Dagney Morgan nursed her third coffee of the morning, though her first still hadn't kicked in. She didn’t like being up this early, let alone at work, but her upstairs neighbor’s cat had been hunting a rat in the wall all night. She figured if she was going to be miserable, she had more practice at that in the office.
That didn't mean she disliked her job. She actually had a knack for doing paperwork, and her inner anal retentive got a thrill from filing reports away in the office cabinet. And she loved her boss, even though sometimes his voice set her on edge, particularly on mornings like this one. “Dagney?” he asked from behind her, and her shoulder tightened.
Her parents named her for Dagny Lind, a Swedish actress her father said looked exactly like her mother in Ingmar Bergman’s Crisis. She hated it, because people always assumed she was named after Dabney Coleman- or worse, started to imagine a physical resemblance.
“Dag?” Her boss, Martin Sharpe, asked again. He was older, and had a dour nature, as though he'd just stepped out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. He reminded her of Vincent Price- though maybe that was just the pencil mustache.
“Sir,” she said, her mind still on the reports she’d been trying to read.
“I keep getting pissy messages from McLoughlin’s superintendent. Have you and Nelson checked into that?”
“Uh,” she stalled, but even with the necessary caffeinated fuel, her brain engine was having trouble turning over, “refresh my memory.”
“Merek’s farm. Sits on land adjacent to the aquifer that services the district where the middle school is. If he’s abiding by the regulations, nothing should be getting past the aquitard.”
“I think he prefers to be called Aquaman, or maybe King of Atlantis- I mean, either would be more politically correct than 'aquitard'- even if we suspect he’s falling down on the job.” He had a dry, almost British sense of humor, but he didn’t even give her a smile; maybe his coffee hadn’t kicked in, either.
“Nelson swung by there last Thursday, but Merek wasn’t in,” she said, and pretended to look at the calendar on her desk, to confirm what she’d just made up. Nelson had been face down in her sofa cushions last Thursday- sleeping off a night of binge drinking that made him reek of goat cheese- which at least meant she knew she wasn’t likely to be called out on the lie.
“I need the both of you to head out there today. We can’t have that idiot spilling captan into the drinking water again- or heaven forbid something worse.”
Dagney stood up and wrapped her coat around her shoulders, while she watched him walk back to his office. She grabbed her keys and the bagel she still hadn’t started eating, then lingered a moment to look at Nelson’s empty desk, and sighed.
She called him from her car, but didn’t have the energy to feign surprise when she got no response. She put in a call to Merek, too; her father always told her showing up unannounced out past the suburbs was just asking to get shot at. It was almost another hour before her partner finally called back, and by then she was nearly to Merek’s. “What the fuck, man?” she asked.
“I fell asleep on the couch- passed out. Muriel wouldn’t let me into bed.”
“Can’t say I blame her- I can smell the booze-sweat through the phone. You never made it out to Merek’s, did you?”
“Yeah. I’ve been on this dirt-ass road to his farm for forty-five minutes now- and Sharpe thinks you’re in the seat next to me.”
He didn’t speak for a moment, and when he did it was a little wounded puppy whimper: “… sorry.”
Her grip tightened around the steering wheel, since he wasn’t in throttling distance. “Is there anything I should know here?” she asked, straining not to raise her voice.
“Merek’s been dodging inspections, but he’s not a bad guy. Going back ten years, nothing worse than a couple fines for improper chem disposal.”
“And the captan incident last year.”
“Shit, yeah, that, too.”
“How did you forget it? They traced fungicide from the toilets in the VA hospital to his farm.”
“So? The EPA downgraded captan to ‘not likely’ a carcinogen. The sweetener in my coffee’s worse. Our veterans might be a little worse for wear, but I don’t think any of them drink from the toilets. Though I guess maybe one of their dogs… okay now I feel sad.”
“Even so, the most recent complaint comes from some kids at the middle school who were hospitalized.”
