I’ll keep this short, because you have a lot of reading ahead of you today! We’re excited to offer you a chance to win the new novel, The Chain, by Robin Lamont — which, you may recall, we reviewed on Episode 205. (More on that in a moment.) But, beyond that, Robin has generously offered to post the book, in its entirety, just for you, our darling flock — beginning today with Chapters One, Two, and Three. We’ll post it once a month, in roughly 8-10 installments. You might be wondering what the book is about, and why we are so sure you are going to want to read it. Well, hold onto your hats:
Jude Brannock, a seasoned and passionate animal rights investigator, is drawn into the lives of a damaged family in a small town that depends on a meat packing plant for its survival.
Yowsa! This is the novel you’ve been waiting to read, and you didn’t even know it! Don’t you love when you come across fictional characters who share your values and worldview? Makes reading even that much more enjoyable. #PRIVATE#
Once you get hooked on this book, you’re probably going to want to buy copies for friends and family. Or, if you’re feeling lucky you could enter to win a hardcopy of this book right here. To do so, simply comment below and tell us either one thing you enjoyed about the first three chapters, or one reason you’re excited (assuming you are?) about reading a book with an animal rights activist at the center of it. You have one week to enter — so you have until midnight on Wednesday, Feb. 5. We’ll randomly select a winner on Feb. 6 and let the lucky person know. (We’ll email you for your address.) Even though you can only enter one time, you may also enter the general contest available to everyone (including non-flock) — but there are different rules there, so be sure to familiarize yourself with them.
Special thanks to Robin Lamont for sharing this book with us. Enjoy!
Frank Marino tightened his hands around the old laptop computer, wondering if his arthritic fingers had the will to part with it. The plastic casing was battered and scratched, but the hard drive held something invaluable. It held the truth – hours of secret recordings for which he’d risked everything. In a few minutes it would be lost forever.
Someone must have seen him and gone straight to Warshauer, who hadn’t made a straight out threat. He only said, “You have to think about Verna and Sophie.” Funny thing was when Frank first strapped on the hidden camera he was thinking about them. They deserved a better husband and father – a man who had principles. He’d tried to go through channels. After years of management giving him the brush-off, he’d written letters to the USDA, to OSHA, and the State Attorney General’s office … no response. Nothing. Not even acknowledge receipt of your letter. Screw them. He went on the internet and bought the spy camera. Just maybe he could do something that would reduce the suffering of the animals and the workers. Just maybe he could get his dignity back.
At least that’s what he was thinking until they found out.
He squinted through his car windshield into the darkness, expecting headlights at any moment. Bring everything, wait here, they said. Some computer geek from corporate wanted to see the footage. Probably delete it right then and there. Frank ran his tongue over his dry lips, dying for a drink. Then he closed his eyes while failure washed over him and worked its way into his bones.
A knock on the window startled him. A man motioned for Frank to unlock the passenger door, then slid in. He wore shiny leather gloves and carried an attaché case. Dark blond hair, clean shaven and well-dressed down to his Gucci loafers, he looked too sharp to be a tech nerd, Frank thought. Guys like this always made him feel stubby and dark-skinned, the way he remembered his Italian grandfather.
“You’re making the right decision, Frank,” the man said in an oddly collegial fashion. “You bring it?”
“Okay, let me see.”
Frank unclenched his fingers and handed over the laptop. “What’s your name?” he asked as the man powered it up.
“Bloom,” was all he said. Bloom – first name, last name? Just before getting started, Bloom reached into an inside pocket of his jacket, took out a silver flask and drew a gentlemanly pull. As he re-corked it, Frank’s eyes locked onto the flask then flickered to the glove compartment.
Bloom noticed and said, “You don’t need an invitation from me.”
And because Frank wanted the alcohol more than he resented the stranger’s ability to see through him, he reached over and retrieved the pint of Jim Beam he kept for emergencies – that’s what he called it anyway. His wife took a dim view of the habit, accusing him of having emergencies every day based on the number of empty bottles she found in the trash. He was trying to cut back … but now was not the time. A little hair of the dog would settle his nerves. Frank unscrewed the cap, breaking the seal, and took a long drink. He felt the reassuring burn and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“This it?” asked Bloom, as the first shaky images came up on the computer screen.
