Dr. Jessica Bergstrom has job pressures—deadlines, a cranky boss, a meth-addled co-worker out to kill her. As a public health veterinarian at a meat packing plant, she knew the place would be rough and dirty. What she didn’t know was the depth of the corruption between the industry and government agency regulating it.
When Jessica uncovers the truth she faces difficult choices—keep quiet and keep her job or fight and lose the job: and possibly her life. With her best friend, Shana, and her best dog, Harley, at her side she’s determined to expose the criminal activities swirling around her in small town Minnesota.
At once a dramatic glimpse at the modern American food industry and the the blinders a regulatory agency wears to keep an uneasy truce with a powerful business, The Slaughterhouse Secrets is a story of courage and honor in the face of danger, and, ultimately, making the right choices.
Under Cover of Darkness
Beer refluxed into my dry mouth. I cowered in the corner of the booth until Shana returned with our drinks and a big bowl of popcorn.
“Hey, know what?” she asked, as she slid onto the bench. “Your bud, Keith, is sitting right behind you. You want me to tell him to go eff himself?”
“Quiet…” I managed to croak. I took a pull at the Diet Coke. It didn’t have the hydrating effect I sought.
“What’s wrong? You look as white as a Goth.”
I put my finger to my lips and then leaned across the table.
“I think I just heard Keith offering that guy money to off me,” I whispered.
Shana’s eyes snapped wide as goose eggs. “No way.” She rose from her seat and craned her neck around the booth. I grabbed her and pulled her back down.
“Yes, way,” I said. I filled her in on my eavesdropping.
“Jess, what are you going to do?” she asked in a low voice.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t run to the cops and tell them what I heard eavesdropping. I’m not even positive he’s talking about me, but he hates my guts and today he went a little too far.”
“He’s getting up,” Shana said. “His friend is going, too. They’re walking toward the door.”
Part of me wanted to crawl under the booth and hide. The other part wanted to jump on the bully’s back and rip his hair out. I debated. The sticky floor beneath the table proved too disgusting so I got up, pulled my coat on, and headed for the door.
Shana grabbed my arm. “What are you doing?”
I shrugged her off. “I’m not sure, but I’m not hiding in here.”
“Well, I’m coming with you.”
When we reached the door, I stood back.
“You go first and see where they went.” Shana walked across the threshold, while I waited with the door cracked. She rounded the corner and disappeared from sight. She reappeared in a minute.
“They’re sitting in a black Chevy Suburban,” she said. “It’s parked alongside the building so they can’t see you if you want to skedaddle on home.”
“That’s Keith‘s truck. Give me your car keys, and keep an eye on them. I’ll fetch your car so we can tail them.”
“Not my precious Betty.” She clutched her purse to her chest. “How about your truck?”
“It’s too conspicuous. Keith knows what I drive.”
Shana reluctantly handed me her car keys and I took off toward my apartment. I ran the two blocks in under a minute; no small feat in heeled, side-zip boots. I angled into the front seat of the tiny blue Datsun. After a few false starts I had it in gear. Within a minute, I pulled up to the front door of the VFW.
Shana hopped in the passenger side. “They’re still sitting in the truck. I saw a lighter flash and they were passing a bulby-like thingy to each other. I think they’re smoking meth in there.”
I pulled the car into a spot on the side street, half a block down from the Chevy.
“This is exciting,” said Shana. “I feel all Mariska Hargitay-like.”
“I’m glad you’re having fun at my expense,” I said.
She put her arm around my neck and gave me a little hug. “Oh, babe, I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re freaked out, but don’t worry—I got your back. If you want, you and the pet crew can bunk at my place. Or you can borrow my 20-gauge shotgun.”
I shuttered at the thought of staying at her place. She, her dad and Timmy lived in the back of the taxidermy shop. The place had the acrid smell of tanning solution infused into every inch of building material. Harley would love it, but he’d probably chew on all her merchandise.
“I think I feel safe in my building, especially with Harley.”
“You’re right,” she said. “Your dog looks mean and I bet he’d go for the throat if anyone tried to mess with you.”
