The Chicken Asylum: An Alex Reynolds Mysteryby Fred Hunter
When Alex Reynolds, his lover Peter Livesay, and his mother Jean-occasional freelance operatives for the CIA-are asked to stash an Iraqi military defector in their home, all three are less than thrilled. It turns out the defector is an 18-year-old soldier who has ties to a terrorist organization and, to further complicate matters, is gay. But the real trouble
When Alex Reynolds, his lover Peter Livesay, and his mother Jean-occasional freelance operatives for the CIA-are asked to stash an Iraqi military defector in their home, all three are less than thrilled. It turns out the defector is an 18-year-old soldier who has ties to a terrorist organization and, to further complicate matters, is gay. But the real trouble begins when the young man mysteriously disappears, and suddenly Alex, Peter and Jean find themselves in the middle of a very dangerous game.
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The Chicken Asylum
By Fred Hunter
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Fred Hunter
All rights reserved.
"Oh, no, no, no — the best dinner I ever had was at Chez Louis," said Jonathan Bradshaw, his face glowing reverently at the memory. "The appetizer alone!"
His partner, Brian Lemon, nodded eagerly in agreement as he chewed a bit of meat.
"What was it?" Nathan Breslow asked.
"Ris de veau á la financiére — one of the great classic fillings for bouchées."
"Ahhh ..." the assembly responded.
All except me. I had spent the past two hours tensing the muscles behind my eyes to keep them from rolling to the back of my head. I was getting a headache.
"The braised sweetbreads garnished with truffles, mushrooms, and olives were absolutely beyond reproach," Jonathan continued. "Now, the soup ..."
Brian nodded again, making little mewing noises.
"The soup was velouté d'avocat frappé!" He launched into a description of this dish in alarming detail.
The table was set with obviously expensive crystal and china, all of which looked like it had been in the family for years. I was afraid to cut all the way through my cornish game hen for fear of scraping the knife on the surface of the plate. The tablecloth was white lace, and glowing in the center of the table was a candelabra that must've come from an estate sale at Liberace's.
The dining room itself was uncomfortably close. A massive mahogany sideboard with ornate carvings apparently designed by the same artisan responsible for the furnishings at Hill House loomed on one wall. It was lined with grandmotherly blue-and-white china and a collection of Hummels. The other walls were covered with shelves and chockablock with tchotchkes, everything from glass animals to porcelain figurines.
Jonathan and Brian, the hosts of the party, had prepared a dinner fit for a coronation: canapés that I couldn't hope to describe, cold asparagus soup, salads, and the aforementioned hens, roasted until the skin was a light, crisp brown and the meat juicy and tender. Christ, I was beginning to think like them. I don't remember how Peter and I met Jonathan and Brian, but at that particular moment I was ready to buy back the introduction at a premium. They weren't trying to make us feel uncomfortable; they were being themselves. They just happened to be from Mars.
The other guests, none of whom we'd met before, seemed perfectly at ease in a conversation that sounded as if it had been cribbed from the menus of various four-star restaurants.
"What was the entree?" asked Nathan, who had been listening with rapt attention to the remembrance of our host's favorite dinner.
"Oh!" Jonathan replied with a satisfied purr. He turned to his partner. "Do you want to tell them?"
Brian nodded again. "Darne de saumon au Champagne!"
"Well, I understood one word," I muttered to Peter as the other couples exclaimed noisily.
"How was it?" Eli said breathlessly. He was Nathan's better half.
"Perfection," said Jonathan with a smack of his lips. "Absolute perfection. And the dessert was fresh strawberries wrapped in crepes and covered with a custard sauce flavored with Grand Marnier."
"Ahhh!" said the couples, leaning back in their chairs in unison. They were beginning to sound like a congregation: "Crepes be with you," said the priest. "And also with you," the congregation replied.
I mean, I have nothing against food porn — that excessive epicurean elitism that some of our acquaintances enter into — except that it's like regular porn: I'd rather be engaged in the activity than watching it. Or listening to it.
"Well! The best dinner we ever had ..." said Leonard Weise, turning to his partner, Sammie. "You remember, don't you?"
"Of course! At La Scala!"
"In Italy?" I blurted out, my mouth falling open.
Sammie blinked at me. "No, in Rogers Park." He turned back to the other gourmands. "The antipasto was tomato basil tart."
"I've never had that," said Nathan.
"It's a tart filled with sliced tomatoes, basil leaves, and grated parmesan. Olive oil is drizzled over it ..."
And the congregation said Amen.
"... it's baked, then cooled to room temperature before being served. After that was the wild mushroom soup."
"Porcini mushrooms," Leonard clarified.
The most frustrating part about this dinner was that Peter was seated to my right rather than across the table from me, so we couldn't exchange meaningful glances. I suppose I could've done it with his ear, but it doesn't have the same effect, and it's likely to be noticed by everyone except the person it's meant for.
"The pasta," Sammie continued, "was tagliolini with asparagus." He smacked his lips as if once again savoring the noodles.
