Tree Hook Treachery

by Pete Tucker

Part One – Dead End Job 

There was nothing out of the ordinary about the job. It paid a wage, a union wage. The money was decent, but that was about it. Butchers weren’t getting rich, but no one expected that.

The benefits were the the essential reason why anyone would stay employed here. Typically, though,  most employees were clueless as to the monetary value that those “bennies” added to their weekly pay.

The job offered a very normal dose of ho-hum. How could it not? The work was monotonous, and painstakingly repetitive, but not so much more so than a lot of other blue collar work . At least it was under a roof. Members of Amalgamated Meat Processors Local 475 joked that they were always at work on an “ inside job.”

Jake Spinelli had just graduated from Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He had not a single aspiration for college. He just wanted to make a living and get on with life. The butchering job fit well with his resolve.

Jake’s neighbor and his parent’s social friend, Mr. Arnie Duval, happened to be the Meat Supervisor for Food Binder, this local grocery chain. To his credit, Jake had convinced Mr. Duval to give him a shot at a butcher apprenticeship at one of Food Binder’s stores in the town of Pen Argyl.

And so it was; a young man’s career took shape, promising no particular challenge other than a days work for a day’s pay. He worked with two other men who were on Jake’s same path… general mediocrity in pursuit of low expectations. Even their daily conversations were pitifully uninspired. TV’s most idiotic shows were a common subject of their conversation.

Jake eventually came to realize the dismal trail that he was on there at Food Binder. His immediate boss, the store’s Meat Department Manager, John Tyree, was a daily reminder of that fact. John Tyree was an angry tyrant, what some would refer to as a rageaholic.  A more disagreeable personality would have been hard to find!

Meat department employees  could assume that they’d done something wrong just by walking through the door in the morning. Tyree could find fault with anyone’s work whether there was cause or not.

John was a quizzical mix. When he needed to, he could turn on the charm. If, for example, Supervisor Duval was making a store visit today, John could be as pleasant as could be. He was, also, a favorite with a few customers and cajoled the ladies across the meat counter to no end. All of this was quite appalling to his “underlings”, those who took his orders every day with a twist of his ill will.

Sooner or later, Jake found himself on a collision course with his boss, John Tyree. Jake, though just learning the trade, was doing good work according to another butcher there in the shop who had been assigned to “oversee” Jake’s work. Manager Tyree, however, would find fault with anything and everything that Jake did, and of course, ball him out about it. Jake was quickly coming to despise Tyree.

It became evident to Jake Spinelli that Tyree’s criticisms were bogus and without any merit. Tyree just loved to hear himself bark. It had evolved into a contemptuous situation. Jake had already learned enough to counter Tyree’s lame arguments, that is, if he ever dared to.  The meat employees, however, never challenged his rants, but one day Jake had about heard all that he could take.

His trim of the rib eye steaks now in the meat case left way too much fat on the steak. Yesterday, Jake’s trim of the very same steak left way too little fat on the steak.

“People like a good margin of fat on that cut. Plus, that’s weight that we need to get paid for, and you’re just throwing it away. How about if I just deduct that weight from your paycheck?”, Tyree ranted.

The store had just opened one morning, so few if any customers were within earshot. In fact, this was the time of day that Tyree normally reserved to ball out employees under his command. They jokingly called it “ time for Tyree’s tirades”. One could just about set their watch to it, but this morning Jake had had it.

“You know,” Jake replied to Tyree, “that’s the exact opposite of the bullshit you slung at me yesterday . Which way is it gonna be? Within 24 hours, you totally contradict yourself.”

Tyree stood stock-still, obviously taken aback by Jake’s reply. His “underlings” never spoke to him that way. There was a stand-off for a few moments. Both knew not what to say next. Tyree’s lip quivered , but his volley was next.

“Get in the icebox”, he said to Jake.

The typical floor plan of the butchering facility in a grocery store is simple. When customers stand in front of the meat case and stare through the glass at white-aproned men and women, they are looking into the cutting room. Steaks, chops and roasts are prepped and wrapped in this room, then carted to the display case.

Contiguous, is a smaller room with temperature controlled at 38 degrees, plus or minus . Though not freezing, it is commonly referred to as the Icebox. Well separated from the customer walkways of the store, it serves for storage of “hanging beef”, forequarters and hindquarters that are yet to be cut into retail pieces. The icebox is well-insulated, which serves to sound-proof it.

It will then be understood that a good deal of noise or yelling may take place in the Icebox without customers hearing it out on the store floor. What a perfect venue for Tyree to rip into whichever worker.

