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. Did you catch her squawking about it on the OHH podcast and TV show? Robin 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 17-19!
The Chain (cont.)
The County Sheriff’s Office occupied a nondescript brick building about a mile outside the town center. It was marked by two flagpoles planted in the grassy strip out front, one with an American flag, the other flying the red, white and blue blocks of the state flag. Both hung limp in the motionless air.
Jude took a seat in the waiting area, as directed by Belva Hinson, the hawk-eyed administrator at the front desk, who tartly informed her that Sheriff Ward was on the phone at present. While she waited, Jude was audience to two deputies who escorted a teenager from the holding cell in the back. Still too young to shave, the boy rubbed away some snot from the peach fuzz on his upper lip and hung his head. The officers handed Belva paperwork and chatted over his head as if he were an inanimate object. Jude began to bristle at their lack of empathy when one of the deputies put a fatherly hand on the boy’s shoulder and said kindly, “Come on, Romeo. Let’s get you arraigned and back to your momma before lunch,” reminding Jude that first impressions could be deceiving.
A few minutes later, Belva lifted the bifocals she wore on a cord around her neck and used them to point to a short hall behind her desk. “He’ll see you now. But he’s got to be in court in a half hour, so make it quick.”
Sheriff Grady Ward sat behind his desk looking quite unlike the man on the ridge with a gun in his hand. Still well-turned out with his snowy hair and mustache neatly combed, but no uniform and no gun, today in a business suit and tie.
“Thanks for seeing me,” said Jude, taking a chair on the opposite side of his desk.
Ward gave a small grunt, outwardly none too happy that he had agreed.
“Somebody broke into my hotel room last night. My camera, my computer, and a few other items were stolen,” she said, getting right to the point.
“Did you file a complaint?”
“I thought I should come see you first.”
“Miss Brannock, I run this office. If you want to file another complaint, talk to one of the deputies or tell Mrs. Hinson outside and someone will get over to the Motor Inn to take your statement.”
His reference to “another complaint” ruffled Jude, as it implied that being a victim of two crimes in such close proximity was an inconvenience. Moreover, she hadn’t said anything about staying at the Motor Inn. But then again, it seemed everybody in town knew. “I gather you’re aware of the damage done to my car yesterday,” she said.
“I am,” replied Ward, his eyes shifting to a report on his desk.
“Did anything come back on the blood?”
“It’s pig blood.”
“No surprise there,” said Jude. “You know, between what they did to my car and the break-in at the motel last night, I get the feeling that I’m not appreciated here in Bragg Falls. I understand the general antagonism, but my investigation of violations at the plant does not warrant harassment, not to mention burglary, which I presume is a felony in this state.”
“And just what is the nature of your investigation?”
“Frank Marino contacted me a couple of weeks ago. He had made a videotape of the ongoing abuses to the hogs at D&M, a ton of footage, and was going to hand over the video to our organization.”
“And that would be…”
“It’s called The Kinship.” Ward’s eyes did an involuntary roll, and Jude chose to ignore it. “Frank and I spoke on a couple of occasions. He had witnessed systematic animal cruelty at the plant and was tired of management doing nothing about it.”
“So did he?”
“Did he what?”
“Did he give you this alleged video?”
“No. Apparently he killed himself before he could do that.”
“I detect some sarcasm, Miss Brannock. I gather you disagree with the medical examiner’s conclusion?”
“I just have some questions,” she sidestepped. “For instance, did anyone on your staff find a minicam or spy camera in Frank’s car?” Ward stared with a look that said he had no intention of answering. “Alright, how about his computer?” Jude pursued. “I know that was in his car because I was there at the Marino house when you brought it back to Frank’s wife. Frank used a minicam to take video inside the plant, and the only way to view the video would have been to upload it onto a computer.”
“And your question is…”
“Did you find such a video on his computer?”
“No, I don’t believe my tech person mentioned anything,” he answered finally. “Something like that she would have pointed out.”
“Are you certain?”
“Well, if what you say is true, that there was a ton of footage, that would be a very large file and it would have stood out like a sore thumb. I have only your claim that Marino made a video. I haven’t heard anything about it, and I hear about most everything that goes on around here. Even if he did make such a recording and intended to give it to you, he can’t now. So I would suggest that your business is done. You can go home.”
“You have to admit the timing is pretty odd.”
Irritation crept into Ward’s voice. “I don’t have to admit anything. You want to play Nancy Drew, go back to wherever you came from and do it there. But not in my jurisdiction.” He recalled giving her precisely the same admonition in the woods the other day and muttered to himself, “Jesus, this is like déjà vu.”
“So you won’t reopen the investigation into Frank’s death?”
“Brannock, get the hell outta here,” said Ward disgustedly. “And if we catch you trespassing on D&M property or harassing the workers, I’ll lock you up.”
