Authors: Graham Masterton
âI'm going to have to see a darn dentist,' he complained. âI can't abide the darn dentist. And what if I'd swallowed it? I could of got lead poisoning.'
âI'm sorry. I'll show it to the owner just as soon as he gets here.'
âThis'll cost plenty, I bet you. Do you want to take a look?' Before I could stop him he stretched open his mouth and showed me a chipped front incisor and a mouthful of mushed-up hamburger.
Mr Le Renges came in at eleven a.m. Outside it was starting to get windy and his hair had flapped over to one side like a crow's wing. Before I could collar him he dived straight into his office and closed the door, presumably to spend some time rearranging his wayward locks. He came out five minutes later, briskly chafing his hands together like a man eager to get down to business.
âWell, John, how did it go?'
âPretty good, Mr Le Renges. Place was packed out.'
âAlways is. People know a good deal when they see one.'
âOnly one problem. A guy found this in his burger.'
I handed him the bullet. He inspected it closely, and then he shook his head.
âThat didn't come from one of our burgers, John.'
âI saw him spit it out myself. He broke one of his front teeth.'
âOldest trick in the book. Guy needs dental work, he comes into a restaurant and pretends he broke his tooth on something he ate. Gets the restaurant to stump up for his dentist's bill.'
âWell, it didn't look that way to me.'
âThat's because you're not as well versed in the wiles of dishonest customers as I am. You didn't apologize, I hope?'
âI didn't charge him for his breakfast.'
âYou shouldn't have done that, John. That's practically an admission of liability. Well, let's hope the bastard doesn't try to take it any further.'
âAren't you going to inform the health and safety people?'
âOf course not.'
âWhat about your suppliers?'
âYou know as well as I do that all ground beef is magnetically screened for metal particles.'
âSure. But this is a bullet and it's made of lead and lead isn't magnetic.'
âOf course not. But anything could have happened. Maybe some kid took a potshot at it when it was standing in a field, and the bullet was lodged in its muscle.'
âJohn, every one of our burgers is very carefully sourced from people who are really
when it comes to quality meat. There is no way that this bullet came from one of our burgers, and I hope you're prepared to back me up and say that there was absolutely no sign of any bullet in that customer's patty when you grilled it.'
âI didn't actually
it, no. Butâ'
Mr Le Renges dropped the bullet into his wastebasket. âAttaboy, John. You'll be back here bright and early tomorrow morning, then?'
âEarly, yes. Bright? Well, maybe.'
All right, you can call me a hair-splitting go-by-the-book bureaucrat, but the way I see it any job has to be done properly or else it's not worth getting out of bed in the morning to do it, especially if you have to get out of bed at five fifteen. I walked back to the Calais Motor Inn looking for a bite of lunch, and I ordered a fried chicken salad with iceberg lettuce, tomato, bacon bits, Cheddar and mozzarella and home-made croutons, with onion strings and fried pickles on the side. But as comforting as all of this was, I couldn't stop thinking about that bullet and wondering where it had come from. I could understand why Mr Le Renges didn't want to report it to the health and safety inspectors, but why didn't he want to have a hard word with his own supplier?
Velma came up with another beer. âYou're looking serious today, John. I thought you had to be happy by law.'
âGot something on my mind, Velma, that's all.'
She sat down beside me. âHow did the job go?'
âIt's an existence. I grill, therefore I am. But something happened todayÂ .Â .Â . I don't know. It's made me feel kind of uncomfortable.'
âWhat do you mean, John?'
âIt's like having my shorts twisted only it's inside my head. I keep trying to tug it this way and that way and it still feels not quite right.'
I told her about the bullet and the way in which Mr Le Renges had insisted that he wasn't going to report it.
âWell, that happens. You do get customers who bring in a dead fly and hide it in their salad so they won't have to pay.'
âI know. But, I don't know.'
After a double portion of chocolate ice cream with vanilla-flavored wafers I walked back to Tony's where the lunchtime session was just finishing. âMr Le Renges still here?' I asked Oona.
