Two weeks later

          Happy Valley CEO Dwight Biggins rarely visited the kill floor, but he was onsite now, leading a VIP tour of board members and shareholders on break from the annual shareholder meeting at the Sheraton across town.

          Bosch was there. He didn’t have a choice. All top executives and department heads were expected to be on hand for the meet and greet. Required duty. Part of the job.

          The CEO paused near the start of the serpentine and addressed the crowd, straining to be heard over the rumble and roar of the line. The throng of visitors huddled close, moving awkwardly in their spotless plastic coveralls, shiny new hardhats, and safety glasses—clutching water bottles bearing the Happy Valley Farms logo.

          Bosch wondered what the workers thought of the visiting dignitaries—a group of mostly white, mostly male executives smiling and laughing and snapping pictures with their smart phones. Bosch couldn’t wait for them to leave.

          The CEO droned on. Bosch looked around. Ever since his run-in with Shine things on the line had been calm. Calmer than normal. No fights. No breakdowns—no berserk or downer cows to impede production.

Bosch was not reassured. The little voice in his head told him that the calm on the kill floor was the calm before the storm.

          Your production floor is a powder keg. Ready to explode.

          The CEO was practically yelling now, bragging about Happy Valley delivering more product today than at any time in company history.

          Then the power died.

          Machines stopped. Lights went out. The line fell silent. Workers and VIPs gawked, turning this way and that. Cows mooed and shuffled and groaned.

          Sunlight filtering through upper-story windows and skylights made the vast gray room feel somehow even larger, like a desolate ruin in a forgotten civilization.

          “Backup generators should kick on here in a second,” the CEO said glibly.

          They didn’t.

          The light diminished even further—as if there’d been a sudden, total eclipse of the sun—and the production floor vanished in a smothering darkness.

          “What’s going on?” cried one of the VIPs.

          “What happened to the light?”

          Bosch’s heart hammered, and he swayed in the blackness, ready to bolt. Ready to scream.

          Shine’s here. This is Shine’s doing. We’re going to die.

          The lights blinked back on, and the CEO laughed. The assembly line coughed to life, and the workers looked around. Looked at each other.

          Bosch breathed and his whole body relaxed. A simple power outage. Nothing more. What a pussy I am.

          “Never a dull moment here at Happy Valley Farms,” joked the CEO. “Not sure what that was about, but it looks like we’re back on track.”

          Amid the lighthearted banter, the CEO caught Bosch’s eye, fleetingly, and fixed him with a what the fuck? look acid enough to dissolve steel.

          Bosch imagined the questions to come. The blame. The finger-pointing. He figured the outage might even cost him his job. He didn’t care. He was just glad to be alive.

 

***

 

          The VIP entourage migrated outside, to Receiving—a broad, manure-packed yard with multiple steel gangways along one fence jutting skyward like imbalanced teeter-totters.

       Cattle trucks approaching the yard could pull tight against the gangways and release their hoofed cargo from the side. Most of the trucks that served Happy Valley Farms had two lateral doors for quicker unloading. Some had three.

       Receiving could accommodate several trucks at a time, but there was only one in the yard now—a giant, mud-caked semi actively disgorging a flood of stumbling, decrepit-looking dairy cows.

Standing in the middle of the yard, the CEO conferred briefly with a supervisor, then turned, smiling, to the VIPs.

          “And these,” he said, with a sweep of his arm, “are four-year-olds from our Milton Creek Dairy operation.”

          He chuckled as the beasts funneled past, toward the entrance to the kill floor. “Four years of constant impregnation and milk production and these gals are ready for retirement.”

          Laughter all around.

          Laughter. Then, silence.

          Stillness.

          Quiet.

          Bosch stared. The VIPs stared back. The CEO’s mouth was open but no sound was coming out.

          Bosch wondered what the hell they were all doing—pretending to be frozen like that. Immobile. Unmoving. Like department store mannequins.

          They looked comical. Choreographed. A farmyard flash mob.

          That’s when Bosch realized he was frozen, too.

          Frozen. Paralyzed. Bolted to the ground. Unable to twist or turn. His eyes still worked, though. He could still   see. And what he saw in his companion’s eyes was shock, turning to panic.

          Bosch gawked, and the horizon behind the VIPs rolled.

          Then he was falling, spinning.

          Nausea twisted his insides.

          Bosch shut his eyes but the spinning continued for a long time.

          At last the movement slowed. Stabilized.

          Bosch opened his eyes, and discovered that he was closer to the ground. Am I stooping? Did I fall down? He couldn’t remember, and he couldn’t tell.

