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.
Here are the previous installments if you’ve missed any:
Now without further ado, here are chapters 20-23!
The Chain (cont.)
Sheriff Ward wasn’t the only one with a sense of déjà vu. Jude could hardly believe that she was here again at headquarters filing her third complaint in as many days. Belva Hinson had her complete a short form and was sympathetic, having two Scottish Terriers of her own. But she explained that the department could not devote resources to finding a lost dog. “They usually turn up,” she said. Jude tried to explain that he wasn’t lost, that someone took Finn and that it was connected to the vandalism of her car and the break-in at her hotel room. Hinson would only go so far as to admit it might have been a “prank” and reasserted her belief from long experience that Finn would turn up.
As long as she was doing something, Jude was able to keep from imagining all the terrible things that could have happened to him. As she searched along the road where the auto body shop was located, a mile in each direction, she kept expecting Finn to come bounding around the corner at any moment. Every movement caught her eye and she’d stop and wait … just in case. In town she went into every storefront and asked, “Have you seen my dog?” In many blank faces she could see that it was as though she had inquired about a lost wallet or set of keys. They didn’t understand that Finn was a piece of her heart. Her best friend, her rock, her protector. Jude sometimes had to struggle to keep him from becoming a human surrogate – she respected his animal-ness too much. And he rewarded her not just with unconditional love and loyalty, but by being a living reminder of the ability of animals to feel pain, fear, and joy. Finn was everything that steadied and renewed her motivation to fight for all of them.
She mounted a one-woman search party, stopping off at the motel in case he had found his way back there. She made up a flyer with his photo, description, and an offer of a reward, then had copies run off at a print shop at the mall. More trouble ensued when she began to post them around town.
At the hardware and feed store, an assistant manager declined her request to pin a flyer to the bulletin board in the vestibule.
“We don’t let folks do that kind of thing,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” challenged Jude. “What are these?” She pointed to business cards and printed notices that offered everything from babysitting services to used cars to firewood.
He crossed his arms, revealing damp sweat stains at the armpits. “That’s advertising,” he proclaimed.
“So? I’m offering a reward, that’s advertising.”
The assistant widened his stance and reiterated his position. “No can do. Yours is different.”
Jude stormed out hoping that it was just this particular fellow being difficult. But a few other establishments on the block gave her the same treatment, and although she suspected the real reason, it didn’t become entirely clear until she got to Roy Mears’s diner.
“Why if it ain’t the animal rights lady,” he said when she came through the door.
Paying no attention to his sneer, she held up a copy of the flyer. “Mr. Mears, would you mind if I taped this up?”
“Damn right, I’d mind.” He turned his back on her to flip a hamburger on the grill.
“Please. This has nothing to do with the plant,” Jude entreated. “This is about my missing dog. It’s personal.”
“I’ll tell you what’s personal,” he shot back. “How you come here looking to put folks out of work. That’s personal to me.”
Letting her anger flare, Jude burst out, “I’m not looking to put anyone out of work. I came here to try and set some things right because apparently no one else really cares.”
At that, Mears turned mean. He lifted the sizzling hamburger patty on his long spatula and shoved it in Jude’s face. “So whiles you’re waitin’ on us to really care, how about a nice hamburger? A nice, juicy piece of cow flesh, running with blood and ripped right off its nice, fat ass.”
Disgusted, Jude turned her head away and muttered, “Jerk.”
Mears jabbed the spatula at her again. “I heard that. Get the fuck out of here, you terrorist bitch.”
Outside on the sidewalk, she found herself shaking and had to grab hold of a parking meter to keep her legs from giving way. Oh God, they despise me. Please, please, don’t let them hurt Finn. He didn’t do anything to them.
The town’s obvious hostility hurried her along on Main Street. She worked her way down one side of the street, then the other, attaching flyers to telephone poles and slipping them under the wiper blades of parked cars. It wasn’t long before she felt a presence behind her. She looked back and saw a familiar figure in a camouflage cap and coveralls following her – the same man who’d mimed shooting her and Daniel Vargas the other day. He ambled behind, hands in pockets, staying half a block back. He waited across the street while she asked to post a flyer inside a few stores, and was still watching her when she went into the convenience mart at the gas station.
The woman at the counter was a relief from the cold shoulder she had been getting. In fact, not only did she say she’d take a flyer home with her and show it to her neighbors, she offered a further suggestion.
“Did you stop by the paper?” she queried.
“Sure ’nuff. The Bragg Falls Chronicle has offices down off of Third Street, which is two blocks that’a way. There’s never much happens around here, so they don’t got a whole lot of news.” A grin deepened the spidery lines around her eyes into creases. “Might be your missing dog is a big story. Just kidding, but maybe they can print sump’n up for you.”
“Thanks. One more favor if I could.” Jude looked over her shoulder and spotted the man in the cap talking to someone in a pickup truck at one of the pumps. “You have an exit out back I can use?”
If she’d been driving, she would have missed it, but on foot Jude spotted the twelve-inch plaque for the Chronicle mounted on the side door of what appeared to be a residential home. She pushed it open and went up the narrow staircase to the newspaper offices, housed in a couple of renovated bedrooms on the second floor.
In the front office sat Caroline’s boyfriend Jack Delaney, whom she’d last seen on the ridge overlooking the plant. He was dressed in the same black t-shirt and jeans, but now his hair was pulled back from his face with a rubber band. He sat with his feet up on the desk, a sketch pad in his lap and a drawing pen in his ink-stained fingers. So engrossed in his design, he hadn’t heard Jude’s footsteps on the stairs.
