Rocco Mathias in But the Chicken… Part One
By: Walter G. Esselman

A woman ran into my office. But a lot of people run into my office.

I had just been about to call it a day, and go downstairs to eat a messy burger at Capistrano's, but she looked worried, very worried.

"Um, this is Mathias Security, isn't it?" asked the woman. The name was printed on the door, but everyone always asked that to get the ball rolling.

"It is," I said. "I'm Rocco Mathias. Can I help you?"

"I…I hope so," said the woman. "I think we're in trouble."

And I wanted to help her. She looked tired and hungry; stretched too thin by half.

My gut reaction was to take her downstairs, feed her half the menu at Capistrano's, and then get a hotel room. I'd lean my chair outside her door and shoot anyone who dared disturb her before noon the next day.

But that was probably not the help she wanted.

I gestured towards one of the client chairs, but she shook her head quickly. Loose strands of black hair sprung free from her braid.

"I don't think we have that kind of time," said the woman.

"And who are you?" I asked as I stood up.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I'm Megan. Dr. Megan Wu. It's my company that's in trouble. Well, our company, since I own part of it. Can you come help?"

I had already decided ‘yes' while she spoke, but I verbalized it anyhow. I sometimes forget to verbalize, bad habit.

When I had said ‘yes', Dr. Wu had relaxed a little. A little tension left her shoulders.

After checking that the hallway was clear, I ushered her out of the office.

"This way," I said and nodded towards the back stairs.

"But my car's out front," said Dr. Wu wearily.

"I figured," I answered. "But if you're in trouble, there could be someone following you. I'd like to drive you back to your company."

"But I can't just leave my car out front," said Dr. Wu.

"It's Friday, and downtown is officially dead till Monday morning," I replied. "You'll be okay for now. And I promise to drive you back."

But Dr. Wu paused.

"Are you a religious man?" asked Dr. Wu.

That made me stop.

There was a gold Crucifix around my neck, which my Mom had given me. But usually, that type of question only came up when a client was getting shot at.

"Been awhile since I went to confession," I admitted.

Wu thought for a moment, but then she nodded at the conclusion of some internal conversation.

"Okay," she said. "I did come to you for help."

I didn't answer that, but led her down the back stair. Out back was my Range Rover, which had seen better days. She wasn't pretty on the outside, but hell on wheels on the inside.

Once in the car, I turned to Wu.

"Where are we going?" I asked. Wu gave me an address in the industrial sector, which had a metric shit–ton of concrete buildings that all looked the same. "What kind of car do you drive?"

"Um, a Ford Fusion," she said. "Why?"

"Okay, I'm going to head out front, but when I pull out, I'd like you to duck down. That will give me a chance to see if there if anyone is watching your car."

"Um, okay," said Dr. Wu.

As she crouched down, I pulled out onto the street, but didn't see any trouble in front of the building. I had to wonder if this was real trouble, or was I going to end up making a delivery to the psychiatric hospital, again.

"You can come up," I said.

She gratefully straightened up and put on her seatbelt.

"So, what's going on at this company that you partially own," I asked.

"We're in danger," she said. "At least, I really think we are. My partner, Loren, doesn't think so, but he has trouble with anything that doesn't add up, one plus one equals two."

"Did you piss people off with a project of yours?" I asked, and I saw her face contort a little at my language, but she didn't comment.

"Um, what do you know about time travel?" she asked instead.

That threw me. "Um, just what Doc Brown taught me in ‘Back To The Future'."

"Well, time travel is real," she said. "Sort of."

"Sort of?"

"We can send metal and circuitry through," said Wu. "But the chicken…we haven't managed to make biologics go through yet."

"Biologics?" I said real slow.

"We got a whole uncooked chicken from the grocery store and sent that through with Bob 4," she said.

"Bob 4?"

"The probe," she explained without explaining.

"A probe named Bob 4?" I tried.

"We can send a metal probe through time right now," said Wu. "And we can bring it back, but it's pretty banged up at the end."

"Because of where it's sent?" I asked as we got onto the expressway.

"Because of the sending," said Wu. "Somehow the travel back and forth is murder on the probes. They only just make it back and we have been making them as robust as armored vehicles. Carlos is still trying to figure out why."

"Maybe the chicken beat it up along the way," I suggested with a chuckle.

"Oh no…the chicken," said Wu, and her eyes grew wide with horror. "We put the chicken…"

"From the grocery store you said."

"Yeah, that's the one," nodded Wu in a faraway voice. "We put the chicken in the chamber with Bob 4, hoping that it would be just fine…" And her voice just trailed off.

"So…I guess it wasn't fine."

"I haven't been able to eat chicken since," said Wu.

"Okay, so—hold the chicken—but Bob 4 goes back in time?" I asked, trying to keep the skepticism out of my voice.

"You're skeptical, and I can understand that," said Wu.

Damn. Didn't keep it out of my voice, I chided myself.

"It was all theoretical at first," said Wu. "An interesting exercise in grad school, but then we hit upon it. We figured out how to do it. Loren had some money, but I had good credit to get the rest. Then we sent through the first probe."

"Where did you send it?" I asked, curious in spite myself.

