Author Robin Lamont joined us on our podcast last month where she read an excerpt from her novel, The Chain. Excitingly, we just found out that The Chain is a finalist in the Foreword Reviews Book of the Year 2013. We’re big fans of this animal rights themed novel, and are not at all surprised by this major recognition. Even still, as Robin put it on her Facebook page, it is “gratifying to see the mainstream acknowledging animal rights!”
You darling flock members have been lucky enough to read The Chain in installments, and today we’re rolling out three more chapters for your reading pleasure. Be sure to catch: #PRIVATE#
And now, thanks to Robin’s generosity, read on for Chapters 10-13!
The Chain (Cont.)
Across town, Emmet stepped onto the kill floor, absorbing the one-two punch of stench and noise. The foul odor of offal, stomach contents and human sweat was smothering and the noise like claws that dug into his skull. Hooks clanked on the chain, pigs grunted and squealed, workers shouted, all of it competing with the strident whine of the overhead ventilation fans. The sounds rang in his ears long after the line shut down for the day, until the fourth or fifth beer finally quieted them so that he could watch TV. He adjusted his orange ear plugs and noted the time on his clipboard.
Tim Vernon was manning the stun station. A lot could go wrong at D&M, but more often than not, this is where it started. The hogs were driven from the chute into V-shaped restraining panels that squeezed the pigs to hold them steady. The restrainer then carried them forward until they got to Vernon, who grasped a large electrically charged device with two contacts for either side of the pig’s head and a third angled to connect with its back. Emmet watched as Vernon forced the tongs down onto a sow, delivering the two hundred and fifty volts meant to send her into instant cardiac arrest. With a shudder, the sow slumped, and the restrainer deposited the animal with a wet thud onto the shackle table, where another man pulled a linked chain down from the overhead pulley system and wrapped it around one of the sow’s hind feet. As the pulley chugged along, it lifted the shackled hog into a vertical position, swinging head down, ready for the sticker. The men worked with a fierce concentration; no movement could be wasted – not with a live animal coming through every seven seconds.
Next to Vernon stood a recent hire watching how the stunning was done. It was evident that this was his first time because his eyes were wide with apprehension. Whether it was due to the brutal felling of the animals in such rapid succession or the mercilessness with which Vernon did it was unclear. Emmet tapped him on the shoulder and drew him aside.
“Did you get the written instructions?” he shouted.
Emmet used hand gestures to indicate a book and shouted, “Instrucciones?”
“Si, si,” said the man and reached into his back pocket. He pulled out a crumpled piece of paper printed with a few lines of Spanish and a diagram of where to place the tongs against the pig’s head and back.
“That’s all they gave you?” asked Emmet. Before he could get a reply, his attention was drawn to a nearby commotion. The man at the shackling table was screaming at Vernon, and Emmet shouldered his way forward to find out what the problem was.
“Just do your fucking job!” yelled the shackler, who was struggling to get a particularly large sow up on the chain. Only momentarily stunned, she had regained consciousness and was scrambling to get to her feet, hooves scraping and slipping on the metal table. “Get the fuck over here and hit it again!” he screamed at Vernon.
Vernon shot him the finger and put the tongs on the next one coming through. But the first jolt didn’t have much effect other than to drive the sow wild; it let loose an ear-piercing squeal and bucked against the restrainer, making it almost impossible for Vernon to place the tongs for a second shot. “Fuck your mother!” he shouted at the sow as he tried to make contact anywhere he could. He fired and this time the hog dropped.
“What’s going on?” Emmet bellowed.
“I don’t have enough juice,” Vernon yelled back, getting ready for another. “Not for these big suckers.”
Damn. The USDA vet had said he’d be coming by in thirty minutes and Warshauer had probably turned the voltage down, forgetting that they had a load of sows coming in today. If the voltage was set too high, it often resulted in burst capillaries along the pig’s back. Called blood-splash, they left dark patches on the meat, reducing its value. But when the hogs weren’t properly stunned they became conscious again within seconds and the shacklers down the line had a fight on their hands to get them hung. For the most part, the hogs that came in were all the same size, bred to be identical and sent to slaughter at the same age. But the spent breeding sows were much larger, and wrestling with a terrified four or five-hundred pound hog was a dangerous job.
Emmet let the men at the shackling table handle the situation for the moment and trotted down the line, waving his arm in a big circle – a signal to keep getting the hogs up no matter what.
The shackler yelled at him as he went by. “Stop the fuckin’ chain, will ya!”
“No can do,” Emmet tossed back. He moved on quickly, knowing he’d be in this bind for years to come. Hanging a conscious, struggling hog was not only a violation, but could get someone hurt. As the man in charge, he was the only one with the authority to hit the red button. But he’d known supervisors who had gotten fired on the spot for doing that. You did not stop the chain for a couple of live hogs – not if you wanted to make it to your next pay day.
Frank’s voice rang in his ears. Get out? This doesn’t get you out. It digs you in deeper. Goddamn Frank. Always making the problems on the floor worse by fighting about it with management. They’d first met at a mandatory meeting for new workers a few years back. The USDA vet Lawrence Cimino was instructing them that kicking and gasping in a stunned hog did not mean that it was conscious – it was a reflexive movement only. Frank raised his hand. “What does it mean when a hog jumps off the table and runs across the floor?” he asked as he picked a piece of white fat off his shirt and flicked it across the room. Cimino looked over his glasses first at the spot where the fat landed and then at Frank. He said with a frosty smile. “It means someone hasn’t done his job.” Frank looked over at Emmet and the silent exchange between them marked a new friendship.
Thoughts of Frank only brought back his last words to Emmet. You’re not yellow hat material … keep the line moving so corporate can squeeze us for the extra buck. He thrust the memory aside and strode quickly down the line, careful not to slip on the blood-soaked floor. As he closed in on the sticker – the man next in line who cut the hog’s carotid and jugular veins to bleed it out – he whistled through his teeth, three high-pitched, short whistles to warn him that a conscious hog might be coming his way.