"How about that?" I whispered to Peter. "I recognized another word."
"Much, much more delicate than spaghetti," Leonard explained.
"And the entree! Oh, God, the entree!" Sammie exclaimed.
Leonard nodded. "Pollo arrosto in tegame."
He proceeded to describe the roasted chicken, the garlic, the white wine, and the perfectly sautéed pancetta, with the assembly hanging on his every word with poised forks and watering mouths. His rhapsody on the tenderness of the early peas bordered on vegephilia. As he eloquently recounted the succulent morsels, the perfect wine, and the exquisite service, the congregation seemed to lift from their seats in exaltation, their breathing increasingly heavy.
"And then, for dessert ..." Sammie said, pausing dramatically. He glanced around the table at the expectant faces that had been brought to the height of excitement. He took a deep breath and pronounced, "Il diplomatico!"
"Il diplomatico!" the rest exclaimed with ecstasy as they fell back into their chairs, chests heaving, completely spent.
"Il diplomatico," Nathan repeated in a soft whimper, his head lolling to one side.
"Cigarette?" I whispered to Peter.
The guests began to rouse themselves from their exhaustion, remembering the feast that was before them. They straightened themselves in their chairs and resumed eating.
"More wine?" Brian asked as he rose with the cut-crystal carafe.
"Oh, yes!" Eli replied, pushing his delicate stemmed glass forward with two fingers.
As Brian continued around the table, Jonathan cleared his throat and turned to me. "So ... Alex, Peter. You guys like to dine out, I'm sure."
I glanced at Peter. This was the moment I was dreading.
"Well?" said Sammie. Having already performed, he was apparently anxious for the opportunity to lie back and allow one of the other guests to service him.
"Well ..." I said weakly. "I had a really nice club sandwich at Kaplan's once."
* * *
"You know, we have eaten in some nice restaurants from time to time," Peter said as we drove home.
I was behind the wheel of the dark blue Saturn Mother bought to replace the Honda Civic that was blown up by a mad Democrat. Way back when she bought the Civic, she'd chosen robin's-egg blue because it set off her eyes. This time she'd chosen a dark blue Saturn because the color would be less conspicuous for surveillance, and nobody would believe they were being followed by a Saturn. That's how much our lives had changed in the past five years.
"I know we've been nice places," I said. "But not like those people. I like to have a good time when I go out to eat, not worry about whether or not I'm soiling the napkins."
Peter laughed. "They were a bit ... much. But you couldn't think of anything better than a club sandwich?"
"Did you want me to tell them the truth? That a normal meal for us is tossing turkey legs over our shoulders while downing tankards of grog? Where did we meet these people, anyway?"
"Jonathan and Brian? We met them at the fund-raiser for Howard Brown, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. Well what the hell did we do to make them like us?"
Peter turned a slightly puzzled frown in my direction. "Those guys really bugged you, didn't they?"
"No," I replied with a sigh. "They just have different interests. Way different. They made me feel like the type of person who wipes his mouth on his sleeve."
"I mean, I'm sure everything they served tonight was a gourmet's delight, especially from all the ooohing and aaahing over it. But to my little unrefined eyes the appetizers looked like crickets on a shingle, and that asparagus soup looked like something Linda Blair spit up. Maybe I'm just uncultured, but —" I glanced at Peter and felt one of those unexpected pangs of sappiness.
"When you and I go out to dinner, I barely notice the food."
His smile was visible in the passing glow of the streetlights. He moved a bit closer and rested his left hand on my right leg, then slid it down to caress my inner thigh.
"If you don't stop that I may lose control," I said. "I mean of the car."
The internal surge shouldn't have been a surprise. It's my normal reaction to having been around people with whom I have nothing in common, a situation that reminds me of how lucky I am to have found Peter. I couldn't wait to get home, get naked, and show him how much he still meant to me.
After parking in our rickety garage, we went up the walk to the back porch. The diffused glow from the living-room lights through the window in the back door meant that Mother was still up, which wasn't surprising, since it was barely ten o'clock. But as much as I love her, I had hoped she'd already be in bed. When you're on your way to a tryst, nothing can drain the blood from certain parts of the body faster than having to stop and chitchat with your mother.
"Alex? Is that you?" Her lilting British accent floated from the living room as we came in through the back door. Mother moved to America before I was born, and although it's been over thirty-five years since she's lived in her native England, she's been able to maintain her accent through sheer perseverance and strength of character.
"Yes, Mother," I replied, imitating Dagwood Bumstead.
"We have company!"
"Oh, shit!" I whispered to Peter, who smiled and nibbled my ear.
"Stop that!" I said, pushing him away. "I don't have any books to hold in front of me!"
We went through the swinging door into the living room and Peter slammed into my back when I stopped dead. Mother was seated on the couch, tea service for two was on the oval coffee table in front of her, and Duffy the dog's errant tail was swishing back and forth under the table like a furry tongue licking wooden lips. The visitor rose to greet us. It was Agent Lawrence Nelson, our boss from the CIA.