Jake had seen it multiple times before. Just thinking about it, he summoned further resolve to not allow himself to be Tyree’s punching bag anymore.

“No”, Jake said defiantly to Tyree. “No, no, no. We’re talking about my work that we can see right here in this case. Why on Earth would we go to the Icebox to do that?”

“Oh, I’ll tell you why,” Tyree snapped back. “In fact, I’ll tell you the only reason you need to know. I’m your boss, that’s why!”

Jake realized that he was in brand new territory here. He’d witnessed it before, but it was now unleashed on him. This wasn’t sounding like any amicable chat between boss and employee.Tyree’s tone was confrontational.

This more had the markings of a school yard dust-up. Jake sensed that the gloves were already off. To his good fortune, Jake was the bigger man, by weight, by height.

“Get moving”, Tyree ordered, his teeth halfway clenched.

“No”, Jake said. “I’d rather do business right here.”

At that instant, the two men were wound tight as drums, locked in a dead stare with fists clenched. A customer strolling by would likely have sensed that nothing was right with this location in the store. Jake sensed that if this standoff was coming to fisticuffs, better it be right here, a scenario that wouldn’t reflect well on the department manager.

The slight crackle was heard over the store speakers, the static that foretells a public announcement in the store is to begin.

“Mister Tyree, line two, please. Mister Tyree, phone call on line two.”

Still locked in the stare, Tyree uttered, “ You’ll regret this, Spinelli, you little Ginzo creep.”

With that, Tyree retired to the cutting room floor and took his phone call. Jake went back to the Icebox and commenced the grinding of a new batch of hamburger.

Part Two – An Unexpected Change

Tyree’s phone call took a while, it being difficult to decipher who was on the other end. Eventually, he was back at work as though nothing had happened. His demeanor toward Jake, indeed, toward everyone in the Meat Department was really quite civil for the balance of the day.

Breaking in tomorrow’s newspaper, in Food Binder’s ad, was a sale price on London Broil. Later in the day, this prompted Tyree to bark the instruction to Jake:

“Jake, in the Icebox there’s a Tree Hook full of Top Rounds. Bring it out here. I want you to work with me to get ready for the London Broil sale tomorrow.

So, there they worked, the morning’s combatants , like two compadres ridding the tree hook of its burden. All the while Tyree was training and instructing Jake on the finer points of their specific task.

Wasn’t there something altogether odd and discomforting going on here, Jake questioned himself. Just a little while ago, he and Tyree were ready to rip each other’s throats out. Now all was Honky Dory. It didn’t make sense.

Nearly finished with the task, there was even a comical moment. Tyree inadvertently backed into the tree hook . Momentarily, the thing hooked through he seat of his pants and about had him ready to ride the rail until Jake held him steady and freed him from the predicament.

“You know”, Jake said, “ I could have railed you right into the Icebox”

“Good thing you didn’t”, Tyree retorted.

They both smiled.

One may wonder: just what is a tree hook? Simply put, it is a series of meat hooks all welded to one vertical rod, stainless steel, wheel mounted on the rail in a butcher shop. For convenience, it is used to locate several primal cuts of meat near the butcher’s workspace, eliminating unnecessary back and forth.  If the tree hook sounds like a gangling, ghastly contraption, that’s because it is! Its hooks are sharp, too.

The day to day routine lingered on there at the store. A secret became not so secret. Apparently the fracas weeks ago between Jake and Tyree that was interrupted by a phone call now had a matching story.

Turns out, that call was actually placed from within the store itself, placed by Mr. Duval, himself! From the store’s viewing deck, Duval’s visit had just begun when he witnessed the standoff . Duval immediately sought to avoid any further spectacle.

It also became common knowledge that, as a result of the encounter , Tyree had been put on notice to clean up his act if he expected his employment to continue. No wonder Tyree had been so agreeable for the balance of that day, Jake ventured to guess.

Managers within the company often filled in for each other’s vacations, sick spells, etc, so the “skinny” on each of them got around. Tyree’s company-wide reputation apparently was in the toilet as he spread his antics over Food Binder’s collection of stores.

Jake gathered that Tyree was not well-liked. Meat Supervisor Duval, knew that his Manager was a problem, but he didn’t recognize to what extent.

There was  a journeyman butcher in Food Binder’s Catasauqua store who had had a particularly acrimonious encounter with Tyree about  two years ago. Apparently, this one did come to blows.

