Read The Knowland Retribution Online

Authors: Richard Greener

Tags: #mystery, #fiction, #kit, #frazier, #midnight, #ink, #locator, #bones, #spinoff

The Knowland Retribution (9 page)

“In order to do that, one must be able to make a definitive identification. For that, one must conduct a stool test using the sorbitol-MacConkey agar. This is a substance resembling gelatin, in which the test may be performed. Without such testing no positive finding for the presence of E. coli bacteria can be asserted.”

“Does that mean,” asked Maloney, “that in the absence of such a test, any claim that E. coli was present would have no legal validity?”

She smiled the smile that she always smiled when declining to render legal advice. “I am not a lawyer, Mr. Maloney. What I can say is that no scientific credibility would attach to such a claim without the SMAC test. I don't believe a trained medical professional, Ph.D. or MD, would testify to the presence of E. coli without testing—proper testing—as I have described it.”

“Tell me,” said Maloney, “how readily available is the sorbitol-MacConkey agar in small-town hospitals in the southeastern part of the country?” Maloney had certainly read the report, quite likely more than once.

“It is readily available,” Dr. Roy replied. “I would anticipate no difficulty in testing for E. coli in even the smallest of cities. Samples could be sent to any large hospital in the region. Any doctor who suspected E. coli poisoning could get immediate help from Atlanta or Birmingham or Charlotte, for example, or any full-service general hospital.”

“We need a month,” said Stein.

“I'd like a lot longer,” added Wesley Pitts.

“Let me ask you this,” said Tom, “in your expert opinion, what would be likely to happen if a substantial supply of E. coli
­
–infected meat was widely distributed in the southeastern states in the next week?”

She should, of course, have seen this coming.

It suddenly dawned on her that she had not been involved in a remotely normal corporate consultation. She was not, and had not been, merely an academic fan-dancer doing her stuff, as she had done so often, for corporate mediocrities whose breadth of mind encompassed little more than expensive lunches and modes of theft.

Whatever this was, the brilliant Dr. Ganga Roy felt entirely out of her depth. She was now almost certainly being asked about real people dying.

She rallied, but not without effort, not without some of the mischief deserting her spirited manner. “The symptoms of this type of food poisoning caused by E. coli O157:H7 usually begin appearing in two to four days. Serious complications within a week; deaths thereafter.”

She felt a little lightheaded now, but plucked up the courage to ask, “What do you mean by ‘widely distributed?'”

“Hard to say, exactly,” said Maloney. “These people make ground beef for a variety of brand names. Most of them house names, named for whatever chain it's being sold in. It's hard to keep track of everything.”

“Not entirely,” said Louise Hollingsworth, her voice more robust than before. “Competing supermarkets in the same city sell the same product under their own names. Shoppers don't know where it comes from. But the company knows. And the distributors know. They know where every bit of it goes. Of course, at the store level, it often gets mixed together with meat from other suppliers, and that could make positive identification difficult.”

“They said that it was only one line,” said Nathan Stein. “How much meat could that be?”

Dr. Roy had command of herself again. “If we are talking about a processing plant, there is no such thing as a small problem involving a single machine or production line.”

Magically, she seemed to have forgotten the tangible corpses at issue and focused again on relatively cold facts. “Let us say that a single line has reported a problem. Those on other lines may or may not have recognized it as well. They may or may not have seen fit to report what they saw or suspected. Inspectors may find some and miss others. Moreover, if one machine or one product line has E. coli, it is likely to have spread. The entire plant is suspect.”

“And that means what, Dr. Roy?” said Maloney, not bothering, or able, to suppress the slight quaver that persisted as he spoke. “Let's say that tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of pounds, maybe millions, get distributed to hundreds of outlets, maybe more. That means
what
?”

She did not respond.

“Dr. Roy?” The others were bearing down, straining from their seats, Louise on her feet, Stein poised to spring like a feral cat, restrained only by Tom Maloney's heavy hand. But it was Maloney who spoke again.

“Let us say, Dr. Roy, that a universe of three hundred thousand people eat this meat. If everyone among the three hundred thousand gets sick, and I realize that's farfetched, and let's say that half are children and elderly, about nine hundred would end up in the hospital. Am I right? Of the nine hundred, perhaps forty-five would advance to HUS. Of that group, with a death rate of 3 to 5 percent we might expect between one and a third and two and a half deaths. Since we can be fairly certain that all three hundred thousand will not become ill—if only half do—that brings the projected deaths to less than one person, doesn't it?”

