Authors: Jeff Jacobson
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
FOODCHAIN. Copyright © 2010 by Jeff Jacobson. All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
A different version of the first chapter previously appeared in
published by Columbia College in Chicago.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Jacobson, Jeff (Jeffory)
Foodchain / Jeff Jacobson
1. Hunters—Fiction. 2. Vendetta—Fiction. 3. Ranchers—Fiction. 4. Exotic animals—Fiction. 5. California, Northern—Fiction
Originally published by Five Star, March 2010 in conjunction with Tekno Books and Ed Gorman
Antenna Books ebook edition, December 2015
In the sudden silence that filled the trunk after the engine died, Frank heard strange cries and howls. The other guy locked in with him started whimpering again. Frank got the feeling that the guy, a little man with a billion freckles, had been out here before, but the guy hadn’t said much, just sobbed damn near the whole ride. Frank fought the urge to kick him to shut him up.
They’d been in the trunk of the long black car for hours and when it was finally opened, the light from four piss-yellow floodlights made Frank squint. Empty cages and bare concrete slabs surrounded a gravel parking lot, as if a primitive roadside zoo had been abandoned halfway through construction.
Sergio and Giulio, the quiet gentlemen who drove the car, stepped away from the trunk and jerked their heads. Frank and Red climbed out awkwardly; their hands were bound with plastic zip-ties. Frank wore a short sleeve button-up shirt, boxers, and one sock. The gravel felt warm under his bare foot.
Red recognized the place and made a hurt sound through gritted teeth. He said, “Please. Just listen to me. I’ll pay Mr. Castellari. I’ll pay, okay? Please. I’ve stashed enough money away—you need to listen to me.”
It didn’t look like the quiet gentlemen were listening. Frank didn’t know if they were related to Castellari in some way, maybe his nephews, or God forbid, his sons. They looked like him, no necks, not really, just muscle; the bottom of their ears damn near brushed the shoulders of their black suits. But unlike Castellari, Frank didn’t think they wouldn’t change their expressions if he set their black hair on fire. No anger. No impatience. No joy, either. No nothing. It was as if all their emotions had been sucked out by an especially enthusiastic abortionist who had jammed his hollow knife into the back of their skulls and vacuumed out all feeling. They marched Frank and Red into the dead zoo, following a line of flickering floodlights.
Red sniffled harder, breathing in hushed, staccato hisses. “You gotta listen to me. Please. Please. I’ll take you right to it. All you gotta do is drive there, you understand? Please.” The pleading broke down into sobs, tears, and mucus dripping onto his stomach and the plastic cuffs.
Sergio pulled out a tiny cell phone, extended one stubby finger the size of a plump hot dog and hit a button. Frank wondered how he managed to hit just one button, considering the size of that finger. Giulio jangled the keys in the left pocket of his suit and checked his watch.
“We’re here,” Sergio said, in a clear, polite voice, his first words all day. He nodded, and held the phone out to Frank.
That’s when Frank realized that he was a dead man. This was a goodbye call.
If tonight was simply a warning, then Enzo Castellari would have waited. He would have left Frank wondering what the hell was going to happen all the way out here, out in the middle of nowhere with all the weird animal howls. Castellari wouldn’t call, he wouldn’t say anything. He’d just let Frank sweat it out, scare the shit out of himself, all on his own. Then, after seeing something, a demonstration, maybe something having to do with the other poor bastard stuck in the trunk, and after Frank got so scared he was ready to piss himself, then Castellari would talk to him.
But to talk to Frank before he even had a chance to see what could happen, before his imagination had a chance to run screaming into the night…Frank knew his time was up. Castellari simply wanted the satisfaction of saying goodbye. So Frank gingerly took the phone with the heavy realization that no matter what Castellari said, no matter what kind of salvation was promised, every word was a lie.
“Yeah,” Frank said.
“Hello Frank.” Castellari’s voice was smooth, polished; it slithered into Frank’s right eardrum, curling itself up and making itself at home. “I imagine right now you’re a little…worried. Wondering where you are and all. That’s understandable.”
Frank didn’t answer right away, just waited until it became apparent that Castellari wasn’t going to say anything until he acknowledged the question. Or was it a statement? Frank wasn’t sure. So he just said, “Yeah.”
