Chocolate Birds

 

The sour stench of rotting meat climbed into Sam’s nose as he and Hank approached Leeroy’s cookie shop. No one in their right mind would ever associate that smell with baked goods and no one should ever have to endure that unsavory contradiction. The smell grew stronger as they rounded the corner of the building and into the alley between the cookie shop and Sally’s Flowers. Sam felt a cold tingle behind his ear that quickly traveled down his neck to his shoulder. It reminded him terribly of when his grandmother used to hug him and breathe heavily on his neck. Hank followed closely as they inched down the cobblestone path toward the dumpster where the smell seemed to be the strongest. Sam’s hand reached inside the large metal container and soon five empty cookie boxes lay scattered across the ground. What was left exposed underneath the rubbish, was the most beautiful and exotic, yet disgustingly rancid bird. Sam pondered. This must be Diego. But why would an orange-bellied parrot be in a dumpster outside of a cookie shop in South Dakota? Sam had a good feeling that Leeroy knew what happened to this bird and its owner, their good friend Mark.

Two days prior was an abnormally beautiful English morning for the folks of Leeds. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as there usually is. Sam embraced the sunshine, getting a very early start to his trip. He hadn’t packed yet but it wouldn’t take long since the weather in South Dakota was sadly too similar to that of the UK.  Sam stared at himself through the glass reflection in front of him. He stroked the stubble on his muscular jawline as his other hand combed back his dark brown hair. He carefully inspected his closet to pick out the perfect shirt that would fit his slim build, and a pair of socks that didn’t match anything at all. That’s the way he liked it. He wanted to stand out. He slid on his new suede loafers and grabbed his Harrington jacket. Sam grabbed a protein bar and ran out the door, hopping in the black Uber Towncar. The shiny wheels screeched as the car accelerated, propelling Sam to Manchester Airport. He grew anxious for the debauchery that he and his old friend Mark were going to get into. They had met a couple years ago after an Archaeology conference in London. Sam is an expert archaeologist and Mark is obsessed with the world and ancient artifacts. Mark was the first guy who Sam could have intellectual conversations with but still knew how to have a good time. Sam hoped that when he arrived in the US, they would hit the town and pick up some ladies. His last girlfriend was a nutty character who spent too much time on social media. The relationship was as ephemeral as her attention span.

The plane touched down at JFK around noon. Sam’s layover to Sioux Falls was an hour, so he’d arrive in Sioux Falls around six. An excited feeling sparked in his head as a text message pinged immediately after his phone turned on. Must be Mark telling me to get ready for a wild night. Sam opened the email and it was in fact Mark. Sam’s excitement suddenly turned uneasy.

Hey Sam. I apologize for the short notice but something came up and I have to leave for the weekend. I’ll give you the door code. Could you please watch Diego for me? I’m taking care of him because he’s sick. Careful what you say though as he’ll repeat everything for months. Here's my friend Hank’s number. He’ll take you out on the town. Chat soon.

 - Mark

Sam dialed Mark, hoping to talk to him directly, only to immediately reach his voicemail. Sam became fairly angry at the thought of his friend leaving so abruptly without much notice. He thought of how unfortunate it was that he wouldn’t be able to hang out with his good friend. He didn’t know Hank but he figured that if he were a friend of Mark’s then the trip might not be so bad.

Hours later, the famous Big Falls came into view outside the plane window. He called an Uber, which took him to the address provided in an earlier email by Mark. He thought of how fascinating it would be to see such a rare and unique bird in person. Mark had briefly mentioned that Diego was an orange-bellied parrot and one of very few in the world. At least Sam would have someone to talk to while Mark was away. The door creaked open as Sam entered the house. His eyes followed the walls around the entire main room, gazing at all the various possessions from around the world. Mark and Sam had much in common. There were paintings from Ethiopia, a water buffalo head from Sri Lanka, and preserved Asian Elephant dung in a glass case. Everything looked so neatly placed and arranged as if each wall displayed items from a different continent. The only thing that seemed out of place was the birdcage that sat in the corner, next to the wall with items from Australia. The gate was wide open and there was no inhabitant. A very confused Sam dialed up Hank.

"Yola!"

“Ello Hank?”

“Uhh yeah, who’s this?”