“Sonofabitch,” cried the sticker, wiping the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his blood stained uniform. Then he gripped his knife tight in his hand and balanced on the balls of his feet in case he had to dodge flailing legs and biting teeth in his one chance to make a good stick. Emmet paused, waiting to see what was coming down the line, but Vernon must have hit the next ones right because they were all hanging the way they should – a few of them still making reflexive paddling motions, but none bucking or squealing. He cast a quick glance at the scalding tank further on down, where the bled pigs were submerged for hair removal. For now, things seemed to be running smoothly, but he wanted to keep it that way.
Emmet threw open a steel door to an area where the ever-whirring knife sharpeners were kept along with the hoses and cleaning equipment. The control box was just inside the door, set into the wall. He reached up to open the front panel only to find a shiny new padlock affixed to the latch.
Suddenly he felt a presence behind him. Thinking it was Pat LaBrie, he turned to tell him off. But it was the plant manager.
“What are you doing?” demanded Warshauer.
Emmet took him head on. “I’m turning it up. We have a shipment of big sows coming through and Vernon doesn’t have enough juice.”
Warshauer shook his head. “Screw him. He came in here yesterday and tried to jack it up himself. He’s a whack job. Pat LaBrie counted seven hogs with blood-splash.”
“Seven out of five thousand?” challenged Emmet. “So what? It doesn’t ruin the whole hog.”
“Nope. That’s meat I cannot sell.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, a couple of pounds?”
“Listen, you better start thinking about it in terms of ounces,” replied Warshauer irritably.
“Tell that to Cimino,” replied Emmet. “He’s making his grand entrance, coming down to have a look in about fifteen minutes.”
Warshauer practically jumped. “Shit!” He fumbled for his keys, opened the lock on the control box, and re-set the voltage. Then he turned back to Emmet and said, “Clean up and come to the office.”
After stripping off his coveralls and chlorinating his boots so as not to bring pathogens into the “cold” side of the building where the eviscerated hogs were cut into sellable pieces, Emmet trotted up the metal steps to the catwalk that ran outside the offices overlooking the cut floor. Warshauer was there, patrolling the walkway, making sure that all workers were in place and doing their jobs. From his elevated position he could ascertain from the color of the helmets where the key personnel were positioned, including the red hats of the USDA inspectors.
Warshauer saw him coming. “Why is Cimino going on the floor?” he demanded. “Who complained?” Before Emmet could respond, he leaned over the railing, having spotted a couple of women below on the floor removing their aprons. “Yo, ladies, where are you going?” he called down.
One of the women, whose dark hair was piled thickly into a hairnet, called back in accented English, “We on break.”
“No break,” corrected Warshauer sternly, pointing to the clock on the wall. “Not for three more minutes.”
The two women silently donned their aprons again and went back to work. They looked heavyset, but so did everyone on this side. The cut floor was kept at forty-two degrees and layer upon layer of clothing was the only defense against the long, chilled hours. Warshauer watched them for a few more seconds, then turned, motioning for Emmet to follow.
The office was warm and a respite from the constant clattering of metal pans on the tables below. “How’s Verna holding up?” asked Warshauer. He smoothed his blond hair that was so neatly coiffed and colored it had earned him the nickname the Clairol Nazi.
“She’s okay,” replied Emmet.
“My heart breaks for her. But I guess you could see it coming.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Bob.”
“Oh, come on, Emmet. Frank was a great guy, but he was popping pain killers like they were candy. I think it messed up his head.”
Emmet looked away in an effort to cut Warshauer off. “What did you want?” he asked.
“Did you know that he was talking on the sly to an animal rights group?”
“Yeah, your buddy Frank was trying to sabotage the plant by bad mouthing us to some animal liberation people.”
“What makes you say that?” Emmet’s mouth had gone dry.
“Someone saw him taking pictures. And it’s come to my attention that a woman from that same animal organization is here in Bragg Falls. These activists are always trying to dig up dirt about farmers and all what else. I guess so they can get more regulations and make it impossible to do our job. She may try to talk to employees at the plant. You know what I’m sayin’?” Assuming Emmet’s agreement, he added, “Spread the word. No one is to talk to this gal, right?”
“Outside these walls I can’t stop anyone from talking.”
“No, but you can let ’em know that if they do talk to her they’ll be looking for work. And this is not just me, okay? It’s coming from corporate direct.”
“All right,” conceded Emmet. “I’ll get the word around.”
He was halfway out the door when Warshauer stopped him. “By the way, you being good friends with him and all, did Frank ever tell you about what he was doing?”
“No,” Emmet bristled. “No he didn’t say anything to me.”
“Of course not,” reassured the manager. “’Cause if he had, you would have told me.”
“Yeah, I would have told you.”
Warshauer called out after him, “Oh, the animal person? Her name is Jude Brannock.”
Emmet barely registered the name. His brain was burning about what Frank had done. Sure, he didn’t like the way things were run, but taking pictures? Talking to an animal rights group? What the fuck … was he trying to shut down the plant and lose everyone their jobs? Not me, thought Emmet. Godammit, I worked hard for this and I’m gonna keep on moving up the ladder ’til I get out of this stinking place. Shaking off the guilt and the doubt, Emmet went back down and suited up for the kill floor again. He had five minutes to make sure the prods and metal pipes were put away, Vernon was behaving himself, and the line was running smooth. Five minutes until Cimino came down to give a quick look around and conclude, “I don’t see any problem here, Chapel.” Yeah, because you wait until somebody like me cleans it all up before you step foot on the hot side, you lazy sonofabitch! And then Emmet would steel himself to tell Vernon that if he tried to mess with the voltage again he’d write him a citation. He’d suffer the hostile glares of Vernon, Bisbee, Lovato, and all the other workers. At the bar, he’d drink alone or at Warshauer’s table. Anything to get off the kill floor where blood and violence earned you maybe twelve bucks an hour and where the chain grated and screeched like a living monster.
“I’m just curious,” said Jude. “How much would he have to take to kill himself?” “Depends … how big was he?” asked CJ.
“Not sure,” she answered, checking her rear view mirror to make sure no one had followed her. After driving around trying to get a clear look at the D&M plant, she’d finally pulled over. A manned gate at the entrance prevented her from getting into the parking lot, and the buildings were set too far back from any of the encircling roads to see anything. Now parked on a hill behind the facility, she’d gotten CJ on the phone. “At the house I saw a photo of Frank and I’d say about five-nine, hundred and seventy pounds.”
