cancel the whole thing.”
“Not if we can get those turkeys back.”
“How can you do that? Do you know who took them or where they took them to?”
“I don’t know anything, but we have to try.”
Clete came out of the office with a sheet of paper in his hand. “Here’s the list of employees, Mollie.”
“Thanks. I’m sure you know how it goes. I’ll have to check on everybody here at the store and that includes you. Where were you last night?”
“Fer Christ’s sake, Mollie! Are you saying you think I took them birds?”
“I’m not saying anything. This is standard procedure when there’s a robbery. Just tell me where you were last night and we can get on with it.”
“Okay, my brother and I closed up last night at about ten o’clock, we went to Taco Bell for dinner, then went home, watched Duck Dynasty on TV, and went to bed.”
Mollie pulled a notepad from her back pocket and made some notes. “Speaking of your brother, where is Tweeter? I’ll need to speak to him, too.”
Clete gave her a hard look. “You mean Caleb?” He emphasized his brother’s real name. He resented the nickname everyone had given his younger sibling. Caleb discovered smartphones and the social media a couple years ago and now spent every waking minute thumbing his life away on Twitter, Facebook and a few other online venues. People had attached the name “Tweeter” to him.
“Yes, I mean Caleb. Where is he?”
“He had to leave early this morning. He had to deliver a load of lumber out in Lubbock.”
Mollie remembered that Samuel Ashburn set up his sons in their own trucking business a few years ago. They were never able to make much of a go of it, but Tweeter still ran a load once in a while. “Okay, I’ll catch up with him when he gets back.”
Clete stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “So what are you going to do, Mollie?”
“We’re going to try to find those turkeys and get them back. If we can’t, we’ll just have to come up with the money to replace them somehow.”
Clete smirked. “Good luck with that. You were lucky you ordered them early. Now there’s not a turkey to be had anywhere. Seems some kind of disease hit all the growers and they lost all of them. Some stores are calling all over the state trying to buy them. Now, if you’re finished with me, I have to get back to work. I have a store to run.”
“That’s it for now. I’ll let you know if I find out anything.”
Mollie left the store with Carole a step behind. She leaned back against the fender of her car and let out a deep sigh. “Oh, crap, Carole, I don’t want to have to cancel Turkey Tuesday.”
“I know. But if we can’t get them back, what else can we do? Maybe we could get hams instead.”
“Don’t even think that. This is Thanksgiving, not Easter. We need turkeys.”
“Yeah, you’re right. What do you want me to do?”
Mollie handed over the list of employees of the store. “First, go through the neighborhood and see if anybody saw or heard anything last night. Whoever took those turkeys had to have a big truck and they make a lot of noise. If nothing turns up, start talking to these employees. Check their whereabouts for last night and ask if they have any ideas as to who might have done it.”
“I’m on it. What are you going to do”
“I need to check on a few things. I’ll catch up with you later.”
Carole stepped in and gave Mollie a hug. “We’ll get the birds back, Molls. Don’t you worry.”
Mollie drove south on Main Street with a lot of thoughts bouncing around in her head. Something Clete told her sounded fishy, but then she’d never trusted the man. A year ago, he advertised Genuine Idaho Baking Potatoes for $3.99 a pound. Turned out the spuds were from a scrub farm in Louisiana worth about fifty cents a pound. That cost the brothers a five thousand dollar fine. Two years ago, they were selling fourteen ounces of meat as a full pound. Clete talked his way out of that one by swearing he didn’t know his scale was not right.
She turned right on Williams Street, then made a left on Russell. After about two miles, she came to the lot where the Ashburn brothers operated their trucking business. She’d gone past it many times and remembered seeing two trailers parked there. One was a flatbed for hauling heavy equipment and building materials. The other was a refrigerated trailer for hauling frozen foods. The flatbed was there, the reefer was not.
Why would Tweeter take a refrigerated trailer to deliver lumber to Lubbock?
She called home. When Lilburn answered, she asked, “What did you tell me this morning about buying a new lock at Bryan’s Hardware?”
“We needed a new one for our shed. The old one was rusted a little and hard to open.”
“Not the one you bought. Didn’t you say Clete Ashburn bought a new lock?”
“Yes, he did. Why?”
“What day was that?”
“Let’s see. That would’ve been Wednesday. Why?”
“Are you sure about the day?”
“Yes, I’m sure. I went there right after I got my haircut that day. Why?”
“Thanks. I’ll explain it when I see you. By the way, did you come up with the final ingredient for your entry in the cooking contest?”
“Yes!” There was a tone of excitement in his voice. “It’s mangoes! I was watching a new show on the Food Network called Sallie Carleton’s Kitchen. She talked about different ways of using them and it hit me. I’m going to puree them and blend it in with the green beans and onions. The mangoes will take the edge off the onions and accent the flavor of the green beans.”
“Sounds great. I can’t wait to taste it. Gotta run now.”
Mollie hung up and called her friend Mary at the County License Department.
“Mary, can you check something for me?”
“Sure, Mollie. Whattaya need?”
“Can you check your records and see if Caleb Ashburn renewed his fishing license this year? If he did, can you see if he gave his cell phone number on the application?”
