Dana didn’t want to take the job at Cluck-Ease. She was one of the handful of locals who protested the truck stop chain moving into Comfort, Texas. They didn’t need any of Bourne’s suburban San Antonio gentrification encroaching on their little spot on I-10. If Cluck-Ease saw their sleepy little Hill Country town as a ripe prospect, then all the bougie housewives and baseball cap wearing construction contractor rednecks would set their eyes on it as well. And in the two years that Cluck-Ease has sat on the corner of I-10 and FM1621, that’s exactly what’s happened.
But it’s too late to complain much. Property values have shot up. Her house was worth double what it was before the advent of the Chicken. That meant her property taxes skyrocketed accordingly. She had money tucked away, but that wasn’t going to last forever. She could sell and move back to San Antonio, but at the same time why should she bend to trends beyond her control? It’d be nice to live where things actually happened, but that should be on her terms. Not the terms of “the market” or whatever invisible hand some of her customers like to mention.
Dana might not care for the absurdity of a theme park-like gas station, but getting a job there felt far more natural than working in one of the overpriced boutiques, hipster bars, or far-too-clean antique shops that popped up downtown.
And the damn chicken paid more to boot.
When Dana applied for the “special stockroom supervisor (overnight)” position, she wasn’t sure what she’d be supervising. Does a stock room really need that sort of dedicated supervision? Someone puts something on a shelf. Someone takes something off a shelf. Those someone’s shouldn’t steal or eat anything they don’t buy. What’s so “special” about a backroom filled with pallets of soda, chips, and brand name beef jerky for the picky customers who think buying the in-house made stuff from a deli counter is unsanitary? She figured it was some specific Cluck-Ease term for general manager– the sort of term companies use to give you an all-purpose job while making potential future employers have no idea what your previous job entailed.
She was right on that latter assumption.
Dana arrived for her usual 11PM shift a few minutes early– enough time to settle in, grab some iced tea, and clean up the usual mess the day shift goons left. As she walked through the employee entrance in the back of the building, one of the Cluckie mascots ran up to her. She could tell by the chicken’s short gait that this was probably Averly.
“Where have you been!” Averly shouted through her sunglasses-bespectacled chicken head. “Didn’t you get the boss’ voice mails? He’s been calling you for hours!”
“That guy knows my schedule better than I do. He should know I’ve barely woken up when I get here, much less hours before.”
Averly took off her chicken head and tossed it into the corner of the back office. “You’re also supposed to be on call on your off hours because of days like this! It was so bad I had to help out, and they wouldn’t even let me change into my regular work clothes. I had to deal with this mess in this stupid thing. I’d quit, but I’m not going back to that antique shop listening to old people talk about the good old days of being able to buy Confederate flags and mamie dolls! Get in there and do something. You’re the only one they’ll listen to!”
Dana sighed. There were a few different possibilities as to who Averly meant by “they.” Most of them would be harmless enough– the sorts even someone as impatient as Averly should handle with ease. So Dana prepared herself for the worst case scenario.
“It’s just a normal shift,” she thought to herself as she exited the back office. She took her time making her way across the stockroom, taking a few deep breaths along the way to get Averly’s anxious rant out of her mind. She approached a small, unassuming door on the side of the stockroom, one that looked no different from the others that led to places like the cafe, the bakery, and the auto repair shop. She lifted her badge to an unmarked spot next to the door. The door vanished, allowing her to walk in.
Dana was now behind the counter of Cluck-Ease’s Special Department. It housed and sold many of the same things the public store sold. You could buy a bag of BBQ-flavored Cluck-Chips and a fountain drink, and if you wanted something from the diner they would bring it to you take-out. You could get an innertube and a cooler if you were heading down to one of the nearby rivers. There was even a display of Cluck-ee mascot plushies and pajamas.
You could also buy almost any common alchemical component, conveniently packaged in Cluck-ee brand resealable packaging. If your crystal-powered device needed a recharge, you could trade in your old crystals for fresh ones, for a small service fee. The beef jerky section was expanded, including meats of animals you won’t find on this side of existence. Dana wasn’t big on meat, but she could vouch for the skyfish jerky.
Turns out, Cluck-ease is a truck stop not just for your run-of-the-mill human. Everyone and everything was welcome in the “Special Department,” so long as you knew how to get in. That was Dana’s favorite part of the job. Sure, every now and then you’d get a belligerent cryptid trying to eat one of the other customers, or some cultist looking to even the score with a rival, but for the most part the monsters, weirdos, and oddities were far more friendly than the new “locals.”
Dana took a look around the showroom floor and who she assumed was “bugging” Averly. They were sitting on stools around the display case showing off locally-sourced crystals. The stools sat higher than usual, to accommodate customers of their short stature, and their salamander tails drooped down, nearly reaching the floor. The ringleader of the Axolotl trio noticed Dana from across the room.
“It’s the Dana!” As he shouted, he and his compatriots’ axolotl frills wriggled happily. Their favorite human had arrived on the scene. The three of them shouted “Dana” in unison, hopped down from their stools, and scampered over to the main counter.
