It was 3:17 a.m. when the curtain fell on the peacock’s nocturnal aria. After two minutes of silence, Hubert shifted his pillow from over his head to under his head, grumbled about ungrateful domestic fowl keeping him up all night, and fell asleep. He woke up at 9:30. Funny, he thought, I must have slept through my multi-colored alarm clock. He slid his feet into a ratty pair of all-terrain outdoor slippers.
The feed bag fell from his shoulder as the screen door slammed shut behind him. A sheet of paper flapped on the gaping-open gate to the peacock pen. He ran inside, cradling the note so none of the letters — attached with used chewing gum — would fall off. “Mildred, Mildred. Someone’s kidnapped Rupert.” The note landed on his wife’s arm with a soft squish.
“Whazzah?” She rubbed her eyes and propped up on an elbow. “We have to find him. He’s singing the lead in my barnyard animal production of The Barber of Seville. Opening night is in two days. We have to find him. And why do I smell spearmint?”
“Gum on the ransom note. Thought you’d want to see it.”
Mildred’s arms flailed like she’d been told to come on down for a confab with Bob Barker. The note skidded across the floor, leaving a wake of cut-out magazine letters and pre-owned Wrigley’s. “Gaaa! Get it off me. Used chewing gum is a frat party for microbes. I can’t get sick two days before open.”
Hubert worked at reassembling the note. “Why can’t you have the understudy fill in?”
“Because the understudy is a sheep,” Mildred huffed. “It’s vocal range is one note.” She snapped her fingers. “It must have been the Stevensons that did it. They’ve got La boheme running opposite us, and they’re afraid we’ll cut into their ticket sales. Grab your bolt cutters.”
Mildred hid behind a sapling on the hill overlooking the Stevensons’ farm. A spyglass bore a ring into the skin around her eyesocket. “He’s in that barn. I know it.”
Hubert rubbed pebbles into the dirt with his belly. “You should find a better hiding place. That tiny thing’s not giving you any cover.”
Mildred’s hand channeled Richard Simmons and flapped three feet above Hubert’s head. “Those two are blind as bats. Did you see their costumes for Rigoletto? A mole could sew better than that. They must have Rupert in the barn. Let’s go.”
A deep-throated click bubbled up behind them. Mildred turned to see the business end of a vintage shotgun. Hubert put his hands over his head.
“You ain’t going nowhere,” Mr. Stevenson said from the non-business end of the gun. “Til you return my chicken chorus. I know you’re trying to undercut our production of La boheme. With your terrible acoustics, cheatin’s the only way to outdraw us.” Mr. Stevenson jabbed the gun at Mildred.
“We didn’t take your damn chickens,” Mildred said. “We don’t want ‘em. They can never hit the same note at the same time. Where’s Rupert? He’s late for his vocal tune-ups.”
“I don’t have your bird. I don’t care that he is the finest tenor south of Boone Creek, I’m not listening to that racket all night.”
Hubert eased off the ground while holding his hands high. “If I may interject, it appears to me that no one here has kidnapped any animals. Which means the culprit is still at large. Any idea who that might be?”
Mr. Stevenson scratched his head with the shotgun barrel. “Couldn’t be Zeke. He’s between shows.”
“And Edna said they were closing up shop for good after Carmen was such a flop,” Mildred said.
“Well I’ll be plummed,” Mr. Stevenson said. “It must have been them fellers from New York. Said they was prospecting for oil, but they weren’t dressed like no oilmen.”
“Maybe we need to piece together that ransom note,” Hubert said.
Thirty-seven wads of gum, each topped with a cut-out letter, assembled on the kitchen table. The letters were what was left of the ransom note, which had once spelled out something intelligible, and might do so again with the application of enough brain power. Three sets of hands scrambled to form words, snatch letters from their neighbor, or hide letters under the table. “Enough,” Hubert yelled. “We’ll take turns. Mr. Stevenson, you’re the guest. You go first.”
Mr. Stevenson cracked his knuckles. His fingers drummed on the table. Staccato blasts shot from his nose as letters danced around the table. A drawn out grumble mingled with mumbled swear words. “I’ve got it. Toot anarchy wait enjoyment. Did your peacock have problems with breaking wind?”
