We’re sure that by now, all of you darling flock members are just as addicted to reading Robin Lamont’s The Chain as we are. She is generous enough to be sharing the entire novel with you installments. Not only is it a well-written story that keeps readers on the edge of their seats, but it also has animal rights themes. #PRIVATE#
Here are the previous installments if you’ve missed any:
Now without further ado, here are chapters 14-16!
The Chain (cont.)
A small boy playing with stones squatted in the driveway. He’d arrange them in some order then loft the frontrunners at a plastic kiddie pool half filled with brown water. When one of them went in with a satisfying plop, he’d take aim and chuck another. So engrossed in his game, he didn’t see Jude drive up to the curb. But at the sound of the car door closing, he lifted his head to look at her with the same sapphire-blue eyes as his sister.
“Hi. Are you Caroline’s brother?” asked Jude.
He nodded and studied her for a moment. Suddenly, he spied Finn and forgetting Jude and his rocks, jumped up and pointed at the car. “Is that a dog or what?” he wanted to know. Finn’s large head emerged through the open window of the Subaru.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let him out of the car.”
Rather than appearing relieved, the youngster looked crushed. Caroline came to the front door and her face lit with anticipation, exclaimed, “You’re here!”
“Can I play with the dog?” Will appealed to his sister, who ignored him, her attention fixed on Jude.
“Come in,” said Caroline. “My mother’s inside, she just got home from work.” She ushered her guest into the kitchen where a woman in a blue Walmart uniform stood in front of the open oven, poking a fork into a sweet potato. Without turning around, she called out irritably, “When did you put these in, Caroline? They’re not even close to being done. Oh!” She caught sight of Jude and quickly wiped her damp hands on her uniform.
“You must be Caroline’s friend,” she said. “I’m Alice Chapel.”
Chapel. Caroline had never said her last name, but in an instant, Jude made the connection. Emmet Chapel was Caroline’s father – the man at the graveside and Frank Marino’s close friend.
“I … these are for you,” said Jude, reddening slightly and thrusting out the flowers.
“Thank you, they’re lovely.” Alice took them and rummaged through a cabinet for something to put them in. She found a chipped vase and filled it with water.
“I hope I’m not putting you out,” said Jude.
“Not at all.” Alice’s tone was warm enough, but her lipstick-faded smile was pinched and spoke volumes – a tough day in customer service followed by her daughter’s announcement as soon as she walked through the door that they were having company. But she was brought up right and tried to make Jude feel comfortable. “We’re glad you could come,” she added.
Caroline dismissed her mother by saying, “You go change, Mom. I’ll take care of dinner.”
Alice must have heard something else in her daughter’s tone because all at once she looked self-conscious in her polyester uniform, aware that in Caroline’s eyes it carried the stain of failure. “Sure, I’ll be right back. Honey, get those potatoes back in the oven, please?”
When she was gone, Caroline shifted her feet nervously.
Not completely at ease herself, Jude pointed to the flowers. “Shall I put these on the table?” she asked. “Your mom’s nice.”
“She’s okay. I get along with her most of the time, probably better than a lot of kids I know. She gets on me for certain things, like these,” Caroline proudly pushed her hair back to show off the multiple ear piercings. “But she’s not suffocating like some parents. Take Sophie’s mom. I mean, I love her and all, but she’s a hoverer. You know?”
Not having a real mother of her own, Jude in fact didn’t know, but she was saved from having to respond when Will tromped in, begging to play with the dog. She went outside to let Finn out of the car, then stepped up onto the small porch to oversee both dog and exuberant boy gallop around the yard. Alice came out on the front landing to join her.
“He’s big, but he’s good with kids,” Jude assured her. “I can put him in the car if you like.” Vouching for Finn’s good intentions was almost a habit for her.
“It’s fine,” said Alice absently. “Will adores dogs.”
There was an awkward silence, neither of them terribly good with small talk. Finally, outside her daughter’s judgmental presence, something in Alice seemed to let go. “I’m pleased that Caroline has made a friend,” she said. “When I got home, she told me she met an ‘amazing’ woman, who came all the way from Washington. You’re quite the celebrity to her.”
“She’s an interesting girl.”
“It’s nice to see her happy,” said her mom.