“It’s Sam. I’m Mark’s friend visiting from England. I came to stay with Mark but he unexpectedly had to leave for the weekend. I’m not sure where he went. He asked me to take care of his parrot but when I arrived the bird seemed to be missing and the cage wide open.”

“Parrot?”

“Yes, his parrot Diego. Do you happen to know where it is?”

“Mark has a parrot?”

“Apparently.”

“Oh well why didn’t you say that?”

“I just did but-“

“Don’t worry. I’ll be right over. I want to see this parrot.”

“I just told you the parrot’s mis-“

While Sam anxiously waited for Hank to arrive he sat on the couch made of Shagreen, or stingray leather as it’s called for people with a brain the size of Hank’s. Half an hour later there was a loud knock at the front door. Hank opened the door before Sam could let him in.

“Where’s this parrot?” Hank said.

“It’s nice to meet you too…”

“Where is it?”

“If you’d stop moving your trap and open those huge holes on either side of your head, you would have heard that I said the parrot’s missing. His name is Diego by the way.”

“Oh well why didn’t you say so. You should know I’m deaf in one ear. It was probably the one I had up to the phone because the good ear was listening to my new Hendrix vinyl.”

Sam shook his head as he was struck by a worrisome thought. How much help is this guy going to be?

“We should probably figure out where this bird is, and more importantly, where Mark has gone,” Sam suggested.

“Alright but first we need some brewskis. You want one? Mark always keeps the good shit on deck.”

“No thanks. I need to think clearly about what’s going on and I suggest you skip the drink and do the same.”

“Oh no Siree Bob, that’s not for me. If I don’t drink my eyes start to turn red, I get paranoid, and I feel as if my dreadlocks are falling out.”

Sam looked over the tangled ropes on Hanks head and then at his seemingly old, pockmarked face. The two newly acquainted pals sat in the living room the rest of the night, devising a plan for the following day. Eventually they decided that they would go to the zoo first to try and get some answers.

Bright and early, the sun shone down from the heavens, as Sam and Hank exited the house and sped off in Hank’s 1972 baby blue Chevy Bel Air.  They handed the person at the front counter of the zoo some cash and received two colorful tickets, which had the rare, orange-bellied parrot on the front.

“Look! This looks just like Diego, Mark’s parrot,” Sam stated

“Oh he’s a cute little guy. I can’t wait to see him!” Hank said.

They walked past the animal cages, following the red and yellow painted pathways. Sam spotted a zoo employee and quickly approached her.

“Uhh excuse me…checks name tag…Ms. Emily,” Sam said.

“Are you from England?” she replied.

“I am actually. You’re very smart.”

“Oh well that’s so nice of you to say. How can I help you?”

“Well this is Hank, and we’re looking for our good friend Mark. Would you happen to know where he is?

“Oh I haven’t seen Mark in two days but you can try his office which is right down there past the monkeys.”

Sam’s eyes followed Emily’s arm past the tip of finger to where she pointed. Hank followed behind as they reached the office that belonged to Mark. Two knocks at the door. No answer. Sam’s hand turned the handle to the door that read BIRD HANDLERS ONLY. They entered the dimly lit room and gazed over its contents. Sam sifted through papers in filing cabinets and looked in drawers for any clues. After looking at all the pictures of Mark’s travels to other countries, Hank started to get hungry and reached for the first thing he saw.

“Oh chocolate chip, my favorite!”

He pulled out a cookie from the unopened box on the table and took his first opulent bite. Cookie bits sprayed from his mouth as he cringed with displeasure.

“Who the hell puts peanuts in chocolate chip cookies? This is outrageous!”

Sam’s eyes immediately opened wide with surprise.

“Did you say peanuts?”

“Yeah! The box said Chocolate Chip but there are peanuts in the cookies. Ugh!”

Sam’s mind flashed back to the time to the first time he met Mark. He was at the University of Cambridge for an Archaeology talk. That night, Sam and a girl at the bar were flirting and it turned out that Mark had been talking to the girl first but was in the restroom. When Mark returned, he dismissed the girl from the table since he deemed her un-loyal and the two become best pals instantly. When the bar maid came by the table and brought a bowl of peanuts, Mark flipped his shit, ran out of the bar cursing back at the maid, and refused to never come back to such an unhealthy establishment. Mark was deathly allergic to peanuts.