Mildred shoved him to the side. “That barely makes sense. Let the real detective have a shot.” She lined the letters in alphabetical order. Her elbows propped on the table. For five minutes, she stared. A preemptive shush flew at Mr. Stevenson when he cleared his throat. A fluster of flashing fingers finished her arrangement. “Done. Watchman eaten tiny joy root. Oh my god. He dug up the miniature hallucinogenic sweet potatoes and now he thinks he’s a superhero.”
Hubert put his hand on Mildred’s shoulder. “We don’t grow hallucinogenic sweet potatoes any more. Our soil’s too moist and they get the rot, remember? I believe it’s my turn now.” Mildred stomped to the living room. The couch springs announced the parking of her ass with a symphony of squeaks. Hubert tried pushing the letters to form words. After delving down the fifteenth dead end, he switched to making shapes. Circle, triangle, trapezoid, parallelogram. He was putting the finishing touch on a hexagon when Mildred smacked the back of his head.
“If all you’re going to do is doodle, you forfeit your turn.”
“Hold on. This is an exercise to clear my mind. Like how you let your eyes go out of focus to find Waldo. Well look at this.” Hubert slapped his knee. “Mom and dad, ran away to new york to join the met. That’s what it says.”
Mildred sobbed. “Rupert wouldn’t run off without saying goodbye. I know he wouldn’t.”
“He also can’t spell,” Hubert said.
“Or use scissors,” Mr. Stevenson said. He popped two shells into his shotgun. “Rupert didn’t write this note. I believe it’s time for us to pay a visit to some bird-nappers.”
Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, Mildred, Hubert and Mr. Stevenson strutted through the hallways jammed with singers and crew for opening night of La boheme. “We don’t blend in at all,” Mildred hissed. “Everyone else looks like they’re in an opera, and we have outfits that look like they were designed by blind, drunk labrador retrievers.”
Mr. Stevenson swiveled around to face her. “I’ll thank you not to speak of my wife’s La boheme costumes that way. If we used your rags from The Barber of Seville, we’d stick out even worse.”
A man carrying a clipboard rushed down the hall. His eyes locked with Mildred’s, and he skidded to a stop. Mildred ducked her head to fiddle with the pocket of her jacket. “What are you doing here! All street vendors are on stage in two minutes.” The man hooked a hand around Hubert’s waist and shooed the group toward the sound of singing.
“But we’re not . . . ”
Mildred clapped her hand over Hubert’s mouth. “We don’t want to be late, do we?” They turned a corner and dove into a mob of 1830s Parisians. They wriggled free from the clipboard handler and moved through the crowd.
Mr. Stevenson pulled a shotgun from his jacket and used it as a pointer. “That there’s the man what stole my chickens. The tall one.” A man stood between the scrum of actors and the stage, his upper torso protruding above the garden of heads.
“He’s not tall,” Hubert said. “He’s standing on a chair.”
“Maybe so, but he done stole my chickens.”
“Get him!” screamed Mildred. Her elbows turned into crowd control weapons, clearing a path through the crowd. She tackled the man and pinned his shoulders to the floor. “Where’s Rupert? You kidnapped my baby. You give him back right now.”
The man struggled against Mildred’s grasp. When Mr. Stevenson arrived to model his vintage shotgun, the man went still. “I can’t give him back. He’s on stage.” The eardrum scraping sound of peacock cries reached Mildred. “And I didn’t kidnap him. He came of his own free will when I said our tenor sprained his pulmonary artery. Your bird has a remarkable voice, you know.”
The shotgun scratched the man’s nose. “Then where’s my chickens?”
“Rupert insisted we bring them. We cast them as working girls. The free eggs almost make up for their inability to sing in tune.”
“There’s our cue,” someone shouted. The mob lurched toward the stage, sweeping along everything in its path. Mildred caught one glimpse of Rupert before the stage lights blinded her. She staggered between street vendor props, swerved to avoid a tumble into the orchestra pit, and wrapped her arms around Rupert’s neck. Rupert’s tail feathers spread into a stained glass semicircle. Mildred burst into tears. The audience burst into applause. Rupert squawked.
“Oh, Rupert,” Mildred said. “I always knew your voice was too good for our barnyard. You follow your dreams as far as you can. I’ll miss you.”
CALEB ECHTERLING lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he fights with the squirrels over who gets to bury acorns in his yard. His short story “Haikuzilla” won first prize in the 8th Annual Bartleby Snopes Dialogue Contest. He tweets funny fiction using the clever handle @CalebEchterling. To find more of his writing, visit www.calebechterling.com.