Last month, we brought you darling flock members Chapters 1, 2, and 3 the new novel, The Chain, by Robin Lamont. We will be rolling out the rest of the novel throughout the next few months. Today we bring you Chapters 4, 5, and 6. Hope you enjoy…
The Chain (cont.)
Emmet pulled into his new parking space near the office entrance, one of the spaces reserved for floor supervisors. Still dark at five thirty in the morning, the lot behind him was filling rapidly as the day shift filed in. Someone had left their lights on and he could see a parade of dull-eyed, slack-faced workers passing through the beams. He walked through the same employee entrance he had used for seven years, but this time breezed past the line of men and women waiting to pick up their blue coveralls and equipment for the day. Eyes and throats were starting to burn, a reaction to the chlorine used to clean the gloves, boots, and knives. A few of the men nodded to Emmet. He knew a handful by name, most by sight, but there were always new faces.
Grabbing a yellow hard hat and a uniform, he went down the corridor to the men’s locker room. Metal doors clanged as the workers hung their coats and replaced their leather Wolverine lace-ups with thick-soled rubber boots. Emmet acknowledged the two men next to him. He liked Joe Lovato well enough, the youngest of the two and a new dad. But Tim Vernon was scary strange. Underneath his ever-present Bulls City Burger cap, he wore his long hair in a greasy braid that went to the middle of his back. He was rangy and skittish and often had the look of someone listening to a voice in his head that was not his own.
Lovato was all over Vernon’s case after what had happened yesterday. He pointed to the bandage on Vernon’s hand and asked, “They give you a rabies shot for that?”
“Nope. They jist gimme pills.” Vernon scowled back.
“I still say that’s one of the most hilarious things I ever seen. The look on your face,” laughed Lovato, remembering. At the end of the shift, Vernon had reached into the bottom of his locker and been bitten by a rat. They were all over the plant.
“Yer a twat, you know that?” spat back Vernon, not in the least bit amused. “Where you are, you’re probably gonna get infected with MRSA.”
Lovato backed off; he knew that Vernon was easily provoked and carried a hunting knife strapped to his thigh. But in a boisterous mood and not ready for the walk to the evisceration area, he tried to keep the conversation going with Emmet. “How’d you get that?” he asked him, indicating his scar.
“Fillin’ in for the sticker one day,” replied Emmet as pulled on his boots. “Big boar comes rolling down the chain kicking and hollering. I thought I stuck him pretty good, but when I turn around to do the next one, he kicks me from behind. Whapp! He smacks my knife arm, which shoots up and I slice my own head. There was more of my blood on the floor than his.”
“How many stitches?” This was an important figure for comparison purposes.
Vernon, who had been brooding in front of his locker, broke in. “I can beat that.” He pulled up his shirt to reveal a jagged, red line along his back. “Forty-two,” he announced proudly. “Hog falls off the chain and starts running around the floor. We’re trying to kill the sonofabitch any way we can. I finally get the sucker down and whiles I’m zapping it, the shackle wheel jumps off the chain and rakes me good.”
“That’s nothing,” exclaimed Lovato. He pushed up the sleeve on his flannel shirt and showed off an ugly puckered scar that ran the length of his inner arm. “Almost had my arm tore off.”
Vernon frowned, fearing this kid would beat him in the scar department. “Hog did that?”
“Nah, installing a car seat for the baby.” Lovato let out a guffaw and Vernon, feeling duped somehow, snatched up his things and moved down the row.
With the men still filing in, Emmet decided he had time for a cup of coffee. He donned his hard hat and clattered up the grated catwalk that led to the offices on the second floor. There he ran into Patrick LaBrie, the chief on-site inspector from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was waiting for a fresh batch to brew.
“Hey, Chapel, you look good in yellow. Probably matches your liver,” crowed LaBrie, who was wearing the red hard hat of a USDA inspector. The workers all wore white or gray helmets, operations managers yellow, and USDA personnel red – it made them easier to spot when they came onto the floor.
Emmet wasn’t in much of a mood to banter. He reached past LaBrie and pulled the glass coffee pot out of its mooring before it had finished dripping, letting the brown liquid flow onto the hot plate where it sizzled and sloshed down the sides. He poured himself half a cup and put it back.