Jude thought to herself that she had yet to see the teenager break a smile.
“Caroline’s been kind of depressed lately.” Alice paused, considering how much to say. “Her schoolwork is suffering,” she said.
Jude could offer only a sympathetic glance in return; it didn’t feel like her place to tell her that her daughter was running around the state park instead of being in school.
Alice continued, “She seems so angry all the time, and she has … dark thoughts.” It might have been the loneliness of carrying the load by herself or the possibility that this young woman whom her daughter clearly admired might have some answers, but Alice blurted out, “She’s sort of obsessed with death, and we don’t understand why. She’s not sick. It just seems … unnatural, to have that sense of foreboding all the time.”
Jude listened, speech eluding her.
“She’s seeing a doctor. I think she’ll be all right, don’t you?”
Luckily, Caroline called them in for dinner, saving Jude from having to reply. They arranged themselves around the kitchen table that Caroline had set for four. Her mother had told her not to wait for Emmet; his schedule was “unpredictable” these days and he could get something to eat later. In honor of her guest, Caroline had put out cloth napkins and a candle next to the flowers. It sat in a misshapen clay holder that was one of Will’s kindergarten projects and every time the table moved, it wobbled precariously.
The teenager’s turn to cook that night had resulted in some version of Hamburger Helper, baked yams and a salad. She watched Jude expectantly while Alice served.
“Sorry, I don’t eat meat,” said Jude, holding up an apologetic hand. “But the potatoes look great, and with a salad that’ll be fine for me.”
“You’re a vegetarian?” asked Alice, her serving spoon poised over the casserole dish.
“Yes, actually I don’t eat any animal food.”
“None?” Alice quizzed. “However do you get your protein?”
“Various ways, legumes, soy, stuff like that.”
“What’s animal food?” broke in Will.
“Why?” Alice asked perplexed.
“I work for an animal welfare organization,” said Jude. “But even if I didn’t, I couldn’t support the way farm animals are treated.”
“Oh. Caroline did tell me you worked for a humane animal place, but I thought it was about rescuing cats and dogs.”
“We do some of that, yes. But we also try to prevent abuse to farm animals.”
Caroline took the serving spoon from her mother’s hand and used it to scrape her portion of Hamburger Helper back into the serving dish. “I’ve decided I’m not going to eat meat.”
Her mother smiled indulgently. “You’re a teenager and have different dietary needs, honey.”
“No, I’m going vegetarian,” insisted Caroline.
Will, who had been watching his big sister carefully, kneeled up on his chair and shoveled his casserole back. “I’m going vege … vege-train, too,” he announced.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Will,” Alice admonished, replenishing his plate. “You need your protein.”
He crossed his arms defiantly. “It’s animal food,” he said with a scowl.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” snapped Alice.
Wincing at the trouble she was causing, Jude said, “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t understand, what is the big deal? We have to eat meat and chicken.”
“Who says, mother?” demanded Caroline. “They’re living, breathing creatures. Why should they die so we can eat them?”
“Finn is a dog and I wouldn’t eat him,” said Will somberly.
“No one’s asking you to, Will. Eating chicken and hamburger is completely different,” insisted his mother, impatiently.
“I don’t believe it is,” said Jude softly.
“She’s right, Mom,” asserted Caroline. “You have no idea how badly the pigs are treated.”
“Slaughtering hogs is just something we have to do,” insisted her mother.
“It isn’t something we have to do. And you have no freaking idea what really happens to them,” Caroline admonished, her voice rising in anger. “You don’t want to know, just like everybody else around here. It’s all a dark, horrible secret that nobody in this town wants to fuckin’ see!”
“What’s going on?” boomed Emmet from the doorway. He’d heard his daughter cursing from outside and his face was like thunder.
Alice jumped up from the table, flustered. “Emmet … this is … uh, Caroline’s friend.”
Jude looked up at the broad-shouldered man who filled the kitchen doorway, struck by the intensity of his blue eyes. He scanned the table, taking in the situation, and then his gaze rested on Jude.
“Nice to meet you,” he said uncertainly. “Are you from the school?” They’d gotten a few calls about her truancy and he thought the school might have decided to finally send someone to the house.
“Did you see the dog?” asked Will hopefully.