His feet swung off the desk in guilty admission, but when he saw who it was, his slumping posture let her know that he regretted this minimal show of respect.
“I’m Jude, you remember? We met in the woods the other day. You’re Caroline’s friend.”
She wasn’t sure which of her statements he was acknowledging, but pressed forward. “Do you work here?”
“Is the paper daily, weekly, what?”
“I want to put in an ad or a notice.”
After a pause, Jude asked irritably, “Are you able to put a whole sentence together? With a subject and a verb and everything? My dog is missing and I want to get him back as quickly as possible.”
Seemingly unmoved by her sarcasm, he peered at her through half-closed eyes. “Same dog you had? The one Caroline likes so much?”
“Yeah, you jealous?”
He scoffed in response.
“When is the soonest I can get an ad in?”
“The print version comes out once a week. But we do an online issue every day.”
“Okay, can I get it in for tomorrow?”
Jack reluctantly put his pad on the desk and swiveled in his chair to face a computer. “If you don’t care about design or fonts or anything, just tell me what you want it to say. You have a picture?”
When she handed him a flyer, he said curtly, “No, I mean digital.”
“I have one on my phone. I can send it to you.”
He pulled up a form on the computer and his fingers hovered over the keys. “What do you want to say? Keep it under two hundred characters.”
“I guess … lost dog, dark brown except for some light brown fur on his muzzle and over his eyes. A little bit of white on his neck and chest, and some on his legs. He has a limp, his right hind leg. Let’s see … his ears flop over. He’s got a very … noble face.” Her voice cracked with emotion and she looked away in embarrassment.
“With spaces, you’re over two hundred characters,” Jack announced flatly.
“Fine,” flashed Jude. “Just say, ‘Stolen dog. Reward for return. No questions asked.’ What’s the matter with you, anyway? I thought you were a friend of Caroline’s, or are you also part of the militia trying to run me out of town?”
Chastened by her outburst, he tapped out the text on the keys, then eyed her over his shoulder. “It’s just, I don’t trust a lot of people.”
“That makes two of us,” replied Jude.
“Was he really stolen?” asked Jack in a more conciliatory tone. “Was it because of D&M … you know, did somebody take your dog as payback because of your investigation?”
“Yes, I believe they did.”
“It’s a shitty thing to do,” he said. “But I’m not surprised. You know, everyone in town in some way or other depends on the plant, including my dad with this paper. But for what it’s worth, I think you’re doing a good thing. Bragg Falls is my home and all, but well … me and Caroline think it’s a really filthy place to live, physically and morally. Last year, there was blood and pig shit and who knows what leeching into the creek, killed everything in it. Someone from the big ole United States government came down and made the plant pay a fine – the equivalent of a corporate speeding ticket. Still no fish in that creek. Can’t swim there, can’t even get close to it or you get sick. But somebody’s making money!” Jack smiled and began to sing in soft, mocking tones, “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies for amber waves of grain, for purple mountains–”
The door to the next room opened and a man with Jack’s build plus fifty pounds stood glowering in the doorway.
His son paled and the bravado fell away. He made as if they were in the middle of a transaction. “So, we’ll put it in like an ad. That’s forty-five, check or cash.”
Jude pulled out her wallet, but saw she was short. “Do you take credit cards?” she asked.
Mr. Delaney answered for his son, “Not unless you have an account.” The way he looked at her, Jude suspected he knew who she was. He confirmed it when he turned to Jack and asked pointedly, “Did you finish the layout on the second page? I have to get home and change. Your mom and I are having dinner with the Warshauers tonight.”
Jack actually blushed at the mention of his parents’ relationship with the plant manager, but he said only, “It’s done, Dad.”
The elder Delaney backed into his office but left the door open.
“There’s an ATM about three blocks over,” Jack advised.
“I know where it is. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” said Jude. “You’ll stick around?”
“Yeah, but make it quick. As you heard, my father’s in a hurry. Big dinner plans.”
She raced down the steps and along the sidewalks to the bank. At the ATM, she punched in her PIN number and retrieved the cash. But as she turned to go back, she came face to face with the man in the camouflage cap. Up close, Jude could see his deeply pockmarked skin and in the curl of his lip the years of torment from his peers that had nurtured a cruel streak.
“You looking for these?” he snickered, holding up a handful of flyers that he’d ripped down from the telephone poles. “Poor baby poochie is lost?”
“Get out of my way.” Jude tried to move around him, but he sidestepped in front of her. She looked around but there was no one on the street.
“You don’t listen too good, do you?” he asked.
“I listen fine. I just don’t respond to threats.”
He backed her up with his hands on her shoulders and pressed her into the brick wall of the bank. “Yeah, well, maybe you should.”
“Get your hands off me,” she warned.
“Or what?” he asked. Using his forearm to hold her, he moved one hand down to her breast and stepped in to push his pelvis into hers.
Jude let him get just close enough and then rammed her knee into his groin. She ducked under his falling torso to avoid a collision as he lurched forward, dropping to his knees and grabbing at his crotch.
“Or that,” she said. Then she bent down to speak directly into his ear and added, “And if anything happens to my dog, I will find you and finish the job. Do I make myself clear?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. But he couldn’t have given her one, not with his forehead pressed to the pavement.