"We sent it back in time to the dorm room where we first conceived the idea," she said. "We knew that moment and could verify. Then to other points in time, where we had archival footage, so we knew what we were seeing was true. We saw the Gettysburg Address, for real."

I opened my mouth, but found myself speechless.

Wu smiled. "We felt the same way at the time. Then we looked for George Washington…he was actually pretty hot."

And I felt this odd pang of jealousy, which I instantly squished.

Megan Wu turned and gave me this wonderful grin.

"It was amazing," she said, but then her face fell. "And then…we went back to see someone that no one had any pictures of. That's…"

"Tell me that isn't your industrial sector," I interrupted.

"What?" asked Wu. She looked out the passenger window and off the expressway. There was a line of SUVs rolling into an industrial park like they were on a military op.

"Who is that?" she wondered.

"Maybe you better cut to the chase," I said as I exited the expressway and started towards the industrial park. "Why is someone mad at you?"

"We went back and recorded something," said Wu. "We were trying to help, but Loren—he got really upset—and he wanted to call his priest, but we talked him outta it."

"Um, we're going to have to hold onto that thought for a moment," I said. "I'm going to need you to duck down again."

"Why?" she asked wearily.

"I'm going to drive by the front of your building, like some ordinary schmo, and see what I see."

Wu was reluctant, but she squinched down again.

I cruised by the big concrete building as if I were late to a meeting and had no time to lollygag.

It looked quiet, except for the SUV's, and a guard in front with an assault rifle. Other than that, real quiet.

Stopping around a corner, I turned to Wu.

"Okay, there is someone with serious firepower outside your building," I said.

"What? Did Father Steven bring an army?"

"I don't know," I said. "But I need to leave you here for a moment."

"I need to go along," insisted Wu. "It's not just Loren in there. Carlos is in there too."

"And I'm going to do whatever I can to keep them safe," I said as I took off my coat. "But first, I need to deal with that guard at the front door."

"What guard?" asked Wu.

*

I crept up slowly.

In front was a middle aged woman who looked like she was dressed for a PTA meeting. However, she was holding the AR–15 like she had pulled some real guard duty before.

Moving carefully, I got right up to her before she noticed me. She was turning around with her rifle when I hit her with the Taser. And down she went like a sack of potatoes. I picked up the rifle, and then used the toe of my shoe to rearrange her skirt so that she did not reveal all her secrets to the world.

That's when I noticed the red gun holster on her snazzy matching belt.

After taking her handgun, I ran back. While I did so, I pulled the magazine from the AR–15 and started disassembling it, as if I were cleaning it. The pieces I left scattered behind me, but I tucked the magazine in my pocket. Reaching Wu, I asked her to give me a quick rundown of the interior, which she did as we went back.

"Shouldn't we call the police?" asked Wu before we had reached the front door.

"Police are understaffed, and over budget right now," I replied. "But if I can't see a way to get your people out, or if we have time, I promise I will call them."

Wu nodded at that.

"And if something goes wrong," I said. "Just run like hell."

I punctuated it by giving her the keys to my car.

Wu gulped.

"I don't know if I can do that," she said softly. "My people are in there."

"And that's commendable. Really! I'm not just saying that. But if things go sour, we need a witness on the outside," I responded.

"Okay," she said reluctantly.

"I need better than that, if I'm going to take you in there," I insisted.

"Because I'm a girl?" asked Wu with some acid in her voice.

"Would be lying if I said I didn't have a streak of chivalry. But the real truth is that you're my client now, and I am responsible for every single breath you take, while you're under my protection."

"Okay," she said again, but with certainty this time. "I'll run to the cops if things go bad."

"Thank you," he said sincerely.

We slid into the building. It had a tiny waiting room decorated in a dubious fuschia. She gave small hand gestures, which led me through the building, but we stopped when we heard voices.

"So, you really aren't a movie studio," said a voice in disbelief. The voice had a rolling gravity, which would have sounded great from the pulpit.

"I'm telling you that it's real," called out a voice. "I didn't want it to be…"

There was the sound of a rifle stock hitting someone's gut.

"Don't you lie in front of God!" snapped the pulpit voice, who I figured was Father Steven.

"That was Carlos they hit," whispered Wu urgently.

"I say we just blow up the whole place with them in it," said a new male voice, who sounded like an eager beaver.

"I'm starting to think you might be right," said Father Steven. "Get rid of this blasphemy."

"But I called you," whined another voice.

"Loren," whispered Wu.

"I brought you were here to help us," said Loren in confusion.

"And I appreciate it," said Father Steven. "And you are part of my flock."

"He's testing our faith," said the Eager Beaver. "We can't let this stand. Think of what it would do to the church."

"I am," said Father Steven.

"And your position in it, if it got out that you could have stopped this right here, right now," wormed the Eager Beaver. "You are going to save the faith of millions!"

"That's true," said Father Steven in surprise.

"But you can't just shoot us," whined Loren.

"Watch me," said the Eager Beaver.

I shot forward through the door. It was a big room with a cement floor. I had seen Father Steven's reflection in the door's window. Father Steven was a portly man in pastor's vestments with thinning blond hair.

Sorry Mom, I thought.

To be continued…

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