“You must understand,” she said. “If the numbers give us one death for every twelve hundred infected people, that doesn't predict which of the twelve hundred will die. It could be the first or the last. It could be the first ten who die, then ten thousand who don't.”

She continued, looking to Maloney as the only one with whom she had any personal link. “Based on your scenario, it is not realistic to suppose that there will be no deaths. There will be deaths. People will die. Some people will die.”

“And what's the
worst
that could happen?” Maloney asked, shockingly calm again.

“Well, the worst,” she said, looking over their heads, thinking what she had just said was already in the
worst
class, “would be that you are not dealing with E. coli as we know it. The very worst, if that is what you are asking, would be a newer, stronger, heat-resistant E. coli. Bacteria are killed by heat. That is why steam at high temperature is employed in the slaughter of beef. If you cook beef to a hundred and sixty degrees you will kill the E. coli. Not all bacteria are killed at the same temperature. Salmonella, for instance, requires a higher temperature than E. coli. If our E. coli bacteria mutated to the point at which it could withstand higher temperatures, we could have quite a crisis. Other mutations are also possible, perhaps probable. You should be aware that this deadly strain of E. coli was first identified in 1982, and, while we have learned much about it, that is not long ago. A newer, mutated form of the bacteria may also have a highly increased level of quorum sensing.”

“What is that, ‘quorum sensing'?” asked Pitts.

“Bacteria, E. coli included, communicate with their own kind. They talk to each other. Dr. Bassler at Princeton has shown that in concentrations above a certain point, E. coli O157:H7 gang up, coordinate behavior, and act together, in community, to regulate virulence. They do this using a technique called quorum sensing. This E. coli is a formidable enemy and it can only improve. Perhaps today it will kill ten times as many as it did yesterday. Tomorrow, perhaps a hundred times. I'm sure that one day, somewhere, we will encounter such a strain—a bacteria that may perhaps kill everyone it touches. The worst possible scenario would be that today is
that
day and your meat company is
that
somewhere.”

Dr. Roy was now depleted, but she looked to Tom Maloney and said, “If I may say so, Mr. Maloney, surely there's a scientific as well as a moral obligation to deal with such an event by notifying the public and recalling the meat as soon as possible and insuring that no more of it is distributed. Lives may be saved.”

Maloney brought the meeting to a close. On behalf of everyone at Stein, Gelb he thanked Dr. Roy for her “super” contribution. Clearly, he explained, this situation required immediate and ongoing attention.

Then he put his hand, protectively, featherlike, on her very narrow, yellow silk shoulder, and spoke almost in a whisper, not secretively, but in confidence. He would remember speaking to her this way years later, when Walter Sherman spoke in very much the same confiding way to him near the kitchen door in Billy's Bar.

“Dr. Roy,” he said, “we will need your exceptional expertise, perhaps at a moment's notice, for the next thirty days at least. I know you have a busy schedule. Still, I would like you to make yourself available as needed.”

“I regret to say that I do have a full schedule. Perhaps I could—”

“We would expect you to bill us as though you were in court seven days a week, until further notice. Before you leave, I will have Mr. Stein's secretary give you a check for a month's fee at five thousand dollars a day. Can I count on you?”

As a very young child, Ganga Roy had had the same dream several times. In it, she was reading a book her mother had told her not to read. As she turned the pages, she grew fearful, certain that something bad would leap from one of those pages and do her great harm. But
so overwhelming was her curiosity that she could not stop. As she turned the pages, they began to turn themselves. She awoke from each of these dreams drenched in perspiration, trembling uncontrollably, never having known what it was that leapt at her from the pages.

Tom was smiling down at her, piteously, it seemed. If ever a man stood in need of a helping hand it was certainly he. “Very well,” she said, in what she hoped was a cool, offhand tone, “I shall make arrangements.” She started to take down her flip charts, but Tom touched
her arm.

“Thank you again, everyone,” Tom said. “And before you go I'll need your notes. Leave them here with your copies of Dr. Roy's report. I'll need a communications review on your computers, and this is,” he added sternly, “a ‘voice only' matter.”

Wesley Pitts and Louise Hollingsworth left empty-handed, without further conversation, each nodding politely to Ganga Roy.