“You mean Tweeter?”
“Yes, Tweeter. Can you pull it up and check it?”
“Just give me a minute.”
Mary was back in less than two minutes. “It’s right here on the application, Mollie. Want it?”
Mary read off the number and Mollie wrote it in her note pad. “Thanks, Mary.”
“No problem. I’ll be there first thing Tuesday to help hand out the turkeys if you still want my help.”
“Uh. . .we’re going to start calling volunteers tomorrow, Mary, so you’ll be hearing from us.”
“Great! Looking forward to it. By the way, Mollie, I’m going to shoot your husband.”
“You are? Why?”
“I’ve decided to enter the Thanksgiving Cookoff next week and he’s too good. I’ve got to get rid of the competition.”
Mollie laughed. “Thanks for the warning. And thanks for your help on this phone number.”
Mollie’s next call was to her cousin, Texas Ranger Harry Wilcox.
“Hey, cousin Mollie! How the heck you doing?”
“Doing fine, Harry. How’s the best Ranger the state of Texas ever had?”
Harry hesitated, then said, “Uh oh.”
“What do you mean by uh oh?”
“I mean whenever you talk sweet to me, you want something.”
“Now, Harry, can’t a girl call her favorite cousin just to say hello?”
Harry chuckled. “Don’t play with me, Mollie. What are you after this time?”
“Well, since you asked, I’d like it very much if you’d track down a cell phone for me with that sophisticated ping tracer you guys have.”
“You mean check the cell phone towers and see where a phone is being used?”
“You got it, cuz. Can you do that for me?”
“Maybe I can. It’ll cost you though.”
“All it’ll cost you is your promise I can have second helpings of everything Lilburn fixes for Thanksgiving on Thursday. Deal?”
“Done deal. I’ll personally fill your plate as many times as you want.”
“I’ll hold you to that. But you know a phone has to be in use for us to track it.”
“Trust me, it’ll be in use. Probably somewhere between here and Lubbock.”
“Okay. Give me the number and I’ll do the best I can. If we find it, what do you want us to do?”
She read off the phone number. “Have the locals pull it over and open the truck. I need to know if it’s full of turkeys.”
“Full of. . . ? Mollie are you trying to pull my drumstick?”
“Very funny. No, I’m serious. We’re missing a truck full of turkeys, and we think this guy took them. If he has them, turn him around and bring him back here.”
“You don’t mean the Turkey Tuesday turkeys.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. “
“Well, why didn’t you say so. We need a legitimate reason to pull him over.”
“How about texting while driving? Or driving while stupid? Can you do it?”
“Hey, cuz, I’m a Texas Ranger. I can do anything.”
“I knew I could count on you, Harry. Call me as soon as you come up with something.”
Mollie spent the next few hours in her office, trying to concentrate on her normal duties as county sheriff, but her mind was on turkeys. She was desperately hoping Harry would call with good news.
Carole came in with her results. She had canvassed the neighborhood around Ashburn’s store, but no one remembered seeing or hearing anything unusual the night before. She’d also checked out the store employees and they all had good alibis. Mollie brought her up to date on what she’d done and went back to waiting.
Harry called at ten minutes past one.
“We got him, Mollie. Your turkeys are safe and sound and on their way back to you with a police escort. They should be rolling in there about five o’clock.”
“Harry, that’s terrific! Where did you find him?”
“Just this side of Lubbock. It wasn’t hard. That guy pinged off every tower along the way. He must live on his cell phone.”
“He does. Did they have any problems with him?”
“None at all. The locals pulled him over for doing seventy in a fifty-five zone, and when they opened the door of the truck. . .Bingo! We’ve already talked to the man who made a deal to buy the shipment from the Ashburns and have his sworn statement. He swears he didn’t know the turkeys were stolen.”
“Thanks, Harry. I owe you big time for this.”
“Yes, you do, cuz. Just remember the deal we made. Seeya on Thanksgiving day.”
At ten of four, Mollie walked in the front door of Ashburn’s store with Carole and one of her male deputies and went straight back to Clete’s office. Clete sat behind his desk eating a burrito.
“Mollie, what’re you doing here?”
“I have some news for you, Clete. We have our turkeys back. Tweeter will be pulling the truck in here any minute. After you two finish unloading it and putting the birds back where they belong, I’ll have the pleasure of arresting both of you.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. You said other store owners were calling around trying to buy turkeys. The way I figure it, one of them made you an offer you couldn’t refuse. You were looking at a big profit. All you had to do was break into your own freezer, load them up, and send them out to Lubbock with Tweeter.”
“You’re talking crazy. If that crazy brother of mine stole the turkeys, go ahead and lock him up. You’ve got nothing on me.”
“Yes, I do. I have a very reliable witness to the fact that you bought a new lock on Wednesday to replace the one you planned to cut off last night. We also have a statement from the man you sold the turkeys to. It’s all over, Clete, and I have just one more thing to ask you.”
Clete tossed his burrito into a trash can beside his desk and slumped back in his chair. “What?”
“Would you happen to have any fresh mangoes?”
# # #
Earl Staggs is a three-time winner of the Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year and earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. He invites any comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org