“Yeah. And while he might have cleaned up his captan storage, his permits say he’s also got a metric shit-tonne of fertilizers,” she paused. “Heh.” Then she ramped back up, “But if any kids come down with organophosphate poisoning, no amount of me covering your ass will help.”
“Dag- I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have put you in this position.”
“No, you shouldn’t have. And you should dwell on that while I’m cleaning up your mess.” She was being cruel, but it wasn’t anywhere near the first time he’d left her in the lurch; in fact, she had a hard time remembering the last time he hadn’t. His continuous fuck-ups were easily the most consistent thing in her life.
Rob Merek’s land was one of the few family owned farms left in the county. It wasn’t well kept; Merek’s father was a decent businessman but a lousy farmer, and managed to pass only the latter skill set to his son. The younger Merek had learned how to avoid scrutiny, and he made sure his pesticide license was up to date, since that was an obvious way to call attention to himself, but Dagney saw a half-dozen potential violations just driving by his grain warehouse.
She pulled up to his modest house, at least half of which looked like it was patched with old fence boards. There was no ringer, so she knocked with the flat of her palm. No response. She knocked again, louder this time. “Department of Agriculture. You’ve got an inspection.”
She heard the heavy thudding of bare feet on hardwood floors, then the door swung wide. Merek wasn’t wearing anything, unless Dagney counted children's tube socks with blown out elastic or a pair of too-small boxer shorts clinging for life to one ankle- which, on a moment's reflection, she did not. More disturbing, he seemed to be covered in a sticky, green semi-transparent fluid from the middle of his chest to his knees.
“I’m with the Department of Agriculture, here for an inspection.”
“Got all my permits,” he said, and started scratching himself. Vigorously.
“That’s correct, but this is a surprise inspection.”
He eyed her suspiciously, then looked down at his own nudity. “I like to be naked,” he said, matter of factly.
“I need to see where you store your FIFRA applicable chemicals,” she said firmly.
He squinted hard at her, and his entire face scrunched up. He took a big, deep breath, and his eyes closed; Dagney began to wonder if she was going to have to resuscitate him. His eyes burst open with the speed of a frightened rabbit, and they had that kind of panic in them, too. His mouth hung open and his tongue moved spastically around, until he asked, too loud: “Why can’t you people let me be naked?”
“Sir, I’m not the police. But I do need to inspect your fertilizers and pesticides. You certainly have the option to put on pants- I’d consider it a personal kindness if you did - but the decency of your exposure is kind of beyond my purview.”
“You’re purty,” he said, and put his hands in a grabby motion and started pushing them towards her chest; she seized his wrist, and twisted it up and back, forcing him down to one knee.
“Now that I won't tolerate,” she said. She'd carried cuffs ever since that pot farmer nearly broke her wrist the year before, and she retrieved them from her belt. “For my safety, I’m going to cuff you.” She clipped the cuff around the wrist she had hostage. “You’re not under arrest, but given the state of things I think we’ll both be safer this way. Would you like to at least pull up your underpants before I put on the other cuff?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, chastened. He stood up into a squat, and with his free hand wriggled the boxer shorts around his tube-socked foot, then around his bowed legs.
She tried to focus away from the sausage stuffing that was him pulling on those boxer shorts- they must have belonged to the same child as his socks- and asked, “You still storing your pesticides in the little red barn on the south side of the property?”
“Yes,” he said, but realized too late maybe he shouldn’t have, and followed it with “ma’am,” as calmly as he could.
“Are you on anything right now?”
“No ma’am,” he said. But his eyes flicked quickly from the extreme left to the right, and his pupils were so wide they reminded her of a mosquito overfeeding until it burst.
“I’m not DEA- I don’t give a crap,” she said. “But unless you’re on something, then that miosis- the dilation of your pupils- might mean organophosphate exposure. And you’ve been salivating. Maybe you’re hungry, maybe you’re just a drooler- I don’t know you well enough to judge- but that also hints at organophosphates. When we’re done here, you should get yourself to a doctor, just to be sure. Now if you'd be so kind as to lead the way.”