“And if he was on medication for awhile, he’d be opiate tolerant. Hold on.”
Jude could hear the clacking of computer keys. “Probably around 500 milligrams,” CJ came back.
“They found an empty bottle of 30-milligram pills in his car.”
“Well, there you go. Pop fifteen or twenty of those babies or crush them up in a liter of whatever, even if he changed his mind he wouldn’t have made it ten minutes.”
“Do me a favor, CJ. See what you can find out about a company called PharmaRX.” She spelled it for him. “He may have ordered the pain killers from there.”
“Okay. What’s the plan?”
“I’m sticking around for awhile, see what I can dig up.”
“Always do,” said Jude. She slipped her cell phone into her pocket, gathered up her backpack, and let Finn out. The plant was somewhere beyond the thick line of trees on the hillside, so she walked along the side of the road until she found an opening onto what looked like an extension of an old logging track. Ignoring the prominently posted no trespassing signs, Jude stuck to the narrow course of pebbly, root-strewn dirt while Finn explored the underbrush on either side.
They had gone about five hundred feet when Finn halted, sniffed the air, and turned his head sharply to look behind them. She followed his gaze but saw nothing. A moment later he did the same thing, alerting her to something or someone.
“What is it, boy?” she asked. And then she heard the sound of dry pine needles crackling under heavy footsteps. Remembering the photos of Roy Mears proudly exhibiting the animals he’d killed, she called Finn close in case there were hunters in the area.
A flash of something shiny through the trees preceded the sight of three figures hurrying down the path. Caroline was in the lead next to a lanky teenage boy with shoulder-length hair; Sophie trailed after them, struggling to keep up.
Caroline brightened when Finn ran to greet her. “Bravo ragazzo,” she cooed, ruffling his fur.
Jude didn’t know what to make of their appearance. “Ciao, ladies,” she said as they approached. “What’s up? You following me?”
“Kind of,” answered Caroline sheepishly. “We saw you over at the Motor Inn and wondered if you wanted us to show you around. This is Sophie.”
“I’m sorry about your dad.” Jude shook her plump hand. The girl had her mother’s build and big brown eyes, but there was more breadth to her nose and brow where Frank’s genes peeked through. She didn’t seem to have his moxie, however. Caroline had the edge on that.
“And this is Jack.”
The boy barely nodded, taking Jude in with an aloof, half-lidded expression. He was dressed in black jeans and a faded black t-shirt with torn sleeves that revealed tattoos of Celtic symbols on both arms. A silver stud earring in one ear matched the one that Caroline wore through her nose.
“Shouldn’t you all be in school?” asked Jude, not really expecting an answer.
“What are you doing here?” Caroline asked by way of a reply.
“Trying to get a look at D&M.”
“How come?” asked Sophie.
Jude eyed the trio critically for a moment before saying, “I’m an investigator with an animal protection organization. We think they may be abusing the animals at D&M.”
“Well, duh, they’re getting killed in there,” Jack pointed out.
“Yes, but don’t you think it should be done as humanely as possible?” asked Jude.
The girls made quick, furtive eye contact with one another.
Jack struck a nonchalant pose and asked, “So what, you’re kind of a private investigator?”
“You could say that.”
“Where are you from?”
“How do we know you are who you say you are?” grilled Jack.
Jude dug in her backpack and handed a card to each of them. “Here you go,” she said wryly. “You can send donations to this address, and don’t forget to check out the website for tips on becoming a vegetarian.”
Scrutinizing the card, Jack raised an eyebrow. “I gather The Kinship refers not just to like minded co-workers, but to the more intangible relationship between man and animal.” The kid was smarter than he looked.
“You could say that,” Jude tossed over her shoulder, continuing her trek down the path with the teens in tow.
Moments later, the processing facility emerged through the trees on a flat stretch of land below. A high chain link fence topped with curls of barbed wire encircled the complex. But aside from the smell of manure, there were few clues as to what went on inside. They could have been manufacturing toys or pencils in the huge box of a building made of white corrugated aluminum. The only hints were the turbine fans spaced at even intervals on the flat gray roof and the waiting line of livestock transport trucks. Even then, you’d have to know what a livestock truck looked like since it was designed to conceal its cargo. But Jude knew. She had known since that lonely, misty night when she went to investigate the strange sounds inside the eighteen-wheeler.
One of the trucks was starting to back up to the lairage pens, which were covered with a metal roof. But audible inside were the sounds of men shouting “Hey ya, hey ya,” as they drove the pigs, one lot at a time, into the pens. Finn stood at heightened attention, ears pricked forward, his tail curved between his legs. He could smell death from where he was.
“I told you about the manure stink. This is where it comes from,” pointed out Caroline.
“Not as bad as the lagoons,” offered Sophie. “My dad worked at a hog farm before we came here. All the waste goes into these huge, totally gross pits. One time a man fell in and they pulled him right out, but he was already dead.”
Jack commented, “You’d have a better chance of surviving a radiation bath.”
Meanwhile Jude was pulling out a 35mm camera from her backpack. She adjusted the light settings and began to snap pictures of the plant.
“I don’t think you’re allowed to do that,” warned Caroline.
“Part of my job,” said Jude, stepping down to get a better angle.
“But … but you can’t see what goes on from up here.”
Glimpsing movement at the loading ramp, Jude affixed a telephoto lens to her camera. Men were running around and shouting, but the truck blocked her view. She squinted through the viewfinder, aware of the girls’ secretive whispers behind her and then Jack’s voice, “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Jude lowered her camera. “Good idea, I’m going to walk around a little.”
Sophie quickly followed Jack’s lead, but Caroline hesitated as if she wanted to say something, then changed her mind and trotted after her companions. They disappeared back up the path as Jude side-stepped her way down the ridge to take pictures in earnest. She heard the metal ramp on the transport truck clang shut and watched the truck pull away leaving two hogs on the ground outside the pens, pushed off to the side where they wouldn’t get in the way.
They were called downers. Unable to move into the chute under their own steam, downers were fairly common. Jude looked through the telephoto lens at the license plate of the truck. If the hogs came from up north this time of year and packed as tightly as they were, some of them might arrive frozen to the sides of the truck, and workers would have to go in to cut them out. Sometimes the weaker ones were attacked or injured, or just too sick to move. No matter the cause, downers were not supposed to go to slaughter until a USDA vet certified that they were disease-free. Jude waited to see what would happen.
