SANF March 2009 : Page 82
Chapter 8: Murder, he roped A cattleman sets out to kill a vegan, as a retired detective hunts for evidence at Mercer Brothers Pastures. BY ROBERT BERINGELA | ILLUSTRATION BY NATHAN FOX south end of his family’s ranch, the home of Mercy Beef, and had once been central to the operation. But it had fallen into disuse, left to fill with mold and cobwebs as Mercer Brothers Pastures grew from its modest roots into a feel-good force in California’s food world: the state’s foremost producer of grass- fed beef. “Now up against the wall!” It was high noon, the sun reaching its peak over the Central Valley, but the air inside the barn was A musty and still. Alfie Falfa cracked a jaundiced grin and shuffled forward, his mantis legs bound around his ankles. He stood tall against the wall and locked the rancher in his bloodshot stare. bullheaded man who’d sent thousands of cows to slaughter, Marvin Mercer was surprised to feel so squeamish at the prospect of killing a single human being. Never mind that his intended victim was a grotesque subset of the species—a seven- foot-tall vegan with mottled skin and hair the color of a nuclear sunset. Killing a person was still killing a person, and it required more mettle than dispatching cattle to their doom. “Move it, freak!” he said. He pointed a shotgun at his captive and prodded him inside a vacant barn. The barn stood at the 82 SAN FRANCISCO MARCH 2009 FOODNOIR
Chapter 8: Murder, he roped<br /> <br /> A cattleman sets out to kill a vegan, as a retired detective hunts for evidence at Mercer Brothers Pastures.<br /> <br /> A bullheaded man who’d sent thousands of cows to slaughter, Marvin Mercer was surprised to feel so squeamish at the prospect of killing a single human being.<br /> <br /> Never mind that his intended victim was a grotesque subset of the species—a sevenfoot- tall vegan with mottled skin and hair the color of a nuclear sunset. Killing a person was still killing a person, and it required more mettle than dispatching cattle to their doom.<br /> <br /> “Move it, freak!” he said.<br /> <br /> He pointed a shotgun at his captive and prodded him inside a vacant barn. The barn stood at the south end of his family’s ranch, the home of Mercy Beef, and had once been central to the operation.<br /> <br /> But it had fallen into disuse, left to fi ll with mold and cobwebs as Mercer Brothers Pastures grew from its modest roots into a feel-good force in California’s food world: the state’s foremost producer of grassfed beef.<br /> <br /> “Now up against the wall!” It was high noon, the sun reaching its peak over the Central Valley, but the air inside the barn was musty and still.<br /> <br /> Alfi e Falfa cracked a jaundiced grin and shuffl ed forward, his mantis legs bound around his ankles.<br /> <br /> He stood tall against the wall and locked the rancher in his bloodshot stare.<br /> <br /> Why so nervous?” he rasped. “You’ve been a murderer all your life.” He spoke with a pious spite that made Marvin grateful. The vegan’s irritating tenor helped to harden his resolve.<br /> <br /> Outside, the wind blew. Marvin’s index fi nger twitched on the trigger. Thinking he heard footsteps, he wheeled and stared, but it was just the barn door creaking in the breeze. He reached over and fl ipped the latch closed. A rivulet of sweat wriggled down his brow, and butterfl ies fl uttered in his belly.<br /> <br /> It wasn’t pretty, the task before him. But the laws of business were the laws of nature, and they had to be heeded. First commandment: Get the other guy before he gets you.<br /> <br /> The other guy, in this case, posed a serious threat. He was armed with information that could sink the ranch in scandal. How much Alfi e knew about the brothers’ misbehavior—that Marvin had been acting like the beef world’s BALCO, bulking up his cattle on more than feed—the rancher couldn’t say, exactly. But it was clear the vegan knew enough to destroy the brothers’ reputation and their livelihood, and now he’d have to take those gleanings to his grave.<br /> <br /> “Any last words?” Marvin asked.<br /> <br /> “Ashes to ashes,” Alfi e said. “Dust to dust.” “I dunno about the dust,” Marvin said, cocking his shotgun. “I fi gured I’d just feed you to some hungry pigs.” “THAT OUGHT TO DO IT,” SAID MARTY COPELAND, the noonday sun shining down on his not necessarily legal activities at the Mercer Brothers ranch.<br /> <br /> A few hacks with a bolt cutter had opened up a large hole in the wire fence that ran along the border of a vast expanse of pasture. Copeland stepped through it.<br /> <br /> “You sure you’re up for this?” David Tuckwall asked.<br /> <br /> It wasn’t standard practice for a food writer, sending a sidekick out on a trespass mission while he paid a surprise visit to a source. But the whiff of a good story had stirred Tuckwall’s dormant journalistic instincts, recharging the inquisitive drive so long deadened by a diet of puff profi les and recipe tests.