“Dr. Roy,” said Tom Maloney, Nathan Stein at his side, “I'm so happy you'll be helping us. If I could have whatever copies of your report are in your possession . . . and if you could get me your notes, I'll need them as well. And I'd like to keep those, too. ” He nodded at the easel. She handed him the reports.

He asked if she'd used a computer to prepare for this presentation. She nodded.

“At the institute or the school?”

“At home. Last night.”

“It might be best if you removed everything relating to this matter from your hard disk. Copy it to one of ours. If you need computer time we'll give you whatever you need right here. My office will call you to make arrangements. Let's try to keep our work in the building.”

“But of course, Mr. Maloney,” she smiled again, theatrically. They shook hands and she left.

“Tom,” said Nathan Stein when Dr. Roy was gone, “what the hell was that? What do we need from her?”

“Loyalty. Silence.”

“Are we looking at a shithouse?”

“Could be, Nathan. Yes.”

“Then why not give her some real money? If we need to buy her, let's do it.”

Maloney shook his head. “Nathan, you make too much fucking money. You got what, forty-three, forty-four million last year?” Maloney smiled. “You've lost all perspective. We just gave her a check for a hundred fifty-five thousand dollars. To normal people that is real money. And it's money she is honor-bound to earn.” Nathan looked unconvinced until Tom said, “Take my word, she
belongs
to us.”

New York

Elizabeth Reid had lunch
delivered to Nathan Stein's suite at twelve thirty. She ordered from Cippriani's because Nathan was especially fond of their fettuccini with clams. For Tom Maloney she ordered the salmon. Both men had taken a walk after their meeting with Dr. Roy ended. She was ready for their return. Ms. Reid had been Mr. Stein's secretary for seventeen years. She eschewed the inflated title “Administrative Assistant” while gladly keeping the inflated compensation it carried. While she was only two years older than he, she looked upon Nathan Stein as a nephew or cousin who needed assistance. She was loyal beyond any question, privy to most of his secrets, and quietly instructed her sister in buying and selling stocks about which she had acquired some overheard knowledge. Perhaps, she thought, it might be questionable, although she never for an instant thought it might be illegal. Everyone in the higher reaches of Stein, Gelb benefited in some way, and she was content to consider such things part of her pay package. Of course, she never overdid it. Her sister's account, maintained at a distance at Smith Barney, was worth hundreds of thousands, not millions.

She saw Wesley Pitts and Louise Hollingsworth leave the meeting, followed shortly thereafter by the lovely Indian woman, Dr. Ganga Roy. Tom Maloney had given Elizabeth an envelope with instructions to hand it to Dr. Roy as she left. She knew there was a check inside. “It has to be a large one,” Elizabeth thought. The envelope was sealed.

She arranged the lunch carefully on the table in front of Mr. Stein's couch. When Nathan and Tom returned she told them the food had arrived. Then she left them, closing the door behind her.

“What is it we're sure of, Tom? Actually
know,
not surmise.”

“We're certain the Knowland & Sons plant in Lucas, Tennessee, has turned out beef, ground beef, that's testing positive for E. coli and that it's happening too frequently for them to disregard. They're thinking of shutting down and recalling the meat.”

“How frequent is too frequent?”

“The problem seems to be that they've been cited for violations an awful lot. In and of itself, that's not big news. Every meat plant's got E. coli violations. It's all part of the game. But now there's so much bad meat going out, and they've got so many violations, they think they may push the inspectors too far, which is hard to do. Ordinarily, they might recall the meat, shut themselves down, get cleaned up. That costs money, but sometimes it has to be done. Except now, MacNeal is worried about the deal. He wants to know how bad it will hurt to shut down. He wants to know if we can put off the IPO or pull some other rabbit out of the hat. He's scared and he's looking to us for direction.” He stopped and listened for signs of progress.

“How can they turn out beef with E. coli? How does that happen?”