“Yeah.” Frank looked away to avoid seeing the file deleted and with it a part of his soul, both about to be dispatched to an indifferent, black universe from which they could not be retrieved.
“Camera?” asked Bloom curtly.
Frank fumbled in his jacket pocket and removed the miniature video recorder. He gave it over to Bloom, who packed it in his attaché case crisply, matter-of-factly, like an exec wrapping up a business meeting.
“Okay, how about copies?” Bloom asked. “Surely you made a copy.”
“Nope.” Frank took another slug from the bottle.
“No?” Bloom pressed amiably.
“I said no, goddammit.”
“Okay, then. Any questions?”
“Damn straight,” said Frank. “No one goes near my wife and daughter, right?”
“Of course not. Not if you’re giving me everything.”
Frank screwed up as much bravado as he could. “If anything happens to either of them, I’ll kill you,” he said flatly.
Bloom glanced at him with a mixture of curiosity and pity, and Frank curled his fist into a ball. But suddenly feeling weak, he covered his anger the only way he knew – by taking another drink.
“How did they find out I was taping?” he asked.
“Someone saw you with the camera inside,” replied Bloom coolly. “We were curious what you planned to do with it, so we got your cell phone from your locker and put in a piece of spyware.”
Frank shook his head in disbelief. “Shit. So you know about the girl? You listened to all our conversations?”
A chill went down the back of Frank’s neck. “I’m supposed to meet with her tomorrow.” It must have been the bourbon on an empty stomach, but an overwhelming sleepiness was trying to lock down his brain. He shook the fog from his head and tried to reassure the man. “Look, I’m not going to risk … I’ll make something up, tell her I changed my mind … I won’t say a word.” The sound of his own voice seemed to be coming from far away.
“Of course not,” Bloom replied. “Listen Frank, I’ve got a question for you. How did you get the conversation on tape?”
“What?” It was so close in the car, Frank struggled for air. He tried to take a deep breath, but his chest felt constrained by a slowly tightening band.
“I said how did you get Bannerman and your boss Warshauer on tape?”
“Crawl space. Sent me down there. Rats. Too many rats, gotta put … poison … in the ducts.”
Bloom nodded in understanding. Sure, there must be air ducts running through the offices that ended in the crawl space below the building. A ten or twelve inch duct would probably magnify the sound of people speaking in the office upstairs – and there was Frank recorder-ready. Incredible. A perfect shit-storm.
Frank wanted to impress on Bloom that neither his wife nor daughter knew anything about it. But something had gone terribly wrong and he couldn’t think of the words. So tired. The bottle slipped out of his hand and fell between his legs, spilling out the last two inches of whiskey on the floor mat. He gripped the steering wheel and managed to fire off a final salvo. “You people are … scumbags. All of you, Warshauer, Bann’man, and fuckin’ Seldon Marsh…”
“That’s not my area,” said Bloom, watching him carefully.
“Whuss your area?”
Frank’s heart slowed to a death march beat, his skin was cold and clammy, he could barely breathe. Unable to fight anymore, he rested his forehead on the steering wheel and let himself be pulled into the black.
“This,” said Bloom. He waited a few more moments until he knew that Frank wasn’t coming back. “This is my area.”
And then he got to work.
Alice Chapel blew a lock of hair from her face while she flipped the bacon with one hand and reached for a stack of plates with the other. The sun was just beginning to lift itself above the tree line behind the house. Streaks of light filtered in through the cramped window of the small, wood-paneled kitchen and fell on the smiling snapshots affixed to the refrigerator with magnets. Frantic cartoon voices blared from the TV in the next room, and as she laid down the plates and plastic glasses, she called out to Will again.
Her youngest finally turned off the TV and bounced into the kitchen with his six-year-old curiosity in full gear.
“Am I going on a school trip today?” he asked, pulling out a chair from the table and perching precariously on the edge.
“No, honey, that’s next week,” said his mom.
“Why can’t it be today?”
“Because they didn’t schedule it for today, they scheduled it for next week.” She spooned some scrambled eggs onto his plate and poured him a glass of orange juice.
Will thought about it for a moment, then said with finality, “It should be today.”
His father, who had overheard, came into the kitchen and went right for the coffee. “You can bring that up with the superintendant when you get to school,” he advised his son.
“What’s a super attendant?” asked Will.
“A school official with a cape,” said Emmet, taking his seat.