Jude ran all the way back to the Chronicle, frightened not for herself but for Finn. If he was the one who had taken Finn, had she just provoked him further? With every footstep, regret for such an impulsive move dug itself deeper under her skin. It was beginning to dawn on her that she might not see Finn bounding around the corner – not ever. And the thought of him alone and injured or afraid was like being dragged under by a giant wave. The sky was turning orange and gray as the sun descended and the streetlights in town began to glow in anticipation of nightfall. She got to the house where the Chronicle had its offices and tried the door. It was locked.
“No!” screamed Jude. She grabbed the knob and rattled the door. “Jack? I have the money. Please open up!”
There was no sound from within. She pounded on the door, begging for it to open. But after a while, when it was clear that Jack’s father had shut the offices knowing full well that she was returning with cash, when it was clear that Bragg Falls had won again, Jude slumped against the door and let out a wail.
A few blocks away, a dog chained in someone’s backyard answered with his own lonely howl.
The gathering dusk hadn’t dampened Bragg Falls’ school spirit. Nor had the fact that the home team was down by seventeen points to start the second half. The band hammered out snatches of a recent pop song while a flock of brightly-costumed cheerleaders fluttered their pom-poms as they danced in the glare of the stadium lights.
Caroline sat on one of the lower metal bleachers with her hoodie pulled sullenly over her head, hands tucked under her armpits. Sophie had settled herself a few feet away and was checking the wrapper on a granola bar for the number of calories.
“Why can’t we tell her?” Caroline tried again. Although they’d had the same conversation a few minutes ago, she hoped the snack she’d proffered might put her friend in a better mood.
“It’s a private matter, I told you.” Sophie unwrapped the granola bar and ate a third of it in one bite.
Caroline threw up her hands in frustration. “What is your problem, Soph? She’d know what to do.”
“No,” Sophie insisted as forcefully as was possible with her mouth full.
“Why not? Come on, your dad would want us to.”
“No, he would most definitely not, so just drop it! I don’t want to talk about my dad,” cried Sophie, her voice becoming shrill. “And by the way, Jude Brannock doesn’t walk on water.”
“I don’t think that,” Caroline said darkly.
“Yeah, you do. It’s obvious,” said Sophie, going on the attack. “Everything is Jude this and Jude that. You meet her in the park, she comes over to your house for dinner, she’s soooo intense! Why don’t you go live with her?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Caroline.
Jealousy and anger hummed in the space between them as they watched the game in silence. Minutes later, two varsity cheerleaders strolled by. No doubt, thought Caroline, using their break to go fix their hair and makeup. One of them whispered to her friend and shot an undisguised smirk in Caroline’s direction.
“Yo, Nancy. You got somethin’ on your mind other than failing U.S. History?” Caroline threw out. She had to take it out on somebody.
Nancy stopped and leaned insolently into her hip, flipping a lock of blond hair over her shoulder. “Well, now that you ask,” she said, “I was just telling Raylene that my aunt is a hair stylist in town. She could, you know, fix your hair if you wanted.”
Caroline glowered at her. “I like it the way it is.”
“Suit yourself,” said Nancy, rolling her eyes. “I’m just trying to help.”
“No help to me if I end up looking like you,” Caroline retorted. To show her cool contempt, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a crushed pack of Marlboros that she was holding for Jack. She lit one up and pretended to inhale.
Nancy’s comrade weighed in, “Ooo, you can get so busted for smoking on school property, you know.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time,” Nancy happily reminded Raylene. “Caroline’s yearbook caption will be ‘voted most likely to fuck up.’”
Caroline blew smoke in her direction. “Yeah, and just like Paul Revere I’d ride ahead of you warning everyone, ‘the bitches are coming, the bitches are coming!’”
“You are so pathetic, Chapel,” said Nancy disgustedly.
“She’s not retarded like you,” said Sophie, finding her voice.
Affronted that the girl with the lowest status had dared to butt in, Raylene turned to her and snapped, “Why don’t you lose thirty pounds, then you can open your sorry, fat mouth.”
Sophie paled and looked to Caroline to shoot back a stinging remark. They were a pack – even if a small one – being attacked by the alpha girls. But Caroline wasn’t up to the task; she sat wordless, puffing away at her cigarette and allowing Raylene’s cut at Sophie to take full effect. Sophie waited for one more hopeful moment before grabbing her backpack and stumbling off like wounded prey. It wasn’t until Caroline saw the exchange of a victory glance between the alpha girls that she came alive. She tossed her lit cigarette at their feet. “Get out of here,” she warned, “before I knock you both on your ass.”
As they pranced off, Caroline shrunk into herself, knowing she had spoken too little, too late; loyalty was crucial against the dark forces in high school. But Caroline was still seething over her friend’s stubbornness. She looked around to track down a potential ride home and noticed a man sit down on the bench a few feet away. He was wearing a windbreaker and khakis, and with a pair of black framed glasses looked like any other parent, except a lot cooler, thought Caroline. His dark blond hair was cut stylishly long and he reminded her of an English movie star whose name slipped her mind.
He gave her an understated smile and asked casually, “How come Bragg Falls runs up the middle every single time? It looks like they’ve got a decent quarterback, why doesn’t he throw any passes?”
Programmed to be cautious around strangers, Caroline mumbled, “Apparently it’s the only play they know.”