Word was , Tyree got the upper hand on the guy and pummeled him pretty well before it was over. The next day, the fellow not only quit the job, he left Food Binder altogether. As he did so, the journeyman shouted some threatening words to Tyree, but he was never seen again after that day.

Truth be told, there was an accumulation of ugly incidents over the years attached to Tyree. It wasn’t as though this fact was roundly ignored by Food Binder upper management. At least two factors had contributed to the reality that nothing had been done about the Tyree situation . First, replacing a meat manager wasn’t easy. Second, the company avoided battles with the union at all cost.

Meanwhile, Jake kept employed at the Pen Argyl Food Binder store. Tyree seemed to have simmered a little, but he was still a regulation jerk, as far as Jake was concerned. If anything, Tyree was slightly easier to work with than in days past, but Jake was starting to have second thoughts about Food Binder, period!

Part Three – Weird Scene in the Icebox

As the tune goes, it was just another manic Monday. On most days, Tyree was there at the store first, then Jake or one of the wrappers. Then, just minutes after, another butcher and another wrapper and the crew was whole. This morning was unusual in that when Jake arrived no lights were on in any part of butcher’s quarters. Jake parked his car and , as usual , entered the store through the front doors.

In an aisle , he happened upon Mr. Griggs, the overall manager of the Pen Argyl store. The two exchanged Good Mornings. Jake thought well of Mr. Griggs.

“Looks like Mr. Tyree isn’t in yet”, he observed to Jake.

“Nope. He usually beats me here,” Jake replied. “Guess he had a little trouble shaking it outta the sheets.”

That stirred a chuckle from them both.

“Do me a favor and have him ring me in the office when he gets in, just so that I know he’s here”, Mr. Griggs requested.

“Will do”, Jake complied.

Jake flipped the lights on in the cutting room. Right away, he noted a quiescent property of the room this early in the morning. No phones ringing, no electric motors, no band saw’s unmistakable whir.

He was reminded of how noisy the shop would be in but a few minutes from now. He placed his lunch bag in the mini-fridge on the table, tied on his white apron and dutifully punched in.

The first order of the day for any apprentice was to grind hamburger, that, of course, after he sharpened his knives. That finished, Jake made his way to the Icebox where the grinding machine laid in wait. Even the Icebox was quieter this morning , that is until Jake gasped his last breath for the moment.

Jake was so startled that he yelled a loud exclamation. He came upon a most grisly scene, one that no one would ever wish to witness. In stunned disbelief, he starred at a macabre scene, indescribably hideous in its detail.

A human body was impaled by every prong of a tree hook hanging on the rail there in the Icebox, a scene beyond ghastly . It had been attended to with exacting detail. The head of this body was held erect, the neck strategically impaled by one of the hooks. At age 18, Jake had never seen a dead human body, not even at a funeral.

It soon became clear. This was undoubtedly the body of John Tyree!! Jake fought the urge to throw up. Jake was addled. He was in shock.

His body shaking and trembling, Jake barely made it to the inter-office phone.

“Kathy,” he said, “Let me have Mr. Griggs”

“Oh, Good Morning, Jake”, the bubbly office lady said. “I’m afraid he’s on another call”.

“Kathy”, Jake replied, “I need Mr. Griggs immediately.

She sensed a tone of profound urgency in Jake’s voice.

“I’ll get him right now, Jake.”

After his brief conversation with Jake, Griggs bolted into the Cutting Room. He could see that Jake was shook, but Jake managed to tell him what to expect when he entered the Icebox. In went the two of them. It took little time for them both to come back out.  Now they both looked ashen.

Griggs said to Jake, “I will call the cops immediately. Until they get here, you say nothing to anyone about this. Allow no one back here into the Cutting Room or the Icebox. I have to believe that our whole department will be shut down today. Let’s see what happens. If anyone inquires about what’s going on, all you may say is that there is a state of emergency in our  Meat Department. That’s all you know. Got it?”

“Got it”, Jake said

“Oh, and Jake, we cooperate one hundred percent with the police. Got it.”

“Got it, Mr.Griggs,” Jake confirmed, still in shock, whether or not he realized it.

A very long day of police procedures and questioning ensued. The entire meat case was ribboned off, entrance denied from front ,back and sideways. Forensics experts, ballistics experts, detectives, state cops, local cops, where did it stop?

The Pen Argyl Food Binder store wasn’t a sideshow, it was the main event. Reporters and news trucks came from everywhere, word of a murder not having taken long to get out.