“Is that so he can fly?”
“Yeah – fly the school budget under the town’s radar.”
Alice put a plate of eggs and bacon in front of her husband. “Let him eat his breakfast, Emmet,” she scolded. “Eat your eggs, Will, they’re getting cold.” She went into the hallway and called to Caroline to hustle up.
Back in the kitchen, neither of her boys had touched their breakfast. “Eat, eat,” she pressed Will. Then she looked at Emmet.
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“No surprise,” replied Alice, her lips pressed tight with disapproval.
He tilted back in his chair, working on his coffee and staring out the window.
“These are too runny,” complained Will, lifting a spoonful of wet egg and letting it plop back onto his plate.
“Fine,” said Alice tersely. She snatched both breakfasts away from the table and set them on the counter. “Eggs are nearly two dollars a dozen, so the both of you can eat this tonight. Will, go and get your shoes and don’t forget your backpack.”
When he trudged off, she sat down across from her husband. Alice had fallen in love with Emmet Chapel at age sixteen, and he was all she ever wanted. Now, she saw him red-eyed and hung over – a frequent condition that threatened to uproot the firm soil that held the family together. It made her furious at the same time it was breaking her heart.
Caroline came in and made a beeline for the coffee maker. As usual, their sixteen-year-old daughter was dressed inappropriately for school – no coat, not even long sleeves on this cold October morning, her black skirt too short, her gray top too tight. She was inches taller than Alice and had her father’s striking features, though she seemed to be doing everything possible to negate them. She wore thick stripes of black eyeliner and had chopped off her long brown hair, refusing to go to a salon so they could trim the shaggy edges. Infuriating her parents further, she had pierced her nose to complement her multiple ear piercings. At home, disdain was her trademark and she clutched it to her chest the way she carried her school books.
After pouring herself a cup of coffee, Caroline leaned against the counter, daring her mother to suggest food. Alice was too smart for that and didn’t even try. But Emmet’s buttons were more easily pushed.
“You’re not going out in that, I hope,” he said.
Pretending she hadn’t heard, Caroline blew on her coffee.
“You have gym clothes at school?” he demanded. “Because you’re not doing track in that ridiculous outfit.”
“I’m not on track anymore,” she stated.
“I said I’m not doing track. I quit.”
Emmet’s jaw muscles rippled with anger. “Why the hell did you do that?”
“Because there’s no point,” she shot back.
Emmet growled, “Don’t start that again.”
Alice tried to head off another fight. “They have to get to school,” she said weakly.
But her daughter was ready for a clash. “And don’t you tell me what I can or can’t believe,” she burst out. “A lot of predictions have come true. And it’s not so far fetched when you consider global warming–”
“It’s ridiculous, Caroline,” he spat angrily. “This is some kind of sick, romantic fantasy you have – and I’m tired of it.”
The teen had fire in her eyes. She thrust her face forward and clenched her fists. “Dad … you are so out of touch with the universe that you wouldn’t see the truth if it drove a truck.”
“Caroline, please, honey…” Alice was crying now.
“I’m sorry it makes you sad,” Caroline said, holding her ground. “For your information, it makes me sad, too. At least let me have these last months without fighting all the time.” She was close to tears herself.
Emmet slammed his coffee cup down in frustration. “This is all because of that boy – that long-haired, tattooed freak.”
“He is not a freak!”
“And he does drugs,” added Emmet bitterly.
“No, he doesn’t. He smokes a little weed. Big deal. Everybody at school does.”
“Oh, great!” Emmet stood up, scraping his chair against the linoleum floor with a piercing screech. “I’m going to work,” he said and stormed out.
Alice called after him, “I thought Frank was picking you up.” But the door had already slammed behind him.
Outside there was a thin layer of frost blanketing his car. Emmet slid into the driver’s seat and turned on the ignition, hoping the junk heap would start one more time. Screw Frank if he couldn’t show up on time. His head pounded as he grasped the ice cold wheel and his eyes moved to his hands. There was still a thin line of darkened blood under a couple of fingernails. Jesus, would it never come out? Then he caught a glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror and zeroed in on the pronounced scar that ran from under his left eye, across his temple, and into his hairline. Its pale sheen of new skin drew attention to his electric blue eyes, the ones Caroline had inherited. Emmet Chapel used to be handsome. But it wasn’t the injury that marred his good looks. It was what happened when you turned into a man you never wanted to be – never imagined yourself to be. The booze dulled that knowledge. But this thing with Caroline kept bringing it back to life, kicking and screaming.