Cookie splatter covering the floor, Hank sat there angry and hungry while Sam’s mind raced trying to figure out the scene that may have previously happened earlier that day. He examined the box of cookies. Leeroy’s Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies. No Dairy. No nuts. No soy. EVER. But there were peanuts in the cookies. Whoever sent these cookies to Mark was playing a sick joke or they really wanted him dead. An address to Leeroy’s Cookie shop was printed at the bottom. The two quickly left the office and headed for the exit.

As they walked back toward the car, Hank noticed something that neither of them saw on the way in.

“Hey lookee here. It says there’s supposed to be an orange-bellied parrot in this cage and there isn’t one in here.” Hank obviously observed.

“That’s because Diego is supposed to be in there. This just keeps getting stranger, but I have a feeling someone around here knows.”

After walking past the gates they spotted a man with a zoo uniform on, getting out of a rear windowless black van. He sure seemed to be knowledgeable, and there couldn’t be anything suspicious about his vehicle.

“Excuse me sir but do you know when the orange-bellied parrot is going to be back on display?” Sam said.

The man looked up wide-eyed and seemed to be worried about something, and spoke quickly.

“Uhh that bird died a week ago. We just haven’t taken the exhibit down.”

“Aw man that’s a shame. We were really hoping to see it up close in person,” said Sam.

“Yeah well these things happen all the time, but we’ll have a new one in soon. You all take care now.”

Sam stared at the man, with his shoulder length jet-black hair and a scar above his right eye. Hank started walking away, as Sam followed still looking at the strange man.

Reds, oranges, and yellows filled the rear view mirror with beauty as the sun began to set. Sam and Hank pulled up to the address on Leeroy’s cookie box with a screeching halt. Sam thought for a minute before pointing to the side of the cookie shop.

“There,” Sam said confidently. “We’ll go around back, break the lock and see what we can find.”

“What if he has an alarm?”

“Don’t worry. I picked up some skills when I had to get back a fossil that was stolen from the Cambridge Museum.”

 

Since Diego was in the dumpster, Sam had an even better feeling Leeroy knew what happened to Mark. Sam crept up the back steps as he pulled out a leather case.

“I always keep these handy. You never know what you’ll get into.”

Two metal lock picks were slid out of their sleeves and placed effortlessly into the door lock. Twisting and turning, the picks did their magic.

“And…. I’m awesome. Got it.”

The door swung open and the alarm blared throughout the shop. Quickly, Sam ran to the box, smashed it open and cut the red wire.

“Wow. It stopped. I thought that only worked in movies,” Sam said.

Hank stared at him in disbelief, jaw dropped. They searched through cookie box after cookie box and all they could find were the cookies that were exactly displayed on the front of the boxes. Absolutely no nuts where present. Hank smiled, happily chomping away, trying every cookie.

“That’s enough cookies for you Hank. Let’s focus on the mission.”

The screeching of car brakes could be heard in front of the shop.

“Quick! Hide. Follow my lead,” said Sam.

Hank quickly abided and the two hid out of sight and waited. A bunch of keys could be heard tumbling around before one was inserted into the front door lock. Sam waited anxiously with wide eyes for the door to open. A short and skinny man walked in. Sam stared at his blonde bowl cut, thick black-rimmed glasses and black and white horizontally striped shirt. He walked by completely clueless at his uninvited guests.

“Hey!” said Sam.

The man turned with a shocked look on his face.

“Wha- what the hell are you doing in here?” the man said.

“You must be Leeroy?”

“I am. Who the hell are you and why are you in my shop?”

“We’re good friends with Mark, the man who’s bird is in your dumpster outside and who’s office at the zoo contains your chocolate chip cookies with peanuts on them!”

“Uhh what?”

Sam forcefully struck Leeroy on the left temple causing his ear to bleed.

“Don’t play coy with me cookie man! Just tell us who tried to kill Mark with those cookies and why his bird is in your dumpster!”

“Ok! Ok. I don’t know who Mark is or what poison cookies you’re talking about. Honest. A man came to my door two days ago with that dead parrot in a box and told me to dispose of it or he’d kill me. So I did. That’s all I know.”