We hunkered down in the car and waited. And waited, and waited. Finally, the red taillights flashed and the Chevy pulled away from the curb. I cranked the Datsun on, and followed the truck. We meandered around town, driving down Main Street, up the highway, and through the residential section.
After we had passed my apartment building twice, the Chevy drove to a small housing development on the outskirts of town and pulled into a driveway. I came to a stop alongside the curb. A mini-van, parked on the side of the driveway, afforded us a little cover.
A man exited the driver’s side and walked to the house. A motion detecting light over the door snapped on, and I could see Keith fumble with the door knob before walking into the low ranch-style house.
“Must be his place,” I said. “He walked right in.”
A light turned on inside the house, but the closed blinds made it impossible to see inside.
“What do we do now?” asked Shana. “Go snoop in the windows?”
I shook my head. “No, Pedro must still be in the Chevy. I’m guessing Keith just stopped at home for a bit. We’ll sit tight and see what happens.”
In the rearview mirror, headlights shone down the street. They grew brighter as they approached the house, and we slouched in the seats. I watched the driver’s door mirror and saw that it was a police car.
“Crud,” I said. “The cops.”
“We ain’t doing nothin’ wrong. If he stops, we‘ll just say we’re two girls having a heart-to-heart sob fest or something like that,” said Shana.
The black Ford Escape slowly slid pass us and then turned into the driveway, coming to a stop behind the Suburban.
“Busted,” said Shana.
“Whoa,” I said. “What luck, they’ll find the meth in Keith’s truck and lock the sucker up for awhile.”
We watched as the cop exited the cruiser, and approached the passenger’s side window. The window rolled down, and the cop stuck his head in. He then stepped back and put a hand in the car.
“Here it comes,” said Shana. “I wonder if he’s going to pull the guy out and handcuff him?”
The cop withdrew his hand and turned. He clutched a small package, about the size of a paperback book, in his hand. Walking back to the Escape, he got in, reversed and drove off down the street.
I looked at Shana. Both our mouths gaped open. “Did we just see what I think we saw?” I asked.
“Ho-lee-cow,” she said. “You know who the cop is?”
I shook my head. I had never had a run-in with the local police; never had a run-in with any cop for that matter. I am such a goody two shoes.
“He’s Rusty Bay. He hauled Barry in last month for possession of just a teeny-weeny bit of pot. That two-faced pile of dog doo-doo. I’m pissed now.”
I’ve seen Shana pissed. It is a frightening experience. All claws and teeth and she knows how to use them.
“Settle down, Shana. We need to think. How are we going to prove anything if the police are in on it?”
“How about reporting this to the sheriff’s department?” she asked.
“No, they share an office and personnel. They’re too close.”
“We gotta do something, Jess. He can’t get away with this. Buying dope from some loser low-life, while locking a good man like Barry up. It’s an outrage, it’s illegal, it’s…”
Shana stopped mid-rant when Keith left the house and jumped into the Chevy. A woman came out after him, screaming at the top of her lungs. Even with the windows rolled up we could hear her verbal barrage.
“You promised the kids. Don’t you leave this house, Keith Johnson. You do and you will never see your kids again. Is that junk so important to you…” Her words cut off mid-sentence when Keith barreled out of the truck, grabbed the woman by the throat and pressed her against the door.
His words were unintelligible, but we got the drift when the woman melted to the step when he released her. She got to her hands and knees, coughed and grabbed her throat as Keith returned to the Chevy. By the time he had reversed and backed out of the driveway she had crawled into the house.
“You think she’s okay?” asked Shana. “Maybe we should go check on her.”
I thought about my neighbors, Tom and Linda, before answering. “She could breath and made it inside. If she wants help, she can call for it.”
When the Chevy reached the end of the block, I pulled onto the street and trailed a good block or so behind it. The truck turned onto Highway 27, heading east from town. We maintained a decent pace, and I dropped back a good quarter mile behind. We didn’t meet a single vehicle during our six point three mile drive. Only ne’er-do-wells and truckers roamed the road between Dyersville and Daytona this time of the night. I think I fell into the first category. The Chevy braked, and I took my foot off the accelerator.