         He was looking in a different direction now. That was clear. Staring at the backside of a dairy cow.

          Bosch moved again—at last. Lifted his right leg, took a step, put it down.

          He caught sight of the leg and shivered. Then he lifted the appendage again and examined it.

          This is my leg.

          A cow’s leg.

          Once more he lurched lazily, painfully forward, and fresh understanding blossomed in his brain—inevitable and incontrovertible.

          We’ve traded places—the animals and the people.

          He took another faltering step and felt the full heaviness and decrepitude of his bovine frame. His new body was unwell. In agonizing pain.

          He recalled Shine’s words. “I believe that you will come to see things differently. To personally understand the depth and breadth of the pain this slaughterhouse and others like it are causing.”

          Bosch looked around and saw that all of the VIPs and Happy Valley executives now inhabited bovine bodies. The eyes gave it away. The eyes told the story—flashes of human emotion and intelligence flickering inside those sad brown orbs.

          Wet and wide with terror, the eyes darted this way and that—seeking an end to the joke. The nightmare.

          Bosch recognized the CEO in one set of eyes. Even imprisoned inside a sagging dairy cow, the man’s pompous persona cut through. There was fury and indignation in those eyes. A look that thundered, Just wait until I get this nonsense sorted out! Heads will roll!

          The CEO cow tried to break away from the herd. Others did, as well. But the wranglers were having none of it. They had no inkling of the transmogrification that had just occurred and assumed that the cows were just being unruly. That something had upset them.

         Calling to one another in Spanish, deploying cattle prods and whips, the wranglers corralled the beasts and drove them forward toward the open doors of the kill floor.

          Bosch fought back, like the rest—to no avail. His body was too weak. Too battered and depleted. The best he could manage was to twist his bovine head one final time—long enough to see what had become of his old body and the bodies of the other VIPs.

          He stared.

          The people—if that’s what they still were—were moving away, toward the road, walking stiffly, jerkily—like automatons. Zombies.

          Bosch wondered what was driving his old body since he was no longer at the helm. Then he understood. Somehow he knew.

          It was Shine. Shine and all the rest. The dead workers. The dead animals. A mélange of mental energy—an ocean of rage and pain—finding an outlet at last, manifesting, seizing an opportunity. Setting off to put things right.

          Shine had wanted to change the system from the inside. Robbed of that opportunity and of his life, he had found another way.

          Bosch felt the awful sting of a Wrangler’s whip and turned back to see that the entrance to the kill floor was much closer now.

          The doors were open. Darkness beyond. It struck Bosch then that the doors resembled a mouth. The gaping, voracious maw of a demon.

 

*****

 

The conference room was clean, quiet, air conditioned. One of many such rooms inside the big modern office building. A visitor arriving via the warmly decorated lobby would never suspect that the kill floor lay just a few feet away. Down a corridor. Behind a soundproof wall. No off-putting odors or troubling sounds penetrated the conference room. No blood sullied the carpet.

          The room was generic corporate America. Whiteboards on the walls. Twenty or so chairs around a massive oak table. Pitchers of water on a little cart. 

          Only five chairs were in use. The two consultants—Brian Wiggs and Shelly Johnson—sat on one side of the table. Senior Vice President of Production Irvin Bosch and two subordinates—Phil McKenna and Otis Underwood— sat on the other.

          Wiggs gestured to the monitor on the wall, “Our agenda for today,” he said. He was only two slides into his PowerPoint and already Bosch was fiddling with his phone.

Bosch looked up from his device. Squinted at the PowerPoint. Frowned. “What’s this? I thought you were showing us plans. Revisions for the kill floor.”

          “We’re working on the plans and will present those next month,” said Wiggs. “Per the schedule. We’re here today because we stumbled onto something during our research phase—something we thought you should know about.”

          Bosch grunted and resumed checking his phone. “Make it quick. I’ve got a lot on my plate.”

          Wiggs offered a small, tight smile. “You bet. Thanks for the heads-up.” He flipped to the next slide, a schematic showing the holding pens, the crowd pen, and the entrance to the serpentine. “As you’ll recall, we set up scanners throughout this section as part of our fact-finding to help us gather some baseline metrics and better understand what’s happening to the animals.”

          Bosch laughed. “‘Better understand what’s happening to the animals’? We know what’s happening to the animals. They’re being turned into hamburger.” McKenna and Underwood chortled along with their boss.

Johnson said, “Yes. But something on the line isn’t working, right? That’s why you called us. Because of the recent…issues?”

