In meat processing, animals are crated and extracted from their industrial farms to the processing plant. They need to be sedated and stunned before they may be killed and bled dry. Just fastening all the struggling creatures to their racks can be an ordeal. In the case of poultry, the corpses are shifted to tanks of carefully-regulated water to loosen the feathers for plucking. The liquid can easily become a contaminant and must constantly be changed. The little dead things parade merrily through a rotating drum of mechanically-driven rubbery fingers. The feathers are removed via abrasion, but fine pinfeathers often remain and need to be waxed or singed. After that, the poultry moves to be gutted. The head, feet, and oil glands are all removed. Final steps include washing, chilling, cutting and deboning. That's how it was explained to me by Mr. Dovak.
"So what," he began as he exhaled noisily through his broad nose, "can you do to shorten this process?" His smallish dark eyes were trained on me the way a bloodhound followed a scent. My hands were clasped neatly with my thumbnails lightly tapping my thin lower lip, elbows propped on the surface of the Company conference table. He couldn't see my mouth, but he glanced down at my fingers to watch their movements, trying to read my body language. An effective middle manager, Mr. Dovak. I was certain he would overtake his higher-ups. Soon, perhaps. He smiled in Good Ol' Boy fashion, his eyes becoming pinpricks of black and gleaming white amid the slightly tanned, wrinkled folds of his white American skin. He was likely disarming to anyone with a modicum of sympathy. I was quite safe however, as I had long ago dispensed with such a needless device, other than in those rare occasions when it served a function. Here, it did not.
“I can engineer a product that lacks feathers,” I began, “and likely reduce the density of the bone structure. I may be able to do more—” I halted and laid my palms flat on the tabletop, sliding back from my precarious perch at the very edge of the Company chair I occupied. The flames of greed ignited in my liaison’s eyes at the open-ended promise of further potential. Precisely as planned. “—With the proper funding and facilities of course.” My smile was reptilian. Mr. Dovak’s fine God-fearing features shifted slightly when he realized that he was making a deal with the Devil. There was a pause – there was always a pause – just before his smile renewed, the chink in his armor quickly hidden as he withdrew some papers from his briefcase.
“Yes of course. I feel that you may find our offer reasonable.” He wetted his thumb and forefinger with a terse brush across his tongue and leafed through the pages laid out in front of him. Pulling the appropriate sheets from his stack, he handed them over to me with an upturning of his eyebrows in a kind of askance for approval with a smile that was both sheepish and confident. He was certainly attempting to lay on the charm. An interesting yet wasted effort.
The paper was thick, textured, and watermarked with the Company logo. I must admit that the stationery impressed me considerably more than my amiable southern host. He was a dime a dozen, if shinier than most. Letterhead of this caliber however was worth enough dimes that a Company cutting corners wouldn’t waste it on small affairs. The contract he’d handed me outlined my anticipated service in the usual vague terms of those unfamiliar with my practice; my salary and the term of contract; the name of the laboratory I would be granted access to; then the usual odds and ends of very fine print with several spots for me to initial. I took my time reading the document, letting no expression cross my features. Mr. Dovak bore witness in excruciating silence, not wanting to interrupt. Sadistically I pretended that it took me far longer to read the forms than I truthfully required. I liked to make them wait on my convenience. When he finally broke down and exhaled sharply through his whistling, hairy nose and leaned back in his chair I cut my eyes up over the rims of my glasses.
“Let me take a look at the lab.” I ordered in a monotone, slipping into my natural poker face. His smile had dropped away during my extended reading session and was not replaced. Instead, he nodded. He understood how to take orders.
“Of course. Did you want to schedule a—”
“Now.” I said this in a tone that conveyed my annoyance at his intelligence level. I stood up, waving my arm dismissively. “Unless of course you want to call this off.” In truth the challenge piqued my interest. Creating a biological food-grade product which required minimal production might solve world hunger issues. To me it was just further genetic coding to tinker with, a formulaic rather than humanitarian problem. Mr. Dovak predictably rose to the bait. He’d been given an assignment after all, and he had to fulfill it else his superiors place a black mark in his confidential Company file. He immediately stood with me, making a show of straightening his papers, tapping the bottoms on the tabletop before shucking them into his briefcase in a state of hurried disarray.
“No no, now is just fine, John.” He paused and smiled at me after a two-heartbeat span, canting his head to the side. “It’s alright if I call you that, or would you prefer—”
“John is fine, Mark.” He was taken aback. I supposed familiar address was not something he was accustomed to, particularly when the one utilizing it was a man of my disposition. As the seconds ticked by mechanically on my quartz-driven watch he revealed that his greatest wish for the moment was to wash his hands of the affair and return to the little bubble of his Corporate office. Lucky for him that once set in motion there was little that could tear my tunnel vision away from my work.
“Right this way, then.”