“Well, I'll tell you, Nathan, but you probably won't eat beef anymore.” Tom laughed and took a forkful of salmon and spinach dripping in sesame sauce. He hoped the walk, the food, and the casual laughter would put Nathan's mind at ease. For all of his faults, Nathan Stein had a keen sense of what to do in the trenches. “That's where we are for sure,” thought Tom, “
in the trenches
.” He wanted Nathan clear-headed and sharp as ever. He reiterated the process Billy Mac and Pat Grath had already outlined, complete with its potential downside effect. Tom had been sitting with Wesley Pitts when Billy Mac and Grath were on the conference call. Grath explained the concept of “captive supplies” and the money to be made speculating in live cattle. Knowland had done that, and the herd in question was, they thought, limited to the Tennessee plant. They were almost certain of that much. However, they had also been “mixing” more than usual—this on Billy Mac's orders, which he freely admitted. By “mixing” foreign beef with their existing domestic supply they could increase profits dramatically in the short run. Billy Mac's emphasis was now completely on the short run. He was selling the whole shebang and he wanted cash flow at the highest possible level in anticipation of the stock offering. The plant was also operating around the clock—three full shifts. Everybody in and around Lucas who could walk, crawl, or be dragged into that plant was working there, most six days, and some seven days a week. Almost all of them worked overtime because they always had trouble staffing the third shift. “Like it or not,” Billy Mac said to Tom and Wes, “we got drunks, junkies—amphetamines are real big around there—poorly trained incompetents, and men who haven't had a night's sleep in a week. Hey, look. you want the production, you get it any way you can. We got lines running three hundred cattle an hour!” Pat Grath had already talked about “operator fatigue”—a problem that haunted the industry—and he pointed out that the injury rate was now the highest in the company's history.

“It's a fucking time bomb,” said Billy Mac, “but who gives a shit. Soon as this thing goes down, we're outta there.”

Very nice, thought Tom. However, Billy MacNeal conveniently overlooked the fact that another Stein, Gelb client, Alliance, would inherit his problems and pay a handsome sum to do so.

Grath had explained how the cattle are killed. Tom, obligingly, passed the information along to Nathan. One by one, he told him, the cows were herded into a chute, big enough for only a single animal. “Cows are dumber than shit,” Tom recalled Grath saying, with his usual, West Texas, semi-arrogant laugh. “But you'd be surprised how many of them get real antsy right about then, moving around, sort of trying to get out, you know, eyes all funny, squealing like pigs. Almost like they know what's coming.” And what was coming was The End. The Knocker—that's what Grath said they called him—used a handheld device that quite literally thrust a steel bolt in the cow's head. “The cow goes down,” Grath had said, “usually dead. But when you're running a line at three hundred head an hour, well, goddamnit, you're pushing one through every ten seconds or so. Some of them don't die. They're still alive.” After the cow went down, it was hoisted, hung upside down with chains. Its throat was cut. Most of the animals that were still alive died then. However, a few didn't. Federal law was quite specific on this point. The animal had to be “insensible” to pain before butchering was allowed. Grath had snorted at this point in his recitation. “What are they gonna do? Call Johnny Cochran?” The next stop on the line was the giant scissors. They looked like scissors, so that's what Grath called them. Here the cow, dead or alive, had its legs cut off. As Tom told all this to Nathan Stein, he felt an irrepressible urge to laugh—the kind of laugh people have when something awful happens to someone else, the kind of laugh that says, “I'm so glad it's you, not me.” He also saw that Nathan was queasy, visibly shaken by the image of anything hung upside down and having its legs cut off.

“You alright?” he asked. Nathan just nodded. Having successfully stifled his nervous laughter, Tom continued. The carcass gets skinned and split in half, he explained. Then it's subjected to Steam Pasteurization, during which the meat is blasted with steam at 180 degrees while passing through a stainless steel chamber thirty-two feet long. When the beef emerges from “SP,” as Grath called it, another operator does a Steam Vacuum. The “SV” process is just like a carpet cleaner, he told them. It uses hot water and steam in a vacuum to pick off any remaining hair or fecal matter. “That's cow shit for you fellas in New York City,” Grath said with a chuckle. He knew they knew he had never been close to cow shit.

After this, according to Grath's running commentary, the meat was cut up and finally tested for contaminants. Tom stopped at this point to eat the last of his salmon and check Nathan's intestinal stability.

“You okay?” he asked, patting his own stomach.

“Yeah,” said Nathan.

“Here's the thing,” Tom said, “there's always some meat that tests positive for E. coli. What they do with that meat is sell it to people who make chili—”

“What!”