<br /> <br /> “You kidding?” Copeland shrugged. “It beats staying home and watching Dancing with the Stars. Besides,” he said, opening his sport jacket and revealing a Glock in the inside pocket, “if any of these cows get frisky, I know what to do.” Tuckwall waved good luck to the retired detective, then hopped into the front seat of a waiting Prius Zipcar. Edie Brandt smiled at him from behind the wheel.<br /> <br /> “Did I ever tell you,” she said, “that you’re sexy when you’re stressed?” She leaned across the seat and pecked him on the cheek.<br /> <br /> This wasn’t normal for Tuckwall either, bringing his sometime girlfriend along on an assignment. But Edie had insisted, which Tuckwall took as a sign of promise. If he didn’t get the scoop, maybe he’d still get the girl.<br /> <br /> Edie eased the Prius down a lonely one-lane road. A few miles along, she parked beside a tall wroughtiron gate that marked the entrance to Mercer Brothers Pastures. Tuckwall got out and leaned hard on the buzzer. He held it for a 10-count, then buzzed again.<br /> <br /> “Maybe they’re not home,” Edie suggested through the window.<br /> <br /> “Even better. Marty can have the whole place to himself.” Tuckwall inhaled deeply. “Relax,” he told himself. “Relax.” Even if the plan failed, it still beat another dull day at the offi ce.<br /> <br /> Early that morning, Tuckwall had dropped by the newsroom of the San Francisco Courier, which published very little that was fi t to print. He’d found the food department in its usual state of suspended animation. His editor was chewing on a couple of half-baked ideas—a roundup of Bay Area pizzerias and an “investigative” piece that would put a tough question to farmers’ market shoppers: Were brussels sprouts better purchased loose or on the stalk?<br /> <br /> “Seymour Hersh,” thought Tuckwall, “read it and weep.” The once proud paper’s demise became all the more dismaying to Tuckwall as real news unfolded all around them. Just the day before, Jock Rapini, the hotshot chef who’d spent seven days as a humiliated captive—plastered in goose feathers, with a gavage crammed down his throat—had been set free andWas back to his old self-promoting antics. In hostage footage taken by his vegan captor, he’d pledged to give up meat, but the chef had now recanted. He was once again in kitchen whites at one of his restaurants, Trough, working on a Guts and Glands tasting menu that would feature unsung parts of his favorite livestock.<br /> <br /> Call it poor taste or smart publicity: The chef planned to launch the menu on International Animal Liberation Day, which local activists treated with the sober respect that Hassids hold for Yom Kippur.<br /> <br /> The radical group HUG, Humans United Against Gluttony, had already expressed its umbrage, promising a boycott of Rapini’s restaurants to go along with a host of scheduled demonstrations across the city, including a mock hog slaughter and a rush-hour blockade by “herds” of marchers dressed as dairy cows.<br /> <br /> There was so much for an enterprising reporter to choose from. But Tuckwall was following the hottest thread of all, one he hoped would lead to tangled secrets behind the gates of a certain ranch.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall gave the bell three more urgent buzzes.<br /> <br /> An angry voice crackled through the intercom. “Go ahead. Push that button one more time.” Tuckwall stepped back and winked at Edie. His pestering had paid off.<br /> <br /> “Mr. Mercer,” Tuckwall said, “I’m David Tuckwall with the San Francisco Courier.” He heard a drawn-out sigh.<br /> <br /> “I’ve been speaking to the media all week,” Bo replied, “and I’ve said everything there is to say.” It was the lie Tuckwall expected. Well, two could play that game.<br /> <br /> “Mr. Mercer, I’m working on a story about Mercy Beef, and I’m in possession of some information I’d like to talk to you about.” Tuckwall paused to let the bluff sink in.<br /> <br /> “Information?” “I’ve received a letter. It raises questions about your ranching practices.” “A letter? From who?” “If you don’t mind, Mr. Mercer, I’d rather discuss this face-to-face.” “People will say all sorts of things to get attention.” “That’s why I’d like your side.” A pregnant pause.<br /> <br /> “I could go with ‘no comment,’” Tuckwall continued, “but that never looks much good in print.” Another prolonged silence.<br /> <br /> “Give me a minute.” In the near distance, beyond the gate, a light fl ickered on inside a home atop a hill. A screen door slammed, then an engine turned and a pickup truck came rumbling down the hill.<br /> <br /> Edie climbed out of the Prius.<br /> <br /> “Holy crap,” she whispered. She squeezed Tuckwall’s hand. “What are you going to tell him?” “I dunno,” Tuckwall mumbled, “but I’m a reporter. Bullshitting comes naturally.” HALF AN HOUR INTO HIS TREK ACROSS the Mercer Brothers’ property, Marty Copeland had a Walden moment.