“Ah,” he exclaimed, as if that was a satisfactory answer.
“They have a lousy coach, or so my dad says.”
“Your dad probably knows his football then.”
“Sometimes I wonder if that’s all he knows,” said Caroline.
The man laughed. “Aw, I’m a dad, too. Don’t be too hard on us. My name’s Dave, by the way. I coach up at the state university.”
He leaned over and held out his hand which was warm and strong, and when he flashed an infectious grin, Caroline blushed. “What do you coach?” she asked.
She sat up a bit straighter. “I run track, well … I used to.”
“No kidding.” He sized her up. “Yeah, you look like a runner. What’s your name?”
On the field below, it was third and eight, and the Bragg Falls offensive line ran a play up the middle for a gain of two yards. Dave stole a sideways glance at Caroline and made a point of trying to keep a straight face. Confederates now, she put a hand over her mouth to cover the smile that itched to break free.
“Excuse me, gotta call my wife,” said Dave, pulling out his cell phone. “Ah, shoot. No battery. And I promised I’d call her.” He looked to either side in case an answer to his problem lay within reach and then had an idea. “Say, Caroline, do you have a cell phone I could borrow just for a minute?”
“Sure.” She retrieved her phone from her hoodie pocket and handed it to him.
He started to dial a number and then stopped. “I can’t hear myself think with all this noise. Would it be okay if I made the call over where it’s a little quieter? Maybe you would keep your eye on my bag. I’ll be right back.” He slid a leather attaché case toward her feet, then got up and walked out of sight behind the bleachers.
Caroline wasn’t too concerned. If he was going to steal her cell phone, he wouldn’t have left his briefcase with her, and even she could tell from its buttery-soft texture and gleaming brass clasps that it was expensive. Plus, he was a coach at the state university. In any event, he returned before she had too much time to ponder.
“Thanks. You’re a life-saver,” he said, handing back her phone. “Well, I told my wife I’d be home by dinner, so I better hustle.” He picked up his bag and gave Caroline a friendly wink. “Maybe I’ll see you on the track team.”
The teenager was too young to spot deception, but old enough to be charmed, and when he left, she felt the weight of depression descend. To be on a well-coached college track team was like a dream, but she remembered that college wasn’t in her future. Fate had other plans … too bad, she’d never get to ask him how he lost part of his finger.
* * *
The stillness in the sanctuary enveloped Jude in a cloud of apprehension. She hadn’t been inside a church for a long time, unable to reconcile a Christian god’s call for compassion with the terrible things she’d seen some of these same Christians do to animals. The sign outside said it was a Methodist Church, and although Jude knew almost nothing about its doctrine, still she felt drawn to it in case some elusive deity might reside in an empty church and secretly care about lost animals.
Keeping her eyes on the giant gold cross behind the altar, Jude’s footsteps echoed on the flagstone floor and her fingers brushed against the ends of the wooden pews as she made her way down the center aisle. The doors had been left unlocked and the wall sconces were lit, so she supposed anyone could just walk right in. She slipped into one of the pews about halfway down the aisle. Before one prayed, did one have to atone for not coming to church? Would a simple apology do? From attending Mass in her early childhood, she remembered the words of several prayers, but felt like a hypocrite invoking them now. So she bowed her head and prayed the truth. God, I don’t know who you are or even if I believe in you, but if you’re there, please protect Finn. Maybe you won’t let him be with me again. I mean, I hope so, I pray so. But if not, just please don’t let him be in pain. Please don’t let him be in a cage or anything like that, he’ll be so scared. I … I really have nothing to offer you in return, but I’ll try to be a better person. Just don’t let him suffer. She tried to think of what else to say but couldn’t, so she ended with, Okay, thanks.
Footsteps from the back of the church interrupted the silence. Jude swung around, fearful that the man with the camouflage cap had come after her. But in the dim light she saw the figure of a small woman kneeling in the last row. Jude got up and tried to tiptoe up the aisle, so as not to disturb her. But the woman lifted her head as Jude brushed past her pew. It was Alice Chapel.
“Oh, it’s you,” she exclaimed, and then stammered, “I’m so sorry about … the other night. My husband was very rude.” She could hardly make eye contact.
“Please, no, I totally understand,” said Jude, feeling equally awkward. She had shared a beer with this woman’s husband just the night before. Nothing happened, but Jude could hardly deny the intimacy of their conversation.
“Emmet has not been himself since his friend Frank died, and he’s having a lot of trouble with Caroline,” Alice confided. “But that’s no excuse. He behaved badly, and that’s not who he is at all.”
“Mrs. Chapel, really, I–”
“Please call me Alice.”
“Okay, no apologies, please. I’m an animal activist. I get thrown out of a lot of places. Oh dear, that didn’t come out right.” As Jude tried to recover, she saw in Alice’s brief smile a glimpse of the young woman Emmet had fallen in love with and it made her feel as though she’d trespassed on their lives. “Well, I don’t want to intrude on your private time.”
“There’s nothing private in the eyes of God,” said Alice. “I actually came in to say a little prayer for Caroline. I think she needs more help than we can give her right now.” She looked searchingly into Jude’s eyes. “Do you mind my asking…” Jude was afraid Alice would make too much of her presence in church and request that they pray together, but she finished, “What are you doing here in Bragg Falls?”
Regardless of her beliefs, it seemed wrong to be dishonest in this place, so Jude told her that she was supposed to meet with Frank who had wanted to share certain information about animal treatment at D&M.