“No, no. Don't laugh. It's true. They sell the bad meat for chili and dog food because it's cooked before it's sold to the public. Remember, if you cook beef to 160 degrees the E. coli is killed off. It's only a serious problem when you eat those burgers rare. Grath said he himself adds prune puree to ground beef before making a burger; it's supposed to suppress the E. coli, and, he says, makes the burger taste better if its cooked well done. So anyway, it's the chili folks and others who make precooked beef products who get all the contaminated meat.”

“Holy shit,” Nathan said. “Do you eat chili?”

“No, I don't.”

“Me neither. Not anymore. Is that legal? Selling it for chili?”

“It's either legal or nobody much cares. Pat says that's SOP. But what happened here is they needed so much meat to make their own quota that, first, they didn't test as much of the meat as they're supposed to. A lot of it went straight to the grinders. Second, some of the inspectors were tired, hungover, whatever—not up to their usual standards. Those guys work for the government, but they're local people too. They were driving the line. Production was beyond plant capacity and they cut some corners. When they grind this stuff, according to Grath, it all gets mixed together, sort of like putting dressing on a salad and tossing it. The E. coli present in one batch spreads to others, and the whole thing with ground beef is that it's so thoroughly combined the bacteria shows up everywhere.”

“Just the ground beef?” Nathan asked.

“No, not just the ground beef, but it's a much bigger problem than with steaks or other cuts of beef. Once you clean those they're apparently okay. Keep in mind, Nathan, I'm telling you what Pat told me. He said there are more than a hundred million cattle in this country, and we eat thirty-five million of them every year. I've got no reason to doubt him on these technical issues, but we can't be a hundred percent sure.”

“Dr. Roy didn't tell us any of this,” said Nathan.

“Meat packing and animal slaughter is not exactly her area of expertise.”

“Yeah, I know . . . all that doctor-doctor shit.” Nathan got up from the chair next to his couch, went to his private bathroom, and emerged a few minutes later. Tom was still sitting there.

“So, there's no way there's nothing to this?” the wiry little man asked Tom. Tom could see Nathan was physically trying to squeeze out of this—weasel out if he could. He'd seen Nathan Stein like this before. Just tell him there's a way out and he'll take it, and when it blows up in your face, he'll blame you. On the other hand, Tom knew, tell Nathan Stein
he's
in a bind, that the monsters have surrounded
his
house, and he becomes a single-minded fighting maniac. Tom decided that's what was needed now.

“No,” Tom said. “Billy Mac is fucked. That means we're fucked.”

“I want to know what our options are.”

They decided to meet again later that afternoon and have Wes and Louise join them. Tom's responsibility was to coordinate with the others and present a battle plan for Nathan's approval. The meeting would be in Maloney's office, where he knew Nathan felt comfortable.

They gathered at three o'clock. Wesley Pitts spoke first. He nodded several times. “Let me give my conclusion first, and then explain my logic.” He'd been working on this all day, calling around, putting out feelers, checking with players who mattered. He'd spent the last hour and a half thinking about his alternatives, trying to come up with new ones. At the end he hadn't budged from the first idea that came to him on the phone during Pat's initial call, but he'd steadily built up a weight of anxious concern. Now he was more than ready to pass it around.

“If we tell Billy MacNeal to recall his meat and take his plant off line, we are fucked. There is no way around it. First we are fucked with the mutual funds. I went all out with them. I put my credibility on the line, the credibility of this firm. You know it hasn't been easy. Some of these people have doubts. They don't like that much cash going into Billy's pockets. They think we're generously structured. It's taken a lot to keep them in line. If we pull back for a minute, postpone, show any weakness, they will walk. And then there will be a stampede. After that we won't have a second chance. Not only will they not commit a cent, they will laugh at me for trying. And that's just the beginning. Some of these guys do guest shots on cable and
Wall Street Week
, and the rest. We drop the ball on this and they will be talking about it. They will make it, and us, a joke.”

Wesley wiped his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief. To Louise, the shining cotton looked like a bandage raised to a flowing wound. She'd never seen him quite this way, caught between fear and fury. Usually that part was under wraps. Nor had she seen him this eloquent. His normal act was a powerful mix of intellectual force and locker-room vigor. She considered him unique, morally righteous. How many ex-professional football players actually married a woman—a girl, really—he got pregnant? Pitts did. And while Pitts lived in Manhattan while his wife and daughter lived in Detroit, Louise thought she understood. She admired him.

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