He hobbled past her. “How much do you know about the history of organophosphates?” she asked, and he shrugged and gave a noncommittal grunt. “They come from World War 2 Germany. They were being researched as pesticides, but the Nazis diverted them into nerve agents instead. VX has a similar pedigree, actually.”
Dagney stopped as they got closer to the barn. “See, I already have a problem here. There’s 350 feet from this barn to the aquitard- see that marker there? And it’s supposed to be down slope, which clearly it is not. That's how captan flowed into it last time.” Merek fell in behind her as she berated him. “But what really irritates me, is that these are all things noted in the assessment after your spill last year. It really is like you’re looking for reasons for me to kick your ass- with paperwork, obviously, and not my dainty little girl feet.”
She stopped when they got to the barn. The door was already open a sliver, and Dagney reached for the handle to pull it open enough for them to enter. Suddenly Merek kicked at her, only managing to throw himself off balance; he fell hard into the mud, soiling his off white underpants. “Don’t touch her! You can’t touch her! She’s mine!”
Dagney noticed several leafy vines trailing out of the open door; they had kept it from closing all the way. They ended at the corner of the barn in a dome of leaves, propped up with chicken wire and sticks. She could make out several different varieties of plants by the leaves: pumpkin, cucumber, squash.
Dagney opened the barn door, and felt for a switch in the dark. The lights were on a dimmer, which had apparently last been set to mood lighting, and as she turned around she understood why, and gave up on wanting to see better.
Strewn about the floor were a woman’s clothes: red stiletto pumps, a red miniskirt and an even mini-er top.
There was a “woman” lying on a pink flannel blanket, mostly stained the same deep green as Merek's groin. A pair of red silk stockings were stuffed with vines, torn under vinyl, crotchless panties; a matching bra was filled with hefty green winter squashes. Between them a still-growing pumpkin torso made her almost look pregnant. Her arms were cucumbers tied together by their vines. Her head was a turban squash turned on its side. Its lumpy top almost resembled a face, and there was a heavy lathering of eye shadow and smeared lipstick painted over it. Green tendrils mixed with an auburn wig, giving it the appearance of dreadlocked hair.
The vegetable doll lay peacefully back with its legs splayed; there were dents from a pair of big knees in the flannel between them.
Dagney put the doll out of her mind, but focused on the green sludge it was soaked in. The oily gel was pooling in various places on the ground inside the shed. It seemed to be leaking from a variety of different canisters: poisons, pesticides and chemicals.
At that moment, Merek burst into the room. In stumbling to his feet, he’d managed to drag his boxers back around his right ankle. “I love her!” he bellowed, and the words seemed to jiggle with his bare belly and engorged member as he ran towards Dagney. She moved to the side and Merek smacked straight into a post and collapsed to the ground.
“Those pesticides are leaking into the groundwater. We think they’ve made some kids at McLoughlin Middle School sick,” she said. She was angry, as much about him possibly poisoning kids, as him charging at her like a pissed off green unicorn.
His tears formed a river with the blood flowing from his lip. “You don’t have to tell me about my land. I worked this land my whole life. I know my land. Biblically.”
Dagney sighed. “No person shall transport, store, dispose of, display, or distribute any pesticide or pesticide container in such a manner as to have unreasonable adverse effects on the environment. I’m pretty sure that was an attempted assault, too. Now you are going to be arrested- or fined, at least.” Dagney put a hand under his sweaty arm and pulled him up. He stumbled groggily, and she led him outside. “Sit,” she said, and set him flat against the side of the barn. With his hands cuffed behind him, unless the big man was a contortionist, he wasn’t getting up without help.
She called hazmat and the sheriff’s office, and was about to dial Nelson when she heard a cracking sound from inside the barn. She thought it might be one of the aging pesticide containers rupturing. “Crap,” she said, “exactly what I need.”
She hurried inside and scanned the chemical drums that lined the barn. While several were in disrepair, and a couple were even leaking from pinholes, none had broken open. Her eyes scanned the room for movement, and she listened for the sound of fluid running. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the vegetable doll shaking.
