By Don Travis
M Lazy M Ranch in the New Mexico Boot Heel
The thief froze as a string of sharp yips hammered the quiet night. Both big Dobermans were darted and sleeping soundly out at the fence, so this yapper must be a house pet. A light flashed briefly as the back door opened. A fur ball with pointed ears bounded down the steps and made straight for him. The feisty canine latched onto his pant leg and whipped it back and forth, growling furiously. A growl was preferable to a bark, so he dragged his dog-impeded leg like a zombie in some old Hollywood movie.
As he reached the poultry pen, all hell broke loose. A single quack quickly built into a raucous caterwauling. Someone flipped a switch up at the house, and brilliant light suddenly flooded the enclosure. He reeled backwards, stunned by a sea of white. Ducks. Dozens of ducks. Hundreds. How was he going to find the right one?
The dog attached to his pant leg shifted its grip and closed on his ankle. Cursing, he gave an involuntary kick, sending the pooch over the fence. The ducks scattered, opening a circle of dark earth around the confused mutt. The pup transferred its attention to the birds and began a joyful chase, dashing this way and that, parting its panicked prey in dizzying waves of undulating white, creating a living kaleidoscope of shifting shades and shapes.
Then he saw her. In a coop all by herself. Like she was waiting to turn into a swan or something. A clamor from the house galvanized him into action. He vaulted the fence, threw open the cage door, and dragged her out by the neck. He ignored the claws raking flesh from his forearms as he fled through a horse corral at the back of the pen. He made it to the cover of some shrubbery before the ranch came alive. Moments later a woman’s agonized wail rose above everything.
Remembering he was to deliver the duck alive, he loosened his hold on the feathery neck. The bird immediately set up a loud protest that could have awakened the dead but wasn’t enough to overcome the clamor of the hundred or so other birds. He turned and headed for his pickup. Best get out of there before Millicent Muldren’s drovers filled him full of lead.
Ten days later, Albuquerque, New Mexico
I jerked the cell phone away from my ear and looked at it as if it had lost its mind—or its chip. Del Dahlman, a local attorney, wanted me to drop everything and run down to the UNM Emergency Center to interview a man named Richard Martinson. When he told me why, I assumed he was kidding. He had to be.
“You want me to go question a ducknapper? There’s no such thing. He’s just a plain, ordinary chicken thief.”
“Whatever,” Del said. “I need you to catch him before he leaves the emergency room.”
This was simply too good to let go. “Have you called in the FBI yet?”
“Don’t be an ass,” Del snapped.”
“Donkeys now? What is this, a menagerie run amok? Who did it? The pigs? Good Lord, it’s Orwell’s Animal Farm come to life.”
“Dammit, Vince, I’m serious. This is serious. I need you to get over there right away.”
I stared at the bright blue sky on this cloudless Saturday afternoon and considered hanging up on Del. I was standing on the fourth tee of the golf course at the North Valley Country Club with Paul Barton. Although we lived together, it was a rare occasion when Paul and I could share the daylight hours. Between my confidential investigations business and Paul’s schedule—UNM grad school summer courses and an aquatic director’s job at the country club—we were the proverbial ships passing in the night.
I resented Del’s intrusion, but he and I go back a long way—some of it sweet, some of it bittersweet, and some downright sour.
“You need to get a move on,” he said. “You’ve got to get to him before they let him go. His name’s Richard Martinson, but…but they call him Liver Lips.” Del didn’t like playing the straight man.
“Liver Lips? Calves’ liver or…. No, don’t tell me, let me guess. Goose liver.”
“You’re wasting my time, BJ.” He always called me Vince, a carryover from the days when we were a couple. Anytime he resorted to addressing me as BJ like the rest of the world, he was pissed.
“Hey, you called me. Right in the middle of my back swing, as a matter of fact.”
“Are you going to do it or not?”
I sighed. Del was one of my better clients. “Okay. Give me the details. There’s really a lawsuit on this thing?”
“No, it’s not actually a suit…yet.”
“Then why is your firm involved? More to the point, why are you involving me?”
He went defensive. “We’re New Mexico counsel for the Greater Southwest Ranchers Insurance Company or GSR, as they liked to be called, and the VP handling their problem and I are old friends. At this point, I’m doing this as a favor to him. At any rate, the missing bird’s name is Quacky Quack the Second. This—”
“Shut up, Vince.”
I snickered through the rest of his briefing, hung up, and turned to my golfing companion. Paul got as good a laugh out of it as I had. In fact, we both broke up a couple of times during the retelling.
