The Big Finish, страница 1
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Also by James W. Hall
About the Author
The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.
—George Bernard Shaw
IT WAS A BRISK, MOON-DAZZLED November night when Flynn Moss and several of his closest friends were gunned down.
For a week, they’d been camping in a forest of evergreens on the bank of the Neuse River in eastern North Carolina. Might sound picturesque, but it wasn’t. Nothing like the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains a day’s drive west, or the gorgeous sweep of dunes and squeaky white sands two hours east along the Outer Banks. These woods weren’t the least bit scenic, and neither was the flat, barren terrain surrounding them. And good lord, Pine Haven, the nearby town, if you could even call it a town, was as hellish a shithole as anywhere they’d staged an operation in the last year. Even the desolate coal mining settlement of Marsh Fork, Kentucky, was idyllic in comparison.
As for Flynn, he was once again nursing an acute case of homesickness, the familiar gnawing ache in his chest, the hard magnetic pull of the seaside city he’d cherished since he’d drawn his first breath. At the moment their campsite in the Carolina forest was just shy of eight hundred miles from Miami. Eleven hours by car, a long damn way. But somehow it felt even farther. Like suspended animation would be required to travel the light-years back home to the blue waters and soothing sunshine and those exquisite breezes flavored with nutmeg and cloves and ripening mangoes.
Around the dwindling campfire the other three were silent, everyone on edge, waiting for Caitlin to return. Late in the afternoon she’d received an SOS text from one of the two Mexican farmworkers she’d recruited as spies. Their attempt at espionage had apparently gone bad.
With a grim face, Caitlin had set off alone to discover just how bad.
Hours later, the group had settled into a fidgety hush. All the others had finished their dinners, while Billy Jack was still polishing off his third helping of baked beans. A brawny guy with black hair and a neck thicker than Flynn’s thigh, Billy Jack had played football for Auburn. But after shattering an opponent’s jaw in an on-field brawl, Billy Jack was tossed from the team and would’ve spent a stretch in jail except his girlfriend’s dad bribed the injured man to drop the charges.
Caitlin was that girlfriend. A fragile, high-strung belle, Caitlin started out as a true believer, a nature-loving free spirit who’d impulsively enlisted in the Earth Liberation Front minutes after hearing one of Cassandra’s rousing recruitment speeches near the Auburn campus.
Caitlin dragged Billy Jack along on the righteous adventure. Caitlin full of idealistic rebellion, Billy Jack simply along for the ride. But in the last few months their romance cooled, and while Billy Jack’s thrill for combat kept him engaged in the group’s efforts, Caitlin lost her fervor for the cause. Recently she’d confided to Flynn that she’d been sneaking phone calls to her daddy, and the old guy was begging her to cut loose and head home. A new BMW was waiting for her, no questions asked.
In the twelve months Flynn had been a member of ELF, he’d seen recruits come and go, so her departure wouldn’t be surprising. But Cassandra would be pissed because Caitlin had proved to be remarkably adept at using her powers of enchantment to the group’s advantage. Gaining access to people and opening doors that would have stayed shut without her southern charms.
On the log beside Billy Jack, Jellyroll was hunched over his laptop, his fingers flying. Twenty years old, he looked thirteen. A black kid from Philly. His mother dead, father serving life in some supermax joint in Virginia, Jellyroll was the group’s computer geek. Back in July he’d first appeared at a fracking protest rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, sidled over to their group, and to establish his hacking credentials he presented Cassandra with her entire FBI dossier on the same laptop he was using tonight.
“Half of this is total bullshit,” she said when she finished reading.
“No worries,” Jellyroll said. “I’m a wizard with the delete key.”
By midnight, the dinner plates were cleaned and stowed, the fire was down to a red glow, and the moody silence had grown deeper.
Flynn said, “I’m going to look for her.”
“No, you’re not,” Cassandra said. “We stay together.”
“She’s in trouble,” said Flynn. “She should’ve been back hours ago.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” said Billy Jack, “if that girl hasn’t run off. Been months since her last manicure, those raggedy nails are driving her batshit.”
“Probably her right now.” Jellyroll motioned at the dark tangle of woods, the wobble of a flashlight heading up the trail.
Everyone rose and stood flat-footed, waiting.
Moments later Caitlin came thrashing out of the woods, halted abruptly, and washed the beam of her flashlight over their faces.
“It’s over, we’re finished,” she said, panting from her run. She stooped forward, hands on her knees. “They caught Javier, they’ve got his camera. We need to get the hell out of here. And I mean right now.”
Cassandra squatted by the embers, waved for Caitlin to quiet down.
“Whoa, girl. They’ve got Javier’s camera? You’re sure?”
“Jesús told me one of the security guys spotted the wristwatch, made Javier take it off, figured out what it was, and dragged Javier away. Jesús is scared he’ll be next.”