“Take a good look at the man with you. Take a good look.”
Frank shifted the phone slightly, tilting it away from his ear, and hit the volume button with his pinkie. The voice continued, getting just loud enough to catch Red’s attention. Red stopped sniffling, his eyes meeting Frank’s and getting bigger by the second.
Castellari said, “There’s a man who can make numbers dance and sing, make no mistake. No matter how foul my financial excrement smelled, this man could sift those numbers through that magnificent, devious brain of his and it would always come up smelling like roses. Always.” A plastic sigh, full of resignation. “Trouble is, this man apparently felt I wasn’t valuing his services…appropriately. So, while it was true that he could make the numbers dance and sing, they were still out of tune.”
Castellari was always a melodramatic sonofabitch, but Frank made sure Red was getting it. And boy oh boy, he was getting it, all right. He’d frozen altogether, staring at Frank, at Frank’s right hand, at the phone.
“Now, this man was warned. Make no mistake about this. He was given every opportunity to rectify the musical numbers. But some men simply do not listen, no matter how loudly you speak, no matter how much effort you put into…
upon them the significance of the matter. I trust you’re listening, Frank?”
“This man has been in your shoes. He’s been here before. He knows what awaits him.” Castellari took a deep, patient breath, enjoying himself. “This man has seen God. He’s seen God, up close and personal. Unfortunately, this man was not…impressed with God.” Castellari paused. “Few men need to see God twice.”
Air hissed out of Red’s nose like it was escaping a tiny hole in a balloon.
“So. Now you’re in the position of trying to understand the significance of this matter. You watch and try to learn something. Are you listening, Frank?”
Frank didn’t say anything. Let the sonofabitch wait
one out. “Okay, Frank. Okay.” It took him a while to realize that Castellari had hung up.
* * * * *
They passed rows of dead carnival rides. Tangled metal, twisted spires, and dusty bench seats with safety bars stuck upright were collected together in a spiderweb of gathering shadows and faded colors that seemed to suck the light out of the air instead of reflecting it. Frank recognized a few rides from his childhood. The Whizzer. The Tilt-A-Whirl. The Mangler. The Ferris wheels looked like giant wagon wheels, leaning against each other, remnants of failed pioneer trips to the promised land of California.
A flashlight flickered over Frank and Red; another man was waiting for them. Folds of pale, hairy flesh spilled out from around a leather apron and erupted around his chin. Tiny dull eyes gazed out from between snarled eyebrows and blackheads. Loose rubber boots rose almost to his knees. A metal tube dangled from his belt. He carried the flashlight in his right hand and a large plastic bucket in his left. The bucket was full of fresh bones. Plenty of gristle. Chunks of meat, some covered in gray fur, swimming in blood.
They walked. The zookeeper led the way, picking his way through rows of cages, sweeping his flashlight back and forth in the dusty air. Many of the cages were secured on flatbed truck trailers. Animals started to appear. Most were dead. There were a lot of big cats. A lion sprawled on his side, all four legs splayed away from his swollen stomach. A dead leopard, his head wedged between two bars. Flies crawled over its gray tongue. The flashlight kept checking cage locks and doors, nailing cringing animals into corners, scattering the black shadows under the flatbeds.
They passed a cage that ran the length of a flatbed. A huge animal stood motionless inside. Four ancient, sagging pillars rose into shoulders that crested at nearly six feet tall. The creature was over thirteen feet long, covered in a heavy, wrinkled gray skin that seemed at least twice as big as the bones underneath. It reminded Frank of a horse, with a long, sloping skull that tapered down to a rounded snout. Black eyes reflected the flashlight. Two flat, smooth spots, like stumps of trees, dominated the top of its nose.
Frank realized that he was looking at an old rhinoceros, standing ankle deep in its own shit. Its horns had been cut off. Flies, sluggish in the cool air, covered the entire cage like a buzzing black blanket.
A tiger paced incessantly along thin bars, rumbling low in his throat. Several lionesses lay in separate corners of one large cage, tails flicking at sluggish flies. At the sight of the zookeeper and the bucket, they pulled themselves to their feet and snarled. It sounded like old muscle car engines, old 454 V-8s, sounds that made your teeth vibrate and shake your fillings loose.