* * *
One of the hanging bodies twisted as it swung on the moving rail that pulled it further down the line. The hog had just had his carotid artery slit and a fine spray of blood hit the side of Emmet’s face as he passed. He swore out loud and lifted his arm, smearing the sweat and blood from his cheek. The sticker didn’t notice and wouldn’t have heard him over the din anyway; he was drenched in blood from his thick apron down to his plastic covered boots and was on to the next one. It only reminded Emmet of how glad he was that he didn’t have to stick hogs for a living anymore. He’d hoped that becoming a supervisor would have kept him away from the kill floor, but it seemed like he was always down here, one problem after another. His boots tacky on the red concrete, he made his way past the stun station, where the new Hispanic guy was struggling with the tongs.
Today’s nightmare, thought Emmet. I gotta get Vernon back in the box. Only yesterday, he’d reassigned Tim Vernon to the loading pens. Complaints had come in that the long-time stunner was toying with the equipment and threatening to electrocute anyone who looked cross-eyed at him. The others were scared of him. And rightly so. Emmet didn’t know how much longer the guy could even stay employed; Vernon’s wire thin composure was stretched to the breaking point. But his replacement wasn’t handling the job and had already asked to be moved. It took a certain type of sociopath to drop forty-six hundred hogs a day.
As he headed out to the pens, Emmet heard a couple of the men whistle and from the corner of his eye saw a few quick hand movements. He knew what some of the signals meant and could count on the fact that right now metal pipes were getting kicked under the walls of the chute, electric prods getting holstered. Don’t know what you’re talking about, ain’t no USDA violations here. As many years as he had been working with these guys, however, Emmet still didn’t understand all the signals. The Latinos worked better if they were kept together and they’d developed a kind of unspoken language between them. Sometimes it was the barest movement of a head that told the other workers who was coming onto the floor or what was happening at the other end of the line. And the damndest thing was, it seemed to be a universal language. Hell, they had about ninety percent turnover a year. Guys quitting, new ones coming in all the time – and no matter where they came from they all knew the code. Sure enough, when Emmet looked behind him, he saw an inspector not far behind.
At the head of the chute, the men had gotten the message that Emmet was on his way, and they weren’t happy. They were trying to move the hogs along with just their hands and plastic paddles. It wasn’t easy. There was one balking at the entrance, holding up everything. Emmet barked out a command for someone to get him moving and in response, Vernon whipped out an electric prod and jammed it into the hog’s rear end. The pig screamed and leapt forward, barreling into the one in front of him.
“Goddamn it, Vernon,” shouted Emmet. “Put that away!”
Vernon grinned back at him, a wild look in his eyes.
“What are you going to do, Chapel, write him up?” This from the kid known as Crank, who had walked up next to him. “If we don’t use the prods, we don’t get ’em set up fast enough, and if we do use the prods, we get written up,” he complained. “It’s fucked.”
“Just do the best you can,” said Emmet.
“Best don’t cut it,” complained Crank. “Warshauer was by earlier and reamed us good.”
“What’d he say?”
“He’s screaming at us that the Mexicans down the line are waiting around with their thumbs up their asses.”
A few of Crank’s fellow workers grumbled their agreement, giving the kid courage. He stepped up in Emmet’s face. “We can’t fuckin’ keep up and if you won’t do something about it, we will.”
“Oh, yeah?” responded Emmet angrily. “What are you gonna do?”
“I don’t know, maybe we’ll talk to the animal rights lady.”
“Then you’re lookin’ for another job.”
“Word’s getting around, you know. I hear she come down here on account of Marino. At least he was trying to do something.”
“No one talks to her, Crank. This is D&M business, and D&M pays your rent, your gas money, and your drugs. You know damn well you won’t get anything else around here that pays a decent wage.”
“Decent? You call eleven bucks an hour decent? And we get nuthin’ unless the chain’s running. If the inspectors shut it down, we stand around and don’t get paid squat!”
The muscles over Emmet’s cheekbones clenched. “I can’t change that. You don’t like it, leave.”
“Just might, Chapel. I thought maybe you was gonna actually give a crap like Marino did, but you’re just another one of Warshauer’s whores.”
Emmet spun on his heels and walked away to keep from hauling off and decking the kid. But for the rest of the morning, his hands twitched with a need to make contact with something hard.
At noon, he steered clear of the parking lot where most of the men ate their lunch and instead went to the separate break room for management. Patrick LaBrie was at a table near the vending machine eating some kind of instant soup he’d heated in the microwave. Emmet pulled out the paper bag meal that Alice had prepared – a bologna sandwich, a bag of tortilla chips and an apple.
He worked on his sandwich in silence, then tore open the bag of chips with his teeth and commented, “Warshauer’s been driving the line pretty hard today.”
“Uh yunh,” mumbled LaBrie.
“Out in loading, they’re using the prods and making the hogs jumpy. You know, Pat, we can do, like, eight or nine a minute, but it gets going faster’n that and it causes big problems inside on the kill floor.”
LaBrie didn’t even look up from his soup.
“You ought to come by and take a look,” suggested Emmet.
“That’s not my job, Chapel.”
“The hell it isn’t. You’re USDA, it’s your job to make sure there’s compliance with The Humane Slaughter Act.”
Waving him off with his plastic spoon, LaBrie said, “Don’t start with me, Emmet. I’m on the other side the building looking at organs. I can’t leave my station.”
