John did not sleep very much that night. After an exhaustive study of dinosaurs, extinction, and how scientists could maybe someday bring the ancient beasts back to life, John had nightmares of being eaten by overgrown lizards and wondered what he should do. Continue working at the farm, or leave while he still could?
By breakfast time, he was no closer to a decision so he decided to see if maybe, just maybe, he had dreamt it all after accidentally eating some crazy mushrooms or tainted brownies. He got dressed and went to work.
The pack of barking dogs leaping joyously around his car heralded his approach and River and her father came out of the farmhouse. They exchanged a look before River came to greet John and Douglas went back inside without a word.
“So, you decided to stick around?”
John shuffled his feet and patted a few dogs. “For now, I'm really hoping it was all a horrifying dream.”
River gently but firmly nudged a small dog out of her way. "Yeah, it is not a dream."
John stepped closer. "Great Caeser's ghost, River! You have real-life dinosaurs just wandering around your backyard! Like what the? How have you managed to keep this a secret for the last twenty-odd years? What about Todd and Carl?"
“Those idiots don't know about the dinosaurs, they think we deal in exotic animal meats like zebra and unicorns,” River said scornfully.
John looked at her sharply.
Quickly calculating, River backed up. “Listen, I understand if you can't handle the pressures of the job but you can't tell a soul about what you saw here, got it?”
"I'm still not entirely sure what exactly I saw, to begin with," he muttered.
“You wanna see them again or dig a ditch?”
“Dig a ditch,” and he walked off toward the barn.
River smirked and followed him.
When he was done digging his ditch, John brushed the dirt off and set out to explore a little. He now knew that River was busy working with the dinosaurs more than the usual farm activities but he didn't know where she was on the farm. He also didn't know exactly what he was looking for but he figured he would know it when he found it.
Instead of finding whatever it was, he got lost and ended up back at the pastures of iguanodons. Staying on his side of the fence this time, John leaned on the rough boards and watched the great beast roaming peacefully through their soggy pond. They snorted, stomped in the mud and interacted with each other as any family group would. From the hours of online research he had done last night, John knew that these particular dinosaurs could have grown to thirty feet in length. The ones in front of him were either miniature versions or young dinosaurs. He couldn't say for sure since no one could tell him how long exactly it would take to grow a full-sized dinosaur.
He wasn't aware of River's presence till she was leaning against the fence next to him watching the iguanodons. Neither said anything for several minutes.
“I could watch these guys for hours,” River finally said.
John nodded. “They're small.”
"Yeah, some of the bigger breeds grew smaller than their ancestors. We figure it is a combination of the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere and breeding methods to reproduce them in the first place. But even a small dinosaur is more impressive than a dead one."
“Where are the oviraptors kept?”
“Locked up in a giant pen over that a-ways,” River jerked her head over her shoulder in the general direction.
“I suppose that pen needs to be cleaned sometimes,” John straightened up.
“Hmm, sometimes,” River watched him warily.
“Let's get to work, boss.”
She smiled at him for the first time.
Over the next several days, John met all the different dinosaurs they had on the farm and began to work with River with them. He quickly figured out that the farm was essentially an enclosed ecosystem that acted as a laboratory, zoo, food production and veterinary services all in one. Each member of the Douglas family (which was extensive since he never saw half of them anyway) and the few hired hands such as himself had their own distinct role to play in the ecosystem. As he worked, John started paying attention to who was around and guessing which branch of the business they were in. Obviously, River was the foreman and Mr. Douglas handled personnel and finances but who everyone else was and where they fit in was still a puzzle to him.
John was a good worker, but when River's back was turned, he would pull his phone out and snap quick pictures of the dinosaurs. He wasn't entirely sure why but his gut feeling was to take the pictures and hang onto them.
And avoid telling River about the pictures.
As he was filling a stall with fresh straw one morning, River came up to him. “You almost finished here?”
“I got an injured compsognathus and you have to help me catch him.”
“Chasing down a prehistoric bald chicken, huh?”
“They're not bald chickens,” River stated and left the barn.
“Sometimes she is all business,” John told the goat. The goat glared vehemently at him.
John threw some straw at the goat and left the barn, jogging after River toward the dinosaur side of the farm. When he found her, she was standing near a black truck talking to two men John didn't recognize. At his approach, they all looked up.
River said, “Lot number seventeen,” and waved them away. The men wordlessly got in their truck and drove up the dirt road.
“Who are they?”
“My brothers,” River replied as she climbed over the fence.