A small tractor with a forklift came sputtering around the corner. No veterinarian jumped out, instead a heavy-booted worker carrying a chain. While the motor ran, he wrapped one end of the chain around the pig’s rear legs and attached the other end to the forklift. Then he hopped back into the tractor and began dragging the pig along the ground toward an open doorway. Jude could hear the pig’s screams from where she stood. She tamped down the anger that rose in her chest and concentrated on doing her job – she checked to make sure the date and time stamp on the camera were correct and started shooting.
The shutter clicks must have covered the rustle of leather behind her, but not Finn’s low growl. At his warning, Jude spun around to find herself looking at the barrel end of a gun. Sheriff Ward was pointing his service pistol a few feet to her left where Finn crouched poised and ready to attack. “No, Finn, stay!” she commanded. He stopped growling but continued to fixate on Ward.
“If he comes at me, I’m pullin’ the trigger,” warned the Sheriff.
Jude’s heart raced. “He won’t,” she told Ward with as much confidence as she could muster.
“How do I know that?” Ward asked warily, still staring at the dog.
“Because I’m telling him not to.”
“He always do what you tell him to do?”
The Sheriff chuckled uneasily. “Pretty much don’t make me feel like holstering my weapon.”
To demonstrate more control, Jude signaled Finn to lie down. The big dog complied but never took his attention off Ward, who slowly lowered the gun to his side.
Ward licked his lips which had gone dry. “Miss Brannock, I believe? You’re on private property, ma’am.”
“You didn’t see the no trespassing signs back there?”
“Must have missed them.”
“Must have. What are you taking pictures of?”
“Just now, a clear violation of the Humane Slaughter Act,” Jude answered, gesturing over her shoulder. “Dragging a non-ambulatory animal to slaughter is prohibited by federal law.”
“Well, federal ain’t my jurisdiction. So you’re going to have leave now.” Ward kept his tone cordial as much for Finn’s benefit as for hers.
“You also have a state statute prohibiting cruelty to animals and that would be your jurisdiction.” She also kept her tone cordial, but only because antagonizing law enforcement rarely worked to her or The Kinship’s benefit.
“I’m not going to repeat myself,” responded Ward, stiffly. “And I’m warning you not to come back here or you’ll be subject to arrest.”
Jude stowed the camera in her backpack and signaled Finn to follow her. She wondered how Sheriff Ward knew she was here. Her suspicion that someone had called him was confirmed when she took a final look over her shoulder and spotted a man with binoculars down by the loading pens – looking straight at her.
* * *
Seldon Marshfield was an uncommon man. He had success and money to spare, but in public was careful not to flaunt either – unusual for a man both short and nondescript. He cultivated a low profile as a happily married man, doting father, and devout churchgoer. As President and CEO of Marshfield Industries, however, he used his power like a scalpel, mercilessly cutting away anything that threatened his business interests.
Today he sat at the head of a conference table with his board of directors. Among them a former U.S. Senator, a senior executive at Dow Chemical, the president of a multi-billion dollar energy company, and a retired federal judge. He had led them through an encouraging internal report showing Marshfield’s market share was up in both the commodity and processed food sectors. The recent growth, according to the report, was due to the new “Team Training” they had instituted on all their hog farms and in most of the packing plants, training that used bi-lingual supervisors and certification programs for all the workers. The report buried the real reason for the gains. That information was classified.
Marshfield glanced at his watch. The luncheon was already set up in the dining room; time to move to the last subject. “If you would all turn to tab number seven, Ned Bannerman will give us an overview of our new media campaign. Ned?”
Pages turned while his senior VP picked up the remote for the PowerPoint presentation and began, “I appreciate the opportunity to share with you some of the things we’re doing here at Marshfield. Now, of course, you heard earlier that total domestic meat consumption, including pork, beef and chicken is down twelve percent over the last five years. But while the overall pot is shrinking, our market share continues to grow. And we’re going to maintain that trend with an aggressive, proactive approach to fight the misperceptions driven by certain animal organizations and fostered in the liberal media. Our new advertising campaign is budgeted at fifteen million dollars. This is a significant investment, about two percent of net profits from last year, and we believe this campaign will help reverse the decline of pork consumption in the U.S. and will drive more consumers to the Marshfield brand by presenting a more accurate vision of our farms and farmers.”
He punched a button on the remote that started a video on the wide screen behind him. Cue lilting, tranquil music. A panorama of green fields appeared with clean, pink pigs happily nosing lush grass and clumps of daffodils. The overdub offered up by a sonorous, reassuring male voice averred the commitment by Marshfield and its family of employees to the quality and well-being of our animals. Here at Marshfield, we believe it is our ethical and moral obligation to keep our animals safe, comfortable and healthy. The screen changed to show unusually clean pigs in a covered pen, one of them feeding at a trough filled with grain. The wooden floor was spotless. A man and a woman, both wearing light blue aprons walked into the pen. The woman held a stethoscope and put it to the chest of one of the pigs. Obviously satisfied, she smiled. Her partner returned the smile and patted the pig on the head. We know how to raise healthy pigs at Marshfield, and with our team training we work together to ensure that the quality and well-being of our animals are our highest priorities. The screen cut to a Norman Rockwell-type family gathering around a holiday table. At the center was a glistening ham. This is our commitment to you. The final scene of a pig in the field looking up into the sunlight. This is our commitment to them. The music swelled and then faded. There was a smattering of applause by the board members and Seldon beamed.
“We’ve reconfigured our website as well,” added Bannerman, “with an entire section devoted to animal welfare.”
The lone woman on the board, a former executive of a major health insurance company, lifted her hand. “I applaud these efforts, Seldon, but a quick question – there was a video released about a month ago, apparently an undercover investigation that showed baby pigs being slammed to the ground amid truly deplorable, filthy conditions. The place was called Heritage Farms. That’s not one of ours, is it?”
“Heritage is under contract,” Marshfield replied evenly, “but that video was a total fabrication. And in the end, the network that aired the video had to apologize because the animal activist group couldn’t prove that it was taken at Heritage.”