“Then send one of the other inspectors, and for Christ’s sake, don’t announce it ahead of time.”
“I don’t tell anyone else what to do.”
“Jesus, Pat. There’s shit goin’ on over there.”
“I don’t want to hear about it,” said LaBrie, closing his eyes behind his big glasses.
“Well, somebody’s got to do something. And if I start writing up violations that go in their file, I can’t get the men to work with me,” said Emmet, exasperated.
“Bullshit,” said LaBrie, wiping his mouth. “If you start writing up violations, Warshauer will fire your ass. That’s what’s bothering you.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do? I got a scared kid stunning the hogs because I had to take that psycho Vernon out and put him in loading, and now he’s out there ramming prods up the hogs’ asses. It’s not right.”
“Talk to Cimino.”
Emmet said hotly, “Cimino’s useless. He just wants to lay low until he retires with a big ole pension. Asking him to do something is like pissing in the wind. He never comes out to lairage to look at sick hogs, and he says he doesn’t control what happens on the kill floor. He’s a vet, for Christ’s sake, but he doesn’t give a crap about the animals.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said LaBrie stiffly, getting up to clear his place. “I have to get back to work. We’re all just trying to survive, you know?”
Emmet had a reply on the tip of his tongue, but when he looked up, Lawrence Cimino was standing in the doorway. Tension crackled between them as it became clear that the senior USDA man had overheard the last of the conversation. Emmet dumped the rest of his lunch in the garbage before brushing past him.
Throughout the afternoon, Emmet’s frustration built. There were no major mishaps, but the sight and sound of the hog screaming when Vernon jammed him … for some reason that stayed with him. The plain truth was that animals were being abused – beaten, prodded, stabbed – just to get them to slaughter. He kept picturing Jude Brannock and the way she squared off against him at the trailer park, the angle of her chin catching in his headlights, her eyes alight with a fierce determination to fight for something she believed in. But that image, however alluring, also reminded him of her purpose here in Bragg Falls. If Brannock got hold of proof of what was happening at the plant, he could lose his job. His car needed a new transmission, and just yesterday, he’d written a check for Caroline’s meds, which meant they’d have to shut off the cable TV and Will wouldn’t be able to watch his favorite shows.
LaBrie was right. The name of the game was survival and Brannock was putting everything he had worked for in jeopardy. The truth might be plain to see, but it wasn’t a simple truth.
By quitting time, the pressure on the floor had given Emmet a brutal headache and the pint of vodka in his glove compartment was the only release valve he had. Sometimes after work, he and Frank would sit in the parking lot at the Lazy Cat and finish off a bottle in the car before they ever went inside. Frank preferred his Jim Beam, but Emmet was convinced that vodka was less obvious on his breath when he got home. As the last of the day shift exited, he unscrewed the cap and with the bottle still in the paper bag, he drank deeply. The alcohol was smooth going down his throat, then followed with its comforting burn. He took another swallow and waited for the buzz, the release, the anesthesia that would deaden the pain.
He was down to a third of a bottle and still hadn’t started the car when he heard tapping on the driver’s window. He looked up and saw a familiar face.
“You’re Caroline’s dad, right?” asked the man.
Emmet slowly got out of the car. “Yeah, hi…”
“Vince Guarino. My daughter Rosie goes to school with Caroline.”
“Oh sure,” said Emmet. As he stood up, feeling the full brunt of the vodka, he had a vague memory of sitting next to Guarino at a track meet the year before.
“I just got a job on the cleaning crew,” said Vince. “My wife got laid off and I figured I could pull in a little extra income … working a second job at night.”
“Well, uh, glad it fits your schedule.”
“So, your family’s well?”
“Yup, and you?”
“Good, good. How’s your daughter doing in school? Junior year’s a tough one.”
“She’s fine.” Emmet forced a chuckle. “Could improve her grades some.”
“Tell me about it.”
Warming slightly to a fellow parent with a seemingly underachieving child, Emmet said, “Yeah, she could get straight A’s if she wanted, but she’s lazy. The only thing she seems interested in is her Italian class.”
“Yeah, she’s taking first year Italian. Always lugging around her text book and talking to her little brother in Italian.”
Guarino frowned. “Maybe you mean Spanish? Because they don’t teach Italian at the high school.”
Caroline sat cross legged on the floor, her back against the bed, her headphones clamped to her ears to keep her mom and younger brother at a distance. The music and the book in her hands were transporting her to another place and time. She got the travel book from the school library because of its vivid color photographs of Italy. She lingered at one particular picture – an early evening at the Piazza de Spagna in Rome. The sky was a silky blue and a gold, setting sun shone on a crowd of young people who milled about the steps of the Trinità dei Monti church. The scene was vibrant, yet peaceful, and even though the anti-anxiety medication was making Caroline nauseous, a sweet warmth moved through her as she pictured herself sitting on those same steps. In her imagination, her hair was grown out, long and luxurious; she wore a string of fake pearls and a flowing white skirt. She was sitting next to a handsome, funny Italian boy and they were laughing. Matteo maybe, or Bertrando. He was one of the group of friends she’d made in that glorious summer – the last summer.