Emmet’s face creased into a smile. “Didn’t see any dog,” he said. “But I saw a grizzly bear out in the car. He yours?” he asked Jude.
Will guffawed. “It’s not a bear, Dad, it’s a dog. You can’t put a bear in a car.”
The adults laughed while Emmet stepped over to the sink and methodically washed his hands. After wiping them dry with paper towel he held out his hand to Jude. “Hi, I’m Emmet. I guess you know my wayward daughter?”
“I do,” said Jude, shaking his strong hand. “I’m Jude Brannock.”
Like a light suddenly extinguished, the smile faded from his face. “The animal rights lady? I … uh … I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“What?” Caroline burst out.
“Look, I’m the floor supervisor at D&M and we’re under strict orders not to talk to you. What we do and what you do are just not compatible.”
“Emmet, she’s a guest,” Alice pointed out sternly.
Caroline threw her napkin on the table. “Dad, what are you doing? I invited her.”
“I’m sorry.” Emmet stood firm. “But I could get fired if anyone even saw you at our house.”
Alice admonished him under her breath, “This is not right. She’s a guest in our house and we don’t have to talk about your work.”
Keeping his eyes trained on Jude, he said harshly, “I know about Frank contacting you, and I know about the tape – if he really did make a tape. It’s not here. I don’t know where it is and neither does Verna, so I’d appreciate it if you’d let us all alone. Nothing good is going to come of it.”
Alice’s eyes darted from her husband to Jude. “Emmet, what does Frank have to do–”
“I’m sorry,” he broke in. “Please leave.”
“So am I,” said Jude. “I understand.” She got up from her chair.
“No!” cried Caroline.
Emmet stepped back to let Jude pass, and she reached over to take Caroline’s hand. “Can you walk me to the car?”
The teenager burst into angry sobs, turning on her father. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. God, I hate you!”
As Jude led Caroline out, Alice put her head in her hands to drown out her daughter’s wails of protest and Jude’s calm voice as they walked down the driveway. Then a car door and wheels on the dirt. Caroline did not reappear.
In the silent kitchen, Emmet sat in his daughter’s chair and began to help himself to the casserole and potatoes while Will watched him expectantly, his lower lip trembling. After a moment, Alice picked up her head, her face gray with sorrow. “She was happy, Emmet,” she said softly. “She was happy tonight.”
At another dinner table eighty miles away, Richard Hillman gazed appreciatively at his wife. After her golf game, she’d had her hair and nails done. He appreciated that she kept herself fit and impeccably groomed. Tonight they were hosting three of her friends and their husbands whom Hillman didn’t hate. The weather on the patio had been perfect for cocktails, and now the dining room in their Georgian style home glittered from the crystal chandelier down to the polished silver. All was well.
At least it was until his cell phone vibrated in the chest pocket of his sport coat. With as little fanfare as possible, he checked the screen.
“Excuse me,” he said to the woman at his right.
His wife spotted the move. “Not tonight, Rich, dear,” she moaned with a smile.
“It’s nothing, love. I’ll be right back.” He strode across the front hall and into his study, closing the door behind him. Standing at one of the eight-foot windows that overlooked the patio and the rarely used swimming pool, he hit the call back button. Dusk was fading into the night. The phone rang once.
“This better be important, Bloom,” said Hillman. “My wife is having a dinner party.”
“Two things you should know.” Bloom wasn’t one to apologize. “Marino took out a new life insurance policy eighteen months ago. They’ve got a two-year clause on suicide.”
“Oh, shit. Are they going to open an investigation?”
“Don’t think so, it’s a done deal. But Brannock is hanging around. It looks like she’s tracing Marino’s path; she went to the meet spot and then to the Lazy Cat. Talking to the widow, too. She may have suspicions about Marino’s death.”
Hillman watched a few leaves drift into the pool and get sucked into the filtering system. Finally, he said, “Well, I trust she won’t find anything.”
“As far as Marino’s wife is concerned, I’ll get to Warshauer and authorize some kind of payment to her. He can call it a pension or death benefit, whatever he wants, but he’s got to shut down the communication between her and Brannock. I’m still concerned, however, about whether Marino made a copy of the tape. I know what he told you, but if it was me, I’d have made one and denied doing it. The worst possible thing would be if Brannock gets her hands on it. Don’t let that happen.”