Police discovered at a back entrance door where someone had been bleeding, sufficiently so to collect several samples of seemingly just dried blood. Who’s? Who knew, but DNA results might possibly be derived.

Jake missed most of this. He was in police custody most of the day. Here in the early going Jake was suspect #1. From questioning, police quickly picked up on what might be essential facts: The victim and Jake worked together here at the scene. Police learned that there was consistent agitation between the two.

With continued questioning, it became apparent that said agitation was fostered almost always by the victim. Police also soon learned that Jake had a tight, verifiable alibi for when it was likely that the tree hook impaling took place last night.

By the end of the day, they resolved that Jake was more valuable for questions that police needed answered. Jake moved from suspect to corroborating witness within twelve hours.

Another key determination unfolded before day’s end. Tyree had taken a bullet to his head probably twelve hours or so before his body was parlayed on the tree hook.

Part Four – Go Figure

“Good God Gerty, What was this sicko thinking?”

Pennsylvania State Police Detective, Gordon Van Ailes, was reviewing myriad photos of Tyree’s body as it hung there on the rail at Food Binder. A fellow detective, pondering the same photos, replied, “ Maybe he just wanted to decorate the tree.”

It took a moment for the comment to register.

“Oooo. That was a bad joke, Detective,” Van Ailes smirked.  “But, I guess after 23 years in the business, I should be loose enough to laugh at something as stupid as that!”

Both men chuckled.

The fact was,Van Ailes, in all of his years, had never seen anything quite this bizarre and surely he’d seen some depravity in his time. Tyree had been dead before his body was impaled on the tree hook. Had this just been to underscore something? This was beyond psychotic! This was heinous. Who would do this?

Van Ailes had a task in front of him. All questioning thus far had revealed but one common thread: Tyree had been a bully. He was quite noted for that. Finding his killer was going to be much more difficult than finding someone who didn’t like him. It was likely, though, that his killer was on Food Binder’s payroll.

Further, the killer was stealthy, calculating and knew what locks needed what keys in the back entries of the store… and he had copies of the keys!

Van Ailes was a while going down that alley. There were a few times when he thought he was closing in. Lordy Lord was Tyree ever disliked, but in each instance when Van Ailes pursued a lead, he came up short. Initially, he had thought that finding his man here would be a slam dunk.

To his dismay, he sat one day in Mr. Grigg’s office.

“It pains me to say this, Mr. Griggs, but I’m afraid I have to start looking for former employees. As you already know, I’ve had some very revealing sessions with some of your current personnel, but that trail is thinning out.

I’ll start by asking you if, to your knowledge, there are any former employees who have left Food Binder with any sort of known vendetta or bitterness toward Mr. Tyree? This, of course, would be from within the time of your employment here?”

Griggs’ face shaped a sheepish smile.

“I’ve only been here for two years”, he informed  Detective Van Ailes. “You already know that your question may need to get started before that.”

“Whew”, you can say that again”,  VanAiles agreed.

Kathy, the office assistant, happened to be just outside Griggs’ office and overheard that last little morsel of conversation. She’d worked at Food Binder for eleven years. She knew she had some recollections that might help the Detective. She just had to put them in order in her own mind. Until then, she would say nothing.

The murder in Pen Argyl certainly seemed to have put the place on the map. For five days now one might have thought that Tyree’s demise was the extent of any and all news in that part of Pennsylvania. Until authorities had a suspect, it might stay that way. How many times could the news be “little progress” before it was no longer news? Certainly Van Ailes was frustrated.

Griggs was uncertain as to the effect that all the murder hubbub was having on traffic in his store. How could it be helping? Everyone’s reaction is different, he figured, but who seeks to do their food shopping in the same place where a murder just happened? Sales figures soon to be reviewed wouldn’t lie.

Now six days after the gruesome Icebox discovery, Griggs sat in his living room at home. It was 9:10 P.M. Griggs was reading the paper. The phone rang . Griggs answered.

“Hi, Mr.Griggs. It’s Kathy from the office. I’m so sorry to be calling you at home, and so late. I just needed to have a private chat with you, away from all the ears in the office.”

“Do I ever know that feeling,” he replied to Kathy. “ No problem! What’s up?”

“Well, Mr. Griggs, speaking of ears in the office, I couldn’t help but overhear just a snip of a conversation that you had yesterday with that detective guy, ah Mr. Van…”

“Mr. Van Ailes,”, Griggs said.

“Yeah, Van Ailes. He said something about wanting to think about former employees and how they might be involved in Mr. Tyree’s murder,” Kathy said.