          Bosch’s expression hardened as Wiggs scrolled through press accounts of escapes from the slaughterhouse—cows going berserk and breaking out of the line, fleeing into nearby fields and farms and attracting the attention of area residents.

          One escaped cow had managed to elude plant officials and police for days and was only recaptured with the help of thermal imaging equipment deployed from a helicopter. Much to Bosch and the other executives’ chagrin, the capture was witnessed by townspeople—including children—and the cow, dubbed “Bebe Jean” by a reporter, had become an instant celebrity. The mayor gave Bebe Jean the key to the city. Someone opened a Twitter account, and the cow gained sixty thousand followers overnight. The townspeople held a fundraiser to buy Bebe Jean from Happy Valley and spare her life, and money poured in from around the country—more than enough to save the cow and send her to an animal sanctuary in Madison, Wisconsin.

          The Bebe Jean incident had been an embarrassment for the company and a giant headache for Bosch. “What’s going on in production?” Bosch’s superiors wanted to know. “How is it that we managed to slaughter two thousand cows a day for twenty years without incident, and now, suddenly, we’re encountering problems?” Bosch got the message, loud and clear. Management wanted the problems fixed. Yesterday. Wanted order restored to the line. And they were holding him accountable.

          Wiggs flipped to a wide shot of the kill floor. “We wanted to see what’s happening with the animals’ emotions as they move along the line. Where does the anxiety begin? Outside, when they’re coming off the trucks? In the holding pens? The crowd pen? The serpentine?”

          Johnson continued. “We set up scanners along the entire route, to monitor blood pressure, adrenal activity, brainwave patterns.”

         “Brainwave patterns?” Bosch shook his head. “I’m paying for fucking bovine MRIs now?” 

          Wiggs ignored the remark. “As we’ve discussed, our contention is that if we can accurately plot the emotions of the animals, we may be able to effectively modify the journey through the kill floor.”

          “You mentioned you stumbled onto something,” said Underwood. “What?”

          Wiggs flipped to a bar graph, and Johnson narrated. “We installed the scanners three months ago, and, as you can see, anxiety levels have increased system-wide throughout that time period. Broader fear in the herd beginning earlier in the process. A marked rise in mean blood pressure coupled with an increase in cortisol production and intensified beta wave activity among virtually all of the animals.”

          “But here’s the issue,” said Wiggs. “The thing we didn’t anticipate. The increased anxiety isn’t just among the animals.”

          Bosch raised an eyebrow. “Say what?”

          “The scanners are set wide,” explained Johnson. “To capture as many animals as possible. We didn’t intend for the instruments to measure neural activity among your workers, but that data was captured.”

Bosch stared at the consultants. “The workers,” he said flatly. “You’re doing brain scans on our workers?”

“The scans aren’t harmful,” replied Wiggs. “And, as Shelly said, we weren’t intending to capture that activity. This technology is brand new.”

          “Brain scans on our workers,” Bosch repeated. “Without their knowledge or consent? Oh that’s terrific.” He glanced at his associates. “We’ll be sued into oblivion. This is just fucking grand.”

Wiggs’ voice remained even. “Not a concern. The instruments have all been recalibrated. The measurements were an anomaly. They’re not happening anymore. Furthermore, no one outside of this room is even aware the data exists. Happy Valley has no exposure here.”

          Bosch settled back in his seat. “So you set up scanners to measure the beef and ended up measuring the people too. And?”

          “And,” said Wiggs, flipping to a new slide, a graph showing two intertwining wave patterns, “…remarkably, anxiety among your workers has risen in tandem with the animals, right from the start of the study. The parallels are…surprising.”

          Underwood stirred uneasily, “You’re saying workers on our line are more stressed than they were three months ago?”

Johnson nodded. “That’s correct. Stressed to the point of dysfunction. Not that you would necessarily be aware of it yet.”

          “Why?” asked Bosch. “What would account for that?”

          “The most logical answer, is that something significant in your production process has changed,” said Wiggs. “That something in the way the animals and workers move or interact is different than it was three months ago.”

Wiggs hesitated, then continued, tentatively. “It could have to do with the accelerated kill speed. The shift from a knock every fifteen seconds to every twelve happened at just about the same time—”

          “Don’t go there,” said Bosch. “We’ve had speed increases in the past with no negative consequences whatsoever. Kill rate’s not the problem. Has to be something else.” 

          Wiggs nodded and cleared his throat. “Understood. So, at this point, we’re still investigating. Analyzing the data. We don’t have any definitive answers—not yet.”

          Bosch’s eyes narrowed. “Then why are we meeting? You guys are supposed to fix problems, not just present them.”