“You know there is a gate right over there?”
“This way is shorter.”
“So what do your brothers do? I've only ever seen the young skinny ones.”
“They handle shipping and delivery,” River spotted a cluster of the small greenish dinosaurs and set off toward them.
John jumped the rest of the way off the fence and hurried to keep pace with his boss. She didn't give him an opening for more conversation as they chased the herd of squawking terrified dinosaurs around the pasture. The injured one was slower than the rest but squawked the loudest and was fueled by sheer panic. It evaded capture and finally scrambled under a pile of logs.
Frustrated and out of breath, River flopped on the grass in the shade and said, “I'll catch the bastard tonight when he goes to sleep.”
John dropped to the ground next to her and stretched out, taking deep breaths. “Those things are so fast.”
“They eat bugs.”
“What do you do with the eggs?” John asked suddenly.
“All the dinosaur eggs I see you collecting. What do you do with them?”
“We incubate and hatch them.” River picked at the grass by her side.
“Not all of them or you would have an explosion of baby dinosaurs by now. River,” he pressed, sitting up. “What do you do with the eggs?”
“We ship them to exclusive buyers.”
"People will pay a premium for things they think are rare."
“You mean you sell the eggs to rich dumb people for their morning omelets?”
“I don't know what the buyers do with the eggs and frankly, I don't really care. I'm running a business here and can't afford to be picky.” She got up and walked away, scattering the still terrified compsognathuses as she left.
John took a couple of quick pictures and made a note on his phone before leaving the field and taking the dirt road River's brothers had gone down earlier. He found the large white buildings he had once assumed were greenhouses. Outside, the men were loading heavy crates into the back of a large moving van. The crates squawked.
Without making eye contact and walking with a purpose, John slipped inside one of the buildings. It was filled with several massive incubators—some currently in operation warming several batches of big eggs. Further past the incubators, however, were refrigerator cases usually filled with milk at grocery stores. These were filled with cartons of dinosaur eggs neatly labeled and boxed for resell to those exclusive buyers River had mentioned. John took a couple of pictures and hurriedly left the building by the back exit.
He checked to make sure the coast was clear before he slipped inside the second building and instantly found himself inside a giant refrigerator filled with raw meat. The smell of fresh blood stung his eyes and made him gag. He quickly covered his mouth and nose with the sleeve of his shirt. He peered around the cold dimly lit room and realized the looming shapes were eerily familiar. Quickly crossing the room, he pulled open a second door and exited the refrigerator into a neat and tidy room with several large tables and a collection of hooks hanging from the ceilings. Knives and saws of every shape and size were neatly hung on one wall and a giant sink filled the opposite wall to his right.
John took a deep breath to steady his nerves as he realized what he was seeing. Douglas farm didn't just specialize in exotic eggs; they also dabbled in the exotic meat department as well.
He edged over to the sink in case he would be sick and waited till he heard the van outside pull away. Bracing himself, John stuck his arm back into the fridge to take a couple of snaps of the meat before sneaking out of the building. At this point, he was scared to look into the third one and find out what secrets it held. He leaned against the side of the building with his head back and took deep breaths, trying to ease the chill from his bones.
He heard River's truck pull up and the crunch of the gravel as she got out. “What are you doing over here?”
“I got lost,” he replied without looking up.
River could walk very quickly and quietly when she wanted to. She replied, sounding considerably closer than he had anticipated her to be. "You went inside, didn't you?"
He opened his eyes and saw her glaring at him. “River, your family is selling dinosaur eggs and meat like it's a normal thing to do!”
“It is a normal thing to do! We have been doing it for years and have a lot of extremely satisfied and loyal customers!”
“But you don't get it, you can't just lie to people about what they are eating. Do you know how the media would react if they found out you were butchering dinosaurs? Dinosaurs! River, you are sitting on a goldmine with just the dinosaurs alone and instead of telling the world about this huge leap in science, you are profiting off of the discovery for personal gain.”
"We are trying to make ends meet just like everyone else and to pay the bills. Besides, we don't want the media here. They will destroy everything we—I have worked for!”
They stood staring at each other, braced for further argument.
"River," John began a bit more gently this time.
"No, listen to me, John. This is my livelihood; this is my work. You can't jeopardize it because it doesn't fit your moral code of ethics or whatever. You don't get to decide how my business is run and you cannot tell the media about this, do you understand?"
John nodded. “I still don't think it's right,” he muttered stubbornly.
“Just get back to work and quit messing around,” River instructed him. She got back in her truck and drove off.