Archive for June, 2007


We were just pulling off I-70 outside Carter, Indiana, when the SatCom crackled. A high wind was blowing and the Prius was getting rocked pretty hard. Elijah picked up the handset.

“Two-seventy to ECC,” he said. Another gust of wind. I braked sharply and took us around the clover-leaf.

“Two-seventy, stand by to receive an F-U-B on the twenty-seven fifty,” said the dispatcher.

An F-U-B was a “Field Update Bulletin.” The laptop screen changed colors and the printer began to hum between the seats. Twenty-seven fifty was the code for the call we were on: a pig farm emitting type 1-A ultrapernicious greenhouse gases without a permit.
My name is Melody Pfue. I’m an agricultural emissions investigator.

Since I have to allow that some of you may end up reading this as a temporal resonance artifact, I suppose I should briefly explain the context that brought us to this place. I suppose it all began when Rosie O’Donnell was elected president early in the 21st century. Although few in the establishment anticipated it, looking back, it’s pretty clear how it happened. I won’t go into details, but the political upheaval led to a series of major policy changes, including the imposition of some fairly stringent greenhouse gas emissions standards.

That’s where my job fits in. People hear “greenhouse gases” and think of carbon dioxide and car exhaust and factories. But far more dangerous than carbon dioxide is methane, an even more familiar greenhouse gas and one that many people have trouble talking about. Farming operations—cattle farms, pig farms especially—are the worst polluters of all.

Secretary of the Interior Michael Moore inadvertently put the spotlight on methane during a heavily publicized demonstration at a Nebraska dairy facility. Besides starting a national conversation about the gas, the incident gave Al Gore the lyrics that won his second Grammy. Suffice it to say the regulatory climate heated up faster than the troposphere, and a whole new movement flowered in American bureaucracy. Scores of public spirited young people answered their nation’s call with trowels, test kits, probes, and little balloon-baggie things. More than one wag quipped that politicians were finally taking a stand on bullshit and hot air, and maybe it was true. But this American, for one, is starting to feel a little deflated by it all.
“Confirmed,” said Elijah, reading the printout. “It’s Holzfürzen.”

“Shit,” I said. I slammed on the brakes. The power readout on the dash spiked upwards from the regenerative braking energy.

“Congratulations!” said the car’s computer-voice, “you just conserved three hundred joules of energy. That’s equal to one and one-half pounds of CO2.”

“Piece of shit,” I muttered, slamming the gear lever into Park. Somehow the thing got stuck on “demo” mode, and since it was a government car we didn’t have the code to turn it off.

“Give it here.” I motioned to Elijah.

“This corner’s fading a bit,” he said. It was self-erasing, reuseable paper, from which all print was supposed to disappear after two hours. Evidently, this particular sheet had got ahead of itself.

I muttered something Elijah couldn’t hear. He looked out the window and fingered the peace charm he wore around his neck.

“Goddammit I thought we nailed this fucker,” I said after reading. Holzfürzen was a complex figure—a mad scientist with a redneck’s antiauthority mouth-foaming. Tenured at a big state-school Ag department, he had gradually gone off the rails and was most recently prosecuted for releasing radioactive pea-fowl in a metropolitan area.

“It was something to do with temporal resonance,” said Elijah. “Additional documents came to light that suggested a conspiracy or something. They threw the case out.”

“Believe me I know,” I said. “Mathiason worked on that case.” Poor Mathiason—savagely pecked, his organs irradiated while he lay bleeding, and not a shred of evidence to tie it to Holzfürzen. Fucking birds.

“So what’s the read on this one?” I asked Elijah. “Do we play it straight or go for the gusto and call in SHIT?”

SHIT is another acronym. It stands for Special Hazards Intervention Team. We call them in for—as the TV cops say—“situations”. I’ve had more than my share of SHIT episodes, and I can tell you the acronym isn’t totally inappropriate.