âHe went over to St Stephen. He won't be back until six, thank God.'
âYou don't like him much, do you?'
âHe gives me the heebie-jeebies, if you must know.'
I went through to Mr Le Renges' office. Fortunately, he had left it unlocked. I looked in the wastebasket and the bullet was still there. I picked it out and dropped it into my pocket.
On my way back to the Calais Motor Inn a big, blue pick-up truck tooted at me. It was Nils Guttormsen from Lyle's Autos, still looking surprised.
âThey brought over your transmission parts from Bangor this morning, John. I should have her up and running in a couple of days.'
âThat's great news, Nils. No need to break your ass.' Especially since I don't have any money to pay you yet.
I showed the bullet to Velma.
âThat's truly weird, isn't it?' she said.
âYou're right, Velma. It's weird, but it's not unusual for hamburger meat to be contaminated. In fact, it's more usual than unusual, which is why I never eat hamburgers.'
âI don't know if I want to hear this, John.'
âYou should, Velma. See â they used to have federal inspectors in every slaughterhouse, but the Reagan administration wanted to save money, so they allowed the meat-packing industry to take care of its own hygiene procedures. Streamlined Inspection System for Cattle, that's what they call it â SIS-C.'
âI never heard of that, John.'
âWell, Velma, as an ordinary citizen you probably wouldn't have. But the upshot was that when they had no USDA inspectors breathing down their necks, most of the slaughterhouses doubled their line speed, and that meant there was much more risk of contamination. I mean if you can imagine a dead cow hanging up by its heels and a guy cutting its stomach open, and then heaving out its intestines by hand, which they still do, that's a very skilled job, and if a gutter makes one mistake â
! â everything goes everywhere, blood, guts, dirt, manure, and that happens to one in five cattle. Twenty percent.'
âOh, my God.'
âOh, it's worse than that, Velma. These days, with SIS-C, meat-packers can get away with processing far more diseased cattle. I've seen cows coming into the slaughterhouse with abscesses and tapeworms and measles. The beef scraps they ship out for hamburgers are all mixed up with manure, hair, insects, metal filings, urine and vomit.'
âYou're making me feel nauseous, John. I had a hamburger for supper last night.'
âMake it your last, Velma. It's not just the contamination, it's the quality of the beef they use. Most of the cattle they slaughter for hamburgers are old dairy cattle, because they're cheap and their meat isn't too fatty. But they're full of antibiotics and they've often infected with
and salmonella. You take just one hamburger, that's not the meat from a single animal, that's mixed-up meat from dozens or even hundreds of different cows, and it only takes one diseased cow to contaminate thirty-two thousand pounds of ground beef.'
âThat's like a horror story, John.'
âYou're too right, Velma.'
âBut this bullet, John. Where would this bullet come from?'
âThat's what I want to know, Velma. I can't take it to the health people because then I'd lose my job and if I lose my job I can't pay for my automobile to be repaired and Nils Guttormsen is going to impound it and I'll never get back to Baton Rouge unless I fucking walk and it's one thousand nine hundred and sixty miles.'
âThat far, hunh?'
âWhy don't you show it to Eddie Bertilson?'
âThe bullet. Why don't you show it to Eddie Bertilson. Bertilson's Sporting Guns and Ammo, over on Orchard Street? He'll tell you where it came from.'
âYou think so?'
âI know so. He knows everything about guns and ammo. He used to be married to my cousin Patricia.'
âYou're a star, Velma. I'll go do that. When I come back, maybe you and I could have some dinner together and then I'll make wild, energetic love to you.'
âI like you, John, but no.'
Eddie Bertilson was one of those extreme pain-in-the-ass-like people who note down the tail-fin numbers of military aircraft in Turkey and get themselves arrested for espionage. But I have to admit that he knew everything possible about guns and ammo and when he took a look at that bullet he knew immediately what it was.