Hillman pocketed his phone and felt the expensive merlot he’d opened for dinner reassert itself up the back of his throat. He’d made a fine living for himself insulating Seldon Marshfield and his firm from trouble. And he would do whatever was necessary to keep it that way. He gave a final look out at the pool receding into the darkness and strode back to his dinner guests. All options were on the table.
* * *
The glint of an old hubcap dangling on the wire fence drew her attention to the sign which was partially obscured by overgrown weeds. Called Kings Court, the trailer park was anything but; streetlamps were out, garbage cans upended, and more than a few dogs ran loose. Jude crept along a dirt road that wound between rows of trailers until she saw number twenty-seven. Leery of drawing attention to him, she parked further down near a clearing where worn, plastic toys littered the cracked earth. Across the way, three young Hispanic men drinking beer sat around a picnic table and gawked. They said something to each other, but the throbbing bass of a Chicano rap group blaring from their radio drowned out their voices. She left Finn in the back with the windows cracked and walked back.
Jude knocked on the trailer door. As she hoped, the young man known to her as “Juan” answered, but his eyes widened when he saw who it was and he immediately craned his neck around her to see if she was alone. Then he hurried Jude into the trailer and quickly closed the door. She was greeted with the smell of cumin and fried onions, and her rumbling stomach reminded her that she hadn’t had any dinner. A baby wailed somewhere in the back.
“I would have called, but I didn’t have your number,” said Jude apologetically. “You didn’t have time to give me your address, but I happened to see the sticker on your van at the hardware store.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets, looking as though he deeply regretted approaching her at the diner. A pretty woman in her twenties with a baby on her hip swung into view, looking distrustfully back and forth from her husband to Jude as she tried to coax the baby into a better mood.
“This is my wife,” said Juan, unhappy to have to make the introduction.
Jude introduced herself and added, “I met your husband outside the diner and he said we could talk about the plant … about the animals and what’s happening there.”
She shot her husband a dark glance.
“Ella es una amiga de Frank,” he said softly. “Él la llamó a venir aquí.”
“A venir por acá?” she asked with evident disapproval. “A nuestra casa?
“No. To Bragg Falls.”
They argued in quiet tones for a few moments, their positions fairly clear. Juan was willing to talk – his wife wasn’t. Jude spoke a little Spanish and was able to pick out a few words as Juan reminded his wife how difficult it was for them when they first started working at the plant and how Frank had helped her get the job with steady hours. How Frank never lied to them, unlike so many others. At one point, he blurted out in English that Frank “had my back,” as he did with the other “Mexicanos” who everyone else treated “como shit.” They owed him a debt and that if he cared about the animals that much, they should honor his wishes and talk to this woman.
His wife finally conceded, “Give me a minute.” She returned in less than that with the baby settled in a car seat, sucking furiously on a bottle. She left him on a bench at the built-in dining table and resumed her preparations in the kitchenette. “We’re about to eat. You want to join us?” she asked. “It’s just rice and beans.”
“I would love to,” said Jude, meaning it.
She helped carry bowls, spoons and napkins to the table while she explained how Frank had come to call her. She learned that “Juan’s” real name was Daniel; he had grown up in Texas and was hoping to open a restaurant someday. His wife was Abelina. She was from Mexico City where she had gotten her degree in nursing. But with no work for her there, she had come north to be with Daniel and had gotten a job at D&M in casings.
“What do you do in casings?” asked Jude.
“Clean out hog intestines for, you know, sausage.”
“Not easy, I suppose.”
“You get used to it after awhile. At first, dealing with everything that’s inside there is terrible: feces and blood, the worms are the worst.”
“Yes, many of the hogs have them, and they’re huge, sometimes over a foot long. When you’re new, the others can be really mean, shoving the worms in your face. But I jus’ stood up to them and they leave me alone.”
“Abelina’s not afraid to use her knife on someone. That’s why they leave her alone,” Daniel interjected with a little smile.
The young woman tossed her ponytail over her shoulder and shrugged. “At least I can work a single shift,” she said. “So I can come home and take care of the baby. Frank worked that out for me. Daniel they make work double shifts sometimes, one at the tank and another on the cleaning crew. Seventeen hours straight, he comes home and has time only to sleep for a few hours, then go back.”