The pastor’s voice rolled sonorously over the mourners, but all Emmet could hear was the creak of the ropes as they rubbed against the wood. He and Howard Bisbee held tight the supporting lashes at one end of the casket and two of Verna’s cousins held the others, suspending it over the yawning, cold-blooded cavity. When the pastor’s voice rose to deliver the last line of the psalm, Bisbee locked eyes with Emmet, who nodded, and they began to deliver Frank Marino’s body into the earth. The others followed suit, hand over hand, lowering the coffin as gently as they could until it bumped on the bottom. And in those moments, the last conversation he had with Frank at the bar replayed in Emmet’s head.
…. He and a couple of the guys were at their regular table knocking off a pitcher of beer when he spotted Frank walk in and take the only empty stool at the bar. The place was always crowded on a Friday night; just about everybody congregated at the Lazy Cat after their shifts at D&M Processing. No one could remember what the D stood for, but the M was for Marshfield. As for the “processing” – that was an industry euphemism for slaughterhouse. Emmet held up his hand and waited to see if Frank would signal, a wave or eye contact, but nothing. As soon as the stool next to him opened up, Emmet swallowed his irritation and made the first move.
“Hey,” said Emmet, sidling onto the vacated bar stool.
Frank’s shoulders were hunched, making his stocky frame look even more rounded, and he stared straight ahead with a glower on his face that normally spelled trouble.
Emmet caught the bartender’s eye, pointed to Frank’s drink and held up a finger.
The gesture seemed to do the trick because Frank finally turned to Emmet. “How’s Caroline doing?” he asked.
“Still fixated on premonitions and whatever. If she was younger I’d put her over my knee and spank the bejesus out of her.”
“Better hope so. This shrink wants to put her on some kind of anti-depressant and insurance don’t cover it on account of it’s psychological. Costing me a fortune. You want to come sit at the table with us?”
“I’m not staying,” said Frank. “I got an appointment.”
“Appointment? Who with?”
Frank sized up his friend for a moment before shrugging. “Some day I’ll tell you about it.” Then he stared above the bar to a TV screen where the Panthers were playing. “Be nice if they could put together a season over five hundred.”
Emmet knew he was trying to keep the conversation non-confrontational – anything to avoid addressing Emmet’s promotion. “Ah, come on, Frank. Why can’t you be happy for me?” he asked, unwilling to let it go. “I’ve been in line for this job for over a year. If they’d have offered it to you, you would’ve taken it.”
“In the next life,” scoffed his friend.
“It’s my chance to get out.”
“To get out?” Frank turned to him with his face set. “This doesn’t get you out. It digs you in deeper. You have no freakin’ idea who you’re dealing with. Besides, you’re not yellow hat material.”
“The fuck I’m not.”
“You’re not, and I’ll tell you why. Because you’re not a leader, Emmet, you’re a follower. You go with the path of least resistance. You always have.”
“That’s bullshit. And anyway, it’s better than whining about every damn thing that happens at D&M,” Emmet replied hotly. “If your wife wasn’t friends with Patty Warshauer, you’d a’gotten fired a dozen times over. You’re trying to buck the system, which changes nothing. And you don’t have the balls to quit. Keep filing complaints with the USDA and you’ll be cleaning worm-infested pig intestines for the rest of your goddamn life.”
Frank’s answering smile was filled with such self-reproach that for a moment, Emmet wished he could take his words back. But then Frank twisted the knife a little deeper. “Maybe so. But I’ll say it again, you’re not yellow hat material. As floor supervisor, you’re gonna have to suck up to Warshauer and LaBrie and the rest of the USDA shits protecting their own asses. You’re gonna have to write up your friends and keep the line moving so corporate can squeeze us for the extra buck. And frankly, you won’t be able to cut it.”
“Yeah? Why not?”
“’Cause in your heart you know it ain’t right.”
Emmet slammed down his beer and got up. “Screw you,” were his parting words.
“I’ve been screwed my whole life,” responded Frank. “Why should tonight be any different?” He drained the last of his drink and counted out a few bills on the bar before slipping off the stool and disappearing.