Alice looked away at the mention of the animals, unwilling to meet Jude’s eyes. “Is that what Emmet meant when he mentioned a video?” she asked.
“Frank documented some of the things that are going on with a hidden camera, yes.”
“Has … anyone found the video?”
“Not that I know of.”
Alice swallowed hard. “What do you think happened to it?”
“I really couldn’t say.”
Another question seemed to play on Alice’s lips, but after a moment, she dropped her head and mumbled, “Poor Frank. And poor Verna. I honestly don’t know what she’ll do without him.”
“They were very close?” asked Jude sympathetically.
“Goodness, yes. More than any couple I know.”
Jude rapped again on Verna’s door, louder this time. There had been movement inside the house, she was sure of it. “Verna, it’s me, Jude Brannock. Please open the door.”
A cold, light rain had begun to fall, beading up on the metal railing of the front steps and plastering leaves against the sidewalk. Jude blew on her ungloved hands, then balled her hand into a fist and pounded on the door. “Verna! Come on. I know you’re in there. I have to talk to you – it’s important.”
Next door a curtain moved aside, revealing a disapproving, wary face. When Jude responded with a forced smile, the curtain dropped back. Finally, Jude heard the chain on the lock and let her shoulders drop, only to realize that Verna had put the chain on to keep the door from opening more than a few inches.
“Go away,” said Verna gruffly.
Matching her brusqueness, Jude said, “You lied to me, Verna. You told me you didn’t know anything about Frank’s video. But I keep running into people who tell me how close you and Frank were, how deep your relationship was, and it got me thinking. That’s why you never seemed too upset about Frank keeping it a secret from you … because it wasn’t a secret, was it? You knew all along.”
The widow stared through the door opening like an animal trapped in a cage.
But Jude felt the same way and wouldn’t back down. “Look, somebody took my dog, and maybe they’ve killed him,” she said. “If it has something to do with the video, I deserve to know, and I’m not leaving until I find out. Why did you lie to me?”
“I didn’t know who you were,” Verna replied bitterly. “Frank told me he’d contacted someone at your organization. But he got the number from a website, for goodness sake. How was I supposed to know?”
“Who did you think I was?” demanded Jude.
“I thought maybe … from Marshfield.”
Verna conceded, “I believe you.”
“Would you let me in then?”
Jude leaned her forehead against the door frame trying to tamp down the frustration building inside. “At least tell me what happened.”
When Verna next spoke, she sounded less obliging than bone-deep weary. “I knew what Frank was doing. I’m the one who suggested it. No one was responding to his letters or his phone calls. He lost hope – the only thing he had that kept him going. No one would listen. His drinking got worse, he was angry all the time. One night we had an argument and he hit me. I told him, ‘Next time it’ll be Sophie, so you’d better find a way through this to save your soul.’ He decided to take them on himself, so he got one of those little spy cameras and started taping. I saw some of it – men beating the pigs with iron pipes, kicking them, putting their cigarettes out on the poor animals’ faces, and all the brutality of getting the hogs up on the chain, some of ’em still alive and struggling.”
Jude knew there was more and tried to draw Verna out, saying, “You know as well as I do, that kind of abuse goes on all the time, and not just at Marshfield. Frank captured something else. He said it was something explosive.”
“Yes, it was some conversation between Bob Warshauer and someone from the corporation. It made him furious and he was sure that it would really hurt Marshfield. He was going to play it for me but he never got the chance because Bob found out. He came to Frank and told him he was going to have to give it up – the camera and all the footage. He threatened him, threatened us.”
Jude broke in, incredulous, “He physically threatened you?”
“Not in so many words. But Frank got scared.”
“Why didn’t he go to the police?”
“And say what?” demanded Verna. “I’ve been secretly taping the operations of D&M – the industry that employs half this town – and now they’ve found out and are demanding I turn the tape over so I can’t give it to an animal welfare organization?”
“So they knew about me?”
“I think they did, but I don’t know how. Frank was supposed to meet someone that the company had sent from Raleigh last Friday night after work. We knew he was going to get fired, but he was going to try to get some severance out of them. Afterwards, he was supposed to call me and let me know what happened, but he never did. And I couldn’t reach him. I figured his phone died again.”
Jude wished that Verna would open the door and let her in, but as wet and cold as she was, she didn’t press it as long as Verna was talking. “The parts of the video that Frank showed you … how did you see it?”
“On his computer. He’d download each day’s footage on his laptop.”
“The same computer Sheriff Ward brought to you the day I was here?”
“Yes, but I looked and the video is gone. It’s like it was wiped off.”
Jude leaned in close to the crack in the door. “But the pain killer prescription and the research about fatal doses of oxycodone – that was on the computer. Do you think that really was Frank’s doing?”
“I don’t know,” Verna grieved. “He felt like such a failure when he got caught, like he’d let everybody down, and almost worse than losing his job, he was afraid he’d lose all his friends. At first I thought maybe it was too much for him. But he was a fighter, and in my heart of hearts I don’t believe he would leave me and Sophie like that.”
“If they weren’t Frank’s computer entries, who put them there?”
Verna’s answer came out haltingly, “Marshfield. Someone. I don’t think Bob Warshauer is smart enough to do something like that, but it’s a big company.”
“Could the Sheriff’s office be involved? Could they have erased the tape from Frank’s computer?”