Jude turned her attention to Daniel. “At the diner, you started to tell me that things were happening to the workers and the animals. What kind of things?”
“Okay, I’m at the scalding tank. So I see the hogs before they’re cut up, I see what kind of shape they’re in. I can tell if they’ve been dragged because you’ll see scrape marks all over or you’ll see where they put the hooks to drag them – sometimes in the nose or the mouth.”
Although she had not eaten since lunch, Jude’s appetite disappeared. But as Daniel continued telling her about some of the abuse he had witnessed, it was apparent that he had no trouble eating. “Also, you have to keep the line going,” he said, “and if there’s a crippled hog in the chute or one that refuses to go, it’s going to stop production. So we got to beat them and use the electric prods to keep them moving. Then sometimes, they trample each other to get away.”
“Have you complained about this to management or the USDA inspectors?” asked Jude.
Daniel shook his head. “You have to understand,” he said. “I’m Okay in this country, but Abelina doesn’t have her green card. And we came here because I have relatives, some of them work at D&M, too. I open my mouth and I get them fired. When you’re hungry for the work, you don’t push back.”
“It’s not just the animals, either,” Abelina broke in. “Where I am, a woman I know died of meningitis, and two others got it from the bacteria the hogs carry. The inspectors are supposed to be watching for sick pigs, but they miss a lot. Mr. Warshauer tells everybody it’s an isolated incident.” Her mouth twisted in an expression that said none of the workers believed that story.
“Would you be willing to sign an affidavit?” asked Jude hopefully.
Both of them shook their heads in no uncertain terms and Jude knew it would be pointless to try and convince them otherwise. She reached out and tenderly stroked their small son’s chubby fist. “How aware is management of immigration status?” she asked.
Daniel chuckled. “Let me put it this way: to come over the border is expensive, but for an extra hundred bucks you can get a social security number. You want a job at a place like D&M, that’s all they ask for – that and a heartbeat.”
Jude asked suddenly, “Did you know Frank was taking video inside?” She watched to see their reaction, and they both seemed genuinely surprised.
“I didn’t know that,” said Daniel, finally. “But it’s possible that someone suspected because last week they were doing bag searches at the end of each shift.”
“Looking for a camera you think?” prompted Jude.
“Well, they’ll search if they think someone is stealing meat, but yeah, maybe looking for a camera.” Daniel paused. “He made the video to give to you?”
Jude nodded, then still curious, she broached the question she never had the chance to ask Frank, “Why do you think he did it? Bring in a camera, I mean. At the diner you told me he stood up to management, so he was doing something. But bringing in a camera and taking video would have gotten him fired. He couldn’t afford that, could he?”
Abelina answered, “You could see it building up for him. Frank was always writing letters about the abuse. At least one time he wrote to the Attorney General’s office, but I don’t think anyone wrote him back. If something happened on our side of the floor, he would say, ‘Just be patient, they’re gonna send someone down any day, just got to hold on.’ I think he got tired of holding on.”
Daniel had been quietly tracing the edge of his napkin while Abelina spoke. Now he lifted his head and said, “Couple months ago, maybe less, we were standing in line waiting to get our gear and he looked bad. I thought he was mad at me for some reason because he wouldn’t say nothing. But then all of a sudden he turns around and comes up real close,” imitating Frank’s fierce glare, Daniel thrust his face toward Jude, “and says, ‘if you love your wife and your baby, get out of here now before it’s too late, before you stop caring.’”
“Caring about what?” asked Jude.
“About life,” replied Daniel, as if she ought to have known.
Perplexed, Jude was about to probe further when Finn began to bark in the distance, and she heard a warning in his tone. “I better go,” she said. “I appreciate everything you’ve told me. I’d like to come back and talk to you again. You’ve been very helpful, thank you.” She got up from the table, clasped Daniel’s hand and gave Abelina a quick hug.
As she hurried to her car, Jude was met with an unwelcome sight. The young men she’d seen earlier were now clustered around her car taunting Finn. Frustrated by his confinement, his lips were drawn back in a menacing growl.
“Cut it out!” Jude yelled. “Leave him alone.”