She winced, at the thought that Merek had shoved a vibrating sex toy into it, and couldn’t decide if that was better or worse than just burrowing out a little hole. But there wasn't that telltale rumble coming from it. As her eyes adjusted to the low light, she could make out a wide fracture split down the center of the pumpkin belly, like tangerine lightning. A hunk of the orange skin surrounding the crack swelled outward rhythmically, then receded, each pulse distending the fruit further. It broke open.
An infant tumbled out of the pumpkin womb. It was entirely human save for a green complexion and soft tufts of clover on its head instead of hair. It gurgled at her, spitting out seeds and stringy pumpkin flesh. It propped itself up on chubby arms to take in the world, and crawled out of the pumpkin shrapnel to get a better view. Then its hands slipped out from under it, and the baby fell onto the dirt. It regarded her curiously a moment, and began to wail.
Instinct grabbed hold of Dagney, and she rushed over to the infant, and took it up in her arms. The child stopped crying as soon as she started to bounce it against her shoulder. She could feel pumpkin juices soaking through her clothes- at least, she hoped it was just pumpkin juices. It didn't feel warm, anyway. She made a scrunched up face, and the child scrunched its face, too.
Dagney didn’t know much about babies, but she knew that that kind of mimicry usually took months to develop. The child was heavy, too- too big, really- and slowly Dagney assembled the ideas together. Babies weren’t supposed to crawl for months- they even had to be held a certain way because their necks wouldn’t support their gargantuan heads. That meant the child wasn’t a newborn- not in the usual human sense, anyway.
Dagney continued to bounce the child and turned and stared at the cracked open pumpkin. She sympathized with its emptiness. She'd been told from a very early age that she could never have children, and so she'd expended much effort convincing herself that she didn't want any.
But now, holding one so alone, she couldn't lie to herself anymore. She stroked her fingers through its clover hair, and the baby blew pumpkin pulp spit bubbles at her. She smiled.
Her happiness dove suddenly into an icy bath of dread as her mind jumped between a dozen schlocky horror movie scenes of questionably credentialed 'scientists' hovering over a table with bone saws, smiling maniacally as lettuce and green juices flew into their faces. Her heart broke at the sound of the infant's shrieks.
Dagney realized the noise wasn't only in her mind; the child in her arms was crying, too, because she was clutching it too tightly. She slackened her grip, and looked at the baby's pudgy face. She pursed her lips, and furrowed her brow, and the child’s eyes got wide.
Dagney knew how long responders took, and that she wouldn’t have long to conceal the child. She wrapped it in her coat and walked out of the barn.
Merek was still lying where she’d left him, and snot poured out of his nose. “You can’t have her… you can’t take her away…” he blubbered. Dagney paused for a moment, thinking he meant the baby, and horror shivered through her. She unconsciously clutching the child closer to her chest.
“I’ve never loved any woman like I love her. Those legs. That nasty little mouth, and those tits,” he strained, trying to pantomime breasts, but he couldn't with his hands cuffed behind himself, so he stuck out his own chest, instead, and swung his own man-breasts from side to side.
Dagney sighed, relaxing. He didn't know about the baby, and given his current state, probably shouldn't. She carried the child to her car, and built a little nest in the floorboard for it, using paperwork and her coat. “Babies like nests, right?” she asked.
The child cooed at her.
“I'll take that as a maybe,” she said. She covered the baby with a manila folder, and stood up as the hazmat crew arrived in a county fire truck.
“Morning, Dag,” Annie, the firewoman in charge of the hazmat crew said with a wave.
“Yeah, not so much,” Dag replied, gesturing to the stains on her shirt.
Annie was a big woman with blond hair and a hard face. Dagney could have pictured her in a Victorian dress, and had no doubt she would have been considered very pretty in that era. At least until she stuck out her tongue and said, “Yuck. You want us to break out the decon shower?”