The fantasy dissolved, as it invariably did, into the final scene. This time she was floating face down in the murky water of a canal, her skirt billowing out around her like a sail. Her friends clung to one another and wept on the embankment. Caroline closed her eyes and tried to feel what it would be like to be dead. Could she see what her friends were doing? Her parents? Would she be lonely?
Without warning, her father burst into the room, bringing with him the heat of fury. Her guard should have been up right away, but the medication had made her foggy; she merely raised her eyes without taking off her headphones.
“I swear to God, you will not lie to me again, Caroline,” he growled.
“What?” she asked, her mouth dry.
“Take those things off!”
Oh yeah. He hated when she kept her earplugs in when he was talking. She pulled them out of her ears and the present came back into focus. “What is it now?” she asked.
“Your Italian course,” he said darkly. “The one that takes all your time from your other work.”
“Oh.” She paled.
“You lied to me and you lied to your mother.”
“Well, I don’t think I actually told you–”
“Goddamn it, Caroline. You told us that you were studying Italian in school, and now I find out that they don’t teach Italian. Meanwhile, your other grades are going down the toilet. What the hell is going on?”
“I’m not going to fail anything, Dad,” she said peevishly.
“Don’t take that tone with me. According to your last report card, you’re damn close. You don’t get it. Life is hard. It’s not some gondola trip in Venice. It’s time you shape up, young lady.”
“I’m not going to fail. Get a life, Dad.”
His daughter’s petulance made Emmet angrier. He strode the few short steps across the room and snatched the book from her hand. “I’m sick to death of your lies and your morbid fantasies,” he snapped.
It was as if he had struck her.
You call me morbid? What about you? You kill pigs all day and come home reeking of blood and guts.”
“It pays for the roof over your head and the food on your table,” fumed Emmet.
Caroline thrust out her chin. “And is that the kind of life I have to look forward to? Live in Bragg Falls like you and eat fucking Hamburger Helper every night? If I work really hard, is that what I get? I get to work in a hellhole like you?”
Emmet pulled his hand back to slap her across the face. But he couldn’t do it. With no other place for his fury to go, in one quick motion he ripped the travel book in half. Caroline gasped.
“Don’t … ever … lie to me … again,” he said, tossing the mutilated book into the corner. He wheeled around and stormed out of the room.
Caroline crawled over to the book and tried to piece the two ragged halves together with trembling hands. Desolate tears fell on the happy tourists of the Piazza De Spagna, and where each tear landed, a tiny buckle appeared on the paper until the photo was unrecognizable.
* * *
When Jude arrived at the Lazy Cat, a small cluster of men hanging around the entrance were watching the red bubble lights of a Deputy Sheriff’s car pull out of the driveway and disappear down the road. Whatever had happened to warrant the arrival of the cops, however, seemed to give rise to more amusement than distress. The men parted to let her pass and she overheard a few of them still laughing about the incident as they got in their cars to go home.
Tonight she’d decided to take another crack at the Lazy Cat where alcohol might loosen some tongues. But the place was nearly empty. A few half-filled glasses sat abandoned on tables and the music was barely audible. Howard Bisbee was at the bar, examining his arm and dabbing at it with a wet cloth smeared with blood. The bartender, Nick, was on a hunt for a first aid kit.
Jude walked over towards Bisbee and saw a nasty red slice running across his forearm. “What happened here?” she asked, frowning.
Bisbee glanced at her, but didn’t respond. The first aid box appeared on the bar and Nick began to scavenge its contents. “Just your ordinary bar fight,” he said. “Some drunk says the wrong thing to a paranoid moron with a hunting knife. Happens all the time.”
“Oh, dear,” exclaimed Jude, then with a half smile turned to Bisbee. “Were you the drunk or the paranoid moron?”
“Neither,” he informed her.
“I’ve been expecting this for a while,” said Nick. “Vernon is a walking IED and I hope they lock his ass up for a long time. You going to press charges?”
“No,” said Bisbee.
Nick produced some gauze along with a roll of surgical tape and began to peel off a long strip. He looked around for a way to cut the tape and as he did, it became stuck to itself in several places.
Jude said, “Here, let me do that.” She took the stool next to Bisbee, who hesitated for a moment before surrendering his arm. “You probably could use some stitches,” she advised.
“I’ve had worse. It’ll heal up.”
“Your call.” Jude pulled the first aid kit over and found a tube of antibiotic ointment. She dressed Bisbee’s wound, tearing the sticky tape expertly with her teeth and using it to hold the gauze in place.
Nick leaned on the bar and watched. “You’re lucky he didn’t cut off a couple of fingers,” he commented. “That’s one big knife Vernon was whipping around. I sure wouldn’t have gotten in the middle.”
“I’m used to knives,” Bisbee shrugged.
“Guess working at D&M will do that for you,” Nick commented.
“The first thing you learn there is the value of a good knife.”
“Yeah, what’s the second thing?”
“You don’t want to work with a knife.”
Jude smoothed the last piece of tape over the gauze. “There, that ought to hold you.”