          “Because of the pattern,” said Wiggs, scrolling back to the slide showing the intertwining brainwave data. “The final readings from a couple days ago—before we recalibrated the scanners—showed stress and anxiety levels among your workers approaching crisis levels. In the ‘red zone,’ so to speak.”

Bosch made no reply. Just stared at the screen.

“Based purely on the scans,” said Wiggs “Your production floor is a powder keg. Ready to explode.”

Another silence and then Bosch snorted. “Either that or this whole things is a crock of shit.”

Wiggs smiled perfunctorily. “In any case,” he said. “We felt it was our duty to share our findings.”

 

***

 

The consultants departed, and Bosch and his subordinates sat for awhile in silence. Finally, Bosch stood and exited the room. Underwood and McKenna followed. 

          The men made their way down a long corridor, and through a series of double doors. Carpeting gave way to bare cement. Another set of double doors and now a rush of sound ahead. The rumble and whine of machines. The stench of thousands of animals jammed together—of urine and feces, fear and death. A modern American slaughterhouse operating full tilt. 

          They climbed metal stairs to a glassed-in viewing room high above the kill floor, and Bosch shut the door. Even through the triple thick glass, they could hear the intermittent “thunk” of the knocker followed by a steam engine-like hiss as the captive bolt steel gun reset, followed by the boom of a thirteen-hundred-pound cow crashing onto the conveyer belt. Thunk-hiss-boom. Thunk-hiss-boom. Thunk-hiss-boom. Over and over again, every twelve seconds.

          The men stepped to the glass and surveyed the operation below. The cavernous kill floor looked the same as ever—at least superficially. The choreography hadn’t changed. Cows entering from outside were shunted into one of six holding pens containing twenty animals each, give or take. The animals moved next to the crowd pen, where they jostled flank-to-flank in ankle-deep mud, feces, and vomit until it was time to enter the serpentine. Single file, they shuffled down the narrow high-walled lane and around three blind corners before finally emerging at the entrance to the knocking box.

          The design of the serpentine was wholly intentional: to keep the animals from panicking and to keep the knocker separate from the other workers on the kill floor. To isolate and contain the act of killing.

          The executives stared at the kill floor, at the rhythmic, clockwork-like movement of beasts and humans. Mist curled from vents in the floor and walls. Workers with hoses blasted the cement pathways between the pens, corralling the shit, driving it into enormous floor drains and generating billowing clouds of vapor.

Around the knocking box, the vapor was red.

          “Think Wiggs is padding his hours with this scanning stuff?” Underwood asked.

Bosch shook his head. “Not Wiggs. The guy has a sterling reputation. I trust him implicitly. If he’s concerned about the floor and the mental state of our workers, then I’m concerned.”

          Underwood and McKenna looked at each other. Baffled.

          “What?” asked Bosch.

          Underwood said, “I mean, you leaned on those guys pretty hard in the meeting just now. I thought you were irritated with them.”

          Bosch grabbed a pair of binoculars from a shelf and began scanning the space below. “That’s how you deal with vendors. Keep ‘em on edge. On their toes. Stop ‘em from trying to negotiate a higher price.”

          Underwood nodded slowly.

          “Criticize and question always,” Bosch continued. “Compliment and commend rarely.” He shrugged. “Works with employees. Works with contractors. Works with the wife and kids, for that matter.”

          Underwood and McKenna laughed.

          Bosch took his time surveying the floor, panning the binoculars slowly from right to left, from the spot where the animals entered the building to just beyond the knocking box—the limit of his field of view. The workers were all dressed alike: rubber boots, plastic coveralls, heavy latex gloves, hardhat, safety glasses. The supervisors wore white hardhats. The line workers, yellow. From high overhead that was the only way to tell them apart.

          Bosch looked at the workers one by one, lingering on some, adjusting the focus. Moving quickly past others. There were 120 distinct jobs on the floor, and the vast majority were held by immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. The jobs were dirty, dangerous, and physically demanding. There were always tensions—based on race, gender, and job responsibilities—but Wiggs’ presentation had hinted at new level of strain. 

          Your production floor is a powder keg. Ready to explode.

          Bosch thought about it. Considered Wiggs’s argument that the increased kill speed might be to blame and rejected the idea a split second later. Even if he believed Wiggs was right, questioning the kill speed was a non-starter. There was no slowing the line. Not now. Not ever.

          Bosch’s superiors—the owners, the board, the shareholders—cared first and foremost about profit. Processing more animals more quickly was the path to increased profit and a higher share price. It was Bosch’s job to keep the line functioning, day and night, night and day, 24/7/365. To suggest taking a break or slowing things down would be career suicide.