The boldest of the three stepped forward to intercept her. “Chica, Chica,” he intoned and made whistling noises through his teeth. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen, and the kid was drunk, that much was clear; the sweetish, yeasty smell of cheap beer preceded him. “You want some, baby?” He made humping moves while he grabbed his crotch and the others laughed.
“Get out of my way,” said Jude, trying to get past him.
He caught her arm and swung her around to face him, thrusting his face into hers. “You want a real man, Chica? I got whatchoo want.”
Jude tried to wrest herself away, but drunk as he was, his grip was too strong. With Finn going crazy inside the car, his compatriots watched with anticipation tempered by fear; it wasn’t unreasonable to think the big dog might break through a window. But at that moment a pair of headlights drew up behind Jude. The boys froze and squinted into the bright beams. A man got out and stepped in front of the headlights, his silhouette creating a shadow over the group.
“Get lost, Rodrigo,” he barked to the kid holding on to Jude. “You too, Torres.”
Jude recognized his voice. Apparently so did the three boys because they backed off and slunk away. Emmet waited until they’d disappeared into the darkness and then leaned against the hood of his car. “Are you alright?” he asked.
Furious, she marched over to her car and opened the hatchback. Finn leapt out and after sniffing Jude to make sure she was safe, ran to the spot he’d last seen the three encroachers. He barked out a warning that if they dared return he would take them on.
“What are you doing here?” Jude demanded.
“You’re welcome,” said Emmet.
“What are doing here?”
“I’d ask you the same thing.”
“None of your business.”
At a standoff, they stood glaring at one another. Finally, Jude jingled her car keys and said curtly, “You’re blocking me in.”
“I’ll move as soon as you tell me why you’re here,” responded Emmet.
She walked up to him, shoulders squared. “Did you follow me?” she wanted to know. “Is this about Caroline?”
“No, I didn’t follow you, and no, it’s not about Caroline. I heard you showed up here and I’ve got instructions to keep employees at the plant from talking to you.”
“So you’ve mentioned.” Jude didn’t know if one of the three boys had made the call – or another pair of eyes had seen her at Daniel’s trailer. It seemed like there were eyes on her wherever she went. Meanwhile, Finn had come over to check out Emmet, who put out a reassuring hand to scratch him behind the ears.
“Who’d you talk to?” asked Emmet.
“Please move your car,” said Jude.
He nodded in the direction of Daniel’s trailer. “Was it Daniel Vargas?”
“Is that what your informant told you?”
“Listen, Miss Brannock, we could do this answering a question with a question thing all night, so I’ll get to the point. You’re not doing anybody any favors by snooping around. Trust me when I tell you that no one in Bragg Falls wants you here.”
“That has already been communicated, thank you very much. Today, someone spray painted my car and poured blood all over it. Nice town.”
“Can you blame them? The plant is the only thing keeping this town above water.”
Jude felt uncharacteristically petulant. “Well, having heard about what’s going on at D&M, maybe drowning would be the best thing.”
“Well, no one at D&M is supposed to talk to you or any of your animal rights friends. And if somebody breaks rank, they’re gonna get fired and they won’t get another job at any Marshfield location. Then somebody … like Daniel Vargas and his wife … have nothing. Is that what you want?”
She knew she wasn’t getting anywhere with him, so she drew deep from her reserves of patience. “What I want,” she answered evenly, “is to prevent animals from suffering the kind of brutality that we would never accept were they not animals raised for food. It’s bad enough that the pigs you slaughter live their entire lives indoors in filty pens or metal crates where they cannot even turn around. You’ve got people beating these scared animals with pipes, sticking electric prods into their eyes and mouths, dragging them across the ground, hoisting them on a chain and cutting their throats.”
Emmet rubbed an uncomfortable hand across his mouth and asked gruffly, “Did Daniel Vargas tell you that?” he asked.
“Are you telling me those things don’t happen at D&M?” challenged Jude, refusing to be trapped.
“We conform to industry standards,” he said stiffly.
“Which if most people knew about, they would find abominable. Your friend Frank Marino knew that.” For the first time Jude saw doubt cross Emmet’s face. She had been wondering ever since that uncomfortable moment over his dinner table when he had blurted out, I know about Frank contacting you and about the tape. How? How did Emmet Chapel know about that? She hadn’t told anyone except Verna … and Daniel, just now. Jude jumped in with both feet and asked, “What happened to the tape he made inside the plant? Did Bob Warshauer get it from him or is he still looking? Because I guess D&M would do just about anything to keep Frank from giving it to me.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Emmet challenged.