“Well,” said Elijah thinkingly, “if we’re outdoors in daylight, what…you’re thinking of might not have as big a chance of happening…and it’s certainly easier than calling in…”

For a fucking peacenik, Elijah had a point. I hate to agree with anyone with a beard, but it’s certainly true that we had no material justification for an armed response. There was an old saying among AE investigators that “if you don’t have shit, you can’t get SHIT.” And the paperwork—“wipe up”—after an unplanned panic call was intentionally copious.

“I know,” I said. “You’re right—we’ll just do it. But I still have a bad feeling.”
We wheeled onto a two-lane access road and thence through several traffic lights, ending up on a non-descript secondary highway through loose strip malls and scruffy country.

“You’d think if he’s going to have a farm, he’d at least put it in farm country,” I said. Elijah remained silent, gazing across the punctuated flatness.

Strip mall eventually petered into occasional trees. A deck of midlevel clouds weakened the afternoon sun. I sniffed slightly and reached for the heater controls.

“How do you turn this thing off?” I demanded. It wasn’t his fault, poor kid, but this god-damn smart car stuff just tries to do everything for you and is therefore impossible not to fuck up.

“Smog particulates, zero point three parts per million. Air breathability index, healthful,” said the computer voice.

“I feel better already,” said Elijah.

“Listen, I thought I smelled something,” I said.

“Like what?” asked Elijah.

“Pigshit,” I said. What else? Elijah rolled down his window.

“I see what you mean,” he said.

“Well then roll up your window because it’s fucking freezing,” I said. “Nothing you haven’t smelled before.”

After a series of turns onto increasingly poorer roads, the corrugated metal of Holzfürzen’s pig barn glinted in the distance.
In a perfect world, I should explain, the barn would act as a kind of giant gas hood. The methane released from farming operations under the roof would be collected in a subterranean duct system, then piped to pressurized roof tanks, from which it would eventually be collected and used to fuel turbogenerators.

Eventually it grew more complicated. The growing national concern for the environment also extended to the pigs themselves. Animal rights groups inevitably protested the pigs’ indoor confinement. Emissions engineering firms responded with a system of flexible tubing attached to “minimally invasive” couplings, which, in practice, were exactly what they sounded like. Mated to a complex program of what was essentially house training, the system enabled the husbandry of “zero-emissions, free-range pigs”, whose “humanely-raised” meat products sold for premiums that easily recouped the considerable startup capital involved. I grew accustomed to, but never admired the practice. The expression “to squeal like a stuck pig” is not without grounding in fact.
Holzfürzen evidently chose to keep his hogs inside at this time of year. That is, if he let them out at all. As we rolled through the farmyard, the sound of grunting resonated within the metal walls.

“Play it cool,” I said to Elijah as I shut the car off.

“Thank you for another safe and pleasant journey!” said the computer voice.

I stepped out and zipped my windbreaker. My cellphone sagged reassuringly in a pocket.

We walked gingerly over the semi-frozen muck. Little as I cared for the shoes, I’d be damned as let Holzfürzen’s pigshit wreck them.
If you watch a lot of television, you probably think Federal agents kick down doors and shout “freeze”. The scenario became so iconic in the early 2000s that several art films were produced featuring this behavior almost to the exclusion of anything else. I remember one notable modern art museum showed the work of a photographer—whose name eludes me—who worked entirely on the theme. I don’t remember the museum either, but the show was called “freeze frames,” which someone thought was funny.

Needless to say we weren’t that sort of Federal agent, and, moreover, public tastes have changed. After a brief fascination with double-agentry, the viewing audience seems to have fixed their attention on an angsty sort of therapy-style monologue, in which the agent, who has become emotionally involved in the pursuit of the villain, expresses the tortuous ambivalence he feels at the arrest he is about to make.
“Are you Holzfürzen?” I asked.

“Ya,” he said.

“We’re here about the pigs.”