          Bosch felt a thin wire of anxiety curl in his gut. Can’t be the line speed, he told himself. The crew adapted to the new speed just fine. No problems at all.

          He tasted acid in his throat. No problems at all—except for the two fatalities the day we implemented the new routine. Who the fuck am I kidding?

          Bosch waited for his blood pressure to settle down. Truth was, the floor had adjusted to the new pace. There had been no further accidents or injuries since the initial mishaps. No problems at all, as far as Bosch knew, for several weeks. Things were running smoothly. And yet—

          Your production floor is a powder keg.

          So what’s causing it? If it’s not a process aberration or traffic flow issue, it has to be something else.

          Bosch continued scanning. Thinking.

          Not a design or flow problem. Not a mechanical issue.

          Another possibility crossed his mind.

          What if the malaise is manmade?

          What if a person is causing it?

          An individual.

          A worker.

          Bosch mulled the idea, analyzed it, and the rightness of the notion settled in his gut.

Worker…or workers? In Bosch’s experience, one troublemaker—one bad egg—could taint an entire group. It was true for military units. Sports teams. Corporate boards. It had to be true for the kill floor, as well.

          One worker.

          Bosch felt his anger rising.

          “Any discipline issues on the line lately?” Bosch asked without taking his eyes off the floor.

          Underwood and McKenna looked at each other. “Nothing that stands out,” McKenna replied. “Nothing noteworthy.”

          Bosch’s gaze drifted to the terminus of the serpentine. To the knocking box. 

          The steel gate slid open, and a cow tottered forward, out of the chute and into the box. Its fur was wet and matted, its enormous brown eyes preternaturally wide.

          Bosch watched the knocker swing the heavy stunning unit into position against the animal’s forehead.

          Thunk. Hiss. Boom.

          The cow crashed to earth, and the conveyer rumbled forward.

          Practiced hands shackled the cow’s hind legs, and the massive beast levitated skyward, onto the overhead line. Bosch watched the pre-sticker sever the cow’s carotid artery, and the sticker slice through the jugular vein. The cow—jerking and shuddering—traveled through a ninety-degree turn and out of Bosch’s field of view.

          Bosch swung the binoculars back to the knocking box and focused on the knocker’s face. 

The man was talking.

          Bosch stared.

          No mistaking it. The guy was saying something. But to whom? There was no one else around.

          Thunk. Hiss. Boom.

          Another cow collapsed onto the conveyer, and another entered the box. The knocker swung the stunning unit into position between the beast’s eyes, shut his own eyes, said something—four or five words—and fired the bolt into the animal’s brain.

          Thunk. Hiss. Boom.

          Bosch watched the ritual play out again.

          And again.

          And again. Every 12 seconds.

          Thunk. Hiss. Boom.

          Dead meat out. Live meat in. Stunning unit up. Words spoken. A phrase. Precisely the same phrase, over and over.

          Thunk. Hiss. Boom. 

          Bosch handed the binoculars to Underwood. “The knocker—can you tell what he’s saying?”

          “He sayin’ something?” Underwood asked, bringing the lenses to his eyes. “To who?”

          “The beef, I think.”

          Underwood and McKenna laughed. Bosch did not.

          Underwood stared at the knocker, fine-tuning the focus. McKenna walked to a desk at the back of the room and sat down at a computer.

          “Is the first word ‘dozen’?” Underwood asked, after awhile. “It looks like he’s saying ‘dozen’-something.”

          Bosch made no reply. Just stared through the glass, thinking. “I think it’s ‘cousin,’” he said finally.

          “Cousin,” Underwood repeated. He watched the knocker for three more minutes, time enough to witness fifteen kills and fifteen utterings. Statements. Chants—whatever they were.

          “’Cousin,’” Underwood said at last. “’Please forgive us.’”

          “Fuck,” Bosch sighed. “That’s what I think, too.”

           “’Cousin, please forgive us,’” Underwood repeated. “He’s saying that to the cows?”

          “Apparently.”

          McKenna called from the desk at the back of the room. “The knocker on this shift is a kid named Devon Shine. Excellent performance reviews. No discipline issues. Looks like he was offered a supervisory role in July but opted to stay on the line. Asked to work the box, specifically.”

          “I bet he did,” said Bosch, a sudden edge to his voice. “He’s a mole. Some kind of extremist. Probably working on a film.”

          Like every slaughterhouse owner and executive, Bosch was well aware of the threat posed by undercover animal rights activists. Infiltrators at other facilities had produced damaging exposés on everything from food safety to animal cruelty, prompting investigations and, in some cases, huge fines.

