Animal, Vegetable, Murder – Chapter One

I tightened my grip on the axe handle and sucked in a deep breath. I can kill her. I know I can.

The rising sun warmed the air inside my backyard tool shed, causing dust motes to dance across the axe. Its blade sparkled, wickedly sharp but beautiful—and I was dithering again.

I had spent all week debating my choice of weapon. I’m a proficient shot, but I’d decided against my pistol. Gunfire at six in the morning would alarm my neighbors and prompt frantic calls to the chief of police.

The chief because he lives in my neighborhood, Laurelmere, a walled enclave of Old Money and Microsoft McMansions ten minutes north of downtown Seattle. Acceptable sounds in Laurelmere are the whack of a golf ball or the purr of a finely tuned Jaguar XF. Unacceptable sounds are babies crying, doors slamming, and gunshots. It’s that kind of place, insulated from the distressing realities of everyday life.

Back to my choice of weapon. An axe, I’d decided. One swift blow, clean and sure. I didn’t want to hurt her, never that, but I needed her out of my life.

After the first death, the next ones would be so much easier.

My victim watched me coldly from her wire mesh prison on my workbench. I hefted the axe, but her small black eyes didn’t blink.

Last night she’d squawked plenty when I tossed the blanket over her head. She struggled fiercely as I wrapped it around her plump body. Her feet sprang loose and she tried to scratch me. I held her tight and shoved her inside the cage. This morning she seemed calm, even resigned.

Although I try to avoid anthropomorphizing my chickens.

Henrietta stared at me. I stared back. With a sigh, I opened the cage and stroked her speckled feathers. “I don’t want to slaughter you,” I said, burying my fingers in her downy chest. “But I don’t have any other choice.”

In February when Ken and I started our urban farm, we bought four mature hens because it was too cold for chicks. Ken planned to butcher the hens in August. He said we should eat only free-range organic meat. In theory I agreed. I didn’t want anything pumped full of antibiotics and pesticides, especially not now.

But Ken was gone.

So I imagined myself setting down my weapon, reaching inside the cage, and pulling out Henrietta. I would need both hands to hold her neck against the chopping block. But then how could I swing the axe?

Impossible. It was time to stop kidding myself. I could no more kill a chicken than I could lay an egg.

With a mental apology to Ken and a bounce of heartfelt relief, I tossed the axe aside.

“In God’s name, woman. Watch where you’re slinging that thing.”

I turned around to find my neighbor, Angus “Mac” MacDougall, standing behind me. The axe had buried itself in the wooden floor six inches from his mud-stained boots.

“Don’t sneak up on me, you blasted Scot.”

Mac folded his arms across his chest and released a burst of stale cigarette smoke. At sixty-five, he was more than twice my age and prone to treating me like a child. He was a burly five-foot-nine, unshaven and probably unwashed. He wore denim overalls and a torn camouflage vest over a brown-edged T-shirt. Behind him, a fishing pole leaned against a bait bucket filled with undulating goop.

Mac and I were the social outcasts of Laurelmere. We had washed up here by accident, Mac when he retired and moved in with his millionaire son, I when my grandmother died and left me her house. Mac was cantankerous, not “gracefully aging in place.” I was unemployed, not “seeking new opportunities for personal growth.” We didn’t play golf. We didn’t practice yoga or meditate. And we weren’t rich. Never had been and, God willing, never would be.

“Time to put this old gal out of her misery?” Mac jerked his head at Henrietta, who eyed him and clucked. “Stopped laying, has she? Change of life?”

I nodded. I picked up the axe and stood it in a corner of the shed, while Mac stuck a calloused forefinger under Henrietta’s wing. She rubbed against his finger, ruffling the feathers around her neck. He scratched down to the skin. If she’d had the right equipment, she would have purred. Mac claimed a special rapport with chickens, but I thought they loved him because his hands smelled like fish bait.

“All my old hens should be headed for the stew pot,” I said. “But I can’t bring myself to kill them.”

“You’re too softhearted to be a farmer, Sunny. Why don’t you let these gals hang around and buy yer eggs at the grocer?”

“I can’t. I have six chicks being delivered this morning. Rhode Island Reds.”

“Lemme see.” Mac held out his hands and ponderously counted on stubby fingers. “That’s four old hens and six wee replacements. Seems to me you’ll be about five chickens over the line.”