The tiny spy camera embedded in the wristwatch had remarkable clarity for something so small. They’d bought the two watches from an online dealer. USB interface, four gigs of flash memory, audio recorder. A battery that could last for two hours of continuous recording. A hundred and fifty bucks for each.
“Took him away?” Jellyroll was using one finger to slice and dice the touch pad on his laptop. “Is that a euphemism? Like they killed him?”
Caitlin said she wasn’t sure, but it was likely, very likely because these people were fucking scary, far more dangerous than anyone they’d encountered before. She circled the dying campfire, behind everyone’s backs, repeating over and ove
“Take a breath, Caitlin.” Cassandra came to her feet. “Slow breaths, deep. Count them; one, two, three, four.”
Technically the group had no leader, but Cassandra was the oldest by a decade and had by far the most experience in the movement, plus she had an intimidating-as-hell glare framed by wild and abundant red hair, so the others deferred to her, even Billy Jack.
“Okay, I’ve finished the edit,” Jellyroll said. “Fifty-six seconds long. It’s rough, but there’s good shit here. This could kick some serious ass.”
Flynn moved behind Jellyroll and the others crowded in to see.
“Did you hear me? We need to go,” Caitlin said from across the fire. “If you don’t want to, fine. But I’m done. I didn’t sign on for violence.”
“So go,” Billy Jack said. “You see anybody trying to stop you?”
“Javier knows where we’re camping,” Caitlin said. “If they torture him, he’ll confess. They could be on their way here right now.”
“Play it,” Cassandra said to Jellyroll. “Let’s see what we got.”
A few days earlier Caitlin, who spoke basic Spanish, had recruited Javier and Jesús and gave each a watch and a hundred dollars to wear them on the job. Both were senior workers, eight years at the Dobbins Farm with free access throughout the facilities. But Javier was either too nervous or too hurried to follow the training Caitlin gave him, various ways to keep the camera steady.
Despite the jumpy, off-angle images, the video was decent. It started with an establishing shot, the Dobbins Farm sign in green and gold. Then the bouncy drive up the entrance road. Javier with his arm out the truck’s window, capturing the manure ponds, the giant Rain Bird sprinklers shooting arcs of hog shit over a pasture. Not a pretty sight, but nothing criminal.
Then a jump cut took them inside a containment barn. Noisy hogs full-grown, restless in their tight cages, jostling, snorting, biting each other, scarfing down food, shitting in their pens. Then another cut. A quick shot of Burkhart dragging a sick hog by its hind legs out of a pen and into the concrete passageway, then using a hand sledge to kill the animal. Two hard whacks to its skull. The animal on its side bleating and squirming. Two more whacks.
Some of the other hogs were bumping the bars of their pens in protest. Ten seconds of ugliness, fairly mild compared to the undercover videos Flynn had seen online, hogs being hung by their necks on steel cables, hogs covered in bleeding sores, their legs giving way under their unnatural weight, left lying helpless, some truly horrendous shit, all of it perfectly legal. Excluded from state cruelty laws, farm animals were regularly subjected to sickening abuse. That was part of the group’s mission, to share the revolting realities of industrial food production and put pressure on state governments to change those lax cruelty laws. Make it hard for the public to ignore what was going on.
The video moved to a new location. Javier was entering a greenhouse, a gold Dobbins logo over the doorway. He walked slowly down the rows of tall flowering trees, their ghostly trumpet blooms facing downward. After three or four seconds scanning the blooms, the camera turned to the ground, showing the gravel path where Javier was walking, and a quick image of another Mexican worker passing by. The worker was wearing a surgical mask.
“Great shot,” Cassandra said. “Rising tension.”
Javier entered a door at the far end of the greenhouse, passed by the drying racks that were hung with blooms, and took a seat at a long table where a row of other men were working. All of them in similar surgical masks. Then a few seconds that showed the entire pill room.
The camera was badly tilted, but Flynn could still make out what was taking place. The man sitting beside Javier at the table poured a test tube of fine powder through a paper funnel and filled a small hole drilled into a block of wood. Then the worker inserted a brass tamping rod into the hole, tapped it twice with a rubber-tipped mallet, tapped it again, then turned the block of wood over and shook the block until a bright red tablet fell onto the table in front of him. Then the worker scraped the pill into a jar with dozens of other similar tablets and began the process again. A primitive production line.
“Bingo,” said Billy Jack. “We got us some major felonies.”
The video flickered and ended.
Everyone was silent for a moment. Caitlin moaned to herself and stepped away from the others.
“I thought we were here for the hogs,” Flynn said.
“We were,” Cassandra said. “But this trumps the hogs.”
“Sure,” Flynn said. “Maybe this could shut Dobbins down, send him to jail, but even if it did, it’s a one-off. It doesn’t do anything for the big picture. That shot of Burkhart killing the sick pig, that’s the stuff we’re after, animal cruelty, not some pissant drug operation. That just muddies our message.”