“Well what’d he look like?”

Leeroy looked off into space.

“Umm, he had short brown hair, wore dark sunglasses and had on a suit. Yeah, a black suit.”

Sam thought for a moment about what more Leeroy could have for him. The only thing that still popped in his head was the guy at the zoo telling him that Diego has been dead for a week. He had a feeling he didn’t collect all the answers he needed at that establishment full of beasts.

“Come on Hank. Let’s go. We’ll be back for you cookie man.”

Hank trailed behind Sam as he walked out onto the street and got into the Chevy.

“Why don’t we just go to the police?” Hank asked.

“We need more information before we do. If we wait we may have a better chance at finding Mark.”

Owls began to talk as the wee hours of the morning ticked clockwise. In the back parking lot of the zoo, they opened the trunk finding various weapons also identified as mechanics tools. Monkey wrenches, crowbars, and more were scattered amongst the McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts trash. A glimmer of excitement sparked in Hank’s eyes, and he picked up a tire iron.

“Take your pick. I’m ready.”

Sam grabbed the monkey wrench although there’d be no monkey business happening tonight.

The two self-proclaimed sleuths walked up to the fence and helped each other up. All four feet landed on the ground inside the zoo unheard.  Again, they followed the red and yellow painted concrete pathways looking for a main office. Wide-eyed monkeys turned into growling North American bears. The two snooped about, searching, as cheetahs paced in circles and a rhinoceros stuck its snout out of the cage, staring back. They walked briskly through the shadows of the cages until they came to a black door reading “H.N.I.C.”. Sam looked puzzled.

“What the hell does H.N.I.C. mean?”

Hank smiled at his foreign friend.

“It means we’re in the right place.”

Stacks of filing cabinets sat beside TV monitors showing live feeds from security cameras that covered the entire grounds. Steam rose from a cup of coffee that sat on the desk next to a black ledger.

“Someone must have just been here. Let’s hurry this shit up.” Hank said.

Sam scanned the papers on the desk before becoming intrigued by the black ledger. Hank pulled open the closet door as an avalanche of boxes knocked Hank on his back. Sam quickly turned away to scold Hank.

“Shhhhh we have no idea if anyone’s here!”

“My fault, man; I was just trying to help. Hey! I found more of Leeroy’s cookies. I’ll kill Leeroy myself if these aren’t actually Chocolate Chip cookies.”

Sam helped Hank pick up the boxes to stack back up in the closet. The torn, loosened edges of the boxes signaled heavy handling and abuse.

“These cookies must be made of lead.”

Hank said as he waved the unusually heavy box up and down in the air.

“Let’s eat some!”

Sam wobbled, losing his balance trying to suppress the impact of the box Hank threw his way. The box flew through the air for what seemed like a minute, ultimately crashing against the floor and splitting open. The contents of the box came out like a dark wave crashing into a sand castle and crumbling it pieces. An extremely pungent odor filled the room and crept its way up Sam and Hank’s nostrils. They immediately expected more dead exotic animals. Sam had only smelled something like this when a skunk sprayed him after he stepped on its tail when he was searching ruins in Mexico. Upon closer inspection, mounds of blue, purple, and green plants glistened in the florescent ceiling lighting every inch that Sam’s eyes moved.

“Man! This looks like the shit I can only smoke back in Cali,” Hank said. “There must be 20 pounds in that box easy!”

Sam glanced at the some 30 similar boxes that lie scattered around the office floor. His eyes curiously glanced back at the ledger that sat on the desk. Janitorial Supplies was written in black ink across a piece of tape stuck to the binding. Sam’s fingers pried open the cover of the book. The pages of the ledger were crusty and yellow with grease stains at the corners. Sam flew through them from right to left searching for any connection between Leeroy and the zoo. The vast amount of product in these boxes revealed anything but just a snack for from the snack bar. Letters seemed to fly across the pages in warp speed until Sam’s fingers reached the “L’s”. He read each name starting at the top as he followed his finger sliding down the page. Gotcha. Sam tapped the page two times when he found the name he was looking for. He ran his finger across Leeroy’s name to the end of the column stating his balance.

“Looks like Leeroy owes the zoo a lot of money, and it can’t be from cookie sales.”