“Was it taken there?” she pressed, eyebrows arched.
“Goodness no,” he scoffed. “In fact, the video you just saw – that was Heritage Farms.” When she responded with a sigh of relief, he smiled broadly, “Why don’t we all go to lunch now, and if anyone has further questions, I plan to be available this afternoon.”
As the group got up and began talking among themselves, Marshfield took Ned Bannerman by the elbow and instructed him to accompany the board members. Then quietly, he stepped through a side door into a small office where Richard Hillman sat behind a desk watching a live feed of the board meeting on an open laptop.
“I thought the Heritage Farms issue was behind us, Dick,” accused Marshfield. “Why is that video surfacing again?”
“One of the animal liberation groups still has it up on their site,” responded Hillman.
“Then get the legal department to threaten them. It’s got to come down immediately.” He shook his head in frustration. “What is Maureen McConnell doing surfing animal liberation sites? Doesn’t she have anything better to do? That’s probably why Cigna let her go. Did you talk to Bob Warshauer?”
“Yes, and he’s getting the word out that no one is to have any contact with Brannock.”
Marshfield shifted his small feet and sniffed, as if able to detect any other potential problems from the air. “I want her out of there,” he said with finality.
“You told me there are no loose ends with Frank Marino.”
“No loose ends,” Hillman assured him. “It’s been ruled a suicide by the cops and the coroner’s office. Case closed.”
“And what if he made a copy of the tape that we don’t know about?”
“We don’t think he did. But if one turns up, we’ll know about it and take care of the situation.”
“I’ve got to tell you, Dick, if that thing gets to the media, it’s a PR disaster and heads are gonna roll.”
“Don’t worry. I got it covered.”
“I fully expect you do because we just informed the board of an ad campaign that’s going to bring attention to the animal welfare issue. And I don’t intend to get beat by some two-bit animal organization with assets smaller than our bill for paperclips.” Marshfield had his hand on the doorknob when he turned back to his Director of Systems Management. A thought made him angry all over again. “These animal people like to make me out as some kind of villain. But you know me, Dick, it’s not that I don’t care about animals. I do. They’ve got no right to come after us like we’re some kind of outlier when everyone in the industry is doing the same thing. This is a business whose function is to respond to demand. Our responsibility is to our stock holders and to the U.S. consumer. Ninety-nine-cent hamburger? Bacon for four dollars a pound? If that’s what the American consumer wants, by God, we’ll give it to them.”
This time when Jude came calling, Verna Marino opened the door herself, although her welcome was far more guarded. The house, too, was different – it seemed to have been turned upside down with shoes, boots, and coats from the front hall closet strewn on the floor, and in the kitchen, drawers open and emptied of their contents.
“Sorry for the chaos,” said Verna, trying to put some cheer in her voice. “I need to stay busy, and the house could use a good going over.”
Jude noticed the disorder less than she did the obvious changes in Frank’s widow. There were dark circles under her eyes and tension around her mouth that had not been there even in the immediate aftermath of his death.
“Are you alright?” asked Jude.
“Holding on. What can I do for you?”
“I wondered if we could talk about Frank.”
After a moment’s deliberation, Verna opened her hands in a gesture to show she had nothing to hide.
“I only spoke to him a couple of times,” started Jude. “I was impressed. He was … very brave to take a camera inside the plant.”
“Like I told you, I wasn’t aware of that,” Verna stated.
“I’d really like to talk to a few people at the plant about conditions there, but so far, I haven’t had much luck. In fact, I’m getting resistance almost everywhere I go. You told me that you worked on the cut floor, so you must have seen quite a bit, and you mentioned some things happening to the animals that were pretty bad.”
Verna replied vaguely, “Did I?”
Jude was taken aback. When they first met, Verna was, if not enthusiastic, at least willing to talk about D&M. Now, her equivocation seemed intended to end all conversation. “That’s …that’s the impression I got,” said Jude flustered. “And your husband obviously felt it was important to show people what’s going on at the plant. He contacted us because he was fed up with trying to change the situation from within and knew we could get his footage to the media. At the least of it, he risked his job – maybe more.”
“What exactly do you mean by that?” Verna flashed.
“Well, to be honest, I’m having a tough time reconciling his death right on the heels of contacting our organization and offering us his video.”
Verna regarded her warily before turning her back and going into the kitchen. She picked up a sheaf of papers from the mess on the kitchen table and thrust it at Jude. “I don’t know what you believe,” she said. “For myself, I’d rather believe my husband overdosed accidentally. It would hurt less than thinking he made a conscious choice to leave us. But all the evidence says that he committed suicide.”
Jude scanned the contents, for the most part, copies of police reports. The deputy who found Frank wrote that the car had been parked in a remote area and was locked. An exhaustive search of the interior uncovered a nearly empty bottle of Jim Beam, which acquaintances who knew Frank confirmed was his chosen brand of liquor. The bottle contained traces of crushed oxycodone pills. On it were Frank’s and only Frank’s fingerprints; same with the empty container of pain killers. No other automobile tracks or footprints were found outside the car, although it had been raining that night and the possibility that they had been washed away could not be ruled out. Customers at the Lazy Cat bar told police that Frank had been there earlier in the evening, but no one could recall the exact time he had left. The most damning, however, was Sheriff Ward’s report about what was revealed on Frank’s computer: the order to PharmaRx as well as research the victim had apparently done to determine the number of pills he’d have to take to kill himself. Finally, Jude came to a letter from Frank’s life insurance company stating that he had taken out the policy less than two years before the date of his death. It wasn’t a lot of money for life insurance – ten thousand dollars. But the policy included a two-year suicide clause, and based upon the police and coroner’s reports, the company had determined it was not required to pay out.
“So you see,” Verna was saying, “I have to accept this.”
“You could appeal,” said Jude without much conviction.
Verna only wrapped her arms around herself, acknowledging the pain and fruitlessness of such an effort.
“I’m so terribly sorry,” said Jude. “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”
Verna answered, “I think the best thing you can do is leave us alone. I’m sorry that you haven’t gotten what you wanted. But as I told you, I don’t know anything about any video. Perhaps you should just accept things, as I must.”
