Catch up with the series:
Vernon Wolfe surprised most men with his strength. He was small and olive skinned with a collection of scars from scrapes with men twice his size; for example, an eight-inch gash on his scalp that was now covered by a clipped lawn of speckled hair, and bruises on his calves that looked like he might’ve been in a rodeo, but were souvenirs from growing up in rough areas of east Texas. Vernon had been raised by a mother who paid the electric bill by forbidding him during the summer from turning on the air-conditioning.
To stay cool, he sidled up to bars and next to girls whose parents did not enforce the same restrictions. Vernon vowed one day he’d be able to turn on his air-conditioning whenever he damn well pleased, which for him, meant years of driving a truck across country listening to people tease him about being a “red neck” until he had decided to go to night school where he collected several degrees. Vernon hoped that if he played his cards right, he’d be promoted to the national safety team based in Atlanta and Bryan could take over his position. He had it all figured out.
“What happened to Mark?” Bryan had just come upstairs with the news. “I need every hand I can get.”
“Mark’s gotta go.”
“But he’s doing a good job. He gets to the work every morning a half hour before anyone else, and I can tell he’s not using.”
“Let me think about it.” Vernon already had contacted Atlanta to ask them to send over some honcho to see what was going on at the mill. But he wasn’t counting on Bryan being so damned vigilant. In fact, the Lead Environment Officer was starting to annoy him. “Mark doesn’t need to be out there. Atlanta is coming next week to look at the readings. The finishing plant may be able to use him.”
“What about the rest of the crew?”
“Transfer them to the adjoining ash detention area.” C’mon, Bryan, he thought. They worked in a damned paper mill. There was no avoiding the black liquor created from separating lignin from cellulose fibers. Did everyone want to wipe their ass with newspaper like they did in other countries? This was the United States, for Christ’s sake, where toilet and tissue paper were high-quality stuff. Why would you want to blow your nose into the headlines? But he knew this was an older mill where the recovery process didn’t meet federal standards. Most mills burned the liquor in a recovery boiler to produce energy that was constantly recycled inside a plant. But processes here had not been updated to meet federal standards. The way he saw it, someone was going to have to pay the price and it wasn’t going to be Vernon who was a sharp cookie. He had his eye on an office job located in downtown Atlanta where he could collect a big salary and retire, and he wanted Bryan to stop hounding him about readings. Why did everyone around him have to make everything so difficult? The company paid enormous fines to the EPA. Wasn’t that enough? Plus, if everything worked the way he planned, after a few months Mark would self-destruct in the finishing plant and Judy would wise up. Maybe she’d move back home with the baby. Her husband was a red-neck, a loser. Vernon wanted his son-in-law to be someone with polish and education, someone like a lawyer.