<br /> <br /> What he loved about the country, the ex-detective realized, were the artisan goods that its farms gave rise to: goat cheese and gourds, beets and baby lettuce, and the Noah’s Ark assortment of freerange, grass-fed beasts. What he loved about the city, on the other hand, were the pooper-scooper laws.<br /> <br /> Even in the most despondent San Francisco dog parks, he’d never encountered so much crap. It caked his shoes, slowed his progress, and fi lled his nostrils with an unrelenting stench. Copeland looked around. The culprits stood all around him, chewing their cud slowly but digesting it quickly, judging from the mess they made. How could the Mercers claim that these beasts were humanely raised, when there was no one around to pick up after them?<br /> <br /> Copeland surveyed his surroundings: verdant folds of pasture for as far as he could see. He couldn’t say what he’d fi nd here—maybe he’d know it when he saw it. Or, more likely, he and Tuckwall’s sketchy plan would come to nothing. The reporter would get stonewalled by the farmers, and his own search would produce nothing but a pair of ruined shoes.<br /> <br /> But at least they couldn’t say they hadn’t tried.<br /> <br /> Over the next rise, a barn came into view. It looked close at fi rst, but the grand scale of the land distorted the distance. It was another 10 minutes before he drew near. As he did, a breeze kicked up—on the gusts, he heard the sound of voices. Copeland hurried forward. When he reached the barn, he pressed himself against it and cupped his ear. He heard a conversation, but the words were unclear.<br /> <br /> Copeland crouched low and inched toward the door. Loosely latched from the inside, it hung slightly open. Through the crack, he made out two men, one of them the state’s most wanted vegan. Alfi e FalfaStood against the wall like a stoic prisoner awaiting execution, staring at a shotgun held by a squarejawed ruffi an in a cowboy hat and jeans.<br /> <br /> Copeland kicked the door. The latch snapped, and the old wood splintered. “Freeze!” he said, brandishing his Glock.<br /> <br /> But the man in the cowboy hat didn’t freeze. He wheeled without a word, and buckshot exploded from the barrel of his gun.<br /> <br /> UNLIKE HIS MUSCLE-HEADED BROTHER, Bo Mercer looked less like a rancher than like a paper pusher, with a bulging belly and pallid skin.<br /> <br /> He climbed down from his pickup and glared at Tuckwall through the wrought-iron gate.<br /> <br /> “Let’s get this done and over with,” he said. “I’ve got things to do.” “I’ll be as brief as possible, Mr. Mercer,” Tuckwall said. He pulled a reporter’s notebook from his back pocket, a professional fl ourish that never ceased to please him.<br /> <br /> “Would it be a problem if we came in?” “We?” Tuckwall gestured toward Edie, who leaned against the car, feigning nonchalance.<br /> <br /> “Intern,” Tuckwall said. “Trailing me to learn the ropes.” Bo’s eyes narrowed.<br /> <br /> “Right here will be just fi ne.” “Fair enough,” said Tuckwall. He cleared his throat.<br /> <br /> “In the letter I received—” “Let me see this letter.” “I’ve got it at the offi ce. But I can tell you what it says...” It turned out to be nerve-racking, fudging facts so baldly to the man’s face, and Tuckwall might have stammered if he hadn’t heard a loud bang in the distance, like a truck backfi ring. It was immediately followed by four high-pitched retorts—blam, blam, blam, blam—then another low, bellowing blast.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall’s heart leapt—Marty!<br /> <br /> Bo turned his head.<br /> <br /> “Hunters,” he said. “You’re going to have to excuse me, Mr. Tuckwall. We don’t like ’em shooting on our property.” He climbed casually back into his pickup and drove up the hill.<br /> <br /> “Quick! Get in!” Edie’s voice freed Tuckwall from his frozen panic. She’d leapt back in the car and was already gunning the engine.<br /> <br /> “Seat belt!” Edie ordered.<br /> <br /> She fl icked the Prius into reverse, then gunned it silently forward and smashed into the gate. The wheels spun wildly on the sandy shoulder, and the car’s front end collapsed, but the gate gave way, granting them clear passage.<br /> <br /> “The Toyota Prius,” Edie said. “Engineered like no other car in the world.” She revved the engine to its full force and sped onto the ranch.<br /> <br /> A dirt road led over the hill, then spilled south, splicing a hard path through the pasture. Bo was well ahead, his pickup bouncing on a beeline, but it wasn’t hard to follow his dusty trail.<br /> <br /> When he came to an old barn at the far end of the ranch, Bo fi shtailed to a stop and scrambled from the cabin.<br /> <br /> Edie stopped the Prius, and she and Tuckwall sprinted the remaining distance. They were breathless when they reached the barn. Bo was standing in the doorway of the barn, staring down, his face ashen.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall shoved him aside. The rancher didn’t resist.<br /> <br /> On the fl oor of the barn lay two bodies, soaking in swiftly swelling pools of blood.