Meanwhile, Nick had disappeared into the back. He came out with three long neck beers, popped the tops, and slid two of them down the counter to Bisbee and Jude. Then he lifted his own. “Cheers.”
While he went off to clear the tables, Jude and Bisbee drank in silence. After a moment, Bisbee lifted his bandaged arm in acknowledgment. “Thank you,” he said.
“No talking about D&M, okay?”
“I wasn’t even going to ask,” Jude smiled. “We’ll talk about something else. So, where do you live?”
“Here in town,” said Bisbee.
“No, I live with my mother.” He caught himself and with a hint of amusement in his eyes, added, “Don’t get the wrong impression.”
“Mr. Bisbee, in my job I meet too many unusual people to stereotype anybody.”
“Call me Howard.”
“Okay, and I’m Jude.” She held out her hand and he engulfed it in his own with a firm handshake. “Is your mother in good health?”
“For someone seventy-five and worked as hard as she did, I guess.”
Jude stayed silent, inviting him to go on.
“My mom raised three kids by herself,” said Bisbee proudly. “She mopped floors and cleaned toilets at the school right here in Bragg Falls for most of that time.”
“Are your siblings able to help out?”
He shook his head. “My younger sister died of cancer awhile back and my brother went another way entirely. He won’t get out of jail for another ten years.”
“I guess that leaves you with a lot of responsibility.”
“It does, but I don’t mind. My mom’s grandparents were sharecroppers, sons and daughters of slaves, and she still carries that with her somewhere deep. She’s got a lot of pride and I’d do just about anything to keep her off public assistance.”
“Which is why you stay at D&M,” Jude proffered.
“What do you do?”
“Right now I’m a foreman, but I used to be a sticker – nine years, not all of them here. I was in Iowa for awhile.”
“That’s a long time on the rail.”
Bisbee gazed down at her with more than a little curiosity. “You know your way around a packing plant?”
“Once, for a few weeks on the cut line. I was undercover.”
Taking this last information with equanimity, Bisbee nodded. “How was that?”
“Horrible. The worst job I’ve ever done.” Jude took a big swallow and stared at the bottle, watching a drop of condensation drip down the side. “It was a kosher slaughterhouse. They took all kinds of animals … steer, sheep, goats. It was a much smaller operation than D&M so we were right next to the kill floor. I could hear the animals bellowing and could see them convulsing on the floor. You know, in kosher slaughter, they don’t stun the animals.”
“I … I didn’t know that.”
“Unhunh. Where I worked, they drive the animal into this contraption that holds the body immobile with just the head sticking out. The animal is looking around, but it can’t move. Then they up and cut its throat and wait for the bleed out. As that goes on, the animal collapses and drops to the floor. Sometimes it’s still writhing around, choking on its own blood while they rip out the trachea and esophagus and chuck ’em in a pail. All in the name of religious … purity, I suppose.”
Normally, she tried not to recall those painful, dark days. It was the only undercover she had abandoned for emotional reasons, and the sights and sounds from that time still hunted her down in her sleep. But that was in her early years with Gordon; she had, at least in the daylight hours, toughened up since then. “Anyway…”
Bisbee was moved. He liked this girl who had tended to his wound so competently and was so straightforward. Finally, he said softly, “At D&M we try to do it humanely, but I suppose it’s not much of an improvement. I mean, you know the animals suffer, and you … you shut your emotions off. Just can’t think about it.”
“How do you do that?”
“Don’t have to try, just happens. You spend enough time on the floor and you’re killing things, one every few seconds, you develop a shield that doesn’t let you care. You go dead inside. So many guys I know they can’t switch it on and off like a light, and they go home to their families still weighed down by that shield, don’t care about nothing. And why bother trying to fix that? You just gotta wake up next morning and do the same thing, over and over again.”
Jude’s eyes brimmed with tears, but the investigator in her swallowed them back. Bisbee wanted to tell someone – needed to tell someone.
She asked, “How about you, do you always carry your shield?”
“If I didn’t, I think I’d go out of my mind.” And with that, Bisbee drained his beer and got up. He mumbled a second thanks and offering Nick a vague salute, ambled out of the bar. Watching him go, Jude found herself wondering about the shield, the one that she was carrying with her every day.
A few minutes later, Jude headed out to her car and literally collided with Emmet, who was too busy replaying the scene he’d had with his wife to watch where he was going. Alice had seemed more wounded even than Caroline, but it didn’t keep her from lashing out at him. As midnight bore down, they argued outside the house so the kids wouldn’t hear. What kind of man would be so cruel to his own daughter? I don’t know you anymore, Emmet. I don’t know if it’s the drinking or what it is, but you’re not the man I married, and I’m not sure if you’re the man I want to stay married to. He vowed an apology to his daughter in the morning; he hung his head and made a half-hearted attempt to tell Alice the kind of pressure he faced at the plant. But his fumbling explanation came out short and bitter. He resented Alice’s constant fretting about the family’s finances that always made him feel inadequate as a provider. What do we do if you quit? she demanded. Already we can’t afford a second car or to fix the boiler. We can’t afford to go anywhere as a family, even to go out for dinner. Or God forbid, take a vacation. The list of failures was too much for him. Emmet made a run for the place where he knew he could forget.