“Why were you three giving Averly such a hard time? You know she doesn’t work back here all the time. She doesn’t have the expertise you expect and get from me.”
Their leader giggled through his gills. “The chicken! Ha. The chicken sucks. Suck my chicken! Ha. Human humor. Suck my chicken, Dana!”
Dana rested her elbow on the counter, then rested her head in her hand, looking down at the more talkative of the three. “What did I tell you about that? You can get away with that with me because we’re friends, but when you tell it to someone else it isn’t a joke. It’s just you being a little slimy creep.”
“Excuse the slime and the sucking,” the shortest of the group said with what sounded like genuine regret. “The chicken just isn’t the Dana. The chicken doesn’t know the crystals. The chicken just pushes the expensives. The chicken just wants the commission.”
“Can’t you just find some crystals on your own? You guys live below the aquifer where that stuff grows. I bet half the crystals we have here are ones we bought from y’all or someone else who lives down there.”
“That’s what the chicken didn’t understand,” the middle one responded, with a bit of sadness in her voice. “‘Crystals are crystals. Buy one already.’ That’s all the chicken said. Wouldn’t look for the one we’re looking for. ‘All the same,’ she said. ‘I’m supposed to be on break,’ she said. ‘Suck her chicken,’ I said. Then she shrieked like a human and left us here.”
The leader patted his friend on the head. “Her crystal got placed in our last haul. An accident. We caught it too late. It was already sold to this Big Chicken Place. Suck this chicken.”
The human-facing part of any given Cluck-Ease is mostly a secondary source of funding– the front for the real business. The main reason why Cluck-Ease picks a location is to take advantage of the unique local resources and populations. This Cluck-Ease was built in Comfort, rather than neighboring Kerrville or Boerne, because of its proximity to the Axolotl Waters– the aquifer underneath the Edwards Aquifer that houses a local Axolotl People population. It’s also fertile ground for certain crystal deposits that are in high demand in every corner of the world. The Comfort location makes more revenue off of this trafficking than it does from everything else combined.
It was far from ethical, but Dana has done everything she can to make sure her friends here and others are well taken care of in their endeavors. Upper management wasn’t happy when she would negotiate higher fees for their crystal collecting, but it also resulted in measurable increases in quality and profit, so there wasn’t much they could do. And even if she wasn’t too comfortable with what happened with those crystals after they left the hands of her friends, all of this still felt far more ethical than working for anyone setting up shop in town.
“Yeah. Suck this chicken,” Dana said under her breath. “OK y’all. I think I can figure this out. Describe it to me. What color? What size? Anything to help me. I’ve combed over this place so many times over the past week or so looking for things. I’m sure I can remember where I saw it last.”
Dana was about as ordinary as you get when it comes to Cluck-Ease’s Special Department, but having a keen eye and a decent, catalog-like memory doesn’t require magic or intense training. It just takes giving a damn and putting in some degree of effort. The three axolotl’s took turns describing the crystal. It was dark purple. Small in size. About two inches long and half an inch wide. It wasn’t consumption grade or currency grade. Most devices that could measure such things wouldn’t pick up any special properties. Axolotl practices are rarely considered in the sort of mass-produced, off-the-shelf devices Cluck-Ease would use. The main thing that would distinguish it from similar crystals are the teeth marks dug into one end. Seems the crystal had to be wrestled away from an hungry jackalope several years ago, and it had yet to fully repair itself. Such things take decades, if not more.
That final detail clarified the crystal’s location in Dana’s mind. It also pissed her off immensely. She not only knew where it was, she knew why it had been separated from the crystal display.
“Wait right here, y’all,” Dana told her Axolotl friends, gritting her teeth in anger, “I’ll be right back.”
As soon as Dana exited the showroom floor, her rampage began. James, the actual night stocker, was the first person to be in her path.
“Where’s that bitch chicken?!” Dana growled, cornering James between two pallets of Cool Ranch Doritos. “Where’s Averly?!”
James could barely muster a “no” before meekly asking if he could get back to avoiding doing his job. She got similar responses from Roberta, who was on a smoke break from the bakery in the non-smoking employees lounge, and Zack, who was trying to clock in and missed his punch time by thirty seconds. In fact, they were surprised to even see Dana during her shift, since they didn’t even know what she did there. The next few minutes were a surreal affair for most of the “regular” employees of Cluck-Ease, as “that chick who maybe does the books I don’t know” angrily questioned everyone she came across.
She finally got an answer from Heather, one of the Din-ee Diner waitresses, who was on a smoke break in the proper outdoor employee smoking area. She waited on Averly and a considerably older man she’d never seen before at table 23.
“Yeah. She just, like, brushed me away when I made some small talk. Not a looker, but looked kinda foreign. Not an illegal, but some foreign rich type? Real suspicious, but what do I care? Girl probably has herself a sugar daddy. Averly has all the luck, doesn’t she? I hate her.”