“His file is clean,” said McKenna. “No criminal record. No drug issues. He graduated high school but never went to college.”

          “His file is probably bullshit,” said Bosch.

          “You want us to pull him off the line?” Underwood asked. “Fire him?”

          “No,” said Bosch. “Leave him right where is. For now.” He looked at his men. “And not a word of this to anyone. Not a breath. Until we investigate.”

          McKenna and Underwood nodded but said nothing.

          Bosch stared through the glass. Jaw set. A vein in his neck pulsing like a silent alarm. “He asked to work the box. No one asks to the work the box unless they’re fucked up. And he’s praying with the beef. Or to the beef. My gut is that he’s an activist, some kind of nut-job animal-rights whacko. Stirring up the crew behind the scenes. In the break room. After hours.”

          Bosch took the binoculars from Underwood and focused on the knocker one last time. “An employee like Mr. Shine,” Bosch said, “if that’s even his real name, is like a tumor. A tumor that spreads and grows and affects everything around it. We need to cut the tumor out, but we need to know how much it’s metastasized first.”

 

***

 

One week later

          “Why did you lie on your application?” Bosch asked.

          “I didn’t lie,” Devon Shine replied softly.

          They were sitting in a sterile, windowless office with the door closed. Bosch, Underwood and McKenna on one side of a battered metal desk.  Twenty-six-year-old Devon Shine on the other. Shine had dark wavy hair and intelligent green eyes. He was wearing street clothes. Jeans and a black T-shirt. He looked relaxed—not what Bosch had expected.

          Bosch glanced at the open folder in his hand. “A Master’s Degree in Animal Behavior and Bio-Ethics? Nothing about that in your application.”

          The young man shrugged. “The degree seemed irrelevant to an entry level position on the kill floor.”

           “Three-point-nine grade point average, academic honors,” Bosch continued. “Impressive.”

          “Thanks.”

          “Who are you working for Mr. Shine?”

          Shine looked confused. “You,” he replied. “Happy Valley Farms.”

“Don’t fucking play games with me, kiddo. What group are you with? PETA? The Humane Society? Bovine Liberation Front?”

          McKenna and Underwood laughed.

          “Or is this a union thing?” said Bosch. “Come in all quiet-like, under the radar, make friends, start organizing folks on the sly. Are you an organizer, Shine?”

          'I don’t work for any groups,” said Shine. “Or unions. Nor am I a member of any.”

Bosch leaned back in his chair and sighed. “You have a master’s degree.”

          “Yes.”

          “And student loans?” 

          Shine shrugged. “A few.”

          Bosch tugged a sheet of paper from the folder. “A few? More like a shit-pile, I’d say. An eighty-five-thousand-dollar tall shit-pile. Am I right?” 

          Underwood whistled under his breath.

          “My goodness, son,” said Bosch. “You’ll be whittling away on that debt until you’re ninety-two with the wages we pay here.”

          Shine laughed like he was embarrassed but looked straight at Bosch. “I didn’t realize my finances were public record. Did you guys find that information in my locker or when you searched my apartment?”

          McKenna and Underwood exchanged the briefest of glances before looking away, doing their best to appear surprised.

          Bosch never blinked, but inside he was seething. The searches were supposed to have been secret. Surreptitious. He wanted to yell at his men but kept his composure. He’d deal with them later. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said to Shine. “But I assure you I have no compunction about digging into an employee’s background when I perceive a threat to this company.”

          A smile flickered on Shine’s face. “You think I’m a threat?” he said quietly.

          “I know you are. I’m just trying to get my brain around how big of a threat you represent. And how much damage you’ve already done.”

          “And you think this, why?” asked Shine. “Because I left my degree off my application?”

          “That’s part of it,” said Bosch. “No one with your credentials works the kill floor. Why the hell would they?” He took another paper from the file. Glanced at it. “But according to HR you practically begged to get in here. Emails. Phone calls. And after you did get hired? Wasn’t two days before you started jockeying for a turn in the box.”

          Bosch glared at the young man. “No one with your background works the kill floor. And no one asks to work the box period. No one in his right mind. We have to assign people to the box.”

         

          Shine said nothing.

          “Then there’s the bullshit chanting thing you do—whatever you call it. ‘Cousin, please forgive us.’ Do I have that right?”

          Shine made no reply.