And he nearly knocked Jude over as she was coming out of the bar. For a moment they were both stunned.
Emmet took a step back, crossed his arms and said, “Oh, it’s you. I would’ve thought you’d be back in Washington with your vegetarian friends by now.”
“Yeah, it’s me,” replied Jude tersely, brushing herself off as a symbolic gesture. “And don’t worry, I was just leaving.”
She started to walk away, but he stopped her. “Where’s Tonto?”
“Tonto?” She turned.
“Your furry sidekick.”
“What, you think I’m the Lone Ranger?”
“Might as well be.”
“For your information, I may be here in Bragg Falls by myself. But I am not alone in this. There are thousands, no, millions of people who understand that animals are beings that feel pain, have emotions, and are not just assembly-line widgets.”
“Millions, hunh.” Emmet turned his back and this time it was Jude who called after him.
“Do you know why the Lone Ranger used silver bullets? They were to remind him that life is precious and like his bullets, not to be wasted or thrown away.”
He walked back to where she stood, her breath coming out in misty puffs. The evening had turned cold and she had on just a light jacket zipped up to her chin. The reflection of the bar’s neon sign made the loose braid slung over her shoulder gleam like copper, and Emmet imagined that if he touched it, it might burn. There was that challenge in her eyes that had haunted him all day.
“Is that some kind of animal rights slogan or are you trying to tell me something?” he asked.
“Just thought if you’re going to speak in innuendo, I’d do the same.”
“Miss Brannock, I don’t know much about you, but I do know that speaking in innuendo is not your style.”
Jude had to smile. “You’re right. I don’t think it’s your style, either.”
“Shit, I’m not even sure what innuendo means.”
At that they both laughed, and Jude was taken aback at how his diffident, easy grin transformed him, making him look boyish and approachable. They both looked down at the ground and there was an uncomfortable pause. Jude finally broke it, saying, “Well, I guess I’ll see you around.”
“Don’t push your luck,” Emmet counseled with another broad smile. But she had gone only a few steps when his resolve failed. “Don’t go,” he called out. “Let me … I’ll buy you a beer.”
Against her better judgment, Jude walked back into the Lazy Cat, letting him hold the door for her.
Jude really didn’t want another beer, but when Emmet brought two Buds over to the table, she didn’t say anything, in uncharted territory as it was. She felt drawn to him and wasn’t sure why. He embodied something that infuriated her more than animal cruelty itself – the stubborn, defensive unwillingness to acknowledge it. But she didn’t think he was a cruel man and she latched onto the scar that cut across his cheekbone as a visible sign that whatever his activities at D&M, he had not escaped unwounded.
“Aren’t you worried that someone from the plant will see us together?” she asked, although the bar was practically empty.
“I’ll just say I was interrogating you.”
“What do you want to know?”
He eyed her for a moment before asking, “So you think animals should have the same rights as people?”
“That’s a philosophical question that quite honestly I don’t spend much time on. I think that debate should take a back seat to the more immediate and ongoing calamity, which is that animals are suffering terribly and unnecessarily for the sake of our fashion, entertainment, and yes, food.”
“Some folks wouldn’t agree with you, or just don’t care.”
“Of course. But I know that many more do care and would be horrified to know, for example, how pigs are raised. The sows kept in metal crates on concrete floors their entire lives, unable to turn around or engage in a single natural behavior. These are smart, feeling creatures and the confinement drives them insane. Three-week-old piglets snatched away from their mothers and castrated and tail-docked without anesthesia, or the ones too sick to make it, body slammed against a concrete floor until they’re dead … if they’re lucky … some of them just get thrown into the garbage while they’re still alive. You know as well as I do that it’s all standard industry practice. But most people have no idea what’s going on and that’s the way Marshfield and the rest of them want to keep it.”
“There are laws,” protested Emmet. “Humane Slaughter Act, for one.”
“Which is useless as long as it relies on profit-seeking companies to self-monitor.”
“We have USDA personnel at the plant.”
“Who, as much as the workers, rely on the good will of plant management to move up the ranks.”
Emmet thought about the times, especially in the last few weeks, he’d seen Frank Cimino reading the newspaper in his office while hogs were getting kicked, beaten … and worse. He passed a hand over his mouth as if to wipe away this discussion. “Didn’t really want to get into that,” he said. “I’d rather talk about you.”
“Well, this is me. This is what I care about.”
“And being you is a full time job, eh?”
“You have a family?’ he asked, glancing at her left hand for a ring.
“Not the kind most people have,” Jude replied. “And no, I’m not married.”
“None that would matter.” Registering his surprise at her curt answer, she echoed, “Didn’t really want to get into that. Suffice it to say, I was a ward of New York State.”
“It’s all right. I learned quite a bit about life during that time.”
“Is that how you got to be so tough?”
“I’m not that tough, trust me.”