“You’d have to ask them.”
As if Jude herself had summoned the patrol car with her question, a blue oscillating light swirled out of the darkness behind her. She looked over her shoulder to see one of the County Sheriff’s cars pulling up behind hers.
“I’m sorry,” said Verna. “I had to call them. I … I made a deal with Bob and I’m not supposed to talk to you.”
“A deal? He offered you money?”
Two deputies exited the patrol car, mirror images as they adjusted their trooper style hats.
“Don’t you get high and mighty with me,” hissed Verna angrily. “We don’t have Frank’s income, the life insurance won’t pay … what do you expect me to do? I have a child to think about.”
Jude remembered her last visit to Verna and the mess in the house. She had precious little time. “Did Frank make a copy of the video? Is that what you were looking for the other day?”
Verna looked beyond her at one of the deputies who was peering into the back of the Subaru, his hand lightly resting on his service weapon. The other deputy started toward Jude.
“Did you find it?” breathed Jude.
“Jude Brannock?” asked the deputy as he came up the steps. He knew very well who she was. “Brannock?” he repeated more forcefully. “You’re under arrest for harassment. Come with me.”
“Just one second, please,” Jude begged.
But he had already gotten out the handcuffs.
Verna’s frightened eyes appeared through the slit in the door and Jude caught a glimpse of her shaking her head. No, she hadn’t found a copy. Jude persisted, “Could Frank have given it to somebody? His friend Howard Bisbee? Emmet Chapel?”
“Put your hands behind your back.”
She closed the front door, but Verna’s voice came through loud and clear, “I don’t know anything about that. I can’t help you.” Whether it was directed at her or for the deputy’s benefit, Jude didn’t know. She put her hands behind her as he slipped a plastic cuff around her wrists and tightened it. “Let’s go,” he commanded.
The deputy took Jude by the elbow and steadied her when she tripped on the second step, “Watch out,” he warned, “it’s slippery.”
Yes, it is, she thought. Ever since she arrived in Bragg Falls – slippery and perilous.
Sheriff Ward’s keys jangled while he searched for the right one to open the cell door. Jude remained seated inside on a cot bolted to the wall, trying not to appear too eager. She couldn’t be sure, but from the exasperated look on the Sheriff’s face, he had probably been on the phone with Elizabeth Crowley, the attorney for The Kinship. Elizabeth – no one called her Liz – had that effect on a lot of people. As if by magic, she could pull legal arguments out of thin air, making opposing counsel flip through statutes in a fruitless effort to make his or her vanishing case reappear. Even when her motions and briefs were on shaky legal ground, she often got what she wanted simply by showing up. The long legs and flawless skin were combined with an elegance and grace that were downright intimidating … a vegan goddess.
“You’re free to go,” said Ward tersely. But he dragged his feet opening the cell door.
“You spoke with our attorney?” Jude asked.
“I did. I could have kept you overnight, but at this point, I don’t know which one of you I’d less want to deal with.”
Almost sympathetically, Jude said, “Elizabeth’s tough.”
“I’m sure it’s a necessity since you animal rights people must end up on the wrong side of the law pretty often,” said Ward. “But she’s not the reason you’re getting out. Verna Marino has decided not to press charges.” He opened the cell door and stood aside to let Jude pass.
But she didn’t move. “Can I talk to you?” she asked.
“You gotta be kidding.”
Hearing from Verna that the video had been erased from Frank’s computer raised questions about Ward’s connection with Marshfield and what, if any, involvement he had in Frank’s death. But a part of her believed that Ward was on the level and since she was already in deep, Jude decided to swim out even farther. “I’m not convinced that Frank Marino committed suicide,” she stated flatly.
The implied accusation hung in the air like a stink bomb and Ward moved into the cell as if he could block it from passing through the bars. He leaned against the wall opposite the cot and crossed his arms. “This better be good,” he said, his teeth clenched.
“I told you about the videotape that Frank made at the plant. Well, I think he got something else on the tape besides the systematic animal abuse that’s going on inside.”
Ward just stared at her.
“You have to understand, part of what we do is getting footage of this kind of institutionalized cruelty, and there’s plenty of people who don’t want to see that come to light. Folks around here have made that very clear to me. But Frank discovered something potentially more damaging to Marshfield, something that went beyond the industry’s systemic abuse. He as much as told me so. And Marshfield was aware of it. They found out what he had – I don’t know how – and tried to coerce him into giving up the video, his camera, everything.”
“Did he give it to them? Whoever them is…”
“I think he probably did.”
“So if he gave them what they wanted, why murder him?” Ward cracked his knuckles, decidedly unimpressed with her theory.
“They couldn’t be sure there wasn’t a copy made. And if there was, only Frank could authenticate it. The video loses value in court without testimony about how, when and where it was made–”
“I’ve been in court, Brannock, I know what authenticate means. You may think that because you’re from the big city that we’re hicks down here.”
“You didn’t let me finish,” insisted Jude. “Without Frank, the video could well have had evidentiary problems at a trial, but it doesn’t mean it would fall flat in the court of public opinion. In a few days, the state legislature is going to pass a bill that makes it a felony to record or distribute photographic evidence of animal abuse at places like D&M. All well and good for Marshfield long term, but as soon as that bill goes to the Governor for his signature, the media’s ears will be up, and if they’re not, my organization and some others will make sure they are. We hand over footage of the kind Frank made, a lot of people are going to look real bad. Marshfield can protest that it was fabricated all they want, but the proverbial shit will have hit the fan.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that Marshfield cannot let anyone get their hands on a copy of Frank’s video – particularly me.”
