Master Claude's phone woke me up with the opening of Beethoven's Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony. I looked over at his side of the bed. I couldn't tell if he was still asleep, playing dead, or—please, Lord, no—actually dead.
Being as careful as I could not to claw or tickle him, I wobbled across his tummy to his bedside stand and glanced at Caller ID.
His friend Reg. The fellow who'd legally published Master's best-selling dream-book after the pirated edition was taken out of circulation and its perpetrators put in prison.
I'd been around Reg so often I almost knew him too well. He was going to pace the floor fretfully if Master didn't answer.
So I gently pecked the Answer icon. Then I clucked a couple of times to let Reg know I'd answered, not Master.
He caught on immediately. He was considerably more intelligent than many of the humans I'd had any contact with.
"Why didn't he answer, Lolita? Is he okay?" Reg normally spoke in calm, relaxed tones even when something was bothering him.
But not that time. The way he'd nearly screamed those two questions (as if he was talking to a hen who didn't want to help) sounded uncharacteristically frantic.
I wished I could respond with a single-cluck, my way of saying yes. But I couldn't. I didn't know if Master was alright or not.
I hoped he was fine, but despite my modest brilliance, I did have a few limitations. My medical degree had expired at birth, as I told my vet at my yearly physicals, when—once again—he verified that Al Duncan's brutal kick years earlier hadn't done any permanent damage.
Why couldn't that vet understand me when I joked with him that way, though? Doctor Dolittle wouldn't have had one bit of trouble. I wondered if I would ever meet a human who could understand my chicken-speak.
Reg was still waiting. I needed to do something. So I gave Master a careful once-over. His chest was rising and falling in regular intervals. He appeared to be breathing normally.
Even though his eyes were still closed—I couldn't believe I hadn't awakened him when I crawled over him a moment earlier—he was smiling. Smiling more pleasantly than he usually did when he was fully awake.
He must've been in the middle of one of those recurring dreams he'd begun having several weeks earlier. His subconscious self had probably refused to wake up his conscious self just to answer the phone or talk to Reg, and I wasn't going to wake him now, either.
I respected my master's idiosyncrasies.
Reg couldn't have sounded more frantic if his house had been burning down and 9-1-1 put him on hold.
How could someone like me, who couldn't use human-speak, tell him that Master appeared to be well? Or at least more alive than sometimes. Life with an eighty-six-year-old man could be quite challenging, even though medications kept all of his health needs under control.
Reg's breathing had sped up and grown more frenzied. His tone was frenetic, too. I couldn't assess his franticness more thoroughly without my thesaurus.
"Come on, Lolita. Is Claude all right or not? Should I call 9-1-1?"
Had Reg forgotten that I was a hen? I could understand everything humans said, and I knew how to read. I'd even taught myself to use the computer. The one thing I couldn't do was speak their language.
If I'd had fingers I would've snapped them when sudden inspiration struck. The solution was so simple. Within the next thirty seconds I pecked "master ok" on Master's phone and texted it.
The notification tone on Reg's phone beeped loudly.
"Thank goodness." He didn't say anything more for several moments. "Claude, you've always told me you don't text. Why in the world did you try to make me believe it came from Lolita? Why didn't you simply speak up?"
Master opened his eyes, picked the phone up, and put it to his ear. "I was having a good dream. A really good one. It was still going strong and I wasn't about to wake up until I found out how it ended. What are you talking about, though? I didn't text you, Reg."
"Huh? You certainly don't mean to tell me that Lolita..."
Master chuckled. "You said it yourself. I don't text. Never. My fingers are too big and too slow."
"But Lolita...? She can't..." He moaned exasperatedly. "Oh, never mind."
"Don't you never mind me, Reg. How about explaining why you called so early? It's only 11:45 a.m. You know I don't get up till noon except for emergencies. If this is one, you have a funny way of showing it."
I cackled quietly. Ironically, Master's insistence on finishing his dream had created an emergency that only Reg would've considered to be one.
"I apologize, old friend. I forgot about the time. Something has come up. It involves you, and I was too excited to wait."
"Hmm. I can forgive you for that." He twisted his mouth and thought for a moment. "Maybe I can. It depends. Would you move this story along a little faster, please. I'm about to fall asleep again."