…. Emmet’s thoughts returned to the present and all at once, he felt sick from the cloying scent of condolence flowers mounded on top of the coffin. He stepped back to take hold of Verna’s hand, but Frank’s wife stared past him at the rectangular hole in the earth, her grief hardening in a place he could not touch. Alice huddled near the girls who had their teenage arms locked around one another. Emmet looked around for his son, but Will had long since been commandeered by the antics of an older boy.
Emmet whispered harshly for Will to rejoin the family and took a knee to lecture him about proper behavior at a funeral. Going through the motions of fatherly discipline was his only distraction from the guilt. Frank had been his closest friend, and he’d carry their last bitter words forever.
Alice came over, fatigue and anxiety etched on her face. “Don’t be hard on him, Emmet. It was a long service.” She took Will by the hand. “Come on, honey. We’re going to the house now.”
“Our house?” he asked.
“No, Uncle Frank’s house. Emmet, we’re going with Verna and the girls.”
“I’ll be along in a minute.”
He went back to the open grave and stood next to Howard Bisbee, who had his head bowed. Bisbee was a big man, awkward in his ill-fitting suit, and was one of the only black quality assurance technicians at D&M.
“Last week he had to put out rat poison underneath the building,” said Bisbee, without lifting his head. “I made a joke about it and he called me a prick.”
“He called everyone a prick – at some point,” said Emmet.
“I can’t tell you why, exactly, but it kinda hurt my feelings.”
“He didn’t think you were a prick, Howard. He liked you.”
“He could be a real difficult sonofabitch, but I liked him, too.” Bisbee turned to go.
Emmet waited until everyone else had gone and stood by the freshly turned earth. It was the least he could do. At one point he looked up into the cloud-streaked sky and caught sight of a girl … a woman on top of a small hill in the cemetery, sitting with her arms clasped around her knees on the cold ground. He had seen her mid-way through the service and hadn’t paid much mind, assuming she was a visitor to one of the graves on the hill. But she was still there, looking down at Frank’s casket. Her long hair, more amber than red, blended with the early fall colors of the trees.
Feeling as though he had to outlast her, Emmet closed his eyes and said the Lord’s Prayer quietly, as much for himself as for his friend. When he looked up again, she was gone.
* * *
Leave the man in peace, thought Jude. She dusted off her backside and headed down the far side of the slope with his image etched in her mind. A lonely figure standing by the gravesite, he must be a relative or close friend. He seemed protective of Frank’s wife, who was fairly easy to pick out – a stoic, sturdy woman in a black veil.
The girls had drawn her attention as well. Jude guessed that one of them, the heavier of the two, was Frank’s daughter, looking like her mother as she did. The other girl was slim and long-legged and she offered comfort with a best friend’s tender hugs rather than the fierce, grief-stricken clasp of a sibling. It was clear to Jude that their friendship went beyond liking the same music and the same celebrities. They needed each other.
Jude had parked her old but trusty Subaru station wagon near the cemetery’s entrance. As she opened the car door, she saw Finn draped across the front seats. He raised his head and thumped his tail in guilty admission. “Back,” she commanded, jerking her thumb in the direction of the cargo area. With practiced surrender, her dog managed to squeeze his large frame between the seats and move into the back. “How many times do I have to tell you, no front seat until you’ve passed your driving test,” Jude scolded softly as she scratched him behind the ears. Finn leaned his head contentedly into her hand.
She pulled out onto the main street that ran through BraggFalls. It was a rural, working town with a few local farms scratching at the edges. Until the 1950’s it survived as a wholesale supplier of Christmas trees, and when the abundant land was turned into a state park, the town would’ve gone under if Marshfield hadn’t brought in the meat packing plant. Most of the recreational action centered around the shopping mall over on Route 192, where there was a Walmart, a movie theater and a bowling alley. But here on Main Street, there were just local businesses and a handful of empty store fronts that had “for rent” signs in the windows. Jude drove slowly through the town center, looking from side to side as she passed the Post Office, a liquor store, and a red brick hardware store that sold feed and agricultural products. Next to it was the diner where she was to have met Frank Marino. Her last communication with him had been on Thursday night; she had planned to spend a couple of days here, taking his statement and going over the footage, maybe talking to other workers … but now? The immediate future wasn’t clear, though she knew one thing – she couldn’t go back empty handed, not again.