“Kill the lights,” said Shana. I switched off the headlights and coasted to a stop on the shoulder. The Suburban took a hard left off the road, and disappeared into an inky stand of pines. I eased the car up the highway, and stopped across from the dirt access road Keith had taken, then continued to drive up the highway. One tenth of a mile later I pulled into the approach of a state wildlife conservation refuge. The Datsun bounced and bucked onto the hunter’s parking area.
“Don’t wreck the oil pan,” said Shana. “She rides low to the ground.”
“I’m going as slow as I can without killing the engine,” I said. Shana dug a flashlight out of the glove compartment as I parked the car. We left the vehicle and hiked back to the highway.
“You don’t have to come with,” I told her.
“Are you kidding?” she said. “The slime ball cop who locked my man up is involved in this, and I ain’t missing a chance to get even with him.”
“Okay.” I was grateful for the company. Despite the moonlight and the weak battery flashlight, the thick stand of pines we walked into enveloped us in darkness. Small creatures scurried in the underbrush, and more than once we wiped out walking along the rutted dirt track. After a twenty minute trek, we finally stumbled into a modest clearing.
Light glowed from a grimy window on a decrepit double-wide trailer house perched precariously on cement blocks. Two jalopies and a long, white anhydrous ammonia tank flanked the trailer. The Chevy, engine off and unoccupied, was parked in front of the door. Garbage lay strewn in the weeds surrounding the house.
Shana turned the flashlight off, and we crept up to the side of the trailer. A large window, with a corner of the pane broken, fractured the tin siding on the mobile home. We stopped underneath the window and listened.
“Hear anything?” I whispered.
I slowly raised my head, and peeked inside the trailer. The window itself was transparent despite a layer of filthy grime, and a caustic stench leaked from the broken pane. My eyes watered and I pulled my shirt neck over my mouth and nose. Through the tears, I found myself looking into the main living area of the trailer.
A bare light bulb emitted a weak overhead light. The kitchen area, right off the front door, overflowed with garbage. The floor between the center island and the cupboards teemed with overstuffed, black plastic bags. White, red, and yellow cylindrical containers took up every inch of the counter space.
The trash overflowed into the dingy living room. A sagging couch rose up like an island among the sea of rubbish. A grungy mattress lay next to the couch. Something moved on the pad, and I ducked.
“What?” whispered Shana.
“I saw something move. It’s incredible. It’s like a landfill in there.”
I rose up again, and peered back into the window. Something on the mattress moaned softly. My eyes teared again when I saw a wilting playpen pushed against the wall.
“Shana, there’s a baby in there. Some lady’s lying on a filthy mattress in there as well, but I don’t see any sign of Keith or Pedro.”
“Let me look.” I heard her gasp, and then she sunk back down.
“Ohmigosh, I think that lady’s dead.”
“No, I saw her move,” I said. “We have to get the kid out of there.”
“It’s a meth lab,” she said. “What a horrible place for a baby.”
“Did you see anything besides the lady and baby?”
“No. I wonder if they’re over in that shed.” She nodded toward a pole barn a stone’s throw from the trailer. Light shone from under the large sliding doors of the windowless steel building.
Bolder for the kid’s sake, I stood and looked in the window. No movement or light from down the hall leading off the living room. I motioned to Shana and we crept along the side of the building to the front door.
The rickety steel steps shifted to the right when we both stepped on them. Shana stepped back and I went first, opening the door a crack. No shouts or fists came my way, so I opened it further and stepped inside.
I gagged. Ammonia fumes and sewer stench exploded into every facial orifice. Even my pores contracted at the assault. Shana coughed, sputtered and spit on the floor. Unidentifiable grunge and powder coated every surface. Layers of hardened gray-yellow material caked the walls.
I marched over to the mattress, shirt firmly held over my lower face. The woman on the stained mattress sprawled face up. Dark circles carved canyons beneath her eyes. Her mouth gaped open, revealing brown teeth as crumbly as centuries-old tombstones. A baby bottle dripped formula beside her head.
I stepped over the mattress and stood next to the playpen. A toddler lay curled in a corner, wearing only a heavy looking diaper. A terry-cloth towel, crinkly with filth, covered the baby’s legs. I reached in and picked the kid up.