* * *
The lowering sky looked ominous and seemed to reflect Jude’s uneasiness about her visit with Verna. She didn’t seem like a woman who would so easily resign herself to the insurance company’s quick denial or accept things, as she’d put it. Did she not share her husband’s fighting spirit? But as Jude thought about it and tried to put herself in the widow’s position, she imagined that a kind of surrender might be Verna’s only way of dealing with the grief. Maybe she felt she was surrendering to God’s will. For herself, Jude had no intention of accepting or surrendering to the brutality she’d heard about and now witnessed at D&M. Nor was there anything to prevent her from questioning Frank’s suicide. It seemed all too convenient for Marshfield. So after seeing the police reports in Verna’s possession, she set off to re-create Frank’s last hours. Her first stop was the place where his body had been found.
The reports described a dirt track just off Pigeon Road. Jude found it on her phone’s navigation app and after a detour to the motel to get Finn, she drove to the location. About a hundred yards in was the town’s old country store, long since abandoned. Jude parked and threw on a jacket. There wasn’t much to glean from the location itself, really just a shack with boarded-up windows. From the remains of an above-ground oil tank not far away and a concrete strip out front, it looked as though they had pumped gas here at one time. Now the parking area was overgrown with weeds, a ribbon of yellow police tape twisted on the ground the only evidence that someone had died there.
Why had he chosen this spot? Jude shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket and studied the derelict building, its rickety covered porch, splintered door, and the rusty soda pop machine too corroded to steal. Was it because everything here was already lifeless, not worth saving? She didn’t think so. After years of trying to stand up to management, Frank had taken matters into his own hands. It made no sense that he would commit suicide before seeing his efforts play out. A loose piece of plywood nailed to the doorframe of the old store rattled in the wind and made her jump.
The smell of wood smoke drew her attention to the roof of a house tucked away at the end of Pigeon Road. She left the car where it was, whistled to Finn, and walked quickly toward the house. It was fronted by a carefully tended hedge and a bright red mailbox. Beyond them, the property opened to a clearing that burst with color and life. In the center sat a fenced vegetable garden, boasting the last of the season’s sunflowers and waves of kale and red chard. Nestled alongside, a hut stored rows of gardening tools and pickling jars, and nearby was a cozy red barn with its doors open. A couple of hens scratched in the dirt by the opening, but when they caught sight of Finn, scrambled inside. Drawn to the scent of sweet hay, Jude followed them.
“Hello?” she called out. No one answered.
The only sounds were the muted clop of hooves on the wooden floor and chomping teeth. Two fat sheep in a converted horse stall glanced up briefly before returning to their methodical chewing. From the back came soft grunts, and Jude followed them to a boarded pen, where a large pot-bellied pig lay on her side suckling six baby pigs, each of whom was small enough to fit in a shoebox.
As Jude crouched down to get a better look, two of the spotted piglets tripped over each other to get to her. Curious and friendly, they pushed their tender, pink snouts through the rail openings. Entranced, Jude held her hand close but didn’t try to touch them, not wanting to make their mother anxious. But the sow only lifted her head briefly.
Finn padded over and sniffed the piglets, who seemed delighted to meet this strange new creature. Their yips drew their siblings over and soon they were all trying to jump on Finn. He gave Jude a baleful look that asked, “What do I do now?” and she laughed. With their short, uncoordinated legs, the babies bounced around the wood chip bedding, falling over one another, and occasionally hopping over to smoosh their noses into Jude’s hand. Mama sow looked on patiently, perhaps glad to have a break from the kids; one could almost see a smile on her face. Someone had put a soccer ball in the pen, which the piglets rolled and tackled, and before long, Jude found herself cross-legged on the ground, lost in their joy of play.
As her shoulders and the muscles in her forehead relaxed, she tried to experience the world through the youngsters’ eyes … the fascination with a clump of straw or pleasure in finding a bit of food. As often happened, Jude was struck with the mystery of animals. They inhabited a world no human would fully understand – a bond with the earth, the rain, the smells carried on the breeze, and critically, no matter prey, friend or foe, an intrinsic recognition of the value of other animals. That was something humans did not possess. Ever since she’d been a child, Jude yearned to live in that animal universe, even for a moment, released from the constraints of her past and the doubts she carried about whether she could really make a difference.
“Aren’t they cute?” asked a voice behind her.
Jude quickly turned her head to see a sturdy woman with white wisps of hair sticking out from under a gardening hat. Dressed comfortably in baggy pants tucked into knee-high muck boots, she looked familiar.
Blushing at her obvious intrusion, Jude jumped to her feet, causing the piglets to scamper away. “I’m sorry to barge in like this,” she said. “I didn’t see anybody, and I called out, but–”
“Not to worry, dear,” said the woman kindly. “I know you. We met at Verna Marino’s house. I’m Oma Burney.”
Now Jude remembered where she had seen her. “Of course, after Frank’s funeral.”
Reminded of it, distress clouded Oma’s lined face. “Have you seen Verna recently?” she asked.
“Just this morning.”
“I was supposed to see her at Bible study, but I couldn’t make it. I pray for her. Frank was devoted to her and Sophie.”
The sense of unease that Jude felt when she left Verna intensified; she tried to grab onto what it was that nagged at her, but was quickly distracted by the gang of baby pigs who were once again vying for attention at her feet.
“How old are they?”
“Almost four weeks now. Would you like to hold one? I’ve gotten them used to being handled.”
Oma reached down and picked up one of the spotted piglets and turned him over to a delighted Jude, saying, “That’s Truman. I name them after authors I’ve just finished. That there is Toni, Dashiell, Jonathan … though I didn’t like Franzen’s last book too much.”
“Hello, Truman,” laughed Jude. She cuddled the eight-pound youngster against her shoulder. His skin was like a soft-bristled brush and tickled her as he wiggled in her arms and rubbed his snout against her neck. It seemed unfathomable that in hog farms across the country, babies just like these were wrenched from their mothers, tails, teeth and testicles clipped, then crowded into indoor pens or crates where they would never set foot on grass or feel the sun. Jude put him back extra gently into the pen as the mama lumbered to her feet and came over to snort a greeting.