A quarter of a mile further, over the railroad tracks, she spotted the Bragg Falls Motor Inn and navigated into the gravel parking lot. The motel was a row of low-roofed connected rooms, referred to on the neon sign as “guest suites.” Each had an identical blue door and differed only by its proximity to the soda machine planted midway down the row. Jude found the office in the owner’s house at the end of the row. Beyond a makeshift counter in the entryway was a living room where the owner sat on a sofa watching television. Catching sight of the new customer, the woman hoisted her two-hundred-pound frame and shambled to the counter. The trip cost her some labored breathing, but she welcomed her guest with a big smile.
“How can I help ya, honey?” she asked, taking stock of the tall, slender woman in front of her. Jude had pale, almost translucent skin and dark hazel eyes. Her face was heart-shaped with high cheekbones and an angular chin. Some might have said she had a Jane Eyre-like plainness, but if the light caught her in a certain way, the same people would have said she was quite beautiful.
“Do you take dogs?” inquired Jude.
The manager’s smile dimmed, but briefly; she only had two guests at present, so she slid a sign-in sheet over toward Jude. “I guess it’s okay.”
Jude began to fill in the register. Name – Jude Brannock. Address – 110 Sanctuary Road, WashingtonDC. It wasn’t her home address – she never gave that – but the offices of The Kinship, a non-profit that conducted investigations into animal cruelty. Sanctuary Road was named for a Jesuit parish long since gone, but Jude always thought it was right that the organization should land there.
The manager handed her a key. “What brings you to the Falls, honey?” she asked.
“A little work,” said Jude.
“How long you gon’ be with us?”
“Probably just the night.”
“Well, enjoy your stay now.”
Jude took Finn around back to stretch his legs and relieve himself. She hoped the owner wasn’t looking out her back window or she might have regretted her decision. He was a large dog, weighing in at about ninety-five pounds, all muscle and brown and black fur, a mixed breed of strong, steady dogs. His size could be intimidating, but only, Jude thought, to those who overlooked the doleful, patient look in his eyes. Of course, if he felt threatened, that look quickly changed.
Jude unloaded the wagon and let Finn explore the room. She knew it was more than curiosity; he needed to know where the exits were before he could settle down. To Jude, motel rooms all looked the same, this one furnished with a bed, a side table, desk, and an open kitchenette with a mini refrigerator. From the smell of the place, the no smoking policy was not strictly enforced, but it wasn’t the worst she had stayed in. She put out a bowl of water for Finn and settled in cross-legged on the bed to phone in.
CJ picked up. “What’s happening, girl?”
“I’m here in BraggFalls. Where’s Gordon?” she asked, referring to their boss, Gordon Silverman.
“He’s at a conference in New York. You meet your contact?” CJ Malone manned the phones in the office and conducted almost all the intelligence gathering that couldn’t be done in the field. A childhood spine injury had put him in a wheelchair for life, but with his computer skills he had the world at his fingertips.
“CJ, he’s dead.”
“He’s dead.” Jude could hardly believe it herself. “I was supposed to meet him in town this morning, but he never showed. I found his address in the phone book, and when I got there, there was a whole caravan of cars heading out. A neighbor told me that they were going to his funeral.”
“Holy shit. What happened?”
“The neighbor said it was a drug overdose. I don’t know any details yet.” She pushed a stray wisp of hair behind her ear and tried to massage the anxious crease that had settled on her brow. “CJ, this is a real blow for us. Frank Marino had nearly three hours of video footage, date-stamped over a six-week period. He had workers constantly using electric prods, beating the hogs – a ton of Humane Slaughter Act violations.”
“Wow, we could use slaughterhouse footage.”
“Not only that, when I spoke with him last, he told me he had just gotten something on tape that could be extremely valuable to us. He didn’t go into detail; all he said was that he had recorded a conversation between the plant manager, a guy name Bob Warshauer, and Ned Bannerman.”
“Bannerman’s the regional VP. What were they saying?”