“Good morning to you, too,” said LaBrie, affronted. It hadn’t occurred to him that Emmet might still be feeling raw after his friend’s suicide. But everything about LaBrie was dense, not just his social skills. He had thick lips, a wide nose, a massive head of hair. The lenses of his black-framed glasses were so thick, Emmet used to wonder how close he had to put his face when doing his job – inspecting the hogs’ heads, carcasses, and organs for signs of disease or contaminants.
Finally it dawned on LaBrie and he said, “Terrible thing about Frank.”
Emmet nodded. “Yeah.” The sound of the machinery cranking to life precluded further comment. Between the hammering of the compressors and shriek of the lines, it became impossible to hear each other speak. “Chain’s startin’,” said Emmet loudly.
“See you around,” yelled LaBrie back, slapping his red helmet onto his big head.
Emmet began outside and headed around to the back of the plant. A breeze from the west brought with it notice that the trucks were waiting – the rotten egg smell of sulfur mixed with the sharp tang of ammonia from the pig manure. The sounds of snorting, squealing hogs grew louder.
There was a new driver Emmet didn’t recognize helping to unload the last of the stragglers from a forty-footer. His face was red with frustration because some of the sows wouldn’t budge from the truck, most likely because they couldn’t walk. One had a huge abscess on her foot, another looked like it had a broken front leg and was barely able to drag herself a few feet. But they were in better shape than the one that was splayed on the truck bed near the cab – probably dead. The driver gripped a heavy plastic paddle in his elbow-length glove and smacked the sows repeatedly to get them moving. Frightened and confused, they staggered one way then another, crashing into each other and the walls of the truck, anywhere but down the ramp.
“Goddamn it!” screamed the man in pain after one of them ran into his knee. In his fury, he pulled a three-foot metal pipe from the wall of the truck and struck the offending animal on the back. Desperate to escape him, she scrambled down the ramp into the lairage pen with the others. Cursing, hollering and pummeling the pigs on any body part he could reach, the man finally got all the live ones out. Then he turned his attention to the dead pig and fastened a chain around her neck, preparing to drag her.
A skinny wise-ass nicknamed Crank, tagged for both his regular use of uppers and his quick temper, was watching along with his white co-worker on the lairage crew. They were enjoying the show. Every time one of the pigs escaped the trucker, they hooted and laughed, infuriating the man even further.
But Emmet was now a yellow hat. “C’mon! Let’s get to work,” he yelled.
Crank pushed back with a big grin on his face. “Shit, Chapel’s management now. A supah-visah! Hey, how’s the little girls’ room on the second floor? Nice ’n pretty?”
“You’ll never find out, asshole,” said Emmet.
Crank thumped his chest and crowed, “I love the smell of pig shit in the morning!” He looked around to see if anyone appreciated his bravado, but many of the guys out here were Latino and if they understood, they didn’t show it. They kept their heads down and went about their business.
“Get over here, Crank,” yelled Emmet. He was inspecting the nearest pen, lot twenty-seven, packed tight with the sows just unloaded. They were in bad shape. Some were just skin and bones, the spines protruding from their backs like jagged saws with huge teeth; many had wounds that had abscessed, ears torn, and hacking coughs that suggested pneumonia. “Where’re these hogs from?”
The young man shrugged, then called out the question to the trucker. The answer came back and Emmet shook his head in frustration. “I thought we weren’t taking any more pigs from Heritage. They treat their animals like crap. Look at that.” He pointed to a sow that had collapsed by the railing and was being trampled by the others in the overcrowded pen. Truth was, Heritage Farm wasn’t even the worst of them, and Emmet had seen thousands of sick and crippled pigs come down the line. But now he felt more of a responsibility.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get it down the chute,” reassured Crank, stepping over to kick the downed sow, who had only the strength to grunt.
“It shouldn’t go down the goddamn chute until it’s been looked at. Could be infected,” exclaimed Emmet. “Where’s Cimino?”
Every slaughterhouse was required to have an on-site veterinarian from the USDA in addition to the meat inspectors, and it was the vet’s job to monitor the animals for signs of disease that might make them unsuitable for slaughter.
“He hasn’t gotten out here yet,” said Crank.