“I find it pretty coincidental that your friend died just days after contacting me.”
“Whoa, lady,” said Emmet. “It’s one thing to be an animal lover, it’s another to be a paranoid militant. You’re giving yourself far too much credit. Frank committed suicide. That’s what the evidence says, that’s all there is to it, and if you go around preaching anything to the contrary you’re gonna be in a world of trouble.”
He seemed more flustered than angry, yet Jude instantly regretted blurting out her suspicions. She had assumed the friendship between him and Frank went deeper than his loyalty to Marshfield. But now that idea seemed foolish, and she had to admit that she didn’t know Emmet Chapel. She fingered a lock of hair that had fallen against her cheek and anchored it behind her ear, saying, “Well, just for the record, no one has told me anything tonight about D&M that I didn’t already know, so I trust there won’t be any recrimination. There are federal protections for whistleblowers, you know.”
When Emmet smiled she thought it was because he knew she was bluffing – there weren’t any whistleblower laws to protect a private company employee like Daniel Vargas. She would have been even more flustered to know that it was the way she brushed her hair back, letting her guard down for a moment and exposing her vulnerability.
“I’ll remember that, Miss Brannock.”
“And don’t call me Miss Brannock or Lady. My name’s Jude.”
“Jude. As I recall from my Catholic education, the patron saint of lost causes.” A half smile still played around his mouth.
She wrenched open the Subaru hatchback and motioned for Finn to jump in, then threw over her shoulder, “We’ll see about that.”
Verna Marino had rarely felt this angry and helpless. Her chapped hands trembled as she rinsed the last of the dishes and placed them in the drainer next to the sink in the church kitchen. A few of the other ladies from Bible study were chatting as they cleaned up. It had been a week since she lost her husband and her finances were in desperate shape, yet they went on about their meaningless recipes and disagreements about the merits of butter versus margarine. She wiped her hands on a towel and tried to shake off her un-Christian attitude. After all, the group had been very kind in the aftermath of Frank’s death, she couldn’t expect them to mourn with her indefinitely.
Besides, what was really bothering her was Patty Warshauer. Verna caught sight of her getting ready to leave. She had to say something.
“Patty, wait a minute,” called out Verna. “I need to talk to you.”
Her friend hesitated, then accompanied Verna into the refectory away from the other women. “Bob is waiting for me,” said Patty impatiently.
“I need to understand why the cold shoulder tonight,” said Verna.
Patty opened her mouth to protest, but Verna interrupted, “Please, did I do something to make you angry? Because if I did, I apologize. But don’t think you’re sparing my feelings by not saying what’s on your mind. Honestly, it hurts worse to get the silent treatment.”
Heaving a pained sigh, Patty looked first at the ceiling and then capitulated. “Bob told me that Frank was filming operations at the plant and he was going to turn the film over to some animal rights group. If you really want to know, we feel … betrayed.”
“I had no idea, Patty,” Verna insisted.
“Really? I didn’t think Frank kept any secrets from you.”
“Well, obviously he did, because I knew nothing about it.”
Patty pressed her lips together in disapproval. “Look, I’m sorry for your loss, you know I am. But there are a lot of people in this town who work at D&M and need these jobs. And behind everyone’s back, Frank calls in some animal rights activist who breezes in to try and shut down the plant. What do those people know? These young, hoity-toity yuppies from Washington who think they know what’s right and wrong. We are a community here.”
“He meant no harm to anyone, he was just–”
“He was spying on us!”
Verna bristled at her friend’s self-righteous scorn. “Well, if he was … he was just trying to do the right thing. You’ve never worked inside the plant – I have. And what is happening to the animals is not very Christian, in my view.”
“Then re-read your Genesis, Verna. Where it says, ‘Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given….’”
“That doesn’t give us the right to abuse them.”