“Watch this,” said the older woman. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small bag of apple pieces. “Sit, Emily,” she commanded. The pig lowered her rear end to the ground and received her treat. “Down.” Emily lay down on her side. By this time, Finn had come circling around, waiting for his treat and Oma obliged with a slice of apple that he took from her hand.
Oma scratched her pig under the chin. “Okay, go outside.” She pointed and Emily did as she was told, her piglets scampering after her.
“Oh my word,” exclaimed Jude. “I knew pigs were smart, but that’s amazing.”
“She knows more than that,” replied Oma. “But you certainly didn’t come to see my pigs.”
“If I’d known about them, I would have,” Jude assured her. “But I actually came to see where Frank died, and then I saw your house. I wondered if anyone had seen him that night.”
“I’m afraid I didn’t. I’m usually in bed by nine-thirty.” She gazed at a place beyond Jude’s head for a moment, then added, “It’s very disturbing that he chose that spot right down the street. I couldn’t tell you why.”
“He might not have chosen it,” suggested Jude.
“What do you mean?”
Seeing the alarm on Oma’s face, Jude hurriedly reconsidered her answer and said, “Oh, I don’t know, perhaps the choice wasn’t made consciously.” But what she really wanted to say was that perhaps someone had chosen it for him.
It was hard to drag herself away from the warmth in Oma’s barn, but Jude wanted to get the photos of the downer hog to Gordon before he left for the day. Out on Pigeon Road, the wind had picked up, bringing with it the first drops of a cold rain. As she got closer to her car, she noticed something odd. A few steps later, she saw the letters on the side – something spray painted. Jude began to run.
The writing was sprayed in a messy scrawl that was still tacky to the touch. YOUR TURN SOW! But the other message was even more sickening. Fresh blood had been thrown over the front of the car. It was still dripping into the well of the windshield and down the fenders, pooling on the ground. Jude gagged from the smell. In a daze, she circled the car. Whoever had done this was gone, but she hadn’t been at Oma Burney’s place for that long, nor had she told anyone where she was going. Evidently, someone was tracking her movements. Anger began to take the place of shock. It took a moment before she realized it had started to rain in earnest, so she dashed to the abandoned shack to take cover and call the police. While she waited for them to show up, she contacted the office.
“What are you going to do?” asked CJ. “You want me to page Gordon?”
Jude sighed, ”No, just let him know when you see him. I’m waiting for the cops now.”
“You think you should come back home? It could get dangerous for you.”
“It won’t be the first time I’ve been threatened and it sure won’t be the last, but the spray paint royally pisses me off. I don’t know how to get it off and meanwhile, that writing is going to draw attention to me everywhere I go.”
“What about the blood. Is it human, you think?”
“Probably not, but I’m sure the cops will get it tested.”
“That’s gross. What do you make of the writing?”
“You mean, my turn, as in turn to get stunned and shackled?”
“Yah, and maybe get your throat slit.”
“I don’t know, CJ. Most of the time this kind of thing is all bluff and bluster. If somebody wants to get to me, they can – I’m not hiding. This is meant to scare me away.”
“Maybe it should.”
Jude saw the nose of a deputy squad car rounding the corner. “I have to go,” she said.
“One quick thing,” interjected CJ. “A little while ago, you got a call from a girl named … Caroline? She wants you to come to dinner at her house tonight. Why’d she call here?”
“I gave her my business card. Did she leave a number?”
“Okay, could you text it to me and I’ll call her back.”
A young, black deputy emerged from his car and warily circled Jude’s wagon. “You know who did this?” he asked.
“No, not really.”
He got around to the spray painted side and squinted at it. “What does that mean, Your Turn Son?”
“I think it says Sow.”
“Sow, as in female pig?” He went back to the squad car and retrieved a kit from the trunk. From it he took a small vial and scraped some of the blood into it. “This just happened, right?”
Jude gave him an approximate time line: when she left her car and how long she’d been away. He asked a few more questions and she answered truthfully.
“You’re an animal activist?” he confirmed. “Guess someone around here is not too happy about that.”
The rain was getting heavier, sending Jude and the deputy to the store’s leaky front porch. He took out a notebook to write up a report, but Jude couldn’t offer much more than she already told him. Soon, sheets of water were pelting from the sky. Finn took cover as well, spraying them both as he shook his coat. They watched the blood turn pink and run off the car, mixing with the dirt, then forming rivulets that took the rust-brown water into the weeds. The warning scrawled on the side of the car remained.
Pocketing his notebook, the deputy said, “Good news is … you’re getting a free car wash. Bad news … probably have to get your car repainted. I just had mine done, and with the primer it cost nearly eight hundred bucks.”
* * *
At the motel, Jude called Caroline and accepted the dinner invitation for her and Finn. Her familiarity with threats notwithstanding, the message on Pigeon Road had been received loud and clear. It was creepy and more than a little unsettling, and she figured it would do her good to get out of the motel where her anxiety would only fester.
Jude showered and changed into a pair of black jeans and a gray scoop-neck sweater that yielded a glimpse of the hollows above her collarbone. She had some time before she had to be at Caroline’s and decided to pay a visit to the Lazy Cat. It was the last place anyone had seen Frank. And if it was a drinking hole for D&M workers, she might find someone willing to talk.
She walked by a few curious stares before slipping onto one of the Lazy Cat barstools. The five o’clock news played softly on the overhead TV, but the bartender was the only one watching. In his early thirties and boasting a thick mustache, he pushed off the counter and came over to see what she wanted.
“You have anything on tap besides Bud or Coors?” she asked.
“Not on tap, but I’ve got a bottled pale ale from a local brewery that might just suit you.”
“I’ll try it,” said Jude.
He brought back the beer and poured it into a tall glass, letting just a bit of foam drip down the side. She took a sip. “Nice. Not too light with a little citrus pop.”
That earned her a smile. He appreciated anyone who recognized a good beer, and an attractive girl made it even better. “I like ’em heavier on the malt myself, but that’s a good one. Most of the folks around here wouldn’t know a microbrew from piss in a can.” He held out his hand. “My name’s Nick, I’m part-owner here.”
“Hi, I’m Jude. Wondered if you might be able to help me.”
“If I can.”
“Were you here last Friday night?”
“I’m here just about every night.”
“Did you know a man named Frank Marino?”
Nick drew back slightly and fingered his mustache. “Sure, I knew him.”