          “Animal rights crap if I ever heard it. ‘Cousin, please forgive us’? The only thing I don’t know is what group you’re with and what kind of sabotage or exposé you have in mind.” Bosch leaned forward. Jabbed the air with one finger. “But I assure you, son, I will get to the bottom of it. And I won’t hesitate to press charges. Criminal charges, if they’re warranted. Getting fired’s the least of your worries.”

          Shine remained quiet for a long time, his face unreadable. The room fell silent except for the murmur of conversation from somewhere in the outer office. “There is a threat to this company,” he said at last. “To others, as well. A very serious threat. But it’s not me you need to worry about. I came here to help.”

          Bosch raised an eyebrow. “Is that a fact? So just who should we be worried about, Shine?”

          Shine spread his hands on the table, and his youthful face looked suddenly troubled. Careworn.

          “The system is broken,” he said softly. “Out of whack. Unsustainable.”

          “What system is that?” 

          “The whole thing. Start to finish.” Shine searched the men’s faces. Saw only blank stares. He went quiet again, and his gaze fell to the desk. To his hands. When he spoke once more, his voice sounded remote. Fragile. “I’ve always noticed things. Even when I was a child, I saw things other people missed. Felt things other people couldn’t feel.”

          Bosch glanced at his subordinates and wondered how long he should allow Shine to ramble. He’s playing with us. Wasting our time. Then another thought crossed Bosch’s mind. Maybe he’s genuinely fucked up. Sick in the head. Out of morbid curiosity, he let Shine continue. 

          “Is that right? What kinds of things could you feel?”

          “Pain,” Shine replied, lifting his eyes. “Grief. Sadness. Especially with animals. I have a gift for reading animals. Understanding them. My mom called it a gift.” He smiled wistfully. “Sometimes I think it’s a curse.”

          “You feel their pain,” said Bosch, a trace of a smirk in his voice. “Is that it?”

          Shine registered the insult but continued in the same earnest tone. “Some feelings . . . some emotions . . . they don’t dissipate on their own. They collect, you know? Fester. Build and build until…” his voice trailed off.  “That’s what’s happening here.”

          Shine looked at the men, such torment in his expression that even Bosch momentarily suspended his cynicism. “I sensed this place from far away. Smelled it. Tasted it. There’s a righteous rage here, Mr. Bosch. A storm of hatred and hurt darker than any funnel cloud. It’s here. On top of us. Around us. And it’s not going away unless things change. Unless the line changes. Unless we make amends.

          “That’s what I was attempting to do in the box. A little salve on the wound. A stop-gap until I could work my way into the company and explain things to people like you—to my bosses—make them see what’s happening.” 

          Crazy, thought Bosch. Whacko. He felt relieved. The kid is not a mole. Not a plant. Not an undercover journalist or filmmaker. He’s just bonkers. Needs professional help—big time. Fire him now and get back to work.

Get on with the day.

 

          But Shine wasn’t finished. “You may not feel things like I do,” he said. “But you know there’s a problem.” He looked at his companions, one by one. “The escapes. The two fatalities. The results of those brain scans. You know things are amiss.”

          Bosch stared at Shine. Speechless. Apoplectic. Everyone knew about the escaped cows—the escapes had made the evening news. But the fatalities? The brain scans? Bosch had believed those things were secret. Buried. Hidden. Nothing close to common knowledge. 

          This kid will sink my career. Maybe the entire company. How does he know this shit?

          Bosch’s mind jumped to the fatalities. Two undocumented workers had died the day the line speed increased. One worker in the knocking box while struggling to clear a jam in the stunning unit (the unit had misfired, sending a bolt into his brain); the other, run over by a forklift racing to move a downer cow out of the serpentine.

          Bosch—under orders to keep the line going full speed no matter what—had successfully squelched both incidents by quickly settling with the victims’ families and keeping the tragedies out of the news.

          Bosch looked at Shine and had the unnerving feeling the kid was reading his mind.  “I don’t know what you think you heard,” said Bosch. “In the break room or what not, but—”

          “You think the two workers who died are gone?” Shine asked, raw pain in his voice. “They’re not. You think the million or so animals we’ve slaughtered this year are no longer our concern? They are.”

          Shine gestured in the direction of the kill floor. “If you shut down the floor today, right now, the stench wouldn’t just disappear. It would still reek for months. Maybe years, right? It’s the same with these emotions. The rage that’s collected here—is collecting here—won’t simply evaporate. Not now. Not anymore. Not after what’s happened. We’re past the tipping point. The needle is in the red.

           “Sadness, desolation, unspeakable suffering—human and animal—is swirling in the same pot, mixing. Making something new. Turning into something . . .” Shine’s voice trailed away. He looked at the men, pleading. “We have to act,” he said softly. “Before it’s too late. We have to make amends.”