The refectory door opened, letting in a burst of manure-scented air. “Oh, there you are, Verna, I was looking for you.” It was Bob Warshauer. He strolled over and put an arm around his wife. “Did you girls have a nice time tonight? Say, Patty told me about Frank’s insurance policy. I am so sorry. I’m sure he didn’t think about that before .…” He gave his wife’s shoulders an affectionate squeeze as they exchanged a sympathetic glance. “But I’m glad you’re here, because now I can tell you that I got in touch with corporate to see what we might be able to do. And once again, they’ve come through. Marshfield wants to give you six months of Frank’s pay as a way to recognize his years at the company.”
Verna tried to read his expression. What was Warshauerup to?
“I had to pull a few strings, so I was wondering if you’d do us a favor,” he was saying. “Don’t talk to Jude Brannock anymore. She’s only here to cause trouble, and we really don’t need any more trouble, do we?”
There was no negotiation behind Warshauer’s gaze. Perhaps a warning, but most certainly a payoff for her silence – just the kind of thing Frank would have thrown back in his face. But Frank had chosen to leave life’s decision-making to her, hadn’t he?
“Thank you, Bob,” said Verna. “That’s very kind. And not to worry, I have absolutely no intention of talking to that woman.”
* * *
Jude got back to the motel around nine. She turned off the ignition and sat in the car, listening to the clicking of the motor as it cooled; the last thing she wanted to do was to go inside. It wasn’t just that the Lysol-painted bathroom and cigarette-stained carpet reeked of loneliness, it was also that more work awaited her. She still had to organize and send the photos she’d taken at D&M; she had to type up notes on her conversation with the Vargases while it was still fresh in her mind. Every waking minute that she documented animal torture meant navigating the thin line between feeling the grief for these innocent creatures that fueled her passion and cutting off her emotions to keep functioning. Sometimes she wondered how much longer she could do this job.
Shaking off the self-pity, she got out of the car and opened the back for Finn. The anemic light over her door had gone out, so she fumbled in her backpack for the key. But it turned out she didn’t need it because the door was partially open. Jude froze and listened for any sound coming from within, then pushed against the door and let it swing open. She reached in and felt along the inside wall for the light switch.
Oh God. The room had been trashed: the covers stripped from the bed, drawers opened and the contents deposited on the floor. Jude did a quick canvas and found they’d taken her laptop and the camera, the two most valuable items in the room. She tried to think of anything on the computer that might be damaging to HTA or to any witnesses. Luckily, she hadn’t yet transcribed her interview with Daniel and Abelina, and no one else, she thought wryly, was talking. There also wouldn’t be much about HTA. In fact, it was for this very reason she brought a “clean” laptop on each new assignment. CJ was a bear about deleting files to make sure the investigators did not carry any unnecessary information with them. The loss of the camera, however, was infuriating; it contained the downer photos and was an expensive piece of equipment.
Cursing under her breath, Jude began the tedious task of putting things right; she picked up her clothes and put them back in the drawers and cleaned up the bathroom, where her personal things had been rifled. She picked up her backpack which had been tossed aside and hauled it over to the bed. On second examination, she found that her tape recorder was also missing, but they’d left the camera lenses, wire chargers for the computer and her cell phone and extra batteries. She fished into a small zippered pocket for the flash drives on which she backed up her notes and photos. They were both gone. Jude sat down hard on the bed, fingering the straps on her backpack.
The whole picture wasn’t making much sense. On the surface it looked like an ordinary burglary; the intruder had gone for the computer, the camera and tape recorder – all fairly recognizable and re-sellable pieces of equipment. But they’d also taken the flash drives as well, in and of themselves not worth much. What was that all about? Jude could not help but think about Frank’s tape. Earlier in the evening, Emmet Chapel had let slip out that he knew about the tape … and if he did, surely management above him had to know about it, too. And if Marshfield suspected that Frank had given her a copy, they’d want to look on her computer and backup drives. And perhaps make it appear to be a random break-in.
Unanswered questions kept Jude’s mind reeling while she finished cleaning up the mess. Before she went to bed, she double-checked the chain on her door. Then she lay in the dark, knowing that sleep, normally hard to come by, might be almost impossible this night. What in God’s name had Frank recorded? Ever since she had come to Bragg Falls she couldn’t escape the doubt she felt about his death. But now the suspicion was hardening into a word that could change everything – murder.
And that word lodged like a cold stone behind her eyes, lingering until morning’s light seeped around the edges of the window shade.