Emmet knew it was a waste of time, but he pulled out his handheld radio to page Lawrence Cimino. The vet should have already been out to look, but these days he took his time. To Emmet’s thinking, Cimino was a lazy, self-satisfied old fart who didn’t care about anything or anyone but himself. On the surface he came across as a kindly country doctor with tufts of gray hair on either side of his balding pate, but he was soulless at his core. The vet was sixty-three and retiring in less than a year; all he wanted was to finish out the job without incident and collect his pension.
When he didn’t get any response on the second try, Emmet pocketed his radio. The crew was already corralling hogs into the drive alley, the passageway from the pens to the single-file chute that led to the stun area. The wild-eyed pigs didn’t want to go. They balked at the dark tunnel and at the distressed squealing of the others around them. Several struggled to walk. This was a load of breeding sows who had been confined in metal crates their entire lives; their legs just weren’t strong enough to walk the hundred feet down the chute. Some of them outright refused – they could smell death up ahead. It took five men with paddles to move them forward.
“All right. Let’s go, let’s go!” shouted Emmet, turning away. The chain was up and running, more trucks were waiting to unload, and he was worried that the line had already gotten off to a slow start.
Jude knocked on the door of Frank Marino’s house, a pre-fab ranch hardly bigger than a doublewide trailer. Black mold dotted the aluminum siding, but a power washer had been set up to attack the problem and the surrounding shrubs and flower beds looked carefully tended. Jude straightened her light winter jacket and smoothed back wisps of flyaway hair to look more presentable.
A tall woman with an overbite, wearing cherry-red lipstick and matching nail polish opened the door. Jude had seen her at the funeral.
“I’m sorry” said Jude. “I didn’t realize Mrs. Marino had company.” She turned to leave, but the woman stopped her.
“No, come on in,” she said cheerily and led Jude back to a small kitchen where Verna Marino and an older woman sat at a table covered with Corningware casseroles and tinfoil-covered cookies and pies. More condolence food was heaped on the counters.
Verna looked up when Jude entered and though they had never met or spoken, there seemed to be a glint of recognition in her eyes. Perhaps it was just kindness, thought Jude, so as not to make her feel like an interloper in front of the ladies who had obviously come by to pay their respects.
“Mrs. Marino, my name’s Jude Brannock,” she introduced herself.
Without skipping a beat, Verna introduced Oma Burney, the older woman, and Patty Warshauer, who had let Jude in. They were both from her church, she explained.
“I don’t want to interrupt,” said Jude. “I can come back another time.”
Rising from her chair, Oma Burney waved her off. “I have to go and take care of some things,” she said smoothly. There was a momentary hitch when it became apparent that Patty Warshauer was too curious about Jude to follow her lead, but Burney took care of that herself. “Come on, Patricia. I want to show you the fabric I got on sale.” Verna walked them both to the door, thanking them for their kindness and reminding them of their Bible study meeting later in the week.
When she returned, Verna stood in the doorway. One could tell that she struggled with her weight and there was a guardedness in the way she carried herself, perhaps a result of being married to a man whose fierce honesty so often created turbulence. “I saw you at the cemetery. You should have come to the house afterwards,” she said to Jude kindly. “Did you know Frank?”
“I spoke to him a few times on the phone,” said Jude.
“Would you like some coffee?”
“That would be nice, thank you.” Jude was grateful that Verna was trying to put her at ease. She wished she had the kind of people skills that she admired in others, but for her that kind of fluency came only around animals, who were far more predictable.
After Verna brought coffee in a cup and saucer, she settled across from Jude, who got right to the point. “I work for an organization called The Kinship,” she said. “Your husband contacted us about two weeks ago to report what he felt were ongoing abuses to the pigs at D&M Processing.”
Verna’s inviting smile remained in place, but her face seemed to have frozen into a more intractable expression.
“You’re aware of what he did at the plant?” asked Jude.
“Of course, I used to work there myself,” said Verna.
“What did you do?”
“I worked on the cut floor.”
“Trimming shoulders.” Verna mimed three swift cutting motions with her right hand, each one with her wrist at a different angle. “I did that for seven hours a day, six days a week, for five years.”
“Why did you leave?”