I do not like walking into a situation I don’t understand, and I damned well didn’t understand this one. But I had no trouble locating Martinson in the waiting room at the hospital. Liver Lips. The young man's nickname described him perfectly. His thick, purple-hued, oral projections drew my eye like a magnet. It was only later I noticed he was skinny, seedy, and carried a generally disreputable air. Gray eyes darted here and there as if he were constantly searching for a bolt hole. The man’s scalp glistened through thin strands of frizzy blond hair. Whether talking or listening or simply idle, his dark tongue periodically snaked out to wash down those heavy lips. Seldom had I been so thoroughly repulsed by another’s physical appearance.
He looked at me blankly after I handed over my card and introduced myself. “Who’d you say you are?”
I tapped the card he held in his hand. “I’m B. J. Vinson.”
“A private eye, huh. What you want with me?”
“I need to ask you a few questions.” I nodded at the bandages covering his forearms. “What happened?”
“Had a fight with a thorn bush. Frigging bush won.” He went for humor, glancing up through thin, colorless lashes to see if it had worked.
I pointed to the red veins snaking up out of the white bandages just short of his elbows. “Thorn bushes didn’t give you that infection. That’s blood poisoning. How’d you get it?”
“Tangled with the wrong bush, I guess. Then didn’t get it treated. Turned bad on me, I guess.”
“Come on, I’ll give you a ride down to my office where we can talk in private.”
“Ain’t got time. Gotta get outa here. I been here six frigging hours.”
“Okay, I’ll call Lt. Eugene Enriquez down at APD, and we’ll have this talk in his office.”
He blinked rapidly three times. “No cops, man. Don’t need no cops. I ain’t done nothing, so leave me alone.”
“What are you doing up here? You live down in Deming, don’t you?” I drew on the thin biography Del had provided.
“Ain’t no law against a man visiting the city. I guess that’s what they do all that advertising on TV for. You know, to get me to come up here and spend my money.”
“You want to tell me about it?”
“About what?” He seemed genuinely perplexed by my question.
“About stealing a valuable…bird.” If I’d said “duck” I’d have burst out laughing.
“Don’t guess I know what you’re talking about.”
“You do a lot of guessing, Richard. But I don’t think the Sheriff of Luna County would have sicced me on you if he was just guessing.”
“Hidalgo,” he blurted.
“Sheriff of Hidalgo County.”
“Okay, now that you’ve admitted you know all about the theft, tell me about it.”
“Didn’t admit nothing.”
“You know where the abduction…uh, theft took place. Stop wasting my time. What did you want with a prize duck named….” I stopped, unable to call a bird by that ridiculous name.
“Quacky Quack, the Second,” he said. “That’s what old Mud Hen calls her. Ain’t that a hoot?”
“Millicent Muldren. Everbody calls her Mud Hen.”
“She’s the duck’s owner?”
“Yeah. She’s run the Lazy M Ranch since her old man died.”
“Why’d you steal her duck?”
“Who says I did?”
“About everybody in the countryside,” I improvised. “Police chief, sheriff, Ms. Muldren. There’s a warrant out for your arrest. Talk to me, and maybe I can do something about that.”
Old Liver Lips wasn’t as dumb as he looked. Those blood-suffused appendages quivered a couple of times before he squared his thin shoulders. “Ain’t nobody gonna arrest me for nothing, I guess. Who’d press charges on something like that?”
“Well, Mud Hen for one, and the insurance company for another.”
“You didn’t know the owner had insured her property.”
“Shoot, I guess there ain’t no insurance company in the world that’d insure a frigging duck.”
I didn’t know much more than he did, but I couldn’t let up on him now. “Then you’d guess wrong. They’ll insure soap bubbles if you pay the premiums.”
Liver Lips wiggled in his chair, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Uh…you said something about a warrant?”
I was flying totally blind. I had no idea if there was a warrant out for this character. In fact, I didn’t even know why he was suspected of the theft. Or how Del found out he’d be at the UNM Emergency Center today.
“Yes, but I can deal with that if you give me what I want.”
“Like what have you done with Qua…with the duck?” His eyes slid away as he opened his mouth and licked his lips. I held up a hand. “Don’t bother to deny it. You’re caught flat-out. Man-up and admit it. Where’s the duck?”
“Dunno.” The word came out in a whisper.
“Somebody took her.”
“Yeah, we’ve already established that. You took her. What did you do, pluck her and eat her? You like roast duck, Liver Lips?”
The man’s shoulders twitched. He did that rapid blinking thing and twisted his neck to loosen it up. A bead of sweat worked its way through thin tendrils of blond hair and trickled down his forehead. It looked muddy by the time it reached the corner of his eye. “Hell, I didn’t eat her. I mean…. Well, I give her to somebody.”
His pale gray eyes clouded over. “Just somebody wanted to play a trick on Mud Hen.”
“Who was this somebody?”