Ward pushed himself away from the wall and for a second, Jude worried he might strike her. But he simply leaned into her, the muscles in his jaw twitching as he ground his teeth. “And what makes you think there is a copy of this alleged videotape floating around?”
She’d couldn’t discern if his demand was arising from a police officer’s natural desire to get to the bottom of things or from a corrupt need to find out what she knew so he could take it back to Marshfield. Either way, there was an intensity in his eyes that stopped Jude cold and she felt her confidence wane. “I surmise that there is … uh, someone searching my hotel room,” she stammered. “… the threats to me, my dog…”
His eyes burned into her as he said, “We did a thorough investigation that will hold up in any court of law. Frank Marino committed suicide and you’ve said nothing to make me think differently. You and your whole organization – you make a living at conspiracy theories. You got something solid, give it to me. Otherwise, I don’t want to see you again.”
With that, he strode angrily down the hallway, leaving such a trail of hostility that she hesitated to follow. But after a moment, she figured she’d better take advantage of the open cell door and get out before he changed his mind.
* * *
The Sheriff’s final words should have hastened her departure from Bragg Falls, but she wasn’t leaving without Finn. Jude went back to the motor inn, parking her car around the side where it couldn’t be seen from the road. After double checking the chain on the door, she called in.
“Elizabeth sprung you from the slammer, eh?” asked CJ. “Any news on Finn? Gordon says he’ll send someone down if you need. Finn’s our hero, you know.”
“Thanks, but I’m not sure that more activists in Bragg Falls are going to help.”
“Whatever you need. Listen, I learned something. I did a check on that company PharmaRX where Frank allegedly bought the pain killers. It’s legit, well legal anyway, a Mexican drug dispensary. Anyone can go on line, fill out a form and they’ll have one of their so-called doctors authorize a prescription. I verified Frank’s purchase, but here’s the thing … there’s no confirmation that the order was actually filled and shipped. I did a little scam on the shipping department and they had no record of anything going out to Frank Marino.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s not conclusive, especially since most of the people operating the company don’t speak English. But it could be that the oxycodone that killed Frank didn’t come from PharmaRX and that someone down there got paid off to enter a phony prescription request into their computer. That entry might be enough to throw the cops off if they decided to look into it. Speaking of computers, did you ever get a chance to look at Frank’s?”
“No, but I found out from Verna that she saw parts of the video on his computer shortly before Frank died. When the Sheriff returned the computer that the cops found in the car, the file was gone.”
“Somewhere in there it got erased,” concluded CJ.
“I guess. So…”
“Frank could have erased it … or someone in the Sheriff’s office. You did tell me that he showed up awfully fast when you were taking photos of the plant. How did he know you were there? Could be D&M is cozy with the local Sheriff.”
Jude recalled how defensive Ward had been when she hinted at foul play in Frank’s death. “It wouldn’t be the first time,” she said somberly.
“Let me add one more thing,” broached CJ. “It’s possible to use a restore option to backdate new input.”
“Give it to me in English.”
“Okay. The order to PharmaRX purportedly sent from Frank’s computer? The searches that Frank did on oxycodone? I’m speculating, but if someone who knew what they were doing got their hands on his laptop, they could make it look like he placed the order and did the searches before he died, when in fact the information was input at a later date.”
“You mean input after he died. How could they do that?”
“Well, you set the specified program back to an earlier date … you really want me to explain how to do it?”
“Not really. But I do want to understand what you’re implying … that someone might have doctored Frank’s computer to make it look like he was contemplating suicide?”
With that troubling question still hanging in the air, Jude promised to check in later. She shut off the lights and sat on the bed, trying not to imagine her life without Finn, trying to forget the slow march of helpless creatures driven through an assembly line of pain and fear, trying not to think about the impenetrable wall of power and secrecy behind which the Marshfield corporation operated.
She wasn’t aware of having dozed off until she heard rapping on the front door. She sat up on the bed and glanced at the clock. It was almost midnight. The knock came again and she swung her feet over the side and tiptoed to the window. Through a slit in the curtain she saw a man at her door. She recognized the slope of his shoulders and drew back, her mind racing.
“Jude, it’s Emmet Chapel,” he said softly.
Could he possibly know something about Finn? She opened the door as far as the chain would allow. Emmet stood framed in the doorway, hands dug deep in his jeans pockets.
“Is this about Finn?” she asked.
“No … no. Can I come in?”
“No,” replied Jude. But her voice, even on the single syllable, wavered. The investigator in her was now wide awake.
“Five minutes. Please, I just need to talk to you.”
Jude slid the chain off its track and opened the door. He walked slowly to the bed and sat on the edge as she turned on the overhead light. The stark glare magnified the lines in his face and the gray at his temples. He held up his hand to shield himself from the unforgiving light and Jude switched it off, leaving them barely illuminated by the glow of the streetlights straining through the thin curtains. She perched warily on the desk opposite him.
“How did you know where to find me?” she asked.
“Everyone knows you’re here.”
She barked out a short laugh. “Great. What do you want?” she asked.
When he looked up, she could see the longing in his eyes and her apprehension came flooding back, not because she felt threatened, but because she felt the same longing.