Verna rubbed her wrist. “I developed tendonitis and had to stop.”
Jude nodded in understanding.
“I can’t actually do much with my right hand anymore,” continued Verna. “Even gardening for a few minutes, it acts up.”
“And your husband was on the kill floor?” asked Jude, more comfortable now in her role as investigator.
“He worked different jobs. They rotate them around.”
“He told me that, among other things, animals at the plant are being beaten and kicked, sometimes dragged along the ground by their legs or necks. He filmed it.”
“He what?” Verna’s eyes darkened.
“You didn’t know?” asked Jude. “Yes, he contacted our organization and told us that he had a lot of footage. He was going to turn it over to us. That’s the reason I came to BraggFalls. I was supposed to meet him.”
Verna paled, then looked away and rubbed her temples, perhaps, thought Jude, trying to erase the idea of her husband’s secretiveness.
“I guess he didn’t tell you.”
Verna shook her head adamantly. “No, he never said anything to me.”
Feeling as though she had stumbled into a marital secret, Jude wasn’t sure what to say except, “I’m so sorry about what happened.”
“Frank got hurt on the job last year – his back,” said Verna. “He was in quite a bit of pain. The doctor prescribed something and it seemed to help, but I had no idea that he was taking so many.”
Jude took Verna’s honesty as an opening and asked, “He died of an overdose of painkillers? They can be deceptively powerful, I suppose.”
“I’m sure he knew that, but…” the new widow’s eyes filled with anguish, “he was under a lot of stress this last year, between his back and the death of his mother and us trying to make it on one paycheck. Oh Lord, I wish I’d gotten through to him that night.” As if Jude might blame her, she added defensively, “I tried to call him twice, but he didn’t pick up or maybe his phone had run out of battery again. He … didn’t complain very often, but I think his back was getting worse. And now you tell me about him filming. How in the world could he get a camera in there? If they found out, they would’ve fired him. I’m only pulling in worker’s comp and we got our daughter …” she trailed off.
Jude stayed silent as Verna stared out the kitchen window at an empty, swaying clothesline. Finally, she continued, “You know, pigs are not bad creatures, they’re playful and real smart. Before here, we were at one of the hog farms. The sows, you know … you try to drive one of ’em into a tiny crate, she’ll fight you. Make no mistake, they know what’s going on. If one of them escapes from its crate when you’re not around, she just might go down the whole row and unlatch the others, too. Oh yeah, they’ll do that. Maybe that makes them more compassionate than us.” Anger tightened the corners of her mouth. “In my church, our pastor says that God’s grace is everywhere. But I can tell you God’s grace is not in that slaughterhouse. Not there.”
Verna seemed far away and Jude was trying to think of a way to bring her back when someone knocked on the front door. It was a uniformed officer. He had on the gray shirt and navy tie of the CountySheriff’s office and carried a leather satchel. His neatly-combed hair and mustache were mostly white, and he wore the practiced expression of a man who was used to delivering bad news.
“May I come in, Mrs. Marino?” he asked respectfully, although he was already stepping inside.
“It’s not Sophie, is it?” breathed Verna fearfully. Her daughter was supposed to be in school.
“No, it’s not. I’m sure she’s fine.”
“What is it, Sheriff?”
He cast a questioning glance at Jude from the corner of his eye, and Verna quickly caught it.
“Sheriff Ward, this is Jude…”
“Brannock,” Jude finished for her.
“Maybe we should talk in private,” suggested Ward to Verna.
But his unannounced presence at her doorstep augured more grief and fearful of bearing it alone, she said staunchly, “You can speak in front of her.”
Ward capitulated. “First, let me say how sorry I am about Frank. He was a fine man, Mrs. Marino.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I’m afraid that with any unnatural death, we have to investigate. And … uh … we found something in his car.”
Frank’s body had been discovered on Friday night, his car parked off a dirt road by an old country store, long abandoned and boarded up. The deputy who found him had been making routine rounds at three in the morning, spotted the car, and thinking it was kids doing things kids oughtn’t to be doing checked it out. The car was locked, Frank slumped over the wheel. The deputy banged on the window and when he got no response, took a crowbar to the door. The initial findings from the CountyMedical Examiner were respiratory failure due to “mixed alcohol and oxycodone toxicity.”