Table 23 was next to the rear fire exit in the smoking section of the diner, as far out of the way as possible. Dana knew Averly liked to use that corner for her under the table deals, and for the most part she overlooked it to maintain a more tolerable work environment. No sense in blowing steam over someone palming some trilobite powder or whatever to sell to one of the seedier types management refuses to let in the real storefront. But this was personal and worth the fallout. She wasn’t entirely up on the specifics, but she knew the local Axolotl People didn’t look at their crystals as mere currency or components like almost everyone else. The attachments they form are entirely sentimental– there’s no spiritual or mental connection that’s severed if one is lost– but that sentiment is worth the fuss, especially for friends.
Dana used her badge to enter the diner through that fire exit, bypassing the alarm. Averly’s back was towards the door, so she didn’t notice Dana’s entrance. Averly’s “companion” did notice, and he chuckled to himself as Dana quickly slid into Averly’s side of the booth.
“Hi Kaufmann!” Dana said with fake enthusiasm. “Good to see you! Your ass isn’t supposed to plant itself anywhere near here. In fact, I think the entire understate of Texas has shoot on sight orders on you. But who cares? You’re already here and not dead. So, what brings you here? Why are you chatting up my good friend and coworker Averly.” Dana wrapped her arm around Averly in mock camaraderie, giving her a quick, rough squeeze around the neck.
“Will you buzz off!” Averly growled as she pushed Dana’s arm away.
“Yes, Dana,” Kaufmann said in his unnaturally smooth way, “we’re just having a little friendly trade talk. I may not be welcome in your particular corner of this establishment anymore, but I can still partake of your beautifully and absurdly named chicken fried chicken. Doubly delirious, sitting in a shop that pretends to be owned by a chicken eating chicken named after a way of frying a beefsteak.”
Dana had to think fast. Kaufmann wasn’t your regular petty crook looking to buy or sell some illegally-acquired artifact on the quick. If he was here, that meant the sale of this crystal was planned far in advance. Nothing about this situation was an accident, save for Dana’s discovering it was happening. Even that may have been in the cards, but she couldn’t worry about that now. All she knew was that Kaufmann was an important player in the international artifact trade. Very, very important. That he was here, in podunk Comfort, Texas, talking to Averly of all people, then this crystal was even more important than she understood. It might just be a personal memento to one of her Axolotl friends, but it was something altogether different to someone far beyond the scope of anyone else involved.
“So, Averly, what are you going to do with your big payday? This has to be ‘get out of Comfort’ money. I bet you could move to San Diego and be an understudy for their chicken.”
Averly pouted angrily at the chicken suit joke, but that quickly faded away when the talk of money settled in. She glared at Kaufmann, doing her best to stare down a man who very likely had god-like beings do this to him on a regular basis. “What does she mean by a big payday? You only offered me three grand for this thing.” She pulled the crystal out of her jeans pocket and slammed it on the table.
Kaufmann smiled. “Oh. Was I not clear on the payment? I did say three grand, but I never said what currency. Of course this is worth more than 3,000 United States standard dollars. The Sky City Soulcoin is awfully strong against your dollar. I might not make you a millionaire by conventional standards, but it would indeed be ‘get out of Comfort’ money.”
“But where would she cash in that Soulcoin?” Dana countered. “You know the current regime in Sky City isn’t on good terms with anyone on the surface. You know she’d be losing out by the time she laundered that much coin.”
Averly was a bit perplexed by all of this, but nodded in agreement with Dana. “Yeah! What kind of crap are you trying to pull here! Make with something reasonable or get lost!”
Kaufmann narrowed his eyes a bit at Dana while maintaining his smile. Dana knew that Kaufmann would be aware of her “get Averly flustered and unwilling to negotiate” tactic. She was counting on that not being a factor, since no amount of wheeling, dealing, and scheming would work when Averly was pissed off enough. Dana was expecting things to get ugly soon between the three of them, and was already forming apologies in her head when the diner manager confronted her about it later.
But that’s not how things played out.
“How about a different offer?” Kaufmann asked, relaxing his tone a bit. “One hundred thousand, standard, to both of you, but instead of giving me the crystal, you allow me to meet its owner.”
Averly’s eyes lit up at the offer, but while she was distracted by the offer, Dana snatched the crystal off of the table and glowered at Kaufmann.
“Look. I know that if you really wanted this crystal, you could deal with both of us without anyone ever knowing the better. You have your ways. This is just a curio for you or whoever it is that wants it. And neither of you are thinking about how this is affecting my friends. I know there’s not much I can do about that, either. I also know that what you really want is something that has to be willingly given to you by one of us. You want inside. Maybe you really do want to speak with the Axolotls. Maybe we have something inside that you really need and knew some dumbass like Averly here couldn’t just bring to you. Or maybe this is just some elaborate game to prove that you can get around any safeguards, and you’ll leave as soon as you prove your point. All I know is that if I let you do any of that, I will lose my job, and my friends will likely get screwed over. None of that’s happening here. So you can go suck my chicken fried chicken.”
Dana got up from the table, gave Averly an especially nasty look, and exited the diner the same way she came in.
All was well. The crystal was returned. There was much frilling of Axolotl gills. Dana kept her job. Averly did too, since upper management discovering any of this would also come back to Dana. Kaufmann quite liked his chicken fried chicken, and made a note that his favorite Cluck-Ease Special Department supervisor continued to fascinate him. He’d have to annoy her again sometime.