The entire zoo erupted in more snarls, howls, screeches. It was feeding time and everybody was hungry; but Frank knew this went beyond simple hunger. He could count ribs on nearly every animal; they were slowly starving to death. This was where circuses came to die, where animals too old, too tired, too unpredictable, finished their lives, in a carnival junkyard, refugees from dying traveling zoos, unprepared private owners, and cancelled casino shows. It was a waiting room for the damned, as if hell was simply too full at the moment.
The zookeeper strolled from cage to cage, reaching into the bucket and tossing scraps of bloody meat through the bars. Frank recognized leg muscles, paws, and other pieces of dogs from the meat in the bucket. The cats pounced instantly, growling, snarling, snatching the chunks, ripping the morsels away from each other.
They reached the last cage in the row. It held a huge male lion, nearly ten feet long. He jammed his massive snout against the cage door, straining the thin bailing wire that had been twisted around the bars, securing the door. A very deep, very drawn sigh hushed out from his chest. He tilted his head and roared, shaking the matted mane and exposing teeth bigger than the quiet gentlemen’s fingers. The sound reminded Frank of a jet taking off. The roar held enough authority to quiet the rest of the zoo, at least for a few seconds.
Frank noticed the zookeeper didn’t get too close while tossing the meat into the cages. He may have been fat and lazy, but he wasn’t stupid. Frank took a long, hard look at the bailing wire holding the door shut. It looked like it had been there for a long time; most of the wire had rusted together.
The zookeeper pulled a greyhound’s head out of the bucket, holding onto the slim ear. He tossed the skull into the cage. The lion seized and cracked the greyhound’s skull between those giant teeth. It sounded like small branches being snapped for kindling.
Red started crying again, really sobbing. His nose dribbled more mucus, then suddenly erupted with blood. The thick liquid bubbled out of his nostrils, sheeting his upper lip in crimson snot, and kept spilling down, across his bottom lip and over his chin. Frank wondered if the accountant had discovered the wonderful world of cocaine; if so, that might explain Castellari’s financial concerns. Frank almost felt sorry for the guy.
The zookeeper looked at Red like he’d just scraped a plump white bug out from under his toenail with a pocketknife. He snorted, coughed up a thick ball of phlegm and stuck it in his bottom lip, saving it for later. He grinned. “Didn’t think you would be back. Thought you were smarter.”
Mucus bubbles swelled in Red’s nostrils and popped. “Hey,” Red croaked. “Hey. You guys listening? I can make you rich. Rich. Oh Jesus, I’ve got so much money stashed away, you have no idea. Please. Just listen to me. Please.”
Frank tried to tune out Red’s bleating and focus on the quiet gentlemen. Overpowering them was out of the question. They just stood there like goddamn Buddhist statues. Although these guys were about as Asian as John Wayne when he pretended to be Genghis Khan in that movie where he’d worn some kind of goofy wig and heavy goop over his eyes to make him look Oriental. Frank wondered if they were anywhere near where they made that movie, because it had been filmed a tad too close to a nuclear test site, and as it turned out, as the whole cast, the whole crew, everybody really, had grown themselves nasty, awful
cases of cancer, just like Frank’s Mom, who in the end couldn’t do a whole hell of a lot more than bark sticky clots of blood out of her charbroiled lungs onto wadded balls of Kleenex as he helped her apply lipstick even as her wig slid off and—
Frank bit the side of his tongue. Not too hard. Just enough to draw blood. Just enough to snap things back into focus. The fear had his mind on the run; it kept racing, looping, straying back into tangents, slipping back into his past. He shifted gears, skipping down through the spinning teeth in his mind, and tried to focus on the moment.
Acting like he thought they were on the move again, Frank took two steps forward and collided with the zookeeper. The fat man flinched, jerked away. The bucket hit the ground and toppled over. Blood and meat spilled out into the dust.
Frank stepped back and mumbled, “Sorry,” aware of the blood seeping into the dirt, watching the lion’s nostrils expand and contract.
The zookeeper shoved him, holding the flashlight against Frank’s throat. The metal tube came out of his belt and made a crackling sound as he held it up to Frank’s face. “Just what exactly is your fucking problem, retard?” he asked. “I’ll fry your brain like goddamn scrambled eggs.”
The lion roared again and slammed into the bars, eyes narrowing into slits, nostrils flaring.