“Was Frank getting his painkillers from his doctor?” asked Ward, shifting gears.
“Yes. Dr. Shepard.”
“And do you know if he was getting the prescription filled locally?”
“I suppose, why.”
“Would you happen to have his medication here?”
Verna was beginning to bristle with impatience. “What are you getting at?”
“Well, we found an empty pill bottle in his car. It wasn’t from Dr. Shepard and it wasn’t from a pharmacy around here. It was from a place called PharmaRX. You ever heard of it?”
“No, but what does that have to with his death?”
“The bottle we found listed the dose at 30 milligram strength and we know that Dr. Shepard was prescribing the 15 milligram ones. Frank might have been taking extra pills. We also found this in the car,” he said, bringing out a laptop computer from his satchel.
“That’s Frank’s,” exclaimed Verna, wide-eyed.
Ward said, “I think I need to show you something.”
They went into the kitchen, where Ward sat at the table, adjusting his leather gun belt to fit the back of the chair. “It looks like he did make a purchase from PharmaRX a couple of weeks ago,” he said, pointing to the screen. Then he clicked on a box at the top of the screen and pulled up a history of sites visited by the user. “These are all websites and chat rooms that he visited recently,” he said. There was a list of a dozen links, and as Ward scrolled through, they described sites that discussed oxycodone overdosing. Ward landed on the last – an interactive page where people could post questions and get answers from others out in cyberspace. At the top of the page was the written inquiry: What is a lethal dose of oxycodone in opiate tolerant people?
The normally rich color drained completely from Verna’s face. Her mouth moved silently almost in prayer before she finally was able to manage, “Are you telling me that my husband committed suicide?”
Ward didn’t respond directly. Frank’s intent seemed clear.
The corporate headquarters of Marshfield Industries had the feel of a well-endowed southern college. Every mahogany arch and cream-colored cornice was meticulously designed, the oriental rugs on the richly varnished floors hand picked. But for all the old-school charm, modernity was not lacking. When Ned Bannerman, back from his regional tour of Marshfield’s meat packing plants, rang the buzzer of an unmarked door on the second floor, his image was captured from several angles by hidden, state-of-the-art security cameras. He had to wait until he was cleared before the door clicked open.
A guard at the desk directed him around the corner to another closed door. This one was marked with a gold plaque: Richard Hillman, Director, OSM. When Bannerman entered, Hillman was sitting at his desk. He was in his fifties and looked like an army man who had let himself go. His suit jacket hung open to reveal a sizeable paunch and the broken blood vessels across his nose and cheeks marked him as a man who liked his whiskey. But his eyes were sharp, as were his knife-edged planning skills. One of the few people who reported directly to Seldon Marshfield, his was the Office of Systems Management – a nebulous title for Marshfield’s corporate damage control.
“Have a seat,” said Hillman, waving to a burgundy leather chair opposite the desk.
“How’s your short game these days?” asked Bannerman. The regional VP usually carried himself with the confidence that would be expected of a thirty-nine-year-old MBA who had been instrumental in putting the company back into the black after the economic slump. But in Hillman’s unaccommodating presence he wasn’t quite as sure of himself. Trying to break the ice, he chuckled, “A funny story … I was on the ninth hole over at Brier Creek–”
“Save it for the board, Ned,” interrupted Hillman brusquely. “Let’s talk about this D&M video fiasco. Go over for me again how it all started.”
Bannerman was under no illusion that the OSM Director wasn’t already fully aware of the circumstances and would further choreograph whatever moves were necessary, but he knew that Hillman liked to make people – even his own people – repeat their stories so he could look for inconsistencies.
Clearing his throat, Bannerman began, “Well, one of the employees reported seeing a co-worker around the pens when he wasn’t supposed to be there and it looked suspicious. That same worker had a history of sending out complaints, so the plant manager Bob Warshauer was worried he might have brought in a camera. He instituted bag searches, but nothing turned up. Somehow, Bob figured out that this guy had made a video inside.”
“You’re aware, Ned, that this guy, Frank Marino, recorded the conversation between you and Warshauer. We got it off Marino’s computer and I’ve listened to it. What the hell were you thinking?”