“He told me that it implicated Seldon Marshfield himself and that it was potential dynamite. I didn’t press him because I thought I’d talk to him when I got here. But now, Marino’s dead and I don’t have the tape. Even if I did, it doesn’t have the same value – there’s no one to authenticate it. We’ve been down this road. Marshfield will say it’s fabricated, it wasn’t taken at their facility, or you know the spiel …‘This is an isolated incident by workers who are not following our safe and humane procedures. We have zero tolerance’ … blah, blah, blah. I feel terrible about this. I got the feeling that Marino was a real fighter and he obviously risked everything to–”
“Hang on a second,” interrupted CJ. “I’ve got Gordon on the other line.”
Jude plucked at a frayed edge on the bed’s comforter, trying to digest the disappointment. Was this going to be yet another embarrassment? Her last investigation into a doping scheme by trainers and vets in the horse-racing business was a bust after her informant reneged. He’d provided pages of information about horses being shot up with steroids, more than a dozen of them succumbing to heart attacks. But at the last minute he wouldn’t sign off on any of it, claiming that Jude – the over-zealous animal activist – had arm-twisted him into saying things that weren’t true. Word around the animal welfare community was that someone had paid off the informant, but it was accompanied by an undercurrent of buzz that she hadn’t vetted the guy properly to begin with. For Jude, whose work meant everything to her, that hurt.
CJ got back on the line and told her to hang up, that Gordon would call her back. While she waited, she unpacked her duffel and set up her laptop, reading glasses and Marshfield files in a neat pile on the desk.
The phone rang. “Where is it?” was Gordon’s first question.
“I don’t know.”
“Did he tell anybody else about the video?”
“I asked him to keep it under wraps until I got here, and when I spoke with him Thursday he was still employed, so management couldn’t have known about it.”
“How are you doing?” asked Gordon. He was all business when it came to animal protection, but thought of his staff as family. Gordon had been her lifeline to a stable adulthood – although she wondered sometimes how stable anything was in this type of work. Until she met him, she’d been floundering. No surprise given her scattered childhood, bounced from one foster home to another. Some of them were bad, and by the time she was in middle school Jude was adept at running away, believing she was safer on her own even if it meant living on the street.
The night that would draw her to Gordon and his work uncovering and exposing animal abuse was burned into her psyche. She was fourteen and occasionally hung out at a truck stop off the Turnpike. When things were slow, a late-shift waitress named Eve used to give Jude leftovers and let her sleep for a few hours in her car. This night, Jude was curled up under Eve’s winter coat when she was awakened by strange noises. Slowly surfacing into consciousness, she tried to figure out what the sounds were … grunting, shuffling, an occasional high-pitched squeal. She’d never heard anything like it before. She sat up and rubbed the condensation from the car window to peer outside. But there was nothing to see, just another big truck that had pulled up about ten feet away. The sounds were coming from inside.
She got out of the car and made her way tentatively to the eighteen-wheeler. There was a man in the cab with his head tilted back and his mouth open, snoring. Jude walked silently past him to the rear load, where steel walls punctuated with open vents rose up above her and the grunts and cries became more distinct. Smells, too, manure and urine. She reached up and put her fingers in one of the lower vents and pulled herself up on tiptoes. Putting her face close to the opening, she peeked in. A pair of dark, frantic eyes met hers and she fell back in alarm. What the hell was that? When she’d caught her breath, Jude reached up again to get a better look. Under the misty light cast by the street lamps, she could see them. Pigs! Hundreds of them – or at least that’s what it looked like – crammed in so tight they could barely move, bumping against one other, trying to gain breathing room, some of them squealing in pain as they were stepped on or shoved against the side of the truck. It looked like something in a horror movie. What were so many pigs doing in there? She stared and stared, finally understanding that this was the last horrible night of these poor creatures lives. Shaken, she lowered herself and padded back to Eve’s car. Sleep never came again, not with the sounds of the distressed pigs continuing until the first light of dawn. Jude was still keeping vigil when the truck roared to life and headed off to a place she could not have ever imagined.
Over the next several years, she struggled to find a place for herself, to make sense of a world that treated animals so badly. She handed out leaflets and joined some protests, but never seemed to find a home until she met Gordon. Ten years her senior and an idealistic, yet strong-willed organizer, he had just started The Kinship and was looking for investigators. He became mentor, friend, lover for a time, and the only person she trusted completely.
From the edge of the bed in the hotel room, she told him, “Thanks, Gordon, I’m all right. But I’d like to understand what happened, and I’d sure like to find that video.”
After a long silence he said, “So would I.”