“Dobbins is a big deal. Take him down, it’s a blow to his corporate bosses, a blow to the industry.”
“They’ll say Dobbins was an outlier. Throw him under the bus. Their hands stay clean.”
“How do we know that?” Cassandra said. “Maybe Pastureland is fully aware of what’s happening at one of their farms and they condone this. Maybe they’re even getting a cut.”
“They make billions on pork. Why risk a sideline in dope?”
Jellyroll raised his hand like a kid in class. Cassandra nodded his way.
“If I’m going to post the video to YouTube, we need to drive over to Goldsboro to hijack a wireless signal.”
“Use your damn smartphone,” Billy Jack said. “Post it tonight.”
“File’s too large. Need a wireless connection. That motel we stayed at last week, we could get a room, take showers, upload the video, then blow this taco stand.”
Billy Jack was all in for that. Scrub off the putrid hog stink.
“You deleted the video from the watch, right, Jelly? Before Caitlin gave it back to Javier?”
“So even if they have the watch, they don’t know what we’ve got.”
“Big deal,” Caitlin said. “They know we’ve been spying. They’re bound to think the worst. They’ll come for us. I know they will. We’re finished.”
“Once it’s on YouTube,” Jellyroll said, “we send a link to the authorities. Maybe use Flynn’s FBI contact. Someone like that.”
“Your buddy Agent Sheffield will handle it, right? If you ask him nice.” Cassandra was smiling, giving Flynn some shit.
“He’s not my goddamn buddy.”
“Okay, your father’s buddy.” Cassandra and Thorn had crossed paths last year. Sparks flew, but not the romantic kind.
Flynn Moss was the product of a one-night stand between Thorn and April Moss, Flynn’s mom, a fact both father and son discovered by accident a year ago. Flynn had grown up without a father and had no interest in having one now, especially this guy. A hard-core loner, Thorn lived in a primitive cracker house along the coast in Key Largo and tied custom bonefish flies for a living. The guy came across as mellow, living the laid-back life, but puncture the veneer, piss him off, endanger his friends, and molten lava spewed. The guy could flare so hot it was scary. Flynn had to admit he admired that. The lava part. A year after their first meeting, Flynn still didn’t want or need a dad, but damn it, he wished he’d inherited more of Thorn’s latent ferocity.
Jellyroll said, “I’m going to post on the message board. Not a mayday or anything, just let our associates know where we are, the broad outline, you know, in case some bad shit happens and we go dark.”
“All right, that’s it, goddamn it, I’m leaving,” Caitlin said. “I’m packing my gear and taking my canoe.”
“Happy paddling.” Billy Jack shot her a grin. “Watch out for white-eyed rednecks strumming banjos.”
Cassandra walked over to Caitlin, took hold of her shoulder, swept back her hair, and leaned in close. Cheek to cheek, Cassandra spoke for half a minute while the others watched. Caitlin’s panicked expression slo
“Okay, okay,” she said. “One more night.”
“We’re tired, we’re spooked,” Cassandra said, facing the group. “A lot’s been going on. But I don’t think we have anything to fear from these yahoos. We’ve heard their kind of bluster before. Let’s just absorb this news, get some rest; tomorrow we’ll consider our options, figure out the best way to help Javier. He’s been loyal. We can’t just leave him and Jesús hanging.”
“Fuck ’em,” Billy Jack said. “They got paid. They knew the risks.”
* * *
Flynn had first watch. He sat cross-legged with his back against a pine. He’d chosen a spot fifty yards from their campsite on the north bank of the Neuse River.
That Monday before Thanksgiving, the night was crisp and a bright full moon dusted the branches with a silvery powder, enough radiance for him to keep watch on the narrow trail that led to their campsite. Only that one way in. These woods were too snarled with thickets and vines for anyone to sneak up on the camp from another direction.
Cassandra and Caitlin were in their sleeping bags, stretched out side by side on beds of pine straw, Billy Jack and Jellyroll in the hammocks they’d rigged inside the group’s Ford van.
Flynn was armed only with a whistle. If he heard anyone approaching, he’d blow it twice, a signal for the group to abandon their sleeping bags, grab their escape kits, and sprint the half mile along the bank of the Neuse to the sandy shoreline where they’d hidden their canoes. Flynn would take a different route to the same location. On previous operations they’d drilled for this contingency, joking at what seemed like a senseless precaution. But when they reviewed it a while ago, there was no laughter.
Running from danger was their only option. Weeks ago they’d voted to outlaw weapons, and they’d tossed the group’s single handgun in a river in Marsh Fork, Kentucky. Cassandra wasn’t happy about parting with her .38, but the group had spoken. Four to one against her. Having guns led to laziness and lack of ingenuity. If they couldn’t resolve their conflicts peacefully, what good was their entire mission? Guns were antithetical to all they espoused.