“Naw,” Dagney said. “I don't think I got hit with the worst of it. I can probably strip out of my shirt for the drive home. Plus, you know, I'm not crazy about the idea of being naked around this many men.” She gestured at the rest of the crew filing out of the truck.
“And speaking of men to be naked around…” Annie said, nodding in the direction of an arriving sheriff’s department patrol car, “looks like Officer Man-Candy just arrived on the scene.” Dagney gave her a confused look. “He's a sweetheart. And I'm sure he'll need your statement. And maybe your number.”
Dagney walked over to the squad car as a deputy with a warm tan exited.
He smiled awkwardly at her. “Dagney?” he asked. She nodded. He pulled a business card out of his shirt pocket and handed it to her. “I'm Deputy Marco. Um, dispatch couldn't stop laughing long enough to tell me what's going on.”
“Probably best I just showed you, then,” she said.
She walked him past hazmat in their yellow suits.
“Um, do we need to be taking extra precautions?” he asked.
“Not much in the way of fumes,” she said, “so unless you're planning on rolling around in the spills, or helping with the cleanup, you're good.”
Hazmat had already turned the lights all the way up, so the deputy could immediately see the doll laid out on the floor.
“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.
“If you think it's a vegetable sex toy, then yes.”
“And just so I'm 100% crystal, because I'm sure there are going to be questions at the office, that's not an unconscious person, it's literally vegetables, as opposed to animals or minerals?”
“Veggies, of the major food group variety,” she said.
“Is that a crime? I’ve got a pretty good handle on the penal code-”
“Handling the penal code…” she snickered.
“Given the circumstance, I probably could have phrased that better. But so far as I know what happened between a person and their cucumbers in the privacy of their own, uh, barn…”
“Not a crime as far as I'm aware. And, you know, normally, I wouldn't have called at all, but he kind of attacked me. Ran at me, actually. Which I might normally shrug off, but he's pretty out of his gourd, right now.”
“Probably from exposure to the chemicals he's storing, which might be ironic, since I'm here investigating those chemicals maybe getting into other people's drinking water. But I figured we could use your help, cause in this state he's kind of likely to hurt himself or maybe some of the responders.”
“Serve and protect, right there on the back of my squad car,” he said with a smile. “So where's my perp?”
She walked him back to where Merek was sitting. “See, I'd noticed the chubby naked man on my way in, but you were playing it up mysteriously, and I thought there'd be some grand reveal as to the importance of this character. Something grander than just telling me, 'Oh, he's outside.'”
She grinned, and shrugged. “I had fanfare planned, a musical number, fireworks. But then we went over-budget, and the union started complaining about working conditions, and I figured maybe this time less was more.”
Marco hunched over to talk to Merek. “The lady tells me you tried to hurt her. That true?” he asked.
“She's my property!” Merek said loudly.
“I assume you don't mean the woman standing next to me, but the tart in the red lingerie.”
“She's a lady!” he yelled.
“Guy only seems to have the one volume, and a moist volume at that,” Marco said with a grin. He stood back up and turned his attention to Dagney. “I assume you're filing a report with your home office. Can I get a copy?”
“That'll probably suffice for a statement. If I need anything else, I can always get in touch. Lean forward,” he said to Merek, inspecting Dag's cuffs. “Good, you've got the double-sided locks. Makes my job easier.” He slid his own cuffs onto Merek's wrists, just below Dagney's. She handed him her cuff key, and he unlocked hers. He gave her back her key and cuffs.
He put a hand under Merek's arm and pulled him up to his feet. “Come on, big guy. Now you're under arrest. You shouldn't say anything incriminating. You also shouldn't try to get any of your green ooze on me- because that probably counts as assaulting an officer- and my report’s already weird enough as it is.”
“I love her,” Merek bellowed.
“Right,” Marco said, “no chitchat.”
“Aren't you going to,” Dagney gestured to the underpants stuck to his left ankle, “you know, give the man back his dignity?”