I released another cackle. One that was longer and louder than before.
As long as I'd known Master, he had justly been accused of long-windedness. Yet here he was accusing Reg of taking too long to explain. Sometimes the man was too funny not to laugh at.
"Let me talk faster, then. Several of my Sunnydale connections tell me your fellow citizens miss having a newspaper. They would be extremely grateful to have a new one, even just a good-sized weekly edition."
Master smiled. "And one without Al Duncan at the helm?"
"Absolutely! I doubt that man will ever return to Sunnydale. Surely he couldn't tolerate the thought of being hated by everyone."
Master nodded. As if his friend could see him. "His permanent absence won't hurt Mitzi Duncan's feelings at all. She's been dreading what he might do if he returns. They say he went berserk after she divorced him."
I pictured Reg nodding. "Understandable. But he's out of the picture and I can't start putting out a weekly newspaper without your help." He smirked. "Not that it will require any effort on your part."
He had my curiosity up. I looked at Master's face. He'd narrowed his eyes in a most unusual way. No two ways about it. He was curious, too.
"Huh? What do—?"
"Let me verify something. You don't use the equipment in the newspaper building to do anything but print numerous copies of your little quarterly magazine?"
Master chuckled. "You know that's true. You signed up as the first subscriber."
"So your facilities are basically unused except for—what?—a couple of weeks each quarter?"
Mmm. I knew where Reg was going with that. But had Master caught on yet?
"Uh-huh." His reply had contained small hints of both suspicion and curiosity.
"Not only that. We don't use the old newspaper machines at all. Rufus makes sure they're still in good working order, though. Are you thinking—?"
"So you wouldn't mind my paying you to let my staff use your facilities to put out a weekly newspaper?"
Master wrinkled his brow. He wasn't quite frowning, but he was nowhere close to smiling, either. "You already have staff?"
I knew what he was thinking. "You were that sure I would agree?"
"I have several people in mind, but I can't hire anyone until you say yes."
Reg, you didn't answer Master's question.
"Until I say yes? Don't you think you're a little bit too sure of yourself?"
Reg didn't respond at first, but his tone was more cautious—more contrite—when he did. "Claude, I apologize with all of my heart. You and I have worked together so well over the last four or five years that I feel like I understand you better than practically anyone else."
But not as well as Angel and me, Reg.
If I could've stuck my tongue out, I would have. Sometimes I grew frustrated with God for making the human body so much more flexible than chicken bodies for expressing emotions.
Reg had apparently kept talking while I was lost in thought. "...couldn't imagine you would object. I thought you'd probably be just as excited about this as I am. Maybe even more so since you live in Sunnydale and I don't. If I've jumped the gun—it appears that I have—once again I beg your forgiveness."
Master looked at me and whispered, "What do you think, Lolita?"
I looked into his eyes. He was dying to tell Reg yes. So I gave him a quiet single-cluck yes and he smiled and patted me on the head.
"Reg, Lolita agrees. You're forgiven. Go for it!"
Rufus was just as agreeable about being Reg's printer as he'd been about being Master's. The two men worked together well and Rufus managed to convince Reg that replacing the old-style printer with a new laser printer would be advantageous.
I did a happy dance when he explained that it would be "faster and much quieter." The old printer had been louder than a truckload of chickens on their way to be slaughtered and processed into something human beings had the audacity to eat.
Reg appeared to be pleased with the two young women he'd hired. He anticipated needing someone to handle the business end of things eventually, but not quite yet.
Master visited the newspaper building from time to time, and he always took me with him. As much as I enjoyed those visits, however, the process of getting there was hair-raising.
I hate to say this about Master, but his driving had gone from bad to an-accident-just-waiting-to-happen worse.
During our visits, Master allowed me to wander wherever I pleased. I wasn't the least interested in the machinery, but those hundreds of cubic feet of years-old newspapers fascinated me.
Since they didn't mean anything to Reg, he didn't pay any attention to what I was doing when I managed to free one and start looking through it. I don't know what he thought I was doing, but I doubt he had the slightest notion that I was reading.
Even if he'd suspected what I was doing, neither of us would've had any notion how important that fact would be to the rest of this book.