“If I give up his name, he’ll get me in trouble. And he can do it, too.”
“So can I. A world of trouble. You’ve already given me enough to report to the insurance company. You’re the chicken thief, Liver Lips. And they’ll come after you hard. You have any idea how far they’d go to keep from paying out all that money?”
“How much money?” His attitude changed. If Liver Lips had a crafty side, this was it.
“More than you can ever repay in your lifetime.” I built on the fiction I was spinning. “They’ll see you prosecuted for grand theft. What does your record look like? Probably penny-ante, right? Well, you made the big time with this.”
“For stealing a duck?”
I stared at the raunchy-looking man and wondered if this was an act. “Answer my question. Who hired you to steal the duck?”
Jeez. The guy hadn’t even been paid. He’d done it as a favor, or else someone had leverage on Richard Martinson.
“Who told you to take the duck? Who’d you give it to?”
“It’s a her. The duck, I mean. Quacky—”
“Yeah, I know. Who’d you give her to?”
Liver Lips crossed his arms over his chest and hugged himself tightly. “Oh, shit! I hurt, man. They supposed to be getting me something for the pain. And the infection, too. I gotta go check on it.”
“Okay, we’ll go together. Maybe I can help.”
“I can do it.” It came out as a whine. “I ain’t no kid that needs babysitting.”
Despite his objections, I trod on his heels as he walked toward a counter. They’d made some big-time changes at the UNM Emergency Center since I was here last. It was now housed in a new building called the Pavilion. But I was pretty sure this wasn’t the outpatient pharmacy. Liver Lips was getting ready to make a move. He did, but it wasn’t the one I expected; probably not the one he anticipated, either.
He turned a corner and bumped squarely into a burly Albuquerque cop. Back-pedaling, he held out his hands pleadingly. “Sir, this here guy won’t leave me alone. Can you make him stop pestering me?”
The six-foot-two officer transferred his irritated look from Liver Lips to me. His shoulder unit belched static, but he ignored it. “What’s going on?”
I took a quick peek at his nametag. “Corporal Hines, my name is Vinson, and I’m a licensed PI. I’m going to reach for my ID, okay”
I whirled as the outside door crashed open. A man and a woman rushed inside, carrying a little girl with a bloody hand wrapped in stained towels. Hines brushed by me to see if his help was needed. When I turned back to confront Liver lips, he was nowhere in sight. I made a quick sweep of the hallways, but he had disappeared. Maybe Liver did have a crafty side, after all.
Muttering under my breath, I headed for the parking structure to get my Impala. On the way, I hit the speed dial on my cell. Dell wasn’t pleased with the interview results, and I couldn’t blame him.
“So to sum it up,” he said, “you’re convinced Martinson kidnapped…excuse me, stole the duck. You think he did it at the behest of someone else and has turned the bird over to that party. Other than that, the only thing you learned is that Millicent Muldren, the esteemed daughter of an old-line New Mexico ranching family, is called Mud Hen behind her back.”
“That about covers it. What do you want me to do now?”
“Nothing. I’ll let the client know Liver Lips is running. Probably back to the Deming area. He doesn’t seem to have personal ties anywhere else. Go back to your golf game, Vince."
“Too late for that. And thanks, by the way. Today was the first time Paul and I have had any time together in a month.”
“The two of you still making it, okay?”
“Smooth as silk. Except for our schedules. We seldom manage to meet up except at night.”
“That’s probably why it’s still working.” He hung up.
I was out of sorts, probably for the rest of the day. Paul’s schedule had reclaimed him, so I left the UNM parking structure and headed west on Lomas. The office was closed, but I’d been out working on a case since yesterday afternoon, so Hazel Harris, my manager, had likely left a pile of documents for me to review and sign. Might as well get that chore over and done with instead of waiting for Monday.
Hazel and Charlie Weeks, the retired cop who was fast becoming a full-time investigator for me, had wrapped up a couple of cases. Charlie was not only a godsend to my business; he also kept my mothering, smothering office manager off of my back. The two were becoming quite a pair around the office, although they continued to believe it was it a secret.
I settled down at my desk and reviewed the reports they’d left for me. After signing off on the documents, I went through the unopened mail, making a few notations and dictating an answer or two before snapping off my desk lamp.
Still vaguely disgruntled, I swiveled my chair to the windows behind my desk and allowed the vista beyond the glass to slowly calm my nerves as I came to grips with my ill-defined sense of unease. It was not Del interrupting my pleasant afternoon with Paul—although that was a factor—as much as it was a sense of failure. Of leaving a job unfinished, a goal unattained. Liver Lips had out-foxed me, and that did not sit well.
A pleasant evening with Paul finally laid the thing to rest. Until the telephone rang at one fifteen in the morning.