He smelled sour and had thin, gray hair covering a scalp laced with black specks. His eyes flickered open, then closed when I drew him close to me.
“Give him to me,” said Shana. She held her hands out and I passed the child to her. I took my coat off, handed it to her and she wrapped the baby in it. I leaned over the woman. She drew in ragged, irregular breaths and her eyes fluttered behind closed lids.
“She’s still alive,” I whispered.
“Leave her,” Shana said, “she’s a crack whore. We need to get gone before they come back for the truck.” I jumped over the mattress and we quick-stepped through the trailer and down the stairs. Shana clutched the baby to her chest while I trotted behind.
“Hold on,” I said. “Let me get my cell phone from my jacket. We need to call 9-1-1 for the lady.” She paused and I rummaged through the coat’s pockets.
“It’s not here,” I said. “Darn it, darn it, darn it. I must’ve dropped it when I handed you the coat. Things always fall out of those crappy pockets. I gotta go back for it.”
“Jessica, don’t. Let’s just get out of here.”
I glanced at the pole barn. Light still trickled from the door’s edge. “No, I have to get it. No telling what will happen if I leave it there, especially if the cops are in on this. You take the baby and go. I’ll come back as fast as I can.”
Shana nodded and headed down the road. I jogged back to the trailer, up the stairs and over to the mattress. My phone lay on the floor, near the couch. I snagged it, turned to go and heard the front steps creak.
A metallic bite of fear hit my mouth and I swung my head, frantically looking for a hiding place. I pushed the couch away from the wall and dove behind it, just in time as the front door crashed opened. My hands and knees became crusty with tacky-powdery film as I wiggled between the wall and the couch.
Heavy footsteps pounded up the steps and tromped into the house.
“Stan, how can you stand this smell?” Keith’s voice echoed around the tin box.
“Just a part of doing business. I can’t understand how you can stand the smell of blood all day.” I didn’t recognize the male voice that answered Keith.
“It don’t make my eyes run like this.”
“I just hope that shed you’re setting up over there doesn’t stink the yard up of cow.”
“What, and cover the fine smell of your meth lab? At least an off-site slaughter shed don’t rank up there in illegality as your dope cooker. I ain’t ever seen a woman lying in her own filth in our facility, like your junkie over there.”
Stan snorted. “I didn’t realize she was crazy when she showed up with her brat a week ago. We had a good time the first night. After that she just lost it, took a bunch of pills, smoked my meth, and downed a couple bottles of vodka then wham! Been two days on that mattress. Rusty’s coming here tomorrow. I’ll have him take them off my hands.”
I swallowed, hard. He talked about her with less emotion than I talked about a side of beef.
“Let’s get out of this stink pit,” said Keith. The trailer shook as the two men tramped into the back half of the trailer. I heard a door shut, with a surprisingly heavy bang, and then I only heard the soft moaning from the woman.
I debated my limited options. Run for it now and risk Pedro being outside. Wait and hope Pedro came in, but who knew how long Keith and Stan would remain in the back. There might be other people around as well.
My hearing must’ve been heightened as I heard footsteps approach the trailer. I risked a peek around the couch as the front door opened. Pedro stepped in. I ducked back. He made a beeline for the back room and I heard the same heavy door crash shut.
I bolted from behind the couch, leapt over the mattress, and burst through the front door. I had reached the beginning of the pines when I heard yelling behind me. Something whistled over my head and hit a pine tree with a resounding thwack. I pumped my legs faster than I ever had. The dirt clods in the road seemed to reach up to grab me.
I made it without falling, until I could make out a hole in the pines. The highway lay dead ahead. A quick left and I’d be at the car. My left foot connected with a hole, and twisted from under me. I tripped and struck my forehead on a rock. My ankle protested, but I forced myself up and hobbled to the road.
Shana had the car pulled on the shoulder near the dirt track and I flopped in. I slammed the door and she floored it.
“Drive! They’ve got a gun,” I gasped. Little silvery sparks flirted on the edge of my vision. I reached up to rub my eyes, and we heard the pang of a bullet hitting the rear fender. Shana swerved and the side of my head hit the window. The silver sparks exploded, and I plunged into darkness.