A wisp of white hair drifted to rest on his forehead. Nobody said anything for a minute.

“Mind if we look around?” said Elijah finally. I like an awkward silence, but for some reason he does not. Impatient youth.

“No,” said Holzfürzen eventually. He was kind of staring into space. A wave of smell passed over us. Elijah started walking toward the barn.
No matter how many times I inspect them, I never get used to pig barns. The noise gets tolerable, but the smell—breathing through a used diaper doesn’t describe it, but it might make it better.
“Shall I blow the LIPS?” shouted Elijah over the squealing.

I shrugged and nodded. LIPS stood for Leak Indicating Purple Smoke. That wasn’t the official acronym, but it was easy to say.

“Clear!” yelled Elijah, pulling the cord on what looked like an oversize firecracker.

Thick purple smoke billowed out. We headed for the door. On the way out, Elijah body-checked Holzfürzen by accident, not seeing him .

“The men who come—” Holzfürzen began.

“Let’s go outside now sir,” said Elijah loudly. “We can’t stay here.” He turned Holzfürzen around and nudged him forward.

LIPS isn’t perfect. It won’t help you find loose hose clamps or bad fans. The idea is to flood the collection system with it and see if any comes out outside. It’s prima facie evidence in a tube.

“The men who come, the have burst tank,” said Holzfürzen.

“Men who come—could you be a little more specific?” said Elijah.

“Men who come with tank to take gas—”

“Come with tank?”

I sighed. “Collection men,” I said to Elijah. I didn’t believe the German accent for a moment, but Elijah was so officious it made me ill.

“You’re saying the gas collectors broke your holding tank,” said Elijah. “Is that right?”

A plume of purple smoke began to blossom from the ductwork on the roof of the building. Holzfürzen sniffed slightly and brushed away his hair.

“They pump in, not out,” he said. “There is explosion.”

We were silent for a minute, watching the smoke diffuse in the still air.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I said finally. I turned and walked toward the car. The metallic squealing from the barn seemed to throb in my head.
“So you don’t think he blew it intentionally?” Elijah persisted.

We were back heading for I-70. Elijah was asking what we were going to do with Holzfürzen.

“You can’t really think he’s telling the truth?”

“What the hell is truth anyway,” I said. I knew I was pissing Elijah off; it felt good in a way.

“I don’t get it, Mel,” he said. “One minute you say you want to nail him, and then we walk out without so much as a maintenance citation.”

“I’m getting too old for this game,” I said.

“So—what? Are you giving up? Is that it?”

“What do you want me to do, Elijah?”

“But if he’s lying—”

“Oh he’s not lying,” I said. “And if he is, the truth is even worse.”

“What do you mean?”

“The man is a genius, Elijah. He has enough patents to stopper every pig in that barn. I should have seen it before.”

“Seen what?”

“It’s a warning,” I said. “Gang warfare. Someone’s trying to warn him off.”

“You mean a competitor or something?”

“Those pigs,” I said. “We smelled them with the windows up, at least two miles away.”

“So, you mean—”

“Those are not normal pigs.”

“You mean they smell extra bad?”

“Methane, Elijah. It’s a big business now. I think Holzfürzen was trying to make it bigger. More methane means more fuel and more money.”

“So he breeds extra gassy pigs? Why does that make someone want to blow his collection system?”

“You tell me. Competition? Maneuvering for a buyout? Holzfürzen’s a big deal, but compared to a gas-gen company he’s not worth a hill of beans. We’ll never know without a full investigation.”

“So we should—”

“Wait and see,” I said. “They can blow a hole in his gas tank there’s no saying what they’d do to us.” I was watching a gray Peugeot that had trailed us all the way through Carter and back onto the highway. It passed us gradually. Windows tinted black.

“Jesus,” said Elijah at last. He leaned back in his seat.

“World’s a funny place,” I said. A funny place indeed. Deep, and getting deeper all the time.