Marco sighed, and retrieved a pair of latex gloves from his belt and slipped them on. Then he kneeled next to Merek. He winced as he stretched the boxers wide, to give Madsen a hole. “Step through,” he said, and started to thread Merek's legs into his underpants, “and you better think unsexy thoughts, sailor.” Marco got the underpants up around Merek's haunches, and pulled his fingers free quickly enough that the elastic snapped. “Sorry.”
He walked Merek towards his squad car. He squinted. “Crap.” He let go of Merek. “You stay here a second,” Marco said, and walked back around to his trunk.
“He kicks,” Dagney warned.
“And no kicking,” Marco said, pointing his finger at Merek to drive home the point. He retrieved a plastic sheet from the trunk and laid it across his back seat. “There. Now slide in, and try not to get your juices on anything.” While Merek wobbled inside the car, Marco asked, “You wouldn't think I'd need to ask people not to spread their juices around in my car, would you? But even asking politely doesn't stop some people.”
“I'm sorry,” Merek blubbered. “Please don't take her away from me. I'll, I'll clean up my chemicals, and fix the drainage, and whatever the EPA lady wants, just please, please don't make me be alone anymore.” The rest of his pleading was lost as Merek started to bawl.
Marco winced at the thought of even asking it on the deranged man's behalf, but took one more look at the sobbing man, pressing his eye juices against his window, and knew he had to. “Is there anything in that… thing we might need for evidence?”
Most of her instincts told Dagney they should burn it- the plants would be better off as ash than as Merek's slutted up screwcrow, but something in his quivering face made her relent. “I can’t think of a reason, no. Besides, I like you too much to ask you to scoop it up and put it in little evidence baggies.”
Merek’s eyes welled up with joyful tears that spilled over his face, and cascaded down the windows in green waterfalls. “So many juices,” Marco muttered.
“Thank you,” Merek said.
Dagney bent down to look him in the face. “I’m pretty sure that’s the organophosphates talking, and that once you’ve got your brain unfried, you’re going to go back to eating your vegetables in a nonsexual way.” Merek blinked at her, and she worried she may have talked him out of getting treatment, as she turned towards her car.
“I’ll send you a copy of my report, Deputy…” she stared down at the card he'd given her.
“Just call me Marco, and pretend the long string of consonants after that doesn't exist. And I'll look forward to it.” He smiled.
She blushed, and then Annie walked past, winking at her through her hazmat helmet and Dagney felt self-conscious. She slunk to her car and started it up. Marco watched as she pulled off Merek’s property and pointed her car back towards town.
When Dagney got on the main road, she called Sharpe. “Dagney?” he asked. “I was about to call you. Lab results came back from the McLoughlin drinking fountains; it was crypto, so Merek’s off the hook. But you square things there?”
“Yeah. He had a pile of violations, and things went a little sideways. I had to bring in the sheriff- a deputy, anyway; Merek tried to jab me with his green thumb. I’m pretty sure my clothes are soaked in poisons and I’d like to go throw them in the wash. You mind if I email my preliminary report from home?”
“Sounds fine,” he said. “But what were you saying about his green thumb?”
“He was covered in pesticides and plant juices- dyed green. And he had a rage-on,” she winced, “an anger erection. He charged at me with it, like the unholy offspring of a rhinoceros and the Jolly Green Giant.”
“Oh,” he said flatly. “And where was your partner during all of this?”
“He got called away en route, farmer had some livestock acting funny; at the time the inspection seemed pretty routine, so I told him I’d handle it. And from what he told me it ended up being a calf with some indigestion- probably not even worth writing up.”
Sharpe paused, as if measuring how much of it he was going to believe. “Hmm. Well, good work, anyway.”
“Thanks. Bye,” Dagney said, then hung up, and dropped the phone into her passenger seat. It bounced once, then landed on the floor.
The baby cooed at her, and wiggled out from under the folder. For the first time since she’d plopped the child down in her car she looked at it, peering at her from behind her gearshift, and asked “What the hell are we going to do with you?”
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