“But you’re very single minded,” said Emmet, looking at her curiously. “We don’t see eye to eye on this animal thing, but you’re passionate about it. You’ve got a dream, a commitment, and I … I admire that.”
Jude lifted her eyebrows. “Don’t you? Have a dream, I mean?” When he took refuge in his beer, she pressed, “Seriously, if you weren’t working at D&M, what would you be doing? What would you want to do?”
“I don’t know…” He looked decidedly ill at ease with the question. But Jude drew her foot up to her seat, clasping her knee with her hands, and settled back to let him know that she wasn’t going anywhere until she had an answer.
He drew in a long breath. “I suppose I’d work for myself,” he said. “I’m pretty good with my hands. Me and Frank did his whole roof a few years back. I started out as a carpenter’s apprentice.”
She could see it. His hands were strong with long fingers – competent hands that could build things and fix them if they broke.
“Why’d you stop?”
Emmet chuckled, “You’re relentless, you know that? Damn, you remind me of Caroline … I’ll tell you a story about her. When I was still doing carpentry, one day she begs me to teach her how to hammer. She was six years old. Over my wife’s objections, I set her up with some boards, nails and a hammer and showed her how.” Tenderness softened the lines around his eyes as he remembered. “She was this tiny thing with a pony-tail; I remember she had on a yellow t-shirt with pictures of fish on it. She marches out with this fierce expression on her face and goes at it with that hammer. Like, Grrrr. And she’d get so mad when the nails bent over, but she never gives up. After awhile I pop a beer, sit back and watch. She was so determined. Kind of like you, I think.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, but you didn’t answer my question. Why did you stop carpentry-ing?”
“Money, what else?” said Emmet, shifting in his seat. “The work wasn’t steady, and I had a wife and kid to think about. Caroline was starting school and we were trying to have another baby… We can’t all follow our passion, you know.”
“Maybe not. But whatever you’re doing, you can stand up and fight for what’s decent and moral.”
A weary sadness came over him. “It’s easy for you to say. I try to speak up, but there’s only so much you can do. Look at Frank, he was always fighting with management and all it did was crush him. Toe the line with Warshauer and still keep the respect of the guys on the floor, it’ll squeeze you so bad you can’t breathe.” He looked at her evenly for a moment. “Maybe you think we enjoy hurting animals. Okay, every once in a while you get some crazy like Tim Vernon, but most of us don’t want the hogs to suffer. We don’t have the tools or the time to do it any different. If Marshfield wants to make a profit, they’ve got to hit the numbers – turn out so many head every day, keep up with the competition. Managers like me have to keep the line moving to do what the big bosses want, and the men on the floor have to do whatever it takes to keep the managers happy. That’s just the way it is. And I’ll be honest with you, I’ve done some bad things myself to those hogs.”
Jude let his confession hang between them for a moment. She’d felt compassion towards Bisbee, but didn’t want to let Emmet off the hook and wasn’t sure why. Finally she asked, “Are you looking for forgiveness?”
Emmet put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. “I don’t know, but I get the feeling I’m not gonna get it from you.”
“It’s not mine to give,” she said. In an effort to keep him engaged she put her hand lightly on his arm. Quickly she pulled it back, knowing they both felt it more intensely than the single touch of encouragement she’d intended. “Change is always possible,” she went on. “And the first thing is to tell the truth, let customers see what’s really going on at D&M so they can decide if that’s what they want. I happen to believe that if people knew, most of them wouldn’t stand for it. Frank also believed that; that’s why he made the tape.”
Looking up bleary-eyed, Emmet was torn. He wanted an end to this conversation, but more, he wanted the feel of her hand on his skin again.
“You were his best friend,” said Jude. “You must have known something about it.”
“Have you heard a word I said?” asked Emmet, digging in a back pocket for his wallet, along with the courage to push her away. “I don’t know about what Frank did and I don’t want to know. I’ve got a family and bills to pay. Besides, it’s too late. I grew up in this town. My parents are buried in the same cemetery as Frank. My whole life is here, and I don’t have any choice but to ride it out. Don’t you know by now? Nothing stops the chain.”
Carpeting soaked up the murmuring voices and the clink of silverware in the executive dining room. Seldon Marshfield and Richard Hillman sat away from the others at the CEO’s reserved table overlooking the sculpture garden where the midday sun played on modernistic granite forms.
“How’s the sole today, Jimmy?” asked Marshfield, perusing the leather-bound menu.
“Very fresh today, sir. I would recommend it,” answered the waiter.
“Then that’s what I’ll have.” With a broad smile, Marshfield patted his stomach. “Nothing to start. I’m watching my weight.”
Because he didn’t want to take up his boss’s time ordering a more extensive meal, Hillman said he’d have the same. But he knew a little piece of fish wouldn’t satisfy and dug into the bread basket as the waiter took their menus.
Marshfield checked his watch, then asked, “What do you hear from our friend in Bucharest?”
“It’s all taken care of,” replied Hillman. “He knows someone who works directly with the Minister of Agriculture and says he can get quick approval for the new facility in Prahova. The environmental regulations won’t slow our expansion.”
“How much is this going to cost?”