Mac was right. When the city council passed an ordinance allowing each household to keep up to five hens, they hadn’t considered the problem of geriatric chickens. Good laying hens like Henrietta start producing eggs at six months and lay steadily for another two years. After that they’re freeloaders, okay for eating bugs and turning weeds into fertilizer but not much else.

Except, of course, for chicken dinner.

“Why don’t you help me?”

“Help kill ’em, you mean?” Mac took a step backward. “Nae, lass. They’re my friends.”

“But I thought you grew up on a farm. You know how to do it humanely.”

“I’m not going to kill the old dears. That’s final.”

“Okay. I’ll figure out something.” I sighed. “When the chicks arrive, I’ll stash them in the guest bathroom. That’ll hold them for a while.”

Mac’s face crinkled into a grin, exposing tobacco-stained teeth. “Some farmer you are, Sunny. Chickens in the bathroom. My mam’ll be turning in her grave.”

“Yeah, right. Go catch yourself a nice fat trout for supper. You don’t seem to have any problem killing them.”

“They’re stone cold, lass,” Mac said. He gathered his fishing gear and left.

Still brooding about my chickens, I took Henrietta from the cage and tucked her under my arm. She clucked contentedly. We stepped outside the toolshed and surveyed my domain. The air smelled fresh and clean. The rising sun gilded the espaliered fruit trees that line my back fence. Bright red Sansa apples hung from their branches like Christmas ornaments.

Ken had built a trellis over our garden path so we could grow peas and beans in what otherwise would have been wasted space. Above me, string beans dangled within easy reach. Hummingbirds were busy in the flowers, pollinating as they moved from blossom to blossom. Tight rosettes of Devil’s Tongue lettuce sparkled with dew, and foot-long cucumbers hung from their lattice frame.

For the chickens, Ken designed a wire-covered enclosure to protect them from predators. I move the cage every couple of months, so the girls can fertilize and debug a different part of the garden. Best of all, Ken fixed the door between the henhouse and the chicken yard so it opens and shuts on a timer. I never had to hurry home to lock them in at night, and I don’t have to roll out of bed at the crack of dawn to release them either. Ken called our chicken yard the Coop d’Ville.

I wished for the hundredth time—the thousandth time—that Ken could see our little urban farm in its full, mid-August glory.

I set Henrietta inside the chicken yard as the other hens squawked impatiently, hoping I’d toss in a handful of cracked corn or a couple of slugs. After pulling a few weeds, I stuffed the pockets of my shorts with Stupice tomatoes. Mac had taught me to grill tomato slices for breakfast, although I passed on his perennial offer of homemade haggis. Sheep stomach and innards are so not my thing.

I sighed. Geezer that he was, Mac must feel lonely. I had resolved to bake scones and invite him to discuss potato scab over high tea when I heard a sharp crack and then a thud.

The Henriettas screeched and beat their wings. The hummingbirds darted to the tops of the cherry trees. I froze and listened intently, but I didn’t hear anything more.

If Mac had stumbled, he would be cursing, loud, rumbling Gaelic curses. Something must have fallen from my roof, something heavy and important.

Well rats. I couldn’t afford major repairs right now. Ken’s life insurance company kept finding one more form that I had to fill out before they would honor my claim, and my checking account was sucking air.

I picked my way across a patch of garden that shimmered with rainbow-hued stalks of chard and lacy carrot tops. Past the corner of my house, I saw a man on the ground next to the woodpile.

He lay motionless, facedown, arms stretched wide. From the back he looked like a bank examiner or a Mercedes salesman, neatly dressed in an expensive pin-striped suit. Everything about him spelled dignified and formal—everything except the crown of his head. It was matted with gray splatters and oozed fresh blood.

“Are you okay?” I whispered, totally lame but all I could squeeze out.

No answer.

Should I try first aid or dial 911? I stepped closer. Close enough to realize the man wasn’t breathing. Close enough to smell something worse than chicken manure. Close enough to see a torn photograph clutched in his fingers, a torn photograph of my husband, Ken.

Bile burned in my mouth. I didn’t want anyone else to see that picture. I pulled it from the dead man’s hand and shoved it under the ripe tomatoes in my pocket. Then I turned on my cell phone and called for help.