Nelson was still as striking as ever, with skin that looked perpetually tanned and straight dark hair kept at a businesslike length. A tiny bit of gray had appeared at his temples, and I liked to think we had a hand in putting it there. Over the past year our connection with Nelson and the CIA had picked up somewhat. Nelson had been pleased enough with our performance on our last couple of official cases that he threw more work our way, although that work still mainly amounted to courier-type assignments that usually required only my participation: things like carrying an important package from one terminal to another at the airport, or meeting some VIP's plane and making sure he got to his hotel all right. Of course, I was never told what was in the packages, or who the VIPs actually were; but the pay was good, and I'd gotten to the point where I didn't mind being a secret carrier pigeon. I couldn't expect much more, since we live in Chicago, and most of the espionage here involves local government rather than national.
But I always hoped these little assignments would lead to bigger ones, and sometimes they did. I had a feeling this was one of those times, because none of the usual things we were asked to do required Nelson to leave his aerie in D.C. and honor our little hovel. His presence meant something important was in the works.
"Did you enjoy your dinner?" he said with his usual enigmatic elegance.
"How did you know we were out to dinner?" I asked suspiciously.
"Your mother told me."
"Oh." I could feel my face hotting up.
Mother gave me her most wicked smile. "It gave me quite a turn for Larry to show up while you were out. The moment I clapped eyes on him, I thought, Lor', what has Alex gotten us into now? But he assured me that this has nothing to do with you."
"Thank you?" I replied questioningly, not knowing how happy I should be about the way she'd put that.
"What's going on?" asked Peter, whose tone always remains rather firm when confronted with Nelson.
"I haven't the foggiest," Mother replied, motioning for all of us to sit. "Larry arrived just before you did."
Nelson resumed his seat and Peter and I pulled up chairs on the opposite side of the coffee table.
"We want to enlist your aid in something fairly important," he said. "And I wanted to wait until you returned before getting into it because it involves all three of you, to some extent, and it is likely to upset the routine of your household."
"Our household?" said Peter.
"A stakeout!" I exclaimed. "You mean you want to use our house for surveillance!"
"You'll have to excuse Alex," Mother said to Nelson. "He's a hopeless romantic."
Nelson was looking at me with his usual lack of emotion, but the pause indicated that any show of eagerness on my part was suspect. According to CIA protocol, you're supposed to want to help, but you're not supposed to look like you want to help. At least, not enthusiastically.
"No, it's not surveillance," he said, then turned back to Mother. "It's a bit more intrusive."
"Good heavens!" she exclaimed. "I don't like the sound of that!"
"Let me explain. As you probably know, if you pay any attention to the news at all, we've been keeping a close eye on Iraq —"
"You could hardly do that from our house," I said.
"Alex, please!" said Mother.
"We've been making periodic attempts to find their cache of chemical weapons. That is, the United Nations team has. Unsuccessfully. We've found signs that they have them, but never the weapons themselves. On one of their recent inspections, the team was approached by an Iraqi soldier, very much on the quiet, who has offered us help."
He stopped, and after a pause, Mother said, "Yes?"
"He told us that he can pinpoint not only the location where the weapons are usually kept, but the many places to which they're moved when we make our inspections. And he's willing to do this in exchange for sanctuary."
"Yes?" Mother said again, drawing the word out warily.
"And we have agreed to this."
"What makes you think he has the information?" I asked.
"We have enough reason to believe that he's in a position to know what he says he knows. We had to move quickly, because if anybody over there even suspected that he'd approached us, he'd be dead. To say nothing of what would've happened to him if they knew what he was planning to tell us."
"I don't understand," said Mother. "Why did he approach you in the first place? Why does he want to leave Iraq?"
"He has his own reasons."
"And they are?"
"Larry," Mother said impatiently, "surely you don't —"
"We also believe that his reasons for needing to leave Iraq are valid," he said, cutting her off. "Valid enough that he would risk betraying his people, who would surely kill him if they found out about it."
"I see," said Mother meaningfully.
"I don't," Peter said. "All of this is very interesting, but what does it have to do with us?"
Nelson sat back comfortably against the back of the couch. The move was more casual than anything I'd ever seen him do. It couldn't be a good sign.
"He'll need to be debriefed."
"You mean questioned," Peter said flatly.
Nelson ignored him. "We'll need a few days to talk to him, get all the information he can give us, and hopefully check to see if any of it is true — although I doubt very much that he'd lie to us and run the risk of being sent back."
"And we'll need a safe house in which to do that. Somewhere that he can stay for a few days while we debrief him. Someplace nobody would suspect."
From the silence that followed this statement I knew Mother and Peter were as stunned as I was.
"A safe house?" I said incredulously. "You mean here?"
"Our 'ouse 'as 'ardly been safe since we got involved with your lot!" said Mother.
There go her aitches, I thought. And so many of them! This had really thrown her.
Excerpted from The Chicken Asylum by Fred Hunter. Copyright © 2001 Fred Hunter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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