“Wow”, Griggs replied. “ Who’s the detective here?”

Kathy chuckled nervously.

“I don’t remember if you were here yet, but there was a guy, Kieth Brenemann, who had a serious falling-out with Mr. Tyree.  Your conversation with Mr. Van Ailes just reminded me of an exchange that I heard the two of them have , a real screaming match. This was just before Kieth quit the job.”

“So what happened?”, Griggs asked.

“Well it scared me. I heard Kieth say to Mr. Tyree ,‘ In no time, you’ll be dead anyway’. I’ll never forget the way he said that. I believed him. I think even Mr. Tyree took him seriously.”

“Kathy, this guy Kieth, where did he go?”, Mr. Griggs quizzed.

“I checked his file in the office today. When he quit, he left a forwarding address in, I think it was, Great Bend, Kansas.”

“Kathy, thank you for this. Nice work. I’ll have Mr. Van Ailes in my office tomorrow. Would you mind sitting with us for a few minutes? I’m sure he’ll be interested to hear what you’ve told me here.”

“OK. You know where I’ll be”, Kathy complied.

Next day, Kathy imparted her story to Van Ailes. He was riveted by her story.

“Odd one”, he mused. “How the hell did Kansas work its way into the mix?”

Later, VanAiles  pondered. It was a convenient alibi. How could anyone have shishkabobbed Tyree in Pennsylvania when the shishkabober was in Kansas? What the Hell! Why not have some fun with this ? Get a letter off to Mr. Kieth Brenemann in Great Bend, Kansas. What’s the worst that could happen? RETURN TO SENDER. What’s the best? He licks a return envelope. DNA, anyone?

Van Ailes got to his computer. He rang Kathy’s desk.

“Yes, Mr. V.”

“Kathy, Will you please bring me the file  on that ex-employee in Kansas?”

“Right away, Mr.V.”

Van Ailes began to type on one of his pre-engineered faux letterheads that detectives will sometimes use.

Dear Mr. Brenemann:

Please be advised that this office performs payroll and accounting services for XLL Company, a Pennsylvania corporation and parent company of Food Binder Supermarkets, at one time your employer. We seek to inform you that we have recently discovered an accounting error in our records that has inured in your favor.

Though some time has passed since your employment with XXL Company, our error has rendered an accumulation of  $405.76 which we are legally obligated to submit to you upon your return of the enclosed documents.

The purpose of these documents is simple. We wish to verify, beyond any doubt, that we are transacting with the proper individual who has identified himself to us. A postage-paid, pre-addressed envelope is enclosed for your use. Upon our receipt of properly executed documents from you, a check will be released to you forthwith.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Part Five – Dumb Luck

Van Ailes had learned long ago to never dismiss the smallest of details. Thus, his diligence in getting the letter on its way to Kansas. This fellow Brenemann had, after all, uttered a credible threat. Yes, it had been a while ago, but in the meantime, Van Ailes had plenty else to do that had a better chance of getting him closer to Tyree’s killer.

Van Ailes wasn’t impressed with his own thoughts that he was having about this case. He wasn’t all that excited about finding his man. This despicable human being, Tyree, had it coming to him. But wait a minute. The law was the law and the guy who skewered Tyree was one sick pup. The law needed to catch up with him. The fact that not a soul seemed to miss Tyree was immaterial.

Van Ailes’ case wasn’t budging. He spent days reviewing and re-reviewing the testimony of numerous persons of interest. The least conspicuous detail might break the thing wide open. He remained steadfast to the notion that Tyree’s killer was on Food Binder’s payroll. There were just too many examples of serious venom that employees had for the guy.

Van Ailes sat at his desk when a call came through from the crime lab. This was the sweet one he’d been waiting for. There was a DNA match! Brenemann, the former Food Binder employee, had returned solicited documents. Bingo! He had licked that return envelope with a vengeance!

Blood samples recovered two weeks ago at the crime scene, on a loading dock underneath the rail, had yielded a dead match with Brenemann’s DNA.  This didn’t close the case, but it practically did. In law enforcement’s total tool arsenal, nothing was nearly as irrefutable as the evidence that Van Ailes now possessed.

Surely this deserved another cup of coffee. Van Ailes summoned two other detectives to his office who had been working the case with him. They both appeared at his office at the same time. Van Ailes swung around in his chair, hands behind his head and wearing a big, broad smile.

“What’s up, V?,” one of them asked.

Van Ailes replied, “You guys wanna take a road trip to Kansas?”