His balance was negative $100,000. The most logical reason at this point was it had to do with the drugs. 300 pounds of marijuana packaged in Leeroy’s cookie boxes, in a closet at the zoo was abnormal enough. Neurons in Sam’s head fired faster than the time when they found a book filled with papyrus from Egypt in Ukraine. Dumped dead parrot. Bird-killer in suit. Marijuana cookies. Leeroy’s debt.

“Leeroy owes the zoo money. $100,000 can’t be only cookies, because obviously the only thing found in these cookie boxes are these foul-smelling plants. I’d assume to whomever Leeroy owes this money could be pretty mad about not receiving it yet. This has to tie in with what happened to mark.”

Sam thought of how much he missed his friend and that his life would never be the same. His face turned red as his mind head boiled up and he let out a loud cry and he banged his fists on the table. At that instant something was dislodged from under the table and crashed to the ground right next to Sam’s feet. He looked down and it was a hard drive. Curious, he plugged it in the computer that was used for the security monitors. Hundreds of hours of video footage was on the drive, most of it of the area where the marijuana was being grown. Sam scrolled to the day before he landed in Sioux Falls. A click from the spacebar opened the first video from that day. Laborers picking the buds off the marijuana plants were scattered throughout the giraffe’s field. Sam played the next video, then the next, until he stopped at the last one. They watched for a couple seconds as a large bird soared past the camera and into the field. Shortly after a man in a bright blue jumpsuit followed the bird, running very fast.

“Hey! That looks like Mark!” Hank said.

Sam nodded, still watching the video intently. Mark seemed to stop running and slow to a complete stop, bending down to examine the plants that surrounded him.

“It looks like Mark hadn’t previously known about this operation.” Sam said quietly. “We need to find out where he goes next but there’s no more footage.”

Suddenly, deep, manly voices could be heard from outside the office, quickly growing louder.

“Let’s go Hank. We have enough to get the cops here as soon as possible.”

Soon after a long phone call describing the situation, the FBI and DEA swarmed into the zoo like a pack of killer bees. They found the owner of the zoo back in the Giraffe’s area harvesting the marijuana. Leeroy was picked up at his friend’s house where they were gathered to draft their fantasy football teams. A couple days later Sam and Hank were asked to come testify against the owner of the zoo and Leeroy. With that, hopefully their friend would be found. Sam and Hank entered the courtroom and walked toward the front row seats. They reached the front row of pews as Sam turned to glance over at the defendants. His eyes lit up as he realized who the man was he was looking at. The same man from the zoo, with the shoulder length jet-black hair and the scar above his right eye was at the table wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. He was identified as Alfonz and was the owner of the zoo. Sam figured he was the one who Leeroy owed the money to. A short, stocky man named Steve was the lawyer assigned to Sam and Hank. He turned his whole body toward them as they approached.

“Man, you guys are quite the investigators. I can’t say I understand how you got all this information but you got something big. Beside the drug charges, we need to find your friend.”

“Have they said anything about Mark?” Sam said.

“No, nothing yet. Between you and me, I think Alfonz knows where he is. He was afraid of Mark turning him in after finding all that marijuana. I mean it’s right there on the tape for god’s sake.”

Shortly after, Steve turned to the witness stand where Leeroy was called to sit. Steve questioned him with a confident demeanor.

“So, Leeroy. A rare orange-bellied parrot from the Great Plains Zoo, who was being taken care of by our missing man, Mark, was found dead in your dumpster. Why?”

“I told you. A man came to my shop and told me to get rid of the bird or he’d kill me.”

“And what did this man look like?”

“Well. He had short brown hair and wore dark sunglasses and a gray suit.”

“Objection!” Sam said. “Leeroy told us earlier it was a black suit!”

“Screw you!” Hank objected to Leeroy.

“Order! Order!” Judge Jones said.

It was almost as if Lawyer Steve had received a brain transplant from Sam as he effortlessly pieced the story together. He spoke with words of wisdom.

“You want to know what I think? I think you’re lying. I think you can’t tell us a consistent story because you’re afraid of giving this strange man up. I think this man was him!”

Steve turned abruptly and pointed at Alfonz. Subtle gasps of silence poured over the courtroom. Steve continued.