“You shouldn’t have come,” she said.
He nodded, but made no move to leave. “I needed to see you,” he breathed.
Jude put up her guard although he looked as worn to the bone as she felt. “I thought we covered this,” she said harshly. “I’m not in the business of human salvation. I barely keep my head above water doing the work I do. Besides, someone stole my dog who I love very much and to be honest, I’m just hanging on right now.”
“Do you know who took him?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” said Emmet. “Maybe I can help.”
“Maybe you can. Why don’t you start by telling me about Frank Marino.”
Confusion creased his brow. “What are you talking about?”
Jude felt reckless, as though she were speeding through a dark tunnel, unwilling to slow down until she saw daylight. “Were you with him the night he died?” she asked.
“Yeah…” Emmet replied uncertainly.
“In the car.”
“What car? You mean his car when he took an overdose? Christ, no! I was with him at the Lazy Cat. I never saw him after that.” When Jude continued glaring at him, Emmet exclaimed, “What are you implying? That I had something to do with Frank’s death? Are you crazy, he was my friend.” Emmet’s injury seemed genuine and it took a moment for him to see where she was going. “You still think Frank was murdered, don’t you?” He dropped his head in his hands. “The video … that goddamn video. Well, it wasn’t me,” he said, his words muffled.
“It crossed your mind that they killed him, though, didn’t it?” asked Jude.
A grieving sigh escaped through his hands and he shook his head. She didn’t know if it was because he didn’t know anything or because he wouldn’t say.
“Are you okay?” asked Jude more gently.
“Could I have some water?”
She went over to the kitchenette, filled a mug with tap water and brought it over. He took it gratefully and drank. “Frank was right, it’s very bad there,” he finally said.
“At the plant? I know.”
“No you don’t,” he said. A bit of light caught his eyes and in them a look of desperation. “Something happened today.”
He didn’t speak for a long time, and when he did, his voice sounded hollow. “I had to put Tim Vernon back on the stunner. The new kid couldn’t handle the pressure and was slowing everything down. I thought Vernon was going to be okay, I really did. But at the end of the shift, this guy named Crank and another kid drug in a sow from outside. No one knew why she couldn’t walk, it didn’t look like she was disabled – she just looked used up. I heard Crank yelling, trying to get Vernon over to where the sow was laying to stun her. Vernon was blowing them off, saying he wouldn’t leave his area and stun a pregnant pig. And Crank gets in his face and calls him a ‘bullshitter,’ says he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, which is the wrong thing to say to Tim Vernon. I didn’t really hear what else they said … it all happened so fast. But before anyone can stop him, Vernon takes his hunting knife and goes over to the hog and slices her belly open. And he’s right. There’s piglets spilling out onto the floor and they’re alive!
“That might have been the end of it, but Vernon points his knife at Crank and says, ‘What did I tell ya, asshole?’ and starts to walk away like … nothin’ happened. Maybe Crank was juiced, but he jumps Vernon from behind. By the time we get him off, they’re both cut bad and it’s all a bloody mess.”
Jude put her hand over her mouth.
“It’s my fault. Vernon’s a psycho, but I put him back on the job. He’s the only one who can get them through fast enough.” Emmet raked the hair back from his face with both hands. “And then fucking Warshauer comes down to the floor and screams at me. You know why? Not because there’s a knife fight on the floor, not because some poor pregnant sow with babies in her belly gets cut open while she’s still alive – because I shut the goddamn line down. I stopped the chain.”
The words poured out of him, breaching a protective wall. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go,” he broke down. “I don’t even know who I am anymore. All I ever wanted was to provide for my family and the harder I try, the more they hate me. Alice is scared. And Caroline is so messed up – there’s something wrong with her. My son Will is the only one who still believes in me … but he won’t for long.” A single tear oozed from his eye and trailed along the scar on his face.
Jude went over and sat next to him. She touched the tear, feeling it dissolve into her skin, and then unable to help herself, she traced the vivid, white scar gently with her finger.
Emmet caught her hand and held it to his cheek – then to his mouth. He kissed her palm, the inside of her wrist, and began to move his lips along her inner arm with a tenderness and need that aroused something deep inside her. Jude weakened in the wake of his sensuality. God, how she missed being with someone who wanted her. So many nights in sterile hotel rooms, isolated as an investigator or camouflaged as an undercover. When his mouth found hers, she yielded. Their kiss was deep and long. But finally Jude pulled away and their eyes met – it was wrong and they both knew it.
“Please go,” she said, sure that if he didn’t leave now, it would be too late.
If he had reached out one more time, the night might have taken them both in its arms and rocked them onto a different path. But he didn’t. The bed creaked when he stood, the sound nearly covering the soft buzz of his phone. As he headed to the door, he pulled it from his back pocket and stared at the screen.
He closed his eyes. “What is it, Alice?” His back straightened and he swore softly. “I … I’m at the hospital checking on someone from work. Yeah, I’ll be right home.”
When he hung up, Jude asked, “Is something wrong?”
“Don’t worry, it’s not your concern.” Emmet walked out of the hotel room without looking back.
* * *
It felt like forever, but it was only minutes later that Jude’s phone rang. Entirely spent, she had no expectation, no intuition left. She didn’t even bother to look at the number on the screen, but answered it dully, “Yes?”
“Is this Jude?” She recognized the voice. “This is Jack Delaney. I think I know where your dog is.”