“Two hundred thousand.”
“Fine. Launder it however you think best. And what about Bragg Falls?”
On this subject Hillman was less confident, but tried not to let it show. “All in all, that’s going as planned. The girl doesn’t appear to have a copy of the tape. My guy, who has good tech skills, checked her computer, backup materials and handwritten notes. He made it look like a routine burglary at her hotel room.”
“I don’t understand why she’s still hanging around,” said Marshfield with a frown.
“She won’t for long,” assured Hillman. “No one is talking to her and we’ve got some pushback building in the community.”
“We don’t have time for that, Dick. I want the situation in Bragg Falls wrapped up quickly. I’m talking yesterday. In a few days the State Senate is going to pass the re-vamped Agriculture Terrorism Bill.” He shook out his napkin with great satisfaction. “The taking of unauthorized photographs or video at any agricultural facility will carry jail time. So will any distribution of the recordings, which is going to shut down these animal rights groups.”
Hillman was surprised. “I thought it was dead in committee.”
“Nope. Quite alive and approved by the Judiciary Committee.”
“What about Senator Gilbert? I thought he was holding it up.”
“Arnie Gilbert?” Marshfield dismissed the man with a flick of his hand. “Arnie is up for re-election. We gave nearly seventy-five thousand to his campaign.”
“I thought he had a pretty big bankroll himself.”
“Since when has it ever been enough?” chastised Seldon.
Hillman grunted a concession and helped himself to another roll.
“More persuasive, however, I secured him a seat on our Task Force at the Council,” said Marshfield, referring to the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, a corporate funded group that crafted pro-business bills for state and federal legislators. “Now he can have a bigger hand in writing the medical tort reform he’s so keen on.”
“I heard a few corporations have bailed on ALEC. They don’t like some of the bad publicity that’s brewing.”
Marshfield scrutinized his security director for signs that he knew more than he should. At the highest levels of corporate protection, in the shadows behind ALEC, only a handful of men made the rules. Seldon Marshfield was one of them; not even Hillman could have access. The CEO chose to ignore the comment and put Hillman back on defense. “A few more days we’ll be home free. Just get that animal lady out of there and make sure that tape never surfaces. Whatever you have to do.”
* * *
Jude looked up at the sign: Five Star Body ’n Paint. In the open garage, a young man in a paint splattered uniform was taping a sheet of plastic over the windshield of a sedan. A respirator mask, held in place with a rubber strap, had been pushed to the top of his afro.
“Excuse me, are you the owner?” asked Jude.
The young man grinned. “Just the hired man. Want me to git Mr. Clay for ya?”
“No bother, I’ll find him.”
She didn’t have to since the owner, a red-faced, jowly man in his fifties, strolled out from the office. “Afternoon, how ya’ll doin’ today?” he asked like a man who wanted to do business.
“Not bad. I saw your ad in the paper and wanted to swing by and get an estimate,” said Jude.
“How about we take a look see, then. Where you parked?”
Jude walked him over to the Subaru, which she had left in the semi-shade of a thatch of mimosa trees whose leaves were covered in a light film of spray paint. The first thing Mr. Clay noticed was Finn’s large head sticking out the passenger window.
“He’s a big fella,” he said. “Friendly?” Before Jude could answer, he exclaimed, “Fer cryin’ out loud!” He’d seen the writing on the car. “Who did that?”
“I don’t know,” said Jude.
Clay turned his head sideways to read it. “Your turn … son?” he queried.
Jude sighed. “I hope I don’t have to get the whole car repainted.”
He assessed the damage, closing one eye first, then the other. “We could do just the doors, but I can’t guarantee an exact match on the color. Might be better off with the full job, ma’am.”
“I’ll stick with just the doors. How soon could you do it?”
“We’re finishin’ up a couple tomorrow. Could get to it on Thursday.”
“Now the hard part,” said Jude. “How much?”
Clay chortled, “Bless yer heart. Don’t you worry, we’ll work out somethin’ for your budget. Why’nt you come inside and we kin write it up.”
He headed back to the office and Jude followed, working on an addition problem: this month’s rent plus her Visa bill, and now the cost of this paint job.
Five minutes later, estimate in hand, she crossed the front lot and saw the empty Subaru.
“Finn?” Jude felt the icy nails of fear rake down her back. “Finn?!”
The car was as she had left it, but he was gone. How was that possible? She’d only been inside the office for a few minutes and he couldn’t have gotten out … the window opening was too small.
“Finn! Here, boy. Come on, boy!” She whistled. Then called again and again. Anger crept into her voice in hopes that he was nearby and simply not responding. She ran to the area behind the auto body shop, then back to the road, praying she wouldn’t find him hit by a car. By this time, the shop owner and his young worker had come out to see about the commotion. Clay scratched his head and offered a couple of implausible scenarios: Finn had squeezed out the window or someone had happened by and fearing the dog was hot inside, let him out. But Jude knew that if he had gotten out he would have come looking for her.
Clay’s young worker finally said, “Maybe somebody took him.”
She had begun to believe that was the only explanation, but his words knocked the breath right out of her.