Flushing deeply, Bannerman said, “I don’t understand how it could have happened. We were behind closed doors, no one could hear us.”
“Marino was in the crawl space below the building.”
“What was he doing down there?”
“He was putting out rat poison, and apparently air ducts from the office carried your message from Seldon loud and clear right onto his camcorder.”
“Oh, Jesus.” Bannerman ran a hand over his face. “I had no idea, I swear. I … I was there on Seldon’s behalf–”
Hillman waved off any further explanation and continued, “Moreover, we learned that Marino planned to turn over the recording to a woman from an animal rights organization who, as I understand it, is on her way to Bragg Falls, or possibly already there.”
A sheen of sweat broke out on Bannerman’s forehead and upper lip. The situation was getting worse by the minute. “How … how did you find out about the recording?”
“Bob Warshauer called me directly and I had Marino’s phone calls monitored.”
As if that was the most reasonable thing to do, Bannerman nodded and asked, “What’s going to happen?” He tried to keep the anxiety out of his voice, but it was damn difficult, knowing that Hillman enjoyed taking him down a notch.
“Oh, I didn’t tell you?” asked Hillman innocently. “Marino turned over the video, and his camera, too.”
“Before the animal rights people got it?”
“Yes, Ned, we believe so. And just so you know, her name is Jude Brannock. I haven’t had any dealings with her, although I know her boss Gordon Silverman. He’s tenacious as hell, and these activists are a nagging problem right now. Still, their resources are minimal, so if Brannock doesn’t get any cooperation or information, she’ll have to pack up and go home. It’s imperative that no one at the plant talk to her. I’ll deal with Bob Warshauer on that.”
The sense of reprieve that washed over Bannerman almost made him lightheaded, but he did manage to ask, “What about Frank Marino?”
“Ah, yes,” Hillman heaved a dispirited sigh. “My heart goes out to his family. Apparently there was a suicide. Such a tough, tough thing to deal with. You never know what’s in a man’s mind. Not really.”
Bannerman’s relief was cut short. Suicide? Shifting in his seat, he felt his trousers stick to leather. He didn’t know what to make of this information, but there was no way he was going to inquire. He was dangling off a ledge and Hillman would decide whether he’d get pulled up or pushed off.
Abruptly, Hillman ended the meeting. “You hear anything, keep me posted.”
A moment after Bannerman left, a man stepped into the office through a side door. There was an almost boyish look about him. He had a taut, muscled body and sandy brown hair parted on the side so that a lock almost always fell disarmingly over his brow. Today he was dressed in a pair of four-hundred-dollar Cucinelli chinos, tasseled loafers costing double that, and a black t-shirt from The GAP.
“I suppose he’ll figure it out,” remarked Hillman.
“You’re right, it doesn’t matter,” said Hillman. “Bannerman’s greedy. He plans to move up from regional to sit at Seldon’s right hand. I’m still concerned about the recording, though. Do you believe Marino, that he didn’t make a copy?”
“After I made a single copy for you, I did everything we discussed. Relevant files were deleted from his computer, and others were added. PharmaRX records will show the order put on Marino’s credit card. There won’t be any problems. Did Marino make himself a duplicate? I didn’t know the man, but he seemed ready to put everything behind him for the sake of his family.”
Hillman relied on Bloom’s uncanny ability to read weakness, which is why he went with the hired gun’s assurance that in a stressful situation Frank Marino would do almost anything to have a drink. In this instance, a drink that had been doctored while Frank was in the Lazy Cat. Nevertheless, Hillman rubbed a nervous hand across his desk, as though he were wiping away a film of dust. “If there is a copy down there we cannot let Brannock or anyone else get their hands on it. Even without Marino, if it got turned over to the media … I don’t even want to think about it. Because we’re not going to let that happen. Stick around BraggFalls for now,” he instructed. “Keep tabs on the situation, but low profile, yes?”
Bloom didn’t answer, busy removing a speck of lint from his trousers. His fastidiousness came off as preening, but Hillman was unfazed by the overt narcissism; it was part of what made him as good as he was. Besides, he had only to glance at the missing chunk of Bloom’s left pinky finger to remind them both that mistakes could be made.