“After watching this tape of Mark in the marijuana fields, I think Alfonz was afraid of him snitching. I think that he put peanuts in Leeroy’s chocolate chip cookies, since he must have known he was deathly allergic to him based on his employment forms, and waited for him to show up the next day so that he eat them. But Mark never showed up did he? Because our plaintiffs over here received a text message from our missing friend the morning he was supposed to show up for work and didn’t. He was trying to leave so that he could call the FBI and wait until everything blew over. Alfonz must have caught on to this and gone to Mark’s house to catch him before he departed. Diego probably heard the verbal confrontation and Alfonz, knowing Diego would repeat everything, killed him. I think this is the man who showed up at the Leeroy’s cookie shop and told him to get rid of the bird. “

The DEA had found more cookie boxes filled with marijuana at Leeroy’s shop. Leeroy was a distributor of the weed for Alfonz but apparently owed him $100,000.

“Alfonz would have to be angry that Leeroy still owed him all that money. So that way, if anyone found the bird, they would think Leeroy did it. Luckily, Sam and Hank here are too smart to believe this scrawny guy could do all that man power by himself. He just sticks to the cookies. But this doesn’t explain where Mark is. “

Steve looked to Alfonz for any utterance. Alfonz hadn’t spoken until now and his Russian accent could practically be seen as he spat through his gritty teeth.

“This is true. You are right. However, this is fun game. I will not say anything about this anymore.”

Hank became extremely angry at Alfonz’s cruel words.

“Hey asshole! You better tell me where my friend is or I’ll smash your face in!”

Alfonz didn’t bat an eye as Hank charged toward him with his clenched fist held high in the air. Sam grabbed Hank back as he swung, attacking the air incessantly.

“Your friend will remain in eternal blackness forever,” Alfonz said subtly as a slight wink came across his eyes.

“Alright take him away,” The judge said. Hank ran after Sam as he quickly gathered his things and ran through the large wooden courtroom gates. Sam ran through the last words that Alfonz said.

Blackness. Black. Black van!

“Hank, remember that black van Alfonz was getting out of when we first saw him? That’s got to be it! He said ‘eternal blackness forever’. He must have only wanted us to know. Why?

The Bel Air pulled up behind the zoo as Sam pointed at the black van. Hank slammed on the gas as the car sped across the parking lot. Hank pulled the emergency brake and the car did a 180-degree screeching spin. Sam hopped out of the car and jogged up to the back of the van. He looked at Hank with a curious eye as he yanked open the door handle. A gust of putrid air flooded out of the van and up into their nostrils, similar to when they found the cookie boxes in the zoo office closet. A huge mound of marijuana bricks was piled high in the center of the van. Light coming in through the windshield caused all the colors that sparkled on the plants.

“What are those?” Hank said.

Roughly 10 metal tanks lined the van’s walls. Sam stepped up into the van and read the label on one of them.

“It’s oxygen.”

Attached to the tops of the tanks were clear hoses that flowed down the metal sides. Sam’s fingers followed them until they disappeared into the pile of marijuana. A very intrigued Sam motioned to Hank and displaced the pile brick by brick. After about 20 bricks had been moved away, something slightly familiar was revealed.

“Sam, look! It’s a hand!”

“Yeah but not just any hand.”

The remaining bricks were thrown off the top of the pile revealing their missing friend who was heavily sedated.

“Mark! You’re alive!

Mark slowly opened his eyes as Sam pried the breathing mask off his pale face. Mark realized his friends had come for him and hugged them thankfully.

“How’d you guys find me?” Mark said.

“Your text message. For the first time technology did something beneficial,” Sam said.

Mark looked angry.

“That asshole thought I was going to tell on him. Well he was right. I knew you’d be smart enough to figure this out yourselves.”

Sam looked over at Hank and then to the pile of drugs.

“Alfonz must have wanted us to find Mark with all this marijuana to buy us off so he wouldn’t get charged with another crime. He won’t be getting out for a very long time. What do you think Hank?”

Hank thought for a moment. It was probably his most intellectual thought to date.

“I think we can forget about him for now.

He looked at the pile of glamorous plants as he licked his lips and smiled.

“But we’ll need cookies.”