          Bosch stared at Shine, saying nothing—offering no rebuttal or reply—struggling to comprehend how a low-wage line employee could know the secrets he’d divulged. What it meant for the company. For him.

          McKenna and Underwood asked Shine more questions. Shine responded. Bosch zoned out, lost in his own swirl of anxious thought, but he caught snippets of the conversation.

          McKenna told Shine he wasn’t the first animal rights activist they’d seen. Shine replied that he wasn’t an animal rights activist at all. That he ate meat. That he hunted. That he thought it was okay because humans had been eating meat for millions of years.

          “We’re predators,” said Shine. “We know that. And the animals on the line? They know they’re prey. It’s the way it’s being done that messed up. Forcing them to live their whole lives in little boxes, pumping them full of drugs to make them grow faster, treating them like inanimate assembly line parts instead of like the sentient creatures they truly are.

          “Where’s the compassion?” Shine asked. “The respect? We need to slow down. Take a step back.”

          Bosch watched the young man, aware that his subordinates, in turn, were observing him, waiting for him to speak, to render some kind of verdict. A tiny part of Irvin Bosch was finding truth in Shine’s words. But his sense of self-preservation and corporate allegiance was far stronger. He knows things that could shut down the line. Cost me my job. Maybe send me to jail.

          Bosch settled back in his seat and smiled at the young man.

          “Devon,” he said cheerfully, “I think I misjudged you, and I’m sorry. I’m beginning to get the picture that you really do want to help. That you sincerely want to play a role in the future of Happy Valley Farms.”

          McKenna and Underwood looked at Bosch in surprise, but Shine showed no reaction.

          “I have to confess,” Bosch continued, “I don’t agree with everything you’re saying, but I think you’re making some important points, and I’d like to continue this conversation.”

          Shine made no reply.

          “Go work your shift, and let’s meet again tomorrow. Same time, same place. Sound okay to you?”

          “Sure,” said Shine, his face inscrutable.

          The men shook hands at the door and Shine looked at Bosch. Unblinking. Unsmiling. “I believe,” he said softly, “that you will come to see things differently—”

          Bosch offered a small, tight smile.

          “—that you will come to personally understand the depth and breadth of the pain this slaughterhouse and others like it are causing.”

          “Thank you,” Bosch replied, not knowing what else to say. He watched Shine walk away, believing that things were under control and well in hand, while deep down doubting the notion at the same time.

 

***

 

          Shine finished his shift and departed the kill floor the same way he always did, via the heavy steel door at the northwestern corner of the massive building. He scanned his ID badge and stepped outside. The sun had set and it was nearly dark, save for a thin ribbon of copper-colored sky on the western horizon.

          Shine stood a moment, breathing in the evening air. It felt cool and quiet outside after the heat and cacophony of the kill floor.

          He started toward the employee parking lot—a vast sea of cars in the distance—and sensed movement in the shadows to his left.

          A man was emerging from a weedy, litter-strewn alley between the slaughterhouse buildings, stepping over long-abandoned railroad tracks as he approached. Shine caught the glint of a car tucked in the gloom behind the man.

          “Devon Shine?” said the man, coming forward. “I’m Nate Reed. Mr. Bosch sent me to pick you up. He’d like to meet for a few minutes. Now, if you’re available.” The man was clean cut. Tall. Wearing a tie. He was smiling.

          Shine paused. “I’m heading home,” he said. “I need a shower.”

The man smiled again. “Mr. Bosch asked me to apologize for the inconvenience and said that what he has to tell you won’t take more than five minutes. Also—I can give you a lift straight to your car afterward.”

          Shine shrugged. “Fine.”

          They walked toward the man’s car together, navigating the uneven ground. As they got close Shine found himself slightly in the lead. He heard a faint rustling and froze. Took a breath.

          “You don’t have to do this,” he said, without turning. Without looking back. The man was directly behind him now.

          “Just gonna give you a quick lift over to Mr. Bosch’s office,” said the man, the same smile in his voice.

          “I can help. I want to help. If I die, I just become part of the problem.”

          The man pressed the silenced handgun against the back of Shine’s head and fired two quick shots. Snap, snap.

          Shine fell to the ground. The man popped open the trunk and—grunting under the weight—hefted the young man’s inert body inside.

          As the car pulled away, mist from Shine’s brain drifted in the cool darkness—toward the vast exterior wall of the kill floor, toward intake vents with blades the size of airplane propellers, spinning slowly.

 

***

 

 

KENNETH G. BENNETT

THE KNOCKING BOX

 

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