“Then I guess you know that he committed suicide last Friday.”
“You a reporter?” he asked, edging away. He didn’t want any bad publicity.
“No, nothing like that,” said Jude quickly. “We were … working on something together and I was supposed to meet him the other day, and then I found out…”
“Yeah, well, he was a regular.”
“And Frank was here last Friday?”
“The whole crew was here.”
“The crew?” asked Jude.
“We serve a lot of the guys from the D&M plant. That’s where Frank worked.”
“Do you remember his demeanor? Did he seem upset or bothered by anything?”
“Like I told the cops, I try to keep my eyes open and most of the time I can spot a fight brewing, but to tell you if some guy is depressed or something, I wouldn’t know. And we were real busy that night. I had my hands full.”
“Anything out of the ordinary that you recall? I mean, Frank being a regular and all, he probably stuck to a routine.”
Nick frowned, trying to think. “Well, I saw him at the bar, he got a drink.” He cocked his head. “Come to think of it, he doesn’t normally sit at the bar. He’s usually with Emmet and a few of the other guys.”
“Yeah, Emmet Chapel. They were pretty tight and the two of them usually sit at a table over there.” Nick pointed across the room.
“Does Emmet work at D&M?”
“As long as I can remember.”
“Anyone else you know work there? Maybe I could talk to them.”
Before Nick could respond, someone called his name. He responded to a tall, heavyset black man waiting to order at the far end of the bar. Nick held up a finger to let him know he’d be right over, then he turned back to Jude.
“If you want to talk to someone who works at the plant, you might try Howard Bisbee,” he said, nodding to the big man. “He knew Frank.”
Jude picked up her beer and wandered down to where Bisbee leaned against the bar. She put him in his mid to late forties, graying around the temples with deep lines cut into his broad face. After introducing herself, she asked if he knew Frank Marino or Emmet Chapel.
Bisbee squinted down at her. “Mind telling me who you are again?”
“I’m with an organization called The Kinship. Frank contacted me, wanting to talk about D&M.”
Bisbee shook his head. “Sorry, I got nothin’ to say to you.” He picked up his pitcher of beer and walked away.
Jude trailed after him. “Please, I just want to ask you a couple of questions.”
“Miss, you look like a nice person,” said Bisbee. “But I ain’t gonna talk to you.”
“Because I don’t talk to animal rights people.”
Jesus. What the hell was going on? Was her picture plastered all over town like a wanted poster?
Fighting off a growing desperation, Jude tried another tack. “I’m not here to ask you about D&M, Mr. Bisbee,” she said. “I was told you were a friend of Frank’s, and I’m only trying to understand why he committed suicide.”
Bisbee seemed torn between walking away and trying to understand the same thing. He glanced quickly around the room, gauging how safe it was to talk, then heaved the sigh of a man who wanted to put the entire episode behind him and said, “The man’s back was bad, and I know for sure he was addicted to pain killers. He couldn’t bend over or lift anything without ’em. And anyone around here can tell you those things ain’t a long term solution. Frank’d worked for Marshfield practically his whole life, different locations, but always with hogs. He didn’t have no college education, didn’t have any other trade that I know of.”
“So you’re saying he might have taken his own life because he was concerned about how he’d make a living?”
“I’m sayin’ he dint have many options.” His eyes flickered to the doorway and suddenly, like a door slamming, he shut down.
Two men had come in and were making their way over. One of them wore thick, black glasses; the other was an older gentleman with a kindly, ruddy face.
“How’s it going, Howard?” asked the older man.
“And who might this lovely young lady be?”
“I’m Jude Brannock.”
“Glad to meet you, dear. My name is Lawrence Cimino. This is Patrick LaBrie,” he said, indicating his companion.
Jude recognized Cimino’s name from her files on D&M. He was the on-site veterinarian and the senior representative from the USDA. She couldn’t even muster a thin smile, not after what she’d seen from the ridge. “Mr. Cimino, I was actually going to look you up,” she said.
He raised a bushy eyebrow.
“You see, I was outside the plant today and witnessed a downer hog being dragged with a chain. I wondered if anyone had reported that to you.”
“Ah, you’re with the animal welfare group. No, I received no such report,” said Cimino innocently. She felt sure that he knew exactly who she was before she introduced herself.
Jude continued, “It’s considered an egregious violation of the Humane Slaughter Act.”
“I’m well aware of the act’s provisions and I’m sure you couldn’t have seen what you claim, Miss Brannock. We take good care of our animals.”
“Not only did I see it, I photographed it.”
“And just where did you take this photograph?”
“From the ridge overlooking the lairage pens.”
Cimino clucked like a disapproving grandmother. “That’s private property, my dear, belonging to the Marshfield corporation. You could get into trouble for trespassing on private property. But since you tell me you witnessed this alleged violation, I’ll surely look into it.”
Something about the outwardly sweet old man who treated this information so casually was repellent to Jude. And he was a vet, trained to take care of animals, no less. She turned her attention to Patrick LaBrie. “Are you also with the USDA?”
When he acknowledged that he was, she asked boldly, “Mr. LaBrie, are you aware of non-ambulatory hogs going into the slaughter line?”
He blinked behind his thick-framed glasses. “Downers? Absolutely not.”
“Do you get over to the lairage pens, sir?” demanded Jude.
Cimino chuckled as if she had made a joke, then turned away and steered LaBrie toward the bar. Jude was left standing with Bisbee.
“Might as well go home,” he said softly. “Ain’t no one going to talk to you about the hogs or anything else. And you keep at it, you stand to make some enemies.”
She pressed her hands against her tired eyes and said, “Think I already have.”
* * *
On her way to Caroline’s house, Jude stopped at a local market, searching for something to bring with her. She was just coming out, a bunch of pre-packaged daisies in hand, when she spotted the young man who had approached her outside the diner. He was driving a van into the parking area of the hardware and feed supply across the street. She was about to start after him when he and two men got out and went into the store.
Hoping that “Juan” might come out solo, she crossed the street to linger casually in the parking area. There she noticed a parking sticker on the van’s front window. It looked current and had been issued by a place called King’s Court, more specifically for space twenty-seven. Jude filed the information away and left before Juan and his friends returned.