He was small and bald with dark-tinted glasses and hair growing out of his ears, and a Grateful Dead T-shirt with greasy finger-wipes on it. He screwed his jeweler's eyeglass into his socket and turned the bullet this way and that.
âWhere'd you find this?' he wanted to know.
âDo I have to tell you?'
âNo, you don't, because I can tell
where you found it. You found it amongst the memorabilia of a Vietnam vet.'
âDid I?' The gun store was small and poky and smelled of oil. There were all kinds of hunting rifles arranged in cabinets behind the counter, not to mention pictures of anything that a visitor to Calais may want to kill: woodcock, ruffed grouse, black duck, mallard, blue-wing and green-wing teal.
âThis is a seven point nine two Gewehrpatrone ninety-eight slug which was the standard ammunition of the Maschinengewehr thirty-four machine-gun designed by Louis Stange for the German Army in 1934. After the Second World War it was used by the Czechs, the French, the Israelis and the Biafrans, and a few turned up in Vietnam, stolen from the French.'
âIt's a machine-gun bullet?'
âThat's right,' said Eddie, dropping it back in the palm of my hand with great satisfaction at his own expertise.
âSo you wouldn't use this to kill, say, a cow?'
The next morning Chip and I opened the restaurant as usual and by eight a.m. we were packed to the windows. Just before nine a black panel van drew up outside and two guys in white caps and overalls climbed out. They came down the side alley to the kitchen door and knocked.
âDelivery from St Croix Meats,' said one of them. He was a stocky guy with a walrus moustache and a deep diagonal scar across his mouth, as if he had been told to shut up by somebody with a machete.
âSure,' said Chip, and opened up the freezer for him. He and his pal brought in a dozen cardboard boxes labeled Hamburger Patties.
âAlways get your hamburgers from the same company?' I asked Chip.
âSt Croix, sure. Mr Le Renges is the owner.'
âAh.' No wonder Mr Le Renges hadn't wanted to talk to his supplier about the bullet; his supplier was him. I bent my head sideways so that I could read the address: US Route One, Robbinstown.
It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon and the woods around Calais were all golden and crimson and rusty-colored. Velma drove us down US One with Frank and Nancy Sinatra singing
on the radio.
âI don't know why you're doing this, John. I mean, who cares if somebody found a bullet in their hamburger?'
care, Velma. Do you think I'm going to be able to live out the rest of my life without finding out how an American cow got hit by a Vietcong machine-gun?'
It took us almost an hour to find St Croix Meats because the building was way in back of an industrial park â a big gray rectangular place with six or seven black panel vans parked outside it and no signs outside. The only reason I knew that we had come to the right place was because I saw Mr Le Renges walking across the yard outside with the biggest, ugliest dog that I had ever seen in my life. I'm not a dog expert but I suddenly realized who had been advertising in
The Quoddy Whirlpool
for somebody to walk their Presa Canario.
âWhat are you going to do now?' Velma asked me. There was a security guard on the gate and there was no way that a 290-pound man in a flappy white raincoat was going to be able to tippy-toe his way in without being noticed.
Just then, however, I saw the guy with the scar who had delivered our hamburgers that morning. He climbed into one of the black vans, started it up, and maneuvered it out of the yard.
âFollow that van,' I asked Velma.
âWhat for, John?'
âI want to see where it goes, that's all.'
âThis is not much of a date, John.'
âI'll make it up to you, I promise.'
âDinner and wild energetic love?'
âWe could skip the dinner if you're not hungry.'
We followed the van for nearly two and a half hours, until it began to grow dark. I was baffled by the route it took. First of all it stopped at a small medical center in Pembroke. Then it went to a veterinarian just outside of Mathias. It circled back toward Calais, visiting two small dairy farms, before calling last of all at the rear entrance of Calais Memorial Hospital, back in town.
It wasn't always possible for us to see what was happening, but at one of the dairy farms we saw the van drivers carrying cattle carcasses out of the outbuildings, and at the Memorial Hospital we saw them pushing out large wheeled containers, rather like laundry hampers.